When your plants become snacks for creepy crawlies and other pests, don’t reach immediately for harsh chemicals. There are plenty of organic options to protect your garden.
The first step is knowing the beneficial bugs. Not all garden bugs are bad — in fact, some are good, and you want them in your garden. Destructive bugs include slugs, squash bugs, squash vine borers, aphids, cutworms and cabbage worms. Good bugs include ladybugs, praying mantis, ground beetles, lacewings, soldier beetles and damsel bugs.
Here are our top organic choices for controlling garden pests. And if you’re having trouble identifying insects in your garden, we’ve got answers for you in the Weed, Plant and Pest Problem Solver tool.
There is a bit of an ick factor, but it is effective. Once you spy cabbage worms, beetles or other pests on your produce, pull on your gardening gloves and pick off the offending pests. Drop the bugs into a Homer bucket of soapy water and dispose far away from the garden.
Some large bugs like squash vine borers can be easily removed by hand, while others are dislodged with a hard spray of water from the garden hose. If you have chickens or ducks (see below) and don’t want them in the garden itself, the bugs make a tasty treat for them when thrown over the fence.
Use Row Covers and Bird Netting
Birds like berries just as much as we do. Protect your harvest with netting or row covers. To keep insect pests from devouring your vegetables, install the row cover immediately after planting, and secure the edges so that the pests can't creep in. Row covers have the added benefit of extending the harvest through frost.
Discourage a Habitat for Pests
You can deter insect damage by growing a diverse array of plants, managing the garden organically and monitoring for unwanted insects.
- Right plant, right place. Know your site: is it sunny or shady? Dry or wet? Know your hardiness zone and read plant tags. A shade-loving plant like hosta will not thrive in full sun, and unhealthy plants are more susceptible to insect and disease damage.
- Attract beneficial insects. Make a home for good bugs by planting native plants and host plants. Learn the names of bugs in your garden. It could be that you have a beneficial insect, not a pest. Good bugs to attract to your garden include spiders, dragonflies, assassin bugs, praying mantises, wasps, lacewings, minute pirate bugs and aphid midges.
- Build a healthy ecology. Nourish your plants with good quality organic soil and amendments. Start a compost pile for free “black gold” to build up the soil and provide nutrients during the growing season.
- Keep garden beds neat and tidy through weeding and the little critters will have less to chew on and fewer places to hide. Layer fresh mulch in the garden, and to reduce disease spread, be sure to wipe down garden tools with disinfectant after use.
Keep Chickens and Ducks
Chickens and ducks are amazing pest control warriors, gobbling up slugs and Japanese beetles that can create a lot of havoc in the garden. However, both animals can also peck at your plants and scratch up the soil, so it’s best if you are on hand to guide them in their pest control ways. Learn more about raising chickens.
Practice Crop Rotation
Crop rotation is the systematic practice of deciding what to plant in particular areas of your garden from one season to the next. This practice aids in soil fertility, and pest and disease resistance. The Colorado potato beetle, for example, likes potato plants, tomatoes and eggplant — so planting eggplant in the same spot in your garden where you previously had potatoes is inviting a pest problem right in. Better to move your tomatoes and eggplant to another garden area. Learn more about the practice of crop rotation in your vegetable garden.
When choosing plants, keep in mind that a good offense is often the best defense: Plant a lot of pollen-rich flowers in your garden to protect your plants from pests and diseases. Insects are brought in by pollen. When you plant flowers like asters, daisies and sunflowers, they will generate more pollen and attract more beneficial insects. And remember that native plants feed native pollinators. Learn more about planting for pollinators.
When to Use Organic Pesticides
If you’re really having a pest problem and need to use a product, there are many organic pesticides that do the trick. From granular products to sprays, baits and sticky “glues,” there is a product for every problem out there. To be sure you are purchasing a product that is verified organic, look for “OMRI” on the label — this tells you that the product lives up to the strict organic standards of the Organic Materials Review Institution.
1. Neem oil. It smells like garlic and sulfur and has a bitter taste, so it’s no wonder that it repels pesky insects. Spray
neem oil on plants to control insects, mites and even fungi-like powdery mildew. It will not harm beneficial insects like ladybugs and honeybees and is safe to use around humans and pets.
2. Insecticidal soap. It works against soft-bodied insects like aphids, whiteflies and mealy bugs and is safe to use indoors, too. Read and follow the instructions before using insecticidal soap in your garden.
Organic gardeners are in touch with their gardens, and they're good scouts. This means getting in the habit of walking through your garden and examining the leaves and stems as they grow and develop. Check the undersides of leaves, that’s where you’ll see the first signs of damaging bugs and caterpillars. When you inspect your plants, look for insect debris, rolled leaves or holes in the foliage.