Nothing is more irritating then pests taking advantage of your hard work by helping themselves to your kitchen garden, picnic or pantry. It’s time to fight back but many times the cure is worse than the bite …adding toxins to the environment or food or perhaps killing the beneficial insects that are working with you… so what can a gardener do?
Before reaching for those containers that you don’t really feel comfortable using, why not try some natural solutions along with some common sense and good gardening practices.
The first step in any kind of warfare is to understand your enemy and be vigilant. Any pest is easier to take care of when there are fewer of them, before they reproduce or call in their cousins because your garden or pantry is ‘easy pickins’.
This is not hard to do if you make a habit of making the rounds and checking on your kitchen garden or pantry and catching pests red-handed or observing their path of destruction before they are out of control. You can handpick many bad bugs and squish them on the spot or drop them into a container of soapy water (gardeners can’t be squeamish).
When you do observe pesky pest and plant problems, arm yourself with solutions that you can make yourself using plants from the kitchen garden or ingredients that you probably already have on hand or can find locally.
These solutions are simple to make and easy to apply. It may take several applications or a combination of remedies to stun, kill or discourage armies of royal pain insects so don’t get discouraged and give up before you can claim victory in the war on pests. Be as persistent as they are.
Early Strikes: Sometimes it doesn’t hurt to be on the defense before pests or diseases ever enter the picture. Companion planting often works because of the strong scents many herbs produce that confuse would be pests and in their confusion offer opportunity for beneficial warrior insects to come in and clean up.
One way to up the aroma factor is to add more strong scents to the garden by sprinkling veggies with shaker containers filled with dried and powered herbs. Use a food processor to quickly make small batches each time to ensure the strongest fragrance punch. Sprinkle this dust on early in the morning while the dew is still on to help it stick. Reapply often to the leaves of plants and also around the base of veggies.
Another simple way is to incorporate fresh herb leaves by using stems or branches strewn on surfaces or between and around plants, or hung (think upside down bouquets) or by rubbing a fresh bunch on surfaces to allow instant aroma to waif into the air warding off attack. This is also a wonderful way to use excess herb plant material. Now you know what to do with all those aromatic herbs you grow.
Yet other early strike measures is to be proactive with traps, dustings or oil sprays to take them out on route or smother eggs before they hatch using the following simple ingredients:
Wood ash (hardwood are the best) sprinkle around the base of plants to avoid cutworm issues. The worms don’t care for lye, which soaks into the ground and makes them leave. After seedlings are up and strong, sprinkle a little wood ash in and around the new sprouts. Gardeners swear that wood ash sprinkled around squash seedlings greatly reduce squash bugs and cucumber beetles.
Diatomaceous Earth is soft sedimentary rock made from the fossil remains of a type of hard-shelled algae. Use food grade DE from your local co-op or farm store.
- Fill a container with a shaker top to dust (carefully so as not to breath any into lungs) plants and the soil around the plant to kill and discourage cutworms, onion root maggots, slugs, snails and even cabbage root maggots. I also sprinkle it all around squash and cucumber plants to repel squash bugs and cucumber beetles.
- If you prefer to spray: Mix 4 Tablespoons to 1 gallon of water.
Egg Shells –if you are battling cutworms and snails or have issue with blossom end rot in peppers, eggplant and tomatoes, save your eggshells.
- Rinse and dry egg shells (removes possible order issues later) and toss them in a plastic bag. Run a rolling pin over bag to crunch them up and spread a handful around the base of any plant (or bed perimeter) that is being troubled by cutworms or snails. The sharp edges tear up these soft-bellied creeps before they can do their worst.
- Eggshells are a natural source of calcium and are beneficial to the nightshade family. Simply work a handful of crushed shells into the soil around each plant being careful to keep away from the stem (don’t want to cut them).
Sticky Traps are a nontoxic way to trap flying hopping insects in the garden and are especially helpful in hoop and greenhouses to gather flea beetles and whiteflies.
- Apply an ample amount of Vaseline to both sides of a yellow 3 x 5 inch notecard. Use a plastic fork to hold card or punch a hole in card (before starting) and tie a string to the card.
Codling Moth Fruit trees – The codling moth larva scar apples making them unsightly. To nip this problem in the bud, try this remedy to trap the moths before they lay eggs. In a one-gallon clean milk jug add: 1 cup vinegar (I have also used cheap wine) and one cup sugar. Fill the rest of the jug with water. Shake it up and add one banana peel. Hang at an angle in apple trees before blossoms open. When I had an orchard of 225 trees, I would hang these jugs around the perimeter of fruit trees. It was very effective.
