More and more of us are welcoming wildlife into our gardens by putting up bird boxes, digging ponds, and planting bee-friendly flowers. But this warm welcome often stops at the veg patch, where wildlife is seen as the enemy, and banished from all but the wildest corners.
It's no surprise. For years, gardening advice has revolved around the idea of the gardener vs the pest, and nowhere has this been more stressed than on the vegetable plot. We're warned against 'cabbage' white butterflies and their brassica-hungry caterpillars, birds on our fruit crops, aphids on our beans, carrot flies in our carrots. We erect netting to prevent access, and lay traps and use sprays and pellets to kill. There's an assumption that in order to grow veg, there must be pest management. But it is possible to use organic, and therefore more 'nature-friendly' methods of pest control, such as blasting aphids off plants with a jet of water from a hose or growing companion plants to confuse, rather than kill certain insects.
Rather than seeing wildlife as the enemy and treating many species as pests, why not work with nature to help create a balanced ecosystem in your vegetable patch or allotment, so there's less need to control it? Not only will your plot be more nature-friendly you will save time, too!
More on growing veg:
- How to grow vegetables – beginner veg to grow
- How to grow vegetables in pots
- How to build a raised vegetable bed
Here, we list 10 ways to work with, not against nature in the veg patch.
Dig a pond
Digging a pond, no matter how small, will bring amphibians such as frogs, toads or newts to your veg plot. Amphibians eat a huge range of invertebrates, including vine weevils, aphids, flies, slugs and snails. A pond will also provide a drinking and bathing spot for birds and mammals.
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If you're planning to install a pond on your allotment, please check with your allotment association first.
Leave an area of long grass
Long grass makes an incredible habitat for a huge range of species, including slug- and snail-eating hedgehogs, amphibians and slow worms. Long grass also provides a habitat for pollinators, which help fertilise our veg crops.
Plant a nettle patch
Nettle leaves make an excellent nitrogen-rich plant food, but left in the ground they provide a habitat for many species. The caterpillars of many garden butterflies eat nettles, while birds eat their seeds. Nettles are also host to the nettle aphid, Microlophium carnosum, which appears earlier in the year than other types of aphid, and therefore lures their predators onto the veg patch sooner, too. So, by letting nettles grow you are creating an early source of food for ladybirds, lacewings and hoverflies, which will be on hand to tackle blackfly on your beans later in the season.
Leave habitats in place in winter
Seedheads and spent plants provide habitats for hibernating ladybirds and other predators over winter. By removing and composting them you're not only making these predators homeless but you're potentially killing them, too, by exposing them to cold, damp conditions or locking them in your compost bin. Even leaving one patch of spent plants can make a difference, not least because if you find hibernating insects elsewhere on the plot you can move them here to safety. Any predator that spends winter on your plot will be on hand to deal with pests before their numbers pick up in spring.
Let veg plants flower
Not eaten all of your parsnips or purple sprouting broccoli? Why not leave it to flower? Flowering crops not only look pretty but they attract a huge range of insects, from bees to flies and beetles – many of which eat aphids.
Make habitat piles
A pile of logs, stones, bricks or woody clippings makes the perfect hideaway for wildlife, from hedgehogs to bumblebees to toads. Dot these piles around your veg patch so the wildlife doesn't have to travel far to reach shelter.
Be kind to moles
Many gardeners see moles as the ultimate garden enemy. But did you know they eat insect larvae, such as carrot root fly? They also help to aerate the soil and prevent compaction and flooding. What's more, molehills provide the perfect, friable soil for seed-sowing.
Plant a hedge
Do you have room for a hedge on your veg plot? Perhaps your allotment fence is old and tired, and it's time to replace it? Not only will a hedge help to buffer wind, it will provide food and a home for countless wildlife, from field mice and voles to hedgehogs, birds, butterflies and bees. It could also feed you – planting hazel, blackthorn and wild pear could give you a rich hedgerow crop in autumn. Plus, planting one will help keep pest numbers down – one species that particularly likes hedges is the house sparrow, which eats aphids and feeds aphids to its young. If you want to grow beans free from blackfly then a hedge could be the answer!
Make an open compost heap
A compost heap is one of the best habitats for wildlife, providing food and home for beetles and other invertebrates, small mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians. Virtually all garden wildlife can be found in a compost heap, with may predator-pest relationships taking place within it. Yet a closed, plastic compost bin prevents many species from accessing the waste inside, meaning these predator-pest relationships can't take place. Pile waste up on its own or use a slatted bin, made from old pallets, and the compost heap will work better as a habitat. What's more, any insects that end up on the compost heap by accident, have a chance to escape.
Hang a bee hotel
A bee hotel, with holes ranging in diameter from 2mm - 10mm, will provide a nesting habitat for many species of solitary bee, which will pollinate your fruit trees in the process. What's more, they may also provide nesting habitat for solitary wasps. Unlike social wasps, many of which live in large nests, solitary wasps nest individually in small habitats such as bee hotels. Like solitary bees, they lay eggs in individual cells and stock them with food. While bees stock their cells with pollen and nectar, wasps stock theirs with garden pests, such as caterpillars, aphids and flies. The more wasps you attract to your veg plot, the fewer insect pests you'll have.
This special edition Year Planner 2023 contains advice for every month of the year, with tips for delicious harvests, plus, a sowing calendar is included for the best results all year round. Only £7.99.