Today I was out walking through The Serene Forest when I noticed one of my citrus trees was covered in aphids. It seemed that the aphids covered just about every single new upright stem. My first thoughts were about what I should do to eliminate this infestation. I don’t want them potentially causing irreversible damage either through their appetite or through transmission of disease. As I thought it over more, I kept inspecting the tree to try and gauge its overall health. The more I looked, the more I realized nature was already at work.
What I saw was aphids heavily concentrated on several stems. But mixed in were lacewing larvae, ladybeetle larvae, and long-legged flies. All natural predators of aphids. Funny enough, the first picture I took of the aphids was intended to be posted on our Instagram to show followers the unfortunate discovery. Without even knowing it I had captured the garden’s ecosystem at work. It wasn’t until later when I was going through the pictures that I saw the lacewing larvae and the lady beetle larvae had already begun hunting and killing aphids long before my discovery.
It was a humbling moment. I try and advocate for people to respect the natural ecosystem in the garden. Here I was... impatiently jumping to the conclusion that I needed to intervene. It reminded me of my days as a new gardener. Trying to control everything as if I actually could.
A garden ecosystem is very much a system of checks and balances. While that term is typically reserved for our federal government, it applies in the garden as well. A good ecosystem means balance. Garden pests arrive. Garden predators find them and begin their work of removal. Once the pests are knocked down or removed, the predators move on in search of more. When pests return, so do the predators. Neither one becoming overly abundant or detrimental to the garden. In most cases at least.
We as gardeners tend to try and hold onto the thought of being in control. While we may control the location of new plants, the rest is left to nature. We typically don't like the feeling of not having control. Especially in something that we are invested in. There's some kind of image we all aspire to have where every plant is thriving at all times. Tomato plants are 6 feet tall and full of fruit. Petunias are pouring out over a pot full of blooms. Beanstalks are so big they reach some mystical realm with giants....
Wanting that control typically leads to unnecessary intervention. For garden pests, too many gardeners result to chemical sprays too quickly. Plants are sprayed, the pests may die. Then in two weeks all the pests are back again. So more spray is used and the cycle repeats. But if we just let go of that urge to be in control, our garden actually benefits.
When gardeners spray their plants with insecticides they may get a quick fix. But that quick fix also upsets the natural balance of the garden itself. Getting rid of garden pests too quickly does not allow their predators to have enough time to find and prey on them. Those predators will never even know their prey is there. They will never know that the garden is a good place to patrol in the future for more food. So the pests come back once the spray is no longer effective. And the cycle repeats.
Instead, we should be allowing our garden to work as an ecosystem with as little input from the gardener as possible. When garden pests arrive in the garden, we need to be patient. Balance will return once the predators show up. Allowing the balance to return the natural way promotes consistent balance in the future. It also helps prevent accidental killings of beneficial insects that may help with pollination, soil health, and more.
I would be lying if I said that a garden's ecosystem will prevent all pests infestations from killing your plants. Nature is never absolutely perfect. Another parts of its beauty in my opinion. Sometimes aphids may completely take over a plant and all the damage happens before predators show up. Or maybe the infestation is so large that the predators couldn't catch up quick enough. In these instances we can help while still allowing the ecosystem to work.
The best way to do this is to only remove some of the pests. Hand removal and water sprays is a good place to start. The goal is to remove just enough of the pests that you can slow down plant damage, but also allow predators to find and prey on the pests as well. Think of it as helping jump start the process to balance. If infestations are very large on established plants, sometimes plant pruning of infested areas is also helpful.
Some gardeners complain that they never see those beneficial predators arrive. Even after patiently waiting. If that is the case, take a hard look at your garden. Is it set up to host those predators outside of providing a food source? Is there plant diversity? Grasses, shrubs, flowers, trees, ground covers, etc. Is there areas for these predators to nest? Bee/wasp houses, piles of small logs and sticks, piles of undisturbed leaves, etc. Getting to know your garden predators also plays a huge role in recognizing and welcoming them into your garden.
If you would like more information on common garden pests and predators in Florida, check out our Gardening Forum. I have been building a category called "Gardening Friends and Foes" that dives into specific pests and predators and their roles in the garden. It is a free source of information to anyone who wants it. If you would like to share your knowledge on the topic, feel free to post and write. If you have any questions, post those too. I look forward to hearing from you.