- I have also used these traps in between raspberries on Shepard’s hooks for similar results from pests at bloom time.
Two basic ingredients for most homemade mixtures are in your kitchen, soap and oil. Most all household soaps will work. Dishwashing (i.e. Ivory, castile), gentle washing flakes or bar soaps. The key is to use only unscented and purest forms available. ½ – 1 teaspoon (approximately) per quart is a general rule of thumb. Soap will kill soft-bodied insects and even some hard-shelled beetles (if they take a direct hit).
Oil: I like olive oil but any kind of vegetable oil works and even mineral oil can do the trick. Oil helps your homemade concoctions stick or adhere to the leaves while smothering eggs and larvae.
At the first sign of an infestation in my garden I quickly mix ½ teaspoon soap and 1 teaspoon oil in a quart of water and spray every other day for a week early in the morning or evening.
If I need more fire power or not sure what to do I go to this simple all around insect spray: mince and powder using food processor: 1 onion, 2 cloves garlic, 2 hot peppers (or 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper or hot sauce). Add to 2 quarts water. Let stand overnight, strain and add 1 teaspoon liquid soap and 1 Tablespoon oil. Keeps in the refrigerator for a week (if it lasts that long) If it doesn’t kill, it will burn, smother and repel…all good ammunition in the fight against bad bugs.
Always test your mix by spraying part of a plant and waiting to see if it does any damage. Don’t spray any type of oil mix in the blazing sun and heat of the day or it may burn plants. Early morning or evening works best. Start at the top of plant and spray down, then come up under to get bottom of leaves.
ALWAYS REMEMBER: Be kind to bees
If a homemade mixture will hurt pests, it can hurt, sicken or repel beneficial insects as well so be aware and responsible. Bees are important for pollination so spray after they have finished working for the day. When is that? I often hear after 4pm but I have noticed bees working plants later so just be observant and when they are no longer around, spray your plants.
Herbs are easy to grow multi-faceted plants that are a real friend to the gardener as well as good neighbors in the Kitchen Garden. Here are some easy herbal remedies to help you in your fight against bad bugs:
Basil, Ocimum basilicum is an annual herb that is known for its companion relationship with tomatoes. With natural fungicide and repelling properties it is wonderful to use with soap to make a solution to spray on vegies to help with fungal issues and knock down soft-bodied insects.
- Add one cup of fresh (or dried) basil leaves to a quart of hot boiled water, cover and let it steep until cool or overnight. Strain and add 1 teaspoon of dish soap. Pour into sprayer.
- Cut fresh bouquets and hang upside down around entrance of buildings to discourage flies. Sprinkle dried and powered basil anywhere flies are bugging you or make strong tea; cool, strain and spray for similar fly repellant effect.
Bay laurel, Laurus nobilis leaves have natural insecticidal properties that repel, stun and kill bugs. Ways to apply:
- Make a strong tea with 8-10 leaves (fresh or dried) per quart of boiling water. Steep overnight, strain and pour into sprayer.
- Grind dried leaves in a food processor or coffee grinder then add to a container with holes in the lid to dust plants (early morning).
- Drop a leaf in containers before storing dried veggies, fruit or in bags of flour and cornmeal to keep bugs out and kill any larvae that hatch. Students have told me countless stories of mother or grandmother putting a bay leaf into a bag of new flour from the store. Within 24 hours bugs would come to the top of the flour and they would scrape them off.
- Scatter bay leaves in kitchen cupboards and shelves to discourage pantry pests. If lady bugs are taking up winter residence in your home try spreading some leaves near suspected point of entry to repel naturally.
Borage – Borago officinalis has a reputation as a health-boosting neighbor in the kitchen garden. Brew a strong tea from the leaves (2 cups of leaves to 1 quart boiling water) cover, strain when cool and spray on leaf chewers.
Catnip – Grow near entryways to discourage ants. Dry and powder catnip leaves then dust around door frames and windows for ants and sprinkle on veggies for flea beetles.
- Brew 2 cups catnip leaves to 1 quart boiling water), steep overnight, strain (unbleached coffee filters work great) and spray the tea on the yard and garden for a natural mosquito-cide, add 1 teaspoon oil to the mix to help it stick to leaves.
- This tea spray will also tick off (repel) squash, bean and cucumber beetles when sprayed on a regular basis.
