This week, I found my little gardeners quietly and intently bent over our herb garden. Usually, this is not the case, and we are watching as they run down the garden paths and jump over whatever little plants happen to be in the way of their game of tag. But today, they were quiet, so I went to do a little investigative work myself and this is just what I saw:
Now, conveniently enough, Grandpa gardener arrived just at that time and also came over to see what everyone was so intently looking at. Grandpa gardener, smiled, and with his many years of gardening wisdom said, “You know how you get rid of that?” The explanation continued to include a bucket, some water and a fair bit of salt. The kids (smart enough to understand what would ultimately happen to those sweet suffering caterpillars), were unimpressed. Suffice it to say, ‘getting rid of that’ was not going to be a part of our gardening day.
Mainstream gardening wisdom is definitely correct in the understanding that caterpillars in a garden can pose a real problem. One is cute. More than one, however, pretty much means that you will be harvesting a sometimes drastically smaller crop.
And we had more than one. (There were two found in the carrots, and another 6 found on one branch of the dill alone. I stopped counting just then.) So we have a problem.
But do we?
It seems that kid wisdom intuitively knew that caterpillars are not a problem, even in the face of some fairly strong conventional adult gardening wisdom.
Yes, the caterpillars eat a lot. But also, yes, the caterpillars are an essential part of a healthy garden eco-system.
In fact, since caterpillars and butterflies only go where gardens are healthy and safe for life, then I am going to suggest that the kids had it right all along: we should be honoured and happy to see these visitors in our garden. (Even if there are at least 10, but I digress… I really did eventually stop counting.)
Happy and healthy caterpillars mean that butterflies have visited the garden. Their presence practically ensures that the flowers and plants surrounding your little visitor have been pollinated as the butterflies passed through. This will ultimately bring you more flowers and zucchini (or whatever else you are growing)!
Then, once the caterpillars are hatched and thriving, although they have a great appetite, these caterpillars are also a great delicacy for all sorts of great garden based predatory animals. Animals like bats love caterpillar for supper, and we love having the bats around even more for their love of mosquitos. If housing caterpillars means that bats will move in, then having caterpillars can only be good for our garden.
And while they are visiting, the caterpillar life cycle is a wonderful addition to kids learning in the garden. There is so much to learn and so much to see!
Finally, when that caterpillar does leave the cocoon and find its wings, the garden will once again reap the benefits of being a healthy environment, as the butterfly flies from flower to flower to veggie, pollinating and encouraging even more growth throughout.
Today, in 2019, butterfly colonies, like bee colonies, are suffering and continually at risk. And our little ‘problem’ has highlighted a very real issue in gardening today. It is definitely easy to ‘get rid of the problem’ in the short term, but it might just be at a cost to our long term garden health. We are hoping that our little gardeners will learn to balance the needs of the pollinators and the expectations of the harvest, so that we can have both beautiful butterflies and truly awesome gardens throughout the next generation and beyond.