Inspired living

Creepy critters in the garden

garden veg vegetable cabbage

Credit: Arnaldo Aldana

What do an assassin bug, snake and spider have in common? These are all beneficial creatures for your garden (yes, really!). These often much-maligned animals and insects are important for biodiversity; all animals, plants and even tiny micro-organisms are interconnected, each with a role to play, forming a unique ecosystem in your garden.

Living in harmony with all living things in the garden is important for many reasons. It increases the yield of productive gardens, attracts beneficial insects into the garden and keeps the numbers of garden pests under control.

On the job

Insects and animals in the garden perform many dynamic functions: some are sacrificial, serving as a food source for higher-order predators, and others pollinate plants and flowers. Garden insects and other critters also have an important role in recycling waste through their dung, which adds nutrients to the soil. In any garden, maximising the biodiversity with a vast array of plants, flowers, shrubs and trees will bring a broad range of all kinds of wildlife into your garden.

The good, the bad & the not-so-pretty

There are some badly behaved bugs out there — they give nasty bites, they sting, some eat our food and others, like the termite, will even make a meal out of our homes if we let them.

The gentle hum of a buzzing bee is a sweet melody in the garden, but don’t get too close to its sting. Bees are one of the most beneficial creatures in the garden. Nature’s petite pollinators collect food for their colonies and in the process transfer pollen and seeds from plant to plant, thereby fertilising the plants. In addition, of course, there is the delicious honey and honeycomb they produce, used as a food or in candle making, cosmetics, natural remedies and more.

Most of the wasps we see in Australia are of the native variety, unlike the introduced European wasp (which can have thousands in a nest!). These little wasps are clever in removing little plant-munching caterpillars from the garden. If the wasp’s nest is out of reach and doesn’t impact on your enjoyment of the garden, leave it there; if not, remove it with care. You may need to call in a professional.

The translucent beauty of early-morning dew drops shimmering on a spider’s web is a beautiful sight to behold. In any garden, you’ll find spiders — common varieties include garden orb, huntsman and St Andrews cross. These are mostly harmless (but will bite if provoked) and they eat all kinds of bugs, including grasshoppers, which can decimate plants. Of course, there are also a few sinister varieties, including the funnel-web and redback. Wearing gardening gloves while working in the garden is important, as is carefully checking under logs or sheets of tin, where these spiders may frequent.

Assassin bugs (of which there are a staggering 300 different types in Australia) kill their prey by impaling them and sucking out the contents of their bodies in liquid form.

Slithering snakes are for many the stuff of horror movies. They’re right up there with spiders and leeches as arguably the least favourite critters people encounter. Love them or loathe them, these reptiles do play a vital part in our natural ecosystems. Snakes are higher-order predators, feeding on insects and disease-carrying rodents. If you have backyard chickens, you’ll probably have rodents, and snakes keep their numbers down. If you have a large snake in residence — for example, a carpet python — it may need to be relocated because, as you’ll soon discover, a few of your chickens may vanish, too. Don’t try to capture or kill snakes — that’s how most people are bitten. If it’s venomous, call in a professional snake mover to relocate it.

Assassin bugs (of which there are a staggering 300 different types in Australia) kill their prey by impaling them and sucking out the contents of their bodies in liquid form. They kill virtually any insect for food, so while their existence can help to keep down bad bugs in the garden, they eat the good bugs, too, their favourite snack being the honeybee.

Send in the troops

As well as “creepy” garden critters, there are also those that are welcome in most gardens. Ladybugs, green tree frogs, butterflies and dragonflies bring Beauty and life into any garden landscape — and they help with garden pests.

Dense layered planting creates enticing places for wildlife such as birds and butterflies to feed and gives hiding spaces for smaller insects.

The best way to bring animals you’d like into your garden is to provide the natural habitat they thrive in. Plant a variety of shrubs and flowers at different times of the year so there will always be an array of pollens for those bugs that feed on it.

When designing your garden, adopt a layered approach to planting: for example, lillypillies as tall hedging, then flowering azalea and finally a groundcover such as grevillea. Dense layered planting creates enticing places for wildlife such as birds and butterflies to feed and gives hiding spaces for smaller insects. Piles of rocks, or a few singular rocks placed in sunny locations, are natural havens for lizards, and natural wet areas will attract frogs.

Most people are familiar with the green tree frog but it’s just one of around 300 different species of these amphibians. Frog populations are under threat, with many species listed as endangered — their biggest problem is humans. Frogs are sensitive to their surrounding environment, and insecticides, herbicides and the mass degradation of wetlands are crippling their numbers. To bring frogs into your garden, build a pond; even a small one will do. Add a few small logs and groundcovers for them to hide in, and reedy plants to bring in mosquito-eating dragonflies.

The ladybug has long been considered a symbol of good luck in the Western world. They play a vital role in the garden, keeping pests at bay. It has been reported that a ladybug can eat 500 aphids during its life. Providing habitat for ladybugs in the garden is a sure-fire way to rid your garden of pests such as aphids and mites. To attract ladybugs plant dill, fennel or marigold. Most ladybugs are good for the garden; however, there is one variety, the leaf-eating ladybug, that will eat some plants. Just handpick them off.

