7 Herbs That Will Attract Beneficial Garden Insects
Are you looking to attract pollinators or beneficial predators to your garden in order to keep pests under control? There are a number of ways to do this, including planting certain herbs that will attract them. In this article, gardening expert and former organic farmer Logan Hailey shares her favorite garden herbs that will help keep your garden pollinator-friendly and pest-free.
Nature doesn’t need pesticides to keep pests under control, nor does she need paintbrushes to cross-pollinate her flowers. Insects evolved specifically to do all that hard work for us!
Research shows that up to 97% of insects are actually beneficial to humans and the environment. How do we attract them? With enticing herbs, of course!
If you want to grow the most natural garden possible, you need to incorporate certain plants that provide food and habitat for beneficial insects. Let’s dig into 9 herbs that attract an abundance of beneficial insects to your garden so you don’t have to worry about pests or un-pollinated fruits.
What are Beneficial Bugs for My Garden?
Contrary to popular belief, not all bugs are bad. Of the millions of identified insect species, only about 1 to 3% are deemed pests. Beneficial bugs provide valuable services that actually boost plant growth.
Beneficial bugs include bees, butterflies, syrphid flies, parasitic wasps, ladybugs, lacewings, and moths. These “good guy” bugs fall into one of two major categories.
Pollinators spread pollen from flower to flower so that plants can produce fruits. They include honey bees, bumble bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. According to the United Nations, over 75% of the global food supply depends on pollinators. Without pollinators, we cannot enjoy scrumptious tomatoes, juicy cucumbers, or crisp apples.
Predators are the natural enemies that eat pests and prevent them from harming our crops. Beneficial predators include insects that eat other bugs (e.g. spiders, lacewings, praying mantis, hoverflies, ladybugs, etc) as well as parasitizing insects that lay their eggs inside other insects (e.g. parasitic wasps and flies). Regardless of how they kill the bad bugs, predatory insects drive pest populations down, which means fewer pesticides and reduced crop damage.
Biocontrol or biological control is the use of beneficial insects to control unwanted pests and diseases. While importation biocontrol involves releasing lab-reared insect enemies into the garden, conservation biocontrol uses garden planting to magnetize native predators and get them to stick around. Science shows that both methods are highly effective for reducing and eliminating pests.
Biocontrol dates back to ancient Chinese farmers who discovered they could release ants into citrus groves to feed on pests. Since then, biocontrol has been rigorously studied by agricultural scientists around the world.
If the methods are good enough for commercial organic farmers, then they are certainly effective for backyard gardeners! These beneficial insects create natural “checks and balances” that help your garden function more like a native ecosystem, where no one species can get out of control.
Remember: Like all things in nature, a successful conservation biocontrol system takes time. If your tomatoes are infested with hornworms or your cabbage is covered in aphids, those pests won’t disappear the moment you plant dill in the garden.
Because the natural ecosystem has been disrupted, it will take time for the insect populations to adjust. The predators may need weeks, months, or a full growing season to fully move in and begin working their magic.
During an organic transition, it is common for conventional farms and gardens to experience a period of intensified pest pressure.
This does not mean that organic methods are failing! It means that the ecosystem is trying to find balance after being wiped out by pesticides. With proper management and patience, all gardens can return to an equilibrium wherein pests are naturally controlled by their native predators.
However, it is unrealistic to expect this to happen immediately. Be sure to utilize integrated pest management (IPM) strategies to prevent and control pest problems as they arise.
7 Herbs to Magnetize Beneficial Insects
Companion planting is the art and science of incorporating “helper” plants into your garden to bolster the growth of your crops. Herbs, in particular, tend to attract a range of beneficial insects while simultaneously repelling harmful pests.
As a bonus, most companion herbs are also beautiful, fragrant, and edible! Plant these 9 herbs near your vegetables to create an ecological oasis:
This aster-family herb is scientifically proven to be one of the best companion plants for attracting predatory insects. Despite its unique beauty and amazing ecosystem benefits, yarrow is remarkably underrated in the garden world.
The flat-topped flower clusters of yarrow are absolutely irresistible to ladybugs, syrphid flies, damselflies, braconid wasps, beetles, and native bees. These aggressive natural predators work to control pests like flea beetles, aphids, and tomato hornworms.
While it may not be as common in the kitchen, the yarrow plant is known for its edible and medicinal properties. Yarrow has peppery foliage, bitter leaves, and honey-scented flowers that can be used as a seasoning or soothing digestive tea.
It also makes a gorgeous ornamental landscape plant or cut flower in bouquets. Any color or variety of yarrow will attract beneficial insects. However, the wild type with cream-colored flowers is the most effective for biocontrol.
Where to Plant
Plant yarrow at row ends or in the margins of your garden. It’s the perfect addition to a perennial herb border. The plants can grow 2 to 4 feet wide and tall, so they are best kept out of vegetable beds. Yarrow does not need rich soil. In fact, it has a stronger aroma when it is grown in poor soils.
Cucumbers and dill are just as compatible in the garden as they are in the pickle jar! If you have problems with cucumber beetles, this is an essential herb for your garden!
Dill’s giant yellow umbel flowers are absolute magnets for ladybugs, hoverflies, lacewings, and other predatory insects that will chomp down on aphids, mites, thrips, squash bugs, and cucumber beetles.
