Insects and rodents are a pesky part of gardening life.
However, if you want to avoid using chemicals for personal health you want to protect the food you eat and the groundwater.
Many of the following strategies have worked for many people. You’ll find that often you have to try different things depending on what the pest is: wildlife or insects.
Organic, or natural, pest deterrence can often be equally or more effective than chemical ones, with reduced risk of negative health impacts.
Prevention strategies also keep insects at bay as you’ll soon discover below.
Even better, organic doesn’t necessarily mean more expensive. You may have exactly what you need already at home.
1. Implement No-Till Gardening
If you do not excessively till the soil, it can keep insects at bay more effectively.
Tilling mixes organic matter in, helps to control weeds, and loosens areas for planting. However, it also disrupts the balance of microbes in the soil, accelerates surface run-off (erosion), and increases the negative impact of heavy rain on plants.
While this may seem contradictory to gardening practices, when you till or dig in the garden you invite insects in.
This is because the soil climate has changed, and different insects are seeking microbes or other nutrients in the soil.
Some farmers have opted for no- or low-tillage practices to reduce populations of sap-sucking insects such as aphids.
If you must dig, if possible, do not go more than 12 inches deep.
You can try this strategy in conjunction with many of the following tips.
2. Create Or Use Clean Soil
Healthy, clean soil can surprisingly help keep insects away.
This method is time-consuming and works on soil that you will not use immediately. However, it can set your garden up for future success.
This method works well, but keep in mind that other factors such as climate and the plants you have planted can invite insect pests no matter what.
- Amend your soil by tilling in organic compost.
- This adds to nutritional balance and invites good garden insects to eat other insects.
- Cover the tilled area with cardboard or black plastic for 6 months.
- The heat of the summer season will eliminate insect pests and their eggs, parasites, weeds, and other harmful microorganisms.
- Remove the cover and lightly cultivate the soil. At this time, you can plant items for the season you are in.
- Keep leaf debris off of the area to continue to keep insects out.
Suggestion: Consider covering the soil over the winter to keep debris and insects out.
3. Improve Your Garden Soil
Prevention is a great way to protect your garden from insect damage. By creating a healthy foundation, harmful insects are less likely to settle in.
If you cannot wait 6 months to plant to do the above strategy, you can improve your garden soil with organic compost.
Beneficial insects thrive in compost and help to keep the soil and plants healthy.
Better yet, you can make it! This is time-consuming but well worth it.
Build or purchase a compost bin. Ideally, you want a container where the organic material can break down in a “clean” environment away from wildlife.
Add items like coffee grounds, sawdust, fruit and vegetable waste, mulched leaves, and eggshells to the bin.
Over time, these will break down and you’ll be left with a rich and soft compost with nutrients such as nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and more.
Mix the compost into the soil or top-dress it, so that the roots of your plants get these nutrients, making them strong and healthy and less susceptible to insects.
This video shows a beginner’s guide to composting:
4. Use Seaweed For Healthy Plants
A mulch or spray made of seaweed gives plants a healthy advantage against insects.
Seaweed has trace minerals and elements such as iron, calcium, magnesium, and so on, which they need for healthy development.
Interestingly, seaweed mulch will also deter slugs.
5. Use Disease- & Pest-Resistant Seeds
If starting plants from seeds, it can be beneficial to purchase seeds with a little extra protection.
Many of these treatments are derived from natural sources. For example, abamectin comes from avermectins that are derived from a soil microorganism. These interrupt an insect’s nervous system, and they eventually die.
If you are unsure of the chemical or treatment used on a seed or want to do further research to find the most natural ones, make sure you read the information label.
When purchasing seeds look at the description for the following letters to see what they are resistant against.
Here are a few examples:
- V: verticillium wilt (a fungal disease that affects tomatoes and woody plants)
- F: fusarium (widely-spread soil fungus)
- Nr: lettuce leaf aphids
- DM: downy mildew (caused by parasites)
- ZYMV: zucchini yellow mosaic virus
6. Use Caution When Transplanting
At times, you may wish to transplant plants if they are not thriving. Perhaps they need better drainage or different lighting conditions.