Butterflies bring colour, life and movement into a garden, and they help to pollinate plants, increasing the biodiversity of the garden. But, of course, where you have butterflies you’ll also have caterpillars. Consult with a local nursery to discover what plant species adult butterflies prefer. Butterflies like warm, sheltered areas, so have a few rocky spaces where they can sun themselves and nectar-rich plants such as butterfly bush, milkweed and impatiens for them to feed on.

Small lizards like skinks will snack on insects and larvae, while water dragons and blue tongue lizards eat snails and beetles. To welcome lizards into the garden, create natural spaces with leaf litter and plant native grasses such as kangaroo grass.

Bad bugs

It’s important to note that an insect or animal should only be relegated to wearing the “pest” moniker if where they live places humans or pets in danger, or their numbers are so great that they inflict real damage on plant populations.

But it’s also true that there are some critters in the garden people just don’t want. Take snails, for example. Australia has around 600 varieties of native snails, which are harmless — it’s the sneaky little common brown European snail that gobbles up leaves and plants with carefree abandon. Fortunately, the little native Aussie snails also like to snack on the European variety, which will wreak havoc on your garden. You can handpick them and squash them (young children enjoy snail smashing).

Some other bad bugs that can really damage plants are mealybugs (these critters inject toxic saliva into citrus and ornamental plants), aphids (they pass viruses from plant to plant and adore vegies) and whitefly (you will find these little critters in their hundreds and they nibble leaves and stems of plants).

It is a balancing act

The key to creating a thriving natural haven in your backyard is to keep the ecosystem in balance. But what can you do if the scales are tipped? The answer is … quite a lot.

If you have been using chemical sprays, gather them up and dispose of them safely right away! There are many clever eco-friendly ways to get rid of pests without resorting to chemical sprays, and the planet and the wildlife living in your own backyard will thank you for it.

If you do find an “unfriendly” on a plant, make sure you are thorough; find one annoying critter and you’ll probably find more of its buddies hanging out nearby.

Some of the simplest measures to bag bugs are plucking off and squishing or squirting with eco-friendly sprays. There’s a multitude of concoctions designed to naturally deter garden pests. Here are some of the best.

Care for a cold one?

Beer traps will help to rid your garden of snails and slugs; they are attracted to the yeasty scent. Fill a small jar or saucer with beer and place it in the ground so it’s just above the soil line. Yeasty Vegemite mixed with a little water in a shallow container will also lure fruit fly.

Bag some slugs

Few garden bugs can illicit the “ewww” response more than slugs. Pop the skin of a grapefruit half (scooped out) in the garden, add a couple of holes and slugs will crawl in, then put it in your compost. If planting strawberries, plant them in hanging baskets with copper wire and the slugs will get a zap of electricity on the way to feasting on their booty.

DIY bug banisher

This spray suffocates mites, aphids and grasshoppers. Mix 1 cup of sunflower oil with ¼ cup of dishwashing liquid in a jar. Place 1 tablespoon of the mixture in one litre of water and spray the foliage of plants.

Some don’t like it hot

Hot chilli is a simple way to kill ants and aphids. Make up a chilli spray with 2 dozen chillies, 1 litre of water and a teaspoon of liquid soap. Blend, strain, put in a spray bottle and fire at will.

A birdseye view

If you have a vegie patch and are plagued by pests, rig up a tree branch in the middle of your patch with a platform and a little seed to entice birds. It’s the perfect vantage point for predatory birds like kookaburras to swoop down and snack on your garden pests.

Outsmart the pests

Want some more clever ways to keep your preferred plants free of infestations? Here are four.

  • Buddy up plants. Companion planting can help reduce numbers of garden pests. Plants with a strong scent seem to work best. For example, rosemary or sage when planted near carrots can repel the carrot fly.
  • Consider a kamikaze crop. Sacrificial crops such as nasturtiums will draw predators such as whitefly. While they’re happily feeding on the sacrificial or “trap” crop, the idea is they’ll leave your other plants alone and be picked off by predators before they get to the good stuff you have planted.
  • Rotate crops. Certain pests tend to feed on the same vegetable families. For example, don’t harvest broccoli (a brassica) and then pop its cousin kale in the same spot. You will deplete the soil and provide a tasty smorgasbord for pests.
  • Make a note. Jot down where bug infestations occur in the garden. If you’ve tried certain natural pest control methods such as companion planting or natural sprays, jot down what you used and where, and how you’d rate its success. This can serve as a blueprint for future pest control.

Treating bites & stings

While creepy critters are part of healthy ecoystems, it pays to have some natural remedies on hand if you have a close encounter. For mosquito bites try lavender oil, for beestings apple-cider vinegar or honey, and for wasps apply a cold pack to reduce swelling. For spider and snake bites, visit stjohnnsw.com.au/bites-and-stings-quick-guide.


Carrol Baker

Carrol Baker is an award-winning freelance journalist who is a passionate advocate of natural health and wellness. She writes for lifestyle and healthy-living magazines across Australia and internationally.