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!

Unwelcome Pest

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I acquired two little tropical hibiscus plants early this season–on the same trip that I bought the “invisible” impatiens that I talked about on Monday. One is sort of a red-orange color and the other a orange-yellow color–you know, the tropical bright colors that hibiscus come in!

They haven’t bloomed as much as I would like despite the heat and humidity that we have been having but when they do bloom they make me unreasonably happy. I think it’s just that I can count on one hand the number of trips I have made to the garden center this year so anything blooming in my yard is really making me happy.

I also situated them right next to my door–in among my herbs–so I see them several times a day when I come in and out of the house with the dog. So there’s a splash of color with the herbs when they bloom.

I especially like the yellow one. Yellow is one of my favorite colors in the garden. So I watch the buds as the unfurl.

But last Saturday I noticed something amiss with the buds. They would get to a particular stage–almost open–and then stop. I leaned in closer and reached for one and it came off in my hand.

That’s just not typical–hibiscus aren’t THAT fragile–so I sat right down, picked up the pot and took a closer look. I saw two things that troubled me.

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This was the first. If it weren’t for the presence of the ant on the bud, I might have thought it was mealy bugs. But I didn’t see any full grown mealies–just this sort of white cottony stuff.

So I looked a little more and sure enough, there was a little green wedge shaped bug–a green plant hopper. So the white mess is the wax hiding its nymphs.

My first choice–always–when dealing with any pest–is a sharp blast from the hose, which seems to have worked well and gotten rid of the nymphs. We are in moderate drought so I am trying to be judicious about water use, but at the same time, hibiscus are very sensitive to any sort of insecticide, even organics, so the hose seemed the best choice here.

And so far, so good. No more plant hoppers or nymphs. We shall see if the remaining buds open properly. Fingers crossed.

At First Light

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I love going out with the dog first thing in the morning. Everything is still and quiet, if we’re lucky, we see no one else and no other cars either.

On this particular morning, there had been a light rain the night before and it had caught all the spiders’ webs in the grass. This isn’t something I usually see in my neighbors’ lawns as we walk because most of them use pesticides, as I have remarked before.

Nature is going to do a lot of the work for you if you let it. There’s a nice combination of funnel web weaving and sheet weaving spiders that have made webs here on my lawn, just waiting for whatever might happen by.

When we think of spiders’ webs, we most often think of–and notice–the large orbs that look like the Halloween decorations. But spiders build all sorts of webs.

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This is a sheet web between these two plants. It looks just like a messy bunch of silk, but it’s quite effective at catching–and holding–insects.

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And this is a web built by a grass spider, who is a funnel web weaver. It gets its name from the “funnel” you see at the top of the web. The spider hides at the bottom the funnel and when something gets caught in the web, it comes out and pounces.

Grass spiders in my part of the country can actually get quite large. Of all the spiders in my yard, they–and the orb-weaving cross spiders–are about the largest. By the end of the season, their bodies can be larger than a quarter–or so it seems to slightly arachnophobic me!

So I am actually quite brave taking photos of all these webs. I shudder at the thought that the spiders are anywhere near–although I love that they are the “good guys” in my garden and yard! I do treasure them for that!

A Buggy Time of Year

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I mentioned on Monday that we had had the house power washed recently. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Of course I had to move many of the over 100 house plants that I had brought outside so that they too wouldn’t be “power washed” or damaged in the process.

As I was doing so, I discovered that somehow the mealybug infestation that I had indoors had returned and had spread to several other plants.

Now, one of the reasons why I “summer” the plants outdoors is because a lot of these pesky plant issues have natural predators that are kept in check.

Scale, for instance, is nicely handled by wasps and ants.

And the hose washes off spider mites.

But apparently nothing likes mealy bugs. Doesn’t that figure?

Anyway, I found the problem, isolated the infected plants again, and we’ll see. I have one troublesome ficus that may just become compost at the end of the season.

So I definitely got much more than a power wash from this adventure!

Aphids Are Like Something From Another World

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Ah, here it is Friday again and I am posting about bugs. This is getting to be a bad habit.

This is something that usually happens in late April for us. Aphids are a cool season pest for us, so we will get them in late April (usually) and then again in the fall. I most often ignore them completely because they are usually only on new leaves and once it warms up, I will have a nice robust population of ladybugs to deal with them.

Well, we have had record cold so far this June so I decided that I had better take some preventative measures until the ladybugs got here.

What did I do? I dragged a hose down to this garden and hosed off the plants.

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This is the result. The aphids are almost all gone. You can see that the front shoot has been hosed off and the back one has not–it is still full of aphids.

I would probably not have done it if I hadn’t seen aphids with wings. That told me that the population was so high that it was about to move on to other plants. Since only half the rose garden was affected at this point, I thought it best to try to keep it that way.

Aphids are freaky insects. They are all female and they can be born pregnant with the next generation already waiting to be born.

They come in various colors to better blend with your plants, but green and black are the most common by me.

They are born wingless, but when the population on a particular plant gets too high, they’ll grow wings and migrate to a new plant.

Luckily, they are quite easy to hose off. And once they are knocked down, they don’t generally return to trouble the plant. So I don’t expect to have to deal with this again–at least until fall, at which point, I usually just ignore them.

Rose Sawfly (or Why Are Little Caterpillars Eating My Roses?)

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First things first: the “little caterpillars” that you see on your rose leaves aren’t really caterpillars. Yes, I know that’s exactly what they look like, but they’re not.

If you recall my “holiday gardening” post about 2 weeks ago, I said that in my climate there were some sawfly larva that showed up between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day in my climate. And here they are.

