Ravenous insects can wreak havoc on your garden; slugs, caterpillars, mealybugs, and root maggots will chew through leaves and stunt growth, destroying months of hard work and laying waste to tomatoes, peppers, and beans.
Of course, pesticides are one solution to your pest problems, but you may want to avoid the potential damage they cause to healthy soil microbes, as well as animals and people.
Your garden is an opportunity to connect with nature, so it makes sense to use a natural approach to keeping it healthy.
The best way to maintain a hearty, pest-free space is to invite good garden bugs to live near your plants. These beneficial insects can control nuisances and promote pollination to ensure your plants are healthy and productive all season long.
Pollinators: Nature’s Fertilizers
When it comes to pollination, most people think of bees, and for good reason. Some plants, like cherries and blueberries, rely almost exclusively on bees for fertilization and seed production. In fact, bees are responsible for pollinating the majority of the plants on earth.
There are, however, other insects that provide assistance to the bees in your yard; butterflies and moths are lovely additions to any landscape, especially when you know they are pollinating and fertilizing your blooms. And believe it or not, flies and wasps are also helpful in this regard; flies are second only to bees when it comes to pollination, so it’s a good idea to keep all of those buzzing bugs around.
The best way to encourage pollinators to inhabit your garden is to cultivate flowering plants and trees. Lavender, dill, chives, and yarrow will draw butterflies, bees, moths, and flies to your yard, and inevitably lead them to your garden. Just remember that these insects are interested in flowering plants, so set a few extra herbs aside just for them to enjoy. When you prune your herbs, let a few go so that your pollinators can do their work.
Blossoming trees like dogwoods, hawthorns, and Buckeyes will also attract friendly pollinators to your garden and promote a habitat for nature’s fertilizers.
Predators: Natural Pest Control
Another important kind of good garden bugs to encourage into your garden are pest predators; these are insects that feed on the insects that feed on your plants.
If you notice irregular holes, sudden dryness, or a general lack of vigor in your crops, the chances are that an unwelcome guest is helping itself to your garden. These pests can include aphids, earwigs, grasshoppers, and whiteflies, among many others that destroy delicate roots and leaves.
Luckily, pest predators provide a natural defense against these irritations. These beneficial insects can take the form of direct predators, which catch and eat their prey, or parasitoids, which lay their eggs either in or on their host. While these types of bugs employ different techniques, both are extremely effective in controlling irritating and destructive garden feeders.
By far, the most commonly recognized direct predators are lady beetles (you’ve probably heard these called ladybugs). Lady beetles eat soft-bodied insects like aphids, mites, and scale insects. An adult lady beetle eats as many as 50 aphids a day, and their larvae are just as hungry, eating hundreds of aphids before they mature.
Hoverflies, ground beetles, and praying mantis are other direct predators that can promote a healthy garden; small, flowering plants like yarrow, lavender, and mint will draw friendly predators to your yard.
Parasitoid insects can seem like a gnarly bunch, but you should absolutely learn to share your space with them if you want to keep garden pests away. These insects, mostly wasps, lay their eggs either on — or inside — their hosts. First, the female stings the host, paralyzing its victim, then leaves her eggs behind. The larvae then feed on the caterpillar, worm, or another leafminer throughout its early development. Typically, the host is immediately immobilized on insemination, ensuring that it poses no further threat to your plants.
Parasitoids are often included among pollinators since the adults primarily feed off of sugary nectar and pollen. The best way to attract parasitoids to your garden is with plants that flower year-round, such as marigolds, cowpeas, and white clover. Flowering herbs like dill, rosemary, mint, and lavender are also magnets for parasitoid wasps.
Besides growing flowering plants and trees to attract beneficial insects, it’s important to give these bugs a good place to live. Plants that provide ground cover are helpful to beetles, praying mantis, and other direct predators. Consider planting clover, tickseed, cosmos, or daisies near your garden bed to provide cover for your ground-dwelling allies and blooms for your pollinating friends. These plants are a strategic way to add lovely blossoms to your yard while attracting the kind of insects you actually want living there.
Stones, tiles, and mulch are another tactic to provide shelter for pest predators. These landscaping elements give ground beetles places to hide from birds and other predators. Leafy trees and other plants that provide shade will give cooling shelter to parasitoids and keep them in your yard. Water features can also draw beneficial insects, but be careful as they can bring mosquitoes and other problematic pests.
Remember, not every insect that you see in your garden is there to eat your plants. Growers dating back to ancient times have taken advantage of good garden bugs to fertilize their plants and keep harmful pests at bay.
Flowering trees and herbs will keep pollinators, like butterflies and bees, buzzing through your garden and helping your plants reproduce. These plants also attract pest predators, like lady beetles and wasps, that keep harmful insects from devouring your crops before you have a chance to eat them yourself.
Not only will these plants add attractive flowers and fragrance to your garden, they just might bring along some new friends that will keep your garden healthy and bountiful all season long.