Whether it’s aphids on your azaleas or beetles beating up your beets, having bugs taking over your garden is never a good thing. Although there are commercial products meant to kill and deter insects, they are not safe to use around produce. Some can be harmful to people, pets, and the planet.
Luckily, there are a number of tried and true natural products and DIY solutions that are safe and effective. Here are 20 natural ways that have worked well for us in keeping pests and bugs out of the yard.
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Why You Should Avoid Pesticides and Chemical Deterrents
If you’re reading this, then you probably won’t be surprised to learn that pesticides and chemical bug repellents contain some nasty ingredients you don’t want to expose your family or pets to. These include a long list of carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors that are toxic when ingested or absorbed into the skin.
Some of the worst chemicals found in commercial pesticides include:
- Organophosphates – One of the most common types of pesticides in use today, these chemicals have been linked to birth defects and cancers, including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Scientists involved in these studies have urged government agencies to ban this chemical entirely.
- Methomyl – This common pesticide ingredient has earned the highest toxicity rating from the EPA for oral and eye toxicity. Repeated exposure can cause neurological effects, mood changes, and anxiety.
- Rotenone – This broad-spectrum insecticide has been found to damage the liver and kidneys and cause reproductive harm.
- Adjuvants – Adjuvants are extra, undefined ingredients added to things like pesticides to enhance the activity of the active ingredients. Studies have shown that pesticides tested as full solutions containing active ingredients and their adjuvants can be up to 1000 times more toxic than their listed active ingredients alone.
Even the less harmful ingredients in many of these products still have a negative impact on wildlife. Many leach into waterways and are toxic to aquatic life. Others are highly toxic to pollinators and beneficial insects that you want in your garden.
Natural Pest Deterrents at a Glance
|Common Insect Pests||Effective Methods to Kill or Repel|
|Ants||Commercial sprays, diatomaceous earth, essential oils, vinegar spray, boric acid, cedar mulch, neem oil, coffee grounds, garlic spray, companion planting, dish soap, egg shells, cayenne pepper, garden lime|
|Aphids||Diatomaceous earth, essential oils, beneficial insects, vinegar spray, boric acid, neem oil, garlic spray, companion planting, dish soap, cayenne pepper, garden lime|
|Beetles||Commercial sprays, diatomaceous earth, essential oils, beneficial insects, boric acid, cedar mulch, neem oil, garlic spray, beer, egg shells, cayenne pepper, traps, garden lime, physical barriers, bat houses, bird houses|
|Caterpillars and Larvae||Diatomaceous earth, essential oils, beneficial insects, vinegar spray, boric acid, cedar mulch, neem oil, garlic spray, companion planting, egg shells, dish soap, cayenne pepper, traps, physical barriers, bird houses|
|Cockroaches||Commercial sprays, diatomaceous earth, essential oils, boric acid, beer, companion planting, cayenne pepper, traps, physical barriers, bird houses|
|Earwigs||Commercial sprays, diatomaceous earth, essential oils, beneficial insects, vinegar spray, boric acid, cedar mulch, neem oil, garlic spray, beer, companion planting, egg shells, cayenne pepper, traps, physical barriers, bird houses|
|Fleas and ticks||Commercial sprays, diatomaceous earth, essential oils, vinegar spray, boric acid, neem oil, garlic spray, companion planting, dish soap (fleas), cayenne pepper|
|Mosquitoes||Commercial sprays, diatomaceous earth, essential oils, beneficial insects, garlic spray, coffee grounds, companion planting, physical barriers, bat houses, natural predators|
|Scale||Diatomaceous earth, essential oils, beneficial insects, vinegar spray, boric acid, neem oil, garlic spray, dish soap, cayenne pepper, garden lime|
|Slugs and Snails||Diatomaceous earth, boric acid, cedar mulch, coffee grounds, beer, companion planting, egg shells, traps, garden lime, physical barriers, bird houses|
|Spider Mites||Diatomaceous earth, essential oils, beneficial insects, vinegar spray, boric acid, neem oil, garlic spray, companion planting, dish soap, cayenne pepper, garden lime|
20 Natural Insect and Pest Deterrents for the Garden
A better approach to keeping insects and pests out of your garden rather than utilizing chemical pesticides is to use more natural methods. Not only can these be effective, but they are safer for you, the environment, and are often more affordable.
Here are 20 of our favorite natural and DIY insect repelling and eradicating methods.
