I expect my plants to do most if not all the work for me. I expect all my plants to fulfill two or three functions, or even more. That is called stacking functions in the view of permaculture. In my yard, I grow a smaller viburnum, ‘Blue Muffin’. This plant is to be a foundation plant, provide nectar to pollinators as it blooms and food for birds with its ripe berries. For years this plant was infested by aphids. The stress was so great that the flowers would abort and no fruit would be growing. I never let the aphid population reach a critical level to attract predator insects like ladybugs. One year I decided to just wait. Sure enough, when I allowed the aphids to reach that population, the ladybugs came, laid eggs, and the adults and larvae ate the aphids. This would not have happened if I had killed the aphid population. But now I have a ladybug population in my garden and they can move from plant to plant and eat aphids as the aphids appear.
By not interfering or even adding anything as simple as insecticidal soap, we can set up our landscapes to be more self-sufficient. We need to build safe places for our predators to grow and multiply so that they can take care of pests for us.
We can make our gardens very attractive to beneficial bugs by doing just a few easy things. Avoid pesticides, don’t use pesticides at all if you can. If you must use a pesticide, use it early in the morning before pollinators are flying and many bugs are moving. That way you have a better chance of targeting the desired insect and less chance of hurting the innocent or desired bugs. Again, I remind you to read, understand, and follow all label instructions on any pesticide you use.
There are many alternatives to consider before resorting to petroleum based chemicals. Repellents that use fragrance may work to disguise a targeted plant from a pest, or you could use a barrier to bar access. Hot pepper or bad-tasting “repellents” may work for many insects — one bite and they are away. Water sprayed on pests can remove them. Insecticidal soaps, while still chemicals, may be less impactful on your outdoor spaces. Handpicking is always an option — if the insects are large enough. So often, if we see the problem early or even anticipate it, we can avoid using pesticides — and we keep our outdoor spaces safer and save money too. Let the Pest attract the predators another way we can attract those beneficial bugs to our yards is to let the bad bug populations increase enough to entice the good bugs to set up residence in our garden. It may be hard to watch the bad bug population grow and just hope the good bugs show up. But, if you never allow the bad bug population to grow, the good bugs will not show up or stay. Think of it like this: If a ladybug is looking to lay her eggs, which area will she choose? A desert of a place with no food or a garden filled with possibilities of fat aphids and other soft-bodied insects? She will, of course, choose the garden filled with insects for her young to eat.
Usually, if you have a healthy garden environment, allowing the pests to reach that critical level is all you need to do — the predators will come. If, however, your garden is a sterile environment or a monoculture of only one plant (or very few), you may find that this is not the case. There is no place for them, only a place for their food — your pest. To address this, you can take the place of the predator and remove the pest, or you can begin to make your yard more diverse and healthy. It will take time and effort, but you will build a healthy outdoor space where nature will do the harder work and you can have more fun.
Create Insect Homes
Other things beneficial to our gardens are places for the young to grow. Garden debris creates wonderful homes for insects to live in. Consider leaving some small piles of leaves, stones, or twigs around the garden. You can create an insect hotel that can be a wonderful garden sculpture or a hidden feature in the back of your garden. This could consist of a mix of twigs and logs in various sizes with piles of leaves and twigs in various rooms. Design a structure of bricks and boards and fill each niche with different-sized logs and twigs. Bore holes into some of the logs to entice a variety of insects.
In addition, insects are cold-blooded creatures. Place some rocks in areas where they will catch the early sun for insects to sit on and warm up. If you install any Mason bee houses or other insect homes, place them where they are warmed early in the morning and protected from harsh winter winds. If precipitation is heavy in your area make sure the insect homes have some protection from the rains. This same advice applies if you install bat houses. Beekeepers use a similar placement for their beehives.
Those rock piles may also attract some cold-blooded animals that will help in your pest control. Snakes, toads, and lizards all are wonderful insect predators. I understand many people are uncomfortable around these animals, but just make some noise as you head into their part of the yard and they should hide from you. The warm rocks will help them to thaw out on those chilly mornings, and the rocks could be places they want to live or hibernate over winter.
Mulch in the garden is also a great place for insects to hide or live. The mulch allows the soil to hold on to the moisture received and helps mitigate the temperature swings from the sun, keeping plant roots at a more even temperature. Most plants benefit from this. You will find that mulch will become home to many kinds of beetles, centipedes, and, yes, even slugs. The beetles, centipedes, and earwigs are all important in any healthy ecosystem. They help eat the dead insects (or animals) and break down organic matter so it can continue composting. They may be creepy and a little scary but, before you instinctively kill them, I suggest you research what you have and what that insect does.
Before you cover all the soil with mulch, consider leaving some areas mulch free. This is where many native ground bees live. Leave the areas directly under a shrub bare — no mulch should ever touch the stem or trunks of trees, shrubs, or plants anyway. Leaving this area bare means it’s protected from the rains and a bit drier. This is exactly the place a ground bee may enjoy living. They are gentle, solitary creatures who pollinate lots of our native plants and many of our food crops. By leaving this area free for them you may see an increase in your flower or food production.
