The Good, the Bad, and the Bugly

Growing up in Florida can make you accustomed to a plethora of unpleasantries. If you’ve ever had the misfortune of existing upon this peninsula, you probably understand my affliction– sweltering heat, unpredictable weather, a seemingly permanent layer of sweat and what I consider the worst of the worst, an endless supply of mosquitos. I mean really, Florida is after all nothing but a glorified swampland. Alright, I’m being a bit harsh towards my beloved home state… to be honest, it isn’t all bad. Sure there are some negatives, but you can’t beat kayaking down a river lined with water cypress, nor can you do without the waters of those blue-green beaches in the gulf and the harmonic hum of cicadas in the heat of a summer night. So despite being a walking, talking buffet for the mosquitos (I’m pretty convinced they prefer my blood more than the average human), I’m starting to find there are some benefits to Florida as well as its bugs. As a matter of fact, since starting my garden, I’ve begun to realise that amongst all of the “bad” bugs, there is an entire population of beneficial ones.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous entry, possibly one of my favvvorite parts of having a garden is the excuse I now have to play in a giant pile of dirt. I enjoy gardening the most when I’m able to crawl around from plant to plant only to inspect each leaf and living creature. I thoroughly enjoy these moments of bonding that I’ve created with my plants and their inhabitants. My garden, since the very beginning, has never failed in providing me with an opportunity to learn and I feel that as a gardener it’s extremely beneficial to be inquisitive. So, soon after transplant day I began to investigate each and every insect I encountered. After all, bugs can truly make or break a garden, and I wanted to know exactly what I was encountering so that I could determine its purpose.

First, I researched the ants. Incase you weren’t aware, aside from being a swamp, Florida is also one giant ant pile. Here we have the pleasure of living amongst black ants, red ants, army, and carpenter… just to name a few. Really, they’re everywhere. So naturally, seeing them in and around my garden wasn’t alarming to me at first because I was so very used to their presence. However, when I began seeing them marching all over my precious plants, I started to wonder. After some extensive research, I’ve come to find a variety of opinions– some good, some bad, but really, more benefits than the lack thereof. Many gardeners believe ants help aerate the soil with their tunneling and even assist in cross pollination as they enjoy moving from flower to flower. However, ants also enjoy a sweet secretion from aphids and will actually farm them, allowing them to suck your plants dry while defending them from predators. Still, if you see ants crawling all over your plants, instead of suspecting the latter, be sure to take a closer look. For example, I’ve become accustomed to an endless swarm of ants on my bean bearing plants. At first, I was sure they were farming aphids and began inspecting every last crevice. Yet I was stumped when I discovered my plants were aphid-free. I immediately went back to the house to investigate. Just like that, I learned about the nectaries plants possess, how ants really crave this nectar, and how their feeding on it may actually aid in opening buds while remaining entirely harmless to my plants. With this knowledge, I chose to develop a sort of symbiotic relationship with the ants and generally let them be, aside from routinely checking for aphid farms.

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A couple of ants enjoying the nectar of my yard long bean flower

Aside from the common ant, I’ve recently discovered a beneficial bug I hadn’t actually seen or heard of before starting my garden. I stumbled upon it one morning while I was watering one of my bulbine succulents. At first, seeing this giant, alien looking bug clumsy hanging onto one of my plant’s flowers startled me. I immediately grabbed my phone and went in for a shot. As I moved my hand closer, this bug turned to face me and brought its front two legs(?) into the air as if to say, “bring it on!”. From what I’ve experienced, brave bugs tend to be dangerous bugs, so I took my shot and let it be.

