Organic Pest Control: What Works, What Doesn’t

Our nationwide reader survey reveals the best methods for managing common garden pests.

Tomato Hornworm

The tomato hornworm, a thorn in the side of many tomato growers, claimed the No. 7 spot in our list of the 12 worst garden pests.


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Last fall, MOTHER EARTH NEWS launched our Organic Pest Control Survey to learn more about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to limiting insect damage in organic vegetable gardens. About 1,300 gardeners from across North America responded, providing new, region-specific insight into organic pest control.

Our survey had strengths and weaknesses. It included opportunities for open comments, which became the source for the practical tips in this article. But, although we asked many questions about specific methods, we failed to always list chickens and ducks, which we learned many gardeners regard as essential players in controlling Japanese beetles and other garden pests.

We were surprised by some of the results. For example, we suspected gardeners would report that coping with various root maggots was a challenge, but 90 percent of respondents reported getting good control with crop rotation. Similarly, flea beetles didn’t make the list of worst pests because most gardeners achieve good control by using row covers and growing susceptible greens in fall rather than spring.

Ultimately, the survey revealed 12 widespread garden pests that give gardeners grief. Here are the nitty-gritty details, including down-in-the-dirt advice on how to manage each pest, plus details on which pests are the worst in each region. (To see illustrations of each of the worst pests, check out the Image Gallery.)

1. Slugs took top honors as the most bothersome pest in home gardens, with 55 percent of respondents saying the slimy critters give them trouble year after year. Handpicking was highly rated as a control measure (87 percent success rate), followed by iron phosphate baits (86 percent) and diatomaceous earth (84 percent). Opinion was divided on eggshell barriers (crushed eggshells sprinkled around plants), with a 33 percent failure rate among gardeners who had tried that slug control method. An easy home remedy that received widespread support was beer traps (80 percent success rate).

Relying on bigger predators — such as chickens, garter snakes and ducks — appears to be the most dependable way to achieve long-term control of garden slugs, as well as several types of beetles, cutworms and many other pests. Ducks are reportedly sharp slug-spotters, whether you let them work over the garden in spring and fall, or enlist a pair to serve as your personal pest control assistants throughout the season.

“Hungry ducks follow me around the garden daily. They love slugs and turn them into eggs,” commented a Mid-Atlantic gardener with 10 to 20 years of experience. In the Pacific Northwest, several longtime veterans of slug wars said ducks are a gardener’s best (and most entertaining) way to end chronic problems with slugs.

2. Squash bugs had sabotaged summer and winter squash for 51 percent of respondents, and even ducks couldn’t solve a serious squash bug problem. Most gardeners reported using handpicking as their primary defense, along with cleaning up infested plants at season’s end to interrupt the squash bug life cycle. The value of companion planting for squash bug management was a point of disagreement for respondents, with 21 percent saying it’s the best control method and 34 percent saying it doesn’t help. Of the gardeners who had tried it, 79 percent said spraying neem on egg clusters and juvenile squash bugs is helpful. About 74 percent of row cover users found them useful in managing squash bugs.

Several respondents pointed out that delaying squash planting until early summer and growing the young plants under row covers results in far fewer problems with this pest. This makes sense because natural enemies of squash bugs become more numerous and active as summer progresses. Until then, keep scraping off those egg clusters, and handpick as best you can.

Three readers shared this tip: In the cool of the morning, place open pizza boxes beneath squash plants. Jostle the plants and let the adult and juvenile squash bugs fall into the boxes, and then slide your captives from the boxes into a pail of soapy water.

A creative idea from Editor-in-Chief Cheryl Long is to create a simple Squash Bug Squisher out of two thick boards and a hinge. Find out how to build the squisher, plus read comments from fellow readers who are battling squash bugs.

3. Aphids were on the watch list of 50 percent of respondents, but the success rates of various control techniques were quite high. Active interventions, including pruning off the affected plant parts and applying insecticidal soap, were reported effective, but so were more passive methods, such as attracting beneficial insects by planting flowers and herbs. Several readers noted the ability of sweet alyssum and other flowers to attract hoverflies, which eat aphids. “We attract a lot of beneficials by planting carefree flowers in the vegetable garden, including calendula, borage, zinnias, cosmos and nasturtiums” (Midwest, more than 20 years of experience). Other respondents commented on the importance of having some aphids around to serve as food for ladybeetles, hoverflies and other well-known beneficial insects.

