5 Organic Pest Control Options

Close-up of ants on tree bark

Want the greenest lawn and garden in the neighborhood? Synthetic pesticides are a quick fix, but they can lead to toxic runoff and harmful algae blooms (Hint: That’s not the kind of green we want). For an eco-friendly green, switch to organic pest control options. 

Organic pesticides are typically more selective than synthetic pesticides, which means your helpful pollinators won’t buzz into harm’s way. But don’t be fooled –– organic doesn’t always mean safe. Find out which five organic pest control options are safe for you and your garden.   

Three pest control options

Organic pest control

Contrary to what most people believe, “organic” pest control isn’t chemical-free. 

But don’t throw your hands up in despair –– organic pest control contains natural chemicals. 

The term “organic” has several meanings. In the context of this article, “organic” pesticides contain natural chemicals that exist in the environment (whether or not they contain the element carbon). 

WARNING: Remember, organic doesn’t always mean safe. Just because a chemical exists in nature doesn’t mean it’s safe to use in your lawn or garden. Many natural chemicals are more toxic than synthetic chemicals. Words to look out for on product labels include “WARNING,” “DANGER,” “CAUTION,” “TOXIC,” or “POISON.” 

Inorganic pest control

Chemicals are either natural or synthetic. Natural chemicals exist in nature. Synthetic chemicals are created by humans through chemical reactions or using methods not found in nature. Synthetic chemicals are what you’ll find in inorganic pesticides, also known as synthetic pesticides.

Near-organic pest control

The Texas A&M AgriLife Extension defines “organic,” in the purest sense, as any substance containing the element carbon. 

Yet, some organic pest control doesn’t have carbon, such as diatomaceous earth. This puts into question the “organic” status of organic pesticide options without carbon, which is why it’s sometimes called “near organic” instead. 

Organic vs. near-organic pesticides

Besides carbon, the main difference between organic and near-organic pesticides is that microorganisms and sunlight can decompose organic substances. 

Why? Because pure organic substances have carbon. Near-organic substances cannot degrade in the environment because they don’t contain carbon. 

Near-organic pest control has natural chemicals, and that’s the most important thing when it comes to keeping the environment safe. Near-organic pest control might not decompose, but it’s less toxic to the environment and animals than most synthetic chemicals. 

The bottom line: When we mention a natural pesticide that’s near-organic, we will still refer to it as organic pest control since it’s naturally derived from plants, animals, or minerals. 

What are the advantages of organic pest control?

If you’re concerned about the environmental impact that synthetic pest control can have on your local ecosystems, you might prefer to fill your arsenal with organic pesticides. 

Protects the ecosystem

Potato beetle on a green leaves
Zdeněk Chalupský | Wikimedia Commons | CC0

Organic pesticides usually allow the user to be more selective in which garden pests they target. When using organic pest control, you can worry less about harming your beneficial friends, like bees, ladybugs, and butterflies.

Synthetic pesticides are typically less selective, killing the target pest along with beneficial insects. 

Protects the environment

Organic pesticides decompose quickly, which means you can better protect your local waterways from contaminated runoff. Although some organic pesticides don’t have carbon (which means they won’t decompose), those organic pesticides are less likely to cause detrimental runoff effects. 

Many synthetic pesticides won’t decompose in the environment. Rain and melting snow wash away these synthetic chemicals into local waterways and expose ecosystems and animals to toxic, non-selective pesticides. 

What is runoff? When it rains or snow melts, water seeps into the soil. But excess water flows as runoff along the landscape into storm drains, rivers, and streams. Synthetic pesticides and fertilizers often pollute stormwater runoff, resulting in toxic water and harmful algae blooms. 

What are the advantages of inorganic pest control?

Synthetic pesticides aren’t as eco-friendly as organic pest control, but they do have some advantages. Let’s take a look: 

Inorganic pest controlOrganic pest control
Synthetic pesticides are typically less expensive than organic pest control. Organic pest control may run up the bill.
Most synthetic pesticides have a straightforward application process.Some organic pest control methods require careful timing and special handling. 
Synthetic pest control options tend to offer longer periods of protection than organic pest control.Organic pesticides typically break down in the environment and leave no residual activity after a short time.
Synthetic pesticides will usually act on a pest problem faster than natural pesticides.It may take a little longer before gardeners see results with natural pesticides. 
Inorganic pesticides often have a longer shelf-life than organic pesticides.Many natural pesticides are time-sensitive and don’t have as long a shelf-life as synthetic pesticides. 

