Dig This: Making Peace with Insects


I recall reading a few years back the tragic tale of a man found dead among his cabbages from a self-inflicted overdose of pesticides, so passionate was his commitment to defeating the insects in his garden. I expect that, to him, the only good insect was a dead one.

Garden insects – like humans – are mostly seen as parasites and therefore as competitors with us for limited food and resources. From that perspective, we are constantly at war with them for survival. But it is a war we are not winning, one we cannot hope to win, and one we should not want to win, in any case. Having a healthy garden or farm without insects is impossible in the first place. Note that I am not talking about mosquitoes and cockroaches here, but garden insects: beetles, mites, aphids, whiteflies, caterpillars, grasshoppers, earwigs and other assorted garden grazers.

At best, in our war against insects we have stimulated them to evolve ever more resistant to our poisons and more problematic with every mutation. Meanwhile, we are systematically poisoning ourselves and the ecosystem on which we all depend for life. Not very smart, if you ask me.

Here’s a (not so) new thought: Insects are only pests if they are a problem, which, under normal healthy circumstances, they should not be. If insects are a problem in your garden, consider that you may be doing something wrong. Maybe a wider perspective is in order.

Rather than view insects as competitors, what if we viewed nature as a super organism with a coordinating intelligence in which the insect, like all life forms, has a definite and important role to play? Nature’s dematerializers, if you will. Along with other invertebrates, they are part of the macrocosmic breakdown cycle, the cycle of demanifestation.

Perhaps you have noticed that the plants that lack vitality are the first to succumb to insect infestation. At the root of the problem are plants that lack vitality, and usually it is they – at least initially – that are the target of the attack. With unbending instinct, insects will attack that which is unfit to live, returning its elemental materials into that from which more life can grow. It’s an important job and somebody’s got to do it.

Even bees, butterflies and other pollinators play a role in dispersing the elemental energy of flowers by carrying off pollen, aiding the cycle of dematerialization to which everything is subject at the end of its life cycle.

It seems to me that this is the way things work, and a pattern we gardeners had best get in step with if we want to get along with Mother Nature.

Healthy plants – being strong in life-force; call it vitality, if you prefer naturally protect themselves from disease, weather stress and insect damage. Like other life forms, they have built in immune functions  that protect them for the most part from the dematerializing force, provided they are healthy and well-nourished. Like people.

Insect infestation is a symptom of more fundamental problems. Eradication of the symptom cannot solve the cause. The insects/symptoms are letting us know that life force has been compromised.

With some careful observation and a little practice in this new way of thinking, you will be able to get the drop on insect infestations, preventing the armies of dematerializers from showing up at all, by keeping things in balance.

A gardener’s most important job is to maintain plants at a high level of vitality. Keep your plants growing steadily, the best assurance for which is healthy soil and careful watering.

We might call this the key axiom of good gardening: Healthy plants are the result of healthy soil. Contrary to myth, the thumb of a good gardener is not green at all, but dark brown – like healthy soil. Build healthy soil and the plants will thrive with minimal insect damage.

The best way to build and maintain healthy soil is by feeding your soil with copious amounts of compost, which builds lasting fertility and assures the vitality of all that takes root there.

Another consideration in keeping insect damage at a minimum is avoiding plant stress. Plant stress is usually a result of unseasonable weather extremes (which you can’t do much about), inconsistent water supply, too much, too little, or such blunders as overhead watering in the middle of the day – all of which can sap the plant’s life force, making it vulnerable to disease and insect infestation.

Rich and well-aerated soil is the main thing, but there are other ways to improve the vitality of your garden and add to your insurance against insect problems as well – biodiversity of plant life, beneficial plants and predators, refined watering techniques, the use of slurries, teas and foliar sprays to bolster vitality, etc.

… But we’ll save that for next time.

Upcoming workshops at the Teaching Garden :

August 28th Edible Native Plants 10:30am to 12:30pm
Presenter: Ted Dawson
Community Teaching Garden, Shasta College Main Campus

For registration information, call 530-225-4835


Jim Collins is a local ecopsychologist, organic farmer and founder of a regional seed bank.  He is currently garden manager of the Community Teaching Garden project at Shasta College, a pioneer program promoting self-reliance, sustainable practices, regional food security, and ecological literacy by providing information, instruction, and practical experience in sustainable organic food gardening.

Wayne Kessler is a local organic farmer, nurseryman and activist for local food security. He is the owner of Shambani Organics nursery in Manton with his wife Laurie. Wayne is a technical advisor to the Community Teaching Garden.

Dig This will be a regular biweekly column offering ecological wisdom and garden advice.  If you have questions or would like Jim and Wayne to address a particular issue, you may contact them at the Teaching Garden by e-mail at teachinggarden@shastacollege.edu.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment.

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