One Buggy Problem

And an environmentally friendly solution.

By Richard Hefley

Knee-deep in summer, the hard work of the vegetable garden is done and it’s time to relax and enjoy a bountiful harvest, investing no more than a little water and weeding.

In a perfect world, that is.



If you listen closely, you might hear tiny jaws crunching in the garden patch; aphids, hornworms and banana slugs (which, we hear, taste nothing like bananas) are working overtime to undo your springtime labors. The results are clear each morning when you find the remains of their feasting—chewed leaves, fruits with large chunks cut away and shiny trails of slime covering the ground.

Chemical controls have been popular since the 1950s, though most of us haven’t noticed any net decrease in bug damage to the garden. In fact, many chemicals do more harm than good for a number of reasons, including the harm they cause to bugs and other creatures that actually help keep the garden healthy.

“People once considered everything in the garden with six legs to be bad … those that destroy fruits or kill trees and plants,” says Don Burnett, The Garden Expert, a third-generation nurseryman, radio host and lecturer in Kelowna, British Columbia. However, most bugs are beneficial, he says, noting that 99% of those in the garden are either good or innocuous, and many of those can help control the real pests.


Damsel bug

These days, beneficial bugs are often sold in the garden shop right alongside beefsteak tomatoes and begonias. For horror-movie fans, there are parasitic wasps that will lay their eggs onto a “pest” of choice. The eggs hatch and the horror begins as the larvae consume their host from the inside out. In the garden, no one can hear them scream.

The adorable ladybug is a killing machine when it comes to the common aphid. The adult eats, lays eggs, and then the ladybug larvae hatch and eat even more.

Assassin bug

Assassin bug

In addition to purchasing good bugs, Don says we also can attract them to the garden by adding companion plants they find desirable. “Alyssum is the best,” he says. “Beneficial wasps love it as a breeding ground and feed off the tiny flowers.” In a rose garden he designed for a hospice center, he used the showy annual, which also attracts ladybugs and lacewings, to control the aphids that are irresistibly drawn to roses.

Other companion plants include feverfew, coreopsis, cosmos and yarrow. They add bright colors in addition to attracting beneficial beetles, tachinid flies, damsel bugs and aptly named assassin bugs. While Burnett does occasionally use chemicals to control pests, he employs them only as a last resort or where no other remedy is possible. He prefers, however, hiring a few buggy helpers and letting them go to work.