“Can’t You Just Spray?”

By Cam Mather

This was the question that my neighbor Ken asked me recently. I had just told him about the bugs eating my berries. “Can’t you just spray?”

So how’d you spend your weekend? Road trip? Shopping? Reading at the coffee shop? I spent a recent weekend here on my knees cutting garlic scapes and squashing bugs. And I mean a lot of bugs. Not that I’m complaining. It’s just an observation on how humans have so many choices available to them. I love my choice of living in the country and trying to generate an income growing good organically.

This can be a very discouraging proposition. Early in the season I am overrun with cutworms, a caterpillar that lives just below the soil surface and takes out plants when they are small and vulnerable. In many years they have completely decimated certain crops. This year I had about the usual amount of damage, which I’ve grown accustomed to.

Each year something new always comes along to keep things interesting. Last year our raspberries did fabulously well with very few pests. This gives you a cocky sense of complacency. “Oh raspberries? They’re so easy to grow organically!” NOT! Well not this year anyway. I have an unholy pestilence of “scarabs” this year and they are trashing my berry plants in big numbers. I first noticed them on my blueberries. My beautiful blueberries with lush green, shiny leaves. I was watering and noticed some of the leaves were damaged. Upon closer examination I noticed the scarabs.

Scarabs are nasty little pests that will take out the berry flowers and young fruit, or just chew on leaves. You can see in the photos what a leaf looks like after the scarabs have chewed on it. While it may look like a lovely lace pattern, this damage severely restricts the plant’s ability to photosynthesize and convert that wonderful sunlight into energy to be used in the biomass of the plant. Left long enough they’ll denude the whole plant and it’s game over.

So I spent the weekend on a hunt and squish mission, going over each of my berry plants numerous times. Their natural defense is to drop off the plant when disturbed so I go after them with one hand and put my other hand underneath to catch the ones that drop off. And they can fly, so I have to pick the ones out of midair that take off. Later in the weekend after I had removed the worst of the infestation, I began shaking the plant stalk and most would fall on to the ground where I eliminated them. You have to work fast though, because some will scamper under debris and hide while others will try and get airborne to fly away. Oh it’s a barrel of fun.

I noticed that scarabs are a big part of Egyptian artwork. You see them used extensively on jewelry. Come on ancient Egyptians, what were you thinking? Scarabs? Really? They’re obnoxious! They’re eating my berry plants. And you want to immortalize them on jewelry? Interesting that the scientific classification of scarabs is the Class “Insecta”, Order “Coleoptera”, which looks like Cleopatra to my dyslexic brain.

We’ve had problems with scarabs on our peonies in previous years, but this is the first year they’ve ever gone after the berries like this. If I had just left them they would denude every plant and I would have no berry plants next year. This may be cyclic, they may not be as bad next year, or they may be worse. Essentially I’ll have to make a mental note to keep this time of the year clear to deal with them. Problem is, there is no spare time at this time of year. We haven’t had much rain lately, so I am watering full time, and trimming garlic scapes (which is a full time job with 10,000 heads of garlic) and I’m still finishing up some planting. Oh and weeding. So essentially it just means in the gardens by 6 a.m., out by 8 p.m., with lots left undone.

So when Ken asked “Can’t you just spray?” the answer of course is “Yes, I am physically capable of purchasing a pesticide and nuking them.” The question is, do I want to? Do I want to eat diazinon or whatever pesticide would eliminate them? My berries are well formed now. Anything I apply will leave a residue on the berries I eat.

A lot of the organic control methods seem to deal with eliminating pests like these in the larva stage when they’re grubs. But I have to wonder even if I applied a beneficial nematode within a reasonable distance of all my gardens, would it eliminate them? They can fly. So I’ll always be exposed to them from the surrounding area.

Which brings me back to the task at hand. Spending many hours inspecting my plants and squishing scarabs. There is no question my time would be better spent here at this computer creating eBooks to sell, and taking that money and buying berries grown by someone else. But at this stage of my life, that seems like a copout. This is what I want to do. And I need to stick to my principles of growing organically. It’s a stupid amount of time. But it gives me lots of time to think. And here is the conclusion I’ve come to.

1)    The world CANNOT feed 7, or 9 billion people using organic methods.

2)    We’re running out of easy, cheap oil and gas, the basic building blocks for modern chemical agriculture used in the “green revolution” that has allowed us to feed 7 billion people today.

The result of my conclusion is not a good one, but one I think most of you can figure out. Ultimately food will be more expensive. And it will be in short supply, certainly at various times of the year. Hence the need to eat strawberries in June until you’re so sick of them it takes another 11 months until you’re ready to feast on them again.

And if you can find a local organic farmer selling her wares at the farmers market, make sure you not only patronize her, but also thank her for her efforts. If anything just thank that farmer for not giving in to the impulse to spray. I understand the impulse and if I was trying to grow on a large scale and earn my income from only growing food I’m not sure I could make a living if I didn’t.

