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Master Gardeners: Ode to A Ladybug

REFLECTIONS OF A LOCAL GARDENER

LADYBUG, LADYBUG, fly away home. Your house is on fire…your children will burn. Who among us has not murmured this nursery rhyme? There are versions in almost every language. The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes says that this reference to burning houses may be a “relic of some awful significance;” they offer no further explanation.

As gardeners our interest is more than literary. We´re happy to see ladybugs around our plants, convinced they are beneficial. Many of us are tempted to purchase them by the bag-full. But Victor Yool, writing as Dr. Hort in the San Francisco Chronicle, says:

“Ladybugs do have a certain entertainment value, but they´re not very effective as agents of biological control for the home gardener.”

“There is no question that ladybugs love to eat aphids. The question is whether or not they will remain in your garden to eat your aphids.”

“Unfortunately, the answer is usually a resounding no. The main reason for this is that most commercially available ladybugs are collected in the wild during their winter hibernation and then kept refrigerated until they can be packaged and sold.”

“Ladybugs collected this way have stored body fat that must be burned off by flying before their appetites are sufficiently stimulated for them to feed. This means that at most, 10 percent of ladybugs collected during hibernation will remain after release, even if there is plenty of food on-site.”

“Unless you can find ladybugs that have been collected post-hibernation or are raised in an insectary, you can count on them flying away, whether or not their houses are on fire and their children burning.”

If you have ladybugs in your garden, count yourself lucky. Hope they will stay around. If you have enough to share, offer them to your gardener friends in the spring, when they´ll be hungry after consuming all their winter fat.

A TREE STORY

A mature black oak leaned toward my garage for several years. During last winter´s wild windstorms several branches hit the ground—an ominous warning. The time had come to remove that tree; I made arrangements to have it cut down—right down to the ground.

In retrospect, I could have made more creative use of that noble old tree. I might have left four to six feet standing, upon which a decorative birdhouse might have been nailed. I could have left two to three feet, to support a birdbath. I might have left one or two feet, as a pedestal for some whimsical form of garden statuary; relics from gardens past, like an old watering can…a crusty container…anything would be preferable to the stump that remains. Granted, it was cut almost flush with the soil. Nearby shrubs will grow to camouflage it. The options remain to use a chemical product to hasten the rotting process or to have it professionally ground up…but think of the opportunities missed!

Before you engage that chain saw, take another look, and envision a way to extend the life and beauty of your tree.

LOWER YOUR EXPECTATIONS

I often exhort my gardening friends to lower their expectations. Many of us visit beautiful public and private gardens, haunt our local well-stocked nurseries, read the glossy horticultural magazines, plan ahead…and plan big! This can lead to frustration, disappointment, and expense for the average gardener in Tuolumne County.

We work under less-than-ideal conditions in the Mother Lode. Our soil needs significant amending to support average (let alone lush) growth, our summer heat takes its toll and, as Master Gardeners, we promote water conservation. We struggle with gophers, moles, voles, and deer. Even when limiting species to natives and drought tolerant plants, the results are seldom poetic. Once the spring flush of new growth and blooms has passed, the plants head into their summer dormant season.

When my garden was begun ten years ago, we installed an irrigation system with emitters located at every plant. After several years, when these hardy species seemed to be acclimated, we removed the system. Time for those babies to make it on their own!

The point is…plan carefully and well…and keep your expectations reasonable. Even low. See you in the garden.

Joan Bergsund has been a Master Gardener for ten years. She concentrates on native plants and drought tolerant species, and tries not to water.