What a wonderful month it's been for… aphids!
Every gardener and certainly every flower farmer has noticed that the aphid family, green and black has been doing very well this year. We don't use any pesticides at all, which means that we have to keep a very careful watch out for any potential pests and particularly for any surge in numbers.
Knowing how rich the insect life is in our garden, the idea of using pesticides to attempt to control just one species, whilst wiping out the hundreds of other benign species that share this space, is just unthinkable. The marketing of such chemicals by very large multinational companies is pretty shocking, resulting in millions of litres of poison being pointlessly dispersed into our gardens. Chemicals so potent, that were they to be poured en masse into a river would cause a major environmental disaster and yet it seems acceptable for gardeners to annually spray this toxic evenly into our environment. These are the chemicals that are used to produce and are consequently present in all those supermarket flowers. Not necessarily what you want on your kitchen table.
We first spotted the greenfly in the low tunnels housing the Anemones and Ranunculus. The extra warmth and shelter providing an excellent breeding ground. In retrospect, we would have grown these plants ' harder'. Providing more ventilation, allowing them to get colder, removing the covers on those warm days in February, allowing access to any predators but just not encouraging those early aphids to merrily breed in the warm and humid conditions in these tunnels. Of course we wanted to encourage the early flowers that these tunnels allow but its a delicate balance.
Next year we hope to have a big polytunnel in which to grow these and this will allow us to introduce predators to help to control any problem pests. There are natural predators available for a huge range of species now, things have really changed and it's very encouraging. From Nematodes for slug control to predators for white, green and black fly, scale insect and red spider mite, growers have realised that observing and working with nature is far better than the use of chemical poisons.
We tried spraying with a strong garlic infusion, the smell of which, luckily, leaves the flowers very quickly! It didn't seem to make any difference. We tried soft horticultural soap, this did work quite well but then we noticed that the Ladybirds had woken up and would soon be breeding, so in order to protect them we stopped spraying and started squishing!
It's not a very pleasant job and possibly bad for your karma but it's a great way of rapidly reducing numbers, whilst waiting for the predators to get going. We'd noticed that our neighbouring Feverfew plants were very badly infested with green and blackfly, they seem to act as a magnet for them. The ladybirds had noticed this too, so my daily squishing routine involved keeping an eye out for them and, after much colourful coupling, their suddenly very numerous larvae. They're curious creatures, grey or black with flashes of colour on their backs and they and their parents have an insatiable appetite for the fly. I was amazed to see a huge bed of Feverfew initially covered in greenfly suddenly be completely clear of them, just a bit of human squishing and a lot of nibbling. A friend suggested growing Feverfew as a sacrificial plant, essentially a ladybird nursery, so we'll think about how we can use this to our advantage next year.
The ladybirds and their offspring are everywhere now and doing a great job in keeping things in balance. Despite this, we've had to check every flower that has left the farm for green and black fly. Having cut several thousand Anemones to date and having had to wash every one, it's no mean task and I'm sure some have escaped our inspection. Encouragingly, we've noticed that very few customers mind the occasional 'visitor', it seems there's a growing awareness of the importance of actually fostering our insect life, rather than destroying it. Let's hope so.
All images and text ©Paul Stickland. First published in The Sherborne Times, July 2019