Over the years I have reconciled myself to the fact that I will harvest, more or less to the tuber, precisely the same number of spuds as the number of extortionately expensive seed potatoes I put in at the beginning of the season. Only the delicious memory of my friend Mary’s fabulous Greenbank allotment crop keeps me dreaming of fresh dug salad potatoes and hoping that my years of abject failure as a tater farmer are simply a consequence of a sequence of unfortunate accidents.
This year I thought I had made a breakthrough. Why not cluster my Kipfler and Pink Fir Apple spuds around the base of equally hungry plants – the banana trees, the citrus, the celery – and mulch them all within an inch of their lives? The piles of sugar cane straw and the level of expectation were both at an all time high.
On the left, I present you with the potato patch. On the right, this year’s harvest.
I’m blaming this guy: I believe it’s a flea beetle. Found – no surprises – loitering below the Eureka lemon, which as we have already established is the garden headquarters of Bond movie insect super-villains. Flea beetle has no doubt been plotting world domination with the now well-ensconced victors of Operation Bronze Orange Bug, perhaps while riding on a secret underground monorail that speeds him directly to the locations of my poor doomed potato plants.
I love the advice on this organic gardening site for combatting the flea beetle. Their main recommendation: blasting a metre wide strip of barren lifeless earth right around your veg. Now, where did I put that flame thrower?
There seem to be two schools of thought on organic pest management. On the one hand, you have the garden hygienists, the short-back-and-sides crew. Weeds? Hoe them! Plants? In neat rows! Spent crops? Rip them out and burn them! And then eat the ashes! Quail in the bright light of day, insect fiends! There is no escape!
And then there’s the permies and the hippies, with their food forests, their companion planting schemes, and their growing guilds. Spent crops? Let them flower and attract the hoverflies! Step away from that spade – think of the the busy worms and their delicate underground cities, rich with seams of organic matter from the recycled roots of yesterday’s vegetables. That patch of nettles in the corner? A fabulous buffet for butterfly larvae, binding together precious topsoil from erosion. The stack of rotten logs and twigs by the back fence? A habitat for sleepy lizards and an overwintering insect hotel. Gaia is at one with all her four and six legged companions.
This particular site seems to want to it a little bit both ways: … Why not grow some lovely cottage garden flowers as companions to your plants? The delightful blooms of Queen Anne’s Lace will attract beneficial insects… and then you must rip the evil bug-harbouring weeds out by their nematode encrusted roots leaving only pure naked earth, free from the taint of exoskeletal evil!!
I’m squarely in the hippie camp, from sheer laziness if nothing else. Swathes of bare soil are indicative of a tragically perished garlic crop or a chicken incursion, rather than some kind of pest reduction plan. So I will be keeping a careful eye on my eggplant seedlings, also susceptible to flea beetle attack, which have, semi-miraculously, successfully made the transition from windowsill seed tray to vegetable patch.
I suspect I know the secret of their resilience – these are “Little Finger” aubergines. I feel deployment of plant varieties named after nakedly ambitious characters in popular fantasy television, particularly arch manipulators dab handed with a dagger, is a form of psychological plant protection under-explored in permaculture. Think you can take “Little Finger”, flea beetle? You may want to think again.