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Do You Have an Oasis Garden in a Desert Problem?

Is your garden surrounded by a nice green lawn with a few ornamental shrubs scattered about with some flowers mixed in? Since you are here on permies I'm really hoping that this is not your situation but I also know this is the standard setup for most suburban and rural homes at least in the United States.

If you live in a rural area there might be a "wild" area around the edges or over part of your land but likely it has been cleared sometime in the past and is not something you would describe as pristine wilderness.

This situation is what I call the "Oasis Garden in a Desert Problem" and I think it is at the root of a lot of people's pest problems.

It may fit the classic image of the American suburb, but let me ask you this - how much food is there in that landscape for you? If you have a great garden then you could point to it and say "I get lots of food from my garden". But what about all the land around the garden?

If there is nothing for you to eat then chances are the "pests" are also finding nothing to eat too. Your garden is the only place for you or the pests to go to get food.

Plus, there is limited habitat for all the critters that would eat the pests.

Your garden might as well be an oasis in a desert - you and everything else is drawn to it because there is nothing else to eat outside of it.

In my blog post Control Garden Pests without Toxic Chemicals I cover 5 different methods you can use to control garden pests without the use of toxic chemicals. All these methods are aimed at minimizing the oasis in the desert problem while also making it harder for pests that do get to your garden.

The methods are:

- Control garden pests with beneficial insects
- Create habitat for predators of the garden pests
- Plant polycultures – a mix of different plants
- Plant perennials
- Don’t try to eliminate the pests (Yes, you read that right!)

I'm going to talk about 1 of these methods and also talk a bit about a change of mindset that you might need to get the most of out of these methods.

Control Garden Pests with Beneficial Insects


This is a praying mantis egg sack on an old basil stem that I left so I could have more praying mantis in my garden the following year.

Beneficial insects are insects that help you and your garden. They might pollinate flowers, eat garden pests, or function as a parasite either weakening or killing garden pests.

For pest control it is the last two benefits that we care the most about. But many beneficial insects that will pollinate your flowers will also help kill garden pests depending on their life cycle.

So how can we encourage beneficial insects?

One of the best ways to encourage beneficial insects is to plant a diversity of flowers in and around your garden. There is a great article by Permaculture Research Institute that lists plants that will attract beneficial insects.

Consider Native Flowers


This hedgerow on my property features dozens of native and non-native plants all growing together. There are vegetables, trees, shrubs, and flowers all mixed in.

But I would also take it one step further. Some of you may disagree with this part but that is all good. Just leave a comment explaining why - I would love to hear your reasons.

I think if you are trying to support beneficial insects that planting native plants and especially native flowers will do even more than just planting a diversity of non-native flowers.

My thought is that if you are mainly planting the flowers to support wildlife then why not focus on the natives? Chances are it will increase your plant diversity by a lot since most of us don't have a lot of native flowers in and around our gardens.

The other reason I want to encourage you to plant native flowers is that in the book Bringing Nature Home by Douglas W. Tallamy (Tallamy is a professor and Chair of the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware in Newark, Delaware) it is pointed out that among browsing insects - the ones that eat plants - 90% of them can only eat 1 or 2 specific native plants.

It turns out most browsing insects are specialists with very picky diets as opposed to the 10% of generalists that will eat anything - including your vegetables!

I would love to support the 90% of picky specialist insects! It is the generalists that cause you problems in the garden.

Since insect browsers are towards the bottom of the food chain just above plants, increasing their numbers will support more of the beneficial insects that eat them (plus birds and other awesome critters!). Those beneficial insects are also likely to chomp down on the generalists that are trying to eat your vegetables!

My recommendation is to plant the non-native food and medicinal plants you need for you and your family but don't forget to mix in native flowers too. Here is a great tool from the National Audubon Society that can help you find native plants for your area.

