What Insect Apocalypse?

Katydid on fuchsia

I had an interesting experience while I was out walking the dog one quiet Sunday morning not too long ago. Sunrise is getting later so we were out just after sunrise and it was still and quiet–until we approached our property.

As we got in front of the little patch of woods that we have, I heard all sorts of noise. I stopped because I couldn’t identify it at first. I hadn’t heard it anywhere else on the street. Then I realized it was insects. There were cicadas in the trees, and something else chirping, maybe katydids, and I think I am hearing trees frogs.

It’s been so long since I have heard tree frogs that I am not even sure. I used to hear them all the time 20 years ago. Then a new subdivision went in and a lot of trees were taken down and I haven’t heard them since. So how tree frogs might have found their way to our little patch of woods mystifies me, except that it is now one of the few “little patches” of woods left standing.

But whatever I was hearing was so loud that it literally stopped me in my tracks and it was only in front of my property. Everyone else’s property was quiet.

There are all sorts of articles dating back a couple of years ago talking about stories of insect die-offs as dramatic as 75%. This became known as the “insect apocalypse,” and dire warnings and predictions followed.

Fortunately, some of those studies and methodologies proved to be wrong. But for those of us of a certain age, we can notice that, for example, there are fewer of certain types of insects.

I vividly remember the 2 hour car trips to the beach and back as a child. When we arrived around 9 pm in the evening, our windshield and headlights would be bug-spattered.

Car trips of similar duration now don’t leave our cars bug-spattered. And while I am grateful for small favors, I don’t think the insects have become better navigators. I just think there are far fewer of them.

Is this a problem? I will leave that to the scientists to determine. But in the meantime, I will be grateful that I have a cleaner car and a property that welcomes wildlife of all kind, even invertebrates.

Vine-Ripened Tomatoes

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For any gardener that likes them, there’s nothing like a vine-ripened tomato. Many times, if you’re growing these smaller varieties, they don’t even make it it into the house–they go straight from the plant into your mouth.

In past years, I have done that too. But recently, and especially in this drought year, I have smaller critters so anxious for any moisture at all that they’re stripping–and eating–green tomatoes, something that I have not seen before.

So I have had to resort to some desperate measures myself. Now, when I see even the smallest hint of color on these tomatoes, I snatch them off the plant and bring them inside the kitchen to ripen.

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After all, as cute as this little guy is, I am still not sharing my tomatoes with him or her!

A Plague of Locusts?

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It’s been a very dry summer–I believe I mentioned Friday that we are in moderate drought. July brought less than an inch of rain and was the second hottest July on record, (last year was the first).

So with the lack of rain, I have been trying to water very carefully–only containers and newly planted plants are getting water from me at this point. But I have rarely seen the gardens look so sad.

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Take this garden for example. This is self-sown goldenrod and asters, with a few other plants added by me in a garden where a magnolia used to grow. The fact that the natives are wilting so severely in a garden that’s actually in a very wet part of my yard (usually) tells you how dry it’s been.

And I suppose I am lucky that I haven’t planted too much due to the pandemic–it would only need watering.

The things that I have planted–or that were already planted years ago–are being ravaged by “critters,” and who blames them? Between the drought and the fact that plants aren’t producing normally because of drought, things are definitely looking for food–and moisture–where they can find it.

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I am lucky to scavenge tomatoes off my own two plants before something–chipmunks, probably–beat me to it. Because the tomatoes are container-planted, I can control the pest damage, somewhat.

But the other day, I came home to find a green tomato on the walk. When I turned it over, dozens of ants scurried away. Ants on a green tomato? Now you know they’re desperate for moisture!

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My sage in the garden has been eaten into lacy bits. I don’t mind–I have more in a container by the door. But what on earth is so desperate that it needs to eat sage leaves? The jagged holes mean it could be anything–beetles, slugs, caterpillars (although I didn’t see any currently)–whatever.

I find that during times of drought things like katydids and earwigs, which normally just eat garden detritus, (the earwigs, I mean) resort to eating “good” parts of plants as well.

And when I was watering the other night, a grasshopper jumped out at me from between 2 containers. Just what I need: a plague of locusts in a pandemic!

A Tale of Two Lawns

Happy National Pollinators Week! This is the week in June, every year, that the Pollinator Partnership uses to focus attention on the plight of declining pollinators and the role pollinators play in our ecosystems.

With so much going on in the country and the world, it’s tempting to ask if this isn’t just a distraction. I assure you that it isn’t. Pollinators play such an important role in our world that without them, humans literally cannot survive. We need to care for them because they cannot afford to be wiped out.

