There are few things more disappointing to gardeners than waiting all year for a beloved plant to bloom only to wake one morning and find it ravaged by pests. Especially vexing is when you have no idea what's attacking it and have to don a pest detective hat in order to kill the pest and save the plant.
Early this spring, I walked through my garden and stopped beside a small rose I grew from a cutting of a bush my grandmother tended for decades. My grandmother passed away a year ago, so I put a lot of pressure on myself to make her memory live on in my garden. When I found the one lone rose bud teeming with tiny green bugs, I took to the Internet.
"There are aphids crawling atop my grandmother's rose bud [grumble, curse, mumble, scream]," I wrote on Facebook.
Within minutes, friends recommended an arsenal of remedies: A mixture of diluted dish soap and water; a strong, sustained blast of water; and, most interestingly, ladybugs and praying mantids.
A quick Internet search turns up numerous web sites to identify garden pests. The folks at www.gardening.about.com put together a handy tip sheet with a number of the sites grouped by cooperative extension service websites and commercial ones.
A book I find especially helpful is "Good Bug Bad Bug: Who's Who, What They Do, and How to Manage Them Organically" by Jessica Walliser. The last time I visited on Mt. Vernon Avenue, they had several copies in stock.
I also find the staff at Eclectic Nature incredibly knowledgeable and have urged friends to take their pest questions there. Recently, I did just that when I walked in and pulled two sandwich bags from my purse. One bag contained leaves from my Columbine flowers, the others from my Green Spire Euonymus. Both were obviously infected with something funky.
Chris Weaver and Susan Rain took quick peeks at the bags and immediately identified the wormlike look of the Columbine leaves as leaf miner and the white flecks devouring my Euonymus as scale. Because the pests were inside the leaves and so pervasive, the women recommended a systemic solution, one that treated the plant from its roots.
I left with a bottle of Bayer Advanced All-In-One Rose and Flower Care, which is designed to control insects as well as feed the plants.
People frequently bring pests into the shop for identification and help, but they don't always do it the right way, Weaver said.
"What's scary is when they come in with just the leaf and I'm like, 'Aah!'" she said.
"We don't want it infesting other stuff," Rain said.
In other words, put your pest in a sealed bag. Don't stow it in a shoebox or carry it in your hand. Proof of how strongly they feel about pests, as soon as the women identified mine, Weaver marched the bags outside and stowed them in the trash cans.
Like my circle of friends on Facebook, Weaver and Rain also suggested introducing ladybugs and praying mantids, both considered "beneficial bugs," into my yard. I laughed and told them I'd already done the first and was in the process of making the mantids happen.
In mid-April, I bought 1,500 ladybugs from an online retailer and a praying mantis egg case that promised 200 to 300 praying mantis eggs. "Each adult will eat several times its weight in insect pests, daily!" the site promised.
The ladybugs arrived in a small box with air holes and a cooling pack, tucked inside a mesh envelope. I put them in the refrigerator, as advised, and waited until dusk to release them in the yard. My children helped with the project and obviously loved it. They placed ladybugs on my grandmother's rose—on the bud where the aphids feasted and at the base of the plant, too. They scattered the ladybugs atop peonies, the hydrangea, the grasses, their arms and faces, everything!
It was a world of fun and likely to become an annual spring garden project.
As for the praying mantis egg case, we put it in a borrowed terrarium, placed it on our dining room table and waited. After a month or so, we returned home to find the praying mantid nymphs spilling from the case. Hundreds of them. We released many into the yard that night, then more the next day until we were left with about 10 or so in the terrarium.
I fed them fruit flies and tiny bugs that seemed to gather on my butterfly bush until just this week, then we released all of the remaining nymphs but one. Our plan is to watch that nymph grow until it matures and gets its wings at which time we'll release it to the yard.
I'm happily surprised every time I come across a praying mantis nymph in the yard. Lately, I've seen them in the day lilies, on top of the lace cap hydrangeas, even on the wall of the house near the back door. I haven't seen many ladybugs; it seems they took off a few days after we released them, likely on to other yards in search of pests. The good news: I haven't seen a single aphid since then.
My grandmother's rose is safe. For now.