Top 10 Questions About Beneficial Garden Friends

By Mary H. Dyer | September 15, 2019
Image by Mantaroski
by Mary H. Dyer
September 15, 2019

Here at Gardening Know How we get lots of questions, and our goal is to provide answers to those inquiries to the best of our knowledge, and this includes beneficial insects and wildlife in the garden. The following information includes the 10 most commonly asked questions about beneficial friends in the landscape.

1. What plants will attract ladybugs?

Ladybugs are charming little beetles with huge appetites for aphids and other pests; a single ladybug can destroy as many as 5,000 pests during its lifetime. Learn to tolerate a few pests in your garden because ladybugs will move on if there is no food source. You may even want to plant flowers that attract aphids, such as nasturtiums. Plants that invite ladybugs to your garden include dandelions, calendula, marigold, geranium, yarrow, cosmos, sweet alyssum, coreopsis, tansy, wild carrots, angelica, and coneflowers. Ladybugs are also attracted to many edible plants, including raspberry canes, garlic, dill, mint, parsley, fennel, and chives.

2. What plants are butterflies attracted to for butterfly garden?

Many types of butterflies have dwindled in numbers, due primarily to shrinking habitat. Planting a variety of nectar-rich plants is a great way for gardeners to help sustain these beautiful creatures. Plants (including a few weeds) that butterflies love include hollyhocks, yarrow, lupine, nettle, milkweed, thistle, phlox, anise hyssop, asters, purple coneflower (Echinacea), lantana, nasturtium, Shasta daisy, salvia, Mexican sunflower, zinnia, goldenrod, black-eyed susan, penstemon, and coreopsis. Consider planting a few edibles in your butterfly garden as well, such as fennel, chives, marjoram, parsley, mint, and thyme.

3. Is there a safe weed killer for birds and animals in the garden?

No weed killer is 100 percent safe, but there are some pet-friendly options that can be employed for wildlife too. However, ascetic acid, in the form of horticultural vinegar or household vinegar, may be effective when weeds are small, but less so on larger mature weeds. The addition of salt, oil or soap may increase vinegar’s ability to kill weeds, but use vinegar with care, as it may also kill desired plants. Corn gluten meal has been used as an alternative to chemicals for over a decade, with mixed opinions regarding its effectiveness. Relatively new iron-based products are touted as being safer, but the iron can also damage young trees and perennials.

4. Will neem oil harm ladybugs?

Neem oil is safe for ladybugs when used properly and at recommended levels. This is primarily because the oils kill aphids and other pests that chew on plants, but doesn’t bother ladybugs and other beneficial insects that don’t eat leaves. However, the oil can smother ladybugs when sprayed directly on them while they are on the foliage. For this reason, it’s safest to apply neem oil in the evening or morning when ladybugs aren’t as likely to be present. Once the neem oil dries, it is still toxic to chewing and sucking pests, but it’s safe for ladybugs that land on the plant. 

5. Which plants are frog/toad friendly?

You should be very happy if a few frogs and toads decide to take up residence in your garden, because the friendly amphibians aren’t only fun to have around, but they eat an amazing number of pests, including mosquitoes, flies, snails, and slugs. Frogs and toads like plants with large, low-growing leaves they can hide under, such as ligularia and bergenia. If you have a pond or water feature, surround it with shade-loving plants like ferns or hostas. Nectar-rich plants (such as those you would plant in a butterfly garden), attract bugs that provide tasty meals for frogs and toads.

6. What are ways to attract earthworms to soil?

Earthworms loosen and aerate the soil, leaving an abundance of nutrient-rich feces (castings) as they tunnel through. To attract earthworms, dig in generous amounts of organic matter such as compost, dry grass clippings, or chopped leaves. If you prefer, you can leave organic matter, including bark chips, compost, or other types of mulch, on top of the soil where it protects earthworms from hungry birds and enriches the soil as it decomposes. You can also try digging in a little corn meal every two or three weeks, then water to keep it moist but not soggy. 

7. Are praying mantis bugs good for the garden?

Praying mantis isn’t necessarily the best bug in your garden, but not the worst either. Praying mantis eats a lot of insect pests, including aphids, and they are one of the few bugs quick enough to eat mosquitoes and flies. However, they will also kill larger beneficial insects such as butterflies and honey bees, and later in the season, they may be big enough to grab an unsuspecting hummingbird. However, most gardeners think praying mantis do more good than harm because they don’t multiply fast enough to decimate populations of beneficial insects, and because they reduce the need for harmful pesticides.

8. What can I plant to attract bees?

Plant a variety of blooming plants to ensure bees have access to nectar and pollen-rich plants in a variety of shapes and colors from early spring to late summer. Those native to your area are highly attractive to bees and require minimal care; however, many non-native plants are also bee-friendly. Plant flowers in clumps, preferably in a sunny area protected from harsh winds. Bee-friendly flowers include natives such as black eyed susan, white clover, bachelor’s buttons, penstemon, Oregon grape, salvia, wild sunflower, bee balm, and purple coneflower. Nectar-rich non-natives include lavender, zinnia, hyssop, heather, globe allium, and cotoneaster.

9. How do I get beneficial bugs to eat aphids?

To invite beneficial bugs, create a welcoming habitat with a variety of plants that bloom throughout the season. Plants with umbrella-like seedheads like dill, fennel, yarrow, and tansy are especially attractive to bees. Beneficial insects also like nectar-rich flowers like zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, and alyssum, and herbs such as lavender, parsley and cilantro. Also, you’ll need to tolerate a few pests because beneficial bugs won’t visit a garden with no food sources. Provide water, such as a birdbath with a rock extending above the water, or a saucer with water and pebbles. Water properly and mulch flower beds to minimize dust. 

10. What flowers attract hummingbirds?

Inviting hummingbirds to your garden isn’t difficult, and hummingbird-friendly flowers will add color and beauty your garden. Hummingbirds are attracted to flowers with tube-shaped blooms that accommodate their long, narrow beaks. Plant an assortment of nectar-rich blooming plants that flower throughout the season, especially those in shades of red, blue, purple, pink and white. Hummingbird-friendly plants include columbine, fuchsia, lobelia, cardinal flowers, monarda, scarlet salvia, lonicera, canna lilies, coral bells, foxglove, penstemon, hollyhock, phlox, trumpet vine, delphinium, purple coneflower, nasturtiums, petunias, zinnias, sweet William, verbena, and yucca.

We all have questions now and then, whether long-time gardeners or those just starting out. So if you have a gardening question, get a gardening answer. We’re always here to help.

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