Creatures in the garden

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Shrubby Begonia arborescens

How times have changed! When I first began gardening more than 30 years ago, we had an arsenal of poisonous sprays with which we regularly attacked 'pests' on our plants. I cringe to think of what we did in those days, when we had an 'us against them' mentality that seemed to be the accepted ethos of the time. A pest and disease book I owned at the time listed all the baddies in the garden and what to spray them with. Useful insects were not mentioned. In this week's blog I am reviewing a new book published by the CSIRO, written by F. David Hockings - Pests, Diseases and Beneficials - which shows a different sort of thinking about the diverse creatures that inhabit our gardens, and how many of these play a positive role in controlling the more destructive sorts. Even some forms of fungi can apparently be directly or indirectly helpful to plants.

The book has five chapters of text, followed by more than 200 pages of photographic illustrations with captions. In the early part of the book, the author outlines the complex classification of the many small creatures that I would have previously simply referred to as 'insects', an erroneous belief as I now understand. I never realised where or how creatures such as snails, earthworms, spiders, mites, nematodes, slaters and centipedes fitted into the scheme of things in the animal world, or that the term 'bug' refers to a specific sort of insect, and I found this information fascinating. The life cycle, activities and feeding habits of each type are outlined (including particular plants attacked, where relevant), as are its predators. It might have been useful to have a diagram in this chapter showing the various branches of the Animal Kingdom, as at times I found myself lost in the phylums, subphylums, classes, orders, suborders and superfamilies that classify these creatures. Bacteria, viruses and fungi that have an impact on plants are also covered.

Grasshoppers can be destructive; pictured in my garden

The photographs of each type of creature are organised into chapters according to what part of the plant they are found on. I found the close-up illustrations to be of good quality, and the environmental impact of the creature is also usually shown in the photo, which is very helpful. The captions, on the whole, are informative. I found it inspiring to see how many beneficial creatures there are in a garden, and what they look like. The sheer diversity of these life forms - of both pests and beneficials - is quite mind-boggling, and becoming aware of the complex interrelationships between them left me feeling that human intervention with poisons is a foolish idea in most cases. Along the way, the author does give quite a few tips for dealing with problems in less toxic ways - such as physical removal, using organic mulches, pruning, crop rotation or simply turning a blind eye to minor damage rather than reaching instinctively for the spray gun in every case. The systemic pesticides of the olden days killed all creatures that came in contact with the sprayed plant - the good and the bad.

The author does acknowledge where sprays may be necessary to control difficult problems and provides a summary at the end of the book indicating what chemicals are appropriate to different issues (which I personally would not use) - but this is not a major focus of the book. The use of less toxic options, such as horticultural oils and soaps, and biological pesticides, is encouraged. The author includes (and explains) some biological 'horticultural problems' that are sometimes thought by gardeners to be due to pests or diseases, but which are in fact due to other causes, and illustrations of various deficiencies or toxicities of elements such as iron and phosphorous in plants are also useful.

Bees are essential in our gardens, and can be killed by some pesticides. Photograph: garden of Sandra Wilson in Sydney

I did feel that perhaps that the way the book was structured was a little unwieldy, with many cross-references between sections being needed because the creatures weren't all grouped together by type in the illustrated part of the book, and because the main explanatory information about each type was in the first five chapters. I also felt that the 'free-ranging small animal' section at the end of the book seemed a bit of an after-thought and thus incomplete - and it made no mention of the chief free-ranging foe in my garden at present: the brush turkey!

Overall, I enjoyed reading this book and found the author's enthusiasm for his subject to be contagious: I want to become far more aware of all the creatures in my garden, and encourage the beneficial ones as much as I can, and subdue the more destructive pests without unduly disturbing the intricate web of nature that exists in all of our gardens.

This paperback book is available in bookshops or through the CSIRO website, and retails for $39.95. The CSIRO sells a number of gardening books, and they can be viewed on their website. They have donated to iGarden three copies of Mary Horsfall's book Gardens for all Seasons (2012), which gives a practical month-by-month guide to gardening for all parts of Australia, with lots of great photos. Send an email using our feedback form if you'd like to go in the draw to win a copy, with 'book giveaway' mentioned in the email, and include your postal address.

Reader Comments

  • By Anne 2518 Monday, 24 March 2014

    sounds like an interesting book, Deirdre even with the drawbacks you mention. It is quite horrible when you think of what we used in the garden in our younger years. Luckily we didn"t suffer although you do wonder about the soil- I often think this is why we don"t see so many Christmas beetles. Anne Thanks, Anne. I used to think that a lot of gardening simply meant spraying. Definitely I think bees have been affected by nasty sprays - we do not seem to have as many around these days. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 Monday, 24 March 2014

    It sounds a useful book, with lots to think about re "pests" in the garden. Anything we can do to keep a good balance is desirable. I do try encourage the beneficial creatures, and seem to have a variety of bees, stick insects, spiders, dragon flies, etc. in my garden, but sometimes the use of a low-toxic material is used, e.g. Eco Oil. Perhaps reading this book will help us re-think our actions. Thanks for the excellent review. Thanks, Margaret. It is marvellous to think there are so many beneficial creatures around. I do use Eco-oil on some plants and find it useful. Deirdre

