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Dealing With Garden Pests (Controlling Bad Bugs in the Garden)

There’s nothing quite as frustrating as watching common pests destroy your healthy plants. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent and tackle these pest problems early on! Learn how to deal with pests in the garden to ensure you get a great harvest every time.

Although there are plenty of beneficial insects you may want to see in your flower or vegetable garden, others will wreak havoc on your unsuspecting tomato plants or flowers. 

I’m not all that keen on using pesticides, especially on vegetables. I also like bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other pollinators in my gardens, and pesticides are indiscriminate about which bug they are killing. If you feel you must use pesticides, at least try organic pesticides first.

If you want some alternatives to just grabbing that bottle of pesticide chemical junk, read on.

Lady bug on a garden plant.
An adult Asian ladybeetle (Harmonia axyridis, Coccinellidae).

How to Deal with Pests in the Garden

1. Start with physical barriers

The best way to prevent most common garden pests is by using physical barriers. Although fencing can help keep large pests like rabbit or deer out of your garden, insect pests require a more tightly knit enclosure.

Floating row cover – Row covers work great to control cabbage moths and other things that chomp on (and lay eggs) on broccoli, cabbage and other brassicas.

I don’t recommend using row covers on plants that need pollination though. Flowering vegetables like squash, tomatoes, melons, and many others must be pollinated before they can form the vegetable, so row covers will keep that from happening. I’ve seen others utilize row covers after pollination, but I haven’t tried it myself. I think it would cut down on vegetable harvest, because pollination isn’t a one and done deal.

2. Add companion plants or trap crops

Sometimes it can be helpful to plant a crop that will distract a pest from one plant and direct them to another. 

For example, carrot flies are drawn to the fragrant leaves of the dill plant, so planting dill in your garden can protect your carrot harvest. The dill will take on the pest damage, so you can enjoy a good haul of carrots. In fact, dill will also repel some pests.

One of the most annoying pests in almost every garden is aphids. Although they can be easy to manage early on, developing several lines of defense from these pests is a good idea to ensure you have a healthy garden.

Common trap crops for aphids include: nasturtium, basil, chervil (an herb), mustard (be careful this one is a spreader), sunflower and marigold. If you always grow a few of these things in your garden, it can go a long way to distract the most common plant pests and keep your flower and vegetable crops healthy.

Flea beetles on a hollyhock leaf.
Flea beetles on hollyhock

3. Deal with pests early

Non-toxic methods work best with early detection. Check your plants daily and remove the pests at the first sign of damage. I realize this is not a fun gardening activity, but it can make a difference in pest control.

It’s easiest to choose a specific time of day for this. I like to water in the morning, which is also a great time to check any leaves for damage. 

For pests like slugs that are drawn to moisture, watering early gives the excess water a chance to evaporate during the day to prevent damage.

4. Invite natural predators

Depending on the type of garden pests you’re struggling with, it can be helpful to invite beneficial predators to your garden to eat the pesky garden pests. 

For example, ladybugs can be a great way to deal with aphids, but they can also eat other pests, like ants, leafhoppers, mites, and more.

There are also parasitic wasps that prey on common garden pests. They’re great at controlling some of the worst garden pests, like tomato hornworms, aphids, cabbage loopers, and more. They are drawn to dill, fennel, and cilantro, so plant those to invite these beneficial bugs to your own garden.

Do your research before adding any of these natural predators to your garden.

Gardener spraying aphids.

5. Use natural insecticides

Diatomaceous Earth is made from fossilized aquatic organisms, and the food grade is supposed to be safe for humans to consume. It has many uses, but we are only interested in what it does to bugs. It binds to bugs, dries them out, and kills them. Again, as with any pesticide, it will kill all bugs, the good and the bad.  

I recommend this duster thingy for applying Diatomaceous Earth. Otherwise, the light powder blows, potentially killing other insects that it comes in contact with.

Neem oil is one of the most popular organic pesticides as it can target both pest issues (mites, aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies) and fungal diseases (root rot, black spot, etc). Horticultural oils like neem oil are natural garden pest controls, but all pesticides and insecticides have their pros and cons. 

If you are using pesticides on vegetable crops, you especially need to make sure they’re safe and that they won’t cause harm to you when you eat those plants later on.

