Catnip Mosquito Spritz
By Ann Lovejoy
MAKES ABOUT 3 CUPS
Rinse herbs, roll lightly with a rolling pin, then place them in a clean quart jar and cover with vinegar. Seal jar and store in a dark cupboard for two weeks.
Shake jar lightly every day or so for two weeks. Strain into a clean jar, seal and refrigerate for up to 6 months unused.
To use, spritz on exposed skin and around outdoor dining area.
Grow your own mosquito repellent.
MAKES ABOUT 2 CUPS
Roll herbs lightly with a rolling pin and pack into a clean jar. Cover with oil, seal jar and place in a cool, dark cupboard for two weeks.
Shake jar lightly every day or so for two weeks. Strain into a clean jar, seal and refrigerate for up to 8 months unused.
To use, rub on exposed skin.
by Ann Lovejoy
The news is full of horror stories, including the spread of the West Nile Virus by mosquitoes. At the same time, a news item landed on my desk that seems to promise a simple, natural way to fend off the little buggers.
Last year, several members of the Iowa State University Department of Entomology presented the results of a study on common catnip. Among their conclusions was the fact that an essential oil in catnip is 10 times more effective at repelling mosquitoes than potent chemicals such as DEET.
DEET is currently the most common active ingredient in commercial mosquito and bug repellents. Unfortunately, many studies indicate that DEET is also a dangerous chemical for humans, especially children. A study carried out at Duke University Medical Center revealed that DEET can cause brain-cell death and may trigger behavioral changes indicative of neurological damage in rats after frequent or prolonged use.
In an effort to find a safer alternative, the scientists investigated several plant essential oils that were commonly recommended as insect repellents by organic gardeners. Catnip ranks high on the list of natural bug-busters and evidently with good reason. In the Iowa study, the researchers noted that small doses of catnip oil were at least as effective at repelling mosquitoes as 10 times larger doses of DEET (which was used at typical recommended application rates for commercial products).
While the researchers don't know why mosquitoes don't like catnip oil, they do know a good thing when they see it. Recently, the Iowa State University Research Foundation applied for a patent for the use of catnip essential oils as compounds. Within a few years, we'll probably see many safe, non-toxic mosquito repellents on the market.
In the meantime, why not grow some mosquito repellent of your own? If you have a sunny, well-drained patch of lean garden soil, try planting some catnip. The plant you need is a perennial herb called Nepeta cataria. Closely related to ornamental catmint, or Nepeta faassenii (or N. mussinii), catnip is generally grown as a cat-pleasing or medicinal tea herb rather than for its looks.
Catnip is far from ugly, but its gentle blue flowers are definitely out-produced by its masses of softly hairy, gray-green foliage. Like most herbs, it prefers well-drained soil and plenty of sunlight. If you garden on heavy clay, you may succeed better with catnip and other herbs if you give them a mounded bed or grow them on a slope to improve winter drainage.
The first year you plant catnip, you may need to water it a time or two, especially if next summer is as hot and dry as this one has been. However, fall-planted herbs, including catnip, often need very little water the following summer. Fall and winter rains can help plants create deep, strong root systems that increase the natural drought resistance of catnip and many other herbs.
Don't feed your fall-planted herbs, but do mix some compost into their planting soil. A mix of half compost, half native soil is usually just right. Top off the soil with a light blanket of compost (2-3 inches) to help feed those actively growing roots through the cool months.
Even in spring, don't feed your herbs with anything but compost, or at most a mild all-purpose organic fertilizer such as Whitney Farms 5-5-5. Adding too much fertilizer can cause lush overgrowth in many herbs, leading to a dilute or low-quality essential oil product.
In some cases, herbs such as creeping thymes can be killed by commercial fertilizers, so when in doubt, use only a very mild fertilizer and apply it at half the suggested application rate.
This summer, I experimented with making both catnip vinegar spritzers and catnip infused oils. Both did a fine job of keeping mosquitoes and no-see-ums at bay during our warm summer evenings. If you would like to try this yourself, here are the simple recipes I used:
Ann Lovejoy, a free-lance garden and food writer, can be reached via mail at: 9010 Miller Road N.E., Bainbridge Island, WA 98110.
Her latest books are "Ann Lovejoy's Organic Design School: A Guide to Creating Your Own Beautiful, Easy-Care Garden" (Rodale, 280 pages, $35) and "The Sage Garden: Flower and Foliage for Health and Beauty" (Chronicle Books, 144 pages, $17.95).