Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sometimes "Goodliness" is Messy

How many of us were raised on the phrase, "Cleanliness is next to Godliness"? It seems almost like a Rule of Life sometimes, a quick and easy way to judge people and their places: "I was SO impressed at their office! It was so new and clean, and they were dressed so professionally! He's obviously a good _______." or "She's such a good mother - her house is always spotless!" or (conversely) "Their yard is never mowed regularly and they have dandelions in it! I am SO glad they are not my neighbors!"

However, as anyone who has ever raised kids will tell you, sometimes real life is Messy, with a capital M. And sometimes "cleanliness" isn't good, it's sterile and lifeless. Like the insane urge to keep our homes so overclean that increasing numbers of children are getting asthma and related disorders - their bodies' immune systems don't have any external factors to fight, so they start attacking themselves.

Too many people have come to expect that nature should always be clean and beautiful too. We groom our gardens within an inch of their lives, spraying pesticides and herbicides to keep off the bugs and keep out the "weeds". Seriously, "-cide" is the Latin root for "kill" - how healthy is it, really, to slather all these killers around our homes and yards? This quest for perfection is a poster child for deadly beauty, as far as I'm concerned.

I've been thinking about all this lately as I've happily noted a couple monarch caterpillars on some of the milkweed plants in the Cedar Grove. To begin with, many forms of milkweed are rather gangly and, if they're not in bloom, they are frankly not the most attractive plant in the area. But they are ALL excellent nurseries for monarchs.

The first time I noted this baby monarch, he was busily reshaping the milkweed leaf he was on...but overall he hadn't affected the plant's appearance.

The next time I saw him, the poor milkweed plant he was living on looked terrible. There was frass (read "caterpillar poop") piled up in the axils of the leaves, while the leaves themselves looked torn and ragged. In a manicured garden, the tendency would be to cut this eyesore back so that it would regrow, looking all nice and pretty...and sterile again.

The next time I walked by, the caterpillar wasn't to be found anywhere. Presumably he'd wandered off to pupate...and a new monarch was forming to join the southward migration this fall.

How many caterpillars (read "baby butterflies and moths") get killed just so that we can keep the foliage in our gardens foliage looking "perfect"? We might be aware enough to notice monarch caterpillars on our butterfly milkweed and let it be, but do we purposely add other, less showy, milkweeds to our planting beds? How about leaving the checkerspot butterfly caterpillars on this young Echinacea? or the variegated fritillary caterpillar on this pansy? Since I almost succumbed to the temptation to spray and/or pick off and drown both, I have to assume that many gardeners would have felt obliged to pull out the big guns for the "health" of their gardens. Without any intervention on my part, though, both plants went on to put out new leaves and look marvelous, their ugly time resulting in"flying flowers" that helped in pollination and that provided food for other species.

I have to believe that, if there is a Supreme Being who created the world and all that's in it (including humans), this Supreme Being is much more pleased with us when we learn to live in harmony with the other inhabitants of this splendid world. I certainly know that I'm happier and more at peace, even if my garden wouldn't always win the "Prettiest Garden on the Block" award.


dejavaboom said...

I always appreciate your photography! I was not aware those were monarch caterpillars until I saw them in your pictures. I'm going scouting on our pasture tonight! I agree we get too hung up on over-grooming. Last summer for our garden we actually used some plants as decoys or for sacrifice, moving insects to them from our treasured tomatoes, etc. (I'm not sure that's good stewardship, however, for it seemed to just give the more devilish squash bugs and such a nice staging ground.) Regardless, I detest pesticide!

Sure glad to have your posts repopulating your blog.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks for your kind comments!

You were practicing the classic "trap crop" form of organic gardening. I'm not as good about doing that as I should be - I have more of a tendency to let things be until and unless they become a big problem, then either squash the offenders or handpick them off and drown them in a jar of soapy water.

Squash bugs are tough. I never let them be for even the shortest time, if I can help it. I examine the back side of my squash leaves for the eggs and tear those out to throw in my soapy water. A few tears don't seem to hurt the squash leaves at all. The nymphs that I find, if any eggs actually escape me (which of course they do), I squash by hand. The adults also get the soapy water treatment.

I've learned, too, that if I plant squash later than "normal" (say, about July 1st), I still get a good crop and hardly ever see any squash bugs.

I, too, detest pesticides. I'd rather quit growing something than spray it with anything stronger than soapy water. And, really, once the predator levels build up in my gardens, I have little trouble with most leaf-eating insects. They are there and they do a bit of damage, but not an unbearable amount.