Edibles


One of the beautiful gardens I'll feature during my talk.

One of the beautiful gardens I’ll feature during my talk.

On Wednesday, August 7, 2013, I’ll be the featured speaker for the monthly meeting of the Santa Barbara County Horticultural Society.

My talk will be: “Digging the Good Life: Creating Colorful, Water-Conserving Gardens.”

I’ll describe how to create gardens in a number of different styles by using the wide range of colorful and interesting low-water plants that thrive in our mild, wonderful climate. I’ll also note which plants attract beneficial insects and sustain wildlife, and touch on integrating edibles into the landscape.

I’m looking forward to sharing what I know with kindred spirits, and encourage anyone who loves gardening to attend the meeting, which is free and open to the public.

The meeting will start at 7 p.m. on August 7 at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, at the corner of Foothill and La Cumbre Roads, Santa Barbara.

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Adult Asian Citrus Psyllids strike a distinctive pose, angling their backsides up into the air when they feed.

A tiny bug that can carry a deadly citrus disease has been found for the first time in Santa Barbara County — in Santa Maria — and a quarantine may be declared within the next few days.

An Asian Citrus Psyllid was caught last month in a yellow sticky trap hanging from an orange tree in a residential neighborhood three blocks north of the Santa Maria Town Center Mall. The find was confirmed by state agricultural officials this week.

Why the Psyllids are Dangerous

While the psyllids on their own don’t pose much of a problem, they deal a lethal blow to citrus trees if they become infected with a bacterial disease known as citrus greening or huanglongbing (HLB). The disease deforms the fruit, makes it taste bitter, then kills the tree. The devastating disease, which has no cure, was detected in Florida in 2005 and has wiped out more than $1 billion in citrus revenue there. Since then, HLB has marched across a number of southern states, leaving thousands of dead trees in its wake. It reared its ugly head in California earlier this year, infecting a lemon/pummelo tree in Hacienda Heights.

About the size of an aphid, brownish-gray adult Asian Citrus Psyllids mass on the underside of a citrus leaf.

Right now, California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) officials are trying to figure out whether the discovery of the single adult psyllid in Santa Maria was an isolated incident or indicative of a larger problem, according to Brian Cabrera, an entomologist at the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office.

“They set out more traps around the area to see how many more there might be, and how much of the area is infested,” Cabrera said. “Based on the results of their survey, they’ll decide what type of quarantine is going to be implemented.”

Choices include a quarantine with a 20-mile radius or a quarantine limited to Santa Barbara County, he said.

In the nymph stage, Asian Citrus Psyllids are dull orange, have red eyes and produce waxy tubules that direct honeydew away from their bodies.

Regardless, a quarantine would ban the movement of any type of citrus — plants, clippings, leaves and fruit — out of the area. The only exception would be commercially grown citrus that meets stringent requirements and receives approved treatment, Cabrera said.

Such a quarantine already exists for a portion of southern Santa Barbara County. After a psyllid was found in La Conchita in Ventura County in 2010, CDFA slapped a 20-mile-radius quarantine around the discovery. The ban is still in effect. It runs from the Ventura County line to Highway 154 and from the coastline high into the foothills, and includes Summerland, Carpinteria, Santa Barbara, eastern Goleta and Painted Cave.

Where Did the Psyllid Come From?

Abnormal fruit produced by

Abnormal fruit produced by a citrus tree infected by Huanglongbing (HLB) or citrus greening disease.

As for how the psyllid made its way to Santa Maria, Cabrera said that if it turns out to be a single find, it’s likely that it arrived as a hitchhiker.

“It was in a residential area, not near commercial orchards,” he said. “Probably someone went into an area in LA County or Ventura County, they got a bag of oranges from one of their family members and a psyllid was attached to one of the leaves. That’s why they call it a hitchhiker.”

But solo or not, ag officials are on high alert, and are actively monitoring sticky traps placed in neighborhoods and commercial groves, parcel carriers like UPS, FedEx and the US Postal Service, and the inventory of various retailers, including big box stores like Costco.

Symptoms of HLB include yellow mottling of the leaves and small, hard fruit with a bitter taste.

