Natural Mosquito Repellent

Brooklyn’s beautiful summer days coax us outdoors to converse and lounge in our parks, backyards, and porches. In the heat of the summer, water features are a welcome cooling sight and draw the abundance of people looking to maximize their free time. However, these same water features are also home to pesky mosquitoes, diminishing the quality of our outdoor experiences.

At Eco Brooklyn, we are developing natural methods of mosquito control. These methods aim to diminish the mosquito’s presence while maintaining the balance of our fragile local ecosystems. We have a mosquito-repellant service with several components and options, which we make available to the community in an attempt to combat the mosquito problem on a larger scale.

Our service uses three main tools to reduce mosquitoes:

1. Landscaping Mosquito repellent plants – yards, pots and living walls.

2. Water features for mosquito predators – Fish and Dragonfly ponds.

3. Natural oils applied to the skin and garden area surfaces.

New York and Brooklyn were originally full of marshes, rivers and wetlands, which most probably had lots of mosquitoes. The difference now is that those areas are gone, and so are all the creatures and plants that kept mosquitoes at bay.

Now, with little left but clogged gutters and putrid waterways like the Gowanus Canal, there are few predators to the mosquito. Add to that the introduction of non-native mosquitoes from Asia that have even less predators here, and you have a real mosquito heaven (for the mosquito that is. Not for us humans).

Mosquitoes are a problem worldwide.  A wide variety of defenses have been put into effect to reduce the impact of the insect, some with more success than others.

Many of these methods have negative affects on the surrounding environment and may in fact be simultaneously attacking the mosquito’s natural predators. Broad-spectrum insecticides such as the organic pesticide Pyrethrum may kill mosquitoes and other insect pests, but they also kill beneficial pest-controlling insects such as ladybugs and lacewings.

Any attempt to reduce mosquito numbers must be founded in the natural lifecycle of the mosquito itself. The mosquito lays its eggs in standing water and hatches as larva before changing into pupae, then emerging and taking flight. Any standing water greater than a bottle cap’s full can serve as a mosquito-breeding site.

As such it is very important to eliminate small containers that have the potential to fill with rainfall and remain inactive. The elimination of all rainwater collection sites, however, is far from necessary. Slightly larger ponds can be effective methods of mosquito control by acting as habitats for the mosquito’s natural predators.

Some of the mosquito’s natural predators are dragonflies, damselflies, bats, and numerous fish species. While bats do consume mosquitoes, they are at most 5% of their diet. Extensive bat preservation policies, while beneficial to the bat, may not in fact greatly diminish the inhabiting mosquito population. Many fish will consume mosquitoes, but some are better adapted to the task than others.

Fish

The highly touted mosquitofish Gambusia affinis can consume 42-167% of its body weight in mosquitoes per day.  Its mouth is faced upwards towards the sky, allowing for more efficient consumption of mosquito larvae. It can tolerate various temperature changes in the water, salinity, decreased food supply, and organic pollutants and is compatible with goldfish, koi, and karp.

A nonnative species, it was first introduced to New York’s waters as a biological control for mosquitoes. However, mosquitofish were found to be ill-adapted to the cooler waters. Most importantly, it is not compatible with native species and very few instances of coexistence exist.

As such EcoBrooklyn does not recommend the introduction of mosquitofish into existing garden ponds. If your brownstone garden already includes a fish pond, we recommend finding a hardy native fish species that can reproduce in the local climate, such as the fathead minnow.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Fish are not the only mosquito predator reliant on a pond source. Dragonflies and damselflies lay their eggs in foliage above or below the waterline of a pond. They then hatch as aquatic predators, consuming mosquito larva to feed and grow.

Depending on the species, this stage of life takes 1-2 months to 5 years. The larva then climb out of the pond via a plant stalk or rock and seek protection in nearby foliage before taking flight and attacking mosquito adults.

The life cycle of dragonflies and damselflies therefore shadows that of the mosquito, but the predator-prey relationship remains the same effectively controlling mosquito populations. Adult dragonflies and damselflies return to water features to feed and sun themselves, and eventually lay eggs in the pond.

Eco Brooklyn offers a dragonfly pond building service as a component of its mosquito solutions. Dragonfly ponds are a beautiful addition to a brownstone garden, and the insects provide welcome entertainment on a summer’s eve.

15% of North America’s 307 dragonfly species are in danger of extinction, and a new dragonfly habitat can help the graceful insects to reestablish themselves while also providing a welcome solution to the mosquito problem!

A dragonfly pond by Carole A. Brown

A dragonfly pond should vary in depth, with a segment around 2 ft in depth and flat rocks such as slate on the shallow side. Water plants should be included in the deeper parts of the pond to serve as nurseries, with perching sedges and rushes on the side for adults. It is also recommended that a small wildflower grassland be planted on the side of the pond.

The pond should include erect and submerged plants to allow for dragonflies and damselflies at all stages of the life cycle. A small pump can be included to keep the water clean and oxygenated, although this is not necessary for larger ponds. While the best dragonfly ponds are 20 feet wide, this width is not practical for a NY lot nor is it necessary to maintaining a healthy population.

In fact, adapted whiskey barrels, fountain basins, and earthen or plastic lined ponds can all provide welcome habitats as long as there are sloped sides and varying depths. The dragonfly larvae like to hide in the depths of the water to escape predation, but sufficient plant cover may substitute for that in the case of shallower ponds.

