gardening, nature

Does your garden bug you?

Does your garden bug you? It should.

Indulge me a moment on why bugs are good for your garden and, by extension, good for you.

Last summer, our doorbell rang, which set off my rescued mutt Princess Leia. Don’t let her name fool you. She is no princess. Ferocious guard dog, yes. Princess, no. Normally I would ignore the door except my dog smelled a killer on the other side of the door and wasn’t about to back down. Nor was the person on the other side of the door, as knocking soon followed the doorbell. Wrestling Princess Leia into my arms, I opened the door without looking through the peephole to see who might be on the other side. And. Wouldn’t you know it. There was a killer on the other side of the door.

A bug killer.

Nice young man. But a bug killer.

He flashed the identification badge the city requires door to door salespeople to wear, announced what company he was representing, then proceed to tell me I had an incredibly beautiful garden. Now this was after I had renovated the front garden, topped it off with fresh compost and cedar mulch, but before the real heat and drought of summer had set in. It was actually looking quite incredible, if I say so myself. We chatted about the garden for five or ten minutes, while Princess Leia was debating whether she could let her guard down. I mean, Momma is talking gardening with this bug killer, so he must not be too bad, right?

Then the guy drops the conversation down to why he was actually at my door in the first place.

“With a garden like this, you must have a lot of bugs! For only x-amount a month, we can come out and spray your entire foundation, interior and exterior, and you won’t see a single bug!”

I said that I actually wanted to see bugs.

Come again, he asked.

Yes. I want to see bugs.

But bugs are bad! You don’t want bugs!

Oh, but I do want to see bugs. You see, bugs are what pollinate my vegetable garden, bugs are what feed my soul when I see them fluttering from leaf to leaf in search of nectar, bugs are what feed the geckos and lizards and birds that call my garden home. Why would I want to kill them?

His reply? “OMG! You have an entire ecosystem here! That is so amazing!”

Why, yes, that is correct. It is an entire well balanced ecosystem. When you let nature take the reigns, it finds a way to balance things out. You build it and let it be and they will come.

Yes, I do get some bad bugs from time to time. But while I sit back, research options and decide how I want to handle the situation at hand, more times than not something has already moved in and taken care of it. From time to time, we do decide to intervene, though always taking the least harmful options first. Every few years, for example, I apply beneficial nematodes to the gardens, which are fantastic at keeping the dreaded fire ants at bay.

The young man and I ended up chatting about nature and the cycle of life for another ten minutes. I thanked him for his time and he walked off. To the neighbor’s house. To try and sell them on killing all the bugs that were, well, bugging them.

Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle, educating and encouraging others in living a non-pesticide lifestyle.

Not thirty minutes later, my husband, son and I were leaving the house for the afternoon. I kid you not, an anole was our vehicle’s windshield, stalking a bug. As we were laughing about Mother Nature’s wicked sense of humor and impeccable timing, and asking “Now where is that bug killer when we need him?” the anole jumped on to our son’s shoulder!

(And. No. I didn’t ask the anole to pose nicely. Happy chance photograph.)

Now my son hasn’t cut his hair since Covid lockdown, which coincided with his first year away at college. He looks a bit like a mashup of John Lennon and Jesus. Seriously. Even people that don’t know him say that when I proudly show off recent photographs of him. So the anole decides he needs to take shelter because six human hands are trying to catch him, which resulted in lots of twisting and turning (us humans) and flipping (the anole) and hiding (still, the anole).

I am pretty sure the bug salesman was across the street this whole time, thinking, Yeah, they do, too, have some bug problems.

We were finally able to coax the anole to a nearby tree, shown above.

We bought our home 28 years ago, knowing at the time of purchase that I wanted to have an extensive organic garden that welcomed wildlife. We have never used pesticides, nor have we ever been tempted to. As in the movie Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” The good, the bad, the ugly. But they all have a way of balancing off.

There are tons of insects in the world. (More like ten quintillion bugs, if you want to know.) Less than a million of the different species of insects in the world have actually been identified by scientists.

Insects are often classified by gardeners as beneficial (bees), bad (tomato hornworms) or somewhere in between. The majority of insects fall in that middle range. They are neither bad nor beneficial – or they are equally bad and beneficial. The praying mantis is a great example of an insect that falls in that middle area. They are fabulous hunters, taking down both dragonflies (bad!) and grasshoppers (good!) Selective control of bad insects is warranted in some cases and, thankfully, natural options are available. Aphids, for example, can be hosed off a plant with a strong burst of water. Or the gardener can create a habitat that welcomes in natural controls for aphids, such as small hiding places for amphibians and reptiles around the garden. It is also important to be able to recognize insects in their various stages, as the larva stages look nothing like the adult forms more widely recognized. The larva stage of the ladybug is just one example of an insect that is often mistakenly identified as a bad bug. Field guides – either an old school printed book or an online version – are an important resource for creating a pesticide free, wildlife friendly garden.

I have never found a reason to like grasshoppers, though I do know they are an important food source for birds, amphibians and reptiles, so I try to be tolerant of them. But even the much maligned fly serves an important part of our ecosystem, as they pollinate our crops, control other pests, decompose wastes and are an important food source for species further up the food chain. Hoverflies, which are often mistaken for bees or wasps, are quite beautiful and harmless to humans. They also cover a wider territory than bees and will fly in a wider range of weather conditions, making them more effective as a pollinator than bees.

The world is slowly starting to awaken to the reality that indiscriminate killing of insects is harmful to all species on the planet, humans included. What affects one species down the food chain ripples up the food chain. The majority of our food crops are dependent on insects for pollination, whether in own vegetable patch or in a farmer’s field in some far off place. So please, Keep calm and garden on and let your garden bug you.

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