May 25, 2009

Out, Out Damn Caterpillar!

Yuck and horrors, they are everywhere! Drive the country roads, highways, village streets of northwestern Michigan this spring, and nary a stretch can be found without trees, in the hundreds of thousands, hosting the triangular, silky white pouch nests of the eastern tent caterpillar. Hosting by brute force that is, not by choice, as tent caterpillars are an invading, parasitic horde who feed off and destroy the trees in which they set up camp. Across farm fields, meadows and hillsides, swathes of denuded, dying trees blot the landscape, the swollen caterpillar pouches the only remaining signs of life on their limbs.

Tent caterpillars hatch from egg sacs laid by adult moths the previous year, usually wriggling to life around early March. A greyish-black, hairy creature with a single yellow stripe along its back from head to tail, after sloughing off the egg, the tent caterpillar weaves its homesite pouch in the forks of tree branches or trunks. They leave the pouch to feed, usually in the early morning or early evening hours, and what they feed upon are the leaves of the host tree. As the caterpillars consume leaves, they enlarge their pouch and build subsidiary ones, with the pouches sometimes reaching a length of over a foot. Voracious little eaters, they can completely defoliate a moderate-size ornamental fruit tree in a couple of weeks.

Approach a tent caterpillar nest and through the nest membrane you can clearly see hundreds of the critters slithering about, probably doing a little worm-dance celebration of their good culinary fortune. Their favorite food is the leaves of wild cherry trees, with crab apples and eating apples coming a close second, very bad news for counties like this one, where cherry and apple trees abound. Failing the choice of these species, they will also colonize and chew the life from peach trees, sweet cherry, plum, pear, hawthorn, maple and birch.

In four-to-six weeks after spinning their nest, the caterpillars reach full-grown size of three or four inches, and wander off from the pouches to spin the one-inch long, white or yellowish cocoon they will inhabit while transforming themselves into an adult moth. The pale cinnamon brown moth, with two cream-colored horizontal stripes across each wing, emerges from the cocoon after about three weeks. The adult moths then mate, lay new eggs that will generate more tent caterpillars the following springtime, and expire. The egg sacs are shiny, dark greyish white, about one inch long, and have a hard casing like fossilized foam. They will be laid on the the twigs or trunks of trees, the walls of buildings, porch railings, and adhere to the laying site throughout the winter. One egg sac can yield up to 400 caterpillars.

Tent caterpillars pose no threat to humans, nor to any plants other than the trees in which they nest. They do not bite, sting, nor carry disease, they're not poisonous, they don't attack or eat any other plant besides trees. Other than imperiling the health and well-being of trees, they are largely just a blight upon the landscape and a nuisance pest. When the full-grown caterpillars set off from the home pouch to establish their own cocoons, they litter plants, walkways, driveways, even nearby vehicles, leaving slimy trails behind them and exploding, if stepped upon, into a gooey, slippery mess. They seem to bestow not one whit of good upon the environment to compensate for the havoc and ugliness they wreak, as birds or other possible food-chain predators don't fancy them much nor make enough of a meal of them to control their spread.

The natural resources office at the Sleeping Bear Dunes Park doesn't regard tent caterpillars as an actionable menace, despite the fact that many thousands of trees in the park are being assaulted by them this spring. A park spokesman noted that the caterpillar populations fluctuate from year to year in size of outbreaks, one year being widespread and then declining in the next year. Healthy trees, he posited, even when scalped of all their spring leaf growth, will often recover and grow new leaves by mid-summer. Holding this view, the national park will stand back and let nature take its course with the tent caterpillars, not making any effort to halt their rabid ways or come to the aid of the woeful trees.

To be fair, the park service, and county forestry departments, don't really have any good options for fighting tent caterpillar infestation across acres of woodlands. Even if they had the money to spray miles upon miles of infected land with pesticide, which they do not, even if they were willing to contaminate many beneficial insects, butterfly caterpillars, and plant life in shotgun-style poison spraying, which they absolutely should not, pesticides aren't very efficacious at destroying tent caterpillars. There are some wasp species and bacteria which can eliminate tent caterpillars, but these require individual, painstaking, tree-by-tree application, a process which is unfeasible for a pest that colonizes hundreds of miles of trees.

