I was doing maintenance on the back gardens this morning, and planning to post on something like "My Favorite Things": the little, lovely, not-too-labor intensive things I do while I walk around the garden. But as I was taking pictures of some favorite plant combinations--for a later posting, now--I saw some of my least favorite things--tattered and chewed gladiolus leaves and Japanese beetles on the shrub roses. The snipping and pruning and flower gathering I had planned will wait until tomorrow; critter damage demands immediate action.
Thankfully, hurricanes show up in our area fairly rarely; the major threats to our gardens are deer, rabbits, and the more malevolent insects. I don't hate bugs--one of the most valuable things a gardener can learn is the difference between a good bug and a bad bug. Rodale Press--the publisher of the magazine Organic Gardening--puts out very valuable books like The All-New Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (my all-new encyclopedia happens to be eleven years old, but you can get both tried-and-true as well as more recent advice on their website, http://www.organicgardening.com/). I'm not a true organic gardener--I use Round-Up and beetle traps and occasionally a feeder like Miracle-Gro--but I do stay away from most poisons and nonorganic chemicals. There's a very good reason to stay as close to organic gardening as possible: you don't want to hurt the good bugs (here's a bee feeding on some Brazilian sage outside our screened-in porch). My garden is alive with bees and butterflies and lady bugs and ground beetles and lots of spiders, who help pollinate and who do a very admirable job of controlling the damaging insects.
The bad bugs, on the other hand, do two kinds of damage: one is the obvious damage to the plants, and the other is the collateral damage of driving Salix and me inside so that the gardens don't get sufficient care. Virginia summers are hot and humid--bug heaven--and Japanese beetles seemed to regard our yard as particularly heavenly. The damage they can do in an afternoon is considerable; I took this photo this morning after finding just two beetles on the rose bush:
In past years, two have turned into 200 in a matter of hours--the beetles give off pheromones that attract more beetles, and the mating frenzy begins, ensuring more plant death and destruction next year. I really refuse to use the kinds of poison that will kill these beetles, so we tried all kinds of organic remedies--insecticidal soap, milky spore, sprays made with hot peppers, my son (I gave him ten cents a beetle, and he would have bankrupted me if only he'd liked the work). I had always been warned to stay away from the traps (Spectracide's "Bag-a-Bug," the only poison besides the insecticidal soap that I use), because the traps can actually attract more beetles to your yard than they kill. But I started using them on the advice of a friend of mine who is a biology professor and an environmentalist--and they worked. We basically established a perimeter around the yard, at least 30 feet from any plant we cared about. We were rid of last year's infestation in about a week, and I think we decimated the population--I had a little problem with one Don Juan climbing rose this year, and I found the minor damage this morning on a shrub rose--but nothing like the one-day, whole scale destruction of, say, a 6-foot smoke tree (http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/go/1043/) that we've found in the past. I should qualify my endorsement of Bag-a-Bug by reminding you that we live on ten acres--I can place the bags 30 feet from my garden and still be a quarter mile from my neighbors', so that I don't inadvertently attract the beetles into their yards while I try to draw them away from mine. But the traps have saved several of my plants, provided I change the bags regularly--which is where my diversion this morning comes in. When I find a beetle on one of my plants, I check the traps that I put up in late May. Live Japanese beetles are repelled by the scent of dead Japanese beetles--that helps when you find one on a plant (you squash it right there as a deterrent to its colleagues), but it means you have to change the bags pretty frequently, which is about the most unpleasant thing I do in my garden. The bags of dead bugs stink, even after a week--and because of where we live, the changing of the bags takes me into the uncultivated parts of the property, where the other bad bugs live--the ones that prefer human flesh.
