You want beneficial insects. All the cool kids have them. Beneficials can protect your crops from “bad bugs”, pollinate your fruit, and have intriguing bug sex on your flowers (and some times, on your beer bottles).
But how do you get our beneficial buggy friends to party at your house? Most gardeners know that certain flowers attract certain insects, but when you dive into researching what exactly to plant things start to get complicated. Latin names are invoked, charts of pollinators and habitat needs through lifecycles are invoked. It starts to feel somewhat more academic than wild bug sex on flowers and beer bottles really should feel.
So I’m going to make this super, super simple.
Three Simple Steps To Get Tons Of Good Bugs In Your Garden
1. Grow Herbs
Herbs tend to have little, clustered flowers with potent nectar that beneficial insects – especially pollinators – love! Plant the things we think of as culinary herbs, and the things our great-grandparents thought of as “medicinal herbs.” (Add your own pot joke here if you must.)
Plant as many herbs you can, and as many types as you can, in as many spots as you can. Plant them even if there is no way you are going to eat or utilize them in the quantity you will grow them. My yard is positively covered with clumps of herbs that I will never harvest from and that’s totally okay.
Try to work perennial foundation herbs into your garden, even the “decorative garden” if you go in for that kind of distinction. It’s not too hard once you start looking to find a good spot for an herb. If you have the opportunity to replace a boring shrub, replace it with an edible or medicinal perennial herb like bay, rosemary, elderflower, lavender, yarrow, pineapple sage (half-hardy but uh-maze-ing), feverfew, anise hyssop, or Joe Pye weed.
Need a handy border plant? I like low-growing perennial herbs for this function. Try a mounding thyme or lemon thyme, any of the compact sages, German chamomile, chives, oregano, marjoram, lemon balm or mint (both can be rampant spreaders, so consider that when planting) or, in shady locations, sweet woodruff.
Need a “statement” plant? Nothing makes a bigger statement than angelica. A just slightly smaller statement can be made with lovage, and it’s a heck of a lot easier to grow than celery.
Fill in with generous sowings of soft leaved herbs where ever you can manage. Really, anything you consider an herb is a good choice. I generally grow borage, dill, fennel, cilantro, French tarragon, chervil, parsley, calendula, caraway, four or five types of basil, lemon verbena (probably my favorite herb, lemon verbena is a tender perennial – mine survives about 2 winters in 3 in a protected spot).
Now here’s the key thing. You must let your herbs – at least some of them – flower. Let the annuals set seed and self sow. I let several herbs – including calendula – run rampant. If they can find a spot to grow, I’m unlikely to disturb them.
2. Grow Flowers That Look Like Daisies
You know when a little kid or a hippie draws a flower and it always looks like a daisy? It’s got that central disk surrounded by “He loves me, he loves me not” petals. That’s the look we are going for to attract beneficial insects. Color, size, smell, official plant family – these kind of flowers are in the Asteraceae family if you care about that kind of thing – all those variables you can pretty much ignore. Open, simple, daisy-like flowers are very attractive to a wide range of beneficials.
Want specific examples? Well, there is the classic Shasta daisy. Black-eyed Susans and coneflowers are great, too. Asters, sunflowers, chrysanthemums, zinnias, cosmos and marigolds draw in beneficials. I’ve already mentioned chamomile and calendula, power players that are both daisy-shaped and herbal. Strawberries of all kinds – garden and groundcover varieties alike – have simple, daisy-shaped flowers that pollinators enjoy.
If you have a choice between an old fashioned, simple (cheap) open flower and some super-modern, fancy-breeding achievement with the look of a shaggy, tie-died lion, go with the simple. This is a good rule for many things, by the way.
3. No Way, No Spray
If your goal is to woo beneficial insects, dousing your garden in stuff that kills bugs is a very poor way to roll out the welcome mat. I mean, if you were checking out new neighborhoods, would you opt to put down roots and raise babies in a place that was regularly doused with Sarin nerve gas? Of course not. And this isn’t just hyperbole – chemical nerve warfare agents and some typical insecticides have much in common.
