Lessons from Longwood about protecting plants from pests

KYW Staff
September 12, 2019 - 5:32 pm
A meadow with wildflowers.

Custeau/Getty Images

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By Rasa Kaye

PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Late summer in the Meadow Garden at Longwood Gardens brings you butterflies flitting across paths hemmed in by hollow Joe-Pye weed as high as an elephant's eye, shouldering goldenrod and sunflowers that are abuzz with bees and wasps of all sizes. 

In the pond, a heron poses or dozes on a partly-submerged log as frogs bask under swarms of darting damselflies and dragonflies. A pair of cardinals flits from tree to tree as a goldfinch mama bobs past on her looping trip to the nest with a beak full of seeds. Mind you, don't trip on the rabbit you just startled out of that clump of fleabane.  

So much life it's practically uncivilized, I tell you! And that's exactly how Longwood likes it.

"With just a simple stroll, one can see the beauty and textures of native plants, how these change though the seasons, and how insects and birds utilize the plants for food," explained Matt Taylor, director of research and conservation at Longwood Gardens.

According to Taylor, improving plant biodiversity and faunal habitat was one of the goals when Longwood doubled the size of the Meadow Garden to 86 acres in 2014. 

"We have been monitoring bird migration, breeding, and fledglings," he said. "There is an enormous diversity of birds utilizing this space for habitat. Many of the plants installed for the meadow have begun to mature, reseed, and spread. This helps reduce but does not eliminate pressure from invasive plants."

Another pesky pressure: unwanted insects. 

If you feel like a big chunk of your quality time outdoors this summer was spent swatting bugs away, the idea of an insect apocalypse might not be too distressing.  

In fact, the planet is losing insect life at an alarming rate. Some scientists blame our over-reliance on chemicals to control bugs.

Smithsonian Magazine reports the country's agricultural landscape is 48 times more toxic to insects than it was 25 years ago, and a new study out last month found a single class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, or neonics, behind a whopping 92% of bug population declines.

"Neonicotinoids that are absorbed by crops and wildflowers can later show up in the plants' nectar and pollen, affecting bees and other pollinators. A few years ago, scientists found that slugs living in the soil were ingesting neonics and thus poisoning slug-eating beetles," KUOW reported

Absorbed by crops? Ummmm – gross!

There's a universe of toxins humans use to keep pests away from us and our stuff. That means we're handling, inhaling and maybe even ingesting chemicals that are also fraying the food chain when we wipe out insects around us.

At Longwood, chemicals are a last resort. In the spring, moveable electric fences are set up around bulb beds to deter the deer. In the water lily ponds, special mosquito fish scarf up the mosquito eggs. Each building even has its own assigned cat to patrol the environs to avoid the use of rodenticides.

In the greenhouses as well as outdoors, Longwood supports strategic bug-on-bug warfare. Peer around the rose bushes, and you'll spot small bags attached to branches. 

"This is part of our integrated pest management system in which we try to use the most natural means possible, in this case beneficial insects, " Taylor explained. "These bags release predatory mites that attack white fly and thrips, which are pests on the roses."

For those of us with plant babies we've been nurturing and no cool little bug bags, what are the safest ways to de-bug them — for us, and the environment? 

"There are many options," according to Taylor. "If it is a house plant, sometimes you can move it outside in the shade and mother nature will do the job. A hard shower is a good way to remove some pests. One of the best ways is getting your hands in there and doing some crushing."

Sounds like a great stress reliever, no? But it's all about getting rid of the pests, not pollinators, and definitely not spiders! (I know, spiders, gaaaahh — but watch this and feel better.)

And you don't have to have your own garden to become a plant protector in Philly, thanks to the unwelcome arrival of the spotted lanternflies. Put on your bug squishing shoes and go forth to flatten some, chemical-free!