If you’re a home gardener, you’ll know that few things are more disappointing than discovering that unwanted pests have damaged or ruined your beautiful flowers or delicious vegetables. But if your response is to reach for a chemical pesticide, you might want to think twice.
While chemical pesticides kill pests, they can also harm the beneficial insects and creatures (such as bees and birds) that support your garden. They can also linger for a long time in the soil and surrounding environment, and using them on crops you intend to eat is generally not the best idea.
Fortunately, there are plenty of easy, natural steps to take that can help you get the better of garden pests, from using safe, homemade pesticides to preventing pests from taking up residence in your garden in the first place. Some tried-and-true pest control methods to explore include the following:
1. Keep plants healthy
It makes perfect sense that strong and healthy plants are better able to fend off pests than plants that are struggling, so make sure you’re caring for your garden properly and meeting your plants’ needs. Providing the right amount of food, water, sunlight, and soil protection is perhaps the most important thing you can do to prevent pests from getting the better of your crops.
2. Rotate crops
Crop rotation—that is, changing the location of your crops every year rather than always planting the same crop in the same place—is a centuries-old farming practice that can help cut down on pests. Essentially, the idea behind crop rotation as a pest control method is that, if pests do find their way to a particular plant one year, they won’t find the same crop in the same spot in your garden the following year, so they’re less likely to be an ongoing problem.
3. Give plants room to breathe
If you have limited garden space, it’s tempting to try and squeeze in as many plants as you can. However, the downside of tightly packed plants is that they provide an ideal home for pests, complete with shelter from the heat, cover from predators, and an abundant supply of food. Spacing plants out more and allowing better air circulation makes your crops less inviting.
4. Water in the morning
There are two big reasons why it’s helpful to water your garden early in the day. First, it keeps your plants hydrated and prevents them from becoming stressed during the hottest part of the day, thus limiting their appeal to pests that prey on stressed plants. Second, early watering allows the plants’ leaves to dry off before nightfall, which minimizes the damp conditions that pests such as slugs and snails love.
5. Attract pests’ natural predators
If you think you must wage war on your garden pests all by yourself, it’s time to think again. Plenty of other creatures love to feast on pests, so if you engage these animals as your allies, they can do your pest control work for you. Start by determining what type of pests you’re dealing with, then investigate what their natural predators are. For example, slugs are common prey for frogs and toads, so consider adding a water feature—this can be as simple as a bowl of water or as elaborate as an artificial pond—to encourage these amphibians to take up residence.
6. Prevent access
If your garden is a victim of ground-dwelling or creeping pests such as snails, slugs, and caterpillars, try making “roadblocks” out of crushed eggshells around your plants. Chances are the pests won’t want to crawl over such sharp and dangerous terrain, and will leave your crops alone.
7. Grow deterrents or trap plants
Many common garden pests such as aphids and potato beetles can’t stand aromatic herbs, so planting a few of these natural deterrents—which include citronella, mint, fennel, basil, and catnip—can help keep harmful bugs at bay. Conversely, you can also choose to plant “trap plants,” or plants that pests tend to prefer, to lure pests away from the regular crops you have growing in your garden.
8. Keep on top of your harvest
Leaving overripe or fallen fruits or veggies hanging around is a surefire way to make your garden a target for pests. Avoid this problem by harvesting your crops as soon as they are ready; this will also help keep growing plants strong and thus better able to withstand pests.
9. Make your own natural pesticides
If all these prevention tips aren’t working to keep pests out of your garden, a homemade pesticide might be the best solution. One popular option is a mix of mint, garlic, and cayenne pepper, along with water and a small amount of dish soap—it’s an effective way to fight foliage-eating pests, and it’s safe to use on any plants you’re growing for food.