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How to Utilize Trap Crops To Save Your Garden From Pests

Close up of orange nasturtium flower covered in tiny flea beetles. The plant is in the sunshine, the background is blurred.
Nasturtiums make a beautiful and helpful trap crop.

The wisdom to use trap crops in your garden is free for the taking. Only you have to be introduced to the concept first, to understand why it’s so important.

Let’s say that becoming an organic gardener is your ultimate goal.

There are several ways to get there and none of them are going to be easy. That’s the honest truth. In any given season there may be bugs or bad weather that gives you a less than ideal harvest, but it doesn’t mean you need to resort to chemicals to “fix” nature.

There’s More Than One Way to Garden Organically

You can plant with the cycles of the moon, go the route of a permaculture garden or mix in some aspects of companion planting.

A buff colored duck eats squash bugs off of a zucchini plant leaf in a country garden. Purple flowers grow in the background.
Sometimes it helps to enlist pest control help.

Then you can add in a pinch of crop rotation, toss in a raft of ducks for organic pest control or attract hoverflies and beneficial insects for good measure.

And don’t forget about the use of cover crops.

You won’t ever find the right way to do it all…

Yet, you have to take some action to keep damaging insects away.

If you feel like you’ve tried it all and nothing is working, trap crops may be the answer you’re looking for.

The job of trap crops, or sacrificial crops, is exactly what the name suggests. In essence, you plant another vegetable in anticipation of a predator, to keep your higher value crops safe.

Most garden pests have a preferred food.

Take flea beetles for instance. They adore eggplants, mustard, rocket, radishes, horseradish and more. It’s not always easy to know what they will like the most from season to season.

A hand holds up eggplant leaves which have been riddled with holes by a flea beetle infestation.
Flea beetles can make a mess of your eggplant.

However, what a keen gardener does notice, is that whatever food comes first, is the pest’s first choice. The young tender seedlings of beans and of spicy greens are their dessert.

One can say the same thing about tomato hornworms. They will devour an entire tomato plant in the course of a day, well, almost. You might even fear that they will eat the ripe, juicy red tomatoes you’ve been saving for yourself.

Don’t despair, plant a trap crop.

Some organic farmers have long been aware of this technique, though the word hasn’t spread too quickly. Also, the use of trap crops is usually delegated to large farms, not backyard gardeners, so the advice is generally limited.

If you’re avoiding the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides in your garden, keep reading. Not only will your harvests be healthier, but nature will also be too.

And if you’ve already started rewilding your garden, know that bats, birds and beneficial insects will love you for your kindness to the environment.

In the case that you already know which insects have been a problem in your garden, you’re off to a great start. Now all you need to do is find the right seeds to sow – at the right time.

There are two main ways to use trap crops

1. Plant the same species as a trap crop

A man's hands, he is planting an eggplant seedling in the ground. There is a spade in his right hand.
Plant a few seedlings of the variety you wish to protect earlier in the season.

In a conventional way, you can plant the same crop as the one you’re trying to protect, only earlier than your main crop. As we’ve mentioned, the newest plants are eaten first.

This gives your garden time to let the first crop begin to grow and attract whatever it is that wants to feed on it. Then you can destroy it (some say with chemicals, yikes! – rather try a natural soap-based solution) or by burning or throwing those first crops in the trash with the insects on them.

Call it a decoy plant if you like, to keep insects off your main crop.

2. Plant a different species as a trap crop

Another strategy in trap cropping is to plant another, more attractive species to lure the baddies, or undesirables, in.

Small, three to four inch kale seedlings are growing in a garden. There are dew drops on the leaves.
Quick-growing kale can be a great trap crop to save your other brassicas from cabbage moths.

Depending on the pest(s), netting can be used to intercept the intruders. You can also remove the insect offenders by hand.

It’s also worth noting, that you don’t need to harvest anything from your trap crop.

With this mindset from the start, you won’t feel any loss of harvest. Only more abundance in the veggies you truly love.

The important thing to remember about trap crops is that you don’t want to kill everything that comes to dine in your garden.

What you do want, is to attract beneficial insects who can do the job better than you. Bringing in those insects that will even help to pollinate your garden.

Work together and give nature free reign, with a little bit of your planting input.

Choosing where to plant your crops can be time consuming.

