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Published October 28, 2022 by Nicole Burke

5 Ways to Deal with Garden Pests Naturally

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Are Garden Pests Bugging You?

It's pretty safe to assume that if you have a garden, you have garden pests. In fact, pests of all sizes, from aphids to deer, seem to be a pretty major issue in our little gardening community.

Let's explore why pests are in your garden in the first place and five ways you can deal with them naturally to keep your organic garden as pest-free as possible. I say "as possible" because 100 percent pest-free is pretty much an impossibility, even if you're quick to whip out pesticide sprays and chemicals.

Our aim is to keep our gardens free of pesticides and free of major pest pressure, and there are five ways we can do that organically. But first, why are pests attracted to your garden?

(Prefer to listen? Listen to my Grow Your Self Podcast episode called "This Should Bug You" on Apple, Spotify, iHeartRadio, and Stitcher.)

organic garden pest control practices

Pests Are Part of the Food-Growing Process

Here's the important thing to remember: Bugs eat healthy plants.

When I first began focusing on eating organic and locally grown produce, I bought corn from a woman at the farmers' market, only to take it home and find the cobs covered in caterpillars. When I saw the same woman at the market the next week, I told her the corn was delicious but had a pest problem. She looked at me like she was my mother and said, “Honey, if the worms don't want to eat that corn, it ain’t no good.”

If pests don't want to eat your food, then you shouldn't want to eat it either. Or to put it another way, if bugs know better than to eat something, that's a sign it's probably sprayed with all kinds of pesticides and not going to be great for your body either. On the opposite side, if every bug wants to come take a bite, that's a sign that you've created a thriving garden filled with tasty treats. Nature knows good food when it sees it.

If you see pests in your garden, take comfort that they're not there to tell you you're doing a terrible job at gardening. Keep calm and garden on.

plant decorator

Honey, if the worms don't want to eat that corn, it ain’t no good.”

Farmer at the Nashville Farmers' Market
holes in leaves caused by pests

Garden Pest Control Is About Playing Offense

I want to start us off with an excerpt from my first book, Kitchen Garden Revival. This is from Chapter 7: Tend:

“As a soccer mom with four kids, I have watched more than a few games. I still don't know much about the sport, but I do know we're in trouble when our team keeps hanging out on the other team's end of the field. Even though most of my kids are great at playing defender and the goalie is catching everything that comes her way, I can feel my nerves tingle when we can't seem to move the ball toward the opponent's goal for any length of time. No matter how hard we fight, if we're always on the defense, we’re probably going to lose the game. I know, I know—playing sports is about building character, not winning—but soccer moms know best: winning is more fun.
"I'll tell you what I'd tell my kids (if they would actually listen to me): stay on the offense as much as you possibly can. It doesn't just apply to soccer, but to gardening too. Your job is to keep the activity on the positive side, the offensive side, the growing side. Because when you start hanging out on the other side, when it's just one defensive move after another, it is inevitable that there's going to be a point scored—and it will not be yours.
"So each time you approach your garden, think offense. Think about scoring, about moving the ball—I mean the plants—a little closer to the goal. The more you think about that, the less you will worry about fighting off the bad guys. Hint: You’re going to win! 
"There are a number of ways to play offense in your garden. And they can be summed up in this way: feed, support, and prune. The one act of defense you'll have to play is to protect, but you'll quickly see that all these tasks are, in fact, connected."
holes on leaves in an organic garden

Elevate your backyard veggie patch into a sophisticated and stylish work of art 

Kitchen Garden Revival guides you through every aspect of kitchen gardening, from design to harvesting—with expert advice from author Nicole Johnsey Burke, founder of Rooted Garden, one of the leading US culinary landscape companies, and Gardenary, an online kitchen gardening education and resource company.

Stay on the Offense in Your Garden

This is my guiding philosophy. If you stop reading right now, you already have the key to dealing with pests in your garden. Staying on the offense means aiming to score yourself rather than focusing on the things that are trying to score against you. And the more you put your focus on that, the better your garden will grow—and the happier you will be! You'll be thinking about all the delicious food you're going to harvest from your garden instead of something that really bugs you.

look for garden pests in soil

How to Deal with Garden Pests Naturally

5 Ways to Get Rid of Pests Without Using Pesticides

You can think of these five offensive strategies as steps, except you're constantly going to be cycling through them as part of your garden tending tasks. Here's how to deal with pests naturally:

  • Prune away visible damage on the plant
  • Remove additional stressors on the plant
  • Nourish the plant with compost
  • Invite the pest's natural predators into the garden
  • Monitor the plant daily for the next two weeks before taking further action
garden pests control

The 1st Way to Deal with Pests in the Garden Is to Prune Away Visible Damage

As soon as you notice holes in your leaves or damage to your plant that make it clear a pest is eating from your garden, remove the leaves that are heavily chewed or affected. The best time to do this is in the early morning or evening since pests like to come out when it's cool and dark.