If you can only plant one tree in your yard, consider an oak. It will support more than five hundred species of caterpillars and butterflies — not to mention all the other insects and birds found there. Every plant and tree should contribute to your landscape in some fashion. If an oak is not for you, perhaps oak wilt is endemic in your area or the soil pH is not conducive to an oak, research which native trees grew there before the area was built up. There are state land use maps that will help with this, or contact a local native plant group or your extension office.
If we increase the number of native plants we grow, we will increase the number of, and the health of, our native insect species. Be prepared to see some insects feeding on these plants. That is one of their functions in the environment you are creating — to be a food source or habitat for the insects you want in your landscape. In my yard, when I see weeds being eaten, I know the plants I am growing for my food are not being eaten — usually, at least, this is how it works.
You can also create housing for birds in your yard. Birds nest at certain heights and in a variety of shrubs and trees, so if your yard contains a variety of plants — some shorter and some taller — you may find more birds nesting. Of course, you can also supply the correctly placed bird houses.
If your landscape has a dead tree that can safely be left standing, please do so for the sake of raptors. These snags will allow the hawks and eagles to perch as they search for prey. The owls will use them at night. Many of our native birds and pollinators nest in cavities in trees. Large trees may support nests of larger birds or at least places for them to perch and search for food. Do what you can to increase the plant diversity in your landscape. By keeping many shrubs, you also allow the songbirds protection from birds of prey.
Provide Food and Water
Insects need water so keep the birdbaths filled. Add floating sticks or twigs so insects, such as bees, can land and get a drink of water without falling in and drowning. Add some moist sand for butterflies to puddle (drink moisture from the moist sand and draw out minerals they need from it). If the water feature on your property is a pond or waterfall, create a very shallow space where plants or sticks are available for insects to land on while they get a drink of water. Of course, make sure all the water is either moving, stocked with fish to eat mosquito larvae, or that you change still containers every two days and refill them with fresh water. Removing standing water also prevents mosquito larvae — the wrigglers — from hatching or attaining adulthood. Keeping water available at all times in your landscape for wildlife will attract many birds, who will eat the bad (and, yes, some good) bugs; other animals such as raptors or owls will enjoy a fresh drink of water, as will frogs or lizards that inhabit your home, and pollinators such as butterflies and bees. This will add dimension to your landscape, and may also head off a common squirrel problem: that of them eating your tomatoes, which is usually motivated by the squirrels being thirsty.
Consider adding a rain garden to your landscape if it works for you. These gardens are meant to function as brief water-holding areas where the first 1/2 inch of rain or so can be held to sink into the soil and renew the aquifer, which cleans the water before it enters our watersheds and renews our groundwater sources. These rain gardens only hold water for twenty-four hours, but during that time they will attract animals to drink and bathe. The plants they grow add more diversity to our landscapes and provide food and building materials for our birds and insects.
Water is your friend in your landscape. Use the water you dump from the containers to water nearby plants. Design your landscape plantings so water-hungry plants are near your water sources. It helps to keep everything more sustainable.
If you want to attract butterflies, provide a food source for their young and plants that provide nectar for the adults. To attract monarch butterflies, grow milkweed for the young and nectar-filled plants such as asters, coneflowers, or liatris for the adult butterflies. This works for all insects — provide the plants or insects they need to feed their young or themselves. All stages of the insect’s life should be provided for. Some of these plants may be more aggressive than you prefer, or not as attractive as you may want. In these cases, place these plants on the outer edges of your landscape or leave a place in your landscape that you seldom visit or maintain — all within the laws of your town or city.
This unmanicured area will soon feature interesting flowers and plants that you never planned for. And soon there will be wildlife, birds, bees, and other insects that find a home there and flourish. This richness will spill over into the maintained area of your landscape and bring a new dimension to the healthy ecoscape you are creating. When you must weed, do so carefully and refrain from using any poisons. Because the plants will be varied, it is unlikely you will see a large infestation of any one insect in this area.
Think About Wind
Another impact we seldom consider is wind. A light breeze for us can be a hurricane for insects. Create some areas in your yard where the wind is slowed. You can do this with partial fencing. A full wooden fence with no holes or places for wind to blow through actually speeds the wind and creates updrafts and downdrafts — the very thing you are trying to avoid. Instead, install a fence with spaces between the boards or plant a variety of shrubs and trees as they too slow or reroute the breezes in your yard. You may find you enjoy this as well as you can sit on your deck or patio without being blown away. If you live in a colder climate, strategically place these structures or shrubs and trees so they break or slow the cold northwest winds that can desiccate or even kill plants. Even without leaves, the branches and twigs will work for this effort. Consider adding a trellis, which will break the wind and slow it down even without a vine on it; a trellis with a flowering vine that attracts your favorite bird or butterfly may be even better.
