Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dawn of the Carnivorous Babies of Lotusland!

One of the most sustainable things that can happen to your garden sounds a little like a zombie movie. I’m talking about little babies eating grown-ups. As they say in Hollywood, here’s the story treatment. Santa Barbara being so close to Hollywood, I’ll give it my best shot.

Just before dawn, as an waning moon sets over the gnarled and twisted trees, a barely visible white oval, perched on a slender filament, slowly splits open, revealing the hideous baby within. (Pretty spooky so far, eh?). Barely newborn and craving its first meal, this grotesque creature prowls for a living prey. (O.K., now I’M getting creeped out.) The sun breaks the horizon and the creature’s neighbor begins to stir. Suddenly aware that a terrible fate is about to befall it, the neighbor, disoriented, attempts to escape, but it’s too late. It becomes baby’s first meal and the taste of living flesh is forever imprinted in its young mind. Sorry. Not flesh; make that “chitinous exoskeleton.”

Gotcha! You were picturing something like the Gerber baby, but with a hideous misshapen mouth. Nope. Just our friend the lacewing larva, out for a quick snack, biting through the luscious, crunchy surface of a destructive mealybug.

I’ve known for a long time that beneficial insects beat out toxic pesticide sprays any day. That’s why it’s usually rare to hear anyone complain about ladybugs in their gardens. But my visit to Lotusland yesterday helped fill in the blanks. Owen Dell and I were taping a new segment for our TV show, Garden Wise Guys, at Ganna Walska’s Lotusland insectary and butterfly garden. Lotusland has been pesticide-free for years, and their insectary gardens are strategically placed to offer good habitat for good guys.

Virginia Hayes joined us on camera on very short notice and shared some very cool information with us. Virginia is not only Lotusland’s curator, but also writes a delightful weekly column for the Santa Barbara’s weekly Independent chock full of great garden info.

We stumbled through a few hours of taping and will probably end up with about 5 minutes of information and madness. No, not fair--I stumbled, Owen nailed it, and Virginia was as smooth as silk. But what I learned in those few hours should be shared with all of you.

Here’s a quick preview of what you’ll learn when this segment airs in mid-fall. We hope to add one more good reason for you to abandon the use of toxic chemicals in your landscape and adopt a more sustainable model for your maintenance.

First, beneficial insects come in all shapes and sizes, but what most have in common is that they are first attracted to your garden by a source of food (generally nectar-bearing flowers), then take up residence to lay eggs. When the babies hatch out, they’re the ones that eat the larva and adult pests in your garden. If you get this part right, you have an endless supply of garden helpers.

Next, the more diverse your offerings, the more diverse will be the range of beneficial insects. The tiny good guys generally seek out small flat flowers that have their sweet nectar within easy reach (native Buckwheat, parsley, carrots), whereas the dudes and dudettes with long “drinking straw” feeding tubes can slurp nectar out of deeper tubular flowers, like the plants in the mint family (sage, lavender, Lamb’s ear).

To be sure they will set up housekeeping and hang around to feast, be sure there’s some dense cover. Planting a few of the big ornamental grasses works well and they look great year round.

I continually extol the virtues of mulch as a way to keep down weeds and conserve soil moisture, but it’s got an equally important role. The insects that inhabit your decomposing mulch can also act as a food source during certain parts of an insect’s life cycle. So keep that mulch layer nice and thick and you’ll get even more benefit!

For more information about Lotusland's Best Management Practicices, click over to their site.

With all the big Hollywood film industry folks that live around here, maybe this blog will get me my first horror flick screenwriting job. Hey, I guy can hope!