It’ll be time to start planting soon, and you may be wondering how you’re going to keep aphids, cutworms, and other pests out of your garden. Chemical pesticides are starting to fall out of favor as organic gardeners revive old chemical-free methods that have always worked.
Specifically, there are seven safe and effective alternatives we’ll discuss:
- Routine lawn maintenance
- Mechanical methods
- Companion planting
- Crop rotation
- “Soft” chemicals
1. Routine lawn maintenance
Keep your grass short. When you let your grass get tall and raggedy, it becomes the preferred habitat of ticks and fleas. They like moist, cool places and tall grass keeps them covered in shadow. So channel your inner Hank Hill and keep that lawn well manicured.
Weed regularly. Weeds provide too much comfortable shade for pests and act as a bridge to help them spread from one plant to another. Plus, savagely yanking them out of the ground is a great way to blow off steam if you’re feeling some stress.
Keep your yard free of debris, like grass clippings and leaves. Not only do they provide shade, they also trap moisture, which can cause fungal infestations. Some people like to leave the clippings on their lawn to return the nutrients and moisture to the soil. If you want to do this, be sure to mulch them so they break down quickly and easily. Alternatively, you can put the clippings in your compost.
Surround your plant beds with mulch to create a migration barrier. Fleas and ticks aren’t that ambitious. Crossing such a terrain makes them visible and vulnerable to predators and they won’t do it if they don’t have to.
2. Mechanical methods
Barriers and traps can protect your plants and ensnare pests using no chemicals at all. You can make sticky boards, bury coffee cans, etc. to capture bugs.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is also a mechanical means. It’s a fine white dust made from fossilized fragments of diatoms. The particles have sharp edges that cut through the exoskeletons of insects and causes them to dehydrate. A word of caution about DE – it will also kill beneficial insects.
3. Companion planting
Some of the plants that smell fantastic to us smell absolutely terrible to bugs and keep all kinds of pests away. Lavender, marigolds, and rosemary repel the most dangerous insects in the world Including ticks, and mosquitoes.
My grandmother was a serious gardener. She planted marigolds to keep harmful insects out of her vegetables. She also did what is now referred to as diversified planting.
Diversified planting takes companion planting to a level that can actually help you find creative ways to organize your plants. For example, plants from the Allium species (garlic, onions, et al.) repel aphids, slugs, among other things. So I might plant them next to tomatoes and peppers and think of that part of my garden as the Italian section.
4. Crop rotation
Some pests lay eggs in the soil around the plants they like to eat. Rotating your plants can help cut down on parasitic activity by forcing them to travel to find their food and expose themselves to predators.
It also helps to preserve a better balance of nutrients in the soil.
5. “Soft” chemicals
Dish soap diluted in water can be sprayed on the plants to repel insects. Some dish soaps may be too harsh for certain plants, but mild soaps like Castile soap can be used on more sensitive plants.
Certain plants, like rhubarb and stinging nettles, produce oils that repel or kill insects. You can make a spray out of nettles by cutting them up and soaking them in water. You can also use rhubarb leaves.
Certain fungus species, like mycorrhizal, protect your plants from parasitic fungi. Parasitic insects like Braconid wasps lay their eggs inside larvae and other eggs. When they hatch, the larvae then devour the host from the inside out.
Below ground, tiny unsegmented worms called nematodes feed on eggs and larvae of pests in the soil.
Bugs have a lot of problems. Reptiles, amphibians, birds, spiders, and bigger bugs are always trying to eat them. You can use that to your advantage by taking a few steps to attract these predators.
Birds can eat loads of insects every day. Especially in the spring when they have young to feed. So make your lawn a welcoming environment and they’ll happily snipe those caterpillars and Japanese beetles right off your plants.
Frogs and toads eat many types of pests. They need shade and water, so creating habitats for them is a good way to lure them to your yard.
Predatory insects like ground beetles, lacewings, and damsel bugs can actually eat too many pests. Ironically, to attract beneficial insects to your garden, you first have to have the pests they like to eat. It might seem strange to wonder if you have enough aphids, but not if you’re planning the menu for lady beetles.
Between all of these methods, some of which you can use together, there’s something that should work for everyone who wants to be rid of chemical pesticides. In many cases, taking care of your lawn and taking a few simple steps to leverage nature against your pests is enough.
Got any favorite methods of your own to share? Let us know in the comments.