When pests invade and destroy the garden, it is enough to make any home gardener lose their mind. Instead of reaching for the toxic chemicals to rid our gardens of these pests, though, we need to use more natural, environmentally responsible options. It makes a difference which we choose! Dealing with pests is so aggravating that we often grab the quickest solution without thinking it through. Insecticides, fungicides, and herbicides are all included in the umbrella of pesticide chemicals. We use pesticides because they work; however, the cost that comes with the reliance on these chemicals is dramatic and drastic.
Thankfully, there are dozens of tried and true remedies for safe-keeping our hard work. If you’re unsure whether what you use is toxic or not, consult this informative chart from Audubon.
The Problem With Using Toxic Pest Repellents
The Cycle of Unsustainable Poisoning
Pesticides Affect Insects
Animals and insects are adaptable. Their generally short life-cycles allow them to adapt and morph much quicker than humans can keep pace with. Insects, in particular, are becoming immune to low pesticide applications. In order to keep them away from our precious crops, more pesticides are needed. This cycle is only going to get worse. We use more chemicals, the insects adapt and gain immunity, so we up the chemical levels, and they adapt again. This is not sustainable.
Pesticides Affect The Bees, Birds, and Mammals
Pesticides harm wildlife, birds, and beneficial insects. The majority of pesticides don’t differentiate between species. If a spray kills the insidious squash beetle, it will also kill bees, ladybugs, and monarch butterfly eggs. Pollinator species are suffering exponentially from the overuse of chemicals. Most pesticides remain viable for days, weeks, or months. If a bird eats a dead ladybug, it will also ingest the poison and potentially die. Hawks, eagles, and other raptors that eat poisoned mice, voles, and rats will die from the toxin, as well. The impact of using chemicals to fight pests amplifies and escalates over time.
Pesticides Ultimately Effect Humans
Residual chemicals are often found on fruits and vegetables. This is why everyone tells you to wash your vegetables before eating, so you don’t intake any of the chemicals. It shouldn’t be that way, though, especially in your own garden. Snacking on vegetables while weeding is one of the joys of gardening!
*For more info on chemical and pesticide free gardening read our full ultimate guide to gardening without pesticides.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Healthy gardens aren’t appealing to pesky bugs. The best and easiest way to keep pests out of the garden is to prevent them from showing up in the first place.
- Rotate Crops – Most bugs are plant-specific opportunists. If you plant your tomatoes in the same place every year, the hornworms, mealy bugs, whiteflies, potato beetle, and spider mites will know precisely where they are and eagerly look forward to snacking on them. Rotate vegetable locations every year, paying attention to those that are in the same family. For example, tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are in the same family and share many problem insects. Be careful not to plant these close together either, since that makes it easier for the pests to hop from one to the other and increase their infestation range. Many pests overwinter in the soil, and if you plant the tomatoes in the same place, all they have to do is wake up and start eating. Great for the bugs, not so much for you!
- Remove Old & Dead Plants – Weak plants are susceptible to bug infestations because they don’t have the resources to fight back. Pesky insects love easy targets. Remove any old or weak plants immediately. Also, if any plants died because of a pest, remove them and dispose of them far away from the garden. They may still be infected.
- Clean Your Tools – This is especially important if you’ve been working with infected plants. Pesty bugs will happily move from one area of the garden to another, and tools are the best transportation. Disinfect tools before using them in other parts of the garden.
- Build Healthy Soil – Healthy soil produces healthy plants. And, healthy plants fight garden pests and infestations more successfully. Strong specimens are more likely to survive any attacks and reduce the possibility of devastation to the vegetable garden.
- Water In the Morning – Wet foliage encourages insect pests and diseases to visit and take hold. By watering in the morning, the vegetation has the chance to dry and remain dry for most of the day. Drip irrigation is the best watering method since water only goes to the soil, and you don’t have to even worry about foliage getting wet.
