The most common question people ask me about gardening organically is how to control pests naturally. Just like controlling pests in the home, controlling pests in the garden does not have to be overcomplicated, but it has to be done, so here are some tips.
First, just like in the home. you want to keep on top of your “housekeeping”. If you leave piles of newspaper, empty pizza boxes, and leftover food laying around, it won’t be long until your house is crawling with bugs. The same is true for your garden. Weeds are the clutter that gives bad bugs a place to hide and breed. Frequent weeding is your first step to minimizing your bug population. Rotten fruit, dead leaves, and sick plants are their food so remove these as well and their populations will drop.
Next, just like in your house, you want to keep your garden bright, airy, and smelling fresh. This will welcome your beneficial insects and repel the damaging ones. You can do this by planting your vegetable in the correct light, in the correct season, and inter-planting with companion plants or pest controlling flowers. The marigold has natural pest controlling properties and works well with all members of the nightshade family such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant. Nasturtiums put off an odor that repels squash bugs. They work very well with all members of the cucurbit family, cucumbers, squashes, melons, and pumpkins. They are also edible both raw and cooked.
Lastly, should a bug find its way in, handle it the same as your home. Be vigilant and exterminate immediately before it has a chance to find another bug and start a family. I like to start with the most environmentally friendly technique first, then work my way up as needed. Squishing is a highly recommended technique. Simple remedies such as soapy water (made with all-natural soaps only) can take care of most pests. Spray first thing in the morning when the insects are out and still moving slow. Should you still have a problem with smaller pests or fungus issues, try neem oil. It also works as a fertilizer for leafy greens. Kaolin clay is another useful method for many of the same issues.
If your problems are larger, such as cut worms or squash vine borers, try BT. It will only affect larvae and caterpillar type insects, so it is harmless to bees, ladybugs, and earthworms. It can be harmful to butterfly larvae, so if you want to be extra careful, inject it into the plant stem instead of spraying. Spinosad is another powerful but organic means of pest control. It can be harmful to bees when wet, so be careful where you spray. It is also effective for naturally treating fleas on pets and head lice on people. If you need to bring out the big guns, then there is pyrethrum, a relative of the marigold. Be warned it kills everything, even earthworms, so this is not the sort of thing you want to douse a whole vegetable bed with. I only use it on locusts and fire ants. If you have been looking for a natural fire ant killer, this is it. Pour it on the mound and watch them run for their lives and die.
As with most things in gardening, preventing the problem is simpler than solving it, but hopefully this will give you all the tools you need to keep your garden healthy and pest free all season.