Looking for some help in the garden? Many of nature's most useful critters lie literally at our feet, underappreciated and ignored despite their ability to eliminate insects, condition soils and pollinate plants.
Turtles, moths, moles, dragonflies, snakes, toads and spiders are among the many wild things that can help maintain a landscape. The payback is minimal - food, water, shelter and easing off on harsh lawn and garden chemicals.
"I believe in teamwork, using all the creatures that live in your garden," said Sharon Lovejoy, author of "Trowel and Error" (Workman Publishing, 2003). "Start from the ground up with night crawlers as part of your workforce."
Add to the earthworms already in your plant beds with commercially available red worms.
"Build a worm bin or a place where they can't get out," Lovejoy said. "Use all of your leftovers - your kitchen compost. Worms can process up to 6 pounds of garbage in a week."
"Grow an assortment of native plants, which will draw a great many bird species," Lovejoy said. "Add plant hosts as food for butterfly and moth larvae."
That list would include milkweed (monarch butterflies), borage (green lacewings), sunflowers (ladybugs) and yarrow (hoverflies). Many insects in the larval stage are voracious predators. Green lacewings as juveniles are aptly named "aphid lions" because of their appetite for the sap-sucking pests.
"I would certainly place spiders near the top of underappreciated life in the garden," said Whitney Cranshaw, an extension entomologist with Colorado State University.
Spiders are credited for as much as 80 percent of all predator control in the garden. Jumping spiders, wolf spiders, lynx spiders and crab spiders are the standouts, Cranshaw said.
Among other great garden helpers:
- Toads. "Harmful insects make up 62 percent of a toad's daily food supply," said Lovejoy, who stacks rocks and wood in secluded spots to shelter toads, frogs, turtles, salamanders and lizards.
- Dragonflies can capture over 400 mosquitoes a day.
- Moles. "They eat their body weight in insects, slugs and grubs while aerating the soil," Lovejoy said.
- Snakes. "Most snakes - about 99 percent of those found in gardens - are harmless helpers, and eat rodents and insect pests," Lovejoy said. Garter and gopher snakes top her "beneficial" list.