Garden Friends

We can find friends in the strangest of places, with the strangest of faces.

All insects and creatures have their place, and just because something is creepy-crawly does not make it bad.

Predatory Insects

Predatory insects are those that eat other insects. You will want to leave these in your garden, or even encourage them to live there and provide them with a happy home.

Ladybugs, Ladybird beetles
Most of us are familiar with the pretty ladybird beetle, with its shiny red, black, orange, or spotted shell. But these "ladies" are fearsome and voracious eaters, and their larvae are rather scary-looking. Ladybugs eat mostly aphids and other small soft-bodied insects and their larvae and eggs. Adults will find places to hide for the winter, you will often encounter them inside your home, or masses of them hidden under debris. I once cleaned a new home in the Texas Hill Country that had literally thousands of orange ladybugs overwintering in one of the guest bathrooms. They had all come in around the balcony door and were covering the upper walls and ceiling.

Ground Beetles
Ground beetles are much larger and not as lovely as ladybugs, but are very efficient predators, and should be welcome in any garden. There are many shapes of ground beetles; most are black, but some have shiny metallic bodies. They are most active at night and often hide under vegetation and debris, but can be seen wanding around in search of food on cool or overcast days as well. Tiger beetles are typically active in the day and run around in the open. Tiger beetles are very quick runners and will fly out of the way if needed, but other ground beetles are slower. Be careful if you have to handle and move a large beetle; they have sharp mandibles and can deliver a painful, though not poisonous bite. Their larvae also eat ground-dwelling insects and other larvae.

The praying, or preying, mantis is a common sight in gardens. They patrol foliage and will snatch anything that comes within reach that they can hang on to. This includes bees, butterflies, and even smaller hummingbirds (has to be a VERY large mantis), but they do more considerable damage to other insects. Mantids are quick and will usually run or jump out of your way when you come near...or you may not even see them as they are well camouflaged. A praying mantis will NOT hypnotize you, or spit into your eyes, as I have commonly heard.

What garden would be complete without spiders? So many people are deathly afraid of them, but there really is no reason to be. Most spiders are harmless, and if they do bite, it only causes a mild irritation similar to a mosquito bite. Common garden spiders are good to have around, not only by eating insects, but their webs also provide nesting material for hummingbirds! The two main spiders to watch out for are the black widow, and the brown recluse, who's bites can cause severe pain, nausea, tissue and nerve damage.

Lacewings are very small delicate-looking light green or tan insects. The adults and larvae both feed on small soft-bodied insects like aphids and caterpillars.

Ant-Lions, Owlflies, and Dobsonflies
Most of us remember playing with ant-lion larvae, or "doodlebugs" as children. They create small round pits in loose soil, from which ants and other small insects cannot escape. The ant-lion larvae tosses sand up at the trapped insect by flicking its head until the victim is weary and can be easily grasped and pulled underground. Adults resemble damselflies or small dragonflies, and also eat small insects. Larval owlflies look similar to ant-lions, as do their adult forms, but they live amongst vegetation and debris. Dobsonfly larvae are large aquatic things, commonly known as "helgrammites". They can often be found under stones in creeks. Adults resemble ant-lions as well but have large pincers.

Dragonflies & Damselflies
Dragonflies are a welcome sight around gardens and ponds. They are fun to watch and many are quite colorful. Dragonflies are large, with huge bulging eyes, and wings held out on a flat plane when at rest. Damselflies smaller and more delicate, with wings held to their sides. They typically eat flying insects like flies, gnats, and mosquitos. The larval forms, or nymphs, of both are aquatic and can be found patrolling the bottoms and vegetation of streams and ponds for insects, tadpoles, and tiny fish.

We normally think of wasps as a stinging pest, but they can put quite a dent on the caterpillar population. Remove the nests of paper wasps if they are in an incovenient spot, such as under the eaves of a walkway or porch, in a shed, or amongst vegetable plants, but leave others where they are if they do not pose a threat. Wasps can be aggressive in protecting their nests, or sting if disturbed while they are hunting, but they typically leave people alone.

Robber flies
Robber flies can be strage or scary-looking. Many resemble bees or wasps as protection from birds, but they will not bite humans. They do very well in catching and eating caterpillars, as well as fast-moving insects like grasshoppers. Our most common robber fly has a grey helicopter-shaped body, but I have seen others that look like red wasps, bumblebees, and even honeybees. Some of the honeybee-mimicks are pollinators, as well.

Other beneficial insects:

Earthworms are one of the most important creatures to have in your garden. Earthworms eat decaying vegetation, and their castings (poop), is very good for the soil. Their tunneling keeps soil loose, and allows air and water to reach plants' roots. Be mindful of earthworms you come across while digging, cover up any that you expose so they do not dry out, and avoid using chemicals that leach into the soil or too much diatomaceous earth.

