Guest post by veterinary surgeon and master gardener James Roush/Garden Musings
This morning, on a trip out of town, I innocently stopped at a large regional nursery about 60 miles east of Manhattan, Kansas. This nursery sells each spring, among other plants, the largest variety of potted roses in a 100-mile radius. I could not help but stop to view the few remaining potted roses on sale, hoping particularly to find a ‘St. Swithun’ marked down to a price that even a curmudgeonly rosarian would accept. And there, I saw them. Japanese beetles! Fornicating in ‘The Wedgwood Rose!’ As I looked around, I saw they were on all the roses! And the perennial hibiscus. And the daylilies. ( I took the pictures shown here with my iPhone.)
To understand the full depth of my horror and excuse the stream of curses I uttered, you should be aware that Japanese beetles are not yet indigenous just 60 miles west, where I live, and I was unaware that they had been seen in anything but temporary outbreaks west of Kansas City. East coast rosarians should imagine, for a moment, an idyllic garden where they had never seen a Japanese beetle, but had heard they were massing at the seashore. That is the fear that I’ve been living with for 5 or 6 years now, viewing the online pictures of destruction at other gardens and waiting for the beetle-induced Armageddon that was surely heading my way.
When I questioned a worker at the store, the response was, “Yes,” they did know that they had living, breeding Japanese beetles on the premises. “They’ve been here for two or three years.” And “Yes” they had notified the authorities and were being monitored. Why then, I wondered, were their embeetled roses and other plants still for sale? How was it that they felt it was okay to participate in spreading these things around? I understand a conscientious gardener sticking to their organic principles and refusing to spray, but surely a commercial nursery wouldn’t hesitate to nuke every inch of plant and soil. One thing for sure, I wasn’t buying any roses there.
Friends, this whole issue puts me deeply into a moral dilemma. I have a vocal libertarian streak, distrusting authority of all kinds, but I wished instantly and fervently on the spot that there was a government agency that would step into this void, tell this nursery they have to put up signs warning unknowing customers, and curtail sales to western customers. Or better yet, depopulate and burn the nursery to the ground, as they have done in the past to farms with tuberculosis and brucellosis in their dairy herds.
I know that eventually beetles will reach Manhattan, Kansas on their own. But I had a small hope that the Flint Hills would be a 50 mile-wide barrier to westward expansion; a no-beetle-land of poor food sources for their migration and extensive annual prairie fires to wipe out early scouts. Little did I know that a nursery on the infested side of the zone would blatantly offer to sell me a potted plant with either beetle larvae in the soil or actual beetle couples who would be happy to disperse into my beetle-free Eden of 200 rose plants. I’ve bought plants from this nursery every year, my latest being a peony last August during a sale, and it’s far too late to grub it out now. Until now I’ve tried, myself, to be a no-spray gardener, mostly faithful to the organic cause, but the sight of this nursery had me contemplating which insecticide I should use first.
I drove speedily home, calling friends and local nursery owners on the way like a gardening Paul Revere, spreading the word that the beetles were coming. Local nursery owners were unaware and surprised at the disclosure. I came straight home and ran into my rose garden, inspecting every bloom for the insects, finally collapsing in relief as I determined that I’m still free from infection. And then I took a long hot shower in disinfectant soap and burned my clothes. You can never be too careful.