Sunday, May 6, 2012

A Day In the Life: Natural Alternatives to Chemicals

Welcome back to your weekly edition of Lost In the Farmer’s Market, a balanced garden guide for navigating the often confusing world of sustainable, organic garden practices. Today’s topic is about natural alternatives to the usual cadre of chemicals sold by the average garden center. At the article’s end is a bit about the urban farm tour coming up and what we at Lost in the Farmer’s Market are doing there. But before we get to the main topic or the farm tour here is this episode's plant spotlight!

Blue African Basil - Ocimum kilimandscharicum × basilicum 'Dark Opal'
This Blue African Basil is growing on my front porch in a 6" pot it makes for an excellent long-season potted plant when used to mark the edges of boundaries.

Blue African Basil has been one of my long-standing favorites since I first saw it sold by Gilberties Herbs back in the 1990's. Back then it was somewhat rare and hard to get but now  you see it more regularly and occasionally you do see it sold by Bonnie Plants. As the botanical Latin name suggests this basil is a cross between Dark Opal basil and Camphor basil which means it has a higher camphor content but some or all of the appealing values of the Dark Opal basil. The overall flavor is a bit more pungent which makes for some powerful pesto, and thus it's best use is with pasta and vegetables or in stews that need extra aromatic and seasoning power. In general however it serves a useful role as a source of pollen and nectar for pollinators and hummingbirds and as seen in the picture above it's blooms are no slouch in the looks department. Occasionally a well grown stand of blue African basil can be mistaken for lavender from a distance due to the similar bloom color. Lastly is the sheer size, blue african basil takes on an teardrop shape over all and can form a large herbaceous shrub by the time it is killed by frost in our climate. As a final note it is commonly stated that Blue African Basil is sterile, however from tests in the Skye Project Gardens and reports from other gardeners this is not entirely true at least in North Carolina.

Now without further ado, we bring you the main topic of today's post, six natural alternatives to chemicals.

Beer Traps
Slug Genocide! This trap was placed about a week ago as a last-ditch effort to kill off anything that might be eating my marigolds as it had already eaten my Tobago seasoning peppers. This trap in total had 47 slugs in it the next day when this picture was short we now know the culprit.

Before you ask; the beer trap does not refer to a policeman parking his cruiser near a local bar on a Friday night. But considering what these do the critters they catch probably think it is darn close. The beer trap is an oddball way to handle one or two specific pests slugs/snails and certain types of roaches. The idea behind it is simple as noted below:

  1. Acquire a few pot saucers of the plastic type with low edges.
  2. Place around your garden in the evening with the saucers buried in the soil up to their outer lip or alternately mound the mulch up around the saucer.
  3. Fill partly with the cheapest but highest alcohol content beer you can find, 6% is ok, 8% is good 12% might be a bit much.
  4. Check saucers the next day.

Simply put for some reason that is unknown to me, slugs in particular are attracted to beer, and thus with beer traps out they wander in hit the booze and die. The higher the alcohol content the more likely the slugs are to outright dissolve in your beer trap and thus no worries about cleanup. The traps can be hosed out and used repeatedly thus allowing you to reduce slug problems and monitor pest populations. Additionally you may see a variety of critters in the traps such as roaches, wasps, gnats and pill bugs.

Glass Cleaner
 These aphids never knew what hit them, serves them right for messing with my chicory plants!

Yes Windex is a responsible pesticide as it turns out it is the ammonia in this largely inert household cleaning solution that takes down flying pests effectively. Products like Windex that use ammonia are largely effective because they volatilize rapidly. The target insect when hit will breathe them in and suffer complete respiratory failure depending on size instantly or within a few minutes. This is especially effective against singular wasps and aphids. Another nice effect of glass cleaner is that it often disallows the target insect flight probably due the weight of the fluid or simply because it softens the wing membranes. If using glass cleaner on a aphid problem make sure to water the plant thoroughly and have the pray bottle set to mist as opposed to stream then carefully douse the pests. Aphids often will die in place for the most part while a few may fall off but the effect is the same one less pest.

