FIRE ANTS at the Farm…
There’s not a Farmer among us who wouldn’t offer several of their favorite vegetables to the Farm gods to eradicate fire ants from their plot! Would that it was that easy.
We can thank some anonymous ship from South America that off-loaded its cargo in Mobile, Alabama in the early 1900’s for bringing Fire Ants to the U.S. These voracious insects then spread ….like wildfire…across the South to California and north to some parts of Maryland due…in no small measure…to human disruption of the land – fire ants love to colonize in construction sites and newly landscaped areas. They are highly adaptable…learning to withstand chemical pesticides by breeding more than one queen to a colony…and building more mounds per acre than their ancestor-ants ever did.
Those mounds are deceptively large – they can go down 30 feet and can house 500,000 ants…not such a large number when you consider one queen ant lays 3500 eggs a DAY! Sunny, open areas are their preference…with soil not too hard nor too dry…fire ants have been known to mound right over drip system emitters for their water supply. We all know they like to live near fence posts or hose bibs or under plastic sheeting…no place is really off-limits. They’ll eat anything…meat…plants…germinating seeds…and even Russet potatoes!
The FDA estimates the USA spends more than $ 6 billion a year on fire ant control and crop and livestock losses. In Texas, cows are killed by ant swarms…the ants attack when cows get too close to the mound… and in Florida, young citrus trees get girdled by ant colonies and eventually die. Texas A & M University’s Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project has a great website you should check out for further information. It’s amazing…and a bit scary to think that this species is continually outsmarting us.
Yes, they are useful to the environment…eating fleas and dead animals while turning the soil with their incessant tunneling. However, what they have to offer is eclipsed by the pain they cause us when attacked…THAT is not something anyone wants to ever experience if possible.
Getting Rid of these $#%&*^ things…
Given that highly educated scientists haven’t figured out how to eradicate fire ants, we mere mortals have been forced to turn to trial-and-error tactics. Many of these are home-grown, hearsay strategies that work sometimes in some places under some conditions. We aren’t vouching for any one of the following in particular…but some Farmers have tried a few of these with some success – those are * for your edification:
Dry molasses – 20 lbs/1000 sq ft. or 4 lbs for a 200 sq ft plot
*Club soda – tried at the Farm recently with some apparent success – the CO2 gas may kill them in about a week
*Boiling water – which kills them or drives them to another spot
*Mound drench formula- equal parts compost tea, molasses and orange oil
*Garlic Citrus Tea- fermented garlic heads, molasses, water and lemon rinds
*Diatomaceous Earth- feed grade, natural or amorphous-dehydrates the ants with silica fragments
Disrupt their food trails by turning over the ground around the mound…do this when it’s cold outside…the ants get disoriented and die without their scent trails.
Natural Predators – Phorid Flies lay their eggs in fire ant heads causing decapitation and death
*Beneficial nematodes sting and kill them
Chickens will eat them…not an option at Skidaway Farms!
Dish or Laundry soap suds – works for all ant infestations
Dry ice- shoved into the mound… at -110 degrees it will kill them quickly
Lye- melted into water kills them instantly…use gloves!
Human urine – which repels most everything
*Grits or Cornmeal- they ingest it..it expands and they die
*Shovel ants from one mound onto another mound – they are territorial and will kill each other
The key is to get whatever concoction you use down into the mound…deep enough to kill the queen…that is the ONLY way to pulverize a colony. Some say the queen moves near the surface of the mound at certain times of the day…maybe the late morning…but honestly, this is hard to prove. Best to take a 6 foot re-bar rod and ram it down the center of the mound…pull it out…dump in your brew…then get out of the way of the worker ants that will try to attack you.
If you are lucky enough to get rid of the ants in your life, send us your report! We’ll get it out to all the Farmers immediately. Happy hunting!
Seedlings and Starter Methods
- Did the business get them from a reputable grower? Did they harvest the seeds from organic plants …or were fertilizers used and what type?
- Vegetable seeds left over from last year lose their germination proficiency rapidly … some flower seeds may last a year or two but not much more.
- Buy from seed sources that understand how hot it gets in Savannah…especially how warm our soil gets – this will affect seed germination heavily.
- Be aware that packets of seeds may be home to insect eggs…a reputable seed company should be made aware of this if you discover tainted seeds and should compensate you! Let them know immediately.
2. Seed pots can make germination logistics easier.
- Pots should have drainage openings in the bottom. This is also a good way to check for root growth – Joe suggests that when you can see roots in the bottom of a seed pot it’s time to transplant the seedling.
- Peat Cubes work also and can be planted in the ground at the Farm without disturbing your seedling roots.
- Flat plastic trays also will work…spread the seeds out 3venly so the roots won’t get too entangled.
3. Soil for seeds.
- Germinating seeds need special treatment and don’t do well in regular soil. Use peat or compost or Miracle Grow….anything that has some pearlite in it to help with drainage.
