Turn your patch in to a predator farm
Any grower of plants wants to find a way around the annual onslaught of pests. In our patch of the planet we’ve used permaculture design to give us a good start, treating the garden as a “predator farm.”
Permaculture encourages us to see problems as part of a pattern in your patch, rather than just as a problem full-stop. It provides ways to work with an understanding of the problem and design it away for the most part. You do that by understanding what the pattern is, and then changing it.
So, when you think about it, pests are just other living things trying to get by in the same space as you, eating the things they need to eat, as you do. They are a part of the system and usually, there are other things living in your patch that depend on them as a food source. As far as possible, we want to find a way to control and manage the critters, rather than obliterate them, tempting though that may sometimes be.
There is no one solution to pests of course, and with us purposefully growing such an array of often delicate plants in our gardens, a predator alone will rarely be able to manage the situation for us. But by adopting a few natural approaches, they can certainly help a lot.
If you have a pest problem, then various things are going on. For one, you’re growing things the pests like to eat or inhabit, and for another, it’s proving easy enough for them to do it. Alongside that, there are probably not as many things in your garden that want to eat the pests as there could be. That’s the solution we’ll look at here.
First up, here is a list of a few common garden pests, all of which have a number of predators:
|The pest||About||The predator team|
|Caterpillars:||Not all caterpillars are problems. Many become harmless moths and butterflies that also help with pollination for example. But many others are problems.|
Take for example, the cabbage caterpillars, which feed on many brassicas, turnip, swede, horseradish, nasturtiums and more. They can destroy whole plants in days.
|Some birds, parasitic wasps, ground beetles, some spiders, common toads.|
|Slugs and snails:||Most slugs and snails will eat at least some of your plants and many will eat a lot of them – often chewing through whole plants, leaf, stalk and all.|
As if you needed telling that…
|Frogs, toads, ground beetles, some birds, hedgehogs, chickens and ducks|
|Aphids:||The RHS puts it well: “sap-sucking insects that can cause a lack of plant vigour, distorted growth and often excrete a sticky substance (honeydew) on foliage which allows the growth of sooty moulds. Some aphids transmit plant viruses which can be a problem on strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, cucumbers, dahlias, tulips, sweet peas and many other plants.”||Ladybirds, hoverfly larvae, lacewing larvae, parasitic wasps, earwigs|
|Vine weevil:||One of the most widespread, common and devastating garden pests, it is especially destructive of plants in containers. Adult vine weevils eat leaves, and the grubs eat roots, which can ultimately be more damaging.||Birds, frogs, toads, shrews, hedgehogs, ground beetles|
|Bothersome beetles:||Many beetles, especially ground beetles, are an essential part of the predator mix. But some others are more of a challenge. The Rosemary beetle for example, whilst beautiful, eats the foliage and flowers of rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme and some other related plants.||Birds, parasitic wasps, spiders, mice, rats, moles, shrews, frogs, toads, other beetles|
The top predator team
You might have spotted a few regular appearances there. If you can attract the these seven masters of their art to your garden and make them loved enough to want to stay, you won’t be alone in your quest to limit pest damage.
|The Predator||About it|
|Parasitic wasps:||Perhaps the most important of all predators, and one of the most diverse species on earth, these often tiny wasps don't sting people at all, but instead lay their eggs inside hosts, including spiders, aphids and caterpillars. The eggs hatch and grow inside their host, often exploiting them as "zombies" in ingenious ways, before killing them and turning in to adults.
Gruesome, but handy.
|Frogs and Toads:||Frogs and toads love to eat slugs and snails and will scatter across your garden in dark, moist spaces.
With a good environment, they will stay and breed for many years.
|Ladybirds:||Both adult ladybirds and ladybird larvae primarily eat aphids, on mass and they are so good on aphids that they deserve a place in his list.
Ladybirds are easily recognised but their larvae are not so well known. It's worth learning what hey look like so you can celebrate when you see them in your garden.
|Lacewing larvae:||Beautiful, delicate flies, Lacewings are important pollinators. Their larvae however are amongst the best predators there are.
They eat mites aphids, caterpillars and insect eggs amongst others and are voracious devourers.
|Hoverfly larvae:||Almost as effective at controlling aphids as Lacewing larvae and Ladybirds, add these to the mix and you have a phenomenal aphid team.
