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Looking at Insects and Gardens in a New Way
by Yvonne Cunnington
by Yvonne Cunnington

I am a garden writer and photographer living near Hamilton, Ont. My articles have appeared in Chatelaine, Canadian Living, Canadian Gardening and Gardening Life magazines. My book for beginner gardeners, Clueless in the Garden: A Guide for the Horticulturally Helpless (Key Porter Books) was published in 2003.

My husband and I tend a large country garden, which has been featured on TV’s Gardeners Journal and in Gardening Life magazine. We have had numerous bus tours visit our garden.

Visit her website at

April 21, 2002

When you garden, you notice insects like never before. Novice gardeners are often astonished and even alarmed to encounter bug after bug they've never noticed before. But if you're an experienced gardener, you're probably used to the idea that it's impossible (and not the least bit desirable) to have an insect-free garden. And if bug-free is your goal, take up a less lively hobby. A good garden teams with insect life, which is how it should be; that's the message of Eric Grissell's absorbing new book, Insects and Gardens (Timber Press, 2001). 

Grissell, an entomologist and keen gardener, believes that the more insects you have in your garden the better. The key to a healthy balance between the eaters and what's getting eaten is diversity - having as many different plants - and insects - as you can. He explains it this way: "The goal is to build layer upon layer of simple plant diversity until the insect-plant and insect-insect interactions become so complex that they take care of themselves, and we poor simple-minded gardeners won't need to worry about such things." 

Variety truly is the spice of life in the garden - both variety of plant species and insect species. Unfortunately, a few troublesome pests (Japanese beetles, anyone?) have given all insects a bad rap. Some experts estimate that only about one percent of insects are truly worthy of the "pest" label. Most of the time, pest populations build up because of environmental situations that create an imbalance in insect populations. Stressed plants also become prone to insect problems. Some of the worst pests, of course, (like those nasty Japanese beetles) are insects that were introduced to North America and have proliferated because they have few natural enemies here.

In truth, many insects don't feed on plants - at least not to the point of killing them - but on each other. In addition, Grissell points out that countless insects are important plant allies, such as the bees, wasps, moths and flies that do the job of pollination so plants can set seed. Other insects consume the ones we call pests and clean up dead bugs and decomposing plant materials. So think of it this way: most insects are just trying to make a living, like the rest of us. And in the end, many of them become food for animals that we humans have a little more appreciation for - like birds and fish. 

One counter-intuitive suggestion Grissell makes is to stop being such a tidy gardener. The folks who vacuum up every bit of garden debris do the garden's insect residents and their plants a disservice. You don't have to chop down all those perennials in the fall - many perennials and grasses look just fine over winter. Old plants, plant debris and mulch are all great over-wintering spots for insects (which is why you're usually told to clean the garden up). Instead, keeping as much plant foliage intact over winter as you can is a better idea, says Grissell, because it provides cover for a diverse population of insects. 

He suggests cutting the dead foliage back in early spring, chopping up as much as you can and tucking it between the plants to literally compost in place. (What a neat idea: if you leave the stuff to compost in place, you eliminate the need to drag it off to the compost pile, then dragging the finished compost back to the garden.) 

If your garden is full of plants, as he recommends, once they've had their spring growth spurt, you won't see the plant debris anymore. I've actually tried this and it works: if you have enough plants (especially perennials), they grow so quickly that you won't even see the stems and other plant debris you've chopped up. The point of creating this mulchy environment is to help stabilize the insect populations to achieve a better balance between prey and predators. 

But balance isn't for the soft-hearted, as Grissell points out: "Balance is what happens when nature is in harmony with itself. By harmony, I do not mean peace - there is no peace in nature. For nature to be in harmony all factions must be in constant battle." (So this is what we get ourselves into when we take up the gentle pastime of gardening!)

Insects and Gardens is decidedly not a book about how to deal with insect pests. In fact, its author urges us to stop thinking of insects only as enemies to be battled. "Plants and insects have interacted for hundreds of millions of years. Why should we gardeners feel compelled to change this situation in an hour or an afternoon?" he asks.

Instead, the aim is to show gardeners another way. Create a garden filled with variety, he urges. As you might guess, the ordinary yard with its swath of lawn, sprinkling of annuals, evergreen foundation shrubs and tree or two doesn't cut it when it comes to diversity. Instead, he suggests planting as many different plants as you can, and creating a variety of habitats; for example, adding water to the garden creates a new habitat that almost instantly attracts all sorts of life from frogs, toads to dragonflies and birds. 

Once we gardeners have achieved diversity, Grissell concludes, "We will have so many plants to think about that no plant will become sacred. And then we will be free of the garden and free to garden."

Insects and Gardens, by Erik Grissell with photographs by Carll Goodpasture (Timber Press, 2001); hardcover, 345 pages. For more information about the book: see


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