Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ask not for whom the soap suds...

it suds for thee.

They always start out innocently enough, my obsessions.  I see a butterfly, it is gorgeous. Watching it makes me stop whatever I was doing.  Later I want to share what I saw but it is clumsy communicating deeply moving experiences when your descriptive language is limited by ignorance.  Eloquence and inaccuracy are uneasy partners at best.
Eastern Tiger Swallowtail/Papilio glaucus
I was raised to look things up when I had questions I could not answer, so I attempt to find out what sort of butterfly I saw.  I find images of several butterflies that look similar but none are precise matches for what I remember seeing.  I find images of many more butterflies that bear little resemblance but are still fascinating to read about.
Red Admiral - Vanessa atalanta
Next time I go out to the garden I bring my camera along.  I see another butterfly, different yet beautiful in its own way, and I drop whatever work I am doing to give chase and try to capture an image.  It is blurry but better than relying on my spotty memory and the image is clear enough at least to lend confidence to my identification efforts.

I go out into the garden just to look some days.  I see more butterflies.  I take my camera out routinely now, and get many images, some of them very pleasing.  I find out some of my butterflies are actually moths.  I wonder if I can get a good photo of a bee, so I try.
Sweat bee/Agapostemon surrounded by Carpet Beetles/Anthrenus lepidus.
Editing my "bee" photos I realize I am getting images involving a lot more variety than I expected.  What are these non-honeybee bees?  Back to the internet.  It is all so fascinating and abruptly I reach a point where I am wondering how difficult could it be to get photos of everything I see crawling, hopping and flying through the garden beds?   Not just butterflies, moths and bees. I want to find out what everything is, I want to know all the names!
Uh oh.  Soldier beetle, probably Cantharis pellucida.
Right about here is where things all got a little dicey.  Now I've become a little better at sussing out what kind of crawly thing it is I just took a photo of.  (A little better...)  Now it all stops being hypothetical and gets personal, fast.
Forest tent caterpillar/Malacosoma disstria
Inevitably, a certain percentage of these critters are turning out to be bad players.  Borers, suckers, stabbers, skeletonizers, they all spell damage if not doom for some plant out there. Some plant out there in my garden beds. Some plant out there in my garden beds that somebody important shared with me, or perhaps some plant that I raised from seed. Some plant out there that I carefully selected, paid for, planted, hand watered, and protected from killing freezes. Some plant out there I am deeply invested in keeping alive.
Carpet beetles (making some area rugs)/Anthrenus lepidus
I struggled briefly with what an appropriate response would look like.  I am using mostly native plants precisely to draw in and support more wildlife.  All these potential pests are just as much wildlife as the butterflies I so admire. Where should I draw the line? Follow the Prime Directive, simply observe and chronicle?  Watch and wait and allow natural systems to find their own balance without my intervention?
Western grapeleaf skeletonizer (Harrisina metallica)
Pffft.  As if.  Once the numbers of non-benefical insects I observe in any given season reaches critical mass I cannot help myself.  I am simply propelled into action.  To me this is nothing more but nothing less than the good guys versus bad guys, the beneficials versus the plunderers. I consider it my job to teach the lesson as often as it is needed: In this garden, under my watch, plunderers never prosper.
Confession: I don't do anything about these dangling from the oaks but I do enjoy watching the birds eat them.
I am against spraying chemicals and have a low gross-out threshhold for smashing bugs with my bare hands.  My solution is to break out an empty tennis ball container, fill it one third of the way up with soapy water and then go out to wreak havoc upon the invaders.  Carpet beetles?  I'm knocking you into the soapy water. Four lined leaf bugs?  Likewise.  Grasshoppers and Leaf footed bugs?  Flea beetles?  Into the soapy Bath of Doom you all go.
This image from last year (Aztec spur throated/Aidemona azteca). Immature nymphs show up later in the season but I've already spotted at least one of the duller brown adults hopping off at my approach.  
Honestly, I take no real pleasure in the process. The tiny bodies in the soapy water are hard for me to look at, so for that very reason I make myself look at what it is that I am doing.  I try very hard not to accidentally soapify beneficial insects, but the truth is there is often a bit of collateral damage.

Occasionally in the process I end up mauling the very blossoms I'm out there trying to protect.  Pleasant or not, I feel this population control response is a necessary part of being a good steward to the plants I've introduced into these spaces.

I can sum up my philosophy best with this borrowed and slightly altered phrase from medicine:  "Better the planter than the pest".
An ongoing ID nemesis - some sort of Skipper, subfamily Hairstreak
I am not proud that I purposefully kill in my garden.  It seems antithetical, incompatible with what I believed gardening, and especially "Gardening for Wildlife" would comprise.  I try to assure I am killing specifically, personally, and accountably.  I try to understand who the visitors are that the plants are receiving, and potentially, why they felt invited in.  Beautiful, or not.
Anolis carolinensis on San Francesco d'Assisi
As native daughter and native plant/wildlife gardening inspiration Ladybird Johnson herself once said, "The nature we are concerned with ultimately is human nature.".


