“What a lovely sanctuary” and “what a shady retreat” are comments I sometimes hear. But little do these observers know about the constant battles being played out in this garden. Every spring nasty surprises lay in store and as the season begins foreboding lurks within me. There is always great optimism at the beginning and the general feeling is that the terrible cold or the heavy snow or even the lack of snow has eradicated most of the troublemakers from the year before. But it doesn’t take long to find out that this is not true — they are still out there and taking a running start. Before June, even, we suddenly see huge numbers of them: the Azalea inchworm, the Asian Lily Beetle, the caterpillar on the Yellow Loosestrife, hordes of snails and multitudes of slugs and we grimly recognize that the onslaught has begun. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it correctly “On every stem, on every leaf and at the root of everything that grew, was a professional specialist in the shape of grub, caterpillar, aphid, or other expert, whose business it was to devour that particular part.”
About five years ago the first wave of green inchworms hit my Azaleas and I watched in horror as they stripped the plants of leaves and then buds. Uncomfortable with pesticides, I discovered the marauders were easy to squish but there were too many of them and I had started too late. My concern was whether the bushes would die but they recovered and now I am ready for each yearly assault. This year I removed 600 of them on the largest Azalea and by working fast have saved most of the leaves and buds.
The Asian Lily Beetle is another plague of horror we can count on if we cultivate Asian Lilies. They arrive at the end of May and begin their nasty offensive as soon as the sun comes up. Once again I am prepared for the invader and I spring into action crushing their bright red bodies with savor and must look a sight with my deranged expression and sticky red hands totally absorbed in killing as many as I can, up to 30 or 40 at a time. Last year I gave up and pulled out all the lilies but this year I am winning the war.
Then there are the repulsive, wriggling, grey/blue caterpillars that completely covered and defoliated my Yellow Loosestrife last summer. I ended up ripping out all the plants, maybe 50 plants as there were just too many of the little culprits to deal with. I cleaned up all the leaf litter around and replaced some of the soil hoping to see some plants return this year.
The worst battles in my garden have been against invasive plants and are not cyclical events but active combat going on for years. The Goutweed came by stealth through the neighbor’s hedge and spread everywhere moving by long tentacles wrapping underground around all my favorite plants. The fight has been ongoing, mostly under control now, but one cannot let their guard down once it has arrived as there will always be some little reminder of it lurking somewhere.
The most bitter battle was against the Houttuynia, a pretty and benign-looking plant but one with terrible abilities to send down deep roots that entwine around everything in their path. One little plant I bought produced such a prolific, tangled mess that all plants in a wide swath had to be sacrificed after trench warfare was declared on this terrible invader.
And one more insult to my garden is the Japanese Knotweed that I have decided to just leave as the battle would be too savage and the earth would have to be scorched to clear out this unwelcome intruder. It has been described online as “The plant that’s eating B.C. …it can lower house prices, threaten our bridges and drive men to madness.” Ken MacQueen June 12, 2015. The Japanese Knotweed is on Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Programme. It can grow through ashphalt and concrete so to find it growing amongst one’s favorite plants at home is a bit frightening.
One word here: Why do plant nurseries continue to sell Goutweed, Houttuynia and Japanese Knotweed to unsuspecting gardeners? There should be a large warning sign with flashing red lights to stop first-time gardeners becoming victims of these plants. It is not a good experience for anyone but especially not for newbies who may be establishing their first garden to be confronted with these extreme invaders and have their hopes blighted.
There are many other pests I could mention but these ones have caused my worst headaches and turned my heavenly haven into a work camp for most of the season. So yes, it may look like some kind of safe refuge here but there is a high price for that. Still, when I hear any words of admiration, my sore back disappears, my face lights up and those appreciative words make it all worthwhile.
Also by Patricia Lund: