The Ultimate Guide to Garden Pest Control

“There is no gardening without humility. Nature is constantly sending even its oldest scholars to the bottom of the class.” – Alfred Austin

You’re so excited to start gardening, to grow your own food. You devise your perfect plan, assemble your new Tower Garden, plant your happy little seedlings, and enthusiastically tend to your plants as they grow. You do everything right, and your garden flourishes.

Then one day, you notice something is wrong. There are holes in your greens! You look a little closer and find a plump green caterpillar, gorging itself on your investment.

We’ve all been there. It’s a disappointing discovery.

But as Alfred Austin alludes to in the opening quote, gardening is just a shorter way to say, “trying to tame nature.” And nature—by nature—is averse to taming. Even with the best intentions, we’re all at the mercy of her wild ways, which sometimes include garden pests.

The good news is garden pests can be controlled without pesticides. In fact, with the right precautions, they can often be prevented. Read on to discover 3 natural ways you can fight bad bugs.

(Before you can effectively address a pest problem, you need to know what you’re dealing with. Reference this list of 10 common garden pests for help with pest detection.)

Repel Garden Pests with Plants

Did you know some plants actually have pest-repelling properties? Growing such plants in your Tower Garden is one of the easiest ways to prevent pest problems (especially if you’re growing indoors).

There are a number of plants that fall into this category. But when it comes to deciding what to grow, I’m a fan of maximizing value. In addition to repelling most pests, the following 4 plants also attract good bugs, offer health benefits, and taste great!

  • Catnip prevents aphids, beetles, caterpillars and shield bugs.
  • Dill prevents aphids, caterpillars, shield bugs and spider mites.
  • Mint prevents aphids, beetles, caterpillars, shield bugs and whiteflies.
  • Nasturtium prevents aphids, beetles, caterpillars and shield bugs.

In addition to these, other great plants to grow for pest control include

  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Rue
  • Summer savory
  • Thyme

Control Garden Pests with Good Bugs

Attracting natural predators is another simple solution to garden pests. And in my opinion, it’s also the most interesting. When I found an assassin bug nymph, well, assassinating a pest on my tomato plant, my immediate response was, “I’ve got to take a picture of this!” (Thus, the following photo.)

Attract good bugs to your garden for natural pest control.

OK, now that I’ve revealed my inner nerd, here is a most-wanted list of garden friendlies:

Ladybugs and their larvae feed on aphids and other soft-bodied pests. Rejoice if you see these red-orange, spotted beetles in your garden.

Lacewings and their larvae devour lots of bad bugs, including aphids, caterpillars, leafhoppers, scales, thrips, whiteflies and even insect eggs.

Hoverflies resemble small bees (and they actually help with pollination!). Their green, slug-like larvae feed on aphids.

Parasitic wasps are often almost too small to see. They prey on aphids and caterpillars.

Predatory true bugs, which include spined soldier bugs, assassin bugs, pirate bugs and others, feed on various caterpillars and beetles.

Spiders may not be what you love to see on your Tower Garden, but they’re valuable allies, eating all kinds of pests. Plus, those that typically inhabit gardens aren’t poisonous.

Tachinid flies, which basically look like houseflies, are natural enemies of caterpillars, beetles and shield bugs.

So how do you get these good bugs in your garden? You can actually order them online and introduce them to your garden. But I’m a fan of attracting the good bugs naturally (which increases the likelihood of them sticking around, too).

The most common way to attract good bugs is to grow insectary plants, or pollen- and nectar-producing plants. As you might guess, this means growing flowers will certainly do the trick. But flowering herbs work, too. The following plants attract both pest predators and pollinators:

  • Borage
  • Cilantro
  • Cosmos
  • Dill
  • Marigold
  • Mint
  • Rosemary
  • Rue
  • Thyme

Kill Garden Pests with Natural, Organic Sprays

Botanical sprays can actually harm good bugs. So consider these as a last resort. If you do use the following sprays, always be sure to:

  • Apply them in the late evening, once the sun is low in the sky. Otherwise, your plants could get cooked. (I made this mistake once. Not pretty.)
  • Spray plants liberally, taking care to wet the undersides of leaves. For these sprays to be effective, they must come into direct contact with pests.

Use this natural spray formula to fight virtually all garden pests.

DIY Spray for Virtually All Pests
Credit for this formula goes to Rodale’s Organic Life. It’s effective for most garden pests and may even help deter rodents and deer. Plus, you likely already have the ingredients. Here’s how to make it:

  • Chop, grind or liquefy 1 garlic bulb and 1 small onion.
  • Add 1 teaspoon of powdered cayenne pepper, 1 quart of water, and mix.
  • Steep 1 hour, then strain through cheesecloth, and add 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap (such as pure castile liquid soap — not dishwashing detergent) to the strained liquid; mix well.

To avoid skin and eye irritation, wear rubber gloves and keep the mixture away from your eyes and nose when preparing and applying it. Refrigerate any remaining spray for up to 1 week in a covered container.

Insecticidal Soap + Neem Oil Spray for Most Insects
This powerful combination is widely used among organic gardeners for aphids, mites, thrips, whiteflies and other small, soft-bodied insects. Hat tip to Future Growing, LLC for the following ratio:

  • 1 tablespoon of insecticidal soap
  • 1 tablespoon of neem oil
  • 1 gallon of water

After spraying, discard any remaining mixture and clean your applicator.

Bacillus Thuringiensis Spray for Caterpillars
Bacillus thuringiensis (Thuricide) is the “go-to” natural spray for caterpillars. You can pick some up online or in your local garden center. Mix and apply it according to the product label directions.

Tower Tip: If you shop for a pest control solution at a local garden center, keep in mind that organic-approved sprays will feature the OMRI seal of approval.

There are a few other natural sprays you can use. (If you’re feeling adventurous, I’ve heard blending bad bugs with water makes a good preventive—albeit slightly macabre—spray.) But I've personally used each of these and found them to be effective.

Other Ways to Control Garden Pests

I’ve outlined just a few ways you can effectively combat garden pests. But there are certainly others. Pheromone traps, traditional row cover cloth and sticky traps are also methods worth trying. Some solutions don’t even require any special equipment. For example, one of my favorite ways to remove aphids is by touching Scotch® tape to plant leaves. Pretty simple!

Do you know of other effective ways to control garden pests? Share your tips in the comments.

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