Bug Troubles

 

Stands of daffodils shining here and there in the garden are great to see when everything is still wintry. My plan to keep them to the margins and path edges, so I don’t have to worry about the foliage being in the way before it goes dormant, looks to be working well. Next time I order bulbs, I’ll get more of the jumbo King Alfreds, probably my favorites, but also more late-blooming varieties and white/pinks, and plant them in concentric semicircles, going out into the lawn.

The second photo shows my plants before the weird troubles. The third photo shows the growths, something between a gall and an excretion, that I believe are caused by mites on my impatiens. If I pick the little beads off, I find they’re made of sticky sap.

But this is a good lesson. My plant room, full of such pretty things a while back, now has several sad specimens, missing their leaves, or with leaves that look burnt at the edges. Because I discovered these bugs, I assumed the leaf damage was fungus. It’s not unusual for mites and other sucking insects to spread disease. I did some research, though…

In gardening and in other areas of life, it’s worth being on the lookout for converging events, and not drawing the conclusion that if one problem precedes another, the two are related and not coincidental.

Anyway, my plants seem to have suffered from overwatering and possibly overfertilizing. This year I skipped peat pellets and tried potting mix. The peat pellets have their imperfections, but they were good for germination, and naturally wilt-resistant. Because this year I started mostly native wildflowers, which are perennials as well (where I usually sow garden annuals) I don’t have much basis for comparison. It does seem I got less germination and have had issues with sogginess.

The potting mixes have water-retentive additives, and NPK (nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous) additives, so in fact I might have harmed the seedlings both by watering too often and repotting too soon. I should have waited a few weeks, too, starting them. It was hard to judge without prior experience with these particular plants (and I was eager to get going), but the longer seedlings live in the windless indoor environment, the more opportunity for bugs and diseases.

The news isn’t too bad. I have six flats of strong perennials, almost all natives. My beleaguered seedlings are making a comeback, and quite a few were never badly affected. But this year’s seed-starting adventures have been a little different!

Bugs and Beauty

Above, a close shot of a goatsbeard flower. If you have one, it is either male or female, and so won’t reproduce by seed unless you have the right combination of two. That trait is called dioecious. Another member of the rose family, which goatsbeard belongs to, is the apple tree. Most varieties of apple need a mate to produce fruit. The goatsbeard is native to North America, and the flowers attract their own population of tiny insects, that I couldn’t quite bring out in this picture. Whatever they are, the ladybug larvae have been hunting them.

 

 

The strange red aphids above have been all over my heliopsis. As you can see, they attach themselves to the stems in a regimented way, and sort of float (on a too-tiny-to-see mouthpart, I presume). What I do about aphids, is let them be. I’ve seen yellowjackets, as well as ladybug larvae, eat them. These days, when all of nature is precious, our rule should be, Lose the Plant, Save the Planet. In fact, most afflicted plants won’t die from bugs or funguses…and if a plant can’t survive in your garden, you can find plenty of others that will.

A barn owl is said to catch as many as a thousand voles in the months raising its young. We love owls, and we don’t love voles, but it stands to reason the voles have to be there if the owls are going to thrive on them. Caterpillars that skeletonize leaves also feed migrating songbirds, and the moths caterpillars turn into feed bats. And that’s the natural order of things—prey comes before predators. When our yards can support wildlife, the creatures will arrive, but in the meantime we have to allow insects and rodents. 

Post-WWII, the suburban dream was a strange mishmash of perfect green lawn and tidy backyard vegetable plot. At the same time, suburbanites were encouraged to scorn rustic details like fences. If animals have only the choice between chemically treated grass, or flowers and tomatoes, of course they invade the garden. For decades the industry-touted solution was more chemicals, or other “kill” methods, that an organic gardener never needs to employ.

Another important rule is: Recruit Small, Fight Big. We don’t want to harangue fellow gardeners, who have at least one foot in the battle with us; we want to fight for laws to preserve and protect Planet Earth and commitment to their enforcement. 

 

 

Here are the irises I mentioned last week, dug, separated, trimmed, and replanted in a sunnier spot.

 

 

And here’s what’s taken their place. Raccoons have been nasty diggers this spring, so I’ve been buying bags of egg rocks (about five dollars each at Lowe’s), and strewing them in the vulnerable spots. Except for the primroses I divided and stuck in here and there, all I’ve put in are annuals, red impatiens and a lantana. That way I can decide if I want a different perennial in this bed next spring. 

I’ve seen, at least once, a garden writer tackle the theme of excess perfection in magazine and catalogue pictures. The above is a true-to-life view of new plantings in hot weather, a little sparse and a little droopy. But since mail order nurseries are using the pernicious star rating system these days, it’s worth thinking about unrealistic expectations, the way that a permissive environment for returning anything for any reason infantilizes consumers. Plants are alive, and under assault when we put them outdoors. Patience and resourcefulness help, also the constant acquiring of knowledge; also a philosophical view. We gain a lot from gardening—all the entertainment of setting a thing in motion and seeing how it plays out—but plant by plant, we don’t always win. Maybe it would be better to show the spots and yellowing, and aphids, and heat wilt, and deer chomping…