On chemical warfare in the garden

Slippery slope time:  I have a gardening secret, one whose use still causes me some great shame.  Like all secret shames, though, there’s a sweet upside to it.

My secret?  Bt.  Bacillus thuringiensis, technically.  This naturally-occurring soil bacterium has a sharp, crystalline structure that when ingested by caterpillars is quite lethal.  My aim is one particular caterpillar: those of the dreaded cabbage moth.  Those bloody things make any and all of my brassicas poop-covered, leafless stems if I gave them a chance.  Hah!  No chance, no quarter.

Yes, kitchen tools in the garden too!  I am shaking the powder upon pre-wetted red cabbage and Russian kale:  somehow, a butterfly got in there under the rowcover and laid her eggs.

You must understand that using this stuff is an absolute last stop with me.  All other insect and bug pests get squished between my fingers during my twice-daily trips to the garden.  With the exception of tomato hornworms (too big to squish and too valuable as chicken food) the swarms of Colorado potato beetles, squash bugs and bean beetles all meet the wrath of my finger and thumb.  It’s no wonder I always wear garden gloves, and even then that’s not a guarantee I won’t get grossed out…should I describe the arc that potato nymph guts will take?  Toward one’s eye, always.  Perhaps a face mask is recommended.

Anyway, back to the powder.  I go to great lengths otherwise to avoid the cabbage moth butterfly.  All (and I do mean all) of my cabbage family crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, rutabaga, turnip, and the zany Asian voodoo mashup veg of which I am so fond) grow under row covers in the warm months and are behind butterfly-proof screen within the greenhouses during the cold months.  This means about a third of my outdoor garden beds are covered with white cloth…not exactly pretty or natural, but, hey, I’ve gone on about the barrier method before.

The folks at the Fruit Exchange laughed at me, though, when I put the bag on the counter.  They know I grow organic.  And they know that I think this bag of stuff is really straddling a fence…it’s natural, but it’s far from its natural form.  “Things that bad, eh?” said the big guy in the overalls who always helps me.  “You know, I’ve got stronger stuff if you need it,” pointing to the odoriferous poison aisle.  (This is the same guy who, the last time I saw him, said “How many bales can you get in that thing,” he asked, pointing at my ancient VW Golf.  “Five, if I use the front seat,” I replied.  “Well, Jeff Foxworthy says you know you’re a redneck when you know how many haybales fit in your car,” yeah, lots o yuks.)

So I use the stuff only sparingly and in a reactive way:  only AFTER I see them does the powder come out.  It takes a day for the f*ckers to eat sh*t and die, but…all I need to do is hose the food off and it’s edible.  I still keep the covers on so no other creature from the order Lepidoptera gets affected.  And yes, it’s easier than squishing…and just as sickly satisfying, come to think of it.

20 responses to “On chemical warfare in the garden

  1. We used Dipel Dust (same bacteria) this spring. Someone said we can use a water solution instead of dusting (makes it last longer and easier to do) so we did that. Very pleased with the results.

    Our chickens refuse to eat adult tomato hornworms … lazy spoiled bums …

  2. I use BTk in a spraybottle. It’s the only thing I’ll use, too. It’s very effective.

  3. That was an interesting read, El–just wish I hadn’t read it while I was eating….


  4. I just heard about this on MPR’s Gestalt Gardner this morning.

  5. Having just lost three beds to a woodchuck, I hope you revel in your sweet, sweet revenge.

  6. I like the dispenser.
    I’ve always used a short length of nylon hosiery – you put a scoop of the bt or dipel in and then use it like a powder puff. Like a professional baseball pitcher on the mound with his rosin bag.
    Your little ground Parmesan cheese dispenser looks neater

  7. I get those every year too. But I’ve only ever used the liquid kind. That didn’t work out too well until I figured out you need a touch of dish soap added to soften the water and make it adhere to the leaves.

  8. hmmmmm…what does it say about me, that I squish bugs barehanded? I can’t take the time to go get the gloves – that little sucker might get away. Then again, my garden is much smaller than yours, so there’s fewer bugs to squish in the first place.

    I read somewhere (Companion Planting or Four Season Harvest, maybe?) that ten inches of straw was a good deterrent for potato beetles. I can’t seem to get around to buying straw (bet I could fit 3 bales in my Mazda Protege) but I tried mulching with autumn leaves this year and so far so good. Only 1 potato leaf munched by larvae and it was quickly spotted and squished (but again, many fewer plants, easier to monitor the leaves).

  9. I dont think I was ever as mad as I was last year when those damn things invaded my garden. I squished so many of those worms, refusing to put anything on it. Well that wasnt the best option, as it wasnt nearly helpful enough. My cabbage looked like swiss cheese. I covered stuff up this year like you do and it is helping so much, but alas the damn spring deluge of rains and now the heat have pretty much rendered my garden crap this year. Ohio has had some of THE suckiest weather lately.
    Im over it now, as I have purchased A HOOP HOUSE!!!! And we are in the process of building it now, so hopefully I can get some stuff going for fall soon. I also am going to raise the beds in the garden using concrete blocks, so I can plant at normal time and not have the roots of everything rotting in water from march-june. I am going to do beds like yours in my house, I love how it makes it so neat and easy to put covers up on them.

  10. They got under my row cover too, darn broccoli plants were so happy and TALL this year. So far I’m just resorting to the careful search after harvest, and isn’t it handy that they turn orange after you freeze them? Sigh.

