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Bugs, Bees, and Butterflies

Insects Galore

The other day, when picking produce from my community garden, I was enthralled by a bumble bee buzzing in front of a cucumber blossom. It landed on the edge of the flower, burying its head inside. Soon it moved on to another blossom, then a third. Later, little hoverflies worked their way across a collection of white cilantro blossoms. It is the height of summer; plants have full leaves, and they are flowering. Fruits and vegetables are growing larger and ripening.

All of this verdurous growth creates a buzz in the insect world. A number of years ago, after deciding to garden organically and soaking in the wisdom of entomologists I have had the pleasure of learning from, both my tolerance of and fascination for bugs have markedly increased.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will focus on three categories of insects. First, there are the insects that eat or otherwise destroy your plants, like the cucumber beetle I recently killed. Second, there are the insects that are very helpful, the above-mentioned bumble bee and hoverfly are two examples. Finally, there are the insects that “worm” their way into our hearts because they kill harmful insects (we love these guys!).

Fostering a Healthy Insect Population

There are many things one can do to foster the symbiotic relationship that insects have with one another and with our plants. As a baseline, it is wise to take the time to search for and plant disease resistant varieties of seeds or plants. I learned my lesson this year when I planted four kinds of cucumbers. A couple are resistant to cucumber wilt bacteria and a couple (that I just HAD to try) were not. Guess what? The varieties that aren’t resistant have cucumber wilt. This is a disease that is spread by the cucumber beetle, and the bacteria overwinters in the soil. This is happening in my community garden, where the history of what was planted in years past is unknown. (I might have been given a little bit of a break if I had known where cucumbers had been and planted this year’s in a different spot.)

A great way to help the pollinator insects is to let some of your plants go to flower and then seed. The butterflies, bees, and hoverflies will love you for it! I always leave a portion of my cilantro, arugula, lettuces, bak choy, basil, mint, among others to flower and seed. Those plants are very busy places right now. In addition, I scatter flower seeds throughout my garden. Nasturtiums, marigolds, and sunflowers are all edible and thus beneficial in several ways. Then there are the blossoms on tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, watermelon, squash, peas, beans, etc. What a plethora of options for our insect friends!

Another helpful practice is to plant things that are specific foods for certain desirable insects. I let my fennel reseed itself every year and plant dill everywhere because that is what the black swallowtail butterfly larvae eat. With Monarch butterflies, their larvae only eat milkweed, so including that in your landscape will help them multiply.

One of the more interesting groups of the insect world are the predatory insects. We all know about ladybugs eating aphids, but other examples include the cicada killer wasp as well as spiders. One of the more voracious predators, and maybe the most maligned, are spiders. Let’s just say spiders are not vegetarians. They eat other insects, many of them harmful to our yard and garden plants. So instead of cleaning up all those cobwebs in your garden, leave them. I’m not saying to leave the cobwebs around doors, windows, and house. But in your garden, these hungry critters are doing your work for you.

Think twice before you buy packages of earthworms, lady beetles, praying mantis, etc. I could write an epistle on the downsides of introducing foreign bugs into your environment. Instead, foster the conditions to help the native bugs that are already present thrive and do their thing.

It goes without saying, use insecticides either not at all or very, very sparingly. Most insecticides don’t discriminate between helpful and harmful insects.

It doesn’t take much to change your way of thinking and your practices. Just like many of us try attract birds to our yards, we can attract insects. In fact, it is easy to do this because much of what attracts insects is leaving your garden alone. Don’t harvest some of your greens, don’t apply insecticides, don’t pick all your flowers. This laid-back approach will, in the end, increase your insect population, which will increase the health of your plants and lead to higher production.

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The Invisible Glory of Dirt

What Happened to All the Dirt?

The new house we were moving into was in a section of town that was being carved out of native prairie. The neighborhood was located on a large (mostly) limestone plateau that looked out over the city below. I was excited. It was a large lot for a new subdivision. It was flat, and we had big plans for all that space. The final thing to happen before we moved in was for the contractor to grade the yard and lay down the sod. We had reserved a chunk in the very back for what would become our vegetable and flower garden. The rest they scraped and sodded. They said they had to do it so that we’d have a nice flat lawn. Our plan included flower beds surrounding the house and a stone patio with beds around that as well.

