Pests and Diseases: A Quick Look at Beneficial Insects

They’re the reason that I don’t spray pesticides at my house and strongly encourage others to do the same. The beneficial insects. There are so many of them that we need to preserve so that THEY can do the hard work for us. There will always be more bad bugs than good bugs. If we go in and remove the good bugs from the equation, the bad bug population can explode and then you end up on a never ending roller coaster of insecticides. Instead, we should accept that it’s OK to have some bad bugs and let Ma Nature do her thing. If she needs some help, we can step in and use mechanical means (hand picking), cultural controls (planting the right plant in the right place to begin with) and/or organic insecticides (like horticultural oil or horticultural soap). If all else fails, add another dose of compost!

Now that we’ve skimmed the surface as to why we should encourage beneficial insects, let’s look at a mile high view of them.

beneficial insects
Green Lacewing. They grow to about 1″ long but it’s not the adults that are the real predators. It’s their larvae that are known as aphid lions. Photo courtesy of


beneficial insects
Aphid lion. Look at the mandibles on the far right hand side of the picture. I’m glad that I’m not an aphid! Photo courtesy of


beneficial insects
Do you know that this is a ladybug larva? Many people don’t as they don’t resemble their grown up counterparts at all. Photo courtesy of


beneficial insects
Braconid wasp. Not the “normal” wasp that you think of, there are many parasitic wasps that lay their eggs in the bad bugs and result in killing the pest. Photo courtesy of



beneficial insects
Braconid wasp pupae that have taken over a tomato hornworm. Nature can be gruesome! Photo courtesy of


beneficial insects
Praying Mantis. When I was younger, these would really freak me out…I’m not sure why. But now I see them as insect harvesting machines. Be on the lookout for their cocoons in the late summer and early fall. Photo courtesy of


beneficial insects
Praying Mantis cocoons. If you see them in the garden, leave them intact so that you’ll have lots of babies next year. Photo courtesy of 


We’ve just scratched the surface on all of the beneficial insects that we should strive to protect. Which ones are regular visitors to your garden? Leave me a comment below or e-mail me. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me on Twitter. Happy gardening!



Plant Profile: Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

I love Agastache. Plain and simple, I love them. What’s not to love? They attract bees and butterflies, are extremely drought tolerant, and bloom all season. That’s about all that you can ask for in a perennial.

Agastache foeniculum, in particular, is a knockout perennial. It has lavender-purple blooms that start in May and continue all season. The blooms are held on upright spikes above the 3′ tall fragrant foliage. The fragrant foliage is a deterrent to deer. That’s another tick mark on the plus side of the equation for growing Agastache. Bees and butterflies are drawn to Agastache like a moth to a flame. It is truly a magnet for all types of our six-legged friends including beneficial insects that take care of the nasties that want to decimate our gardens.



Look at that little guy…so happy to be in the vegetable garden eating and pollinating all at the same time. These are plants that I grew from seed last year and they are ginormous this year. They’ve already been blooming for weeks and will continue for months more. Have I mentioned that I love Agastache?

There are a few cultural conditions to keep in mind when growing Agastache. The first is the soil. Agastache are native to dry areas with poor soil. Don’t plant them where the soil is too rich or they’ll end up all floppy. They won’t die but they won’t be impressive either. Also, don’t plant them in wet soil. They must have well-drained soil and they actually prefer droughty conditions once they are established. You can water them but you may force too much top growth and then you end up with the floppiness issue again. Their last cultural requirement is sun. They can tolerate a tiny bit of shade but they prefer the fullest of sun. You almost can’t give them too much sun. Agastache is hardy to Zone 4.

One other thing to keep in mind when planting Agastache foeniculum is that they reseed readily. You can expect to have many more baby Agastache next year surrounding your original plants. They are easy enough to remove if you don’t need anymore but why not give them to your gardening friends or transplant them around the garden. If your garden beds are filling up and you have a veggie garden, move a few out there. Your cucumbers and tomatoes will thank you!

