Your heart falls right out of your chest. Holes, tiny or not so tiny, have been chewed in the leaves of your beloved and pampered plants. Tiny seedlings have been cut off at the base of the stem. Immediately, pictures of the probable culprits pop to mind. They are images of hinged-legged, creepy-crawlers and slimy worm-like menaces with oversized, plant chewing jaws. "It's on," you think. How COULD they?
Once you see evidence of a bug offensive in your garden, there are steps you can take to protect your plants. But rather than waging war after damaging insects have invaded, it's smart to organically manage bugs with a little covert action, diplomacy and defense.
April Johnson, Landscape and Greenhouse Visionary at The Rodale Institute, a leading organic research farm located in Pennsylvania, suggests home gardeners start with healthy plants and soil, then work to attract beneficial insects, annually rotate plantings, and create a stinky situation - for the insects, of course, not you.
At first, it doesn't seem to make sense to defend your garden against insects by attracting more insects. But what you're hoping for is a balanced ecosystem created by a staged insect counter-insurgency in your garden.
Beneficial insects perform a large variety of positive duties in our ecosystem. Insects that pollinate, break down organic matter, or work in the soil to make it fertile, are vital to maintaining a healthy garden. But, of particular benefit when defending our gardens, are bugs that prey on insects that damage our plants. Predatory insects feed on pests like aphids or caterpillars.
Some beneficials are parasites. Braconid wasps are an example of a parasitic beneficial insect. This wasp may lay eggs in or paralyze several different insects, including the tomato hornworm.
It is possible to purchase beneficial insects and release them in your garden but attracting them to your garden isn't as hard as it might seem. Simply, welcome them, provide food and shelter and they will come.
Johnson said an important first step in attracting beneficial insects is to stop using synthetic chemical pesticides because they kill both the good and the bad bugs. Next, plant a diverse garden. Different plants attract different bugs so the more diverse your plants are, the more diverse your insects will be.
"Don't ask me how," she said, "But insects have a way of finding their host plants."
Offering beneficials a meal is a good faith show of bug diplomacy. Many adult beneficial insects feed only on nectar and pollen from small flowers. Butterfly weed, fennel, and even broccoli that has gone to flower, are excellent choices. What a great excuse to interplant flowers and herbs in your vegetable garden. Shelter, in the form of sod or thick organic mulches provides protection and a place to lay eggs. A water source is also important.
Need another excuse to plant flowers?
"Switch smells up," said Johnson, "A lot of insects are detoured by smell."
Aromatic plants that filled your grandmother's garden like marigolds, bee balm, or dill are good choices to confuse the enemy and attract the friend.
Another way to confuse bad bugs is to play hide and go seek with them.
"Crop rotation is important," said Johnson, "If you don't rotate your plantings, insects that feed on them will know they are there. If you have an established pest problem and don't move your plants each year, you'll have more and more troubling insects."
Keeping a notebook from year to year is helpful. Tracking what was planted where and noting which insects you encountered in past seasons can help you plan each spring.
If the insects are winning and know you'll lose plants and harvest if you can't fight off the pest offensive, there are organic treatments. Common and helpful examples are BT, neem oil, rotenone, pyrethrum, and capsaicin. Before treating your garden, it's important to remember that all these products may damage insects other than the targeted pests. Currently, the role of copper in the organic garden is being re-evaluated.
"When selecting an organic product for your garden," said Johnson, "Look for ORMI approval and be careful to follow label instructions. In high concentrations, organics can be as dangerous as chemicals."
Finding peace with garden pests requires harmony and compromise.
It will take a little time to attract and cultivate the right mix of insect and plant life in your garden. And you might have to suffer through some chewed-up plants as your backyard ecosystem comes into balance.
"Exercise a little bit of patience," said Johnson, "Nature has a way. Work with it. Understand it."