what garden ‘pests’ are trying to tell us, from eliot coleman’s ‘the new organic grower’

WHAT ARE OUR vegetable garden “pests” trying to tell us, and how can we move past the mindset of it being all about us against them, and knee-jerk interventions with some so-called “remedy” every time they show up? That’s just one of the attitude-adjusting insights I discussed with organic farming and gardening champion Eliot Coleman, whose 30th-anniversary edition of “The New Organic Grower” is just out.

Eliot Coleman has written extensively about organic agriculture since 1975. He has more than 50 years’ experience in all aspects of the subject and has been a commercial market gardener, the director of research projects, a designer of tools for farmers and gardeners, and a teacher and lecturer. He and his wife, Barbara Damrosch, operate Four Season Farm, a commercial year-round market garden in Maine.

Read along as you listen to the Oct. 8, 2018 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Learn why he invokes us to “cultivate ease and order, not battle disease and disorder,” and more—plus enter to win the revised edition of “The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.”

A note on the sound quality in some spots: Just before our taping, Eliot’s power went out, and though we restarted our conversation several times to try to offset the occasional low volume on his end, in certain places it was uncorrectable. The transcript is complete, however, and full of his inspiring advice; read while you listen.

insights into organic growing, with eliot coleman


Q. Congratulations on the 30th-anniversary edition.

A. Thank you very much, Margaret. It was fun to bring it up to date.

Q. Yes, a lot has changed and then on the other hand the fundamentals are still the same, the approach I guess.

A. We’re always learning new things. It was great to put all that together and add that to what was originally written back in 1988.

Q. I’m old enough to have a copy of the original edition here on my bookshelf, along with books by Helen and Scott Nearing, and John Jeavons, and Alan Chadwick, and other people that I’ve admired a long time and been inspired by. So it has a nice place in my home, the original and the new one. [Laughter.]

A.  Thank you.

Q. Yes. So though the book is about organic agriculture, about farming and it’s for farmers mostly, it’s really loaded with insights that we gardeners like my listeners and readers can apply in our smaller undertakings in the backyard.

Things like soil blocking as a tactic for doing seedlings, and a new chapter in this edition that your wife, Barbara Damrosch, I think contributed about flowers as part of the overall planting plan, or the use of minerals and organic matter to improve infertile soils. What are some of the things that you updated the most, or the least, or what’s new and old in it?

A. Well, one thing that gardeners and farmers are always working on are finding more efficient ways of doing what they’re doing, so they get to eat well with less work. So one of our favorite activities is designing and then finding some way to get somebody to produce tools that help a small farmer or gardener do what they’re doing better.

I always tell people that when I started back in 1965, we were almost in the 19th century, because no one had been focusing on tools for the small market farm/large home garden anymore. All of the tools were pretty crude. So the nice thing, we’ve been able to come up with a good set of tools that make life easier and things more efficient, and we’re no longer in the 19th century, pleasant as that may have been.

Q. So that would be things like, and I’m not sure if I’m pronouncing it right although I have one, the collinear hoe, would that be one?

A. Yes, a better hoe. You use it standing upright rather than bending over and chopping at a 70 degree angle between the blade and the handle. And as I tell everybody, the nice thing about the position in which you use this hoe, if you think about it for a minute it’s actually the ballroom-dancing position, so it’s something you do voluntary.

Q. [Laughter.] And the broadfork, would that be another one you’ve improved?

A. Yes, the broadfork was actually thought up by a small French farmer back in the ’70s, and copies of it have been around for a long time, but as an idea that allows you to take care of any compaction in your soil underneath the surface without turning everything over totally.

Q. Right. I mentioned soil blocking, and I loved that section because every year I swear that I’m going to move past either open flats or cellpacks in a flat and I’m going to block soil. Tell us just a little bit … is that what you do at Four Season Farm—is that one of your primary tactics?

A. Yes, well years ago when I started like everybody else, before any of these new ideas were common, we just used regular open flats with soil in them and spaced the seedlings. And then when they were ready to go to the garden or to the field we would cut them out in cubes, the same way if we were cutting brownies out of a tray in the kitchen. And the nice thing about soil blocks is if you get the potting soil to the proper moisture level, you’re pressing the potting soil into little cubes with a hole in the top and a depression in which you can drop a seed.

