Sunday, May 14, 2017

Buzzing with curiosity

I need a steep learning curve, always have, always will. If you want me to stay interested in something, you have to keep my attention, once I know all the rules and the shortcuts and have learned all the information, if there still isn’t learning involved, my focus starts to wander. This has always been the way I operate. When I was a kid, I had crazes. I’d totally immerse myself in something, and then 6 months later I’d be off that topic and onto the next. Some people like it when the master a subject, but me, I just get bored. It’s one of the reasons plants, gardening and the natural world continues to hold my interest. I’m always learning something new.

Just last week we had an amazing speaker at Murders who really made me think about bugs in a new way. I’ve never been especially freaked out by bugs; I actually think some of them are quite beautiful; but I do find some of them quite irritating, especially when they are eating my roses, but I’ve learned to tolerate a certain level of them, thanks to a talk I went to a bunch of years ago given by Doug Tallamy, a Professor of Entomology within the University of Delaware’s College of Agriculture & Natural Resources. He made me realize that without insects, there would be nothing for birds to feed their babies, and with that one fact changed my whole perspective on the way I battled bugs. I gave up chemical pesticides and switched to more organic treatments like neem oil, horticultural oil and insecticidal soap; treatments that worked by smothering soft bodied insects, not by coating them and the plants around them with toxic chemicals; and I started accepting more insects in my world. The fact that I was trying to raise bees also helped point me in this direction. I can honestly say that I was trying to create a more balanced ecosystem.

Unfortunately I was failing. Or so Jessica Walliser helped me figure out in the gentlest and most supportive way possible. Jessica was at Marders talking about her newest book, Attracting Beneficial Bugs To Your Garden, and although I invited a whole bunch of people, for some reason people weren’t as excited about learning about creepy crawlies as I was. What a mistake on their part. First of all the first thing that left me thunderstruck was an observation so obvious, I can’t believe it had never occurred to me before. Naturally, like everyone on the planet, I know ladybugs eat aphids and so are good for the garden. Also I am super proud of the fact that I could identify a lady bug in its larval form, but somehow, in all the years that I’ve been gardening with “less toxic” treatments, it never occurred to me that both ladybugs in larval form and ladybug eggs are both soft bodied and therefore would be smothered and killed by these “less toxic” treatments. Whoops! How did I not realize this?

I had been tripped up by the thinking that something that was organic or natural would be less dangerous. I should know better. I warn people that although you can use copper to treat black spot on roses, it’s still a heavy metal and as such can be toxic if used in excess.  Nicotine is not only addictive; it’s also a neurotoxin, not just for insects, but also for most mammals, including humans. This is why even though it’s a natural ingredient; it’s no longer used as an insecticide.

The second whammy of the day was the revelatory thought that since there was really nothing I could do to “fight” the bad bugs in my garden that wouldn’t also hurt the good bugs, I had the switch directions entirely, and instead of fighting insects, I had to encourage them. It sounds crazy doesn’t it, but stay with me. Jessica’s message was simple. Nature has already created predators for most of the bugs we’re battling, so the best thing we can do in our garden is to try to encourage them to not just drop by, but to come over and stay for a while. And for that we needed to know exactly what makes a garden attractive to the sorts of insects we need more of in our lives.

These two thoughts have opened up a whole new arena of thought for me, and two entirely new subjects I now need to learn all about.  The first is insects. Like I said, insects don’t freak me out, but I wasn’t really drawn to them in the same way I was fascinated by plants. I just used to tell people that I didn’t really know that much about insects because I was a horticulturist, and that to find out about the bug they had trapped in their baggie they’d need an entomologist. Now I’m realizing that I really need to know my bugs better; that it’s not good enough to just know what’s a beetle and what’s a fly, I need to be able to tell a Minute Pirate Bug from an Assassin Bug and a Syrphid Fly from a Robber Fly. And that I need to learn how to attract these bugs to not just visit my garden, but to live and bred and reproduce their since it’s sometimes the larvae that are the predators of the bugs I need to battle, not just the adults.

I’ve embraced planting to attract birds; I can spew forth the best ingredients for a hummingbird garden in a sentence or two. I know all sorts of ways to make butterflies happier. I’ve even embraced pollinator gardening, (this happens when you start raising bees and you’re trying to give them as many food sources as possible. Now I need to learn a whole new set of plant and critter interactions. I know what the deer love to eat, but what about parasitic wasps? They like coreopsis, goldenrod, angelica, boneset and veronicastrum; all plants I already have; but also mountain mint and yarrow, two plants I hadn’t really been desperate to include before that are now on my “have to have” list. The larvae of syrphid flies eat thrips. I loathe thrips. They disfigure my dahlias every year, are wrecking havoc on my hydrangeas and are super hard to deal with since they tend to hide in flower buds – so even if I was still trying to kill them with an insecticide, it’s difficult to do so.  However, if I add more calamintha, oregano, dill and cilantro to the asters and angelica I already have in abundance, I’m creating a fabulous an attractive garden for a nice syrphid mother to make into a baby palace of her very own. And those Zizia plants that I’ve been thinking are a nuisance; well perhaps I should encourage those, as a whole slew of beneficials think they’re the most delicious things on the planet (a nifty and generous early source of nectar.)

As I’ve said this is an entirely new way for me to think about my garden, and I’m just starting to incorporate these thoughts, by intermingling these plants into my existing beds and garden areas, but if I get really ambitious I can create a beneficial insect garden. It’s probably going to take me a while to get there, since I have a whole bunch of learning ahead of me, but frankly I find the prospect of needing to study and do research on something almost as exciting as the thought of finally making a dent in my current thrip explosion.

Paige Patterson has never seen so much vole damage so early in the year and it’s sort of freaking her out.