Kale Ecology

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Would you eat this leaf?

I have been telling people, sometimes ruefully, sometimes excitedly, about my “kale ecology.” The lovely rows and rows of donated kale seedlings that I planted last spring had sprouted an apparently entirely self-sufficient ecosystem.  Lots of white flies and at least a few aphids are sucking juices from the kale leaves, and excreting out sweet liquid called honeydew.  Ants crawl up to eat the honeydew.  Flies are landing on the leaves—they must be lapping up honeydew as well.

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One ant on our plants

But what had me jumping up and down (in my mind, since my garden is just outside classroom windows) is the best crop of ladybugs I have ever seen in one garden.  We have lovely yellow eggs, we have the black larvae that are longer than an adult ladybug and always look like some weird armored horror movie critter, we have orange pupae, and we have adults—including a few that seem to be senior citizens.  I had never actually seen the pupa form before, and had to check my guide books to make sure that was what the unmoving orangey and blackish thing about the size of an adult ladybug actually was.

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Ladybug pupa on cut leaf
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Asian Ladybeetle larva

 

Predictably, there are also cabbage white butterflies flitting about, and I saw at least one green larva, the “cabbage worm,” a name that I find apt, since the caterpillar always looks squishy to me.  There are also crickets that seem to hang out below the kale plants, in the straw and leaf litter mulch.  There were some other beetles, shield-shaped like stink bugs, but more colorful.

I was hoping my middle school students would share my love of ladybugs, and be impressed by the four totally distinct looking stages of their lives.  But turning over leaves to look for critters raised a cloud of white flies every time, and most students, seeing that happen to one of their cohorts, wouldn’t even approach the kale patch.  One student claimed to have been bitten by something that might have been a grasshopper, like the one sitting on the side of the garden bed, and he was understandably cautious.

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Fly and Ladybeetle

But he was one of the students who volunteered to be “brave” enough to actually pull some of our kale plants for composting.  I had already given up the idea of actually using any of the kale for human consumption—the teacher I was working with found that even washing couldn’t eradicate the telltale signs of insects making a meal of the kale.

It is easier to tell people that we need to feed the critters using the ornamental portion of our yards, rather than with the plants we were hoping to eat ourselves.  It’s also easier, even in the vegetable garden, to do when the critter in question is one that is beautiful and naturally makes you pull out your phone or camera to take a picture, like the black swallowtail.  Truth be told, it is impossible to imagine any sharing happening when faced with a plant where every surface that has not been munched away is covered either with eggs or frass (the word for insect poop), or with the fungus that can also be part of a mini-ecology like my kale.

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Black Swallowtail Caterpillar

So, we’ll be pulling and composting all the old kale, as well as trying to protect the new kale and its fellow family members, broccoli and kohlrabi, with row covers.  But I won’t regret the ecology that brought had me jumping up and down over ladybugs.

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