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We need insect heroes and villains in our garden

“Mocking the sunshine on their glittering wings,

How merrily they creep, and run, and fly!

No kin they bear to labor’s drudgery,

Smoothing the velvet of the pale hedge-rose.”

— John Clare, “Insects,” in “The Rural Muse,” 1835

Gardeners often think of insects as spiteful usurpers of our planted domains, yet the English poet John Clare alternatively muses over their cheerful assistance. Widely recognized for his keenly observant and lyrical descriptions of nature, Clare reminds us of the significance of “these tiny loiterers” even while “keeping their joyous pranks a mystery still.”

However, it’s no mystery that insects have been hanging out in our garden when they chew the lettuce into Swiss cheese and the hollyhock leaves into lace doilies. The bugs had a good time, but we’re not happy. Is there any way we can all just get along?

According to Eliot Coleman in the “Four-Season Harvest” (1999), gardener-insect harmony is all about perspective.

It seems that the more modernized our society has become, the more we have developed a warlike, man-versus-nature mentality. Our anthropocentric arrogance compels us to exploit, improve and control nature. From this point of view, insect pests are the enemy that must be chemically exterminated despite the collateral damage this tactic triggers in terms of the long-term health of soil, plants, pollinators, air, water and ourselves.

A monoscopic focus on bigger, prettier crops has made us lose sight of the panoramic picture, which is the importance of maintaining a healthy balance of “good” bugs and “bad” bugs in our garden.

If we spend as much time observing our garden — like poet John Clare apparently did — as we do improving and controlling it, we will see there really is no such thing as “good” or “bad” bugs. They are all essential cast members in a delicate drama that plays out every year. The balance and effectiveness of the performance would be lost without the heroes and the villains.

Coleman advises gardeners that the best way to maintain a healthy balance between beneficial and nuisance insects is to shift perspectives and practices from integrated pest management to integrated plant management.

Such a change entails growing a variety of plants together in polycultures, some of which repel insect pests and others that attract the pests to feed beneficial insects. For extensive lists of beneficial insects, pests and plants that attract both, see https://dengarden.com/gardening/The-Good-The-Bad-and-The-Bugly.

Integrated plant management switches focus from protecting plants in what Coleman calls a reactive gardening approach to a preventive approach that empowers plants by providing optimal growing conditions in terms of soil, sunlight and water needs. Says Coleman, “pests should not be seen as enemies of plants but rather as indicators — signals — of plant stress.”

Like other predators, whenever insects are looking for their next meal, they scout out weakened plants that seem to carry a sign that says “eat me.” Stressed out plants do send out signals that their weakened condition has prevented them from synthesizing proteins from soil nutrients, thus accumulating an excess of nitrogen. Insects love nitrogen-rich food, so from their point of view it makes good sense to select plants that not only provide the food they need, but are also less able to put up defenses due to their debilitated state.

Coleman summarizes, “We need to reevaluate our place in the garden. The gardener’s aim is not to protect sick plants but to enable healthy ones.”

To learn more about how to work amicably with insects in the garden, join Master Gardener Marsha Waite for her presentation on “good bugs/bad bugs” from 11:30 a.m. to noon or from 1:30 to 2 p.m. Sunday, April 7, at historic Hanley Farm, 1053 Hanley Road, Central Point.

The farm will be open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. April 7, April 14, May 5 and May 19 for Sundays in Spring, co-hosted by the Family Nurturing Center’s Farm and Food Program and the Southern Oregon Historical Society. Visit the gardens, orchards, vineyards and producing fields at the farm. Say hello to the chickens, sheep and lambs. Join in family-fun gardening activities from 11:30 a.m. to noon and from 1:30 to 2 p.m.

Bring a picnic lunch or buy a fresh, wholesome lunch from Jefferson Farm Kitchen. Enjoy live music, tour the Shakespeare garden and take a guided tour through the Hanley farmhouse from 1 to 3 p.m. Admission and gardening activities are free; house tours are $5. For more information, see www.sohs.org.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com or visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.