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Finding our Shangri-La & the Little Farm Horror Movie
Welcome! This month brings two anniversaries...one to celebrate, and one I wish I could forget. You'll also find an April newsletter extra: a bonus mini-eBook!
It was not love at first sight…
Today marks the 17th anniversary of my husband John and me leaving city life forever and moving to the Foothills. After months of searching for a property, we were losing hope that we would ever find a place that worked for us.
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One Sunday, our Realtor bounced us up a potholed track in his huge Silvarado to a brush-choked site, which had been logged off six or seven years ago. Looking around, I decided that the only place you’ll find more wood than in a forest is a clearcut.
The spare winter landscape exposed the rotting logs and tree detritus strewn everywhere. Sky, land, and vegetation seemed to blend into a depressing gray-brown.
The clouds hung low, and on this unprotected ridge, a chill wind penetrated my jacket. In this bleak terrain, I wasn’t even interested enough in this place to get out of the car, much less buy it.
Yet, with both of us growing even more desperate to find a property, John persuaded me to take one more look at the parcel I’d rejected before. We headed out of the city on one of those rare, Pacific Northwest winter days with a clear sky and gentle breeze.
As I climbed out of our Realtor’s truck at the road’s end, I gazed at the mountain before me and caught my breath. Could this be the same place that had depressed me only days ago?
The sky, such a pure blue it made your heart ache with the beauty of it, seemed clearer and brighter up here. In fact, everything did.
In the sunshine, red-twigged vine maples glowed, and vibrant green young firs, undetected in the murk of the previous visit, dotted the landscape. A hawk sailed high above us, coasting on the winter thermals rising up the hillsides.
With the landscape no longer obscured by low clouds, I drank in the sight of the green-gray Foothills to the northeast, folding one upon the other like origami. This is it, I thought. Our Shangri-La. This is our dream.
That afternoon, I felt I was reliving my Minnesota childhood, tromping alongside John and the Realtor as we got a fresh sense of the place. With the dense brush and uneven terrain, it was tricky walking—in fact, you could barely step without your feet slipping on the limbs underfoot, or getting tangled in blackberry vines. But I felt a new, fierce possessiveness for this place.
It’s ours, my heart sang. It’s got to be ours!
Once we moved into our new home, we began to establish what I thought of as our little food-growing Paradise—and over the years, I only grew more attached to it.
Yet there would come a time when I hated our place.
The Little Farm Horror Movie…
Do you remember that scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds, when Tippi Hendren creeps down that road lined with hundreds of crows? Birds alongside her, birds hovering above her, their beady eyes watching her every move. There’s only the occasional cackle, a twitching of wings, yet her face is pinched with terror, and you can just feel her panic, her utter horror…
Imagine you’re not surrounded by hundreds of birds…but millions of caterpillars. Squirmy wormy things not only everywhere you look and everywhere you turn—yet waves of millions more advancing inexorably toward your yard, your garden, and your house.
And toward you…
This April marks another anniversary, the one I want to forget: 10 years since a severe tent caterpillar plague hit our Little Farm. This winter, when I found one of their seemingly innocuous little egg sacs in our Honeycrisp apple tree, I had a bit of a panic—well, more than a bit—because I knew that from one tiny sac, at least 200 caterpillar larvae would hatch.
Since I wanted to save you all some potential grief, I discussed managing caterpillar egg sacs in the February Little Farm Writer newsletter.
Also in February, I had a second reason that caterpillars were top of mind: I also knew that these tent caterpillar infestations generally occur every 10 years. That meant in April 2023, my husband John and I might have to go through this horrendous experience again.
Having just barely survived a caterpillar plague at our place—call it The Tent Caterpillar School of Very Hard Knocks—I promised some tips for dealing with an infestation in my April issue.
Disclaimer: Despite all I shared about mice in our house, I never intended to make this newsletter a monthly gross-out! But when it comes to tent caterpillars, you might as well know what you’re dealing with. In case the WORST happens.
Which brings me to the tips I promised back in February for dealing with an infestation.
If you missed the February issue, you’re probably wondering, what am I looking at? Easy answer: a Tent caterpillar egg sac.
As I mentioned in February’s newsletter, to protect your fruit trees, prevention is key. Since my husband John and I are growing all our food using organic/sustainable methods, spraying isn’t an option. Here’s a quick recap:
When you prune your fruit trees in Spring, inspect all your prunings, then for good measure, inspect the tree. Any egg sacs you find, clip the twig, and burn it.
If it’s too late, and the caterpillars are already hatched, you’ll see the “tents”—webby structures attached to the tree. You’ll need to act fast, and clip out the entire tent.
If you have to cut branches that have lots of fruit spurs on them, losing some fruit is far better than thousands of tent caterpillars gnawing off everything on the tree. Now that will really affect productivity.
