Volume 13, Issue 30 ~ July 28- August 3, 2005

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by by Gary Pendleton

Meet Man’s Best Friend

Preparing for this story, I dug out a 10-year-old issue of Organic Gardening magazine I had saved for an article about fall vegetable gardens. The cover has a picture of a big ol’ spider; inside there is a story about how spiders control pests in the garden.

Reading it again, I was reminded how valuable spiders are. Not only do they help keep our gardens growing, they are helping farmers feed people all over the world. They even protect my house from being destroyed by termites. Way to go, spiders! Without you, I would probably be hungry and living out of my car.

I can’t look anywhere in my house or yard without seeing evidence of spiders’ presence. Sitting at the dinner table, I was explaining all this to my wife Karyn, my point illustrated there on the window sill by a new spider web. In the bathroom, the kitchen, the front porch, all around the house: spider webs. Some of them have bits and pieces of insect body parts lying below, proof that the spiders are keeping the ants, gnats and mosquitoes down.

The garden is where spiders do really important work, eating insects that spread plant diseases or damage plants by eating them. According to the Organic Gardening article by Jill Jesiolowski, spiders eat twice their weight daily, plus scaring away many more insects than they can eat. Lest you think that spiders eat too many beneficial insects, she quotes a study in a scientific journal to show that they eat many more bad bugs than good ones.

The best way to attract spiders into the garden is to put down lots of mulch but no insecticides. Mulch provides habitat. This year I did a good job mulching my tomato plants with about six inches of straw. When watering, I see the spiders scurry in the straw.

Wild, untended areas in and around the garden also provide haven. So does a compost pile, which provides lots of food. If the compost is near the garden, spiders will readily come and go. Traditionally, Chinese gardeners placed small bundles of bamboo in the garden to give the spiders a place to hang out. The bundles are easily moved to areas that need spider help.
There are many spider species working in the garden: crab, mesh-web weavers, funnel weavers, lynx and others. Wolf spiders, pictured, live on the ground. Wearing earthy colors, these large, non-web weavers are well camouflaged. They hunt for aphids, spring-tails and other garden pests at night. Their length ranges up to one and a half inches.

Two spider species are dangerous to humans, the brown recluse and the black widow. It is smart to learn to recognize them and know their habits. Other than those two, I give my spiders room to operate inside and out.

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