Roses Are Plants Too!

Keep Beneficial Insects, Birds and Mammals Around By Creating a Host Environment

A house built specifically for beneficial insects hangs at Bierkreek Nursery in The Netherlands
Photo/Illustration: Paul Zimmerman Roses
A house built specifically for beneficial insects hangs at Bierkreek Nursery in The Netherlands
Photo/Illustration: Paul Zimmerman Roses

The best way to control pests on your rose plants is the natural way. Nature is offers us all kinds of allies to help control the bad bugs in our garden. Ladybugs love to eat aphids and spider mites. Hoverflys eat aphids and thrips. Lacewings eat all of them. Birds are also voracious feeders on insects as are small mammals such as bats. Attracting them to your garden is the first step, but what’s more important is keeping them there.

You can invite the good bugs and mammals by creating a “host environment”.  Simply put, it means if you give the good guys food, water, somewhere to raise their young, and a place to overwinter, they will happily go to battle for you when the bad bugs show up.  best of all, it’s not complicated or expensive. In fact quite a bit of it involves something we love to do already–gardening!

The first step is to entice them with something to eat and drink. The drink is water, which can be contained in bird baths, a pond, or a water feature, etc.  Just make sure the water doesn’t contain chemicals like chlorine.  In the case of food, it is already present in your garden in the form of aphids, spider mites, thrips and the other bad bugs you don’t want in your garden. But since the bad guys aren’t there all season you’ll need to provide other food sources, also known as  “host plants.”  These are plants that the beneficial insects love as food and shelter. From a food standpoint the most important plants are the ones that provide a very early food source for the beneficial bugs– before the bad show up in spring.

These early food plants are commonly found in the families of early blooming herbs with good nectar.  Examples are some plants from the Brassicia and Umbelliferae families such as mustard, dill, and parsley.  Another great family of plants are the early blooming Asters. Aster Solidago is particularly good for hoverflys. The types of early food plants will vary widely by region, but the key to remember is they should be early flowering with good nectar.  These will keep your beneficial insects happy and healthy early in the season until the aphid buffet shows up.

Once the beneficial pest controllers are happily eating the food source you and nature are providing, they’ll want to lay their eggs in your garden since they know subsequent generations will have plenty to eat. So they lay their eggs right where the insect food source like aphids and thrips is, or is going, to be-that’s in your roses!  So luckily your roses are also the perfect host environment for this beneficial bug nursery!

As the season winds down beneficial insects will start looking for a place to overwinter. They need a place to hide that is sheltered like a wood pile. You can provide this simply by piling old branches and twigs of soft woods like willow, poplar, ash etc in a corner of your yard all season long. Come cold season they will be the perfect winter chalet for a host of beneficial insects.  Ditto for rotted trees.  They also like to live in rough vegetation, which are simply the host plants that were not cut back in fall.  So don’t cut back those herbs, perennials, and ornamental grasses in fall.  Wait until spring so the good guys can overwinter in them.  Ornamental grasses are particularly good living environments for bugs all during the year.

Birds are also excellent allies in your garden.  During the season they eat the bad bugs, but out of season provide food sources for them like bird feeders.  Most of the perennials and herbs that are host plants for beneficial insects set seed in fall and that is another good food source for birds.  Not to mention the roses themselves.  Rose hips, which are the bright orange berries that appear on your roses in fall are a favorite food source for birds.  To encourage them simply stop deadheading your roses in early fall.  The hips form when the petals of the blooms fall off.

Birds that like to live in shrubs are among the most voracious insect feeders.  They prefer shrubs with soft wood and dense foliage, the latter being a great place to hide.  The soft wood attracts the insects they like to eat, and so it takes the place of a wood pile to overwinter the beneficial insects.

If you live in a more rural area small mammals like hedgehogs are great allies.  And of course bats!  Provide them with places to live like the wood pile, bat houses, and compost heaps.

In the end spend a little time researching and asking who the good bugs and birds are in your area. Then think of providing them with the things they need to eat, live, reproduce ,and overwinter. Do so and you’ll have nature’s army standing by to tackle any infestation that comes your way.

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  1. susan749 12/29/2012

    Hedgehogs? I realize that Fine Gardening probably has readers in countries other than the US, but we really don't have any hedgehogs in the US. Did you mean groundhogs?

  2. PFZimmerman 12/31/2012

    Yep, meant hedgehogs. I totally get your point but in the end as I say, I offer examples and feel it us to each of us to research what works in our area.

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