In an ever more health-conscious world, people are constantly seeking better and more natural pest control for gardens. They are looking for better ways of protecting their plants, grasses, flowers, and vegetables without the use of poisonous chemicals, which kill indiscriminately.
Natural Garden Pest Control
Whether you live urban, suburban, or rural, if you have plants, an army of insect-pests and parasites are on a mission to find them… and they will. Take heart, for we have many weapons available to us to help protect our beloved lawns and gardens. Choosing the right ones plays an important role in determining the results we are able to achieve.
Newton’s 3rd Law
One of our greatest defenses in the battle of the bugs is putting Newton’s 3rd Law to work for us. As there are many plants, flowers, and shrubs that attract all manner of pests to your yard and garden, there are also an equal number that will repel them.
A Better Way
With that in mind, let’s outline some of the natural alternatives that will produce the desired result and offer a safe alternative to chemicals. The main objective is to control the pests, without hurting the good bugs, while reducing our environmental impact on the planet. All three can be attained with just a little effort on our part.
There are several measures we can employ to accomplish these goals. Some are reactive (after the damage) while some are preventive (planting natural deterrents). Reactive treatment might include spraying with organic chemicals to kill eggs and larvae and/or removing damaged leaves and stems.
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Listed below are some of the naturally effective ways we can rid our lawn and garden areas of these insect-pests while being better stewards of our planet.
The least toxic approach to battling these space invaders is the cultural method. We just need to know which plants to plant.
Plants Selections That Attract a Variety of Good Bugs
We won’t designate plant-to-bug specifics, as many overlap and there are literally hundreds of them, but by installing a variety of insect attracting plants you can encourage an army of beneficial bugs to set their barracks up at your house. Many plants attract multiple insects that can help rid us of the bad bugs.
Since there isn’t time or room to list them all here, below are more than enough plants to get you started.
You can realize good results naturally by growing parsley, spearmint, marigolds, lemon balm, pennyroyal (mint), cosmos (white sensation), dill, sweet alyssum-white, caraway, coriander, masterwort, Queen Anne’s lace, common yarrow, crimson thyme, Peter Pan goldenrod, lavender globe lily, fennel, and buckwheat. There are many others that will help protect your lawns and gardens as they attract reinforcements to help you do battle, but these are a good start. Some of these plants attract beneficial insects while repelling others. You can also choose plants that are resistant to assault from certain types of insects. Certain rhododendrons species are resistant types. The following have developed a resistance to adult weevils. Our thanks to toxipedia.org for this list.
The list of recommended Rhododendron hybrids (color/rating):
- P.J.M. (pink/100)
- Rose Elf (blue/90)
- Oceanlake (violet-blue/80)
- Dora Amateis (white/79)
- Crest (yellow/79)
- Point Defiance (carmine-pink/76)
- Odee Wright (yellow/73)
There are many more plants that have evolved natural defenses against certain invaders. Specific plants and more information can be found online.
The Proper Way to Install Your Insect Attracting Plants
As important as these plants are, just as important are proper planting techniques. It would be a shame to do all that digging and planting only to discover the plants didn’t make it due to improper planting.
While specific planting instructions may vary from plant to plant, you’ll want to make sure each hole is deep enough. If you are installing plants from pots, a good rule of thumb is to have the root ball lie just below ground level in the hole.
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When transplanting, make the diameter of the hole at least 2-3 times larger than the root ball. Without this space the roots get jammed up and can’t reach out to establish themselves.
If the plants are root bound when removed from their planter, you can easily cut off a third or more of the entire ball from the bottom. It won’t hurt them. In fact, this encourages new growth of the roots and removes the dead ends. The now open-ends can more readily absorb water and nutrients.
The Natural Methods
Physical Control Methods: Barriers
Garden Fabric: Gaining in popularity are safe, effective, and natural ways to protect your plants from birds, insects, and the sun and in some cases, even the weather to a degree. One of the more popular and easy to use methods is garden fabric, also referred to as row covers or floating row covers.
