Whether you’re a farmer or a gardener, we cultivators are locked in a perpetual war. On one side, there is us, the green-thumbed life-givers, while on the other, hordes of hungry creepy crawlies with powerful mandibles and rumbling tums.
Behind our ranks lie our painstakingly cultivated plants, and if we don’t do everything in our power to protect them, they’ll end up on the dinner menus of a million tiny little munchers — Boo!
Once they’ve infiltrated our lines, these pests can be particularly tricky to get rid of, especially if you’re hoping to keep chemicals out of the equation, so today, I’m going to be bestowing you with the ultimate tips on natural pest prevention. For, as we all know, prevention is always better than the cure.
But before we begin, allow me to extend a warm naturalist.com welcome to the readers of virtualgrange.com. This magnificent site was recently absorbed into our ecosystem, a new shoot from the naturallist stem, if you will, and we’re over the moon to have you here!
With that said, let’s get into the guide.
Pest Prevention Starts Immediately
The number one mistake people make when it comes to pest control is waiting too late to implement deterrents — If you want to keep as many of those pincer-jawed nightmares away from your plants as possible, you should prioritize pest control from the get-go!
To build a truly robust defense against plant-eating pests, you should work deterrents into your initial garden plan. Now, I know it’s easy to get carried away with ambitious flower arrays and super diverse vegetable patches, but trust me, setting aside some time to think about how you’re going to protect your future plants will pay dividends.
So, after you’ve planned out your winter bed, your light bed, your dark bed, and beyond, map out your defenses.
Ideally, you’ll read this guide before you break ground and sow your first seeds, or at the very least, shortly after your garden is starting to take shape and thrive.
Next up, allow me to introduce you to what you’re up against.
Know Your Enemy: Common Garden Pests
There are countless different insects out there that will dine out on your greenery if given an opportunity, but you’ll find the usual suspects below.
- Waterbugs — A form of cockroach, the pest DNA is strong in waterbugs. They’ll eat pretty much anything green, so it’s important to keep your peepers peeled for these little beasties.
- Thrips — Also known as thunder flies, thrips are vampiric sap suckers that steadily drain the life from your plants. They’re particularly fond of marigold variants,
- Hornworm — Hornworms are the larvae of the sphinx moth, and as brilliant as these creatures are, they can devastate your tomato plants.
- Aphids — Much like thrips, aphids are consummate sap consumers, and they can lay waste to your beautiful plants in no time. They’ll eat just about any plant, but young greenery and nascent flowers are their delicacies, which is why it’s essential to establish your defenses early.
They really really love milkweed too, so if you plan on growing some, stay vigilant!
- Gall mites — Gall mites are all about the fuchsia. These microscopic pests don’t just mutilate the young shoots of these plants with their jaws, but with the chemicals they leave in their wake. An infestation that doesn’t kill a fuchsia plant will undoubtedly leave it severely deformed, even as it continues to grow.
- Alder leaf beetles — We think of trees as robust plants that can handle the odd insect bite, and while this is true, alder leaf beetles can cause serious defoliation, which can of course impact tree health and appearance.
And while we’re on the topic of trees, feel free to check out our vast informational tree-based resources if you’re planning on planting any.
- Shield bugs — Shield bugs love, love, love chowing down on the sap of vegetables and tomatoes, and often cause produce deformities similar to those caused by disease.
- Vine weevils — In the mature phase of the vine weevil’s growth cycle, it’s a real leaf destroyer, but in the larval phase, it’s much more sinister. These chubby grubs shuffle about beneath the soil surface, hunting for roots to devour, killing our sweet, leafy children without our even knowing it.
- Root maggots — Similar to the larvae of vine weevils, root maggots feast on the roots of our plants for sustenance.
- Cabbage white caterpillars — We’ve all read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but what you may not have realized is just how true to life that story is. Just one cabbage white caterpillar can do some serious damage, but in high numbers, they will decimate that vegetable patch you worked so hard on, meaning all those hours spent nurturing and fertilizing your veggies will have been for nothing.
- Spittlebugs — I’m sure you’ll have seen little bits of white foam here and there in your farm, yard, or allotment before. This stuff is the product of spittlebugs, little critters that can cause havoc in your lawn.
The really annoying thing about them is that this “spittle” that they produce on their backs is used to hide them from predators and protect them from the elements, meaning without intervention, they can run amok in your green space.
