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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