GARDENERS’ BEST FRIENDS: Beneficial Insects and Other Friendly Critters

“You’re kidding! There’s such a thing as a good bug?”

We tend to think of all garden predators as enemies. Not so. Entomologists (insect specialists) tell us there are actually only ten or twelve insects or pests that cause problems in a vegetable garden, the worst being cutworms, aphids and slugs. In contrast, there are hundreds of different kinds of insects and other garden helpers that befriend gardeners.

By avoiding or reducing pesticide use, gardeners can protect those predators which actually improve the condition of gardens. In addition to providing food for birds, good bugs help break down organic matter to enrich the soil, pollinate crops, and give us honey and beeswax. Many of the good insects are parasitic and eat the bad ones. Insect-eating insects are an important factor in controlling the population of pest species.

Garden predators which actively feed on damaging organisms are often called “beneficial insects.” Here are a few examples of gardeners’ friends.

Ladybugs and their larva (sometimes called “grubs”) have big appetites for aphids. These oval-shaped, bright colored, spotted insects will reproduce in your garden if the alligator-shaped larvae is left alone to develop. You can purchase ladybugs, or lady beetles, as they are sometimes called, by mail or in a garden store and then release them in your garden.

Ladybugs are strongly attracted to marigolds and damp mulch. Other flowers, especially ones with small or flat flowers like sweet alyssum and daisies, attract ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Gardeners will have more success with ladybugs if the insects are allowed to hatch in the garden.

Ground Beetles come in a variety of kinds and sizes, usually ½ to 1½ inches long. They have hard forewings that protect the abdomen, hindwings, long legs, and prominent mouthparts. Beetles eat garden pests including moths, cutworm larvae and slugs. The beetle usually feeds at night and hides under sod or logs during the day.

Lacewings are either green or brown with golden eyes, long antennae, and finely veined wings held tent-like over the body. Their larva are 3/8 inch long with flattened, wedge-shaped bodies and long sickle-shaped jaws. Adult lacewings feed mostly on nectar but larval lacewings eat aphids and other small insects, mites and insect eggs.

Syrphid Flies, sometimes called hover flies because of the way they pause in mid-air, are usually black and yellow and resemble yellowjackets or bees. The adults eat pollen and nectar but the wrinkled, fleshy, brown or green maggots feed on aphids.

These and other helpful insects, such as dragonflies, wasps, and centipedes, are particularly vulnerable to insecticides, in many cases, more so than pest species. In order to avoid destruction of these good bugs, use pesticides only when absolutely necessary and choose narrow spectrum types, those formulated for specific pests.

In addition, other friends of the gardener include birds, earthworms, and garter snakes.

Birds can be real troupers in eating unwanted garden pests. Although you may want to use bright flags to keep birds out while your garden is sprouting tender new shoots, as soon as possible welcome birds into the garden area. They love to feast on bugs and will help rid your garden of unwanted insects.

Earthworms ingest organic matter such as decaying leaves, roots, and weeds. The castings earthworms leave in their wake are rich in minerals and the granular substance improves soil structure.

Garter snakes consider slugs a treat. They’ll even eat slug eggs. The garter snake has three stripes, one on the back and one on each side. Encourage snakes to take up residence in your garden by providing warm, protected places, such as a compost pile.

Learn to recognize “the good guys” in your garden. Remember: if you eliminate beneficial bugs and other helpers, you inherit their job.

A Vegetable Garden: Is it Worth the Hassle?

There’s nothing like the thrill of picking crunchy carrots or juicy red tomatoes right out of your own garden, or being able to by-pass the grocery store’s produce department because you’ve “grown your own.” But is having a vegetable garden a big hassle? Is it really much of a savings? Can only people with lots of time on their hands manage a successful garden? Do you need a lot of space?

With planning, gardening can be rewarding and yet not consume much time or space. For one thing, you can be selective with the types of vegetables you grow, choosing only low-hassle, high-yield products. Examples of high-yield vegetables that furnish a lot of food per plant are tomatoes, broccoli, spinach, green beans, peas, cucumbers, and zucchini. If you grew no more than these, you would enjoy a good supply of vegetables. Even if you only have space for tomatoes, gardening can be tremendously satisfying.

Health-wise, growing your own veggies ensures that you’re getting all the nutrients possible from your product because they are picked when ripe. Also, you have control over what sprays, insecticides, etc. have been used.

Money-wise, it most certainly can be a savings. For a very reasonable price, you can purchase starter vegetables in pots. Or, you can start your vegetables with even lower cost by growing them from seed. For instance, one package of snap peas or green bean seeds provides enough for our family with plenty extra to share with neighbors. We usually start our tomatoes from starter plants and all other vegetables are grown from seed.

I no longer care to preserve vegetables by canning, but I do blanch (briefly boil or steam and plunge into ice water) green beans, peas and broccoli and freeze them in meal-size portions. I cook tomatoes, sometimes with zucchini, green pepper and onion, and then freeze containers of the stewed tomatoes for casseroles, spaghetti, or for a tomato side-dish. This may take a few minutes during harvest season, but saves money, time and effort in the winter months.

Vegetables need plenty of sunshine for strong, steady growth, so plant your garden where it will receive at least six hours of sunshine each day. Also, avoid planting in a windy spot as wind will dehydrate plants, requiring more water.

Adding compost–grass clippings, vegetable and fruit scraps–to your garden is a good way to build up mineral-rich soil. We dig a hole in an open spot in our garden each week and dump compost material into it. The next week we dig a new hole, covering the previous hole with the extra soil. It’s amazing how quickly the food scraps are absorbed into the soil.

Mulching is also a helpful aid to gardeners. Grass clippings, leaves, straw, or hay placed around the plants allow water to enter the soil, but keep the soil from drying out. Mulch also keeps weeds under control. Make sure that any materials used for compost and mulch are pesticide and herbicide free. Compost and mulching material cost nothing, take little time to prepare, and adds to your garden’s efficiency.

What about rototilling? An established garden doesn’t need rototilling. If you’re creating a new garden plot, rototilling will make your work easier. After one or two growing seasons, turning the soil with a shovel isn’t difficult. Whether you use a shovel or a rototiller, the goal is to mix and loosen the soil, allowing the plant roots to spread to obtain nourishment.

What about watering? This is a tough question to answer without knowing specifically the location and soil conditions to be considered. One rule of thumb: water thoroughly, but infrequently. Newly planted vegetable plants and seeds need watering more frequently than established, larger plants. Mature vegetable plants don’t like too much water, but they can’t thrive on too little moisture, either. Water your plants before they begin to droop.

Don’t sprinkle in the heat of the day, water evaporates quickly and it’s a waste of water. A soaker hose works well in a garden and is a water and time saver.

Investing a little time planning your garden and you’ll find growing your own vegetables fun and economical.

Pass the peas, please.