- Chinch bugs — Chinch bugs are another lawn destroyer that can cause what initially looks like dollar spot — small patchy areas of pale dying grass.
- Greenhouse whitefly — These little demons leave behind a residue that gradually turns the host plant into a black, moldy mess. They love both edible and ornamental plants.
- Grasshoppers — These noisy so-and-sos love a tasty leaf or flower to nibble on. So, if you hear some grasshoppers about, be afraid… be very afraid.
How To Prevent Pests From Dining Out On Your Garden
Without further ado, let’s run through the absolute best (and natural) ways to keep the nasties at bay in your garden.
Keep Your Yard Tidy
Much like rats and mice, bugs are attracted to spaces with lots of places to hide, meaning keeping your green area nice and neat is an essential facet of infestation prevention.
This means using tools to efficiently remove autumn leaves from your land in the fall, removing or frequently turning your mulch, trimming back any overgrowth, and dealing with weeds as early as possible.
If bugs have no place to hide from predators or extreme weather, they’re not going to stick around.
Inviting Predators To The Party
Our plants may provide a feast for a myriad of invasive insects, but guess what… bugs are also a menu item; you just have to find the right diners!
Not only is it extremely satisfying to nurture the bird population of an outdoor space, but almost all birds prey on insects, meaning any that dare show up on your property risk befalling a beaky fate — Mwuhahaha!
The question is, how do you make an outdoor space more enticing for our winged saviors? Well, it’s actually easier than you might think. For starters, you can invest in a few bird amenities, such as a quality bird bath, some lovely bird houses, and some bird feeders.
But birds aren’t the only animal that can bolster our ranks in this battle to save our crops. Certain insects that have a penchant for eating other insects can also lend a helping hand (up to 6 helping hands actually).
For instance, ants love nothing more than tucking into a nice plump chinch bug or a sizable waterbug. Ladybirds are also quite partial to an insectile snack, namely aphids, so inviting some into your garden is a good move. And considering aphids often infiltrate our homes and gnaw on our houseplants, you might also consider having a ladybug or two over for dinner.
I jest, of course, but by bolstering ladybird populations in your yard, you reduce the chances of an internal infestation significantly.
To bring more of these red, spotty bugs to your outdoor space, consider planting lots of pollen-rich blooms. Marigolds are a great option, alongside some lovely flat-topped flowers such as fennel, yarrow, or angelic.
Hedgehogs are prolific bug biters too, as are frogs and lacewings, so get them all involved if you can.
Plant A Decoy Border
This method is pretty darn sneaky, and it works like a charm! Instead of trying to fight off the countless bugs trying to get at our greenery, we can simply give in to their demands and hand over what they want on a silver platter.
I know this sounds like garden suicide, but, on the contrary, it’s going to save the majority of our garden from infestation.
The trick here is to plant a border around the edge of your garden, or even just around certain high value sections of your outdoor space, using all the plants that pests absolutely adore.
They arrive, they taste, they conquer, but unbeknownst to the creepy crawlies, they’ve just played right into our hand, as the decoy border was meant to distract them from the garden proper.
Plant A Defensive Border
Alternatively, instead of planting a decoy border to keep the pests busy, you could straight-up deny them by planting a defensive border composed of all the plants insects detest. In fact, you may not even have to form a full wall most of the time.
Simply planting a blacklisted plant near one of the plants insects love will give them pause when deciding where to stop and have a snack.
As for what plants serve as good pest deterrents, there is no shortage of options:
- Chrysanthemums — Mums should be your go-to for shielding at-risk plants in your garden, as they contain something known as pyrethrum, a common ingredient in all-natural pest repellents.
These cheerful blooms will keep ticks, fleas, spider mites, roaches, bed bugs, and beetles at bay, to name just a few, so never underestimate the impact planting a few mums around your yard will have
Plus, as a bonus, chrysanthemums are drop-dead gorgeous flowers that protect your garden and beautify it too!
The downside is that they also repel ants, which is sometimes necessary, but if you plan on following my earlier advice involving introducing ants to your garden ecosystem to weed out some of the more herbicidal pests, then leave the mums alone.
- Basil — Mosquitos absolutely despise basil, meaning with the right plants, even airborne insects won’t reach your vulnerable species. That said, basil can be quite tricky to grow, so I’d recommend checking out our basil propagation guide.