Natural Commercial Sprays
Commercial pesticides are enticing because they are relatively easy to use. But they are also scary-toxic. One great compromise is to reach for a commercial natural pesticide that relies on safer non-toxic ingredients to eradicate bugs in the garden.
One of our favorite product lines in this realm comes from Sunday Lawn Care. This subscription lawn care service has a number of natural products meant to keep your yard and home free from fire ants, mosquitos, ticks, and other pests.
For garden use, their Bug Doom spray is highly effective against a number of beetle species and other pests known to damage plants.
To learn more about what Sunday has to offer, check out our review of their lawn care products.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a fine white powder made of crushed fossilized diatom shells. The unique crystalline structure of the shells gives the powder an abrasive texture that’s sharp enough to pierce the exoskeleton of insects. When bugs walk across it, the powder slices into them, eventually leading to dehydration and death.
These characteristics make DE highly useful in the garden. You can spread it around vegetable and fruit plants being targeted by crawling bugs and sprinkle it directly onto leaves and stems being destroyed by aphids. Any bugs that come into contact with it will die before getting a chance to cause any damage.
Note: Diatomaceous earth loses its effectiveness when wet, however. So be sure to reapply the dry powder as needed after rain storms and watering.
Certain essential oils have been shown to be effective in deterring insects from foraging in the garden. Each type is most effective against specific pest types, as outlined in the table below.
|Oil||Most effective against|
|Basil||Flies, moths, weevils, caterpillars|
|Chrysanthemum||Most bugs; especially aphids, ants, fleas|
|Cinnamon||Scale, aphids, earwigs, silverfish, mealybugs|
|Lemongrass||Mosquitoes, fleas, fruit flies|
|Peppermint||Beetles, flies, ants, caterpillars, mealybugs|
|Orange||Wasps, spiders, mites, fleas, cockroaches|
|Tea Tree||Most stinging bugs, mosquitoes, ants|
|Thyme||Aphids and other sucking insects|
To make your own essential oil insect spray:
- Mix 30 drops of essential oil(s) with 8 ounces of water
- Add a dash of dish soap.
Spray onto affected plants and the soil around them.
What better way to get rid of the insects in your garden than to let someone else do the work?
Lady bugs, spiders, praying mantes, wasps, dragonflies, and lacewings are all helpful in the fight against insects that damage plants and eat produce. Ladybug larvae and praying mantis eggs are usually available for purchase at local nurseries.
For other beneficial bugs, your best bet is to create environments within your garden that will naturally attract them. For example, dragonflies will set up shop around ponds and adult lacewings will hang around gardens with a lot of flowers (the adults drink nectar; it’s the larvae that eat bad bugs).
The strong smell of vinegar makes it a great repellent for many bugs, including spiders, ants, and mosquitoes. And smaller bugs, like aphids, will succumb to the acidic nature of the spray when they come into contact with it.
To make your own easy vinegar insect spray combine:
- 1 cup apple cider vinegar or distilled white vinegar
- 3 cups water
- 1 squirt of dish soap
Spray the mixture on plants being actively attacked by sucking bugs or use it to create a barrier around plants susceptible to attack.
Boric acid is another white powder that is famously deadly to insects. This electrostatically charged powder sticks to bugs when they come in contact with it. Later, when they groom themselves, they ingest the acid, which burns through their stomach and kills them.
Boric acid is especially deadly to cockroaches, spiders, mites, and fleas. But most insects will succumb if they come into contact with it.
One simple way to keep the population of bugs down in your garden is to use natural cedar mulch. Cedar wood has an earthy and distinct scent that naturally repel many bugs. Because of this, crawling bugs will avoid moving through your garden, leaving your flowers to grow in peace.
Cedar mulch, whether gorilla hair or shredded, is a great option for mulching ornamental garden beds. By covering the soil and preventing seeds from germinating, it will also help cut down on weed growth.
Note: The oils will lose effectiveness as the mulch ages, so be prepared to put new mulch down every year.
You can also pile cedar up around the base of veggie plants to ward off bugs. It is especially helpful to use under strawberries, squash, and other fruits that touch the ground to keep slugs from eating them.
Neem oil, which is made by extracting oil from the seeds of the neem tree, contains natural pesticides that kill and repel most bugs. This especially powerful product is one of the few natural remedies that work to completely eliminate scale bugs from citrus trees.
Azadirachtin is one of the most potent bug-killing chemicals found in neem. It acts as a hormone disruptor that prevents insects from growing and reproducing. Other active compounds in this natural oil kill bugs by disrupting their ability to feed.
