Easy Pest Control Hacks
Tackle bug problems in the garden with natural pest control techniques.
June is caterpillar time, and fluttering white moths visit the garden daily. (I’m actually watching one as I write this.) When they hover among the cabbage and kale, I know it’s time to keep an eagle eye out for their offspring: hungry caterpillars.
Cabbage looper caterpillars are green and easy to pick from plants. When outbreaks of cross-striped cabbage worm start, though, I pull out the big guns: Bt, short for Bacillus thuringiensis. It’s a bacteria that kills caterpillars without leaving harmful residues on crops. When a looper munches a leaf sprayed with Bt, the bacteria start eating the worm from the inside out. It’s alien horror movie drama at its best. Bt is affordable, long lasting (I’ve been using a bottle I bought years ago) and only poses a threat to caterpillars.
If you’re not inclined to spray a natural pest control like Bt, a more hands-on insect control is to knock pests into soapy water. This method works well with larger bugs, like worms, slugs, Japanese beetles and stinkbugs. The only trick when knocking Japanese beetles into soapy water is to cover them as you bump them into the container. Otherwise, they occasionally fly away and escape the smothering suds.
Bring on Birds
Birds are an awesome partner in the battle against bugs. When it comes to natural pest controls, it’s tough to beat these bug-eating machines. Install a birdbath (please refill regularly with clean water) and a few wren houses, and you’ll be rewarded with birds who visit plantings in search of pests. I spotted cabbage worm frass (scientific word for poo) on a Tuscan kale plant, but no worm. I had seen a song sparrow in that area of the garden earlier. My guess is he made quick work of that cabbage worm.
Grab the Hose
When you spot pests, if your gut reaction is to spray something, get out the hose. A spray of water from a hose can knock down many pest problems. Adjust the hose nozzle to deliver a strong enough jet to dislodge pests—without damaging plants. Bugs aren’t super smart. For ones that crawl, removing them a few feet from the plant they feed on is usually enough to solve the problem.
Trim Infested Plants
When pest outbreaks escalate to a heavy infestation, grab some scissors or garden shears and clip stems back. You might sacrifice flowers, but most plants will bounce back after a midsummer trim with another round of growth and maybe even a few blooms.
Crush clean, dry eggshells with a coffee grinder to create a razor-sharp product you can use to keep slugs at bay. Simply sprinkle shells around the base of vulnerable plants. Create a layer that’s not super smooth, but rather has jagged edges poking out and about. Replace eggshells after heavy rains or when you notice shells disappearing into surrounding soil or mulch. Be careful when crushing shells—don’t pulverize them into dust. Aim for pieces roughly pencil eraser size or slightly smaller.
Get Some Insect Dust
Limestone dust mixed with mint is a family-friendly pest control that works with a one-two punch. The mint clogs the insect’s breathing structures, while the limestone shreds the insect’s exoskeleton (insects wear their skeletons on the outside). That shredded exoskeleton creates openings for the mint to work its way into the insect, where it overstimulates the nervous system. You can apply the dust dry, or mix it with water to form a liquid spray. It’s sold under the brand name Powder Gard. I’ve used this product successfully against earwigs and pillbugs. The label also suggests using it against other pests, including aphids, ants and whiteflies.
Try Diatomaceous Earth
Sometimes sold as insect dust, diatomaceous earth (DE) is the fossilized remains of a water organism called a diatom. Diatom skeletons contain silica, which dries out insects and kills them. To use DE, sprinkle it around the base and on leaves of infested plants. Diatomaceous earth is very lightweight—it has a consistency similar to powdered sugar and poofs into the air with little effort. Wear a surgical-type mask when working with it. Some frugal tipsters suggest using DE sold for use in swimming pool filters because it’s much cheaper than that sold for pest control. DE for pools has a higher crystalline silica rate that’s actually dangerous to humans or animals. It’s unfit for use as a pesticide (but is safe for its intended use in pool filtration).
DIY Insecticidal Soap
A simple solution of mild liquid soap and water can knock down many pest outbreaks. The fatty acids in soap break down insect exoskeletons, which causes the bugs to dehydrate. It’s especially effective on insects like aphids, mites, white flies and thrips. Be sure not to use dish detergent, which lacks fatty acids. Test your solution first on a few leaves to make sure it won’t harm the plant. Use bottled water if your spigot delivers hard water.
Welcome Beneficial Bugs
For the ultimate in natural pest control solutions, establish a population of beneficial insects in your garden. Most beneficial insects appreciate small flowers for harvesting nectar and/or pollen. Plants like dill, Queen Anne’s lace, fennel and joe-pye weed open large, flat flowerheads containing many tiny blooms. Allowing clover to grow in your lawn also gives beneficial insects a place to feed and hide.