As the predatory insects hide out in dill’s leaves, they also feast on the pollen and nectar from its blooms. Honey bees and native bees also love to join in on the party. Just remember that the magic of dill comes after it has bolted.
You can harvest the side leaves any time but be sure to preserve the center buds so they can burst up into bloom. The leaves lose some flavor after dill bolts, but the flowers provide the ultimate insectary benefit.
Where to Plant
Dill is a self-seeding biennial that will eagerly re-sow itself every year without becoming invasive. I like to sow it at the ends of rows or in the corners of raised beds. Its slender growth habit and feathery foliage makes dill perfect to intermingle with most veggies without the risk of competition.
The gorgeous purple spike flowers of hyssop are one of the most alluring scents for bees and butterflies. This mint-family perennial is native to the Western United States and has a long bloom time in zones 4-8.
Over 30 species of bees have been documented visiting hyssop. In addition, hummingbirds and predatory beetles absolutely love the juicy nectar of this herb.
Hyssop leaves and flower spikes are both edible. They have a delightful anise-licorice flavor for teas, syrups, and garnishes. The plants easily self-seed, but any undesired seedlings are easy to uproot.
Where to Plant
Hyssop pairs perfectly with other herbaceous perennials like bee balm (monarda), mint, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, and yarrow. For maximum benefits, plant it on the borders of the garden within a few feet of annual beds. It also thrives in open meadows and wildflower gardens.
A salsa garden is incomplete without cilantro, but many gardeners find that their cilantro bolts as soon as warm weather hits. Before you angrily uproot it, recognize that cilantro flowers are among the best habitats for predatory insects.
When you allow cilantro to bloom, it attracts an abundance of ladybugs, syrphid flies (feed on mites and aphids), parasitoid wasps, and lacewings. These predators work together to keep populations of aphids, potato beetles, spider mites, cabbage moths, and carrot rust flies.
This carrot-family (Apiaceae) plant has the same umbel-shaped flowers as dill, parsley, and angelica. The flowers of cilantro have a delicious, mild cilantro flavor that can be used alongside the leaves in most dishes. As the seeds mature, they can be harvested as coriander or left to re-sow.
Where to Plant
Cilantro is a top companion plant for almost every vegetable in your garden. As a biennial that grows like an annual, cilantro can safely be planted in your raised beds or scattered around border beds. Its laid back, un-competitive nature means it won’t try to crowd or shade out your crops.
Robust research proves that mint companion plants improve pest management by attracting generalist predators. For example, a voracious predatory insect called Nesidiocoris tenuis is magnetized to the aroma of mint.
The green insect uses mint flowers as a nectar source and lays eggs near mint plants. When the predators are ready to hunt, they become highly effective controllers of aphids and thrips on a variety of vegetable crops.
Beneficial wasps, hoverflies, and tachinid flies also adore the mint plant. In addition to attracting predatory insects, the strong essential oils of mint repel many types of pests. The smell of mint alone is enough to keep mosquitoes, fleas, squash bugs, and house flies out of your garden.
You can enjoy mint leaves and flowers in dressings, pestos, marinades, cocktails, and teas. The purplish-pink spike-shaped blooms allure a range of bees and butterflies to your garden to fulfill your pollination benefits.
Where to Plant
Mint is notoriously aggressive, especially in moist soils. You should always plant mint in border beds or use it as ground cover. Never plant it in your vegetable beds or it will take over!
Known for its effectiveness as a relaxing tea, chamomile serves a range of purposes in the garden. The gorgeous dainty flowers are a valuable food source for hoverflies (aphid eaters), beneficial wasps, ladybugs, and honey bees.
Additionally, the delightful scent of chamomile naturally deters mosquitoes.
As a companion plant, chamomile is thought to improve the growth and flavor of onions, cabbage, and other herbs. Harvest the flowers for use in bouquets and bedtime teas.
Where to Plant
Chamomile’s delicate shape makes it easy to incorporate pretty much anywhere in your garden without the risk of competition. You can interplant it with everything from lettuce to tomatoes to cucumbers. The plants are very easy to grow and will gladly self-seed. Shallow roots make unwanted plants easy to pull. Chamomile especially thrives in bulk plantings from broadcasted seeds.
Bee balm (Monarda) is another mint-family perennial herb with tubular flowers. Clearly, it is adored by bees, but also by butterflies, hummingbirds, beneficial wasps and flies, predatory beetles, and clearwing moths.
The aroma of bee balm has the same repellent properties as mint, which help keep aphids, spider mites, and whiteflies out of your garden.
As a bonus, bee balm is mostly avoided by deer and rabbits. All above-ground parts are edible to humans and can be enjoyed raw or cooked. The flowers have a unique minty orange scent and vibrant red flower when infused fresh into tea.
Where to Plant
Plant this large herbaceous perennial in border beds that surround your vegetable gardens. Because it grows up to 4 feet tall and wide, bee balm should not be planted in vegetable beds. Thanks to its long lifespan and extended bloom time, bee balm is also a dazzling addition to any ornamental landscape.
As a general rule of thumb, fragrant herbal blossoms are natural magnets for beneficial insects. These predatory bugs help keep your pest population in check.
At the same time, herbs serve as pollinator habitat and pest repellant in the garden. The Apiaceae (carrot) and Lamiaceae (mint) families are particularly beneficial for companion planting.