Blue Ridge Naturalist: Garden Insects of North America

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A honey bee visits a Mahonia shrub, a non-native but extremely valuable food source for insect pollinators as it blooms very early, long before most native plants. Photo: Marlene A. Condon.

I was probably eight or nine years old when I started to garden. The first plant I decided to grow in my tiny vegetable plot in the back yard was the radish. I didn’t like radishes, but they were red—my absolute favorite color—so to my way of thinking, it was the obvious choice!

My very first flower garden consisted, like my veggie garden, of just one plant: the stunningly beautiful blue morning glory commonly grown in New England. We had a carport with two support posts on one side, and I planted my seeds there where the vines could grow upwards.

I didn’t encounter “pests,” and I haven’t ever felt that growing plants was a war between me and the natural world. In fact, I have always very successfully gardened without problems, whether I was living in New England, California, or Virginia. But it wasn’t until I lived here that I realized that my own gardening experience seemed to be far different from that of other gardeners.

In 2002 I started giving monthly slide presentations in Shenandoah National Park. I talked about the wonders of nature that I’d found in my yard, from lovely pastel pink-and-yellow moths to adorable bunnies and chipmunks to the birds whose singing is so welcome.

By the end of each program, people were blown away by the fact that I could have an abundance of plants among an abundance of animals. They did not see how that could be possible.

Indeed, three years later when I wrote to Stackpole Books about the need for a book explaining the value of wildlife to gardeners, the nature editor called me up to say the Stackpole gardening editors did not believe it. Once they saw my slides and explanations, however, I immediately got a contract to write my book.

The reality is that you cannot garden without the innumerable kinds of organisms that exist to keep the environment functioning properly. The reason most people think of so many critters as “pests” is that gardeners create an artificial world around them that can’t possibly work right. Some kinds of animals then seemingly become problematic when they try to correct this situation.

Additionally, gardeners usually expect “perfection,” which is not a real-world possibility. Plants exist to feed animals, which means humans must accept that their plants are going to get nibbled. However, they can survive with holes in the leaves or even missing leaves, and even total defoliation! Therefore, it is easier on you to simply learn to live with the realities of gardening outdoors.

The first step to becoming more tolerant of wildlife and gardening successfully is to learn about the animals that share your world. Princeton Press has recently published the second edition of Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw and David Shetlar. It’s a heavy book that you might want to give a permanent spot on a table so it will be easier for you to use it.

Containing more than 3000 color photos, it will help you to identify not only insects, but also (despite the title) spiders and mites, as well as other invertebrate species that you might find in your yard and garden. This edition includes expanded sections on pollinators and other flower visitors, predators of plant-eating insects, and insect decomposers (rather than just earthworms) that folks don’t often hear about.

The most compelling reason to purchase this book is that many of the photos are of eggs and the larval (immature) forms of critters that you do not usually find illustrated in guidebooks. Knowledge is power, and if you can know what something is, you are less likely to want to destroy or kill it, “just to be safe.”

Unfortunately, and this is my one complaint about this otherwise extremely useful compendium of information, this book perpetuates the myth that many garden insects and other invertebrates exist solely to harm your plants. Evolutionarily speaking, this notion is illogical.

If animals seriously harm or kill the plants they depend upon for their lives, those plants can’t reproduce to perpetuate their species. Over time, the plants will die out, which means the animals will die out right along with them! To keep this scenario from taking place, predators work to limit plant-eating animals. Therefore, overpopulations signify that your yard is not functioning properly because it obviously does not support the necessary predators.

Every type of plant is represented in this book, from flowers and vegetables to shrubs and trees, and even turfgrass. You locate the critters in sections defined by where you are most likely to spot them, such as on leaves, blooms, shoots, roots, or in the soil.

There’s a glossary near the end, right before the index. It provides explanations for many of the terms used to describe invertebrates as well plants. Thus, if you’re just beginning to learn about these kinds of critters or plant “anatomy,” there is help right at hand.

You can learn a lot by reading this book, rather than just using it as a reference. Looking through the photos, you might spot a critter you’ve seen sometime in the yard and finally discover its name and information about its life.

Or, you can learn about unfamiliar animals. During my many years of growing radishes (I did eventually come to enjoy the taste of them), I never found other critters wanting to eat them. But Garden Insects introduced me to the Radish Root Maggot, the larva of a western fly that feeds on the roots of crucifers, such as turnips and a variety of cabbages in addition to radishes.

An interesting tidbit of info, the significance of which I’m sure was lost on the authors, is that the Radish Root Maggot also feeds on various mustard-family “weeds” (their word, not mine). If folks out west would let those “weeds” grow in their gardens, they would have less competition from maggots for their radishes!

I’m no longer able to garden as much as I would like, but when I did have large food gardens, I always allowed wild flowers and wild grasses to grow among my cultivated plants. I credit this action with my extremely successful gardening endeavors, in which I was able to grow enough fruits and vegetables to eat fresh and give away, as well as to can and freeze for later use.

Consider buying this book (for yourself or another gardener) to learn about the critters that are, or should be, sharing your landscape. I can assure you that a nature-friendly garden works!

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