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Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper
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Chico, California, United States
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An Elderberry Volunteers -Applying Permaculture Principle Number One in Our Backyard

Posted by Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper almost 10 years ago

An photo based article about applying the permaculture principle of observation in our residential backyard and the often hard decision to interact with natural patterns or not.

Work With Nature Rather Than Against It: We can assist rather than impede natural elements, forces, pressures, processes, agencies, and evolutions.

Observe and Interact: By taking the time to engage with nature we can design solutions that suit our particular situation.

Elderberry volunteer 4-25-08

This beautiful California native shrub (photo above) is a volunteer plant.  He sprouted up a few years ago, probably from the seed of a passing bird, and staked his claim on what our family had planned to be a sunny Zone 2 herb garden… and we let him take over.  Once we did our due diligence of his habits and functions, that is.  What we found are shrubs like the native Elderberry (Sambucus mexicana) are insectary plants and provide pollen, nectar, shelter, as well as undisturbed habitat, for beneficial insect predators and parasites.

Elderberry berries 8-20-2008

For humans the Elderberry is very useful making an excellent wine from the berries, crafts from the wood as well as providing mulch, shade and wildlife habitat for outdoor enjoyment.  What we didn’t fully recognize until this year is that Elderberry shrubs can be fantastic trap plants inviting and "trapping" insect pests.  Trapping is an arbitrary term meaning there is an easily obtainable food source so the pests want to stay -in companion planting this can be an effective means of deterring pests from more desirable (crop) plants. 

A plants ability to "trap" insect pests and grow on unharmed is beneficial to the whole garden ecosystem too.  And to grow on unharmed despite strong mutualistic pest behaviors is even better (mutualism is an association between organisms where both benefit from the relationship).  But I step ahead...


Work with Nature Rather than Against It


Elderberry volunteer 4-11-11

We decided to leave our new Elder shrub in the ground right where he volunteered.  We let another volunteer vine (a native x grape) wind itself up and we have thoroughly enjoyed observing the new guild mates get to know each other the last 4 years.  A few plants that were ‘there first’ are not completely content with the competition for light; he’s grown 20’ tall and 10’ wide.  The limiting factor for this guild became sun so the north side of the bed was most affected by the Elderberry’s new shade line.  Yet we continued on with our food garden plans, grew in the herbs around the Elderberry and we've had great success and abundant harvests.


2009 Garden (Elderberry on right)

We chose to work with nature rather than against it when it came to available sunlight and not fight the Elderberry’s natural growth patterns by creating a regular cycle of disturbance amid his branches and the guild below.  The particular herbs that stretched most for light are easily movable species anyway like Echinacea (Echinacea purpurea), Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) and Costmary (Tanacetum balsamita) –so we decided to let the problem become the solution.  We determined, if necessary, we would just move them to a new location in the garden, pot them up to give or sell, maybe donate a bunch to our sons’ school gardens or a bit of all three! 

Yet, despite these options, no one in the new guild showed signs (other than some stem elongation) that the new community was becoming truly problematic or even pest ridden so we never felt the need to interact.


Local Weather and Phenology

Temperature data in the United States for January and February 2011,circled is our region of interest

This year started out a little different.  In terms of local weather, we had an interesting late Winter here in Northern California.  It was very warm in January (highs in the upper 70’s) where everything warmed up and began their Spring growth cycles.  Then a freezing cold spell hit in late February early March (lows in the teens) hammering blossoming fruit trees and turning new green growth to mush.

Temperature data in the United States for March and April 2011, circled is our region of interest

In late March we wandered over to our native volunteer to see how he was fairing the changeable weather.  In terms of phenology (phenology is the "the study of... recurring plant and animal life cycle stages, especially their timing and relationships with weather and climate") we noticed that he was fully in leaf (having withstood the freeze relatively well) and his new green branches had elongated a great deal; which was much sooner than we’d seen in previous years.  Most years the Elderberry would have its initial leaf bud burst in late February or early March rather than mid-January giving him a better chance of avoiding hard frosts.  Elderberry shrubs are much more tolerant of frost as compared to ornamental or exotic species but can still suffer from a hard freeze. 

