I've been gardening and writing about gardening for more than 20 years, yet I find I'm always learning new things about the plants, insects and other critters that call my backyard home. That's the great thing about gardening — it's never boring! I've worked as a landscaper, on an organic farm, as a research technician in a plant pathology lab and ran a small cut-flower business, all of which inform my garden writing. Someone once asked me when I'll be finished with my gardens, to which I replied, "Never!" For me, gardening is a process, not a goal.
When you're deciding how to manage pests in your garden and landscape, keep this in mind: First, do no harm. The vast majority of garden visitors are either helpful or harmless. Get on a first-name basis with as many of them as possible.
Ladybugs, the darlings of the garden, are easy. What other insect do you see emblazoned on t-shirts, garden clogs and kids' pajamas? Sure, ladybugs are beneficial, eating the aphids that might otherwise overwhelm our plants, but if being beneficial is all it takes to become a garden icon, why don't we see parasitic wasps and spiders embroidered on kids' clothes, too?
Let's face it: Ladybugs are popular because they're cute. And we all know not to harm them when we see them on plants. But what most folks don't realize is it's their larvae that do most of the aphid-eating. Do you know what they look like?
Ladybug larva, right, are not especially cute, but they are major aphid eaters. Don't squish these good guys.
How many ladybugs have had their lives cut short because gardeners thought the homely larvae were pests? The point: Learn to identify the insects and other creatures that inhabit your garden — including all their life stages. (The other point: Beauty is only skin deep.)
An adult lacewing, left, and the larval form.
Lacewing larvae won't win any beauty contests either, but they rival ladybug larvae in the aphid-eating department.
If you like butterflies (and who doesn't?) then you should know that their larvae are caterpillars. That means that any pesticides you apply to kill the caterpillar pests (like those cabbageworms eating your broccoli) will also kill butterfly larvae. Learn to identify pest caterpillars, including their eggs, and remember that you can manage many pest caterpillars by hand picking or using row covers to prevent adults from laying eggs in the first place. Use pesticides as a last resort — even organic ones.
If you love monarch butterflies, leave their larvae, right, to munch on milkweed.
If you want black swallowtail butterflies in your garden, share some of your dill, parsley and fennel with their larvae.
Upwards of 95 percent of creatures in our gardens are either beneficial or benign. They go about their business, which may include eating other insects, breaking down organic matter and pollinating flowers.
The pest eaters: In addition to ladybugs, other beneficial insects that help control pest insects include dragonflies; parasitic (non-stinging) wasps; tachinid and syrphid flies; and the colorfully named damsel, assassin and big-eyed bugs.
The decomposers: These are the Rodney Dangerfields of the garden – they don't get no respect. Centipedes, sowbugs and ground beetles break down organic matter, helping release the nutrients to garden plants, and keep us from becoming buried under mountains of fallen leaves.
The pollinators: Bees, moths, butterflies, wasps and beetles all play a role in pollination. And a garden without pollination is a garden without pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, melons, blueberries, apples and nuts, to name a few pollinator-dependent crops.
If you want pumpkins, make your garden hospitable to pollinators, such as these bumblebees.
If you go out of your way to nurture and protect these harmless garden visitors, they'll return the favor by keeping pests in check, pollinating your plants, and entertaining you with their activity.
Toads and spiders help keep insect pests under control.
Be sure to welcome these pest-eaters to your garden:
Gardening Success Guaranteed
Garden Lab Designed & Tested
Support a Community that Cares
Expert Garden Advice