The nice thing about it is that there’s a slight division between the blocks because of the edges of the block form. And when the plant’s roots grow to the edge of the block they pause there so they don’t go out into that slight air opening. And boy, when you put these in the ground all of a sudden they have soil on all sides and they take off much faster than some plant that was in some little container and its roots began to circle around. [The soil recipe and how-to for Eliot’s soil block process, on the Johnny’s Selected Seeds website.]

Q. So one of the other things, not a tool exactly but a tactic, you say in the new edition, maybe even in the old edition of the book “The New Organic Grower,” that “the things that turn an infertile soil into a fertile soil are minerals and organic matter.” And that shouldn’t be such a big ah-ha, and yet people still want bagged fertilizers. They’re still looking for the instant fix, I find.

A. Yes, and that’s one of the things that I always mention to people, it’s really the difference between what a farm does and what a garden does. A garden can afford to pay extra money for soybean meal or bone meal, but on the farm scale that isn’t possible. So the farmers, and if you are a farmer you’ve learned this, are more concerned with finding whatever sources of organic matter are available in their neighborhood, and then composting them, and then that becomes the basis for the soil fertility program of the farm.

Q. Right.

A. The same would be true of a garden. So I always tell home gardeners, make as much compost as you can. I’ve known people who always when they drove around, always had a couple empty garbage cans in the back of their car.

Q. [Laughter.]

A. And they’d see somebody about to throw out leaves or something like that, and they’d squeal to a halt and ask if they could have them. And people were always happy to find a use for organic matter.

Q. Yes. What I got from the book most of all this time around, and I sort of alluded to this or referred to it in the intro a little bit, reading the new edition, was really the mindset. It really sunk in this time. The way you turn things on their head and shake up our thinking, or hope to. And some of the quotes that I’ll just say, and then you can tell us more about this.

For instance, “Cultivate ease and order, not battling disease and disorder,” as an approach. Or that “we need to reset our pest-negativity thinking.” Can we talk a little bit about order as opposed to disorder and pest-positive thinking? [Laughter.]

A. Sure, yes. Ever since I got into this game, I realized that if I wanted to make a living, and be happy, and be doing good work, the idea of spending all my time concerned about which horrible poison I was going to use on the insects was just going to ruin everything. So that was the first reason when I decided to become a farmer, I wanted to be an organic farmer, because it seemed like that was one piece of thinking that was along the right direction.

A. And it isn’t that an organic farmer or organic gardener is not using pesticides, it’s that they are not needing pesticides. And if you don’t need it, why use it? How does that happen?

There is an enormous amount of information in the published literature, in entomological journals, indicating that when plants are put together correctly—and by that I mean they’re growing in soil that provides them with all the minerals and nutrients that they need—that the protection comes from what scientists call induced resistance. That all of those wonderful little microorganisms that live in the soil, especially if you put plenty of organic matter in there, and live around the roots of the plant, there are actually activities going on that seem almost miraculous when you read about it that strengthen the plant vis a vis its resistance against pests and diseases.

Q. Yes, in the book you say, “Organic agriculture is constrained by an imitative kind of thinking that merely substitutes organic inputs for chemical inputs.” So that’s like the farmer or the gardener is accepting that old framework of conventional farming or farming with chemicals, always looking to shake something on, like putting salt on your dinner to make it a little saltier. Which is not what we should be doing in farming and gardening.

A. Oh yes, no. And the key to all of this is to understand that the natural world is the most elegantly designed operation I’ve ever encountered, and that working with it, trying to figure out which direction it wants to go and how my activities in the garden can aid in creating the fertility, aid in creating a stronger plant, and then use the techniques that lead in that direction.

Q. So aiding in it, you mentioned compost, compost, compost as we always say—make as much as you can and use it. But with the minerals, the rock dusts, what do we do? Do we get a soil test? If we’re home gardeners, again not on the large scale necessarily, do we start with a soil test to draw inferences on what we need to add?

A. Yes, but very often … if you read some of the material that was coming out in the early 20th century from extension services and places like that, they explain that in most normal soils there is a great deal of potassium, a great deal of minerals in the top what they refer to as the “acre furrow slice,” and that’s the top 6-2/3 inches of an acre. And that is an enormous amount of soil, and there are an enormous amount of nutrients in there. What makes those nutrients available is all the activities of the microorganisms in the soils that then create conditions so the roots of the plant can access those minerals there.

And in many soils, as long as you’re putting in plenty of organic matter—and if it’s coming from off your garden, off the farm, it’s bringing in minerals in itself from elsewhere—you almost don’t need to go out and buy a lot of stuff. For example, here on our farm we basically don’t purchase any of those inputs that people would be thinking about because we’re continually working on growing the fertility in place with cover crops, green manures, and so forth.