- Use a knife to cut a narrow slit in the soil and then drop your seeds into the slit…this helps to keep the seeds separated in the pot.
- Joe recommends the soil be about 75-80 degrees for the best germination environment.
4. Watering Seeds.
- Seeds will rot if they get too much water. The soil should be moist but not sopping wet. The best method for checking this is the ‘finger-method”… dig down in your soil and feel how damp it is with your finger (like testing a cake with a knife)… if it’s too hard or too wet…change the amount of water or the watering schedule you are using.
5. Seed Pot Placement.
- Seed pots should get sunlight 5-10 hours a day. A south-facing window in your house will work just fine.
- Indoors Joe uses a 40 watt bulb aimed at the pots. As the seedlings grow, simply raise the height of the bulb.
- Most seeds will break the surface of the soil in 7-10 days.
- Move seedlings outside as they grow for a few hours each day before transplanting in your Farm plot. Seedlings need to get stronger to the wind and direct sunlight and even raindrops! This strategy will help your seedlings withstand the initial shock of being planted in the ground in your plot.
- Several Farmers shared they have had success with saving the seeds from a favorite vegetable – arugula, tomato and even cantaloupe! One sure way to know the source of your seeds!
Lessons Shared Among the Farmers
The Farmers gathered on September 11th in Valley Crest Square to share some tips and stories of how things fared for them during the past growing season. There’s always something to be learned from each other as the list below will attest to… we really HAVE learned a thing or two about what works at Skidaway Farms!
From the Gathering on September 11th:
- Successful Compost: Mushroom Compost was excellent as was Cow Manure
- Weeds: Black Fabric really help squelched them
- Produce that fared very well in the summer: Okra, Ichiban Eggplant, Chinese Long Beans
- Produce that didn’t fare well in the heat: Tomatoes, Radishes
- Black-eyed peas were very bug bitten
- Cucumbers Beetles- the Leaf-Footed Beetles- with the yellow/white stripe on its back. Very sneaky and hides from humans. Plant radishes as a sacrificial plant for these nasty bugs. Garlic Tea worked for one Farmer’s cucumbers – so they had not a bug all season!
- Tomato: Leaf-Footed Beetles- these guys suck moisture out of the tomatoes (you’ll know if they have attacked your plant by the little white splotches inside the tomato itself). Plant radishes and basil nearby as a companion plant. Horn Worms- grab ‘em and squash ‘em…not a huge problem at the Farm but they are UGLY and do
enough damage to tomatoes!
- Garlic Tea to the Rescue
An organic insect and disease control material made from the juice of garlic and hot peppers such as jalapeno, habanera, or cayenne. Its use should be limited because it will kill small beneficial insects. It is effective for both ornamental and food crops.
To make garlic/pepper tea: liquefy 2 bulbs of garlic and 2 hot peppers in a
blender 1/2 to 2/3 full of water. Strain the solids and add enough water to the
garlic/pepper juice to make 1 gallon of concentrate. Use 1/4 cup of concentrate
per gallon of spray.
To make garlic tea, simply omit the pepper and add another bulb of garlic. Add 2
to 3 tablespoons of molasses for more control.
- Cover Crops
Buckwheat grew fast, tall and helped suppress weeds. After harvesting, buckwheat allows the next season’s plants to more easily extract potassium and phosphorus from the soil. Several Farmers reported their soil much improved after harvesting the buckwheat crop last month- the soil was dark and felt looser (less clay-like).
- Companion Planting
- Basil with tomatoes
- Mint with cabbage – mint tends to spread voraciously so you can plant it in pots instead of the ground.
- Radishes will attract beetles away from your cucumbers.
- Commercial Fertilizers that work: Cow Manure, Miracle Grow- it has a balance of micro-nutrients that help our Skidaway Island soil
- Fertilizers that don’t work here: 10-10-10 fertilizer because it lacks micro-nutrients. (The “10-10-10” stands for equal parts of “Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium”
- Tomatoes Splitting their skin: probably due to inconsistent watering. The new growth happens too quickly if they receive a lot of water suddenly (like a storm drenching) and the fruit’s meat under the skin pushes out and splits it. No getting around this situation….the tomato is still good to eat!
- Tomato Re-Growth: plants from the spring season that were left in the ground, did nothing all summer but in the last week or so – since it has begun to cool off- small tomatoes are growing again!
- Bird netting around your succulent plants to frustrate the critters- the ‘coons are thirsty and are attracted to melons and ripe tomatoes. They’ll leave the green ones alone.
- Bloodmeal scattered on the ground around your plants should help discourage them as well-raccoons don’t like to get it on their hands!
- Farmers reported that tomatoes picked just as they begin to ripen (from green to a slight color) and then left to full ripen on the kitchen windowsill are just as tasty and are safe from those thieving raccoons!
- Fall Crops going in: Kale, Swiss Chard, Broccoli, Carrots, Beets, Cabbage, Greens,Brussel Sprouts.