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The Truth About Natural Pest Remedies

Beware of all the so-called organic or natural bug remedies or recipes out there. Just because someone calls something organic doesn’t mean it’s organic. Case in point- Dawn dish soap recipes to kill bugs and weeds are NOT organic or natural. Read the label on a bottle of Dawn or other dishsoap, and you’ll find there’s nothing organic about it. 

However, if I can kill bugs with Dawn soap, I may choose that over chemical sprays that harm good bugs in the vicinity of where I’m spraying. 

We have a terrible time with box elder bugs, and Dawn soap and water kills them, so that’s what we use. In this example, we are not spraying this in the garden areas.

Is it organic? No! Also, when using dishsoap recipes and insecticidal soap sprays, the liquid must come in contact with the bug, otherwise the sprays have little or no residual effect. Insecticidal soap sprays, or homemade sprays made with dish soap mixed with water, work to control and kill soft-bodied insects and larvae, like aphids and sawfly larvae.

Here is an alternative to the organic Dawn soap recipe that has worked well for me. I used it on Japanese Beetles, and it kills on contact. It can be used on vegetables and flowers to deter bugs, rabbits, and deer. 

I found this recipe on Rocky Hedge Farm’s blog, and you can read Sarah’s post to see exactly how she uses it. 

Natural Garden Pest Control Spray

1 tablespoon Organic Liquid Castile Soap (Double Mint)
12 drops Peppermint Essential Oil
16 oz. spray bottle
Water to fill bottle

Hosta with Slug Damage
Hosta with slug damage.

How to Get Rid of Slugs in Your Gardens

I hate slugs! I can have the prettiest bed of hostas, and the plants can be riddled with slug damage by the end of summer. 

I’ve tried beer traps, but apparently, the slugs in my garden didn’t like my son-in-law’s cheap beer. I’ve tried crunched up eggshells, and the slugs laughed at me. 

The only thing I’ve tried that truly works is a product called Sluggo. I sprinkle it around the base of my hosta plants in the spring when they first emerge and again around the beginning of July. If I’m diligent and do both treatments, I will see very little slug damage, if any, in my hosta beds. 

If you have problems with slugs, I highly recommend Sluggo. Sluggo is an organic product and won’t contaminate edibles, or harm pets.

How to Get Rid of Flea Beetles

Flea beetles are especially harmful to young plants early on in the season. To identify them, look for small holes in your plants. The flea beetles can cause young plants to die, so watch for these on your tender seedlings.

They are especially prevalent in the early spring when conditions are moist, so it’s helpful to plant as late as possible. 

Cover early plants with a row cover. If you see more than a handful of flea beetles on a plant, you may need to resort to treating the plants with chemical pesticides.

How to Get Rid of Aphids

Aphids are one of the most annoying pest insects in the garden. The good news is that it’s easy to deal with aphids early on with a strong spray of water or the homemade insecticidal spray I mentioned above. The water will knock the aphids off the plants, and the soap will dissolve the bodies of the aphids and their larvae.

For heavy infestations, though, you’ll need stronger ammunition. Neem oil can work to kill large numbers of aphids, but be sure to check how long you need to wait before harvesting the plant after spraying.

Ladybugs are natural predators for aphids, and it can be helpful to raise ladybugs in your garden each year to fight off this common garden pest.

Aphids can be many different colors. Learn more about identifying and controlling aphids in your garden here.

Cucumber beetle eating a cucumber.
Cucumber beetle

How to Remove Cucumber Beetles

Here in Minnesota, cucumber beetles are a huge pest. They can be either spotted or striped, and they usually appear in early summer or late spring. Cucumber beetles target cucurbits, so think squashes, cucumbers, and melons. They can harm the plants by stripping their leaves, and they also introduce bacteria that cause bacterial wilt. 

The simplest way to deal with cucumber beetles is to plant a trap crop of cucurbits early on in the season. As the beetles are drawn to the baby cucumber plants, you can kill all of them at once with an appropriate pesticide like neem oil for natural pest control. 

If you see signs of bacterial wilt, remove the plants completely.

It is also helpful to mulch at the base of your young seedlings and use floating row cover until your garden plants begin to flower.

How to Deal with Spider Mites in the Garden

Spider mites are so tiny that they can be hard to see before they damage your garden plants. Fortunately, spider mites can be treated with many of the tips above.

