10 Steps to Control Pests in the Garden Without the Chemicals

By Melinda Myers - horticulturist and gardening expert
August 5, 2023

We all want beautiful landscapes and productive gardens, but insect pests often move into the garden and damage our plants. It can be frustrating but working with nature and increase your success preventing and managing insect pests. Enlist these strategies to create the best pest control for your garden.

1) Grow Healthy Plants

You’ve heard it before, but it’s worth repeating; select and grow plants suited to the growing conditions in your yard. Matching the plants to the soil type, sun light, climate, and average rainfall results in healthier plants better able to resist or tolerate insect damage. This also means less work for you.

Some plants are less susceptible than others to the garden pests in your area. You’ll reduce the risk of problems and save time managing pests by selecting plants known to be resistant to common pests or have very few pest problems of their own.

2) Build a Healthy Foundation

Adding compost to your garden soil improves drainage in heavy clay soil and increases the water-holding ability of fast-draining sandy soils. Compost enriched soil retains fertilizer better for plants to use while helping prevent it from washing into and polluting waterways. Improving the soil with compost introduces and feeds soil organisms that promote healthy plant growth. And healthy plants are more resilient when pest problems occur.

3) Keep Your Plants Healthy with Proper Care

Water thoroughly as needed to encourage plants to develop a robust root system that are better able to tolerate droughty conditions and is less susceptible to insects and disease.

Mulch the soil with shredded leaves, evergreen needles, wood chips, or other organic matter. This will keep roots cool and moist during hot dry weather, suppress weeds that may harbor insect pests, improve the soil as they decompose, and prevent soil-borne diseases from splashing onto and infecting your plants.

Avoid high-nitrogen fat-release fertilizers that promote lush, fast-growing green growth that is attractive to many insects. Instead, use low nitrogen slow release Milorganite fertilizer. It encourages slow steady balanced growth that is less susceptible to insect and disease attacks.

4) Work with Nature

Toads, frogs, predatory and parasitic insects, and songbirds help control many garden pests. Invite them into your landscape by providing food, water, and shelter.

bird on bird bath

White-Crowned Sparrow

Attract beneficial insects that prey upon garden pests by planting herbs and flowers like coriander, dill, blanketflower, coneflower, and sweet alyssum.

Add homes for toads in shady spots in the garden. Locating them in areas under bushes and perennials where insects tend to inhabit supplies needed food as well as shade. Use an overturned flowerpot to create a toad abode. Just set a rock under one side to allow access and place a shallow saucer of water nearby.

Invite insect-eating songbirds to the garden with a bird bath and place to raise their young. Songbirds and their offspring benefit from this source of protein. Use a birdbath with sloping sides or set a rock to allow birds and beneficial insects to take a sip of water without getting wet. 

Tolerate a bit of damage and avoid using pesticides that can harm these garden helpers. You’ll need to leave a few aphids, mites, or other insect pests to attract the beneficial insects, birds, and toads looking for a meal.

5) Visit Your Gardens Regularly

Take time to enjoy your gardens and check for problems. Regular walks through the landscape help elevate your mood and allow you to discover problems as they arise. The sooner you detect a pest problem the easier it is to control.

Look for discolored leaves, speckling, holes, and wilting. Inspect the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves and along the stems to uncover pests causing the problem. Take a hand lens along on your walk to make it easier to find tiny insects. Vary the timing of your visits to increase the chance of catching the culprits in the act.

holes in hosta

Holes in hosta plant

6) Identify the Bug

Once you discover a problem, identify the culprit. Your local extension service, garden center or reliable internet resource can help. Once identified, you can plan the best way to manage the culprit.

Some insects only cause cosmetic damage that may annoy us but does not negatively impact the health and longevity of the plant. You can skip spraying these insects for the benefit of the plants, and you will also reduce the risk to pollinators and other beneficial insects. Sometimes we discover the damage after the insect causing the damage is no longer on the plant. By then, it is too late so control is not needed and would not be effective.