Have you grown Agastache in your garden? What are your opinions? Leave me a comment below or e-mail me. I’d love to share your experiences with other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!





Friday Free For All: Where Are All of the Bees?

Today’s topic is one that has me concerned…where are all of the bees? Seriously, I haven’t seen nearly the volume that I normally would for this time of year. In early spring, I noticed the honeybees devouring a corkscrew willow at a customer’s home. I didn’t know that honeybees were so attracted to willow blooms. The blooms are very unimpressive…here’s a picture:

where are all of the bees


I know of a gentleman who had a swarm try to take up residency in a nearby crape myrtle. But that’s it. The Salvia ‘May Night’ are in full bloom and have been so for several weeks. Salvia is one of those plants that usually trembles from all of the bees feasting on them. This spring? Nothing. The clover is in full bloom now and I’ve noticed a couple of honeybees but it’s only been a couple.

I’ve asked other horticulturists and people who observe the outside world around them and they haven’t seen the bees either. Is something going on that I’m not aware of? I am hopeful that there is a beekeeper in the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community that can shed some light on the missing bees. I plan on calling my local Extension agent tomorrow to see if he’s been hearing the same story from other gardeners.

Please chime in by leaving me a comment as to whether you have seen the bees this spring…it would be helpful if you give your geographic location so that we can see if it’s just a local phenomenom. Perhaps the bees are just hiding from me! If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

Pests and Diseases: Carpenter Bees

In today’s post, I thought we would look at carpenter bees. While they resemble bumble bees, they are definitely different. If you’re into getting up close and personal, you’ll notice that the abdomen of carpenter bees is black and shiny whereas the abdomen of bumble bees is hairy and has yellow stripes. If you don’t want to get too close, just notice their habits. Carpenter bees are most often spotted hanging around eaves and other wooden surfaces in the spring or early summer. This year, the carpenter bees have been quite active already.

This time of year is when you will see the bees flying in great numbers and hovering around wooden structures…what you are witnessing is actually the courting ritual. The males are trying to impress the females, and while the males will often hover at the tip of your nose, there’s no reason to be frightened; the males don’t even have a stinger.

carpenter bees

Photo courtesy of

The female will excavate holes that are about the diameter of your finger into the wood so that she can lay her eggs. Her eggs will develop in the nesting holes and will emerge in late summer as adults. When it’s time for winter to roll around, the adults will go back to the nesting holes to overwinter. The damage that carpenter bees can inflict on a wooden structure can be quite impressive. There are several theories on the best method for controlling them…here are a few:

  1. Paint or stain the wood. Carpenter bees prefer wood that is untreated for their nesting holes. It is generally believed that painted wood seems to deter them more than staining does.
  2. Fill the holes. To me, this is like playing the whack-a-mole game at Chuck E. Cheese. You fill in one hole so the bee just moves over a bit and lays more eggs in a different location.
  3. Use insecticide. I am totally against this. Period.
  4. Alternative nesting areas. If carpenter bees are particularly worrisome around your home, consider providing wood that they can use as nesting areas. Sure, you can’t put up a vacancy sign at the desired location but you can provide them shelter. After all, they pollinate fruits and veggies too, ya know.


I should also note that while carpenter bees lay their eggs in wood, bumble bees form nests in the ground. That should help you ID them better as well. If you have experience with carpenter bees and would like to recommend any other treatments, please leave a comment below or e-mail me. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list (upper right hand corner of this page), become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!

Reader Question: Attracting Bees to Your Garden


Today’s Reader Question comes from Jack in Warsaw, VA:

I enjoyed reading your post about dandelions and their role in providing nectar sources for bees. I would like to encourage bees in my garden; can you provide a list of plants that I can use to entice them? I prefer plants that come back year after year.

attracting bees to your gardenJack, I’m glad that you see the benefit of attracting bees to your garden. Without them, our plates would be pretty empty and the garden would be depressing. But with them, we are able to enjoy delicious tomatoes, savory peppers and crispy cucumbers. Let’s dig right into plants that can be used for attracting bees to your garden.

