One of nature’s greatest tricks is the act of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly. Unfortunately, if your yard becomes infested with caterpillars, your plants could be in trouble.
Caterpillars have an extremely strong sense of smell. You can use this to your advantage by utilizing scents caterpillars hate, like peppermint, lavender, cedarwood, vinegar, rosemary, hot pepper, and garlic. These scents mask potential food sources and shelter, causing caterpillars to stay away.
So, just why do caterpillars hate these scents? Read on to learn more about what scents caterpillars hate and how to use them in your yard to help your plants!
Why Keep Caterpillars Away?
When you are checking your plants for bugs and pests, you will want to check for caterpillars. If you are seeing caterpillars that cause plant damage (we’ll go over that below) or their larvae on your plants, pick them off with gloves and drop them into a bucket of soapy water to keep them from crawling right back on.
Once you get rid of any present caterpillars, you can begin using scents that caterpillars hate to keep them from returning to snack on your plants for their next meal.
What Kind Of Damage Can Caterpillars Cause?
The main type of damage caterpillars cause is to plants. They will chew on all parts of plants, including stems, leaves, berries, and flowers.
Caterpillars are mostly an issue during the warmer months. If you have a vegetable garden, you will want to keep caterpillars off of your crops.
If your yard becomes infested with caterpillars, many of the plants, flowers, trees, and herbs are at risk of being damaged. The most common caterpillars to look out for on your plants include cabbage loopers, cabbage butterfly caterpillars, cutworm varieties, Eastern tent caterpillars (bigger issue on trees), tomato hornworms (they love tomatoes as much as I do!) gypsy moth caterpillars (don’t pick them off – spray with soapy water), and forest tent caterpillars (bigger issue on trees, too.)
While that list isn’t all of the caterpillars that could be going after your garden foliage, the above species prevalence will depend on your geographical location. As a side note, any caterpillar should be handled with gloves and don’t touch any that have hairs as that’s their defense mechanism!
So, if you DO find caterpillars on your plants – take a look to make sure they’re a variety that damages plants by looking up their color and characteristics online.
For instance, the monarch butterfly was added to the IUCN Red List as an endangered species in 2022. They really aren’t a problem for your garden and do more good than harm – so you can let them be if you see these little guys.
Here’s a monarch caterpillar image as an example above!
Caterpillars Can Also Bore Into Wood
Caterpillars can also chew holes and bore into wood. The most prevalent types of wood boring caterpillars are carpenterworms and American plum borers where damage will typically begin happening during the spring and proceed until the temperature drops.
Of course, these specific types of caterpillars can be hard to locate and identify. If you think you have a problem with wood-boring caterpillars, you can contact a professional to help you identify and get rid of any infestations.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about caterpillar damage during the winter, as caterpillars hibernate during the winter.
Scents That Caterpillars Hate Can Keep Them From Eating Your Plants
Using sprays made of scents that caterpillars hate is one way to keep caterpillars from infesting your yard and causing damage to your plants, trees, and structures.
There are a few powerful scents that caterpillars hate. You can mix these into sprays for your garden to keep caterpillars away.
You can also use the plants themselves that emit a scent that repels caterpillars near plants you are trying to protect.
Think of it like this. Caterpillars are quite small and slow moving (even though caterpillars have 16 legs.) One of their strongest senses is their sense of smell. So, if they pick up an unfamiliar or overpowering scent that either masks a potential food/shelter source OR emits just a super strong aroma, they’re going to stay away.
Ok, let’s get to it!
Peppermint Repels Caterpillars
Peppermint is a smell that most people find pleasant. It also grows and spreads quickly and you can find it growing in the wild, or plant it in your garden.
Peppermint is a useful herb in its many forms. Fresh or dried leaves make a pleasant and refreshing tea, and the oil of peppermint is often used to keep all kinds of insects and pests at bay.
To use peppermint to keep caterpillars away, you can mix up a DIY peppermint oil spray, or buy one like this Mighty Mint incest And Pest Control Spray. Using peppermint spray is a good way to keep caterpillars from eating the leaves of your plants.
Due to the strong and pungent scent of peppermint, the oil typically will provide the best results as it emits a much stronger smell than the plant itself.
Caterpillars Dislike Lavender
Lavender is another scent that people find pleasing. Many people like lavender in candle scents, potpourri, homemade rug deodorizers, or their bath products. Lavender is also very well known for its calming qualities.
