Wild Things…
Bugs in the Garden
By Karen Vizzi
    Most gardeners don’t think of the vegetable garden as a good place to encourage wildlife. In fact, vegetable gardens usually conjure images of sprays, chemicals and sometimes all-out warfare on wildlife. But the veggie garden can be an interesting place to observe nature at work.
    To begin, erase from your mind all pictures of unblemished tomatoes and perfectly shaped cucumbers. By eliminating chemicals, your veggies will be vulnerable to invasions of critters and disease. However, a little effort can keep things under control long enough to realize a sufficient yield. Besides, I’ve never known a single vegetable garden to exist where a lot of the produce doesn’t end up in the compost pile anyway.
    In general, unwanted insects such as bean or cucumber beetles can be hand picked and relocated or destroyed. If this makes you cringe, pay the neighbor kid to do it. But first I suggest finding a good insect field guide and learning exactly what bug is what. There are many beneficial insects that live in the wild garden…good bugs that prey on bad bugs. By destroying ALL the bad bugs, you eliminate the food source for the good bugs and throw nature out of balance.
    Tomato hornworms are traditionally a heartache for the un-knowing gardener who envisions blue ribbon beefsteaks. But the dragon-like caterpillar is actually the larval stage of a beautiful sphinx moth. Personally, I am disappointed when I don’t get any hornworms. If your tomato plants are otherwise healthy, they often produce an excess of foliage that requires pruning for the fruit to ripen properly. So let the caterpillars do the pruning for you. Besides, this is a caterpillar that is extremely susceptible to being parasitized by the braconid wasp, which is considered a beneficial insect for this very reason. Most hornworms never make it to adulthood. See what I mean about the balance?
    Culinary herb gardeners will be familiar with all sorts of colorful caterpillars, as many herbs provide the larval food for many species of butterflies. The Eastern Black Swallowtail uses dill, parsley, fennel and carrot plants. In the picture, you can see this female curling up the lower portion of her abdomen to deposit an egg on a fennel plant. Within a few days, the egg will hatch and grow up to be a two-inch long, lime green and black striped caterpillar, sometimes called the “parsley worm” by the uninformed. However, odds are extremely high that a bird or spider will eat it long before it reaches that stage. In the wild, caterpillars rarely survive long enough to do major damage. So plant an extra plant for the pillars and hope you do get to witness this miracle of nature.
    Disease is a little more difficult to control, but can be kept to a minimum with good garden hygiene. Begin by planting disease resistant varieties and when you do see the start of a problem, pick off the infected leaves and discard. Never compost a diseased leaf of anything. Keep the base of the plant free of any debris and rotate crops each year.
    I am as anxious as the next gardener for that first juicy tomato. But I am not willing to sacrifice the beauty of a fat bumblebee lazily drifting through the tomato blossoms in the morning sun. I think you can have your cake (or vegetables) and eat them too. Look at it this way, you can grow picture-perfect produce and ingest chemicals … or go organic and suffer a few bugs. Which would you rather eat? Personally, I’ll take the bugs…I can always pick those off!

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