No Plant is an Island
The garden is a truly magical place. For every gift of the garden that we can see, taste, or feel there’s a million hidden gifts that we may never be able to perceive except in our imaginations. Imagine the micro-cosmic universe of the soil. Tiny soil fungi called Mycorrhizae live partially in the soil, and partially in the root hairs of the plants. These soil fungi aren’t free loaders though as they live symbiotically feeding and watering the plant roots in return for carbohydrates given by the grateful host. These fascinating fungi are only the final step in a process of turning nitrogen in our atmosphere into nitrates that our garden plants can easily absorb to help them grow. This nitrogen fixing process is a story involving a host of characters from the friendly mycorrhizae, to the soil detrivores like worms and millipedes, to the nitrogen fixing roots of legumes like beans and peas. This incredible, complex tale of converting nitrogen in the air into food for the creatures of this planet is just one of the hidden, magical stories our gardens can tell if only we learn to listen.
I’ve heard it said that all of the problems on earth could be solved in the garden. Yep… I think that’s pretty well put. I see that much magic and potential in gardens, but I also believe that the inverse is equally true. Most of the problems in the garden can be solved by looking to the earth. After all the beauty of a garden is but a small reflection of the magic of the whole earth. In this newsletter we’ll explore a few of the magic solutions that wise old Mother Earth has presented for all gardeners to learn from.
Ever so lovely and helpful in the garden is the friendly little ladybug. To the ladybug a garden infested with aphids, mealybugs, leafhoppers, or other similar leaf chewing and sucking bugs is a buffet of sweet delight. These little ladies seem to love eating what we hate seeing. Find ladybugs and other beneficial organisms at your local organic gardening store. Ladybugs can be kept in a mesh bag in the fridge for up to a couple of weeks. I take them out of the fridge and give them water every couple of days, but I don’t give them any water for one day prior to release. You’ll want to release the bugs in the evening after rain or a quick garden watering. One way to keep them from flying off right away is to spray their wings with a little diluted sugar water. This makes their wings sticky for a few days, but causes no lasting harm. Be careful to release them at a rate of about one per square foot, as these little spotted beauties are quite territorial about their garden space.
Now this is one bug that strikes the imagination. If I was the size of an aphid I’d think this thing was Godzilla. Praying Mantis are exclusively carnivorous. These bugs pray on aphids, wasps, flies, and other common garden pests. Mantises are sold in brown walnut sized egg cases, usually containing 50 to 400 eggs per case. These cases will hatch out after about 4 days of consistently seventy degree heat. If the night time temps outside are falling below the seventies then hatch them in a jar or container with air holes on top of the fridge. Watch the egg cases very closely when you hatch them indoors because the baby bugs will be so small that they’ll fit through any containers air holes. Place them right in the garden as soon as they hatch and they’ll find their way to your buggy buffet.
You may want to set your salad down for this one. Nematodes are one of our most tricky garden defenders. These microscopic creatures can actually eat aphids from the inside out. If applied to the soil these creatures will wait for pupating garden pests to come along. Once they’ve found their host the nematodes just crawl on inside them and begin wreaking havoc and making babies (I had neighbors like this once). Sold in damp sponges sealed in plastic these tiny terrors are completely safe for humans, and other garden visitors. Keep the sponge in the fridge until you’re ready to use them. Once you’re ready just put the little nematode laden sponge in a gallon of water and squeeze it out. Apply the nematode water to the garden with a hose end mixer / sprayer set at about six tablespoons per gallon, then sit back and imagine the gruesome fate about to befall your garden pests.
We’ve worked our way through progressively more aggressive, nasty seeming beneficial organisms, to end up with a very friendly garden helper. This beneficial garden fungus is literally what ties the plants to the soil. Mycorrhizea work themselves into the roots of plants and thereby increase the plants capacity for getting at soil moisture while the plants send the mychorrhizae plenty of carbohydrates to keep them going. These plant boosters are sold pre packaged in many garden stores, and on line, but you can make your own at home just by composting. That’s right, compost is full of mycorrhizae ready to live in harmony with your garden plants. Just like any natural environment, leaves fall to the ground and are decomposed into plant foods containing a variety of beneficial organisms including mycorrhizae. Natures model is truly the best here as decomposing leaves and garden waste will add beneficial organisms to your garden soil just like it would in any prairie, meadow, or forest. The biggest threat to the health of beneficial organisms in your soil are commonly sold garden chemicals. All of the pesticides and chemical fertilizers alike have the same effect of killing off beneficial organisms in order to make your garden reliant on the costly voodoo of chemical companies instead of the free magic of mother nature. So set the spray bottle down, and take a moment to listen to your gardens stories, you just might learn something magical.