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Gardening: In the battle against bugs, don’t reach so fast for that bottle of pesticide

A carob tree shows an aphid infestation in the spring and new leaf growth in the summer — it’s the same tree with no sign of aphids. Nothing was done to combat the infestation except to allow natural aphid predators to do their work. (Photos by Joshua Siskin)

How eager we are to find culprits or villains, whether in life or in the garden. Often, that search is merely an indication of our own impatience, stress or lazy thinking.

Let’s say I get lots of headaches. Instead of examining my life to find the underlying issues that bring on the headaches, I may blame my boss, a whiny customer, or a fellow employee for my throbbing head. Then I will probably just take a pill or two and the pain will go away.

But, soon enough, the headaches will return, until I might think there is something organically wrong with me. Yet, if I truly wanted to get rid of the headaches for good, I would probably have to make a change or two in my life.

In the garden, a similar frame of mind, where you seek to assign blame to some pest that, on the surface, may be chemically controlled, can keep your plants from flourishing. Nearly all garden problems can be fixed by adjusting a watering schedule, by moving shade-loving plants out of the sun or sun-lovers out of the shade, or by improving the soil. Instead of reaching for the spray bottle or soaking the soil with a systemic drench, think about what could be the source of your plant problem and you will usually discover that a nonchemical solution is at hand.

And sometimes, both in life in general and in the garden in particular, if you just let nature take its course, everything works out fine. Your kids may be giving you lots of headaches at the moment, but chances are good they will eventually grow up and learn how to function in the world.

This just-wait-and-see approach is highly recommended in the garden. This past spring, for instance, on a nearby carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua), all newly emerged foliage was blanketed with aphids. While the idea of spraying a docile target like aphids is tempting, there was no need to do so. Each flush of new carob leaf growth had fewer aphids than the last so that by midsummer there were no aphids at all on new growth and older leaves were virtually aphid free as well.

The aphids’ disappearance may be attributed to the arrival of tiny parasitic wasps, green lacewings, ladybugs and other aphid predators.

You may have noticed that the appearance of aphids and other sucking insects is often accompanied by the presence of ants. Your first thought on seeing the ants might be: “Oh great. Now I not only have an aphid problem, but an ant problem, too.” However, from the plant’s perspective, attracting aphids, which can cause some damage to them, is a price they are ready to pay to attract ants, which do an excellent job of fighting off pests whose damage would be much worse than that inflicted by aphids.