4. Imported cabbageworms came in fourth, with a 47 percent “disapproval” rating. If you see these little white butterflies in your garden, take action to protect your brassicas before the cabbageworm moths lay eggs. Two widely accepted biological pesticides, Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) and spinosad, received remarkably high effectiveness ratings: 95 percent for Bt and 79 percent for spinosad. Row covers had a reported success rate of 82 percent, while companion planting and garlic-pepper spray had disappointing failure rates in excess of 30 percent.

Several respondents said they rely on paper wasps to control cabbageworms. “They’re friendly, docile and voracious eaters of cabbageworms. My garden is full of cabbage butterflies, but I’ve yet to see a single worm; the wasps beat me to it” (Mid-Atlantic, six to 10 years of experience). To attract paper wasps, place bottomless birdhouses in the garden to provide nesting sites. Gardeners in the South, Mid-Atlantic and Midwest noted that cabbageworm populations drop if yellow-jacket nests are nearby, which enhances the success of fall cabbage-family crops.

5. Squash vine borers had caused problems for 47 percent of the survey respondents. The best reported control methods were crop rotation and growing resistant varieties of Cucurbita moschata, which includes butternut squash and a few varieties of pumpkin. The C. moschata varieties are borer-resistant because they have solid stems. Interestingly, if you’re attempting to fend off squash vine borers, lanky, long-vined, open-pollinated varieties of summer squash (zucchini and yellow crookneck, for example) may fare better than hybrids, because OP varieties are more likely to develop supplemental roots where the vines touch the ground. Many gardeners dump soil over these places, so if squash vine borers attack a plant’s main stem, the plant can keep on growing from its backup root system. Because borers attack stems, compact hybrids, which tend to grow from one or two main stems, are naturally more susceptible.

One tactic is to wait out the borer’s egg-laying season. “To avoid squash bugs and squash vine borers, planting vining crops late and covering them with row covers until the first female flowers has been effective for us” (Midwest, six to 10 years of experience).

6. Japanese beetles slid in at No. 6, which is surprising because they don’t pose problems in extremely hot or cold climates. Forty-six percent of respondents reported working in the unwelcome company of Japanese beetles, with handpicking being the most popular control method. Some gardeners grow trap crops of raspberries or other fruits to keep Japanese beetles away from plants. Several commonly used interventions — garlic-pepper spray, milky spore disease, pheromone traps and row covers — had high failure rates.

Numerous respondents said chickens ended their problems with Japanese beetles, with guinea fowl and ducks also recommended for ridding areas of Japanese beetle grubs and adults. Even if you don’t let your chickens scratch in your garden, your handpicking may be more enjoyable because you’ll have something tasty for your birds when you’re finished collecting the beetles. In late spring, when Japanese beetle larvae are close to the soil surface, letting wild, bug-eating birds work over the area can have a lasting impact, too. Several readers shared that having nesting pairs of robins and bluebirds (which feed insects to their young) is the best way to keep Japanese beetles from getting out of hand.

7. Tomato hornworms claimed the No. 7 spot, and were of concern to 42 percent of our survey respondents. Bt and handpicking were the preferred control methods, and several folks commented that tomato hornworms are among the easiest garden pests to handpick (probably because they’re large, easy to spot and produce a telltale, pebbly trail). Many gardeners reported seeing tomato hornworms often covered with rice-like cocoons of parasitic braconid wasps. “I had a lot of tomato hornworms this year, but the wasps took them out! Just like in the photos online and in bug books!” (Mid-Atlantic, more than 20 years of experience). Gardeners named zinnias and borage as good companion plants for reducing hornworm problems.

8. Cutworms were a concern for 41 percent of respondents, and effectiveness ratings for using rigid collars (made from plastic drinking cups or cardboard tissue rolls) to protect young seedlings from damage were amazingly high (93 percent effectiveness rating).

A common practice to reduce cutworm damage is to cultivate the soil’s surface once or twice before planting and hope robins and other bug-eating birds will swoop in to gather the juicy cutworms. Big, sturdy seedlings are naturally resistant to cutworms, so many gardeners said they set out seedlings a bit late to avoid cutworm damage.