You can make an especially potent neem oil spray by mixing 1 mL of neem oil with 12oz of water and a big squirt of dish soap. The soap will kill bugs on contact while the neem oil remains on the leaves to poison bugs that didn’t get a direct hit.
Garlic is another stinky scent that most bugs cannot stand. By creating a garlic spray and coating your favorite plants in it, you’ll repel beetles, caterpillars, and sucking bugs that might cause damage.
To create a potent garlic spray:
- Chop 3 to 4 garlic cloves
- Put them in a jar with 8 ounces of water
- Allow the jar to sit for at least three days
- Strain out the garlic and put the liquid into a spray bottle
- Add a squirt of soap to help mix the oil and water
Spray this garlic mix directly onto leaves and soil to repel a variety of insects.
Coffee grounds have proven useful to gardeners for a variety of reasons. Spent grounds are a cheap and easy green additive to compost piles and a simple way to add nutrients directly to the dirt. These oily, pointy grounds also show some merit as bug repellers.
Info: The scent of coffee grounds burning is a deterrent for ants and mosquitoes, while the hard, pointy texture of fresh grounds is enough to keep slugs, snails, and even squirrels out of the garden.
This adult beverage is also, apparently, highly sought after by certain bugs. The fermented, barley smell of beer is similar to the smell of decomposing plant matter. This is why it attracts bugs that feed on decaying leaves, including cockroaches, gnats, earwigs, slugs, and snails.
To build a DIY bug beer trap:
- Select a cup or bowl with steep, smooth slides.
- Bury the container in the dirt so the lip is even with the ground.
- Fill the container ½ way up with beer.
- Leave in the garden overnight.
Insects will be attracted by the smell of the beer and crawl into the container. Between the alcohol drenching their body, the booze they ingest, and the slippery sides of the container, they won’t be able to get out and will quickly drown.
Sometimes, the best way to keep bugs off your favorite flowers or vegetables is to use another plant. Companion planting is an age-old practice of using neighboring plants to promote the health of plants around them. This works because some plants naturally repel certain kinds of bugs.
Here are some common companion plants and how best to utilize them:
- Alliums: Chives, onions, and garlic repel most insects due to their strong odor. Plant them around higher-value crops and flowers to keep a variety of pests away.
- Marigolds: Repel destructive insects, especially aphids. French marigolds will even kill detrimental nematodes in the soil. Plant them around your root vegetables, potatoes, and any plant that seems to attract aphids.
- Mint: Spearmint, peppermint, catnip, and other mint plants produce a strong odor that will keep mealybugs, beetles, ants, and flies away.
- Herbs: Rosemary, basil, oregano, and other strong-smelling herbs repel flies, aphids, mosquitoes, spider mites, and tomato hornworms.
- Lavender: Highly odorous, this plant is known for repelling fleas and mosquitoes.
When it comes to killing bugs directly, you have all the “pesticides” you need in your kitchen right now. Dish soap is a natural degreaser that easily breaks down the oily coating on bugs’ exoskeletons. When bugs lose their oily coating, they dehydrate and die.
Dish soap is most effective against small, soft-bodied bugs like aphids, scale, whiteflies, spider mites, thrips, and mealybugs. It can also work against boxelder bugs as long as you get good coverage.
Note: Soap is only effective if it covers the bug entirely, which means you need to spray the insects you’re trying to eradicate. But, on the plus side, this means it is safe to use on flowers that pollinators visit.
To make an effective soap spray: Mix 1 tsp of dish soap with a 1/2 pint of warm water in a spray bottle.
You can also use crushed egg shells to keep bugs out of your garden. When ground into a fine powder, shells retain their sharp edges—sharp enough to pierce the exoskeletons of insects, in fact.
Most crawling insects, slugs, and snails will avoid moving over eggshells. And if they do try to cross, they’ll get injured and die for their efforts.
Compared to DE, crushed egg shells do not form as fine a powder which means they don’t stick to insects quite as well. But they do retain their pointiness even in wet conditions. And they don’t cost anything, assuming you have eggs in the fridge already.
To make eggshell powder for the garden:
- Remove the membrane from leftover eggshells (the thin white, wet layer that often sticks to the inside of the shell) and rinse the shells in warm water.
- Dry the shells by setting them out on a dry cloth overnight.
- Crush the shells using a coffee grinder or rolling pin—the finer, the better!
- Spread the shells on the soil around plants and produce you want to protect.