Honeybees, bumblebees, green bees, and even wasps pollinate flowers. Most plants rely on insects for pollination. Bees and wasps will not sting you unless they are provoked or harmed. If a bee or wasp lands on you, do not flail and scream, it is only seeking a place to rest, is interested in some bright color you are wearing, or was attracted to the scent of your lotion, sweat, or something sweet you ate. Most often they will fly off again once they realize you are not a flower, but you can gently brush them off, or "shoo" over them to encourage them to move along. If you find a bee's nest around your house, you may want to call an expert to check or remove the bees. Honeybees are nearly identical to Africanized Honey bees, but both can become aggressive if their nest is disturbed by human activity and noise.

Millipedes and pillbugs
Millipedes and pillbugs eat decaying vegetation and help the composting cycle. Pillbugs are typically not a garden problem here, but they can be a pest in some places, particularly with lettuce and soft fruits that may rest on the ground. Tomatoes should be caged since they spoil quickly when the touch soil, but strawberries can be planted in such a way where the berries are suspended above the ground, or mulch with dry hay.

All caterpillars are non-stop plant-eating machines, but there are quite a few that you may want to leave in your garden, or plant "host plants" specifically for, as they become beautiful and beneficial butterflies. Second to bees, butterflies are our most important pollinator insect. Plus, watching brightly-colored graceful butterflies visiting your gardens is an enjoyable experience.

Here are a few websites that provide more information on butterflies, their larvae, and host plants for both the adults and the caterpillars.
The Butterfly Website
Paradise Jewelry ...Jewelry website but they offer photos and information of butterflies and their caterpillars and pupae, as well as Host Plants

Some sources list earwigs as a pest, others consider it beneficial. Earwigs are omnivorous, eating both vegetation and other insects. I have not observed earwigs eating fresh plants, only decaying plant matter and small soft insects like termites and sowbugs. However, if you find earwigs chomping on your flowers and lettuce, by all means smash them. Earwigs do NOT crawl in people's ears when they sleep.

Other friends:

Some birds will eat seeds, sprouts, and fruit; but most typically eat insects. There are too many birds to mention, but the most welcome sights in our garden are mockingbirds, scissortails, bluebirds, purple martens, and wrens. Mockingbirds, bluebirds, and wrens are the easiest to provide housing for; a simple wooden box with a hole will do for most, and a wren-house can be made out of an old coffee can. Most wrens prefer a secluded nesting site though, and we often find nests hidden in our shed. Purple martens prefer "community high-rise apartments", many styles of marten houses can be purchased or made, but must be installed on a tall pole.

Hawks, falcons, kestrels, and owls are also welcome in our garden, as they eat mice, rats, rabbits, and squirrels. Hawks and owls will also prey on other birds, typically the types that eat plants and seeds. You can deter crows and other pesky birds by setting up a hawk or owl decoy. I have even heard a picture of an owl's face will keep crows away.

Hummingbirds are wonderful to have around, as they are excellent pollinators. They will eat small insects like flies, gnats, mosquitos and spiders, but their primary food is nectar. Set up a hummingbird feeder and plant flowering plants to encourage them. They are not only attracted to red, and we have seen them visiting purple, lavender, yellow, and white flowers. Once you start seeing more hummingbirds, you may have to set up more than one feeder in multiple locations. They apparently tell all their friends where the food is, and will fight over who gets to drink first. Hummingbirds build their nests in trees and shrubs out of spiderwebs and bits of leaves and moss.

You won't often see them, or even know they are around, but bats are very good to have around the garden. Most bats eat their weight in insects each night, including moths and moquitoes. Some bats also eat frogs and mice, or fruit. They live in hollow trees, old buildings, or under the eaves of houses. If you are outside on a quiet night you can hear their high-pitched clicks and chirps, and maybe even see them flying. Bat houses can be made or purchased. Never handle a live bat, or a dead one. They can carry many diseases, including rabies, and parasites.

There is possibly no better animal to have in your garden than a toad. While they are ugly, warty, and clammy, toads can also eat their weight in insects each night. I love my toads! Toads differ from frogs in that they prefer dry ground, have short squat bodies and legs, have dry warty skins, and prefer to crawl and hop rather than leap. Toads will burrow into soft earth with their back feet, but they prefer ready-made homes, such as the burrows of other small animals, or simply hiding under things. I often uncover toads when moving boards and landscaping timbers, logs, piles of rocks, dead leaves, mulch, and even in my compost. I have washed toads out of their burrows while watering. You can provide homes for toads by placing broken flowerpots around your garden in shady spots, or making miniature caves with rocks and other materials. Handling a toad, or the toad urinating on you when handling it (and they will.) will not give you warts. A toads' warty skin is its protection from damage and drying out. Toads do have poison glands, those large "lumps" on the back of their heads, and will secrete a milky substance when handled roughly. This can cause irritation to human skin, eyes, nose, and mouth if contacted, and can cause pets to salivate, foam at the mouth, and vomit. If you must pick up a toad to move it to a safe place, hold it gently or put it in a bucket. Most pets will not pick up a toad once they get a taste of it, but they should still avoid them.

