Our approach to the way we garden has come a long way in recent years. Today more of us garden organically, working with the rhythms of Mother Nature rather than resisting her. We’ve realised that our gardens are a series of carefully balanced ecosystems. Break the food chain by spraying insecticides willy-nilly or being over fastidious and you’ll upset the balance, making your plants more susceptible to future pest attacks.
Nothing is ever black and white – and there are more than 50 shades of grey! Life’s a complicated web, and not all ‘pests’ should be vilified. In the right place, even aphids can be of enormous benefit to your garden’s ecosystem. Beneficial bugs such as hoverflies and lacewings will feed on them, and these in turn will help to sustain insect-eating birds.
The Garden Ecosystem
Garden biodiversity is important, because a garden with lots of different living things in it is healthier. If your garden has a wide range of habitats including trees, shrubs, flowers, longer grass, a thriving compost heap and perhaps a pond, then it stands to reason you’ll have a lot of wildlife too.
Pests are an important part of this ecosystem, so annihilating every last aphid with a spray, for instance, would knock out a vital part of the food chain. As a result there’d be fewer hoverflies, so when the aphids returned their natural predators wouldn’t be around in anywhere near the numbers they were before. The unintended outcome of all this? Aphids left to run amok!
One spring this concept was beautifully illustrated in my own garden when black bean aphids made themselves at home on my broad beans. I played a waiting game. Sure enough, a few days later, ladybird larvae made an appearance. They’d recently hatched out on the nettles running along the side of the plot and, with the arrival of their favourite snack, it wasn’t long before they were positively gorging on the aphids to bring them back into step.
Pests With Benefits
Some creatures are both the gardener’s friend and foe, depending on the time of year and what they’re up to. This is where things can get complicated. Let’s take a few common examples of traditional pests that can be a huge boon to the gardener in the right setting.
1. Slugs in the Compost
We’re often told to completely eradicate slugs – to seek the slimy gangsters out by torchlight, to crush their pearly eggs and to set beer traps to lure them to a watery grave. But did you realise that slugs in your compost heap are no bad thing?
Slugs and snails help to break down decaying organic matter and will work hard to draw fresh material from the top of the compost heap down into its depths. With enough food to hand there will be little reason for the slugs to spread out into the garden. Their eggs are likely to provide a tasty snack for something higher up the food chain, so they’re helping to fuel that all-important garden ecosystem too. Slugs in your compost heap? Leave them well alone!
2. Wasp Patrol
Wasps and hornets are a nuisance. They sting when provoked and never get the message at the summer picnic: just buzz off! For this reason they’re often seen as the enemy. But this is character assassination of the worst order. Wasps are carnivores and their preferred protein snack comes in the form of a myriad of smaller insects. And, while admittedly not as effective as bees, they’re important pollinators. This makes them the organic gardener’s friend.
A pragmatic approach works best with wasps. If they’re not harming you and their nest is out of the way, peaceful coexistence is worth pursuing. You may even come to welcome the sight of your wasps – and the dent they will be making to the local pest population.
3. Earwigs Eat Aphids
The earwig is another often-misunderstood insect. Earwigs live in moist, dark places, such as on the fringes of the compost heap or amid mulch. But very wet weather sends them scampering up into plants for shelter where they will then feed, turning seedlings, leafy greens and herbs ragged as they rasp.
However, like wasps earwigs are highly effective predators of many tiny insects, including aphids and other common pests. In most cases earwigs harmlessly go about keeping our enemies in check, so if they aren’t doing any harm, leave them be. Earwigs love to hunt in ivy, thickets of weeds and piles of leaves and debris, so grow susceptible plants away from their favourite haunts.
The message to all of this is that garden pests contribute in their own way to the health of your garden’s ecosystem, and some even benefit us gardeners. Remember, we are merely caretakers of this world, and that includes our gardens. Let’s learn to live with these ‘pests with benefits’.