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Anne Jaeger is the “garden gal” on TV, Radio and in print.

The Zoo’s Silkworms & Mulberry

What’s eating you?

Anne Jaeger On Gardening

There’s an “All Points Bulletin” at the zoo for mulberry leaves. Got any? Yes, it’s kind of a strange request and it sure caught my attention when the Oregon Zoo reported that mulberry leaves were being chewed almost to extinction there. I mean people are always asking me to identify what bug, slug or thug is eating the ravaged edges of their favorite plants. And at times, it’s like reading tea leaves because there are so many culprits. With a little detective work, it’s often clear what the problem is.

At the Zoo the problem is simply a supply and demand issue. Turns out, the staff actually knows what is eating their mulberry trees and they want to encourage the predator! The Zoo needs a constant fresh supply of pesticide free leaves for its silkworm collection. Seems the horticulture staff is worried their two mulberry trees will be damaged if they prune off any more leaves to feed to the critters. The silkworm caterpillars are close to exhausting the leaf supply. Kasey Jakien, assistant coordinator of education services at the Insect Zoo has never seen anything like the silkworm’s appetite. “The silkworms are totally voracious eaters. They don’t look like it, but they need a lot of food. That’s all they do…. eat” according to Jakien. No wonder! It takes several hundred silk cocoons just to make one silk scarf. And no man-made fiber has ever come close to the luxurious thread spun by the lowly silkworm caterpillar. So this got me to thinking about what bugs us this time of year in the garden. I mean, here the Insect Zoo is putting out a desperate A-P-B for one “worms” favorite food and we home gardeners are fighting like heck to fend off the summer insect surge. Let me count the ways.

Aphids.  The best solution to get rid of aphids is also the cheapest. Turn the hose on full blast and douse the plant with water. Apparently, aphids are strong enough to suck the life out of plants, but once they are soaked and a strong jet of water catapults them to the ground, they can’t get up. So repeat this trick as necessary or use an insecticidal soap. You’ll find products such as “Safer” insecticidal soap almost everwhere. Experts say it works best of soft bodied insects by coating their respiratory system which drowns them.

Cutworms. Just when you are intensely proud of how your summer annuals are filling in so nicely, you’ll wake up one morning to find that entire plant cut to the quick. Cutworms slice off the stems at ground level and leave the plant felled like timber. To make matters worse this month, the climbing cutworm will now start buzz-sawing even more of the plant. The best defense is a keen eye. Since cutworms feed at night, you can pick them off “mid-bite” using a flashlight to illuminate them( but who has time for that?). Luckily,  during daylight hours, you’ll find them curled up hiding in the soil. Search and destroy or ask for an insect spray with Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis. Pronounced: “thur-en-gen-sis”) at the garden center. Using this bacterium spray is more environmentally safe than other “chemical” controls. Caterpillars or budworms (which eat geranium flower pedals in the buds!) will eat leaves sprayed with Bt and die. Although they live for three more days, the bacterium makes them unable to eat anymore. Ha!

If all else fails, maybe superstition can prevail? Make an offering to the insect gods by donating (insecticide free) mulberry leaves to the exotic silkworm caterpillars at the Oregon Zoo and just maybe the garden variety bugs will leave you alone!