Op-Ed: Slaughter of the aphids, a garden wars story

Closeup of aphids on a milkweed pod.
(Ed Reschke / Getty Images)

Each morning I putter in my vegetable garden, barefoot, in my nightgown. I pick up a stray twig, pull a weed or two. My tomatoes and potatoes, I imagine, reach toward me as they do toward the sun. When I wave the garden hose, hummingbirds dart though the spray like children running through a sprinkler. I take that as proof of their joy and my goodness.

This year, I’ve invited Brussels sprouts to join the vegetable patch. Until recently I didn’t realize Brussels sprouts grew on a pole in the armpits of huge waxy leaves. (If I thought of them growing at all, it would have been like tiny cabbages poking up one by one, waiting to be harvested with mouse-sized machetes.)

Perhaps not every plant has a happy life in my garden. It’s possible that what I see as my Lady Bountiful morning ministrations are actually endured by the plants as the clumsy lumberings of an inescapable monster. Maybe my cheapness with water (for upstanding human reasons) forces the poor hummingbirds to cavort with me or die of thirst.


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Regardless, everything had been going fine, and then the aphids showed up. They appeared in clumps of huddled micro-bugs on my Brussels sprouts. I consulted Facebook friends. Mix dishwashing liquid, garlic and water in a spray bottle and blast them, I was told. I had all the ingredients; tried it.

My poor sprouts fainted and withered, but so did the aphids. I persisted, hoping the potion was like chemo: hell to go through for the plants but worth it in the end. After a few applications, however, I admitted defeat. I was clearly killing the Brussels sprouts to save them. And when they recovered, so did the aphids.

Next, I drove to the nursery. I had to wear shoes, interact with plant people, spend money, sit in traffic. But I returned victorious, I thought. I possessed a small carton of live, aphid-eating ladybugs. Put them in the refrigerator, said the instructions, where they will hibernate a bit. Then water the ground beneath the sprouts and release the bugs at sundown. In the morning, the ladies would awaken in a new home, hungry, to an aphid feast. Instead, all 1,020 of them disappeared. You can’t trust ladybugs.

By then, holes were appearing in the Brussels sprouts leaves. In fairy tales it’s always the third try that works, right? But what third try?

I had planted the Brussels sprouts and I owed them my protection. Their enemies were my enemies.


I turned over a leaf and squashed a colony of aphids with my thumb. They smeared easily into a nauseating ooze. I gagged a little, examined another leaf, discovered more aphids, and pretty soon my squeamishness segued into self-righteousness.

I had planted the Brussels sprouts and I owed them my protection. Their enemies were my enemies.

By the end of that first killing spree, I was a tougher Lady Bountiful. I even found myself humming a little aphid-killing tune.

In my defense, this was not my first run-in with aphids. Last year my broccoli and cauliflower were so nasty and aphid-encrusted I gave up hope of harvesting or eating either plant; the aphids won. This year, with the Brussels sprouts, would be different.

So I now I’ve added a bout of aphid slaughter to my garden rounds. Sometimes I swear I’m gaining ground. Other times, the aphids magically repopulate overnight. Who will get to eat my Brussels sprouts has yet to be determined.

As I wash the aphid guts off my hands, I hope that if there is a God, she isn’t an aphid.

Amy Koss writes young-adult fiction and gardens in Los Angeles.

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