Can Vegetable Gardens be Wildlife-Friendly?

Do you grow vegetables at home? If so, I’m sure you don’t welcome wildlife into your veggie patches. Rabbits, groundhogs, deer, slugs, you name it, there’s some animal just waiting to devour your plantings and destroy all your hard work. Fencing (or a resident dog on duty 24/7) is usually the only way to keep the four-footed animals out, but what about the tomato hornworms, the slugs and the beetles that can’t be kept out with fencing?

If you spray for pests, you’re also killing the natural predators of your pests, such as this hover/syrphid fly, a common non-biting fly that visits flowers for nectar – their larvae eat large numbers of garden pests.

Walk into any hardware or big-box store and you can take home a variety of cheap but toxic concoctions that will kill upon contact. Although this might stop some of the pests for the moment, spraying ultimately does more harm than good. Crop pests are well-adapted to the various poisons farmers have used for decades, and they’ll usually stage a quick comeback. Not to mention, do you really want to use increasingly complicated chemical compounds — mostly untested for long-term health impacts and their interactions with other common chemicals — on the food that you eat?

So how can you grow food without resorting to harmful chemicals? It requires a bit more thought than just just spraying something from a bottle, but it’s not complicated.

Basically, you enlist the help of the natural world…and tap into its natural checks and balances.

The kitchen gardens at circa 1730 Salem Cross Inn, West Brookfield, Mass. Colonial settlers knew that food gardens interplanted with lots of flowering plants helped keep pests under control.

When dealing with pests, think prevention, not cure. Here are a few Golden Rules:

  • Provide habitat for beneficial insects and birds who are natural predators of your garden pests. Give them what they need, and they’ll help keep pest populations under control.
  • Confound pests by companion planting your vegetables with plants with strong scent or other characteristics that confuse or repel pests, and rotate crop plants from year to year to stay one step ahead of pests.
  • Grow your plants in healthy, living soil that is rich in beneficial soil organisms – healthy soil means healthy plants that can withstand a bit of pest damage. Avoid synthetic chemical “power” fertilizers that kill soil life – these actually encourage the sappy, weak leaf growth that attracts pests.

Vegetable gardens at Tower Hill Botanic Gardens – colorful, whimsical, functional and friendly to the “good bugs” that eat garden pests.

In and around your veggie gardens, plant a variety of flowering annuals, perennials, shrubs, vines and trees to attract nectar-and-pollen seeking pollinators and predatorial insects such as hover/syrphid flies, soldier beetles, lady beetlesparasitic wasps and flies, and many, many more. Your aim is to keep the area buzzing with a variety of beneficial insect activity right through the seasons.

Ring your beds with single-flowering marigolds (Tagetes spp). The bright, nectar-rich blooms attract beneficial insects right until first frost. Plus, the strongly-scented foliage seems to repel (or confuse) many pests, and they’re less likely to find your plants.

The nectar found in flowering plants is what keeps those insects flying – it’s the fuel that keeps them patrolling your garden for pests, so make sure there’s something blooming all through the seasons to keep them fed. Yes, some flies are pests and certain wasps do sting, but most of the bugs flying out there are beneficial – preying on other insects, pollinating plants, and as a food source for other wildlife.

Check out this braconid wasp, which is in the process of laying its eggs inside a gypsy moth caterpillar – which means this caterpillar is doomed:

Photo by Scott Bauer/USDA Agricultural Resource Service (

You don’t have to worry about these wasps stinging you – they don’t have a hive to defend and they don’t sting! If you grow tomatoes, you’ll want to attract another type of braconid wasp that uses tomato hornworm caterpillars as its host:

The rice-like cocoons on this tomato hornworm are from a braconid wasp that will eventually consume the caterpillar. If you see a hornworm caterpillar like this – don’t kill it! You want the wasp to complete its life cycle and live to continue controlling hornworms each year.

