Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bug Refuge

I have a bug habitat in my garden.  I know that it's a common practice, or at least an advocated practice among organic gardeners, to provide a place for the bugs, both good and bad, in the garden in the hopes of keeping the unwelcome bugs in check.  But providing a bug refuge is not really something I meant to do so much as something I've happened into.

It started with the basil.  Basil is relentless in its drive to flower and, of course, flowering is exactly what I don't want it to do, because flowering will rob the leaves of sugar, making the leaves that I want to harvest bitter.  So every few days I trim away flowering buds, making the basil plants bushier with each trimming, doubling the number of branches that can bloom every time I trim the plants.  Which in turn doubles the number of leaves in each potential harvest, though the leaves are smaller.  We're living in the basil-rich season, eating the leaves in salads and on pizza and with pasta, with a batch of pesto always at the ready in the fridge, but, much as I enjoy this season and look forward to it through the winter and spring, there will come a point where the basil plants and I will grow weary of this race and I will simply let them flower.  It seems like the decent thing to do for the plants after a season of thwarting their continuous, heroic attempts to flower.

What I've found, as I've allowed summer-weary basil plants to flower, is that there is another reason to let the plants keep their garden space for weeks after their harvest window is over: the bees adore the flowers.  And I like supporting the bees, especially in the heat of the summer.

The summer is not the only tough season for the bees.  A few months ago, just after the late-season freezes but before the spring wildflowers began, the bees were desperate for food.  So when the cilantro bolted, transforming itself from a neat, leafy row of herbs into a dense, tall hedge of feathery leaves, I left it in place for the bees.  It looked a bit out of place, a wall of greenery at the front of the garden, prompting Lee to ask, What is that tall stuff?, but was quickly covered in white inflorescences.  And just as quickly covered in bees.  So I allowed the cilantro to keep its garden space for weeks after it had bolted even though I really needed that space to plant this summer's basil.  Eventually a wind- and rainstorm knocked over the hedge of cilantro, turning it into enough of an eyesore, right there by the front sidewalk, that I had no guilt about removing it to the compost pile.  The bees buzzed around me as I pulled the plants – they certainly didn't care whether the plants were lying on their sides.

With the cilantro gone, the garden looked empty.  The okra and beans were still just rows of seedlings and the eggplant and basil were new transplants, small and far from each other.  In the back corner, though, the fennel and sorrel remained.  I tried to harvest some of the fennel for its bulbs but, because of the freeze or maybe because I waited too long, most of the fennel plants had started to bolt, turning their base bulbs knuckly and tough.  I tried cooking a few of the bulbs that hadn't yet produced flowering stalks, sliced thin and cooked forever in butter and white wine, but, though delicious, the fennel was still so fibrous that chewing it lasted indefinitely.  So I left the remaining fennel plants to bloom, telling myself, The fennel is for the bees.

Now the fennel is flowering and over six feet tall, nearly as tall as the front roof of the house.  The yellow, umbrella-shaped inflorescences bob in the hot winds of this June, high above the feathery green foliage, giving the plants a surreal look.  What are those Dr. Seuss looking plants?, one neighbor asked.  The bees are not confused.  The bees love the flowers, as do flies and butterflies and many types of wasps.  Huge, colorful wasps.  And the aphids – I noticed a couple of weeks ago that many of the fennel inflorescences have been overtaken by aphids.  I was tempted to remove those clusters of flowers, in fact, my neater, tider, things-in-their-place self would have loved to bag up the aphid-covered parts for yard-waste pickup.  Then I remembered that the fennel was for the bugs and decided to leave the aphids alone, even though the sight of them, in numbers, makes my arms itch as I brush past the fennel flowers.

An interesting thing happened when I left the aphids alone.  The ladybugs showed up.  First, just a few ladybugs, followed by a few ladybug larvae.  Now it's a ladybug orgy out there, with ladybugs breeding and ladybugs eating and ladybug larvae dangling from the undersides of aphid-covered umbels.  The aphid situation is no better, in fact, the aphids now cover even more of the flowering fennel.  Still, I'm happy to be breeding ladybugs in the heat of the summer. 

And it's possible that the bug refuge is helping my other plants.  At the same time that I noticed the beginnings of aphid infestation on the fennel, I also noticed that ants were farming aphids on some of the okra plants growing across the path.  I washed those aphids off but expected them to return in force, but they haven't.  The okra continues to grow and flower and make okra pods that have to be harvested every day so they don't become ginormous, and as I'm out there every day in the sticky, scratchy plants, I haven't noticed much aphid activity.

I'm not sure how long the fennel will last, or if I will come to regret allowing the aphid population to grow without the check of the garden hose and some strategic trimming.  But I am convinced that having flowers, especially the big, messy flowering stalks of carrot-family herbs like cilantro and fennel, in the garden attracts pollinating insects.  I also find myself wondering where the ladybugs will live next, after the fennel goes to seed, because I'm liking this practice of leaving a few of last season's plants to flower amidst this season's vegetables.  For the bees.

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