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Archive for the ‘Gardening’ Category

Welcome squash bugs!

IMG_3125Our house is moderately infested with squash bugs*. They are the stalking, brown, elongate bugs that move into heated buildings with the first frost. I know they aren’t good; they feed on plant juices and I suppose they could harm my houseplants. But they don’t seem to be doing a lot of damage, so I permit them to stay. They are capable of flying, but generally walk, plodding stoically across the floor where I often almost step on them. It’s amazing the amount of foot force they can withstand. They seem to be all in a prolonged process of dying, and they flail on their backs, or droningly fly and then thwap into the sides of things, or people’s faces. They turn up in the sink, the bathtub and on the couch. Their weird, antennaed heads crest my book while I’m reading in bed. In one macabre incident, I reached for the handle of the bathroom faucet, not seeing the bug on its underside. A surprisingly loud and rich crack sounded, and I looked down to see a bug stomping off with only five legs, a tiny, exoskeletoned drumstick under my finger.

I’m not particularly gentle with them, and they are quite satisfying to flick away. I don’t particularly try to avoid them when vacuuming, and they give up a faint smell of carrots when they’re sucked into the bag. But I don’t strive to remove them either. As I watched one make a lunatic flight into my arm and bounce into a laundry basket, I realized why. Short days, snow, the cold. They don’t keep us inside, but outside, it’s so quiet. Nothing drones and seethes like insects, and without them, it’s a quiet world. The crickets that stowed away in the basement woodpile in the fall are long dead, and only the squash bugs are with us now. I’ll take what I can get of the movement and the noise.

*entomology note: “bug” has a very specific scientific meaning, and refers to a particular kind of insect. Squash bugs and stink bugs are both true bugs. Lady bugs are not. They are beetles. I have, at various times, had squash bugs, stink bugs and lady bugs in my house. But, as my friend Michelle rightly pointed out, most of the bugs in houses around here this time of year are Western Conifer Seed Bugs. But that just doesn’t have the right sound to it, for a blog post. So I cheated a bit.

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Free garden in progress. I got just about all these plants for nothing!

I have taken to ditch picking in order to expand my garden beds. Our gardening budget being approximately zero, I have had to become more inventive in my plant acquisition strategies. Where I once might have simply gone to a nursery and bought myself a shrub, I now salvage plants and accept a lot of castoffs from friends and freecycle.

Call it frugal, cheap, Yankee thrift, recycling, or theft, ditch picking can help your garden too, if you do it right. What is ditch picking? It’s keeping one’s eyes open for good plants languishing in roadside wastes, and transplanting them into your garden where they will obviously be happier. I have found sedums, day lilies, meadow rue, tons of ferns, and many hostas via ditch picking. Some have been from our very own roadside ditch, which is a nice way to start ditch picking if you’re nervous about absconding with plants. Even once you get comfortable with ditch picking, as with trash picking for furniture, you may feel rather furtive for a while. I still feel an urge to act casual when cars drive by as I’m ditch picking. As if anyone would believe I’m just hanging out behind a guardrail in a power line right of way with a shovel. Still, I try to look nonchalant. You may experience the same.

Nothing to see here, folks. I’m just hanging out by the road near some power lines. With a shovel. And a bucket.

Despite this, f you would like to try augmenting your garden via this technique, here are my guidelines:

1) Make sure your target ditch is actually a roadside waste and not someone’s yard. It can be hard to tell the difference, at least in my neighborhood. But people here take private property very seriously. And they often have many guns.

2) Don’t take ALL of a particular plant. Plants stabilize the roadside and prevent erosion. If you depopulate an entire roadside slope of all its day lilies, you are being a jerk and despoiling the commons.

3) Make sure the lovely plant you found is not, in fact, an exotic invasive ruining the ecosystem. Many popular ornamentals are bad news and are very aggressive. They can destroy entire woodlands, meadows and other natural communities. Burning bush, purple loosestrife, Oriental bittersweet and Japanese barberry are all very common invasive species that people merrily plant in their yards. These are bad actors, and the state of Massachusetts has actually banned their sale at nurseries. I, of course, live in New Hampshire where everyone does whatever they want, so we have to be more vigilant about avoiding these plants.

4) Make sure the lovely plant you found is not itself, nor intertwined with, a noxious, poisonous weed. Virginia creeper, a very beautiful climbing vine, for instance, tends to grow tendril in tendril with Poison Ivy. You will be a sad ditch picker if you end up with a fulminating, pustular rash for the sake of free plants.

Virginia creeper and poison ivy: in your zeal to acquire plants, do not confuse the two.

Regarding 4 and 5, if you are less than a horticultural expert, I highly recommend the site ProjectNoah.org where you can upload pictures of any living thing and have the general internet community help you identify it. So you can check if your target plant is poisonous or an alien invader. Project Noah is also great for animals, so if you are concerned about the insect you found in your bathtub, snap a picture of it and post it to Project Noah.

Happy gardening, and I’ll see you in the ditches!

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