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A young wheel bug perched on the flowering stem of my bulbine

After I finished up in the garden, I looked the bug up by description and found out it was in fact an assassin bug of the wheel variety. Luckily, I was right in not messing with this guy, as their bite is said to be worse than the sting of a bee. Yet, that is about the only bad thing this bug is known for. In fact, an assassin bug is possibly one of the most helpful bugs you could find in your garden! These predators seek out and devour just about every single bug you would want to be rid of from hornworms and caterpillars to aphids and a wide variety of beetles. About a week after encountering this new garden buddy, I soon recognized a couple of assassin nymphs living in my cucumber plants. Needless to say, the bugs I once had problems with on these plants have all but vanished. One of the nymphs seems to have moved on, but three weeks in and I think the other is here to stay. I’ve actually grown quite fond of it, and   have affectionately named it Spike.

 

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Spike hanging out on a cucumber flower while I inspect his handiwork on the leaves below.

Unfortunately, it isn’t always all good in the garden. Honestly, at least from my experience, when it comes to bugs it can often be more bad than good. Aside from the occasional pack o’ aphids, one variety of bug I continuously come into contact with are the dreaded “stink bugs”. Usually I will find these guys hanging around my bean plants as they seem to enjoy munching on the foliage. For a while, I thought these guys were allll bad. Any time I came across one, I would flick it onto its fumbling ass, watch it flail like an overturned turtle as I carefully selected two pieces of mulch to forcefully squish it between (these suckers are hard to squish!). It was only until recently that I discovered there is in fact a good variety of stink bug, known as the spined soldier bug, that actually preys on bad bug larvae and aphids…oops. Now, the green guys are all definitely bad from what I’ve read, but if you encounter a brown one, take a closer look. The good guys usually possess distinguished spikey shoulders and commonly a black vertical stripe on the tip of its wings when closed.

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The nymph of a common brown stink bug, these guys are bad and will devour your foliage.
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What I believe to be a spined soldier bug, it has the shoulders although it lacks a black vertical mark, I think it may be young.

Another bug I’ve become familiar with is one that I consider exceptionally destructive and causes me to go under active search and destroy mode whenever I’m out in the garden. The bug I speak of is none other than the tomato hornworm. It’s the caterpillar of the five-spotted hawk moth and an addict of the leaves adorning your precious tomato plants. Called the tomato hornworm due to the unicorn-like red horn they display on one end, these guys can get up to 3 inches long, giving them the ability to cause some major problems to your plants.

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A rather large tomato hornworm. Both beautiful and terrible.

Generally I tend to catch these nefarious scoundrels before they are more than an inch long. Unfortunately, these cretins are rather illusive, so I get the occasional biggun every now and again, which I must reluctantly squish. I honestly wish they weren’t so destructive, because I find them equally as beautiful…

Florida is a state that certainly does not fall short in the insect category. There are so many bugs, good and bad, that it would be near impossible to give mention to them all. Within my blog, I will attempt to include as many as I can along with any information I find useful to my gardening. Aside from the more obvious bugs such as the wasps and dragonflies that devour the larvae of pesky moths, or the bees and butterflies that generously pollinate my flowering veggies, the ones I included above seemed worthy of some recognition. Some of these bugs surprised me with the their particular benefits, and some with their lack thereof. All in all, one important lesson I’ve learned from my garden is that a lot of the time bugs aren’t solely an enemy.

 

 

w/holey organic

There are so many varying opinions on gardening organically, the how and why you should or shouldn’t, that sometimes I’m left feeling a bit confused about what I should or shouldn’t be doing. Do I want clean, chemical free food? You bet your sweet ass. Am I willing to do what it takes to obtain it? Sure! So when I decide to use homemade remedies, will I take a road trip to the source of each ingredient and harvest them with my bare hands in order to insure that allll of my ingredients are fresh, organic and as free of sin as JC himself? Um, no… Now, as I’ve stated many a’ time previously, I am by no means a professional. Probably not even entirely an “amateur” yet. I’m also not an organic extremist, nor am I the complete opposite. Let’s just say in all aspects of life, I like to remain as label free as possible. I’m not an ist or an ism. For the most part, I know what I want and what I’m willing to do and not do in order to obtain results. So if it works it works, if not, I am still able to remain entirely flexible.

