The CDFA’s Pesticide Theater

In the fall of 2009 a citrus pest called the Asian Citrus Psylid showed up in our neighborhood. It’s a major concern to commercial citrus growers since the pest spreads an incurable and fatal plant disease called huanglongbing (HLB).

The California Department of Food and Agriculture commenced a futile effort to suppress the psylid by hiring a contractor, TruGreen, to spray residential backyards in Southern California with a combination of imidacloprid (deadly to pollinating insects) and pyrethroid.

As I expected, it didn’t work. The state’s strategy has now shifted to releasing a parasitic wasp (Tamarixia radiata) imported from Pakistan. Citrus farmers will continue heavy applications of pesticides to keep the psylid at bay. UC Cooperative Extension biological control specialist Mark Hoddle explained to KQED (italics mine),

Hoddle says Tamarixia radiata won’t eradicate Asian citrus psyllid. Commercial citrus producers in California will still continue to apply insecticides to prevent the spread of Huanglongbing. But, he says, state regulators have already determined backyard pesticide applications are too expensive ($10-11 million so far) and too ineffective to bother with.

Frankly, I’m inclined to conclude that the original eradication program was a make-work program for CDFA officials and TruGreen all made possible by a big infusion of cash from our tax dollars and the citrus industry.

During their backyard spraying campaign in our neighborhood in the fall of 2010, the CDFA and TruGreen showed up at a neighbor’s house who, at the time, had over 50 citrus trees in pots (she was operating a mini-nursery and selling the trees).  CDFA and TruGreen were overwhelmed by the amount of trees and ran out of imidacloprid. They promised to return but never did, leading me to believe that they weren’t really interested in eradicating a pest but were, instead, engaged in a kind of “pesticide theater”. It’s a bit like the security theater that goes on everyday at our nation’s airports courtesy of the TSA.

Even with the parasitic wasps I’m not planning on planting any citrus or recommending that citrus be planted in Southern California backyards.  Everywhere in the world the psylid has shown up, HLB has followed within a decade. I strongly suspect that growing citrus in SoCal will be like trying to grow table or wine grapes here. With grapes, Pierce’s disease, spread by a very similar insect called the glassy winged sharpshooter, makes it impossible to grow anything but resistant varieties unless you use a lot of pesticides. Until a HLB resistant citrus tree shows up (probably by means of genetic modification, never a great option IMHO) I’d stick to pomegranates and figs.

Meet the Good Guys: Beneficial Insect Poster

 The good folks at the University of California Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) have created a handy little poster featuring some of our best insect friends–the natural enemies of garden pests.

They want it spread far and wide, so they’re promoting this link to a downloadable PDF fit for printing. This is a great resource for home gardeners, but also for teachers, schools and community gardens. Laminate it and pass it around! And please feel free to share the PDF link with your circles:

(The UC Statewide IPM website is a great resource, even if you don’t live in California. Go there and you’ll find fact sheets on residential pests and advice on how to deal with them.)

Meet the Gophinator

The Gophinator

Thankfully, we don’t have gophers, but dealing with them is one of the first questions we get when teaching vegetable gardening classes.  You can use raised beds lined with hardware cloth. But, other than target practice (a no-no in urban areas), most people I know with gopher problems end up using traps or zealous cats.

Several sources have told me about the Cadillac of gopher traps, the aptly named “Gophinator”. Scott Kleinrock of the Huntington Ranch is one of those Gophinator fans, who stressed avoiding the cheap traps available at big box stores. The Gophinator is sturdy, easy to set and made out of stainless steel that lasts much longer than cheaper traps.

To use it you need to dig around and find the main subway line the gophers ride. Scott hooks up a wire and a stake to the traps to remember where they are placed.

The Gophinator is manufactured by Trapline products and you can order one and view some instructional videos here.

How do you deal with gophers? Leave some comments!

Eat Your Pests

Grubs anyone?

Responding to our anti-squirrel post a few days ago Root Simple reader Chile pointed to a post on the her blog “Pests . . . and how to eat them“. She makes the excellent point that most of our dreaded garden pests, including insects are edible.

Now if I could only overcome my squeamishness about eating insects. I had to deal with lots of wax moth larvae this week and remembered that in parts of Asia they are stir fried. Here in L.A., you can get deep fried grasshoppers at a few Mexican restaurants (San Francisco’s Health Department just banned this practice, for some reason). Perhaps you have to grow up eating insects to be fully comfortable with the bug eatin’.

If you look at the entry on rabbits in the original edition of Rodale’s Organic Gardening Encyclopedia, J.I. Rodale suggests eating them. This advice has been, unfortunately, edited out of the revised version. The way the economy is going this summer we may have to revise that encyclopedia again . . .

Sunflowers and Squirrels

It’s a losing battle, the one we gardeners face against the squirrel menace. As the mammoth sunflowers we planted this summer approached the harvest stage, I tied some paper bags over the flower heads to prevent squirrels and birds from eating all the seeds. Mostly, it has worked. But, as you can see from the animation above, one pesky squirrel managed to figure out how to open one of the bags. Perhaps he used the adjacent tomato cage for extra leverage.

