Gardeners work hard to get their plants off to a good start. They sow them gently inside, water them consistently, nurture them and provide them with additional nutrients through fertilizers. Yet once those plants go outside or germinate after being sown in the garden, pests can sometimes be a problem that threaten to destroy all of their hard work. Non-organic gardeners may utilize any number of synthetic, chemical pesticides to kill invading pests, but this practice leaches harmful substances into the soil and ground water, gets on crops, and kills indiscriminately. Utilizing conventional pesticides, although effective at controlling pests, will also kill off beneficial insects like honey bees and butterflies. Because we want to enjoy nature, we choose not to use conventional pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers.
Controlling and treating these pests naturally and organically is easier than you might think. As the old adage goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This is certainly true for keeping your garden free of pests.
1. The number one way to help prevent pests is to protect your plants. Our garden sits in our backyard, so it is protected on all sides by our fence line. We don’t have any problems with large pests, even though I’ve noticed a stray cat and even a couple of rabbits from time to time. Some gardeners have problems with larger pests like these, but I think our garden benefits from A. being in an urban setting, B. being surrounded by a fence, and C. having outside dogs in the neighboring yards! Our plants are also located in beds 12″ off of the ground, so I think that further deters any interested critters.
Still, if you have or expect problems with these types of pests or even larger ones like deer, take precautionary measures like erecting some type of enclosure or barrier. Keep in mind that if deer really want to get to your garden, they probably will as they can easily jump a six foot fence. If you have problems with burrowing pests, I suggest using raised beds with hardware cloth attached to the bottom of the garden boxes. This will stop moles cold before they can dig up those vegetable beds!
2. An essential tip to keep your plants free of pests is to raise healthy plants. For whatever reason, pests are drawn to weak and/or stressed plants and will seek out those plants in your garden first. Maintaining healthy plants, preventing stressful situations and providing optimal nutrients will help keep your plants free of pests. And yep, you guessedit, this begins with healthy soil!
3. Another equally important way to control pests is to incorporate physical barriers and deterrents using other plants. Some plants actually deter pests, while others attract the pests to them and away from your crops. Marigolds, for example, are effective in controlling certain types of beetles and harmful nematodes, while growing sunflowers can help control aphids and ants. By working certain plants in, around and among your garden crops, insects will be less likely to bother the fruits of your labor. I was looking at a The Complete Garden Book from the mid-seventies. The garden diagrams they offered showed rows of marigolds around the entire garden! This is because the marigolds act as a barrier to many pests … many, but not all!
4. You can also enlist nature to do the work of pest control. Planting flowering and native plants that attract predatory insects like lacewings, lady beetles and praying mantis will help keep your garden pest populations under control. These insects will reward your efforts by feeding on populations of harmful pests in your garden. Some people even purchase these predatory insects and let them loose in their gardens.
5. Yet another significant way to control pests is to pay attention to your garden. Hobbyist gardeners probably do not have to be reminded of this, as they spend as much time as they can in their gardens; however, life happens and there is always the reality of neglect in the garden. Neglecting your plants even for just a few days can allow harmful conditions to develop. Pest populations typically increase rapidly and the damage they do increases exponentially. Keeping an eye on your garden daily will help you identify problem areas and react quickly. This gives you time to remove and/or isolate problem plants before the issue spreads to others.
So what is the best organic pest control? Actually, organic pest control is a combination of all of the above tips. As needed, organic gardeners can also utilize more direct controls, such as the application of natural substances to kill or deter pests. We have tried several things in our garden, many of which have worked, some of which have not. We’ve been up against flea beetles, looper worms, fire ants, spider mites, powdery mildew, slugs, cucumber beetles, aphids, caterpillars, hornworms and more. For the most part, simply paying attention to our plants and removing the pests by hand has been effective.
When we have to call in “back up”, however, we utilize these following methods:
Soap Spray* – We use Dr. Bronner’s unscented liquid Castile soap. Whatever soap you choose, make sure it is an all-natural soap that is not anti-bacterial. Do not use detergent. We mix 1 TB of liquid natural soap with one quart (32 fl. oz.) of water. I have a small 16 oz. spray bottle that I fill up with water and add 1 1/2 teaspoons of soap to. The trick is not to make the soap spray too concentrated or it will actually hurt your plants by suffocation. You can also try adding up to 1/8 teaspoon of cayenne powder or 1 teaspoon of garlic juice to increase the effectiveness on certain pests. We used this type of spray to fight off flea beetles on our hibiscus and pepper plants last year.
Soapy Water – Some bugs like the flea beetle begin in the ground and then work their way up the plant as they mature. Putting shallow pans of soapy water under an infested plant can help trap the bugs before they move on to your plant. Add a couple teaspoons of soap to a shallow pan of water. A light colored pan seems to work better (we use white pyrex dishes).
Milk Spray* – Believe it or not, a milk solution is great against powdery mildew. (Note: Powdery mildew is actually a fungal disease, not a pest.) As the milk decomposes, it produces large numbers of certain bacteria which fight against and prevent the spread of the fungus that causes powdery mildew. To make milk spray, mix one part of fresh organic milk with nine parts of water. Spray down your plant (tops and bottoms of leaves) until it is dripping wet. The milk does smell for a day after application, but the mildew will go away after two or three applications.
Baking Soda Spray* – Another effective treatment for powdery mildew. Use 1/2 teaspoon of baking soda for every half quart of water. Spray both sides of leaves.
Diatomaceous earth – Ants, beetles, slugs and snails hate this stuff. D.E. is a powdery, abrasive substance composed of fossilized remains, which is also absorbent. When it comes into contact with the exoskeletons of insects or the soft bodies of anthropods like slugs, it absorbs the insects fats and fluids, dehydrating them. This product is available at our local H-E-B garden center. It works on top of dry soil, but is ineffective once wet. Take care applying in windy situation.
Fish Emulsion foliar spray* – Even the de-odorized version is quite fishy smelling, and I assume this turns off the pests. Fish emulsion sprays have been effective in deterring caterpillars.
Garden hose sprayer*: Localized populations of small pests like aphids can be removed by a typical garden hose sprayer. Knock them off and squish them.
Beer: When all efforts to kill the pests have failed, drink beer. Just kidding, but it doesn’t hurt. :) Beer actually works very well for snails and slugs. Take an empty vegetable can and fill it half full of beer. Bury the can in the soil near the area of pest activity so that the top of the can is flush with the ground. Slugs and snails crawl along, get interested in the beer, go down into the can and can’t get back up. To make this mixture even more effective, add a teaspoon of dry yeast to the beer.
Corn Meal: Got a problem with fire ant mounds in your yard? I typically scatter 1/4 cup of stone-ground corn meal over the mound and let that sit for a day. I always find that the ant population has decreased dramatically only after a day. Sometimes, one or two applications are needed before they leave the mound altogether. Usually the ants will relocate to another area of the yard and I have to chase them off again before I’m rid of them. The theory is that the ants eat the corn meal. When it mixes with their saliva and stomach juices, the corn meal expands and kills the ant by hemorrhaging. I don’t know how it works, I just know that it has worked many times in the past.
* NOTE: When using any type of spray, remember to do so in the early morning or evening. Spraying leaves in the heat of the day encourages leaf burn, which will create a stress situation that will attract pests.