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FAQ: Wildlife Gardens And Pest Control

By: Dr Gareth Evans - Updated: 17 Aug 2012 | comments*Discuss
Pest Pesticide Wildlife Natural

Wildlife gardening has become amazingly popular over recent years, and its growing support shows little sign of slowing any time soon. This is great news, of course, for Britain’s beleaguered flora and fauna, but it does raise one very important issue – just how do you control pests without killing wildlife at the same time?

It’s a tricky one, and while there’s no doubt that you’ll fail dismally if you try wading in with the usual haul of assorted and largely indiscriminate chemical pesticides, with a little care – and a bit of ingenuity, too – it can be done.

No matter where you live in the country, or what birds, beasts or bugs you count among the regular visitors to your garden, many of the most commonly asked questions about this problem seem to be the same.

If I Can’t Use Pesticides, What Can I Use?

Physical protection is a method often used to keep pests away from many garden plants, but it’s of limited use in the wildlife garden – the idea of netting, cloches and cold frames doesn’t really fit in here. One of the few times it can work, however, is with slug-prone plants, which can be protected with sharp gravel, broken eggshells or copper rings. Otherwise than that, there are a few approaches to consider, depending on your garden and the particular pest problem:

  • Use a natural or non-pesticide-based product, such as diatomaceous earth, or citronella oil.
  • Use highly specific products, such as the anti-slug and anti-weevil nematodes.
  • Encourage the 'gardener’s friends' to take up home and do the job for you.
  • Grow plants which naturally discourage pests.

Who Are These 'Gardener’s Friends' And How Do I Encourage Them?

There are two groups of allies in the garden – those creatures that, like bees, help pollinate, and those which are the natural enemies of the pests that are bothering you. Any creature that’s happy to make a meal of harmful insects qualifies for the title, but generally the usual candidates include:

  • Hedgehogs
  • Frogs and toads
  • Most garden birds (although in large numbers some kinds, such as starlings, can become a bit of nuisance themselves)
  • Ladybirds
  • Lacewings
  • Many kinds of ground beetles
The good news is that if you’ve got a wildlife area in your garden, you’re already doing most of what you need to encourage them to visit by providing them with shelter, water and food.

Which Plants Can Help?

Nature has equipped the wildlife gardener with some very useful plants to help keep pest problems at bay. Planting the appropriate one alongside the flowers you want to protect may be all you’ll need to do. If aphids are a problem, try growing members of the allium family, either the ornamental forms or the likes of onions and garlic. Many people have found that some of the common herbs, such as rosemary, thyme and sage, help keep caterpillars away, and rue or Artemisia are said to control ticks and mites.

Pyrethrum (or ‘Tansy’) is probably the best known example of a naturally insecticidal plant. Do be aware that its effect is a general one, so it works against insect friends as well as foes.

I’ve Heard That Pesticides Can 'Bioaccumulate' In Birds. What Does This Mean?

Birds can eat a large number of bugs in a day, and if each of those bugs is carrying even a small amount of pesticide in or on its body, sooner or later the levels of potentially harmful chemicals inside the bird can rise. Bioaccumulation is not just a problem for birds, it can also affect amphibians and mammals, too – us included!

Slugs Are A Real Problem In My Garden. How Can I Keep Them Under Control?

The latest weapon in the fight against slugs is a nematode worm treatment that you water into the soil. Completely harmless to everything except slugs, it’s available from many garden centres, by mail order and online. Follow the instructions and you should find it does the trick.

Where Can I Go For More Advice?

Apart from the rest of this site (and its sister site on Wildlife Gardening), there’s no shortage of places to try for additional help. Probably the best first call would be to your wildlife trust, but you could also try your local garden centre or any of the many online wildlife gardening suppliers, particularly if you’re after advice about a particular product or problem.

Pest control in the wildlife garden is never going to be straightforward, nor is it likely to be 100% successful. But remember that pests are wildlife too, and there’s bound to be a more welcome creature who’ll be along to make a meal of your nuisance sooner or later!

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