Horticulture Magazine

11 Plants That Repel Unwanted Insects

lemongrass growing in a vegetable garden

As gardeners, our relationship with insects can be complicated.

On the one hand, bees and butterflies are a beautiful and life-giving presence in our green oases. On the other hand, though, are slugs, snails, mosquitoes, aphids, and various other pests waiting enthusiastically on the sidelines, ready to wreak havoc at a moment’s notice.

If you’re at your wits end with slimy critters munching on your plants, aphids sucking the sap from your leaves, and mozzies sucking the sap from you every time you dare try to relax in your garden, then this guide is for you.

man wearing a insect head net outdoors
Are there too many bugs in your garden?

Here we’ve rounded up eleven plants that repel certain types of insects, meaning you should be able to reduce the numbers of the creepy crawlies playing merry hell in your garden, while not disrupting the activities of the desirable insects.

(In fact, if you want to attract more bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, check out the Royal Horticultural Society’s ‘Plants for Pollinators’ system!)

Plants to repel mosquitoes

Mosquitoes are the bane of everyone’s existence. Try to sit outdoors in the summer months and they’ll find you. Wear thick clothes and they’ll still manage to find somewhere to bite. Pretty much every adventure book has a section on how annoying they are, too.

In short, these pests get everywhere. They can put a real downer on time spent outdoors, so definitely familiarise yourself with these plants that can discourage them from bothering you too much.

1. Lemon balm

This bushy herb smells like – you guessed it – lemon. And as you may know, citrus smell – more specifically the chemical compound citronellal – is a deterrent for mosquitoes (that’s why lots of gardening shops sell citronella candles!).

To tap into the repellent effect, simply pull off a few leaves, crush them up in your hands, and apply the resulting liquid onto your skin. Mozzies will be horrified and will turn their bloodthirsty attention to the nearest non-balmed sucker in your vicinity.

2. Lemongrass

Here’s another plant high in citronellal, which mosquitoes simply will not abide. The essential oil made from lemongrass is registered with the American FDA (Food and Drug Administration) as being an effective repellent, so you know it’s the good stuff.

Again, mush up a few leaves and apply to your skin to get the benefits. Also being near lemongrass should protect you somewhat from the mosquitoes’ probing probosces.

a lemongrass bush in sunshine
It might not look like much but this will put the willies right up any mosquitoes

3. Lavender

This popular purple plant has the combined benefits of deterring mosquitoes while attracting bees. On top of that, it’s attractive to look at and wonderful to smell – whenever I pass my lavender plants I rub a couple of sprigs and dab the scent onto my forehead for a little burst of relaxation.

As well as repelling mosquitoes, lavender oil is an antiseptic, meaning that if you do get bitten, applying a little oil to the bite should help it to be a little less itchy.

4. Rosemary

This familiar herb has supposed repellent properties, whether you’re sitting in close proximity or rubbing the oil onto your skin. With the latter, it may be a little strange dabbing a scent onto your skin that’s more readily associated with a leg of lamb, but worry not. The absence of mosquitoes is a worthy swap.

If you grow rosemary as part of a herb garden, you’ll be interested to know that other herbs like mint, oregano, and basil also have reported anti-mosquito effects. So if you’d rather smell like a mojito, a plate of pasta, or some really nice pesto, you’re in luck.

5. Bee balm

These distinctive, neon-pink flowers are another plant renowned for its ability to drive away pests while inviting in desirable garden visitors like bees (hence the name) and butterflies. And while many of the plants featured previously work best when mushed up and rubbed onto your skin, bee balm is thought to repel mosquitoes and other pests of its own accord.

Bee balm also goes by the name of bergamot, and if you’ve ever used that really fancy hand soap they sometimes have in posh restaurants, you’ll know just how good it can smell. This means that growing the plant for its own merit is an inviting prospect, and the resulting absence of mosquitoes can be considered an added bonus.

Plants to repel flies

Is there anything more annoying than sitting in your garden, drink on standby and book ready to go, only to be descended on by a fly? Their persistent buzzing and surprising nimbleness mean that evicting them from your company can be harder than expected and, left to their own devices, it can easily be enough to drive you indoors.

No more will you have to suffer this menace, however. The plants in this section are noted for their ability to send flies packing.

6. Bay leaves

Do you like curry? If so, you’ve probably had the unpleasant experience of biting into a bay leaf that’s not been removed before serving. The flavour is great when worked through a sauce, but not so great when you bite down onto the papery texture bursting with full pungency.

This pungency, though, is the exact property that’s of interest in discouraging flies from spending any more time with you. Simply scatter a handful of leaves (fresh or dried!) onto a nearby surface and, fingers crossed, you should be left in peace. You can also try grinding them up and rubbing the resulting ooze onto your skin.

bay leaves in a wooden bowl
Tasty for humans, offensive to flies

7. Herbs

Basil, rosemary, and the various herbs we saw in the previous section are just as good at repelling flies as mosquitoes, which makes sense considering they’re quite similar, when you get down to it.

Just grind up a handful and apply the resulting fluid to your skin. Again, you’ll have to look past the fact that your smell now vaguely resembles a tasty plate of food.

Plants to repel other pests

If you’re dealing with other visitors on top of mosquitoes and flies, then hopefully the plants in this section will be able to help. They’re noted variously for deterring moths, aphids, beetles, and myriad other pests.

8. Mugwort

While this plant may sound like something straight out of a witch’s pantry, its scent is a renowned repellent for moths, mosquitoes, and various other flying critters.

It’s thought to be so effective, in fact, that some cultures gather dried sections of mugwort and burn them in clumps. The resulting smoke is apparently quite good at getting rid of any nearby insects.

9. Alliums

Sometimes you can grow two plants near each other, one of which is famously attractive to humans and the other of which has a natural ability to repel common pests of the first. Alliums and roses are a fine example of such a partnership: grow some alliums near to your prize roses, and their natural scent (which humans can’t detect) will deter aphids, one of the most persistent threats to a healthy rose crop.

10. Marigolds

These gorgeous yellow-orange flowers are a common choice for gardeners, and are also naturally repellent to aphids, mosquitoes, and various other bugs. Our favourite plants are those that are a pleasure to behold while also performing some useful function in the garden, and marigolds definitely tick both boxes.

orange mexican marigolds in focus with sunshine in the background
Just stunning

11. Nasturtiums

Another plant that falls neatly into the combined bucket of being attractive and useful is the humble nasturtium. A treat to behold, and a guaranteed conversation starter thanks to their peppery taste and suitability for human consumption, these flowers also possess the natural ability to drive away pests! Triple whammy!

Nasturtiums are able to deter flies, aphids, beetles, and many others. They’re a great choice for protecting nearby plants from unwanted visitations, and will make a fine addition to your garden.

Good riddance, we hope

There you go: eleven plants that should reduce the number of bugs bothering you and your gardening endeavours, and that have the added benefit of being attractive and useful additions to your garden. Whether you go for the herbs whose aromatic properties will be a boon to your culinary exploits, or the pretty flowers like marigolds and alliums that will make a stunning contribution to flowerbeds and plant displays, you’ve got plenty of options to work with.

And remember to check out the Plants for Pollinators scheme if you want to attract more of the bees, butterflies, and other pollinators that make a positive contribution to your garden. You can also read about the benefits of wildflower corridors in protecting vulnerable insect populations from harm or even extinction: a great way to remind yourself that not all insects are bad, and that some actively need our help to thrive!

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