Live and learn, and relearn

Published 7:00 am Saturday, June 12, 2021

By Felder Rushing

Live and learn, Eh? And sometimes relearn, which happened last week when I made a critical error when applying a natural insecticide.

Let me set this up, with apologies to neighbors. See, my garden, true to its etymology, is a “guarded space” designed to be viewed from the house looking towards the street; outsiders are actually looking at the messy back of my fence. Concealed from the street is the orderliness, the walks, decks, small but neatly designed flower beds, and garden art.

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I do plant a little for passersby, especially children looking for cut flowers or culinary herbs, or who come to admire the wildflowers, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other not-so-pretty wildlife. But overall, being a natural plant hoarder, I’m comfortable with a tumbled mélange of plants coming into glory or fading to make room for others all year long.

However, rather than tend a static scene with a neat flowerbed here and there, I dump it all together, unified with meandering walks and open, more people-friendly sitting areas. I favor stuff that comes and goes and requires little or no maintenance other than light weeding. Love plants with great foliage, such as iris and cannas, but especially those that attract and give succor to a supporting cast of wildlife; I even have an Urban Wildlife Habitat sign by the street to clue folks that I am doing all this on purpose.

Favorite spring-summer-fall flowering plants include lantana, Africa blue basil, Guara, cannas, perennial sages and blue salvias, tropical milkweed (wow, what a looker!), zinnias, cleome, and – one of the best of all – the tall “purpletop” verbena. There are others, of course, but these are among the most dependable pollinator plants for my Mississippi meadow garden.

To top off it off as a wildlife habitat, I include several small water features for birds, bees, wasps, butterflies, dragonflies, and the like. Most are shallow so I don’t worry about mosquitoes (though truthfully we all have ‘em anyway), and I am careful to include shallow areas with gravel for bees and butterflies, which won’t step into open water.

Neat thing about a mixed garden is how plant pests are diluted, and easier targets for increased concentrations of natural predators. However, some of my plants occasionally get overwhelmed with little aphids, leaf hoppers, and other small plant suckers; some are moved around by ants which “milk” them for sweet honeydew.

To protect the overall garden wildlife, I rarely use any sort of insecticide, other than the occasional spot-spraying of insecticidal soap or late-afternoon shot of pyrethrin (both are effective natural products). I also treat errant fire ant mounds, though I usually leave one or two alone if they aren’t in my way; fire ants eat ticks, y’know.

And I have dabbled in introducing live predators such as lacewings and ladybugs/beetles; you can buy lacewing eggs, and bags of live adult lady beetles, which as both adult and larvae are voracious other-bug eaters.

Which is where I messed up, by breaking a cardinal rule of pesticide application; I did not read or following directions before use. In my excitement, I opened up the bag of squirming beetles, poured them over some plants, and…watched them all fly away.

Surprised, I read the instructions, and too late saw that I was supposed to release them at night, lest they all fly away. Reread this column’s opening statement.

Hopefully some will come back. But I don’t want too many lest they eat all the goodies from my other good bugs After all, you can’t have good bugs for long without aphids for them to eat.

Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to