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