Category Archives: Good Bug/Bad Bug

What’s that creepy crawly thing and is it good for my garden?

Uncommon Pollinator Plants

As more and more of us understand the importance of beneficial  insects, we want to host plants in our gardens which welcome and provide food for all of them, plus bees, butterflies and birds. Here is a short list of lesser known plants which add varied ornamental interest as well as lure many more of the good invertebrates into your garden

ascspeCU500Asclepias speciosa

One of the earliest Butterfly Weeds to bloom, Asclepias speciosa, or Showy Milkweed ,has umbels of white to mauve pink flowers in late spring and early summer, with attractive gray linear foliage. Its flowers are a nectar source for all butterflies and its foliage is food for monarchs.  Asclepias speciosa can grow up to 3’ tall and 1-2’ wide. Native to dry uplands of western N. America, it is drought tolerant. Hardy in zones 3-8.

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Parthenium integrifolium

Wild Quinine or American Feverfew is a Missouri native with 8-10” tobacco like basal foliage, and  2-3′ stems bearing clusters of white fuzzy yarrow-like flowers in midsummer. Beneficial wasps and butterflies are often seen hovering over its blossoms. Parthenium integrifolium was grown in years past for its medicinal qualities,  and it makes a nice addition to the dry wild border. Hardy in zones 5-9.

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Pycnanthemum muticum

Mountain Mint spreads, so think of it as a ground cover for butterflies and bees. Beginning in mid summer and continuing into September,  Pycnanthemum muticum displays showy silvery bracts surrounding a central disk rimmed with tiny pale pink/white flowers. Drought tolerant once established, plants will grow 2-3’ tall and are the first pitstop for my honeybees when they leave the hive. Hardy in zones 5-9.

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Silphium perfoliatum

“Cup Plant”, so called because water is held in the reservoir created where the stems pierce through the opposite leaves, provides a watering hole for birds, bees, and butterflies. This Sunflower like plant is useful at the back of a border, where it bears yellow daisies on 4-8’ stems during July and August . I particularly like Silphium perfoliatum’s  green seed heads as cut material for fall arrangements. Hardy in zones 4-8.

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Stokesia laevis

Stokes’ Aster is a showy native with 23” double lavender blue daises on 18-24” plants. Plants begin to color in late June and early July and carries into August. Beautiful as it is as a cut flower, you may want to leave the blossoms undisturbed to enjoy the dance of the butterflies above them. Grow Stokesia laevis in average to dry soils. Note: It resents winter wetness. Hardy in zones 4-10.

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Aster ptarmicoides (formerly Solidago ptarmicoides, and NOW to be botanically correct: Oligoneuron album)

Formerly White Upland Aster or White Goldenrod depending who you askedbut with its new genus classification,  Oligoneuron,  who knows what to nickname it?  Anyway, we first saw this plant at Wave Hill 20 years ago (labeled as Aster ptarmicoides), where it looked crisp and clean on a hot August day. Years later we were finally able to hunt down a seed source for it and now have it in our garden. Tidy plants have 4-5″ dark green linear leaves, and bear sprays of small papery white asters on 15” stems  in mid-late summer through early fall. Yes to bees and butterflies, plus goldfinches love the seeds! Hardy in zones 3-8.

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Symphyotrichum (Aster) laeve

We have grown the strain ‘Bluebird’  of Smooth Aster for years, with  its 1-2” orange yellow centered, clear blue daisies born in September and October.  Symphyotrichum laeve is a plant that is very happy in our mixed borders, self seeding here and there, but is easy to relocate should it pop up somewhere where it is not wanted. Plants grow 2.5-3’ tall and are about 18” wide. Happy in average to dry soil in zones 4-9.

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Natural Controls for Winter Moth

Winter Moth

It’s about to begin. In a couple of weeks here in southern New England, (late November), we’ll start to notice clouds of dull gray brown moths fluttering about at night, attracted to the glow of porch and street lights. Mating season for the Winter Moth, Operophtera brumata, is about to begin as both male and female moths emerge from their pupae. They will procreate into December, or as long as mild enough temperatures prevail.

