Herbs have been protecting homes and skin from pesky insects since the Middle Ages. So why turn to all the new-fangled chemical products when you can deter flies, moths and mosquitoes with safe repellents made from these wonderful plants? Best of all, unlike many chemical formulations, herb-based repellents are harmless to people and the environment.

Herbal bug spray

It’s easy to make natural and safe insect repellents from the herbs you already have growing in your culinary garden.

Photo Credit: Judith K. Mehl

Lemon Balm

Lemon balm leaves are most potent in late summer, but you can rub them on whenever you need for a quick lemon-scented insect repellent.

Photo Credit: ©Pennystone Gardens


Use the heavenly-scented flowers of lavender in sachets and linen closets to keep them smelling fresh and pest-free.

Photo Credit: Johnny’s Selected Seeds


Rosemary leaves can be used by themselves or mixed with other herbs to create a simple repellent spray.

Photo Credit: ©Pennystone Gardens

Unfortunately, no herbal repellent is effective against all insects, but they do work well against many of the common buggers. And of course the bonus is they smell great – not to mention are easy to grow and use. Some herbs can be simply rubbed on the skin, while some can be picked and hung. Others may require a little preparation for a more professional effect, but they still work great, too!

If you’ve already got a successful culinary herb garden, many of your plants can start working double duty for you. Otherwise, pick up a few starter plants at your local garden center and find a home for them in your garden. Most herbs will survive in a sunny to part-sunny location in average, healthy soil with good drainage. (But always check plant tags to make sure you’re planting each in the right spot.)

For a quick bug repellent, pick leaves and flowers of basil (Ocimum basilicum), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) or catnip (Nepeta cataria). Simply crush them and rub on your skin. Catnip, a perennial in USDA hardiness zones 5-7, grows in almost any condition and deters mosquitoes extremely well. In fact, according to researchers at Iowa State University, the essential oil in catnip is 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than DEET!

When it comes to fleas camping out on your pets, pennyroyal helps keep them at bay. This perennial herb is hardy in zones 7-9 and grows in sun or shade in well-drained soil. To prevent a flea infestation, just add crushed pennyroyal leaves and a bit of chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) flowers to the inside of your dog or cat’s bed. (A little catnip will keep your cat coming back for her all-natural flea protection.) If you want to go the extra mile, give your pet a quick herb bath. Just add 2 cups of fresh pennyroyal or mint to a quart of boiling water. Simmer for a half hour. Add the “tea” to a gallon of water (and let it cool a bit), then bathe Fido with it (just not his face).

You can also use herbs to keep bugs out of your home. Just place a few pots of basil and lemon balm on your open windowsills. Or consider picking a bunch of herbs to use as an indoor bouquet or a centerpiece for your picnic table. A beautiful herb swag hung by your doorway is another natural repellent, keeping beauty in and bugs out. Even just a few sprigs of lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) to a vase of your favorite cutflowers can help keep pests away. And don’t forget your closets – flies and moths especially dislike lavender!

Speaking of lavender, it’s also great for keeping your clothing drawers and linen closets smelling fresh, too! Try making a few sachet bags from the leaves and flowers of herbs and lavender. Not only will they dispel musty odors, the little bags will provide pleasant protection from insects and moths. For a little extra defense, add a little mint (Mentha) and rosemary flowers (Rosmarinus officinalis). (These plants all require full sun, and mint likes its soil more moist than lavender and rosemary.)

Got a problem with ants or mice? Place some cuttings of pennyroyal, tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) or rue (Ruta graveolens) on cupboard shelves and under carpets to keep the annoying pests marching the other way. And to keep these unwanted visitors away from your home, sprinkle the crushed herbs outside doors and around the perimeter of the house. Be sure to brush or crush the plants once in a while to release more scent – most often it’s the aromatic chemicals or oils in the leaves that keep the pests away.

And if you and your family are going to be spending any glorious time outside, mix up a batch of easy and safe insect repellent spray for extra protection: Crush 1 ½ cups of rosemary leaves and 1½ cups of pennyroyal leaves. Place them in a jar and cover with 2 cups of pure vegetable oil. Seal the container, and keep it in a dark place for two weeks, shaking the container a bit every day throughout that period of time. After two weeks, strain the liquid and store it in a sealed dark bottle in the refrigerator for up to six months. Whenever you need it, just pour some in a diffuser and spray (or rub) it directly onto exposed skin.

Even if you don’t enjoy herbs as a culinary treat, you can still benefit from a wonderful herb garden. These easy-to-grow, beautiful plants not only add a heavenly aroma to your yard, they work hard to keep plenty of pests at bay in a way that’s safe for the environment and your family.