Natural Pest Control for Gardens and Farmsteads

Keep Pest Management Simple: Homesteading Ecosystems Thrive Under Natural Conditions

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By John Blum – An “ecosystem” can be very large or very small. The (ecological) system needed to support a colony of bacteria may be a pound of dirt. The system needed to support a migratory bird species may extend from forests in the far north to the tropics. Each of our homesteads is a part of numerous ecosystems, and we must keep that top of mind when we seek out ideas for natural pest control for gardens and farmsteads. Bird feeders, arbors of wild grapes and butterfly gardens are important to wildlife species, especially migrants.

The ecosystem I am currently managing is my 87-acre farmstead. It includes seven wetlands, from a quarter-acre to five acres in size, and 70 acres of grasslands (hay fields and pastures). The smallest wetlands contain “potholes” (small ponds which dry up in the summer). These provide a home for amphibians, and ducks used them during the mating season. Two ponds (which also may dry up some summers) provide stop-over spots for migrating geese and ducks, a summer home for juvenile geese, and most years a rearing area for young mallard ducks. A “deep water shrub swamp” (water four or five feet deep, with islands of vegetation in it) is home to minnows and amphibians; and a colony of least bitterns (a small species of heron), which nest on the islands.

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Except for the deep water shrub swamp, the wetlands were originally timbered with soft maple, ash, hemlock, cedar, and white pine. When the area was converted for homesteading, land was cleared, and seeded to reed canary grass (a wetland grass of European origin) about 1949. Cattails, and sometimes reeds, grow up in the wettest spots, but reed canary grass (which sprouts from an extensive root system and grows three to seven feet tall) dominates.

The water level in two ponds changes constantly. In one pond, a different vegetation has dominated each of the last four years. There is a large reservoir of seed in the ground, each species waiting for the proper conditions to germinate. In summer, when one pond is full, I believe this is related to clogging and unclogging of the antiquated tiles installed to drain the fields. The past four years, the second pond has a lot of clumps of reed canary grass and reeds, with water in between. The mallards prefer raising ducklings between the clumps of vegetation so they can hide. Last summer the mallards raised about 10 young there.

Basically, I leave the wetlands alone. The cows like to wade in the ponds in the hot weather. During a bad spell of drought last summer the cattle grazed the reed canary grass around, and in, the pond with the ducklings. This had no affect on the ducklings. The ducks (and other animals) fear humans, but accept the large herbivores as part of the ecosystem.

The one place I am doing some restoration is on sloping (eroded) land around the deep water shrub swamp. I am restoring a forest of white pine, spruce (a row along the edge of the swamp for the doves to nest in), walnut, chestnut, butternut (an endangered species), and various other hardwood trees and shrubs (many of which the wildlife have planted) by planting a few hundred trees a year. The white pine will grow up through the sod and weeds. The hardwoods need help. To get them established, I remove the weeds in a three-foot circle around them every other year.

The uplands were originally forested with maple, beech, ash, hemlock, white pine, and other tree species. Since clearing, farming has altered the soil. More importantly, grass became established, and tree seedlings have a hard time competing with grass for the scant summer rains. Many small tree seedlings occur in my hay fields, but left alone it would take many years for them to develop into a forest (the thatch might smother them out). What was forest has become a grassland. My goal is to maintain it as a grassland, because this is compatible with my other goals of producing hay and feeder calves.

When grasslands thatch over, they lose much of their productively (forage and seed production), and develop a heavy weed (aster, goldenrod, milkweed) and shrub component. This is a good habitat for some species of wildlife, but not suitable habitat for many grassland species.

Thatch and invading trees and shrubs are controlled in naturally managed grasslands by periodic burning. I control these things by harvesting hay crops. I have participated in many “wildlife burns.” I can assure you both ways take their toll on individual animals (just as wildfire does); but without these events, the habitats needed by certain species would not exist.

The animals that use my grasslands include field sparrows, bobolinks, eastern meadowlarks, red wing blackbirds, blue birds, purple martins, barn swallows, pheasants, sandhill cranes, herons, red-tailed hawks, sparrow hawks (learn how to protect your chickens from hawks), rodents, rabbits, ground hogs, deer, mink, coyotes, and at least five species of snakes. The cattle fill the role of “giant herbivore.”

It takes some tolerance to live with wildlife. I have to watch for the holes the woodchucks dig in the fields, run the equipment slower to give the critters time to get out of the way; sometimes stop until a confused fawn, rabbit, woodchuck, or snake figures out which way to run, or to move a young bird to the edge of the field.

