As gardeners, we hear a lot about beneficial insects. They help keep the balance between the good, the bad, and the ugly insects lurking around our plants. We hear less about the other beneficial animals that help our gardens thrive. Here are some animals that are beneficial for gardens and how to entice them into your plot.
Snakes get a bad rap, and depending on where you live, often with good reason. Discovering a poisonous slithering serpent beneath the bougainvilleas is often very startling. Barring rattlesnakes, cottonmouths, and other poisonous species, however, snakes are actually quite helpful in the garden.
Snakes eat insects and rodents - those very same insects and rodents that also nibble on your cucumbers and lettuce - controlling the populations of these unwanted pests. Harmless, non-poisonous snake varieties like Garter snakes and black snakes won't do more than startle the unwary gardener, and the benefits of inviting snakes into your garden far outweigh the adrenaline rush of finding one in the path.
Snakes prefer dark, safe places to hide when they are not hunting down unwanted beetles and mice. Woodpiles are a favorite haunt, and you can recreate their shadowy appeal by creating a designated "snake zone" with a low shelter and a source of fresh water.
If you live in a warm climate, invite lizards to live in your garden. These little reptiles are predominantly insectivores, which means they like to eat bugs - especially ants, aphids, beetles, wasps, grasshoppers, and spiders. Most lizards are harmless to humans (with a few notable exceptions), although they do harbor parasites that can affect cats and dogs if eaten. On the other hand, many insects also carry parasites, so having a lizard around to gobble up bugs is ultimately more of a blessing than a curse for your pets.
To entice lizards into your garden, provide them with a few logs, a source of water, and plenty of native plants to encourage their natural prey and provide a lush habitat for these scaly garden companions.
Toads are a gardener's best friend. These warty amphibians feed on insects, slugs and snails, eliminating some of our least favorite pests with no effort on our part or harmful pesticides. Toads can eat up to 10,000 bugs in a single summer, which is more than most gardeners manage to get rid of by themselves without taking drastic measures.
Toads like dark, moist places to live. Providing logs, rocks, or using an overturned terracotta pot to make a toad house will give your toads a place to hide from their natural predators, which include birds, snakes, and household pets. While toads do not live in water like their frog relatives, they do need a source of fresh water close by, even if it is something as simple as a plastic dish.
Hummingbirds are some of nature's most beautiful and charismatic pollinators. Native to the Americas, hummingbirds bring life and color into our gardens and pollinate our flowers for future blooms. These tiny birds are some of the smartest birds in the animal kingdom. They can remember every flower they have visited and how long it takes that flower to refill. This is important, as they need to feed about 7 times an hour to sustain themselves.
To attract hummingbirds into your garden, plant native perennials and flowers that hummingbirds like. Plant for continuous blooming to keep them coming back all season, and you can also put up a hummingbird feeder or two as added encouragement.
Native birds play a very important role in pest control. Birds eat more than seeds. Many species also derive protein from insects, particularly the insects that we would love to see devoured, which makes them our secret weapon in the war on pests. Birds also provide stimulation for indoor cats, who enjoy watching them from behind glass windows.
Encourage birds to visit your garden by planting native plants in your beds and providing a source of water like a bird bath. Native plants provide birds with seeds, nuts, and berries, as well as a natural habitat to build their nests in. A bird feeder won't hurt your chances either, as it might encourage birds to stick around to find other sources of food in your garden.
Mosquitoes might not have a direct impact on the garden, but their indirect impact is very real. We share more gardening hours than we like with mosquitoes. They hunt us during the cool of the evening as we try and combat summer heat, and hover around during the day as well. These nasty little bloodsuckers are not just irritating - they also spread dangerous diseases like the Zika virus, Dengue fever, and malaria. These viruses can seriously limit your hours in the garden, putting your beds at risk of neglect. Plus, mosquito bites are just plain irritating.
Bats are nature's mosquito vigilantes. A single brown bat can eat as many as 1000 mosquitoes in an hour. That is far more effective than the average bug zapper.
Enticing bats into your garden is easy. Simply buy or build a bat house and install it 15-20 feet off of the ground, either on a pole, a building, or a tree, and in a location that is not well lit at night. Providing a nearby source of water may also encourage bats to move in.
Providing a bat habitat does more than limit your resident mosquito population. Bat numbers around the world are in decline, and anything we can do to help mitigate their losses is good for bats and the environment.
These beneficial garden animals provide you with pesticide-free pest control. Just remember that if you want these animals to hang around, you should refrain from spraying pesticides and herbicides, as these often contain toxins that hurt our wild friends.