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An optimistic gardener’s state-of-the-garden address

“O the joy of blossoming life! What a delicious thing it is to be young, and to see everything through rose-colored glasses.”

— Mary Boddington, “Slight Reminiscences,” 1834

British travel writer Mary Boddington was dining by a stream in the Swiss Alps when a table napkin suddenly blew into the water. A female companion jumped in to recover it. Astonished, Boddington marveled at the young lady’s bravery and “sunniness of mind.” She wrote, “In leaped Amy, bustling with the would-be waves like a river nymph …”

I tend to share Amy’s positive outlook on life. I don’t own rose-tinted glasses, but sometimes I choose not to wear my prescription lenses to avoid confronting such disagreeable facts as the wrinkles on my forehead and dust on the furniture.

Yet, I do wear my glasses whenever I conduct a “reality check” in my garden. I’ve been walking among the beds and borders with camera in hand, taking pictures of problems I see with my plants. The following is my state-of-the-garden address, and I’ve posted corresponding pictures on my blog.

By far, the biggest problem I see on my vegetables and flowers is the telltale sign of voracious chewing bugs — holes in plant leaves or cutouts along leaf margins. I’ve identified earwigs, caterpillars and beetles as the culprits. These ubiquitous garden pests have been merrily munching on plant leaves until some foliage looks like a lace doily. Particularly affected are my eggplant and peppers in the vegetable garden, as well as lupine, dahlia, aster, hollyhock and calendula in the flowerbeds.

In addition, light-colored squiggly lines on the leaves of my Japanese maple indicate leafminer damage, where insect larvae have tunneled through the leaves' inner tissue. My squash have aphids, soft-bodied insects that suck the juice out of leaves. Also, my scarlet runner beans are showing signs of bean yellow mosaic, a virus transmitted by aphids.

Now is the time when wearing the proverbial rose-colored glasses comes in handy, because less optimistic gardeners would surely throw in the trowel. However, now that I have a good idea of what my problems are, I’ll use a multi-pronged approach called Integrated Pest Management to rid the garden of as many damaging insects as possible. IPM calls for using a combination of cultural, physical, biological and chemical methods of pest control, saving toxic chemicals as a final option. Here is my plan of attack, keeping in mind the best times to apply insecticides are in the early morning, late evening or on cloudy days.

Cultural: Remove damaged and dead leaves on and around plants. Check for overwatering, as this increases infestation; also check whether plants are weakened by too much or too little sun or nutrient deficiency.

Physical: Spray plants with water to dislodge insects and stimulate insect activity; use tweezers to pick off visible insects and place them in a bucket of soapy water. I’ve even used a Shop-Vac for serious aphid infestations.

Biological: Trap earwigs, caterpillars and beetles by setting out damp, rolled-up newspapers, melon rinds or tuna cans filled with fish oil and soy sauce. Attract beneficial insects that feed on pests — ladybugs, lacewings, minute pirate bugs and hover flies — by growing flowers in the daisy family. Spray caterpillar larvae and leafminers with insecticides made from toxic bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) or spinosad.

Chemical: IPM considers a chemical control as any insecticide made from highly processed substances, either natural or synthetic. I’ll spray remaining soft-bodied aphids and insect larvae with insecticidal soap, made from non-toxic salts of highly processed vegetable or animal fatty acids. Petroleum-based horticultural oils, called summer oils, may also be used to smother aphids and disrupt the growth of insect larvae.

Neem extract is a botanical insecticide that disrupts feeding and reproduction of aphids and beetles. Another is pyrethrin, which comes from a species of chrysanthemum. It kills hard-bodied pests like beetles by attacking the insect’s nervous system. I don’t use synthetic insecticides, such as malathion or carbaryl, because they are toxic to bees.

Despite these pesky garden trials, I share Mary Boddington’s optimism when she wrote, “And yet I dream on, and love flowers, and air, and sunshine, as if I was but just beginning life.”

Rhonda Nowak is a member of the Jackson County Master Gardener Association and teaches writing at Rogue Community College. Email her at rnowak39@gmail.com.

Rhonda Nowak