DIY Natural Garden Pest Control

DIY natural garden pest control. Fight squash bugs, flea beetles, potato beetles, slugs, cabbage worms, mice and rabbits.  Promote beneficial insects and animals.

Are you looking for natural garden pest control options?  Like many home gardeners, I started growing my own fruits and vegetables in part to avoid the toxic chemicals used on most commercial produce.  After all, why put in all that time and effort to eat poison?  It didn’t make sense to me.

Just walking down the chemical isle in the hardware store, i.e., the “garden helper area” or whatever they call it, gives me a headache.  When I first started out, I tried some of the fancy “organic” pest control options, but I’ve found that simple home remedies work pretty well.  My most used options to get rid of unwelcome garden guests are hand picking; coffee grounds; traps and physical barriers; and encouraging beneficial insects and animals.

Hand Picking Bugs

I know it sounds gross, but hand picking bugs works fairly well for several species that show up in my garden.  I use it for Colorado potato beetles, squash bugs, cucumber beetles and cabbage worms.

Potato beetles and cabbage worms can be picked any time of day, as they are slow moving.  Squash bugs and cucumber beetles are best nabbed in early morning, before they have a chance to heat up and speed up.

To “hand pick” bugs I usually prep a large yogurt container or something similar with a couple inches of water in the bottom mixed with some soap to break the surface tension.  Knock or drop the bugs in, and they don’t come out.  I don’t recommend squashing mature potato beetles with your bare fingers, as they will bite and their shells are quite hard.

Here’s an immature potato beetle.

Immature potato beetle

Here’s a mature potato beetle.

Colorado potato beetle

If you can catch these early before they become widespread, hand picking is easy.  I have also used diatomaceous earth for potato beetles (and cabbage worms), but hand picking is my preferred tactic.  Make sure to check on the underside of leaves for clusters of bright orange eggs, and smash them or scrape them into your soapy water.  The boys make some extra cash in the summer by acting as “bounty hunters” and earning a set amount per bug collected.  You can also buy insect soap specifically designed to be sprayed directly on bugs.

DIY Natural Garden Pest Control @ Common Sense Homesteading

Cucumbers beetles can be terrible, plus they spread bacterial wilt, which gets in the soil and can cause problems for years after the initial infestation. First off, work to maximize your soil fertility – better soil = plants that are less likely to attract pests and are more resistant when they attack.

At our old place, where we had poor, heavy clay soil, once the cucumber beetles showed up, and the bacterial wilt spread, I was not able to grow vine crops well again. Here, the cucumber beetles show up, but they don’t do much damage. I’ve got a mixed clay/sand/loam and much more organic matter.

To control cucumber beetles, it’s best to get them early in the morning, when they are cooler and less active. They like to gather in blossoms, so I will gently shake a blossom into my container of soapy water, or use something like a popsicle stick to scoop them into the water. Sunflowers are great for attracting cucumber beetles – they love them! They gather on the sunflower heads and I shake them/brush them from the head into the soapy water. You can eliminate large qualities of them very quickly. The sunflower trap works almost any time of day.

Cabbage worms, like most insect pests, will show up in much greater numbers when your plants are stressed in any way.  When I’ve accidentally planted them too close together so they are overcrowded, or dealt with drought or poor soil, my cabbage worm problems have been much worse.  Make sure cabbage family plants have ample room to grow (plant 2-3 feet on center) and give them plenty of nitrogen in the form of compost or rotten manure.  It’s hard to have soil that’s too rich for these plants.  When your soil is good and your plants are healthy, damage will be minimal and plants will recover easily.  You can also fertilize with fish emulsion, weed tea or compost tea to give plants an extra boost of nutrition.

See Working with Nature – Shifting Paradigms and Building Soils Naturally: Innovative Methods for Organic Gardeners for more information on building a healthy garden ecosystem.