We (now) believe that the unusual weather patterns and the severe frost created abnormal growth patterns in the Elderberry because in addition to the early leaves and elongated branches we also noticed the beginning of a pest 'invasion'…



Aphids on Elderberry 3-30-11

Lots of them. In past years we’ve seen these early black aphids target our Hibiscus and Rose shrub leaf buds but never for long.  They'll also try out our cool season vegetable plants and almost always with help from our local ant population -the mutualism I mentioned previously.  The ants literally farm the aphids.  They harvest the honey dew (aphid poop) from the aphids behind and carry it back to their colony while the aphids benefit from the protection from predators the ants can provide.  This year the aphids fed off the Elderberry exclusively and the ants harvested the abundance.

We generally just grin and bear the aphids when they’re on the shrubs (having observed aphid mummies in the past, indicators of parasitic wasp populations) but with certain veggie plants we’ll be more proactive by washing off any damaging critters.  Many people witnessing this state of aphid colonization (on the Elderberry) would want to run for the hose to quickly spray off those sap sucking buggers or sprint to buy some ‘safer’ soap or the ‘tangle foot’ stuff for ants. 

Some would go so far to consider this kind of 'invasion' capable of increasing the aphid population making the situation worse and actually remove the shrub entirely… but we decided that before we INTERACT with the situation we wanted to simply OBSERVE for a while first.  We have a commitment and a guiding philosophy...

“…of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor, and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating elements as a single-product system."

-Masanobu Fukuoka, Japanese farmer and philosopher


Calling All Beneficial Insects!

We knew there were beneficial insects living in the garden so we felt like we had some kind of edge on the pest situation and with a little extra patience it really wasn't that difficult to sit back and watch what happened over the next few months.

Aphids on Elderberry with lurking hoverfly larva

In April we saw the emergence of beneficial life in the garden.  The weather warmed periodically between hail storms and at long last beneficial insects found our Elderberry shrub.  Wandering around the shrub and looking closely at the stems and leaves we noticed an amazing array of aphid predators and parasites…


Hoverflies (Syrphinae family of Flies)

Hoverfly larva on Elderberry branch eating an aphid

The photo above is a hoverfly larva eating an aphid.  Doing our due diligence again we found hoverfly larvae are voracious eaters of soft bodied insects consuming loads of aphids a day! 

Adult hoverfly on Santa Rosa plum blossom

Not to mention the adults are pollinators for the whole neighborhood and bio-region.  If I were to interact by spraying, without thinking of the beneficial insects and their specific life cycles, I’d lose the hoverfly larva and all his aphid eating brothers and pollinating sisters. Even using a blast of plain old water would damage if not kill these guys.


Lady beetles (Coccinellidae family of Beetles)

Lady beetles clustered on Elderberry stem eating aphids

Continuing our observations in April we found another beneficial insect, Lady Beetles (or ladybugs).  They provide that glorious red color which always brightens our days in the garden.  Lady beetles are very well known for their ability to eat massive quantities of aphids.

Yellow lady beetle eggs under Elderberry leaf

And they bred very nicely in the Elderberry.  Little golden rays of hope dotted all along the undersides of so many leaves!  Lady beetle eggs typically hatch in 4-10 days and at once they seek out food -these babies must found an abundant food source here!

Lady beetle larva eating an aphid (note hatched eggs far right)

These guys and gals were all over the Elderberry, both as larvae and adults.  The larval phase of the lady beetle life cycle is the most voracious feeding stage of all.  One larva can feed on as many as 400 aphids before they pupate!


Assassin bugs (Reduviidae family of True Bugs)

Assassin bug laying eggs 4-11-11

A new and different beneficial predator we found on the Elderberry in April was the assassin bug.  I was very fortunate to catch this pretty lady depositing her eggs on the top of an Elderberry leaf.

Same Assassin bug eggs 15 days later

Getting as close as my camera will allow I wanted to show the egg pattern here.  The eggs are laid closely stacked together and on top of the leaf (as compared to lady beetles who usually deposit their eggs underneath the leaf).  Not as familiar with assassin bugs as we are with lady beetles we once again did our due diligence...

Assassin bug on Elderberry leaf

Assassin bugs (both nymphs and adults) are aphid eaters but they’re also fond of munching down other soft bodied insects like caterpillars and leafhoppers.  I saw her eat a tiny wasp, maybe even a parasitic one, so I can only imagine assassin bugs are much like praying mantids, they will even eat our friends!