When I first set out to create my happy place, I was pretty sold on the idea of keeping it as clean and organic as possible. So far, the organic methods I’ve been using have kept me satisfied at a level I’m comfortable with. Sure, I get my fair share of pests. Yeah, sometimes it does get overwhelming. Still, nothing has become entirely out of my control (yet).

In the beginning of January, when my plants were still young and sprouty, I didn’t have many problems with pests. The weather at this time was cool and there just simply weren’t many bad bugs around. I believe this allowed my babies time to develop some fairly strong foundations. When it came time to transplant, the weather was much warmer and the pests more abundant. To stick with my organically set roots, I decided to go with a mixture of water and neem oil to keep these bugs under control. I used to use neem oil to help with fleas, so already I knew it had the potential to kill soft-bodied pests, but I also learned it works as a fungicide and bacteriacide. I spray the neem oil only when completely necessary. Most of my methods are pretty hands on, meaning, I get sick satisfaction in squishing the shit out of bad bugs. Well, at first I was really reluctant… it made me feel bad to kill these little guys and I would walk back to the house with Chopin’s Funeral March bleeding out of my ears. But now…not so much. When you see the damage those little suckers can do to all your hard work, it becomes difficult to shed tears for murdered moth larvae.

Oh the damage little bugs can cause to even the most loved and cared for crops. Sometimes after days and days of peering under each leaf every morning and evening, you begin feeling a little confident. Like all the times you sang to your plants boosted their self-esteem to a level of natural insect repelling powers, or that you kindly asking the aphids to please stay off of your cucumbers finally went through their tiny aphid brains and they sheepishly moved on, embarrassed like a friend who accidentally overstayed their welcome. No, not when you are trying to garden without pesticides. I think this actually may be where all the nay sayers step in. Doing this without pesticides can be very time-consuming and sometimes you just want to spray the crap out of your plants with pesticide. But if you set out to be organic, I think you just need to be willing to spend more time with your plants and put extra time into investigating their ailments. For me, despite the time it takes and extra work it calls for, I thoroughly enjoy gardening this way. You really get to know and understand your plants and the bugs that may inhabit them on a deeper level.

One thing I’ve notice while gardening this way is that (as far as what I’ve been able to achieve) perfect, hole free or blemish free harvests are overrated and uncommon. What I mean is, if you’re going to garden organically, be prepared for some light chewing and holes on your leaves of kale and arugula, perhaps some dents or blemishes on your tomatoes. Before gardening myself, I was a notorious grocery store produce inspector. I would pick up each and every tomato until I found the perfect tomato. Now, all that perfect tomato renders in my mind is how many pesticides must have been used. This isn’t to say every harvest should be filled with holes and blemishes (nothing has damaged my tomatoes yet), only that it should be expected and accepted as w/holey organic.

Neem oil, so far, has been doing it’s part in my garden. However, I’ve read that it is a good idea to rotate your methods every now and again in order to keep those pests guessing. I’ve been reading up on insecticidal soap and it’s ability to destroy the exoskeleton of soft-bodied pests yet keep your plants healthy and natural, so today I decided to make my own.

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I found the castile soap at Publix, where you find the natural hygiene products. I used Dr. Bronner’s  18-in-1 Hemp Peppermint Pure Castile Soap, it was just under 9 dollars. I’ve read that if you are going to use a scented soap, go with one that would have a pleasant taste as sometimes it can be difficult to take the scent from the plant when washing. I chose this one only because it was the only small, cheaper bottle my Publix had, I do believe this brand sells unscented versions. I filled my spray bottle til almost full, put in about a teaspoon of castile soap (my spray bottle is small), and also put in some garlic powder and cinnamon (you can also use cayenne, I had none) to deter chewing bugs. I went out to my garden and sprayed any plant that had some aphids coming back. This spray will only kill on contact, so either use it in the early morning or late afternoon when it is least likely to evaporate. I personally don’t mind the kill on contact thing, since I check my leaves daily anyways. I also like that I can choose which bugs will get killed, so that I may hopefully spare my beneficial garden buddies.

