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Six Square Metres

May 2013

  • Margaret Simons

Nature green in tooth and claw

I am not a fan of the notion that on our deathbeds we will regret spending so much time at the office. I know I think too much and am generally far too serious, but surely this attitude underestimates the importance of work in most of our lives?

There is a dignity to labour, including the labour of ideas and administration that keeps most of us deskbound. Having said that, I suspect that on my deathbed I will regret the time I took away from squashing caterpillars.

This has been a more than usually frantic month at my work, which means that my morning “walking the grounds” has become more of a flypast and a quick and guilty glance out of the window than the slow and considered vermin eradication, weed pulling and harvesting that usually begins my day.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens, says the Bible, and autumn is the time for brassicas and caterpillar squashing.

Anything one plants during the downswing of the year will go to seed in spring. Therefore the vegetables to cultivate through winter are those of which we eat the immature flowers and seed heads. That means brassicas – broccoli, cabbage and brussel sprouts.  

No creature is more rapacious and efficient than the cabbage white. On a sunny day in autumn the weather is still warm enough for the garden to be full of fluttering white butterflies. Within hours, the underside of brassica leaves are speckled with the tiny green ovoids of their eggs.

If left unattended the eggs hatch very quickly. It can be hard to spot the tiny green caterpillars at first. They are no thicker than a cotton thread, and align themselves with the veins on the leaves – an effective form of camouflage.

Leave them for a day, and your broccoli leaf resembles a worn out pair of underpants, with thin places and tiny holes. It looks innocuous at first.

Leave it another day, and the caterpillars are long and fat and plentiful, now arrogant enough to loll on the upper side of the remainder of the leaf, and the plant is all but doomed.

Normally at this time of year I spend some time each morning on prevention. Still in my dressing gown, I examine the underneath of the leaves on the half dozen broccoli plants that nestle behind the geraniums at the front of the house.

I lift each leaf and brush the eggs off, and squish the baby caterpillars. I return to my morning coffee and paper with caterpillar blood under my nails.

Some still get away from me, even when I am vigilant. This last week my normal ritual has been abandoned in favour of rushing to the office. As a result the leaves in the front yard have come to resemble lace doilies.

There are meant to be alternatives to squishing the caterpillars. I read somewhere that if you sprinkle broken white eggshells between the brassicas, the cabbage whites think they see compatriots, conclude that their population is already too high, and desist from egg-laying, or go elsewhere.

I tried it. Perhaps it slowed the ravishing of the broccoli, but it did not halt it. There are no shortcuts.

So this morning I decided the email inbox could overflow a few minutes longer, and the world of journalism and academia could do without my attentions for a few more minutes.

I hunkered down behind the geraniums and squished and shook and brushed those brassica leaves.

Nature green in tooth and claw. The office is so civilised. Only a few things at work reach crisis point as quickly as unattended caterpillars on broccoli.





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