After you've removed the damage, search for garden pests in the soil and on the undersides of leaves—these are the general areas where pests like to hide. Remove every pest that you can find by hand.

Tips to Prune Away Damage

  • Never remove more than one third of the plant. If you find yourself needing to cut more than that, it's best to remove the affected plant entirely from your garden.
  • Use clean pruners.
  • Bring a flashlight to help you search for pests.
garden vegetable pests

The 2nd Way to Deal with Pests in the Garden Is to Remove Additional Stressors on the Plant

The pest is obviously the number one stressor. Additional stressors are things like dead leaves, extra fruit, or extra large growth on the plant. If you're drowning, the last thing you need is for someone to throw you one more thing to hold that won't help you float. When plants are being attacked, it's up to us to relieve them of as much of their burden as possible.

One thing you don't want to do is take away healthy leaves because those are helping the plant photosynthesize and work through the issue. But you do want to take away any other part of the plant that might be weighing it down. This will give the plant a little extra energy to focus on fighting for itself.

organic gardening

The 3rd Way to Deal with Pests in the Garden Is to Nourish the Plants

I liken pesticides to antibiotics—they are a strong and targeted attack on the pest and way overused. In most cases, we don't need to treat with antibiotics. We just need some vitamins.

Whenever you see a plant suffering from pest pressure, give that plant more nutrition. One of the easiest ways to do this is by adding compost around the base of the plant and watering it well. This will ensure your plant is getting all its nutritional needs met.

A plant knows how to fight for itself; it actually has built-in defense systems. All you have to do is give it the ideal conditions so that it can focus on fighting for itself.

When we try instead to come it and fight on the plant's behalf, we mess up the plant's opportunity to defend itself. It's like trying to protect your child from a school bully by stepping in yourself every day on the playground and saying, "Leave him alone!" Your kid will learn absolutely nothing about how to defend himself on the one day you don't show up to protect him. It's much better to offer your child lots of support from home and help him learn tactics to stand up for himself. That's much more sustainable in the long term, right? And your child will actually become stronger on his own.

If we keep jumping in and fighting the garden bullies for our plants, our plants will never grow stronger. They'll just stay 100 percent reliant on us. And the one day we don't show up... game over.

Studies have shown that plants that have fought off pest attacks are more nutritious and full of antioxidants than they were before they were attacked. When we step in with sprays and pesticides, we're not only doing bad things to the environment and creating a web of destruction, we're also limiting the nutrients we as the consumer could get from those plants.

It's pretty incredible that all we need to support our plants and help them grow stronger is some compost!

adding compost is part of organic gardening
LOOKING FOR MORE TIPS AND TRICKS TO GROW YOUR OWN ORGANIC GARDEN?

A Gardenary 365 membership includes access to our new online gardening course, Organic Pest Control. Get all the tips you need to deal with pests, plus access to the complete Gardenary online course library, including Salad Garden School, Growing Roots, and more.

The 4th Way to Deal with Pests in the Garden Is to Invite the Pest's Predators into the Garden

It's time to do some studying! Every pest has a predator, right? Discover your plant's pest's predator.

My first garden in Nashville had a serious raccoon problem. When I went to the local garden store to ask them what I could buy to handle these raccoons, the employee's answer was... coyote pee. Come again?

Apparently, when raccoons smell wolf or coyote urine, they think that animal is near and about to eat them. The employee also said I could go home, feed my husband a steak, and have him pee all over the garden if I didn't want to shell out $20 for animal pee. (I didn't ask how they bottle it in the first place!)

I didn't end up using any urine in my garden, but I did learn a lesson: Natural predators can help you in the garden. (If you haven't seen the documentary Biggest Little Farm, it has a great depiction of this concept.)

Do some research and figure out what in nature preys on the pest that's become an issue. What will eat the thing that's eating your plants? One example, of course, is ladybugs eating aphids. If aphids are your problem, you can welcome their predator by setting up your garden to be a great environment for ladybugs. Your goal is to bring more of the natural predator into your garden space. Sometimes, if you just sit back and wait, the predator will be drawn by the pests and invite themselves in!

This is a more holistic way to look at pest control—the way nature is meant to be.

ladybugs help fight off garden pests

The 5th Way to Deal with Pests in the Garden Is to Wait and See

Many of us are used to the one-and-done approach, to instant gratification, and that's why we reach for easy solutions like pesticides. The garden does not reward a one-and-done approach. When I say wait and see, I don't mean doing nothing. I mean you'll need to stay on those plants every day for the next two weeks after you've pruned, removed visible pests, supported the plant, and invited in predators.

