Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Tales from the dark side

So, you loooovvveee butterflies right? Who doesn't? They're colorful, they flutter and flit amongst the flowers (wow, I'm a poet!). Here at the garden we love them so much we've dedicated a whole month in the fall to celebrating them during our Something's A-flutter exhibit. However, as many things do (babies, sports cars, masters degrees in art history...) they have a dark side.

"A dark side?" you ask. Indeed. As we all learned in 3rd grade, butterflies undergo a process called metamorphosis, during which they change from egg, to caterpillar, to pupa, to adult-aka the pretty stage. It's the caterpillar or larva that is the subject of today's tale. While adult butterflies feed on flower nectar, tree sap, or ummmm, animal feces (yes, poo) the larva feed on plant leaves. And as fate would have it a favorite source of nourishment this month seems to be our greenhouse crops!

A greenhouse is every gardener's dream. We have all daydreamed about such a lush tropical sanctuary complete with exotic orchids and bodacious tomato vines loaded with fruit, lovingly and effortlessly tended in your ample spare time. But just as that baby screams through teething and that corvette needs another clutch, greenhouse culture is not all wine and roses.

One of the most difficult aspects of greenhouse growing is pest management. Here at DSBG we use an IPM (integrated pest management) approach. This minimizes the use of harsh and dangerous chemical applications while producing healthy and attractive plants. It's a great method that has worked well for us since we began ten years ago. IPM also allows for a "threshold of acceptable damage". This means that a small number of pests is allowed, as long as populations do not become high enough to cause significant damage. Unfortunately with our wriggling larval buddies, damage goes from "no big deal" to "oh no!" at light speed.

After a few defoliated salvia and coleus were spotted Monday, it has come time to declare WAR on the wormies in order to protect our precious summer crops from annihilation. Ironically, in the midst of the great swine flu scare, our weapon of choice is biological warfare in the form of a bacterial agent called Bacillus thuringiensis, also known as Dipel or Bt. Harmless to humans, animals, fish, and even other insects, Bt infects the gut of caterpillars and prevents them from digesting their food (our plants) and causes death within 12 hours of ingestion. Swine doesn't sound quite so bad now huh? Controlled sprays after each watering in the enclosed greenhouse environment protect our plants without causing any danger to outdoor butterfly and moth populations, ourselves, or our guests.

So please enjoy our beautiful summer gardens next time you visit. And if the coleus look at tad short, well, blame the butterflies!

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