San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Natural bug solutions for gardener and garden

It’s that time of year again in the tropics, when the rain and the insects come out big time. Outdoors folks are always trading their insect repellent recipes, so here are a few of our secrets to help you keep the bugs at bay. 

Ed Bernhardt

Ed Bernhardt

We favor natural repellents over chemical products. For those of us who work outside every day, who knows what effects those chemicals may have on our skin? I prefer to lower the risk factor and use repellents made from natural ingredients. 

First, let’s consider what natural ingredients you can grow in the home garden to help repel the bugs. One of the easiest bug-repelling plants to grow around the home is citronella (Cymbopogon nardus), a relative of lemongrass. This is a hardy perennial that needs no special attention. Nurseries around the country carry citronella, as it also serves as an attractive ornamental. 

You can make an alcohol-based repellent with citronella leaves, to which you can add other herbal ingredients as well. Plants that serve well are rosemary, oregano and Costa Rican mint (Satureja viminea). Cinnamon and bay leaves are useful too. Aloe vera and the juice of the prickly pear cactus can also be added to the mix to act as a skin rejuvenator and to help disguise bug-attracting body odors. 

The more concentrated the herbal essence, the longer the repellent will protect you. Pack a jar or container with finely chopped herbal material, then top it off with vodka or clear rum and seal it tightly. Shake the jar once a day and store it in a dark place for a week before you begin to use the repellent.

If you don’t have these plants in your garden right now, you can use herbal essential oils. Lemon eucalyptus oil has been proven as effective as many commercial insect repellents for mosquitoes, flies, ticks and fleas. Cinnamon oil is also highly effective against mosquitoes. Orange oil for fleas, rose geranium for ticks and lice, and lavender are also useful in repellents. Use 10-25 drops of essential oils mixed with a carrier oil; castor oil is highly recommended for this purpose, as it also helps repel the bugs and can be found in most pharmacies. 

And when you do get bitten, aloe vera will soothe the itching.

As for keeping the bugs away from your garden plants, try our all-purpose, safe and natural insecticide recipe. Mix the following ingredients in a blender: 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda, 1 1/2 teaspoons liquid soap, 1 teaspoon vegetable oil, 1 teaspoon vinegar and 5 cups warm water. Spray it on your garden plants once a week during the rainy season.

For more on tropical gardening, books, seeds and essentials oils for insect repellents, write Ed at

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