The Ugly Truth
You may have noticed taking photographs of nearly perfect produce in various forms of maturity, flowers, insects, and many other macro moments is my cup of tea. It is more than that for me. It is an art expression, a passion project, a way of honoring beauty on a daily basis, a spiritual endeavor, a means of supporting my emotional wellbeing - and, perhaps most notably, a doctor’s prescription to help reduce chronic pain from fibromyalgia.
That's right, my doctor at the Mayo Clinic prescribed 30 minutes a day of art — drawing, photography, coloring, painting — last fall when I was diagnosed with this chronic disease. That was an easy decision; for me, the lens comes first, the words follow.
I love capturing the beauty in the mundane, the beauty in the unique. Because in the hustle and bustle of our 21st century busyness, we sometimes forget to take those deep pauses. Photography and the creativity it invites into my day carves out these moments with ease. It is also a practical way to document our successes and shortcomings.
Today I’d like to show you the ugly side of our gardens this year so far, because we have had our fair share of ugly out there despite what my Instagram feed may have you thinking. Still, in the midst of this ugliness, I choose to see beauty. You’ll see what I mean.
A few days ago I was reminded by my oldest son that social media usually only shows life's highlights about any one person, and typically excludes the mundane, the less glamorous, and the challenging moments, thus people are often left feeling less than or, as research has shown, can get a little sad when they compare themselves to these perfect moments we tend to share.
In that same vein, my social media posts are mostly glamour shots of the garden, and that’s two-fold. First, as I expounded above, it is a medically-prescribed art form. And secondly, I find that followers and people in general respond more positively and engage more often to the glamour shots than the downers.
So, today I am making a commitment to exposing it all: the downright sexy and the curiously beautiful in the ugly. Because, let’s face it: it’s not ugly. It just is. We perceive the ugly or the beauty. So I am choosing to see beauty in the challenges and successes.
Here are some of the things that have been munching on our gardens already this spring:
Cabbage moths. Despite our physical barrier (row cover) over almost all of our brassica crops, a cabbage moth was able to lay an egg (or maybe more) on our broccoli plants a few weeks ago. I ocassionally uncover these beds to take photographs (what a surprise!), and the first generation of moths would sometimes be flying around during this time. I try to shoo them off, but it is clear my efforts have been somewhat in vein. I will be scouring all our brassicas for these pests. They are easy to pick off -- just look for these lime green caterpillars on the underside of any broccoli, cabbage, kohlrabi, cauliflower, brussels sprout, or kale plant. Alternatively you can dust the plants with Bt which is a very safe biological control for this common garden pest.
Asparagus beetles. Where there is asparagus, there will likely be asparagus beetles. One tell-tale sign a plant is infested is a crooked tip. Their eggs are practically invisible, but the beetles are kind of easy to spot. We tried to eradicate them in early May but honestly it’s a daily task, one my husband excels at more than I do. We have a small population that remains and hopefully over the years our prairies will encourage beneficial insects to reside on our property year-round and thus supply our garden with a healthy dose of lacewing and ladybug larvae to feast on these beetle's larvae, keeping them in check.
Three-lined potato beetle. At first we mis-identified this garden pest as the pesky colorado beetle, but thankfully it is a much more benign garden pest. I think we got this one under control already. This beetle is rather uncommon but LOVES tomatillos. We've only grown tomatillos a few times, and have never seen this pest before now. We are grateful these are not the colorado potato beetle, and handpicked off the adults and their eggs and haven't seen any more since that minor outbreak. We were away for 3 nights and when we arrived home we noticed the foliar damage. Happy we were doing our daily walks and caught this one early.
Root Maggots. This is our second year gardening here, and our second year suffering root maggot damage to radish crops. Quick maturing radishes are not impacted nearly as intensely as daikon or watermelon radish. Pictured here is the daikon I pulled yesterday. Oddly, this may be the same root maggot that goes after brassicas, but those crops don't seem impacted. I have not yet decided if I will try watermelon radish this summer. I'm afraid of repeat failure! I am hoping nematodes will help support our soil health with this issue, and did spread some last week; may be investing in another batch of nematodes before I go for another radish root crop.
And then there were Slugs. Oh, the slugs.
This is the real reason I am writing this post. Where to begin.
We transplanted our first brassica bed very early in spring, basically between snowstorms. It was unseasonably cool, but we persevered for our own sanity and to see how far we can push the season. In that first bed I planted a new variety of red napa cabbage. I went back through and interplanted several dozen heads of lettuce into the same bed. This bed has been under row cover all this time.
