We've had ample rain this late fall and early winter, and now we could really use some cold temps. As we are focused on trying to keep warm, freezing or below freezing temperatures help us in several ways. Freezing kills many insects, so early season insect predation may be somewhat reduced. Notice I said "may be", not will be. Still, cold temps can reduce some numbers better than a year without frozen ground.
I'd like to say freezing temps kills ticks, but I can't find any information to back up that statement. Ticks go dormant in cold weather so you'll see fewer of them in the winter, but they may come out on sunny, warm days. I surfed a lot of sites regarding ticks and most of the recommended controls involve spraying insecticides. That's kind of like the shotgun approach -- spray all the areas and kill all the bugs and you'll kill the ticks too. Yep, here it comes -- my recommendation for organic and safe tick control -- Guinea fowl! Can't have too many either. Our 35 guinea fowl make the yard safer by consuming all insects that they can find. Up to 90 percent of their diet in the warmer months is comprised of insects. They just take some getting used to.
Having the ground freeze before the snow helps curtail some mouse damage in fruit and ornamental trees. Next to the ground, the mice will make tunnels and go where they need to in order to feed. Without the ground being frozen, the snow melts away from the ground and creates a whole snow-free area they can move in. They spend less time digging tunnels and more time feeding. This information is from a local grower of fruiting trees, whom you can imagine has tremendous problems with mice girdling his trees. Nothing like nurturing fruits trees for several years to have them killed by mice eating their bark.
Now is a good time to think about insect control for the upcoming season. Last week I mentioned onion thrips. This week let's focus on another challenging insect the Striped Cucumber Beetle. Striped cucumber beetles overwinter in the woods and protected areas, and in some instances, garden residues. There's not much we can do to kill them before the next season. Last year we did an experiment with a seed production of winter squash and using/not using row covers. We transplanted a full acre of seedlings and covered half of the field with AG 19 floating row covers and left the other half uncovered. This was a new field for us and had grains in it for many years previously. We assumed (never assume anything) that the cucumber beetle pressure would be light as no cucurbits had been grown here before.
Wrong! I think the cucumber beetle pressure was fairly high right off quick, and despite an aggressive spray program, the plants in the uncovered side of the field did poorly. The trade off in labor and row cover savings didn't compare to what we could have reaped had we used the row covers. Lesson learned; won't do that again.
Crops that are transplanted are covered immediately with row covers to exclude insects. The row covers also provide a protected environment so the seedlings can get a healthy start and be protected from wind, driving rains, and hail. Direct seeded crops like brassicas get row covers the day they are seeded so they get protection sooner than later. If we cover them as soon as we plant them, we are less prone to forget to cover them, and have the seedlings attacked as soon as they come up.
One problem we encounter with row covers is the weeds growing underneath them. Although some of our crops are passed by a hundred times a week by farm crew and research department members, you don't think about what you can't see. You can't see under the row covers so you don't see a weed problem brewing until the weeds are pushing the covers up. By then the crop may be lost or at the least compromised. If it looks like the wind is raising the covers, but there isn't any wind, you may have a weed problem. Solution: Put the installation date on the calendar and then reminders to look under the covers at 7, 10, and 14 days. Much easier to kill the weeds when they're small and not wait until the weeds are so big they have to be hand pulled.
I seem to be rambling. It goes to show that growing crops is never far out of my mind. How to grow crops better, controlling weeds and pests and taking better care of our lands are all subjects that are bouncing around in my head most of the time. So, anyway, keep those suggestions rolling in about subjects you'd like to see covered here. I have some thoughts for upcoming articles including old stone walls, cover crops, weed control, and an array of other subjects pertaining to growing crops and preserving our soils for future generations.
Until next week, Brian