  • Hollies like Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’
  • Butterfly Bushes (Buddleia davidii)
  • Salvia of all sorts (Salvia greggii, Salvia nemerosa)
  • Catmint (Nepeta cultivars like ‘Dropmore’, ‘Six Hills Giant’)
  • Mints – do NOT plants these in the ground or they will take over your garden
  • Sedum – especially the fall blooming types like ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Matrona’
  • Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum)
  • Veronica – they seem to like the incana cultivars like ‘Sunny Border Blue’
  • Boltonia asteroides
  • Asters
  • Beebalm (Monarda didyma and its cultivars)
  • Anise Hyssop (Agastache spp.) – any Agastache species will be covered in bees
  • Sunflower – Helianthus annuus is the tall annual type but there are lots of perennial sunflowers
  • Lavender
  • Goldenrod (Solidago spp.)


Sorry that these are out of order alphabetically…I was just typing them as they came to me. Also, don’t forget that bees love clover. If you have clover in your lawn, allow it to flower before mowing. Consider too that clover is a plant that takes nitrogen from the air and fixes it in the roots…that’s a sustainable plant! Jack, I hope that this offers you some insight into plants that bees love. Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers, feel free to chime in with your favorite plants for attracting bees to your garden. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!

March 15, 2012Permalink 2 Comments

Friday Free For All: The Much Maligned Dandelion


In today’s Friday Free For All post, I thought we would take a look at the much maligned dandelion. I hope that I can put a different spin on what most gardeners consider a weed. Dandelions are probably one of the most targeted weeds in the lawn and garden…it’s a close tie with crabgrass if I were guessing. I wrote a post about weeds but just touched on the dandelion. Let’s take a closer look.

Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are native to Eurasia but they have made themselves quite at home in the Mid-Atlantic gardening region. They are a perennial weed which means that they come back from the roots each year. You can pull the tops off all you’d like but all you’re effectively doing is pruning it. Unless every piece of the root is removed, you’ll have dandelions for years to come. Now let’s step back from the conventional way of viewing a lawn and decide if that is necessarily a bad thing.

dandelionWhat do dandelions have going for them? First and foremost in my mind is that they bloom at a time of the year when few other things are blooming. This timing coincides with the first flights of bees for the season. Bees adore dandelion blossoms and the flowers offer them an early drink of nectar. As bees are needed for virtually all of the pollination that occurs to bring you fruits and veggies, this early source of nourishment helps to get the hive going in the spring. That reason alone is enough for me to allow dandelions a place in my lawn. (that and I’m a lazy gardener)

Another reason to allow dandelions to grow where they may is that they make delicious salad greens. If your salads consist primarily of iceberg lettuce, you may not welcome these greens at first. If you pick the youngest leaves and offer your palate a chance to warm up to them, you may be surprised how tasty they can be. You can also add them to stir fries or steam them like you would kale; in my opinion, vinegar makes everything green more tasty.

How about wine? If you like to consume a little vino from time to time, you can take that weed in your garden and turn it into wine. Check out this recipe for a quick and easy homemade wine. Who knew that those pretty little flowers could do so much?

What about tea? The leaves can be dried and then steeped in water for a refreshing, albeit bitter, tea. The roots can also be used for tea; Jillian Michaels of Biggest Loser fame even recommends it as a way to lose extra water weight.

I hope that I’ve given you some alternative ways of thinking about dandelions. I certainly don’t want a lawn full of them but they also aren’t the bane of my existence. Let a few hang around in the lawn to attract bees to your garden in the early spring. And let a few survive for the pleasure of making wishes on the seedheads. Enjoy being in your garden and observing nature in her true form…don’t let a little plant take the joy out of gardening. Let me know what you think by leaving me a comment below or e-mailing me at Happy gardening!

Friday Free For All: Spring Peepers


Last night the Spring Peepers woke up. At least that was the first night I noticed them. Their song is almost deafening here and you can hear them loud and clear from inside the house. But it also means that spring is right around the corner.

