Aphids and Abandon: A Surprising Tale

I’ll let you in on a secret – my vegie patch is not that crash hot. Any initial enthusiasm based on fickle visions of juicy tomatoes and submarine sized zucchini usually results in a few meagre specimens with my lonely string beans fodder for white fly hordes. This is my fault, vegetables are needy plants and I get distracted too easily by other grandiose gardening tasks.

Last year I planted bronze fennel even though I’m not a fan of aniseed. This was all about vanity, fennel has fine feathery plumes reminding me of baby possum tails. I like to run my fingers through the soft foliage watching it bend to a burnished shimmer by the spring time wind.

That was then, now late summer is holding nature in a scorching grip. No rain and endless burning days have left my plants bowed, their leaves brown, curled and split. The clay soil has cracked and formed hard dirt pebbles that send shudders up my arm when I try to dig shallow holes.

The garden is parched and even attempts at irrigation are not making a mark, yet my sturdy fennel has always flourished – until now.”

I first noticed its bronze colouring looked sickly, there were no new fronds and the smooth branches had become bubbly. I peered in and spotted aphids.

While I know that aphids, like other annoying beasties such as mosquitoes, leeches and sand flies, are an unpleasant but essential part of nature, my gardening heart tightened at the devastation caused by so many hungry aphids sucking out life giving chlorophyll.

Aphids are a devious species; the females give birth to multiple live young and if that’s not fast enough to enjoy the feast, they can clone themselves hundreds of times. If you spy a few clusters, by the end of the week you’ll have hundreds of heaving, plump aphids turning tender plants into a green smoothie, aphid style.

Before my fingers could squash them into submission, the ladybird appeared. She was a single bright dot delicately crawling across the tops of fennel flowers drying into seed heads.”

Ladybirds (Coccinellidae) are the heroes of childhood rhymes and stories but to a gardener they are also a welcome fighter in organic pest control. They come from a large family with over 5,000 species found worldwide. I stayed my hand and over the next few weeks observed the ladybird nursery.

First, I noticed the clumps of delicate orange yellow eggs attached to the fennel branches and then the tiny larvae appeared, long, black rhinoceros like spiny predators they roamed up and down my fennel devouring the aphids like jelly babies, in a microcosmic world they were fierce unstoppable hunters and I was glad I wasn’t that small.

In one careful day of counting I had 52 roaming larvae. The aphids were being picked clean. The larvae soon attached themselves to the branches and began to pupate, morphing into orange sacks that are eventually shed, signalling the adults will be soon appearing.

Now I find their welcome red and orange dots all over my veggies and flowers – it looks like they are staying. Nature has taken my abandoned veggie patch and instead grown garden predators. I’m not going to argue, nature knows best.

Image by Grayson Orlando, sourced from Wikipedia Commons.