We moved in the fall, so when spring rolled around, we were ready, with shovels in hand, to create our flower beds. We pierced the ground with our shovels only to discover rock and clay hiding just below the surface. This was not the dark, rich soil we had envisioned. Our plants would not grow in this! Then we remembered; the native topsoil, teaming with living microorganisms, that was there originally had been scrapped away by those developing our neighborhood and by our builder as he leveled our lot.

Developing Good Dirt

At the time, we didn’t know a lot about dirt, but we knew enough to know the bulbs, flowering bushes, and perennials we had planned to put there weren’t going to thrive in rocky, clay soil.

So we decided to go about changing our dirt. First we carved the outlines of our beds. Next we removed all the dirt down about two feet. Truckloads of good, black dirt, compost, manure, and sand were dumped in tall piles on the end our driveway. We mixed these together, including some of the original dirt. Then we refilled all of our soon-to-be flowerbeds and vegetable garden with this new mixture.

All this work paid off in spades. We were rewarded with abundance in flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Though we didn’t know why exactly our plants thrived in healthy dirt, we saw the delicious and beautiful results.

The Microscopic World of Soil

Only relatively recently has the scientific community begun to put together all the many parts of what goes on under the ground in our soil. Scientists have historically thought that soil was made up of clay, sand, silt, and dead plant material. They didn’t know that in healthy soil the organic matter is almost completely made up of living and dead microbes. They are just beginning to understand how critical these microbes are to soil health and thus to plant health, and because we eat plants or eat animals that eat plants, to people health.

Life in the soil is mostly microscopic. What cannot be seen has not been understood. Now thanks to advances in scientific research, we are beginning to get a grasp on the role of bacteria, viruses, fungi, protists, archea, etc. The vast majority of these are extremely beneficial and essential to plant health.

Plant roots and the microorganisms that surround them have a mutually beneficial relationship. In a myriad of ways, this symbiosis makes our plants healthier. They have bigger root systems, and they have a much higher immunity to diseases. It has been shown they not only produce more fruits and vegetables, but those yields contain higher amounts of nutrients compared to plants grown in poor soil.

Creating Healthy Dirt

This begs the question, how can we get the healthiest soil possible? Of course, that is what we all want, right? Our solution over the past century has been to fertilize. If plants and soil need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, let’s just give it to them. And we have … in abundance. The problem is that putting these minerals on the soil does not create healthy, living soil the plants need. Yes, the plants can grow large, but they are not growing better. They do not have the immunity to disease. They are not able to take advantage of the millions of organisms in the soil that make it possible for them to absorb necessary nutrients. Healthy soil absorbs and holds onto moisture better, making for more water for the plants as well as less runoff.

I liken it to the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Creating good soil is providing plants with the all the tools at nature’s disposal to flourish.

Enriching Your Soil

Healthy soil can be created almost anywhere by thinking through what you have at your disposal and faithfully applying it to your yard and garden.

It’s not unlike a recipe in your kitchen. Laying down compost and dried leaves in the fall (especially oak) grass clippings, wood mulch, compost tea, aged manure, even things like coffee grounds or fish emulsion. The more you add, the more food there is for the microorganisms to eat. This healthy soil makes for plants that can better fight off pests and diseases while bearing more produce.

As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” And as it turns out, so are plants.

Spring is the perfect time to start creating great soil. Your landscapes are fairly bare, making it much easier to work with your soil. I would recommend just laying everything on the top of the ground. Don’t work it in. Trust me, the microbes will know where to find the food they need. It turns out the underground is like a microscopic city with infrastructure, pathways, and means of communication all set up. When we till, we destroy these established networks. Then it takes time to set it all back up again.

Soil experts and farmers around the world are only beginning to understand this and put into practice “no till” methods of farming. Farmers that practice just this one thing are seeing greater crops yields (as well as lower expenses because they are not spending the time and money it takes to till).

Try this: put away your chemicals, and instead feed your soil. Let’s see where this takes your yard and garden.
Soil is one of earth’s greatest assets, so let’s do what we can to make it better. The funny thing is, when we improve it, it will improve us.