Old-Fashioned Pest Management: A Skill You’d Better Learn Fast

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Old-fashioned pest management is yet another topic that is going to prove vital knowledge in the very near future. With supply chain disruptions causing shortages in everything from fertilizer to semiconductors, it’s an easy bet that we’ll be seeing shortages of various pest management products in the near future as well.

Even those considered organic and a very basic part of our arsenal, such as copper fungicide, might very well be more difficult to come by in the future.

So what do we do? How did our forebears deal with their pests? Are there old-fashioned pest management techniques that can easily be implemented by the prepper?

Let’s take a look.

One for the farmer, one for the crow…

Sacrificial gardens date back more than 2500 years. The first farmers planted as much as they could and hoped the pests, (rabbits, insects, deer, etc.) would leave them some. Fences, floating row covers, and the coveted greenhouse came much, much later but are definitely useful additions to our pest control arsenal. 

The earliest recorded use of pesticides comes from the Sumerians, 2500 years ago, as they used sulphur compounds as insecticides. The Chinese used herbs and oils at some point later. Phenology, the study of the timing of recurring biological events, was recognized around 300 BC, which resulted in the use of timing to avoid pest life cycles. This is done today with pests such as the squash vine borer. 

Fast forward to the 1600s, when tobacco infusions, herbs, and arsenic first came into widespread use. Imperial expansion during the next few hundred years introduced new pests throughout the world, such as the Colorado potato beetle. Paris green, a mixture of arsenic and copper sulfate, then came into widespread usage. Eventually we get Bordeaux mixture, a combination of copper sulfate, lime, and water (with many applications), that’s still in use today.

Of course in the 1960-1970s, biologists, most notably Rachel Carson, realized the environmental damage caused by some of these compounds. Arsenic, for example, is a heavy metal. Copper is as well, and too much pesticide use absolutely trashes the soil fauna. Pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, also kill off beneficial pollinators.

And it’s not just the soil around you that can be damaged as well. Consider the potential consequences of eating these pesticides. It probably won’t make you feel much better to realize they’re in all kinds of food you normally eat as well.

So what can we do to protect our own food supply? 

Obviously, how we manage pests depends upon both the pest and the crop it’s attacking. If it’s a deer or rabbit problem, a sacrificial garden plot and some fencing might do the trick. I use 3’ high chicken wire to keep rabbits out of my strawberries, plus bird netting on top to keep the feathered enemy out. It’s not the prettiest stuff to look at, but it ensures that the fruits of my labor end up on my plate, rather than in a rabbit’s belly!

Rats, moles, voles, and other rodents are a bit more of a challenge. I use snap traps baited with peanut butter. I do have to get rid of the bodies, but I find this preferable to poison. Poisons tend to hit more than the target species, and can affect pets and children as well. They’re dosed by weight, and when any predator such as a hawk or owl eats enough poisoned rodent, they’ll die too. Death from poison is a horrible way to go, so I use snap traps.

They’re cheap and easy to stock up on, and are effective for at least a half dozen or so kills. I find that the spring gets a bit loose after that and doesn’t always snap when the rodent steps on the plate. As if that isn’t enough, rodents are actually pretty smart about traps. I’ve seen them approach from the other side to eat the food without springing the trap. It’s frustrating but is still better than using poison. At least in my mind. 

Are there old-fashioned pest management techniques for insects?

How do we minimize the damage caused by Japanese beetles and other annoyances while allowing bees in to pollinate? One method is simply to grit your teeth and tolerate the beetle, which lasts only a couple of months. Unfortunately, other insects, such as the tent caterpillar, will totally kill the tree they invade.

In the context of this article, plant selection is probably the best strategy. Use plants that are resistant to these pests, or let Japanese beetles have the roses so they’ll leave the more important crops alone. This strategy can actually work for more than the Japanese beetle. 

Other insect controls that can be implemented using easily obtained materials include hoop houses and floating row covers. These can eliminate a wide variety of insects on a number of food crops, and have the added benefit of extending the growing season. There are many kinds of row covers, from light to heavyweight, some of which are reusable from season to season. A big drawback is having to remove them during bloom, which obviously limits their use as pest management during that time. 

Hoop houses yield many of the same advantages as row covers, and they’re not that hard to build. Really, they’re just plastic versions of greenhouses. Of course, gardeners in harsh climates should give some thought to materials that will withstand conditions. 

Companion planting can help! 

Companion planting is a huge subject.

Basically, some plants get along better than others, much like people. Some plants enhance each other, other combinations inhibit. A quick search will help you plan your garden accordingly. Another great resource is Carrots Love Tomatoes. This book is a wealth of information on both good and bad companions, as well as plants that help attract pollinators and control pests. 

