Edwina von Gal’s RADICLE Thinking
Tagged with "Insects"
We do love beech trees: American, European, copper, weeping. They are all magnificent. Their impressive size and gnarly solidity stand out for permanence and imperturbability. But, they are not invulnerable. Along with the many challenges all plants are facing, beeches have more than their share of problems, including phytophthora fungus, beech bark disease, and now the mysterious and deadly beech leaf disease.
While phytophthora fungus and beech bark disease are fairly well understood and treatable with non-toxic natural processes, beech leaf disease has all of us PRFCT land care types thinking hard about what to do when beloved trees become afflicted. The cause, now identified as a nematode (microscopic worm), is not well understood. As a result, no one knows the best way to control it. The main option being offered to treat it, though, is a chemical fungicide called Broadform, which is highly toxic to people and pets and lethal to beneficial organisms. It is so toxic that New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had to make a special dispensation to allow its use for residential ornamental plants. And, yet no one knows if it will even be effective. Is it worth it to bend our resolve and put our children and pets in harm’s way to possibly keep a treasured tree holding on until we know more about the disease and have better solutions? I don’t know. I can only suggest that people make their own decisions based on as much unbiased (no income potential) input as possible until we learn more. I will update you as I find out more about this disease.
But there is another part of this story I am thinking about: the woolly beech aphid. Also known as the boogie woogie aphid, it is a fuzzy, sucking insect that lives on the underside of beech leaves and “dances” by raising its hind legs when threatened. (Watch them boogie down here.) It is harmless to all beeches, but a nuisance to humans because of the large amounts of clear, sticky “honeydew” produced. This gooey sap (aphid poop) drips on objects below (cars, benches, you) and then attracts an unsightly, but also harmless, dark “sooty” mold. Since these aphids don’t hurt the tree, I let them be, waiting for predators to show up and feast on them and reduce the goo. But this year I’ve been asking, where are the predators?
Right now, woolly aphids are far more numerous than normal, which is not surprising. When host plants become weak from causes such as disease, pests, like aphids, thrive because it is easier for them to get their sucking parts through struggling cell walls. Beneficial insect predators (lacewings, ladybugs, hoverflies, and parasitic wasps) typically show up when aphid populations are large enough to attract their attention. They feast, multiply, knock back the aphids, and then move on when there isn’t enough left to eat. It can take a season or two for this natural, balanced prey/predator food cycle to complete.
The problem with this year’s woolly beech aphid infestation is not just that the beeches have been weakened by problems like beech leaf disease, but that predator population numbers are also alarmingly low. The ladybugs, lacewings, and other hungry friends just aren’t showing up. Can their dwindling populations be a consequence of widespread spraying for ticks and mosquitoes? All insecticidal sprays, even the “organic/natural oil” ones, kill. They don’t just kill ticks or mosquitoes. They also kill the bugs—butterflies, lacewings, bumblebees—we love and need. When people resort to chemicals to control pests, they destroy the food sources for beneficial insects, which eventually destroys the beneficials themselves. The cycle of natural pest control is broken.
My request to you is: Put down those insecticidal sprays. Nature, if given time, can take care of pests—if we can be patient and let them. There’s always something that will eat the pests we wish to control. Waiting and thinking before acting always brings new observations, insights, and a peaceful interaction with our natural world. While I’m waiting and observing, I will take my hose and simply wash off just the aphids on the branches that hang over my picnic table and leave the rest for the food web.
Quote: “When you surrender, the problem ceases to exist. Try to solve it, or conquer it, and you only set up more resistance.” —Henry Miller, A Literate Passion: Letters of Anais Nin and Henry Miller 1932-1953
Book: Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists and the Ecology of New England by William Cronon
Rebecca McMackin recently recommended this book. It is a seminal work, which opened the environmentalist conversation about indigenous land management practices and sustainability. A seriously thought-provoking history of land use and resource management, it raises so many questions about preconceptions of what was and what we are doing now.
Woolly Beech Aphid photo by Haruta Ovidiu, University of Oradea, bugwood.org
If you use a landscaper for the maintenance of your property, the beginning of the year is contract renewal time. Of course you are probably starting this year anxious about your health and the environment and you aren’t sure whether signing up for a weekly dose of noise and poison in your yard is the best thing to do. It just doesn’t quite feel right, which adds to your eco-anxiety. But instead of worrying more, you could use this moment to do good. Guaranteed good for the environment, and super healthy for you and your family.
You just need to ask your landscaper to do things a bit differently by switching to nature-based practices. He/she may not know how, and chances are, you don’t know either. So who does know? Sadly, there are very few nature-based landscapers, and there probably isn’t anyone better for you to hire than the one you have got. So unless they flatly refuse to try, don’t fire them. Let’s engage and train the ones we’ve got, and send the message out that this is the future of land care. It is healthier for them too.
Everything you need to get started is in our PRFCT LeafLet Basics of Nature-Based in English and Spanish. For a typical annual maintenance schedule, which you can use as the basis of your new contract, go straight to page 21 – review it with your landscaper. It should not cost more, there are no products to purchase.
What is nature-based? Here’s the nutshell: Healing, not Harming. Let nature do the nurturing.
