The linen closet did not hold nearly enough sheets to blunt the vengeance of a late-May freeze that turned umbrella-like Astilboides leaves into alien life-forms.
There was nothing in any cupboard — or in the barn or the toolbox beneath the pantry sink — to convince the rains to come more gently, please, not several inches in less than an hour.
There was nothing on hand, either, to stop the proliferation of Asian jumping worms hellbent on undermining the foundation of all life, the soil.
And the spongy moth caterpillars chewed on and on — audibly — disfiguring the growing season, if not destroying plants for good.
In my Hudson Valley, N.Y., garden, this year has invoked many aphorisms, chief among them, “It never rains but it pours.” Another phrase that comes to mind: “Adding insult to injury.”
As it winds down, and I find myself wanting to air a list of grievances, I am reminded of a story from Zen Buddhism.
Regardless of what particular trouble had brought a student to seek her help, a long-ago Japanese Zen master named Sono assigned each one the same mantra. Repeat these words at the beginning and end of the day for a year, she would advise them: “Thank you for everything. I have no complaint whatsoever.”
And I don’t have any, not really, when mine are set against the backdrop of ravages elsewhere, including drought, fire and flood. The arrival of a pesky family of rabbits or lilacs so heavily leaf-spotted by fungal disease that they defoliated in August just don’t feel like legitimate problems against such headlines.
But part of the bond among gardeners — part of our tradition — is to celebrate and, in turn, commiserate together. We compare outcomes in the face of common forces, for better or worse.
We excitedly tell one another, “I did it!” the first time we grow and bloom a perennial from seed that was collected in our garden and successfully winter-sown, or when we have finally harvested the first stalks of asparagus from crowns planted two springs earlier.
But when spring’s new growth is shredded and erased in minutes by a hailstorm, or when the underground handiwork of hungry voles reveals itself at sweet-potato harvest time, we’re more likely to lament, “It did me in.”
Please Don’t Eat My Frogs
Keeping score that way is probably asking for trouble. But my gardener self cannot entirely resist, as much as I know that cultivating the Zen master’s “want what you have, and don’t want what you don’t have” attitude will serve me better, and on the best days even offers glimpses of equanimity.
On the worst days, a great blue heron lands in the backyard, and I become entirely unhinged.
The bird came to dine on frogs. “My” frogs.
Yes, I know: “Everybody’s gotta eat” (another phrase this garden year has painfully exemplified). But must my beloved frogs be on the menu, despite my best efforts and those of the antique Indonesian bust of Buddha who keeps watch, perched atop a stone wall overlooking the water garden where they live?
Was it not enough that around Thanksgiving a mink visited the same little pool and went scuba diving for prey, refusing to be dissuaded by anything I did (including shouting)? By the time spring arrived, not a single bullfrog remained; maybe half of the usual contingent of green frogs appeared to have survived.
At least until Big Bird had his way.
So in the spirit of recounting, if not just complaining, what was the 2023 garden season like? You may be sorry you asked.
Of Jumping Worms and Spongy Moths
As anyone who has experienced an infestation will understand, it’s hard not to complain about jumping worms. In the last few years, they have become the issue I hear about from gardeners more than any other.
These worms process the top layer of soil rapidly, consuming all of the organic matter in it. Their churning changes the soil structure, affecting other resident organisms. In time, it becomes increasingly difficult for plants to take root in what’s left behind, a substance with the texture of coffee grounds or chopped meat, very porous and vulnerable to erosion.
The worms are currently known to be present in about 38 states, as well as several Canadian provinces. The emails I receive from those who are witnessing their effect include words like “terrifying” and “very emotional.”
“I want to sell my house,” one said. “I want to get away from what I’m seeing.”
And then she asked, “How are you coping?”
The handiwork of these worms seems to achieve a shocking state maybe four or five years in, which is about where I am now. During drought years, like 2022, they may appear to have vanished, and a false sense of relief catapults the lack of rain to the top of the complaint list, at least temporarily. But in a wet year, as my 2023 has been, they rebound with a vengeance.
Although researchers are exploring various lines of inquiry into managing them, there is currently no solution. The worms include several annual species, and while the adults do not overwinter, the egg-filled cocoons they leave behind do. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison determined that heating compost or soil to at least 104 degrees for three days will kill the cocoons, but solarizing isn’t an option in a bed containing plants.
BotaniGard, a commercially available product created from an isolate of a naturally occurring entomopathogenic fungus, was demonstrated to be effective against the worms in tests under greenhouse conditions. The fungus, Beauveria bassiana, is already used as a biological pesticide on various insect species.
Tea seed meal, a natural lawn fertilizer, is often mentioned as another possible defense, although it is not officially labeled for use against jumping worms.
Both products are expensive, but there is another cost: Neither is selective. They kill other soft-bodied soil organisms, not just jumping worms. The saponin compounds in the tea seed meal may also wash into waterways and harm even more species.
How am I coping? I keep replenishing the soil, adding compost and mulch as I did before the worms’ arrival. Yes, that means I’m essentially feeding them, but I’m also giving the plants in the worst-affected spots something to hold onto.
Another coping strategy: Whenever I see worms, I pick them out of the soil and drown them in the tub of soapy water I always have alongside me now when I’m working outdoors. It’s not so different from my wildly gratifying practice of squashing so many spongy moth caterpillars from May through July or so, when they’re active.
I know it won’t make any significant difference, statistically speaking, but how can I help trying? The illusion of control is too hard to resist.
Is That a Cuckoo’s Voice I Hear?
At least the spongy moths temporarily move on. Each big outbreak typically lasts two or three years, but they’re separated by multiyear downturns of five to 10 years or more. The worms just keep turning (the soil).
But there was another silver lining with this year’s spongy moths. Or maybe “stomach lining” would be more precise.
The voices of black- and yellow-billed cuckoos — birds that, in a typical year, I hear only occasionally — sounded daily at the garden’s edges, week after week. These birds are caterpillar connoisseurs, feasting on even hairy species like spongy moths and tent caterpillars, and are known to home in on areas experiencing outbreaks.
Their superpower: They have evolved a kind of disposable stomach lining. When too many hairs build up in their gut, they slough off the lining and regurgitate it.
Another species was singing this spring and summer, too. But not one that the Merlin bird-song identification app from Cornell Lab of Ornithology picks up, as birdlike as it may sound. As if rejoicing about the extra-wet weather, male gray treefrogs trilled their mating call on overtime this challenging season.
Maybe that’s the tactic I am finding most effective: When the big picture is a mess, I go small, taking pleasure in offerings like the voice of a frog who weighs barely a quarter of an ounce, or the fuzzy catkin of a giant pussy willow (Salix chaenomeloides) that dropped onto a nearby shrub and fooled me into thinking it was a caterpillar.
Blessedly, by this time in the season, I can usually count on a few things, no matter what havoc has come before. Five goldenrod species that planted themselves around the yard have just staged their big show, and so have about as many volunteer asters.
I know if I dial it down and focus on those native perennials, letting go of my mental scorekeeping for a bit, I will spy the vividly colored stripes of a favorite fall caterpillar. The gaudy creature, often positioned head down on the plants as it feasts away, is the brown-hooded owlet moth’s larva.
This is one hungry caterpillar I am glad to share the garden and its harvest with, a rainbow at the end of a stormy season.
Any complaints to share? I’m listening.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.
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