Habitat gardening and vegetable gardening collide on the war torn leaves of brassicas. Last year’s broccoli crop succumbed not only to cabbage white caterpillars, but also to their plentiful poop. The fetid stench of rotting broccoli drove me into a merciless fit of composting, and the compost took well over a month to stop stinking. Utter disaster.
Cabbage white butterflies are an invasive species that has successfully naturalized all over North America, so I should have no qualms about destroying its ravenous progeny, should I? Why not kill the little green bastards?
I know several good, loving, way-more-spiritual-than-me people who kill their cabbage whites with bT and homemade concoctions that end in exploding stomachs and sad little caterpillar death throes. I’ve really come to know my bugs through gardening, and the more I get to know them, the more I like them. They all have their purpose, and learning about alien life forms excites the sci-fi geek in me. If I could go back in time, I might have taken refuge from my horrible childhood in biology instead of art. Parents, get your girls into science classes, stat!
But why care about an invasive butterfly? Because our planet is losing pollinators in droves, and invasive or not, the cabbage white shows her fluttery white wings earlier in the season than any other butterfly. She flits about on all the early flowers, resulting in seeds from the trillium and hellebores, as well as fruit on the Newport plum. She continues her ecstatic reproductive dance on the tomatoes and squash, making flowers into fruit. After almost two years with my yard (including the lawn) free from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers, my six foot tall tomatoes are exploding with ripening luscious fruit.
Avoiding all chemicals and letting the invasive but very useful cabbage white reside in my yard may have saved my crops; nearby, a friend in an apartment where some landscape company no doubt uses a noxious cocktail of ‘cides has five foot tall tomatoes with almost no fruit from lack of pollination.
“But,” you say, educated gardener that you are, “brassicas are self-pollinating. Cabbage whites only do them harm and foster no fruit.” True, clever gardener: you don’t need cabbage whites to grow brassicas, but you may wish they were not all dead when the world is bereft of bees and you nostalgically try to recall the scent of a ripening tomato on the vine. Remember too, that all your “safe” and “organic” remedies for killing the cabbage white caterpillars will kill all other caterpillars as well, and far too many of our native butterflies are already endangered. Read the statistics from Monarch Watch and cry yourself to sleep tonight.
I approach my garden with the ethic of the Prime Directive (yes, from Star Trek. Yes, more sci-fi references. There’s nothing wrong with that, okay?). The Prime Directive says: Do Not Interfere. See what happens. Sit quietly and wait for a solution to unfold. Come to think of it, Star Trek crew members never actually follow their own Prime Directive, but it’s a great concept, and I use it in my garden.
My approach to solving garden problems is basically Zen: Do Nothing. This is the opposite of the panicky grasping for a cure I used to practice when I thought my garden wasn’t perfect enough. When I was a brand new shiny gardener, I would freak out about every little thing. I would peruse the stinky aisle of the garden store and read labels looking for solutions. I believed the lie that some of those remedies are “organic” and “safe.” Now, the only thing I add to my garden is compost and mulch. I’ve decided that bad feeling you get when you smell the stinky aisle of the garden store is your brain telling you to Stay Away. Seriously, you don’t need any of that crap. Trust yourself.
Now, I watch and wait. I’m not saying I don’t weed and prune and deadhead and putter; I do all of that. But with infestations and strange colored growth and chomped up leaves, I wait to see where it all leads. And here’s what I’ve learned: problems mostly fix themselves. Mostly. My milkweed in its first year was a revolting orange mass of aphid goop. I wanted to burn it down. I tried my best to hand-squish, but with a mini-field and a job and house and marriage to maintain, cleaning each individual leaf every day was impossible. I bought a sort of sprayer that supposedly would blast the aphids off with jets of water, and managed to super-soak myself and the plants while the gluey little critters happily drank in the moisture.
When I gave up, something wonderful happened.
Every ladybug in the state of Michigan came to my milkweed patch.
And let me tell you, ladybugs are not aptly named. There is nothing ladylike in their behavior. When they find a food source, they get busy. The unladylike bugs were doin’ it all over the milkweed and making little ladies. They were doin’ it doggie style. (I’m not making this up.) They were doin’ it all day and all night. Seriously, I would watch them, and despite the idea we humans have that non-human species boink for purely biological reasons, these little ladies seemed to take an awful long time and savour it in a non-bug-like way. They would practically have a cigarette and talk French together naked, spoon for ten minutes and then start up again.
Bug porn aside, the unladylike bugs cured my aphid problem. I’ve seen a few aphids here and there, but never enough to worry me. The critters keep each other in check if I allow them the freedom to have their bacchanalia, their Last Tango in the Milkweed.
This year I built a broccoli box to keep the cabbage whites off the brassicas without interfering too much in the environment of my yard. It was fun to build because I’m obsessed with cedar strips and making trellises and bee houses and such things this year, and it looks kind of agro-chic.
The barrier material is screen-door mesh made of recyclable aluminum sold in rolls at the hardware store. I chose this material because most material sold as butterfly netting is plastic, non-recyclable, and receives poor reviews, as in, it doesn’t keep the butterflies out. I got this idea while sitting at the window, thinking, hmm, what material would screen out the smallest flying creature, let the light and air and water through, be lightweight and not end up in a landfill when it’s old and damaged? The answer was literally in front of me as I looked through the window screen at my garden. Light bulb over the head moment!
Unfortunately (or fortunately?), I made the box too small for mature plants. After safely starting seeds, I removed the box with trepidation as the broccoli boomed. Cabbage whites massed upon the plants. I was prepared for the worst.
Checking the broccoli from time to time, I saw telltale holes in leaves, but merely one or two caterpillars on occasion. Puzzled, I monitored the patch closely. Many bugs were buzzing all over my garden as always, so it took me a while to realize what was happening. I saw wasps floating around the broccoli, hovering and darting beneath leaves, inspecting each underside with assiduous attention…and I realized they were hunting.
I don’t personally kill my cabbage whites, but I will allow the wasps to do my dirty work for me, just as the ladybugs are welcome to feast upon aphids.
Allowing a natural solution through balance to emerge in the garden takes time and patience, and there will be casualties. Both of these solutions evolved over more than a year, and in the case of brassicas I still protect the young plants so they get strong enough to survive some caterpillar munching. Food plants are more beneficial to humans after a bug attack because the plants make chemicals of their own as a defense, and those chemicals tend to be anti-carcinogenic when we consume them. Allowing critters makes food healthier, protects the pollinators, and gives you a chance to see amazing alien behavior in your garden. Resisting the urge to find a quick fix allows the garden to find its own sustainable solution. You may lose some plants along the way as you swear off chemicals, but in the end you won’t just have a garden, you’ll have a habitat.