If I see a duck or bird nest I will leave an area of hay uncut until the young have left the nest: but, they rely a lot on camouflage, so those times are rare (ducks wait until the last seconds to fly away). With the nesting birds it works largely because I cut my hay five acres at a time over an eight week period (June and July). I cut the fields in the same order each year, and in 80% of the fields the young have time to mature (at least until they can get out of the way) before I cut.

Similarly, I manage cattle grazing to the benefit of wildlife. Because growth is lush early in the summer, I don’t let the cattle into the most remote 10 acres until August. This gives the birds a chance to nest, the deer a chance to raise their fawns, and “butterfly weeds” (aster, golden rod, and milkweed) a chance to grow up and become tough and unpalatable before the big “clod hoppers” arrive.

Two things which greatly improve wildlife habitat are “structure” and “corridors.” Structure can be anything from a bull thistle in a fence row suitable for a bird nest, to the hay shed shown in figure 1. Old farm equipment, fence post perches, old piles of lumber or logs, piles of bad hay, a piece of plywood lying on the ground and other above (or even below) ground objects contribute structure and improve wildlife habitat. Because it gives them a place to find food and cover during inclement winter weather, the most valuable structure I have provided wildlife is a hay shed.

When I worked in the woods, I assumed tree frogs were fragile creatures dependent on forests and moist environments. To my surprise, I have a healthy population of tree frogs living on the structure out in my hay fields. Having a few sagging tarps over equipment which collect rainwater probably helps them out. I don’t know if they needed it, but I put a bucket of water out for them during last summer’s drought.

In the open, sometimes hostile environment of a hay field or pasture, corridors are important, for they allow wildlife to move from place to place. Around my pastures the fences serve as corridors. The corridor connects the railroad right-of-way (an important regional corridor) with my hay shed and equipment storage area. Another corridor provides a highway for rodents and groundhogs to travel from the shed and equipment area to the fields.

Corridors provide more than highways for wildlife movement. The weeds that grow up in them provide a resting place and food source for migrating butterflies. When I mow the fields, or when winter comes, they provide a refuge for the rodents and other wildlife “driving for cover,” as do the woodchuck holes. There is always mink, coyote, and fox spoor along these corridors.

A long-term goal of mine is to see shrubs in these corridors. It is happening faster where the birds sit on the fence wires. Gray dogwood, autumn olive, and honeysuckle are showing up here and there. When I do fence maintenance, I prune these so they can continue to grow without shorting out the wires.

There are benefits to all of this besides the warm fuzzy feeling when I watch the wildlife. “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) is a strategy of natural pest control for gardens and farmsteads. Rodents, birds, lady bugs, preying manti, snakes, and other wildlife are allies in the war with the insect pests. A diverse and balanced ecosystem is a healthy and stable ecosystem which requires much less reliance on expensive and toxic chemicals, insects, and weed control.

This concept applies just as much to the backyard as the farmstead. The higher the concentration of pest-eating animals in your yard, the healthier the plants will be the easiest way to attract more birds to your yard is to feed them or provide them with nesting sites.

During the cultural revolution in China a bureaucrat from Peking made a trip to the farming communes. He observed sparrows eating grain and carried this observation back to the central planners. The word went out that communes were to eradicate all sparrows. The next year losses to insects were many times what the sparrows had eaten, and the error was realized. Natural pest control for gardens and farmsteads means thinking twice before removing a perceived “pest” from the fragile ecosystem.

When I moved to the farm, the barn swallows had been denied access to the inside of the barn. They were building clay nests at the top of a corrugated shed wall, and many of the nests would fall off in summer storms. I opened the lower level of the barn to them, and the population has greatly increased. There is no better and cheaper mosquito control program than a barn full of swallows (or an old silo full of bats).

The facia board around the top of the garage wall was rotten, and the starlings and sparrows had dug holes through it to get under the closed caves. When I resided the garage, I carefully cut holes in the few facia board in each place the birds had one. Year’ round, the garage is one big bird house.

Most people wouldn’t want the “dirt” the birds make around the garage and barn. Because of a love for animal life (I shovel manure, too), I have learned to live with it. If you are adverse to “dirt,” there is still the option of bird boxes in the “outback.” When I cut, rake, or bale hay, it is not unusual to have 50 or more purple martins and barn swallows swooping and diving around me to catch the insects the machine stirs up. And the swallows and martins range far and wide to other farms and southern climes, for their ecosystem is larger than my little farmstead.

In summary, IPM is the healthiest approach for natural pest control for gardens and farmsteads.

Originally published in Countryside 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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