Letting Nature Work For You in the Garden

If you don't utilize every scrap of aid possible, there is no end to the amount of time, effort and hard physical labor you can spend in a garden. So what do we do? We work with nature, or to say it better, let nature work for you. Letting nature do the work that otherwise would fall on you makes wonderful sense, doesn't it? Mulching is a good example of letting natural processes take over the jobs of keeping the soil moist, friable, fertile, and aerated. As you think about this idea, I believe you'll begin to realize just how much work nature can do for you if encourage it just a little bit.

Companion planting is one way. If planting peas and carrots together helps them both grow better, then they should go together. If certain plants repel various insects, they should be planted as well. I know I was fascinated when I found out that marigolds repelled a parasite called nematodes by excuding a certain substance from their roots. Did you know that geraniums, not pink or red but white geraniums, will deter Japanese beetles?

One of the best ways to foil many pests and plant diseases is to plant seeds that are resistant to those problems. Another great ally in the gardener's fight against destructive insects are the birds. If you want to attract birds to your garden, you must issue a proper invitation. For a bird, that means a place that provides food, shelter and if possible water.

So step 1 would be, put out some bird feeders, it won't take long before the chickadees to discover the feeder. They will be followed by a perky little grey bird with a white breast and tuft of feathers on his head; the tufted titmouse. Then should come the juncos and the blue jays. Anyone who feeds birds knows what comes next. Sacks and sacks of bird seed. The platoons of birds that stay to visit all year round or that will stop by to rest, and stay for meals, on their flights north and south, but the point here is, that birds will consume incredible numbers of insect pests for you.

Swallows, for instance, rely almost entirely on insects for food; the purple martin swallow has been called the most useful bird in the garden, they fancy mosquitos. Baltimore orioles eat caterpillars, beetles; and cuckoos devour hairy caterpillars, beetles, grasshoppers, sawflies, some spiders, tent caterpillars and crickets. Woodpeckers go after wood boring beetles and fruitwood insects, while towhees feast on hibernating beetles an larvae. Meadowlarks will eat some weeds from your lawn as well as bugs. Chickadees, house wrens and phoebes do a good job of eating and contoling insects. In addition, in the spring, the adult birds must feed themselves and keep their young supplied with insects; at certain times young birds need more than their own weight in food daily.

As to food, you can supply much of their requirements by planting various trees and shrubs that will provide natural food for birds. Birds also need supplemental feedings to their regular diet of insects and seeds. In the summer, when there is lots of natural food available, this is not a problem. In fact, you should cut down on their rations then or they won't bother to work for their food. But in winter, when food becomes scarce, feeding is essential. Once you start you must continue, for the birds will come to depend upon you for their lives.

Water is a compelling attraction, birds love to play in it, and where it does not rain for weeks on end, water for drinking is essential. If you put out a bird bath place it near some cover near some bushes, trees or shrubs. Birds don't like open areas. Put shallow pans of water near any insect ridden plants or let the sprinkler run until puddles form on the ground. The birds, yellow jackets and praying mantises will gather for the water, notice the food, and go to work.

Then there are the predator insects, those that greedily gobble up many garden pests. The friendly and lovely lady bugs have a greedy appetite for aphids, thrips, tree lice and eggs and larvae of many plant destorying insects. Praying mantises (the " walking sticks" of our childhood) are hard working, efficient predators. The young eat aphids, flies and other small, soft bodied insects, while the larger adults consume massive quantities of beetles, caterpillars, grasshoppers and other damaging garden pests. Two others, possibly not as well known, are lacewing flies (the larvae really go after aphids), and trichogramma wasps, they're especially effective on the larvae of the cabbage worm.

If nature hasn't been upset on your property, that is if you haven't used a lot of chemical sprays, many of these useful insects will just show up when warm weather comes. If not, you can order them from suppliers.

When it comes to ladybugs, you need to plant them in the garden. They come in convenient cases and can be left in these cases for days. Place a little water in a box, and put in the refrigerator. To put ladybugs in the garden, dampen the soil and set them out near food, like aphids.

For praying mantises, you buy the egg cases between November and May. Tie or tape one case to a shrub or tree, at least two or four feet above the ground and near the garden. The cases will survive during the cold months, and the baby mantises will emerge sometime in June or July.

Of all natural aids to the gardener, we must not forget the remarkable little creature called the earthworm. What they actually do is shallow the soil, grind it up, mix it with calcium carbonate, pulverize it, send it on through the intestine to be digested by enzymes, and then excrete it. These final earthworm castings contain nitrogen, phosphrous and potassium, the three nutrients that our vegetables need. And when the earthworm dies, his body adds good nitrogen fertilizer to the soil.

Earthworms and chemicals don't mix, at least well. Chemical fertilizers seem to decrease the number of earthworms in the soil, either killing them off or driving them off; ammonium sulfate is particularly harmful. Many insect sprays also are toxic to earthworms and will cause the population in the soil to dwindle. So keep this in mind when you are considering what to put into your garden. Earthworms actually are a little finicky about soil in general. You can't put them in infertile or hard, clayey soils and expect good results.