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So with that being said, take a look at the photo of these lawns. It’s pretty clear that there’s a line between them. The one at the bottom–or closest to the eye–or in front of the “thank you first responders” sign–is my lawn.

As you can notice, it’s all full of clover again, thank goodness. Why is this important? Clover is a great resource for bees and butterflies like the sulphur. I regularly see all sorts of bees on the flowers–I need to be careful when walking the dog through there, although I think the bees are so busy gathering nectar that they would most likely just move on. Still, I don’t want to test my theory on her.

The lawn in the upper portion, beyond my garden, belongs to a neighbor who uses Trugreen. Most of my neighbors use some service who treat the lawns chemically. Therefore, it’s possible to walk down the street and see who treats and who doesn’t by the clover. It’s really interesting.

Of course clover isn’t the only “weed” that we have, but surprisingly, many of those other “lawn weeds” are also butterfly nectar sources as well. Violets host frittalary butterflies. Plantains host the buckeye, painted ladies and crescents.

Once you begin to see your lawn weeds as food for pollinators, having a perfect lawn becomes far less important. At least it does for me. And it’s nice to know that I never have to worry about letting the dog walk on it either (except where the bees are nectaring)!

A Walk on the Wild Side

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Through a series of unfortunate events, we are dog sitting for this cute little guy while his owner is in the hospital (not Covid related, but his owner will likely be there awhile. We have already had the dog 10 days). He is as unlike our current dog as is possible so we ramble around the yard.

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It gives me the time to see lovely little nature pairings like this, which I might ordinarily miss.

We also hear lots of lovely bird song. And just yesterday we startled a large rabbit just outside the door. That’s trouble (but it was still nice to see so close up).

The “resident” dog and I have had a few wildlife encounters this week as well, but less pleasant. She and I encountered a coyote so close that even she was able to see it (normally she ignores the coyote and bear that cross our path when we’re walking). Luckily it scampered into some woods instead of making a stand.

We also came home one afternoon to a good sized garter snake sunning itself on our walk. She was oblivious so I just took her inside through another door and tried to return for a photo but as is usually the case, the snake was camera shy.

Ah well. It’s always good to respect the wildlife.

Persistent Fruit?

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Back when I worked in retail gardening, there were certain plants that everyone wanted–until they understood what was required for fruiting. Hollies (the genus ilex) was one of these. Everyone wanted the red berrying hollies.

No one wanted to plant a male plant (in other words, one without berries) so that they could get the red berries. If you knew how many times I answered the question about “but my neighbor has a holly. Can’t I just use theirs for the male?”

So we sold far fewer hollies than we should because they are lovely, deer resistant native plants for New England and they have persistent fruit (meaning their berries stay on the shrub and don’t fall off and make a mess) until they ripen after the winter. That’s why the birds harvest them in the spring and why they’re available if you choose to cut them for winter decorations.

Since my retail gardening days, hollies have come a long way as well. Breeders are making smaller shrubs and more heavily berrying shrubs. You still need plants of both sexes for most kinds of hollies to get berries–but now at least, the sizes of the shrubs are a bit more manageable for home gardens!

Another small tree that was a near impossible sell was the crab apple. Crab apples have come a long way and they too have persistent fruit. But many folks remember the older variety that dropped messy “apples” and so won’t even consider them.

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Crabapples are another fruit that remains on the tree throughout the winter and is available for returning migratory birds in early spring so it’s a valuable resource.

Take a little time to learn about our new and improved plants the next time you are shopping for a small tree or evergreen shrub. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Non-Native Shrubs for Wildlife

This may look like an out of control mess (more about what’s actually gone on here in a moment) but this wild hedge of hibiscus syriacus actually serves a wonderful purpose. As you might actually be able to tell from this photo, the land approaching this garden–which is not mine–in a slope. You can see the hibiscus flowers lying on it.

My neighbor mows it with a riding mower. For years I struggled with this garden and with painfully hand pulling the grass that his riding mower threw into the garden (actually it was the grass seeds, which then germinated–but I digress). Now that I have the Great Wall of Hibiscus, it fairly impenetrable.

Ironically, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. (And in another digression, isn’t this what gardening is all about? Happy accidents–and some not so happy ones?) That huge white hibiscus you see is one that was sent to me as a test shrub. It is called Lil’ Kim and was supposed to be 3-4 feet tall.

So, as I always say, plants can’t read–but in this case, Lil’ Kim apparently reverted to her parentage, whatever that was.

Here’s the true Lil’ Kim. You can probably tell that her foliage is more delicate and her flowers are smaller than anything in that gargantuan hedge.