Rubbing Alcohol

Got a plant covered with what appears to be a number of scales or tiny little gross looking cotton swabs? If you said yes the rubbing alcohol is the pesticide for you. The two insects mentioned above are Scale Insect and Mealy Bugs both of which pose a problem even to high end pesticides due to their body coatings. The scale insect forms a waxy protective cover once it settles down on a plant and this coating is largely impervious to most pesticide applications. The mealy bug forms a waxy fuzzy sort of coating that repels liquid and thus a number of pesticides don’t work on these bugs.
Rubbing alcohol preferably Isopropyl 90% however effectively kills both on contact and has no lasting effects on the subject plant. The key is to apply some rubbing alcohol to an already damp cloth and then wipe the offending insects of your plant, the alcohol kills any eggs or immature insects it comes into contact with and the wiping action kills off the adults. A secondary bonus is the fact that rubbing alcohol also will kill off any sooty mold or powdery mildew on your plant caused by the excretions of aphids, mealybugs and or scale insects it also will dissolve the honeydew also. Not bad for a mere topical disinfectant.

Sticky Traps

Some times available in garden centers the venerable sticky trap is an excellent tool for monitoring pest populations but also is a great way to lower flying pest populations. Normally a sticky trap is a piece of paper or plastic with a sticky coating on both sides that has a bright yellow or some times green coloration. The color serves as the main attractant as pests such as gnats, thirps, flies, whiteflies and some times aphids are attracted to the color and get stuck. The bulk advantage is that sticky traps are 100% chemical free, rarely hurt beneficial insects and can be used indoors and outdoors equally well.  Since the pests cannot get free of the traps when the trap becomes covered with stuff you can simply toss it out and there goes the pests with it!  Cheap, effective and totally environment-friendly.

Comfrey Symphytum x uplandicum ‘Bocking 14’

Comfrey seems to be the most unknown herb in the gardening world, many books to not cover it, few magazines praise it, in fact its cousin Borage gets far more press and often it is excluded also. So what exactly is this perennial good for? Comfrey is somewhat of a hyper accumulator which means it stores larger then average levels of nutrients in its leaves but also its roots exude a certain chemical that accelerates the decomposition of organic matter in the soil making it a great ally when you desire to speed up the progress of a compost pile. Lastly there are a few herbal medical uses for the plant.

How to make Comfrey Fertilizer
  1. Harvest a cup of leaves.
  2. Add to a bucket containing 1 quart of water (per cup of leaves).
  3. Make sure the bucket has a lid and cover the bucket to avoid contamination.
  4. Allow the leaves and water to sit undisturbed for at least a week.
  5. Check bucket regularly until water has turned black or very dark brown.
  6. Strain out the leaves and add to compost.
  7. Resulting fluid in bucket is the high potency fertilizer.

Depending on the conditions where your comfrey was grown you may need to dilute this mix a little or a lot, but the resulting fluid is still an effective and 100% organic fertilizer.
In addition to being an inexpensive fertilizer the fluid can be used to accelerate the decomposition in a compost pile and be used to aid in breaking down tree stumps.

Pyrethrum Daisy Chrysanthemum cinerariifolium
 Also known as Dalmatian Chrysanthemum the Pyrethrum Daisy is a somewhat rangy plant with interesting foliage and cheery but typical daisy flowers.

The pyrethrum daisy is the source of the insecticide known as pyrethrum. Surprisingly it is a somewhat weedy looking plant with tall flower heads that identify that it is an absolute member of the daisy family. Pyrethrum as a pesticide is effective because it has a nearly instant kill effect but requires contact and yet has little residual action on its own and thus naturally made pyrethrum pesticide will have little ecological effect. In case you are wondering the part that supplies the pesticide is the flower heads. Opened flower heads like the ones in the picture can be picked and dried face down. Below is a recipe for making pyrethrum pesticide. The seeds of Pyrethrum daisy can be bought through Richter’s Herbs of Canada, but remember pyrethrum daisies are  not an easy plant to grow from seed so be patient.

How to Make Natural pesticide

  1. Bring the three cups of water to a near-boil, but do not boil.
  2. Put dried flowers in a muslin bag, cheese cloth or a straining bag.
  3. Place the bag in with the heated water and allow steeping until water is cool.
  4. Remove bag and empty flowers into the compost.
  5. If you desire a pesticide that sticks more add 1 teaspoon of dye and scent free soap or glycerin or pure mineral oil per cup of fluid.
  6. Store resulting pesticide in a dark bottle away from extreme temperatures and away from direct sunlight.
  7. Your pesticide is ready to use once cool and transferred to a spray bottle. If you added a sticking agent make sure to shake the mixture in the spray bottle before using.
  8. Put the resulting mixture in a dark colored bottle and store away from extremes in temperature and direct sunlight, you can transfer what you need to a spray bottle when you need it.
  9. As a final note, rainy periods can cause a dilution of the concentration of pyrethrum in the plant; the best time to harvest blooms is during dry hot periods.

It’s that time again folks, the second weekend of May is coming up on us fast and that means it’s time for 4th Annual Urban Farm Day down at the Fayetteville Community Garden on Vanstory and Mann streets in Fayetteville. The event is on May the 12th between the hours of 10:00 am and 3:00 pm and admission is 10.00 per adult and kids 12 & under get in for free.  This fine family friendly venue is organized by the Sustainable Sandhills group with a few sponsors and is a showcase for all sorts of Urban farming techniques.
Why should you come on down, well LITFM will have a booth there and yours truly will be front and center to answer your questions and talk a little about what urban farming is, composting and any garden topics that happen to come up.  For note this is our fourth year of participation in the UFD event and the UFD yearbook can be seen at our booth. I also know the meetup group known as Sustainable Neighbors (aka the Neighborhood Grange) will be right next door with their own awesome booth.

At the LITFM booth we’ll have a few things going on:
  1. Free Plant giveaway, curtesy of the FTCC horticulture department.
  2. A rare copy of Desert Harvest for sale.
  3. Our own Carolina Gold Compost Products.
  4. The yearly Skye Project Horticultural surplus sale.

Of course you can expect the same sort of Sustainable Organic Solutions you’ve come to know from this blog your reading as well as from those of you who have had landscaping work done through Bordeaux Light Landscaping. So come on down with your questions prepared and pay us a visit we’d love to meet you. As a final note, for all of you out there this, is the horticultural surplus plant sale list so you know what we will have, all stock numbers are current as of this posting you can email if you  would like to ask to reserve some plant materials or want information on a specific plant.

2” Fiber Pots (2.00)
 4x Basil, Sweet
 4x Basil, Lemon
 4x Basil, Cinnamon
 4x Parsley, Italian

3” Fiber Pots (2.50)
 9x Eggplant, Purple Tiger
 3x Eggplant, Striped Togo
 6x Okra 'Emerald'
 2x Pepper, Cayenne
 2x Pepper, Habanero
 3x Pepper, Sangria
 5x Pepper, Tobago Seasoning
 6x Red Malabar Spinach
18x Tomato, Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter

3” Plastic Pots (5.00)
 1x Spear Sanseveria

4” Plastic Pots (3.00)
 8x Chinese Foxglove
 5x Desert Privet
 6x Eggplant, Black Beauty
 3x Eggplant, Hansel
 4x Lemon Bee Balm/ Bergamot
 4x Okra, Clemson Spineless
 4x Okra, Red Burgundy
 3x Pepper, Rainbow Bell Mix
 4x Pepper, Tobago Seasoning
11x Sedum, Northern Lights Mix
13x Star Tickseed
 2x Strawberry Spinach
 1x Swiss cheese Plant
 5x Vietnamese Coriander/Cilantro

6” Plastic Pots (4.00)
 3x Tomato, Brown Berry
 3x Tomato, Lemon Drop
 3x Tomato, Red Currant Hybrid

1 comment:

  1. the african blue basil is a sterile hybrid. when one grows next to it a parent (camphor basil or dark opal basil) it can set seed -> backcross. the backcross now resembles more the parent which gave pollen and NOT the original hybrid. many can get seeds collected from african blue basil, but the offspring will NOT be like the original cultivar.