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I’m going to bet that everyone would love to receive a little free insect pest control in their yard. One way to achieve this is to grow plants that provide food for beneficial insects.
Beneficial insects can be divided into two groups: predatory insects that eat the pest and parasitic insects that lay their eggs in or on the pest. When the eggs hatch, the larvae consume the host. Generally, it is the larval stages that beneficial insects eat the most insect pests.
It is very easy to cash in on this free pest control by adding the right plants throughout your landscape to support beneficial insects. Planting flowers that provide pollen and nectar for the adult beneficial insects will keep them nearby, so if a pest outbreak does occur, they will be there to get things under control.
Here is a list of some annual plants that have flowers known to attract beneficial insects. Annuals will live for a year, or less, and after flowering and producing seeds, the plant dies. They are also easy to grow from seed, because they grow fast. Biennial plants produce foliage the first year and through most of the second year, until it flowers, sets seeds, and then dies.
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Dill (Anethum graveolens) won’t just feed beneficial insects in your yard; it will also feed you. Choose an heirloom dill so you can save seeds for next year also. Bouquet dill is a dwarf heirloom if you want to grow it in a container. There are many heirloom dills from which to choose, including the large-growing Elephant dill, which can grow 3 to 4 feet tall. Another great reason to grow dill is to attract black swallowtail butterflies.
Basil (Ocimum basilicum) seeds are also super easy to germinate, and the selection of culinary heirloom seeds is huge. Choose a rainy day so you will have plenty of time to decide which basil, or two or three, you would like to grow for yourself and the beneficial insects.
Cilantro (Coriandrum sativum) is a dual-purpose plant because after you have enjoyed the leaves in your meals, you can let the beneficial insects pollinate the flowers and then harvest coriander seeds.
Queen Ann’s lace (Daucus carota var. carota) is a popular, tall-growing plant (up to four feet) that produces gorgeous umbels of white flowers. There is also Dara flowering carrot that produces flowers that start out white, then change to a soft pink and end up a deep, rose-purple.
Alyssum (Lobularia maritime) is a winter annual that needs to be grown when our temperatures are cooler. This can be started from seed or purchased at the garden center and planted in the yard. This low-growing plant also produces a wonderful fragrance.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) grows 2 to 4 feet tall and produces beautiful, fragrant purple flower spikes.The plants can be started from seed in the spring and grown through the summer.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) flowers come in bright colors such as pink, purple, red, yellow, orange and bicolor. It is also easy to find seed mixes of cosmos to create an easy, colorful wildflower bed that will continue to reseed. Plant cosmos next spring to self-seed through the summer.
Parsley (Petroselinum crispum), which is actually a biennial, comes in a variety of types that either produce flat or curly leaves. This herb can be grown in partially sunny locations. Once flowering begins at the end of the second year, the foliage will become bitter, but you will be able to eat a lot of parsley before that happens.
Here are some perennial plants that do a great job of providing food for beneficial insects.
Lovage (Levisticum officinale) is another member of the carrot family, like Queen Ann’s lace, but this plant can also be consumed as a vegetable. It produces yellow flowers, and the seeds can be started in the fall through the spring. The thick roots can be washed, sliced ½ inch thick, and dehydrated at 125 degrees. To learn more about Lovage, check out our bulletin at edis.ifas.ufl.edu.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) can be grown as the bulb-forming type (Florence fennel), which is eaten as a vegetable, or the more common foliage-producing fennel plants. Both plants produce delicious foliage and will attract butterflies and beneficial insects.
Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a Florida native that produces bright green, feathery foliage that grows low to the ground, creating a beautiful ground cover. The large umbels of small white flowers are produced on long stems that are held above the soft foliage.
Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) are wonderful for attracting parasitic wasps to your yard. The small white flowers will produce seeds, so you can start out with one plant and watch as new plants begin to grow around it.
Mints (Mentha spp.) come in a huge variety of flavors, so this could be another rainy-day internet search. Grow them in a hanging basket or a container for easy harvesting.
There are a few different ways that you can use these flowers, such as planting them in rows among your vegetables, creating wide borders around the outside of your vegetable garden or shrubs, or placing “island” plantings in the middle of a vegetable garden or landscape.
Some vegetable plants, when allowed to flower, will also attract beneficial insects. These include broccoli, greens and bok choy.
If you grow heirloom broccoli this winter, be sure to harvest some seeds for next year. After harvesting the main head, the plant will continue to produce side shoots, which are also very tasty. Allow a side shoot, or two, to continue growing so it will flower and set seed, while you harvest all the others and enjoy them.
The beneficial insects will pollinate the flowers and produce the seeds you can use next year. One side shoot will produce plenty of seeds for you, your family and your friends.
This weekend, walk around the yard to see where you can add flowers that will provide food for the beneficial insects and maybe for you also. When beneficial insects find food, they stick around.
What a beautiful and delicious way to get some free pest control.
Sally Scalera is an urban horticulture agent and master gardener coordinator for the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences.
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