I am not a strict no-insecticide, ever, person, but I’m pretty dang specific and careful about what I use and why. I use two very targeted insecticides. Sluggo (controls slugs and snails) and Bt (controls caterpillars, used in my garden only on brassica plants to control cabbage moth caterpillar). I have also been known to spray a mass of aphids with very dilute soapy water.
Other than that, I’m hands off. I don’t use Neem or Pyrethrin or Rotenone or any of the common broad-spectrum organic insecticides. These sprays are organic, and they are effective. But they are equally good at killing good bugs as bad bugs, and bad bugs can breed a population back up way faster than beneficials can. I’ve learned that’s a nasty cycle to get involved with, and a long term losing strategy.
[Photo Credit: Oregon Sustainable Beekeepers]
And I hope it goes without saying – no neonicotinoid insecticides. Ever. And nothing that brags on the label about how many different species it kills (“Kills 100+ Kinds of Pests!”) or how long it keeps killing (“One Spray Keeps Killing for Up To 12 Months!”.
Also, while I’m laying down the law, no insecticides that “protect” your valuable plant by being sprinkled on the ground so the plant can absorb them and become toxic from the inside-out.
So, that’s it. Invite beneficial insects into your yard by planting a whole variety of herbs and flowers that look like daisies. Then give it time and don’t broad-spectrum kill anything while you are waiting for nature to balance out.
PS: At the risk of totally going back on my three easy steps promise, I’ll say two more things: make sure there is some fresh water and some mud somewhere on your property, and if you want to really guild the lily, grow a bit of buckwheat in and around your veggie garden. You’ll be swimming in tons of happy little beneficials before you know it.8
Richard Wyman says
You mentioned buckwheat last. I think it deserves more love than that. I just started using this as a cover crop for open areas of my garden this year and have been very impressed with its ability to grow very fast and draw large populations of pollinators.
Erica / Northwest Edible Life says
I know. I love buckwheat too! It’s even pretty.
Kirsten McCulloch says
Oh that’s good to know. I pretty much do the rest of this already (maybe not enough daisy-like flowers), but I didn’t know about buckwheat. I mean, I’ve grown it as a green manure before, but what is it that makes it such a good beneficial insect attractor?
dr. Dave says
Thank you, Thank you. I grow Yarrow for the Ladybugs but they’re too busy to thank me.
Using banana peels can solve your aphid problem. It did for me and I use to have tons of aphid issues every year. Now I might not even sight them in a given year. Too much nitrogen fertilizer (and the fast growth that comes from it) also seems to attract them.
If you want bees in your garden (the more bees that visit a flower, the better pollinated. The better pollinated, the larger the fruit – particularly important for melons), find a way to have some easily accessible water in your garden. This particularly works in dry climates that don’t have a lot of easily available water. By easily available, it needs some way the bees can land and get close to it without drowning. Dripping on a board, a small frequently watered patch of soil, something. Bees need water and often don’t have enough right next to their hive so they’ll search it out. If you’ve got it in your garden and there’s a nearby hive in need (there almost always is), then they’ll search it out and as they set up a regular path to it (assuming it’s reliably available), they’re more likely to notice the flowers in your garden and increase traffic to your garden as well. It has worked well for my garden before I started keeping bees. Now that I am keeping bees, I naturally have plenty as the hives are right next to the garden.
How do you use the banana peels? I’m envisioning chopping and sprinkling on the ground?
That would probably work, but what I typically do is take the dried peel (I don’t know that they need to be dried, but mine typically are), put 1-2 in the hole when planting and then put another 1-2 around the plant and cover with a thin layer of soil. Sometimes they’re just sort of “scratched in” – and still partially visible from the top.