Increase Beneficial Insect Populations to Combat Pests
The 5 Most Beneficial Insects for Pest Control
Ladybugs- We all love ladybugs because they bring good luck. However, ladybugs also eat mites, whiteflies, and aphids, making them an incredibly important guest in the garden. Ladybugs are lucky for the garden, too! Yarrow, tansy, and other plants in the daisy family are a favorite of ladybugs. Plant a few of these to encourage their residence.
Praying Mantis- A praying mantis isn’t too picky about its meal, as long as there is plenty to satiate its big appetite. A true carnivore who will never bother your vegetables, the praying mantis eats larger beetles and insects that other beneficial species don’t.
Nematodes- These teensy tiny worms aren’t easily seen, but their work is widely noticeable. Nematodes love eating cutworms. If you’ve had cutworms in your garden, you know how destructive and unrelenting they are to little seedlings and young plants. Nematodes are available commercially and should be applied every spring.
Lacewings- Another beneficial insect that loves eating aphids, lacewings have a voracious appetite for these pests. Like hover-flies, lacewings are attracted to black-eyed Susan’s, asters, goldenrod, and yarrow.
Hover-Flies-If you dislike aphids, you need a population of hover-flies in your garden. Hover-flies are devoted eaters of aphids; even their larvae eat aphids. To attract more hover-flies, plant black-eyed Susan’s, goldenrod, asters, and yarrow.
How to Naturally Deter Insect Pests
There is no all-encompassing formula that kills every pest. Some formulas, though, do deter or kill several types. If you are struggling with a particular pest infestation, try some of these ways to get rid of them before using chemicals.
Aphids – A mixture of 1-2 tablespoons of vegetable oil with a few drops of dish soap makes an excellent natural pest repellent. Spray the formula on the tops of foliage and also underneath, since these pests are often hanging out on the undersides of leaves. Increasing populations of beneficial insects also works wonders in getting rid of aphids.
Cabbage Loopers – The light-green larvae of the cabbage moth prefers green vegetables since they blend in better. Plant red or purple varieties, instead, and see the difference. Literally! Plant a few sacrificial green ones nearby, and you can watch the damage done to one and not the other in real-time. Cabbage loopers also enjoy nasturtiums. Plant a bunch of these flowers as a trap to attract the worms and keep them away from your treasured cabbage plants.
Cabbage Maggots – To keep pests like this away from crucifer and root crops, the most effective method is to identify the adult flies before they lay eggs. The adults are dark-gray with gray wings, black legs, and three black stripes down their back. They look like the common house fly, except smaller. Adult flies lay their eggs in the stem of vegetable plants, so when the maggots emerge, they have plenty to eat. Their damage is intensely destructive. Remove any damaged specimens immediately to prevent the maggots from spreading. Beneficial predator insects like the rove beetle are incredibly effective at combating cabbage maggots.
Cutworms – Beneficial nematodes are the most effective method to keep cutworms in check. Using plant collars also works by preventing them from access to the individual garden plants. Save those old toilet paper and paper towel cardboard tubes; they make perfect plant collars!
Grubs – The most effective way to get rid of these pests is by using a milky spore powder. This natural remedy spreads to the soil, causing a disease that kills the grubs without causing any other damage. Grubs are actually often the larvae of Japanese Beetles, another horrible vegetable garden pest. So, when you kill the grubs, you also reduce the population of Japanese Beetles. That’s a definite win for any gardener. Milky spore is effective for up to 10 years.
Japanese Beetles – One of the best natural ways to control these terrible garden guests is to eliminate them when they are young. See the section above about grubs, which are usually Japanese beetle babies.
Mealybugs – Keep bugs from sucking the sap out of your vegetable plants by encouraging beneficial predators like lacewings, ladybugs, and the Mealybug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri). An application of neem oil also deters mealybugs from taking up residence.
