Dancing Mechanics

mulching in the gardenWe should have known, it wasn’t a caterpillar who ate the cucumber leaves! Caterpillars move slowly, and are likely to be found in the vicinity of the damage they’ve caused. We never did find the caterpillars who ate our cukes last week, because caterpillars were not the culprit. Watering the garden yesterday evening, a tawny shape flashed against the thick straw mulch, arcing swiftly from one plant to another. A grasshopper. We might have known.

It’s a funny thing, but learning to identify the weeds and pests that plague the garden is nearly as important as learning the names of our beloved food and flower crops. Sure, identifying springtails or bristly ox-tongue isn’t as thrilling as finding the first calochortus flower, or picking the first tomato; it just doesn’t give the same ‘click’ of joy. But there is a satisfaction in naming things, in demystifying them. As we increase our knowledge, we are armed with further resources. When we know what the problem is, we can work toward solutions. In the case of grasshoppers, there are several small steps we can take.

For one thing, as we are always reminding folks on our Instagram show, “The garden is an ecosystem!” It is a complex microcosm in and of itself. The more diverse it is, the greater its resilience. So we can expect that as the early flowers begin to bloom (marigolds, calendula, alyssum, dill…), their blossoms will attract more beneficial insects, which will provide pollination services, as well as preying on pests like the grasshopper. The more insect life (both pests and beneficials) that is present in the garden, the greater the attraction for other useful species to move in as well. As insect populations increase, so do those of beneficial predators, such as lizards, birds, mantids, spiders, frogs, and toads. These may in turn create their own issues; birds can also damage young seedlings and peck holes in fruits while they are foraging for insects. But their presence overall is beneficial, and the negative effects can be mitigated in their turn.

Having water sources in the garden is another useful practice to consider. It will attract birds to drink and bathe, as well as providing a drinking water source for bees and other insects. A water feature can be a fountain or a pond, but it can also be as simple as a saucer of water topped off with the hose every few days, too. It’s a great way to get in touch with the various bird species who share the space with us; by providing a bird bath, we have a built-in location to watch a succession of species visit, drink, and preen. Keep a birdbath clean, so that it is not a place where diseases can spread amongst the bird populations. Usually, a quick rinse is good enough, but if it ever needs scrubbing, a 9:1 ratio of water and vinegar should be sufficient, as some soaps and scents can use residual oils that may damage bird feathers.

But back to the grasshoppers, and that thick straw mulch we mentioned earlier. Grasshoppers love tall grass, and in truth, they may prefer it to the garden in terms of habitat. The thick straw mulch is wonderful for the vegetable plants, but this early in the year, when it is still fluffy and light, it also provides a perfect space for grasshoppers to hide. After discovering that grasshoppers were to blame for defoliating the cukes, we pulled some of the mulch back, and watered it down throughly so that it would lie flatter on the ground. Fewer interstitial spaces for the pests to take shelter in. In some places, we’ll layer woodchips atop the straw, or replace the straw with woodchips. The woodchips hold in moisture as well as the straw, but with fewer places for pests to hide. There’s a delicate balance to be struck as well, with how we manage the areas directly outside the garden. Clearing a perimeter around the outskirts of the garden may discourage rodents and grasshoppers and other pests from traversing the exposed area, but if too large an area is cleared, and the habitat that they prefer is destroyed, they’ll have more incentive to risk a visit to the garden.

A tiny thriving ecosystem, the garden. A reminder of the complexities and contradictions of existence. An invitation to participate, ethically and thoughtfully, in the dancing mechanics of the natural world. From the garden, from the farm, from the choices we make as consumers, from the way we way our children to honor diversity in all its myriad and challenging and beautiful forms, our actions radiate outward. A garden isn’t just a place to grow food and flowers, after all. It is an entire world, a watery mirrored reflection, a doorway into deeper understanding. Walk out into that world,and bring a harvest basket. Wisdom and weeds, sprouting among the cucumbers.