Well, that’s it for today. Here’s to hoping this method proves to be useful. So if you’re as curious as I am, you can expect some honest results from me towards the weekend. As always,  thanks for reading!

Then and Now

Gardening was something I always wanted to do, an itch I felt I would eventually scratch, but alas… something I never actually got around to. Life can often be strange and complex, sometimes the things you would rather be doing aren’t the things you end up with. In hindsight, it seemed like I would always fantasize about gardening, plan to, and then flat out forget.

Ben and I decided to move back to Florida and into his parents small homestead last August. It just seemed like the right decision in order for both of us to effectively plan for our future. And although I deeply missed the mountains of upstate SC where we had lived for nearly 2 years, existing amongst so much uninhibited nature after countless years spent in small apartments made for an easy transition. There was so much space, so much freedom, and then… there was that itch. After some discussion and an internal battle of “should I? could I?”, Ben introduced me to his father’s old, overgrown garden plot and needless to say, I was sold.

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At the time, it was an overgrown jungle with numerous weeds and ant infested fennel, but underneath it all I could see some sort of potential. I started clearing it out by hand with a machete and a garden hoe around mid December and finished in a matter of days. However, I soon discovered that one of the unfortunate quirks of the soil in Florida is that it’s hardly soil at all. Sand is great for Florida beaches and rock gardens, but terrible for my garden. To be fair, it wasn’t entirely sand, especially deep down, but it was too much for my liking. Luckily, with some help from Ben’s father Ray, a truck load of composted soil was rototilled a few times into the ground as an early Christmas present to yours truly.

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Instead of starting my plants in the ground come spring time, Ray suggested that I start my plants indoors around the beginning of January in order to give them a good headstart. Now, we all know Florida is sure as hell a tropical paradise, but for those who are unaware, we are capable of dropping to temperatures that could easily foil any garden. While we Floridians know these temperatures are pretty damn close to freezing, northerners would consider them otherwise as “chilly”. The idea behind starting my plants potted was that I could move them in and out as permitted by the weather until I could trust the warmth of spring to stick around. I’ve heard Ray’s horror story more than once— a garden started at the first of spring totally wiped out by a random freeze in the middle of March. So with this in mind, I heeded his advice and began my semi pain-in-the-ass journey of indoor/outdoor sprouts.

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I started off with vegetables I enjoyed the most: spinach, green beans, cucumbers, black beans, tomatos, squash, onion, and bell peppers. Low and behold, spinach was the first to germinate. The cool weather sent those babies a’soarin and it only took about 2 days to see full-fledged sprouts. Now, although spinach is a cool weather plant, looking back I probably wouldn’t have started it, even in January. Spoiler Alert: after transplanting in March, once the spinach was harvestable I only achieved about 3 successful harvests before the Florida heat caused it to bolt.

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Ben’s mom gifted me a little plastic zip up greenhouse soon after the sprouting of my spinach. Every day I would move my trays into the greenhouse and every night back into my room. It seemed to me that the greenhouse was working miracles with the sprouts in the “cool”weather. The plants were growing strong and much quicker within the greenhouse than out on the deck, though more frequent watering was a must due to quicker evaporation. After a couple months of this indoor/outdoor dance and the germination of kale, royal burgundy beans, mint, lavender, rosemary and a mesclun mixture, it was just about time to transplant to the garden.