Spring PeeperIf you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, Spring Peepers are little frogs. Tiny little frogs that serenade their lady friends from dusk til dawn. They come out of their winter slumber when the temperatures start to climb and they are generally regarded as the first hints of spring. Many old timers use the spring peepers as their clue to plant sweet peas and other cool season veggies.

Technically speaking, there are two types of Spring Peepers: the northern and the southern types. The southern cousins only live in Georgia and Florida so Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers only need to concern themselves with the Northern Spring Peepers. They only grow to be an 1″ or so long and love wet areas like the swampy area behind my house. The beavers have been busy in the creek that runs through the woods back there and the creek has turned into more of a lake, with ducks and geese that visit on a regular basis. And plenty of Spring Peepers.

Spring Peepers eat all kinds of forest critters like spiders, ants and beetles. They lay their eggs under brush near the edge of water so that the tadpoles can take a dip when they emerge. And then the cycle continues for the next generation. Spring Peepers can lay as many as 900 eggs at a time so they make up in numbers what they lack in size. It’s always enjoyable to see them on the sliding glass doors or windows in the summer with their little suction cup like feet. The kids are amazed but quite honestly I am too…suction cups for feet; imagine having those for a day!

The veggie garden is calling me now. The Spring Peepers have reminded me that spring is only a few weeks away and there is so much to do. While I probably won’t be planting peas this year, I am behind on getting my seeds started and that has me stressed out. The continuous song of the Spring Peepers is a constant reminder that I need to get moving before it’s too late. What have you done to prepare for spring? Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!

February 24, 2012Permalink Leave a comment

Reader Question: Butterfly Garden


Today’s Reader Question is from Sheryl in Rockville, Maryland:

I’d like some advice on planting a butterfly garden. I have a butterfly bush and its covered with butterflies in the summer. I’d like to expand the border to include other plants that they would like. Thanks for your help in advance.

Great question Sheryl! Butterflies are such fun to watch in the garden as they flit from flower to flower engorging themselves on nectar. Let’s take a look at some of the plants that they particularly enjoy and then we’ll look at some other items that you can add to entice them.

  • Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii) – you already have the grandaddy of them all to attract butterflies. They come in many different colors including white, pink, yellow and purple. There are dwarf varieties that are as short as 3′ and taller varieties that can reach to 8′ tall.
  • butterfly garden

    Butterfly Weed

    Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) – this plant often grows on the edges of ditches and needs dry soil. If you enjoy bright orange flowers, this is the plant for you. Just be aware that they are very late to emerge in the spring…it’s often May before they fully emerge from their winter dormancy.

  • Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) – while it may be in the same genus as Butterfly Weed, its cultural requirements are completely different. While Swamp Milkweed will perform well in average soil, it is at home in wet conditions. Its blooms can be pink or white. Monarch butterfly larvae will completely strip the leaves from the plants but the reward of adult butterflies make it completely worthwhile.
  • Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium dubium, E. maculatum, E. rugosum) – there are many different species of Eupatorium that butterflies adore. There blooms can be mauve pink, rose or white. Joe Pye Weed’s cultural needs are similar to Swamp Milkweed…they can tolerate average soils but thrive in wet conditions.
  • Hardy Ageratum (Eupatorium coelestinum) – the same conditions as Joe Pye and Swamp Milkweed prevail with Hardy Ageratum. If you’re a fan of the little annual ageratum, you’ll love the tall blooms of this plant. They come in blue and white but they self seed like crazy so be sure that you want lots of them before you plant the first one.
  • Catmint (Nepeta spp.) – butterflies adore catmint’s purple flowers. Catmint can range in size from 12″ to 36″ depending on the cultivar you select. Catmint is very long blooming.
  • Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) – so much breeding has taken place with coneflowers that its mindblowing. It used to be that coneflowers were either white or pink…now they can be white, pink, orange, red, yellow or green. Regardless of the color, butterflies love them.
  • Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) – parsley is an important larval food for butterflies so make sure you plant some clumps just for them. See my link for more information on parsley in general.


