Gardening with Bugs

I grew up in a family of keen gardeners. My father was in the RAF so that meant that every three years he got posted somewhere else so they started making a new garden. For the first fifteen years of my life that was mostly North Yorkshire. I remember aged 7 being awarded a penny for every dandelion I dug from the garden lawn. I was never charged for the cutlery fork I ruined doing this.

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In 1963 we moved to Malta and I became a Boy Scout. I remember going on a route march one hot summer’s afternoon and two local farmers hoeing in the fields who didn’t speak English noticing our plight, directed us to the hedgerows for refreshment. Wild prickly pears and apricots. Juicy and luscious. Unmanaged and productive.

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But ye cannae grow apricots in Scotland. Or can you?

In 1972 he retired from the RAF and they bought a smallholding in Cornwall. It was the year I went to University, but in my holidays I worked on the ten acre plot, fencing, weeding, planting (fairly poorly and ignorantly). But I did notice how hard the work was.

Well in 1979 I and my then wife succeeded (with great difficulty) in buying our first house in Lewisham in South London. 1 Abernethy Road SE13 (take note there’ll be a blue plaque there one day). And joy of joys a small garden. I still have the original deeds on my hall wall, hand written on vellum, so I’ve checked the plan. I’m able tell you from that that the garden was 16’ 4” wide by 60’ wide minus the dunny off the corner with a 30’ strip down by the offshot, in other words a hard standing outside the kitchen.

Heaven. My first garden. The bottom bit was concreted. I expect it had been a greenhouse once. And there I built my first compost heap. I planted a Japanese flowering cherry and a crab apple (because I didn’t know any better) and a climbing rose by the larch lap fence adjoining the alley way alongside. First neighbour was Irish Bob, and second was Mad Bob. We had a small lawn to sit on in the summer and beds for plants.

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In 1982 I did the three peaks yacht race. I was coming down off Ben Nevis when I had a phone call from my wife. We’d been burgled. When she was alone in the house. They broke in through the kitchen window and had gotten away.

I consulted the local beat bobby and he confirmed, you can’t beat a climbing rose. So it became a trained adornment to keep the next lot of buggers from crossing the boundary fence. And then the aphids arrived. So I sprayed them.

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About this time the marriage broke up. I spent a weekend with a Green Party friend in Lincolnshire. She went out shortly after I arrived and left me with a demijohn of peapod wine and her bookshelf. And I found two books: The Findhorn Garden (the original stunning black and white version not the new coloured one) and Permaculture One by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren.

And I flit from one to the other for an eye opening couple of hours. The Findhorn Garden- this mind-blowing sequence of beautiful images, Eileen Caddy talking to the plant spirits, amazing cabbages. And Permaculture One- lollipop drawing of trees. Speculative ideas. But everything I’d ever dreamed of and cared about in one place. Low energy inputs, high energy outputs. Cycles of renewal and waste connected. People care, earth care, nature care. And I thought: this is achievable. I’m not Eileen Caddy. Beautiful as her vision is I needed an achievable route. But either way this is what I wanted.

I met Nancy. Political activism (a joint interest) turned to practical activism. We were fed up of talking about a better future. We wanted to do it.

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And here she is eating the apricot…

We went on a weekend course on Permaculture at a large House in West Wales- Glaneirw, an intentional community which specialised in free range cows and Aga’s. Yup there were dozens of them scattered round the place from collection awaiting refit. Well I’ve always appreciated multi-functional stoves. The kitchen was full of jars of crushed eggshells on high shells (well they had plenty of chickens). We had a fine panelled bedroom with a huge range of grilled cupboards. The significance of the cows didn’t strike us till we were driven from bed at two in the morning by the overwhelming smell of cheese. The cupboards were full of ripening Cheddar Cheeses!

But what we learnt was fire to the belly and stays with me to this day. Work with nature. Abundance is natural. Thanks to Andy Langford and Jolyon Fillingham. We’ve taught many people since.

So we came back to London and I stopped spraying the aphids. What happened? Lacewings arrived and ladybirds and we didn’t have an aphid problem anymore. We stopped killing snails and put them on the compost heap and built a moat round it, so they could do their job of breaking down detritus. We could have produced a lot more from the garden than we did, but hey we were learning. We’re still learning today.

OK just first steps. In 1988 we picked up our daughter Ruby (aged three months) our battered Marina Van and headed for the Scottish Borders, and we’ve been there ever since.

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Ruby had our first grandchild this month- which is relevant because it gives you a timescale on establishing low management systems which are highly productive. But you might also like to say hello to Nico.

We bought a large steading with another family and set about creating an intentional community.

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I was doing up buildings and planting our garden. Our main business activity was cycling. We had the best bicycle business in the world and we were dead keen to grow our own food. Eventually it turned into an unintentional non-community and our ex-friends went away. We stayed on at Garden Cottage.

