Some people seem to have a general aversion to insects of all kind. They see an ant, a beetle, or a slug in the garden and shriek, running for the pesticides on the shelf in the garage. That's a shame, because the majority of garden insects are harmless. Some are even beneficial, or helpful, to your garden.
Of course you know that bees, like the friendly little honey bee on the peach tree blossom above, are good bugs to have in the garden. Virginia's native bee, the Mason bee, is actually a more efficient pollinator than the honey bee. Mason bees have tiny hairs all over their bodies, which collect more pollen as they brush against the stamens of flowers. When they visit their next flower, it's easier for them to leave pollen behind to fertilize the flower.
The praying mantis above visited my hydrangea a few days ago. These insects are beneficial because they eat many smaller insects, changing their diet as they grow. I've seen them catch beetles, wasps and other insects in their "praying" hands. They are very useful insects in the garden and will keep the pest population down for you.
This green fellow isn't a beneficial insect, but the white bits clinging to his back ARE quite beneficial. He is a tomato hornworm, the scourge of gardens everywhere. Tomato hornworms can destroy an entire tomato plant in one night. They eat the leaves and leave skeletan stems behind. Because they are so well camouflaged, they are difficult to spot among tomato plants. But not hard for the predatory wasp to find them. She lays her eggs on the back of the tomato hornworm. When they hatch, the larvae, shown above, kill the hornworm and eat it. Nature is gross, but efficient....and the wasp itself is quite a beneficial bug, helping to control the bad guys in the garden.
Your Virginia garden is an amazing microcosm, an ecosystem of insects busily at work helping your garden grow. Avoid using pesticides in the garden. Plant a wide range of flowering plants, especially native perennials, to provide suitable habitats for our native species. The more you can do to help beneficial insects in the garden, the better.
As the "Ask the Expert" columnist for Virginia Gardener magazine, I receive emails from readers not just in Virginia but throughout the southeast. One common theme from among the letters this spring is an interest in straw bale gardening. This gardening method uses straw or to a lesser extend, hay bales, as both raised garden bed and the soil itself.
Bale gardens begin with clean bales free from weed and grass seeds. Good choices for bales include alfalfa, wheat, oat and rye. Straw is preferable to hay because it has few, if any, seeds that can inadvertently sproud inside your new garden. Square bales are preferably to the large rolls like you see pictured here. I didn't have a photo of square bales since all around my Virginia farm, the countryside is dotted with the huge hay rolls like you see here!
Find or buy a square bale and get ready to garden. Like any vegetable garden, your straw bale garden will need six or more hours of bright, direct sunlight each day to produce good veggies. It's a good idea to spread a layer of cardboard under the bale to prevent weeds or grass from growing up into the bale itself. Put the cut side up, and make sure the wire or twine is tight around the bale to keep it together.
New straw bales have to be conditioned to start a garden. It's a process similar to compositng. For details on how to condition a straw bale, see this article in the Green Bay Press Gazette.
After conditioning, you can plant your vegetables. Since hay or straw doesn't provide all the nutrients your plants need, be consistent in your fertilizing regimen. A soaker hose with a timer set to water your new plants will keep them happy and healthy, too. Straw and hay bales don't hold water as well as ground soil, so watering is a must. The timer will keep you from forgetting to water and accidently killing your plants.
For more information about straw bale gardening, see:
Roses can be tricky to grow in Virginia. I haven't had much luck with them, frankly. I can get them to grow well for a season, perhaps two. Then blackspot and Japanese beetles take their toll and I'm rose-less once again. The rose trellis in my garden remains as a remnider of hopes dashed, but the climbing roses are, alas, long gone.
The exception to the rule, however, is this rose. I accidently picked it up at a local discount store. I felt sorry for it. It had one little pink flower peeking over the rim of the pot. I bought floribunda or polyantha "The Fairy" and two hybrid tea "Sophia" roses. Among the three purchased that day, "Sophia" hangs on by a petal and "Fairy" is taking over the garden.
Below you can see "The Fairy" pink rose in my garden this spring. The lavender border adds additional color and fragrance.
When I first began researching this rose, I thought it was a floribunda. Then further research uncovered it as a polyantha. Polyanthas were hybridized in France in the late 1800s, and although they were quite popular when they were first unveiled to the public, their appeal has waned until now, only a few varieties like "The Fairy" are grown. That's a shame, because among all the roses I have killed - er, tried to grow - in my garden, the polyantha rose has been the most reliable performer.
This rose has a low-growing, shrub format. The branches are compact, with small leaves and abundant clusters of small rose flowers at the ends. There isn't much fragrance to speak of, but the flower color is good, and they last a long time.
Best of all, polyantha roses are highly resistant to black spot. This one in particular, although troubled by some blackspot each June, seems to shrug it off. Ditto for the Japanese beetle invasion which strikes around Father's Day and lasts until the Fourth of July in my garden, a two to three week insect hell that leaves my roses tattered and shredded.
I don't do much with this rose except prune it back a little over the winter and remove some of the spent foliage. Mostly I prune it to keep it from spreading too far over the pathways and scratching people as they linger to examine the garden.
If you're trying to grow roses in an area prone to blackspot, try a polyantha or floribunda variety that's proven to be naturally resistant to this disease. It beats spraying your rose bushes daily with fungicides, and they offer an attractive garden plant.