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Friend or Foe in Your Garden

A flower fly pollinates a poppy. In addition to pollination, immature flower flies also may prey on garden pests. Photo by Heidi Rader

A flower fly pollinates a poppy. In addition to pollination, immature flower flies also may prey on garden pests. Photo by Heidi Rader

Friend or foe? Distinguishing between beneficial and harmful creatures in your garden and welcoming the former to your garden

What do you do when you see four-, six-, eight- or 100-legged creatures crawling about in your garden? Is your first instinct to smash them?

Next time, before you do, ask yourself, “Is it a friend or foe?”

A variety of creatures, big and small, play beneficial roles in your garden, from pollinating plants to preying on pests to cycling nutrients. Some, if not beneficial, are harmless. Then there are those that do in fact damage your garden — the pests. There even are some that are sometimes beneficial and sometimes a pest, like robins. They eat insects, but they also eat berries.

How do you know who is who? For the most common beneficial insects and spiders, Extension published a handy identification guide, which can be found at http://bit.ly/1J10qfv. You can also just ask Extension by sending in a photo of the creature in question; visit www.uaf.edu/ces/pests/ for details. Keep in mind that some insects, such as ladybugs, look very different in the nymph stage compared to the adult stage, so you should learn to recognize them at both stages.

What do they do that is so helpful to your garden? Butterflies, bees, beetles and flies pollinate plants. Remember the column I wrote about strawberries? Without pollinators, you wouldn’t get any strawberries, either. The Georgeson Botanical Garden in Fairbanks compiled a handy list of who pollinates which plants and when it happens; you can find the list at http://bit.ly/1f5NJpD.

There also are some beneficials who are busy below ground decomposing, cycling nutrients, aerating the soil and controlling pests in the soil.

Finally, some beneficial organisms prey on garden pests either directly by parasitism or through competition.

Now that you know how important beneficial organisms are in your garden ecosystem, what can you do to make sure your friends find a home in your garden?

Minimize your use of broad-spectrum pesticides. While they do kill unwanted pests, they also kill beneficial organisms.

Till only when necessary. Excessive tilling destroys beneficial organisms that live in the soil.

Plant sunflowers, plants that have bolted (especially in the broccoli family), cover crops and other flowering plants. They provide food for a range of beneficials.

Establish permanent plantings in or around your garden, including perennial flowers, shrubs and especially native ones. These permanent plantings provide shelter for an array of beneficial organisms. Here is a detailed guide to which plants provide ideal habitat for which beneficial organisms: http://bit.ly/1IxLdCq. It costs a dollar, but I think it’s worth it — particularly for organic farmers or gardeners. Finally, here’s an illustrated guide to providing habitat for beneficials in your garden: http://bit.ly/1e0fjUq.

While you’re making beneficial organisms cozy in your garden, it’s true that pests may find it comfortable as well. You’ll have to tolerate some level of pests in your garden. When you do need to control pests, try to minimize the negative impact it may have on beneficial organisms.

When you encourage a diversity of creatures in your garden, you will benefit from the many services the beneficials provide and you won’t experience extremely high pest levels that you might have otherwise.

Heidi Rader is a tribes Extension educator for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service and the Tanana Chiefs Conference. She can be reached at hbrader@alaska.edu. For answers to gardening questions, contact the Tanana District Extension office at 474-1530.

Hydroponic Gardens

Imagine it is winter and you are cooking homemade spaghetti sauce to warm up your family. You need some fresh basil so you walk over to your in-house culinary herb garden and cut a few fragrant leaves for the simmering sauce. What could be better than culinary herbs fresh from the garden in winter in Fairbanks? Is this a pipe dream or could it be reality?

The answers are, indeed, nothing could be better, and yes, it can be a reality. On Tuesday, March 3, at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Conference Center, there will be an afternoon workshop on setting up home-sized hydroponic gardens for vegetable and culinary herb production. You will have the opportunity to learn what kinds of materials and lights you will need and how to plant and care for your vegetables and culinary herbs.

Many of us would like to be able to get all of our produce locally year-round, but in actuality, this is a difficult thing to do. By using hydroponics, even in Fairbanks in deepest, darkest winter, we can grow our own vegetables and culinary herbs indoors.

Hydroponics is about growing plants without soil. There are systems that can be set up or created that will produce amazing amounts of vegetables and culinary herbs for your table. These systems take up little space and are not as high maintenance as you would expect. As with anything Alaskan, hydroponics is about creativity and doing it on your own terms.

The workshop is only $25 for an afternoon of learning valuable and practical skills you can use at home. You can find out more and register for it at http://bit.ly/sareconf. At that registration site, you will notice that the 11th Annual Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference will also be held the following two days at the Westmark Fairbanks Hotel and Conference Center.

The Alaska Sustainable Agriculture Conference will include a wide array of topics such as economics, food security, livestock, fruit, vegetables, sustainable practices, marketing and management.

Another worthwhile event is the Alaska State Master Gardeners Conference March 7 at Pike’s Waterfront Lodge. There will be a variety of excellent speakers addressing all aspects of gardening in Alaska. This conference will be fun and informative for anyone with a home garden or flower bed. You do not have to be a Master Gardener to attend and you will meet many people who are excited about and skilled at growing plants in Alaska. Information on talks and registration for this conference can be found at fairbanksmastergardeners.wordpress.com.

Spring is not that far away now and we are finally beginning to see the backside of winter. The lengthening days probably make all of us eager to start planting seeds in preparation for flower, vegetable and culinary herb gardens. These March conferences are perfectly timed to give you information you can use this spring and summer. We also hope you meet people who will inspire you to have your best growing season ever.

Growing plants and raising animals in Alaska has challenges and opportunities unlike almost anywhere else in the world. Come share what you know, learn from the experts and be part of the unique and wonderful community of Alaska growers.

Steven Seefeldt is the Tanana District agriculture and horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service, a part of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, working in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He can be reached at 907-474-2423 or ssseefeldt@alaska.edu.