Cayenne peppers – Carefully grind peppers to a fine powder (food processor or coffee grinder) and sprinkle around windows and doors where you see ant trails and on garden plants early in the morning to keep rabbits away. Drop a whole dried pepper in containers of beans and grains to keep weevils and other bugs out. A dusting of cayenne will persuade kitties to stop using your raised beds as a litter box.
Cayenne adds an extra kick to most any pest mix so try adding a few ground or chopped peppers to any steeping concoction, strain before spraying and wear gloves and eye protection. Here are some combinations to try:
- Add approximately 1 cup of cayenne peppers chopped and 1 cup of DE (diatomaceous earth) to 2 quarts of water. Cover and let sit overnight. Strain and spray on leaves to repel most leaf eaters.
Chrysanthemum – dried flowers from this popular fall blooming perennial makes a strong smelling tea that helps to eliminate most pests without hurting the good guys.
- Simmer 1 cup of dried flowers for 15 – 20 minutes. After it has cooled, strain and pour in sprayer.
Chives – (garlic or onion), both in the Allium family are easy to grow perennial herbs. Brew a strong tea (1 cup blades, chopped to 1 quart hot boiled water) to spray spider mites. This spray will also help fight against mildew and fungus issues.
Garlic – Discourage deer from eating your garden for dinner; sprinkle dried, powdered garlic on plants and around perimeter of garden. Soak cloves in water overnight to make a tea to spray plants and garden to help with deer control and add other herbs to make homemade mixtures to stop bugs in their tracks.
- To make a natural sticker (an ingredient to help your pest solution adhere to leaves) make garlic oil in advance and have at the ready when you notice an outbreak of whiteflies, mites or beetles. Mince 4-6 cloves of garlic in 1 cup of olive oil in a pint mason jar. Cover and let sit for a week. Strain and label. Whenever you make a pest repelling mixture add 1 tablespoon of garlic oil per quart to give your pest solution some odorous sticking power.
- To combat fungus and mildew problems mix 1 Tablespoon garlic oil and 1 teaspoon dish soap per quart of water and spray early morning or early evening.
- Mix 1/2 cup of garlic oil to 1 gallon of water and spray fruit tree trunk and limbs while dormant to suffocate eggs (Early Strike)
Lemon Balm, Melissa officinalis is an easy perennial herb to grow in sun or part shade. If you don’t want lots of it be sure to cut it often to keep flowers from forming seeds.
- Sprinkle dried and powdered leaves and stems on veggies to confuse pests, especially effective on Swiss chard.
- Rub a handful of fresh cut lemon balm on picnic table or even your skin and clothes to keep biting pests away while you are enjoying the great outdoors.
Mint, Mentha is a well known herb that has a sneaky habit of running away with your garden (try corralling in containers or give it room to run in a ditch or hard to mow hillside) Happy most anywhere, this plant dried and sprinkled on vegetable plants will help deter pests especially ants and flea beetles. Fresh cut stems can be used around veggies to keep bad bugs guessing. In the house place mint fresh or dried in suspect places to cause mice to hold their noses and turn tail.
- Steep 1 cup mint leaves in 4 cups boiling water, cover and let stand an hour or so or overnight. Strain and spray ants and flea beetles.
Tansy, Tanacetum vulgare has a reputation for being a thug in the garden but once you get to know this herb and learn of its virtues as a bug deterrent you may not be able to get enough of it. The more you cut and use this plant the less opportunity it has to flower and disperse seeds. This and planting in part shade will cut down on the spreading.
- Cut fresh branches and lay in and around squash plants to deter those dreaded squash bugs.
- Power leaves and flowers and sprinkle to battle ants.
Wormwood, Artemisia is a strong and bitter herb that needs lots of room in the garden. Spray a strong tea from the leaves to kill cabbageworms and flea beetles (top and bottom of plant leaves).
- Pour 2 cups boiling water over 2 cups leaves. Cover and let steep for an hour or two, strain and add 4-8 cups of tap water before spraying plants.
Horsetail, Equisetum arvenses is an ancient herb known to have high silica content and can be used as a preventative against fungi diseases, especially helpful with tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, squash and beans. To keep this herb from taking over plant it in a container.
- 1 cup dried horsetail to 2 gallons of water. Simmer for about an hour, strain when cool and spray on veggies mid morning once a week.
My father who has raised food his whole life often reminds me that balance is key to any garden so, use the best soil you can afford or amend what you have with lots of organic matter (compost), know your pH, plant good quality plants (seeds) in lots of sunshine and water properly. By having a good foundation and the right conditions, beneficial insects thrive and bad bugs will be in danger but when Mother Nature needs some help give her a hand with some DIY natural solutions that make scents.