Plant herbal allies to defend your family from bites and your garden from pests! Grow, harvest, and craft your own herbal bug spray, while using herbs as companion plants to protect your garden from pests.
Insect bites are a warm weather plague, from black flies in spring through fall tick season. As climate change decimates the evolutionary baseline of seasonal ebb and flow, insect populations and the diseases they carry are increasing. We are in the midst of a frightening spike in diseases like Lyme, Zika, and West Nile Virus, which makes protecting yourself from bites more important than ever.
Although the CDC considers DEET and similar insecticides appropriate for human use, many people prefer to avoid DEET, as numerous studies have demonstrated potential harm, and its toxicity is still unclear, especially to children and pollinators. Herbal bug spray is a safe, effective alternative to conventional repellants.
Beyond Do It Yourself: Grow It Yourself!
Herbal bug spray is as easy to make as salad dressing: combine, shake, done! As we consider our impact on the world around us, we strive to limit our carbon footprint by embracing the DIY ethic and hyper-localism. Go a step beyond making bug spray from store-bought ingredients: grow it yourself to benefit your family and garden!
Bioregionalism is the philosophy that our local plant community is capable of meeting our needs. There is no need for the latest endangered panacea from thousands of miles away: if you learn the nature of your local plants, you will discover one that fits. Food and herbs grown in your area are fresher and safer; the positive environmental and economic benefits of buying local are well-documented. Bioregionalism makes for good policy around the kitchen table.
Companion Planting with Bug Spray Herbs
Feel good about supporting your local pollinators while protecting your family from bites!
As well as providing safe, effective prevention of bites, herbs support the function of organic gardens through companion planting. Plants flourish in community, just as people do, so we grow plants to attract beneficial insects and repel pests. Monoculture does not exist in a balanced natural system: diversity is a strength. Bees and butterflies flutter by for the echinacea nectar and stay for the vegetable flowers; predatory ladybugs and wasps shelter among the lacy heads of cilantro and wait for unsuspecting cucumber beetles to show themselves; and Japanese beetles steer clear of roses when garlic and leeks are abundant. Plants and animals have evolved side-by-side, so many compounds in plants have parallel functions in people, including deterring pests.
Meet The Herbs
These common, easy-to-grow herbs blend fragrantly into an effective insect repellent. Possible substitutions are suggested for readers in varied climates. Most contain medicinal volatile oils that evaporate, so be sure to keep any heated medicines covered. As you putter in your garden and tinker with home remedies, remember that your sense of taste, smell, and intuition are powerful tools to help you blossom as a medicine-maker.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) is a classic garden standby that makes a powerful insect repellent, scaring away the baddies from garden plants and gardeners alike! Thyme repels biting insects including mosquitos, ticks, deer flies, black flies, and fleas; in the garden, it deters tomato hornworms, cabbage loopers, slugs, cabbage worms, corn earworms, white flies, and more.
Companion Planting Notes: I use thyme as a ground cover instead of mulch in perennial beds adjacent to vegetables. It maintains soil structure and water access for my more fragile perennials such as astragalus and licorice, while garnering the attention of pollinators. I also like it in paths, alternating with red clover for a fragrant living mulch.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Cut the freshest stems, leaving behind woody or rooted stems. Thyme makes a glorious infused honey, oxymel, glycerite, or tincture.
Lavender (Lavandula spp.) is widely available and wildly popular. Although the cool floral fragrance is appealing to humans, insects disagree: lavender repels mosquitos, black flies, deer flies, and fleas, as well as garden pests including slugs and moths.56
Companion Planting Notes: Lavender appreciates dry soil and shelter, making it ideal for borders along rock walls or fences. Its fragrant flowers support pollination by attracting bees.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Cut the flower stalks to make oil or honey. The leaves make a milder addition to tea, oil, or tied together with other herbs as an incense or smudge.
Substitute: Artemesia sagebrushes
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is famous as a soothing herb, but it seems to have the opposite effect on biting insects! A study from the American Chemical Society found it to be ten times more repellent than DEET to mosquitos. Ticks and biting flies also avoid it. In the garden, catnip repels Colorado potato beetles, Japanese beetles, flea beetles, cabbage looper worms, and squash bugs.567
Companion Planting Notes: Catnip is as un-fussy as it gets: rich or poor soil, careful beds or neglected hedgerows: simply invite it in and let it thrive! I grow it in a perennial border with other weedy plants that appreciate their own company, like motherwort and bee balm, but never more than a ladybug’s flight from my most beset-upon vegetables. This way, the pest insects are deterred by the fragrant border, the beneficial predatory insects are encouraged to venture deeper into the garden, and the pollinators will sing their song of high summer when the catnip blooms.
Harvesting, & Medicine-Making Tips: Cut the aerial parts of the plant and strip off leaves and flowers, composting stems. Catnip is a wonderful tincture, syrup, glycerite, oxymel, or tea.
Yarrow: (Achillea millefolium) is a common garden herb and meadow wildflower. It is beloved of beneficial insects, attracting bees, soldier bugs, parasitic & predatory wasps, hoverflies, lady bugs, and ground beetles. It repels biting insects including mosquitos, ticks, and fleas. In the garden, it deters cucumber beetles, Mexican bean beetles, flea beetles, and squash bugs.67
Companion Planting Notes: Yarrow is easy to grow and integrates beautifully into perennial borders and along paths. I like it near squash/corn/beans plantings, as it repels relevant pests. I tuck divisions in corners, neglected spots, and anywhere I need to break up a large stand of something like spearmint or bee balm.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Harvest flowers in bloom and use them fresh or dried in tincture, tea, oil/salve, or vinegar.
Lemongrass (Cymbopogon spp.) This fragrant culinary favorite repels mosquitos, deer flies, horse flies, and black flies, and attracts bees. Numerous studies on several continents have demonstrated its efficacy, particularly against mosquitos.45
Companion Planting Notes: There are many appropriate species of Cymbopogon, depending on your climate; one great species is citronella grass (C. nardus) as it is quite fragrant, especially after a rain when mosquitos are active. As a member of the grass family, treat it with caution in warm climates, as it can spread; in my zone 4-5 environment it’s a fragile annual that I coax along to harvest.
Harvesting & Medicine-Making Tips: Just give it a haircut! Lemongrass is nice fresh or dried, particularly in honey, oxymel, or oil.
Homegrown Herbal Bug Spray Recipe
1 Tbsp each herb, finely chopped
4-6 oz almond or olive oil
Glass half pint jar
2 oz neem oil or cedar oil (recommended)
4 oz witch hazel
Spray bottle or perfume roller
1. Make sure everything is dry, as water increases the chances of mold. Combine herbs in jar; add oil. Use a spoon to push herbs down. Add extra oil if needed. Label jar. Infuse 1-3 weeks in a cool place.
2. Strain; press the last oil out of the herbs.
3. Add neem or cedar oil and witch hazel; shake well
Option: If you prefer a thinner spray, add more witch hazel; for a thicker, more lotiony texture, use vegetable glycerine instead of witch hazel.
4. Fill spray bottle or roller. Shake well before use.
5. Store leftovers in a cool, dark place; to store for more than a few months, use the refrigerator.
The bigger picture to homegrown, homemade natural remedies is the ecology of stewardship. We are a small part of a larger whole, responsible for stewarding our intertwined communities. We care for our gardens and families, our towns and wild places, and our larger world by promoting the function of natural systems. Natural health is more than remedies: at our best, we function as a healthful part of the broader community of plants, animals, and people, just like our pollinator friends.
This article was first published in Heirloom Gardener Magazine from Mother Earth News, a wonderful publication available on your local newsstand!