organic gardening
Published December 17, 2020 by Nicole Burke

How to Use Trap Crops in Your Garden

Filed Under:
trap crops
garden pests
organic garden
use calendula as trap crops for vegetables

What Is a Trap Crop?

A trap crop is just what it sounds like. It's a crop that you plant to trap pests that would otherwise attack other garden crops. Basically, a trap crop is a decoy for your kale, spinach, and lettuce plants—it attracts all the aphids and caterpillars its way so that those bugs stay away from your beautiful organic salad greens.

Let me say this sooner rather than later: Pests are a normal, everyday part of the garden. Everybody has them. If you're growing an organic garden, you're going to have pests. It's just part of the deal, and it's not something to get stressed out about. If you're focusing too much on the pest, you'll miss the best parts of the garden.

Let's put it this way. We just have to learn to live with pests. 

Our goal is to make gardening easier and more practical. We want to normalize gardening as a daily practice. We believe gardening is good to the third power—good for you, good for your community, and good for the whole planet. How many other things in the world are like that? I can't think of many.

Using trap crops to deal with pests is a really easy way to make gardening easier. Let's look at how to use trap crops.

Plant Trap Crops for Vegetables and Leafy Greens

Oftentimes, people will see pictures of plants in my garden, like my swiss chard, for instance, and say something like, "How do you not have any holes in your leaves? How are the leaves so beautiful and green?” 

And one of the answers is trap crops.

Right next to my swiss chard, I grow calendula. I largely neglect my calendula. I don't deadhead the flowers. I basically just let it do its own thing, but it's still serving my plants and my overall kitchen garden as a trap crop.

Calendula is one of those plants that actually attracts pests to the garden. Weird, right? Most people would be like, “Well, I don't want to grow that because I don't want to grow something that's going to bring pests to the garden. I want them to get out of my garden already.”

Trap Crop Calendula

Calendula and Other Trap Crops Are an Organic Way to Deal with Pests

But the beauty is that a plant like calendula attracts the pests to it, keeping them off of the plants that you care more about, like your Swiss chard, your peppers, your kale, and your cherry tomatoes. 

If you look at my leafy greens and fruit-bearing plants, they don't have holes in them. They don't have pests on the stems. But if you look closely at my calendula, which is right next door, they are covered in aphids, literally covered. You might find 100 aphids on one stem and 50 more on another. 

I am totally okay with having aphids all over my calendula if that means that the greens right behind it are going to be super beautiful and unaffected by pest pressure.

Planting some trap crops in your kitchen garden is a great organic way to deal with pests and to let them do their thing without destroying the plants that you care the most about. It means you don't have to use any pesticides or synthetic sprays that could harm beneficial insects in your garden. It's also very cheap pest control. A bag of calendula seeds only costs a couple bucks.

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.

How to Deal with Pests on Trap Crops

There are a couple of things I could do to deal with the aphids on a trap crop like calendula. Some gardeners recommend giving the plant a good, hard spray with water, but that risks scattering the aphids all over the garden, when the whole point of the trap crop is to keep them contained in just one area. 

What you could do instead is cut the stems of the calendula that are covered with aphids and drop them into a bowl of soapy water before those pests are able to fly away and disperse to the rest of your garden. Thanks to their larger size, caterpillars are super easy to remove by hand.

Alternatively, you could treat just the affected plant with a simple diluted spray like Neem oil. You can kill the gathered aphids on contact right there on the plant. 

What I do is just let the aphids do their thing. I don't really stress about it, as long as I come out to my garden and don't see the aphids migrating to my other plants. 

Think about nature. Your garden is a little ecosystem. It doesn't exist in isolation. If these aphids hang on long enough, a predator will come along and take care of these aphids for me—something like a ladybug or maybe even a bird or another animal that likes to eat small insects.

Plus, those calendula flowers are still completely pick-able and edible even when aphids have been hanging out on the stalks.

aphids on calendula - organic pest control technique

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Trap Crops List

Plant the following trap crops if you notice pest pressure in your garden space:

  • Grow marigolds near your tomato plants to prevent nematodes from attacking their roots.
  • Grow dill around your tomato plants to prevent tomato hornworms from eating your entire tomato plants.
  • Plant radishes and nasturtiums around your brassicas (like broccoli, kale, and collards) to trap flea beetles.
  • Grow nasturtiums and calendula to trap aphids.
  • Grow collard greens to prevent cabbage worms from ruining your cabbage plants.
  • Plant sunflowers to trap stink bugs.
  • Add globe amaranth to keep cucumber beetles off your cucurbits.

While not technically a trap crop, chives will repel pests from the area and attract more beneficial insects. I plant chives in the corners of all my raised beds.

marigolds are great trap crops

Don't stress about pests, my friends, because that just takes away the joy of the kitchen garden. So, plant a trap crop like calendula, and you'll find that it will pull all the pests away from the rest of your favorite kitchen garden plants. You can just let them hang out there or treat them individually on the plant, while you enjoy harvesting the foods you want to eat more. You'll get to the good stuff you want to eat before the critters can.

Now, go out and enjoy your garden, pests and all!

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How to Use Trap Crops in Your Garden