Adventures in Gardening: Balance in the Garden

by David Soper

I'm very interested in keeping peace in my garden and that means a balance between good insects and bad insects. But, in order to know what bugs are out there and if they are friend or foe you need to be able to identify them.

The number one recommendation of several entomologists I talked with was "buy an illustrated guide to insects."

Fortunately for us, nature maintains a certain equilibrium or balance in our gardens. But, as we all know, sometimes that balance tips the wrong way.

It turns out that we, the gardener, are often the biggest contributors to tipping the scales. Here are some sure-fire ways to alter the balance in the wrong direction:

  • Monocultures: If you plant a number of the same species in the same area it can look stupendous, but it can be a magnet for insects and fungi that like that particular species. An example might be the rose bed and its well-known aphid and fungus outbreaks.
  • Exotic Planting: We often plant plants a long way from their native habitat. The plant may attract insects that don't have natural enemies in our area. We also put plants in sites that are so different from their normal habitats, the plants can't adjust and become stressed, an invitation to the bad guys.
  • Pesticide Panic: If you are the kind of gardener that reaches for pesticides every time you spot a problem, you are the problem.

Excessive pesticide use kills some bugs but not all. If you remember Gregor Mendel, you'll understand that bugs with natural resistance to the particular pesticide you used will reproduce while those not resistant will die. In short order, you'll have more and more bugs that are resistant to your insecticide.

You kill the good guys,too. Most pesticides are not very specific. They kill everything (except the resistant ones) including the good guys. With them gone, new pests they have been controlling will move in.

You can be too quick to assume the damage you saw was caused by the bug you saw. In fact, the insect you spotted may have eaten the one that caused the damage. Animals can leave damage that looks just like insect damage, too. The shrew loves to munch on strawberries. But, you'd probably think some insect like a caterpillar did the deed.

From the 1940s when many pesticides were introduced to today there has been a steady decline in their effectiveness. So farmers, who have a tremendous economic incentive to find effective controls, developed IPM (Integrated Plant Management) This five-step, common sense, approach to pest control really does work. It may be time for us gardeners to borrow from our farmer friends.

We'll explore the five-steps next week so, until then, good luck and great gardening.

David Soper, The Garden Guy, writes and lectures on gardening topics. Check out his books at

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