You may have seen these white coverings over rows of crops in a field or in a backyard. This is a very efficient method for keeping the bugs and other pests off your favorite plants without using poisons.
Made of lightweight material that breathes, the covers can block out the intense heat of the summer sun while allowing warm sunshine to enter and air to circulate. They make an excellent insect and bird deterrent and are easily set up.
Opinions vary, as you can see from the reviews on different products, but the netting that I have personally used and can vouch for is below. I use a 10'x10' piece of this fabric for my 4'x4' square foot gardens. It covers the box even if there are hoops, it's more durable than other netting I've tried, and it's pretty cheap on Amazon.
3 Types of Fabric Netting
- Insect & Bird Protection
- Shade Netting
- Frost Covers
For insect protection, it is recommended you use support hoops to secure the cover to the ground. They’re pretty self-explanatory but essentially you place the cover over the hoops and pull the material taut. Secure the bottom edges with clothespins to the hoops or bury it deep enough to not be blown off by the wind. Garden pins are also available to ensure the mesh is held tightly to the ground. A tightly sealed cover deters the crawlers as well as the flyers.
The companies that sell these also make an all-in-one cover with built-in hoops that slide inside the cover like curtain rods.
Shade netting does what the name indicates. Young plants and seedlings can be sensitive to sunlight and shade netting offers a natural and easy way to protect them.
Frost covers employed in colder months can protect plants from cold weather down to 28 degrees Fahrenheit or -2 degrees Celsius.
A Side Note:
Pollination is necessary for many plants. Remember, if you are growing flowering plants such as strawberries, pumpkins, squash, peas, and others that produce a bloom, should they begin to flower while covered, be sure to lift the cover up somewhat or peel it back a ways to allow the bees and other pollinators to do their job.
Hand to Bug Combat
One of the most effective ways of eliminating plant invaders which do not involve the use of poisons is hand picking. Removing pests this way is pretty much self-explanatory. The hand picking method is just that, the removal of insects, eggs, and larvae by literally picking them off by hand. It doesn’t get any more organic than the hands on-bugs off technique.
All that is required of you to begin this simple and effective method of pest control is a pair of tweezers and a small jar with dish soap in some water, plus a little time.
Generally found on the stems and underside of the leaves, aphid and other egg types can be systematically plucked and deposited into the jar of soapy water, which will drown them. You want to kill them rather than discard them to avoid the possibility of infecting surrounding plants.
Biological Control Methods
Release the Wasps!
Biological control is a method of natural pest control that incorporates the use of Nature to fight Nature.
There are swarms of insects that stand ready, willing, and able to combat all forms of little critters hell-bent on destroying our plants, vegetables, and flowers. One group of these winged warriors is known as parasitoids.
Parasitic wasps are just one of many beneficial insects that help reduce pest populations. They are natural enemies of many of the insects that plague our plants, fruits, and vegetables. These beneficial predator wasps are also known as biological control agents.
Ichneumonidae (ick-new-mon-id-eye) is a family of parasitic wasps that lay their eggs on or inside a host insect or the hosts’ eggs using her long, stinger-like tail. They don’t sting so don’t worry.
Once her eggs are laid she goes in search of her next living nest. As the attached growing eggs develop they feed on the host insect and… well, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to see where this is going. Suffice it to say this is indeed a very effective method of natural pest control.
Parasitic wasps, of which there are many types, prey on a number of insects including caterpillars, beetles, flies and more. You’ll want to have plenty of these beneficial beauties around and there are various ways to attract them.
The Law of Attraction
Attracting parasitic wasps and other beneficial bugs is easier to do than you may have thought. By growing a variety of lovely and efficient herbs and flowers you not only help keep pests away, you beautify the area and provide a home for a world of insects that are beneficial to your plants.
First, however, and most importantly, do not use poisonous chemicals for insect control and then create an environment that is friendly to these good bugs. The poison will kill them. Many pests have built up a resistance to some pesticides over time due to their frequent exposure. The beneficial bugs, not having had that exposure, have not developed that immunity and are more susceptible to those poisons.