Beyond flowers I would also recommend adding some diversity of structure to your property with rock piles, logs, wood piles (where fire is not a big risk) and other similar structures. These will provide habitat for all sorts of critters. Having a good leaf mulch - or mulch in general - can also help.

Moving Away from the Oasis



Earlier I mentioned the need to have a shift in mindset to get the most out of the methods mentioned here and in my blog post.

The mindset shift is to start considering every part of your property - the lawn, the garden, the forest, the fields, the pond, the flower bed, etc. - as all part of one interconnected ecosystem. That means planting edible plants for you to eat all over. It also means planting plants for wildlife throughout your garden.

You can still focus your garden on vegetables, and another area on fruit trees but if you can also mix and match you will get far more diversity of life. Each part of your property should merge into the other as opposed to having hard lines separating them.

Think about the edge of a forest and a field. It is not a straight line - the two habitats flow into each other and the resulting edge environment is even more diverse than the two more uniform habitats. Your property can mimic this.

Ultimately if you shift your mindset in this way you can eliminate the oasis garden in a desert problem. The pests won't concentrate in your garden because there will be food everywhere - the garden just won't be that special or unique.

What Do You Think?

I would love to hear from you! Please leave a comment in this thread and don't forget to check out my blog post that this thread was based on. If you are one of the first to leave a comment you might even get a surprise in the form of pie or apples

The blog post covers this topic in more detail and covers the other 4 methods for pest control (though I did expand a few areas of thought in this thread beyond the blog post). There is also a cheat-sheet you can signup to get on the site to help you control garden pests by working with nature.

Thank you and best of luck dealing with garden pests!
 
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Hi Daron.

I like the approach a lot. It sounds to me much like what I encourage to happen in my garden.

I think the observation about a green, decorative desert surrounding a garden oasis is interesting, but perhaps problematic.

I think Malthus would agree that populations, in absence of something to control their numbers, will grow to the size dictated by the amount of food available.

So if you add wild food sources to the areas surrounding your garden, while I think it's possible that the first year, the pests might keep to the wild food, certainly some will go for the garden buffet anyways, as a garden is pest candy in a conveniently compact area, and my thought is that eventually, as in within a generation of pest breeding or two, that their numbers will increase due to the overall greater availability of food.

So the generation after they have filled the surrounding area, you could easily be inundated by pests, unless there's been an effort to boost the levels of predatory insects, as has been mentioned.

As much as the oasis-in-a-decorative-desert idea works to explain things here, I think it's the concentration of nutrient-dense food items that draw pests to gardens. I think one would need to kick off a surge in the predatory insect population to match that of the pest species in lock-step.

I love the pic of that Mantis cocoon. Keep 'em coming, keep us posted, and good luck.

-CK
 
Daron Williams
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Chris Kott wrote:Hi Daron.

I like the approach a lot. It sounds to me much like what I encourage to happen in my garden.

I think the observation about a green, decorative desert surrounding a garden oasis is interesting, but perhaps problematic.

I think Malthus would agree that populations, in absence of something to control their numbers, will grow to the size dictated by the amount of food available.

So if you add wild food sources to the areas surrounding your garden, while I think it's possible that the first year, the pests might keep to the wild food, certainly some will go for the garden buffet anyways, as a garden is pest candy in a conveniently compact area, and my thought is that eventually, as in within a generation of pest breeding or two, that their numbers will increase due to the overall greater availability of food.

So the generation after they have filled the surrounding area, you could easily be inundated by pests, unless there's been an effort to boost the levels of predatory insects, as has been mentioned.

As much as the oasis-in-a-decorative-desert idea works to explain things here, I think it's the concentration of nutrient-dense food items that draw pests to gardens. I think one would need to kick off a surge in the predatory insect population to match that of the pest species in lock-step.

I love the pic of that Mantis cocoon. Keep 'em coming, keep us posted, and good luck.