If cabbage worms have gotten out of control, (DE) diatomaceous earth and Bt (bacillus thuringiensis) are two products available at garden centers that will slow them down.  DE is made of finely ground rock containing the fossilized shells of diatoms.  The grains are very sharp, and injure soft bodied critters.  (Don’t breath this.  I’m sure it’s not great for toads and frogs, either.)  Bt is a form of naturally occurring bacteria that effects the larva stage of insects, basically causing their stomachs to explode.  Because of it’s overuse in genetically modified crops (the Bt gene is spliced into a crop such as corn so the entire plant becomes a pesticide - read more at Would You Feed Your Kids Pesticide Chips?),  many insects are becoming resistant to these bacteria (there are multiple strains of Bt).  As you can see, each product has some problems, which gets me back to hand-picking and encouraging healthy plants.

To help clean cabbage worms off of harvested broccoli or cauliflower, cut the head into florets for maximum surface area (to expose hiding spots) and soak the florets in hot, salty water for 10-15 minutes.  The cabbage worms should float to the surface of the water.  Rinse under fast running cold water to dislodge any stragglers.  If you’re still concerned, cook by blanching in boiling water for 3 minutes, and a couple more may float out.  Otherwise cook/use as normal.  The worms are completely edible, just not common table fare for most of us.

Squash bugs are fast moving and breed very rapidly.  The adults resemble stink bugs, some of which are actually beneficial, so when they first showed up in my garden, I didn’t realize they were trouble.  I soon learned the error of my ways.  Squash bugs can suck and chew a plant to death in days.  Look for egg clusters on the underside of leaves and smash them or scrape them into your soapy water.

Squash bug eggs

Squash bug eggs on the underside of a leaf

The nymphs can be treated the same way.  Neem oil is supposed to be effective on the nymphs if they are hit directly, but it didn’t slow the ones in my garden down very well.

DIY Natural Garden Pest Control @ Common Sense Homesteading

Squash bug nymph

By the way, the mature squash bugs smell like fruit loops when you smash them.  I tried to get a picture, but they weren’t cooperating.  The young ones don’t smell as strong, and they don’t taste like much of anything, just “green”.  (Yes, I ate some bugs last summer.  I was curious, and figured it was time for payback.)

Update:  Reformation Acres has a nifty post about using duct tape to catch nymphs and round up eggs.  Check it out here.  Also, I’ve recently started researching entomophagy (eating bugs) in more detail, and found out that squash bugs and many other common garden pest are edible.  If you’re curious, you can read Eating Bugs – Free Food from Your Backyard.

Coffee Grounds for Flea Beetles

If you end up with leaves that look like they’ve been sprayed with buckshot, and all you see are tiny, fast moving black bugs about the size of fleas, chances are that you have flea beetles.

Flea beetle damage

Flea beetle damage on green bean plants

In my garden, they like to go after early spring growth.  Beans and peppers are often hit particularly hard, brassicas get some damage but not as much.  Coffee grounds can be applied after damage is spotted to give the plants a chance to recover (I’ve brought nearly dead plants back from the brink), but I’ve taken to applying the grounds when the plants are small to avoid damage in the first place.  Around mid-winter I start saving up and ask friends to start saving their grounds as well.

Page 2 – Dealing with Slugs, Rabbits and Mice, and Encouraging Beneficial Insects

Print Friendly

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you so much for this post. We might be starting a garden this year (if soil testing indicates the prior homeowners lawn chemicals are gone) and I was prepared to shell out big bucks for “organic” pest control. We happen to have DE on hand, and drink lots of coffee.

  2. Carmen says

    I live in SE Texas and we must do battle with all sorts of insects in our gardens. Then there are the squirrels who compete with us for our goodies. :)
    Sadly, because we are in the suburbs, I have not seen frogs in several years. They used to be everywhere. I hope that they aren’t gone permanently because of pest or herbicides.
    You have written a great, informative article, as usual.
    You are quickly becoming my favorite blogger.
    Thanks!

