How to Control Garden Pests with Predators
In this episode, we’re going to look at the best way to deal with pests in your garden—by attracting their predators. From slugs to aphids to even small rodents you can attract the predators of these common pests to keep them in balance. When you control garden pests with predators you save time, energy and create abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. Let’s look at some simple steps to attract predators and keep pests in balance with their predators.
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Far too often the advice for dealing with pests in the garden focuses on the use of chemicals or traps. Even organic approaches use things like soap and water, beer traps, or neem oil.
The same basic mindset is at work—pests are bad and should be eliminated from the garden.
But this isn’t working with nature.
It’s working against nature.
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And this approach is locking you into a never-ending cycle of fighting pests—you have to take on the role that predators take in a healthy environment.
A better approach is to control garden pests with predators by taking simple steps to attract and support those predators.
So how do you do this?
Well, the first and most important step is to stop trying to eliminate garden pests.
Those caterpillars, aphids, slugs, and other so-called pests are food for predators like birds, snakes, ladybugs, and so many more.
Not only do the predators need these pests for food the methods used to kill pests often kill the predators too.
Especially when you use pesticides or other toxic chemicals.
But beyond stepping back you need to provide the habitat for predators so they can live in and around your garden.
Let’s dive into how you can attract and support the predators that will help you control garden pests.
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People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
- The Number 1 Pest Solution – Attract Predators to Your Garden
- How to Control Garden Pests (Without Toxic Chemicals)
- Garter Snakes – A Gardener’s Best Friend
- How to Create Habitat Features for Pest Control
- Placing Habitat Features to Maximize Pest Control
- Why Snags are Awesome (And How to Get Started)
- How to Grow a Mini-Meadow
- 3 Reasons Why You Should Create a Wildlife Pond
Books and Other Resources
Dealing with Slugs in Western Washington
What pests cause you the most issues in your garden?
Here in western Washington slugs are one of the biggest pests—the average Seattle garden can have around 6,000 slugs in it.
I still remember having to go out every night and remove a couple of dozen slugs from our broccoli and other vegetables.
But I made sure to just toss the slugs to our hedgerows and fields and not kill them.
Because I wanted to make sure they were around to feed the predators that eat them.
Predators like garter snakes, songbirds, black ground beetles, and frogs.
And I started to focus on creating the habitat that supports these predators. Without shelter, the predators won’t stick around.
Many predators also have different needs depending on their life cycle.
Lacewings and hoverflies are pollinators as adults but their larvae are voracious predators that eat tons of aphids and other soft-bodied insects.
So I started adding logs and rock piles in and around my gardens.
I added logs as borders to our paths.
I planted native flowers in and around the gardens and native trees and shrubs nearby in hedgerows and other growing areas.
And recently we built a simple wildlife pond along the north side of our kitchen garden to support frogs and garter snakes.
Adding the logs, rocks, flowers and the wildlife pond has resulted in huge changes.
Garter snakes are now common. And so are big black ground beetles, centipedes, and many more predators.
And slugs are far less common and I’ve stopped going out each night to remove slugs from our vegetables.
We do still have some slug damage but it doesn’t have a major impact on our harvests.
Some damage to our vegetables is to be expected—even commercial farms accept that some of their harvests will have damage from pests.
The goal should be to create a balance between predators and pests. Don’t try to eliminate the pests.
When you control garden pests with predators and not with toxic chemicals you’re helping to cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
Let’s dive into some tips to do this.
Tip #1 – Control Garden Pests with Predators by Creating Wild Beds in Your Garden
When we built our kitchen garden I added habitat for wildlife right from the very start.
Every garden bed has a relatively small roughly 2-feet by 2-feet area that I call our wild beds.
In each of these wild beds, I’ve added rock piles, logs, snags, and native flowers—all of which are edible.
These provide habitat for the predators of garden pests like slugs while also adding beauty to beds, helping to support soil life, and even provide an additional harvest.
I’ve seen garter snakes and other predators hanging out in these wild beds and songbirds often perch on the snags.
Adding wild beds to your garden works and is a great way to help control garden pests with predators.
Tip #2 – Don’t Surround Your Garden with a Food Desert
How many times have you seen a garden that is surrounded by grass lawns? I often see this—people convert a part of their lawn to a garden.
This is actually great—I would much rather people grow a garden than a big lawn.
But if you stop with only the garden and just keep it surrounded by a lawn then you’ve just surrounded your garden with a food desert.
There is nothing in that lawn and the surrounding area for wildlife to eat. Just like you, they will all be drawn to your garden.
But unfortunately, this also means there is nowhere for predators to shelter.
Even if your garden has a few wild garden beds in it those are going to be too small on their own to fully support predators of garden pests.
But you can solve this issue by planting native trees and shrubs around your garden. Native wildflower meadows are another great option.
You can also mix in log and rock piles to these surrounding growing areas.
Perhaps you could even add a wildlife pond or a birdbath to help attract more wildlife.
If you do this your garden will be surrounded by a rich diversity of habitat that will, in turn, support a rich diversity of wildlife.
Pests will still be there but so will the predators that eat them.
We have hedgerows, a wildlife pond, and native meadows around our garden. But we also still have a small lawn on one side. You don’t have to eliminate the lawn but make sure to create space for wildlife in addition to growing food for your family and community.
Otherwise, you will always be fighting pests.
If you want to heal the living world around you then you’ve got to plant not just for people but for wildlife too. Doing this is one way you can cultivate abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
Tip #3 – Create a Wildlife Pond
Throughout this episode, I’ve mentioned our wildlife pond. This is just a small backyard pond—it’s lined and has a small waterfall.
I also built it myself—it was the first lined pond I’ve ever built.
It turns out they’re not that hard if you keep it simple.
But you can just build a small mini-pond using a small container.
Unlike a classic backyard pond, a wildlife pond is built for wildlife. This means it has rocks, logs native plants, and other features to support wildlife.
The edges are all gentle so frogs and other wildlife can easily get in and out of it.
No chemicals are used to manage the water—instead living native aquatic plants and the waterfall keep the water clean and clear.
And the result is that wildlife such as birds but also many more like garter snakes can use it. And not just for water but also to reproduce, take shelter and find food.
Our wildlife pond along with the native meadow planted around it along with logs and rocks all work together to create a place where wildlife can thrive.
And since the wildlife pond is right next to our kitchen garden any wildlife that call it home can easily visit our garden to help keep pests under control.
Building a small wildlife pond is a fantastic way to control garden pests with predators.
Don’t Try to Eliminate the Pests and Be Patient
If you follow these tips you will be off to a great start. But there are 2 more things you’ve got to do if you want to control garden pests with predators.
The first is to stop trying to eliminate the pests.
Last year at the start of the summer my perennial Kosmic kale was covered with aphids. But I just left them alone and stopped harvesting those plants.
I did this because I started to notice hoverflies showing up and laying eggs on the kale. Ladybugs were doing the same.
Soon there were larvae of both chomping through the aphids.
And I also noticed dozens and dozens of little parasitoid wasps flying around the kale plants. These wasps don’t sting and could fit on the head of a needle.
They need flowers as adults but they lay their eggs on insects like aphids. The eggs hatch and the young eat the aphids or other host insect from the inside out.
Gruesome but highly effective at control pests like aphids.
And if I had removed the aphids with soap and water none of these predators would have been there. Not only would this impact the current generation of predators but all those larvae wouldn’t have grown into the next generation either.
And this year I wouldn’t be seeing so many hoverflies, ladybugs, and other predators. But the aphids still would have been there because let’s be honest—even if you use chemicals you’re never going to eliminate pests like aphids.
But by choosing not to try to eliminate the pests and to be patient I gave the predators time to do what they do—eat the garden pests and keep them in balance for me.
You can do the same.
Plant wildflowers, create wild garden beds, plant native trees and shrubs nearby your garden, and think about adding a small wildlife pond.
Doing this will create habitat for wildlife including the predators.
This is how you control garden pests with predators.
But don’t forget to step back, slow down and let the predators do their job. While this may take a year or 2 in the long run it will save you time, energy, and money.
If you do this you will be cultivating abundance for people, plants, and wildlife.
And make sure to stay tuned for our next episode where we will explore strategies to deal with drought without watering more.
Let’s work together to heal our living world.
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