However, keep in mind that when you transplant, you can also transplant microscopic soil diseases and insect pests.
If you are planting things in your garden from a gardening store, opt for certified plants that have clean soil and are disease and pest free.
7. Use Thinning To Increase Air Flow
Healthy plants are less likely to get attacked than diseased plants. To keep your plants healthy, they need airflow so that moisture does not settle in.
Thin out any small or weak seedlings since they can more readily become diseased. Insects can walk all over these and then walk on healthy plants, spreading bacteria and fungal spores.
Make sure to dispose of any diseased plants away from the garden area, preferably in a covered waste bin.
Sanitize any tool that you use, by soaking it for at least 30 minutes in a 10% bleach and water solution.
8. Water In The Morning
If you are a morning person, it is a great time to water your plants.
The day is not yet hot, and this allows the water to absorb into the soil and then into the plant’s roots.
Morning watering is best because it helps with essential photosynthesis as the sun rises.
It also allows the plants’ leaves to dry off, thus keeping fungus at bay.
Take care to concentrate watering on the roots instead of the foliage. Wet foliage invites insect and fungal damage.
You can even use soaker or drip hoses that lay directly on the ground around your plants.
9. Fully Remove Weeds
Pull weeds as soon as they take root since they can harbor insect pests and parasites.
They also steal nutrients away from your garden plants, making them struggle. This also invites insects and fungal infections to settle in.
Make sure to completely remove the roots of any weeds. This may call for the need to do some light digging around larger weeds.
Pulling them when they are young makes it easier to get them fully out without disturbing the soil or nearby plants.
Note: Many people like to use vinegar, salt, and dish detergent mix to spray and kill weeds. While this will kill insects, it may also kill your vegetation as well as disrupt the balance of the soil with the acidic vinegar.
10. Remove Debris
As part of general garden maintenance, make sure to eliminate any faded blooms, leaves, and weeds, because decayed plant matter invites insects, disease, and fungus to your garden.
A helpful tip is to bring a bucket with you every time you visit your garden. Pick up and put debris in it as you tend to your garden.
Dispose of yard waste in a covered bin according to your local refuge regulations. Put down clean mulch if needed.
11. Use Bleach-Free Dish Detergent
You can often use things found directly at home, which includes soap-based repellents that work well for insects.
To deter insects such as aphids, spider mites, and more you can make dish detergent spray. This will not harm your plants but will help keep bugs away.
What to do:
- Mix 1 tablespoon of bleach-free dish detergent or Castile soap with 1 quart of warm distilled or filtered water.
- Lightly spray the top and underside of the leaves.
- Reapply as needed, especially after heavy bouts of watering or rain
Take care to use the ratio of soap and water as mentioned above, since too much soap can scorch the leaves.
12. Spray Insecticidal Soap
If your dish detergent won’t do the trick then use a commercial insecticidal soap.
Insecticidal soap is an organic option because it is made of natural ingredients that include fatty acid potassium salts, and it is derived from plant oils.
Refer to the informational label, but insecticidal soap works best against soft-bodied insects such as spider mites, whiteflies, and aphids. However, it may kill beneficial insects as well.
The fatty acids break down the protective cuticles that an insect has, dehydrating the insect and killing it.
The soap should be sprayed directly on the insects, as well as on the top and undersides of the leaves. Generally, this soap needs to be reapplied every 5 to 7 days until the insect issue is gone.
Sometimes, soap spray can “burn” or scorch the leaves, so consider testing it on a few leaves first. Follow instructional use to dilute it properly.
13. Use Neem Oil Spray
Another option to use for those pesky insects is neem oil. Keep in mind that neem oil can affect both good and bad insects.
Neem oil is a naturally occurring, and therefore organic, pesticide derived from the seeds of the neem tree. This biodegradable oil has an active ingredient called azadirachtin.