    • says

      Carmen – is it dry where you are at? That makes a big difference, too. Glyphosate weed killers (RoundUp) are very hard on amphibians, as are many pesticides, which act as neurotoxins. Even back in the suburbs, where I was surrounded by neighbors who chem treated their lawns, our yard became an oasis. If you build habitat, they will come, if they can. Thank you for your kind words!

    • says

      Sue – thank you so much for your thoughtfulness. I’m afraid that I’m up to my eyeballs in alligators, as usual, so it’s really tough to squeeze in time for things like blog awards. It probably would be best if you tag another blog.

  3. Ilene says

    What a wonderful post! Lots of great tips here. Last year I had a bad attack of cucumber beetle, which killed my cukes, squashes and watermelons overnight. I’ve read they lay eggs in the soil and that means I’ll have a worse infestation than last year. Any ideas what to do? They are pretty fast and impossible to catch and pick off. Once the squashes and melons were dead, they attacked the flowers on the okra, so I got nothing from that, either.

    • says

      Ilene – Cucumbers beetles can be terrible, plus they spread bacterial wilt, which gets in the soil and can cause problems for years after the initial infestation. First off, work to maximize your soil fertility – better soil = plants that are less likely to attract pests and are more resistant when they attack. Annette at Sustainable Eats is launching a soil building challenge right now – http://www.sustainableeats.com/2012/02/09/urban-farm-handbook-february-challenge-soil-building/

      At our old place, where we had poor, heavy clay soil, once the cucumber beetles showed up, and the bacterial wilt spread, I was not able to grow vine crops well again. Here, the cucumber beetles show up, but they don’t do much damage. I’ve got a mixed clay/sand/loam and much more organic matter.

      To control cucumber beetles, it’s best to get them early in the morning, when they are cooler and less active. They like to gather in blossoms, so I will gently shake a blossom into my container of soapy water, or use something like a popsicle stick to scoop them into the water. Sunflowers are great for attracting cucumber beetles – they love them! They gather on the sunflower heads and I shake them/brush them from the head into the soapy water. You can eliminate large qualities of them very quickly. The sunflower trap works almost any time of day.

  4. A J Walker says

    Northwest Arkansas, being part of the south, has not one by two visits from the squash bug hoards. If I can get control the first go round, I can reap a wonderful harvest before they invade again in late summer. You name it, and I have tried it to keep these vermin at bay (or off to squash bug heaven). I talk to everyone I know and they offer the same solutions: get what you can before they devour the plants and pull them up and burn the reside and rotate planting. Right!!! I did have a organic gardening truck farmer friend in Vermont to introduced me to an organic produce called “Pyganic” (not advertising here, just sharing). I used this last year and had a bumper crop all summer long. I was thrilled!!!! I sprayed in the evening so as not to interfer with the bees in the early morning hours. Read the literature before you use and make your own choices. I just have to say using this product is the only time in the last 10 years I have been able to produce a crop of squash that was worth all the work I put into it.
    Thanks for your tips and encouragement….
    Happy gardening.
    AJW

  5. Bekki says

    Do you have any experience/suggestions for dealing with pill bugs? I called them roly polys when I was growing up, but now they are my archnemesis, and that cute name doesn’t fit. I made the mistake of mulching with plain ol’ oak leaves, gathered from a corner of the yard where they’d been falling and piling up/composting for years. They were, apparently FULL of bugs. I am almost certain they are the culprits munching my plants’ leaves and occasionally stems. I put out beer traps and caught quite a few, but it was a small fraction of the horde.

  6. Kathi says

    Give me cabbage worms any day, over yellow jackets! I’ve been thinking about responding to your post for days. Every year I get stung repeatedly and have developed a severe local allergic reaction. Every time, I suffer intense swelling. The 8 devils that got me last Friday while weeding my raised veggie beds kept me off my feet for 2 days due to swelling. Let’s put the cabbage worm vs. yellow jacket discussion into perspective, and not call yellow jackets “beneficial”. Although technically beneficial because they eat pest insects, yellowjackets are responsible for almost all of the so-called ‘bee sting deaths’ in the United States.  Since I am too sensitive to get rid of the nest on my own, I spent $110 today to have an organic pest control service get rid of this latest nest. I love your site but please don’t encourage people to disregard the dangers of these beasts.