  • By Sue 2074 Monday, 24 March 2014

    Thanks for the review, I think it sounds a worthwhile book and it"s good to see we are turning around the idea of toxic sprays in favour of better solutions for the health of plants,soil,creatures and us. Besides the beneficial insects the creatures that help in my garden are the water dragon, skinks, birds and I"m telling myself that the darn turkeys (4)which wander thru and hang about may be keeping the ticks down being scratchers and pickers (perhaps wishful thinking:-) Great to think there could be good things that the BTs do! I just find they dig up so much of my garden and scatter mulch everywhere! The babies are quite cute when just hatched. Deirdre

  • By Anne 2605 Monday, 24 March 2014

    To my great joy I have native blue bees in my garden. They are the same size as ordinary bees but instead of yellow stripes have glorious iridescent blue ones They fly in a rapid erratic way between plants. Biodiversity is beautiful! They sound fab, Anne. Deirdre

  • By Jan 2582 Monday, 24 March 2014

    Thanks Deidre you"ve inspired a purchase. We have waves of different insects come through our place over spring and summer. It would be wonderful to know what they are and what they do. Some are really remarkable to look at. Yes the book has made me want to be more observant of creatures rather than only of plants in the garden. Deirdre

  • By Chris 4034 Monday, 24 March 2014

    We grow with our gardens, and I notice the new insects visiting my garden, and I try to choose certain plants that attract different insects and wildlife. We have plenty of water skinks, butterflies and solitary bees and lizards and birds and the odd bush turkey which tries my patience. We learn to live with them. Thanks for sharing. Thanks, Chris. I do think that close observation pays off, and choosing certain plants to encourage beneficials is so helpful. Deirdre

  • By Caroline 4105 Monday, 24 March 2014

    What an interesting book. I have begun to take more of an interest in insect identification to see if they are friend or foe - before arming myself with the usual chemical potions. Would definitely help to understand if there is indeed insect damage or just a plant issue. We have skinks, blue banded bees and golden orb spiders in the garden at present. Butterflies and moths are abundant in summer and concentrating on attracting more of the smaller birds to dine on the caterpillars. I have just spent a weekend in the country surrounded by an abundance of bird life. The small birds, including blue wrens, were an utter delight. Deirdre

  • By brian 4552 Monday, 24 March 2014

    Good Morning, It is a wonderful reference book----and even more so when you know that David Hockings is a renewed plant breeder with Plant Breeders Rights to many flowers and plants----and he is 80+ years old and still gets around looking out for endangered plants, we should all be able to live a life as full as his. Thank you, Brian. A very inspiring man. Deirdre

  • By Lynne 2479 Monday, 24 March 2014

    Now that is something I could well do with. Thank you for sharing Deidre. Thanks, Lyn. Deirdre

  • By Elyson 4069 Monday, 24 March 2014

    Thanks for the review Deirdre. I have often looked at various insects (or whatever they are!) in my garden and wondered if they are doing damage or doing good. It will be very interesting and helpful to have this book in my gardening library. Hope you find it useful. I enjoyed just browsing through it and looking at all the photos. Deirdre

  • By john 2066 Monday, 24 March 2014

    D, For a couple of years I had a problem with some sort of borer beetle on my staghorn ferns which were suffering. Luckily I never got around to finding a "suitable" spray to deal with it. Guess what? The problem went away by itself and now the staghorns are better than ever! I belive now that often the best approach is to do nothing but observe. Thankyou so much for reviewing this book. I look forward to reading a copy sometime...john... Thanks, John. I agree observation is very important. Deirdre

  • By Lynsey 2100 Monday, 24 March 2014

    Just back from Tasmania, where they have the most enormous beautiful bees busily pollinating everything in bloom. I love those big bees - saw lots in New Zealand gardens. Deirdre

  • By Peta 2758 Tuesday, 25 March 2014

    Hi Deirdre, I refuse to use ANY sprays in my garden, full stop. Cheers, Peta That"s great, Peta. I"ve tried to minimise them as much as possible. Deirdre

  • By Marilyn 2250 Wednesday, 26 March 2014

    We haven"t yet read the book, but as entomologists with a keen professional and personal interest in good and bad bugs, we thoroughly endorse getting to know which is which and avoiding toxicants. Did you know that Confidor, one of the most commonly used home garden and agricultural pesticides, is systemic and highly toxic to not just bees but a wide range of beneficial insects and other wildlife, plus the effects can last for months. Marilyn and Stephen Thanks, Marilyn and Stephen - these are important issues for gardeners to be aware of. Deirdre

  • By Lynsey 2100 Thursday, 27 March 2014

    Marilyn and Stephen - So do you know why Confidor is permitted? I only use the occasional soap spray in my garden. Are they safe? Anything that needs more isn"t suited to it"s environment, I feel.

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