The oil has a bitter taste and garlic-sulfur smell that repels many insects such as squash bugs, potato beetles, and other leaf-eaters.
Follow the instructional use for mixing neem oil with water. Test the mixture on a few leaves to look for signs of any scorching.
If no damage to the leaves appears after 48 hours, then spray the mixture directly on adult insects and both sides of the leaves.
Reapply every 7 to 10 days during the growing season to keep them away and slow down any egg-laying.
Avoid spraying during peak flowering times, and apply in early mornings or late evenings when bees and butterflies are not as active.
14. Make A Spicy Garlic Spray
Garlic is great for cooking purposes, but it also works well as a natural way to deter insect pests and wildlife.
You can make your own spicy garlic spray by doing the following:
- Puree 10 cloves of garlic.
- Mix puree with 1 quart of warm-to-touch water.
- Let it stand overnight.
- Strain the mixture with a cheesecloth.
- Mix the garlic water with 1-cup of vegetable oil and a pinch of cayenne pepper.
- Again, let the mixture sit overnight.
- Pour it into a spray bottle.
- Spray the tops and undersides of the leaves. You can also spray around the perimeter of your garden.
- Reapply after rain, or as often as once a week.
15. Create An Essential Oil Spray
Much like a spicy garlic spray, you can use essential oils to make a pest-deterrent spray against both insects and wildlife.
Opt for odiferous essential oils such as citronella, peppermint, tea tree, or rosemary. Mix a few drops of essential oil into a spray bottle filled with witch hazel and vegetable oil.
Shake to mix and spray on the tops and bottoms of leaves, as well as the perimeter of your garden.
Reapply as needed.
16. Add Nematodes
If you have an abundance of frustrating soil pests such as weevils, cutworms, chinch bugs, white grubs, and more, try using nematodes.
Parasitic nematodes are opaque and unsegmented words naturally found throughout the aquatically and terrestrially throughout the earth.
They release bacteria that can kill host insects that dwell in the soil in a matter of days.
However, the concentration of nematodes in typical soil is not enough to control insect infestations.
Dormant nematodes can be purchased in billions of numbers and stored in the refrigerator until ready for use.
They are then mixed with warm water and applied immediately to the garden soil. This is best done when the ground is about 60°F on an overcast day.
This allows the solution to seep in without exposure to hot temperatures and light from the sun that could kill them prematurely.
Keep in mind that an abundance of nematodes could also harm the roots of plants, so watch for signs of wilting leaves.
17. Use Sticky Insect Traps
If you don’t mind touching bugs, and can tolerate time bent over on the ground, you can pick and squash bugs by hand.
Ideally, this is not the most efficient way to remove bugs because they likely have laid eggs as well. Therefore, to speed things up, you can try a sticky surface to get rid of insects.
Sticky insect traps, commonly found at garden centers, will catch many garden insects traveling through. However, these will also catch good insects, such as ladybugs.
In turn, this could affect pollination. It is recommended that you use this for short-term management while implementing another long-term option from this article.
Take care to avoid sticky traps that could harm wildlife as well.
To keep wildlife safe, you can try to get rid of them with a sticky gloved hand. Roll a piece of sticky tape, with the sticky side out, onto your glove and catch them, by hand.
Then, remove the bug-covered tape and stick it in a bowl or bucket of soapy water. The insects will eventually die.
18. Introduce Good Garden Bugs
When you use sprays and sticky traps, they will also harm beneficial insects such as ladybugs, bees, and butterflies.
To eliminate insect pests, consider introducing beneficial insects to consume them and reduce their population and resulting damage.
For example, ladybugs eat aphids, mites, as well as eggs, and larvae of harmful insects.
Praying mantises, ground beetles, hoverflies, parasitic wasps, and lacewings also help to get rid of harmful insect pests.
Contact your local horticultural center or supply company to see what options are available to you.
Make sure you have not used any pesticides or chemical lawn treatments 10 days before trying this option.
