Aphids…already!

Unseasonably warm weather puts strain on plants, welcomes pests

Here’s where I eat my humble pie. I’ve grown two big beds of ranunculus this year for the first time. It’s a stunning flower in the buttercup family, many-petalled, available in a wide range of colours (from deep burgundies to corals to white). The Italians specialize in the largest ones, and I imported my stock from the U.S., complete with phytosanitary certificate clearance from Ottawa. If you don’t know ranunculus, they are reminiscent of roses and later when they unfurl their petals, poppies. Adorable, 100 per cent. Ranunculus is grown as a cut flower: strong of stem and long of vase life, florists love them.

You grow it from corms, planted in the fall. They need warmth, so I grew mine fairly dry in a low tunnel, fed them in the spring, coddled them, vented them in the heat, protected the blooms from rain, etc, etc. I was entirely smitten with their whopping two-foot, multi-budded stems. That is until today, when I spotted the aphids.

I’m middle-aged and wear glasses, so truth be told I did not find the aphids without the help of a ladybug. Ladybug larvae – they look like tiny black and orange alligators – eat aphids, so the adults lay their eggs on infected plants. Which brings me to the question literally at hand: What can one do when aphids appear?

Just like humans, plants resist infections (err, infestations) when they are healthy and unstressed. Have you watered enough? Fed your plants? Before you reach for the spray gun, run through a checklist of what could be troubling them.

My coddled ranunculus (I think) were hit hard by the heat wave of last week. Climate-wise it’s a wacky world. My first aphid incursion occurred on April 19, after a record-breaking temperature of 24.6 celsius the day before. Weren’t all gardeners feeling a little stressed? And in that sudden heat, tender buds, luscious stems – what’s not to love if you’re a sap-sucking insect?

Aphids feed on plant sap, but their damage is also due to what they secrete: a sticky ‘honeydew’ that quickly breeds a black mould. You can wash the honeydew from plants (and you should), but it’s best to address the aphids directly. Heeding Orwell’s advice to avoid euphemism: I mean, kill.

Which I did immediately after freaking out. I popped a few on pure instinct. It’s gross, entirely cringe-worthy, making bug juice, but primal urges prevail in such situations. Then, I grabbed my Safer’s soap. It stinks, but works on contact. Dish soap diluted in water will work as well. The surfactants prevent the aphids from breathing (through their skin, as they do) and they die.

But back to that ladybug.

I needed more of them because after the ranunculus come roses and aphids love roses and it’s only April. So I researched a supplier in Canada, Natural Insect Control, and a nice woman talked me down from the edge over the phone. Soon, 4,500 ladybugs are on their way. The ladybugs arrive sluggish, but ready to rumble. And rumbling you want. Mating = eggs = voracious larvae.

With this weather I think we’re going to need all the help we can get. I’m calling in the cute troops.

 

Chrisitn Geall is an avid Oak Bay gardener

and creative non-fiction writing instructor at the

University of Victoria.