The private gardener, fortunately, does have an effective, easy recourse for eradicating these little tree-killers. Personally, I don't buy the year-by-year fluctuation, nature-can-deal-with-it, hands-off approach. A tent caterpillar pouch debuted last spring in my crab apple tree, and despite being promptly and thoroughly (I think) dispatched by my hand to oblivion, another pouch popped up in the fork of the same tree this spring. What's more, pouches were also woven this year in the young crabapple and cherry trees in several of my neighbors' yards.

Maybe a strong, adult, healthy tree that enjoys lots of water each year and mild wintertimes can, indeed, pull off a comeback after its first crop of young leaves are completely devoured. Or maybe not. There are stands of trees all over the county that have seen several continuous years of cannibalistic beseigement by tent caterpillars, and which are now clearly expiring. The winters are frost-heavy and tough around here, the summers can bring sustained periods of drought, and setting out new leaves in summer to replace stripped branches takes an enormous amount of energy, further depleting a tree's strength and resources for onward, healthy progress.

My crabapple and those of my neighbors were given a helping human hand. Purging a tree or two or three of tent caterpillars in private gardens is a quick and simple task. All one needs do is get rid of the nests and the dratted caterpillars in one fell, fatal swoop. Striking around noontime, in the heat of the day, will find them least active and lollygagging inside the pouch. Put on a pair of gloves to protect the hands from the necessity of touching the critters, or getting unappealingly slimed. Take a bucket and put an inch or so of rubbing alcohol in the bottom. Using the hands, the pouches can easily be pulled off the tree bark, into the bucket. Scrape any loose or escaping caterpillars into the bucket, and rub all remnants of the pouch silk off the tree bark. Check the ground beneath the tree and the branches around the pouch for other escapees, and deposit them in the bucket. As soon as the caterpillars hit the alcohol, they perish.
If there are more caterpillars than the alcohol can submerge, or it any wrigglers persist after dousing, take a kettle of boiling water, pour it atop the survivors, and it will polish them off for good and all. If your homicidal impulse remains unsatisfied, crush the sodden mass in the bucket with the back of a trowel until nothing remains but pureed caterpillar soup. This can be dumped down a garbage disposal if you really want to see the back end of it forever, or, once the caterpillars are well and truly dead, simply thrown into a ditch.

Watch for the hard-foam egg sacs on branches and elsewhere in your garden through summer, and they are easy to break off, crush and burn to prevent a return engagement next year. In such manner, the gardener can assist nature to deal with one of her more deviant, destructive creatures, and preserve and protect the precious fruit trees that bring a froth of lacy blossoms each spring, and food for birds, people and animals all summer and fall. Some actors on nature's stage just cannot be tolerated for repeats of their dismal performances, nor must the good gardener sit passively by, repelled and appalled, while their greedy premiere broadside plays out.

May 19, 2009

Seed Time

With the skeleton of the garden in trees, shrubs and perennials now, in its sixth year, well established and growing great guns, attention this spring is being paid to filling in some empty spots, introducing some new inhabitants, lengthening and broadening the flowering that occurs, and venturing into a little vegetable gardening. Most of the new planting took place this week, now that night frost has (one hopes and trusts) moved off the horizon, with a couple largely innocuous parting shots just as the cherry orchards budded out. That Jack Frost is quite the mischief-maker, isn't he, the spoiler at the party, the incorrigible delinquent of Mother Nature's household.

Other than a double white peony and a pinky-winky ever-blooming hydrangea, which will be planted as soon as they arrive at the cautious, previously frostbitten local nursery, all the planting done thus far and planned for this spring is in seed. Seeds are so inexpensive, compared to starter plants, and they seem to produce stronger, more viable plants, more able to hang on through the trials of their first summer, thrive and settle in for multi-year lifespans than is the case with scrawny or over-fertilized (i.e. hyperactive), often root-bound, sometimes sickly hothouse seedling plants. Some seed-grown perennials may not flower the first year, but that's fine if it means they are building strong root stock to keep them active in the garden for many repeat appearances.