Lessons Learned on July 9th…
Education Coordinator, Donna Shea organized Skidaway Farms’ first Lessons Learned event on July 9, 2011. Landscape and garden professionals, Tina and Cleve Zipperer of Zipperer Land Management, were on hand to share their knowledge and advice to the 40 Farmers who attended.
It was well-worth the time spent on a Saturday morning just to get their recommendations on how to grow plants in Savannah’s climate.
Cleve Zipperer kindly offered to analyze the plots of those Farmers in attendance to give them individual guidance on their plants. There is nothing better than one-on-one instruction for gathering know-how! Thank you to both Cleve and Tina for their help and continued support of Skidaway Farms!
1. Shade Cloth
- Great for protecting plants from the hot sun until they mature and grow strong enough to protect their fruit.
- Set it no closer than 18” from the top of the plant.
2. Mulch or Compost
- Crucial to plant growth. Use pine straw, wheat straw or (non-insecticidal) grass clippings, peat moss, organic compost (1 part “green”- 4 parts ‘brown”).
- Do not use wood chips for mulching plants. It absorbs all the nutrients in the soil in order to decompose and leaves the soil depleted. The nutrients in a plant are in the “ends” of the plant- hence grass clippings or pine needles are ok as these are the “end” of the plant.
- Before turning mulch under or into your soil, make sure to chop it or shred it so it decomposes more easily.
- The recommended amount of compost for a 10’ X 20’ plot covered by 4 inches of compost is 2.5 cubic yards. Compost should be replenished periodically throughout the season at a rate of 1.5 – 2.5 inches .
3. Soil Testing
- The Farms’ initial soil test (done in February 2011) showed that all plots had too much phosphorus and potassium – typical of coastal island soil.
- Have your plot soil tested if your plants are just not thriving – use the County Extension or John Deere to process the test.
- Uses Blood Meal or Cottonseed Meal or Bone Meal sprinkled over the mulch.
- The “Bloom Booster” product adds potash and phosphorus to the soil (used in Zipperer’s plots once a week). “Super Thrive” is another recommended product.
- The “minor elements” listed in a commercial product’s ingredients are more important than the nitrogen/phosphorus/potassium.
- Here in tropical Savannah, it is impossible to have a completely fungus-free garden. Use a fungicide to stall fungus growth – either organic or conventional products.
- Do not spray fungicides or pesticides in the morning – it will harm the honeybees who tend to travel and pollinate in the cooler morning hours.
- Use daffodil oil to kill spores in the ground before planting in that soil again.
6. Summer Plantings
- Recommended: okra; bush beans; butter peas; squash; cucumbers; Big Boy or “Bonnie” Hybrid Tomatoes; all herbs.
- Plant by mid-July at the latest.
- Use flowers to thwart bugs – especially marigolds and chrysanthemums.
7. Fall Plantings:
- Start sets and seedlings at home before transplanting in your plot. This reduces the stress on the seedlings until they gain some maturity.
- Vegetable sets and seedlings are more readily available at nurseries outside Savannah (Rincon, Richmond Hill, Pembroke).
8. Bermuda Grass
- Invasive weed that spreads even after it is pulled – roots are deep and can only be permanently killed with a “Round-Up” rubbing (with a small sponge).
- They don’t like to get their hands messy so spreading Blood Meal on the soil under your plants will repel these critters from getting too close to those tomatoes or melons!
1. to develop the faculties and powers of a person by teaching,instruction, or schooling.
2. to inform oneself about the best course of action.
3. to educate a person or group.
The Learning Curve
Having been raised in a state proudly nicknamed “The Garden State”, The Farm’s Education Coordinator, Donna Shea, had her fair share of childhood garden experiences as well as the world’s greatest tomatoes, corn, peaches, and blueberries. Child-rearing plus demanding legal and culinary careers put a temporary hold on more time-consuming vegetable gardening, so much of Donna’s adult digging in the dirt has been limited to landscape flowers, trees and shrubs, with frequent forays into kitchen herbs and edible flowers in containers.
Seminars at The Farm:
Donna is planning seminars open to all Farmers to address many of the thorniest issues. The first season has already shown us that growing vegetables and other plants on Skidaway Island has its challenges so the Farm will definitely become an open-air classroom for all to learn and experiment!
“Gardening is a lot like baking – it’s all about how ingredients interact. So before I began my foray into vegetable gardening at Skidaway Farms, I needed to review my main ingredients and learn some new techniques. For me, the learning curve has been steeper than expected since gardening in our planting zone can challenge even the most experienced gardener.”Donna Shea, Skidaway Farms’ Education Coordinator
Help Is On The Way
If you are new to this farming thing… don’t know much ..if anything… about vegetable planting … have a plot or are just thinking about joining up … Skidaway Farms can help you! We have some very experienced Farmers who will volunteer their time to share their know-how with you… to get you started and to help out in your first season at the Farm. Contact us at Skidaway Farms’ Education Coordinator.