Ladybug, Ladybug

Sweet potato vines

Effortless beauty:
Sweet potato vines spilling over the sides of a planter

Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Last summer, almost every seedling I stuck into soil flourished with very little effort on my part. All I had to do was add water and stand back, while nature took its exuberant course. In those early days of innocence, every creature that showed up in my garden was welcome, and I viewed all insects beneficently as potential pollinators or essential creatures in the complex web of life.

This year? I’m on the offensive. With all the weird weather we’ve had—overcast days and torrential downpours—pests have been proliferating. Most notably, some unseen enemy has been nibbling on the leaves of my tomato plants, leaving some of them so riddled with holes that they could pass for miniature pieces of lace–the handiwork of aphids, perhaps? Beyond this indignity, there were also some leaves dotted with little black-brown freckles that looked suspiciously like Septoria leaf spot, and a few even showed possible signs of early tomato blight. This could not stand! In an attempt to contain the problem, I pulled up the pepper plant that seemed to be the original source of contagion. Then I started plucking off all the tomato leaves that looked diseased, double bagging them, and tossing them into the garbage, being careful to wash my hands afterwards like a surgeon between operations, so that I wouldn’t spread contamination. And the plants responded, looking healthier every day.

Ladybugs form OrconThen I got a boost from an unexpected and charming source: ladybugs—1,500 of them.

My ladybugs came in a neat little plastic tub, with air holes in the top and protein-rich food on the bottom, courtesy of Organic Control, Inc. All I had to do was water my garden in the evening, then release the polka-dotted predators. (Ladybugs do not fly at night, so they will search their immediate environment for food and water rather than flying away.) If they find enough food—that is, aphids, mites, mealy bugs, and other pests—they will stay and lay their eggs. The result: more ladybugs! When food is exhausted, then they will fly away.

Ladybug on the arugula--photo copyright Anne Underwood Enslow

Ladybug on the arugula

That evening, I removed the top and shook out the ladybugs into my various containers. Immediately, hundreds of little red bugs were exploring my pots and plants. They fanned out—some to the tomatoes, others to the eggplants, peppers, basil, marigolds, parsley, or arugula. As they crawled up stems, around rims, and across leaves, I imagined them as a little army of Pacmen, swallowing up hordes of microscopic bugs. I stood out there with a flashlight, mesmerized, hoping none of the neighbors were watching and wondering what I was up to in the garden at night.

In the morning, I eagerly ran outside and found the little ladies still out in force, hard at work cleansing my plants of pests. But within a few days, most of them seem to have moved on. That’s a good thing, I think, as it means there aren’t enough pests left for them to feed on. In the words of the nursery rhyme, “Ladybug, ladybug, fly away home.”

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