Make it a point to head to the garden and check out the plant around the same time every day to see if the pests show up or if there's new damage on the leaves.

This is kind of gross, but if you've ever had lice or dealt with a child who had lice, then you know that you get rid of all the lice but then still have to deal with the lice babies once they hatch. Once you've handled the second round, you're probably done, but you have to be pretty vigilant for two to four weeks.

Garden pests are the same. Most of these guys are minuscule and they have minuscule babies. You're going to have to stay on your plants as the days go on, especially over the first few weeks, just to make sure that you really got the pests out. If you see any new damage, then you're going to basically start over with pruning, supporting, etc.

pesticide for organic garden

The Worst Way to Deal with Garden Pests Is to Spray Pesticides

Now, if you notice in here, I didn't include any sprays or treatments. Herbicides, pesticides, and fungicides used on vegetable plants can have a horrible impact on so many things. Sure, these sprays are great for keeping a fruit or vegetable looking perfect, but just remember that if you're eating a perfect-looking strawberry, you're also eating all the chemicals that were involved in keeping that strawberry so perfect.

When we spray a pesticide, we're not just killing the pest that's affecting our little microcosmic situation. We're doing a lot more than spraying a leaf and killing one particular bug. There's no such thing as an isolated occurrence with nature. We might think we're dealing with one pest and live happily ever after, but the truth is our food system is connected to all other systems.

There are at least four other results of spraying our plants with pesticides, including:

One: A negative impact on pollinators

Pesticides have been linked to a dramatic decline in pollinator species, including honeybees. One class of pesticides called Neonics are responsible for an unsustainable 33 percent decline in bee hives in just two years.

pesticides are harmful to pollinators

Two: A negative impact on humans

A recent study tested people's urine and found byproducts of pesticides in 90 percent of the samples. These pesticides mostly come from eating fruits and vegetables from the store, even thought the EPA has done tests that show only trace amounts of pesticides remain in the fruits and vegetables we consume.

Three: A negative impact on our groundwater

All the sprays we put on our lawns and gardens are washed into the sewer and end up in the city's water system. If you live near a body of water, those chemicals affect marine life and fish.

Four: A negative impact on wildlife

Something that starts with small pests ends up affecting the entire food chain and causing a decline in our wildlife population.

use only safe pesticides for organic garden

Is There Such a Thing as a "Safe" Pesticide for an Organic Garden?

There are prescribed treatments that are considered organic for every type of pest situation. Keep in mind that just because a treatment is organic doesn't mean it won't still have some type of negative impact on something other than the pest you're hoping to kill. That's why I very rarely turn to even the mildest of organic pesticides.

Organic Garden Pest Control Treatments

I generally prune, clean the area, add compost, and see if nature will do its thing and take care of the issue before I ever consider using spray. If the pest pressure is heavy, I might apply something organic like diluted Dr. Bronner's castile soap or garlic barrier (an extract of garlic mixed with water and sprayed on plants). In extreme pest infestations, I might use Monterey Bt, Sluggo, or neem oil, but honestly, if the pest issue is that severe, I typically just remove the affected plants, clean the area, and start again. (See my recommended brands for these organic pest treatments on Amazon.)

Overall, I wanted to give you an alternative way to view pest protection that doesn't include a spray bottle as the go-to.

LOOKING FOR MORE TIPS AND TRICKS TO GROW YOUR OWN ORGANIC GARDEN?

A Gardenary 365 membership includes access to our new online gardening course, Organic Pest Control. Get all the tips you need to deal with pests, plus access to the complete Gardenary online course library, including Salad Garden School, Growing Roots, and more.

Don't Let Garden Pests Bug You

I hope that this gives you a much more holistic view of your own garden as part of something so much bigger than that little bug that's bugging you. Take a breath and just appreciate the wonder that is the a cycle of life unfolding in your very own space. Nature is doing its thing, and you're helping it by growing healthy and organic food in your garden.

And if you want to save as much of that food as possible for yourself, then you're just going to have to hurry out to your garden and beat the pests to it!

Remember: Stay on the offense by setting your plants up in their ideal environment so they're ready to fight those pest bullies that attack them. It's so much better for you, for them, and for the environment to take a step back and let your plants do their thing. Bugs are a natural part of an organic garden, but that doesn't mean they have to win.

5 Ways to Deal with Garden Pests Naturally

Some of the links in this article are Amazon affiliate links, which means I receive a small commission at no extra cost to you if you click on the link and purchase the item. All opinions remain my own.

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