9. Grasshoppers were a problem for 40 percent of respondents, and they seemed to be getting worse. We received many reports that increases in rainfall seemed to trigger an explosion in grasshopper populations. Chickens and guineas reportedly give good control by gobbling grasshoppers, but keep an eye on your poultry helpers to make sure they don’t harm crops. Gardeners described two interesting setups incorporating chickens for managing hoppers: a fenced garden with a fenced chicken “moat” around its perimeter, and a series of three small fenced gardens, each with a gate into the chicken yard for easy rotation of pecking services. (Sound cool? Check out our instructions on how to build your own chicken moat.) If grasshoppers are getting worse at your place, you may need chickens more than you think.

10. Cucumber beetles wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t transmit deadly bacterial wilt to cucumbers and melons, but as it is, 39 percent of our respondents named them as serious garden pests.

Neem, handpicking and good garden cleanup (removing all plant debris) were all rated as effective control measures, and once again poultry received many honorable mentions. Row covers earned more widespread use for the control of cucumber beetles than for any other pest, with more than 80 percent of people who had tried row covers reporting them to be effective.

Seventy percent of gardeners who’d tried companion planting said this method works for controlling cuke beetles, and 64 percent of people who’d tried yellow sticky traps reported these work.

11. Corn earworms were pegged as serious pests by 37 percent of respondents, many of whom get easy relief by using instruments ranging from oil cans to eyedroppers to add a few drops of canola or olive oil into the tips of ears, right when the silks start to show. Others reported using a standard solution of Bt in the same way, and several experienced gardeners pointed out the value of choosing varieties that have tight ear tips.

The corn earworm comments included several mentions of the ease with which earworm damage disappears if you pop off the end of the ear, thus making this pest not such a big deal. Raccoons, on the other hand, were reported to be a big deal, which was the main reason many gardeners gave for not growing corn. “If I plant sweet corn, the raccoons always eat it unless I fence them out” (Midwest, 25 years of experience).

12. Whitefly problems may be on the rise, because whitefly-plagued gardeners (36 percent reported a problem) often used exclamation points to emphasize their frustration with these tiny sucking pests. Insecticidal soap earned a high effectiveness rating (90 percent), though many respondents said they use Dawn or other dishwashing liquids rather than regulation insecticidal soap. (Caution: Some research has found that repeated use of soap or detergent sprays can reduce yields.)

Broad-Stroke Pest Control

Along with working to improve your soil and thus grow healthier, more pest-resistant plants, several other common-sense approaches echoed through the comments sections of our survey. “The best way to beat the bugs is to plant more than you can use yourself. You can always give the surplus away” (North Central/Rockies, six to 10 years of experience). Others pointed out the advantage of setting the stage for beneficial insects and then simply standing back. From the Midwest: “I am willing to overlook some bug damage in order to provide good habitat for the beneficials reproducing all though the gardening season.” From the South: “A balance of insects is the goal, and ‘good’ and ‘bad’ insects both have to eat.”

Garden Pest Control Trends

Pest Control on the Wing 

“Wild birds are a huge help, and gardeners should be encouraged to provide both nesting habitat and feeding stations for them. The bluebirds, flycatchers and other birds that live on my property spend a lot of time around my gardens catching bugs. The much-despised house sparrow is also a terrific boon to gardens, so urban gardeners would be well-advised to put out feeders even if that’s the only bird they will attract” (Maritime Canada, six to 10 years of experience).

Are Six-Legged Changes Afoot? 

One of the questions we asked in our survey was this: During the past three seasons, have there been noticeable changes in the insect activity in your garden? Thirteen percent of gardeners reported they’d had many more pest problems, and 29 percent reported slightly more problems. Several respondents noted that increases in rainfall during the past few seasons seemed to be associated with more grasshoppers. Also, the appearance of a new, exotic insect, the marmorated stink bug, has brought new pest control challenges to gardeners in Pennsylvania and nearby states.

