Sunday, July 8, 2012

Keeping ahead of pesky critters

Here are some things I've learned over the last 10 years of country life.  Many of these I learned from my neighbors and from the county agricultural extension agent. I don't like using engineered chemicals if I can avoid them, so many of these 'tips' employ other methods and  'integrated pest management' which helps reduce use of poisons. Even though the linked description is about IPM in commercial agriculture, it also works at home and in the garden!

We had a wet winter a few years ago and by summer everyone in town was overrun with cute little rodents -- mostly field mice and deer mice who reproduced like crazy on the Spring vegetation. We came home from a 2 week trip to find the little devils had been partying like crazy in our house while we were away.  We used the new model plastic snap traps and they worked well -- nailed a couple dozen in our 1200 square foot house. I like these traps (usually find them at ACE) because you don't need to touch the business-end when re-setting. After cleaning up their mess, we also plugged EVERY opening, including the little spaces around where pipes enter and exit the house (usually under the kitchen sink), with  steel wool. Rodents won't chew through it. We also put a heavy screen barrier over the exterior opening to the crawl space even tho the insurance said to leave it 'open' for storm drainage. Also, no more stylish open cabinets. All have well-fitted doors and drawers to exclude mice and bugs.

For the carpenter and borer bees, we nailed some stubs of untreated 2X4's together and drilled the long direction with several 1/2 inch holes about 2 inches deep, each hole about an inch from every other. By placing these blocks around the property, the bees go to them to lay their eggs (less work) rather than excavating holes in our structures.  These bees are good pollinators, so we're both happy now.

I maintain BIG plastic jars of both boric acid and diatomaceous earth. A few sprinkles of these on the garage floor or the back of a kitchen counter will help rid you of insects like ants and 'palmetto bugs' (as the Southern Belles I grew up with called them -- most of us know them as roaches). Sometimes for ants, you'll need to mix the boric acid with honey to interest them. Neither of these will harm humans or pets, but are not as fast as the engineered stuff.

Check out BT for yard pests like elm beetles and mosquitoes. It's a non-toxic bacteria that usually only bothers specific insects. We also do the after-rain patrol to make sure we aren't maintaining extra areas of standing water for the mosquitoes. In addition to a little BT, I keep screens over my rain barrels so that even if I get larvae, they can't get out once they get their wings. A package of mosquito-specific BT cost me about $15 and I use about 2 tablespoons a year, so it should last me about a decade.

Flies? We get the sticky strips from the feed store (pack of 5 for about $2) and when we have flies in the house, we close a room with a strip inside. Move the strip and repeat. It's important to maintain screens over doors and windows-- even if you just staple net fabric from Walmart over the windows. It's cheap and comes in lots of nice colors! Also, make sure your trash is covered and that you keep the basket in the kitchen drain to keep flies from laying eggs in the drain trap. Yuck.

 I plant perennial flowering native species around the garden and orchard -- especially salvia and native Compositae (daisy relatives) varieties. The photo above shows Maximilian daisies that bloom just as the apples ripen. These flowering native plants attract the native and regular migrant birds and good bugs to eat or kill the harmful bugs before they get a foothold in the yard. I did lose some Brussel sprouts to blister beetles this year (most folks were hit a lot harder) but usually have little bug damage. Even my apples and berries have been relatively untouched. Took about three years to add enough natives to fix the bug intrusions. Many of these were gifts from neighbors when they thinned their plants, so the cost has been minimal. The 4 salvia gregii I bought cost about $20 total.  They have dropped seed and I have another 5 plants that I transplanted elsewhere in the yard. I've also given a few off-spring to neighbors. The Max daisies reproduce like rabbits with just a little watering, so a few tubers will fill lots of space in a couple of years.  Lesson learned: DO NOT plant near an adobe wall, or you will have daisies growing from your house.

Fleas and ticks are about the only pests that move me to use engineered chemicals. I really hate them (both the chems and the T&F's), but sometimes they are part of being a dog person.

These techniques take a little discipline at first, but we've found that in the long run they make you less dependent on engineered chemicals, cost much less and possibly reduce exposures to 'stuff' with scary warning labels.

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