What bugs me

Don’t worry; this isn’t a rant.

No, I’m just going to talk about bugs. Real bugs. Or, to be more precise about the nomenklatura in the garden: insects.

Let me tell you about the reeducation I’ve been getting as I pivot towards more native plants in the garden.

Going native

There are good reasons for gardeners to turn towards native plants. First, the choice of native v. import may help avoid introducing invasive plants into the local landscape. Second, native plants evolved in the native environment, so chances are they’re better adapted to local climate, both temperatures and precipitation. Third, they evolved as part of a local/regional ecology, which means they mesh with other natives in creating a local ecosystem, right in our own backyards.

closeup of tiger swallowtail butterfly (black stripes on yellow for upper and inner 80% of wings; with black border all around, and panes of deep blue in varying sizes along bottom of wings just inside border). Butterfly seen against backdrop of (apparently) pink flowers and green foliage of butterfly weed.

Eastern tiger swallowtail butterfly” by Audrey is licensed under CC

Ah, ecosystem! So much grander than plain old backyard. It sounds so harmonious, so balanced, so God’s-in-her-heaven-all’s-right-with-the-world. Especially when you think of all the lovely native trees and shrubs and flowers serving as hosts for gorgeous butterflies like tiger swallowtails,

Baltimore checkerspots,

coral hairstreaks,

painted ladies. And yes, of course, the monarch.

Doesn’t that sound heavenly? Imagine yourself planted ‘midst your serviceberry and summersweet and black chokecherry shrubs, your wild columbine and butterfly weed and lupine and black-eyed Susans and cranesbill and wild bergamot on a spring-thru-summer afternoon.

There you are, admiring the tiny works of nature’s art fluttering about, sipping here, feather-landing there, doing loop-the-loops around the sugar maple and the pin oak. (Naturally, your fantasy should substitute other regional native plants and pollinators if you’re not in New England.)

Idyllic, no?

Wellllll, let me tell you. If you’re setting up hosts in your garden, you’re not just laying out a buffet of floral sippy-cups. This is not exactly AirBnb—unless you’d offer a house where the guests, after draining the sippy cups, are free to set their kids loose to eat your curtains, your rugs, the furniture, the books, the paintings, and the paint off the walls.

Your lovely native-plant hosts, I regret to inform you, are there to be eaten.

It ain’t pretty

You begin to see where I’m going on the reeducation? Used to be, I’d look for plants advertised as virtually pest-free. Generally, that means plants so alien to the local environment that no self-respecting local-native bug would touch them.

Now, however, I’m supposed to put plants in because they attract pests. Because something buzzing or floating or crawling about will take a sniff and yell Dinner! and zero in to chow down. Or worse yet, yell Honey, I’m home! and zero in to lay a couple thousand eggs that will hatch into Very Hungry Caterpillars.

Several Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars (bright orange bodies with small black spots and black hairy tufts along body) on a host plant's stem, with half-eaten leaf showing at left and another mostly-eaten leaf in foreground.

Very Hungry Baltimore Checkerspot Caterpillars
Baltimore checkerspot caterpillars II” by dogtooth77 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Granted, there’s payoff here for the local biome, not just for the individual species of guest I’m hosting. The caterpillars attract birds, who gather not for the aesthetic enjoyment but for the eating. And birds will help keep other insect populations (and annelids, aka worms) under control. So it’s all one great circle of life, kumbaya, amen. Right?

Still, when the leaves on my newly planted winterberry bushes started disappearing at an alarming rate last summer, Kumbaya ain’t what I was humming. It’s one thing to put up with the kids eating the drapes, but when they started in on the furniture, all I could think of was that those bushes came at 70 bucks a pop. A pretty steep price for a bug buffet!

Game plans gang a-gley

For this year, I planned to head off the sticker shock by buying seeds. Then I could start from scratch and keep refilling the smorgasbord in hopes of some leftovers.

I’m great on planning. On execution, not so much.

I got all the pots and potting medium and even put together a nice little nursery frame out under the Canadian hemlocks. The seeds should have gone into the nursery around January. Now it’s nearly June and I still have all the pots and potting medium. The seeds are still in the fridge.

Maybe next January.

Hope springs infernal

Meanwhile, incredible though it may seem, there are empty spots in the sunny-garden beds. And plenty of space in the shade border, where mulch continues to fight a losing battle against weeds, and needs some help from ground cover. So the weekend before last, after perusing several different sources and compiling a carefully curated list, I betook myself to the local native plants nursery.

Naturally (no pun intended) they were out of most of what I was looking for. “Crazy-busy” might best describe the scene; the manager and sole ringer-up on duty said it’s been hard to keep up with the demand. Apparently others share my preoccupation with native plants.

If I were cynical, I’d say a native plant nursery is the perfect business. You’re selling people stuff that begs to be eaten.  (Thumper and Bambi are another issue. Having more cosmopolitan tastes, they’ll eat just about anything.)

Several different varieties of plants in black plastic pots on an outdoor glass-topped table

The 2022 bug banquet

Anyhow, I improvised enough to assemble a bug banquet, the members of which are still waiting for distribution to their homes-till-consumed. And I’m hoping that enough will survive, even after the painted lady and monarch caterpillars have eaten their fill, that the banquet will have staying power.

