Roots and Shoots: What You Need: More Plants

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It’s that moment in the season when my inbox is full of photos of chewed leaves, discolored leaves, sad flowers and other garden imperfections. Plants have matured and are either meeting expectations or lacking. Gardeners want answers and action. 

I confess that in my early years of gardening, I found a parsley plant covered in caterpillars and nearly defoliated. My instinct was to pull them off and send them away. Pausing for a moment to try to understand the situation, I did a quick image search and identified the caterpillars and decided that losing the parsley was worth it. If I’d done otherwise, I would have taken out a family of swallowtail butterflies. 

It took a few minutes of observation to realize the bit of fluff at center was moving. A Master Gardener helped identify it as a wavy lined emerald moth caterpillar feasting on the echinacea.

It took a few minutes of observation to realize the bit of fluff at center was moving. A Master Gardener helped identify it as a wavy lined emerald moth caterpillar feasting on the echinacea. (Photo by P. Doan)

Many times, we don’t pause, however. Any insect that is eating our plants is presumed bad. Growing vegetables and other food requires a different approach, of course, but our conditioning is to relate to insects and plants in combination in a defensive way. 

That aisle at the garden center full of chemicals beckons with promises to fix our problems: pesticides and fertilizers, fungicides and herbicides all ready to make it better. 

Research shows that we are consistently jumping at those choices. Cornell Cooperative Extension, by analyzing sales data, found that between 100,000 to 200,000 gallons of pesticides were applied or sold in Putnam County in 2017, the most recent figures available. (Pesticides include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides.) That’s as many as 813 gallons per square mile, even when including sales to farms. 

In Dutchess County in 2017, between 200,000 to 500,000 gallons, or up to 606 gallons per square mile, were applied or sold. 

Whatever action we take when applying pesticides in our yards, either non-organic or organic, has an ecological impact and should be carefully considered. Setting aside the “insect armageddon” and fertilizer overuse (which I will address in future columns), let’s take a look at some possibilities for switching the lens on what’s happening to our landscape plants, woody plants and trees.

I get it. I’ve spent hours out there prepping and sowing and planting and transplanting and pruning and watering and hoping, too. Waiting for the bloom or berry, the results! We are owed something after all that effort. 

I also see all of the imperfections, just less often because I have so many plants. This brings on several advantages and a few consequences. 

Dense plantings hide imperfections
I like to have a filled-in garden. My gardens are not a showcase for mulch. When the lower leaves of the tall asters turn brown or fall off, it doesn’t matter because the lower stalks are hidden in a cluster of cranesbill, Liatris and Joe Pye weed. The bleeding heart, which looks glorious in spring but fries out by mid-summer, is blocked from view by a planting of wild indigo, prairie clover and mountain mint. 

Chewed up leaves are a sign of success
All my native perennials and grasses and woody plants are host plants for insects. Their purpose is to be food and habitat. If they are intact, something isn’t working. 

Mass plantings disguise imperfections
The trick is to have lots of plants, not just one or two of each species. The more plants you have, the less noticeable the damage. If I’d had 10 parsley plants, I would have cared less about losing one. It’s unlikely all the species will be fodder. 

Have more plants than you can look after
The internet is full of memes about gardeners’ insatiable need for plants. Lean into that. The more plants you have, the less you can fuss over aphids or powdery mildew. You will not have the time to care. You have a stock of seedling trees on the patio that need to be planted and there’s that shade garden to weed and a plan for more grasses in the back corner, etc. Keep planting and ignore the problems. 

In all seriousness, pause before acting to understand what’s happening between a plant and an insect or a pathogen. Build your tolerance for imperfections. Most of us aren’t trained in pesticide application and we can inadvertently expose ourselves and our environments to hazards that aren’t necessary. Choose wisely or, better yet, find ways to avoid that aisle at the garden center. 

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