Gardeners, give insects and slugs a break: we need them

The Ladybird (Coccinellea magnifica) Photo credit: Gilles San Martin, Wikipedia

Let the beasts in your garden roam free, give them space, and they will reward you. What’s more, you will be doing nature as a whole a big favour, something that’s really needed right now. Insects are at or near the base of the food chain in the UK. The important pollinators, honey bees, are the poster child for this ecosystem service. However, solitary bees, bumble bees, wasps, hover flies and a host of other insects perform that task too.

Insects are of course also food for many birds and other creatures. Aphids get eaten by ladybird larvae, for example, while the sight and scream of migratory swifts whirling above our towns and gardens, catching insects on the wing, is inspirational.

Yet the blizzard of poisons in the form of pesticides and herbicides that many gardeners spray onto their gardens on a regular basis is proven to be highly detrimental to insects of all shapes and sizes, according to Sussex University’s Professor Dave Goulson. In his latest book, Silent Earth, he points out that, because they’re indiscriminate, pesticides don’t just kill the beasts you don’t like, they kill their predators too. Since the predators’ prey can outbreed their predators, killing (almost) everything means the prey – the aphids and so on – will come back stronger and more quickly, while their predators take much longer to return; the so-called pests will win in the long term.

So pesticide application is a never-ending and increasingly forlorn battle that’s impossible to win. Meanwhile those poisons leach down into the water table and into our rivers and seas, doing untold damage along the way.

From the globe to your garden

You can enjoy gardening and the outcome of your labours without the time, effort and expense of using pesticides and similar poisons. While there’s no water-tight definition of sustainable gardening, you can broadly view it as gardening while visiting minimal collateral damage on the creatures and plants that cohabit your space.

Perhaps the core of the problem with gardening as it’s all too often practised is the perception that a garden needs to be tidy. Flowers over here, shrubs right here, and lawn over there – mown to within an inch of its life, often with stripes – and all without a single creature that might spoil the perfect outline of the rose bush leaves. In other words, it’s about the dominance of humans over nature.

Wildflower meadow – a haven for insects and small mammals. Photo credit: Marathon / Creative Commons

This is clearly not a sustainable approach, as demonstrated by the interlinked global damage humans are wreaking: climate change, deforestation, the mass extinction of species and the loss of habitats. 

Rather we need to see ourselves as custodians and part of nature, not dominating it. On scales from global right down to our gardens, we need to let nature into our space. To pick up my earlier example of bees, it’s demonstrable (to me as a beekeeper) that bees do better in urban areas than they do in the countryside, much of which has been stripped bare to enable farming monocultures. We should even be more accommodating to slugs and snails.

Sustainable gardening in practice

The joy of a garden that allows in more than a handful of species is that it becomes an ecosystem in its own right. You can watch ladybird larvae eating the aphids that chew on your favourite plants; larvae can chomp through hundreds of aphids a day. An area of lawn left to become a wild flower meadow will support dozens of species of insect – butterflies, moths, beetles, solitary bees and all sorts of creatures – and be all the healthier for that. What’s more, it will need far less tending.

And if the aphids do need a bit of discouragement, soapy water works well, and doesn’t result in the mass killing of everything within the reach of a generic pesticide. Companion plants such as marigolds act as pest repellents, which means greenfly and blackfly are more likely to leave your runner beans in peace and, by the same token, leeks repel carrot fly… the list goes on.

It’s worth also bearing mind that native plants will do better than non-natives. They are better suited to the country’s environment, so any pests they attract will have plentiful native predators. And longer, unmown grass provides habitats for insects and small mammals.

Other initiatives you can adopt, according to the Royal Horticultural Society, include planting a tree, watering using rainwater, making compost, switching to electric tools and eating home-grown vegetables. And of course, planting for pollinators to reverse the decline in their numbers.

Nature is our friend not the enemy. Without it, there will be no us.

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