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When To Apply Natural Pesticides & 5 Recipes To Start With

Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor By Emma Loewe
mbg Senior Sustainability Editor
Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of "Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us."
Bugs Don't Stand A Chance Against These 5 DIY Natural Pesticides
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Synthetic pesticides are no doubt effective at keeping critters out of the garden, but their potency comes at a cost. Not only can they negatively affect soil and water health, but they've also been associated with respiratory and hormonal issues in humans. Not to mention, they tend to kill off all insects—even beneficial ones that keep your garden flourishing, like pollinators.

Instead of spraying chemicals at the first sight of a pest problem, organic gardeners will take a more gentle and preventive approach. "When I think of pest management, I think more about how I can create a really healthy environment for my plants and my garden," Sarah Lozanova, environmental journalist and author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, tells mbg.

Techniques like companion planting, composting, and crop rotation can go a long way in creating healthy soil that's packed with beneficial bugs but free of bothersome critters. But on the off chance that you do have an infestation on your hands, these more natural pesticides should be able to take care of it without harming the overall health of your garden.

What to keep in mind.

While they likely won't be as disruptive to your garden as chemical pesticides, these natural remedies should still be sprayed sparingly. Use your best judgment when deciding where they're needed.

"If you have a fire ant problem right next to your porch where you like to sit, maybe it makes sense to be more aggressive. But if it's more like a few little ants in the corner of the yard that aren't really hurting anything, then it might not warrant doing something that could harm other critters," Lozanova says.

Like natural weed killers, natural pesticides should also be tested on a small patch of garden first. Then, monitor your plant to ensure that the solution isn't harming it before you move forward.

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Natural pesticide options.

Here are a few of the most effective ingredients you'll find in a natural pesticide and a bit more about how each one works on certain insects. Taking a more targeted approach with your pesticides will help ensure that you're not killing off too many bugs at once:

1. Diatomaceous earth

Available in most home goods stores and online, diatomaceous earth is made from fossilized algae that have been ground into a light powder. Kris Bordessa, a green living expert and the author of Attainable Sustainable: The Lost Art of Self-Reliant Living, prefers using it instead of chemical pesticides in her garden—especially on crops that she plans to feed her family.

"This finely powdered dust doesn't poison insects; it dries them out by absorbing oils from their exoskeletons," she says of the nontoxic material. "The sharp edges of diatomaceous earth particles are abrasive and will roughen the exoskeleton, speeding up the drying process so the pests die quickly."

Works best on: Anything with an exoskeleton; mites, ants, cockroaches, fungus gnats

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2. Neem oil

This naturally occurring bug killer comes from the seeds of the neem tree, Azadirachta indica. "I use neem oil primarily as a foliar (leaf) spray in the garden, to keep pests like aphids at bay. It's also great for helping keep powdery mildew under control," says Bordessa.

Azadirachtin, the main active ingredient in neem oil, is toxic to some bugs. Once they eat it, it disrupts their hormones, makes it harder for them to lay new eggs, and suppresses their appetite until they eventually starve. You can either spray it on your plants as a preventive measure or apply it where you see small, soft-bodied bugs.

Works best on: Aphids, mealybugs, mites

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3. Eggshells

Similar to diatomaceous earth, eggshells act as an abrasive in the garden and may be helpful for keeping crawly critters from getting into your plants. While there isn't as much evidence for this one, it's a simple ingredient that most of us already have in our kitchens so it's worth a shot—especially if you live in a warm, moist area that's prone to slugs and snails. Not to mention, the calcium in eggshells can act as a nice soil amendment.

Works best on: Slugs, snails

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4. Castile soap

Speaking of common household ingredients, in addition to serving as a body wash, all-purpose spray, detergent, carpet cleaner, and more, multipurpose Castile soap can also help trap and suffocate soft bugs like aphids. And since it's made from vegetable oils, it shouldn't harm other critters or throw off the balance of your garden. Castile soap can also help disperse oils like neem oil in water, making other DIY sprays more effective.

Works best on: Aphids, mealybugs, mites

5 DIY recipes to try.

These natural pesticides can be used for treating existing pest problems and preventing future ones. Try out these ratios to start, but feel free to adjust and iterate until you find a solution that works in your unique garden. And once you do find your perfect mix, be sure to record it in your garden journal to refer back to in case anything crawls back!

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Castile soap spray (treatment):

  • 1 tsp Castile soap
  • 1 quart warm water
  • A spray bottle
  1. Gently combine the soap-and-water mixture in your spray bottle.
  2. Spray on your plant where you see aphids, mealybugs, or mites. Be sure to check both sides of the leaves, as well as the stems.
  3. Apply around sunrise or sunset. Spraying in the middle of the day under the hot sun will cause the mixture to evaporate faster. This is also when beneficial pollinators tend to be most active.

Neem oil spray (prevention):

  • 1 tsp neem oil
  • ⅓ tsp Castile soap
  • 1 quart warm water
  • A spray bottle
  1. Combine the Castile soap and water in your spray bottle, then slowly add your neem oil.
  2. Apply the mixture to a plant's leaves and stems every week to deter aphids, mealybugs, and mites.
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Neem oil spray (treatment):

  • 2 tsp neem oil
  • ⅔ tsp soap
  • 1 quart warm water
  • A spray bottle
  1. A slightly more concentrated version of the mixture above, this one should be sprayed directly on any aphid infestation you see.
  2. Reapply every few days until the bug problem is gone.
  3. This is also a good spray to use on a houseplant that has an infestation. Just be sure to isolate it from your other plants before spraying to stop the spread of pests.

Eggshell barrier (prevention):

  • Clean, dry eggshells
  • A blender, food processor, or another tool to crush your shells
  1. Thoroughly clean your eggshells to ensure they don't have any food left in them (which can just attract more pests!). Dropping them in boiling water for a few minutes should do the trick.
  2. Dry your eggshells completely before grinding them into a powder, by hand or in a blender/food processor.
  3. Sprinkle the eggshells at the base of a plant to form a physical barrier against snails and slugs.
  4. Toss any eggshells you didn't get to use in your compost bin.

Diatomaceous earth (treatment & prevention):

  • Diatomaceous earth
  1. Sprinkle the powder at the base of any plants that are prone to insects or on the leaves/stems where you see insects gathering.

The takeaway.

Starting a garden gives you a front-row seat to lots of incredible natural processes—so it makes sense that you wouldn't want to disrupt them with chemicals. Instead, be sparing about unnecessary pesticides. Use the natural ones on this list only as needed to keep your sustainable garden buzzing, crawling, and teeming with life of all kinds.

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