I cannot understand why so many people -particularly women- are afraid of lizards. I find them fun to watch, and a pleasure to have around. All lizards native to North America are insectivorous and relatively small. Common sights around gardens are green anoles (commonly called chameleons for their ability to change colors from green to yellow to brown), spiny fence lizards, and striped ground-dwelling racerunners. Skinks are smaller lizards with tiny legs, almost resembling a snake, that usually live under vegetation and debris. Geckos are noctournal and often seen on windows and porches at night, snatching moths and mosquitos. Most lizards lay small, leathery-skinned eggs. They can often be discovered in compost bins, so be mindful of them when turning your compost.

How many people I have seen that are so quick to kill any snake they see with whatever is handy. Truth is, only a small handful of snakes in the US are poisonous, and those are primarily nocturnal and easily identified. All snakes are carnivorous or insectivorous; some will even eat other snakes, preferring to dine on poisonous species. Smaller snakes eat mostly insects and invertibrates, larger ones will eat mice and rats. Most snakes would rather run away from you than bite you. If you come across a non-venomous snake in your garden and are afraid of them, simply give them time to move along, or scare them away at a distance with a piece of brushy vegetation. Snakes are not slimy, vile, evil minions of the devil. In fact, a snake's skin is very slick and dry. The only venomous snakes here are Rattlesnakes, Copperheads, Water Moccasins (also called Cottonmouth), and coral snakes.

Moles are also a controversial garden animal. Moles can upset lawns, and do mild damage to roots. They will eat earthworms and ground beetle larvae. But moles also eat many other ground-dwelling insects and larvae like white grubs and crickets, and their tunneling and help loosten soil. For the past several years our yard has been infested with gophers, but there were no moles. Gopher mounds dotted the yard, covering grass and damaging the lawnmower. The soil was hard-packed, and we were always twisting ankles when a large gopher burrow collapsed. Now that we have begun trapping the gophers, the moles have returned, and the soil is becoming softer where they burrow. Mole runs may be unsightly on a manicured lawn, but they do not move and foul the soil structure and can be easily flattened again.

Always help your friends!

Even wild creatures need a little help sometimes, and making your garden a more pleasant place to live, will encourage more beneficial animals to stay.

Feed the birds
Most of us enjoy watching birds anyway; buy or build a bird feeder or two for your feathered friends. These can be hung from a tree or mounted on posts. Find out what types of birds are in your area and who you want to attract before purchasing a feeder and seed. Some have very specific diets and feeding habits, and you also want to bring in insect-eating birds, not just seed-eaters.

You can make a buffet-tray feeder by mounting any sort of tray on top of a post. Those plastic dishes that go under potted plants work well, or even unused kitty litter pans. Make sure to use something of a durable material that will not crumble in the heat and sun, or buckle under the weight of the birds. drill several holes in the bottom for water to drain out, and use a screw or nail and washer to mount the tray on a wooden post. You can put pieces of fruit, bread, seedheads, and incapacitated insects in the trays.

Buy a good bird bath and set it in a shady spot. It's a good idea to get some waterproof paint and paint the interior of the bowl...this will keep harmful chemicals from leaching out of the cement, prevent the cement from absorbing the water, and make the bowl easier to clean. You can get a bird bath with an ornament in the center, but a rock usually works better. Rocks that are short and flat are easier for a bird to stand on than one of those tall, protruding cement squirrels.

Be sure to check the water in your birdbath often, and clean and refill it when neccessary. Nobody wants to drink scummy water.

A drink for the little people
Bugs, snakes, and toads get thirsty, too. Use just the bowl from a birdbath, or a similar large, shallow dish, and set it somewhere in the soil. You need to make sure the sides are not steep or slick, and also put some rocks in it so nobody drowns. Placing a rock near one edge is perfect, since most critters will swim around the edges, trying to find a way out, and climb onto the rock once they reach it. Toads do not actually drink, but will sit in water puddles and dew to absorb it through their skins.

Watering in the evening or early mornings when it is dry will give critters some "dew" to drink, as well.

Give a Toad a Home.
Toads like to hide under things, so provide them with rocks, pieces of wood, broken flower pots and ceramic bowls, or even buy one of those cute "toad houses". You could always decorate a busted pot or have your kids do it. An interesting piece of driftwood or cedar root makes a fine home for many creatures, a place for lizards to sun themselves, and adds visual appeal to your landscape. Partially-buried pvc tubing is also a good makeshift toad burrow...get some about 2" in diameter, and cut pieces no longer than a foot or so. Bury these at a flat angle, with one end exposed in a shady spot...under large leafy vegetables works great. Toads do not remain in the same burrow more than a day or two, but they rotate around.