Organic Pest Control in the Garden

It has often been said that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but because we’re all gardeners here we should add that another certainty is the presence of damaging insects in a garden. Hordes of hungry insects can quickly ruin a crop and take all the fun out of gardening. Even if you don’t like to use chemicals in your garden, you don’t have to watch helplessly as insects run amok amongst your flowers and vegetables. There are many forms of organic pest control that can keep you on the winning side of the battle against hungry bugs.

Keeping your garden neat and practicing good garden housekeeping should be your most essential form of organic pest control. Keeping a clean garden, free of weeds and plant debris, eliminates prime areas where insect pests hide and reproduce. Dead, fallen leaves and other plant debris should be gathered up and discarded, or better yet, added to a compost pile. Over-ripe vegetables and all the dead foliage at the end of the season should be cleared out of a vegetable garden as these are places where some insect pests spend the winter, waiting to attack next year’s crops.

However, even the most well cared-for, spotlessly clean garden will still be visited by one sort of insect pest or another, so more methods of organic pest control will be called for. The sooner an insect problem is noticed, the easier it will be to eliminate the problem. Visit the garden often and observe the plants for any signs of damage. Some insect damage, such as chewed or missing leaves, is easy to spot, but damage from insects that suck on plants may be more difficult to see. Plants whose foliage has become pale, mottled or curled may be infested with spider mites and should be examined more closely for signs of the culprits.

If the garden is scouted regularly, insect damage can be stopped before it spreads. Hand picking is a very basic form of organic pest control that is appropriate when insect pests exist in small numbers, such as when tomato hornworms first appear on tomato plants in early summer. Sure, they’re big and creepy, but if there are just a few of them on one or two plants, why spend money on a pesticide when all you have to do is flick them off the plants. That’s too icky? Use your pruners to clip off the stem the worm is crawling on – the plant needed pruning anyway, right? - and drop it all into a bucket for disposal, or feed the worms to the neighbor’s chickens.

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Okay, so what about those times when the insect population seems to come out of nowhere and explodes overnight? There are a large number of organic pest control products that work in a variety of ways to kill insects or discourage them from eating your plants. Because some organic pest control products are used only for specific types of insects, it is important to know what insects you are dealing with before choosing the best pest control.

Carefully examine the damaged plants to find the insect culprits, looking under the leaves and along the stems where they may be hiding. If you find the insects but cannot identify them, your county’s Ag Extension Agent can help identify garden insects, and you can also do an online search for insect-identification websites that will be helpful.

Bt, or Bacillus thuringiensis, is an organic pest control that is used for specific types of insects, but there are several kinds of Bt available. The specific insect pest you are targeting will determine which strain of Bt should be used.

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Bt kurstaki is the most common strain of Bt, and it kills only caterpillars that feed on leaves and needles. The san diego strain of Bt is an excellent organic insecticide for controlling the Colorado potato beetle while Bt israelensis will kill the larvae of mosquitoes, black flies and fungus gnats.

Bt is a naturally occurring bacteria that is common all across the world and it works as an organic pest control by affecting the insects’ digestive systems. When an insect munches on a plant that has been treated with Bt, the Bt bacteria paralyzes the insect’s digestive system and the insect stops feeding and then expires from starvation within days. For more information on Bt, visit

Other forms of organic pest control are less specific and can be used to control a wider variety of insects. These are useful when you’re not quite sure of the identity of the insect that is damaging your plants.

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Insecticidal soap should be included in any gardener’s collection of organic pest control products. Insecticidal soap is used to smother hard-shelled insects. Insects such as beetles and aphids actually breathe through their outer shells, and if their shell is coated with soap the insects will suffocate. In order to be effective however, insecticidal soap must be sprayed directly onto the insects. Once the soap dries on the foliage, it is no longer effective. Use insecticidal soap only when you can actually see the offending insects.

Other organic pest control products have a residual effect and can be sprayed on vulnerable plants at any time to prevent insect damage. One way to prevent insects from dining on your garden is to make the plants less tasty for the insects. Garlic water or hot pepper juice can be sprayed on plants to deter hungry insects from eating them. Although the insects will move on to another garden where the plants taste less spicy to them, your vegetables will not all taste like garlic or hot peppers when they are harvested. To learn how to make your own garlic water or hot pepper spray, go to

Diatomaceous earth is another handy organic pest control to have available when necessary. Although it feels soft as talcum powder when scooped up in your hand, to a tiny insect walking on diatomaceous earth is like walking on broken glass. Diatomaceous earth is a natural product collected from the ocean, consisting of the crushed shells of tiny hard-shelled sea creatures called diatoms. It is very safe to use (although you should avoid breathing it in or getting it in your eyes) and is helpful in controlling a wide variety of crawling insects. Both soft insects such as caterpillars and aphids and hard-shelled insects such as beetles cannot walk across diatomaceous earth without becoming lacerated by its sharp edges, and once lacerated they quickly dehydrate and expire. Diatomaceous earth can also be spread across a lawn where it will kill fleas before they can hitch a ride into the house on your dog or cat.

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Neem oil is one of my favorite forms of organic pest control. Made from the seeds of the neem tree that is native to India, neem oil kills a variety of insects in a variety of ways. It acts as an organic pest control in some insects by disrupting their reproductive cycle, while causing other insects to stop eating and starve. Neem oil also remains effective even after the spray has dried on the plant, so it can be used as a preventative insecticide. Unlike synthetic insecticides, neem oil will not harm beneficial insects. To learn more about neem oil and how to use it, go to

Beneficial insects are those insects that are actually our allies in the garden. Beneficial insects such as ladybugs and lacewings make their living by feeding on aphids and other damaging insects. An excellent form of organic pest control, we can invite beneficial insects into our gardens by growing plants and flowers that they prefer. Once a population of beneficial insects has been established in the garden, these helpful insects will happily go to work keeping your garden free of pests. You can learn more about beneficial insects and how they help in the garden here:

Another form of organic pest control involves collecting a bunch of the insects that are eating your garden, grinding them up in a blender with a little water, then spraying the resulting concoction onto your plants. I’ll admit I have not tried this myself, and I certainly can’t fault you if you don’t want to try it either. If you do try this method, make sure you use a blender that is designated just for this purpose. The theory behind this organic pest control method explains that insects won’t visit plants where their comrades have been killed, and spreading the crushed bodies of insects on your plants will fool the survivors into thinking your plants must be a very dangerous place indeed.

Organic pest control products are becoming more widely available as more gardeners seek safe methods of protecting their gardens from hungry insects. If your local garden center doesn’t stock any organic pest control products, ask the manager to consider ordering some. There are also a growing number of gardening catalogs that offer a variety of organic pest control products.

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