And much like chrysanthemums, basil comes with a handy bonus… it’s delicious. Throw it on pizza, make some homemade pesto, tear it into a tomato sauce, use it as an attractive garnish… there are a million and one ways to put this herb to good use!
You can also use it to make some super effective homemade insect repellents, but more on that a bit later.
- Nasturtiums — Similarly to mums, nasturtiums produce a chemical that insects find repulsive, but get this…they release it into the air, creating a robust, invisible, floating defense that prevents winged pests from going up and over their defensive line.
Nasturtiums are particularly impressive at repelling aphids and whiteflies, so they’ll be a dauntless plant protector pretty much anywhere in your garden, but my advice is to use them to contain your vegetable patch.
That airborne chemical is going to provide the most comprehensive protection to your edibles, ensuring your produce ends up on your dinner plate, not a bug’s. And, putting the cherry on top, nasturtiums are remarkably easy to grow — Hooray!
- Lemongrass — You’ve no doubt seen those citronella candles used to keep flying pests away from your al fresco dining areas, but did you know that the oil used to make them is extracted from lemongrass?
Plant some of this decorative grass in vulnerable zones of your yard to keep a plethora of pests at bay.
It can look a little scruffy, as it grows up to 4 feet tall, so I’d recommend potting it rather than sowing seeds in your garden.
That said, if you don’t mind the jungle vibe in your yard, go ahead and plant it wherever you see fit.
- Marigolds — Okay, so I know I mentioned earlier that thrips quite like marigolds, and that’s correct, but a lot of other insects, including mosquitos, hate them, so it’s worth having some around, perhaps paired with a thrip deterrent.
These irritating insects will do anything to avoid basil, so a marigold-basil combination isn’t a bad idea.
Do keep an eye on this herbal insect denier, though, as even though it’s quite tricky to get started, once it’s got some momentum, if you don’t prune basil, it can get rather unruly.
- Lemon thyme — Lemon thyme is our sleeper agent in the field! It poses no threat to insect kind by simply being in their proximity, but when we crush a few of its leaves, the citric aroma is released into the air, warning all nearby pests that they’ve entered a no-dining zone.
While manually activating this deterrent is a little inconvenient, I actually find it rather calming and meditative walking around my garden each morning, rubbing lemon thyme between my fingers.
- Mint — By far one of the most effective insect repellents on the planet, a nice bushel of mint somewhere in your garden is a no-brainer! It’s incredibly easy to propagate mint, and just like basil, it can be used for all kinds of culinary exploits.
However, mint is not completely off the menu, for, as it happens, some bugs apparently like having fresh breath, namely, aphids, spider mites, and thrips, so working some basil into your mint will be wise.
Furthermore, as mint grows rapidly, it’s best to prune it regularly, or better yet, keep it potted.
- Petunias — The petunia may look like a pretty plant, but it has a brutal secret… it’s insectivorous!
Yep, much like the infamous Venus flytrap, the petunia eats insects. It doesn’t have snapping jaws like the flytrap, but it does have thousands of little sticky hairs that glue visiting pests in place, and over time, it draws nutrients from their lifeless corpses — Damn, petunia; that’s cold-blooded!
With a sweet fragrance and elegant, colorful blooms, this plant is the very definition of beautiful but deadly.
- Rosemary — Rosemary is super easy to propagate, but if you need a helping hand, check out our amazing rosemary cuttings growing guide.
Why would you want to grow some of this popular herb? Well, aside from being one of the most delicious ingredients of all time, insects loathe it!
While it’s not quite as aggressive as basil and nowhere near as aggressive as mint, you’ll still have to prune rosemary to keep it looking healthy and tidy.
- Catnip — Catnip is yet another herb that shows pests the proverbial door, especially aphids, beetles, caterpillars, and shield bugs.
But be warned, if there are any cats in your neighborhood, your yard might become something of a feline hotspot.
- Lavender — Nice to look at and even better to smell, lavender should find a place in your garden regardless of insect repelling abilities, but it just so happens that it’s also great in that area too!
There are tons of different lavender variants, so you’re sure to find one that suits the sensory aesthetic you’re shooting for in your green space, but no matter which you choose, you’ll need to prune it regularly to stop it from becoming bark-y and bush-like.
You can find everything you need to know about propagating lavender right here, and if you’re hoping to keep it potted to prevent spreading, we even have a guide dedicated to growing lavender in containers.
