Organic insecticides offer healthier alternative

August 04, 2009|By ANNETTE IPSAN

Are bugs bugging you? Instead of reaching for that spray bottle of chemicals, consider an organic alternative.

Organic insecticides work. The holy trinity of organic insecticides -- Bt, insecticidal soap and horticultural oil -- can handle 90 percent of the insect problems in your garden.

Why go organic? It's healthier for you and the environment. Made from natural substances, organic insecticides break down quickly in the environment. They are less toxic to humans and have minimal impact on beneficial insects. Synthetic insecticides linger and often kill all insects, good and bad.

Reading the labels on some common chemical insecticides is a real eye opener. Some require you to wear special gloves, protective clothing, a mask and more. Some ask that you remove and immediately wash your clothing after applying the chemical. Do you really want to apply something around your home that is so toxic?


The effectiveness of organics is proven. Many people think of organic insecticides as new treatments that are more experimental than effective. In fact, organic products have been around for a long time and they work well.

I had a nasty infestation of aphids on my perennial ironweed that was seriously distorting the leaves. Repeated sprays with a hose didn't discourage them, so I used insecticidal soap. One application fixed the problem. Plus, a week later, I spied an assassin bug, a very good garden bug that eats lots of bad guys, patrolling the plant without any ill effects from the soap treatment. That's organic control at its best.

What are these organic products? Insecticidal soap is a special type of soap that kills soft-bodied insects such as aphids and mealybugs. Horticultural oil is an oily product that smothers hard-shelled insects such as scale. Bt is a naturally occurring bacteria that kills small caterpillars such as bagworms. The botanical (made from plants) insecticides neem and pyrethrin also have many applications.

You can find organic products at many garden centers and some home- improvement stores. They usually come in a concentrate that you mix with water and spray on. Anything you can't find locally you can get online from companies such as Planet Natural ( or 800-289-6656), Peaceful Valley Farm Supply ( or 888-784-1722) and Gardens Alive ( or 513-354-1482.)

How do you know which product to use for the particular pest that's plaguing your garden? The first step is to identify the insect. I can help with that. Just bring me a sample or e-mail me a photo. Then I can recommend an organic product or you can do your own research using some of the excellent reference sources available.

Help is just a click away. Our Home and Garden Information Center Web site at emphasizes organic treatment options. Just click on the "plant diagnostics" tab, type the name of your insect in the search box, and up will pop a fact sheet with information on the insect and management tips.

My two favorite books for organic treatments are "Rodale's Vegetable Garden Problem Solver" by Fern Marshall Bradley and "The Organic Gardener's Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control," edited by Barbara Ellis and Fern Marshall Bradley. They are both easy to use and give specific, practical, organic recommendations.

Organic insecticides are a kinder, gentler way to control insects in your garden. They help rein in bad bugs, protect good insects and leave less of a footprint in the ecosystem that is your backyard. Using organic controls is good for your health, the health of your garden and the health of the community.

Annette Ipsan is the Extension educator for horticulture and the Master Gardener program in Washington County for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. She can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1604 or by e-mail at

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