Bugs and the Squeamish Gardener
It’s getting cool outside, and the bugs want in. For the past week, they’ve been clinging to the screen door, hoping to sneak in when I’m not looking. Yesterday I was face to face with one such clinger, a gray-black fellow with a pointy head. I had seen him a hundred times in my garden, but could not for the life of me tell you what he was. I am a disaster at entomology.
All gardeners know that there are good bugs and bad bugs. The problem is that I still have trouble telling which is which. Science was never my subject. I barely remember high school biology. Geology 101, which I took only to fulfill my college science requirement, was perhaps the most humbling experience of my academic career. It’s a mystery how I wound up gardening.
What is even stranger is that I am not half bad at plants. I can identify scads of them by their leaves alone. Nuances in size, shape, shade, and serration are no problem. But ask me if it’s a soldier beetle (good) or a cucumber beetle (bad), and I have no idea.
Since bug identification is essential to successful gardening, I tried to remedy my ignorance. I purchased Cranshaw’s Garden Insects of North America and perused Bugguide.net and other internet sites. Unfortunately, many bugs look disgusting. It is quite unpleasant studying their photos for any length of time. Furthermore, in some cases the physical differences between the good guys and the bad guys are slight. Mastering those differences would require a long, stomach-turning course of study.
As a result, my mental storehouse has not progressed much beyond the ladybug. I will stare intently at a creepy crawler in my garden, trying to memorize every detail of its anatomy and markings. But by the time I get to the book or computer, the details are getting a little hazy. Was the body hairy or smooth? Did the beetle have three lines or two? Were the stripes on the caterpillar horizontal or vertical? I would make a terrible witness.
So what’s a squeamish gardener to do? Usually I do nothing, which works better than you might expect, thanks to the birds, bats, frogs, salamanders, box turtles, and good bugs that keep the evil doers under control. And while I may have failed entomology, I do know what a sick plant looks like, and what the most likely victims are. Tomatoes get aphids. Turtleheads get mealybugs. The red lily beetle attacks oriental lilies, and the Achilles’ heel of my Rubeckia “Goldstrum” is a still-unidentified minuscule beetle that shows up every May. A daily squirt of soapy water works fine for aphids and mealybugs, and even for lily beetles if you get them at the egg stage. Those pesky Rudbeckia beetles are another story.
As gardeners, we are supposed to respect the ecosystem. I always feel guilty when I reach for the spray bottle, especially when it’s filled with something besides soapy water. But sometimes a little human intervention is in order. That’s why they call it "gardening,” right?
10/17/2012 06:52:16 am
I remember with a particular shudder the enormous green horned caterpillars that would sometimes infest the tomatoes in Judy's garden in White Plains; I also remember one strategy for dealing with unwanted bugs--pick them off the plant and gently drop them in your neighbor's yard.
10/17/2012 10:44:24 am
Of course we don't condone any such thing.
I've found that the best way to get up close and personal with the bugs is a good zoom lens. :) I can never remember the specifics, so I take lots of photos and can then compare.
10/18/2012 01:53:50 am
Yes, I never seem to have my camera when I need it. From your blog, I can tell you are a far more talented photographer than I am, though! Your photos are gorgeous.
Guilty... I don't like spiders. I tolerate them in the garden as they keep the pests under control. Yesterday one very grand looking spider fellow had spun an exquisite web at my front porch. My husband graciously moved him by the strands of his silk threads to the neighbors bush. Yes...Guilty.
10/18/2012 10:09:01 am
Yes, it's definitely a love-hate thing with spiders. There's nothing quite like the thrill of walking smack into a spider's web that seems to have sprung up magically from nowhere.
Before killing any insects in your garden, please check with your local extension office. Here in Central Virginia there are only two poisonous spiders, and that beauty in this blog is harmless and is called "the writer", if you notice the design within its web. Fascinating creatures all…stop, learn, and enjoy!
10/18/2012 10:11:31 am
They're sort of beautiful and horrifying at the same time.
10/19/2012 07:49:49 am
I couldn't resist trying to find the little feller...
10/19/2012 09:42:49 am
As always, you are a great researcher, Steven! It looks as if you found him (or her - I think it's a her). I'm glad you are enjoying the blog.
10/21/2012 03:00:26 am
Its official name is the Black and Yellow Argiope, aka the yellow garden spider. It's definitely one of the good guys (or in this case, one of the good girls). Jason gardens in an urban, cold weather climate (see his blog at http://gardeninacity.wordpress.com), where I would imagine the bugs actually die off during the winter!
10/22/2012 02:08:30 am
Thanks, Karen. So true about butterflies - the hard part for me is figuring out which ones will turn into something beautiful, and whether I can stand the suspense before the plants are completely destroyed!
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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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