Don’t be totally satisfied with a quick search, however. I found out the hard way that tomatoes don’t love kohlrabi! It took some digging to confirm my suspicions, having noted that my tomatoes were half their usual size at that time of year and weren’t flowering at all, let alone setting fruit. I had to buy tomatoes for canning that year, which was completely embarrassing.

If I didn’t have farmer backup my pantry would have suffered greatly. 

Planting to attract beneficial insects and control pests does require some planning, but what activity that’s worthwhile is also easy? Keep in mind that beneficial insects need to feed in both larval and adult stages and plant accordingly. For example, the dreaded Japanese beetle can be controlled by planting both garlic and rue near the plants we want to protect.

Composite flowers such as daisies, chamomile, and the mint family attract parasitic wasps, hoverflies, and robber flies. Give the wasps some space and respect and they’ll also pollinate a few things. Ladybugs will eat aphids and fungus gnats. Borage is also beloved of certain bee species. Many of the herbs we plant also deter unwelcome insects, such as thyme, rosemary, and sage.

Marigolds, nasturtiums, lavender, borage, and basil – what’s not to love?

What to do when all else fails?

Of course, there are some problems that are bad enough to require pesticides. When this is the case though, there are “friendlier” alternatives we can turn to. Soap, garlic, and chili pepper sprays have been noted as homemade remedies, and can easily be made from things you have around the house. Diatomaceous earth and neem oil also have pest-control benefits, and though they are a bit more difficult to come by at the moment than “normal”, they’re not impossible to get your hands on.

Hydrogen peroxide can be used in a number of ways, although there are precautions that need to be taken in the form of gloves and eye protection. This is a very handy item to stock up on! It can be used as a disinfectant, for both soil injection and foliar spraying, and in a seed starting solution. And check out this post for instructions on how to make a fungicide spray from aspirin and water. 

Old-fashioned pest management remedies can save you a lot of headache – even in your garden.

In these uncertain times, it’s a good move to consider how we can solve our problems using locally-obtained items, especially items we already have or can easily acquire. Human beings have been managing pests for hundreds of years, often without using dangerous and destructive chemicals.

How do you manage yours? Are there old-fashioned pest management techniques you regularly put to use? Let us know in the comments below!


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Amy Allen

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    • Good Article Jayne. Willow water is worth looking up, too much to cut and paste here. Both as a rooting compound and an antifungal spray like your aspirin spray link.

      Willows are multi use for homesteaders as I find them easy to make baskets and furniture from their fast-growing limbs-twigs. But be aware they are water hungry to the point they can destroy your septic system if planted too close.

      Chickens can be a gardener’s friend. Once you learn how to protect your garden from their eating habits, they can be used to eat your bugs for you. Chicken tunnels in the garden feed the chickens, light rototill of weeds and bugs and such. I have a chicken tractor sized for my garden beds so early in the season I can iron rake my garden bed and put the girls to work scratching up and eating all those pest grubs-larva and eggs for me as well as any weeds. I do the same thing after the growing season so my girls can eat anything left over and bug hunt.

      BTW it’s a bad idea to compost infected plants in your compost pile. The plant viruses survive even a hot pile pretty well. But they don’t survive passing through a chicken’s guts.

      If you use willow baskets to protect plantings the chickens will eat a little of the protected plants but will destroy any bugs nearby. Japanese beetles are tasty for my girls.

      • Thanks for the tips, Michael! It’s worth mentioning to not put diseased items in your compost pile. Chickens can be a great addition to the garden, but many municipalities have restrictions on them. My city says three chickens and no rooster, for example. And while the willow sounds like a versatile tree, my backside aches just thinking about it! My parents had uses for them too LOL

        • Jayne planting a willow is easy. They like water but not wet feet so no standing water sites. Lots of sunshine is best but semi-shade works.

          A cutting will root so easily, especially if you make up some willow water for rooting-fungicide. They root so easily you can get one NOW shake off the snow and do a cutting for spring planting.

          I like to put a single fence pole and circle “fence” around my cuttings as so I don’t accidently run them over with a mower and keeps the deer honest.

          I also strongly suggest folks plant themselves a Bay Bush as Bay Leaves Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae). Fresh or dried bay leaves are used in cooking for their distinctive flavour and fragrance. The leaves should be removed from the cooked food before eating (see safety section below). The leaves are often used to flavour soups, stews, braises and pâtés in many countries. The fresh leaves are very mild and do not develop their full flavour until several weeks after picking and drying.[1]
          California bay leaf. The leaf of the California bay tree (Umbellularia californica, Lauraceae), also known as California laurel, Oregon myrtle, and pepperwood, is similar to the Mediterranean bay laurel, but has a stronger flavour.

          Both are very useful in keeping bugs OUT of your stored grains, flour and such. Also taste nice even as a tea.

          Permaculture 🙂 Plant once, take care of them and enjoy years of their service.