We tend to save peels all year and I just toss them on a rack in the garage to dry, and then move to a container. With 5 kids, even though I’ve got a 1/4 acre garden, we always have far more peels than we need. I should probably buy stock in a banana company… Extras I tend to throw in the chicken pen and let them compost it for me.
Kirsten McCulloch says
Any idea on why this works? I know bananas themselves are good sources of potassium (for people)…
Great question. No one has a solid answer that I’m aware of, though there’s been speculation that the potassium in the banana peels allows for enough potassium uptake by the plant that aphids can’t handle it.
The one thing I’m aware of that may lend a little bit of credence to that is it’s know that aphids have a stronger preference for plants that have had a lot of strong nitrogen growth. Too much nitrogen growth, while it may look good a first, causes the plant to grow out of balance as it can’t uptake other nutrients it needs in sufficient quantities to keep up with the nitrogen (in at least some cases the minerals are available, but can’t be absorbed quickly enough). A good common example of this out of balance growth is blossom end rot (BER). BER is technically a calcium deficiency, but the majority of the time there is plenty of calcium available in the soil – high nitrogen fertilizer has simply caused a situation where the plant couldn’t absorb calcium quickly enough to keep up with it’s needs resulting in a calcium deficient plant, even though sufficient calcium is in the soil.
There’s an interesting article here:
that ties together aphids, nitrogen, and potassium in the case of soybean aphids. It would appear that potassium has a negative effect on the nitrogen available to the aphids. That might also explain why aphids have been observed to prefer plants that had a lot of quick high-nitrogen growth.
Any idea on how to grow bay leaves? Where to purchase the seeds/bush etc?
Erica / Northwest Edible Life says
I have a bay tree, it’s huge. If I had known it would have grown to 12 feet tall in 9 years I’d have planted it further from the house. On the other hand, perhaps that’s why it’s grown that well. Part of my bay is shown in the “path” photo above – glossy dark green leaves in the upper right quadrant of the photo. I have found it to be a very, very low maintenance plant. I installed mine as a small tree nine years ago and haven’t done anything special other than water periodically. You should be able to get potted small bay trees from any well stocked nursery. Just make sure you are getting culinary sweet bay (Laurus nobilis). It’s in a warm, sheltered location in my Zone 7B yard (effective microclimate Zone 9, probably). It’s shown no signs of winter kill yet, and I don’t protect it. Very easy herb to grow.
I grow mine in a pot, keeps it little
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Ellen G. says
Thank you! I’ve been feeling somewhat guilty for planting herbs and never getting around to harvesting them (for either family OR friends), but that guilt has now been assuaged. So go ahead and bolt, cilantro..! I will share your post on FB, too.
Erica, your blog, garden and tips are simply LOVELY! Many thanks for sharing so much of your knowledge in a super fun and informative manner. We live in hot and humid, tropical SW Florida and are slowly coverting our yard into a food forest, yipeeeee! This being said, the prior owners planted LOTS of ficus hedges surrounding the property, which seem to be attacked by whiteflies and thrips every year, which causes the ficus to lose TONS of leaves, which sometimes are unable to grow back YIKES! I appreciate and agree with all of your advice regarding not spraying and even not using a product which gets dumped into the dirt to be absorbed via the root system. so what is a girl to do when she sees a massive infestation of whiteflies attacking her ficus hedges? =)
Peter Tindall says
Regarding whiteflies, I control them in a greenhouse with Encarsid wasps, available from greenhouse supply companies. They come as pupae attached to cards which you hang on the plant. They are very small (almost invisible: don’t worry about stings!) and lay their eggs in whitefly larvae. I live in Alberta, Canada with very cold winters that the wasps can’t survive ( I buy them when I have a problem) but I suspect in Florida if you can establish a population it may solve (as in “control enough that it doesn’t bug you too much”) your whitefly problem for good. I know nothing about thrips, a bug that also can’t survive our winters and never seems to show up. On this note and apropos of Erica’s very good “How to attract beneficials to your garden” article she should have added “Buy them”. I can get 5000 ladybugs for $30 so if we have a very hard winter and few survive it’s a quick way to get them back.