    A few years ago I had a big flea beetle problem and picked up rotenone, ’cause it’s organic, right? After more research later I realized was a nasty “natural” product it was, and now will not be used again. And I’ve been reticent of buying anything else, though Bt would be on the short list. The nice thing though, is when we (lets say, more thoughtful gardeners) do use products, it is spot directed and with hesitation–in my case one or two tiny applications got the plants back on the rebound. Its the people who shop the “poison aisle” that scare me.

    • Scratch that, I pulled off the cover today and the cabbage was a bad scene. So I got some bt, ha. Funny thing is, once the cover was off the hornets immediately arrived on the scene, maybe it would have been better to let the natural predators get involved earlier? My kale is uncovered and though there are signs of cabbage butterflies there is very little damage. Live and Learn.

  11. I’m having a squash bug infestation and not happy about it! I’ve been scooping the buggers into a jar of bleach and also scraping the darn eggs off the plants with a craft stick into the jar too. They are just awful and I read they stink when squished, hence the jar of bleach method! Vigilence is key, they went unchecked for a few days and that was that. I don’t think playing catch up is very effective! How do other readers prevent these bothersome bugs?

    • New technique: Last night my husband watered the squash plants which caused the numerous squash bugs to seek refuge on higher ground. While the little buggers walked up the squash stems I plucked them off and into my bleach jar! I’m talking at least 40 of these horrible bugs saw their demise. I think I’ll have to repeat every day if I want to help my plants.

  12. Does anyone have any suggestions for Sunflowers? I have five or six huge sunflower heads and a lot of the seeds have worms in them… How to prevent that?

  13. Hi everyone. What a difference a year makes. I had zero problems with bugs last year but this year’s cold wet spring and miserable wet early summer mean it’s Bug City here. Are the plants stressed? Did I have weak seedlings to begin with? Who knows. Gotta work with what you have though so…lots of loving applications of compost and lots of bug guts all around.

    Leon! Good to hear from you. Yes, thanks; that bag of stuff IS Dipel. And yeah I suppose if I had re-read the directions I would’ve seen that spray was an option here too. 🙂

    DJK, I am sorry but I have not a tiny idea what kind of worms could be affecting your sunflowers. Flies, maybe? Had you had a bout of wet weather lately? I had noticed that extreme dampness keeps the seeds soft and therefore vulnerable to things like that.

    Ah Brett, I suppose that’s the downside of reading blogs. The only time I do a big read of them is lunch time…so, sorry…!

    Jules, that’s interesting. Well, they’re around, so I suppose it’s a timely thing to cover, eh?

    Peter: you’re a steak-eating he-man, don’t you have a .22 somewhere? Even a pellet gun brings a certain amount of satisfaction, and you needn’t join the NRA.

    Cohutt, nylons? ingenious. Granted it was around 1995 when I last wore them. I might just try the spray bottle next.

    Thanks for the dish soap suggestion too, VGC!

    Hi Karen. It says you’re a rapacious killer, that’s what. Truth be told I squish barehanded too, but try not to. Potato bugs are actually pretty easy to deal with, it’s the squash bugs and cabbage moths that I hate! And I don’t care how big one’s garden is, it’s still a lot of ick.

    Niki! How exciting! (Not your weather conditions of course but your future plans!) Yeah, I had a summer similar to what you’re going through leading up to building my first greenhouse. Night and fricking day was the next year’s contrast. G’head and rain! Anyway you’ll love it.

    Sara, and they turn yellow-white when you cook them. Again, they’re just disgusting. And flea beetles: I had always just ignored the damage they do because what’s a few holes between me and my food: they don’t as far as I can tell poop on them too. I hope you like the Bt. I hate having to resort to it but really, when I first dusted some greenhouse plants last fall and saw the dead cabbage worms on the ground the next day? Heaven!

    Liz, yuck! Some years are worse than others with squash bugs too. I would say constant vigilance is the key. They hide out under the stems where it meets the root during the day and then lay the eggs when they feel like it, so hunt them when it’s early and they can’t move fast. As long as you can scrape off or tear off an egg-ridden leaf, you should be fine. One hatched colony of eggs though mean your squash plant is doomed. And they love crookneck squash, my favorite!

  14. Nope, not too wet or anything. I seem to get a few every year. There’s info on the net…I just haven’t found what I’m looking for, I guess. Yesterday I took one of the biggest heads, sprayed it off with water and placed it on the bird bath in the sunniest part of the yard facing up. I am interested to see if they’ll bake. 😉

    What’s funny is that my tomatoes, except for one Hornworm that I’ve found, look GREAT! I’ve never had such beautiful mater plants. Last year I had to kill the wasps…..as my 14 month old decided to step on one. It broke my heart so I killed em all. This year there are tons, and seemingly no worms. Correlation?

    I planted marigolds, sweet alyssum, and some other beneficials, which really seem to be having a positive impact on the garden.

  15. What do you use on leaf footed bugs, El? I’ve got a family on my yellow tomato plant.

  16. Control of leaf-footed bugs is not necessary (unless you’re a pinecone grower!) They are easy to catch because of their slowing metabolism. Once caught, they can be tossed outdoors to fine somewhere else to stay for the winter. Be advised, these are members of the stink bug family. If held too long or crushed they emit a foul odor.

    per http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/hotissues/leaffootedbug.htm

  17. DJK: Thanks! I went out this morning and squashed them all (or most of them). Then I washed my hands. Didn’t stink too much; maybe I caught them by surprise.

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