  • Always an excellent article Miss Jayne. I find your stuff some of the most useful on this site. I am sure that you know that the book ” The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible” has a long list of which veggies get along/ grow well with others.

  • I teach people to increase food security by encouraging plant biodiversity and cross pollination. Then allowing survival-of-the-fittest selection among the offspring for plants that thrive in the presence of my garden’s soil, pests, predators, microbes, weather, and farmer.

    I don’t fertilize my fields, because I want to select for crops that thrive in a low-input agricultural system.

    I grow corn that is not bothered by skunks, coons, or pheasants. I grow squash that don’t get eaten by bugs (even though seed catalog varieties get decimated). The Colorado Potato Beetles are trained to eat my weeds, and leave the potatoes alone.

    • It’s a nice honor to hear from Joseph Lofthouse 🙂

      Where can I find your seeds and most importantly the seed potatoes? Corn, squash, and potatoes is a solid start to a survival garden. Just add some of your beans and hopefully you have peppers for flavor?

      Are your weeds beetle trap crops perhaps Joseph?

      • I don’t sell seeds myself, but a list of companies that sell my seed is available on my web site.

        For (pollinated) potato seeds, I highly recommend Cultivariable. Grow seedlings, and see which thrive for you, and then clone the best of the best.

        Yes. I allow a specific weed, solanum physalifolium, to grow in my garden to feed the Colorado Potato Beetles. Then generation after generation I crush beetles on the potatoes, and leave them alone on the weed. If a variety of potato consistently attracts beetles, then I kill that variety. I don’t want to contract to get muddled.

    • Wow! Sounds like a bit of directional genetic selection, to use the fancy term. It sounds like you found varieties with the qualities you wanted, and continued to breed them until they had lots of the qualities you wanted. Is that right? Where did you get your first generation plants? And how in the world does one train a beetle? Thanks!

      • I started my plant breeding journey with seed catalog varieties, and fruits from the farmer’s market or seed swaps. Sometimes I started with 3 or 4 random varieties, other times with hundreds of varieties. The ecosystem eliminates 50% to 95% of varieties the first generation varieties that didn’t pass the survival-of-the-fittest test. Then those that survived cross with each other. By about the third generation, things are magical, because the strongest have crossed with the strongest. They have survived everything that the ecosystem, bugs, pests, predators, and diseases had to offer. Then, once I have a totally reliable crop, I can start selecting for things like flavor, and culinary traits.

        Training the Colorado Potato Beetles only works because they are year round residents of my garden. Beetles found on my potatoes die. Beetles eating a closely related weed survive to reproduce. Baby beetles grow up to lay eggs on the same species of plant that they were born onto — because it is safe. The potato is dangerous. So it’s likely that I’m influencing both the culture, and the genetics of the beetles.

  • I used potassium-hydroxide soap 2 years ago on spearmint. Wasn’t very effective, though, I used it every 3-4 days… possibly, if I administered it every day, it would have been more useful against trips. But who wants to use soapy mint leaves for the mojito? Finally I gave up and cut all mint and gave it to neighbor. Neighbor loved it as it is and dried all the leaves. Next year the guideline for Mospilan pyrethroid came out for mint so I used it. Worked very well of course.

    • Yeah, thrips are hard! I have those on my exotics and the only thing effective has been Orthene. I can’t use insecticide soaps on Sarracenia pitcher plants because it’ll damage the leaves, and it wasn’t working well anyway. Orthene is a good systemic and it works. Sadly, bog gardens breed pests.

      Is there a way to generate the pythreoid yourself? Just in case the supply dries up.

      • I haven’t ever tried, but maybe pyrethrum plant extract may work. It is better than nothing. I would rather buy some extra pyrethroid and store it. I would administer that even after expired. Still fairly OK if SHTF.

  • I have been landscaping for about 5 years and, gardening all my life. Companion planting really works. As for insects that are more difficult, simply sprinkle ground cinnamon on the plants. Make sure you sprinkle it on the ground around the base of the plants. Cinnamon is also a great fungicide and will kill mushrooms, mold and fungus almost on contact. Reapply if needed. Spring is the most favorable time to sprinkle (or when you first plant). Especially for roses. But, it can be used all year long. For you rose lovers, roses really like a banana peel buried around their roots in the spring.

    • Another poster mentioned burying banana peels, with tomatoes if I remember correctly. I’ll have to try that this season! Healthy plants are less prune to disease in the first place.

  • Some good tips.
    I do want to point out that today the difference between a hoop house and a green house is heat not glass. Hoop houses are not heated and a green house is. Either can be made of plastic or glass.

  • Wood ash from hardwood fires, make rings around plants and dust with it. Never have had it burn the leafs or plants.

  • According to William Woys Weaver in Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, to deter onion maggots, you make a strong tea from burdock leaves, then after it’s room temperature, you apply it around the roots.

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