This is by no means an exhaustive list of perennials that attract butterflies but it is guaranteed to bring them in by the droves. Here are a few other ideas to keep them coming back for more.

  • Plant a pot of mint and sit in the garden. Never, ever, never plant mint directly in your garden unless you want a garden of mint and mint only. The flowers are adored by our winged friends.
  • Take a terra cotta saucer and fill it with sand. If you keep the sand moist, the butterflies will use it as a watering hole. If you’ve ever witnessed butterflies drinking from the sand along a lake or river, you can appreciate how much they enjoy these sips of salty water.
  • Place a few large stones or concrete statuary in the garden so that the butterflies have a place to warm their wings in the early morning.

butterfly garden

Sheryl, I hope that you can take these ideas and use them to enhance your butterfly garden. An added bonus of creating a butterfly garden is that bees and beneficials will find comfort in your landscape and help you keep your pest population in check. I’d love to hear from other Mid-Atlantic Gardening readers regarding plants that attract butterflies. Leave me a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!

February 16, 2012Permalink 4 Comments

Pests and Diseases: Aphids


Happy Tuesday to everyone! I received a note from a reader that is just beginning her gardening journey and she wanted to know more about aphids. She was wondering if I could go over what exactly they were and why she needs to be concerned about them. That made me realize that sometimes I talk about things that beginning gardeners may not be familiar with. I need your help with recognizing when that happens! Send me an e-mail or comment below if you’re unsure about something I’ve mentioned. I’d be happy to re-visit the items that I may have unknowingly just skimmed over. With all of that out of the way, here we go!

AphidsAphids are insects which means they have six legs. That may seem elementary but lots of people think spider mites are insects too…they aren’t and that totally changes the way you control them chemically. Anyway, aphids are ravenous little suckers, literally. They suck the plant’s juices, primarily the phloem, and weaken the plant. The phloem is responsible for transporting the food that is made through photosynthesis by the leaves down to the rest of the plant. (As a side note, if you have trouble remembering which is which, remember that the xylem transports up [x and u are close together in the alphabet] and phloem transports down). OK, back on topic. So the aphids remove valuable resources from the plants by sucking on plant juices and thereby weakening the plant. It’s as if someone allowed you all the water you wanted (provided by the xylem) but never let you have any food (provided by the phloem). At some point, you would kick off too.

The main problem with aphids is that they pro-create so darn rapidly. Eggs that survive the winter generally produce females and these females in turn produce more and more offspring. Even though a typical adult will only live for around 30 days, she can pump out lots o’ live babies which in turn produce more live babies and so on. I’m sure you’ve seen the cat statistics in the vet’s office about how many cats can be produced by a pair of unspayed and un-neutered cats…it’s kind of like that but multiplied by a higher number as the mama aphid can produce hundreds of live babies at a time.

Aphids come in all kinds of colors, ranging from green to black to white to peach. There are over Aphid4000 species of aphids so you can imagine that they have adapted to fit in with their local surroundings. Once you learn what an aphid looks like, you’re unlikely to ever forget. One very distinguishing characteristic of aphids are the cornicles…these are two little projections that protrude from their lower back. If you see these, rest assured that you have aphids.


It really depends on how bad the infestation is. If you only have a few here and there, just squish them between your fingers…they are only 1/10 of an inch long. More than likely, by the time you see them though, you’ll have quite the infestation on your hands. Here are some ways to control them:

  1. Give them a harsh spray with your garden hose. Sure you won’t kill them all but if you can knock out some of the females, you’ll be cutting your future population down.
  2. Avoid spraying pesticides. I know that sounds counterintuitive but nature has a predator
    Aphid controller - ladybug larvae

    Ladybug larvae - aren't they beautiful?

    for every pest and there are many that enjoy aphids. Lady bugs, lacewings and parasitic wasps will all work diligently to curb the population. Of course they can’t kill all the aphids because then they wouldn’t have anything to eat. Keep that in mind when you feel like the predators aren’t doing their jobs swiftly enough. To the right is a picture of an immature ladybug…I’m surprised by how many people don’t know what they look like. If you see these little guys crawling around, leave them be so that they can grow up and do your work for you.

