Home & Garden

The gardener and the ladybugs

Terri Stephen of Palmetto Bay is a citizen-scientist whose half-acre garden is her laboratory. Since 2000, she has been participating in a scientific research project that documents the whereabouts of ladybugs.

But her work came to a standstill in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew plowed through her area and left only three trees standing. She worked to replace them until Hurricane Wilma in 2005, with winds from the south barreling through like a freight train, culled 15 trees.

“We were hurt in Andrew when everything was stripped bare. It looked like a nuclear war had taken place,” she said. “Then came Wilma, which took out the rest of the garden and made a horrible mess of everything.”

Fences were down, avocado and mango trees were uprooted, and, without nature’s canopy, many of the friendly birds, bugs and other animals that lived in her yard were forced to find shelter elsewhere.

One of her biggest losses was the ladybug population she had so carefully cultivated to help keep her yard healthy. These good bugs eat the bad bugs, so spraying isn’t necessary.

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But like any devoted gardener, she found the silver lining in those storm clouds. “I realized I now had a clean slate in the yard and could do whatever I wanted out there.” And that included enticing the ladybugs to return.

She decided to create what she calls a jungle — a controlled jungle where she could plant whatever caught her eye. She envisioned a jumble of palms, oaks, fruit trees, shrubs, bushes and flowers that would attract birds and butterflies as well as the ladybugs she had come to appreciate. But her jungle had to be neat enough so as not to annoy neighbors in her well-kept community.

Having already replanted her yard twice because of storm damage, she hesitated to spend a lot of money on new landscaping. So instead of buying trees and shrubs, she took them from roadside piles waiting for disposal, collected and planted seeds, or got them at plant giveaways.

For example, banana trees growing along the street on the lot next door were bulldozed after Wilma. “I picked them all up and planted them here,” she said, pointing to a spot by the side fence. She still gets 30 bananas at a time.

At plant giveaways, she got a robellini palm from Palmetto Bay as well as a lychee tree from Miami-Dade County.

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She also has received plants from the families of friends who died and from people who moved to less-tropical locales. She names the plants after the people who gave them to her.

Stephen points out a bougainvillea she named “Carmen” after the neighbor over the back fence who gave her the plant and later died. “It keeps our relationship alive for me every time I see the flowers. It feels like a nice thing,” she said.

She also appreciates the bromeliads she got from her friend Karen, who moved to North Carolina. “Those plants are wild and crazy just like her,” Stephen said. She uses the cut flowers in arrangements she makes for her Episcopal church, where she is director of the Altar Guild.

After she planted the scarlet milkweed that a friend gave her, Monarch butterflies moved in. That was the beginning of her butterfly garden. Today she has red pentas, thryallis, plumbago, ruella (Mexican petunia) and a prickery wild lime that attracts swallowtail butterflies. “It’s really something,” she said.

Because she wants to keep her garden natural, she avoids chemical fertilizers and insecticides. She lets the garden mulch itself with fallen leaves, she composts plant trimmings and she encourages ladybugs.

She became partial to ladybugs after reading about the Lost Ladybug Project in a magazine at her doctor’s office. She learned that researchers at Cornell University were trying to track and document ladybug populations throughout the country.

The scientists use the information to track the movements of ladybugs, which are known for eating aphids, mealy bugs, mildew, mites, scale insects and even whiteflies.

When Stephen noticed the ladybugs in her garden came in many different colors and spot patterns, she visited the project’s website (lostladybug.org) and became a citizen-scientist.

There are 6,000 species of ladybugs worldwide, 450 in the United States and 98 that can be found in Florida. As instructed, Stephen took photos of the bugs she saw and posted them along with their locations.

Almost 1,000 of her photos of ladybugs are online, documenting almost 20 varieties. These include the metallic blue Curinus coeruleus and the Coelophora inaequalis, which is orange with black spots.

As we walked her land on a hot summer morning, Stephen quickly spotted a firebush with curling leaves. Later she pointed out a fire spike that seemed to be in distress. On closer inspection, we could see tiny white bugs attacking the plants.

But instead of getting the insecticide, she continued studying the tops and bottoms of the leaves until she found a ladybug pupa as well as adult ladybugs enjoying the bad-bug buffet.

“When I see a problem, I don’t worry because I know the ladybugs will be on it,” said Stephen, who is a Master Gardener.

Stephen learned to garden as a youngster in Connecticut, where she lived across the road from her grandparents’ farm. Her grandfather, a Wall Street accountant, bought a rundown chicken farm at the beginning of the Great Depression. He knew there would be financial problems and wanted a fallback.

“At that time he didn’t know dirt and chickens from nothing,” she said. But it turned out to be “a true Green Acres story.” Her grandparents prospered selling eggs to businesses and hospitals.

She remembers her grandmother going out to pick raspberries early in the morning. Then she would skim the cream off the top of the milk can and pour it onto the berries. “That was breakfast, and it was heaven on earth,” Stephen said.

With her three kids now living at home and her mother with her for health reasons, Stephen finds her nature-filled jungle makes a good retreat.

But forget about relaxing out there. You are more likely to find her pulling weeds and pruning instead of sitting under the queen and foxtail palms. Or she might grab her camera and document a new variety of ladybug.

“Sometime it feels like a war between me and this jungle, but, for now, I’m winning,” she said.

Garden workshops with Terri Stephen

 Master Gardener Terri Stephen, in partnership with UF/Miami-Dade County Extension, will offer two free gardening workshops: Raised Bed Gardening will be held Sept. 12; and From Garbage to Compost will be on Oct. 10.

Both classes are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. at Thalatta Estate, 17301 Old Cutler Rd., Palmetto Bay. For information, call 305-259-1234; for reservations, email fcarmona@palmettobay-fl.gov or vbinns@palmettobay-fl.gov.

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