Scale and aphids and thrips, oh my! 😱

Ladybugs are voracious predators. Here's everything you need to know.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there! Wishing you all a relaxing and joyful day — you deserve it! And if you’re not a dad but HAVE a dad, why not mow the lawn for him while he watches a ballgame, reads a book or kicks back with his beverage of choice?

Hello, friends!

A couple of weeks ago, while assessing my plants, I cringed when I spotted scale insects under the leaves of my mature rhododendron. Further inspection revealed the little bastards had also made themselves at home on the hydrangea and all three cherry laurels that share the bed.

Aside from Neem oil, horticultural soap and bT, I don’t apply insecticides to my garden. I suppose I would if hit with a full-scale invasion that threatened to kill, say, a large tree or something, but otherwise, I play the cards nature deals me and tend to avoid chemicals, even when I know this will result in a lost tomato harvest. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen often.

So what to do? Hitting each with an alcohol-dipped cotton swab or removing affected leaves weren’t options because there simply were too many, and plants can’t survive without most of their leaves. So I decided to bring in some natural predators.

Native ladybird beetles, also known as ladybugs (Hippodamia convergens), can each consume upwards of 40 aphids a day. The numbers are equally impressive for scale, mealy bugs, thrips, mites, whiteflies, larvae and other soft-bodied insects. Multiply that by the 3,000 I purchased, and I figure my problem will be a distant memory in a matter of weeks. 🤞

File:Hippodamia convergens 08085.JPG - Wikimedia Commons
THE GOOD GUYS: Hippodamia convergens, the native lady bug. Note its white, slanted, dash-type makings and two white lines that converge, or meet, behind its head. (Wikipedia Commons)

If you’d like to employ this natural pest-control solution, there are a few important things you should know:

The species matters. Asian ladybugs (Harmonia axyridis), which are becoming more prevalent, are invasive pests, not problem solvers. While they do eat aphids, they also eat our native ladybugs, and they can ravage your apple, grape or berry harvests. They swarm inside homes when the weather gets cool. They “bite,” by scaping your skin when they land on you. They release a staining yellow liquid when they feel threatened. And they are overtaking our beneficial native ladybug population. You’ll recognize them by the M-shaped marking under their heads and larger white markings on their “cheeks.”

Our native ladybugs are harmless to humans but catastrophically fatal to pests that threaten our plants. They don’t bite (or “bite) and they won’t seek shelter inside your home. Instead of an M-shaped marking, native ladybugs have two white lines that converge — or meet — behind their heads.

Buy from a trusted source. I was impressed both of my 1,500-packs arrived full of living, very active ladybugs; this isn’t always the case. Look for pre-fed beetles, which tend to survive better.

Store properly. Keep them in the refrigerator until you’re ready to release them.

Water. Hose down the garden just before introducing ladybugs so they don’t take off in search of water (you don’t need to do this, obviously, if it has just rained.)

Minimize flight risk. There’s always the chance your ladybugs might fly off, so it’s best to release them gradually, every three days or so. A tablespoon at a time around each plant seems about right. Put the rest back in the fridge (be sure to seal the package!)

Release them when it’s cool. Late in the afternoon or evening is best. If you set them loose during the day, or when it’s hot out, they’ll likely fly away.

You’ll find them on my list of tried-and-true garden products.

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💡 If you do one thing this week…

Deadhead annuals as their flowers fade to encourage more blooms.

📬 Ask Jessica

DEAR JESSICA: Can you tell me if this is a weed or planting? — Al Quackenbush

DEAR AL: Well, technically, a “weed” is defined as an undesired plant, so if you don’t want it, then I suppose it’s a weed. But what you have there is a catmint of the genus Nepeta, which, yes, is a garden plant widely sold and desired.

Catmint is a perennial herb believed to have been used as an insect repellent and herbal tea in ancient Rome. I've edged my front perennial border with the 'Walker's Low" variety, and have several other types growing elsewhere in the garden. The plants require well-draining soil and do best in full sun but can handle part shade. Once established, they are heat and drought tolerant.

It seems the plant’s scent is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition: Some folks detest it, and others love it. I can’t get enough of it — you might catch me rubbing its leaves on my pulse and behind my ears. Deer belong to the first camp, however; they tend to leave it alone unless they’re absolutely famished, which is good news for those gardening in their territory.

You don’t say whether the plant is growing in your own garden or elsewhere. If it’s on your property but you didn’t plant it, you probably can thank a bird or the wind (or your landscaper’s mower, if you use one); catmint self-sows if not deadheaded.

👏 Sunday shoutout

Reader Tom McCarthy planted this cheery spring garden at his Levittown, NY home. He has also planted window boxes and is growing a “blend” of vegetables.

Send in your photos and you might be featured next! Be sure to include your full name, hometown, name of the person who shot your photo and details about your garden or gardening method.

📧 Send me your feedback!

I welcome your comments and suggestions, so please send them along — as well as any topics you’d like to see covered and questions you’d like answered in the Ask Jessica section.

Until next week, stay safe. Be well. And always keep your mind in the dirt. —Jessica

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