Keep an eye on them early on and look for evidence of the pests on the underside of the leaves. Spray plants with water to knock the mites off the plants. You can also spray the leaves with diluted castile soap once a week. If that doesn’t work, use neem oil or introduce beneficial bugs like ladybugs, lacewings, and more.

If you have plants with heavy damage, pull them, place them in a plastic bag, and dispose of them in your trash – never the compost.

Japanese beetles eating a leaf.
Japanese Beetles

How to Deal with Japanese Beetles

Of all the pests listed here, Japanese Beetles are the bane of my gardens. From somewhere around the beginning of July and for about 6-8 weeks after that, they create havoc in my gardens.

Because part of the life cycle of Japanese Beetles is the grub phase, there are several lawn treatments to diminish grub populations. There are beneficial nematodes, milky spore and a chemical grub lawn treatment. There are also pheromone bags, which aren’t recommended because they attract more beetles to your yard.

What’s worked for me is to first of all not get to uptight about them – Japanese beetles are not the end of gardening!

Secondly, in both my gardens where we have had a problem with Japanese beetles, a trap crop has worked really well. In one of my yards, we had a beautiful linden tree. We planted the tree not knowing that it was a Japanese beetle magnet. It grew quickly and was a lovely tree. Until Japanese beetles found it. They would lace out the leaves and practically defoliate it. But, it was the favored source of food for them and they would basically leave most of the other plants in my gardens alone.

Virginia creeper is a really pretty native vine plant (although it’s annoyingly aggressive) that Japanese beetles love. We inherited the plant with our current home. It’s on a fence away from our other gardens and it does a fairly good job of attracting the Japanese beetles away from the other garden areas.

As an alternative to chemical-laden pesticides, I have used insecticidal soap, along with hand picking to control them. Row covers will also work.

Also be okay with removing some of their favorite plants from your garden. I decided to remove hollyhock from my gardens to avoid the onslaught of Japanese beetle damage every year.

There’s actually a newish predator for Japanese beetles. It’s a parasitic wasp. You can learn more about managing Japanese beetles here.

More Practical Tips For Being Pesticide Free In Your Gardens

Hand Pick

Be willing to hand-pick pests like Japanese beetles, hornworms, rove beetles, Colorado potato beetles, and others. I know, I know… it grosses me out too. 

Take a bucket of hot, soapy water and a long-handled spoon out to the garden and use the spoon to knock the nasty bugs into the bucket of soapy water.

The best time to do this is in the morning, not the afternoon. Trust me, you’ll only try it in the afternoon once, and after you get dive-bombed by Japanese beetles, you’ll remember first thing in the morning is best. If you don’t have to contend with Japanese beetles, count your blessings.

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Be Okay With Insects That Won’t Kill Plants

Be okay with other bugs that have a short life span. For instance, four-lined plant bug is such a nuisance in my gardens in the spring. They don’t damage flowers, but they suck the sap out of leaves, and the leaves end up with tiny brown spots covering them. I ignore the little jerks because they don’t harm the plant. I give the plant a haircut once they’ve moved on for the season.

After a reader left a comment on one of my posts about the importance of bats in controlling insects, I did a little reading up on them. They aren’t as creepy as I first thought. I will look into it a little more, but I’m seriously considering adding one of these bat houses to my back fence.

There’s so much more to be said about how to deal with pests in the garden! There are so many different types of pests and unique situations to cover that this post can’t possibly cover everything.

Again, don’t freak out with every little bug you see in the gardens. Try to identify what you are dealing with by using an app, Google lens, or your iPhone image identifier.

Fortunately, the strategies I’ve outlined here are incredibly helpful and solve nearly every major pest issue in the garden. Even better, you can use the same simple pest sprays and natural pesticides on a variety of crops without having to learn too much about chemical pesticides at all.

Just focus on good gardening hygiene, watch your plants early on, and treat issues as soon as they pop up for a healthy, pest-free garden year after year.

Thanks for stopping by Gingham Gardens today! I hope my tips for Dealing With Garden Pests will help you conquer the pests in your gardens. Remember garden pests are just a natural part of gardening and many don’t even need to be dealt with at all.

If you have questions, or additional tips, please leave a comment below. I love hearing from other gardeners and I like to help when I can. Stop by again soon!

Happy gardening,

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