Food and Drink for our Friends
These friendly bugs get thirsty so be sure to have a constant supply of water for them, especially during the hot summer months. They tend to take up residence where there is steady food and water available. You supply the drink and Nature will set the table with a buffet of unwanted insects.
Let’s take a look at some of the insects you do want hanging around your place and what they like to dine on. The release of biological control agents can cripple and even wipe out many forms of unwanted plant eaters. You can even buy the eggs of these agents and place them into infected areas in lieu of chemical pesticides.
8 Insects You Want to Have Around
- Lacewings - Their larvae are often called aphid lions for their voracious appetites. They also feed on mites and insect eggs.
- Ladybugs – The young larvae are born hungry, can’t fly, and eat more than the adults.
- Hoverflies – Dine on aphids, mealybugs, and more.
- Tachinid Flies – Kill cutworms, armyworms, corn earworms, squash bug nymphs, and more
- Minute Pirate Bugs – Eat whiteflies, aphids, thrips, mites, and many others
- Damsel Bugs – Feed on aphids, plant bugs, and leafhoppers - as well as small caterpillars
- Big Eyed Bugs – Eat insect eggs, mites, leafhoppers, and spider mites
- Parasitic Wasps – Are deadly to many types of unwanted insects - laying their eggs on a host pest then letting their hatchlings do the rest.
Additional Options - Have You Considered Nematodes?
I certainly hadn’t until I began researching and now I’m thinking this may be the way to go.
If you don’t know, nematodes are microscopic organisms (non-segmented roundworms) that live in the soil and are parasitic to many insect pests and their developing offspring. They can be purchased and introduced into the soil of insect infected areas.
Beneficial nematodes are of course all natural and can be used anywhere insect infestations can be found including lawns, vegetable and flower gardens, backyards, row crops, pastures, around fruit and nut trees, greenhouses, and just about anywhere there is dirt, plants, and pests.
Below are listed some of the pests nematodes attack:
- Fleas & caterpillars
- Cutworms & armyworms
- Maggots, thrips, ticks, & gnats
- Japanese beetles & grubs
- Citrus weevils, queen ants, & termites
This is merely a partial list. If you search online you can find companies that will ship nematodes right to your front door. Different species of nematodes attack different pests so you can target certain insects that are causing you and your plants problems.
Another Way to Help the Good Bugs - Keep it Wild
When possible, leave a part of your yard or property in its natural state or with minimal mowing to form a natural habitat and environment in which the friendly bugs can live.
Natural Crop Rotation
For the organic-minded, the rotation of crops serves multiple purposes. When the same crop is planted each year, pests and diseases that attack those plants or crops are better able to establish themselves in the same location.
Crop rotation prevents the natural build up of many pests and diseases that take up residence in the soil and is a safer alternative to using pesticides to control those insects once they get established.
Rotation helps reduce environmental pollution. It also reduces the need for insecticides and pesticides to be introduced into the soil and is much more environmentally friendly. In addition, soil fertility is better maintained.
The Toxic Approach
If you take a purely all-natural approach, then any method involving chemicals is off the table. However, if you are 50-50 about it then a combination of natural and manmade methods may work best.
It should be noted, there are organic-based pesticides (derived from an organic source) which have a lower negative impact than broad-spectrum insecticides, but may still pose some risks to mammals and beneficial insects.
Then there are the synthetic or manufactured pesticides. As they say, “read the label.”
Which way is best is a personal decision. Like life itself, it is about balance and choice.
When pesticides that are dangerous to people and pets are applied, the term pest-control becomes a relative one.
Pesticides: While you can control which pesticides you use to fight the multitude of invaders that see your yard and garden as a literal smorgasbord, you can’t control the effect those chemicals will have on the rest of the insect world and the environment as a whole. Once applied, your control ends. You can’t put the dragon back into the egg.
