I talk to the trees
But they don’t listen to me
Lerner and Loewe, from “Paint Your Wagon”
It’s unbelievable, really, what we’ve experienced so far in 2020. First, we impeached a president; then the pandemic hit (120,000 American deaths and counting); our economy collapsed; Derek Chauvin leaned on George Perry Floyd’s neck killing him in a video sent ‘round the world; now police violence demonstrations have bumped the covid-19 lethality out of our minds; and there’s a raging “Capital Hill Autonomous Zone” (CHAZ) in Seattle. Plus there’s more to look forward to! — a highly contested presidential election with already visible voting chaos and suppression.
Perhaps you know that supposedly Chinese curse that’s not really Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” These are they. So maybe we can be forgiven if we’ve started talking to the trees during lockdown. Because when I say conversations “in” the garden I sort of mean conversations “with” the garden, as it’s just me, the moles, and the mason bees.
‘Trooping the colors’
After coffee every morning, I sling on some clothing-like substitutes and inspect the grounds. Did the slugs overtake the strawberries? Have my tomatoes (I try every year) grown a few more inches? Oh, wow, the honeysuckle is blooming!
I glory in the erect and enormous snap dragons: yellow, pink and white. And these past days I’ve loved standing amid the deep blue blooms of the Ceanothus watching bees snuggle and rumble around. What’s sad is that there are many fewer actual honeybees this year, though the mason bees are trying to pick up the pollination slack.
One of my other favorite activities is harvesting the dainty but exceedingly sweet native strawberries tucked in here and there in the yard. Their reds give them away amidst the green. I let them invade the grass and the flower beds; and I always exhort anyone attempting to mow the lawn that the blades must be set high to spare their blooms.
Added bonus: ten days ago I had the special treat of seeing a doe in my lower yard tend to first one polka-dotted, newly hatched fawn (born in the early evening the night before), then the second (born in the next morning) as they straggled around on their too-long skinny legs. They were gamboling — glad to be alive? — trying to negotiate my thigh-high grasses with wobbly knobby knees. Other friends have remarked about the nearness of wildlife in these months when we humans have been mostly in our homes bingeing on Netflix or rummaging in our pantries. It was remarkable to watch these newborns suckle on mom; it took every single worry momentarily out of my head. I left the picket fence gate open for them to be able to roam, and I haven’t seen them since their birthdays. I hope they’re thriving somewhere.
Waiting for parasitoids
Then a couple mornings ago I noticed the leaves of the lilacs I’ve been coaxing along started to have brown edges. I love the fragrance of lilacs because I grew up with them in Yakima. Our next door neighbor had a hedgerow of them all along her driveway — a bounty in all colors: violet, deep purple, white — and to me there is no other smell that so clearly signifies spring. I had only one branch of blossoms this year before these sickly looking leaves started appearing. On the following mornings, several leaves curled up like little brown cigars.
I sent a series of photos to gardening gurus Kathleen Sayce and Rachel Gana to get an opinion about what was going on. Rachel, one of our Grays Harbor-Pacific County master gardeners, answered my plea this way, “There is a moth larvae that starts out as a leaf miner and as it matures leaves the mines and becomes a leafroller. Both symptoms can be seen on the same plant. Caloptilia syringella is the scientific name of this insect and it can have several generations per year if conditions are right. [Oh, joy! I’m happy for them…really I am.] Mechanical control by squishing newly mined areas of leaves and unrolling leaves and squishing older larvae will help control this pest locally. The adult moths obviously can fly in from other places (this species also is a pest on privet and ash) so it is difficult to control completely.”
“That being said, there is a parasitoid that will help control this species in the leaf miner stage. Parasitoid populations can be encouraged by not raking up fallen lilac leaves and leaving them in place near lilac bushes.” When I called Rachel to talk more about it I wondered if I should simply be clipping off these offending leaves, even though there seemed to be so many of them. I didn’t want to annihilate my lilacs completely.
“A well-established lilac can still sustain itself with two-thirds of its leaves diseased. Because there are naturally occurring biological controls, allowing the leaf miner/roller to live will attract the insects that will help control them. It is always necessary to have the pest as fodder for the control insect to subsist on and increase in number. So be patient. While you wait for the parasitoids, you might want to give them some lime. Lilacs like alkaline soil.” (Other planting info can be found here: https://pnwmg.org.)
I hope waiting for the parasitoids is not a gambit like ‘Waiting for Godot.’
Natives are stronger
Meanwhile, biologist/ecologist Kathleen, while concurring with Rachel, shared some holistic advice about Northcoast gardening in a homily I might have anticipated. Why the heck was I trying to grow lilacs anyway? Why can’t I just get with Mother’s Nature PNW program and love the salal, ferns, and berries?
Kathleen recommended two books, both by Douglas Tallamy, a professor of entomology at University of Delaware: Bringing Nature Home, and Nature’s Best Hope. As she wrote, “Tallamy has studied the impact of non-native plants on native fauna for decades and on his own property has created a slow transformation back to native plants and improved faunal habitat, while studying the improvements in habitat for native birds and other species.”
“Bringing Nature Home focuses on the East Coast and his research in Delaware, which answers questions like: how many larvae does it take to raise a nest of Blackcap Chickadees to fledging? The answer is around 15,000 caterpillars, as I recall (Todd Wiegardt has my books right now, so I can’t look it up). After they fledge, they eat about as many again in the next few weeks. Said another way: the more native plants you plant, the more insect food for birds you will have.”
“Nature’s Best Hope gives people all over North America a look at which species provide habitat for which insects, which in turn support birds and other animals. I use this approach because it provides more information about how many insects use specific plants, and that informs my choices for yards that promote bird habitat.”
“Read these books and, perhaps as I did, you’ll replace the lilacs with native plants that are at home here, tolerate native insect ‘pests,’ and provide food for native birds. Native species aren’t inferior in the garden, they’re simply not the cultural expectation we were raised to plant around our homes. Rather like the subconscious racism we all live with in this culture, in fact.”
OK, I get the message. Still I like talking to my lilacs, and I’d love them to happily talk back to me. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for the arrival of little marching bands of parasitoid lilac saviors. Though, truth be told, I’d gladly give up my lilacs for more justice in the world.