As I was getting ready to chop down my basil plants so they wouldn't go to seed and grow all over my garden, I heard buzzing sounds all around me. As I looked around, I saw bees flitting from flower to flower of the basil. What was I doing? Trying to keep the basil from reseeding itself was taking away a very important part of nature's process.
I have worked so hard to make sure I never use pesticides on my garden. My goal is to garden as naturally as possible by attracting good bugs to my garden to take care of the bad bugs. So far, with a little patience, it seems to be working (except for the squash bugs this year). I knew I had to take a step back and look at everything that I have been doing to make sure that I am not inadvertently driving away the insects that will be helpful to me.
There are different beneficial insects that you will find in your garden. There are predators, parasitoids and pollinators.
Predators are bugs that eat other bugs. For example, ladybugs, lacewings, beetles and wasps are predatory insects. I noticed an aphid infestation on my tomato plants earlier in the season. Instead of spraying, I waited. Not too long after the aphids showed up, the ladybugs appeared. Ladybugs will eat insects during the larvae stage as well as the adult stage, so be sure not to accidentally kill the ladybug larvae.
Parasitoids are insect larvae that feed off of or live on or in an insect host. A common example of this that I have seen in my own garden is the Braconid wasp feeding off of Tobacco Hornworms. Hornworms will devour tomato plants and tomato fruit in no time at all without human or insect intervention. The wasp lays eggs inside the hornworm. As the eggs go through their developmental stages, they feed off of the hornworm and end up weakening it and finally killing it.
Pollinators are another category of beneficial insects. Pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths and wasps move pollen from one part of a flower of a plant to another part to fertilize the flower so that it will produce a fruit or vegetable. These insects play a very important role in helping to create our food. It is important for us to make sure they have a good habitat to be able to thrive.
So how do you get all of these beneficial insects into your garden? You can buy beneficial insects like ladybugs and praying mantises, but this is risky. If you choose this option, make sure you get the right insects for your area. Also, be sure that you have the right habitat for the insects you buy; otherwise, they will leave to find another home.
A better way to get the beneficial insects into your garden is to provide them with a habitat that will attract them and give them what they need to thrive in your garden.
When you see damage from insects happening in your garden, it can be really scary. You put so much work into planting and tending the seeds. When you notice bites taken out of a leaf, you don't want to come back the next day to see the entire plant has been eaten. Trust me, I have had many panic attacks thinking that my whole garden would be devoured by insects. This has never happened. Usually what happens is I wait a few days to a week. The predators start coming in and helping out, and suddenly my plants are healthy and vibrant once again.
Most important, do your best not to use pesticides. There are pesticides that say they are safe for bees. You can find organic pesticides and natural pesticides. There are all other means to justify to ourselves that it's okay to spray our plants with something to kill the critters we don’t want. But there are hidden (and sometimes not so hidden) costs to spraying our plants, no matter how natural or organic the pesticide claims to be. Spraying pesticides can impact your plants, your soil and the habitat you have created. Please, please try your very best to never use pesticides. If you absolutely have to, aim for something more natural like insecticidal soap (store bought) or Bt.
Provide beneficial insects with lots of herbs and flowers along with the vegetables in your garden. Insects will either feed on the pollen and nectar or will use the plants as shelter. It's a good idea to leave some of these plants standing through winter to give the beneficial insects a home for the winter as well.
Mulch has many benefits for your garden. It helps with moisture control and weed suppression. It also gives beneficial insects a nice home. Whether you are using straw, hay, wood chips or anything else, leaving it on your garden all year. Allowing it to decompose will feed your soil with needed organic material. Let leaves that fall mix in to keep it natural and give insects the perfect home.
I like to plant extra vegetables to make sure that if I have some damage from insects, weather or animals in my garden, I will still end up with plenty of plants to provide a harvest. If you have any extra space, consider planting a few extra plants as your insurance.
Another thing I keep in mind when planting flowers and herbs is that they really can be just for the insects. I always think I need to be harvesting all the time and not letting my herbs go to waste. I remind myself that they aren't only for my benefit but for the benefit of the insects. If I let them go a little wild in the garden, it’s no problem. Every time I see the bees buzzing through, I am reminded that the garden is not just a means to provide food to my family. It is a way to contribute to nature's processes and give a little back to the earth.
Some of my favorite plants to help attract beneficial insects in my garden are:
Herbs such as: basil, dill, cilantro, oregano, yarrow and borage.
Flowers such as: cosmos, zinnias, sunflowers and alyssum.
If you want to learn how to grow some herbs in your garden, check out these posts: