Ants and Peonies Work Together

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Back when I was working in retail gardening, I confess to telling a little white lie: if I thought someone was likely to douse their peonies with heavy doses of insecticide to rid them of the ants that always appear before (and perhaps just shortly after bloom time as the above photo shows), I would say, “Oh no, please don’t do that. The ants are eating the sap so the peonies can open.”

It worked like a charm and my favorite pollinators, the ants, were spared.

Of course we know that the peonies don’t need the ants to “eat the sap” for them to open. It’s more of a symbiotic relationship, akin to the way that the ants pollinate things–although this isn’t a true pollinator relationship.

What is happening here is that the ants are attracted to the peonies sugary sap. In the process, they keep other predators at bay–things like aphids, which are prevalent in this early spring, and thrips, which affect so many of our ornamental flowers. Ants might even be thought of as the peonies own natural insecticide.

You can read more about this beneficial relationship here at this fact sheet from the University of Missouri.

But of course no one wants to bring ants into the house if you want to enjoy peonies as a cut flower. There are a couple of ways to solve for this. First, cut the peonies in the evening, or first thing in the morning and leave the cut flowers in a cool place (a shed or garage) for several hours so that the ants, if any, can leave the flowers.

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If you cut the flowers at this stage–or slightly larger–you can gently shake or wash the ants off to know that you have removed them all. That way there’s no guessing. Make sure that there’s enough color showing in the bud that the flower will open. This bud is just a little bit too small yet.

Finally, I am sure that most of you won’t get to the point where you’ll rejoice when you see ants in the garden as I do. But if you see them on your peonies, thank them. They are protecting them from other insects pests–so you don’t have to!

And once the blooms are fully open, they move on. So once again, no insecticide needed. It doesn’t get any better than that!

Pest Patrol

It’s that time of the year–although in the garden, as soon as there is green, any time of the year is time for insects.

One thing I am always sure to talk about when I lecture is insect life cycle. Many insects in my part of the country can simply be ignored. This may not be possible in warmer parts of the country where ignoring an infestation just permits continuing infestations.

But in my cold climate, most insects only have the ability to have one life cycle–or one chance to breed, reproduce, chew and die.

If I had to worry about repeated infestations, I would surely have to be more proactive.

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So when I see these rose sawfly larva on my rose leaves, I know that they are going to disfigure the leaves and then they will pupate and become the tiny wasp-like insects that they turn into and fly away and that will be that.

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You can see the little larva here on the leaf. While it looks like a caterpillar, it’s not: it’s a sawfly larva. Why am I making this distinction? Because I could spray bT all day on this and it would have no effect. BT only affects caterpillars. Know your insects.

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It’s the same with the hydrangea leaftier. Most years they are so minor that I just ignore them completely. If an infestation seems to be getting out of hand, I cut them off, bag them up and they’re gone. That solves the problem for several years. The moth that this caterpillar becomes is an unremarkable tan and brown–nothing worth writing home about and certainly nothing worth poisoning a plant or the earth over!

But the point about both of these insects is that their caterpillar stages are relatively short-lived. True, the rose sawfly can cause quite a lot of leaf disfigurement in a short period of time, particularly if you can’t tolerate that look.

But I will repeat: is it worth poisoning your earth, your plants and possibly yourself over? Catch it early and the sawflies succumb nicely to being sprayed off with a hose. If you need something stronger, some insecticidal soap or a great OMRI registered product called Rose Pharm works.

But I’d never resort to anything stronger than that. And even then, because those products will affect the pollinators, I would be extremely careful with them.

Gardening for Some Other Pollinators

I’ve talked about gardening for bees and butterflies and some of nature’s “happier” pollinators.

But what happens when we garden for some of nature’s less popular pollinators? I think I mentioned that ants are some of my favorite pollinators. Here in the northeastern United States, they pollinate our spring ephemeral wildflowers. In fact, they pollinate anything with a specialized structure called an eliaosome.

Without getting too technical, this is a food source for the ants–and a way of dispersing seeds for the plants. But don’t just take my word for it. Here is a post that explains things far better than I can and lists several of the plants that rely on this wonderful means of seed dispersal.

Plant pollination isn’t the only reason that I love ants–but we’ll save that for some other time.

Another great pollinator that’s a sort of “out of the box” pollinator is the beetle–or more correctly, beetles. Most of us see beetles in our garden and we run of some sort of chemical but did it ever occur to you that they might actually be serving as pollinators? There are several types that do as this article can attest.

And it doesn’t really require any effort to attract these “out of the box” pollinators. They just show up in our gardens, particularly if we aren’t using pesticides to begin with.

The next time you see an insect–or insects–in the garden, before grabbing something to spray it with, try to determine its function. It’s said that 90% of all insects are benign. If that’s true, you might accidentally be spraying pollinators–and no one wants to do that.

We all have phones that have cameras now–snap a photo and try to ID the bug before deciding it doesn’t deserve to live. Chances are, it’s just something harmless–or even better, something beneficial.

You’ll be helping your garden, your ecosystem and our planet.

Planting for Bees

There’s a lot of information out there about planting for butterflies and hummingbirds but there’s less available about planting for bees. I’m not sure why that is–perhaps because until recently we were only thinking about honeybees, which are a managed species, and not perhaps about our hundreds, if not thousands of native bee species.

Thankfully we’re coming around now. In the last few years there have been a couple of good books on the subject both on planting for bees (which you can see here –and no, I am not and Amazon affiliate; I get nothing for this reference!)
and gardening for bees.

One of the best resources for bees is the Xerxes Society. You’ll notice the first book I recommended is published by them. They’re quite reputable and a great source for all thing “bee” related. The publish great Pollinator Conservation Resources for North America––I’ve linked to my own regional guide for the northeast.

The list of plants is not something that one might readily find in every garden center. These are native plants (in fact, the boneset (#8)comes up naturally in my yard and the Spoiler keeps referring to it as “that white weed.”) However, some, like milkweed, tradescantia and mountain mint are certainly readily available now and can easily be obtained many places. Lists for different regions will of course have different plants.

Another handy guide is to Bumblebees. I thought (and still do think) that bumblebees are about all the same. As much as I don’t have a fear of bees, I am not hanging around to examine their stripes! But it was really instructive learn that there are so many native to my region.

Of course it goes without saying that planting for bees requires you to forego pesticides as much as possible. If you must use pesticides, Xerxes has guides for how to do so to maximize safety to bees and other invertebrates.

Finally some tips that I find handy: first, try to have something in bloom from the very earliest days of spring to the last days of fall. I don’t worry about whether these plants are native plants or not, although of course it’s nicer if they are. One of the first plants that blooms in my yard is a shrub called japanese andromeda (pieris andromeda). It has clusters of fragrant white lily of the valley like flowers and when they open in late March, the bumblebees are there.

One of the last things blooming in my garden is a stand of goldenrod planted by the birds (or the “yellow weed” as the Spoiler has dubbed it.) Again, it blooms up through early November, maybe and as long as it has flowers, it has bees of every size, from bumblebees and honeybees down to the little bees that I love but have no idea of their names.

In between I try to have something blooming, even if it’s just hydrangeas. And the bees come, even to hydrangeas–again, they’re non-native, but they make ME happy (and if the gardener’s happy, everybody’s happy!).

And of course, between the birds and the beneficial insects I rarely need to use an insecticide. If I do, I try to do it as late as possible in the evening–once the bees have left. And even then, I just use insecticidal soap–not that that wouldn’t harm a bee, which is why I wait until almost nightfall.

My last tip is to try to have some very shallow dishes of water for bees to sip from. Just be sure to change them daily so you don’t breed mosquitoes!

Finally, and people differ about this, but many of our native bees are ground nesting bees. Personally I have never been stung by these bees. I may have been lucky. I have even accidentally dug up their nests in early spring and escaped unharmed. After that, I was careful to mark the nesting spots and give them a wide berth while gardening later in the season.

If you aren’t feeling as confident about this, just be aware that native bees are ground nesters–and this includes bumblebees. So be observant while working in the garden (no pun intended).

Then, enjoy your bees!

Stinkbug Surprise

A couple of weeks ago, I read a funny a very comprehensive post about the brown marmorated stinkbug over at a blog I follow called The Chatsworth Lady. You can read that post (and I recommend you do–it’s funny and very informative–here.)

If you live in a part of the country where you don’t have this little critter, be grateful. Here in Connecticut, so far, at least in my yard, it has not proven to be an “agricultural problem,” shall we say. In other words, I am not finding them on my trees, shrubs, flowers or vegetables.

I do occasionally find them in the house in the winter. And just shortly after I read The Chatworth Lady’s post about finding her stinkbug in her shower, I found a stinkbug in my own shower (which led me to wonder, what exactly it is about stinkbugs and showers?)

I employed a completely different remedy for removal. I know, from most of my dealings with insects in the house in the winter (not to mention the fact that my house is kept quite chilly) that these darn things are slow and dumb–or at least slower and dumber than I am.

So I knocked it from over the shower head to the floor of the shower (for those of you who didn’t take the digression, you can’t just squash one of these things. They do stink to high heaven). Then I just simply picked it up in a tissue and flushed it in a low flow toilet. Not the most environmentally friendly solution, but most people say to vacuum them up and then dispose of the vacuum bag and that, to me, is a less-environmentally friendly solution–all for one bug?

So to each his or her own solution–just don’t crush the bug in your house!

Another Way to Deal with House Plant Insects

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You probably don’t recognize this photo from “Gardening Resolutions #1.” It’s the variegated plant–otherwise known as a kumquat–in the picture–the one that I talked about as having fooled me by dropping leaves. It was the one that had spread spider mites to the whole rest of the plants in the window.

Well, so far so good on the rest of the plants, but this one I am a bit nervous about so I decided to give it the “shower” treatment. That way, any hitch hikers and any new hatchers can just wash away down the drain–no fuss, no muss and no sprays (other than the water) required.

I had read this past fall that Brie Arthur (who wrote the wonderful outdoor vegetable book about incorporating vegetables into your landscaping in the most creative ways! The book is called The Foodscape Revolution for those of you who want to get a head start on some ideas for this coming year’s edible garden) suggested that it was “meditative” to wipe down the leaves of your house plants as a protective way to keep insects at bay.

God bless Brie, but that isn’t going to work for me and my 180+ plants! I prefer to take a single plant (or a windowful, if that’s what’s affected) to my shower, give them a quick, but thorough spray down with some water and let them dry.

It’s easy, it’s chemical free, and it dislodges spider mites (and aphids) quickly and painlessly. A nice side bonus is that the plants get thoroughly watered as well.

But, if you only have a couple of plants, you might want to try Brie Arthur’s method to see if that works for you. Different things do work for different folks–or as I always say, if we all liked the same thing, we’d have a pretty boring world!

What’s Eating My Sweet Potato Vine?

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Unless you are very fast or very lucky, you’re not going to see the beetle that’s making the holes in this plant and others like it (morning glory, moonflower and that pest, field bindweed. It’s a shame we can’t train it just to eat that!).

This is a very interesting beetle. I’ve actually only seen it a few times back in my retail gardening days when we had so many of these plants that the beetles came in droves.

They looked like small golden ladybugs. They were beautiful–but of course very destructive. And, of course, that’s only part of the story because this is a very interesting beetle.

This beetle changes color under stress–for example, when we touch it. And of course, when it dies. So what I saw in my retail gardening days as a beautiful golden beetle becomes a red beetle.

Here’s a little bit more information–with some photos–about this interesting beetle from HGTV.

If you do a search for “what’s eating my sweet potato vine,” you’re likely to come upon all sorts of things out there. Take a good look at the photo in the my post. This is damage from the golden tortoise beetle. If your damage doesn’t look like that, it’s possible something else is eating your plant. After all, there are all sorts of insects and critters in our gardens, and we don’t all garden in the same place.