As hard as you may try to keep them out, unwelcome pests will find your garden at some point. But not all bugs are bad. And inviting the right ones into your garden can actually mean less work for you and a healthier, more productive garden overall.
From pollinators to predators and soil dwellers, here's a short list of the good guys and what you can do to ensure you have a good supply of them in your garden.
Bet you could have guessed that bees would be the first on our list! Pollinator Partnership provides a long list of plants that benefit from the pollination of bees, including melons, pumpkins, blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes, and we can't leave out coffee and chocolate. In fact, three-fourths of all the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States are pollinated by bees. And according to the USDA, 4,000 bee species are native to the States. The key is to attract a variety of native bees to your garden, as they all have their specializations. For example, squash bees are the best pollinators of squash and other cucurbits. To attract a variety of bee species, plant a variety of flowers, varying in size, shape and color. And focus on using flowers that are native to your area, since native bees and native flowers have evolved over time together. Also, choose flowers that bloom during different seasons, so your bees have a reason to stick around throughout the growing seasons. Goldenrod, purple prairie clover and coneflower are great options!
Butterflies aren't as efficient as bees, but they're still important pollinators to your garden. They are especially great if you love to grow herbs. Gardener's Supply Company suggests planting fennel, dill and milkweed, which provide food for larvae. And flowers that attract butterflies include bee balm, calendula, lavender, nasturtium, oregano, purple coneflower and yarrow, all of which can be used as either food or medicine!
They can be pesky, but flies are helpful pollinators in the garden. According to Pollinator Partnership, flies are generalists, which means they aren't as picky and will pollinate a variety of flowers. Still, flies frequent small flowers in shadier areas the most. Goldenrod, flowers of the carrot family and the American pawpaw (which has edible fruit) all benefit from flies.
Dragonflies make gardening a lot more enjoyable, because, as Gardening Know How points out, they prey upon mosquitoes, gnats and flies (remember, though, that flies are pollinators, too). Get dragonflies to your yard by creating a water feature and planting water plants. Turning a wet area of your yard into a bog or rain garden could help to attract dragonflies as well.
2. Lady beetles (ladybugs)
Adult lady beetles do eat aphids and other soft-bodied insects. But Mike at Gardens Alive! says it's really the lady beetle larvae that love to feast on soft-bodied pests, especially aphids. Get lady beetles to your yard by planting plants with small flowers, which adult lady beetles enjoy. This could include dill and fennel in your herb garden.
Lacewings are right up there with lady beetles. Their hungry larvae feast on aphids. According to Barbara Pleasant at Mother Earth News, lacewing larva consume about 600 aphids during their monthlong feeding period. Lacewings also feed on cabbage worms and white flies. Pleasant suggests lightly spraying aphid-infested areas with sugar water, which mimics aphid honeydew and alerts aphid predators.
4. Parasitic wasps
Parasitic wasps are pretty amazing. They inject their eggs inside a host, which can be adults, larvae or even other eggs. Then the wasp eggs hatch and feed on their host for a while. Gardening Know How lists caterpillars, aphids, scale and whiteflies as potential hosts. Plants with small flowers, including dill, fennel and Queen Anne's lace, help to attract parasitic wasps.
5. Soldier beetles
Adult soldier beetles, according to Mother Earth News, will eat some aphids and other soft-bodied insects, but really it's the larvae that do the most damage. Soldier beetle larvae make meals of other insect larvae and eggs, including beetles, moths and grasshoppers. Planting goldenrod and single-flowered marigolds and allowing herbs to bloom will all attract adult soldier beetles to your garden.
Earthworms aren't bugs, but we can't leave them off this list. They are too important to the health of your garden soil. According to Rodale's Organic Life, they are "nature's plow," making their way through even hard soil, which is extremely important to soil aeration. In addition, earthworms produce their body weight in castings on a daily basis, which serves as a rich fertilizer to the soil. Attract more earthworms by adding organic, high-nitrogen compost to your garden. You'll want to stay away from chemical fertilizers, though, which produce a salty environment and actually repel earthworms.
We know this one is hard to accept. Ants just seem like a nuisance. For one thing, ants often carry aphids around with them in the garden since they feed on the residual honeydew aphids leave behind. But ants are actually great for soil health. According to Fine Gardening, ants turn over as much soil as earthworms do, helping to aerate the soil and move nutrients around. And believe it or not, ants act as scavengers as well, turning dead insects into compost.
3. Millipedes and sowbugs
This one might be a surprise as well. Millipedes and sowbugs, according to USDA, feed on fungi and bacteria that are present on dead and decaying plant matter. In the process, they shred the plant material, contributing to its decomposition and adding nutrients to the soil. However, if there isn't enough dead plant material available, these critters may turn to consuming plant seedlings and roots.