- Dill — The last pest-repelling super plant on my list is dill, which is capable of keeping all the same bugs that hate catnip away, with the addition of spider mites. The only thing to be aware of, though, is, you’ve guessed it… Dill needs pruning on the regs!
Non-Plant Life Borders
If you like the idea of planting either a decoy or defensive border but don’t fancy putting in all the time and effort, you don’t necessarily have to use plants. You can make an incredibly effective bug border with a number of different materials.
- Copper piping — If, like me, you’ve got some hostas that get absolutely destroyed each year by slugs, you’ll be interested to know that these slimy customers can’t stand copper piping, and the reason why is truly fascinating.
Copper’s molecular composition reacts with slug slime, creating a very mild charge that gives the critter a tiny electric shock. It doesn’t harm them in any way, but, understandably, they find it quite irritating, and will try their luck finding dinner elsewhere.
- Egg shells — Here’s another slug deterrent. Scattering shards of eggshell around your vulnerable plants creates a rather uncomfortable path for a slimer. They may attempt passage initially, but once they feel the sharp edges and the constant motion of the shells, they’ll swing a U-turn and ever so slowly scarper.
- Diatomaceous earth — Cards on the table, this one’s a little brutal, and as it’s indiscriminate, I can’t really recommend it, but if you need an effective bug stopper in your yard, it’ll surely get the job done.
Diatomaceous earth is finely crumbled siliceous sedimentary rock derived from fossilized remains of minuscule aquatic organisms known as diatoms. You buy it in powder form, sprinkle it in the problem area, and that’s that, no more bugs, the reason being, it ends the life of any insect that dares stand on it.
To us humans and our pets, it just feels like a soft powder, but it’s like walking on razor blades to insects, and once the particulate matter has made a number of incisions in the creature’s exoskeleton, it essentially absorbs their vital oils and fats, desiccating them in place — Savage, right?
Choosing The Right Grass
It’s important not to neglect your lawn when formulating an anti-pest plan, as many insects will happily chow down on your grass if given half a chance, and while a few dying plants here and there don’t necessarily ruin the look of a garden, a dead lawn certainly will.
Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to prevent your lawn from becoming an all-you-can-eat buffet for bugs. You just have to put some forethought into your grass selection.
Certain pests are attracted to certain species of grass, so when deciding which species is right for your lawn, you need to consider more than just the climate. Do some research to establish which garden pests are most prominent in your locality, then seek out a grass that said pests aren’t all that fussed on.
For a catch-all solution, I’d recommend choosing grass with high endophytic content. Endophytes are a type of fungus that ground-feeding insects such as chinch bugs, billbugs, aphids, weevils, cutworms, and sod webworms find utterly intolerable.
Let’s take a look at some of these bug-proof grass species:
- Fine fescue — Positively loaded with endophytes, fine fescue is the perfect option for cool climates with teeming pest populations. It’s also insanely resilient in shade as well, so if you don’t get all that much sun in your locality, or perhaps there are lots of shady areas in your yard, it’s absolutely the right grass for you.
- Tall fescue — Another member of the fescue family, tall fescue makes a fine pest deterrent too — See how it fares against Kentucky bluegrass in our grass species showdown.
- Ryegrass — Turf style perennial ryegrass will also stay relatively pest-free.
Before we move on, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that endophytic-rich grasses are not resistant to grubs, as they approach from underground and gnaw away at roots rather than the blades. So, while these grass species are exceedingly robust, they’re by no means invincible.
Make An All-Natural Insect Repellent
You can use pretty much any of the herbs listed in my defensive barrier guide to concoct homemade insect repellent. But don’t just use your bug-busting home brew when you see insects chewing on your vegetation; spray your plants with it frequently to ensure they never get that mouthful in the first place.
Here are some of the best all-natural insect repellent recipes you can whip up today.
Vodka-Basil Bug Buster
- Steep a couple of handfuls of basil leaves and stems in roughly 4 ounces of hot water for about three or four hours.
- Next, strain the water to remove the leaves and stems.
- Pour in about 4 ounces of super cheap vodka (save the good stuff for celebrating once this repellent solves your insect problems).
- Decant the liquid into a spray bottle, and voilà; time to give your plant life a little tipple!
Rosemary Infused Insect Repellent
- Grab a few handfuls of rosemary leaves and stems, then place them in a container.