The downside to row cover as we are learning is that you don’t have daily eyes on your crops. I would open these every few days to water, but if it rained, I wouldn’t need to bother. So, days would pass between inspecting plants. Compound this with over half a dozen other garden beds that were in dire need of spring bed prep, two intense children and their schedules, and other various commitments that also pull on my free time.
What resulted first were small holes in our bok choy and napa cabbages. One gardening friend suggested it was a flea beetle, but we have not ever encountered them before. I didn’t see anyone, but honestly I also didn’t look very hard. The damage was cosmetic and it wasn’t terrible.
I was able to harvest all of our bok choy before it got destroyed, but I am here to report I am not having the same luck with my napa cabbage.
I tried benign neglect. Or, call it over-scheduled garden punch lists. Or, I’d-rather-be-photographing-the-minute-insects syndrome. Name it however you like, the result is hole-y napa. Ugly food. So ugly you wouldn’t ever see it in stores or at your farmers market. But, it’s going on our dinner plates.
Yet, this is the reality of growing your own food during a busy time without any use of organic pesticides. I didn’t use anything. In fact, not even my eyes to look for pests or my fingers to pick off any intruders. So, they reproduced in privacy and compounded the problem.
Part of my issue - that is, lack of action on this entire matter - is that I planted too much napa cabbage this spring - 24 heads to be exact. And, the second succession quickly caught up to the first because I planted a different variety that matures earlier.
Additionally, the second succession is a bit overplanted, as ironic as that is to admit here. So I just loathe looking at it all, no less trying to find pests amid a massed jumble of tender napa leaves that break in half when you look at them the wrong way. In hindsight, we should have planted that much in bok choy and only 8 heads of napa. So, truth be told, a large part of me doesn't care because we will still get to eat some of it; the rest will go in the compost pile.
I also have been asking myself why. Why, after I realized it was slugs, why didn’t I start picking them off? Why did I think it wouldn’t get that bad? If this was damage to a more beloved crop, I would have been on it. Had cabbage moths laid eggs on my brassicas, I would be picking them off and scouring the underside of every leaf. Had potato beetles been found on my potatoes, I would be out there until every last one was identified and removed. But with this, I somehow felt like it would be okay.
And that’s the thing. It is okay.
After you wash off the slug feces, you are left with a head of napa. And they are still beautiful, just with some small holes here and there. Some of the heads are pretty clean in the middle - and I don’t just mean devoid of slug poo, I mean perfect leaves - while others have been infested all the way to the core. But, at the end of the day, this pest did not decimate the entire crop. I am sharing this crop with the slugs.
For the record, I did start smooshing them this week. I removed probably a few dozen from only a handful of plants. It’s bad! Some are tiny babies, others clearly well-fed grandparents.
Oddly, they aren’t feeding on the lettuce that’s nearby. So, in a way, this napa is serving as a trap crop for our lettuce. And since we chop and stir fry this up, perfect pieces of cabbage isn’t as important as a perfect piece of lettuce. Again, I tell myself it’s not that big of a deal.
Today I did buy the product Sluggo to apply to the napa cabbages. I have zero affiliation with this product, but it’s a fatal iron phosphate product for slugs that is safe for pets. Oh, and it's organic. I just hope they decide to hop off the cabbage long enough to ingest some of this tasty bait. I’ll keep you posted.
Best Approach to Pest Management
If you don't already, commit to daily walks through your garden, literally not leaving a leaf unturned. This is the most effective way to successfully catch pests early on in your organic, home garden. With the exception of these slugs, that is how we caught the other insects I mentioned. You will also catch first flowers, be lured in by fascinating looking pollinators, and be able to pick a weed or two and make that job not as daunting as it otherwise may be for you.
Another great option which we also employ is investing in beneficial insects. Last year we got lacewings and ladybugs; this year we are trying beneficial nematodes and more lacewing larvae. The nematodes should be going after root maggots and and soft-bodied larvae in the soil that we don't want -- hopefully they've eaten some asparagus beetle larvae as well as three-lined potato beetle larvae. The nematodes don't survive our winters, but definitely possible for lacewings and ladybugs to overwinter here. I had already seen adult lacewings as well as ladybug larvae; one of our goals with establishing planted prairie all around our veggie patch is for the beneficial insects to take up permanent residence on our property.
May you catch them early, and not very often.