You don’t have to love all bugs, of course, but it helps to develop a fondness for many of them. You still can hate slugs, tomato hornworms, aphids and other nasty little critters that just come and feast in your garden and leave a mess behind.
In the natural scheme of things, every creature has its predator, and it is those so-called beneficial insects that you will come to love. They are beneficial because they eat the bugs we don’t like and they don’t make a nuisance of themselves.
One of those perspective shifts you have to make when switching from chemical to natural gardening is getting over the idea that all bugs are evil. Our brains have been washed so that we automatically think, “Bug! Kill it!” But in fact, most bugs perform essential tasks for gardeners. Bugs are like teenagers. Some have to be kept tightly under control. Others need encouragement to spread their wings and fly.
The best way to control pests is to have healthy plants, and it is through good gardening practices and a lot of fertility in the soil that healthy plants grow. So, if you find that you have a really bad bug problem, look to your soil. There must be something missing that makes your plants weak and susceptible to predators.
Bugs, like every predator, seek out the weakest to attack. You’ll notice that your big healthy plants have far fewer pests that do much less damage than your puny little weakling plants. The bugs, in this case, are helping you recognize that your soil needs more work.
If you’ve been using chemicals in your garden, those have been designed to kill all bugs. When you kill all bugs, you kill the bad bugs and the good bugs alike, and — here is a sad fact of nature — the bad bugs always come back faster and stronger than the good ones.
You’ll have to help the good bugs along until you reach your goal: a balance between prey and predator. There are a few ways you can do this. First, you are encouraging the good bugs simply by not spraying poison. Second, you can add more bugs to your environment by purchasing ladybugs, praying mantis, lacewings and other beneficials through catalogs, nurseries and insectaries. Third, you can encourage the beneficial insects to stay around by planting their favorite plants. Most beneficials eat bugs in the larval stage but feed on nectar from plants as they mature. If you provide food for the adults, they will still be there to create the voracious young to eat your pests.
The accompanying chart describes various beneficial insects and their prey. Once you begin encouraging beneficials to call your garden home, you will find that nature takes over. Generally in my garden, early in the spring I find aphids on a few plants. About the time I begin to worry, the ladybugs show up and eat enough aphids to keep them from being a problem.
There are some great organic products available along with beneficial insects — called biological controls — that take care of particularly pesky bugs. Bacillus thuringiensis, also more simply known as Bt, is a virus that attacks the digestive systems of caterpillars and kills them. It doesn’t hurt any other creature, including earthworms. Bt comes in liquid or powder form and can be used dry or mixed with water.
You can dust it or spray it with a simple hose-end sprayer on plants that are being attacked and the problem is solved. Bt is invaluable in early spring when caterpillars of all kinds invade the garden and begin defoliating your trees and other plants. It kills every kind of caterpillar from the fierce-looking tomato hornworm to those tiny little nuisances you can never find but know are there because your leaves are disappearing overnight.
There are other biological controls that also work well. I’ve had good luck with a bait for grasshoppers and fire-ant hormones. Products specifically for slugs and snails work great when those slitherers get out of control. Several other Bts are currently available and being developed to attack different pests, and there are various other products available for specific problems.
Remember that these are controls. Your goal is not to wipe out every insect in existence. Your goal is to achieve balance in your garden. Even pests have their place. They destroy unhealthy plants so that you don’t eat them. Caterpillars turn into beautiful butterflies and moths. Use any control only where there is a severe problem. Otherwise, try to let nature take its course.
One of the ways to encourage beneficials to get ahead of the pests is simply by hand-picking some of the pests. Take a jar of soapy water into the garden with you and drop potato bugs into it. Better yet, find some kids to do it for you. Kids love collecting pill bugs, slugs, snails and most other yucky critters. One of the good things about garden pests is that they rarely bite people, so you don’t have to worry about sending your youngsters out to do pest patrol.
In the vegetable garden, you can use row covers to keep bugs away from your young plants. This light-weight woven material keeps out pests, lets in sun and water and protects your plants. You should put it on as soon as your plants are in place. It is light enough to float above the plants without putting any weight on them. For plants that need pollination by insects, you’ll have to remove the cover when blooming begins.
There are lots of other tricks for keeping pests out of your plants. Insecticidal soap works on aphids and other pests. Traps and lures are available for many pests. Think of pest control as an adventure to test your ingenuity rather than as a battle. You can have fun outwitting those little creatures with minimal cost and effort.
Don’t fall back into your old poisoning patterns by substituting natural poisons for synthetic ones. Pyrethrums are naturally derived poisons that are often available in the organic section of the garden center. Skip it. Pyrethrin or pyrethrum is a deadly poison, even if it does come from daisies. It will kill beneficial insects along with pests; it is harmful to fish and other creatures; and it isn't necessary.
It might take a few seasons to arrive at that balance you are seeking in your garden. In the meantime, buy a few beneficial insects, keep the pests under control with organic products and methods, and plant some plants that the beneficials enjoy. You will be rewarded with a nontoxic garden that does a good job of maintaining itself with a minimum of effort in years to come.