Thursday, March 12, 2015

Tolerating the Uglies

I think one of the most important concepts in healthy gardening is also one of the simplest.  Do YOU always look camera-ready??!  I highly suspect not.  I certainly don't.  And neither should our gardens.  As with any living organism or community, sometimes life is messy but that doesn't mean anything is wrong at all.

When I give garden talks, I talk about this and one of the phrases I use - and it almost always gets a sympathetic laugh - is that we should learn to "Tolerate the Uglies" in our gardens.  What do I mean by that?

Well, any number of things can occasionally be ugly in a garden, but I first came up with the concept in relationship to leaves that have been eaten by caterpillars.  What do YOU do when you see leaves disappearing, slowly or (even worse) rapidly?  Most of us, I suspect, run for the pesticide.  After all, isn't a good gardener supposed to protect her plants?!

Actually, no, that sort of protection is not necessary.  Mother Nature has designed an entire type of animal, predators and parasites, that will take care of leafeaters for you...if you give them a chance.

My first conscious lesson about this idea of learning to tolerate ugliness came about 7 years ago when I was beginning the front garden at this house.  I had planted a couple young Echinacea plants, two of the "Sky" series, earlier in the spring.  They were establishing well, I thought, until one day in mid-June I looked out the window and saw what appeared to be black mildew all over the leaves of one of them.  Damn!

I went outside to look more closely and realized that the leaf damage I was seeing wasn't mildew at all.  The leaves had actually been skeletonized by a large number of little, hairy, black caterpillars.  The poor leaves were also covered in frass, a.k.a. caterpillar poop.   If I'd had any in the house, I probably would have grabbed the Sevin right then and there, but luckily I didn't.

So I went back inside the house, got on the computer and looked in books, and did some research.  Without too much trouble, I learned that the caterpillars I was seeing were the half-grown young of pearl crescents, one of those pretty little orange butterflies you commonly see on flowers in the summer time.  Their young feed "gregariously" (in a group) for the first several stages of their lives, then scatter to finish feeding before they pupate and change into adults.

What to do?  I wanted butterflies.  I like butterflies.  But I also like my plants and I'd spent $4 or $5 each on those 2 Echinaceas.  I didn't want to lose them.  I decided that I'd go out the next morning and move the caterpillars to other plants throughout the garden where their eating habits wouldn't be as easily noticed.

When I went out the next morning to carry out my plan, the caterpillars were gone.  They could have all been eaten by some predator, but I suspect they'd reached the age/stage where they naturally scattered to find more food on their own.

And the Echinacea they'd thoroughly skeletonized?  Three weeks later, it bloomed on schedule - see the photo above - and within a couple months, you had to look hard to see the remains of the damaged leaves.  By the next summer, it was a beautifully healthy plant with no sign that anything had ever munched hard on it.

I, the brave gardener, did nothing but accidentally Tolerate the Uglies.  The plant survived and thrived.  The butterflies survived and thrived.  And I survived and thrived.  A big win for doing nothing at all (except observing and learning).

I'll share another couple stories about tolerating occasional garden uglies in the next post or two....


Corner Gardener Sue said...

I just made it to this post, and am glad I did. I think we really grow as gardeners over time, and learn to tolerate imperfection. I hope people from Gardening with Nature in Mind clicked to read this.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Thanks for the kind words, Sue!

Debra said...

The more I learn about plants the more I realize they are far from helpless. Having a herbivore nibble a little bit of leaf mass can wind up being beneficial for the plant over the long run. That injury can trigger defence chemicals that either invite predators to visit or disable/kill the pest. So maybe one plant of a group will get set back briefly but its neighbours will sometimes be completely spared. Some injuries even result in the plant producing more leaves as a result. I love your message of tolerating some uglies.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Ah, you're getting even deeper into the biology than I am, Debra! It's amazing how nuanced the interactions between plants and insects are, isn't it?!

So glad you stopped by!

Gardener on Sherlock Street said...

I had this happen to a white echinacea one year and I didn't know what it had been that got it. I saw a few caterpillars left under a scraggly leaf and looked them up. Then, I found a group on some native annual sunflowers. I don't care if those leaves get eaten. Now when I see them to the echinacea, I move them to the sunflowers.

Gaia Gardener: said...

Great idea, GonSS! I've seen the same caterpillars on black-eyed Susan, too, so you might keep that in mind as an alternative host as well.