In our recent research for the best methods to combat this destructive pest (Winter Moth caterpillars devour new plant growth on many of our most highly desirable ornamental trees and shrubs), we came across great news! University of Massachusetts Entomologist Joe Elkinton and his team have solid evidence that a parasitic fly, Cyzenis albicans, is an impressive natural control for Winter Moth. At four test sites where the parasite has been released throughout southeastern MA (Seekonk, Hingham, Falmouth and Wellesley)  populations of winter moth have dramatically decreased. Here is a link to an   article.

Isn’t that fantastic to read? However, while we are waiting for this helpful parasitic fly to move into our neighborhoods, we must begin preventive measures. It is necessary to understand the Winter Moth lifescycle to plan and time your defense.  The first meaure is to apply sticky tree bands around treasured specimens, which trap the females as they adhere and climb up tree trunks, emitting their sex pheromone to attract the males. After the mating scene has occurred, female moths continue to climb to the top of  trees and shrubs and then lay their eggs in the bark and crevices near branches. Adult moths die at this stage.

Other types of botanical controls can be applied over the winter and early spring. In late winter, dormant oil spray can be applied to branches to suffocate the eggs. In early spring, Bacillus thuringiensis a.k.a. BT, a beneficial bacteria, can be used to effectively control the caterpillars as they emerge from their egg sacs and seek nourishment from the young unfurling foliage. Spinosad is another bio insecticide, and is available to homes owner under product labels Monterey Garden Insect Spray and  to licensed pesticide applicators as the product Conserve. Care should be taken to avoid applying Spinosad when bees are active.

Recommended Further Reading

What’s Eating My Plants? I

Tobacco Hornworm

Don’t you just hate this? One day you have a perfectly healthy plant, and the next time you look, the leaves are riddled with holes, or completely gone! Just 2 days ago, I photographed a lovely stand of Nicotiana mutabilis (Flowering Tobacco). As I walked by this morning, I was stunned by totally denuded stalks. On closer inspection, there was a 4″ Tobacco Hornworm chomping away, leaving behind a trail of excrement. Not a pretty picture now.

The Tobacco Hornworm Manduca sexta is the caterpillar of a type of Sphinx Moth or Hawk Moth. It differs from the Tomato Hornworm by having a reddish instead of a black “horn”, and you can also tell the difference by its lateral markings. The Tobacco Hornworm has seven diagonal lines, while the Tomato Hornworm has eight v-shaped markings.

The adult female Sphinx Moth deposits her translucent green eggs on the undersides of leaves of plants in the Solanacea family, especially Nicotiana (Tobacco), and take 2-4 days to hatch. During their larval stage, these Hornworms feed on the foliage, flowers and fruit. They can ingest the toxin Nicotine without ill effects, and their voracious appetites allow them to strip even large plants overnight. Their green bodies camouflage well with the plants they feed on.

Control this pest by handpicking the caterpillars. If you have too large a crop for handpicking, you can use a product like Dipel (Bacillus thuringiensis) or Monterey Garden Spray (Spinosad) on the young larvae. Be on the lookout for hornworms with little white “pills” attached. These white attachments are the eggs of the parasitic Braconid Wasp, which feed on and weaken/kill the unsuspecting hornworm. This biological control is a good example of nature keeping everything in balance.

Making Your Bed For Spring II

Be on the lookout…there may be treasure in your garden.

During your spring cleanup, you will no doubt uncover all kinds of delightful signs of life: the healthy shoots of perennials, dozens of tiny seedlings or wiggly earthworms under fallen leaves. One treasure you should be on the lookout for, and not mistake as something bad is the over wintering egg case of Praying Mantes (or Mantids). These pale tan Styrofoam looking sacs are attached in the crotches and on the undersides of bare branches. In late spring they will begin to split, upon which a hundred or more tiny translucent Praying Mantes will unfurl and march away to devour a wide variety of your most irritating garden pests. We were absolutely delighted to learn that they voraciously eat grasshoppers, which are a nuisance we’ve had difficulty with in the past.

The Praying Mantis is a most fascinating insect to observe in the garden. They sit motionless in the garden waiting for their prey to pass by. And yes, it is true that the females practice sexual cannibalism, (but not always, we’re told). Often the male is just not thinking straight when he has copulation on his mind and surprises the female as she sits motionless. Her first reaction is to grab hold and bite off his head (she needs the extra protein for pregnancy!). The male is able to fulfill his mission nonetheless and we hear he dies happily ever after.