Field Notes | Botanicals may help control pests in the garden, but … – The Virginian-Pilot

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I hadn’t really considered the potential of botanicals in pest control for growers until recently, when the topic came up several times.
A Suffolk grower mentioned he used garlic emulsion to stop a flare of potato beetles.
A friend said she kept comfortable in her garden by using a peppermint and lavender oil-based mosquito repellent.
A Suffolk organic vegetable farmer said that, when other natural methods fail, his “last resort” treatment is neem oil, a powerful tree-derived product.
A Virginia Beach reader emailed me recently about neem oil, too, telling how well it worked to drive cabbageworms out of his backyard broccoli rows.
“I use neem on everything,” he wrote. “Had squash get vine borers last year, sprayed neem oil into the stalk and the critters backed out. The plants not only survived but produced, too.”
Curious how long the list of pest-fighting oils might run, I asked a local Master Gardener for guidance. She said that though she has collected and used recipes for botanical formulas in her own garden over the years, she didn’t know of any true expert on the topic.
“I think you will find little info that is science-based or backed for this,” she said.
Unfortunately, it seems she was right. While neem oil’s effectiveness has repeatedly been proven, many claims about more offbeat plant-derived formulas for pest control in home gardens are either anecdotal or otherwise not numerically documented. Those studies that do include measurable results are often designed for larger scale growing.
For example, the 2016 Mid-Atlantic Vegetable Production Recommendations, a guide produced each year by Virginia Tech, Virginia Cooperative Extension and their respective institutions in five other states, lists a commercial-grade rosemary and peppermint oil formula as an effective treatment for aphids, spider mites and a number of other common pests on strawberries.
Intriguing, but it doesn’t apply to me. Not only do I not grow strawberries, I only keep a family garden – and the title page of the recommendation guide specifies, in all caps and bold type, “NOT TO BE USED BY HOME GARDENERS.”
I checked “Gardening in Southeastern Virginia & Northeastern North Carolina,” a book written by the late Virginian-Pilot columnist Robert Stiffler. The book does include a recipe for a fairly simple garlic-based concoction said to be effective against aphids, but the index lists no specific references to neem or peppermint treatments.
Perhaps there had been new research since that book was published in 1995, I thought. I took my search to online gardening articles and forums. Here again, smelly but innocuous teas made of crushed garlic were highly touted.
I tried a recipe for something less tested, but using an active ingredient I had immediately on hand: the peppermint oil I had bought to ward off mosquitoes on my friend’s recommendation.
I shot my very diluted peppermint spray at a few squash bugs among my yellow squash and cucumber plants. The sprayed insects immediately dropped off the plants and lay still on the ground. Their usual M.O. is to angrily buzz toward my face and then escape unharmed, but these insects, though not dead, were clearly stunned.
A week and two more sprays later, I do come upon a squash bug here and there in my garden, not masses of them as in years past. But my yellow squash plants are outright dead, and my cucumbers are looking battered.
In the case of the squash, it’s very possible the damage was already too far gone before I treated, but I’m not so sure about the cucumbers. Is their recovery from the bugs just coming along slowly in the current blistering heat, or did I further injure the plants with a too-strong oil concentration?
I’ve planted new squash, and I have my fingers crossed for the surviving cucumbers. But next year, I know better. I’ll keep using the peppermint and lavender oils on myself as they do, indeed, repel mosquitoes. But the experience of local farmers and gardeners says I’d be wise to try garlic for the garden and, if that isn’t strong enough, neem oil.
AnnaLisa Michalski
, aminquiry@yahoo.com
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