- No toxic fertilizers or insecticides. Fertilizers overstimulate plants and make them susceptible to disease. The right plant for your soil, doesn’t need them. Insecticides are not target specific, they kill beneficial insects and soil organisms. You don’t depend on your landscape to eat, so why not share it with a host of wonderful life forms that could find refuge there?
- Retain, recycle and reimagine all biomass. Keep what your property produces (grass clippings, leaves, twigs, weeds, etc.) and feed it back to the soil. It is the food your place made for itself. Better than anything you can buy, and without the carbon footprint. (See PRFCT Lawn Basics for more).
- Plant at least 2/3 native plants. Plants did fine without us humans for eons, so if you plant the ones that evolved in your conditions, they will still be fine with very little from you. Plus, they provide just the right food and shelter for local birds and pollinators. (See 2/3 for the Birds for more).
- Avoid and remove invasive plants. Get to know which plants are invasive. (See the Invasive Plant Atlas for more). Don’t buy them. Remove and replace any you have already got. (See Beyond Pesticides for more).
- Water properly. Very seldom. Very deep. Over-watering is one of the most common landscape malpractices. It leads to a wide range of plant and soil problems and promotes tick and mosquito populations.
- Minimize pruning. Every cut is a wound. Plant with plenty of space for trees and shrubs to grow to their natural shapes. Leave deadwood and standing dead trees, unless positioned dangerously, they provide unique food and nesting opportunities.
- Relax and enjoy. Your landscape is not your living room; forcing it to be tidy, clipped, and fixed in time is “dead room.” Let it be alive; always changing and creating new surprising delights for you.
Keep in mind, your landscaper doesn’t necessarily know any more about this than you do. So make sure he/she understands that this is an adventure in earth friendly relationships and as long as they are willing to truly commit to the practices, you will be happy. It is a whole new way to relate to your land.
Hooray, eco-anxiety reduction in action! You are doing something unquestionably good for the earth. (Not to mention yourself, your family, and your pets). Once you get started, you will find there was nothing to fear. It is all fascinating, joyous, and beautiful.
If you encounter some problem that makes you want to give up, contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Suggestion: Watch as your nature-based landscape supports more and more birds and pollinators. Start recognizing and recording them on iNaturalist and eBird, and become part of a global network of citizen scientists.
Next month: Help me prepare for Biomass Part 2. Send me your composting concerns. If you aren’t composting, why not? If you are, what worries you? Write me: email@example.com
Bonus: All you ever wanted to know about climate change.
Photo by Allan Pollok-Morris
It’s Fall and here comes the Plant Biomass -- leaves, twigs, tumbling grasses, and the last of the fluffy seedheads. Biomass is all the organic stuff your property makes and, in the PRFCT world, gets to keep…all for itself. Plant biomass provides habitat for insects and adds decomposing matter, which makes healthy soil, which feeds healthy plants, which makes more biomass. That’s the way of the food web loop.
We are all hearing about Leave the Leaves, so while we are figuring out how to do that, why not just do it all, and close the loop: save ALL your biomass? Imagine: No biomass sent to the landfill; no fertilizers, mulch, or compost bought in. Nothing your property makes is treated as garbage. Total harmony, perfect balance, major good for the planet, and for you.
Leaves alone can be a challenge to manage, and they degrade quickly, what about the longer lasting stuff: Twigs, branches, even whole trees; how to find a place for them? ARTFULLY!
Leaves: Chop (when dry!) with a mower and leave as many as possible on the lawn. Next batch can go into planting beds, chopped or not. All the rest – compost. Chopping does damage to insects tucked in for the winter, like Fireflies and Luna Moths, so please do keep that in mind.
Twigs: Make habitat piles as ephemeral art. Wrens and Thrushes especially like having such places to hide from predators and nasty weather.
Every place’s pile has its own personality. The bigger a garden, the more biomass it makes. The more habitat it hosts.
Branches: Get them chipped and use them for garden paths and for smothering difficult weeds.
Get inventive! Every fall, every fallen branch, every invasive shrub cut down, a new opportunity.
Trees: Log piles make great dividers and screens, plus habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. Yes, you really do need snakes, they eat voles.
Stumps: The heart of a Hügel, (the hill in HügelKulture) PRFCT Earth style. Place stumps and funky logs in a shallow hole. Cover with twigs, sod/soil, leaves, compost, whatever needs a place to decompose. Wet it all down well. Plant a cover crop, or finish with an imaginative use of biomass, like more twigs, or leaves. The stump, deep in the center of it all, emanates moisture and feeds the biome. Artful decomposition.
Meadow and Flower Bed Cuttings (late spring): Haystacks! So many wonderful ways to make them– old sticks can get used up inside…also handy for smothering weeds.
Surely you have heard about leaving the leaves by now. So, of course, we want to take you to the next level—leaving pretty much everything. Every seed head of every tree, shrub, grass and flowering plant is a potential food source or shelter for wildlife. Standing (and resting) vegetation protects the soil and all that lives on or in it. There is a lot of life going on that you can help to make it through the winter.
So please don’t mow that meadow, don’t chop plants down and remove them from the garden. Every cut is a wound, and a loss. Why not see it all differently—less work and, in your newly winter watchful eye, a place full of beauty, and life, and wonder.