Where there are gardens there are bugs, which is good because bugs are an important part of every healthy ecosystem. But of those bugs there are the "bad" bugs, the ones that eat the plants. In flowering gardens they're annoying. In vegetable gardens they are potentially ruinous and need to be dealt with quickly and strategically.
Since we first got the plants into the ground at the BGG, I had seen a few sinister-looking beetles and noticed some chewed holes in the leaves, but nothing I didn't expect or really worry about. I figured things would remedy themselves over time and that the bugs wouldn't be an issue. Last week, however, I noticed some peculiar markings on some of the leaves of the tomato and pepper plants. They were dark sometimes covering whole halves of a leaf, and parts of the leaves looked dead. On closer examination I found the culprit almost immediately. Aphids!
If you haven't seen any yourself, you've probably heard one of your gardener friends or acquaintances complaining about them. They're tiny bugs often black, brownish, green, or translucent that suck the sap out of leaves slowly starving them of their nutrients. Especially for tomatoes this can really put a curb on your crop yield often times bringing fruit production to a screeching halt.
To be honest my experience with aphids is minimal. I've read about them, what they do, and what gardeners do to prevent them from getting out of control, but it's not like I've ever seen a true aphid infestation. In other gardens I've tooled around in there were always garlic or onions planted nearby or around, which are effective in keeping them away, at least enough so that I didn't notice more than a few leaves being sucked dry. In the BGG however, there were a few too many leaves affected too early, which was disconcerting. Even more so when I saw just how many we had as I scraped off the leaves by hand.
One thing I did do to help prevent aphids and other insects from hurting the plants was to prune off any plant branches that touched the ground. These leaves and branches would serve as little ramps for the aphids and other bugs to crawl up. Apparently I didn't do a good enough job.
I wasn't about to spray anything onto the leaves, and I didn't really want to start messing around with the garden ecosystem too much. I could've mixed up a potion of garlic, onion, dish soap, and water and sprayed it onto the leaves, but that could also potentially chase away beneficial insects and microorganisms. Plus, I don't care what anybody says, I refuse to believe that spraying anything with dish soap in it doesn't mess with plants surfaces. I'd be better off with eye of newt, and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog, but I wasn't about to ask Mary Liz to order those. So we instead opted to introduce ladybugs to the garden.
Mary Liz raised an eyebrow when I requested a tub of 300 ladybugs for the garden. I'm pretty sure it's the first time somebody asked her for that, and as long as I've a steady pulse and measurable brain waves, probably not the last. I'd like to think that it's the first time such a line-item has ever appeared on a Bronxville expense report, then again, Farmer Dave may have beat me to the spreadsheet line-item punch. (Not to worry my fellow cost-conscious citizens, the garden doesn't cost tax payers a thing — we paid for the bugs using a tiny bit of our BGG grant money.)
Ladybugs despite their name and pretty coloring are ravenous blood-thirsty hunters. They will eat pretty much any small slow-moving insect including aphids, which a particular favorite. They are totally harmless to people and you can pick them up with no worries. They're also pretty to see crawling across green leaves. The only problem with buying ladybugs is that you can expect a large number of them to fly away when you release them into your garden. To help keep most of them where you want them, it's a good idea to release them into your garden at dusk because they don't usually fly around at night. First give a quick sprinkle of water over your beds so they have some moisture, then open whatever container the ladybugs came in, and rest it on the ground in the middle of where you want them deployed. If you're like me and like watching such things, it's interesting to see the little ladybugs fan out through the garden. If you're like Mary Liz, you may be more fascinated and possibly horrified by the sight of a big middle-aged man like me who was a little too excited about handling tiny ladybugs like they were his pets.
I left the garden that evening after about 45 minutes of watching our newest garden residents crawl through the beds and up the stalks. It was quite interesting to see them explore their new territory and move about the plants they'll hopefully call home. I was slightly annoyed when one ladybug walked by an aphid and didn't so much as pause, but I'll chalk it up to the shock of being released from a plastic tub.
All About the Ecosystem
Some who are on the sanctimonious end of organic gardening would probably tell me that if my garden ecosystem was functioning well then I wouldn't need to introduce ladybugs and that I should simply manage the ecosystem better to attract them. Great thoughts. I agree. But I didn't get a chance plant a phalanx of garlic and onions to prevent such infestation and since we're already pretty well into the season, I wasn't about to wait for the problem to go away despite our very intense garden management. Plus I need help our poor tomato and pepper plants now not later.
If I had been thinking about it when I first took over the BGG I probably would have planted a few more anti-bug plants around the garden aside from the marigolds we put in. Even so, it's likely that we would have had a decent harvest whether or not I spiked the boxes with ladybugs. It really is all about managing the garden ecosystem and being sensitive to changes in the space over the season. Sometimes the ecosystem needs more water introduced, more compost, more plants to lure beneficial insects and birds. In the case of the BGG ecosystem, it needed Mary Liz to store a tub of ladybugs in her fridge until it was time to release them. Let's hope they do the job.