April 24, 2014

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Good Bugs, Bad bugs

By Kylee Baumle

After an unusually mild winter, talk around the water cooler was that the destructive bugs would be worse than usual this summer. Summer’s here and if my garden is any indication, it just isn’t so. I can’t say I’m surprised, for a couple of reasons. Nature tends to like balance, and my thinking is that if the undesirable pests proliferate, wouldn’t the beneficials that keep them in check do the same?

I grow a large variety of plants in the garden and one reason, besides the fact that I’m a self-professed plant collector, is that diversity in plants also fosters diversity in other forms of life that take up residence there, such as pollinators.

In my garden, I’m seeing far fewer pests and pollinators than in previous years, with the exception of bees. They’re there in numbers and that’s a good thing. They’re very valuable pollinators and though I give them a wide berth due to my allergy to their stings, I welcome them in my garden.

That said, the weather has no doubt affected the insect population in ways that we hadn’t counted on nor wished for. The drought means that the environment for mosquito breeding has been limited. It’s nice to go outside in the middle of the day and even in the evenings and not feel like you’re the main course at the mosquito family reunion.

I’ve also noticed a marked decline in the numbers of Japanese beetles. Each summer, I make several passes through the garden each day and check out their favorite haunts. Here, they always dine at the ‘Morning Magic’ climbing rose, the ‘Memorial Day’ hybrid tea rose, and rarely, the pale yellow daylilies. I hand pick them off and though I used to put them in a little jar of soapy water, I now feed them to our chickens. (“Here, chick chick chicks! I’ve got a treat for youuu!”) They love them. But this year, their Japanese beetle treats are in short supply.

Fewer Japanese beetles are a good thing, but I’m also noticing fewer butterflies, namely, the monarchs. Our garden is a Certified Monarch Waystation (www.monarchwatch.org) and I’ve long been an advocate for growing more milkweed in gardens. Monarch caterpillars feed exclusively on milkweed (Asclepias sp.) plants. These are disappearing and the monarchs with them. But gardeners can help by growing any number of varieties of milkweed.

The common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca ) that most of us are familiar with is just one type, so if the idea of growing this makes you turn up your nose, there’s also swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) that has narrower leaves, can take on a shrub form, and has beautiful clusters of rose-colored flowers. I find that of all the varieties of milkweed I’ve grown, this is the monarch’s favorite.

The orange clusters of flowers on our native Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) are gorgeous when they’re in full bloom. I’ve got a yellow variety of this too, called ‘Hello Yellow’. But my absolute favorite as far as beautiful blooms are concerned is one commonly called scarlet or tropical milkweed (Asclepias curassavica). It has clusters of red and yellow blooms and they command attention in spite of their small size. This one is an annual here, so I allow them to go to seed and save it to plant the following year.

Soon it will be time for the last generation of monarchs born in our fields and gardens this summer to make the annual trek to their wintering site in central Mexico. Traversing more than 2,000 miles (and more, for those who start the trip in Canada) is no small miracle in and of itself. Please consider helping the monarchs by providing milkweed plants for their young in your gardens next year. Perennial types can be planted now through late September, giving them time to become established before winter.

Read more at Kylee’s blog, Our Little Acre, at www.ourlittleacre.com and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/OurLittleAcre. Contact her at PauldingProgressGardener@gmail.com.