Rick Gibson

Former Pinal County Extension Agent Rick Gibson inspects a diseased fig tree as part of his duties before retirement.

CASA GRANDE -- Last December, we bought an Arizona yellow bell. We made it our Christmas tree, though it’s more of a bush.

We put it in a pot and put the pot in the living room. We put presents under it.

After New Year’s, we moved the pot outside. True to its name, the yellow bell produced bright yellow flowers. Bell-shaped. I can see them now, through the living room window.

The rest of the bush isn’t faring too well. Whole branches are bare. What leaves there are look shriveled. Some have large circles cut out of them. Salad for pests.

Just what the pests were I had no idea. So I Googled a long description of the problem.

The first item on my search was a 2018 column by Rick Gibson. For years, once a week, his column appeared in PinalCentral’s Tri-Valley Dispatch.

Until recently, Gibson was director of Pinal County Cooperative Extension, as well as an agricultural extension agent. He retired last year. He’s stepped back from the column as well.

But the columns are still out there, in cyberspace. Just Google his name, PinalCentral and your garden issue. You’ll probably get an answer.

Here’s what I learned. My yellow bell, Gibson tells me, likely has a bad case of Tecoma leaf tier, a moth larva. Tier is pronounced “tire,” as the little bugs have a way of wrapping themselves in leaf tissue. They then tie it down with silken thread. Inside their little bubble, they have at it with the leaf.

Yum, yum.

Like a lot of problems, this one’s best caught early. And I could be too late. My yellow bell looks ready for last rites.

But in reading Gibson’s columns, you know better than to give up. He’s not one to throw in the towel on plant problems. He’s a master gardener. Master gardeners come prepared with remedies. And for treating leaf tier, Gibson recommends a pesticide packed with larvae-killing bacteria. It’s what you might call nature’s way. A far cry from the DDT that nearly wiped out the bald eagle.

I remember DDT. Well, I remember the mosquito foggers making their weekly passes through the neighborhoods on Guam. They spewed a mist of DDT from the back of a truck. It was the late ‘50s. I was a kid of 8 or 9. We’d all run behind the fogger, into the mist. What fun!

No mosquitoes on me. And no brain damage. At least not so much I couldn’t work for newspapers.

Thankfully, DDT was banned and the eagles have rebounded. They’re no longer considered endangered.

Gibson, it happens, is a fan of organic gardening. I paid him a visit a few years ago. He uses scorpions for pest control. They eat the bad bugs. If the scorpions get out of control, he hunts them down with a blacklight and whacks them with a hammer.

He stocks a small lily pond with mosquito fish. True to their name, they eat mosquito larvae. Much more kid-friendly than DDT, as is the bacteria-based pesticide Gibson recommends. It’s safe for plants and animals, he writes. The main ingredient is Bacillus thuringiensis. Bt for short. You spray it on the leaves. The larvae eat the leaves and get a terrific stomach ache. Then they die.

I suppose that’s kind of sad. But it’s either them or your yellow bells.

For Gibson, gardening isn’t about achieving perfection, not if it calls for overuse of chemicals. That goes for organic pesticides, Gibson says. However much you spray, you can’t kill them all. And the few remaining bugs will pass on their genes.

It can escalate. The more you spray, the more bugs develop a resistance. So you spray more. Resistance grows. The bugs move into the house. Raid the refrigerator. Steal your beer. Take over the television.

Sure, they likely won’t go that far. They’ll just kill the plant.

Best to listen to Gibson, in any case.

“We avoid resistance by using existing tools, including Bt, wisely and according to label directions,” he writes.

Just the same, I look at my poor larvae-ravaged yellow bell and think: I sure would like to nuke them.

I can’t at the moment. I don’t have any Bt spray handy. I couldn’t find it in the garden department of my local mega-hardware store. It was probably there, right on the shelf, and I just didn’t see it. I could have asked for help, but I have my pride.

Instead, I ordered Bt from the internet shop. It’s not same-day delivery, so it’s something of a race against time. I worry that when the Bt arrives, it might be too late. The leaf tier larvae will have chewed through every last leaf, only to starve.

I guess that’s some consolation.

Maybe I’ll get the Bt in time. Maybe I’ll go nuts and attack the larvae like a madman with a super soaker. “Take that leaf tier! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

Maybe not. Maybe I’ll follow Gibson’s advice and read the label. Do the right thing. I’ll think about it.

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Reach contributing writer Bill Coates at bccoates@cox.net.

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