Woolly Aphids? Not My Fault.
Years ago I read a fascinating book called Learned Optimism, about the different ways in which optimists and pessimists see the world. The crux of the difference, according to the author, lies in their respective "explanatory styles" - what they tell themselves about events in their life, both good and bad. The author believes that you can learn to change your explanatory style and transform yourself from a pessimist to an optimist.
It will not be news to anyone reading this blog that my explanatory style, in the garden as elsewhere, tends toward the pessimistic. My Purple Dome aster divisions are thriving in their new location, but big deal. They are practically weeds; they'll grow anywhere. I can never get Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage) to overwinter in my garden; ergo, I must be incompetent.
Obviously it's been too long since I've read the book and I am in desperate need of a refresher. I must learn to say that my Purple Dome asters are doing well because I placed them in the perfect spot and gave them impeccable care. I must remind myself that Salvia leucantha is only borderline hardy here, and that with our wet winters, it's no wonder mine didn't come back.
It was to be expected that when my pyracantha began attracting woolly aphids a few weeks ago, I immediately decided that it was all my fault. Never mind exactly how - that's the beauty of pessimism. It's boo-hoo all day, every day. So imagine my relief when I noticed this alder tree growing in the woods adjacent to my house.
No, it's not snowing in September. Those are woolly aphids, and they mean business. I had never seen anything like it -the tree was completely covered in woolly aphids from top to bottom. That's the bad news. The good news is, I am off the hook. This is Not My Tree. And that means the woolly aphids are Not My Fault.
Then it dawned on me that Not My Fault does not equal Not My Problem ("today the alder, tomorrow the world," and all that). So I called the County Extension's office, which put me in touch with the North Carolina Forest Service. To my great surprise, the response was one big yawn. The Forest Service, it seems, has more pressing worries, and views woolly aphids as nothing to get worked up about.
Except I was worked up. For the sake of my own garden, I felt it was imperative to stop the aphid onslaught; besides, I felt sorry for the tree. So I put on a hat, dragged my hose down to the alder, and spent the next half hour under a cascade of water and falling aphids.
Did it work? Don't ask me; I'm still working on that optimism thing. I couldn't get to the top branches, which are still oh-so-poetically dusted with the snowflake impersonators. But overall, the tree looks much better. I feel much better. Let's not ask for the moon.
It's September, and the gardening word of the day is "eeew."
Exhibit A: my pyracantha 'Mohave,' which I discovered in the process of being defoliated by voracious caterpillars clustered together and wiggling and generally grossing me out. The perps have yellow and black vertical stripes, black heads, and orange knobs along their body. I couldn't get a positive ID from my various bug sources - my best guess is Datana perspicua - but I can tell you that they grow really, really fast. I left them alone for a few days hoping the birds would eat them, and when I came back they seem to have quadrupled in size. More to the point, they were making short work of the pyracantha's foliage. They had to go.
Out came the step ladder and the clippers. Navigating my wild, unpruned pyracantha took a little doing, but I managed to park the ladder so that I could ever-so-gingerly snip off the caterpillar-filled branches and dispose of them. And then I saw this.
Eeew eeew eeew. This one sent me straight inside to my favorite bug book, where I identified these guys as woolly aphids, a fairly common pest of pyracantha but (happily) entirely new to me. I spritzed the infested branches with insecticidal soap, then, to make sure I had left no aphid or caterpillar behind, blasted the entire shrub with a strong jet of water from the hose. Mission accomplished. I walked away.
But wait - what's that crawling in my shirt? Eeeeew. Really, really eeeeew.
The Galloping Horse Gardener is a native New Yorker who packed it in in 2005 to live under the radar in Cary, North Carolina. In 2014, she removed to a new secure location somewhere in Raleigh.
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