Whether you use natural pesticides or other organic pest control measures in your garden, you have options. Here’s a closer look at some natural alternatives to chemical pesticides…
Pesticides are one of the leading causes of run-off pollution, and are wreaking havoc on our waterways and marine life, as well as bees and other important pollinators. They have also been said to cause cancer and a variety of other health problems when ingested. So if pesticides are so bad for both us and the environment, how can you keep your garden safely protected from garden pests?
One option is to use natural pesticides. These substances are a safer alternative to their chemical counterparts. Often derived naturally from plants and trees, natural pesticides generally have fewer negative side effects and are (usually) non-toxic for humans to consume.
However, this doesn’t mean that they are entirely safe, and some naturally-derived pesticides may harm beneficial insects as well as pests, so they should always be used with caution – and we feel, as a last resort. If your pest problem isn’t too severe, we recommend starting with other natural methods of pest control, such as crop rotation.
When to use a natural pesticide versus another organic pest control method will depend largely on your preference as well as the severity of the pest issue you are experiencing. In some cases of heavy infestations, a natural pesticide may be your only viable option if you want your plants to survive.
Here are 3 natural and organic-approved pesticides, as well as 3 other natural methods of pest control for use in the organic garden:
A derivative of the seed of the Azadirachta Indica tree, neem oil has been used as a natural pesticide for many years. There are some things to consider prior to applying neem oil in your garden. It can kill some delicate types of plants (such as tender baby seedlings) in higher doses, so before applying on a wide scale first test the neem oil on a small spot of each type of plant in your garden. It can also burn the plant if applied in too high of a dosage or during times of direct sunlight. To prevent this, follow the dosage directions on the bottle and apply neem oil in the evening when the sun starts to set, or on a cooler, cloudy day.
Neem oil is generally considered safe and non-toxic to consume in small doses and may be used shortly before harvest.
Diatomaceous Earth is made of ground-up fossils. When applied around a plant, insects walk over the Diatomaceous Earth and the substance causes dozens of micro-cuts on the insect’s body. This causes the insect to die of dehydration. Diatomaceous Earth (DE) can be applied around the base of a plant or sprinkled directly on the plants themselves. Keep in mind that DE loses its effectiveness when wet, so you will need to reapply after rain or watering.
You should only use food-grade DE in your garden, but you still don’t want to eat it, so be sure to rinse your fruits or veggies thoroughly before consuming. You also will want to be careful when applying DE, as it can be irritating to the skin and mucus membranes. Avoid applying when windy, and you may wish to wear gloves and a mask or goggles when applying.
You can use either summer oil or dormant oil, preferably one that is vegetable-based. Summer oils – also called growing season oils – are used when there are still leaves on trees, as they are generally safe for plants. Dormant oils are meant to kill off any bugs that may be lying dormant over the winter and are best applied after the leaves have fallen from the trees. Some horticultural oils are approved for use in all seasons.
Just as with neem oil, be sure to test your horticultural oil on a small spot of the plant prior to applying it to the entire thing. Also never apply in direct sunlight– wait until the evening.
If you have a smaller infestation of garden pests, a non-pesticide-based solution may be best. Here are a few options to try:
The simplest natural method of pest control is just picking the bugs off the plants. This can be time-consuming, but it involves no risk to your plants and zero chemicals. Pop the pests into a bucket of soapy water, and they will die quickly.
One trick if your plant has a lot of bugs is to use a small shop-vac with a small hose to gently suck up any bugs on a plant– this method is a little faster, although some delicate plants may not be able to withstand the force of the vacuum hose, so only use on sturdy plants, and use the lowest setting possible. This method works best for larger crawling bugs like squash bugs, and not so well for caterpillar pests which may be hard to suck off the leaves without damaging them.
Another risk-free method of natural insect control is companion planting. This one involves some planning prior to gardening season, as you need to find plants that can help protect other plants. For example, if you want to grow good tomatoes, try growing some basil or borage next to the tomato plants. These plants may help to repel tomato pests and attract beneficial pollinating insects at the same time. Conversely, if you grow potatoes near the tomatoes, you run the risk of certain diseases spreading from potatoes to the tomatoes, so you’ll want to keep those two plants away from each other. Here’s a handy companion planting chart to help you figure out what to plant together, and what to keep apart. You can also find more detailed information in the book Carrots Love Tomatoes, by Louise Riotte.
Row cover is another good way to keep your plants safe from harmful pests. However, like companion planting, it does require a bit of advance planning, as once your plants are infested with pests, it’s too late. In early spring or fall, you can use an insulating row cover as frost protection as well, but during the hot summer months, you’ll want to use a mesh row cover that doesn’t hold the heat in.
I particularly like using row cover for brassicas, such as cabbage, broccoli, and kale. These plants are harvested before they flower, so they don’t require pollination, and they are very prone to cabbage moth pests. If you cover fruiting plants such as squash or melons, you will need to uncover them once they start to bloom so they can be pollinated and set fruit, and your row cover method will be less effective at this point.
There are many natural ways to protect your plants from pests – even if you’re growing an organic garden. You don’t need harsh chemicals to have a beautiful garden that produces plenty of healthy, fresh, and chemical-free food for your family! From companion planting to hand-picking, to barrier methods like row cover, you have pesticide-free options, as well as access to natural pesticides for control of severe infestations.