gardening, nature

If something isn’t eating your plants…

If something isn’t eating your plants, your garden isn’t part of the ecosystem.

I don’t know who to credit for the quote, nor the origins of the photograph bearing that quote. Both make their rounds on social media every so often. But I am fairly certain the source knew that a healthy, vibrant garden resembles something of a scaled down Jurassic Park.

Something…is always eating something.

And…something…is always hunting something.

I am also certain the source of the quote and photo knew that we are made better by bearing witness to the miracles of nature that play out in the ecosystems many of us call a garden.

Gardeners wishing to put in a wildlife habitat know that they need to offer food, water and shelter. Now what exactly that involves will vary by what wildlife the gardener wishes to encourage, as the needs are different from butterflies to birds to amphibians. But gardeners that wish to just grow a few vegetables in the backyard or maybe put in a few rose bushes around the patio may not fully realize that they, too, are indirectly creating a habitat, a source of food, water and shelter. Now what wildlife may find their gardens could vary widely depending on where the gardener lives, what plants one grows and what wildlife populates their area. Perhaps it is a hawk moth that finds their tomato plant. Or a snake that discovers the eggs in the nest a cardinal has built in their rose bush.

Alas. As our world gets more and more developed, wildlife is getting pushed further in to populated areas and becomes more dependent on humans for their survival and – equally – they are more threatened and harmed by humans and their actions.

The plight of the monarch butterfly and the decline of their food source – milkweed – is just one very specific example that has been in the news the past few years. The environmental impact humans have had on wildlife has been an ongoing issue most likely since man first realized they could plant a seed and tend a cultivated garden and the first hawk moth came along to feast. But the introduction of pesticides and the unrealistic image that gardeners can have a picture perfect, pest-free garden has accelerated the damage humans have inflicted on wildlife, especially those on the low end of the food chain.

A garden has many layers, from the soil underground to the plants above ground, from the tiniest of insects to the gardener to the birds that fly overhead. If you have ever watched a praying mantis stalk their prey, you will see just how Jurassic Park-like nature can be.

(Photo below: Watching newly hatched praying mantis in a terrarium is a great activity for children.)

We humans are just one layer of the larger scale. We can tend our garden, searching out what we deem as “needs to be eliminated,” or we can sit back and watch as nature unfolds before our eyes.

I remember participating in garden forums back when online discussion groups were just popping up on that new invention, The Internet. The questions that would be asked over and over again, from one discussion group to the next, was “What is eating my (insert plant name)? And how do I kill it?” Today, those are still the same questions asked repeatedly. I know I sound like a broken record when I say that one of the best things a gardener can buy is a reference book and learn how to identify at least some of the more common forms of insects in their region. Yes, things will be eating your garden. IF it is part of a healthy and vibrant ecosystem. But if we continue to garden from a perspective of “This is eating my garden and this needs to be eliminated,” then we will continue to see declining populations of wildlife, such as monarch butterflies.

I do use monarch butterflies as an example because 1.) everyone loves them 2.) and rightly so, because they have a remarkable journey each year from Mexico to Canada 3.) but that means they depend on a lot of people – gardeners, non-gardeners, farmers and non-farmers – for their very survival. But I am going to shift now to another butterfly. One that is equally beautiful. The gulf fritillary. Why this shift? Because I happen to have photographs from my own garden to use as examples.

But first: A little science lesson.

Butterflies and moths lay their eggs on very specific plants, which are called “host plants.” Now the host plant (or plants) will vary depending on the species.

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed.

Hawk moths lay their eggs on tomato plants.

Swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on parsley, dill and fennel, all of which are botanically related.

The gulf fritillary butterfly happens to lay their eggs on passionvine (passiflora), a rambling, somewhat aggressive, vine that has amazingly beautiful and extremely tropical looking purple blooms. Gardeners often buy this because of the blooms, not knowing that it also happens to be the host plant for the gulf fritillary butterflies.

Until… The butterfly eggs hatch and – well, if you have ever read The Very Hungry Caterpillar – that is very much what happens.

The caterpillar eats and eats and eats.

Now this aspect of nature would largely go unnoticed in the wild. But – when it happens to be a gulf fritillary caterpillar eating your beloved passionvine or the hawk moth – aka tomato hornworm – eating your prized tomato plants – it gets noticed.

This is a dangerous stage for insects. Caterpillars have only a handful of ways to defend themselves, none of which are any match against a human.

A gardener may go out one morning and see…

Something has been eating their garden.

Something must be done.

“What is eating my plant? And how do I kill it?”

The fact that “if something isn’t eating your plants, your garden isn’t part of the ecosystem” is lost in the throes of Botanical Whodunit.

After the caterpillar has eaten and grown – and devoured some of your passionvine, if allowed – it will find a nice place to hang out for a while. It will now form a chrysalis, if a butterfly, or a pupa, if a moth. Inside, all sorts of amazing things are now happening and about to happen… Aren’t we all also drawn to butterflies because of this transformation? Because…

Out emerges… cue chorus of angels singing… The.Butterfly.

The insect version of The Ugly Duckling.

“From lowly caterpillar to beautiful. soaring butterfly!”

Or in the case of a moth, a nuisance that we swat away when we walk under a street light at night.

On some level, they are all the same. It’s a dog eat dog world out there. Or a bird eat flying insect world out there. A scissor-tailed flycatcher hardly cares if he is eating a butterfly or a moth. It’s a real life Jurassic Park world for insects and they are on the low end of the feeding chain.

For the millions of insect eggs laid, only a fraction of them ever make it the full cycle to adult. Nature is rough. And gardeners can either make it rougher on them or we can give them a helping hand. Sure, we can try to be selective. Butterflies good, moths bad. Birds good, squirrels bad. But when we build it, they will come. And we don’t always have a lot of input on what we want and what we don’t want. Sure, we can do things to eliminate elements we don’t want, like putting squirrel baffles on bird feeders and taking bird feeders down at night so night rodents (aka: rats) don’t visit them. But we also need to know and appreciate that nature is amazing and we can have a front row seat to witness just a tiny bit of the natural world, all without ever needing to visit Jurassic Park.

And your passionvine? It will bounce back. Trust me. It doesn’t care that a very hungry caterpillar is eating away at its leaves. It will still bloom. It will still grow. It will still pop up in unexpected places the following season. It is doing what nature intended passionvine to do. Just as the gulf fritillary butterfly is doing what nature intended for it to do.

Perhaps what we need to do is re-frame the question. Flip it on its head.

What is eating my passionvine?

I am so honored that a gulf fritillary chose my garden – My Garden! – to lay her eggs! She could have laid them elsewhere but she chose my ecosystem!

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