In May we found the assassin bugs had hatched…

Assassin bug egg hatched

May was a turbulent month, weather wise.  We had the coldest May in several years along with many days of torrential rain and severe hail storms.  We never did see the assassin bug nymphs again but I’ll wager they made it OK.  Despite looking so fragile these little guys were quick -a good feature to have when you’re so small.  I do hope they survived but I also hope they don’t eat too many parasitic wasps during their lifetime!


Parasitic wasps (Braconidae or Aphidiidae family of wasps)

Aphids parasitized by wasps -April

While we’ve never caught a tiny parasitic wasp on camera we were able to capture aphid mummies as evidence of their high population in the Elderberry.  In March the stem was covered top to bottom with aphids (in the photo dated 3-30-11 earlier in this article) yet when observing the shrub in April (photo above) it was almost barren at the bottom and dense with tan mummies. 

Aphids parasitized by wasps -May

By the end of May the Elderberry was almost completely free of aphids (photo above).  Of all the predator insects in the garden these guys are really good at their job...  which is reproduction, a parasitic wasps primary pest control feature.  After mating the female wasp lays an egg inside the aphid by piercing it.  When the egg grows then hatches it kills the aphid by consuming it from the inside out.

Aphid mummies from parasitic wasp predation

The larva pupates inside the aphid then bores a hole in the backside of the aphid to exit (without having a trained eye, it looks to us like one of the mummies is hatching a wasp –lower center in the photo above).  Not a fun way to go for the aphid but a very effective means of feeding ones young (and for lowering an aphid population quickly, thanks!).  If I had washed off the aphids in March these guys and the legacy they leave in our garden would have gone away too…


Soldier beetles (Cantharidae family of beetle)

Tiny soldier beetle

Last, but truly not least, we found tiny soldier beetles.  As adults soldier beetles also munch down aphids while their larvae are soil dwellers consuming root aphids, insect eggs and other larvae.


Pest 'Invasion' or Natural Pattern?

Elderberry 5-12-11

By mid May the Elderberry was showing signs of winning the aphid ‘invasion’.  We’ve seen a few other pests but nothing to the degree we witnessed in March and April.  I’m really glad we took the time to observe our surroundings early on and learn more about the life cycles of our local beneficial insects and the insectary plants they love.  It alleviated most of the shock upon witnessing an ‘invasion’ by aphids and their obliging farmers, the ant.  We try to remember too, it’s not really an attack by aphids.  It’s the aphids’ way of making a living, doing what they do best.  And luckily our gardens are filled with the beneficial insects who love to make aphids their honest days pay.

Elderberry 6-16-11

By mid June our volunteer native shrub was in full bloom and thriving.  As of the last day of July, many Elderberry flowers have set fruit and there are still a few blooms coming on.  There are virtually no pests on the shrub or anywhere else in the gardens.  Our little ecosystems' natural patterns were given leave to do their own thing and when all is said and done... the gardens are healthy and flourishing.


Observe and Let Nature Interact

Taking the time to OBSERVE over a good period of time is crucial to organic pest control and integrated pest management practices; which are part and parcel to permaculture, in our opinion.  Simply allowing the Earth and all her organisms to INTERACT and live out their lives is the best option at times; one where observation and no human interaction is the best medicine. 

Elderberry under sun halo

Many permaculture principles, in addition to the first of observation, can be applied to this one amazing shrub and its effect on our design process and entire garden community:

• relative location

• apply self regulation and accept feedback

• integrate rather than segregate

• use and value diversity

• use edges and value the marginal

• creatively use and respond to change


Some of our 'due diligence' sources:

• Statewide IPM Program, University of California 'Natural Enemies'  (online)

BugGuide (online)

• California Native Plants for the Garden Carol Bornstein, David Fross and Bart O'Brien (book)

• Insects and Gardens Eric Grissel (excellent book, highly recommended)


[FYI: Despite our permanent move from this property in mid-June and the decrease in summer annual plants, perennial food and shelter is there for beneficial insects... and I'm sure there will be even more food emerging with the change of season to allow them semi-permanent habitat. Now we just hope someone will move onto this property and enjoy all the abundance as we have the last 6 years.]


Comments (2)

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Don Hansford
Don Hansford : Brilliant post :)
Posted over 9 years ago

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Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper
Stephanie Ladwig-Cooper : Thank you Don! I really enjoyed writing this article.
Posted over 9 years ago

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