The Value of Beneficials 

Seventy percent of survey respondents said they work to provide habitat for beneficial insects. Here’s what they said about whether this effort had helped to reduce pest problems:

Seems like it has helped a great deal — 32 percent

Seems it has been somewhat helpful — 49 percent

Seems to have helped with some pests — 6 percent

Doesn’t seem to make any difference — 13 percent

Top-Rated Natural Methods for Controlling Common Garden Pests

Aphid: Insecticidal soap, attracting beneficials, horticultural oil

Armyworm: Bt (Bacillus thuringiens), handpicking, row covers

Asparagus beetle: Poultry predation, neem, handpicking

Blister beetle: Poultry predation, neem, handpicking

Cabbage root maggot: Crop rotation, beneficial nematodes, diatomaceous earth

Cabbageworm: Bt, handpicking, row covers

Carrot rust fly: Crop rotation, beneficial nematodes, diatomaceous earth

Colorado potato beetle: Poultry predation, neem, handpicking

Corn earworm: Bt, horticultural oil, beneficial nematodes

Cucumber beetle: Poultry predation, neem, handpicking

Cutworm: Rigid collars, Bt, diatomaceous earth

Flea beetle: Insecticidal soap, garlic-pepper spray, row covers

Harlequin bug: Handpicking, good garden sanitation, neem

Japanese beetle: Handpicking, row covers, milky spore disease

Mexican bean beetle: Poultry predation, neem, handpicking

Onion root maggot: Crop rotation, beneficial nematodes, diatomaceous earth

Slugs: Handpicking, iron phosphate slug bait, diatomaceous earth

Snails: Handpicking, iron phosphate slug bait, diatomaceous earth

Squash bug: Handpicking, good garden sanitation, neem

Squash vine borer: Growing resistant varieties, crop rotation, beneficial nematodes

Stink bug: Handpicking, good garden sanitation, neem

Tarnished plant bug: Handpicking, good garden sanitation, neem

Tomato hornworm: Bt, handpicking, row covers

Whitefly: Insecticidal soap, attracting beneficials, horticultural oil

Worst Garden Pests by Region

Ever wondered which pests thrive in your region and how your region compares with others in North America? The information in our regional pest chart breaks it down.

3/8/2016 11:33:56 PM

Good information! Hot pepper sprays and garlic concoctions can actually scare off beneficial insects that naturally take care of pests. I'm so passionate about this that I wrote a book about it. Released March 8th, 2016, it has over 100 original images and surprising tips: "Organic Pest Control Secrets for a Non-Toxic Garden". I create innovative school gardens and have found many ways to keep pests away without a single drop of neem oil or DIY spray. Please check it out on Amazon or on HomeGrownFun.

11/13/2015 7:01:11 AM

Excellent Article. You can even use White oil for pest control in your gardens.You can find more info on this website

1/26/2015 4:02:10 PM

You can use a sugar-borax paste to control the ants. Borax is reasonably safe for humans (you still don’t want to eat it, or allow kids to play with it, so keep it off food and out of reach of little hands), but when the ants carry it back to their colony, it kills the whole nest. Mix 1 teaspoon borax or boric acid and 1 teaspoon sugar or honey with enough water to make a thin paste, and put the mix in a small jar near where the ants have been foraging. Refill as needed until it no longer disappears. Actually, there's a company close to where I live that sells Organic fertilizers, fungicides and pesticides. Whenever I need some good gardening products cheap, or when I have questions I can't find the answer to, I just call them up. They're knowledgeable and always very helpful. You can check out their website at

7/2/2014 12:14:18 PM

We have ants in the vegetable garden. They helped ruin the strawberry harvest and my husband had to stop weeding this morning as he disturbed a nest and was greeted by hundreds of angry little black ants. What can we do and stay organic?

5/19/2014 1:35:48 PM

I just received the June/July 2014 issue, Gardener's Glossary of Pest Control Solutions. I had problems last year with cucumber beetles and when I came across your article and it talked about how to get rid of them,about using yellow sticky traps to rid them. Where do you find these traps at and for other pests are these yellow sticky traps used for?? I'd like to get some of these for my cucumbers I have now. Thank you and I love Mother.

4/25/2014 8:49:43 AM

Finding out what works best and what doesn't comes partly through research and partly through tried and tested methods of your own. In my garden there's a problem with a variety of different insects that cause my plants no end of damage. But after looking online for solutions, I found that there is some great information available on sites like this, and have helped me out in the garden no end.