Cabrera also encourages homeowners to keep an eye on their citrus trees for any evidence of the psyllids, which are tiny, winged insects that feed on tender, new shoots with their heads down and their bodies angled up at about 45 degrees. The damage may be what’s most apparent — yellow blotches on the leaves and misshapen, bitter fruit.

“Our office is happy to look at any samples. There are so many other things that could cause a citrus leaf to turn yellow,” Cabrera said, adding, “Tell everybody not to move any citrus around.”

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Just because we’re heading into winter is no reason to stop growing vegetables. With a shift in focus, there are any number of edibles that you can tend during cooler weather.

By Way of Background

Cool-season broccoli and green onions share space with bright-blooming calendulas.

Living on the Central Coast has many virtues, not the least of which is that in the garden, our mild, Mediterranean climate means we can grow crops year-round. But instead of four seasons per year, our edibles only have two: the warm season and the cool season.

Warm-season crops are generally big, robust growers that bear fruit in some form or another. These are our sun-kissed tomatoes, elegant squash and zucchini, crunchy bush beans, succulent corn and sweet and fiery peppers. To mature properly, the warm-weather types need at least six to eight hours of direct sunlight a day, plus plenty of heat. Each has a predictable time line, generally marked on the seed packet or plant tag, with days from planting to harvest ranging from 45 days to 120 days, depending on the variety.

Cool-season crops tend to be more demure in stature and yield edible roots (beets and carrots), leaves and stalks (salad greens and Swiss chard), and flower buds (broccoli and cauliflower). There’s nary a fruit in sight.

Cool-season vegetables require far less sunshine. Four to six hours of direct light is sufficient on the days that the sun does shine. If clouds or rain move in, they may slow down or take a break. But they suffer no harm. When brighter skies appear, they simply resume growing. As a result, during wetter years — or those gifted with a string of warm, sunny days — it can be difficult to predict when exactly a particular edible will be ready to harvest.

Getting Started

Carrots need consistent moisture and excellent drainage for uniform growth.

One of the keys to successful warm-season vegetables is providing enough water early on, to keep the young plants and their emerging roots well hydrated.

Cool-season crops can face quite the opposite problem.

In a rainy year, and depending on your soil type, they may have trouble drying out.

Excellent drainage is critical. While your cool-season edibles won’t mind any and all moisture that nature provides, they absolutely detest sitting in cold, boggy soil for days on end.

If you have heavy clay, dig down at least a foot and amend the excavated soil with a generous blend of coarse and fine-textured compost to force rough, jagged pathways between the small, slick clay particles. Then shape the amended soil into mounds at least 6 inches high and 12 to 18 inches wide.

Packman broccoli forms a central head, followed by side shoots that can be harvested for three to four weeks.

If you have coarse, sandy soil, amend with finer-textured compost. In coarse soils, compost replenishes nutrients and acts like a sponge, preventing the nutrients and water from washing away too quickly.Growing cool-season edibles in a raised bed provides an opportunity to adjust both your soil composition and drainage.

But even if your raised bed soil is tip-top at the moment, be sure to mix in at least an inch or two of compost each time you plant.

Or if you garden in that magical mix of rich, loamy soil that already drains well, still consider applying a soil conditioner that contains humic acid or mycorrhizae to boost beneficial microorganisms in the soil. We add new material every time we plant a new crop, and after 20 years, the soil in our raised beds is dark, rich and smells wonderful. Even better, it reliably produces healthy bumper crops.

Also consider growing your cool-season crops in containers, if what you’re growing doesn’t have a big footprint, such as a mixture of leafy greens or several rounds of carrots. Provided they’ll get enough sunshine, you can put the containers close to your front or back door. That way you won’t leave a trail of muddy footsteps each time you traipse back and forth to your garden.

What to Plant Now

Cool-season root crops include beets, carrots, green onions, kohlrabi, leeks, radishes and turnips.

Sow these directly in the garden, as the roots are difficult to transplant. Be sure to net the bed. Foraging birds can pluck the seedlings so rapidly that you might not realize that your seeds ever sprouted.

Buttercrunch lettuce and frilly red lettuce contrast beautifully in the garden as well as on the plate.

Leaf and stalk crops include bok choy, cabbage, celery, kale, lettuce, radicchio, salad greens, spinach and Swiss chard.