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Now you may have heard of Permaculture. But do you know what it is? Most people think it’s some sort of organic gardening. Well no, it’s a design discipline, which has some very basic principles:

• Take responsibility for your own life
• Maximise output
• Minimise waste
• Reconnect energy flows…

So you:

• Reduce work
• Care for people
• Care for all living things

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The garden connection comes because the first thing we try to do is grow food… (This is Ruby aged seven)

And produce our own fuel

And reduce the demands we make on the planet

The best way to do this is to observe natural systems which don’t waste anything are completely self-sufficient and naturally adundant. And emulate them.

We’re talking here today about gardens.

I am passionate about gardens and after writing the Permaculture Way I saw the light and wrote the Permaculture Garden. Stop fighting folk and join them. OK if you think Permaculture is about gardening, then let’s make that the easy way in to a much greater insight into how we can manage all of our lives in ways that are sustainable. Environmentally, socially and economically.

“It is an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.” The source? Thank you. Who agrees?

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Well OK. But remember all our crops were weeds once. And try to understand the function of weeds in natural systems.

No nettles no what?

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Five star burnet moth eats what exactly?

If there are no pollinators there are no apples? So is the apple tree a plant or a system? Where does the tree end and the system begin? Is the bee therefore part of the apple tree?

These are apples grown in our garden and preserved by putting them in an apple store. No chemicals. No carbon dioxide. And are they edible? In Scotland in March?

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This is a pumpkin. A 96lb pumpkin. As our ex-councillor Jock Law said to me in 1990 “Ah ye cannae grow pumpkins in Scotland”. There are now sixty people in Coldstream who grow pumpkins every year and compete to see who can grow the biggest.

And we couldn’t do that without insects.

If we stop trying to control nature and learn to work with it we will discover that there is a natural abundance on the planet earth which we are privileged to treasure and share with our neighbours. However many legs they have.

I haven’t sprayed aphids in twenty five years- and that’s how long they haven’t been a problem. No aphids then no food for ladybirds, lacewings, bluetits.

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It’s all about creating habitat. Ina balanced habitat we have balanced populations of all god’s creatures. Slaters and Slugs and other Slitherers all eat the detritus. Cabbage white butterflies can have a bit of brassica and then someone else can have a bit of cabbage white.

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At the end of the day the garden is a predatory habitat. Who is the worst predator in the garden? Yes my friends- You and me. That’s what we made it for. We can tolerate a few other people to harvest it too.

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You don’t have a slug problem you have a duck shortage. These guys (call ducks) are the answer, bonny and noisy and they don’t eat anything except grass a bit of grain and the wee beasties.

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Last week we had some young eager visitors from Edinburgh. Where’s your wormery? Well you’re standing in it. How? The whole garden is a wormery. You don’t keep bees. No they’re free agents and we have masses of them. What we maintain is a habitat.

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I can’t tell you how many species of insect there are in our garden, but I can tell you there are thirty six species of birds nesting here, piles of food, hours of peaceful reflective moments, and atmosphere to still the savage soul, a solace amongst the over managed manicured gardens of our neighbours and a haven for many different people, a lot of whom are bugs.

At the end of the day if we took away all the people and all the sheep what would Scotland become- and how long would it take to do it?

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Graham Bell lives and works in the Scottish Borders. He and his family have created a forest garden, now approaching its 25th anniversary, which provides a great deal of food, fuel, and company (wildlife). He has written two books on permaculture: The Permaculture Way and The Permaculture Garden, which thousands of people have enjoyed as easy introductions to what permaculture means in a Northern temperate climate and the society that goes with it. He has taught permaculture on four continents. For more information, visit his website (

Graham Bell will be teaching a Permaculture Design Course at Zaytuna Fram, home of the Permaculture Research Institute Australia from October 17 – 28 2016. Visit the course listing page here for more details and to book into this dynamic course.


Graham Bell

I live and work in the Scottish Borders. My wife Nancy and I have created a Forest Garden which is approaching its twenty-fifth anniversary and provides a great deal of food, fuel and company (wildlife). Our children Ruby and Sandy (now in their twenties) have also been great contributors to developing our house and garden as an energy efficient home place. I have written two books on Permaculture, the Permaculture Way and the Permaculture Garden which thousands of people have enjoyed as easy introductions to what Permaculture means in a Northern temperate climate and the society that goes with it. I have taught Permaculture on four continents. After many years engaging with business and politicians in my work to get these essential principles understood and used by people who govern and direct the world's economies I have returned (2012)to teaching courses and restarted a North Hardy Plant Nursery specifically designed to support Forest Gardeners. We welcome invitations to teach elsewhere, and visitors here by arrangement. Full details can be found on my website.


  1. how true! bugs are as much a part of the ecosystem as everything else :) I’ll remember that next time I get out my neem bug spray on the aphids! of course, living in the city things are a bit different…

    1. Hi graham. I was wondering if you could provide some advice on invasive ants that tend to aphids and other scale insects. I have recently released a lot of braconids but they only control the lepidopteran pests. I have no sandy areas for antlions and the ants are nesting in and under pot plants. I have released native ladybugs in my garden too, their population has exploded. The main problem is the sheer number of mealybugs and scale mainly. The ants build protective dirt tunnels so the predators cant get to them or they build tunnels around the root system. I have a small courtyard garden with 2 large garden beds. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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