If your area is subject to intense sun or heat, a shade cloth will ease the stress of the plants, and birds and insects may enjoy a break from the direct sun as well. This cloth can still let in the rain but will just add a bit of protection from the overhead sun. It may even be placed over where you sit and enjoy your garden to allow you to be out in your garden at times that you may have avoided it in the past.
Be Aware of Insect Behavior
I used to have a terrible fear of bees and wasps. I had never been stung; it was simply fear. Then I began to study them. Bees are very beneficial, as we all know, for pollinating our plants. One-third of our food is the direct result of this pollination! They are gentle creatures that only react when threatened. I am an adult human — they are tiny insects — so why should I fear them? Even after being stung by a yellow jacket — hiding in a bag I picked up — the pain was not as bad as I feared, but it was still painful; I knew wasps were much more aggressive.
Again, some research was needed. Bees and wasps are more aggressive in late summer as they frantically forage for protein. During the rest of the spring and summer they are not as aggressive, partly due to the food and nectar freely available during those times and the fact that the hives are being built and populations may be smaller. Then, one day, I found a dead caterpillar on the sidewalk. The yellow jackets were buzzing around. By the next day they had cleaned up most of the dead insect — aha! — another reason to let yellow jackets just be when I could. They are a part of nature’s great cleanup crew, helping recycle all those dead insects and birds. Now I simply ignore them and they seem to ignore me. In fact, I may even be heard to tell them quietly, “There is nothing here for you,” if they are buzzing around a project I am working on — painting, planting, weeding, etc. So far, our truce seems to be holding. I don’t bother them and they don’t bother me. This is not to say you must allow them to build a nest right over your doorway or near where your children or pets play. There is a place for everything and you are entitled to keep yourself and children safe. Even those insects we may label as “bad” at first may really be the good guys. We just need to understand them better.
If someone in the family is allergic to bee stings or has pollen allergies, there are still many flowers you can plant to attract those good bugs and pollinators to your yard. Plant them downwind and far from where the allergic person will be. Many insect-pollinated flowers have pollen that is too heavy to be windblown, and unless the allergic person is sniffing the flowers, she may not be bothered by the allergy.
There are some insects we really don’t want to see in our landscapes at all, a prime example being mosquitoes. To minimize mosquito activity in your yard, make sure to empty any standing water every three days and replace it with fresh water. If you have rain barrels, make sure they are covered so mosquitoes cannot access the water to lay their eggs. Get rid of any incidental standing water that you find on your property. If your climate is humid and mosquitoes are a major problem, you may need to wear repellants or enjoy your garden during the daylight hours when most mosquitoes are not out as much. If you are entertaining outdoors during prime mosquito hours, you may want to burn citronella torches or incense sticks sold for the purpose of repelling mosquitoes. Birds and dragonflies are among the predators of mosquitoes, so making these predators welcome in your yard goes a long way to minimizing the populations. If there are mosquito-related health issues in your area, be sure to follow the guidelines suggested by your local health department.
During the fall, many insects may try to move inside with us to escape the colder weather –Asian lady beetles and box elder bugs are among the most common offenders. Seal up any cracks or holes through which these insects may enter your home. You can also minimize their encroachment by clearing an area around the foundation of your house — a simple bare area of a foot or so between your home’s foundation and the foundation plantings will minimize insects coming in. You can also apply repellents to this area to further deter would be houseguests. If you are bringing inside any plants that spent the summer outside, make sure to wash the pots carefully and spray off any insects from the leaves. Keep these plants away from your other houseplants for three or four weeks to make sure no hitchhikers came in on them.
Ants getting in to the home can be minimized by removing what is attracting them: pet food, for example. These insects lay down scent trails to mark their way to and from their nests, so it is important to wipe any area you find ants with soap and water to destroy these trails. Mint will repel ants also, so a mint spray will work around the foundation or wherever they are entering.
Talk to your neighbors when they compliment you on your gardens. Explain that yes you are growing a wide variety of plants so that you can attract a wide variety of birds and insects rather than just a few. Share the triumphs you have had by doing this — perhaps you don’t see the slug infestations that they have in their yards because you have employed so many birds and insects to help eat those slugs. Or maybe the new butterflies you have seen in your garden are there because of the rain garden plants you have put in. This may cause your neighbors to think about growing some of the same plants and using similar methods that seem to work for you. In this way, you can build insect corridors in your neighborhood. This allows the good bugs to get from one infestation of food to the next. Those connections matter. They increase the health of the good bugs throughout the entire system. You will also see birds using these connections.
It is amazing how, if you give nature a little help, she can turn around almost any pest problem you have. It all is about making your outdoor space unattractive to the pests you don’t want and very attractive to the life forms you do want — including your family, friends, and pets. If you can “fill” the space with good bugs and helpful birds, there is much less space for the problem pests.
More from The Guide to Humane Critter Control:
Reprinted with permissions fromThe Guide to Humane Critter Control: Natural, Nontoxic Pest Solutions to Protect Your Yard and Garden by Theresa Rooney and published by Cool Springs Press, 2017.