While you can grow any of these from seed, I like to purchase nursery seedlings for their variety.

For instance, rather than buying a single seed packet and growing 20 Red Sails lettuce plants, I’d rather spend a little more for an assortment of butter, romaine and loose-leaf lettuces.

They’re prettier in the garden and on the plate. And I don’t have to contend with birds gobbling up my tiny little sprouts.

Edible flower buds include artichokes, broccoli and cauliflower. These are the behemoths of the cool-season world, inhabiting far more space in the garden.

A single artichoke plant, with its silvery, serrated leaves, can easily grow 5 feet tall and wide, while broccoli and cauliflower plants grow about 2 feet tall and wide. With their deep, spreading roots, all three are at their best in fertile, well-drained beds.

A slightly different version of this article was first published in Edible Santa Barbara.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Crimson clover is an excellent source of nitrogen, provides forage for beneficial insects and helps control erosion.

If you’re planning to grow only a few vegetables this winter — or even none at all — don’t leave your garden beds bare. Instead, consider sowing a cover crop to rejuvenate your soil.

Sometimes called compost crops or green manure, cover crops have been used for centuries to replenish nutrients, loosen up compacted soil, control erosion, inhibit weeds and provide habitat for beneficial insects.

The technique faded away in the 1950s when the use of fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides became widespread. But with recent interest in organic and sustainable growing techniques, cover crops are enjoying a resurgence in popularity.

Getting Started

Ryegrass helps to break up heavy soil and  control erosion, while fava beans fix nitrogen and attract beneficial insects.

Cover crops come in two flavors: warm-season and cool-season. In all but the largest home gardens, the cool-season types are more practical. That’s because our warm-season summer vegetables tend to take up a lot of room. Think sprawling melon vines, robust rustling cornstalks and bushy, full-bodied tomatoes. Every last square inch of soil is generally consumed by one edible or another.

Come the cool season, many of our crops, including leafy greens, carrots and radishes, can be planted more intensively. Growing these smaller edibles often leaves a fair amount of bare earth, which is perfect for sowing a cover crop.

As for what to grow: consider what you’d like to achieve. Legumes add nitrogen to the soil by grabbing it from the atmosphere and “fixing” it in nodules on their roots. Cool-season annual legumes include clover, vetch, field peas, alfalfa and bell or fava beans.

Grasses and cereal grains help to build the soil and boost fertility by adding organic material. They also improve tilth and fight erosion. While they can look a little straggly themselves, they help to crowd out weeds. Look for annual ryegrass, barley and oats.

Grow a mix if you’d like your cover crop to accomplish more than one of the above. For example, Bountiful Gardens, a mail-order nursery in Willits, California, offers a Compost Crop Mix containing wheat, vetch, rye and fava beans, while Peaceful Valley Farm & Garden Supply, also mail-order, has a Premium Soil Builder Mix composed of bell beans, BioMaster peas, yellow peas, purple vetch, hairy vetch and Cayuse oats.

In the Garden

Planting a blend of wheat, purple vetch and white-blooming fava beans adds nutrients, fixes nitrogen and improves the overall structure of the soil. It’s also pretty enough to harvest for a bouquet.

Cover crops are grown from seed. It’s important to sow the cool-season annual types in September or October while daytime temperatures and soil temperatures are still warm, which boosts germination and gets the seedlings off to a  strong start.

Here’s what to do:

  • Rough up the soil with a stiff rake, garden fork or shovel.
  • Smack any dirt clods to break them apart.
  • Apply a specialized bacteria inoculant to any legume seeds.
  • Scatter the seed at the rate suggested on the packet.
  • Lightly rake in the seed to the recommended depth.
  • Gently water the area.
  • Mulch with a light layer of straw or shredded leaves, then water again.
  • Keep the surface visibly moist for the first week.

Once the seeds sprout, start backing off on the water. As the seedlings begin to shade their own roots, ease off to once a week or so. When winter rains appear, stop watering entirely, unless a dry spell occurs.

Cool-season cover crops typically take five to six months to do their work and should be ready to be knocked down in March or April. But the weather ultimately governs their tenure. They may stall out during several weeks of cooler temperatures and rain, or speed up dramatically with a series of unseasonably warm, dry days.