Maybe this bag worked because the Whole Foods logo scared the squirrels away with the thought of high prices and angry Pruis drivers.

I thought I had solved the problem by putting one of those ubiquitous and annoying cloth eco bags over the sunflower. Not even the City of LA logo on that eco bag scared them off.

So what to do about the squirrels? Tight bird netting on fruit trees works but is a pain in the ass to attach and remove. Commercial orchardists trap and kill. Hmmm. Along those lines it looks like we have yet another excuse to link to that squirrel melt video . . .

A Bustle In Your Hedgerow: California Natives for your Vegetable Garden

Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis) photo by Art Shapiro

I’ve always been suspicious of some of the popular companion planting advice of the sort dispensed in old books like Carrots Love Tomatoes. From what I understand research just hasn’t proven a lot of the relationships these sorts of books tout. What makes intuitive sense to me, however, is that biodiversity in in a garden can create habitat for beneficial insects and birds that can help keep our edibles free of pests. For thousands of years in Northern Europe that biodiversity was maintained through the use of hedgerows.

Now, thanks to a study conducted by UC Santa Cruz researchers Tara Pisani Gareau and Carol Shennan, we’ve got some solid advice on what sorts of plants can create habitat for beneficials. The study, “Can Hedgerows Attract Beneficial Insects and Improve Pest Control? A Study of Hedgerows on Central Coast Farms” looks at a set of specific plants used in hedgerows in California: common yarrow (Achillea millefolium), coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis), California lilac (Ceanothus griseus and C. ‘Ray Hartman’), perennial buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum), toyon (Heteromeles arbutifolia), and coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica).

In their conclusion Gareau and Shennan note,

Planting a diversity of plants that have different floral architectures should increase the likelihood of conserving a diverse community of insect natural enemies. Coyote brush and yarrow would be especially important foundational plants in hedgerows. In addition . . . combining hedgerows with in-field floral plantings (in strips or randomly throughout) may increase the dispersal of small-bodied insect natural enemies through the fields.

Scott Kleinrock, who is in charge of the new Ranch project at the Huntington, tipped me off to this research and is making use of a lot of California natives to create the urban residential equivalent of a hedgerow. In short, a hedgerow in our yards and urban spaces means making sure to include lots of natives and flowering plants that can provide habitat for the types of critters we want. Hopefully this important research will be duplicated in other regions and climates with different sets of plants.

Now, I’ve got to get me some Baccharis pilularis!

ETA: Apologies for being California-centric here, but we don’t know of any research studies on native plant hedgerows in other places. However, be sure to check out this Mother Earth News article about living fences, which we’ve posted about before.

ETA 2: From our comments: check out the region-specific guidelines for plants which support pollinating insects, put together by the good folks at the Xerces Society.

The Barrier Method

Over the years we’ve lost countless plants to digging, chewing, trampling and sucking critters, mammals and insects both. We finally got smart. It makes sense to invest a little extra time and money to protect your crops and your livestock with physical barriers.

This practice started sort of piecemeal around here, with us only exerting ourselves over particularly problem-prone situations. Nowadays protection is standard for every bed we plant, for our seed starting boxes, and often for new perennials in the ground. The result is peace of mind, better results…and fewer gardening meltdowns from Erik (Squash Baby excepted).

We’ve written about all this before in various posts, but here’s some photos to give you an overview of some of the possibilities:

Our seedling trays are now contained within The Germinator ™: a large screened box. Prior to this invention, we arched chicken wire over our seedling trays to keep squirrels and loose chickens out.

All of our beds, whether raised or in the ground, are spanned with arches of wire which hold up aviary netting. The netting is held down around the edges with a variety of anchors, anything from bricks and boards to U shaped wire stakes. This keeps critters like digging skunks and birds out–but not insects.

Sometimes we cover our veg beds with a very light floating row cover (Agribon 15) instead of aviary netting. This not only keeps out critters, but also blocks many insects, particularly the cabbage worms that harass our brassica crops. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the plants pretty within. Heavier gauges of row covering can be used to ward off frost, or help jump start plants in cold weather.
Our chickens have a very secure coop. Connected to it is some extra play space, bounded by picket fence. This doesn’t protect the chickens from much, but they only use it during the day, when predators are few. It’s more to protect our garden from them. But I hope you can see the twine that stretches from picket to picket. These discourage the hens from flapping out of their run, and keeps hawks from swooping down on them.
We often protect newly planted perennials with circles of chicken wire staked to the ground. This young berry is protected from anything digging it up or stepping on it.  If I wanted to make sure critters couldn’t nibble on it, I’d pinch the top closed as well.

