essential

Some things are absolutely necessary if you plan to spend any significant time in the garden at the height of the season.  One of those things, I believe, is insect repellent.

I know I spend a lot of time admiring the insects on this blog, and that I went beyond organic in my definition of what the Victory Garden policy would be, all the way to a “no-kill” philosophy (with exceptions for weeds).  I was curious what that would be like, in all respects, having read so much about insect population balance and natural controls that come into play when Nature is allowed to have a bit more say in the garden.

Whether because my yard was one of the only atrazine-free zones in the area, or because that’s just what happens, there were so many insects in my yard by summer’s peak that I felt ready to apply the bear grease ointment described in Philippa Gregory’s Virgin Earth, which she suggests was used by the Native Americans still living near the English colonies in the 17th century.  In the novel, an Englishman uses this folk remedy and it makes his white, pasty skin look even uglier, streaked with red that highlights his unhealthy pallor, whereas on his guide, a young Native American girl, the ointment only deepens and highlights her lovely skin, making it glow and igniting a slow, lustful burn in the Englishman’s heart.

The mosquitos had me ready to smear bear grease all over my body in 95+ degree heat, even knowing its smell would be reminiscent of lard and it would not be flattering to my complexion.  I had to come up with an alternative.

Obviously, I was avoiding the chemical sprays.  Besides the fact that some of those ingredients are scary and I’m not sure I want them in direct contact with my skin, no matter how many government agencies have approved them, I really detest the way they smell.  Seriously, lard would be a more attractive alternative.

So I made my own insect repellent.  I’m sure I’ll refine the formula and application methods as the seasons pass, but this summer I settled on this recipe:

  • 4 oz. olive oil
  • 10 drops Wild Lavender essential oil
  • 10 drops Tea Tree essential oil
  • 10 drops Lemongrass essential oil
  • 5 drops Blue Tansy essential oil
  • 3 drops Geranium essential oil

Shake it up and be sure to let it steep overnight before you try to use it.

I would dip my fingers into the oil and spread it on exposed skin before going out to do gardening chores.  It was a bit, uh, oily for my taste, especially at first, and especially in the muggiest heat.  But I got used to it eventually — and olive oil turns out to do wonders for the skin.  (The dry skin on my hands was most appreciative.)  And if I just wanted a quick trip outside, a dab on my pulse points, especially ankles and the backs of the knees and behind the ears, seemed to do the trick.

For very short trips, anyway.  The problem being that for a gardener to take a very short trip into the garden is nearly impossible, a subject on which Carol over at May Dreams Gardens has written a hilarious post.  Most of the time, I ended up running back inside only after I’d looked down to realize I was being eaten alive.

Once, when I’d stayed out about 40 minutes with my pulse-point-only treatment, I counted seven mosquitos feeding from my unprotected skin simultaneously.  But I swear, I was only going out to pick a few gherkins for lunch.

You can see why I need to develop a less oily version for next season, and a better, quicker application method, à la something that would work in a spray bottle.  I’m thinking of trying a recipe with witch hazel as the base.

Although I’m definitely keeping this original recipe in circulation.  For one thing, I love its scent.  It really became my summertime perfume, with high, bright, invigorating notes (lemongrass, tea tree), a solid base of my favorite scent in the whole world (lavender), and some earthy, dark hints that kept it from being too light and floaty (the rest, especially geranium, which has a powerful, bitter note).

If you’d like to create your own recipe, there are lists all over the internet of what essential plant oils discourage which insects.  For instance, I chose the Blue Tansy specifically to discourage ants, which seemed to work fine — although the sad truth is that it didn’t dissuade the fire ants one teensy bit.

This blog post written specifically because I was trying to remember a bright side to a dreary, rainy, oh-so-cold day in December.  I guess I found it:  no mosquitos, no midges or gnats, and no fire ants.

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6 Responses to “essential”

  1. I get so mosquito bitten during their season that I always swear I have the West Nile Virus when I feel the least bit tired. 🙂 But hopefully not. I know it is not organic like your mixture above, but I use this device and it works: http://www.mosquitorepellent.com/ It allows me to sit outside and enjoy the porch without getting bitten.

    • Well, it might be organic, Lynn. It’s based on chrysanthemum flowers’ natural insecticidal properties, which is the same stuff that Pyrethrin is based on. Several organic gardeners (including yours truly in previous years) use pyrethrin as an insecticidal control, and it’s all organic, because it comes from plants and isn’t petroleum-derived chemicals that are toxic to the soil and groundwater. In any event, it sounds very clever.

      I’ve gotten bitten so many times that sometimes I think it would be an impossibility for me not to have had West Nile. But couldn’t it manifest as a slight summer cold in an otherwise healthy person? In which case, I probably have had it, and I’d hope I’ve developed some antibodies for future bites…

  2. We’ve had two excrutiatingly wet summers in a row which you would think would increase the mosquito population by zillions, but the extreme wet factor seems to have worked in reverse and they haven’t been any bother at all. Strange! And another strange this is, my hubby will be out in the garden and not a single bite will he get, but those pesky critters will feast on me like crazy!

    The muskies tend to get bad here in the hour just before and after dusk so we tend to avoid going out at those times. And when we have a campfire, the smoke is a great repellant. I’ll keep both of these solutions in mind for next summer if they become pests again.

    • That’s got to be some consolation for the wet weather 🙂 Mosquitoes prefer me to F., too. I always thought it was because his Euro-blood tasted strange to them… maybe that’s not it?

      As for the hour before dusk, I really need that hour here in the summer heat, it’s one of the best times to get some work done in the garden without passing out… sadly. Of course, this was why I was getting up at 5:00 in the morning in August, to do the majority of the work before it got hot or the bugs were fully awake.

  3. You know what I bought for my road trip a few years ago was citronella bracelets. I was going to be camping in the summer when bugs run rampant, and I hate hate hate bug spray. (Even the tea tree stuff or whatever it was that I bought at REI because it was natural ..) They seemed to work quite well, on me and on the pup. They did smell .. people would always ask what the smell was .. but one must suffer in the name of a bug-less-life. 😉

    • That’s brilliant, elizabeth. I’ll have to give that a try. I don’t mind the smell of citronella so very much. Too bad I don’t live far enough south to try growing the perennial grass citronella itself!

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