By comparison, here is her “reverted” sister, parentage unknown. Same color scheme, same type of flower, just much larger.

So why do I let this behemoth stay? Simple–the wildlife love it. Bees and hummingbirds adore it. The fact that it has created a hedge from the grass clippings is an unintentional bonus.

And you might have noticed some purple hibiscus in my photo too. Both these plants, when they self-sow, occasionally throw off purple seedlings. I let them stay on the idea that purple is a desired wild life color.

Here’s a close-up of the the “purple” one. I guess it’s more lavender. Anyway, I like it. Coming up in the kolkwitzia, it makes it look as if it’s blooming a second time–almost.

The Fish Can See Clearly Now

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I always say that my backyard pond is the one place in my yard where I spend the most time and do the least amount of work.

That definitely isn’t true on the weekend when I have to clean it, however. It’s an “old-fashioned” pond–pre-formed, not liner with rocks on it, so that in and of itself causes a lot of issues.

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It was put in over 35 years ago–before they knew about putting in filters and building filters into the waterfall feature–so I have to plop a filter box onto the bottom to house the pump.

But despite all the drawbacks, it works to keep some smallish fish alive, even through New England winters. And the sound of moving water definitely helps you to feel cool on a hot day!

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The fish are probably 12-13 years old–I’ve lost count now–and when I was cleaning it this year, I found a 2 year old that I didn’t know that I had. So that’s always a nice bonus. We’ll see if it lives long enough to grow into an adult, although if it’s made it this far, chances are good it will survive.

I don’t generally put plants in the pond anymore although I used to. The photo at the top of the post is from several years ago. The fish, rooting around in the gravel and the mud just made a much bigger mess for me to deal with when I was cleaning. I want the fish to eat the algae that forms–and there’s plenty of that–and any bugs that might fall in. Obviously it works or the fish wouldn’t have survived this long.

I also don’t use that fountain feature. The birds loved it a little too much. They would try to perch on it, which was really funny to watch, but then they would tip the whole fountain and pump over if they were heavy enough–think something like a mourning dove.

Even the robins would sometimes knock it over flying too quickly around it. So it had to go.

But the end of the day, to sit beside the pond is one of the best things in life.

The Freedom Lawn

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We’ve grown a little too obsessed with perfection. It’s everywhere we look. If we turn on the television, all we have to do is tune in to the commercials to see that we are being sold a bill of goods: buy the perfect vehicle, or clothes dryer, or clothing, or grass seed and we too can be perfect (and don’t even get me started on the pharmaceutical commercials!)

What exactly is a “Freedom Lawn?” Well, like the name suggests, it’s a lawn that avoids inputs–so no fertilizer, pesticide, irrigation or other input beside mowing. So what happens?

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As you can well imagine, nature happens. Wildflowers–or to the uninitiated–weeds grow. And granted, not all wildflowers are welcome. For example, we have far too much plantain in our lawn. But it’s there and it’s not terribly unsightly and were we motivated it’s fairly easy to remove with a stand on step weeder–so clearly we’re not terribly motivated.

This strip is right next to the driveway as you might be able to tell. Plantain loves compacted soil. So we would be working at cross purposes by trying to remove it and grow grass in a spot where folks keep driving.

Dandelions are creeping back in, I notice. That’s one thing that doesn’t bother me at all. If you’re a “lawn person,” they drive you crazy. If you’re a pollinator person, you rejoice, because they are one of the earliest flowers for pollinators. Just deadhead them before they seed. I think I can still count them on 2 hands so they’re not a nuisance.

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And violets. I love the violets. I would have an entire lawn of violets if I could–again for my pollinators. This lovely little one is a species of viola moderate that I planted called ‘Freckles.’ The photo at the top of the post afe all wild violets.

Certain butterflies will nectar only from violets–why would anyone want to get rid of them? (Again, you can see that I am clearly NOT a lawn person!)

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Ants have naturalized these muscari for me. Maybe you can see why I am fond of ants. They also spread my violets around.

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We used to have much more clover but since my neighbor’s landscape company mistakenly poisoned my property, most of it was killed off. It’s just beginning to return, thankfully. Where the plantain has run amok used to be wild clover. Ah well.

As the season progresses, I get tiny little St. John’s wort coming up–I’ll post that at some point. The plantain blooms. And of course we get more unwelcome wildflowers like purslane and the vetches and oxalis–not welcome to us, but valuable to wildlife like the later nesting goldfinch who love the seeds.

So rejoice and enjoy a more nature looking lawn–and maybe even consider a “freedom lawn.” Your birds and pollinators will thank you.