A lush backyard vegetable garden with cement paver paths. There is a pergola in the back right of the photo. The garden borders a house on the left. There is a woodshed in the far background.
Gardening should be fun, not all work. Your planning doesn’t have to be perfect.

I’d like to encourage you not to think about it too hard and over-plan your garden. Because sometimes you can’t avoid things not growing right. For some pests, it’s beneficial if plants are intercropped, for others, border planting of trap crops works better.

You’ll find the most comprehensive trap crop chart here.

Examples of Trap Crops

To get the gist of it, we all know that potatoes attract the potato beetle. Vicious little things. Plant tansy with your potatoes to keep them away.

Close up of Colorado potato beetles and the defoliated leaves they have been munching on.
Ah, the good ol’ Colorado potato beetle. A potato grower’s nightmare.

Blue Hubbards can also be used as a trap crop for squash borers, cucumber beetles and squash bugs. This works best when planted around the edge/border of your garden to protect the interior plants.

Plant hot peppers with your sweet peppers to protect them from pepper maggots.

Sow beans and other legumes to control leafhoppers, spider mites and leaf beetles.

Plant collard greens at the edge of your garden to protect your prize-winning cabbages from cabbage worms and diamondback moths.

Nettles often attract a plethora of aphids early in spring. This is followed by beneficial insects such as lacewings and ladybugs.

Overhead view of new stinging nettles growing in the springtime.
Put those stinging nettles to use as an aphid trap crop.

You might need to sacrifice one crop to fruitfully enjoy another.

When it comes down to it, you might need to forgo the kale, to harvest large heads of long-storing cabbage.

As soon as you notice an invasion of the kale, it’s time to take elimination action. Again, in organic gardening, hand-picking works wonders. Yes, it takes time, though it is effective and non-harmful to the rest of the garden.

The removal of a trap crop has left room for another crop to be planted in the center of the garden and the brassicas intact.

Depending on the damage, you could also choose to remove an entire crop at the peak of infestation. You could also remove a branch of infected leaves.

It also leaves you with the chance to try out an organic garlic spray.

If you choose to compost your inferior crops, be sure that your compost is far from the garden, so the insects don’t come back for more.

Trap cropping works in any size garden.

No matter if you are square foot gardening, growing vertically because of a small plot or have multiple acres of land, you can find a way to make trap crops work.

You can also integrate the method of trap cropping into your container and raised bed gardens. Heck, you could even use it in a greenhouse setting, trapping the insects outside the entrance and keeping your tomatoes safe inside.

How Soon Will I See Results From Trap Cropping?

Successful trap cropping in your garden depends on so many factors: insect population, weather and soil conditions, time of planting, etc.

It’s not a one-and-done thing to do in your garden.

If you do have an infestation, chances are good that it will take more than one year to get rid of the pesky insects. However, if you’ve done everything right, you should see results in the first season.

Besides trap cropping, you can also not plant a specific crop for a growing season, or two. This way, nature can restabilize while you wait and purchase those veggies you would like to grow from other farmers or local markets.

Support a local farm while giving your soil a rest by picking up veggies from the local farmer’s market.

It takes time and commitment to utilizing organic pest control. Congratulations on taking up the challenge.

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Cheryl Magyar

Well, hello, szia and bună ziua!

My name is Cheryl Magyar and I am a homesteader, organic no-dig gardener and preserver of fruits, vegetables, herbs and life in general. I'm also a forager and a rewilder, rewilding myself and our land in Breb, Romania, along with my husband and our teenage daughter.

Since 2001 I have been living a simple life, going on 15+ years without running water inside our home, heating with firewood cut with a two-wo/man crosscut saw and enjoying the quiet solitude of the countryside where haystacks outnumber the people.

What you wouldn't guess about me, is that I was born and raised in a suburb of Chicago. If I can do this, you can too! It's a life you get to choose, so choose wisely. Because I know you're curious, I've spent 8 years homesteading (raising mangalica pigs, goats and ducks) and gardening on our tanya in Ópusztaszer, Hungary. This lifestyle is going on 8 years in Romania. I wouldn't change it for the world.

To discover more about me, and about us:

you can follow on Instagram
read into our website at Forest Creek Meadows
stop by for a visit and/or a (re)workshop
or shop our growing Etsy store Earth Gratitude Studio

Hope to see you around!