Last month as I was in the process of writing a short article on spring soil prep in the garden for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, I stepped out in the yard to actually start the process of preparing my beds for planting beginning with a spring clean-up. In the process of removing weeds and dead leaves, I uncovered a sleepy little toad. It was still cool outside so he didn’t even really wake up from his torpid sleep as I picked him up and gently placed him in another cozy pile of leaves where he could snooze a little longer. In all, I uncovered 3 sleepy toads. This was awesome because these nocturnal little fellows can eat up to 1000 insects a night. I was thrilled to find them in my garden. This is good news for me for this coming growing season!
Identifying the new and familiar
Then as I was clearing away some dead grapevines, I noticed about a half dozen strange looking chrysalises on them. After taking a picture of them, I sent the photo to my Extension Agent, Shawn Banks, and he said they were praying mantis egg cases. But I hadn’t seen any like these so I sent him a picture I’d taken the year before of a praying mantis egg case. (Isn’t technology wonderful?) He emailed back that there were different kinds of praying mantis and suggested that I might enjoy putting a few of them in a jar to see what hatched out.
I remembered seeing the biggest praying mantis I’ve ever seen in that part of the garden last year, so that’s my bet about what it will be – the grandkids are certainly excited about it! I also learned that these odd looking egg cases are made when the mantis deposits her eggs in a frothy mass that hardens, creating a protective capsule called an ootheca . Here are the two different kinds of praying mantis egg cases I found:
Along with the egg cases, I also found two argiope egg sacs, looking very battered by the winter but intact none the less. This was good news as these big boldly colored spiders (3-4” across, including legs) have been such an asset in my garden, eating many of the insects that eat my plants. To repay her, I protected her egg sac when I found it last fall while harvesting, carefully leaving it to hatch in the spring.
Discovering the balance in my garden helps me keep the balance in my garden
One of the things I love about gardening is this constant process of discovery. Every time I step out the door, discoveries await me and I learn something new. Who knew that Praying Mantises had different egg cases or that they were called oothecas? And it’s gratifying to see all these creatures making their homes here in my backyard – toads and praying mantises and spiders and lizards and birds and assassin bugs and cicadas….the list is long! They’re all signs of a healthy balance of fauna in the garden. I’m so relieved that Extension’s IPM (Integrated Pest Management) decision making process encourages people not to spray every creature with 6 or 8 legs but to watch and wait and learn. Like learning that ants tend aphids like cows – that’s so amazing!
When I have these treasures in my garden, I tend to be more cautious about what I apply to the foliage or on the ground. Yes, I struggle with squash bugs and Harlequin beetles (they were terrible last year!) but I’m also blessed with tachinid wasps, scoliid wasps, bees, and more. These creatures help keep my garden green and fruitful without the help or hazards of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides – just lots of compost, sun, and rain.
How about you?
So what spring discoveries do you enjoy in your garden? How do you protect and preserve the natural diversity you find there?
-Connie Schultz is a Master Gardener and Composter who lives and gardens in Johnston County, NC. She originally wrote a version of this article for the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) – visit their site at http://www.carolinafarmstewards.org/ to find out more about their activities to promote healthy organic food in the Carolinas.