Tina said...

There are some bad actors out there. I think I read somewhere that only 1 or 2 % of insects are harmful--the rest are either beneficial or innocuous. But when they're harmful, well the gardener just can't help herself. I'm currently in spray-the-aphids-on-my-frostweed mode. I've never had aphids on them before--until now. I've been spritzing with a strong stream of water, every 2-3 days and now, the ladybird beetles and their offspring have moved in for the kill. Or meal.

Love all of your photos, but the sweat bee and the skeletonizer--wow, those are great. All the best on your (relatively) gentile eradication of the evil ones.

TexasDeb said...

Tina: There are a few types of bugs that don't take prisoners when it comes to weakening their host plants. That's so not cool, you guys.

Aphids are low on the totem pole here for now. With some balance restored, they will need to quake in anticipation of my wroth.

Kris Peterson said...

As the gardener, you're part of the local ecosystem too. And Mother Nature can't be said to be remotely soft-hearted.

TexasDeb said...

Kris: Point well taken. I try to be careful as Mother Nature doesn't play favorites whereas I most assuredly do. But you're right. One of the advantages (and disadvantages) this spot of land must consistently work with is that there are humans as part of the fauna.

BTW, we got some needed rain last night, a little over an inch, but it came mostly in the form of hail. A good reminder to me to be more careful with my wishes.

Laurin Lindsey said...

Finding a balance and creating an ecosystem takes time and maintenance. Kris is right about "Mother Nature" We occasionally spray a soap mixture on a plant that is being overwhelmed with aphids or scale, etc.at the same time we give the plant weekly doses of diluted seaweed extract and make sure the soil is not to wet or dry and the airflow is good. This is mostly on our camellias. I have noticed less insect infestations since I became a bird cafe : ) I have worried about my pollinators because of all the birds, but they seem plentiful. In the end I realize I can do my best but I am not nearly as wise as "Mother Nature" herself. Happy spring!

TexasDeb said...

LaurinL: That's a good point. We have an assortment of nesting birds and regular visitors but it seems they're all about the worms in the oak trees at the moment. Any bugs working the flowers aren't getting much attention - probably too much work by comparison and the birds have young to feed. But their day will come.

Travis Heights Garden Mama said...

So meditative- you watch, soak in, ponder.. And then you blast the bad guys! Your sense of balance seems quite fair- get only what you can reach, no chemicals to linger on.

The close ups are beautiful- I almost wish I could go sit in a garden for 30 minutes to find beauties like that- but its's night time. Good inspiration to notice the little things in the morning!

Rebecca Newcomb said...

Clumsy at communicating? Never. You are the most eloquently worded garden blogger I know. I've done my fair share of bug-squishing in the past year. Every time I dig up a squash-vine borer pupae - squish. Cabbage loopers? Squish. Fuzzy caterpillars eating my chard and sunflowers (identified by other gardeners as gypsy moths)...squish. The squishing tends to be a bit gross, but effective method for me so far. I haven't yet tried the suds.

TexasDeb said...

THGMama: I'm retired so have the luxury of time to sit and watch outside of pollen season. Whenever I go out I always take my camera. Usually there are lots of us out there, working in the springtime sunshine.

I let the bugs have a day off after the recent storms but today I'll be back out with my tube of Soapy Demise!

TexasDeb said...

Rebecca: Part of my resistance to squishing is the fact I so often forget to wear gloves unless I'm digging around in the dirt. If I'm pruning or weeding I'm bare handed and getting bug guts on my hands skeeves me out. It is an effective methodology - I give you that. Occasionally I'm unsure if I knocked a bug in the water or if it flew off to chew another day. WIth the squishings, you know you got your bug!

Debra said...

I agree with Rebecca: you have an eloquent blog and I love reading your words. Killing bugs bothers me. I want a perfect garden but I also want a perfect soul. Kind of silly. My dream is that the garden will become a place where everything will kind of take care of itself and I can be a neutral party. The more things mature the more that is happening. And as the plants mature things get lush enough that a little loss isn't a big deal any more. That said, I do kind of hate the 4 lined bug. I saw where they had uglified some oregano just yesterday and got a bit annoyed. I was thinking of going on a murderous rampage but decided to just snip the oregano back instead. It will grow back thicker when the bugs are dormant. Yet. Will the bugs also come back thicker next year? Will they reach a mass where a predator will become interested and move in? Letting go feels like a leap of faith.

TexasDeb said...

Debra: You are yanking at my conscience, here. It feels like a cycle sets up where I let things go too long one year, then the damage runs ahead of a comfortable set point and I try to be more proactive the next year. Or two.

I am clumsy and slow enough that whatever bugs I take out of the mix certainly won't devastate an entire population. And yes, I just made a very tepid case to excuse killing living things. At least the bugs are eating to stay alive when they cause damage. Urgh.