Five organic pest control options

1. Neem oil

3 glass containers full of yellow oil
yilmazfatih | Pixabay

Neem oil is a naturally occurring pesticide made from neem tree seeds. Azadirachtin is the most active insecticidal ingredient in neem oil. But neem oil without azadirachtin also has insecticidal properties. 

Neem oil products are usually available in ready-to-use spray bottles or as concentrates that you’ll need to dilute in water.

Neem oil controls a wide variety of insects. The insecticide kills insects and mites by suffocation, covering their bodies in oil. The pesticide is most effective when sprayed on immature insects. 

The oil is less effective against adult insects, which means these critters still have the opportunity to reproduce after the insecticide is applied. You’ll need to time your neem oil application according to the pest’s life cycle for best results. 

Risk: Neem oil has a low toxicity rating for humans, other mammals, and birds but is slightly toxic to fish and other aquatic animals. 

The organic pesticide can harm honey bees if you don’t apply it correctly. The University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources recommends using neem oil in the late evening, night, or early morning to avoid contact with the pollinator. 

Controls: Neem oil controls various pests in the early stages of their life cycle, including leaf miners, thrips, whiteflies, mealybugs, spider mites, caterpillars, aphids, beetles, lace bugs, and leafhoppers. It also targets the fungal disease powdery mildew. 

2. Diatomaceous earth

pile of white powder called diatomaceous earth, used for pest control
SprocketRocket | Wikimedia Commons | CC0

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a non-toxic powdered form of fossilized microscopic aquatic organisms called diatoms.

So how does it work? Sprinkle DE on or around your affected plants where pests are likely to come in contact with the powder. DE powder has sharp, abrasive edges that damage the insect’s exoskeleton and lungs. DE also dehydrates pests by absorbing the exoskeleton’s fats and oils. 

Risk: DE is non-toxic, but prolonged exposure can irritate the lungs of people or animals. When applying DE, wear a protective mask to avoid inhaling the powder. 

DE can harm bees and other pollinators if they come in contact with it. To protect your beneficial insects, only apply the powder in areas where you usually don’t see them crawling. Avoid applying the powder on flowering crops where bees and butterflies are likely to pollinate. 

DE is not toxic to fish or other aquatic invertebrates. 

Controls: DE controls cockroaches, ants, cutworms, millipedes, ticks, fleas, slugs, sowbugs, and other soft-bodied insects. 

3. Spinosad 

Spinosad is a natural substance derived from the fermentation of the soil bacterium Saccharopolyspora spinosa. It kills bugs on contact or when pests eat treated plant leaves. Spinosad applications typically last longer on plants than the commonly used biological pesticide Bacillus thuringiensis. 

Spinosad affects the pest’s nervous system, leading to paralysis before their death. 

Risks: According to the University of Connecticut Integrated Pest Management Program, spinosad has extremely low toxicity to birds, mammals, and many aquatic invertebrates, is moderately to slightly toxic to fish, but highly toxic to marine mollusks. 

Spinosad is toxic to bees, but the pesticide is much safer once the residue has dried. Avoid applying the pesticide when bees are active. 

Controls: Spinosad controls many pests crawling through the lawn and garden, including caterpillars, leaf miners, spider mites, thrips, squash bugs, squash vine borers, fruit flies, mosquitoes, diamondback moth, Colorado potato beetles, ants, cabbage worms, and tomato hornworms. 

4. Bacillus thuringiensis

Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) is a microbe that exists in the soil. It makes proteins that are toxic to insect larvae when eaten. Once the toxins activate in the pest’s gut, the pest dies of infection and starvation. 

Organic gardeners will have to monitor the life cycle of their target pest closely. The pesticide has the most significant effect on larvae, and you’ll need to reapply it once new larvae are hatching. 

Bt products are available as sprays, dust, and granules. Sprays often yield the best results because they’re more likely to remain on the leaves than dust. 

There exist many different types of Bt strains that target different pests. For example, the israelensis strain targets the larvae of mosquitoes and black flies, while the kurstaki strain targets caterpillars. Before buying your Bt pesticide, check the product label to see which pests it targets. 

Risks: Bt is low in toxicity to people and other mammals. The Bt strain aizawai is highly toxic to honeybees, but other strains have minimal toxicity to honeybees. The pesticide has minimal toxicity to fish. 

