I happen to be one of those Buddhists who believes in rebirth. I might be the only Buddhist, however, who believes that mean girls are reborn as aphids and continue to prey on the young, the beautiful, and the innocent. In my case this means that aphids almost destroyed my kale.
I should have known, since I also trust the truth of impermanence, that getting rid of the slugs in the yard did not mean that the kale was safe. Instead I chose to believe that they were safe from harm, which they were until last Wednesday when they were suddenly covered in mean girls. Covered.
Taken alone, aphids are adorable little pear-shaped blobs of many-toned-gold with teeny exhaust pipes coming out of their bellies. When they meet up with their cliques, however, this changes immediately. They aren't cute any more. They are mean. Their plant lice behavior raises its powerful head. A sisterhood of aphids can cover your favorite kale plant overnight and eat it to the ground the next day. That it is an heirloom kale whose seeds were special-ordered from Iowa? They don't care.
What to do? I tried spraying garlic juice on the plants. The result? The aphids disappeared for awhile but my yard smelled like the land of garlic bread for days. So did I. The neighborhood cats stopped using the garden as their own private outhouse though, so I guess the garlic juice was worth something. When the aphids reappeared, bullies all, I didn't have it in me to spend another morning concocting juice. I read somewhere that rhubarb juice also works, but rhubarb is expensive if you don't grow your own, and I couldn't remember where I found the information in the first place.
That left ladybugs. These little beauties feed on aphids and other soft-bodied insect pests. In my experience they don't eat kale or any other plants. You can buy them in any self-respecting nursery or garden store. They'll be in the refrigerator resting up until it is time to go to work. The trick is to get some and then keep them in your own refrigerator, or in a cooled ice chest, until the evening. Then, as the sun sets over the bay, water your plants and let the little angels go. This sounds romantic, but what will probably happen is that you'll scissors open the mesh bag they are in and have to just dump them on the ground. Don't worry. They'll wake up unless they've frozen to death. (Karmic penalty for that: Prepare to join the mean girls.) The next day the aphids will be eaten up, ready to be reborn as ... slugs.
I always put a couple of shallow bowls of water around the plants, knowing that ladybugs like moisture. I also hold back half of the bugs for a week or so. The garden store mavens told me that they would last three weeks in the refrigerator. Next year I'll introduce fennel and cosmos into the garden, both Monaco Hotels of the ladybug world, to induce them to stick around for a while.
If ladybugs aren't your pleasure, green lacewings also work. In addition to aphids, their larvae love mealybugs and scale, other garden scourges. I often spot lacewings on my coreopsis. House finches eat aphids. So do hummingbirds, giving all of us a perfect excuse to plant hummingbird loving plants like agastache, coral bells, and bee balm.
For me, ladybugs work best. In the last two weeks I've let 1,200 loose to work their magic. Even though I only spotted two this morning, the aphids are still gone. And I only needed to spot one for a good luck day. As for the other 1,198, I have this to say to all of my city of Eugene neighbors: You are welcome.