Lavender is an herb that is a beautiful addition to any garden and you can plant it in pots or the ground.
This plant produces a light purple flower and is a member of the mint family. Planting lavender near a vegetable or flower garden encourages pollinators to frequent your garden and help everything grow.
Along with these benefits, you can also use lavender to help keep caterpillars away. If there are plants caterpillars are bothering in your garden, you can grow lavender near these plants and it will deter them from feeding in that area.
You can also use a lavender spray to repel caterpillars. You can make a DIY lavender spray for your plants by mixing 10 drops of lavender essential oil, like this Plant Therapy Essential Oil with water in a spray bottle, and spraying it onto your plants.
Vinegar Repels Caterpillars
Vinegar is often mixed with other scents or chemicals to repel insects and pests in and around your yard. With its super potent scent, it is a deterrent for many unwanted bugs and pests that creep into your garden and onto your trees.
Even though vinegar has a powerful smell, it is safe for almost all plants. It will need to be reapplied often after periods of rain, as it will wash away and become less effective.
If you want to use vinegar to keep caterpillars away, you can mix vinegar with water into a spray bottle. You can also If you want to use vinegar to keep caterpillars away, you can mix it with water into a spray bottle. You can also add some of the other essential oils we have mentioned to make an even stronger caterpillar repellent.
If you are going to use vinegar to repel caterpillars, buying a large bottle, like Lucy’s Family owned Natural Distilled White Vinegar, is an excellent investment to have on hand.
Rosemary Keeps Caterpillars Away
Rosemary is a popular culinary herb. It is traditionally a Mediterranean herb but grows well in most climates. You can plant rosemary directly into the ground, or you can plant it in pots, either outdoors or indoors.
In some climates, rosemary can be overwintered and will come back again for multiple seasons. You can use rosemary in different styles of cooking, but its strongly scented oils make it a good plant to keep caterpillars away.
Because of its potent scent, rosemary is a plant that naturally repels caterpillars. You can plant this herb in your garden, near other plants that seem to attract caterpillars, which will make them less likely to hang around those areas.
Caterpillars Hate The Scent Of Cedarwood
Cedarwood is most commonly used in its essential oil form. Cedarwood essential oil is made from the leaves, bark, berries, and needles of cedar trees.
Cedar oil has many uses. Some of the most common ways you can use cedar oil are to repel insects and pests, clean and sanitize surfaces. Some people just like it for it’s aroma too!
Besides these uses listed above, cedarwood oil is very good at repelling caterpillars due caterpillars disliking the strong scent of cedar (and what makes up to oil.) To use cedarwood to repel caterpillars, you can buy a spray like this Cedarcide All-Purpose Bug Spray. This spray can be used safely on plants to deter caterpillars from nibbling and nesting in unwanted areas.
Please note that Cedarcide isn’t listed for use for caterpillars but is directed as an all purpose bug repellent.
Hot Pepper And Garlic Repel Caterpillars
If you have ever cooked with hot peppers or garlic, you know how potent they are. While many people love these flavors and aromas in their food, they are offensive to insects and other pests, including caterpillars.
Garlic and hot pepper create a strong scent that caterpillars hate. Specifically, the scent of hot pepper contains capsaicin, which is the main spice component of chili peppers. Due to the increased sensitivity in a caterpillar’s sense of smell, you can use a mixture of pepper and garlic to keep caterpillars away from your plants.
Garlic, of course, just adds another pungent smell to the mix.
How To Make A DIY Caterpillar Spray
You can make your own caterpillar repellent using a mix of the scents that caterpillars hate. Use one or more essential oils or other scents we have mentioned and dilute them into a spray.
To make a DIY caterpillar spray you can mix an essential oil like cedarwood and rosemary together with a bit of dish soap, water, and drops of the essential oils. Mix this up and spray it on your plants to keep caterpillars away.
You can also mix vinegar in with these oils and water, or mix up a vinegar spray without the oils. Vinegar has a powerful scent on its own and will help to keep caterpillars away. Most people will have white vinegar in their kitchen, so it is a splendid solution you may already have on hand.
You could probably tell by now but most of these solutions are geared towards keeping caterpillars away from your plants. If you have caterpillars in your house, read our guide on how to keep caterpillars out of your house here.
Using Sprays To Keep Caterpillars Away
The most popular methods for repelling caterpillars are mostly sprays. These can be made of many different things. Most caterpillar repellent sprays are made from some combination of water, soaps, and essential oils that are strongly scented.
