For most organic gardeners, unwanted pests are a necessary evil that needs to be dealt with to keep your plants healthy. Though techniques like planting bug-hated plants like marigolds can make a difference, sometimes it’s necessary to pull out the big guns and use some high-powered spray to really keep the pests away.
However, the options for pest control can be limited for the organic gardener that doesn’t want to rely on synthetic chemicals. Thankfully, neem oil is an inexpensive, all natural product that’s proven to make a huge difference in ridding your garden of pests.
It takes a few weeks to really notice the difference, but once you start using neem you’ll never want to go back.
What is Neem Oil?
Coming from neem trees native to India, neem oil is processed from the tree’s seeds, bark, and leaves. The tree has long been considered sacred throughout south Asia and has played many important roles in Ayurvedic medicine for centuries. Centuries ago, Indian farmers realized the potential that neem oil had for deterring pests from their crops. Today it is used to deter over 200 insect pests and the way that the oils active compounds work means only insects that eat leaves are affected by the spray. This prevents you from hurting beneficial garden creatures like bees, birds, and earthworms.
How does it work?
Neem oil doesn’t kill insects on contact but rather slowly alters their behavior. Because spraying neem directly on insects doesn’t immediately affect them, inexperienced people often assume that it doesn’t work. In fact, the insecticidal properties of neem oil are far more nuanced. The active ingredient in the oil is azadirachtin, which accounts for over 90 percent of the oil’s effectiveness and causes the insects who suck it out of plants to lose some of their natural instincts and eat less food, grow slowly and stop laying eggs. Over time, this dramatically affects the size of pest populations and prevents them from getting out of control in your garden. The ways that neem oil impacts the insects that feed on it can be summarized as follows:
- It controls feeding by giving the insects a sense of nausea that stops them from going back for more neem-coated leaves.
- The oil prevents insects from going through their life stages by inhibiting the enzyme responsible for making them molt out of larva and into adults.
- When insect larva is exposed to neem oil they later develop into abnormal adults and can’t fully reach sexual maturity.
- Adult insects that eat neem become sterile and even lose the hormones that make them want to mate, meaning that they don’t reproduce.
- Female insects exposed to neem often stop laying eggs, and the eggs that come into contact with neem oil usually don’t hatch or hatch into deformed larva.
Over time, this can work to stop a pest infestation before it gets out of hand. Because azadirachtin doesn’t affect ‘higher’ life forms like reptiles, birds or mammals in the same way, it is considered a safe alternative to chemical pesticides.
Where can you get it?
The recent popularity of neem oil means that it’s fairly easy to find in most garden stores. Many organic products will list ‘neem oil extract’ in their ingredients list, which is your clue that the product will go after plant-eating insects. Though these products can be effective, to get the full benefits of neem you need to invest in 100% pure neem oil (affiliate link). Making your own pesticide spray from this oil is significantly more cost-effective than buying it diluted and premixed. Make sure the oil is fresh by not buying it if it looks yellowish, cloudy, or if it smells vaguely of sulfur. Also, try to get only organic oil as it will be less likely to contain dangerous petrochemicals that can harm your garden plants.
What are the benefits of neem oil?
Not only is neem oil a good way to prevent insects from damaging your crops, but it also has proven benefits for helping prevent the spread of fungi like mildew and rust, as well as equip your plants to better handle the threats of plant diseases. Because neem is completely nontoxic to the species you aren’t trying to target, it’s a safe insecticide for gardeners that are afraid of contaminating their crops. Neem oil is also extremely easy to purchase from organic sources, making it easy for you to know exactly what you are putting on your crops. Finally, neem oil is completely biodegradable, meaning that it breaks down in your garden soil and won’t leave a trace, unlike other popular pesticides.
Is neem oil safe for humans?
When used as directed, neem oil is perfectly safe and a nontoxic substance for people to be around. However, like with any pest control spray, some caution should be taken when using it. Women that are trying to get pregnant should avoid neem oil just to be on the safe side, and it’s never a good idea to drink the oil. However, any food that has trace amounts of neem oil residue is fine to consume. Some studies have shown that using massive amounts of neem oil can be damaging to small beehives, though it tends to not affect larger ones. If you keep bees, use extra care when applying neem oil on the plants they prefer to visit.
General Application Rates
Neem oil can be applied to plants just like any other form of pesticide. The ideal time is before pests have gotten out of hand, as it takes several weeks before you’ll begin to notice the effects of spraying. Garden plant leaves are simply coated with the spray about once a week to keep bugs from successfully eating them. Too much neem can add stress to plants, so monitor their leaves to ensure they stay healthy. Because different commercial neem products have varying amounts of the active ingredients, it’s important to read through the instructions to ensure you use it correctly but about 1tbs per gallon is the general rule. The best time of day to apply neem oil is in the morning or evening, otherwise, you risk burning the plants by putting a liquid on them when the sun is at its strongest. Neem oil should be stored in a cool dark place when not in use. The refrigerator is often the best place to store neem oil, as it will last up to two years when chilled.
Additional Tips For Success
When used correctly, neem oil is simple to use and provides some great benefits for home gardeners. If you need some extra help ensuring you are using it correctly, you can follow these tips for success.
- Keep in mind that neem oil takes about two weeks to start showing results for your garden. Don’t lose patience if you don’t see a difference right away, and be sure to use neem as a preventative measure to keep insects from getting out of control before it’s too late.
- Unfortunately for those that live in the UK, pesticides containing azadirachtin are completely banned, meaning that neem oil isn’t a legal option for you.
- Pest control isn’t the only use for neem oil! This valuable substance also plays a key role in many natural skin care products because it’s high levels of antioxidants helps keep you safe from the signs of aging. For this reason, it’s easy to find soap and hair care products that use neem oil as an active ingredient.