As we begin to shake off what will hopefully be the last of a wet, snowy season, days are becoming longer and warmer, the buds are breaking on trees, and blooms are unfolding from their winter retreats. Along with all these beautiful natural forerunners of spring come some not-so-welcome changes as well– especially the return of awakening home and garden pests. Just as we humans become more active and energized during these sunny days of early spring, all types of ants, aphids, mosquitos, and other bugs are as well. Being less welcome than most other guests in the house, homeowners will often select the most effective, readily available solution to get rid of their pest problems; usually, this includes harmful chemical compounds that require careful contained use to avoid a laundry list of dangerous adverse effects.
However, for those of us who enjoy spending time in our property’s greenspaces, solutions for spring pests may be as simple as some inspired planting options. There are many plants that can be incorporated into the landscape that offer pest-repellent properties. Most pesticides on the market will feature plant-based oils or chemicals in their extensive ingredient lists, therefore, it makes sense to utilize these benefits directly from the source. However, most homeowners do not have an extensive enough pest problem to dedicate their whole garden to solely plants with repellent properties. It is the suggestion of the author that homeowners looking to add pest-repellant plant material to their property make their selections based on which of two additional properties they want from their plants: culinary or cosmetic.
Some of the plants best at repelling pests from your property are equally at home in the pantry as they are in the garden. For seasoning lamb, I recommend a few sprigs of rosemary as a garnish. For repelling snails, slugs, rats, cockroaches, and mosquitos, I recommend planting near your entryway. The smell of garlic and onions caramelizing is enough to attract many to the kitchen, but a row of either planted in the garden will help deter root maggots, beetles, cabbage loopers, rats, and rascally rabbits from your other vegetables. It is only appropriate that basil and oregano, two of the most dynamic, widely-used spices, are also able to repel some of the longest lists of pests: flies, fleas, beetles, aphids, asparagus and cucumber beetles, cabbage butterflies, mosquitos, and more.
It is quite convenient for us humans that many of the oils that make these plants palatable for our diet like vegetables, herbs, or spices are equally repulsive to pests as they are enticing to us. There are many other plants familiar to most entry-level cooks with oils that help repel pests in the home and garden: chive, chamomile, dill, fennel, lettuce, parsley, peppermint, radish, sage, thyme, tomato, and even tobacco, to name a few. However, don’t expect a sparsely planted spearmint plant to fight off the entire spring rush of critters into your home. Dense plantings thick with multiple plant selections from above are best suited to help repel the longest lists of pests year-round. Much like a recipe, the ingredients of a garden are best served rich and blended.
The second, more obvious, quality by which you could select your pest-repellent plants is cosmetics. As the old argument goes, there’s no reason to sacrifice form at the cost of function, especially in one’s curb appeal. Luckily, many of the plants best known for repelling insects, rodents, and more are both repulsive to them and attractive to us; there’s a wide palette of shapes, colors, and styles to help build a landscape that is selective in its invitation.
With their rich clusters of red to orange to yellow blooms, marigolds have been a classic choice for gardeners looking for sun-loving summer annuals. Though there is little scientific evidence to support claims, marigolds have been touted for generations as having pest-repellent properties. Old green thumbs will swear that marigolds will help repel ants, beetles, nematodes, rabbits, and a long list of other critters from your garden; often, they will recommend filling spaces in your vegetable garden with marigolds to help melons, cucumbers, basil, broccoli, and tomatoes grow well.
Soon, planter beds, garden centers, and any space with a fistful of soil will be filled with rich arrangements of geraniums and petunias to mark the arrival of spring and summer. With a rainbow range of colors, shapes, and sizes, it is easy for homes and businesses to incorporate these annuals into alluring displays. While the flowers help attract guests, customers, and neighbors, they will also help repel aphids, beetles, hornworms, and earworms. Geraniums and petunias are often planted alongside corn, cabbage, grapes, and roses to help in their development.
Arguably the most beautiful of pest-repelling flowers for the garden is the chrysanthemum. A staple of both eastern and western gardens for centuries, these elegant blooms add their signature flair to flower beds, pumpkin patches, Amish markets, corsages, Japanese-style tattoo sleeves, and any place in need of lush radiance. While being full of joy and optimism, mums are also full of pyrethrin– a compound that repels fleas, ants, ticks, beetles, and more. In addition to those above, there are enough flowers out there to build a beautiful bouquet of pest-resistance. Some other pretty pest-fighters include dahlias, four-o-clocks, nasturtiums, borage, catmint, and daffodils, just to name a few.
In summary, whether they are for cooking or contemplating, pest-repellant plants can bring other great benefits to your property. The fantastic oils in these plants that help repel unwanted critters are also able to create amazing culinary palettes and enticing aromas. Just as one builds a recipe or a bouquet, these plants are enriched through cohesion; adding together pest-repellant plantings of various flowers, grasses, and shrubs creates a vibrant, living tapestry of form and function to be enjoyed and admired for years. When selecting a landscape professional to help with your next pest-repellant planting, ensure you find a passionate individual who understands and respects the beauty in ecological cohesion.
(PS: On the note of pests, for any local gardener concerned about the arrival of the infamous BroodX of cicadas, biblical examples of smoke and fire as repellants may prove excessive. Though their noisy presence is dreaded by humans, most of your plants are ready for it. Cicadas are usually only able to finish off plants already struggling, so don’t worry about them wiping out your property à la Old Testament. However, many of us are still inclined to protect those new pansies and geraniums. To give your plants an extra layer of protection all summer, I recommend picking up some neem oil concentrate from your local garden and following the instruction label guidelines for mixing with water so you have a ready supply through the season. A gardener’s best friend, neem’s pest-repellent properties have been valued by humans for centuries.)
Matthew Zuccari | Horticulturist & Sustainability Specialist – Tactical Land Care
Matthew Zuccari is a dual major of Western Kentucky University’s holding a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Anthropology | Cultural & Biological Horticulture and a Bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture & Horticulture. Matthew has moved to the area to work as Lead Horticulturist for TLC Design, a local full-service landscaping provider driven by sustainably based solutions. He holds a National Association of Landscape Professionals – Horticulture Technician License as well as his OSHA-10 Certification.