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Creepy Calling

[whitespace] bugs Woman brings bugs into the sterile environment of the corporate office cubicle

By Will Harper

PLANT LADY Kim Parker always keeps a cold pack handy. This is because the larvae and eggs must be chilled just right. The low temperatures function as bug cryogenics, slowing down the aging process and preventing her prized cargo from hatching in an untimely fashion. When she's ready, Parker allows the unborn critters to be unfrozen and reanimated. Within 12 hours, they'll be transported to building-bound ficuses and palms threatened by evil spider mites and other leaf-munchers.

Milpitas-based interior landscaper Parker buys "good bugs"--like ladybugs and wasps without stingers--and brings them into buildings. She is, in some ways, the opposite of a regular exterminator with a canister of poison. She brings in good bugs to hunt and kill the "bad bugs" like spider mites, which destroy the plants Parker lovingly calls "clean-air machines."

To Parker, the bug solution makes good health sense compared to chemical pesticides, especially inside air-conditioned buildings where air is recycled and recirculated.

At first, she acknowledges, her corporate clients are circumspect about the idea of bringing insects inside their pristine glass castles. But Parker assures them that her bugs don't bug, er, bother people or make unwelcome appearances on keyboards or tuna sandwiches. They're specialists who only want to eat other bugs, she says.

"Initially, the feedback is, 'Will that work?' Then they ask, 'Will we be bothered?' Yes, it works, and the bugs will stay where the food source is," she says.

She must be pretty persuasive. Her business has grown from a one-woman operation in 1980 to a million-dollar enterprise with high-powered clients throughout the valley.

The 42-year-old redhead prides herself on being unconventional. She grew up in the frozen tundra of Minnesota--170 miles north of Fargo--where she had little contact with or interest in the plant world. She emigrated to San Jose in the '70s in her 1965 Dodge Dart, looking for work. As serendipity would have it, she landed a sales job for a local plant company, where she learned her craft and decided to go into business for herself.

But Parker wanted to do things her way. "Since I started the company," she says, leaning back in her office chair, revealing her brass leaf-shaped earrings accentuated by a pink lapis stone, "I decided we were going to do it differently than anyone had done it before."

Her first risk was to use only a subsoil irrigation system to water the plants instead of just sending a gardener out with a bucket. The system costs more up front, she concedes, but cuts maintenance in half.

Then in the mid-'80s, farmers started experimenting with a biologically based, nontoxic pesticide: other bugs. Parker, looking for environmentally friendly alternatives to chemical pesticides, thought the novel pest management could work indoors, too. She's been using the bug-eat-bug system with success ever since.

Still, not everyone in the interior-landscape design business is all abuzz about using bugs to protect their plants.

Tony Caruso, division manager for Decorative Plant Services, says his company uses bugs in few installations. Caruso says the bug system works well in large atriums but not so well in a smaller office setting. And he recalls a few accidents where misdirected predator insects caused someone to bug out. "At the Hyatt Regency there were times when a ladybug would land on a person [who was] eating a meal."

Licensed plant doctor Ralph Zingaro argues that predator bugs won't do the job alone. "Predator bugs are just a piece of the puzzle," Zingaro says. "To look at them as a pest-control system is unrealistic. They have to be supplemented by [other pest killers]."

For indoor plant systems, Zingaro recommends using predator bugs in conjunction with a nontoxic oil similar in consistency to baby oil. The oil causes bad bugs to get all gooed up but doesn't hurt plant-friendly bugs, he says.

Parker acknowledges that sometimes she must resort to chemical pesticides in extreme cases when plants are being overrun by bad bugs. But she'd rather not. The good bugs make plants more human-friendly in the sense that they don't threaten human health, she says.

And Parker, surrounded by palm and cactus trees and other plants in her office, believes humans need plants around them. There have even been studies showing that the presence of plants makes employees more productive.

"Up until the past few hundred years, we have been outdoor creatures," Parker waxes philosophic, dressed in her knit white top decorated with roses. "There is an innate longing in our spirits to have the company of nature."

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From the July 2-8, 1998 issue of Metro.

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