Stay tuned.

About the larger environment

What can I say? Huge swaths of the western US are burning (again), the gun lobby and its hired hands in Congress remain adamantly opposed to legislation on gun safety despite yet another horrific slaughter of schoolchildren, and the Supreme Court… well, I said I wasn’t going to rant.

I’ll just say that if you can figure out how to light a candle rather than cussing the darkness, go ahead and more power to you. If you want any recommendations: we gardeners know how important it is to get root systems well established—that goes for movements as well as plants! Two organizations doing essential work that begins at the grassroots are 350.org (action on climate change) and Movement Voter Project (assisting community-level organizing for progressive causes). I especially like the way MVP sends occasional bulletins describing in detail what it has been supporting, and why.

Your turn:

If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the newsletter, which is just a notice when a new post goes up. Whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What native plants for your region do you particularly love? (If you’re not sure what’s native and what’s not, you can use the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plant Finder.)
  2. Have you been trying in recent years to put more native plants into your garden? If so, what impelled you to do so?
  3. Do you know of any good sources for native plants in your region? Share a recommendation, please!
  4. Are there any good grassroots-oriented organizations you would recommend that other readers check out?

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Thanks, as always, for reading, and double thanks for responding!

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10 Responses to What bugs me

  1. Hillary says:

    I am bugged, too, with all kinds of bug bites I cannot even identify. I know the mosquitos, chiggers, and gnats, but what exactly are these red spots I get when gardening (read “weeding”). Even the dermatologist has no answer!

    • Kateri says:

      Good question, Hillary! I also get mysterious markings that I notice only when I come back inside. Most recently, a tiny red hole that turned into an angry bright pink splotch that lasted for over a week. Spider bites? We need an entomologist to weigh in! (or maybe an arachnologist)

  2. Susan McKenna says:

    First off, does picking up 651+ branches after the big storm a couple Saturdays ago count as gardening? Yes, I know it’s weird to count, when I was 4 years old, my parents paid me a nickel for every 100 dandelions I collected. Does that count as gardening? I already know what Kateri would say, “‘Fraid not.” As the never-constant gardener, I must confess that I love the non-native Butterly Bush. Had about 20 Monarchs a day chowing down last summer and it was great. That is, until I heard it was non-native. But since I don’t garden, I can enjoy the beautiful pollinator garden on the intersection of Round Hill and Crescent. (If you live in my Northampton neighborhood, you will know exactly which one I mean). I’ll take a pic and post to Instagram, suan.bella69. Thanks again Kateri for the witty and fascinating insights into the world of gardening and bugs. Love, Sista Suan

    • Kateri says:

      Picking up branches and sticks definitely counts as gardening, Susan! I do it too–a lot.

      And I’m not advocating for being a total purist about native plants. I am strongly attached to my peonies and Oriental poppies, and I put in a couple of butterfly bushes a couple-three years back. You’re right, they attract pollinators in droves. I even got a great running closeup view of a hummingbird moth last year. S/he apparently fell in love with the butterfly bush and hovered around it all day, intermittently descending for a sip here and there. I do occasionally worry about the butterfly bush being considered an invasive plant, but as far as I can see, it’s not invading anything in my yard, and my neighbors don’t tolerate invaders in their carefully tended plots.

  3. SteveB says:

    Plenty of native bugs – they are too big to be insects – and that is that – huge flying beetles, enormous but harmless, I have been assured, spiders living in harmony, I assume, in my home, along with the various small reptiles who also seem to enjoy the accommodations here. We have recently had mice trying to move in, but it turns out Sam, the intrepid French bulldog, is as adept as any cat I know at getting rid of them. Phew! And this is before I step outside into the garden, or call it what you will. All I can say is that year around warm to sweltering weather makes for ecosystems even more crowded than the gun-nut ecosystem in a country that shall remain nameless, where I thankfully no longer live.

    Finally, thank you for the link to the Movement Voter Project. In between seeing a news item and screaming or pounding my head into the wall or both, I can spend some useful time figuring out what they do, and sending them some money from time to time.

    • Kateri says:

      Glad that link was of some use, Steve. I’m afraid most of my gardening links aren’t much use for your tropical climate!

      I do wonder whether you’re seeing many problems cause by introduction of invasive plant species from elsewhere–though I have trouble imagining how any imported plants could pose any threat to the lush indigenous growth in Southeast Asia. Aside from the open field provided as forests are destroyed. But I guess that’s a pretty big “aside.”

  4. Teague says:

    Well, at our finest we are merely stewards here. You know my philosophy: plant enough for everyone to enjoy, including you. Peace.

  5. helen snively says:

    a great native plant nursery for you lucky folks in W Mass is A Wing and a Prayer in Cummington.. she has acres of plants.. Last August it felt like acres of goldenrod, which I don’t mind at all.. but she has so much more.. I’ve just planted a small willow that should be happy in my small Cambridge yard. Check her out: Amy PUlley.

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks for mentioning Wing and a Prayer, Helen. I’ve visited it once, last fall, but I intend to go back soon to try to find what wasn’t available at the nursery closer to me. You’re right, it’s an impressive operation, and I was in awe at both the plants and Amy Pulley’s energy and commitment.

      Is there nothing close to comparable in the Boston area?

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