Natural ways to repel unwanted insects - The Reflector: Garden Scene

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Natural ways to repel unwanted insects

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Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2012 9:00 am

As summer approaches, so does the dreaded mosquito season. As more and more studies show, commercial insect repellents may not be the answer; most notably, many insect repellents contain from 5 to 25 percent DEET.

DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) is a popular ingredient in commercial insect repellents. It was first introduced for consumer use in 1957. In 1998, the Environmental Projection Agency (EPA) re-evaluated DEET to ensure that it met the modern safety standards. It was determined that DEET was safe as long as it was used as directed.

While DEET has been strenuously tested for over 50 years, there is controversy about its safety. Opposition of the DEET products have voiced concerns about possible toxic side-effects from its use, especially on children. For those individuals who are choosing organic methods of insect deterrent rather than cover themselves with potentially-harmful chemicals, planting an insect-repelling container garden or flower bed might be the perfect alternative.

“This is the way I live; my children have never had DEET on their skin,” said Sequoia Lott, an employee at the Ridgefield Shorty’s Garden and Home.

Visit any garden store or green house to discover the wide variety of plants and flowers that have been known to repel insects. Using these flowers in your garden, on your patio and in flower beds surrounding the areas where your family relaxes outdoors will provide a natural way to repel mosquitoes and other unwanted insects.

Citronella:  This is the most popular choice for your insect-repelling garden or patio flower pots. Citronella is the natural ingredient used in most of the chemical insect repellent sprays, candles and oils. Citronella, or Cybopogon Nardus or Citronella winterianus, is a clumping grass. It is considered a low maintenance plant but does need full sun and good drainage. It can grow to heights of five to six feet. Once the plant is established in your garden, it can be propagated early each spring by digging up and splitting the large root-ball into smaller portions and replanting those portions in different areas of your yard and garden.

Catnip:  Catnip, or Nepeta cateria, is a natural mosquito repellent that is very easy to grow. This perennial herb is related to the mint family and grows very rapidly. Nepetalactone, the essential oil that gives catnip its scent, has been proven to effectively repel mosquitoes and cockroaches, Catnip works very well in its plant form to repel insects when they are in close proximity to the plant. However, many people apply crushed catnip leaves or oil onto their skin for more effective protection. A word of warning, if you are someone that crushes the leaves and covers your skin with the oil, be prepared that cats will respond to people covered with catnip oil in the same manner that they respond to the plant itself; be cautious using the catnip oil if you are a cat owner.

Horsemint or Bee Balm: This perennial plant gives off a strong odor that appears to confuse and repel insects in the same manner as the citronella plant. While many other insect-repelling plants need full sun, Horsemint does well in shade and dry, sandy soils. It can also tolerate sandy conditions, which makes it a perfect plant for the coastal areas. In early spring or fall, mature plants can be divided, by splitting the main plant into several smaller sections and re-planted into permanent locations around your yard. An additional bonus when planting the Horsemint in your garden, yard or patio is the butterflies and bees that will be attracted to the blossoms.

Marigolds: Marigolds are well known with gardeners for their benefits in organic integrated pest management. Favored by slugs when used as a garden border, and a companion plant for tomatoes, many gardeners already use marigolds in their gardens and yards without realizing that they are also an effective mosquito repellent. Marigolds contain Pyrethrum, which is a product used in many commercial insect repellents. The scent of the marigold is quite distinctive and one that mosquitoes do not like. For this reason, planting them around your patio will help control an insect problem. However, it isn’t wise to bring marigolds into your seating area as their brightly colored blossoms often attract wasps. Marigolds need full sun and fertile soil to grow at their best and flowers should be dead-headed, as needed, to promote additional blossoms.

Basil:  Basil, a popular culinary herb, is also known to be an effective insect repellent. Basil can be grown in patio containers, planted in flower beds or in gardens. In addition to its success as an insect repellent, Lott has used it for its pain relieving properties. “I know that if you get stung by bees or get insect bites and you crush up the basil and put it on the bite, it does take away the burn and the itch,” she said.

Lemon Thyme: Lemon Thyme is another culinary favorite that also works as an insect repellent. Easy to grow, this plant can grow successfully in gravely dry soil, but flourishes in a sunny location. This is a wonderful container garden herb that can do double duty as a decoration on your patio and work as a natural insect repellent.

Sage: Kitchen herbs appear to help out in the kitchen and on the patio, as the scent of sage is recognized as a repellent for flies, cabbage moth and black flea beetles. It grows best in a sunny location with well drained soil.

Rosemary: This aromatic shrub is another culinary herb that is known to repel flies and mosquitoes. It grows best is a sunny location with well drained soil.

Lavender: This popular plant has many culinary, aromatherapy and herbal purposes but few realize that it is also a natural insect repellent. Spiders, ants and moths are all repelled by the scent of the lavender plant.

Geraniums: The citronella plant is a member of the geranium family. This large family of plants has many different types that work to repel unwanted insects. Many of the scented geraniums are almost as effective at repelling insects as the citronella plant itself. “There is the lemon, the lime and there is a citronella one (geranium) that works,” says Lott, “The ones that smell like citronella and lime, I usually put those on my deck and that seems to help with all of us sitting around the table.”

Ageratum: Ageratum, also known as the Floss Flower, has a scent that is particularly offensive to mosquitoes. It secretes an organic substance called coumarin, which is used by many commercial insect repellent companies in their chemical insect repellent sprays. This is a low-lying decorative plant that comes in blue, violet, pink and white blossoms, and grows well in partial or full sun and very rich, fertile soil. “The Floss Flower doesn’t really smell like citronella, it’s a smell that mosquitoes find offensive,” said Lott.

Amazingly, many patio gardeners may already protect themselves from a variety of insects without ever being aware of their efforts. A small culinary herb garden grown on a patio offers relief from many annoying insects without any additional effort on the part of the patio gardener.

As spring gears up for summer,  taking the time to plant a small container garden or adding a few of the plants from this list to an existing flower, vegetable and container gardens could provide a summer free from insects and the use of chemical insect repellents.

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