If you are reading this because you have problems with hornworms skeletonizing tomatoes, resolve to start adding plants for parasitic wasps for next year’s tomato crop. They’ll do a fine job keeping the hornworms under control for you.

Rudbeckia and great blue lobelia bloom their heads off in the rich soil next to our vegetable beds – at the same time attracting lots of the parasitic wasps and flies who prey on veggie garden pests.

Other common predatorial bugs that you want to attract to your habitat include assassin bugs, ambush bugs and certain types of stink bug, who feed on insect eggs, caterpillars and other creatures that can harm plants. You’ll find all of these in and among flowering nectar plants, weeds and wherever bugs hang out.

A garden buzzing with insect life also brings in the “big guns” of bug control, including birds, dragonflies, batsamphibians (toads and frogs) and other wildlife whose diet consists largely of flying insects and/or insect eggs, caterpillars and grubs. Healthy local populations of these predators will cut WAY down on your pests:

Nesting boxes for birds and other winged wildlife at Garden in the Woods, Framingham, Mass. Nesting birds can feed their hatchlings several hundred caterpillars every day, so provide them with nesting opportunities near your gardens.

Include some locally-native plants in your landscaping- these are best for attracting nesting birds because they tend to support the most diversity in herbivorous insects — in other words, plenty of caterpillars to feed hungry baby birds!

Even if you don’t like the taste of cilantroparsley, fennel or dill, always try grow lots of these culinary herb plants – they are cheap and easy to grow from seed, and make good companions for tomatoes. Allow some plants to flower – their clusters of numerous tiny flowers (called umbels) contain individual portions of sweet nectar for small beneficial insects. These fellow members of the carrot family of plants are also a host for the caterpillars of the beautiful black swallowtail butterfly (pictured at top of page):

Don’t kill these caterpillars – they turn into beautiful butterflies. Give them their own patch of parsley or dill to eat, and relocate them to wild carrot or queen anne’s lace, if necessary.

The tiny white flowers of cilantro attract parasitic wasps and many other beneficials

Leave some areas of bare ground in the vicinity of your vegetable beds to provide nesting opportunities for squash bees (important pollinators of squash and cucumbers) and other native bees that excavate tiny tunnels in the ground to build their nests:

Not ant hills, but nest sites under construction by a metallic-green “digger bee”. Photo by Beatriz Moisset.

Hang wooden blocks for wood-nesting bees and beneficial insects near your gardens. Many native bees and insect predators use tunnels in old wood or tubular plant stems as a snug winter home for their offspring:

Nesting block for beneficial insects – showing telltale signs of use by mason bees, grass-carrying wasps and other beneficial insects.

Bumble bees are important pollinators of food plants such as tomatoes and blueberries. Although they do raise a communal hive, they are gentle and won’t sting unless threatened. Give them lots of nectar plants (right through the season) and a place to nest near your gardens.

Problems with slugs? Slugs LOVE the moist conditions of well-mulched, well-watered vegetable gardens and can decimate plants in just a few nights of feeding. Bring in the toads – who hunt the soil at night for slugs, grubs and worms – by giving them a cool, damp place to spend their days:

Attract slug-gobbling toads with a “toad abode”

Feed the soil, not the plants! In other words, provide habitat for the soil food web, or the (mostly micro-biotic) wildlife that lives in the soil. Each year, amend your vegetable beds with compost, farm-animal manure, leaf mold, seaweed or fish-based fertilizer – whatever you can get your hands on locally:

Pests tend to attack stressed plants. Encourage healthy plants by amending your soil with good quality compost and mulch plants to help retain soil moisture.

Try to rotate your crops each year to stay ahead of pests. Many pests lay their eggs in and around their host plants – in the spring, when pests emerge, they won’t have such an easy time finding their favorite plants if they are growing elsewhere, and are more likely to be eaten by a predator if they have to travel in search of food. Another way of doing this (assuming you have the room) is to scatter a crop around your property instead of a single location or bed.  If a pest infestation makes it to one area, they may not reach them all.

