“If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive.”
This old Quaker saying attests to the role of spiders in controlling insect pests in organic gardens. These and many other predatory insects can keep your garden happy and healthy all summer long.
There are a number of other predators considered beneficial to your garden because they are natural eaters of insect pests that plague our plants. For example, praying mantids are aggressive eaters of just about every bug they can catch. Ladybugs are notorious for consuming aphids from the leaves of plants. These good bugs are the gardener’s friend because they are directly linked to a proper balance of predator and prey.
An infestation occurs when a single kind of insect flourishes to abnormally massive populations because natural control organisms have vanished. Such disappearance often follows the use of chemical pesticides, and even some botanically based ones such as pyrethrin. When broadcast over flowers or food plants, they kill most everything, even pollinating bees. In the aftermath, a few pests enter your garden and then reproduce in prodigious numbers because no predators are left to thin them out.
It’s vital that you learn to identify the major players in this age-old drama before applying any sort of controls. There’s a tendency for new gardeners to see bugs and freak out because they think such a presence spells the end of their crops. The opposite may, in fact, be true. If those bugs are predators, you’re in a great place. If they’re plant-damaging earwigs, squash bugs, aphids, scale or caterpillars, then you need more predators.
At GardenInsects.com, there’s an excellent, well-illustrated list of the most common plant pests as well as the beneficials that prey on them. You want to protect these good bugs.
Most garden centers carry live beneficial insects during the growing season. Buy them to release to pump up your predator populations. Ladybugs are the most fun for you and the kids to learn this important lesson, as they hunt down aphids with a vengeance. You can also buy hard egg cases for mantids that you set in a protected location until they hatch out a gathering of hungry nymphs. These spread out through the garden to consume all the undesirables.
If you’re unfortunate enough to have an infestation large or small, there are least-toxic steps to follow before releasing predators.
1 Wash the entire plant after sunset so the water doesn’t burn the leaves in direct sun. This dislodges aphids and eggs of many undesirables before they can hatch. Where it’s dry or dusty, you may discover webby evidence of spider mites hiding on the backs of leaves. Make sure to spray water from the ground up to get them, too.
2 Insecticidal soap is the universal nontoxic pest control you can buy in the organic section of the garden center. You can also find recipes for homemade insecticidal soap online. Soap attacks the nervous system of insects, with no harmful residue.
3 Apply biopesticide to fight caterpillars that can hatch out suddenly into huge colonies able to defoliate a pepper overnight. Any brand of BT applied to the foliage will introduce a specific bacteria that kills all caterpillars, including hornworms. Once the worms eat some leaves with the bacteria, it causes stomach atrophy and they die quickly. Again, no toxicity to humans or animals.
Don’t go for poison at the first sight of bugs in your garden. Instead, go online to find out what you’re dealing with, and then read on to find out how best to protect or destroy them naturally.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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