Q. Right. I mean, I have to say even just being in the same place for 30-something years as I have been in my garden and being an organic gardener that whole time, people constantly write to me, and neighbors say to me, or people when they come from Open Day garden tours they say: “What do you do about this,” and “what do you do about that?” All of these “pests” that they’re talking about.

And you know I hate Japanese beetles, too, but generally speaking I don’t have anything that ever takes over an entire area or crop, or any real disaster going on. And I feel like that’s the payoff from having been soil-focused for all those years, always following—and again the books on my shelf are the ones I mentioned before from people such as yourself—always focusing on feeding the soil, feedings the soil. Taking care of the soil, adding back my composted debris and turning it into something great, and really protecting the soil. I feel like it makes such an enormous difference, and yet again I think many of us, many people still look for that instant, quick “remedy” thing mentality.

A. Yes, well I think we’re encouraged in the world we live in to look for instant, quick remedies, because there’s somebody out there usually trying to sell it. Japanese beetles, interestingly enough, only made it way up here to Maine a few years ago. I was trying to figure out what I could do about it. So I went to the shop and I got a long extension cord and took the shop vac out where the Japanese beetles had showed up on the grapes.

And I put the fine nozzle on the end and it was like magic. I was going along, and I just refer to it as going [makes repeated vacuum sucking noises], and they’re disappearing down the nozzle. But the wonderful thing about it was when you think of all the problems that are created for gardeners and farmers because insects become resistant to the poisonous pesticides they’re using, I realized that it was probably impossible for insects to become resistant to vacuums.

Q. To shop vacs, yes. Well, I find I’m pretty fierce with the old-fashioned jar of water [above], soapy water or just water, and early, early, early in the morning when they’re still lazy, knocking them into that and drowning them. [Laughter.]

A. Yes, yes.

Q. They have not evolved/co-evolved with my strategy to knock them into the water and drown them, either. They have not advanced.

In “The New Organic Grower,” you talk about that we need to “reset our pest-negative thinking.” And really there’s this wonderful part where you talk about pests as messengers about our cultural practices, that they actually have information to give us. Can you tell me a little about that?

A. Actually, the original line came from Sir Albert Howard, the British scientist who wrote the earlier books on organic farming. The line he wrote was that, “Insects are the best professors of agriculture,” because by their presence they will tell us that we are doing something wrong, that is the insects that eat the crops. And basically they’re bringing you a message that conditions in your garden are not as good as they could be for all of those crops. And if you kill the insects, you’re basically shooting the messenger.

We’ve learned to listen and try and figure out, O.K. what did we not do right this time? Is the soil too compacted? Did we use the wrong compost, it wasn’t mature enough? And we’ll usually find that if we investigate it … basically it’s whether you want to correct the cause of the problem or just treat the symptom. Insects are a symptom that there’s something wrong with the growing conditions in your garden. If you use pesticides, you’re treating the symptom. If you try and make those growing conditions better, you’re correcting the cause.

Q. I love that you confessed to flea beetles having the upper hand because I think where I garden, and I have many organic farm neighbors in my town, it’s an old agricultural town and lots of young great farmers have moved in, the flea beetles are what we all talk about. [Laughter.] None of us can figure out the flea beetles.

A. Well, it’s interesting, I had a wonderful visit from a farmer far away from here on a clay soil who was visiting once. And he said, “What’s all those sheets of fabric out there?” And I said, well if we don’t cover certain young greens, especially the cabbage family, the flea beetles can cause trouble. And he said, “Golly I don’t have any trouble at all with flea beetles.”

So it could be, and that’s what I suspect and I said in the book, that we have such a light, sandy soil that under these conditions it is harder to make peace with the flea beetle than with any other pest we’ve ever seen. And most of the pests have just disappeared, but when the conditions are right for the flea beetles they’re there, and that’s why some sort of floating row cover is a very efficient solution under those conditions.

Q. And that goes on at sowing time?

A. Right after you put the seeds in the ground. We just put hoops over the bed and stretch some floating row cover, and drop some sandbags on the edges to hold it down.

Q. That’s interesting that you say that it’s a fast-draining soil, because in the town center farm that I’m talking about, a couple of hundred acres that a lot of friends farm there organically, it is that type of soil. So that is indeed flea beetle central for us where I live, interesting. [Laughter.] So they are trying to tell us something.

