Re-thinking Garden Pests

By Nolan Marciniec

When we try to pick out any­thing by itself, we find it hitched to every­thing in the uni­verse” – John Muir

Like every gardener’s efforts, mine have some­times been frus­trat­ed by Nature. Slugs eat the kale, rab­bits eat the zin­nias, and deer eat the daylilies. We gar­den­ers can lure slugs with beer, place wire cages around the zin­nias – and, well, noth­ing stops deer except, per­haps, fenc­ing rem­i­nis­cent of the Mag­inot Line. Gen­er­al­ly, it’s a los­ing bat­tle. Nature will win, as my grand­fa­ther sage­ly said.

Like many gar­den­ers, I had devel­oped an us vs. them” mentality.

Then this past spring, I looked out the bed­room win­dow: rab­bits were eat­ing clover on the lawn. Sud­den­ly, a bob­cat emerged – I was trans­fixed – and car­ried off one of the rab­bits. This sum­mer, slugs made short work of my beet seedlings. But ear­ly one morn­ing, wood­cocks, with their dis­tinc­tive bob­bing dance, made short work of the slugs. I found monarch lar­va on the milk­weed that had crept into the rose beds. 

I had a con­ver­sa­tion with Anne Don­nel­ly while set­ting up for the Arboretum’s Fall Plant Sale. She con­fessed that she had always been fas­ci­nat­ed by the toma­to horn­worms in her gar­den. Those rapa­cious and evil-look­ing insects are heav­i­ly laden with ben­e­fi­cial par­a­sitoid wasps. She also point­ed out that black­flies, the bane of ear­ly sum­mer out­door activ­i­ties in the North­east, pol­li­nate blue­ber­ries, rel­ished by both bears and humans. 

And I began to think about what we gar­den­ers are in the habit of labelling pests.” The weeds that invade my peren­ni­al bed, the insects and, yes, even the dis­eases that ruin my veg­etable har­vests and flow­ers. As a gar­den­er who prides him­self on an all-nat­ur­al” approach to gar­den­ing, I real­ized that my very lim­it­ed human and admit­ted­ly ego­cen­tric per­spec­tive, hard­ly takes into con­sid­er­a­tion the big pic­ture.” We human beings tend to think that we are a cen­ter of the uni­verse. It takes a leap of imag­i­na­tion and a good dose of real­i­ty to real­ize that we are just a part of a whole, that life doesn’t revolve around us. 

We may at the top of the food chain, priv­i­leged and, con­se­quent­ly, prej­u­diced. Those weeds, those pests, are inte­gral parts of a whole. From Nature’s view­point, there are no pests, no weeds. There are no good guys, no bad guys. The health of the plan­et is nur­tured and kept in bal­ance by means that Nature has mastered.

To be sure, I am not advo­cat­ing a lais­sez-faire approach to gar­den­ing or ask­ing us to wel­come the vora­cious slug or the maraud­ing deer. But a shift in mind­set might low­er our blood pres­sure, have us put away our chem­i­cals, and make us more appre­cia­tive of the mar­velous and intri­cate web of Nature, as well as our respon­si­bil­i­ty in pre­serv­ing it.

Spring 2023

Volume 41 , Number 1

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