Mad About Science: The Garden

By Brenden Bobby

Reader Columnist

Gardens are incredible things. Looking at it from afar, it’s a place you dump your animal poop and rotted vegetables, where strange green Lovecraftian creatures erupt from the ground to gift you delicious things to throw in the juicer.

When you really look at it close up, it’s a much more complicated and miraculous place. Each square foot of your garden houses an immensely complicated ecosystem that you’re tailoring to work for you. Thousands of insects pass through the soil of your garden every week. Fungi you can’t even see traps water to sustain your plants. Microscopic bacteria interact in an invisible ocean beneath the soil. Ultimately, your garden is your greatest science experiment.

Even the ph of the soil can drastically alter your ability to grow, especially around here. It’s important and inexpensive to test the ph of your soil, and it’s not even very complicated. Most of the time you can buy a kit from almost anywhere, where you toss some soil into a beaker, mix it with water and testing solution, shake it up and see what color it makes. It’s as easy as that.

Soils around here can swing wildly from acidic to alkaline in either extreme. Around here, soils that have a lot of clay, such as ones closer to the lake and the deltas, are very alkaline. Some plants may struggle to grow in this kind of soil, while others such as asparagus, brussel sprouts and most kinds of cabbage will thrive in more alkaline soils.

On the other end of the spectrum, acidic soils can cause havoc on certain plants, but cause others to thrive. Decomposing pine needles are a pretty large contributor to acidic soils. The Ponderosa in my yard murders everything but berry bushes with its eternal rain of brown needles.

Most tangy berry bushes love acidic soils. Blueberries and raspberries thrive, as will our native thimbleberry. Word of caution with the thimbleberry: It will take over huge swaths of hillside if you let it, so if you want to put other things on your hill, plant with care!

Though your garden may be home to many six-legged renters, not all of them are there for your benefit. Pests like aphids and certain mites love tender plants and can quickly turn swaths of your garden into wilty brown sadness. While your first instinct might be to bomb the buggers into the great dark beyond, I’d ask you to restrain your inner Heinlein and think it through.

Insecticide is not a targeted response to a problem in most cases, especially when dealing with your garden. For every pest crawling on your tomato, there are a minimum of three other helpers making sure it gets what it needs to keep growing. The insecticide won’t discriminate and will generally kill all four, which could deliver some serious damage to your poor tomato in the long run.

In the war on bugs, knowledge is your sharpest sword. Study your enemy, learn his weaknesses and when he least expects it, unleash his natural predator!

Ladybugs, despite their gentle demeanor towards humans, are voracious predators that attack aphids like a lion in a pen full of sheep. If you find yourself lacking any ladybugs, most of our garden and also our feed stores carry them for a very reasonable price.

If your pest is too big for a ladybug, the praying mantis is another good option for delivering swift retribution to a six- or eight-legged pest. They’re also sold by most garden stores in the area, or can be ordered in for you. An insect that comes, eats its fill of your pests and leaves will do much less damage to your precious plants than a toxic dump.

If you have a problem, do you want to send Seal Team Six or drop a tactical nuke on it? Seal Team Six is going to leave you with a lot fewer problems than fire and poison.

If you pulled the trigger and got yourself some baby chicks or baby ducks, you have another powerful tool in your insecticidal arsenal. Once they’re grown enough to go outside, you can bring them with you for supervised visits to the garden. Ducks eat slugs like I eat bacon, and chickens pick away anything that crawls. If your plants are only a couple of inches tall and still tender, you might want to hold off on these visits, though, as the birds won’t discriminate. If it can fit in their mouth, they’re going to eat it. Best to wait until it can’t easily fit into their beaks or bills!

If you decided to get turkeys this year, I applaud your bravery. You will, however, need to completely cover and contain your garden. They will strip it to the dirt. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of how fast.

We call them feathered locusts for a reason.

Geese will tear through your baby plants and any leafy greens, too. Geese have serrated beaks that let them rip apart grass and leafy greens with ease. Awesome if you hate mowing your lawn, the pits if you love an open lettuce garden. If you keep an enclosed garden area, geese will make for a great alarm system and occasionally a deer deterrent. They’re notoriously noisy (read: not a town pet!), and when something startles them you can hear it over a hundred feet away.

Speaking of deer, everyone has a thousand and one home concoctions, tips and tricks to keep deer at bay. The best way to keep a deer out of your garden is to put a fence around it and do what you can to enclose the top without blocking out the sun. I’ve had great luck with five-foot fencing for cattle and putting wire and shade cloth across the top. If you want to keep birds out (especially out of your strawberries!) put old CDs or DVDs at random levels around the garden. Hang them, tack them to the fence, incorporate them into garden art, whatever. The sun reflecting off the disks will startle birds and keep them away from your goods. Gazing balls fulfill a similar purpose and look pretty to boot.

A successful garden is a balancing act of care, knowledge, application and elbow grease. You don’t have to run around hugging trees to make a healthy and organic gardening space. The more that we’ve researched the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder in bees, the more we’ve begun to see the human origins of the bees’ demise. We are starting to find evidence that neonicotinoids, often called Systemics, are the culprit. Essentially, it’s a pesticide that gets infused into a plant at a very young age and grows with it, and is shed with pollen and fruit. It controls insect populations by killing them when they try to feed on the plant. Bees included. Bees are very important to allow your garden to thrive. Without bees, you get no fruit. Without fruit, you have nothing to eat. Bees are important, bees are life.

We live in a beautiful and unique area where fresh compost and 125 million-year-old organic pest control is practically a phone call away. I mean, if it worked for us for 12,000 years, I imagine it would keep working for us now, right?

I better put the mad scientist cap back on before Ben gets back from vacation. Shhh, Mad About Agriculture will be our little secret, North Idaho.

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