In the five years that I’ve been learning to farm, it’s no doubt that I’ve operated in close relationship with insects. And when I say insects, I mean all forms of garden creepy-crawlies – spiders, snails, slugs, centipedes, symphylans, no-see-ums and worms all included. On the first day of my farming apprenticeship, I was tasked with hand-clearing a section where the weeds were growing taller than me. The soil had been moistened to make the task easier, and I remember attacking the roots of the weeds with a mini-machete. With every handful of grass that I pulled up, at least a dozen insects and worms would scatter, and I remember growing worried about slicing worms in half. Meanwhile, the blood-sucking no-see-ums were feasting on my “new blood”, biting my knuckles, elbows and ears.
I remember inquiring about various insects and their qualities (good or bad?) to Peter. Obviously ladybugs and bees were good, snails and slugs were toast, and those white wormy things I found on the beet root flaunting fuschia innards were problematic, but what about this reddish stink-bug looking thing? I let it crawl onto his hand and he grasped it, took a close look, and left me with this bit of farmer wisdom – “When in doubt, squish it out.” I don’t have to tell you what happened next.
I would say that I’ve taken closer notice of bugs in the garden over the years because of all the time I spend working – by the society’s standards – “alone”, but in fact I’m always surrounded by birds, lizards, bees and beetles - my coworkers. We carry on a silent dialogue and occasionally compete in a series of staring or push-up contests. Yes, it goes without saying that I unconsciously kill hundreds of bugs every day just by walking through the garden or using my rototiller to work a patch of soil. But whenever our paths cross under more peaceful circumstances, such as while I’m weeding the carrots or inspecting the fava beans, I tune into them and I watch them work. If a patch of broccoli is flowering and needs to be turned in, I’ll wait until early morning or late afternoon once the bees are no longer nectar feasting to mow the plants down. While soaking the lettuce or artichokes on harvest days, I am almost ashamed to admit that I take the time to fish out and flick away every ladybug I find – regardless of the fact that they are quite adept swimmers.
The term “weed” is relative, as the only thing making a weed a weed is if it doesn’t fit into our desired landscape. Same goes for the word “pests”. It’s no doubt that I mostly favor the beneficial insects and squish the aphids, slugs and snails without remorse. Cutworms and tomato hornworms I prefer to watch the chickens devour. I am still responsible for the food I am growing and I must make some of the rules.
When all is said and done, however, I would never recommend complete annihilation of any particular bug population. I’d say that the motto I try to live by in the garden is diversity. Too much of any one thing is never good – whether it’s the predator-less bagrada bug or acres and acres of the same crop. Nature has the tendency to balance things out, so when people ask me what to do about their aphid problem, I often recommend doing nothing. The ladybugs usually come to investigate the situation before long.
I like to grow as large of a variety of plants as possible so as to attract a diverse array of insects, spiders, toads, lizards, you name it. Everything fits together in one way or another.
If you are looking for particularly sexy plants to attract your neighborhood beneficial insects, here are just a couple of my favorites:
2. Fava beans – I had a religious experience around dusk one night at the fava bean patch while watching the hummingbird moths dance around the flowers. The flowers also attract honeybees, bumblebees and hummingbirds and have a lovely scent to boot.
3. Echinacea – this perennial medicinal herb attracts monarch butterflies, honeybees and bumblebees when it blooms in late summer. Its root also has healing properties.
4. Comfrey – not only do its beautiful purple flowers attract loads of honeybees and hummingbirds, but these perennials provide their own mulch, nourishing the topsoil every winter and providing worm food and habitat for countless ground dwellers.