Tag Archives: cucumber beetles

Leader in Organic Bug Control a Southern Superhero

I met one of the best kept secrets in organic agriculture during my recent travels.

If you live in the South, and grow organically, you know that it can be a challenge. Lots of people, in fact, believe that you can’t grow organic “where the ground never freezes and the bugs never die,” as my friend Nellie Neal calls the South.

Those of us who struggle to be “deep organic” and not use chemicals of any kind to control insects and diseases often feel a bit lonely, in fact. We have only our hard-won experience of losing some crops, saving others, to go by – without any firm scientific basis for our farm practices.

But that may be about to end, somewhat. There is an extension service entomologist in Thomaston, Ala., who is conducting research into deterring the most common insect pests from organic farms and gardens using natural methods.

Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D. – or “Dr. A” as locals call him – has been studying “trap crop” plants that can lure harmful insects from organic vegetable crops. So far, his success has been astounding.

Bug Doctor - Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D., an entomologist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service with Auburn University could soon be a "superhero" to Southern organic farmers and gardeners. His research into plant pests is uniquely applicable to the entire region. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Bug Doctor – Ayanava Majumdar, Ph.D., an entomologist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension Service with Auburn University could soon be a “superhero” to Southern organic farmers and gardeners. His research into plant pests is uniquely applicable to the entire region. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

State coordinator for the Southern Agriculture and Research Education (SARE) program, Dr. A is an Alabama Cooperative Extension Service specialist with Auburn University. I met him while presenting a roundtable discussion on “Gifts and Challenges of Rural Southern Communities” Sept. 13 for the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center in Thomaston. I was there on behalf of NCAT – the National Center for Appropriate Technology and it’s ATTRA program, the Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. (See NCAT.org or @NCAT_org)

Turns out, Dr. A. has a demonstration farm at the Heritage Center and is conducting his research there. I eagerly toured his demonstration plots after the roundtable discussions were over.

Sheephishly, I have to admit, I had actually read Dr. A’s work prior to coming to the Heritage Center. (See his article “Trap Cropping for Flea Beetle & Aphid Management in the July 2013 edition of ACRES USA.)

To be honest, I had no idea he was conducting his experiments in Alabama, or the South, for that matter. Maybe I just assumed he was “out there” somewhere, like the Rodale people in Pennsylvania, or the Land Institute in Kansas, or like our NCAT folks in Butte, MT. Not the South. I mean, really, who would have thought there would be a worldclass organic expert in a tiny town in Alabama?

To me, the most interesting aspect of his work so far has been on creating trap crops. Trap crops, as most organic growers know, are crops set aside to lure “bad” insects away from your valuable produce. (We use pollinator plants to lure “beneficial insects” to our would-be cash crops.)

Unfortunately, most organic growers also know that often our cash crops often become trap crops by default. Many of our “trap crops” become that way because insects attack them.  Every organic gardener or farmer has stories to tell about how one’s intended cash crop became so infested he or she kept it in hopes of keeping bugs there rather than attacking the other plants. Intended trap crops often don’t seem to work or work well enough. That’s where the science is lacking.

Recently, farmers and gardeners have been having problems with a bug called “leaffooted bugs.” If you grow tomatoes, you probably have seen them. They look like a squash bug but have odd shaped flat protruberances on their legs. After a leaffooted bug attack, tomatoes become mottled; with black circular spots. You’ve probably seen attacked tomatoes at farmers markets; most farmers don’t even know what hit them, until it’s too late.

Dr. A has found that sorghum works as a great trap crop to protect organic tomatoes from leaffooted bugs, and may help deter stinkbugs, as well.  This photo is of his trap crop at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center demonstration farm hosted by the Alabama A&M and Auburn universities cooperative extension services at Thomaston, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. A has found that sorghum works as a great trap crop to protect organic tomatoes from leaffooted bugs, and may help deter stinkbugs, as well. This photo is of his trap crop at the Alabama Rural Heritage Center demonstration farm hosted by the Alabama A&M and Auburn universities cooperative extension services at Thomaston, Ala. (Photo by Jim Ewing)

Dr. A has found that forage sorghum (NK300) will lure leaffooted bugs from tomato plants, if planted prior to tomatoes so that the panicle is produced before tomato fruition. The bugs don’t even see the tomatoes, they are so intent on the sorghum panicle, he says.

While walking by a row of his sorghum, he pointed to several of the bugs in the panicles, including a pair mating. “They love it!” he said. “This is their bedroom.”

Asked about whether sunflowers don’t do as well to attract leaffooted bugs (which I had found in my own fields), he said that sunflowers have a limited amount of time in which they are in flower to attract the bug. Sorghum stays attractive longer; though, he said, one could plant both, timed to allow an even longer season.

Bingo! If you’re looking at a long season, plant both to succeed each! Moreover, one can plant other trap crops for other bugs and other crops that can also mix and match with these.

