I don’t believe in lawns. I don’t like wasting water. I certainly don’t like mowing a swath of grass that has no purpose except to use water to stay green. I do appreciate a plant that resembles a lawn in the springtime: three-cornered leeks (Allium triquetrum), commonly known as Snowbells.
They are not natives to California. Settlers brought these Mediterranean beauties with them when they settled here during the Gold Rush. Considered an invasive plant, and by some folks, noxious weeds, I love them. As a reluctant gardener, I am always happy when plants, especially edible plants, invite themselves into my yard. I especially love the plants that grow prolifically because they crowd out any Bermuda Grass, which I consider a noxious weed. My entire yard supports them.
I use them in place of onions and garlic. The entire plant is edible with a very mild taste. They grow in the spring and die in the summer. When they die off in the summer, they form mats on the ground, which rake up easily, but also provide a perfect mulch for holding moisture in the soil. I’ve always been impressed by how the stems and leaves line up directionally, like hair that has been combed down the sides of my yard spaces. I never questioned why.
This is my year for noticing things. It’s the first year since retirement that I have spent anytime practicing the art of Being instead constantly staying busy. There is good reason to be a reluctant gardener, to sit, observe, and learn how the environment is adapting to the changing global climate patterns. It became really clear during the quarantine that Earth recovers quickly when mankind is not out and about. It also has become clear that to continue growing as we have is not sustainable.
In my mind, I think we need to work with the change and with Earth if we want to continue to feed ourselves in agrarian societies. So, I sit and watch. My yard is not the same yard it was when I first acquired this property. The angle of the sun is different, tree cover is different, temperatures are different. Plants do not respond the way they used to. So how does it work? That’s what I hope to find out.
Along with reassurance that I still had massive amounts of three-cornered leeks, I also discovered another form of life that I had not observed before retirement. The first time I noticed it, I thought my plants were growing moldy. I wondered how to treat them for mold. Then I noticed the mold writhe across the blades and stems. OMG! I looked more closely. Black aphids. I had never heard of black aphids. (Hey! The juice from these plants is supposed to be a fabulous insecticide. Pssht. Not for these tiny creepers!)
280 million years ago aphids sucked plants dry. Since then, over 5,000 variations of this amazing insect have developed special appetites for the plants of the world, especially in temperate zones. The trouble with this appetite is that they are sipping sucrose, which they cannot digest. Why do they do it? It seems that sap is the ultimate addiction.
Their inability to process this food source makes them tasty for predators such as ladybugs, hover fly larvae, sparrows and the American goldfinch. Crab spiders are quite fond of them. Ants, acting very co-dependent to this addiction, go to great lengths to herd, protect, and propagate the little beasties because they cannot get enough of the sucrose secreted from their bodies in the form of droplets of waste, called honeydew. Ants eagerly milk this nectar from the aphids’ miniscule bodies. Even bees claim herds of aphids as their own to delight in this particular habit.
To get around this inability to digest their main food source they have developed interesting tricks and relationships. Aphids harbor bacterial endosymbionts who recycle glutamate, the metabolic waste produced while aphids try to digest plant sap. The bacterial endosymbionts turn the waste into essential amino acids. Some aphids synthesize red carotenoids using horizontal gene transfers. The way I understand this is they use the genetic material from plants, add the coding to their own, which then enables them to absorb sunlight as a food source. I guess if you have been around since the Early Permian Period, you acquire these talents.
Aphids are bad boys. Or are they?
My yard is a refuge of divine feminine it seems, for the aphid army you see on your plants is entirely female. (see: Reluctant Gardener post 2 for more information about female armies: https://avsingerauthor.com/2022/01/19/post-2-reluctant-gardener/ ) As the weather cools in autumn, males with wings and winged females mate. The males die off, their job done. Winged females lay the eggs. The eggs overwinter and hatch the first generation of a parthenogenetic army. The babies are born pregnant, and soon birth live and pregnant female offspring, who in turn birth live, pregnant offspring and so it goes. There can be as many as forty-one generations a season for each female who births another clutch of live, pregnant females every few days. These females are of course voracious in an attempt to create this army. My three-cornered leeks didn’t have a chance.
If you rid your garden of their food sources, some females grow wings and produce a generation of males in preparation to migrate. They fly as high as 600 meters to catch winds that can carry them where they need to go.
So for you, my dear friends, I have left swatches of aphids to their task. I’m not worried. My leeks appear to go through this process every year. I just haven’t been quiet or observant enough to see this before. They will be back next year for me to happily eat and share them with anyone who asks for them.
And so will the bad girls of this neighborhood.