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.
The main thing is that you felt better for getting rid of them. I once had a Thalictrum aquilegifolium that got covered with aphid every spring but somehow was unaffected by it! The first few years, I carefully removed them but eventually I did not bother as it made no difference. Does that make me an optimist? I rather think it makes me a lazy gardener!
9/20/2013 02:03:58 pm
Maybe you're a little of both! I am all for laissez-faire gardening - when it works. These aphids looked like they were trying for world domination.
It's hard to be calm and not bothered when nature mounts an all-out onslaught like the aphid infestation. Where is the balance? Where is the live and let live approach nature usually takes. I would do what you did and water spritz the woodland tree. Sometimes nature needs help. It is totally not your fault, but it is totally in your power to fix it! (hope it did some good)
9/20/2013 02:05:09 pm
I'm not sure it's totally in my power to fix - maybe partially in my power, and at least I tried. But you raise a good question: where is Nature's helping hand? Are my birds on strike? What gives?
9/20/2013 02:33:47 pm
Git yer butt over to my blog asap!!! Less aphids isn't the solution but a different perspective is. I am a realistic optimist while my husband is a slightly improved "the glass is half empty, cracked, and full of poison" type. There is hope for you! BTW - this post made me laugh. :o)
9/21/2013 02:24:57 am
Tammy, I just got my butt over there and it cracked me up. You are so right - it's all about perspective. I have to try to view my gardening setbacks as "challenges" instead of "problems."
9/20/2013 03:53:27 pm
Great blog post!! And I'm so glad you've set out to conquer them!
9/21/2013 02:26:05 am
Thanks, Jen. I have no illusions that I will conquer them. I'm going for containment. That tree was giving me the willies.
9/21/2013 02:26:40 am
You said it. Especially "otherwise."
9/20/2013 10:23:20 pm
Sarah, I read the same book or a version of it, and the point I remember is the concession at the end: optimists score higher than pessimists on measures of happiness, health, and overall well-being, but pessimists are consistently more realistic in their assessments. Not sure where that leaves you and the aphids, but good luck getting rid of them.
9/21/2013 02:28:04 am
I know. It's a real bummer that pessimists are actually more realistic. But I suppose if you are an optimist, that doesn't bother you, or you find a way to reframe it so that it doesn't matter. Either way, it's a win.
9/21/2013 03:22:38 am
Good luck with the eradication. I had some of those in my garden one year, and they were not easy to get rid of (or maybe I was doing it wrong). But I never, ever thought it was my fault! Now, killing those new plants because I never watered them after planting.... that could probably be blamed on me! :O
9/21/2013 07:02:00 am
You seem eminently rational in your judgments, so I'm going to accept your compliment and try my best to believe it.
Ah, I see we have even more in common than I thought. In my childhood I was taught to acknowledge my faults and never deny responsibility for something bad that happens, including global warming. This has not necessarily been an advantage in my journey through life, especially when I consider all the people who never accept responsibility for anything that goes wrong. Sounds like an interesting book. Good luck with the aphids!
9/21/2013 07:06:58 am
Yes, being brutally honest about your faults (maybe even exaggerating them) puts you at a real disadvantage as you go through life. Although I think you can let yourself off the hook about global warming. That one seems a bit hard to pin on you in particular!
9/21/2013 09:52:26 am
Yeah, I'm pretty good at accepting the bad stuff, but it helps me keep my sense of self-respect to feel as if I am not rolling over and accepting everything - even though I know I'll never win.
Great post and rather timely! I've been trying not to fall down the slippery slope of "I can't grow roses/viburnum/dahlias this year so I clearly can't have nice things!" I can have nice things, they just might be different than the nice things I daydream about.
9/22/2013 05:32:25 am
Thanks, Kathryn. Misery loves company, so I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who gives in to the occasional bouts of self-pity and doubt. Of course we are always more critical of our own garden than others. Yours, for example, always look great to me! And I was under the distinct impression your viburnum had undergone a miraculous recovery (for which you should take all the credit).
9/22/2013 07:54:56 am
Is there a natural predator that would love climbing to the top of your tree for those tasty little treasures?
9/22/2013 10:23:31 am
Hi Charlie. By rights I should have a natural predator that would climbing the top of the tree, but they are nowhere to be found. From what I've read, the "woolly" coating on the aphids deters predators. That has definitely been the case in my garden.
9/22/2013 01:58:03 pm
Congratulations on knocking all those aphids off that tree! Now I don't mean to be a pessimist, but where did they all go? Blown to other parts of the garden, perhaps? :< No, surely, optimistically, they were all drowned! :>
9/22/2013 02:43:24 pm
Don't think I didn't think of that. I assume that they were drowned (as disgusting as that is to say). Or else that they can't survive unless attached to their host. It's not a perfect solution, but hey, it was the only thing I could think of short of cutting down the tree.
9/22/2013 03:16:22 pm
Huh, interesting! That is a lot of aphids! I don't think I've ever seen that many in one place before! Well, I was pessimistic when I discovered Milkweed aphids on my A. incarnata, hopeful after I blasted them off with a stream of water, and optimistic when I found lady beetles on the plant! I guess if we're patient, and take a little care, nature sometimes balances out. I'm glad you felt better after taking some action, too.
9/23/2013 01:26:56 am
There aren't ladybugs enough in the world to take care of these aphids, so I felt I had no choice but to step in. I've had milkweed aphids too, and they are persistent little devils, even with a blast of water from the hose and the helping hands of ladybugs.
9/23/2013 07:12:17 am
Hm, well I tend not to get worked up over aphids.
9/23/2013 09:16:08 am
Hi Aaron. You're very lucky - I keep waiting for the beneficial insects to do their thing, but they can't keep up the aphid supply. Normally I would agree that low intervention is the best course, but sometimes, it seems, Nature needs a nudge in the right direction. That's why it's called a garden, right?
9/24/2013 04:43:45 am
I'm a naturally optimistic person but the "it's my fault' trap is a hard one for me to leave behind. Men never think anything is their fault, why do women?
9/24/2013 09:51:30 am
That is an excellent question! Women are far more prone to blame themselves than men are. You hardly ever hear them say "my fault." Maybe I should blame the aphids on men...
9/24/2013 09:53:48 am
Hmm - I wonder how? I've also been called cynical (can you imagine?). And a long time ago, a boss dubbed me "Sarah Sunshine." Now that's sarcasm!
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
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.
Follow the Blog
Problems signing up? Send me an email and let me know.