Gone Buggy 

Insects are not soft and fuzzy, they won't fetch the paper, and they sprout a stomach-churning profusion of pinchers and pokers.

As tough as I think I am, and as much as I like most critters, the crawly ones still make me shriek like a teenager. At least the ones with a lot of legs. Or the ones with no legs at all that are slimy to boot. Is it because I was too young when I saw the movie Pink Floyd: The Wall and I didn't close my eyes fast enough when the screen filled with maggots? Or perhaps it was watching The African Queen on late-night television, with Kate Hepburn burning off leeches with a cigarette. Since I've never had any direct contact with maggots, and the one leech I ever saw close up was a tiny, peaceful thing, feeding gently on my traveling companion, I recognize that my feeling about creepy-crawlies is totally out of proportion to any threat they might pose. But I think I suffer the same ancient, visceral fear so many humans do -- a squeamishness that keeps the people over at Raid employed.

Besides, what's to like? Insects compete with us for what we think is our food. Since the first time someone decided to put some grain aside to eat later, we've been struggling with bugs. They live very differently from us--in hives, in hills, in subterranean tunnels--and they're always showing up in dead things. Also, they're not soft and furry, they won't fetch the paper, and they sprout a stomach-churning profusion of pincers, pokers, and proboscises. They're gooey on the inside --a whole industry has been built on creating glistening, long-lasting viscous glop for movie monsters inspired by bugs. A few summers back it seemed that every other movie had evil space insects as the enemy: remember Starship Troopers? The films are a manifestation of truths we'd prefer not to face: like there are more of them than there are of us, a lot more. And face it, eventually they'll be snacking on us.

Which brings us to the garden, a wildly complicated system cloaked in beauty and supported in large part by the efforts of creatures with external skeletons or none at all, breaking stuff down and moving it around. If you're going to garden, you've got to learn to love, or at least respect, bugs. Before I started mucking around in the yard, I figured anything that wasn't a pretty beetle or butterfly was a nasty villain, grimly determined to eat my food and give me nightmares while she was at it. So the first few rocks I turned over as I prepared the soil made for teeth-clenching experiences. What I've since learned is that not only do all the insects have an important role in the web of soil and nutrients and sun and growth, but many of them are actively on my side. So I've been deliberately trying to open my heart to the creepy-crawlies--while figuring out how to safely handle the ones that have their beady eyes set on my squash. I hesitate to call any insect a pest--after all, we only designate an animal as a pest if it has the audacity to take something we want. Some seemingly "bad" insects actually ensure the overall health of an ecosystem by focusing their attention on plants that are already weak or diseased, thus making more space for healthy plants. It's fairest to say that a certain type of insect becomes a pest when the population reaches a level where healthy plants are dying. Ironically, this can happen when a gardener gets pesticide-happy, since most pesticides are more effective against predatory insects (such as lady beetles) that feed on pest insects than on the pest insects themselves. It's a twofold problem: first the pesticide kills off everything, and then the pest population rises faster than the predator population. Which makes integrated pest management (IPM--a fancy term for minimizing chemical insecticides as much as possible) an attractive solution. While it's more labor-intensive, in the long run IPM is better for the health of the soil, the plants, and the humans and other animals who enjoy the garden and its products. The best way to keep insects from trashing your garden is to use sound gardening practices, including choosing healthy plants suited to the region (check out the new Sunset Western Garden book, with 2,000 new entries, detailed zone maps, color photos of insects, and handy guides to choosing plants--it's pure plant pornography), rotating food crops, maintaining healthy soil, and avoiding pesticides as much as we can. IPM means paying close attention to what kinds of pest insects are munching our magnolias and choosing our strategy accordingly. Does the soil need amending? Is there something mechanical to do, such as using floating row covers or plant collars (a toilet-paper or paper-towel roll cut into two- to three-inch-wide pieces and pressed halfway into the soil around seedlings to protect them from crawlers)? Can you grow something nearby that will repel pests (catnip seems to work against squash bugs and cucumber beetles, for example) or to attract beneficial insects that eat the munchers (for instance, various beneficial insects like angelica, goldenrod, Queen Anne's lace, and sunflowers). For a detailed examination of chemical-free gardening, turn to Rodale's Chemical-Free Yard and Garden, a well-organized and exhaustive resource from the Organic Gardening magazine people.


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