Wednesday, 3 February 2010

God bless wax-eyes ~ and other non-chemical remedies!

When people talk about pest control the beneficial role of certain birds, animals and insects is seldom mentioned. In my garden they're a big help and I think of them as friends and helpers. 

I'm always especially pleased to see wax-eyes in the garden: they seek out the small green caterpillars who make such a mess of the growing tips of my hebe bushes, and pick the roses free of aphids.  There are plenty of flowers on hedges and shrubs for them to pick over for additional fodder as insects are attracted by the nectar.  In winter I put out fruit for them or lard in a netting bag.  You can see how small the wax-eyes are in comparison to the sparrows.  These two are eating a piece of apple pushed onto a nail on top of a pole. They eat any fruit I put out for them. Placing these offerings at a safe height is important as wax-eyes are not ground feeders and are particularly vulnerable to cats who seem highly attracted to their fluttering movements and high-pitched cheeps. 

Ladybirds too are keen on aphids and yum them up.  At one place I lived we had a tree spoilt by thrip but were fortunate that a sizeable population of ladybirds established themselves there - and the thrip disappeared.  I'm told ladybirds are attracted to marigolds, so I always have plenty in the garden.

Hedgehogs eat slugs and snails.  I know they also eat the eggs of ground-nesting birds, but these are not present in the average suburban garden. And I know that in addition to pests they also eat other insects which are beneficial or which need conserving, and this can be helped by providing a number of different habitats for the insects to live in - not all at ground level; shrubs, trees and stone walls are great places for insects to have their homes. For me there is something fairy-like about the scurrying forms of hedgehogs in the twilight. If you want to feed them offer cat food rather than bread and milk. 

I want to put in a good word for spiders here: I had a deep aversion to these creatures when young, and am grateful to Gerald Durrell's influence in helping me to overcome it, and in its place find respect and interest.  Indeed, my appreciation of the natural world as a whole was greatly helped and enhanced by him for which I am deeply grateful: Gerald, eternal thanks for your tireless work against all odds - we owe you such a lot, may you rest in peace. 

At another place we lived we had quite a few of these spiders: 
This one was particularly large. (The ruler shows 1 and 2 centimetres.) I've used a small image so it doesn't look too scary! Most spiders, in New Zealand anyway, are not aggressive, and this one had inoffensively set up house in the outside corner of this window.  He or she was tolerant of my attention in placing the ruler so close. In my view spiders are great ecologists: they eat flies, which I do find troublesome.  Since I avoid the use of poisons wherever possible I don't use fly spray; instead I chase the flies out with a woolly duster, and as a last resort use a fly swat, but that makes a mess and besides it doesn't make me feel good.  So I have no objection to spiders going about their lawful business of eating them when and where they can.  I'm still not crazy about spiders at close quarters, but recognize they do an important job. Besides, they're mighty clever at web design and construction, which shows intelligence.  I admire intelligence.

Possibly flies are brainy too, but if so I don't know of it. Nonetheless they too have important work to perform in assisting in the digestion of waste matter.  Don't forget either, that they in turn provide food for helpful birds, as do many other less popular insects, who also eat each other!

Bees and butterflies pollinate plants and our livelihood on the planet depends on this service so I always have plenty of flowering plants in the garden for them to feed on - as well as a patch of nettles for my friends the Admiral butterflies.  And hands up those who like honey?  Okay, so look after the bees in your area!

Worms are the great cultivators of the earth, eating their way around underground making the soil more suitable for plant growth.  No worms, no good, so when I dig I do so carefully, putting the worms I find aside into shady spots that I'm not going to disturb further.  

When I removed a row of dying marigolds recently I was aware that each time I took one out insects scurried for cover and worms writhed in the discomfort of sudden exposure.  I realised I was destroying their homes and habitat, and although new plants will grow up in their stead it seemed unnecessarily invasive. 

I can see I'm moving steadily to a preference for permaculture or no-dig gardening. Healthy ecosystems are astonishingly complex and carefully balanced establishments which function best with a minimum of human intervention.

The application of poisons interferes with this chain of co-operative living and introduces risk to all levels of life including ourselves.  I'll talk about the literature another time.  For the meantime I put to you the question that if it's possible to have a relatively healthy and abundant garden without the use of poisons wouldn't you prefer that?  There are loads of non-toxic ways of lending nature a helping hand, which will usually make all the difference we need.  

The creatures who contribute in this way need our help - and respect. Don't poison them. I am sure that the predominance of toxic remedies in gardening and hardware shops reflects the money to made from them rather than their overall efficacy in our lives.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again: choose life!

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