Theresa Rooney is a self-taught, life-long gardener. She is a Master Gardener and has turned her small urban yard into a Certified National Wildlife Habitat and home to an increasing number of welcome and unwelcome critters. She has written articles for Minnesota Gardener Magazine and teaches gardening classes. In her latest book, The Guide to Humane Critter Control, Rooney provides solutions to keep unwanted guests away safely and organically. Read on to learn more and enter below to win one of two copies of this Quarto Group book.
1. How does your book help us to decode common garden problems?
You can learn the ‘signs’ to look for and also start thinking ahead to what critter issues you may have. Looking at the big picture can give you a good idea of the problems you see. For example if just one plant is being eaten you may know what insects/critters like that plant. If all the plants are showing some impact- then perhaps you are really seeing a result of weather or herbicide drift. You can start to figure out when you see the damage, what kind of damage is it, where is it showing up on the plant(s) and how bad is it. Once you figure out the correct issue, only then should you continue on the path to decide how to respond.
2. What are some of the biggest takeaways you hope readers uncover with this book?
Looking at the big picture. Learning to understand that we live in the world and share it with many creatures. We need to allow them some space too and yet we need to stay safe and keep our food and family protected. It is a balancing act. But once you start seeing all the interlocking pieces you may be fascinated and want even more diversity in your outdoor spaces. Another BIG issue is using chemicals, ALWAYS read, understand and follow the label. The label is the LAW. Read the entire label. And of course before you use any chemical (even fertilizers) know why you are using it and what you are trying to accomplish. So many times nature will correct the ‘problems’ if you let it work its way thru. If you decide to step in, remember you are taking on a task that nature usually handles ( and in my opinion she usually does a better job than we can). Look at your outdoor space in a different way. It does not have to be a pristine, manicured monoculture. Perhaps you can learn to see the beauty in volunteer plants, an unpruned tree, diverse plantings. One of the things I actually love to see is ‘something’ eating my plants. Especially if it is weeds- then I know that the critter doing the weed eating is usually ignoring my ‘planned’ plants.
3. In your book you seem to have an optimistic outlook, as you talk of the joy of finding a new bug, weed or fungus. I honestly can’t say I share this joy. Have you always had this optimistic outlook and if not, what turned you around?
I have always loved and been fascinated by nature and all the animals and plants. It is amazing to me how everything is connected and as those connections increase the entire system becomes more and more resilient. Sometimes I admit I have ‘issues’ I used to be terrified of bees/hornets etc- I would freeze or scream. Then one day I just thought it thru- they are smaller than me, they are trying to go about their business and not really all that interested in me. That helped me to accept them and now I love them. I did wonder “what good are those yellow jackets who are so nasty?” then I realized that they do lots of ‘clean up’ of dead insects and small animals. Well thank you for the sanitation crew of yellow and black! Now I love seeing them. If the wander too close I just quietly tell them- ‘I have nothing here for you’ and they buzz off. I know they don’t understand my words but the quiet words remind me to be peaceful and project calm and that means we all just get along better. I am very curious about everything in nature. Every observation I make, information I read, new aspect I meet is just fuel for that curiosity. I love seeing it work together. When I see a new insect or something in my yard I realize my habitat is also welcoming to one more creature (or fungus) that means more activity and excitement. When I see the diversity I realize that nothing will overpower everything else for very long. Those caterpillars eating the chard? Well they are just baby bird food for the birds I have created wonderful habitat to live in. I read Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home. It really hit me- when you see weeds/native plants being eaten then usually that means native insects or critters are in the area. They are enjoying the native habitats. They are getting food! Think of a spider’s web (ok, if you are afraid of spiders, work with me here) the more strands and connections it has the more it can ‘catch’. The longer it will last if part of it is destroyed by a bird flying thru or a branch dropping on it. But if the web had only 5 connections then even breaking 1 is a big problem for the spider. And for those scared of spiders… they usually appear in bigger numbers in our yards in later summer- why? The insect populations have increased enough to provide food for the spiders. Spiders are found in healthy spaces, they eat so many insects you would be amazed. They are your garden helpers. I do understand if you are frightened of them and I am not rebuking you for that. It is what it is. But if you can ignore them, you may find that it gets easier for you. Concentrate on the good they do. That helps me. That is what I think of when the raccoons have killed a chicken or the rabbits girdled a tree I forgot to protect. What can I learn from this? How can I make this not good situation better? I can make sure the chickens are safer, and locked up carefully at night. I can remember to wrap the trees. There are no failures in the garden, only opportunities to learn and grow. Another way to look at this may be to consider the night sky. With just one or 2 stars in it the excitement and beauty seems to be less. If one of those stars goes nova, then you are left with much less to observe. But if you have the sky we see now- filled with stars, galaxies, meteors, planets, comets and yes even, lightning bugs and airplanes and satellites how exciting and beautiful is that! (add an aurora borealis and life is good!)
4. Has it been difficult to convince gardeners to adopt and employ organic methods in combatting pests? Why or why not?
It has been so much easier as the years progress. I come at it from a different angle than most. I am ok with every person making their own choice. They are entitled to that respect of their decision. My way is to present the facts. Present the repercussions of an action. If you don’t use any response, what could happen? What will happen if you use a non-organic response? What will happen if you decide to respond with an organic alternative? Organic is not always safer. Some of the most deadly substances are organic. People just need to know the options. They need to be guided to think it thru. It does not have to be a long drawn out process. I also find that in so many instances, going organic is cheaper for me and easier. It also sets up my yard and garden to be healthier in the long run and therefore I have less ‘challenges’ in the future. (Notice they are not problems, they are challenges.) I think the main thing I find is that I listen to people and give them the information I know and then I respect their decision. If they can understand I am trying to help- not judge or make them do it my way, they are usually much more open to my suggestions. People have really changed in the last few years, many more now are seeing the big picture and how everything is connected.
5. When it comes to critter control you mention the old adage “the best defense is a good offense”. What are some tips that will help us do that?
Just like in building, measure twice, cut once. In gardening plan first then plant. Rather than moving plants all around. Think things thru. Be aware of what your neighbors are doing. If something looks good and seems to work for them figure out how and why and copy the best features. If you know you have heavy deer pressure, then decide where you can ‘hide’ your precious deer candy and where you can plant those species they don’t care for. What can you do to enlist mother nature to help you? Can you create a healthy habitat for birds and bats so that the insects and weed seeds are kept to an acceptable level? Can you incorporate lots of herbs to disguise the scent of yummy rabbit enticing plants- while those herbs may encourage you to eat more adventurously? Is there a fence that you can install that will deter some of the pests you are encountering? Even my chain link fence can be made beautiful by covering it with clematis, or hops, grape vines or even pole beans and cucumber. Consider when you see the most damage in your yards. Early spring? Just when the flowers are starting to grow and the tulips are blooming? Consider fencing in the fall. It will protect those tender shoots (and stems in the winter) from hungry rabbits. Once the plants are large enough and there is other food you can remove the fencing. Plant food for the critters in an area that is away from your ‘favorite’ plants. Many times a gardener, even an experienced gardener will undergo something they just didn’t know could happen. You don’t know what you don’t know and so as a gardener (or anyone) the need to be open to learn and make corrections is important.
To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Sunday, March 11, 2018 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:
What critters in your garden do you need help with?
Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See rules for more information.)