Cayenne Pepper Powder
Capsaicin, the chemical in peppers that makes them taste spicy to us, is toxic to most bugs. It works well on small soft-bodied insects and pests like aphids, scale, whiteflies, mites, spider mites, fleas, and mealybugs. You can also use cayenne pepper to ward away squirrels.
There are two ways you can use cayenne pepper powder to help keep insects off of your favorite plants:
- Spread cayenne pepper powder around them on the dirt as well as on the leaves.
- Make a spray by mixing cayenne pepper powder, water, and a little soap. Spray the plants just as you would with vinegar or garlic spray.
Note: Capsaicin is also toxic to bees, so be sure not to apply the powder or spray to flower blooms.
There are a number of ways to create effective traps to eliminate pests in the garden. One of the simplest is to buy sticky traps. While these are effective at trapping bugs big and small, they do catch insects indiscriminately and get dirty quickly when used outdoors.
A better option is to create a DIY trap, such as the beer trap outlined above.
The grapefruit peel trap is another great DIY trap for slugs and snails. All you need to do is place empty grapefruit peel halves empty-side down in your garden where these creatures are active.
In the morning, the bugs will take cover in the peels allowing you to toss them into the trash or set them on the bird feeder for the birds to deal with.
If you have an earwig problem, you should place a skinny, hollow tube (hollowed-out sunflower stalks work great for this) near the area they are targeting. The earwigs will use the tube to shelter in as the sun rises.
In the morning, pick up the tube and immerse it in soapy water to kill the pests inside.
Garden lime is often used by green thumbs as a soil amendment, but you can also use it to ward off soft-bodied insects and young insects that haven’t formed a hard exoskeleton.
Also known as dolomitic lime, garden lime is made from crushed limestone, a mineral high in calcium and alkaline enough to kill bugs.
Info: Since lime is alkaline, it will change the pH of your soil if used too often and can damage plants if used repeatedly. But it does make an effective tool, especially when other methods have failed to eradicate eggs and nymphs.
To make garden lime spray:
- Mix 2 tbsp lime with 16 ounces of water and a squirt of dish soap.
- Spray directly onto affected plants once a week until the problem is resolved.
When it comes to keeping your plants safe from insects, using physical barriers is not always an effective approach. But there are instances when it can be useful.
Fine mesh net bags, like these reusable produce bags, are a great way to protect fruits and vegetables from insects of all kinds.
- Simply slip the bag over the fruit and tie the end around the stem.
- Using some essential oils or cayenne pepper to coat the end of the bag will keep bugs from trying to squeeze through the gaps.
Larger mesh nets can be used to protect entire plants and garden beds from insect attacks. But keep in mind, insects that live in the soil and newly hatched pests that emerge from the soil will still be able to access your plants.
If you’re battling nocturnal flying insects like moths, mosquitoes, and beetles, enlisting the help of bats can be very effective. If their food source (the bugs mentioned above) is already plentiful, then all you need is to install a bat house to entice them to hang around for the long term.
Here are some tips for positioning your bat house:
- Place it at least 10 feet off the ground
- Choose an east or south-facing wall or tree face
- Choose a place that gets at least 6 to 8 hours of sunlight
If your pest problem involves diurnal insects, you will need to invite birds to your garden. Not only do insectivore birds target flying bugs, but they’ll also pick bugs straight off the plants themselves. Different birds target different kinds of bugs, as you can see from the table below.
|Bird Species||Insects Targeted|
|Bluebird||crickets, beetles, moths, larvae|
|Cardinals||beetles, stink bugs, snails, slugs|
|Grosbeaks||larvae, beetles, caterpillars|
|Sparrows||beetles, caterpillars, cutworms|
|Warblers||caterpillars, aphids, whitefly|
|Woodpeckers||larvae, beetles, weevils, boring insects|
Note: Be sure to find the right-sized birdhouse to attract the type of bird most likely to help you with your particular pest problem.
Lastly, Keep It Clean and Healthy
One of the best ways to avoid pest problems is to not attract them in the first place. Most bugs seek out damp, dark places where they can hide and find plentiful food in the form of decomposing plant matter.
By raking up leaves, removing dead plants, and harvesting produce before it begins to rot, you can avoid attracting pests in the first place.
Of course, if this isn’t enough to keep pests from infiltrating your garden, then it’s time to turn to our methods above to eliminate and repel bugs naturally.
Have a particularly difficult pest problem in your garden or questions about any of the methods above? Post your comments below and we’ll be happy to help.