Seed packet and live-plant displays always catch my eye and beckon me to them, whether in the village grocery, hardware store, nursery, or wherever, I'm an addict for them with little-to-no resistance. No doubt, once the nurseries are filled to overflowing with live plants, I'll succumb to some of their siren calls and splash out with more yarrows and bee balms, maybe a few additional bleeding hearts, columbines or irresistible delphiniums. For now, my gardening jones has been fed by the twenty or so seed packets emptied into the soil.

An unpleasant reminder of the national economic pallor and downsizing was revealed in discovering that commercial, standard brand seed packets this year held about half the amount of seed offered in past years. This proved to be the sad case for some half-dozen different big-name seed brands selected. Evidently penny-pinching and cost-cutting is reaching its hatchet even into the gardening industry. The one exception to this cutback phenomenon was from Botanical Interests (, whose packets yielded not the mere dozen or so seeds of the big companies, but palms full of probably three-to-four dozen seeds per pack. Botanical Interest packets also promise that all seeds are untreated with synthetic chemicals and contain no genetically modified seed, so they take first place in the competition for my garden dollars.

What went into the ground recently were rudbeckia Irish Eyes, a member of the black-eyed Susan family with a soft celery green, rather than chocolate center, stocks, mixed asters, ganzia daybreak (a compact flower similar to a strawflower), lupines, delphinium Pacific giants, bachelor buttons and double poppies. All except the poppies, chosen because there's no such thing as too many of these pretty comers, swear they will flower mid-summer into the fall. With lots of spring-flowering bulbs and plants already in place, summer and fall bloomers are what the garden wants more of.

Chives and radish also got sown, the chives, in all honesty, for their handsome purple flowerheads, the radishes as the start of the vegetable plot. To be added to this sunny spot in the backyard once the nights stay around and above the 60-degree mark will be bell peppers, cucumbers and sweet basil. The only vegetable (actually a fruit) attempted before was tomato plants, which shriveled in the withering summer sun and could not get their thirst quenched sufficiently, despite daily watering. This year's effort is to see if a few of the vegetables that are routinely purchased on every week's trip to the grocer can be grown at home. Vegetables are still (fingers crossed) relatively inexpensive to buy and readily available at farmer's markets, so there hasn't been much reason to self-grow them, but this year the idea of being able to pick fresh, wax and pesticide-free peppers, radishes and cucumbers from the backyard just really appealed.

All the seeds were planted in toppings of composted cow manure, the absolute best growing medium for any plant life on this green earth. Now come the tinkering, waiting weeks, with daily sprinklings for all from the watering can, except when given a day off by rainfall. Oh happy day, some of the rudbeckias actually have sprouted already, after only about seven days in the ground. It seems from past experience that maybe about one-third or at very best one-half of seeds sown will deign to put up green sprouts. If a third of the seeds put in this spring lift their fingers into the light of day, all will be well and smiles shall break forth and the gardener will raise a glass of Cabernet in toast from her repose on the Adirondack chair, grateful for the sprouting proof that perhaps she really does know a thing or two about raising a hale and bonny garden.

May 11, 2009

May, the Favored One

As a gardener, it is probably the better part of wisdom not to play favorites among the plants, lest it occasion hurt feelings, jealousy, sulking, and a case of the vapours in the less favored. Plants certainly sense and respond to vibrations in the air, energy and electrical impulses, and emotional currents around them. As with children, harboring or exhibiting anger and frustration with lackadaisical performance is not the best technique for inspiring them to step up their game and realize their full potential.

If the prolific lilac bushes are being treated to a nice helping of compost fertilization, therefore, the wise gardener will bestow a like beneficent treatment upon the layabout forsythia, or the hydrangea that's dragging its heels at flowering, or the untidy, perpetually disorganized rosebushes. Treated equitably, encouraged and praised rather than frowned upon, scolded or ignored, even the recalcitrant garden minions are more likely to achieve or exceed the expectations and fond hopes of their keepers.

