During our 10th anniversary season, we'll feature profiles of members of our amazing Red Wagon team. This week we interviewed Allison Lea, who manages our Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program.
You’re one of the longest term Red Wagon employees. How did you end up here? What keeps you here?
I started working for Julie when she was farming in Starksboro, and when she started Red Wagon I came along. I love working for Julie. She’s basically family at this point. I watched her daughter get on the bus to kindergarten, and now she’s in her second year of college!
What keeps me at Red Wagon is that I love plants and I love what I do. I taught myself about integrated pest management (IPM) and have continued to develop that role. It’s an interesting job; I’m very much behind the scenes. It’s looking for very small pests and/or the small signs that the creatures are there, and that they might be getting out of balance. I’m tuning into a different sort of sight. I spend a lot of time by myself, looking through the plants and walking around examining things.
It’s a bit surprising because I’m an English major, not a science person. Well, I say that I’m not a science person, but when I started learning about IPM, I got interested. It’s fun to geek out on pests and their life cycles and their predators and their life cycles. The learning process is never-ending. That surprised me because I’m the kind of person who’d rather lie on the couch and read a novel than study science.
Tell us more about IPM. What is it, and why is it important?
Greenhouses are ideal habitat for pests: you don’t change location from year to year, you’re providing the ideal climate and growing all these succulent little plants. All of Red Wagon’s greenhouses are certified organic, which means that we don’t spray chemicals to keep pests in check. There are OMRI-approved sprays [meaning they are acceptable for certified organic production], but not using sprays is better for plants and everybody, even the organic sprays.
Instead, every week I scout the greenhouses for pests, mainly aphids and thrips. These pests suck the plants’ sap, so I’m looking out for plants with puckered or shriveled leaves, or that look yellowed and droopy – really, any plants that just don’t look happy. It’s kind of a second sight.
I want to make sure that things aren’t getting out of a control. My goal is to strike a balance, so I’ll order beneficial insects like parasites that lay eggs inside of an aphid or predators that will eat an aphid entirely.
Is IPM applicable to home gardens or more relevant to commercial growers?
I’m not out to eradicate pests; I think you need balance. When you garden outside, there is just more natural balance. A greenhouse is an environment that creates potential imbalances. Outdoors, aphids kind of take care of themselves. In my own garden, I know that there are certain plants every year that are going to get aphids – I just notice it, I don’t necessarily manage it. My yarrow, my heliopsis inevitably get covered with aphids. I wipe them off and move on.
What are your favorite Red Wagon plants?
I love our herbs! I love how aromatic they are. And I love the vegetables – for example, brassicas are hearty, perky, and they always look good, especially this time of year when the more sensitive plants aren’t quite as happy. The brassicas are strong, almost utilitarian. I like them for their strength.
What's your home garden like?
I like growing herbs. Things like sage, thyme and oregano smell and look good. I really like lavender and rosemary, which I bring inside in the winter. I also like growing herbs that attract bees. I have motherwort in my yard, which a lot of people might not like because it spreads, but the bees like it. I also grow medicinal herbs: elecampane, calendula, angelica. I have a lot of fruit trees, thanks to my partner. I’m not that meticulous. I’m not a Martha Stewart gardener by any means!
Interview has been edited and condensed.