Author Theresa Rooney has been curious about plants ever since her childhood. She helped her mom grow vegetables in a garden on the Iron Range, filled her bedroom with houseplants and, at the ripe age of 13 or 14, redesigned and re-landscaped her family’s yard — without asking permission.
After decades of pondering plants, and the tension between what gardeners want and what nature does, the Minneapolis Master Gardener has written “The Guide to Humane Critter Control” (Cool Springs Press, $19.99). The book is a plea not to resort to chemicals or other deadly controls at the first sight of pest damage, but to learn how smart techniques can create a healthy yard — and still deliver results for the gardener.
Her book includes tables on how to combat pests like Japanese beetles and rabbits, although Rooney’s main interest is in becoming a partner with nature. We caught up with her to talk about critter-control strategies, “good bugs” and why clover is a gardener’s best friend:
Q: How would you describe your gardening philosophy?
A: Work with nature; she is the boss. I try to stay out of her way. I am a very lazy and frugal gardener and try to get away with as little work as possible in the garden, even though I love weeding!
Q: You note that even a bad pest problem usually isn’t a life-and-death issue. Many gardeners find that hard to live with.
A: I have always been inclined to live and let live. ... When I moved into a house, I ripped out all the sod and planted gardens from front to back. Then I lost the elm tree in the back and planted lots of fruit trees and bushes. I got upset when squirrels began to take all the fruit. In the meantime, I had gotten my yard certified as a Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Foundation.
Suddenly I realized I had created a wildlife habitat, and I was upset that I had wildlife! So I decided I had to figure out a way to live with the animals that are everywhere in our urban environment.
Q: Your story about letting the aphids get bad enough on a plant until they finally attracted “good bug” predators was fascinating. Do these issues usually balance themselves out in our gardens?
A: When I step out of the way, nature often does reach a balance. I think the hard part for most gardeners is that we want the balance right away. It may take a while, and we may lose plants, or deal with some not-so-pleasant events during the waiting time. Many times gardeners react too quickly because they want a perfect garden. Nature is perfect in her way, not ours.
We need to step back and try to see the beauty in the “problem.” ... If we can figure out what we are doing to cause or exacerbate the problem, we can be on our way to helping restore the balance.
Many “problems” are wonderful events in disguise. All those caterpillars on your veggies in the spring? They are baby bird food. Make sure you have invited the birds in to nest, and they will eat your problem away. Those weeds you haven’t pulled yet that are full of holes? Hooray! They are being eaten by insects that are then probably not attacking your flowers or veggies.
Q: Much of our issue with pests, you write, are with monocultures — landscapes made up of the same kind of plants.
A: Everything in moderation. If we have only one kind of plant in our yard, and a pest or disease strikes, we may lose everything. But if our yards are filled with diversity, balance is more easily attained. When we plant a variety of plants of different kinds and sizes, with different bloom times, we find that the number of ... insects and critters that inhabit a yard multiply. As this diversity increases, there is more of a chance that any problem insect will have a predator.
Q: You’re a big fan of clover in lawns. Why?
A: Before the 1950s, we wanted our lawns to include clover. It is a nitrogen fixer and has flowers for the bees. Clover is a short-lived perennial, and as it dies — it will reseed — the nodules on the roots release nitrogen and feed nearby plants like turf grass.
Another reason I like clover is because it is a favorite food of rabbits. Those bunnies would prefer to eat clover over most of the plants in your yard. So plant clover. And this is where it gets tricky. Clover is my secret bunny weapon because as they are in the middle of your yard eating clover in the moonlight, whoosh, an owl can take it. Or the neighborhood fox will grab a rabbit to feed her kits. Everyone has to eat.
Q: You mention that oaks are an amazing tree for a diverse yard.
A: Oaks can be the home or provide food for over 500 kinds of moths and butterflies, elms for over 200. Trees have lots of leaves. They are OK with losing some to the caterpillars because those will be food for birds that will also eat other not-so-good bugs in the trees. Nature is filled with give and take.
Q: What is your yard like?
A: I have experiments going on all the time. How much shade can this plant take? How will those azaleas do? What if I don’t ever water these plants, and try to create an ecosystem, will it be sustainable? Usually the answer is yes. I let things go to see what happens.
I rejoice when I see a new bug, hear a new bird or have to investigate a new weed. My yard is filled with dwarf and columnar fruit trees, fruit bushes, hazelnuts, herbs and flowers. I grow a few veggies in pots. It is an overgrown, lush, edible landscape, full of life and excitement. To me it is beautiful. To most people it might be overgrown or even messy.
Q: Do you ever use a pesticide on your garden?
A: Do I now? No. Have I ever? Yes. I used insecticidal soap in the past, but truly don’t use anything now.
I have been lucky not to see many Japanese beetles. My yard has lots of apples, Virginia creeper, grapevines and roses. But I think the birds eat many of the beetles before they cause a problem for me. I see very little damage. Or they just have not found my yard yet.
Mary Jane Smetanka is a Minneapolis freelance writer and a Hennepin County Master Gardener.