Other indicators, some other pests that are giving you an “aha”? Are there any? People are frequently irate about the appearance of some of the cucurbit pests, like squash bugs for instance, and cucumber beetles.

A. There was a wonderful story about the squash bugs and cucumber beetles in a research paper. And it turned out that it was trace elements that made the plant more resistant. In fact, the thing they were recommending was to use a powdered dried seaweed as a fertilizer. And we have done that since I read that, and it’s just fantastic how effective that is on strengthening your cucumbers and your squash plants.

Q. How interesting.

A. Now, one other thing to mention there, one of the things about the cucumber-squash family is that they do not take kindly to transplanting.

Q. No.

A. And if you have grown transplants, in order to get an early start you really need to protect them with some sort of mesh or fabric cover for the first couple of weeks after you put them in the ground so they can get established.

And one of the best theories on the relation between plants and insects is the “plant stress hypothesis.” And this hypothesizes that insects can only gain an upper hand when the plant is under stress through inadequate growing conditions or having been transplanted and not having time to get its systems back together. So protect your cucumber and squash seedlings for the first couple of weeks after you put them in the ground, and that’ll usually make a pretty good improvement. And if that doesn’t work, get some dried seaweed, I’ve always found that to be one of the best.

Q. When all else fails, go for the dried seaweed. [Laughter.]

A. Yes, yes. And here’s the other thing, another thing I’ve noticed ever since the start, because when I have been gardening in different parts of New England, I have occasionally been near a horse farm and was able to get horse manure. All of the old books on market gardening back in the 18th century, you’ll find throughout that they say the only fertilizer that really works for vegetables is horse manure. And this surprises a lot of people.

But even better than horse manure, horse manure where the bedding under the horses was straw rather than sawdust or wood shavings. And the combination of horse manure and straw for, gosh, 150 years or more has been considered to be the absolutely best fertilizer for vegetables. So if you have a neighbor with a horse, see if you can’t make a deal with him to give him some straw for bedding.

Q. Agreed, yes. Volunteer to muck out the stalls in return for the goodies, right? [Laughter.]

A. You got it.

Q. Well, Eliot Coleman, I’m so happy to speak to you. And congratulations again on the 30th-anniversary edition of “The New Organic Grower.”

A. Great, and thank you very much. It’s been a delight, Margaret.

enter to win ‘the new organic grower’

I’LL BUY A COPY of Eliot Coleman’s updated “The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.” All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box at the very bottom of the page:

What pest in your garden was trying to tell you something this season, trying to be a messenger about cultural tactics that needed adjusting to strengthen plants against attack? (For me it was cross-striped cabbage worms.)

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but an answer is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, October 16, 2018. Good luck to all; US and Canada only.

(Photos except squash bug and Japanese beetles by Barbara Damrosch.)

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its ninth year in March 2018. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play Oct. 8, 2018 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

  1. Michele says:

    We had every variety of cabbage worm – the chubby green ones, the little cabbage loppers and the cross-striped type too. My hubby was determined to grow brussels sprouts and he’s vexed by the number of worms he keeps finding. We’re down to one plant – he pulled the rest in frustration – and we’re calling it the $100 plant due to the effort it has taken. But, finally, we’re seeing those little sprouts expand so we have hope to enjoy them for Thanksgiving.

  2. Ray Pinter says:

    Count me in. Japanese beetles infested my birch trees, raspberries, and pole beans. Too many to hand pick unless I spend the whole day doing it.

  3. claudia bassano says:

    Count me in. Do earwigs count? I think they may be nocturnal.
    And squirrels constantly uprooting anything newly planted.

    Long Island NY here

  4. Kari says:

    For the last 2 seasons I have been struggling with a bug on my beans. It looks like a squash beetle but sticks to the beans, ignoring zucchini and cucumber. It goes after the pods, and they get deformed at the feeding sites. At the same time, the bush beans are good, but the pole beans get leaf spot diseases, and any attempt at runner beans has been a dismal failure, they germinate ok, then just languish. Because of legumes nitrogen fixing property, I have never fertilized them beyond a little compost or whatever was left over from the previous crop. Guess I have a winter puzzle to solve.

  5. Barbara Huey says:

    The tomato hornworms were horrible and multiplied so fast. It was a daily chore trying to pull them off, wish they would go away! Please help.

    1. margaret says:

      Maybe some advice here, Barbara, for cultural control methods or if not enough then use of Bt spray (Bacillus thuringiensis subsp. kurstaki), which is a natural control for caterpillars.

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