Mexican Bean Beetles – The adults look like ladybugs, but yellow-orange instead of red. Don’t let their appearance fool you! They will destroy all your bean plants without a hint of compassion. The eggs are bright yellow and found on the underside of leaves in mass quantities. Young larvae are also bright yellow and easy to see as they eat all the foliage from your plants. The adult beetles overwinter in the garden soil, so they are right there, ready in spring to gorge on your vegetables. Crop rotation is especially important to keep them in check. Never plant beans in the same place each year. Keep an eye out for these garden pests by regularly checking the undersides of leaves. If you see any signs of them, dust diatomaceous earth, a non-toxic natural deterrent liberally over the plant leaves. Remember to reapply after any rainfall.
Mites – These teeny pests suck the sap out of the foliage, leaving yellow, spotted leaves. If left unchecked, they will kill a plant in no time. The beneficial predator gall-midge (Feltiella acarisuga) has a voracious appetite for mites and is by far the best remedy for an infestation.
Tomato Hornworm – Few gardeners know these bright green hungry caterpillars turn into the stunning Magnificent Sphinx Moth. If you see hornworms, try relocating them first instead of killing them. If tomato hornworms are a consistent problem in your garden, plant some tomatoes in a location significantly distanced from your garden beds. When you find hornworms, move them there so they can eat in peace and safety. Tomato hornworms are a favorite victim of braconid wasps, which parasitize the caterpillars and lay their eggs inside of them. It may be that there is already a type of natural pest control happening in your garden if you have these wasps.
How to Naturally Deter Rodents
Rats, Mice, and Voles – These rodents adore easy finds and are especially attracted to trash and compost bins. Make sure all bins are secured and sealed if there is a rodent issue in your garden. They also love it when you leave pet food dishes outside and scatter birdseed on the ground. Ensuring attractive food sources are inaccessible is essential since poisoned mice often end up being eaten by hawks and eagles. Planting strong-smelling herbs like sage, rosemary, lavender, and basil around the garden also repels them. Block any access to water sources in the garden so they can’t stop for a drink there either.
How to Naturally Deter Mammals
Deer – Well-known creatures of habit, once deer discover the buffet in your garden, it is hard to keep them out. If you have space, plant a deterrent garden 10-30 feet away full of wonderful snacking vegetables just for them. Put a fence around the main garden beds, so they aren’t easy to get to. Deer, like most mammals, appreciate easy dinners and won’t try to get through a fence when there is perfectly good and accessible food elsewhere. If this isn’t an option, plant mint around the edges of your garden. Deer strongly dislike the scent. In fact, they don’t like any strong odors, so onions, garlic, horseradish, asparagus, and yarrow are also great garden borders to keep pests like deer from visiting.
Rabbits – These cute, fuzzy creatures will gorge on your vegetables without a second thought. Keeping them out is not easy. Like deer, they are opportunistic and prefer easy finds instead of working hard to get at food. Planting a second “for the animals” garden is a good place to start. Barriers are the next step to keep rabbits at bay. Make sure it is installed 6″ below the surface so they can’t burrow underneath.
Raccoons – Like deer and rabbits, raccoons are opportunists. If those gorgeous fresh vegetables are easy picking, they aren’t going to hesitate. There are many purported natural ways to get rid of raccoons, but most don’t work. These creatures are excellent climbers and ridiculously persistent, so fences rarely work. A side “for the animals” garden may work. One of the best ways to keep raccoons out of the garden is to spray plants with a cayenne pepper solution: 1 bottle hot pepper sauce or cayenne powder plus a teaspoon of dish soap mixed with 1-gallon water makes an excellent repellent. Remember to reapply after the rain!
Should I Keep Opossums Out of the Garden?
No! Opossums are friends of the garden and deserve medals for all their hard work. They eat slugs, ticks, rodents, bugs, and dead animals. Sure, they may take a little snack here and there, but overall, they are way more beneficial than they are harmful. Opossums prefer rotting food, so generally, they won’t eat your fresh vegetables. However, they will invade compost piles, accessible garbage cans, and pet food dishes if the opportunity arises.
As you can see, there are so many options when it comes to keeping your garden naturally free of all sorts of pests. There is no need to douse the garden with toxic chemicals when there plenty of other choices. The next time you encounter a problematic garden visitor, try a natural solution before reaching for a pesticide. The earth and your garden appreciate it!