Bugs in the Cranberry Bogs

How Cape Cod Farmers Squared Off against Pests and Kept Cranberries Sauce on Thanksgiving Tables

Last weekend, we took a trip to the Cape to tour a cranberry bog. It was brisk and blustery; the kind of weather that makes you put on your scarf and boots for the first time.

We left early on Saturday and were often the only car in sight on 195. The foliage, just starting to turn from yellow to orange, the phragmites in full plum-colored plumage–it’s the kind of beauty that only happens where the woods meet the sea, and we coastal New Englanders could easily take this repeat performance for granted. When we arrive, we trudge over an open field to get to the bog; the ground had a kind of bounce to it from a millennia of accumulated peat moss. The landscape is scrubby, wet, and the crispy brown color that grass takes-on after it has seeded. The open field soon takes a downward pitch and there it is: a bog full of floating  red and burgundy orbs. We raise our hands to shield our eyes from the sun and survey the scene; what we had thought was an open field is actually more of a complex system of bogs with small stretches of semi-solid peat paths for harvesters, human and mechanical,  to get around come harvest time. 

I have been reading a book about cranberries called Massachusetts Cranberry Culture, and in the final chapter the author makes mention of the pest control problems cranberry farmers have faced in the last 400 years.  Pest control was apparently a regular topic of conversation for English settlers who tried their hand at farming and cultivating cranberries in the 1600s. Some of their methods–like the use of ash–had been learned from the Wampanoag, so it’s safe to assume that the Wampanoag, too, had been trying to eradicate pests in the cranberry bogs.

English settlers were eager to capitalize on the cranberry’s ability to ward-off scurvy; a remedy that wealthy sea captains were eager to purchase in the early days of transatlantic trade.  In the Cape, cranberries are still big business.  Just think of how many cans of cranberry sauce are sold around Thanksgiving alone; now think of those day-after-Thanksgiving-turkey sandwiches.  On that one holiday alone, each household in the United States is using at least two cans of cranberry sauce. (And if you’re like us, you love cranberries in chicken salad, too.) Canned cranberry sauce alone generates $125 million in sales a year.

That’s a LOT of cranberry sauce to come from one small corner of the United States.

Now, think of all the cranberry juice.  (Did you know that John F. Kennedy, a Cape Cod native, drank it daily in the White House?)

You see where I’m going with this: Cranberries are a major revenue stream for the Cape. And it turns out, the Cape is the perfect environment to grow cranberries. Cranberries like boggy, sandy soil. In fact, if you try to grow them in good soil, the plants will never actually generate fruit.

One of my favorite quotes about cranberries comes from the text Massachusetts Cranberry Culture by Robert S. Cox:

Well attuned to a Spartan life; the American cranberry is just the sort of fruit to make a stingy New Englander proud, making do with little and making little show of it.

There’s only one problem: pests love cranberries, too.

As far back as 1830, there’s mention of the “nefarious cranberry fireworm” destroying cranberry bogs.

In the early 1900’s Henry J. Franklin at the University of Massachusetts put together a roster of pests that were attacking cranberries from every angle:

Worms, weevils, blunt-nosed leafhoppers, and mites attack the foliage, buds, flower, and fruit; the cranberry girdler and spittle insects attack the stem of the plant, and at the root a steady army of attacking cranberry white grubs, grape anomala, cranberry root grubs, and striped colaspis.

Thankfully, some of these pests can be easily remedied: flood the bog at just the right time, and the moths can’t lay their eggs on the cranberry plants. No eggs means no voracious larvae. But flooding only remedies a few of the pest control problems. Cape Cod cranberry farmers had to stubbornly persist and seek out solutions in a practical and methodical way (as we New Englanders are apt to do).

In the 1840’s, it was common for cranberry farmers to spread a mix of salt, wood ashes, and lime. Others would sprinkle “tobacco water”–a method that organic cranberry growers still use today. Others, perhaps angrier, mixed sawdust soaked in kerosene. Some farmers even tried creating lures to draw away the pests: they would mix molasses and water in buckets, hoping the pests would drown (but they almost never did).

Some farmers encouraged bluebirds to nest on their farms, as bluebirds are “one of the greatest destroyers of small caterpillars and worms.” Other farmers imported European house sparrows and released them on their farms to eat the vine worms (these sparrows are now considered an invasive species). Other native birds that were found to be helpful were swallows, swifts, purple martins, phoebes, and red-winged blackbirds.

In the 1890’s synthetic pesticides started to be used broadly. Most of these pesticides were arsenic-based and were known by their colorful and exotic names: Paris Green, and London Purple were the most popular. These arsenic-based pesticides were mixed with molasses to make the arsenic stick to the leaves of the cranberry plant. These pesticides were effective, but farmers (and consumers) were concerned about using arsenic year-after-year on their land.