Harvest Time

Below ground, alfalfa fixes nitrogen. Above ground, it provides excellent habitat for bees.

Regardless of the calendar, your cover crop’s time is up when it begins flowering and its roots are still fresh and pliable.

That point is critical. I once made the mistake of letting fava beans complete their life cycle, including setting seed and withering away. Then, digging into the soil, I discovered thick, fibrous roots. While it’s best to wait three to six weeks between harvesting a cover crop and planting new vegetable seeds or seedlings, no way were those tough ropes of roots going to decompose within a reasonable period of time. To plant new vegetables, I had to yank out the roots, which included their nitrogen nodes. Doing so defeated the purpose of planting the favas. Plus, it was extra work.

To harvest your cover crop, mow it, weed whack it or hack it to the ground. If you’ve grown vetch, trailing peas or any thick-stemmed plants, cut them up so they’ll break down faster. Let the spent pieces dry out for a week or two, then till them into the soil. Or rake up the dried top growth and add it to your compost pile. Later on, you can mix the finished compost into your garden soil, returning all those nutrients and goodness to the earth.

This article was first published in the Fall 2012 issue of Central Coast Farm & Ranch.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Bagrada bugs busy mating on a Brussels sprouts leaf.

A destructive new insect, seemingly out of nowhere, is wreaking havoc on local organic growers and home gardeners.

Over the last six weeks or so, literally hundreds of thousands of Bagrada hilaris bugs have descended on a host of edibles growing in fields across Santa Barbara County and begun methodically sucking the life out of them.

“We lost all the plants in our early plantings of broccoli, cauliflower, anything in the brassica family, Brussels sprouts, all the kale,” said Mark Tollefson, Executive Director of the Center for Urban Agriculture at Fairview Gardens in Goleta. “Over the course of a week, we watched the plants curl up and die.”

Other organic gardeners from Carpinteria to Santa Ynez are suffering losses as well, primarily to members of the brassica family, but also to bok choy, cilantro, peppers and even corn.

“They also are eating weeds, mustard and alyssum. They’re feeding on the plant juices,” said Brian Cabrera, an entomologist at the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office. “I have heard that there’s a toxin (in their saliva) that they inject, but I don’t know if they’re actually that toxic to the leaf. I think mainly the damage is from hundreds of these bugs on a single plant, jabbing their little needle-like mouth parts and sucking it dry.”

What to Look For

Bagrada bugs at two stages of life: nymph on the top left; adult on the bottom right.

At first glance, bagrada bugs look like small, dark ladybugs, which of course are fantastic beneficial insects.

But that’s actually their nymph stage, when they’re relatively round, and a two-toned black and red. In a matter of days, they morph to their next stage, in which their bodies elongate and develop distinctive pale, orangish stripes, spots and other marks. Then they begin mating — with the female the larger of the pair — and the cycle begins anew.

In my garden, we first spotted the nymphs on our Brussels sprouts and late-season corn a week ago last Sunday. The adults began emerging a few days later and had begun mating by Friday. We haven’t seen the small, round jelly-like eggs yet, but don’t imagine that it will take long for them to appear. According to Cabrera, a single female can lay about 100 eggs during her lifetime.

Where They Come From

Maria Murrietta, a UC Cooperative Extension agricultural technician, collects Bagrada bugs that have annihilated my Brussels sprouts. The bugs will go to a UC lab for research.

Bagrada bugs are native to east and southern Africa, Egypt, Zaire and Senegal, according to the Center for Invasive Species Research at UC Riverside. They first appeared four years ago in Los Angeles County and rapidly spread through southern California and southern Arizona.

The infestation at Fairview Gardens in mid-August was quickly followed by reports to Cabrera from Solvang, the Mesa, Mission Canyon and other parts of Goleta.

“Then a couple weeks ago, we started getting calls from some of the growers, organic growers especially,” Cabrera said. “They’re getting hit pretty hard. They can’t use some of the materials that the nonorganic growers can use.”

Indeed, conventional farmers are combating — and controlling — bagrada bugs with pyrethroids and organophosphates like chlorpyrifos and malathion, according to Surendra Dara, a strawberry and vegetable crops advisor and affiliated IPM advisor for UC Cooperative Extension for Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties.

The trouble is, the bugs are so new to scientists that they haven’t yet figured out much in the way of organic controls, Dara said.

Bagrada bugs, scooped up and ready for their trip to the lab.

“Because of the kind of bug it is and its life cycle, it can be a little tricky to develop a strategy to target its vulnerable stages,” he said. “The organic growers, the small gardeners, homeowners, they don’t have resources that farmers have. So for organic farms, you don’t have as many options.”

But that doesn’t mean growers like Tollefson are throwing in the towel. He plans to wait another week before planting another round of cool-season crops. In the meantime, he’ll work through a list of tasks, starting with mixing diatomaceous earth with water, then spraying it on the ground.

“I don’t know the exact pathology, but I do know that bugs that are in contact with it die,” he said. “Bagrada bugs dive into the ground. So sprinkling diatomaceous earth around the soil can be helpful as far as managing them.”

Tollefson also plans to interplant strong-scented garlic and onions with his brassicas, and to wait until his starter plants are 6 to 9 inches tall — instead of just a few inches — before putting them in the ground. His thinking is that the larger plants will be more robust, thereby have a better chance of withstanding the bugs.

Another tactic is to break up the soil. “When temperatures drop below 50 degrees or get very, very hot, the bugs get sluggish. At that point, they stay in the soil,” he said. “Tilling the soil grinds them up. I have a big rototiller. It’s 70 inches wide.”

Weed control is important as well, he said. He might try planting a few sacrificial or trapping crops to intentionally attract the bugs, then kill them “in a natural way.”

Also important is building soil fertility, he added. “The more healthy the plants, the more opportunity we have to beat the bug.”

In Home Gardens

Despite similar markings during their nymph stage, Bagrada bugs are NOT beneficial ladybugs.

For home gardeners whose vegetables are already infested, Cabrera suggested spraying the afflicted plants with a 1% or 2% insecticidal soap solution. In addition, he said, “Vacuuming them off is worth a try.”

For folks who are getting ready to sow their cool-season vegetables from seed, Cabrera recommended turning the soil first, to destroy any eggs, then installing row covers immediately. His advice holds for planting seedlings, too.

“If you determine that your plants are bug-free and egg-free, then put up row covers,” he said. “Make sure that the covers aren’t lying on the plants because the bugs can eat through that. Raise up the covers through hoops or pipes, then bury the edges because (otherwise) the bugs can crawl under.”

As for what lies ahead, Cabrera said, “I don’t know how long they’ll be around. If the weather cools off, the activity will drop off because they don’t seem to be active on cooler days. It remains to be seen within the next few weeks what’s going to happen.”

As far as scientific research into organic controls: Dara is launching a study this week, thanks to scores of bagrada bugs that Maria Murrietta, a UC Cooperative Extension agricultural technician, collected from my ailing Brussels sprouts and corn plants on Friday.

Bye, bye, bagradas. Too bad I couldn’t donate every last one that’s decimating my garden to science!

It was a happy day, to donate so many destructive bugs to science.

Over the new few weeks, Dara will subject those bugs to a mix of products, with the aim of determining whether any organic methods have the potential to successfully control and/or kill the bugs.

In the meantime, Tollefson is philosophical about the challenge.

“So yeah, it’s a big deal to lose these crops,” he said. “But the reality is, it’s one more thing to deal with. It’s significant enough that we can’t ignore it. (But) we’re farmers. We’ll adapt to this bug.”

This article also appears at Noozhawk.com.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Convergent lady beetles at the ARS Beneficial Insects Introduction Research Laboratory in Newark, Delaware.

Stand in the middle of your garden, close your eyes and listen.

Mentally screen out any urban noise — planes overhead, barking dogs, traffic, children — and focus on the natural world. You might hear the hum of honeybees, chirping of birds, wind rustling through leaves or tall grass, or rhythmic drips of moving water.

Those familiar sounds bring a feeling of peace, right?

But take out a magnifying glass and you’ll find that that sense of calm masks a silent war of sorts. On a microscopic level, pests and predators are battling to the death amid the leaves and soil of our gardens.

That’s not a bad thing.

