This year’s gardening season had enough drama to sell out a theatre. There were the performances that played out on the big screen, like waiting to see which trees and shrubs would bounce back from November’s flash-freeze. And there were the dailies, wondering if the wild weather would end the season before it even began. Instead of Splendor in the Grass, my garden was more like something from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
This was the first summer I’d ever seen oddly shaped insects called ambush bugs on the brown-eyed Susan flowers. I didn’t know what they were when I first spotted them and had to do some research. These members of the assassin bug family have perfect yellow and brown camouflage that allows them to hide on plants and flowers. When an unsuspecting insect lands, they attack quickly and use their sharp pincers to hold the unfortunate while sucking the life right out of it. Ambush bugs (subfamily Phymatinae) land in the good bug category when striking and killing flies; the bad bug category when they happen upon a honey bee.
I’ve seen many orb weaver spiders in my garden through the years, but this summer was the first time I had the chance to watch a funnel web weaver at work. I’m glad these spiders (Agelendiae) are some of the good guys. They capture their prey with a sheet-like web that features a tunnel retreat where they lie in wait for their prey. When a flying insect hits one of the barrier strands suspended above the tunnel, it falls into the sheet below. That’s when the spider dashes from inside the tunnel to drag its dinner inside.
One of the bad critters in my garden this year had a voracious appetite. Grasshoppers were practically everywhere in my garden, some hiding in plain sight. They gnawed on the long sedge leaves, feasted on flowers and tore through the beautiful foliage on my eggplants. Fortunately, they left the tomatoes and squash alone. Because I didn’t want to use insecticides or traps in my garden, I suffered through the worst of the invasion before their numbers started to dwindle.
Another bad bug appeared in my garden in the form of hollyhock weevils (Apion longirostre). These tiny insects enjoyed crawling up the tall hollyhock stalks and eating the leaves, seeds and buds of one of my favorite perennial flowers. These evil weevils use their long beaks for chewing into the flower buds so they can lay their eggs. Then the grubs feed on the seeds which can spell the end to hollyhocks in the future. I spent many enjoyable summer mornings picking these destructive pests off the plants and crushing them with my fingers. Damaged pods have to go, too.
The ugly damage left behind by furry four-legged pests doesn’t bother me as much as having insects eat the garden. Squirrels are so entertaining that I don’t mind sharing a few cherry tomatoes or baby butternut squashes with them. I think it’s a fair trade for a front-seat at one of the best garden shows around.
By Jodi Torpey
Denver Master Gardener