    • says

      Kathi – I appreciate your input, and thank you for taking the time to think about your response and not just lashing out in anger as some might have been tempted to do. I’m not sure what part of the country you’re in – maybe you’ve got more aggressive bugs than we do? Maybe mine are unusually docile? In all honestly, I’ve never been stung by our yellowjackets, even when I knocked nests out of the greenhouse and off the deck, or when I’ve bumped into them in the garden, or when I brushed into the nest they had built on the deck railing with my hand. The only time any of us have been stung here is when my son had one stuck inside his shirt. I got stung some years ago at a sidewalk sale, and my eldest was stung outside a hardware store. I work around the bees, yellowjackets and wasps all the time. Just to be on the safe side, I’ll add a note in the post about your concerns.

  7. Kathi says

    True eastern yellow jackets and german wasps are virulent, especially in hot weather. They build their nests low to the ground, or even in the ground. They seem to launch sneak attacks on me every year. I don’t wear any scent, I don’t wear bright colors, but they are intent on finding me. I’m in Door County, WI. Thanks for reponding.

    • says

      Skip the perches and the bird feeders, and keep the water shallow and on the ground. Unfortunately, berry eating birds know a good thing when they see it, and netting or berry painted rocks may be needed to preserve your harvest.

  8. says

    Thanks for the tips! Fortunately, the birds haven’t found our berries yet (we’ve had them a few years), but we are always worried they will.

  9. Jane T says

    This year the squash bugs & the cabbage worms got ahead of me when the rain set in. Fortunately, I have big beds of lemon balm, mint, and some tansy. I made herb tea concentrate from an armload of herbs; then strained it into an empty, clean plastic jug to store. In my quart spray bottle, I placed 4 drops of dish detergent, 1/4 cup vinegar, 2 t. cooking oil, and topped it off with herb tea concentrate. I saturated bottom side of cabbage leaves first then sprayed the tops of the leaves & the head. Walked on over to the squashes and saturated the stems and the soil, then sprayed both sides of the leaves and removed the eggs. In 2 days there was only an occasional squash bug or cabbage worm. So I wanted to discourage the remaining threat and looked to my pantry. I found “OLD” spices and used several T. of cinnamon, chili powder, ginger, cayenne & baking soda + t. of clove & allspice. I placed the mixture in an empty spice sprinkler jar and happily sprinkled edible dust on my squash & cucumber & melon stems, then sprinkled the bottom of the leaves and the top of the leaves.
    It has been over a week and 2 rains since I tag-teamed the bugs with strong mint spray and next day with powdered spices. I picked 7 summer squashes today & saw NO sign of squash bugs. The cabbages/broccoli have no new holes in their leaves & have resumed growing. It’s FUN to monitor this change in my garden.

  10. darre says

    Awesome stuff.if its OK I’m gonna use the pancake recipe forever.passing it down through my kids.etc.now I’m going to try haluska.I’m very thankful for all the gardening tips.

  11. cindy roundtree says

    have you tried D.E. ( dimatamatous earth ) i bought a bag and i am very excitied about trying it, and was wondering if anyone else has tried it and what kind of success if any you had

  12. says

    We use eggshells. I put some around all the young plants–slugs and snails (and probably other soft bodied bugs) can’t get past the crushed up eggshells. I also use them around the edges of the boxes and around anything that’s subject to snail damage. It has the added benefit of putting extra calcium into the soil.

    I also use a dilution of vinegar with hot peppers on squash bugs, etc. It works very well if you catch them when they’re young–not so much on the adults, although they don’t like it and they’ll usually go elsewhere. If you catch the infestations early one or two applications should be sufficient. If the infestation is further along, you may need to do it every day for a few weeks. Be careful though–the liquid is corrosive, so you don’t want to use it for an extended period on anything really fragile.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>