Organic Pest Control: What Works, What Doesn’t

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

| June/July 2011

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.


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.

8/7/2017 2:32:11 PM

We started gardening and we were gone wrong. We could not figure out why we were not getting the beautiful vegetables we were hoping for. People suggest to spray chemicals for vegetables and fruits but it is poison and it is not organic vegetables. My lab professor referred a guide it helps me to grow my gardening as what we like, get the guide from here >> ( ) <<. I have recommended this system to all of my friends and family. We got good organic natural vegetables and fruits in the next harvest, one of the beautiful products in the market.**.*

8/7/2017 2:31:29 PM

We started gardening and we were gone wrong. We could not figure out why we were not getting the beautiful vegetables we were hoping for. People suggest to spray chemicals for vegetables and fruits but it is poison and it is not organic vegetables. My lab professor referred a guide it helps me to grow my gardening as what we like, you can get the guide from here >> ( I have recommended this system to all of my friends and family. We got good organic natural vegetables and fruits in the next harvest, one of the beautiful products in the market...*.

8/5/2017 4:40:16 AM

Thanks for sharing this post!

7/22/2017 9:15:47 PM

I had hornets (wasps or yellow jackets) around because I had leaky H-bird feeders. One evening before I fixed the feeders I saw 6 hornets flying around the top of my tomato and then noticed why. There was a 5-inch Tomato Hornworm like King Kong on top of the Empire State building swatting at aeroplanes but with his head. The hornets got in a few good stings, I hand-picked him and laid him down. The hornets chopped him up and took him away. And the hornets have stayed away since I swapped out the feeders for ones that do not leak.

7/19/2017 9:57:45 AM

Good information! Thanks for putting all this information in one place.

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.

7/17/2012 6:22:10 PM

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!!

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