If you are not sure if the insects are good or bad on your plants, use a bug-identifying app, or take pictures and do an internet search to compare.
19. Plants For Good Insects To Stay And Help
To encourage the good bugs to stay you can plant the following:
- Leafy plants
- Lace flower
- Shasta daisies
- Common boneset
When beneficial insects come into your garden they feast on the insects that cause trouble.
20. Invite Birds And Bats
Birds like to eat insects as part of their diet. Put up a birdbath and a bird feeder. The birds will come to enjoy the seeds and reduce your overall insect population.
A bat box can be installed on your property too, and they will help keep pesky mosquitoes at bay.
21. Implement Crop Rotation Annually
Typically, if you put the same vegetable plant in the same spot each year, the same garden insects will come and eat away.
To deal with this, rotate crops, much as farmers do. This keeps the soil balanced nutritionally and the offending insect populations down.
Another idea is to interplant, by mixing the plants amongst each other. Since insect pests are often plant-specific, they have a harder time finding similar plants when they are not directly next to each other.
22. Use Pest-Deterrent Plants
Many people like to have a colorful garden with lots of variety. By planting various plants, you can keep out not only insects but other wildlife.
You can plant vegetation that deters both with their offensive tastes and smells.
Consider planting the following in the ground or movable pots:
Herbs are also great deterrents that you can plant in the ground, or in pots to move around as needed.
Try the following:
- Lemon balm
23. Use Kitchen Spices
You can use other things from your kitchen such as cinnamon and cayenne pepper.
Consider buying a large, bulk container and sprinkling the spices around the perimeters of your garden and home. This can result in fewer insects and rodents.
Unfortunately, you will have to apply it more often. However, it is fun to smell cinnamon and spice when working outdoors.
24. Cover Plants With Floating Row Covers
This option is not the first option, because it is not an attractive choice if you wish to see your garden. However, it can keep away insect and rodent pests.
Consider using these when there is an active infestation. Keep in mind that if your plants require pollination, this method can prevent that from occurring.
Floating row covers are typically made of translucent polyester fabric that allows sunlight and water to enter in.
Lightweight covers are best for summer use, allowing the air to flow without scorching your plants. Heavyweight covers are better reserved for cooler temperatures when there is a risk of frost.
Floating row covers can be draped directly over plants, or rest on installed hoops or weirs that sit higher than the plants.
Most importantly, floating row covers should have secured edges to keep them in place as well as to keep the majority of pests from accessing the plants.
25. Implement Physical Deterrents
In addition to floating row covers, you may need fencing or greenhouses-like structures to keep wildlife out.
Try hanging a container plant from a shepherd’s hook and putting a slinky on it. It works perfectly for keeping the squirrels away and provides some amusing, yet harmless entertainment.
Shiny, reflective, and noisy hanging items will scare deer and other creatures away. Deer may get used to them over time, so make sure you hang them up in new spots every week or so.
Ultrasonic and motion-activated lights also help keep larger critters away.
26. Sprinkle On Diatomaceous Earth
Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is a natural substance composed of fossilized remains of aquatic creatures. This substance slowly dehydrates insects until they die.
Follow instructional use, and sprinkle it around your plants. Wear a mask when you sprinkle it so you don’t breathe in the powdery dust.
DE is effective against bugs such as squash bugs, aphids, snails, ants, potato beetles, fleas, earwigs, and more. And yet, it will not harm your plants.
27. Invite Snakes
While you may not be a fan of snakes face to face, they are good for gardens. They help to control slugs, small rodents, grasshoppers, and more.
Place some large rocks throughout your garden as decor but also for snakes to use as a place to thermoregulate. If there is food nearby, such as mice, the snakes are likely to stay.
You may find that creating the foundation for a healthy garden, monitoring it for disease and damage, and helping your plants thrive can bring you much joy. You too can have a beautiful and enjoyable garden by trying these strategies to keep a variety of pests away.