Garden awareness

In the Garden
Ralph Purkhiser, Purdue University Master Gardener

     I have had a lot of questions recently about making gardens attractive to birds, bees and butterflies.  There has been a lot of information recently on social media, and, for the most part, the information is good, but sometimes confusing.
     I have seen several posts and articles recently asking people to delay cleaning up last year’s garden debris.  The reason given is that many beneficial insects over-winter in hollow stems and under piles of leaves.  That is certainly true, but the full fact is that such debris also houses some harmful pests.  If you had a problem with bean beetles last year, then cleaning up the debris in the vegetable patch is one way to prevent a similar problem this year.  If you have not already removed any foliage that was diseased last year, get that done as quickly as possible.   Do not put this debris in your compost area.  It is best to burn such debris, if burning is allowed in your area.  Otherwise, put the affected debris in the garbage and dispose of it off site.
     Those pleas to leave the debris usually say that it should be left until nighttime temperatures are in the 50’s for at least a week.  However, I saw one site recommending that one not touch the debris until the middle of May.  In our area, that is also the time to start planting most vegetables and annual flowers.  If you are like me, the clean-up must be completed earlier to be able to plant when planting time arrives.  The good news is that, in this instance, you may have your cake and eat it too.  I know that I have to get a jump on the clean-up, so I cut the stems of last year’s growth at the ground.  I do not burn or shred this material.   I simply gather it and place it in small piles at the edge of the woods.  I will shred and compost this debris later, when I have finished with the spring planting.
     Another common plea is to refrain from using pesticides.  While there are some non-poisonous ways to combat some pests, most pesticides are actually toxic.  Spraying or pouring poison on ants may get rid of the ants, but the poison is also absorbed into any creatures that eat the ants and continues up the food chain.  I ceased using most toxic chemicals many years ago, and I believe that nature has balanced the garden, with natural predators’ keeping most pests in check.  However, I still may use a pesticide if faced with a bad infestation.  I also use decoy wasp and hornet nests made from paper bags to deter them from areas where I work or play, but I am not above spraying wasp spray if a nest appears near my front door.  One shot of the toxic spray does not destroy everything, but we must become more aware of the total effect of the poisons we use in the environment.
     Beyond this, providing the food, water and shelter needs of birds, bees and butterflies will likely be enough to attract them to your garden.  Do some research to find our exactly which plants provide the needs of the fauna you wish to attract.  Be aware that most butterflies need specific host plants for the larval stage, but they usually will eat nectar from a wide variety of flowers.  Some butterflies prefer rotting fruit or even dung, and may need a patch of bare soil to be able to get necessary minerals.
     It may be that your garden space is not large enough to provide for all of the needs of the creatures you wish to enjoy.  Do not despair.  Some of the needs may be met in public gardens or in the yards of your neighbors.  The bees, birds and butterflies do not stay within fenced areas, so take advantage of borrowed resources in your neighborhood.  
     In short, the most essential need for a healthy garden and wildlife is awareness.  You do not have to become a purist, but at least be aware of the consequences of any actions you take.  We are all in this together.

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