In the meantime I’m going to try and train the chickens to eat scarabs faster. They seem to take their sweet time eating them, which gives some of the scarabs time to fly away. And once I’ve caught a scarab once, I have no desire to have to do it again.

8 Responses to ““Can’t You Just Spray?””

  • Cathy:

    If 7-9 billion of us were gardening and pinching bugs we’d have a beter chance of feeding the world. More people need to get their hands dirty and learn where their food comes from.

    Get some plastic fencing, circle and stake the berries, clip the chickens wings so they can’t fly over the plastic fence, grab a handful of cracked corn, chuck it under the berries, and holler, “Here chick, chick.” Shake the bushes to drop the bugs to the bug eaters. I works for me!

  • Neil:

    You just never know what “pests” will turn up in the garden! I came down one morning to find some plants missing, others dishevelled, and eventually realized there was a giant (over 12″ shell width) snapping turtle dug in to my veggie patch… see June 21 post “Snap To It” on http://www.peacockforest.ca

    My garden is a postage stamp compared with yours but, even then, while I am weeding and maintaining it, I realize why they spray those enormous acerages of monoculture farm. There is no other way. But it is not a natural way to farm and, at some point, it will become an unsustainable way to farm, so thank goodness “small scale” farmers like you are doing what they do because, maybe sooner maybe later, it will be a food supply we come to rely on.

  • Thanks Cam for staying organic, even against such odds! It’s very instructive to be shown what it takes to be organic. We didn’t plant much this year because of the move, but our strawberries were huge and bug-free. Our only competition was the squirrels, who take tiny nibbles, the little blighters!

    PS: Thanks Del for the explanation of the African dung beetle. I’m originally from South Africa and remember them well. We too were taught that they were valuable.


  • Thanks for all the great feedback and information. Good to know it’s just not me! We have cows in the paddock right now and I was thinking about how much forage the cow patties reduce. Apparently when I’m scooping up some of the larger ones I should “walk like an Egyptian”. They had this figured out eons ago. Cam

  • We got rust on our new raspberries then something ate some of them, we have lost about 60% which is depressing, keep comforting myself with the idea that raspberries throw out such great runners once established so may be back on track in 2 years, fingers crossed. I have managed to give myself a whiplash feeling injury by stretching yesterday! A timely reminder that this homesteading lark only works if you have good health and for me to do things when I can and not put anything off to another day!

  • Connie Murray:

    What about organic soap spray for immediate control, milky spore for longer term control? My raspberries are the kind that set fruit late in the season (Aug/Sept) so maybe I avoid the beetle infestation. But fruit pests are always abundant. This year I tried “bagging” my apples to keep out worms. A small zip lock bag is placed around the crown apple (all other side apples from the cluster are removed). Zip up the bag, staple it on both sides of the stem to hold in place and cut off both bottom corners of the bag so it can drain after a heavy rain storm. Some apples fell off anyway, a few rotted but the majority are still on the tree. And they look amazingly clean and spot free. Can’t wait to pick ’em!

  • Del:

    Dear Cam Mather,

    The Egyptian scarabs are dung beetles. Indigenous to Africa, dung beetles are drawn to fresh dung from grazing animals, The females separate a small portion of dung, and walking backward on their forelegs use their hind legs to roll the dung into a ball about as big as a blueberry. They then deposit an egg in the ball and bury it in the ground. The undigested vegetable matter in the dung feeds the beetle’s larva.

    The Africa dung beetles thus perform a useful function. Without them dung lies on the ground as a “cow patty”. It dries and blocks the growth of forage. It can take a long time to breakdown and provide plant nutrients, meanwhile blocking the growth of forage.

    Some years ago Scientific American had an article about the deliberate introduction of African dung beetles into Australian pasture lands. This was done to to eliminate the loss of forage while cow patties slowly disintegrated. The dung beetles went through an elaborate many generation cleansing process to avoid the accidental introduction of alien microbes. As I recall after this introduction it was discovered that there was a large native toad or frog in Australia that was swallowing whole live dung beetles. So the scientists introduced another beetle from Africa, a powerful horned beetle that could force its way out of the amphibian’s stomach after being swallowed.

    I don’t know how this introduction has played out over the intervening years. Many of our meddlings with nature have caused disastrous results: killer bees into Brazil (an easily avoidable accident – that was almost inevitable – given the criminal neglect of suitable safeguards by an irresponsible scientist), starlings into New England, eucalyptus trees into Patagonia and rabbits into Australia.

    The Egyptians might have honored their dung beetle scarabs because they were industrious, I doubt they understood its ecological function in quickly breaking down dung into a plant useful nutrients. After all there were no dried cow patties on the ground to indicate that they would be a problem!

    Try Googling “dung beetle”, I shall do just that after I hit “submit”.

  • CJ:

    We let our chickens have the run of the place in early spring. When patches of ground start showing until the end of April. The chickens spend their entire day scratching in the raspberry patch, the vegetable garden, the lawn – anywhere they can find the grubs. It has made a huge difference in our pest population in the summer garden.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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