Wednesday, April 20, 2011

A Balancing Act

or The Earth Day Reading Project

As I was walking the circle path around the garden the other day, I was dismayed to discover this:

Leaf-curl plum aphids had invaded my biggest, shaggiest monster of a sand cherry—one of the inner branches was pretty well lost to the world by the time I discovered it.  These are tricky aphids (for me) to get rid of—they curl the leaves around them and become impervious to sharp sprays of water.  Even if I were to use pesticides (which I don't), it's doubtful whether the pesticide would reach them.  Thinking back to my first year here, when the garden was decimated by the nastier types of insects, and worried about a repetition, I took hasty action and clipped the two worst branches off, hoping to nip the the problem (as it were) in the bud.

I should have trusted my garden, trusted the effect of the last few years spent filling the bug-bath with water twice a day, providing sheltering mulches and ground-covers, and planting nectar-rich flowers to ensure constant bloom—all the things needed by the beneficial insects that keep the pests in check.  Because look at what was on the undersides of the leaves:

Lady beetle eggs.  Half a dozen leaves with clusters at the bases.  The natural process had worked; the aphids would have been brought under control without my intervention (and boy, was I disgusted with myself for having gotten in the way).  Fortunately, more lady beetles are ready to replace the ones I pruned away—I spotted eight of them, including two mating pairs, in a one-foot area yesterday.  It looks as if the process is still working in spite of me.  In fact, if you're not squeamish, look at what this lady beetle is munching on  (as always, you can click to enlarge) (if you're into that kind of thing):

Death and destruction come to the aphids.  Bwahahahaha.

I've written more about the ways I've learned to protect my garden elsewhere.  For now, I want to pay tribute again to Sally Jean Cunningham's Great Garden Companions, the book that taught me that organic gardening isn't about gardening "normally," only using wimpy pesticides and fertilizers instead of the chemical kind; rather, it's about creating ecosystems that can be self-balancing, about creating a place where all kinds of lives (including pests', and including yours) have their needs met.


Jean Potuchek, who writes Jean's Garden, invited me to take part in the Earth Day Reading Project organized by The Sage Butterfly, to "list at least three books that inspired you to perform any sustainable living act or inspired you to live green, and then tell us why they inspired you."  In addition to sharing her gardens in Maine and Pennsylvania, Jean writes regular book reviews.  Her discussion of Doug Tallamy's Bringing Nature Home made me wish that it had been one of my inspirations.  Alas, it hasn't yet, but only because I am behind the game.  Instead I would like to point the inquiring reader to:

1)  Cunningham's Great Garden Companions.  Cunningham gardens in Tompkins County, New York, with acidic soil, 180+ cloudy days per year, 35 inches annual rainfall, and frequent sub-zero F winter temperatures.  I garden in the high desert of New Mexico, with 300+ days of sunshine annually, 8 inches of rain, "soil" (ahaha) so alkaline that it bubbles if you pour vinegar on it, and baking summer heat.  Cunningham's ideas work just as beautifully here as they (apparently) do in New York.

2) Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.*  A fictionalized account of the life of Jean-Baptiste Lamy.  I don't know that this book has pointed me to a particular action, but its appreciation for the southwest has reminded me what a fierce love for a landscape is like.  Perhaps the strongest urge to protect the land comes not from those who are most idealistic about it but from those who understand it best, who love it the most passionately.

3) Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette.  Dacyczyn (pronounced like "decision") is the voice of radical frugality, but she also makes (what should be but apparently isn't) the obvious point that consuming less takes less energy and produces less waste.  Dacyczyn essentially opts out of the capitalist credo that more is more.  She lives abundantly by being creative and working hard—and by thinking for herself about what she does or doesn't need, rather than letting Madison Avenue do the thinking for her.** 

I encourage you to visit some other blogs as well where the authors take different approaches to sustainable and/or green living.  B_a_g at Experiments with Plants chooses to grow extra plants for the slugs rather than put out slug pellets.  Diana and Jurg at Elephant's Eye give thoughtful homes to wounded sparrows and provide bathing ponds for wagtails and dragonflies.  Nate at The Scholar's Garden is currently swamped with scholarly work, but he is also busy creating homes for bees and embracing a green growing lifestyle at an age when I was perfectly happy with mega-stores and "big ag," and ready to use pesticides if they just got rid of the bugs.

Even if they got rid of all of the bugs.
*  Spoiler alert:  The archbishop dies in the end.

