A stroll through Danya Miller’s New Jersey garden still evokes a sweetly colorful spring and a floral blowout of summer, replete with happy birds and less visible insects.
Yes, Miller celebrates bugs, which typically elicit more ewws and eeks than smiles and wonder.
“I want bugs in my garden,” says Miller, 66, a self-taught gardener from Moorestown, N.J.
She knows that many birds feed themselves and their offspring bugs. A variety of insects, including the mourning cloak and Eastern comma butterflies, can survive cold winters in the garden under fallen leaves, rocks and loose tree bark, and inside hollow stems and clumps of plants.
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So Miller is leaving her “riotous mess” of a garden alone till early spring, when days grow longer and temperatures hit 50 degrees. She does rip out diseased plants, like the coneflowers ravaged by aster yellows, and mulch fallen leaves with her lawn mower, but otherwise, even the crispy sunflower stalks will stay up this winter.
“I don’t want to throw everything away, or grind it up and throw it in the compost,” Miller says. “An awful lot of insects burrow into those stalks.”
Those stalks are a minuscule part of the garden, but they support big-eyed bugs, lacewings, soldier beetles and other insects that consume undesirable aphids, flea beetles, spider mites and more.
Though she gardens for all wildlife — even the skunks and wild turkeys that occasionally show up — Miller’s desire to support insects is unusual. Most gardeners know little about this life form, despite its importance as the foundation of the food web, perhaps because it is so complex and freighted with misinformation and fear.
“We’ve been so programmed that any bug needs to die, especially if it’s in your garden,” says Suzanne Wainwright-Evans of Slatington, Pa., an ornamental entomologist who specializes in biological control of pests and proper pesticide use.
Surprisingly, that attitude also surfaces at commercial nurseries and even arboretums. “I can’t tell you how many professional horticulture people are trying to kill the beneficials, just because they’re present. A few holes are not going to hurt the plant,” says Wainwright-Evans, aka “The Buglady.”
Miller, then, is ahead of a stubborn curve. And whether she calls it that or not, she has created an “insectary garden,” a fancy term for a planted border or bed dedicated to providing food and habitat for all insects.
“Yes, even the seemingly vile and destructive (insects) … serve a purpose in the garden,” says Jessica Walliser, co-host of “The Organic Gardeners” on KDKA radio in Pittsburgh and author of “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden.”
Take the “vile and destructive” imported cabbage worm, the green larva of the familiar white cabbage butterfly, which infuriates vegetable gardeners with its attacks on cabbage, broccoli and kale.
“If you hang Jenny wren houses around, you can watch them hop across the tops of cabbage plants and eat those cabbage worms. They’re food,” says Walliser, noting that the white butterflies we all love to hate are pollinators.
The goal, then, should be a healthy balance between troublesome pests and the beneficial bugs that help control them. Besides predator bugs, those beneficials include parasitoids, which lay eggs inside and kill pest insects; and pollinators, that transfer pollen from one flower to another so plants can produce fruits and vegetables.
So — leave your fall garden alone!
“Just let everything sit through the winter, all those little nooks and crannies and hollow stems of plants, debris on the ground, and seed pods,” says Walliser, who acknowledges that the idea of letting brown stalks, leaf litter, clumps of plants and grasses just “sit through the winter” goes against the popular aesthetic.
But, says Miller, “Once you step outside the box of what’s expected, like the manicured lawn or the gumdrop shrub, it’s much more beautiful. It’s the way it’s meant to be.”