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Your garden is a community

Can't we all just get along?
Natural predators like ladybugs should be welcome in everyone's garden. Photo: Metro Creative Connection

A strong community is a diverse community. A strong garden is plants, flowers, birds, and insects, all living in harmony.

On the one hand we want to live with all that nature has to offer but, on the other hand we want to protect our gardening labours. There are some compromises that benefit the gardener without harming birds, animals, and insects.

Scientists estimate there are approximately 20,000 varieties of insects. One website estimates between 97%-99% of insects are either harmless or beneficial. Beneficial insects pollinate flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees. Others help to keep pests under control. And many insects are food for birds.

Unfortunately, many pesticides and lawn chemicals kill all insects, seriously impacting the productivity of our gardens, harming our environment, and reducing the number of song birds.  

There are many beneficial insects that prey on garden pests. Parasitic wasps lay eggs in caterpillars. Parasitic flies lay their eggs on the larvae of butterfly, moth, beetles, sawflies, and other insects. The larvae of each eat the host and the host eventually dies. Ladybugs and ladybug larvae, and lacewing larvae eat aphids. Beetles eat insect eggs, larva, adult mites, aphids, and other pests.

Organic gardeners seldom suffer from serious pest problems and do not use systemic pesticides that kill beneficial insects along with the pests. Only when organic methods fail, do we use targeted organic pesticides or biological controls. While pests are ever present, an organic garden that is carefully looked after will seldom be ravaged by pests.

Protect your garden by following these steps in this order:

1. Remove garden trash where pests can overwinter.

2. Grow healthy plants through crop rotation and good garden soil. Healthy plants are more likely to resist garden pests.

3. Inspect your plants every day or two to identify problems before they become serious.

4. Use row covers, a cloth that lets in 80% of sunlight and rain and protects root vegetables such as turnips or radishes from root maggots, and prevents cabbage butterflies from laying their eggs.

5. Control apple fly maggots by attracting the flies to red spheres covered with Tanglefoot.

6. Catch pests before they cause too much damage. Hand pick pests such as the Colorado beetle, or slugs. Remove leaf damage from bacterial or viral sources promptly, and discard in your landfill garbage.

7. Plant a variety of flowers that attract pollinators, beneficial insects, and birds who help to control pests.

8. Only when the previous options do not work should you use organic pesticides. Minimize the impact on beneficial insects by being very selective, applying it on as small an area as possible. Use organic the pesticides such as:

a) Insecticidal soap: controls aphids, flies, mealybugs, spider mites, whiteflies, and others.

b) Neem oil: controls aphids, flies, flea beetles, spider mites, whiteflies, and others. Apply it up to three times, every four days. Neem oil is harmful to bees; avoid using it when plants are flowering.

c) Mineral oil: kills insects by plugging the spiracles through which insects breath. It works best on slow moving insects such as mealybugs.

d) Bacillus thuringiensis (or Bt). As worms such as the cabbage caterpillars eat leaves, the bacteria enter their guts and the caterpillars die. Bt must be applied weekly in the growing season of the plants.

Finally, and most importantly don’t get excited over a few insects eating some of your plants. Vegetables can lose up to 40% of their foliage and still produce great crops.

Allow natural predators such as ladybugs, green lacewings, parasitic wasps, or birds to live in your garden.

Consider plant varieties that are resistant to specific garden pests.

As an organic gardener, I believe less control over what inhabits my garden is better than destroying a few bad actors. With the help of beneficial insects and birds who like my flowers, bird feeders and bird baths, the damage by pests is minimal.

Charles Schroder gardens in the Edmonton area.