If you’ve found live “tents” in your orchard, they’re in the trees around your neighborhood. And those cats can migrate faster than you can imagine.
In April 2013, when tent caterpillars completely took over our area, John and I found caterpillars devouring our:
*Fruit tree leaves (and after the fruit set, the young apples too);
*Blueberries (yep, we were to discover they ate the berries too);
*Raspberries and other cane berries;
*Every single alder and birch tree on our ten acres, and there are thousands;
*And even previously “immune” trees like vine maple and even young hemlock firs.
Over the course of the infestation at our place, John and I employed several desperate measures to control the damage. But these were desperate times!
We began the battle by cutting the egg sacs out of the alder and birch trees nearest our house and yard. Finding too many thousands of sacs to continue doing one-by-one, we started falling the affected trees.
But John and I had only touched the surface before the eggs hatched into larvae (the caterpillars) and began spinning their “tents.” We moved on to our next idea, and attempted to cut the tents from the trees.
We got only so far with that strategy too. By the time the caterpillars began invading our yard, John and I were forced to hand-pick the caterpillars and destroy them. Yes, the most disgusting option but the most effective.
As the plague worsened, and far more caterpillars crawled up our trees that we could possibly pick off, we tried something new: installing a band of outside-in duct tape near the base of the affected tree, sticky side out. It slowed down the caterpillars a tiny bit, but didn’t kill them.
When the stickiness wore off, I “painted” the duct tape with a mixture of oil and strong-smelling soap (when duct tape alone didn’t do the job). This stratagem repelled the cats only a little. But again, at least it slowed them down.
Our near neighbor had previously cleared nearly all of his deciduous trees, but still had an orchard to protect. He tried a similar tape arrangement, but coated the tape with Vaseline. When that didn’t bring an immediate result—tent caterpillars, you see, are scarily resilient—he went nuclear.
He circled the base of his tree with a strip of fiberglass.
I wasn’t too sure I wanted any fiberglass particles leaching into our soil, so I actually considered the unthinkable:
I called up the county extension agent to inquire about pesticides targeted for caterpillars. He immediately mentioned Bt. This spray contains tiny bacterium that enter the gut of the caterpillars and is approved for organic fruit growing.
But there’s a catch: ultraviolet light renders the spray ineffective within 72 hours. For John and me, it seemed like a whole lot of money for every little result. After all, thousands additional caterpillars would hatch in 3 short days!
Six weeks into the plague that was widespread in our region, I heard of another option in the news, one that sounded like a dream come true. When you can’t stand the skin-crawling plague experience any longer, and you think you’re going out of your mind with caterpillars all over your yard, you can do what some folks did:
Leave your home and stay in a hotel!
If you’ve read the above, and that’s enough, I don’t blame you. However, I’ve only scratched the surface of our squirm-inducing plague experience.
If gruesome stuff doesn’t put you off, and you think you’ll find the squeamish details of the whole story interesting and informative, I’ve created some bonus content for my Little Farm Writer newsletter, adapted from my second memoir, Little Farm Homegrown:
Little Farm Horror Movie: Everything You Never Wanted to Know About Tent Caterpillars, a 10th Anniversary Commemorative eBook.
As it happens, this wasn’t the only crazy insect experience I lived through…
When I was a toddler, my government-worker dad was posted to the Philippine Islands and my family lived there for eight months. Government housing, I understand, wasn’t the best construction. In fact, it was pretty…permeable.
According to my mom, one afternoon while I was napping in my crib, a veritable wall of army ants invaded my room…heading straight for me.
Happily, my mom rescued me right before the ants reached my crib! How about you? Any crazy bug experiences in your life? I hope you’ll share!
Okay, that’s enough about creepy-crawlies! Now for April News:
This month also brings my twice-yearly, in-person food gardening workshop at the local community college: “Grow a Homestead-Style Food Garden,” to be held Tuesday, April 18.
It’s a practical class focusing on backyard farming essentials for a sustainable food garden—like exploring resilient crops and the benefits of native plantings, working with nature for a balanced, chemical-free garden, and creating healthy soil for long-term productivity.
This class actually inspired my popular free ebook, Little Farm in the Garden: A Practical Mini-Guide to Raising Selected Fruits and Vegetables Homestead-Style.
This week, I’m happy to say the ebook is #2 on Amazon’s bestseller list in Organic Gardening!
The ebook contains the course content, and far more—and this freebie is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Kobo and all other online book retailers!
Have any food gardening tales to tell? I’d love to hear from you! You can leave a comment or just reply to this email.
Thank you so much for sharing your time with me…and if you enjoyed this post, please hit the ❤️ button. It helps other folks discover Little Farm Writer—and well, it’ll make my day!
May you have a wonderful April ~ Susan
Photos by John F. Browne
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