Some of the most popular sprays are made from things like vinegar, soap, rosemary, cedarwood, hot peppers, and citrus.
With each of these sprays, you will want to check and see if you can spray it on anything you are going to eat, and also that the spray will not harm the plant.
If you’ve got a serious caterpillar problem, contact a professional pest control expert.
Where To Spray Caterpillar Repellents
If you decide to use a spray to keep caterpillars away, you will first want to investigate where you are seeing the most damage and the most caterpillars.
Start by looking at the leaves of your plants. You will also want to examine the stems on your plants. If you see any caterpillars, plush them off and drop them into a bucket of soapy water.
As you are inspecting and removing caterpillars, note what plants are seeing the most damage or caterpillars present. This is where you will want to concentrate your spray repellant treatment.
These are also excellent areas to add plants caterpillars dislike as well. For example, you can plant rosemary and mint around plants that seem to be popular places for caterpillars to go in your garden. Using potted versions of these plants makes it easy to move them around as you need to once you see what is working and what is not.
Other Natural Ways To Keep Caterpillars Away
Strong Scents are an effective way to keep caterpillars from making a meal out of your plants. There are some other ways to keep caterpillars and the damage they cause at bay.
In a fact sheet on how to control caterpillars from the University of Maryland, they note that sticky barrier bands may be used to control gypsy moths from climbing up trees where they lay their eggs.
These bands are placed around the trunks of susceptible trees and can be used through all seasons for caterpillar control.
As with all methods of keeping pests and insects away, trying a few different methods to see which ones work best is a good plan. You might find that a combination of methods works best.
Create A Bird Friendly Environment To Reduce Caterpillars
You can use scented sprays to deter caterpillars in your yard, but if you want to try another method, attract predators of caterpillars to your yard to curb any infestations you might deal with.
A great way to keep the caterpillar population down in your yard and protect your plants, is to create a space that birds will love. Creating a bird-friendly ecosystem in your backyard near where you have a garden or trees that are being damaged by caterpillars can help keep caterpillars away.
You can create a bird-friendly environment by first learning what birds are native and common in your area.
Then, add elements to your yard and around the plants you are trying to protect to draw local birds to your yard. Birdhouses that are specially built for your native birds filled with their preferred seeds can also help.
You can build your own birdhouse in many styles and designs, or you can buy one like this OUSHUAI birdhouse for outdoor with pole hanging birdhouse that is waterproof and can be hung in your garden. A birdhouse will welcome birds and help cut down on the caterpillars in your garden.
Keep It Dark At Night To Deter Caterpillars
Another thing to remember when you are trying to keep your garden safe from caterpillars, is that you want to keep your garden dark at night. Why? If there are any lights in or near your garden they will attract moths.
If you are attracting moths into your garden at night, they will lay eggs there and increase the caterpillar population in these areas.
Keep your plants safe by skipping cute garden lights that are near any plants. Save these lighted decorations for areas that are not affected by caterpillars or caterpillar damage.
Wrapping It Up!
Caterpillars can do their share of damage to your garden plants, flowers, and trees.
Using a spray made of the different scents that caterpillars hate is one way to keep caterpillars away. Creating bird-friendly environments and avoiding night lights in your garden is also very helpful to keep caterpillars away.
If you are not having success with one of these methods, try a different one, or a combination of two or more to increase your odds of repelling caterpillars in your yard and garden.
If none of these methods seem to curtail your caterpillar problem, reach out to a professional for more help getting rid of these pests.
Manjunath, L. A study on knowledge and adoption of plant protection measures by paddy growers of Raichur district. Diss. UAS, Dharwad, 2010.
Rai, B. K. “Laboratory and field testing of insecticides against army-worm, Spodoptera frugiperda S. and A. and a technique for low-volume drift spraying of paddy for its control.” Agricultural Research Guyana (Guyana) (1969).
Insecticides: Low Toxicity Options. (n.d.). Www.ladybug.uconn.edu. Retrieved December 7, 2021, from http://www.ladybug.uconn.edu/FactSheets/insecticides–low-toxicity-options.php
Zack is a Nature & Wildlife specialist based in Upstate, NY, and is the founder of his Tree Journey and Pest Pointers brands. He has a vast experience with nature while living and growing up on 50+ acres of fields, woodlands, and a freshwater bass pond. Zack has encountered many pest situations over the years and has spent his time maintaining and planting over 35 species of trees since his youth with his family on their property.
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