Can someone please tell me what’s eating my newly planted cabbage and kale? I can probably figure out what to do, if only I knew what I’m up against.
It’s not that I haven’t been doing garden diagnostic professionally for more than 40 years. Seems like I’ve seen it all. And usually, sometimes with help from others, I’ve been able to cobble together workable approaches toward solving nearly any garden challenge.
Of course, there isn’t always a satisfactory solution. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve given the best advice available, that which I take myself in my own garden, only to have “Well, you’re not much help” thrown in my face. But truth is, with some pretty common situations, in spite of all our research and experience, sometimes there simply is nothing practical that can be done.
To help me cope psychologically, decades ago I adopted a philosophy of, in order of importance, “If you can’t fix it, flee it, or fight it, flow with it.”
Fixing garden problems isn’t always easy, of course. In many garden situations, it’s a matter of replacing an ailing plant with something better adapted or more pest resistant. Though frustrating and costly, this almost always solves the problem for good.
Grass dying in the shade? Plant groundcovers. Roses diseased? Plant disease-resistant varieties, or some other flowering shrub. Hate replacing annuals every season? Plant perennials. Don’t like to water? Choose drought-tolerant species. Hate pruning? Plant compact stuff. You get it.
Fixing or fleeing problems takes more planning. Getting rid of the lawn solves the mowing chore; getting rid of trees will help grass grow better. But when it comes to persistent pests on favorite must-have plants, most controls boil down to either mechanical or chemical.
The first, at least with critters, involves exclusions such as fencing or netting, trapping, hand-picking or thumping, or interplanting with other stuff so nothing is as convenient a target. Hand-pulling or hoeing weeds is a real pain, but with persistence it is pretty effective. These things have been done for many centuries, and, though not very popular, for the most part they work.
Of course, more difficult problems can be treated with pesticides. Nowadays both organic and synthetic weed killers, insecticides, fungicides and the like can be found pretty readily, but to be honest, they are usually pretty tricky.
Pesticides have to be selected and applied carefully to make sure they will do what they are supposed to do and nothing more. Collateral damage to nearby non-target plants and creatures (including pets and kids) happens easily, even with natural products. Some have to be applied multiple times or, in the case of fungicides which are preventive coatings rather than cures, ahead of time.
So, I am usually loathe to recommend sprays, dusts, granules, drenches or other poisons, when planning ahead and fixing or fleeing can work as well or better. Not scared to recommend them, just nervous over the potential risks.
The last approach is my favorite, at least when the problems are mostly cosmetic. It’s normal for even healthy plants to have a few irregularities, occasional leaf spots or insect infestations. Some lawn weeds, even in mid-winter, are terrific wildflowers, complete with pollinators.
Take your glasses off and a lot of problems disappear. Live with some holes in plants. Shut your mouth around clouds of whiteflies. Work around random fire ant mounds.
But in spite of searching, including at night with a flashlight, I can’t catch what’s eating my kale. Can’t fix it or fight it. Guess I’m just gonna replant, strengthen my netting and hope for the best.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.