The gardener's private preferences could never enjoy sufficient potency, however, to determine or alter the course of the seasons. Superstitions notwithstanding, the gardener's feelings do not change by one iota the earth's rotation through the weather courses of a year, so no harm befalls declaring and reveling in the fact that spring is the gardener's number one season of choice, or even going so far as to name May as the personal best month of the 12 contestants. The mornings dawn to the return of the purl and trilling whistles of birdsong, rather than rain and hail assaulting the windowpanes. The air currents are cool and invigorating, warming to comfortable shirt-sleeves' ranges in the afternoons, the furiously aggressive March and April winds subside into breezes that caress rather than pummel the skin. Glorious, delicate, newly-minted green comes back to town and country from its prolonged winter absence, sidling tantalizingly across fields and hillsides, up the branches of willow and maple, blushing its shy way to the tips of reeds, shrubs and sedges.

In the last ten days, all the spring flowers in the garden have progressed from the idea of climbing out of bed to eyes-wide-open bloom. Now there is a nature's jewel box of color spilled across the garden, from front to back. In bloom are sugar-almond colored hyacinths, daffodils and jonquils in shades of lemon, apricot, peach, ivory and orange, denim-blue grape hyacinths, primroses, forsythia, windflowers, snowdrops and tulips. The river birch is covered in dangling catkins and tiny lime leaf buds. The Cleveland pear is bedecked in buds as well, as are the Fuji apple tree, the sweet cherry sapling, the lilacs and rosebushes.

The garden will remain awash in the spring-flowering bulbs for the first half of the month, but May has even more plenty in store, currently powdering its nose in the wings for an entrance from mid-month on. The creeping phlox in magenta, dusty pink and periwinkle, the wizened little faces of violas, the lilacs with their delectable rich nectar scent, and the penultimate flower that will grace the final days of May, the luxuriant peonies. No flower that grows anywhere in the world smells more heavenly to me, none possesses looks of more perfect beauty.

Springtime, the merry, burgeoning month of May, and the fresh, delicious flowers it comes bearing win the affections easily after the long scent and color drought of winter. Because they are first on the scene after the months of drear and grey, May flowers have an inside track for the position of favorite. Then too, the spring bulbs require nothing of the gardener once they've been snuggled into the earth, holding everything within their dark core that is necessary to bursting into bloom, given a couple daily hours of incremental sunlight and some April showers. No pinching back, fertilizing, pruning, weeding, de-bugging, not one chore must be undertaken for the flowers of May to launch their splendor. For this month only, in the seasons of the garden, the gardener can mostly relax, gaze in awe at Nature's opening show of many-colored handiwork, and savor the pleasure, the gifts of the garden.

“Earth is so kind,” the English writer Douglas Jerrold says, “just tickle her with a hoe and she laughs with a harvest.” While that may not be a totally accurate description of earth's horticultural behavior in the perishing hot, dry spells of summer, or the alternating frosts and Indian-summer heat of autumn, it portrays the insouciance and largesse of the May garden to a nicety.

May 5, 2009

War of the Weeds

“The misunderstanding I have with Nature over my perennial border,” writes gardener Sara Stein, “I think it is a flower garden. She thinks it is a meadow lacking grass, and tries to correct the error.” A similar misunderstanding and attempted “correction” plays out in my garden every year. Since the garden is meant to cover the whole of the lot, however, the annual war of the grass weeds is fought across the entire yard, not just in borders.

The primary foe in the ongoing skirmishes is a wild prairie grass, called little bluestem or wiregrass (pictured here), seconded in the field of contention by common lawn grass. The surface of the lot is covered in cypress wood chips, and at this writing, about one-third of the lot also hosts garden shrubs, trees and plants. The wood-chip covered areas do not have garden plantings because time and money did not allow the whole lot to be landscaped at one fell swoop. While the gardened areas are added to and expanded each year, the wild grasses have been able to establish in swathes along the sides, front and back perimeters of the lot. Every fall, opportunistic tumbleweeds of grass seed blow into the yard from neighboring yards and meadows, and every spring the patches of prairie and lawn grasses merrily resprout in unsightly, random clumps and ragtag bands.

