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.
I would like to speak to someone in charge. I ordered this:
Instead, I got this:
The following rant is dedicated to the people who make a living making you feel bad, the authors of what I like to call the Fantasy genre of garden literature. They hold out the promise that if you simply do A, you will surely get B. They also have a warning: whatever you do, you must never do C.
For the past two months I have been suffering from a flea beetle epidemic. The trouble started, as usual, on my Rudbeckia, one of those "indestructible" natives you're supposed to plant to get that Snow White effect. If you think that flea beetles only like eggplant, think again. They adore Rudbeckia.
I wanted to give peaceful co-existence a chance, so first I tried flicking them off. But it turns out they are a very mean-spirited bunch and used my "walk softly" approach against me. If you drive them off one plant, they attack another. That is the nature of flea beetles.
Flea beetles are almost impossible to eradicate, unless you intend to pull a Monty Python and bring out the heavy artillery. But who thinks in terms of eradication? All I wanted to do is control them, and that's hard enough. For starters, they seem to be impervious to biological controls. I should know. I have more biological controls than you can shake a stick at. I've got bees buzzing, butterflies fluttering, and birds chirp-chirp-chirping. I have all kinds of beneficial insects, hundreds of frogs and lizards, and the occasional box turtle. Snow White has nothing on me.
Yet it turns out that even biological controls are subject to the Peter Principle. They are effective up to a point, but eventually they meet their match. In my case, their match was the flea beetle.
With the birds on strike, Nepeta (which is said to repel flea beetles) entirely useless, and soapy water a joke, it was time to step up the program. Neem, which supposedly makes the plants taste bad, held them at bay for a few days but had no long term effect. Dusting with diatomaceous earth helped with the Rudbeckia infestation. However, it did nothing to help my coral bark willow, where hundreds of beetles were massing along the branches last week, decimating the foliage and withering the stem tips.
There is an old Henny Youngman-style joke that goes something like this: if a husband speaks in the forest and his wife isn't there to hear him, is he still wrong? By the time I reached for the pyrethrin, I felt a lot like the husband in the forest. Whatever I did, I was going to be wrong.
The pyrethrin worked. The flea beetles are (mostly) gone. All that's left are an inferiority complex and a guilty conscience. Nice going.
This is Scabiosa. It's pretty - not my personal favorite, but pretty. The butterflies and bees like it, so I have it in my garden. It's semi-evergreen here and will bloom about 10 months out of the year if nothing eats it first.
This is Newman. He's pretty too. I've named all the rabbits in my garden Newman, after the devious mailman who is Jerry's arch-nemesis in Seinfeld. Newman loves Scabiosa. He prefers it plain, but he'll also take it with cayenne pepper, dog hair, and Deer-Off.
Yesterday I experienced the season’s first official deer invasion, with two adults, two teenagers, and two babies making themselves right at home in my back yard. It had to happen sooner or later; deer are a year-round presence in my neighborhood, and fall is when they tend to be out and about as a family. Six at one time is nothing unusual. I shooed them away before they could damage what’s left of the euonymus, although I really wouldn’t have cared if they ate it all. Help yourselves. God created euonymus to keep deer away from camellias.
Nevertheless, another round of Deer-Off is probably in order. Oh yes – and the dog needs a haircut too. I have no idea if my haphazard attempts at deer deterrence are doing any good, but my guess is that they help a little, since my camellia was still there the last time I looked (although that was an hour ago).
I am well aware that my anti-deer regimen could use a little work. Other than dog hair and Deer-Off, it consists exclusively of regular visits to the back yard with Schmoogie, the aforementioned dog. He’s a poor excuse for a terrier, but the deer don’t know that, and I like to think our patrols make them a bit less inclined to trespass. In any case, there’s no getting rid of them (fences are not an option), so I try not to get too invested in the outcome. Which, by the way, is easier said than done.
At least I’m not a weekend gardener, like my friend Elaine. On Fridays, Elaine drives 2 ½ hours from her apartment in Manhattan to her house in the country in upstate New York, where deer quite possibly outnumber people and groundhogs eat what deer leave behind. Like me, Elaine is a bit of a galloping horse gardener. She has to be, since she has absolutely no control over what happens during the five days her garden is unattended. It must be hard to pull up on a Friday night and find that half your plants have been eaten. But she doesn’t let it get to her. She is the Zen Master of galloping horse gardeners.
Elaine’s beautiful garden is the second of this blog’s guest gardens, and you can read her account of her triumphs and tragedies here, in The Hazards of Country Life. She calls her garden pseudo-English; I call it Darwinian – its design principle is survival of the fittest. I particularly like the hazmat suit she dons to work in the yard.
Deer, groundhogs, poison ivy, Lyme disease – is it worth it? Of course it is.
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.
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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