What does pest management in the Cape’s cranberry bogs look like today?

Today, cranberry bog farmers use Integrated Pest Management (IPM) to eliminate pests in bogs. IPM uses all available means to control pests in an environmentally conscious and economically sustainable manner.

  1. Cultural Controls: Strategies include holding late water floods,  sanding, proper timing of irrigation, and good drainage. All of these practices upset the natural lifecycle of cranberry pests. Flooding is useful for relieving insect pressure by killing problem insects. Sanding, which is done every three to five years, works to cover up old organic material underneath the vines. Burying this layer in sand impedes weed germination and insect reproduction thus giving the cranberry vine an advantage.
  2. Biological Controls use other organisms to eliminate problem pests. The use of nematodes to control certain pests or the use of B. thuringiensis bacteria for caterpillar control.
  3. Mechanical Controls control pests by physically removing them. Hand weeding and removal of pests is a commonly used mechanical control.
  4. Chemical Controls include the use of insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.

Because the cranberry industry has cultural, biological, and mechanical controls as tools it has been able to reduce, though not eliminate, its reliance on pesticides. Chemical controls remain an effective tool and are essential to provide an adequate supply of food at a sustainable price.

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Bonus Blog Article

7 Plants We’re Using in Our Garden to Repel Mosquitoes Naturally

Over the last three Rhode Island summers, we’ve used our backyard as a kind of outdoor laboratory to find the best plants to naturally repel mosquitoes. The seven plants we have listed here are our tried and tested winners. At Debug, we’re all about conscientious pest control. So, when we find natural ways to control pests, we share that information with you – it’s part of how we show We Care.

1. Mint

Mint is our highest performer. We’ve planted mint everywhere and so far it seems to be doing the trick. And mint is SO easy to grow. Mint is literally a plant-it-and-forget-it type of plant (we love that). We’ve put mint in our window boxes, our flower planters, and garden beds. This year we took an old terracotta strawberry planter (honestly, we could never get strawberries to grow in that thing) and made it an herb planter.

A secret trick from our grandmother: Break a spring of mint and rub the leaves on your legs and arms to keep mosquitoes away. I can’t remember our grandmother ever having a mosquito bite, so she must have been onto something.

Added bonus? Delicious mojitos!

2. Basil

All basil seems to keep away mosquitoes, but we found that cinnamon basil works best. Basil is another super-easy plant to grow. We put basil in all of our planters–right alongside our flowers. Right now, we have this basil, rose, and nasturtium planter on the deck, and we love it.  This year we invested in some deck railing planters and planted herbs in them.  We’ve seen a big decline in mosquitoes and hornets.

The added bonus of fresh basil is a plus.

3. Lavender

Growing-up, we had a fig tree in our yard. Our grandparents planted lavender under the tree to keep pests away from the figs (a nice Old World trick that really works). Turns out, lavender is also great at keeping away mosquitoes. We’ve planted lavender in pots, planters, and in our garden beds. Lavender is a perennial, so it will come back year after year. It’s also another low-maintenance plant that is great for beginner gardeners. Another bonus here: you can cut the lavender and make great smelling sachets for your drawers. Plus, lavender is just gorgeous.

4. Geraniums

We loved geraniums long before we knew they were a great mosquito repellant. So now we just plant double. Geraniums are easy to care for, come in beautiful colors, and can be easily added to any planter or garden bed. Geraniums are annuals here in New England, but we bring our geranium pots in before the first frost and they brighten-up our interior over the winter with their blooms. It’s a lovely way to add color to your natural mosquito control approach.

5. Citronella

This is our first year growing citronella and we’re seeing great results. We planted this one in a pot next to our water feature to keep the mosquitoes out of the water.  So far, the citronella seems to be very low maintenance; we really haven’t done anything to it, except give it a little water during a dry spell.

6. Onion

Mosquitoes (and lots of other garden pests including deer and rabbits) hate onions. Honestly, we never buy onion bulbs. We take onions from the grocery store and plant them just like tulip bulbs in the spring. When we buy scallions at the market, we chop and eat the tops and save the white bulbous end. We take these ends and plant them in the herb planters and then give them a good soak.  Within a couple of days, the scallions start growing back. Onions are probably the easiest plant to grow. And again, they’re great to add to your summer dishes.

7. Marigolds

Our grandparents always planted marigolds in their garden beds, especially around the tomato plants. These little orange and yellow flowers are great at keeping mosquitoes away (and lots of other pests, too). Marigolds are easy to grow and care for – and very economical when you plant them directly from seed.

Added tip:

Get a couple of oscillating fans for your patio or deck. Mosquitoes don’t like flying in the wind, so a couple of fans will set up a nice no-fly zone around your deck and patio.
Utilize some common sense and compromise with Mother Nature: go inside after dusk.

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