This month marks the beginning of spring, where we can finally enjoy watching plants and trees bloom back to life. But of course, this also means insects will soon be making an appearance too.
Plants and insects have long had an uneasy relationship. The Earth was covered with plants for 100 million years before the first arthropods (insect family) emerged from the oceans.
These bugs had the plants all to themselves. But, over time, the plants developed natural defenses to keep themselves from being devoured by these new inhabitants.
There’s no doubt that humans have benefitted from this plant evolution. For millennia, our ancestors used certain plants to protect themselves from pesky bugs like mosquitos and fleas. But, as with many other botanical-based remedies, that ancient knowledge was eventually bypassed in favor of more “modern” chemical methods.
These days, people use toxic insecticides and chemical bug sprays that not only harm their health, but also pollute the environment.
The good news is that with a little strategic gardening, you can protect yourself—and your surroundings—from unwanted bugs, without nasty, commercial insect repellants.
Mother Nature’s own pesticides
If you’re an avid gardener like me, it can be frustrating when the plants you’ve been tending to all spring become ravaged by insects. Below, I’ve listed nine plants that will divert some of the most common, destructive insect species so you can literally enjoy the fruits (and vegetables and herbs) of your labor.
Additionally, many of these plants can be used topically as all-natural bug repellants. Many pesky insects, like mosquitos and fleas, target their victims mainly by scent. And the following flowers and herbs have developed odors that these bugs simply can’t stand.
So if you apply these scents directly to your skin, or surround outdoor areas like patios with these plants, you’ll directly benefit from their natural insect-repelling properties.
Without further ado, here are seven of my favorite herbs and flowers that have evolved into natural—and effective—pest repellants:
Basil. Not only do mosquitos and fleas hate the odor of this popular culinary herb, but basil also contains an oil that may kill mosquito eggs. It can also ward off flies and beetles.
You can grow basil in your garden or in pots inside and outside your home—just make sure it gets plenty of sun.
Chrysanthemums. This iconic Asian flower contains a special chemical called pyrethrum, which naturally repels ants, bedbugs, fleas, Japanese beetles, lice, roaches, silverfish, and ticks.
Mums (as they’re commonly called) bloom in the fall, making them a welcome late-season addition to your natural insect-fighting arsenal. I enjoy planting some of both in my garden and in pots by my front door.
Lemongrass. You may have heard of citronella—an essential oil found in lemongrass that effectively keeps mosquitos away. You can buy citronella sprays or candles, but the fresh lemongrass plant is just as good—if not better.
In the U.S., lemongrass only grows naturally in south Florida, where it’s commonly used in Thai dishes. If you’re in another part of the country, you can grow lemongrass as a spring and summer annual in the ground, or in pots in your home and yard.
Lavender. This herb’s soothing scent is used to calm and relax you, but it drives fleas, flies, mosquitos, and moths completely mad. Lavender is a hardy perennial in many parts of the country, so all you need to do is plant it around your outdoor hangouts and wait for it to bloom in the summer.
Dried lavender sprigs will also keep insects out of your house. When I went to Provence, France, in the summer of 1996, I visited my grandfather, whose companion picked bunches of lavender from huge pots growing outside her windows. She stuffed the lavender into some old blue stockings, and I brought them back home. I still keep them in my dresser drawers to keep my clothes fresh.
Marigolds. These beautiful, fragrant flowers produce a scent that chases away sap-sucking aphids, cabbageworms, mosquitos, and tomato hornworms. As a medicinal plant, it’s a standby remedy for cuts, bruises, and burns. This plant also helps eliminate inflammation, throbbing, and infection, and expedites your body’s healing process.
Mint. This strong-smelling herb is related to basil and lavender (as well as rosemary, sage, savory, marjoram, oregano, hyssop, and thyme). So it’s no surprise that like its botanical cousins, mint oil is quite potent and repels ants, fleas, flies, mosquitos, and moths.
Mint is a hardy and tenacious plant, which means it can spread like a weed if you plant it in the ground. That’s why I prefer to put mint in pots around my outdoor seating areas.
As an added bonus, you’ll always have a sprig available to muddle in your favorite cocktail. The alcohol will extract the flavor and oils for added health benefits.
Nasturtiums. These beautiful flowers release a fragrance that protects itself and surrounding plants from insects. Plants such as broccoli, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes greatly benefit from planting a few decorative nasturtiums. Be sure to plant them in scattered plots to ensure additional protection for your entire garden.
Petunias. These common and colorful flowering plants are particularly potent against insects—especially destructive, sap-sucking insects like aphids, leafhoppers, and squash bugs. But unlike the other plants on this list, they don’t rely solely on their scent to repel pests.
Instead, insects become trapped in the sticky stamens of petunia flowers until they die—kind of like a domestic version of the Venus flytrap.
Rosemary. Like mint and basil, this culinary herb repels insects by its scent—particularly beetles, cabbage moths, cockroaches, mosquitos, snails, and slugs. And like lavender, rosemary can be dried, stuffed into socks or pillowcases, and tucked into drawers or cupboards to keep fleas and moths away for many years.
Rosemary is a perennial in warmer parts of the country, or can also be planted in pots. Its spiky, tree-like shape makes it a beautiful contrast to spring and summer flowers. And it’s available in a variety of colors, including blue, silver, and even yellow.
The bottom line is that keeping insects at bay can be done entirely naturally, safely, and humanely—all without chemical repellents or pesticides.