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9 mosquito plants to put in your garden to ward off pesky bugs

Skip the citronella candle and plant citronella grass.

Tired of bug spray? Here are some natural plant alternatives to getting rid of those pesky bugs.

Tired of bug spray? Here are some natural plant alternatives to getting rid of those pesky bugs.

Svetlana Repnitskaya/Getty Images

The battle against mosquitoes, some of the most unwelcome guests in any backyard, often seems like a never-ending one; or at the very least, one you must engage in year after year. While both chemical deterrents and products that lure and kill biting insects prove to be quite effective, there are also some nature-based repellers – like some plants – that can help keep mosquitoes away.

Mosquitoes and other insects like no-see-ums and biting flies find their victims by following their scent. In the case of humans, that means the carbon dioxide we breathe out and the odors released by our sweat glands. Mosquito repellent plants work by emitting a scent that is stronger than our own human smell, effectively masking our smell and making us “invisible” to the little bloodsuckers. 

To achieve a strong enough scent to noticeably make this scenario work, a plant’s leaves need to be crushed or burned to release the oils contained within. In most situations, just planting mosquito repellent vegetation won’t do the trick; you’ll need to go the added step of grinding the leaves and then using them topically, in sachets, or even burning them.

While the oils of the plants included will indeed repel mosquitoes, they will likely only provide a moderate level of protection for a short period of time. You’ll need to keep the level of aroma strong enough to continue to hide your presence from the annoying bugs. I, for one, believe in the power of multiple battle strategies and stop gaps, especially when it comes to ensuring I’m able to enjoy time outside without ending up with multiple itchy, painful bites.

Below are some of the most popular mosquito repellent plants to add to your defenses against biting insects.   

Citronella Grass

Most of us have burned citronella candles to ward off biting bugs. Citronella in plant form is a tall, tropical grass whose leaves can be crushed and then rubbed on bare skin as a natural repellent. Citronella grass cannot survive a frost so if you live in a northern climate you’ll need to replant it every year or grow it in pots that can be brought inside when the temperature falls.

Lemon Thyme and Lemon Balm

Lemon thyme and lemon balm are both citrus-smelling plants that can be applied topically by rubbing crushed leaves on your skin. Burning sprigs of lemon thyme in an outdoor grill is another way to deter annoying insects from invading your space – plus it smells really lovely.

Lemon balm is a member of the mint family which means it will spread and take over any available space if you don’t pay attention. Lemon thyme, which matures into a sturdy, upright plant, prefers full sun and dry conditions. It, too, will spread if you let it.

Garlic and other Allium bulbs (ornamental onions)

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Rubbing garlic gloves on your skin repels both vampires and mosquitoes, as well as (often) other humans. The scent of sauteing garlic or onions will also work but only for the time that you’re actively cooking. You can also make a yard spray by soaking garlic in water for a few hours or a body spray, if you’re inclined, by mixing it with aromatic oils.

Allium blooms in spring and summer, producing a sphere-shaped flower that keeps its form and petals all through the season. Garlic, a member of the allium family, likes full sun and well-drained soil. All onions are members of the allium family as well. Planting onions and garlic in beds near where you spend time outdoors or in pots will help keep your scent hidden.

Basil

As one of the strongest smelling herbs, basil repels flies and mosquitoes even if you don’t crush its leaves. If you’re looking for a second or third line of defense in your backyard that doesn’t require much maintenance, basil is a great choice.

Basil grows best in well-drained, moist soil with six to eight hours of sun a day. Water the soil around the basil plants, rather than the leaves if possible. Allow basil to grow to at least six inches tall before pruning. When cutting leaves, avoid the large ones at the bottom as they are the ones that take in the sunlight and send nutrients to the rest of the plant.

Lavender

Lavender produces a strong scent that keeps moths, flies, fleas, and mosquitoes away. A slew of well-placed lavender sachets can create an effective barrier against these pests.

Lavender, which prefers full sun and well-drained soil, grows fairly quickly. Reaching a height of one to three feet, on woody stems, they flower in summer producing cone-shaped stalks with multiple tiny petals. You can prune these stalks to dry and make sachets or simply hand the stalks themselves. As long as they emit their scent, they will deter mosquitoes.

Rosemary

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Burning rosemary sprigs on a grill will produce smoke that helps keep mosquitoes from crashing your bar-b-que.

Native to the Mediterranean, rosemary loves hot, humid environments and does best in a sunny, sheltered spot in your yard. Pruning will encourage a bushier plant. Don’t cut off more than one-third of a plant at a time and snip right above a leaf joint.

Catnip and catmint

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Catnip and catmint contain a chemical called nepetalactone that attracts cats and repels mosquitoes, flies, roaches, and other insects, especially when chewed on by felines. Studies have shown that nepetalactone is even more effective than the chemical DEET found in many mosquito repellents. While these studies suggest that the chewing of the leaves is what renders them the most effective as a repellent, crushing will also work if you’re so inclined.

Since both catnip and catmint are fast-spreading plants, they do provide a moderate level of mosquito protection in their natural, growing state. If you’re able to smell them when nearby, it's likely the scent may be enough to overpower your own.

Plant catnip and catmint in a sunny area with well-drained soil. If you live in an especially hot climate, they’ll grow better with shade in the afternoon. Be forewarned though, that you may also receive visits from neighborhood cats.

If you’re looking for some more natural ways to repel mosquitoes, instead of using harsh chemicals, mosquito repellent plants are a great idea. One of the best things you can do to keep the mosquito population at a minimum is to prevent water from collecting and standing. Mosquitoes lay hundreds of eggs in a mere spoonful of water – which is kind of crazy when you think about it. Use mosquito dunks, which contain a bacteria that kills the larvae, in birdbaths, ponds, and water gardens. And cultivate as many mosquito repellent plants as possible.