The grasses are incredibly resilient and disgustingly healthy. The gardener tromps around on them in all seasons, digs them out, never waters them, and regularly directs curses and spells towards them, all to no avail. They grow, as grasses are wont to do, like the dickens, and every summer must be mowed down every three weeks or so. Since mowing a lawn was never part of the garden plan, the gardener must needs borrow a lawnmower for this obnoxious task from a neighbor, then has to inflict a couple hours' worth of extremely unpleasant and harmful lawnmower gasoline engine fumes on the environs, and finally has to re-mulch all the mowed areas with new cypress chips, since the lawnmower chops and blows the ground cover to smithereens, leaving behind sad, bare stretches of earth.

Last year, the gardener attempted a more resounding assault upon the invaders. Using the weed-killer Round-Up, the blades of the grasses were sprayed as they emerged, primarily in the places where they were extending their reach toward the flower beds, and on the random scatterings of outcroppings in new, previously uncolonized locations. If the spraying occurred on a sunny day that was followed by at least a week or two of more sunny days and no rainfall (chance would be a fine thing!), most (not all) the sprayed grasses would, in fact, turn yellow, then brown, and die. The roots, apparently, seldom if ever met a like fate, as within another couple weeks, new grass infants would be born in adjacent locations.

The herbicide spraying tactic will not be employed this year. Not because in the big picture it didn't really work, not because Round-Up is very expensive, relative to the garden budget, and the profits go to Monsanto, a multi-national chemical company that has been manufacturing horticultural, agricultural and military poisons for decades. The spraying won't be repeated because the gardener does not want to commit murder, not even a little bit of murder of the earth, and that is precisely what synthetic chemical herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers do. The war of the weeds got the better of the gardener's knowledge, common sense and principles last year. I lost my patience (and a little of my mind) in the heat of battle, and employed a strategy I abhor. Never again.

The death of the particular sprayed grasses is not the issue. Common lawn grass and little bluestem flourish ubiquitously throughout the Great Lakes and Midwest regions, and across prairies and yards on the whole North American continent. They are invasive, not by any stretch of the imagination endangered. But spray-bombing a single species of plant or insect is not a finite act. Toxic chemicals do not simply kill the species upon which they are applied. They debilitate everything they come into contact with, and once a poison chemical enters the ecosystem, it cannot be confined nor contained. An ecosystem is a contiguous whole, its parts cannot be isolated one from the others, and what befalls any of its individual parts will migrate, stealthy, silent and deadly, to all.

Chemicals sprayed on plants or insects enter and lodge in the seeds, pollen, eggs, roots, underwater streams, wells and water tables, dew and rainfall. Animals that feed on the plants or insects ingest the poison, and in turn also become poisoned and poisonous. Toxic substances thus spread from the single plant or insect to the soil, earthworms, creeks, rivers, lakes and oceans, fish and birds, wild and domestic animals, and human consumers of the plants and animals. Poisonous chemicals from herbicides and insecticides have been found in the seeds and subsequent generations of plants of sprayed species, they have been found in the honey produced by bees from the nectar of sprayed plants, and in the eggs and fledglings of birds that feed on poisoned insects. What's more, chemically poisoned plants and insects can develop a survival resistance to their assailants and undergo a flareback phenomenon wherein they resurge in greater, stronger numbers. To unleash a fusillade of poisons on any segment of the earth's ecosystem can render it unfit for all life forms, contaminating the entire environment.

So, the gardener made an egregious mistake last year, but has mended her errant ways, and approaches the garden and contemplates the flings of swaggering new grass sprouts with a revised, chastened attitude. Bands of rangy grasses here and there throughout the garden will be accepted as flagbearers of Nature's exuberance, will to live, and vibrant health on this little plot of land. A benign trowel or spade will root out any brigades of grasses that forge into no-go areas of flower beds. A non-polluting, manually operated rotary lawnmower will be acquired to keep the larger stretches of grass in trim. The gardener will henceforth bear in mind that the goal here is to make this village lot a better, more fecund and robust corner of the earth, rife with life and propitious to all comers. Pinching fingers or hungry praying mantis are still the best deterrent for tentworm caterpillars, after all, and ladybugs like no dinner menu better than aphids off the rosebush.