If you decide control is needed, look for the most eco-friendly option.  Knowing what pests are harmful to plants the plants you are growing and when they tend to be present helps increase the chance of catching the problem early.  Knowing when harmful insect pests are most vulnerable to organic controls will help you best manage problems in the garden.

7) Remove the Problem

Many insect pests can be physically removed from the plant to prevent further damage. Consider enlisting the help of everyone in the family with this control method. Remove problem insects, drop them to the ground, and stomp. This is a great way to burn off young gardeners’ excess energy, and you may enjoy the sense of revenge.

A strong blast of water from the garden hose will dislodge aphids and mites, reducing their damage to a tolerable level. Monitor populations, especially during hot, dry weather, and repeat as needed.

Knock leaf-eating beetles and other larger insects off the plants and into a can of soapy water. Many gardeners and botanical gardens have success keeping the damage to a tolerable level using this control measure.

Some gardeners enlist the help of a vacuum to physically remove the insects from the plant. Empty the vacuum bag into soapy water to kill the insects before storing your vacuum in the house.

Reduce the risk of certain pests returning to next year’s garden with a bit of sanitation. Removing and disposing of plant debris that provides winter homes for these pests can reduce and even eliminate the problem next year.

8) Companion Planting 

Attract and trap or repel bugs in the garden with certain plant combinations. You can find companion planting lists and charts in books and on the internet. Some are based on research and others are not.

Always consider the needs of the plants you are growing, common pest problems, and the source of information. As with any control option selected, monitor your plants for pest problems. Be prepared to intervene and adjust your pest management strategies as needed.

9) Other Non-Chemical Controls

If the problem persists, you may opt for some other types of non-chemical controls. Traps like a yellow bowl filled with soapy water attracts aphids. They crash into the soapy water and die. Place a piece of crumpled paper under a flowerpot to attract earwigs. Lift the pot during the day when the earwigs are lounging in the paper. Drop the paper, earwigs and all, in a can of soapy water. Move quickly as these insects are fast.

Although they are not insects, slugs and snails do damage plants. You may have heard of using beer to attract and kill them. It really does work. Just fill a shallow can with beer and sink it into the ground. The slugs are attracted to the yeasty smell, crawl inside and drown. Or empty half a bottle of beer however you choose. Lay it on its side tucked under leafy cover. The slugs will crawl into the opening and the bottle provides a roof eliminating the need to replace the beer every time it rains or you water. 

Use barriers to keep bugs off your plants. Lightweight floating row covers are effective allow air, light, and water through but prevent insects like bean beetles, Japanese beetles, and cabbage worms from reaching and damaging the plants. These are effective on plants that do not require insects to pollinate their flowers. Put the covers in place at planting, anchor the edges, and lift each time you need to harvest.

Research has found that covering cucumbers and squash at planting can help reduce the risk of disease-transmitting cucumber beetles, squash bugs and squash vine borers. Cover the plants when seeds are planted or transplants are placed in the garden. Remove the covers when flowering begins so pollinators can reach the flowers.

Row cover barriers are not effective when plants that suffered pest damage the previous year are grown in the same location. If the insect overwinters in the ground, the barriers may trap the pest providing easy access to the plants.

leaf spot on tomato

Leaf spot on tomato

Rotating plantings helps reduce the risk of insect and disease problems. Avoid growing related plants in the same location year after year if possible. For example, follow tomatoes with an unrelated vegetable like beans, onions, or cabbage.  A three-year rotation is usually sufficient but not always possible. A healthy soil foundation is even more important when crop rotation is not possible.

10) Organic Products

Insecticidal soap, Neem, horticulture oil and various strains of Bacillus thuringiensis are a few organic insecticides available to use in gardens. Even though these are organic, they are designed to kill insects or disease organisms, and that includes the good ones you want and need in your garden. Always read and follow label directions carefully for the safest, most effective control with minimal negative impact on the environment.

Managing insect pests, like many aspects of gardening is an ongoing process. As new pests and plants are introduced you may need to adjust your control measures. Make notes on the problems and solutions in this season’s garden. Refer to these notes next year to help you do a better job of monitoring and managing garden pests. A little eco-friendly gardening can go a long way in creating a beautiful and productive garden.