Certainly, you can use a pesticide that will kill the aphids noshing on the leaves of your favorite plants and flowers, but a good rinse from the hose will accomplish the same thing. Conversely, that pesticide may also kill many other insects, some beneficial to the plant. Those pesticides that kill indiscriminately are referred to as broad-spectrum pesticides and are non-selective in their duty to rid your yard or garden of insects. They have a broad kill zone.
Bees are particularly susceptible to broad-spectrum poisons.
There is also narrow-spectrum / selective. Narrow spectrum insecticides target specific insects and pests and are considered safer for the beneficial bugs. It is still a poison, though.
Garden Pest Control Infographic
Meet Your Enemy
“When the goin' gets tough... the tough get growin...”
There you are, wistfully tending your little garden plot, lost in the moment, reveling in the quiescent joy that is gardening. You're blissfully unaware that a war is being waged against your verdant little friends - and it's going on right under your hose.
You spot a leaf that appears shriveled or sickly. When you turn it over you discover what appears to be a cluster of little insect eggs. As you check other nearby leaves, to your horror, you spot more eggs and then leaves riddled with tiny holes.
Question: What's going on here?
Answer: Most likely, aphids!
There are an infinite number of leaf-eating insects in this world intent on making a smorgasbord of our precious herbs, plants, vegetables, fruits, and trees. Not to mention the plethora of diseases, disorders, molds, and fungi incessantly assaulting the garden and, by proxy, the gardeners of the world as well.
Fortunately for those who love to garden, there are effective forms of treatment to combat this constant onslaught.
However, in an evermore health-conscious and eco-friendly society, people are looking for a more environmentally friendly and natural form of pest control; alternatives to the harsh and dangerous poisons of the past that killed without discretion. Today's growers look for ways to control these pests naturally without using dangerous chemicals and with something a little more reliable than folklore remedies and old wives tales. One of the safest and most effective ways is by using Nature herself.
We'll get into some of those safer and more natural ways of controlling these insects and other maladies but let's first learn what we are up against, beginning with the destructive and seemingly ubiquitous, aphid.
So what exactly is an Aphid?
An aphid is a small parasitic insect (1/32 -1/8 in.), somewhat pear-shaped with long antennae and two backward facing tubes protruding from its abdomen. Aphids lay their eggs on the underside of the leaf. In the aphid world, some are winged while some are not. One generally finds the winged type when a colony's numbers have reached critical mass and escape is necessary.
Colors cover a wide range - smoky gray, green, orange, black; there are still others which may have a coating of fluffy white, giving them the appearance of having spent the night in a cotton candy machine. Aphids reproduce at an alarming rate and their disgusting little offspring are voracious leaf eaters. This is how, unless you keep a sharp look-out, they can nearly destroy a plant before you ever realize it is infected.
What Do Aphids Do?
In a nutshell, adult aphids and their nymphs suck the life-giving sap from the leaves of the plant. When a colony of aphids feeds on a plant, aside from the destruction their eating causes, they leave behind a sticky, honeydew-like substance. This, in turn, creates prime conditions from which mold can grow on leaves and fruit.
Feeding aphids (and they are constantly feeding) can wreak havoc on fruit trees, vegetable gardens, ornamentals, shade trees, and most shrubs within a very short period of time.
These feeding aphids take their collective toll on the plant in the form of twisted and distorted leaves. Some leaves appear to have been blasted by a mini shotgun. In fruit-bearing plants, when the branches are infected, the fruit produced is often deformed and much smaller than normal. Badly infected branches may eventually just drop off.
Now that you know what they do, it's time to learn what you can do to return the compliment. Fortunately, there are a variety of natural remedies at our disposal to combat them, and even some insects that are on our side.
Let's meet one.
Using Nature to Fight Nature
The Aphid Midge
Introducing the aphid midge. Or as we like to say in Latin, Aphidoletes aphidimyza.
Many of us have seen these slinky, mosquito-on-steroids looking insects flying around the house lights with their long skinny legs and gossamer looking wings. While admittedly creepy, these insects are totally harmless and a gardener's best friend-so don't swat them anymore!
Upon locating a cluster of aphids, the aphid midge launches a time-release offensive against the unsuspecting aphids.
