Organic Pest Control: Kinder and Gentler for Mother Nature

In nature, the insects we consider garden pests are part of the total scheme of things. When you’ve invested time, effort, and cash into cultivating rows and rows of flowers, fruits, or vegetables, though, it’s difficult to see your hard work being chewed into oblivion by caterpillars and beetles or the life sucked out of your plants by aphids.

A healthy ecosystem is key to preventing pests from taking over your garden in the first place. But even if you’ve followed all the recommendations — choosing a diverse array of healthy, disease- and pest-resistant plants; amending your soil to make it more fertile and resilient; adding natural pest predators like ladybugs, lacewings, and minute pirate bugs; and providing water and fertilizer on the right schedule — it’s not unheard of for unwanted visitors to break through the defenses.

Before you grab a spray bottle of a chemical pesticide, though, remember that many of them can harm beneficial insects, not just their targets, and can be hazardous to people, pets, and the environment. 

Instead, why not consider an organic alternative, either a commercial version or one you stir up yourself.  Whichever way you go, you’ll be making a milder impact on beneficial insects and pollinators compared to using conventional broad-spectrum pesticides. And you’ll be helping the planet by avoiding   chemicals that can leach into the soil or groundwater.  

Let Me Count the Ways

If being nicer to the Earth were the only benefit of using organic pesticides, that might be enough to convince many gardeners to make the switch.

The fact is, that’s just one of the advantages. 

If you’re growing edible plants, using organic products reduces or eliminates the risk of chemical residue showing up on your dinner plate. Some gardeners say that vegetables and fruits that aren’t exposed to conventional pesticides taste better.

And most gardeners notice that by laying off the chemicals, they’ve attracted more butterflies, birds, and wildlife to their yard. Their gardens are more vibrant as a result. 

Sprays, Traps, and Hand Claps

Diversity is a gardening watchword, and it applies as much to organic pest control as anything else.

In addition to nature’s little Orkin men — the aforementioned ladybugs, et al — you can set up floating or tunnel row covers to act as physical barriers against aphids, cabbage moths, cucumber beetles, and other invaders from getting to your plants. This approach is particularly useful for protecting young, vulnerable seedlings. 

Specialized baited traps can capture pests and reduce their population. DIY pit traps — something as simple as a glass jar lid filled with beer or sugar water — can attract slugs and snails, consigning them to a liquid death. Sticky traps are effective at catching aphids, whiteflies, thrips, and fungus gnats, while fruit fly traps trap (unsurprisingly) fruit flies. One word of caution: Empty traps regularly to ensure their continued effectiveness and prevent them from becoming pest breeding grounds. 

Prefer a spray or other approach? Nearly all garden shops stock products derived from natural ingredients, including:

  • Neem oil, which has insecticidal, fungicidal, and acaricidal (mite- and tick-killing) properties. For optimum effectiveness, you might have to apply neem oil more than once.
  • Insecticidal soap, effective against soft-bodied insects like aphids and mites.
  • Pyrethrum, a chrysanthemum flower derivative that is effective against many insects (but may harm beneficial insects as well).
  • Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterial strain that targets specific caterpillars.
  • Diatomaceous earth, a powder made from fossilized algae that can dehydrate slugs and snails (but can’t save them from drowning in a beer-filled jar lid).

As always, pick the right product for your pest problem and read the label to know whether it’s suitable for your plants. Some solutions may require mixing or dilution, while others are ready-to-use. Products with the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) logo means the non-profit organization has assessed them against the national organic standards of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the respective government agency standards for Canada and Mexico.

If you’re not squeamish about creepy crawlies, you can hand-pick pests off your plants. What you do with them next is up to you but knocking them into a dish of soapy water should finish them off.

As for blending a batch of homemade organic pesticide, some gardeners use household ingredients such as mild dish detergent diluted with water or make a garlic spray by soaking garlic cloves in water then diluting the mix. Not only can these approaches be effective, but they’re also budget friendly. 

On the flip side, kitchen brews may not be as potent as commercial organic products, meaning you have to reapply them often.

Not For Everyone

For all its good points, organic pest control might not be the best choice for every garden. Organic methods often take more time and persistence, so if you’re the type of gardener who wants to see results now, you might prefer faster-acting conventional pesticides. And if you have a large or diverse garden, it might take more preparation and effort to use organic pest controls. 

What’s more, if you’re experiencing a major infestation, organic sprays and other methods might not have the oomph to solve the problem on their own. In that case, you may have to add firepower in the form of a low-impact, conventional product.

Don’t forget: The effectiveness of any pest control can depend on the type of pest you’re dealing with. And it's always a good idea to test any new solution on a small, inconspicuous area of a plant before applying it liberally. 

With proper planning (and proper planting), organic pest control can help ensure a good return on your gardening investment while also being kinder and gentler to Mother Natural. And in the total scheme of things, you can’t do much better than that.

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