To flip it, predators of pests are actually beneficial. They help keep our gardens healthy by combating pests that might otherwise damage or destroy our crops.

Use of predator insects dates back some 1700 years, when citrus growers in China colonized yellow fear ants to protect against insect pests. The growers linked their trees with bamboo strips so the ants could more easily move from one infestation to the next.

Most of us were introduced to beneficials when we were children, via ladybugs. The cute, round bugs are real charmers. However, their ability to annihilate pests should not be underestimated. Indeed, the importation of Australian ladybird beetles to southern California in the 1880s saved the fledgling citrus industry from a deadly wipeout threatened by cottony cushion scale.

The Big Three

Today, aphids are often the gateway pest that sparks interest in beneficial insects.

Ron Whitehurst, a pest control advisor and co-owner of Rincon-Vitova Insectaries, a company in Ventura that produces and distributes insects and other organisms, supplies and tools for biological control of pests, advises first simply blasting aphids with water. Next up, a soapy solution of an ounce and a half of liquid soap to a gallon of water.

If neither works, he then suggests releasing beneficial insects.

Convergent ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens) are a good start, especially early in the year when other beneficials might not be as active. They are voracious eaters: a single black and orange-spotted alligator-shaped larva may eat 400 aphids before it pupates, while an adult may eat 5,000 aphids during its year-long life.

A green lacewing larva dines on whitefly nymphs.

When temperatures warm up, green lacewings can be even more effective.

The larvae devour not only aphids, but caterpillar pests, eggs and young larvae of Colorado potato beetles, flea beetles, leaf hoppers, mealy bugs, psyllids, scales, spider mites, thrips and whiteflies. As a bonus: unlike ladybugs, green lacewing larvae can’t fly away.

Also, it’s interesting to note that once the larvae mature to gossamer-winged adults, they become vegetarians, supping only on pollen and nectar.

A third aphid-eater Whitehurst recommends is Aphidoletes aphidimyza.

“The mamma Aphidoletes comes around and finds aphids. The baby, a little orange maggot, spears the aphids and sucks them dry and throws them off the plant,” he said. “They tend to colonize. You could do one release, then let them grow and develop.”

Beyond Aphids

To conquer spider mites, thrips, moths and other pests, a second tier of beneficial insects awaits.

“If people are growing lettuces and culinary herbs, spider mites would be one of the things that would be a major pest problem,” Whitehurst said. “From a cultural standpoint, use overhead watering. Spider mites like it hot and dry. So increase the humidity and decrease the temperature to make them less competitive.”

Absent that, he recommends predator mites. Neoseiulus californicus battles spider mites as well as persea mites, which are especially pernicious bugs that suck the chlorophyll from avocado leaves and eventually defoliate the trees.

A minute pirate bug feeds on whitefly nymphs.

Minute pirate bugs (Orius insidiosus) go after western flower thrips, onion thrips and whiteflies.

Or for a one-two punch, Whitehurst recommends Ambleyseius cucumeris, which tackles thrips on the upper part of a plant, and Hypoaspis miles, a soil-dwelling mite that feeds on thrips as they drop on the soil to pupate.

“If you grow a bunch of culinary herbs, it would make sense to inoculate early in the season with those two predator mites to bring down the population of thrips,” he said.

Trichogramma wasps are parasitic insects that lay their eggs within the eggs of over 200 pest moth species. The trichogramma larvae eat the innards of the pest eggs, pupate, then emerge as winged adults, ready to lay ever more eggs. The wasps are especially effective against cabbage caterpillars and worms.

Creating a Habitat

You can grow your own beneficial insects by the way you garden.

“We want to emphasize the whole basic organic or biological approach to gardening,” Whitehurst said. “Focus on feeding the microbes in the soil so the roots on the plants are healthy. Then fertilize with compost and use mulch where appropriate. That will again feed the soil microbes and feed the decomposer insects that feed the predator insects, like the predatory ground beetles and wolf spiders.”

Golden trichogramma wasps parasitizing insect eggs.

Now you don’t have to be a purist. It’s fine to buy beneficials. But to entice them in the first place, or encourage them to stick around after they’ve devoured your pests, sustenance is a must.

The trick is to plant plants that provide a succession of pollen and nectar year-round. The patch can be left a little weedy or wild, and should never be sprayed.