Her tactic is to lay her eggs amid the “consumed with eating vegetation,” aphids. The aphid midge eggs hatch quickly, normally within two to three days. Once hatched, those larvae attack and then feed upon the aphids for up to five days before they get the memo from Internal Command signaling them to bore into the ground, where they pupate. Around two weeks later, they emerge as adults and the cycle resumes.
They are an effective and natural form of pest control.
Another reason to love them is that the aphid midge larvae are not picky eaters and can dine on over 50 varieties of aphids! Back at 'cha!
That's Great News... Now, How Do Get Them To Land On My Plants?
Naturally, you want the aphid midges to lay their eggs in your garden or flowers or yard. So how do you do that? There are natural ways to attract these winged helpers. You can plant pollen-producing flowers near your trees or garden. If you have trouble with allergies you might be better off planting just the nectar-bearing type.
The aphid midge is a lightweight, so when feasible, plant in an area out of direct wind and be sure to have water available to them. They tend to stay where there is a steady water and food supply.
If you aren't able to plant as needed, or you grow indoors, you can actually buy aphid midge cocoons online. A general rule of thumb is to buy two to three hundred cocoons for an average backyard garden or greenhouse, placing three to five cocoons per plant and five to ten each on your trees depending on their size.
Let's take a look at one of the best at doing what they do, the ladybug. This cute little bug, which is actually a beetle, is no lady as far as aphids are concerned. She is a natural and effective aphid-eating machine.
With over 500 hundred models of ladybugs from which to choose in the United States and some 5000 types worldwide, you should have no problem finding one you really like. Ladybugs come in a variety of colors ranging from the traditional red with the black polka dots to pink, yellow, white, and black and white, as well as orange and even black. They are also referred to as lady beetles.
These insects are hard to beat when it comes to cleaning your plants of parasitic invaders. The ladybug is a voracious eater and so are her offspring. One ladybug can eat 50 aphids per day on her own. Aside from aphids, this garden friendly little beetle feeds on a variety of other pests. She also can lay about a thousand eggs during her life cycle, which is generally around two years.
A Bit of Ladybug History
I thought it might be interesting to touch on a fascinating fact concerning how the ladybug got her name (the males are ladybugs too).
During a period in Medieval times, the Catholic farmer's crops were under heavy assault by all manner of plant-eating insects. Out of faith and desperation the farmers prayed to the Virgin Mary for relief from these winged invaders and as the legend goes, the ladybug arrived soon after and their crops were saved.
The grateful farmers began referring to these miraculous little bugs as, “The Beetles of Our Lady,” which in time simply became ladybugs. It is said the that their red wings represent the “Virgin's Cloak” while the black spots are her joys and sorrows. True or not, to many farmers and gardeners alike, the ladybug is a godsend.
Ladybugs feed on pollen and nectar, so growing plants that produce both is a good way to attract them. They can also be purchased online. That said, introducing ladybugs to your garden or plants is no guarantee they are going to stay there. After all, they are wild creatures. But if they have a good food source (as in aphids) and an available water source, you stand a good chance of them sticking around.
Another natural born killer is the parasitic wasp, whose duty it is to eat the various and sundry parasites that plague gardeners everywhere. Even better is that very few of these little wasps will sting humans and even then, only when provoked.
These farmer-friendly little wingers are masters of natural pest control and are exactly the kind of insects you want hanging around your garden, plants, trees, and bushes. There are many kinds of wasps from which to choose (and they can be purchased) but we'll look at a couple to give you an idea of what they are and what they do.
The Ichneumon Wasp
The Ichneumon (ick-new-mun) wasp is the largest of the parasitic wasps, with its long slender body measuring from 1/8 to 1-1/2 inches in length. Their name literally means tracker and they live up to their namesake. Ranging from a yellowish color to black, they dine on a host of garden pests such as hookworms, cutworms, corn earworms, white grubs, and caterpillars.
The Braconid Wasp
This tiny this little guy enjoys a smorgasbord of parasites including aphids, garden webworm, tomato hornworm, armyworms, strawberry leafroller, and tent caterpillars.
Measuring only 1/16 to 5/16 of an inch in length, this little wasp is proof that dynamite comes in small packages.
Attracting Parasitic Wasps
If you want to attract parasitic wasps to your garden area you'll need to provide them with a few essentials. Be sure to have a water source nearby. You can put out pans of water in the area or even a birdbath. One tip, if you have a pond or standing water, place a few rocks around the edges so the wasps are able to land on them to get a drink without running the risk of drowning.
Planting flowers that produce pollen and nectar is also good. Some of the wasp's favorite foods include herbs like cilantro and other members of the dill family as well as flowers like daisies and asters.
There is a sweet little perk that comes from planting the latter, it also attracts hummingbirds and butterflies.
Other Garden Maladies
Fungus is a common problem facing plants of all types but especially fruiting trees. Some fungus is necessary and actually beneficial to certain plants in a symbiotic relationship. Other fungi, however, such as the type that causes brown rot, can be devastating to them.
- Symptoms - Infected fruit such as pears, tomatoes, and stone fruits especially, begin to display small brown spots that spread quickly and eventually cover the entire fruit with brownish gray spores. Mummified fruit is the end result so try to catch it early.
- What You Can Do - When available, plant fungus-resistant cultivars. Additionally, prune or remove the visibly damaged fruit from the tree. This has a two-fold effect. It allows for better air circulation while creating a drier environment, which reduces the chance of re-infection.
After blossoming, spray the plant with a sulfur solution, then again before harvesting to prevent the brown rot from recurring in storage.
- Symptoms – This is another fungus-based disease that generally affects potatoes and tomato plants. Early blight is just what the name implies, a blight that appears on the leaves of the plant early in its development. It first appears as small brown spots that can spread rapidly, eventually covering the entire leaf while quickly spreading to the other leaves.
- What You Can Do – In addition to rotating your crops and buying disease-free seeds, clean up any old plant debris that may be harboring the fungus. Remove all highly infected plants and destroy them. Additionally, the use of an organic, copper-based fungicide can help in stopping the spread of this fungus-based disease.
- Symptoms – Like its namesake, black spot fungus can be found on the leaves of rose bushes as small dark spots circled by a yellowish tissue. Black spot disease is moisture driven. This particular fungus can also infect the stems of the rose causing black, purplish blisters on young stalks.
- What You Can Do – Once its begun, black spot is difficult to control but there are measures you can institute to reduce the risk of infection. Avoid getting the leaves wet when watering.
It helps to keep plants well pruned to encourage airflow. Removal of the infected leaves and stems is paramount. You may also spray your plants early-on with a sulfur solution.
Another natural garden pest control method gaining in popularity is spraying your rose bushes with a solution consisting of 1-teaspoon of baking soda to 1 quart of water. Many have found this to be an effective, natural method of helping control this malady.
When all is said and done, it ultimately is up to you as to what approach or technique you will incorporate in your war against the multitude of ever-present, uninvited, plant destroying insects and their offspring. You can use totally natural methods or man-made approaches using chemicals, or any combination thereof.
Less harmful pesticides and insecticides have been developed over the years and some are quite effective at killing their target but unavoidably, there are collective casualties.
Anytime you can get effective results without poisons or pollutants you are doing the plants, friendly insects, and the planet a big favor. If the infestation is too great, it may be better to completely cut back or uproot the badly infected plants altogether rather than soak them in pesticide in a moment of mad revenge.
Balance and choice.
In closing, it is my hope this article has made you more aware of some of the natural perils that await our green little friends and has armed you with some information that will help control these pests and diseases without the use of harsh and dangerous chemicals.
There is always more to know and more to learn. This article is designed primarily to bring to your attention the alternatives available to those who prefer a more natural way of dealing with these invasive and destructive little pests.
Happy pest-free gardening! For a lot more great gardening tips, see our guide on 31 Ways to Make You an Organic Gardening Guru.