-CK



Thanks for the comment! Prey versus predator population is interesting - generally in nature prey populations increase first and then predator populations increase in response but with a lag. In my blog post I talk about this a little bit. So, I think what might happen is in year 1 browsing insects (pests) will increase in numbers and the predator numbers will remain similar. But the following year you will likely see predator numbers increase too.

This will especially be true if you work to provide habitat for predatory insects and other critters like birds - as you mentioned.

Building off the mindset change I mentioned - it may be necessary to have patience and wait over a couple years for predator populations to increase. I think if all the methods I cover in the blog post were implemented on a property you would see a decrease in pest issues - not necessarily a decrease in pest numbers. That is another mindset change I'm hoping to promote - I don't want to reduce pest numbers, I just want to reduce the impact of the pests. The methods I promote are focused on doing that.

Thanks again! Appreciate your thoughts and feedback.
 
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Daron Williams wrote: I think if you are trying to support beneficial insects that planting native plants and especially native flowers will do even more than just planting a diversity of non-native flowers.

My thought is that if you are mainly planting the flowers to support wildlife then why not focus on the natives? Chances are it will increase your plant diversity by a lot since most of us don't have a lot of native flowers in and around our gardens.



Really enjoying the posts and blog, especially this one, so much good information, and the cabbage butterfly story was very entertaining.

I had a perenial "weed" in my garden the last few years, and this year I just decided to let it do it's thing. It turned out to be beautiful goldenrod, and when I looked up close at it during the middle of the day, it was filled with the most diversity of pollinators and beneficial wasps I had seen in one place. It covered an area of about 100 square feet and provided an amazing food source late in the year when other plants were finished. If I had cut it all down and dug it out, I would have never realized what an amazing plant I had, that I didn't have to do anything for.

Daron Williams wrote:Earlier I mentioned the need to have a shift in mindset to get the most out of the methods mentioned here and in my blog post.

The mindset shift is to start considering every part of your property - the lawn, the garden, the forest, the fields, the pond, the flower bed, etc. - as all part of one interconnected ecosystem. That means planting edible plants for you to eat all over. It also means planting plants for wildlife throughout your garden.

You can still focus your garden on vegetables, and another area on fruit trees but if you can also mix and match you will get far more diversity of life. Each part of your property should merge into the other as opposed to having hard lines separating them.

Think about the edge of a forest and a field. It is not a straight line - the two habitats flow into each other and the resulting edge environment is even more diverse than the two more uniform habitats. Your property can mimic this.

Ultimately if you shift your mindset in this way you can eliminate the oasis garden in a desert problem. The pests won't concentrate in your garden because there will be food everywhere - the garden just won't be that special or unique.



I think this is one of the hardest thing for most people, getting out of the habit of "how it's always been done" and having perfect looking gardens. I used to always like to have my garden on the tidier side, but recently I've been seeing the natural beauty of nature and all the benefits of its diversity like you mentioned! When people look at my garden and orchard, sometimes they say,  "there's so much going on, why don't you just plant it in rows", and then they have to listen to me give them an overview of permaculture and why it's better that way!
 
Daron Williams
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Thanks Steve for the comment! Really happy to hear that you are enjoying the posts and blog!

That is a great story about goldenrod - there is a type that lives in my area and I love the flowers on it. I don't have it on my property yet but I'm hoping to get it established in a few areas in the future.

Lol, ya I have had that permaculture talk with people too. But talking with my wife who supports permaculture but has not studied it and did not grow up gardening has made me try to balance my wild gardens a bit. People with less experience can feel a bit overwhelmed at times trying to figure out what is going on in a wild polyculture garden even if they get why it is setup that way.

But my food forest areas once fully planted will still be fairly wild. In the more formal garden that is just out the back door I'm keeping it a bit more tame but still mixing in native plants. Further out and especially in areas that we won't visit as much I'm letting them go more wild.

Just got to find that balance
 
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Intrinsic: An Agriculture of Altered Chaos
https://permies.com/t/95922/Intrinsic-Agriculture-Altered-Chaos
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