  3. Cut back on your fertilizer. Aphids love, love, love fresh new succulent plant growth and will flock to your overfertilized plants like moths to a flame. Again, nature knows how fast a plant is supposed to grow and when we go and pour on the nitrogen to get them to grow at a quicker pace, we have upset a natural balance.
  4. If you have tried all of the above methods, you can spray a tomato leaf spray. That may sound peculiar but it has worked for many generations of folks and it doesn’t kill the predators. You can find the recipe here.


I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on aphids and the problems they pose for plants and gardeners alike. I know that I rambled a bit today and I apologize for that even though it is my nature. Many of you have commented that you don’t mind my rambles so I won’t refrain from them quite yet. If you have any experience with controlling aphids in your garden, please leave a comment below or e-mail me at Happy gardening!

January 17, 2012Permalink 3 Comments

Plant Profile: Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)


In keeping with the vegetable theme, I thought that we would look at an herb today. Today’s Plant Profile is about parsley. While you may think of parsley as that little green garnish that arrives on the plate with your seafood, parsley offers so much more. It is a biennial herb, which means that it flowers its second year and sets seed. To me, this is essentially like getting a buy-one-get-one free at the grocery store; you plant it once and you get two years of use out of it. I like BOGOs at the grocery store and I like them even more in the garden.

Let’s first look at starting the plants from seed. Parsley is notoriously slow to germinate and if I were you, I would go ahead and start some seeds now instead of waiting closer to the last frost date. I would also either sow them twice as thick (at least 4 seeds per plug) or sow twice as many plugs as you need…I have never attained anymore than 60-70% germination with parsley. It doesn’t mean that I don’t still grow it; it just means that I compensate accordingly. Parsley is also one of the plants that must have darkness to germinate so make sure you cover it when sowing the seeds. Once it has germinated, it will look more like grass than parsley but give it time…it will develop into a miniature version of the full grown plant in a couple of weeks.

In the garden, parsley should be planted in full sun but it will take a little more shade than other herbs. You may sacrifice some foliage production but chances are that if you are planting it in shade, you don’t have very much sun to begin with. Once it is established, it can tolerate drought and makes an easy plant to grow. Parsley is similar to cut and come again greens in that if you cut it back, it will resprout more leaves for you to harvest later. Another beautiful part of growing parsley is that it will remain perfectly green through all but the hardest frosts which means that you can have vitamin rich leaves to add to most dishes.

Parsley is rich in Vitamins A and C. Even if the flavor of parsley isn’t desired, it’s a great idea to tie a bunch together and allow it to simmer in soups for 10 minutes or so at the end. Sally Fallon, of Nourishing Traditions fame, recommends adding it in this manner when making highly nutritious and delicious chicken stock. For those of you that are seeking a truly heart healthy diet, be sure to obtain a copy of Nourishing Traditions and check out the Weston A. Price Foundation. See, there’s one of those tangents again.

If you have more parsley than you can eat, consider dehydrating it (I use an Excalibur dehydrator) and saving it for later. Instead of buying the little jars of parsley for $3 in the grocery store, dehydrate your own and throw an oxygen absorber into a mason jar. If the jars are kept at room temperature and out of direct light, you’ll have parsley that will last you for years.

There are two main types of parsley and they are Italian parsley and Triple Curly. Italian parsley is a flat leaved variety that produces the best flavor whereas Triple Curly has a fancy, crinkly leaf that makes a beautiful garnish. Both of them are a larval food for Black Swallowtails which comes as an added bonus. Parsley is such a versatile plant that belongs in everyone’s garden or perennial border. Let me know your experiences by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me at Don’t forget to Like my Facebook page…you can use the link above to get you there quickly. Happy gardening!

January 11, 2012Permalink 2 Comments