Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Bugs, they make a garden good!

 It's Golden Ragwort time in the garden.

Each spring when Packera aurea blooms there are always a few stalks that are covered with aphids! I don't worry about a few aphids since the flowers never seem to decline because of them. (The Happy Flower Trinity)

I didn't always feel that way when I saw aphids sucking the juices out of a plant! Way back when I was less experienced about the role of insects in the garden, I would grab the hose and spray them to oblivion. Now, I recognize them as an important food for predator bugs. In fact, aphids are a primary food source for predator bugs.
 the soft bodied aphids used to creep me out
Why does that matter? We want bugs in our gardens, all kinds of bugs, and we need beneficial bugs.  Beneficial bugs help keep our gardens healthy and in balance. They're "good bugs" and they eat many "bad bugs" like mites, caterpillars, of course aphids and other creepy sucking and plant-consuming bugs. Sure, they occasionally eat a good bug, but, that's all part of the cycle of life in a garden.

Assassin bug waiting on a coreopsis
Some of the "good bugs" include lacewings, lady beetles, minute pirate bug, soldier bugs, assassin bugs, braconid wasps, tachinid flies, flower flies and aphid mites.
Sweet alyssum is wonderful in containers placed among native plants
I have found that dill, parsley, catnip, goldenrod, hydrangea, daisies, yarrow, coreopsis and sweet alyssum are excellent at attracting beneficial bugs to the garden. Plant them in your native plant borders, in your woodland gardens, and, in your vegetable gardens. They also look great in containers
Adult hover fly on Gaura. The larva are known to eat aphids
A healthy garden is chock full of all kinds of bugs/insects and other critters.
Eastern Bluebirds eat mostly insects, but they have been observed eating small amphibians

Did you know, that if you want birds to live in your garden, you absolutely must have a garden that is hospitable to bugs! I love feeding the birds and keep a feeder up all year long. The birds are entertaining to watch and I feel like I am giving the smaller birds a fighting chance to survive during a cold winter. But, when nesting time arrives, seed is not enough. They need insects to feed their young! According to Doug Tallamy, entomology and wildlife ecology professor at the University of Delaware, a single pair of breeding chickadees must find as many as 6000 caterpillars to rear one clutch of young.

That's a lot of bugs and that's just for one bird family in a garden.

What's a gardener to do:

Plant more natives. Include trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals. (Winter annuals in a native garden)

Plant pollen and nectar rich non-natives to attract beneficials and other insects. (Gardening for wildlife)

Stay away from native plant hybrids and cultivars that are double flowered. They are sterile and have no pollen or nectar for insects and no seeds for the birds. If possible plant “true open-pollinated native wildflowers”.

Don't be in a rush to clean up the fall garden. Leave plant stalks and seed heads standing all winter. Leave those fallen leaves or as many as you can tolerate! Insects over winter in the fallen and decaying leaves.

Build habitats that attract toads.

Dig a pond and wait for the damsel flies and dragonflies to arrive. They will eat mosquitoes which make gardening in the summer a nightmare.

Stack fallen brush, cut tree limbs, broken pots for ground beetles. Ground beetles are excellent at eating "bad bugs'. They're also good bird, toad and small critter food.

Rethink what you consider a pest. Spiders are important predators and bird food!

Learn to tolerate damaged plants. Imperfection is the new perfect.

If a plant shows signs of aphid distress~twisted, curled or swollen leaves or stems spray with water
Of course, you know what comes next!

Never, ever, ever, ever, ever use pesticides/insecticides in your garden. I do mean never! Your pollinators, beneficial insects, spiders and insect eating birds will thank you by visiting and setting up house in your garden.


In case you wondered about Golden Ragwort:

The small daisy like golden flowers on tall stems are chock full of pollen and nectar for small bees, flies and butterflies. There are no cultivars of this beauty, the straight species is perfect! (Pollinators and their friends)

Family: Asteraceae
Native Range: Eastern North America to Texas
Zone: 3 to 8
Height: 0.50 to 2.50 feet Spread: 0.50 to 1.50 feet
Bloom Time: April Bloom
Sun: Full sun to part shade
Water: Medium to wet
Pollinators: Small bees and butterflies

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone. She reminds all that the words and images are the property of the author and cannot be used without written permission.


  1. Awesome post, Gail! I just looked the plant up, and see it is native to the states right next to Nebraska, where I live. I do grow some plants that are in those areas, and not quite ours, so I wonder why I haven't seen this one. I do have lots of yellow, though.

    1. Thank you Sue...They're great plants and if you have an area that needs covereing they can work.

  2. A new motto: Imperfection is the new perfect! I love it! This is a great post, Gail. In my garden, I've got roundleaf ragwort (Packera obovatum), aka roundleaf groundsel, golden groundsel, squaw weed. It's just starting to come into bloom - it's a wonderful plant, acting rather like a pleasant, light ground cover in shady areas.

    1. I love that motto, too...It's been mine forever, but, it's so relevant to garden pests with all the rush to poison them away! Love that groundsel, too!

  3. I don't have Golden Ragwort in my garden....think it is time to add it! Great photos...those little bitty critters are so hard to focus on.
    I love Sweet Alyssum, need to have some this year.

  4. I like your "happy flower trinity"! The human instinct to blast away the insects with insecticides is strong. I was thrilled to convince a family member not to use chemicals on a shrub that had "ants all over it." It also had signs of a fungal disease because it was tested with a brief cold snap in the weather. Instead, we left the ants alone and used water, dish soap, and baking soda to deal with the fungus. Always a pleasure to visit your blog, for so many reasons, Gail. Happy spring!

  5. Great perspective on bugs. I used to use a few pesticides but haven't used any in the past couple of years. After planting more shrubs and perennials to attract beneficial insects, plus having the trees get bigger so more birds come to visit, I haven't had hardly any problems with bag bugs (except invasive European paper wasps, which make nests everywhere and stung one of my daughters 6 times after she bumped into an unseen nest in a lilac shrub). It's amazing how it's all working they way it should without spraying!

  6. Insects are the basis for much of the life in our gardens. I can refer you to my recent post "How many caterpillars does it take to make a chickadee?" http://birdwoman-thenatureofthings.blogspot.com/2015/04/how-many-caterpillars-does-it-take-to.html

  7. Most bugs are an integral part of the environment although those pesky lily leaf beetles seem to have no good use! I do love an 'imperfect' garden. LOL

  8. Haven't seen many bugs yet. It won't be long tho with these warmer temps and finally some sunshine.

  9. We are in the process of buying a new house. The house we have chosen (but not taken possession of yet) comes with a blank flat slate of a yard. I've been re-reading the Living Landscape by Darke and Tallamy and making lists of native plants that will feed and support all the bugs and caterpillars and birds and butterflies. Even my husband who isn't really a gardener says the landscaping is our first priority and I have the budget to prove it.

  10. Wonderful post...I saw one honey bee on the one day it was warm...still looking for spring to move forward as are the birds...some are nesting and no bugs will be a problem for the babes.

  11. "Imperfection is the new perfect." Thanks for my new garden (and life) mantra.

  12. Absolutely love the coreopsis. Will be looking for that one.

  13. Dill is one of my garden favorites. The flowers are charming, it smells good, and attracts every pollinator from miles around!

  14. Excellent post Gail, without the interaction of wildlife a garden is a sterile place.


"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson