What I Learned from Aphids

A gardener observes as nature achieves a sense of balance in a Chappaquiddick greenhouse.

I had always seen a few aphids around my garden, but it wasn’t until they came to live in my greenhouse that I found out the true power of the aphid life force. For about fifteen years, my husband and I had been designing an addition to our house that included my dream: a greenhouse. Finally, time and money came together and the dream came true in the form of a ten- by twenty-foot attached greenhouse. Tall French doors open into the living room, allowing the sun to warm the downstairs while rising hot air is vented into an upstairs bedroom. Although it’s unheated, when the sun shines in the middle of winter, the greenhouse can reach 100 degrees. When the weather is cold and gray, I can open the door to the greenhouse and walk into its sweet-smelling, verdant world. I pick kale or Swiss chard and bring it into the kitchen, where I wash off the ubiquitous aphids, and steam the vegetables for a taste of summer, even in the depths of winter.

The first autumn, I experimented to see what would grow in the greenhouse, planting peas and beans along with the more cold-hardy greens. I
also brought some parsley plants in from my outdoor garden. That may be how the aphids got inside, although now that I’ve seen them at work, I have no doubt they’d enter on their own or even start by spontaneous generation. When I first started to notice them, I did some research on aphid control and found out that aphids are already pregnant with the next generation when they’re born!

I’ve never really believed in the rhythm method of birth control, but I wanted to use natural methods on the aphid population, not some toxic chemical. But I definitely wanted to get rid of every single aphid. I’d had a severe bout of parasites myself a few years earlier and had not been able to rid my system of them completely, either through heavy-duty prescription drugs or through any of the more natural methods I’d tried.

The parasites only stopped being a problem when my whole system became healthier. Evidently, though, I hadn’t learned the lesson about the ways of parasites and the futility of attempting total eradication.

The first thing I tried was a soap spray that nearly killed the peas and made other things look quite sickly. Then I ordered some ladybugs, which flew around charmingly but didn’t have much effect on the aphid population. Next I tried something called an “aphid predator,” a tiny, mosquito-like insect that eats aphids in their larval stage. The predators are supposed to reproduce and build up a population big enough to keep the aphid numbers down. Nothing seemed to happen, so I called the company I’d bought them from and found out they needed twelve hours of daylight to reproduce. By then it was December, and I gave up the fight. Nothing much was happening either with the aphids or the vegetables because it was too cold and dark.

When the days grew longer, in February and March, the aphid population began to bloom. By April, every inch of every window was crawling with aphids in the winged form of their life cycle, and every leaf was covered with tiny gray or green aphids. It was an awesome sight. Then one day in May,
I thought I noticed fewer aphids on the windows. I looked closely at the plants and saw some bright orange, worm-like critters on the leaves among the aphids. I wondered if the aphid predators were finally coming to the rescue.

A week or two later, I went into the greenhouse one morning and realized there was not an aphid to be seen anywhere! It felt like a miracle: The greenhouse had gone from total infestation to not one visible aphid, and I hadn’t even done anything. In fact, I’d given up on getting rid of the aphids and had figured I would pull everything out of the greenhouse and start over the next fall. In the next month or two, I would notice patches of aphids on a plant and then I would start to see the predator larvae again. The two populations would grow and shrink in response to each other until finally, in the summer, all the aphids disappeared completely, taking their predators with them.     

I never bought any more aphid predators after the first year, but they still show up each year, consuming aphids until there’s a kind of parity
of power between them. Despite how chaotic it sometimes looks, I see that nature means to find a balance, and I find that I’ve grown to have a little more faith that it’s not all up to me to make everything happen – in my garden or in the rest of my life. The more I simply observe, rather than try to control, the more content I am. Besides, for all the work that I put into my gardens, some years some plants grow well and other years, others do. The plants that always grow best are the volunteers – the ones that seed themselves and grow wherever they choose, without any of my advice.