They do eat other little bug pests too, but aphids are their main focus.
|Ground beetles:||These wonderful, stunning little creatures eat a huge range of pests including caterpillars, aphids, weevils, slugs and snails.
Most of them hunt by night, but some are diurnal, so keep your eyes peeled.
|Birds:||It's astonishing how many articles there are online for keeping birds out of your garden. True, some of them can be an irritant at times, tucking in to your fruits, leaves and veg. But in our view, no garden is truly a patch of the planet without birds frequenting it. And as it happens, many of them have a taste for caterpillars, snails, slugs, aphids, weevils and beetles (including, but sadly not exclusively the problem ones).
Song Thrushes love snails, as do Blackbirds and Thrushes (who also love slugs), Tits love aphids and caterpillars whereas House Martins love aphids, flies and beetles. Goldcrests love all manner of insects. Starlings eat a whole range of invertebrates including snails, caterpillars and flies. And so on. In other words, there are a lot of very beneficial birds out there.
Creating a Predator Farm
By creating the conditions, and planting the plants, that these predators like, you can help attract them to the garden in enough numbers, early enough, to help out. Here are some key things to do. It is a good idea to have plants and conditions all over your garden that attract these predators, especially near to where the problems tend to arise.
Allow a few nettles
One of the challenges of working with predators is that often their numbers don’t build up until later in the season, by which time some pests have already done a lot of damage. A few nettles can help with this challenge. They are loved by a wide range of aphids, including one that uniquely eats the nettle plant. And they come up very early in the season and so become a host for aphids early on.
Allowing them to grow creates an early food source for several of your predators, which can build up their numbers earlier than they might otherwise. Ladybirds will lay their eggs on nettles early in the season for example, and blue tits are attracted to the garden to eat the aphids too.
Nettles can spread easily, so don’t go over the top. A small patch in a corner will be easily sufficient.
Create a pond
Frogs and toads are a predator of both slugs and snails and a pond helps attract them. Frogs spend a good amount of time in and around ponds and value them as a space to hide as well as breed.
Toads don’t have quite as much of a need for ponds as frogs but do need them for breeding. Even frogs will spend the majority of their time out and about in your garden enjoying the moist, shady spots rather than in the pond. So you don’t have to place the pond near to the vegetable patch necessarily, as long as it’s in your garden.
Make the pond deep enough (ideally at least 1 metre) so that it doesn’t freeze over winter, That way frogs can rest in there over winter and come out as early as possible next year to start harvesting.
Create lots of shady spots and log piles
Beetles, frogs and toads all spend most of their time in damp, shady spots. They venture out to feed and then return to the shade for safety and to stay cool and moist. Long grass, log piles, and stone piles all create great conditions. Hedges are also very good for ground beetles, who like to live at the bottom of them.
Plant flowers to attract predators
Yarrow, Dill, Fennel, Golden Marguerite and Coriander all attract Lacewings, Labybirds, Hoverflies and Parasitic wasps, which eat the nectar. Inter-plant these with your vegetables, fruit and anything else you want to protect to attract the predators to where you want them.
Attract birds (and bats)
Attracting birds like Tits to nest in your patch means you will have a dedicated pair of parents hunting throughout your garden to feed their young, working through your pests as they go. So bird boxes for the birds you want to attract are a great start. Bat boxes are also worth installing as bats are wonderful evening devourers of moths, which lay eggs that produce caterpillars.
Bird food, ponds or bird baths for drinking water and shrubs and hedges for shelter and protection also help to make birds feel at home.
All in all
Few pests are just bad full stop. Many actually serve important functions in a system too. Moths are good pollinators, aphids feed blue tits, slugs feed frogs and some slugs eat other slugs too. The trick to all of this is to look at the patch less as a set of individual things, or as black and white, and more as a system or a pattern.
Everything out there is inter-acting with everything else. We don’t want to focus on wiping things out altogether, but creating equilibrium. We will always get pests and they will always be annoying. But working with our patch to create a balance between eaters of our precious plants, and eaters of those eaters, creates the best chance of getting to a point where it’s less about war, and more about harmony.