Monday, July 2, 2012

Attracting Predators to the Garden

Black Swallowtail Caterpillars in my dill
I try to use eco-friendly gardening practices. This means I use lots of compost and minimize or eliminate the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, fungicides, and other "-cides"  when I garden. When I do use a chemical, I will use an organic one, and only if other options have failed. I try to attract birds, wasps, and other predators to my garden to eat caterpillars and other pests so that nature does much of my bug-killing for me. If I wanted to kill off the caterpillars in my dill,for example, I would hand pick them off and squish them. But it's the end of the season, the dill is bolting, anyway, the predators do need food, and I happen to like Black Swallowtail butterflies, so the 'pillars pictured get a break, at least from me.

It's amazing how fast caterpillars grow and how fast they eat up plants, though. They have enormous appetites. If I needed that dill, these caterpillars would be history, pretty as they are!

Sunflowers attract beneficials

The first rule to attracting predators is not to kill them. This is one reason why I use pesticides and other "-cides" very sparingly. "-Cide" is Latin for "kill." Pesticides on the vegetables I am going to cook and eat are not only bad for the health of my family, but they can easily kill off the "good bugs," birds, and other creatures I actually want to attract to my vegetable beds. If I must use a pesticide or other chemical, I use it sparingly and according to the directions on the label. I spray in the evening, after the bees and other pollinators have mostly gone to bed for the night.

Birds need water!
Birdbaths are an easy way to attract robins and other birds to your garden. Look for one that is easy to clean. It should be shallow at the edges and then gradually become deeper towards the middle. Birds need not only to drink fresh water, but they also need to take baths, too. They like to dip their feet into a birdbath and then gradually walk down to a depth that is comfortable for them before they actually start bathing.

Place your birdbath away from bushes or anything that can hide cats; birds feel vulnerable when their wings are wet. But try to put the birdbath near some low-hanging tree branches, fence posts, or other locations where the birds can shake off the excess water, look around, and preen themselves for a bit once they've finished their bath. Robins really like to visit my garden and birdbaths, and I like to see them, since they and their young have a huge appetite for caterpillars and other insects.

Speaking of insects, be sure to dump out the stale water in your birdbath every couple of days in the summer, and replace it with fresh water. This prevents mosquitoes from breeding in your birdbath. Be sure to check it frequently and replace water as it dries out, too. A dry birdbath does the birds no good! Keep the birdbath full so the birds keep their habit of stopping there frequently. Keep it clean so the birds don't get sick from the water.

Spicy Nasturtiums are not only flowers, but edible too!
Flowers will attract not only the pollinators that you need for your tomatoes, squash, and other vegetables to set fruit, but they will also feed and attract predatory insects. This year I have planted cosmos, nasturtiums, marigolds, and other flowers in and around my vegetable beds. Some, like the nasturtiums, are actually edible. So far the different kinds of flowers have been growing at different rates and blooming at different times of  year, which is great, because pollinators and predatory insects need food all season long. Marigolds and sunflowers have particularly strong reputations for being easy to grow and good at attracting beneficial insects and keeping the "bad bugs" away.

"Cottage Red" marigold
I recently read that mint plants attract beneficial wasps and predatory flies to the garden. We tend to think of wasps and flies as bad, but this isn't necessarily so. I moved my potted mint, which had started to flower, out near my vegetable beds. Every time I look I see predator flies and wasps of different sizes and colors greedily feeding at the nectar from these tiny mint flowers. I am careful to leave the wasps alone, and they don't bother to sting me.
Wasps love mint flowers
The wasps feed themselves from flower nectar, then they go hunting for caterpillars and other bugs to feed their larvae-babies. Just be sure to keep your mint in a BIG pot or contain it in some other way, because mint will take over your garden if you let it! If it goes to seed, watch for it germinating in unwanted places in the spring, and pull it up before it has a chance to establish itself. It easily becomes a weed.

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