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Garden Edition: March 2002

Off the Garden Bookshelf

by Linda Coyner

Insects and Gardens by Eric Grissel (Timber Press, $29.95)

Entomologists are an odd lot, let's face it. They often can't get past teaching the reader Entomology 101, which is guaranteed to put even the most devoted reader to sleep. Grissel is no exception, taking the reader on a tour of the basic technical information. The author must be forgiven, however, because midway through the book he gets beyond the tedious details and puts it all into context:

"If we are to set things right in the garden, to restore some semblance of ecological balance, then we had best make an honest appraisal of how the garden works, who its players are, what they are doing, and why they are doing it."

Part II and III of Insects and Gardens begin the author's efforts explain what takes place in nature and what takes place in the garden, and how to integrate the two. Insects are a big part of this, of course.

Leaving no stone unturned, Grissel covers the importance of diversity, how insects function in the garden and their interactions with each other and plants. He explains how to get beyond what seems to be the natural aversion for insects, how to appreciate these sometimes irritating creatures, how to invite insects into the garden and, most importantly, how to be a realistic gardener.

In the process Grissel isn't hesitant to take on trends and fads. Native-plant purists are likely to squirm when he states that exotic plants are sometimes more adapted to our gardens than natives, and as a result, less problematic.

As further heresy, he points out that butterflies, the darling of many gardeners these days, aren't nearly as beneficial as other insects like wasps. The author calls butterfly houses "utterly nonsense" and a death trap for butterflies. In a study undertaken at Penn State University, boxes placed along woodland trails where overwintering butteries were commonly seen ended up attracting spiders, which would undoubtedly love to invite a butterfly to dinner.

In another unpopular stance, the author lumps biocontrols with chemicals, saying that they both dangerously alter nature's balance. Grissel's approach to pest-problems in his garden starts with "do no harm." Meanwhile, he gathers information and, he admits, procrastinates. If the problem doesn't resolve itself, he takes action that does the least amount of garden-related harm, which sometimes involves chemicals.

The arresting cover shot of a gulf-fritillary sipping nectar from a passion flower is just a sampling of the extraordinary photography found throughout the book. More than 100 images by photographer Carll Goodpasture work hand-in-hand with the text to share the beauty and energy that insects bring to the garden. Goodpasture is a Norwegian-American photographer who studied entomology at the University of California and is exhibited internationally.

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