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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Everything is Connected

By Jim Bishop.

On October 17, 1983, after a long and exhausting day of lifting and unpacking, I finally went to bed. Near sunrise, I was awakened by what I thought were the upstairs condo neighbors. However, I soon realized that it was my first night in my new house in Encinitas and there was no upstairs. As I lay awake, listening to the scraping, scratching and sliding noises in the bedroom ceiling, I came to the realization that I was listening to roof rats. And so began my multi-year struggle with Southern California pests. The rats returned every fall until 1990 when I was adopted by a cat.

Phillip Marlowe (AKA Kitty), always in the garden, was an excellent mouser

Southern California seemed so dry, open, clean and neat that it was difficult to believe there was any wildlife at all. Over the next 15 years, in the middle of suburbia, I encountered: tree rats, roof rats, field mice, alligator lizards, swallows, a road runner, a large pack of coyotes, opossums, a tarantula, a gopher (luckily only one), a family of 7 raccoons, feral cats, domesticated cats, brown snails, Argentine ants, termites, and countless other garden insects and pests.

In the garden, some of the pest problems were of my making. Worst were the whiteflies. All of the yellow flowers and bright green foliage in the garden was a magnet for whiteflies. At first I started spraying weekly with Malathion. However, when I learned that the whitefly lifecycle had 4 main stages (egg, instar, pupa, adult) and that Malathion worked only on one of the stages, I increased the frequency of spraying and tried different pesticides. This had no impact on the growing clouds of whiteflies. After some research, I learned that the use of pesticides had likely killed the natural predators allowing the whitefly populations to increase exponentially with each new generation. I needed a new approach. Much to my surprise, I learned in one of the many garden catalogues I received that predators could be purchased via mail order. So I ordered lacewings, ladybugs, and Encarsia formosa (a small parasitic wasp). The Escarsia, came on small cardboard tags with a dark circle of parasitized whitefly pupa on one side. All I had to do was hang the tags throughout the garden. It took a few orders to fully control the whiteflies, but nothing could be easier and in no time, I had gone organic! In our current garden, last year a large, old Melianthus major had a serious case of whitefly and I've recently released Escarsia formosa to try and control it.

My battle with snails didn't go as well. The iceplant on the slopes was home to an infinite population of brown garden snails, Helix aspersa. It was introduced to California as a food animal (escargot) in the 1850s and had quickly naturalized throughout most of the state. The only snail predators were possums and rats and in spite of large populations of both, there were still plenty of snails. As the garden matured, the increasing population of snails had affected what I grew and how I planted. I had to give up on starting plants from directly sowing seed in the garden or even as small transplants. Snail baits, copper strips, diatomaceous earth, coarse sand, coffee grounds and even a pet turtle did nothing to reduce their numbers. So during damp

Jim and Kitty in the Garden

One night as I was getting ready for bed, the roof started creaking, followed by lots of banging on the bathroom skylight. I assumed someone had climbed on the roof and was playing a joke. I went out the front door and saw 7 raccoons slowly climb off the roof. Not wanting them in the house, and forgetting I was in my underwear and the front door locks behind you, I closed the front door behind me. Luckily I was much thinner in those days and was able to squeeze in through the small unlocked atrium window over the kitchen sink. After that, when I planted a new bed with compost, the raccoons would dig everything up looking for grubs and earthworms. One evening, I was startled while sitting at the kitchen bar when a large raccoon head popped through the kitchen cat door. They had figured out the garage cat door and the second one from the garage into the kitchen. In a matter of minutes they were able to pull everything off the garage shelves. I opened the large garage door and picked up a piece of firewood for protection as I tried to herd them out of the garage. It was then I found out they can hiss and spit green stuff at you when threatened.

Such was the fun in the wild kingdom of Encinitas.

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