Genetically Modified Oranges Coming to a Store Near You

The ACP via UC Riverside

A tiny insect known as the Asian Citrus Psyllid (ACP for short) spreads a incurable bacterial citrus disease known as huanglongbing (HLB) or “greening.” Once a tree is infected with HLB there is no cure–you have to cut down the tree. HLB and a host of other problems, including thousand of acres of abandoned citrus groves, have devastated the Florida citrus industry. The psyllid made its way to California and the industry here is alarmed that HLB will soon follow. A Reuters story on HLB, “A day without genetically altered orange juice” has a number of astonishing revelations,

The bacterium that causes citrus greening is so lethal that the U.S. government classified it among potential bioterror tools known as “select agents” until about two years ago, severely limiting the scientific community’s ability to conduct research into the organism.

Yet another example of terrorism fears getting in the way of common sense.

The Reuters story goes on to discuss the development of genetically modified orange varieties resistant to the disease. Calvin Arnold, Laboratory Director of the U.S. Horticultural Research Laboratory in Fort Pierce, Florida, reacting to possible consumer push back on the issue of GMO oranges, suggests,

I think especially here in the U.S., they’re understanding transgenics a lot better. Just like people go to Taco Bell, they know they’re eating crops that have been produced transgenically,” Arnold said.

I try to stay open minded about GMO. It may indeed be the case that if we want either bananas or oranges we may have to resort to GMO. But I think our energies might be better spent on preventative pest management strategies. Our large scale agricultural system leaves us vulnerable to unexpected “black swan” events like HLB, colony collapse disorder and SARS. We may enjoy the efficiencies that come with globalization and huge monocultures, but Mother Nature doesn’t work that way, and she will, ultimately, defeat our intentions with tragic results. A more biodiverse and distributed agricultural system with far less international and interstate shipment of goods is less vulnerable. It’s too late to deal with HLB this way, but perhaps we can head off other catastrophes. In the end, more of us will have to to plant our own vegetable gardens and run small farms.

A last, ironic tidbit in that Reuter’s story–for a disease whose spread was facilitated by globalization–some of the labor intensive research necessary to deal with HLB is being . . . outsourced to China.

What’s eating my cilantro?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

While we’re inviting questions, we’ve also got a question for you guys. What sort of critter likes to eat cilantro? I think it’s a critter, not a bug. There’s no sign of leaf damage, just nibbling the stems down. There’s no digging or other disturbance.

Whatever this critter is, it has a defined taste for cilantro, because the cilantro is interplanted with parsley and it never so much as touches the parsley, or anything else in the garden, for that matter. It just comes out at night and decimates the poor cilantro.

Bagrada, The Bad News Bug


Homegrown Neighbor here:

I’ve been busy in the garden lately and one of the reasons I’m so busy is that I’m battling a new pest, the bagrada bug (Bagrada hilaris). This new pest made its way to the U.S. recently. It was first found in L.A. County in June 2008. So far in the United States it is only in Southern California and in parts of Arizona. If you live in a northern climate, hopefully you will be spared the spread of this heat loving pest.

I tend a garden in one of L.A.’s hottest microclimates. Even when the mercury is over 100, bagrada bugs seem to do just fine. And unfortunately they love a lot of our favorite garden vegetables such as broccoli, kale and cauliflower. The local nursery says they are destroying the allysum as well. In my garden they have been particularly devastating to an heirloom broccoli raab and some wild arugula. They also are munching the caper plants. Actually, they don’t munch, rather they suck juices out of a plant.

The nymphs are small and resemble a ladybug. Mature bagradas are black with orange markings and look like a beetle. They are often seen in mating pairs. They reproduce quickly and lay their eggs in the soil. Apparently insecticidal soap can help control them but, because they are so new to the U.S., little is known about their ecology here.

I hope some natural predators show up on the scene soon!

I’m trying to control them with diatomaceous earth, soap sprays and organic insecticidal oils. But I’m being really careful about the soaps and oils to be mindful of the bees in my garden.

I think that one of the keys to being a good organic gardener is observation. So I’ve just been watching the bugs, trying to handpick them and wash them off. Diatomaceous earth doesn’t affect the bees, so that is a good thing. It seems to help at least. But after a few days of no beetles, the population seems to explode again. When the populations get too big I’ve been spraying with neem. But I never spray near the flowers that the bees like the best. So it’s quite a challenge, since the bees are all over. I’ve decided to try to spray only after dark now, when the bees have gone to bed.

UC Riverside Center for Invasive Species Research fact sheet on bagrada can be found here.

Mr. Homegrown here: I found one peer reviewed study related to Bagrada hilaris controls, which you can access here.  The study found that the most effective treatment is the systemic pesticide imidicloprid which, unfortunately, is also deadly to pollinating insects and is a substance I don’t believe should be on the market. The study did show that starting plants at a cooler point in the season reduced heat loving bagrada bug numbers substantially. Confusingly, Bagrada hilaris is sometimes referred to as the “harlequin bug” which is also the popular name for a similar insect Murgantia histrionica.