When we woke up this morning, Salix and I had probably 40 bug bites apiece: he had to do some clearing yesterday so a truck could access our well, and I'd been careless while I was clearing out the ivy and ferns from yesterday's post. Most are mosquitos and ticks this time of year, though we fight deer flies at the beginning of the summer and chiggers later on. We're pretty conscious of the diseases these can carry, and we look for symptoms. At the same time, we hear about people who go to the doctor with one tick bite--that's probably smart if you get one bite a year, but we each get about one a day on average, which would make us pretty popular--or not--with Urgent Care (a brief digression: when we first bought the house, I had so many chigger bites that a local doctor diagnosed chicken pox and quarantined me for two weeks). Anyway, the point for Tidewater gardeners: find an Avon store and stock up on Skin-So-Soft. The "original" kind--I don't think their specially designed insect repellants work any better than any other repellant you can find at your local grocery store. But the "bath oil," as it says on the label, repels any insect in our yard (as well as the occasional human). The added benefit is that it does indeed soften your skin; the potential disadvantage is that it works like baby oil in the sun, so you have to be very careful about sunburn.
Ticks, mosquitos, chiggers, Japanese beetles--they are insect pests, and we do what we can to control them, which involves killing them as well as repelling them (an idea for a later post--birdhouses and bathouses--and that's b-a-t houses, not bath houses). The deer and rabbit are a different kind of problem--I love to see the deer grazing in our yard, and we have plenty of grass to offer them. But they get greedy, as do the rabbits, and like the bad bugs, they can do considerable damage to plants we love. We've declared a moratorium on vegetable gardening until we can find the right site--we'd basically set up a gourmet market for the deer, who of course were doing none of the maintenance. But my neighbors recommended, as a deer and rabbit repellant for flowers, two products--Bobbex (http://www.bobbex.com/) and Liquid Fence (http://www.liquidfence.com/). Both work wonderfully provided you keep up with them--meaning that if the label suggests you spray every two weeks, you spray every ten days. Both also make varieties that contain organic foliar fertilizer, which means that when you spray the leaves to repel the deer, you also feed the plant. Both smell awful when you spray them, but the smell is undetectable to humans after a few hours--just don't spray right before a garden party. I use Liquid Fence Plus because it works a little longer than Bobbex, is less likely to clog the sprayer, and is also easy for me to get locally. Both products are pricey, so I try to extend the efficacy as long as I can. Liquid Fence comes in a concentrate--you use ten oz. of product to a gallon of water. I measure the ten oz. in a spray bottle and pour it into my cool designated Liquid Fence sprayer. Then I fill the small spray bottle with water--the residue from the initial measuring provides a kind of booster that I carry with me when I walk around the gardens in the evening. If I see a new blossom, I squirt it with the dilution, since the new blossom isn't as protected as the stalks that were sprayed.
As well as Liquid Fence works, we still need a back up plan--in part because I sometimes go too long between sprayings, in part because sometimes the deer are determined to have a change of taste. Apparently the deer and I have something in common--we seem to really love the same plants (hosta, day lily, lily, gladiolus, lantana). So I've had to cage some of the more vulnerable plants. The cages can produce a, shall we say, unusual effect in the gardens--I use green fencing from our local home improvement store, but they are still visible. The pictures below show purple coneflower (http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/go/73159/, aka echinacea purpurea) in the sunny border, and a Celeste fig and day lilies in the tropical garden, protected by cages.
The cages themselves aren't beautiful, but they have surprising advantages. They work very nicely to stake tall or leggy plants, reducing my maintenance. Even better, hummingbirds can land on them! I had never seen a hummingbird not in flight--and I'm still trying to get this on film--but the slender wire on the deer cages is just about perfect as a hummingbird perch, so we have plenty of opportunity to see humingbirds and goldfinches resting a bit before they indulge in salvia nectar or coneflower seed.
So instead of spending the morning deadheading rose campion and gathering armloads of Shasta Daisy (http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/go/48/), I changed bug bags and sprayed Liquid Fence. Sigh. But I look at my window and see that beautiful clump of daisies--and it's all worth it.