**In a roundabout way she reminds me of Dorothy Sayers' Murder Must Advertise, a mystery novel written in the 1930's, whose amateur sleuth, Peter Wimsey, goes under cover in an advertising agency.  He has a horrible time finding paper evidence of a crime, because all of the paper in the office is recycled.  In the 1930's.  When people thought that being frugal was a virtue, and that re-using things was common sense. 


  1. Great photos! That's alot of lady bugs too. I hope they take care of your problem for you!

  2. I have seen a record number of ladybugs this year. Glad to see them! You've named a couple of books I've never heard of, and they sound very interesting. Great shot of the eggs!

  3. Stacy I am sorry to hear about the tree...we learn those lessons and then we move on the wiser we use of chemicals on the lawn kept critters at bay and veggies growing lackluster at best ...I have learned so much in the last few years and now we have more wildlife and we feel better for it...striving for the balance in our lives and our gardens is necessary and important...I will check out the books...I had heard about the Archbishop book before but as yet had not read it...Happy Earth Day. I had fun participating in the project as well...

  4. Stacy - I like your words "I should have trusted my garden". Thanks for linking to my blog and inviting me to join the Earth Day Reading Project. I'm working on it.

  5. We have the leaf curl on Mackaya bella, and the ladybirds. Now I shall 'trust my garden' to sort itself ;~)

  6. You really have the ladybugs on patrol. I can always use them when they are done there. Send 'em up north.

  7. Stacy, I'm having so much fun seeing the books people choose for this project. Such a wealth of inspiration! I haven't read any of these books, and they clearly need to go on my list. I have read Murder Must Advertise, but had somehow missed the recycling theme. :-) -Jean

  8. I am happy with you at the discovery of the lady beetles. Nature does have a way of balancing things out if we just let it. Your selection of books is varied, and yet, relevant. All of those subjects are related to sustainability in one form or another. What a great list of reads! I have not read that particular book from Willa Cather...another to add to my list. Thank you so much for participating in The Earth Day Reading Project and Happy Earth Day!

  9. do you know if they were/are actual lady bugs or the asian beetle? I barely see lady bugs by me now- i would hope that the hated asian beetle might bring some good (like this) to my gardens!

  10. I guess Im also guilty of the same thing like you, cut away all the curled leaves! Now I must look closely for the beetles if they are any. Thanks for sharing this information. Great photo of the beetle munching the aphid!

  11. Mud, thanks! I'm hoping those lady bugs get busy--the sand cherries aren't nearly as tasty as pie cherries, but they're perfectly good in sauces and such, and I'm counting on them this year!

    Holley, glad to know the lady bugs are spreading the wealth around. I really do swear by the Cunningham book, for what it's worth.

    Donna, it looks like the aphids are already under much better control, so I think the cherries will be fine. Since I have four of them in a small space, if one of them ends up with a plague, they all probably will, so I'm really relieved that the lady bugs have been so hungry. Having a natural balance does make life easier all the way around... With your love for the southwest, I think the Archbishop book would be right up your alley. Not much actually happens in it--mostly a lovely series of vignettes.

  12. b_a_g, it's been kind of startling (in a good way) to realize that the garden has grown up enough to be trustworthy now. I enjoyed your own list today and the way you framed it.

    Diana, with all the wildlife you have hanging about, I would think your garden could sort itself fairly quickly. :)

    Donna, I will send them your way as soon as they have finished chowing down here. They will be fat and sassy by the time they head north.

    Jean, recycling may not be quite serious enough to count as a "theme" in Murder Must Advertise... :) It's funny how things stick with you--the idea of "frivoling" in the typists' room is another one I remember from there.

    I definitely agree--a wealth of inspiration in the books people have chosen! I'm so glad you asked me to be part of this project.

  13. The Sage Butterfly--Thanks for stopping by and commenting, and for all the work you've done in organizing the project!

    Gabrielle, I didn't think to check what kind they were and am afraid I wouldn't have known even if I had looked. From what I can tell from a quick google search, they probably are the Asian variety--out here, at least, they're not the home invaders that they are in other parts of the country, so we don't have the nuisance factor to contend with and can just enjoy feeding them aphids.

    p3chandan, I'm so glad to hear I'm not the only one! It's hard (for me) to learn to let things work out for themselves. And thank you!

  14. aloha,

    i enjoyed reading your post this morning, thanks for sharing this.