Let insects be your constant gardeners
ANTLIONS, the larvae of lacewings, have insatiable appetites. Luckily, for vegie growers, they’re on our side.
“They look like tiny balls of fluff,” says insect expert Jane Davenport, author of The Garden Guardians, “but they’re really like little crocodiles dashing around the garden, eating aphids and sapsuckers. They suck the juice out of the aphids and stick them on their back, so they smell like the aphids and ants give them a free pass.
“There are all these symbiotic relationships in the vegie patch. Once you’ve got your bug-eyes on and you realise what’s happening, it’s fascinating. ”
She says gardeners have a choice between being a “cure-all” or a “curator”: the former need all manner of pesticides to keep their patch in check, while the later employ bugs to protect their produce.
“If you’re the kind of gardener who uses chemicals, you’re giving yourself lots of work. Good bugs will do it for you for free,” she says. “And there are already so many toxins in our cities, why would you want to add them into your garden as well?
There is, however, the small matter of enticing the bugs into your beds. Ms Davenport suggests establishing “an insectary” – a dedicated area where you let the critters have their way – as well as a variety of flowers, so something is blooming all year round.
“For example, ladybirds need something to eat, that’s the thing that attracts them,” she says. “Once you’ve attracted them you want to keep them – they’ll eat pollen if there are no pests.”
Karen Sutherland, from Edible Eden Design, also prescribes petals as a cure.
“Plant flowering herbs and lots of flowers with different shapes – they’ll bring all sorts of beneficial insects to your garden,” she says.
If you’re beginning a vegie patch in an area where there are no established gardens nearby, you can kick-start colonies of good bugs by ordering them in the mail. Another useful hint is to compost your old mulch during the cooler months, and let the chill eliminate the pests.
But what can you do if your leafy greens look grim?
First, find out what you’re up against. “If your plant has a lot of bugs on it, check whether your neighbours and other gardeners have the same problem. If so, then it’s something normal – it’s not because the plant is unhealthy,” Ms Sutherland says.
In springtime, aphids gather to gorge on new growth. “You have to be patient,” she says. “As an interim measure you can squirt the plants with a hose to knock them off.
“I find that if I wait and don’t do anything, ladybirds and praying mantises start appearing and eating the aphids.”
For a more active response, she suggests searching the web for organic pest control tips. You can easily homebrew your own sprays. For white oil spray – to control aphids, scale, mealybug, mites and more – mix four parts vegetable oil and one part detergent, and dilute 1:50 with water.
Above all, spend time in your garden. Ms Sutherland says the diversity of insect life affords infinite exploration, especially for kids. “Praying mantises are hatching at the moment in Melbourne, so if you look very closely in your garden, you might find tiny ones, only one-centimetre long.”