Um, what is buckwheat and where do I get it? I’d like to jump in on the buckwheat wagon! Can I eat it?
For those of you who would like to ‘geek’ out on the science of attracting beneficials to your gardens could take a gander at ‘Edible Forest Gardens’ and this page (linked here: http://www.edibleforestgardens.com/network/downloads) specifically Worksheet 6: Nectary Flowering Calendar. This is an excellent way to ensure you have food and shelter for the good guys year round. And to add; those plants in the Parsley family (Apiaceae or Umbelliferae family) do more to bring in beneficials than the Asteraceae family.
Great information 🙂 Unfortunately, my biggest problem is keeping the neighbor’s cat out of my plants. Silly beast has a tendency to dig everything up.
You’d turn to the dark side if you had wireworms and pea weevils like we do and have lost nearly all lettuce, cucumbers, peas, and corn in beds that have problems…
And no, none of “grandma’s” methods or nematodes have worked. There is science to back that up too.
Hopefully after a few treatments they will be gone and we can be pesticide free again.
Oh, and i don’t even want to know what our potoatoes are going to look like but i’m sure the chickens will have plenty of treats.
I will say that the nasturtiums are attracting plenty of black aphids and some other bugs which don’t look good which i guess means they aren’t on my other crops.
Mike LeValley says
The number one thing that you can do to encourage beneficial insects (and bird and other wildlife) is to plant native plants – as many as possible. If anyone hasn’t read Doug Tallamy’s book “Bringing Nature Home: How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” I highly recommend it. And if you ever have the opportunity to hear Doug Tallamy speak, don’t miss it.
Any suggestions for controlling flea beetles without doing major damage to beneficials? I try to avoid insecticides at all costs but this year the flea beetle invasion has been epic. The little buggers have been attacking my brassicas with relentlessly from the moment they stepped into the light. Without a little help from an organic insecticide, I’d have significant deficiencies in my plantings. I’m in hot, dry Colorado…you may not have these terrible creatures in the PNW? I’d love any suggestions if anyone has conquered these little pests without damaging the surrounding good guys.
Amanda, I have only had flea beetle problems with eggplant, and what worked was keeping the seedling covered with row cover until it was a decent size–strong enough to withstand the little buggers. Another thing that I have read but not tried is to use a hand vacuum to suck them up!
Last year we planted marigolds in our vegi garden, reduced the grubs in our tomatoes by 80’%
Kathy Shea Mormino, The Chicken Chick says
Great article! I’ve never seen the “Angelica” before- they’re beautiful. I would love to have you to link up with us at my weekly Clever Chicks Blog Hop: http://www.the-chicken-chick.com/2013/07/clever-chicks-blog-hop-45-with-three.html
I hope you can make it!
Kathy Shea Mormino
The Chicken Chick
Amanda – for flea beatles place diatemaceous earth directly on the leaves that are getting munched. I’ve also placed coffee grounds close to the plants – that seems to keep them away for a day or so. In addition, hand picking helps.
However, the best remedy is to start the plants with a floating row cover, only removing it once they are large and established. Here in North Carolina flea beatles mostly attack our eggplants; I’ve had good success keeping them under row covers until they bloom.
“…I have also been known to spray a mass of aphids with very dilute soapy water.”
Ladybugs and hummingbirds love aphids.
Even after much searching, this is the first time I have ever noticed anyone mention a way to control the despicable cabbage moth caterpillars besides “picking them off and squishing them.” If they even mention them as a problem at all.
SO GLAD. I thought I was going insane. I thought maybe they could smell me from miles away and they were under the impression I strongly desired them to decimate my greens.
Oh, along with root maggots, they are the worst. I have a post in development now specifically about the cabbage moth caterpillar.