- Steep the leaves and stems in boiling water for about half an hour.
- Strain the liquid.
- Decant it into a spray bottle.
No-More-Pest Neem Oil Solution
- Pick up some neem oil — For the uninitiated, neem oil is simply the naturally occurring pesticide extracted from the neem tree.
- Pour some oil in a container then mix in equal parts water, or for a slightly more potent solution, switch out the water for some apple cider vinegar.
- If you find that this formula is running right off your plants, add one teaspoon of pure liquid castile soap. This should give the oil a stickier, more viscous texture.
Side note — For more information on neem oil and why it’s such an effective pest repellent, check out our comprehensive neem oil garden guide.
Not to worry if you don’t have any neem oil to hand, as with a little bit of vegetable oil, you can make this amazing soap-based pest repellent:
- Combine one cup of vegetable oil with a tablespoon of pure castile liquid soap. This will be your concentrate.
- Add one tablespoon of your concentrate to a container, then dilute it with two cups of warm water.
- Decant your soapy solution onto a spray bottle.
The only drawback with this solution is that you can only expect it to keep bugs at bay for about 24 hours, so you’ll have to reply every day if you want to prolong the results.
Easy-Mix Vinegar Vapor
If you want to keep things nice and simple, it doesn’t get any more rudimentary than this vinegar mix, but it’s still mighty effective.
- Mix one cup of white vinegar with three cups of warm water.
- Decant into a spray bottle.
- Shake vigorously before use.
Again, if you need more adhesion, a teaspoon of soap will do the trick, and if you’re going to use it to solve a houseplant infestation, I’d recommend dropping a few lemon slices or sprigs of rosemary into the spray bottle to take the edge off the powerful vinegar scent.
For a super powerful pest repellent, it doesn’t get any better than this garlic spray.
- Purée two to three garlic bulbs.
- Add a tablespoon of vegetable oil.
- Leave the mixture to sit overnight.
- Strain the oil.
- Add four cups of warm water.
- Decant into a spray bottle.
This recipe is fantastically effective. Give your plants a generous spritzing with it at least once every two weeks, and you won’t ever have to deal with an infestation.
Tomato Pest Terminator
For targeting aphids and mites specifically, you need to weaponize something known as alkaloid, but where to find such a substance? Well, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s tons of the stuff in tomato leaves!
- Save your tomato leaf cuttings until you have about two handfuls.
- Steep the cuttings in hot water overnight.
- Strain the water.
- Decant into a spray bottle.
Cinnamon Insect Extinguisher
To keep fungal infestations at bay in your soil, give this awesome cinnamon solution a go.
- Pick up some ground cinnamon powder.
- Mix four cups of warm water with two teaspoons of cinnamon.
- Steep overnight.
- Use a coffee filter to strain the cinnamon powder.
- Decant into a spray bottle.
This recipe can also be pretty effective in dispersing ants, so if you’ve noticed some mounds starting to form in your yard, give it a few spritzes, and watch the colony take their leave.
A Note On Achieving Buggy Balance
Before we go our separate ways, remember the golden rule of natural pest deterrents… we’re not trying to wipe every problematic insect from the face of our little portion of the Earth. Rather, we’re trying to keep numbers in check so we don’t have to worry about infestation — It’s all about finding a balance.
Insects are supposed to be in our yards, and when we get rid of too many of them, we disrupt the harmony of nature, which can lead to far more serious problems than a nibbled-on plant or two.
The ultimate goal is to simply protect plants from severe damage, and to do so, we need only reduce the number of pests gaining access to our yards, otherwise, some of the beneficial creatures that frequent our green areas may not have enough to eat.
They’ll then move on, hunting for a yard that provides the resources they need to thrive. You’ll still get plenty of pollinators if you plant the right nectar-rich plants, but all other creatures, great and small, will hit the old dusty trail.
There you have it, green thumbs — Multiple ways to protect your vulnerable plants from pest infestation without ever having to use a single aggressive chemical.
Gardens and farms are essentially just domesticated wilderness, and although we can collar the awesome power of nature, the biggest mistake we can make is to try and force it into submission by eradicating things we deem irritants.
We need to live in harmony with nature if we’re to cultivate a mutually beneficial environment that puts the health of our plants first, so before you pick up a potent pesticide, give some of the methods discussed here today a try.