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Transplant day was a day I had been excited about for a very, very long time. I mean really, carrying those plants back and forth every other day was something I never found much pleasure in. So I had it all planned out in my head: Saturday morning I would wake up, wheelbarrow my plants out to the garden (it is significantly far from the house towards back of the property), dig my holes, plop those babies in and consider it a done deal. Saturday morning I got up, put my plants in the wheelbarrow and rolled them on out at about 10am. Now, since my garden was so far back and my plants kept around the house, I hadn’t been back there in a few weeks. The first thing I noticed were the weeds that had popped up all over the plot. No problem! I went around and had them all under control by 10:30. Next, I layed out my plants where I aimed to dig. I think at the time I had something like 4 squash, 4 cucumbers, 14 spinach, 8 kale, 7 black beans, 7 bell peppers, 3 green beans, 6 burgundy beans, 4 tomatoes and a bunch of onions and herbs. Needless to say , I had a whole mess of plants. I decided to dig individual holes for my squash, black beans, tomatoes, and bell peppers. I dug out rows for my leafy veggies, cucumbers and green/burgundy beans (along a trellis). I dug for hours…literally. By 2:30, the only thing that had gotten into the ground was me. I wasn’t just exhausted at this point, I was super frustrated and partially defeated. It seemed like everything was wrong, and despite all of the previous rototilling, all I could see was sand. I finally got to this point where I was so frustrated I just marched straight back to the house without any plans on going back. Ben was in the kitchen making coffee. I can’t imagine what must have been going through his mind seeing me standing there sunburnt in my sunflower dress covered head to toe in dirt, tears running down my cheeks and scowling. He asked me what was wrong and sitting down hard at the kitchen table I threw my hands up and yelled “there’s just so much sand, it’s all sand!” (As time went on and I learned more about soil consistency, I came to find that it wasn’t all just sand). Yet, being the amazing partner that he is, Ben calmly asked me if I would like some help. I obviously said yes and we drove to the store to pick up some compost and garden soil, filled the holes with the mix, and finally I transplanted my babies.

Since transplant day, my garden has provided me with a whirlwind of experiences both good and not so good, solved almost entirely through trial and error. It has become my passion, my therapy, and also my teacher. I feel as though I’ve always been exceptionally inquisitive. A perfect day in the garden to me is all about crawling around in the dirt, peeking under leaves, talking to my plants and admiring their flowers. I really try to harness as much positive energy as I can while I’m out there. I also spend a great deal of time locating bugs to research back at the house. As all gardeners know, bugs can make or break your happy place. From cross pollination provided by bees and butterflies to the destruction caused by hornworm and moth larvae, knowing good bugs from bad can really help with your production and become a natural tool in pest control. I’ve added flowers to my garden, which not only provides a pop of color, but also helps to draw in my pollinators. Since transplant day I’ve also added a few extra plants and now have around 10 asparagus bean plants, 4 more cucumbers and 3 more squash.

Well, that’s pretty much the jist of my garden backstory. So, if you’re anything like me and are feeling a bit of an itch, go ahead and give it a scratch, you might be surprised with what you can really do.

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to begin

I’m not much of writer. Or a blogger. And I feel rather daring in calling myself a gardener. However, the further I dig into this newfound passion with the growing inability to keep my damn fingernails clean, I begin to feel this yearning to share and document my experiences. I’m quite the amateur to say the least. This is my first garden, and aside from squeezing information out of Ben’s father every now and then, I remain more or less self-taught. Yet, despite it all, this former itch in my brain has been scratched so vigorously a rash of passion has begun in its place. I’ve titled this blog the garden dweller due to the fact that ever since my shovel first kissed dirt last December, I’ve been tending my plants probably more than my own personal hygiene. These days, spotting me out in my garden is almost akin to watching a primate grooming its young. I bounce and crawl (sweating) between each plant, inspecting the undersides of leaves, snapping photos of every bug I encounter for further investigation. To say that I’ve become addicted to my garden is an understatement. Perhaps I’ll become addicted to writing about my garden as well… who knows? In this blog I plan to share my gardening journey, along with all the improvised/ amateur techniques and bitter failures I encounter. Since I’m always learning, you can expect a whole mess of aha moments that may prove to be entirely laugh-worthy to any seasoned gardener. You should also get prepared for endless pictures of the following: bugs, my dogs, myself covered in dirt/sweat (tears), bugs, plants, etc. With all that being said, welcome to my blog and thanks for reading 🙂