Control: Target pests depend on the Bt strain you are applying. Bt strains target many pests in the early stages of their life cycle, including mosquitoes, black flies, Japanese beetles, elm leaf beetles, and caterpillars. 

5. Sulfur  

Sulfur is an element that exists in nature. It’s found in soil, plants, water, and foods. 

Sulfur is a useful fungicide, but it also helps control pests. Insects and mites will die if they come in contact with sulfur or consume it. Sulfur kills insects by destroying their ability to produce energy. 

You can apply the pesticide as a dust, wettable powder, paste, or liquid. The Clemson Cooperative Extension recommends avoiding applications when temperatures are above 80 degrees Fahrenheit, as sulfur can damage plants in hot, dry weather. 

The extension also recommends avoiding sulfur applications within 20 to 30 days of applying spray oils as it reacts with the oils and may damage foliage.  

Risks: Sulfur is non-toxic to humans, other mammals, birds, fish, and honeybees. Keep in mind that sulfur can irritate your skin and eyes. 

Controls: Sulfur controls fungal diseases, such as powdery mildew, brown rot, rusts, and leaf spots. It also targets mites, psyllids, and thrips. 

Can I apply organic pesticides myself?

Applying organic pesticides is a straightforward DIY task for the experienced or beginner gardener. 

Before you apply any organic pesticide to your garden or lawn, remember to: 

  • Read the label thoroughly. Organic doesn’t always mean safe. Pay close attention to any warnings or toxicity levels the product may contain. 
  • Always follow instructions. Product labels show you how to apply the pesticide safely. 
  • Familiarize yourself with the target pests. Many organic pesticides allow you to selectively target pests as long as you follow certain precautions. If the pesticide is misused, it may not be safe for pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, or lady beetles. 
  • Review first aid information. Some organic pesticides may irritate the skin, eyes, and lungs. Read the label carefully for any health warnings and prepare a first-aid plan in case you get exposed. 
  • Wear the right equipment. Remember to wear long-sleeve shirts and pants, socks, chemical-resistant gloves, and a protective mask to avoid inhaling chemicals. 

Are homemade pesticides safe to use?

You spot an ant infestation on your lawn and remember your neighbor mentioning a secret recipe they found online. You head to the kitchen, open the cabinets, and scan the ingredients that feel safe and familiar. 

But here’s the thing about homemade pesticides: They don’t come with a label. 

The lack of information provided in homemade recipes should raise a red flag. Home remedies floating on the internet often have little to no safety information compared to what store-bought pesticide labels contain. 

For example, home remedies don’t usually provide information regarding when, how, and where to apply the homemade pesticide. Without proper application instructions, you risk damaging the plant or harming beneficial insects. 

Recipes often contain ingredients that feel familiar, such as dish soap. But even familiar items in the kitchen contain additives that could harm your plants, animals, or the environment. 

Applying homemade pesticides is also of legal concern.  The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA) and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) are two laws that regulate pesticides. A pesticide must be registered with the Environmental Protection Agency (or have an official exemption from the requirements) for you to apply it under FIFRA legally. 

Here’s why that matters: If a residue of that home remedy recipe gets in or on a food crop or livestock eaten for food, then selling or distributing that food would be illegal under FFDCA. In other words, if you’re applying a homemade pesticide to your vegetable garden, you can’t sell your harvest at the farmer’s market. 

Get the green thumb’s up with organic pesticides

Avoided using pesticides because you thought all pesticides were harmful to the environment? Thanks to organic gardening, your lawn and vegetable garden needn’t suffer from disease and pests any longer. As long as you apply them correctly, organic pest control methods can be an excellent eco-friendly alternative to synthetic options.

Remember, organic doesn’t always mean safe. Some natural chemicals can be more harmful to the environment than synthetic chemicals. Always read the product label before applying any pesticide, whether it’s organic or inorganic. If you’d prefer a professional touch, consider calling a local pro near you.

Are you applying pesticides to no avail? Has a stubborn plant disease or pest taken over your lawn or garden? You may need to hire a lawn care professional to remedy the problem. And why not request some other lawn care help? From mowing the lawn to spreading mulch in garden beds, hiring a pro gives your green thumb a rest. 

Main Photo Credit: Mikhail Vasilyev | Unsplash

Jane Purnell

Jane Purnell is an artist, writer, and nature lover. She enjoys teaching readers about the importance of eco-friendly lawn care, integrated pest management, biodiversity, and sustainable landscaping.