Good Bug or Bad Bug?
Did you know that the vast majority of insects you can find in the garden either do no harm to your plants, or are actually beneficial?
The tendency of many people is to grab a sprayer at the first sign of a six-legged creepy-crawly on their plants. In reality, very few insects are damaging to your plants, and even those that do cause damage are often gobbled up by the good guys before too much harm is done. Some are easy to identify and obviously enhance the garden—bees and butterflies for example. Others are a little more mysterious…are they good bugs or bad bugs? Lets look at a couple of very good bugs:
Ladybug larvae: The juvenile stages of the ladybug are certainly scary looking, resembling a dragon or alligator with spikes and spines along their orange and black backs. Thank goodness they’re only ½” long! Not until they molt into their adult form do they become “ladylike”. Like adult ladybugs, the juveniles are voracious predators of aphids and other soft-bodied insects (and sometimes even each other). If you see these little monsters, consider yourself lucky-one nymph can eat 400 aphids, while an adult ladybug can consume up to 4000 in its lifetime!
Aphidoletes aphidimyza: A tiny midge with a big name, you may never see this insect as an adult, as they prefer to move about in the evening, and you may not notice the larvae as they move through an aphid colony, killing many more aphids than they actually need to survive (adults consume aphid honeydew). What you may see are clusters of empty aphid husks that they leave behind, often destroying entire colonies in just days. These tiny killing machines are orange maggots no larger than 1/8” in length. Their 24 day life cycle means several generation will occur each summer. Cocoons at the end of the season will survive the winter in the soil to emerge as adults the following spring. Aphidoletes can clean up a surprisingly large colony of aphids. They are so effective, in fact, that they are one of the most commonly used biological aphid controls used in commercial greenhouses.
Syrphid fly: Adult syrphid flies look very much like bees or wasps, but they move in the air like flies, sometimes hovering motionless over flowers (giving them their other common name of hoverfly). They do not bite or sting. While the adults live on nectar and pollen and are important pollinators, many species of syrphid fly have predatory young that feed on aphids, leafhoppers and other small soft-bodied insects. Because there are many species of syrphid flies, their larvae come in many sizes and colors. They can be told apart from caterpillars due to their lack of legs and translucent skin.
Minute pirate bug and insidious pirate bug: You may have mixed feelings about the presence of pirate bugs in your garden. While both adults and young eat a wide range of plant-eating insects, they do occasionally bite humans, and while harmless, their bite is quite painful for their size. Fortunately, it’s pretty uncommon to be bitten by a pirate bug, and they do not transmit disease or suck blood. They are small, less than 1/8” long, with translucent wings marked with black. Like Aphidoletes, pirate bugs are often used for commercial greenhouse pest control.
Wheel bug: While the other insects mentioned are so tiny as to go unnoticed unless you’re looking for them, the wheel bug is large (1 ½” long), slow moving, noisy in flight and really quite scary-looking. They should not be handled because their bite is extremely painful and can take months to heal (they will not bite if not provoked). However, they are able to eat larger insect pests than the others on this list, including Japanese beetles and caterpillars. All life stages are predators, even preying on insects larger than themselves, and sometimes each other. The juveniles have bright orange or red abdomens, while adults are grey-black, with a distinct cog-like wheel on their back. As top-level insect predators wheel bugs are not very common, but their presence usually indicates a healthy garden ecosystem where few pesticides are used.
If you are fortunate enough to find these beneficial insects in your garden, try to refrain from using any pesticides, even organic pesticides (particularly on aphid colonies with predators among them.) Most pesticides--yes, even organic--are non-selective, killing all insects that they contact, good or bad. Keep small infestations of plant pests under observation to see if any of these (or other) beneficial insects move in to feast before you spray. A diverse population of insects, including a few that nibble your plants, indicates a healthy and balanced garden environment.
Next month: Some bad bugs and when to treat them.
Can I Plant This Now?
No matter the time of year-spring, summer, fall, or winter-we get the question “Can I plant this now?” almost daily. The answer, with a few exceptions, is “yes”.
There are, of course, good, better, and best times to plant certain plants. Planting tomatoes in February is generally agreed to be a bad idea in North Carolina, as is planting tulip bulbs in June.
Factors such as temperature, water and the plant’s growth stage all come into play when deciding to plant. For tender plants, planting should be put off until there is little chance of frost. Fall planting, when temperatures begin to ease and rainfall increases, is ideal for many woody plants.
The season does play a role deciding whether it’s a good idea to plant, but maybe not the way you think. In summer, it depends on your answer to the question “are you planning any vacations?” Since no plants fare well without regular watering after planting, you may not want to plant in summer if you won’t be around to water your new planting regularly, so plant after you return from the beach. In winter, frozen soil may indicate it’s not a great time to plant, while soggy soil in spring may cause you to wait a few weeks until the muck dries out.
Borderline hardy plants like hardy bananas or windmill palms have a much better chance of surviving winter if planted in early summer, allowing them as much growing season as possible to establish a strong root system. For that reason, planting them in fall would not be advised. (Find a bargain on a borderline hardy plant at a fall sale? Keep it in a cool garage for the winter or treat it as a houseplant until next spring.)
Rather than the time of year, the biggest causes of plant failure are choosing the wrong plant for a particular spot and lack of/too much water in the first weeks after planting. Choose the right plant for your conditions and give it a little TLC and it won’t matter too much when you actually plant it.
Sowing the Seeds for a Fall Vegetable Harvest
Fall is a second season for harvesting vegetables, especially the super-healthy leafy greens. For the “second harvest”, plant your seeds in summer according to the chart below, or plant transplants as soon as they become available. Remember, it is very important to keep your newly planted seeds or transplants watered while it’s still summer-hot.
If you’re sowing or planting where you had spring veggies, add some more compost or manure, or organic fertilizer to replenish the nutrients your tomatoes and peppers needed to grow. All of these vegetables will also grow quite happily in containers, and the kales and colorful Swiss chard and red mustard are quite ornamental.
Many of the leafy greens grow better as the temperatures begin to drop in fall, and will survive the first light frosts until a killing frost finishes them. Others, like cabbage, kale and Brussels sprouts, will survive temperatures into the low 20s, getting sweeter and better tasting after a few freezes, and can even be harvested for holiday cooking.
When to direct-sow vegetable seeds for fall harvest:
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