I hope this gives you some ideas of how to keep your vegetable gardens healthier for you, your children and pets, and the planet! Gardening with and for wildlife may mean your gardens might look a little messier than the “not a petal out of place, not a weed to  be found” landscaping norm, but free, natural pest control and the amazing array of prey and predators that will take up residence in your habitat garden? I hope you agree those are worth taking up a new “beautiful wildlife garden” aesthetic…

These raised veggie beds on our small farm may look a little weedy, but they are surrounded by plenty of habitat for birds and beneficial insect, and pest damage to our crops is minimal.

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  1. says

    Ellen, what fantastic and thorough advice this is! I wish it could be printed up and handed out at every gardening center. I especially love the “feed the soil” warning which so many people mistakenly think can be accomplished from a plastic bag. Your photos tell the story so beautifully. Nice post; hope it’s shared widely.
    sue dingwell recently posted..Bear-y Delight

  2. says

    What a great post, and beautiful photographs! You managed to squeeze a ton of information into a small post. Thank you.

    I’d also like to mention the use of cats in gardens to control voles and other burrowing critters, which was a method of control suggested by the teacher of a local vegetable gardening class I attended. I had to point out politely that cats prowling around gardens are not wildlife-friendly, as they eat birds, toads, frogs, etc.

  3. says

    Great information in here Ellen! I love the photos too. I have been meaning to get a mason bee nesting block going and your idea gave me some encouragement to do so – since they are everywhere in the garden at the moment. My toads also live in upside down broken pots but the “king” of the toads (about the size of a large kitten) resides currently in my compost bin. Oh, and ps… your ‘untidy’ vegetable garden looks positively well manicured compared to the state of mine right now…sigh. Thanks for all the information.
    Dawn Schneiderman recently posted..The Cost Of Growing Your Own Vegetables?

  4. says

    Ellen, this is a fabulous article — really comprehensive and motivational! Definitely should be shared widely. Thanks so much for writing it, and for including a lot of photos that clearly illustrate the strategies you discuss.

  5. says

    Excellent post. To prevent 4 footed critters I’d have to go with the fencing since MY dog would be passing the salt to the bunnies as she chowed down on the tomatoes herself ;)

    Nice spell out of all the beneficials…..GO BUGS!
    Loret recently posted..Wainin’ Wabbits?

    • says

      Kathy – it’s true that it’s not always straightforward and easy to ID all the bugs you see – the good news is that the typical veg garden pests are usually pretty well-known and obvious – once you get to know the cabbageworm and the hornworm and the Japanese beetles, you can generally ID them (or their damage) from 50 paces! As for the rest of them, most of the time they’re not plant damagers, so best to leave them alone until you can safely implicate them :) is my go-to resource for bug ID, and contains a lot of good info about IDing various bee species, especially bumbles.
      Ellen Sousa recently posted..Vegetable Gardening the Natural Way

  6. says

    Ellen this is such a comprehensive guide to veg gardening with wildlife…I love the critters who hunt the pests and it really is easy to garden without chemicals…I am always finding the frogs out int he veg gardens and the natural predators seem to take care of the problems…I do net the gardens to keep out the bunnies and deer as there is lots of other food for them.


  1. […] Do you grow vegetables at home? If so, I’m sure you don’t welcome wildlife into your veggie patches. Rabbits, groundhogs, deer, slugs, you name it, there’s some animal just waiting to devour your plantings and destroy all your hard work. Fencing (or a resident dog on duty 24/7) is usually the only way to keep the four-footed animals out, but what about the tomato hornworms, the slugs and the beetles that can’t be kept out with fencing?   So how can you grow food without resorting to harmful chemicals? It requires a bit more thought than just just spraying something from a bottle, but it’s not complicated. Basically, you enlist the help of the natural world…and tap into its natural checks and balances. When dealing with pests, think prevention, not cure. Here are a few Golden Rules:-  […]

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