The Heritage Herb Gardens at the Ozark Folk Center grace the park with visual colors and textures, sweet and pungent aromas, and help us to interpret the history of the human use of plants.
This summer beats all I’ve ever seen. Nonetheless, the most productive times of day are dawn and dusk. Watering and spraying activities are best done when sunrays are absent from the equation. Water droplets act as tiny magnifying glasses that concentrate photons on plant tissues. This burns leaves. Irrigate during these periods of the day because water evaporates faster from hot soil.
Here in the Heritage Herb Gardens we are giving individual care to our container plants. They can become hosts to mealy bugs, aphids, white flies, leafhoppers, grasshoppers and slugs if we are not actively interacting with the plants.
Today, as I work in the greenhouse, I pick up each plant in turn. The weight of the pot tells me if the plant needs water. Heavy pots are fully saturated with water. The light ones need a good soaking. If a plant is not using water in this heat, it may have a fungal disease. If the plant looks miserable and has any black streaks at its base or if the leaves look soggy and have black spots, it is best taken to the trash immediately.
Next, I remove dead, yellowing and badly spotted leaves and any leaves or sticks from the surface of the soil. All imperfect leaves are suspects and are culled because insects and mites deposit eggs on these. If left on the plant or around it, ants, the best pest herders on the planet, will find the eggs and larvae and transport them up to healthy plant tissue. To remove a leaf stalk without tearing the cambium from the stem it is attached to, grasp it firmly where it is attached and pull sideways, at a right angle to the stem. Alternatively, snip the leaf stalk away with sharp scissors or shears.
While removing imperfect foliage, focus on the lower surface of healthy leaves and take a close look at stem junctions. Mealy bugs gang up in these areas and make mischief. They are especially fond of the tender growing tips. If the pests are thick, I nip off the tips and stems that are infected and trash them. To keep the pest population manageable, it is time to take further action.
A water washing is the least toxic and cheapest control method. Take the plant to the sink, the road or shower, far away from where it normally sits. It is important to send pests down the drain or as far away as possible because of those industrious ants. They will collect pests and bring them right back if you just rinse the bugs off where your plants live. You’ll need an adjustable spray nozzle. Turn it to the fan setting. This setting directs a wedge of water and can be directed to hit the most leaf and stem surface at one time. Adjust the water pressure so that it will knock foreign objects off your plants without blowing holes in the leaves or breaking stems off of the plants. This is a matter of judgment. When you are ready, wash the entire plant, upside down, side-to-side and top to bottom until it is completely clean.
In between baths, our plants are sprayed with neem seed oil solution. Neem seed repels bugs, kills pests and interferes with their ability to reproduce. It is not harmful to mammals and is not too rough on beneficial predators such as lady beetles and lacewings. If stronger plant-based insecticide is needed, pyrethrum will knock down most pests and beneficial insects too. Use with discretion.
One washing and/or spraying will not be the end of it. Pest eggs are so tiny that we have trouble seeing them without a magnifying glass. They are small so that predators will overlook some them and, of course, their parents aren’t all that big. Bug eggs are also usually wrapped in wax that repels water and chemical agents and are attached to the plant with strong webbing. To get ahead of bad bug damage, a determined gardener must return every three or four days and wash or spray the plants to kill the larvae that hatch from missed eggs.
If vigilance and effective practices are followed, major outbreaks can be prevented or controlled. It is necessary to scout for trouble on a regular basis, prune, rotate plants and bust up stagnant areas. This is the pleasure in the process of gardening. When we protect our plants, we are with them to watch them grow, smell their essential oils and floral perfumes and enjoy their presence in our lives. If I don’t see you in the future, I’ll see you in the pasture!