There are lots of plants you can plant to help the beneficial insects you want to attract to your garden. You may be interested in native bees, assasin bugs, ladybeetles, and praying mantises naturally appear in your garden to help balance your mini ecosystem. To do this, you may need some help from good plants, learn more about plants to help these populations.
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The Good Bugs
Like weeds, insects are indicators of the health of the ecosystem in your yard, garden or farm. Similarly, it is about perspective. One man’s beneficial insect is another man’s nemesis. Let’s take butterflies for example. These beautiful creatures are both pollinators and plant consumers. As caterpillars, they might be munching on what you want to grow in order to turn into the butterfly that helps other plants.
There are many different kinds of insects that have generally positive impacts on the garden. Spiders, wasps, nematodes and ladybugs can all be helpful on the home garden. We will cover some of the most common beneficial insects and the generally accepted way to help them feel welcome in your space.
What benefits are you trying to capture?
In general, you will need to think of the goal you are trying to accomplish with beneficial insects. It should be noted that most insects are not harmful to your garden and will not hurt your plants. But let’s start with the goal of what actions we are trying to accomplish in the garden with the fostering or addition of beneficial insects.
Let’s start this section with a story about wasps. I have young children and they are often out in the garden with me. Sometimes we see wasps out there. In my area that includes mud dabbers, cicada killer wasps, yellow jackets and more. One day I was stung on my hand opening the back door. In my fury, I got the wasp spray and took down every nest I could find. However, an unintended consequence of that was the tomato hornworm population EXPLODED. Along with cabbage worms and more.
It turns out I was inadvertently killing of the predator insects that help keep the parasitic insects off my plants. The tomato hornworms multiplied quickly and I lost a few plants. By definition, predatory insects feast on other insects and while they may sting you too, you may want to keep them in your garden. These also include praying mantis, lady beetles and lacewings.
This category includes the famed organic biological control of stingless wasps and flies. They use other insects as their host for their eggs. As the eggs hatch the larva consume the host insect and it dies. The most common I’ve seen is the Braconid wasp, Contesia congregates, that lays eggs on tomato hornworms. As the eggs hatch they eat the hornworm and it eventually dies.
If you are lucky enough to find them on a tomato hornworm, encourage their life cycle by letting that particular hornworm live. As you encourage these parasites, they keep the pest pressure down and balance the ecosystem. The best way to manage pests in the garden is balance the ones you want to have in your garden in balance with the ones you do not want.
The pollinators really are the star of the show. Most people think of honeybees when they think pollinators but there are many, many more. However, honeybees, native to Europe, are even used in large scale agriculture, particularly popular in large amounts at almond groves in California. But there are other bees as well as flies, ants, flies, butterflies, beetles and wasps that can help pollinate.
Pollinators are some of the easiest beneficial insects to attract to your garden because they are not dependent on the presence of another insect. These are the most reliant on the plants you decide to garden. We will look into what plants you should encourage on your property to bring around all three kinds.
What plants do you need for beneficial insects?
There are quite a few different things you can plant to attract the insects you need. First thing is to be as organic as possible. In order to both encourage and balance out the ecosystem of your garden, avoid all pesticides. Second, is to be a little wild. I’ll explain. If you can, leave a piece of your property or garden to weeds, pop-up plants, random native plants and flowers grow all the way to maturity and produce seed. Finally, plant flowers, a lot of them!
Avoid pesticides, plant homes
While it might be infuriating to walk outside and see your beautiful heirloom tomatoes eaten down to a nub but there are ways to deal with the dreaded tomato hornworm without turning to destructive pesticides. Usually a large enough system will allow for the appropriate predators. However, there are many different plants you can have in your garden to create the right homes.
For example, in my garden, especially in the backyard there is no turf grass. The greenery we walk on is generally a mix of weeds. Over the summer months I let them grow a little too big and make flowers. One of the most common general turf type cover crops in my yard is white clover. Usually it can produce white multi-headed flowers at only a few inches high. If you do not use broad spectrum herbicides and let your “lawn” go a little longer between mowings the bees and other beneficial insects will thank you.
Another cover crop that is found in my general yard area is oxalis. The beauty of this plant is they also produce flowers when not very tall but there are also some of the very first flowers available to bees and other pollinators in the early spring. They are also edible!
Buckwheat is another cover crop the bees and wasps will love. This is the same plant that can be made into flour for cooking but is a common way to reduce erosion and add to soil diversity. In addition, if left to flower, buckwheat can attract all kinds of pollinators including bees, wasps, flies and more.
It should be obvious but there are A LOT of flowers that can help you attract pollinators. Below is a short list of MANY different flowers that you can plant, both perrenial and annual, to help bring in the bees:
- Sweet peas
- Hairy vetch
- Bee Balm
There are a lot more flower plants you can plant to attract pollinators, even those such as hummingbirds and butterflies. Also, bear in mind, that the plants you do plant for fruit (beans, peas, tomatoes, melons, okra, eggplants, peppers, squash, etc.) all produce flowers that are attractive to pollinators.
Plants for predators
Of course, you may be looking to attract other beneficial insects: predators. These include parasitic wasps, lacewings and ladybeetles. They will help keep pests populations low to give your plants a fighting chance. Here are of some of the plants you may need to have around to help them get established. Obviously, the main thing you want predators to eat are the bugs eating the plants YOU want (to eat or enjoy). However, all bugs have different life stages and some may need plants for different portions of their lives, such as the egg, larval or pupal stages.
Below are some plants to put in your garden to help out these predatory insects:
- Carrots (allowed to flower)
- Queen Anne’s Lace
- Sweet alyssum
- Yellow rocket
- Wild mustard
Many of these predatory insects also feed on the flowers as a source of sugar from nectar or use them as shelter. Either way including a large variety of flowers as well as herbs and native plants in your garden will benefit you, your plants and help balance the ecosystem.
Interestingly, the variety of pests and weeds in our gardens can indicate potential issues either in our garden or in surrounding areas. The wolves of Yellowstone are the perfect example of how an entire ecosystem can be thrown off by the removal of a native species. This kind of balance can be achieved both at a macro and a micro level. Your small garden can definitely become a microcosm for beneficial insects, native plants, water catchment and other permaculture ideals so that relying on outside sources reduces over time.
If you are interested in more in-depth information cover crops for beneficial insects, check out this article from SARE. Your local extension office will have more information on pests and weeds common to your area. Penn State Extension has a good article on attracting beneficial insects you can find here. The Permaculture Research Institute also haas an exhaustive list to help you, if there is more you want to do. You can find that here.
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