Sunflowers, snapdragons and marigolds galore! Our garden is finally beginning to pop after a chilly start to the growing season. Today I'm sharing a guide to organic pest control in the garden, based on my own experiences! Let's go on a garden tour and I'll share what tasks I am working on this month!
The golden rule of gardening is that nature decides when plants will begin to thrive, regardless of the gardener's efforts!
My growing zone is 6B and typically runs from the beginning of May through the end of October. I am able to use covers and grow lights to extend this season slightly, but ultimately the plants are at the mercy of Mother Nature.
This season has been slightly unique in that we haven't experienced our typical Kansas weather. We had a hard freeze in early May that affected the cherries, blackberries bushes and apple trees. We covered them with sheets as best we could, but the harvest is going to reflect the harsh cold snap. May in Kansas is usually warm and sunny, but this year it was cool and wet. My garden is about three weeks behind where it usually would be at this time, but now it is rapidly catching up.
When summer arrives, so do an array of garden pests
We have been battling squash bugs and caterpillars creeping and crawling all over our tiny vegetables. The vegetables most affected are the zucchini and cabbage. It's important to me that we avoid chemical pesticides, so I am currently researching methods for organic pest control. What I have found so far is to hand pick the squash bugs and eggs and remove them from the garden. I've been dropping them into a bucket of soapy water or smashing them. I also have learned that we need to be practicing better crop rotation with the pumpkins, squash, zucchini and cucumbers. A little too late for this year, but definitely something I will implement next spring!
I have previously tried using Seven and Diatomaceous Earth for pest control. Check out my IG post below to see how I applied it. While these are both good options, this year I am going to use Neem oil and essential oils. Neem oil is extracted from the fruits and seeds alike of the neem plant, or Azadirachta indica. The unique composition and fragrance of Neem make it quite beneficial for eliminating all manner of pests and diseases from the garden. It’s safe to use on houseplants and in greenhouses, and can even be used as a fungicide, helping to smother fungal infections like scab, rust and powdery mildew.
How does neem oil control pests in the garden?
Neem is detrimental to pests and causes many species to lose their appetite while stunting their growth and reproductive processes. I also don't have to worry about harming beneficial pollinators, earthworms in the soil, along with many other important microbes and bacteria. Our honeybees are safe! The neem repels pests and doesn't harm the pollinators. Win-win.
Neem oil is a little controversial in the wild world of gardening. This is my first season using it, so I don't feel qualified to give an opinion, however I DO want to share why it might not be the best choice for your garden. Neem can be irritating to the skin and eyes. When using Neem, it is important to wear proper PPE, including gloves and glasses. It is very important to discontinue using Neem three weeks before harvest to avoid consuming the oil. Ingesting Neem can cause digestive issues, which makes sense when considering that our gut is full of bacteria!
How to use neem oil in the garden?
To use neem oil, mix according to the directions on the bottle. I am treating an existing squash bug outbreak, so I will be applying the oil weekly. When I apply neem oil, I use a garden sprayer to mist the leaves and stems. Always lift the leaves to spray the underside! For pest prevention, apply every ten days. I recommend testing the neem oil on a small area before applying it to all garden plants.
How to use essential oils for pest control in the garden?
Essential oils aren't just for making your house smell good, they can also be used to repel garden pests! There are four ways to use essential oils in the garden: DIY sprays, infused cotton balls, hanging strips of infused cloth, infused string. To deter ground-moving mice, squirrels, cats and dogs I use cotton balls with 4-5 drops of essential oils scattered around the area. To repel deer or dogs, I use hanging strips of cloth for an essential oil infused 'scarecrow.' String soaked in essential oils works best for deterring flying insects. I hang the strings between the rows of plants.
Common garden pests and how to use essential oils to repel them
ANTS // peppermint, spearmint, citronella, orange & cedarwood
APHIDS // peppermint, spearmint, tea tree, eucalyptus, hyssop, cedarwood, orange, fir
MOSQUITOS // lavender, lemongrass, peppermint, purification, citronella
SLUGS // fir, pine, cedarwood, hyssop, purification
SQUASH BUGS // peppermint
WHITE FLIES // peppermint, tea tree
DIY essential oil insect repellent
While the squash bugs might be nibbling on the cucumbers, the mosquitoes have been munching on me! I found a DIY hack for making a nontoxic insect and tick repellent. Chemicals like DEET and permethrin definitely do a great job of preventing bites, but I cannot stand the thought of spraying our largest organ (our skin) with substances that potentially cause cancer and disrupt our hormones.
Watch this REEL to see how easy it is to make! Here is a shopping link for buying essential oils from the company that I trust. Oils are available everywhere, from Amazon to TJ Maxx. Repeat after me: Cheap oils aren't good and good oils aren't cheap. We are paying for sustainable farming practices that go beyond organic standards and uncompromised quality. Labeling is very misleading and greenwashed, and the industry standard allows for a bottle of essential oil to only contain 5% of the oil it supposedly is. If 95% is synthetic fillers, was that really money well spent? Check out this post for answers to the most common questions about using essential oils.
Can free range chickens manage garden pests?
Well.... yes and no. Our garden is surrounded by a chicken run that allows the ladies to snatch grasshoppers and other pests that try to sneak into our garden. If you have never watched a chicken chase a grasshopper, you should probably stop reading and hop over to youtube. They are hilariously awkward and efficient.
They are also very efficient at removing garden plants, especially seedlings. I actually have wire tunnels covering my flowers and vegetables to keep the hens from destroying the garden with their scratching, pecking and taking dust baths. Personally, we keep them OUT.
Did I answer all your organic pest control questions?
I am by no means an expert, but I do love researching and trying new methods! My best advice to a gardener who wants to manage damaging insects naturally would be to aggressively prevent the infestation from happening. We knew last summer that the squash bugs were worse than ever, but I did not treat the soil with neem oil or remove the straw mulch that they love to hide in. This year the battle is going to be even harder, and I knew better.
Organic gardening requires grit and a strong will. It is so easy to get frustrated and buy an insecticidal spray. We see honeybees and other beneficial pollinators in our garden and harming them for a few extra zucchinis would be such a tragedy. I'm going to mix up some neem oil and apply it to the squash tonight around sunset. I'll also dip string in peppermint essential oil and drape it around the base of the plants. With a little luck and a watchful eye, hopefully the squash bugs infestation will be over soon.
In the meantime, the snow peas are ready for harvest!