Better living with backyard bugs
By Michele Taylor
Renee Mann is the kind of neighbor who will knock on your door and say, with a huge grin, “Dude, check out what I found under my compost pile” and extend an arm with a garter snake coiled around it. While I call the seven and eight year-old boys next door to dispatch creepy-crawlies from my flowerbeds, Renee calls snakes, beetles, spiders and yellow jackets “part of the joy of gardening.”
She studied insect biology, organic gardening, nutrient cycling and pesticide chemistry while earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Molecular and Environmental Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She now manages the review program at the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) in Eugene, Oregon.
The non-profit organization with 14 employees reviews ingredients in brand-name input products for agriculture, livestock and food processing and provides manufactures with an increasingly coveted seal of approval for their label if ingredients comply with National Organic Program regulations. Manufacturers of failed pesticides are encouraged to reformulate their products and try again. “It’s hard to understand NOP regulations,” Renee says. “OMRI thoroughly reviews manufactures’ claims and pesticides’ active ingredients.”
At home, Renee uses minimal organic chemicals with natural pest-control methods to keep her garden healthy. She says sowing native plants is the best way to encourage beneficial insects to move in and keep unwanted bugs out. “Natives attract good bugs by hosting larvae and eggs,” she says. “They evolved together, so it’s best to choose a wide array of natives. They also bring the birds.”
When Renee bought her house, grass, shrubs and arborvitae surrounded it. “I had a yard, not a garden,” she says. “There was no wildlife except for a few spiders and a hotbed of carpenter ants. The house inspectors recommended that I spray for them, but I couldn’t do it.” Instead, Renee ripped out most of the grass and let the scrub jays take care of the problem.
After taking out the non-native trees but before replanting with Pacific Northwest species, Renee mapped out her land’s ecosystems: shady and wet, sunny and dry, sloped and south-facing. She researched which plants would thrive in these areas with little water while attracting beneficial insects. “I amended the soil with OMRI-listed products where I wanted to plant herbs, veggies and fruit trees,” she says. “I didn’t amend the soil for the natives. I chose hardy plants suitable for each ecosystem and my clay soil.”
Sowing more than 350 plants in three months, Renee transformed her yard into a garden. But rather than putting in young plants susceptible to pill bugs, Renee chose more mature ones. Nootka roses attract pollinators. Wood sorrel, oxalis and yerba buena increase soil health. Ferns, ocean spray and snowberry invite beetles. A small grassy patch keeps the weeds down and makes a home for snakes, spiders and moths.
“Now, there’s a better balance of ladybugs and bees,” she says. “I’ve got nuthatches, pine siskins and red-breasted kinglets that eat grubs, caterpillars, white flies. “I never remove yellow jacket nests because they eat soft-bodied insects.”
Tober the cat takes out the mice. And at night, while bats swoop for mosquitoes, Renee prowls her garden by flashlight dispatching slugs, snails and pill-bugs by hand.
Ever conscious about keeping her ecosystems as natural as possible, Renee uses as few store-bought soil amenders as possible. Her worm farm provides tea, which she sprays on leaves during the spring to inoculate plants against late-season fungi. Three compost bins provide homes and feeding grounds to beneficial insects, which eventually get shoveled into the garden with the humus they make.
Renee knows her garden will never be entirely pest-free. She admits that having “a certain amount of knowledge of insects and gardening goes a long way in helping me to not freak out when I see a bug that others might think is attacking their plants but I know it is not.” She can’t control all bugs; some are left alone to munch away on tasty, tender leaves. “I don’t get attached to my plants,” she says. “Some just don’t survive.”
While my dogs bark at Renee, her cat and her wheelbarrow, she never reciprocates with buzzing chainsaws, whining lawnmowers or annoying leaf-blowers. Oxygenating plants act as a pump in her fishpond. “I try not to use power tools,” she says. “I’m concerned about noise and air pollution. And I appreciate my garden more because I’ve worked hard.”
Michele Taylor is an award-winning freelance journalist living in Eugene, Oregon.