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A Permaculture Perspective on Pests

Oct 31, 2022

At Shades of Green Permaculture, our philosophy towards pests is rooted in the principles of permaculture, which invite us to think about pests differently and uncover ways to find balance in our outdoor spaces.

So what makes a pest, a pest? 

The conventional understanding of a pest is a destructive, invasive, or harmful insect or plant that works to destroy a garden. Mites, beetles, flies, slugs, even certain moths and caterpillars – the list goes on. However, if permaculture and regeneration starts with the foundational belief that “it’s all alive; it’s all intelligent; it’s all connected,” where does that leave us when it comes to pests? It points to intrinsic value and purpose within the ecosystem.

All life forms have intrinsic value

Permaculture asks us to consider the intrinsic value of every living form within an ecosystem. In order to address a pest in a garden, start from a place of curiosity about its intrinsic value, which can lead to a more connected understanding of its role in our landscape. Here are a few examples:

  • Poison Ivy – We had a client recently concerned about their poison ivy growth. Most people are allergic to poison ivy and it can sneak up and grow in a variety of places and conditions. However, let’s look at the value of poison ivy and its purpose within the ecosystem. Poison ivy grows best as a wood’s edge plant, and it protects the wild forest. It thrives along the perimeter of new developments that encroach upon wild forests. It also thrives in suburban contexts where a manicured lawn meets the edge of a wooded area. Understanding the intrinsic value of this protector plant helps reframe how we think about its place in a garden. Beyond where it grows, the seeds and berries of poison ivy are important winter food sources for threatened woodland songbirds, such as Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers, and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers. 
  • Fire Ants – Fire ants build ant hills in inconvenient spots and sting if their nests are disturbed. Yet, it’s the ant hill that points to the intrinsic value of a fire ant within our ecosystem. As they build the ant hill, they tunnel in the Earth and push soil up. They breakup compacted soil, and even Georgia red clay, making it porous and available for more water to infiltrate into the ground. As a result, plants can draw water from the soil during periods of drought and the soil becomes more nutrient rich. 


Striking a balanced food web

What is a pests’ place within the food web? This is an important question because the reality is, by the time conventional solutions address a pest problem, it’s looking downstream and treating a symptom instead of looking at the activity holistically. Instead, let’s consider the food web – what eats certain pests and what do certain pests eat? Here are some examples: 

  • Aphids – Aphids are tiny insects common in yards and gardens that feed off of nutrient-rich plants and can cause damage in large numbers. However, Hoverflies, which are crucial pollinators that hover over flowers to drink nectar, lay their eggs close to aphids because once they hatch, the larvae feed on aphids. Aphids supply food to larvae and help keep balance within the food web.
  • Black Widows – We recently had a client with a growing black widow population in her backyard. After some quick research, we learned that a wasp called the iridescent blue mud dauber is the primary predator of the black widow. By introducing this beautiful species, the client could address the over population of black widows to become more balanced within the food web. How do you introduce a species like the iridescent blue mud dauber?
  • Caterpillars – Notoriously very hungry, caterpillars eat plants and flowers leaving them perforated with holes or even depleted of nutrients. But not only do caterpillars become butterflies, which are critical pollinators, they also cycle nutrients and energy through the ecosystem for other plants and living things. Plus, butterflies strategically lay their eggs where sustenance is available for larvae once hatched. For example, the Gulf Fritillary Butterfly lays her eggs along the passion flower’s stem or underneath its leaf because the passion flower becomes a food source for the caterpillar. A Monarch butterfly will only lay her eggs on the milkweed plant, eventually becoming food for the monarch caterpillar.

Ultimately, remember that a regenerative landscape relies on diversity and it thrives if all living things are interdependent and connected.

An ecosystem cannot thrive if it serves just one purpose or if it prioritizes certain plants and living organisms over another. When thinking about pests, you can ask a few questions first:

  • What is the intrinsic value of this life form in my garden? Is it performing a function from which something else benefits?
  • Is it a food source for another creature? 
  • What can I introduce that eats this pest? 
  • What can I plant to feed its predators, in order to bring more balance?

Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions and don’t hesitate to reach out if you need help with regenerative landscaping. Fill out this short questionnaire so we can connect with you further! 

For more on permaculture, check out this “Permaculture for Beginners” blog post. 

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Gardening Tips, Permaculture 101