Not all bugs are bad. Don’t get me wrong, I have my issues with certain bugs. When I lived in NYC a giant cockroach crawled across my face one night while I was sleeping. Let me tell you, that sh*t changes a person. I slept at the foot of my bed with the lights on for a solid month. I generally do not like bugs in my house because of “the cockroach incident”. If I see one I call my husband immediately and make him get it. The only bug I will allow in my house is spiders. You see, I have a deal with the spiders. If they leave me alone and eat other bugs in my house, I will leave them alone. Much like spiders help eradicate other bugs in the house, certain insects do the same thing in your garden.
Garden pests are a fact of life, and if you have ever had a garden you know that some bugs can be very naughty and will harm your precious plant babies. On the flip side, there are so many beneficial bugs that can fight your battle with garden pests for you. The best news is that it is relatively easy to attract these little buddies to your garden and once they are there they will usually stay as long as there is a steady food source. Before I go into further detail, lets talk about the plants themselves.
Plants: The first line of Defense
Here I’m talking about pesticide-free, organic plants. Plants will react defensively when attacked by pests. They do things like alter their leaf chemistry to become less nutritious to the pests. They also release certain chemicals into the air that will attract the “good guy” bugs that will help them destroy the pests that are attacking them. So basically, the plants “talk” to the beneficial insects and ask them for help. I know, Mother Nature is so cool, right? This is why I advocate using good quality organic soil and compost when starting your garden. Strong, healthy soil will produce strong, healthy plants that can better defend themselves against garden pests.
Now, let’s get crazy and take this one step further, then I promise I will move onto bugs. If you start with seeds that were taken from plants grown locally or in your region you are giving yourself an even bigger advantage over pests. Plants can also “learn” their environment and adapt to it accordingly. Seeds taken from local or regional plants are more likely to have been exposed to pests that are native to your area and will know how to better defend themselves. Another great tactic is to save seeds from your own garden. Take them for the strongest, best producing plants and next season your plants will be that much better off from the get go.
Bad Bugs, Bad Bugs, whatcha gonna do?
Okay, bugs. We will start with the naughty ones. Depending on where you live and what kind of weather occurs during your growing season (i.e. too much rain, not enough rain, lots of heat and humidity, etc) you will most likely be exposed to a number of garden pests that can vary from year to year. Here are some examples of garden pests that I have had experience with both in NY and OH:
- Aphids, slugs, snails, cabbageworms, tomato hornworms, caterpillars, squash bugs, cucumber beetles, corn earworms, and potato bugs
The best way to spot these little jerks is just by checking your plants regularly. These bugs will live on and feed off of your plants. They won’t just fly around your plant and visit; they will take up residence, make themselves at home, lay eggs, and slowly destroy your little baby. If you are growing an organic garden pests are unavoidable, but the good news is that you can do a few things proactively to help keep the pests to a minimum.
Super Hero Bugs to the Rescue!
There are three types of beneficial bugs that you want to attract to your garden. Let’s break it down:
- Pollinators: Such as honeybees, native bees, and butterflies. These bugs do not actually attack the pests, but they are still very important to your garden. Once your plants flower, they will pollinate or fertilize them. This helps food-producing plants to be more productive. And if you want to save seeds from your plants, you need these little guys.
- Predators: Such as ladybugs, hoverflies, and lacewings. These bugs will eat garden pests. For example, ladybugs love to eat aphids and so do their larvae. Yummy!
- Parasites: Certain types of wasps and flies fit into this category. These bugs will basically lay their eggs on garden pests such as caterpillars, tomato hornworms, and cabbageworms. Their larvae will then feed off of their hosts’ bodies essentially destroying them from the inside out. Super gross, but effective.
Attracting these Tiny Heroes to your Garden
The best way to attract these helpful bugs is by providing a food source of nectar and pollen, aka flowers. Native plants are great for this because they are easy for the bugs that are native to your area to recognize. You can make life easy and plant a variety of perennial flowers in and/or around your garden. These are hardy flowers that don’t require a lot of extra care and they will come back on their own year after year. Pick a variety of flowers that bloom at different times during the season. This will help attract and keep beneficial bugs in your garden all season long.
Here’s what I currently have around my garden:
- Black Eyed Susans: these bloom early summer thru fall. They are a perennial, so they will come back every year and they spread easily. You can start with a few and watch them grow year after year.
- Wild Geraniums: Also, perennials, these late spring bloomers will keep their flowers for around 6 weeks. After which they will drop their seeds which will help them spread the following year.
- Prairie Milkweed: Similar to common milkweed, but will tolerate full sun better. These are another perennial that blooms late spring to early summer. They will spread easily, but aren’t as aggressive as common milkweed.
- Purple Coneflowers: Perennials that bloom in summer. These spread very easily and are relatively hardy. You can dig up and move around clumps once established.
- Sedum: Yet another perennial, are you sensing a theme here? There are many varieties of sedum, I have the Autumn Joy variety. These bloom in late summer/early fall and they are very hardy. I have dug mine up and moved them around so many times and they just don’t care.
In addition to these perennials, I almost always plant both marigolds and nasturtium in my garden. They are annuals and are great companion plants for many veggies and will help attract beneficial bugs.
Once you have attracted these little bug friends, they will be close by when your vegetable plants send out their “help me” signal and they will swoop in and do their jobs. If you have a small infestation of pests it might be a good idea to try to tolerate them to see if the beneficial insects will come to your aide.
That’s it. These bugs will be your army of defense against pests and all you have to do is get them to the party by planting some pretty flowers for them to feed off of. Once you have established this little ecosystem your work and involvement is pretty minimal. Just keep an eye on the plants to make sure the pests don’t get out of control.
Thanks for hanging in there with me guys. I know this was a long post with a lot of information, but its pretty amazing stuff isn’t it? If you are as fascinated as I am and want to learn more about different types of pests and beneficial bugs, as well as more info on which plants and flowers specifically attract each type of good guy bug check out these articles: