Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Keeping it Simple: In the Garden



The First Bud: A promise of what's to come



Spring is here and there is no greater joy than watching trees, plants, birds and insects come to life after a long, damp winter. Winter may be docile for the garden but not for the gardener! Many hours are spent prepping beds, taming weeds and nurturing sleeping plants that will soon spring to life. I am no stranger to the desire for a 'perfect garden'.


With beds prepped and warmer weather I began a daily ritual of inspecting my garden for invaders (mainly of the dandelion variety) and promptly plucking them. I wasn't just striving for a perfect garden; I demanded it. My garden is small and doesn't have a lot of inhabitants so this 'quest for the best' doesn't take a lot of energy.
Consistently warm days have brought with them the first signs of life: green shoots, deep red foliage and tiny buds that hold the promise of what's to come. My morning inspection has morphed into a time of energizing bliss and pride in my tiny garden.
They say that in its first year a garden sleeps, the second year it creeps and the third year it leaps. This is year two for my garden so by all accounts it should thrive. But will it?

I'm not new to gardening, but I am new to rose gardening. Roses are notoriously fickle, difficult to grow and prone to diseases like black spot, powdery mildew, rust and blight. Some even consider rose gardening a form of self-torture. It's a wonder this species has been able to survive with all its ailments and high maintenance demands. But any rose-lover will agree that the intoxicating bouquet, striking beauty and romance the rose brings to a garden is worth every ounce of dedication required.

The good news for rose lovers is that the diseases that tarnished the rose's reputation for decades are nearly non-existent because rose breeders like Brad Jalbert of Select Roses have dedicated their careers to creating disease resistant roses. Yes, it's true! There really are roses that can withstand a Pacific Northwest climate without ever displaying black spot. And Brad says, "Don't ever spray these roses because they will not appreciate it!"

The spell of the rose inflicted me last year. It has since developed into a full-blown passion and even a membership into my city's local rose society where I am officially a 'Rosarian'. The term 'nerd' was whispered from a few mouths in my circle of close friends - they have since been executed. But even I never imagined I would be a 'Rosarian'. I naively thought that title was reserved for little old ladies with British accents and porcelain teacups permanently glued to their hands.
Rosarians, I have learned, are just a bunch of people who are passionate about roses - and they're actually pretty cool. The society has members ranging in age as young as 10 to 100 years old. Member's backgrounds range from filmmakers and homemakers to CEOs of multi-million dollar companies and everything in between. Some don't even have a garden. The society even does road trips - and apparently they can get pretty rowdy on the bus - count me in! The knowledge and friendships I have gained for an annual membership fee of 30 bucks are priceless.
But I'm not here to sell you on a membership, I'm here to share some of the knowledge I've picked up because Lord oh Mighty my garden was invaded recently!

The shrieks and profanities tumbling from my mouth could be heard as far away as Seattle because my morning pilgrimage of pride was now a complete shit show.
Aphids. Damn. Aphids. Ravenous. Devastating. Tiny neon green eating machines that have a taste for succulent, fresh growth: preferably of the rose variety.
Aphids

Aphids are so small they resemble specks on a leaf but if one looks close enough one can see their tiny little legs, beady little eyes and even tinier mouth that in between mouthfuls of rose is saying,

            "Back off! Me and my ten thousand relatives have claimed this lunch buffet."
Pesky tiny rotten aphids!
The beautiful Don Juan rose that had mostly slept last year was, up until now, thriving with deep red foliage that was disappearing before my eyes one tiny bite mark at a time. And that's not all. The mulch base of the neighboring Golden Gate climber was heaving with thousands of tiny black ants. Eeek.
Gasping for air and itching myself all over I began to strategize a plan of attack. 'Organic, environmentally-friendly, won't harm the good bugs' pesticides available almost everywhere came to mind. But was chemical warfare really the best course of action?
The logical part of my brain was having a hard time buying into the 'friendliness' of a product that 'is only toxic for 90 seconds yet if ingested by you, your animals or children can and most likely will cause death'. My 'full circle' logic also had a problem using a product that ends up in the soil that ends up in the ground water that ends up back in my water supply that ends up being consumed by me that ends up causing question mark not to mention what it does to the oceans, air supply, my neighbors and so on. So I placed the friendly label with the not so friendly questionable effects back on the shelf and called on my fellow Rosarians to help me in this time of crisis. And this is what I learned.
My first contact was Brian*, a brilliant, retired university prof who wrote a book about a Sanskrit poem (I know right?) who has a PHENOMENAL garden with more than 200 roses and 400 rhododendrons.
            "What do you use in your garden?"
            "Nothing. No products at all."
            "What? Come on Brian - spill it already. Agreed that a lack of product is the ultimate organic and environmentally friendly option but come on, seriously? I'm a Rosarian, you can tell me your secret..."
            "It's true. I don't use anything in my garden. The first year was hell. The second year the troops arrived. Dozens of red ladybugs and hummingbirds - which just love to eat aphids and ants by the way took over the battle - and they won. But they didn't come alone, they brought with them flocks of colorful songbirds and they stayed in the garden all season long keeping it in perfect balance."

It turns out one little ladybug can eat 5000 aphids. Tours come to see Brian's garden because this kind of perfectly balanced eco-system is a showpiece - yet so simple to achieve.
The ecosystem in Brian's garden is left to mange itself and there is no more perfect and better balance than nature - if left alone. In other words, I had to back off and let it be; eventually it would all come together.
But what about Don Juan? I couldn't just stand back and let him be eaten alive.
So I called up Barbara* another Rosarian and asked her advice, and this is what Barbara said,
            "The best way to kill an aphid is a strong shot of water to the underside of the leaf or, if you prefer just squash 'em in between your fingers!"
            " Won't they just come right back if I blast them off?" I asked.
            "Nope, but you may see some late comers in the following days - just blast them off too."
So with trigger in hand, an old fashioned battle using armory began. I held Don's leaves tightly in my hands and blasted the backsides of them with a heavy stream of water. Don shook and quivered but he never lost a leaf, I suffered some minor backsplash but no real harm was done.
When it was all over I began looking for survivors but there were none. The aphids were gone. All gone. This morning I searched high and low again and only found a dozen or so aphids - I blasted those little creeps off too.

As for the ants, I learned that ants don't do any harm in fact they're an integral part of the eco-system because they clean up stuff and feed humming birds and other beautiful little ant-eaters.
But what if the ant colony gets out of hand before the reinforcements arrive? Nancy* said to just soak them with water. Ants drown and don't like wet conditions. If there are any survivors, soak 'em again - that will be the final notice they need to move on. But the ants had already moved on before the water assault could begin which suited me just fine.

One Rosarian said this about gardens and our quest for perfection,
            "There is nothing perfect about a sterile garden awash with chemicals that kill living things and keep the rest of living things away. Gardens are meant to be alive with bees buzzing, birds chirping, bugs a crawling and blooms a busting. Take a deep breath and let your garden buzz - reinforcements will eventually arrive."

As for me, I'm enjoying my lawn chair, breathing deeply and learning to just allow my garden to balance and perfect itself without me getting in the way - pulling weeds aside. So far it seems to be working.

UPDATE: Two weeks after I posted the reinforcements arrived! Yes - The most beautiful dragonfly perched himself on Don Juan for about three hours and an aphid has not been seen since but what I have seen are glorious ladybugs! They are on constant patrol in my garden - the ecosystem is in perfect balance :-)

Don Juan Aphid-Free and Happy


*Names changed to respect privacy

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