Back to the Health Hotline

Organic Gardening Tips: Ladybug Love

family-values

Each spring I do my best to start a garden, and I usually get to the point where my garden is humming along, the plants are growing well and flowering on schedule. And then… I notice the leaves on my tomato plants aren’t looking too great. Small holes have been chewed in them by some sort of troublesome insect. A little sleuthing around on the internet informs me that they are aphids.

Now, I am not the kind of person who wants to spray insecticides on my garden, but I also don’t want my plants destroyed by insects. So, what to do? Well last spring, I learned that there are helpful little insects that can help me deal with these problematic aphids—good ol’ ladybugs!

Are Ladybugs Good for Gardens?

The ladybug (or ladybeetle) experiences its life cycle in four stages, beginning with eggs that hatch in about three to 10 days after they are laid. Eggs are laid on the underside of leaves, always next to a good food supply like those bothersome aphids.  When the larvae hatch they begin eating immediately and, in their lifetime, one ladybug devours an average of 5,000 aphids. This makes a huge impact if you have a garden that is full of ladybugs. Ladybugs are also known to eat other damaging pests like mealybugs, scale insects, spider mites, eggs of the Colorado potato beetle, and the European corn borer. Organic farmers utilize them as a biological form of pest control for crops, sometimes going so far as to buy them in bulk and releasing them in their fields.

How to Attract the Ladies

Attracting ladybugs is one of the top wishes for many organic gardeners, and this can be achieved in several ways. First, grow plants that ladybugs like; the blooms on these plants normally have flat flowers, sort of like landing pads, and tend to be white or yellow. Try planting herbs like cilantro, chives, mint, dill, and fennel. Secondly, you have to make sure they have enough bugs to eat (I typically don’t have a problem with this!). While it may seem somewhat counterproductive, leaving aphids and other pests alone (and not spraying pesticides) will help attract ladybugs. You can also plant “decoy plants” that will entice the aphids while you keep your desired plants bug-free until the ladybugs are ample enough to provide you with biological pest control. Plants that can be used as aphid-attracting decoys include marigolds and radishes. It has also been suggested that placing shallow plates of water for ladybugs to drink out of will also help attract them to your garden.

Additional Organic Gardening Tips

Friendly insects like ladybugs are great for keeping the troublesome pests under control and your tomato plants (and others) healthy and strong. The other big thing that plagues my organic gardening efforts are weeds. Typically the first thing I do is simply pull the weeds by hand, but recently I injured my back and manual weeding was quite challenging. That’s when I found this great DIY weed killer recipe. It uses vinegar to dehydrate the weeds, salt to enhance and activate the vinegar, and dish soap to act as a surfactant—helping keep the vinegar on the leaves to ensure maximum activity. Unlike commercial weed killers, vinegar is eco-friendly and won’t harm people, pets, or the environment. Be warned though, it’s nonselective, not caring whether it kills weeds or your flowers, so be prudent when you apply.

Take the Pledge

When it comes to the big picture, it’s easy to forget how important insects are to the environment, the economy, and the health of the planet. And while the declining honey bee populations have gotten a lot of the recent attention, new data indicate that insect populations are down more than 75% over the past three decades.[i] Indeed, whether it’s acting as a foundational factor in food webs, pollinating crops, providing pest control, or even serving as a source for raw materials like silk and shellac, insects are a critical part of our daily lives. In fact, some entomologists estimate that insects contribute upwards of $57 billion to the U.S. economy, truly helping provide for the American way of life.[ii]

Take the pledge now to help protect the beneficial insects in your garden.

What else can you do to help cultivate a safe and beneficial environment for ladybugs and other beneficial insects?

  • Never use synthetic pesticides in your garden or around your home.
  • Choose plants that will attract ladybugs, feed pollinators, and provide shelter.
  • Let piles of leaves and mulch sit in the yard during the colder months to provide a safe option for winter hibernation.
  • Buy organic. Use your grocery dollar to make an impact!

[i] http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0185809#sec002

[ii] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/12103021/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/bugs-plug-billion-us-economy/#.WrljJ02WzIV