“Dill is a real champ as far as having this umbel-shaped flower that has nectar available to big insects and little insects,” Whitehurst said. “Several others in the Apiaceae family are fennel, cilantro and anise. You can grow more moderate versions. Ornamental bronze fennel is a little more reserved than the wild fennel.”

Other herbs to sustain beneficials include angelica, anise hyssop, borage, caraway, chamomile, marjoram, oregano, parsley, sage, teucrium, thyme and yarrow.

Native plants include milkweed (Asclepias), saltbush (Atriplex), coyote brush (Baccharis), wild lilac (Ceanothus), buckwheat (Eriogonum), toyon (Heteromeles), bladder pod (Isomeris) and coffeeberry (Rhamnus).

A handful of miscellaneous plants includes golden marguerite (Anthemis tinctoria), bell beans, black-eyed peas, bachelor’s buttons (Centaurea cyanus), corn, cosmos, sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), yellow sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis), sunflowers and white clover (Trifolia repens).

Lending a Hand

An adult assassin bug, Zelus renardii, feeds on a Lygus bug, which disfigures and damages strawberries.

After you’ve built up an ecosystem and colonized beneficials in one spot, it’s easy to move them to wherever trouble is brewing by spraying an attractant.

For instance, if aphids are massing on your broccoli, Whitehurst advises the following.

“Mix equal parts sugar and dried brewers yeast. Add water. Then spray large droplets, widely scattered. That simulates the situation where you have plants that are real sticky with honeydew. That will draw in the lacewings and ladybirds and syrphid flies and such… It’s pretty effective as far as drawing in the aphid predators.”

Helping Combat the Enemy

While beneficial insects dominate their prey, they are vulnerable to ants.

“Ants collect the honeydew, the sugary poop from aphids, whitefly, scale,” Whitehurst said. “If they’re working the plants, they will be collecting that honeydew and driving off the beneficial insects that are trying to eat the pests that are generating their candy.”

Controlling ants, then, is an important aspect of supporting and maintaining your beneficials. Whitehurst recommends buying or mixing up a borate-based bait. The ants will eat the bait, take it back to their colonies and perish.

Thanks to the California Department of Food & Agriculture for providing these photos.

A slightly condensed version of this article was first published in Edible Santa Barbara.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

Also please note: If you see an ad below, it has been posted by WordPress to keep the site free. I receive no income from the ad, nor — unfortunately — do I have any control over its content.

Sweet 100s - ripening beautifully and positively delicious!

Sweet 100 tomatoes – ripening beautifully, and positively delicious!

July 4th is always our target date for picking our first fresh tomatoes of the season.

This year, we lucked out. We planted our tomatoes late — in early May, instead of late March or even April.

But a recent run of sunny days speeded up their ripening and sure enough, later today we’ll harvest what I’m sure will be the best tomatoes that we’ve ever tasted.

Of course the next time we pick them, they’ll once again be the best ever. As well as the time after that and the time after that… Truly, nothing beats a home-grown tomato in my book.

What’s interesting about our first tomatoes this year is that there are two very different varieties on the exact same schedule.

The first are Sweet 100s, which are not much of a surprise, since they’re cherries and always seem to ripen quickly, then produce forever.

But the other tomatoes are plump, medium-sized yellows on a volunteer plant.

Our mystery volunteer.

Our mystery volunteer.

Last year, we grew heirloom tomatoes in that bed, including two Yellow Pears.

Although I can’t find the remaining plant tags, I seem to remember the rest of the bed being comprised of Stupice, Carmelo and Black Prince, all in shades of medium to dark red, and all heirlooms as well.

Now the great thing about heirloom tomatoes — unlike modern hybrids — is that they’re true to seed. So future generations should bear like fruit.

So the big mystery is how plump yellows came to be. Since we grow our tomatoes shoulder-to-shoulder in raised beds, did our Yellow Pears somehow cross-pollinate with one of the other heirlooms? Or did a bird bring it in?

I may try to save some seed at the end of the season to see what results next year.

In the meantime, I’m more focused on what will be on our table tonight — perfectly delectable, perfectly sun-ripened, perfectly fresh tomatoes for the 4th of July.

Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.

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