Plant Porn

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Last winter, my wife caught me looking at plant porn. The catalogs are beautiful, of course, but it’s the garden design books that really get me excited. It’s true that they encourage an unhealthy fantasy version of what one’s garden will look like. That doesn’t stop me from dreaming about a pretty little garden path threading through my lush English garden. In my fantasy it’s always cool and there are never bugs.

In a real garden, you can’t grow food without bugs. We need them to act as plant Yentas: “Hey, cute little cucumber plant, I’d like you to meet this other cucumber plant; I think you’ll have a lot in common. Let me leave you two alone to get acquainted.” Insects also show up to eat. Some are there to eat the plants and some are there to eat the eaters. They are a part of the garden’s food network.

Another confession: I’ve been browsing bug porn. A colleague lent me a book called Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw, formerly of our valley. In any case, the pictures are fantastic, as are the descriptions. Perhaps the fact that it was written by an entomologist rather than by a botanist describing the enemy helps. Arthropods are beautiful and dramatically different from us.

Arthropods (insects but also crustaceans, spiders and a few other critters) shared a common ancestor with mammals a long time ago. We both have limbs, but our last common ancestor did not—our limbs are not related structures. Our blood goes through a circulatory system of vessels; theirs bathes their internal structures. Of course, there are also more of them—more individuals and more types of species—and they are almost everywhere.

I’m reminded of this when I do my nightly patrols. Potatoes make a wonderful microclimate for insects. Under the drooping branches, it’s shady and moist even in the heat of day. At any time the tight little fist of foliage at the plant’s growing tip makes for a perfect hiding place.

I find so many lovely little insects hiding amongst the leaves. The minuscule and indestructible flea beetles create leaves with shotgun blast holes in them (pictured). Adult Colorado potato beetles emerge in the spring to munch and lay eggs. If I don’t get the little yellow eggs off the leaf undersides now, I’ll be overwhelmed in a few weeks by their disreputable feces-toting larva.

I recently spent some time identifying a tortoise beetle on my potatoes. It doesn’t do much damage, but looks like a little shield on the plant. Looking at these guys, I began to notice the flies and leaf-hoppers that frequent the plants. Potato plants teem with life that doesn’t give a rat’s fig about me. If we didn’t plant potatoes, they’d find something else. I don’t even know if they are all harmful to the plant or each other. For the most part they do little damage and just give me something to look at—another good reason to avoid the sprays and hand-crush the bugs I know are nasty. If you hold up a Colorado potato beetle to your ear, it makes little clicking noises. They stop when you crush it.•


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