Buggin’ out

    Take a mild winter, add an early spring and unusually dry weather, and what do you get? Besides great barbecuing, lots of bugs in your garden.

    In a more typical winter, cold temperatures zap a fair number of the overwintering garden pests who hunker down in various lifecycle stages. But this winter only brought a few hard freezes, punctuated by a number of warm spells. Spring came early and gardens sprang to life about a month ahead of schedule, just as the aphids, mealybugs, and scale insects were hatching.

    What’s a gardener to do? If there was ever a time for chemical warfare, is it now? It’s tempting, but having worked for many years in private and public gardens, my observational experience has been that gardens in which pesticides are applied always have more pests. Or at least the same amount as other gardens. And it seems that the higher the pesticide usage, the bigger the bug problem, creating a particularly vicious chemical cycle.

    Don’t ask me to explain exactly why this is, but it’s not hard to imagine that as lower life orders, bugs play a critical role in the garden. Eradicating this important trophic layer from a small environment throws the whole system out of whack. Removing those tiny sap-sucking, leaf chewing insects means a garden can’t support the larger beneficial insects, or birds, or toads, or other higher life forms that are the natural predators of our garden pests. And then when the aphids from next door hop over the fence, the garden is undefended and another infestation takes place, requiring a new application of pesticide.

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    I am resigned to sharing space with more garden pests than usual this year. But as gardeners we don’t have to give up the battle entirely, at least not this early in the season. Surprisingly, a hard jet of water can knock most sucking insects off a plant. Insecticidal soap, either purchased or home made, can be sprayed on flower buds and other delicate plants. Particularly bad infestations warrant pruning off the affected parts and throwing them out.

    And stronger plants are always able to shrug off pests better, so this may be the year to give your garden some extra attention. A little more TLC in the form of mulch, compost, and water this season could result in less bugging out- for you and your plants.

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