For example, he also says that the sunflower/sorghum strategy has worked on stink bugs; but he is still conducting experiments. He suggests using bug vaccums.

Other findings from Dr. A –

— “Blue Hubbard” Squash planted as a perimeter can attract pepper maggots, cucumber beetles, squash vine borers and squash bugs with a 60 percent to 90 percent success rate.

— Clemson spineless okra can be used as trap crop to protect tomatoes and bell peppers from aphids, flea beetles and grasshoppers.

Dr. A certainly has his work cut out for him, but what he has discovered so far is simply phenomenal and has the potential to give Southern organics a huge boost.

Someone needs to start sewing a superhero suit with a big “Dr. A” on it. This organic crusader is treading where few in the academic and scientific community have dared to go — and finding weaknesses among the mightiest of the South’s insect pests.

For upcoming Food and Farm Forums conducted by the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network, see: http://www.asanonline.org/

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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Natural, organic, edible yards

March 11, 2011

Maybe chef will say ‘bee-YOU-tee-ful’ over edible yards

I guess I’ve been watching Emeril Green too much on TV, as I found myself hearing the popular chef’s voice in my head while out picking greens in the field: “Ah, bee-YOU-tee-ful!”

After the frosts, we got a beautiful new crop of collards which, when picked fresh, are so sweet and tender they can be eaten raw – which I was doing: pick one, eat one, pick two, eat one, pick three, eat one …. and so on. (Kind’a reduces your yield that way!)

Collards, when fresh, can be lightly steamed, as well.

I love watching chef Emeril Lagasse’s show when he actually goes to a farm or farmer’s market and talks with the farmers, and then cooks what they provide, often right there adjacent to their farm fields. It certainly shows folks who think food comes from the grocery store where their food actually originates, and that there are real people involved.

Organic lawns

Lately, I’ve been rather overwhelmed by “pre-emerge” poisons being sprayed all over the countryside.

There’s not much that can be done about poisons in farm country (until people start buying organic en masse!), but you can control your own property. The safe lawn movement promotes chemically free, organic lawns.

One method is what’s called an “edible lawn,” that is, not composed of turf grasses, but instead, plants that can be prepared or eaten raw. It also includes traditional lawns but without the use of herbicides or pesticides and only natural fertilizers, so that children, pets and the environment are not harmed. For more information, visit http://www.safelawns.org.

Natural alternatives

If you are one who abhors traditional lawns, you might consider natural alternatives to the monoculture turf grasses. For example, Peaceful Valley (www.groworganic.com) offers a variety of lawn and meadow mixes, such as its herbal lawn seed mix: Roman Chamomile, English Daisy, Snow-in-Summer, Sweet Alyssum, Creeping Daisy, Blue Pimpernel, Creeping Thyme, and others.

Or, how about the Kaleidoscope Meadow Mix, composed of various colored fescues, Forget-Me-Nots, Strawberry Clover and other wildflowers?

Local garden stores offer wildflower mixes, as well. Then, again, you could just plant your yard in vegetables as an edible foodscape!

Now is the time to plan how you want your garden.

Edible flowers

Try Nasturtiums. They are beautiful flowers, offered in various colors, that not only work to deter pests, such as cucumber beetles, squash bugs and caterpillars, but they can be eaten, used as garnish to brighten up salads or as a side for standard fare (and conversation starter!).

The flowers are spicy flavored with a peppery taste. Since you are growing organic, without poisons, you can nibble them right in the garden (I do!).

Pollinators

Another idea is to plant flowers that attract pollinators. Here’s a list:

Wild lupine, smooth penstemon, Ohio spiderwort, wild bergamot, purple prairie clover, pale purple coneflower, Culver’s root, butterfly milkweed, prairie blazing star, purple giant hyssop, New England aster and giant sunflower.

These suggestions are from a new book that’s chock full of interesting info titled Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting America’s Bees and Butterflies by The Xerces Society (Storey Publishing; $29.95).

Another good book on bees for beginners (and foodies!) is just out in paperback: Honeybee: Lessons From an Accidental Beekeeper by C. Marina Marchese (Black Dog & Leventhall Publishers; $14.95).

It details a woman’s education from knowing nothing about bees to becoming a master “beek,” with lots of eye-opening culinary and medicinal lore learned along the way.

I should have mentioned last week that the henbit (little purple flowers growing everywhere right now) is also an edible wild plant. Here’s a photo and salad recipe: http://bit.ly/ePSri4

Websites

A great column in The New York Times by Mark Bittman, exposing the inequities of the agricultural subsidy system: http://nyti.ms/gos66i.

A primer on subsidies, explaining types and purposes by the Environmental Working Group. (Also, you can enter your zip code and see who in your neighborhood is receiving a USDA farm subsidy and how much): http://bit.ly/fqor64.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.