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This is the rose sawfly larva. It showed up the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. You see that on this leaf (and look closely, because it’s a tiny caterpillar the same color as the leaf. It is on the petal nearest to you) the leaf is just beginning to show a bit of damage. More in a moment about that.

Why is it important that these aren’t caterpillars? For organic control purposes. If you want to spray (I generally don’t; I just let the roses get slightly disfigured because there’s only one hatching of these a season in my part of the world)–you can’t us BT which only works for caterpillars.

Also if you do spray, they tend to hide beneath the leaves, so be sure to get the undersides.

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Otherwise they will leave your leaves disfigured (with these scrape marks that then often get burned into holes by the sun, making it look like some other disease or insect has been there). Don’t be fooled.

The two sets of leaves in the above photo show early damage and more advanced damage. The top set is the earlier damage, although even there, some of the scrapings and holes have been burned or eaten through the leaf.

As you can see in the bottom photo, the mouth scrapings made by the insect are browned by the sun. It’s not a good look.

What can you spray? Insecticidal soap is a nice remedy for soft bodied insects. Just remember to spray in the evening or first thing in the morning before the heat of the day and before most of your beneficial insects might also be accidentally sprayed.

Smooth Hydrangea Pest

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Something’s clearly not right with the leaves of this hydrangea. Several of them are all glued or stuck together at the top.

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If you look at this photo of the peeled opened leaf cluster, you can see several holes that have been chewed in the leaves, as well as small black dots. That’s caterpillar frass (the polite term for its excrement).

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And here, just barely visible, (look for the tiny black head) is the creature known as the hydrangea leaftier.

It doesn’t affect all hydrangeas. As the title of my post indicates, only smooth hydrangeas are susceptible. If you’re not sure what smooth hydrangeas are, they are ones with names like ‘Annabelle,’ Invincibelle Spirit and Incrediball. The botanical name is hydrangea arborescens.

How do you treat these? It’s very simple. You prune them off as soon as you see them. Since this type of hydrangea blooms on new wood, the sooner you catch them, the better it is.

Insecticides are unlikely to work because the insect is so deep inside the leaf pocket so don’t waste your time.

The sooner you get them, the fewer you’ll have. So keep your eyes open if you have this type of hydrangea. A little preventative pruning goes a long way to keeping them happy!

Sun’s Out–Time to Check for Bugs

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If your plants look like this, take a closer look. I did, and by accident discovered the beginning infestation of spider mites.

Luckily this plant is on a plant stand away from most of my plants. I took it to the sink, gave it a good rinse, and put it back on the plant stand.

I do expect re-infestation for a couple of reasons. First, mites breed on a 3 day cycle, and just because I cleaned the plant doesn’t mean that I got every single mite off.

Nor did I get every inch of the stand, or every crevice of the decorative pot clean. You begin to see the issue with something that breeds so quickly.

So since we all have a little more time on our hands, (or at least are spending a little more time at home with our plants), take some care to make sure insects don’t get out of hand.

Who needs one more issue right now?

Managing a Woodland for Wildlife

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I’ve talked before about how a small portion of my property is wooded. It’s between 1/8-1/4 of an acre so very small–but in the heavily developed suburbs, that is the size of a building lot–and indeed, it is part of a second lot that we own.

Because it is wooded, we try to leave it in as natural state as possible. That means if a tree dies, and it’s not near enough to endanger our neighbor’s home, it stays.

What does this accomplish? Several nice things. Many birds nest in dead trees, which can be difficult to find, particularly in the suburbs. I have an abundance of woodpeckers on my property because I manage it in this way and woodpeckers are one of the birds that nest in dead trees.

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It also brings insects that digest such materials–and keeps them where they belong, in the woods and not in our home.

One drawback is that I am constantly scouting for invasives. I had just about gotten rid of garlic mustard out of here–after a decade of hand pulling–and I now see it’s in all my neighbors yards so it will be back here shortly.

Oriental Bittersweet is a constant issue. I try to find the seedlings when they are small. If all else fails, I cut the vines before they fruit–but of course, I will have twice as many vines the following year. At least, without the birds eating the berries, I won’t have multitudes more and I won’t have spread it to my neighbors.

But the fact that I do have a place for birds and wildlife is important to me. It makes the work worth it.

Houseplants Welcome Spring

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As of yesterday, March 1, we welcomed spring in the northern hemisphere. For those of you scratching your heads because you thought spring began with the vernal equinox on March 19, you’re not mistaken. We’re just talking about 2 different ways to measure when “spring” begins.

Most folks think it begins on the vernal equinox, which is somewhere between March 19–22 each year.

I use the meteorological way of calculating and thus spring begins March 1, summer begins June 1, autumn begins September 1 and winter begins December 1.

In any event, your house plants aren’t waiting for mid-March to know that spring has arrived. They are already responding to the longer daylight and warmer sun.

What does this mean for you? First, you will need to check your plants more frequently to see if they need water, particularly those in bright southern windows.

Next, you will want to make sure that plants that have been fine all winter in an east or west window are suddenly not getting too much sun. This happens to me every year (and unfortunately I don’t have the luxury of moving many of those plants–they just have to tough it out until my trees leaf out).

Finally, as your plants start to wake up, so do little insects. Be alert for this and catch infestations early, before they spread beyond the infested plant.

If you live in a cold climate–even in one that hasn’t had a particularly bad winter–it may be tempting to get outside as soon as you get a nice day. There’s nothing wrong with that. But don’t forget to check on your house plants too. They need you more than ever this time of year.