Another reason to avoid turfgrass?

This orienpet, Saltarello, is a strong butterscotch color.
This orienpet, Saltarello, is a strong butterscotch color. It’s in a container.

Conversations over the Garden Walk Buffalo weekend lead me to believe that—knock on wood—my lack of turfgrass may also be a reason for my lack of plant-destroying and other pests. I know that Japanese beetle grubs feed on grass and I rarely see any of the adults—maybe one or two a year in recent summers. It’s not just my yard; very few houses on my shady block have even a small patch of grass and all of our backyards are too small for lawns. We specialize in courtyards, patios, and containers. It might be an environment that’s more friendly to winged creatures than creeping or crawling creatures.

These Black Beauties and tigrinum flore pleno are among those that thrive in my clay soil and partial shade.
These Black Beauties and tigrinum flore pleno are among those that thrive in my clay soil and partial shade.

Now, of course, there’s a new beetle that seems even more dreaded than the JB, as there are few controls. The scarlet lily beetle is ravaging lilies and fritillaria throughout the Northeast. It completes most of its active life cycle on the lilies, pupating and overwintering in the soil. Many of the gardeners visiting last weekend immediately asked me about lily beetles once they saw all my lilies (species, oriental, OTs, trumpets, and others). The beetle has reached Ontario and is prevalent throughout eastern and central New York and even as far west as Rochester, but I’ve not seen it. Yet.

I have to wonder if our urban practice of small beds separated by hardscaping and extensive use of containers (about half my lilies are now in containers) may play a role here. I also wonder if there are ways to make the overwintering process more difficult for them. So far the recommended remedies are Neem and spinosad, with biological controls under investigation. But couldn’t there be ways to make their lives uncomfortable outside of spraying? That’s what I’m thinking.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Elizabeth, I’ve had far fewer lily beetles this year, which leads me to hope that maybe they’re finally reaching the end of their life span here (probably a forlorn hope) much like the viburnum leaf beetle did a number of years ago. Many of my lilies and even most of my frits were largely unmolested this year. However, I found that they also seem to benefit from an untidy garden over the winter – they seemed to thrive in leaf litter and dead plant material that didn’t get completely cleaned up. No scientific basis for these observations – they’re merely my observations, for whatever they may be worth. And don’t you just love the color on ‘Saltarella’?

  2. Is there anything better than discovering a fat white grub, and squeezing it dead between 2 fingers ?

    Of course I drop the carcass into the soil for enrichment.

    And, I had very few grubs on my turfless property.

    Just moved to 4.5 acres, open/wooded/pond. Beloved wants some turf. Me? Tara Turf ! Keeping what the meadow has. So proud of my property it has no driveway, never has. Soon it will have several lovely lanes when the tandem load of gravel arrives. It is quarried close by.

    Finding insect life far richer here, than any in my previous 55 years living in 2 subdivisions. Who knew?

    Only 4 weeks living on this new property and already clothes I wear into the garden far different. Must wear cowboy boots & jeans….timber rattler. Ironic I had already planned on ripping out all foundation plantings and putting gravel, before knowing of the snake issues.

    Seriously, you should see some of the flying insect dinosaurs here.

    Garden & Be Well, XOT

  3. “It might be an environment that’s more friendly to winged creatures than creeping or crawling creatures.”

    We tore out our grass and planted a food forest, leaving places for native weeds and increasing the good-guy habitat immensely.

    I believe the real reason it works better than grass is because the predatory insects (and toads, frogs, birds, wasps, bees, etc.) have a place to live. Even our annual gardens have a lot less issues these days.

  4. I have the same amount of turf area (well maybe a little less. Beds have an amazing ability to expand) and I have had very few Japanese beetles the last 4 or so years. They go in cycles of about 5 years, or so I read on I believe THE OSU extension site. I’m due.
    And Tara, more satisfying than squishing a white grub is crunching a Japanese beetle on my raspberries. Just remember which is the crunching hand and which is the munching hand.

  5. I completely believe the turf grass/Japanese beetle correlation due to my experience in my current neighborhood (I live at the corner of Mow & Blow). I have never seen so many of those stupid things. While I’m reducing my turf grass slowly, my neighbors will never give theirs up because the lawn looks so nice next to their giant, bare piles of mulch. I’ve been experimenting with some ways to keep them off my most fragile plants, and using oil of oregano diluted in water. My roses seem to be less ravaged than in the past (they are my grandmother’s roses so I’m sentimental) but they blindsided me with an attack on my green beans and I just didn’t notice in time. Next year I’ll know.

  6. I live in Avon, NY just south of Rochester. You’re lucky to have escaped the red lily beetles so far. I have almost no oriental lilies left after 4 or 5 years of battling them. The beetles are fairly easy to hand pick, but so prolific it’s hard to keep up with them. It’s the larvae that are really disgusting and do the most damage. They can strip a stalk of leaves in two days. They also attack the frittalarias.

    As far as Japanese beetles, after two years of virtually no beetles, they have returned with a vengeance this year.
    Nearly deleafed a newly planted Sycamore tree.

    • Miss Pat, I’m out east of you in Farmington. The lily beetles have been horrendous these last 5 or 6 years. This was the first year they’ve been little in evidence, and they even left my frits largely alone, so maybe they’re migrating westward. Who knows? As to Japanese beetles, if you haven’t already done this, try planting peonies adjacent to any plant they love. It’s a marvelous natural control measure. You won’t be rid of them entirely, but you’ll notice a marked decrease in the population!

  7. Watch out for the R L beetle on your native Solomon Seal. I moved a white dish pan with soapy water around under a patch of Solomon Seal, shaking the leaves. This caused the beetles to drop – upside down which is their defense. ( I find that I cannot grab them easily like the Japanese and tarnished beetles.) In no time there were 40-50 of those villains floating.
    Then I sprayed with water, Canola oil, dish soap and a few tablespoons of ammonia. I repeated about 4 days later. It worked but I know they will be back next year. I live outside of Albany and first noticed them here a year ago. I have read that these horrors have been known to attack nicotianas and hosta. Fortunately, I have not seen that – yet. No lawn at all here and all pretty much in harmony but for the invaders.

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