7/27/2013 9:09:39 PM

The author is wrong about Japanese Beetles not being present in cold areas of the Country. Here in extreme northern Michigan they are a significant problem.

lewis simms
9/21/2012 1:39:06 PM

By the way, here's more info on how to get rid of them:

lewis simms
9/21/2012 1:36:48 PM

I'm surprised that they don't have the Mealy Bug on this list. Oh well, it will be contribution then. Mealy bugs multiply rapidly and will soon sap the life of a plant, causing distortion and stunted growth first. They are easy to squish with fingers or dab with a cotton bud dipped in methylated spirits. They have a slight waxy coating so anything that burns this off, such as meths, causes death by dehydration. Smothering with oil is also effective.

bed bugs heat treatment
7/17/2012 6:22:10 PM

bed bugs heat treatment
7/17/2012 6:21:33 PM

Studies like these help us to find alternatives that are safe and effective for pest control. Thank You Mother Earth News! bed bugs heat treatment

wade mann
8/28/2011 7:36:35 PM

Fellow gardeners- if you did not water your garden so much you would not have so many bugs. Soil needs to be able to breathe to work properly and if you keep the soil moist all the time the micro-organisms take oxygen out of the inorganic nutrient and the plants cannot use the nutrients to keep themselves healthy. Let your plants go as long as you can without water and give your plants water a couple of days before they really start to wilt and you will notice that the bugs and fungus will start to disappear. As for grasshoppers they are eating your plants because of too much nitrogen. Sources of nitrogen are grass clippings and manures and other soft tissue organic matter.By keeping your soil in balance you will have healthy plants and you will be doing it just as mother nature was doing it before man came along and put her out of balance. For more information on how to do this just e-mail me. We can survive without our male gods but we cannot survive without our Mother Earth

8/27/2011 12:16:34 AM

For white flies, I used a tennis racket-like bug zapper. I wiggled the leaves of my carrots while waving the racket over them and holding down the button. Ziiiittt! Ziiittt! After a few days, no more white flies and it also worked for some other small bugs that flew out when wiggling or ruffling leaves of other veggies. It was (darkly) satisfying to hear the noise of the zapper do its job.

ray fleshman
8/26/2011 9:28:16 PM

Hornworm:I planted Basil near the tomatoes and I have not seen a hornworm this year. Apparently they do not like Basil. Last year I had many. Hand picking is easy but by the time you see them with the parasites, they have eaten a lot of leaves.

ma doc
8/26/2011 10:34:51 AM

An Alabama farmer gave me the following recipe for insecticide: (unadulterated) tobacco (about 2 cheap cigars' worth), boiled for 2hr in 2-4 c water with 3 sliced habaneros. Cool, strain, add 2 T Dawn detergent. Spray on plants. Where I used it (tiger lilies against red lily beetles, squash plants against squash bugs) it seemed to work, at least on the soft-bodied stages/individuals. Didn't do much against adult beetles or squash-bug eggs, but it sure cut down on the populations. Granted - tobacco isn't a pleasant material, and the kitchen stinks after cooking up a batch, but at least it's a natural plant. I sprayed carefully, avoiding blossoms, because I also keep bees.

dan meyers
8/10/2011 7:29:01 PM

I control Japanese Beetles with two small boards. I smash the beetles between the boards. One under the leaf and one on top usually does the trick. You don't need to be particularly fast about it either especially when the pairs are mating.

john hayden
8/8/2011 1:57:35 PM

loved your article on wife and i have gotten rid of squash bugs with a shop vac for 20 years. we have found this to be very effective.

joyce mcnally
7/7/2011 3:45:09 PM

In regards to japanese beetles: milky spore AND traps. When I first bought my place the yard was infested-anything that should have had green leaves was attacked! Spring, Summer and Fall for 2 years I applied granular Milky Spore. I also used the traps with scent lure and bags. My lot is 60'x250', I had 10 bags hanging during the season which were full every week. I was drawning in beetles from my yard and beyond. Any grubs that developed ate spore and died, thus increasing the spore! It's been 2 1/2 yrs since 6th application of spore. I haven't needed any traps, and what few beetles I have I am now able to control with hand-picking. Initially the spore seems expensive, but now I save huge on not buying traps, spore lasts 10 yrs after the 6 applications, AND now we get to enjoy the vegetables, flowers, berries, trees etc without beetles eating them!!