I was recently out in Colorado, and I was just amazed at all of the wild Lupine growing. Everywhere I looked there were stretches of pale blue and rich purple flowers, and that reminded me of something very obvious that is also very easy to forget in this day and age. It reminded me that long, long before pesticides and fertilizers were around, Mother Nature had come up with her own system for plants to grow, thrive, and flourish. If you’ve ever been in the forest, a field of wild flowers, even just in your own backyard, you can see that system in all of the beautiful things doing perfectly fine on their own. To truly help your garden thrive, and to avoid the use of chemicals, take a lesson from nature and try tapping into the environmentally friendly system of beneficial insects and companion planting.
You probably know what you don’t want in your garden, but do you know what you do want? It will all depend on where you live and what you’re growing, but there is a myriad of insects that you can attract to your yard with various shrubs and plants. A little bit of research on your zone can give you more detail, but below are a few common insects that are helpful for gardens. The list isn’t terribly long, as companion planting is covered in this article as well, but it gives an introduction of the idea.
Before you go chasing bees away, remember that their hard work results in the flowers and food that you love surviving. Cross-pollination/pollination keeps crops and flowers healthy, diverse, and growing in new places, and also helps your plants propagate. One-third of our food supply is dependent on bees, and they give a healthy boost to the economy as well. In the U.S. alone $15 billion dollars a year in crops are pollinated by bees, this includes apples, almonds, cucumbers, alfalfa, berries…you name it. Also in the U.S., they produce roughly $150 million in honey annually. Their value goes far beyond monetary of course, but it shows just how much we really depend on them. Another thing to keep in mind is that populations are decreasing, so anything to help them out is always a plus.
What they like
This is a brief list of plants/herbs/flowers/trees that bees find attractive. There are many options, so it isn’t hard to find one to suit your taste. Keep in mind that Bees aren’t color-blind, and they actually prefer blue, purple, yellow, and white flowers. They also like ‘foraging’ in sunny areas, and are often times more responsive to native plants they are familiar with.
These friendly looking bugs may be pleasant to us, but they are aphids and a blackfly’s worst nightmare. One ladybug that lives for a year can eat over 5,000 aphids, so if you find them infesting a plant, don’t douse it with chemicals. If you have ladybugs, once they reach the plant, they will devour them quickly. If you find you are having a hard time attracting them, you have the option of ordering them online and releasing them into your garden (doing so at dusk will minimize the number that fly away.) Also, you can drape a light netting or mesh over an infested plant and release the ladybugs beneath it-it won’t take them long to find the food.
What they like
-Nettle (which you can use for tea)
-Water (this isn’t a plant, but watering your garden helps them stay put)
Butterflies and flowers were made for one another-as an old French poet once said “The butterfly is a flying flower, The flower a tethered butterfly.” Not only are they a joy to watch, but butterflies help pollinate your garden and keep it growing and reproducing. Butterfly gardens are also a great way to introduce youngsters to gardening, the importance of which can never be underestimated.
What they like
4. Green lacewings
These delicate, slow moving night-time feeders eat mainly nectar as adults, but as larvae, they have the nickname “aphid lion.” Available as eggs, these guys are less likely to wander then ladybugs, and a single larva can eat up to 200 aphids a week! Provided there are enticing plants for the adults, they can be enticed to stay and reproduce to cut down on the aphids in your garden. They will lay their eggs off the ends of a plant with aphids to give the larva a good meal when they hatch, and will also eat certain mites and whiteflies as well.
What they like
5. Big-eyed Bug
Not to be confused with the true chinch bug, which is a pest, a big-eyed bug are hardy insects that can survive in a wide variety of habitats, and eat pests such as spider mites and other small insects like whiteflies, cabbage loppers, aphids. While not as pretty as a butterfly, they have hearty appetites and do well at devouring their meals! Another bonus is that they eat insects at all life stages-not just as larvae or adults. Although not terribly common, the big-eyed bug will feed on some nectar to sustain themselves if food is scarce.
What they like
A lot of things in the daisy family appeal to them.
Companion planting is a method of controlling/deterring pests by means of one plant acting as a decoy or deterrent for another. You get the benefits of pest control, as well as the plants helping each other directly at times-for example, a taller plant could cast shade for a sun-sensitive one-and often times you attract beneficial insects in the process. Below are just a few examples of well-tested companion plant combinations.
1. Corn & Beans: Beans will attract beneficial insects that prey on corn pests, like leaf beetles and fall armyworms.
2. Cucumbers & sunflowers: A sunflower has sturdy stalks that provide support for cucumber vines, while the cucumbers broad leaves shade the soil and keep it moist, helping to reduce weeds. Some people think that cucumbers yield better when planted with sunflowers.
3. Basil & Tomatoes: Basil and tomatoes are a great match when it comes to eating, and they’re actually a great match when planted together as well. Basil helps ward off the spider mites, aphids, and whiteflies that may harm your tomatoes.
4. Strawberries & lettuces: Lettuce is a shallow growing vegetable, while strawberries stretch their roots farther into the soil. They make good growing companions as they aren’t competing for root space.
5. Legumes & *fill in the blank*: Legumes are one great hope for reducing the need for nitrogen fertilizer. Given that the soil is proper for them, they convert nitrogen gas from the air into a plant available form, and add it to the soil, reducing the need for commercial fertilizer. They can lead to an increase in soil fertility, and are beneficial when grown in companionship with a wide variety of plants.
Companion planting does take a bit of research to make sure that one plant doesn’t actually interfere with another in any way, but it is an incredible way to improve your garden naturally. You can of course expand beyond pairs of two for companions.
What is gardening about, if not re-creating a little bit of that fascinating wild beauty, and benefitting from it, close to home? It seems totally counterintuitive in my mind that you would soak your plants in chemicals to make them look good or “healthy”, especially when we can tap into a natural system that’s been proven (and safe) for ages. Gardens are eco-systems, just look closely at a natural one-would you expect to see it still, and empty? Of course not, look closely and you will see a myriad of life, from birds to bugs and all the animals in between. The next time you are tempted to pull out the pesticides, remember that there is a balance in nature that works beautifully and one that will help your garden truly come alive, if only you take the time to foster it.
By Claire GoodallClaire is a lover of life, the natural world, and wild blueberries. On the weekend you can find her fiddling in the garden, playing with her dogs, and enjoying the great outdoors with her horse. Claire is very open-minded, ask her anything :) Meet Claire
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