Sure, you want to ditch the pesticides and grow healthy, organic produce in your home garden. But when bugs and other critters start taking over, it’s tough not to reach for the spray bottle to keep them at bay. Resist the urge, and utilize one of the many all-natural methods for deterring garden pests.
For the inside scoop, Earth911 sat down with organic gardening expert Barbara Pleasant to chat about pesticide-free ways to keep harmful insects and other unwanted critters out of your garden. From crop rotation to herb planting, here are seven back-to-basics tips for you to try.
Editor’s note: We interviewed Barbara Pleasant and originally published this article in 2012. In March 2022, we updated and added a few links.
1. Plant more than just veggies
Let’s begin by saying that not all garden critters are bad. Common garden-lovers such as bees, wasps, birds, frogs, butterflies, and ground-dwelling beetles eat harmful insects and help to cross-pollinate fruit-bearing plants — making them a huge plus for a healthy garden.
“It’s very much a living thing, a vegetable garden,” Pleasant says. “So, the old model where you just wiped everything out calls for a very different approach.”
Instead of trying to keep your garden completely free of birds, bugs, and other “wild things,” incorporate a diverse collection of plants to attract beneficial critters to your plot. Once your garden has a good balance of beneficial animals and insects, pest deterrence will be a much easier job. Pleasant suggests planting plenty of fragrant flowers, which are known to attract bees, butterflies, and other “beneficials.”
Common culinary herbs, such as thyme, oregano, and rosemary, are also magnets for beneficial critters, the garden expert says. She also suggests planting borage, a seldom-grown herb that sprouts dark blue flowers and attracts large bumblebees that stave off harmful insects.
For more information on which plants attract the most beneficials to your garden, check out this guide from PennState Extension or consult a university extension service in your area.
2. Check your garden frequently
“Having the gardener out there among her plants, looking closely at what’s going on … is huge when it comes to preventing pest problems,” Pleasant says.
By taking a brief stroll through your plot at least once a day, you’ll begin to notice the “who’s-who” of garden critters. Insects like ladybugs, bees, and butterflies will become commonplace, while harmful aphids and crop-dwelling beetles will stick out like sore thumbs.
Pleasant, who takes a leisurely walk through her garden a few times each day, notes that pest problems often don’t take long to develop. So, spotting trouble early can be the difference between a brief outbreak and an utter infestation, she explains.
“If you do have a pest outbreak, most plants can tolerate some damage,” notes Pleasant, adding that when caught early, most pest problems won’t detrimentally affect your garden at all.
3. Know your pests
So, you’re taking your daily walk through the garden, and you notice some unfamiliar creepy crawlers on the leaves of your veggies. Now what?
“The next step is to make a proper identification,” Pleasant says. “Because most garden pests are well-known if you can use the internet you can do that pretty quickly.” And with apps like iNaturalist, you can often identify them immediately.
While searching for your pest’s identity, keep in mind that pests only attack particular plants. So, a web search with the words “beetles on my potatoes” will yield better results than simply searching “garden beetles.”
“The ‘enemies list’ for most people turns out to be somewhat short, but you do have to get to know them because two pests are not managed the same way,” Pleasant says.
For the most accurate information about your pests, consult a local university extension service, Pleasant suggests. Most will provide a complete directory of insects likely to appear in your garden and ways to get rid of them.
4. Use tools
Most of the tips on this list apply to harmful insects that may affect your garden. But what if larger critters like rabbits, squirrels, or groundhogs are chowing down on your beloved veggies?
“If animals have habitat nearby, you just may be in trouble,” cautions Pleasant. “The ultimate solution is always to fence them out.”
Pleasant notes that outdoor dogs and cats can help a great deal with keeping larger critters at bay. But if you don’t have a pet, a fence is usually your best bet. For tips on constructing a chicken wire enclosure on the cheap, check out this tutorial from The Country Basket.
If harmful bugs are a persistent problem in your garden, consider investing in a few floating row covers to protect your plants. Simply drape your row covers — which are basically just sheets of sheer, lightweight fabric — over your crops at the start of the growing season, and enjoy pest-free plots all year long.
5. Feed your plants (but not too much)
Fertilizers are important for any healthy garden, but opting for organic, low-nitrogen fertilizers will produce much better results, Pleasant says.
“In some soils when you’re using chemical fertilizers you can accidentally overdo it, and the plants produce this really lush, fast growth,” she explains. “That type of growth tends to attract insects that like to suck plant juices.”
To yield heartier, more reasonable growth, Pleasant suggests nourishing your soil with compost and adding an appropriate amount of low-dose, slow-release organic fertilizer as needed (some plants require more than others). Find more information about using fertilizer in your garden in the Almanac, or consult your local cooperative extension service.
“The bottom line is: Be careful never to apply too much nitrogen,” Pleasant suggests. “That can invite a problem.”
6. Clear your fields, rotate your crops
Clearing out debris after harvest will significantly reduce the risk of pests attacking your crops next season, Pleasant says. Pests will often make themselves at home in dead stalks, leaves, and other debris and attack new crops when they are planted the following season.
So, after harvesting that summer squash, take time to remove debris from your garden plot to oust any lingering pests. For best results, put your yard debris in a compost pile, which will close the loop on your garden waste and exterminate pests for good, Pleasant says.
“These creatures do not persist in the wild world of a compost heap,” she says with a laugh. If you don’t have a compost pile, check out these tips for starting one today, or use the Earth911 database to track down a yard waste recycling solution near you.
Rotating crops each season is also a surefire way to keep pests from building up. “Crop rotation” may sound like a fancy term, but it basically means planting crops in a different place in your garden each year. Moving crops to different areas each season not only helps stave off pests but also reduces the risk of soil-borne diseases and nutritional depletion affecting your crops, Pleasant says.
7. If all else fails, try organic sprays
“In every garden, there is probably going to be a time when it’s appropriate to reach for an organic pesticide,” Pleasant says.
But wait, I thought this was a pesticide-free garden? Typically, the term “pesticides” refers to chemical-laden compounds that contain potentially toxic ingredients like naphthalene, deltamethrin, and fipronil, to name a few. Conversely, the main ingredient in organic pesticides is plant- or soil-based, making such sprays safe for use in your organic garden.
If you can avoid using any form of pesticide, do it. But if you start to notice pest problems even after you’ve taken the steps above, opt for an organic insecticide that is certified by the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI), which means it is considered safe to use on organic crops.
Pleasant suggests opting for an organic spinosad pesticide; these are derived from fermented soils and safe to use in organic gardens. Note that not all spinosad sprays are OMRI certified. So, check for the OMRI label to be sure.
Some gardeners swear by homemade pesticides, such as mixtures of herbs, garlic, and water, but these concoctions have never passed scientific scrutiny, Pleasant notes.
Feature image courtesy of Kelly Neil on Unsplash. This article contains affiliate links. If you purchase an item through one of these links, we receive a small commission that helps fund our Recycling Directory.
About Our Expert
Barbara Pleasant grew her first tomato plant while living in New Orleans in 1974 and has since tended organic gardens in four states. With more than 30 years of organic gardening experience under her belt, Pleasant is the author of many gardening books — including Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens — and is a contributing editor to Mother Earth News and Mother Earth Living magazines. Learn more about Barbara.