A simple stake in the pond can substitute for erect perching plants. It is very important that the pond be 70% in the sun and that no fish are added to the water.

Fish consume dragonfly larva as well as mosquito larva and are therefore incompatible, unless we design the pond to have two sections so there are safe places for the larvae to escape.

Once the pond is built we jumpstart it with a few spadefulls of soil from a nearby pond with a known dragonfly population.

The following plants work well in a dragonfly pond:

Deepwater -submerged plants

Curly pondweed – Potomogeton crispus

Water Starwort – Callitriche spp

Hornwort – Ceratophyllum demersum

Spiked Water Milfoil – Myrophyllum spicatum

Deeper water Floating Plants

Stiff-leaved Water Crowfoot – Rannunculus circinatus

Frogbit – Hydrocharis morus-ranae

Broad-leaved pondweed – Potomegetum natans

Amphibious Bistort – Polygonum amphibium

Yellow Waterlily – Nurphar lutea

Fringed Waterlily – Nymphoides pelatata

Shallow water emergent plants

Flowering Rush – Butomus umbellatus

Water Horsetail – Equisetum fluviatile

Bur-reed – Sparganium erectum

Water Plantain – Alisma plantago-aquatica

Common Spike Rush – Eleocharis palustris

Bog Bean  – Menyanthes trifoliate

Plants

EcoBrooklyn also installs plants as  a direct means of mosquito control. We offer several plant-based services:

-vertical frames planted with mosquito repellant plants, to be hung on the walls of porches, balconies, and other outdoor activity areas. The frames are made of cedar or pine as both of these woods repel mosquitoes.

-plant troughs filled with mosquito repellant plants, placed near outdoor activity areas

-herbal oil concoctions designed to specifically repel mosquitoes; these can be applied directly to the skin or sprayed on the surfaces of an outdoor activity area

-dried mosquito-repellant plants placed into sachets to be hung in desired locations

Below we have organized known mosquito repellant plants into two categories: native and nonnative species. Edible plants are subcategorized. We work with clients to offer aesthetically pleasing plant combinations.




Once planted, it is advised that plants be brushed before engaging in outdoor activities in order to release some of the scent. The compounds citronellal, geraniol, geranial, and pulegone are all known to repel mosquitoes. Plants containing these compounds are the most effective.

It is important to note that the plants themselves will not repel mosquitoes, it is the oil within their leaves that acts as a repellent. This is why brushing the leaves (resulting in small breaks) helps to repel mosquitoes. Our plant troughs and vertical installations  are meant to be a reliable supplier of leaves for your own herbal concoctions while also aesthetically ameliorating your home.

We highly recommend troughs consisting of edible mosquito repellent plants, which provide the additional ecosystem service of providing food.

Herbal solutions

While there are many variations of mosquito repellant liquids, they are made similarly.

The first method uses actual plant leaves from mosquito repellant plants. These are steeped in water, strained, and then the liquid is added to isopropyl alcohol.  Any combination of plants works well as well as using a single plant per batch.

The second method involves mixing 2 ½ teaspoons of any combination of essential oils (basil, cedarwood, cinnamon, citronella, juniper, lemon, myrrh, palmarosa, pine, rose geranium, rosemary) with 1 cup of 190-proof grain alcohol. These concoctions can be applied directly to the skin or used in a spray bottle. If applied to the skin, it may take some experimentation to determine what combination of oils works best with one’s body chemistry.

As described by the above overview, there are many natural means of combating the mosquito problem in Brooklyn. EcoBrooklyn is constantly improving its services through experimentation in the Green Show House and offers its solutions to the community.

These solutions aim to repel mosquitoes, add to the aesthetic value of Brooklyn brownstones, and support native species and the local ecosystem.

DIY Vertical Gardens

Vertical gardens or living walls are a beautiful and efficient way to maximize green space within an urban context. Aesthetically, vertical gardens can be used to improve the façade of buildings while providing other ecosystem services such as enhanced air quality.

Perhaps first employed by the Mesopotamians to create the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the principles of design have expanded past cascading plants to include plants rooted at different heights of a wall. Living walls vary in size, design, and complexity.

Two of the best-known living walls are on the Marché des Halles in Avignon and the Museé du Quai Branly, both designed by Patrick Blanc. However, man-made living walls are not constrained to grand public buildings.

Marche des Halles en Avignon, designed by Patrick Blanc

It is very feasible to create you own, and in fact personal vertical gardens beautifully complement the exterior of Brooklyn brownstones, although it is recommended a professional be consulted for walls higher than 7 feet.

The character of your vertical garden is determined by the framing material and plant selection. While plant selection may vary by individual taste, native species are generally hardier and better suited to the local climate and pest and disease conditions.

Green landscaping with native species is also a proactive way to support the area’s native ecosystems. You may decide to choose a theme to guide your plant selections, such as a foliage wall, mosquito-repellant wall, epicurean wall (pick your salad ingredients!), aromatic herb wall, or a perfumed wall.

Succulents are easy plants for beginners since they do not need substantial irrigation. For vertical gardens created sans soil, epiphytes and lithophytes are necessary plant selections. Epiphytes attach to other objects solely for physical support and are not parasitic. They obtain nutrients from rain, air, and debris. Common epiphytes in temperate zones such as New York are lichens and mosses.

We will list and describe framing methods with increasing complexity.

The Woolly Packet Garden Company offers a series of “woolly packets”, pouches made from recycled water bottles with an impermeable moisture barrier and felt to wick the water. These packets are easy to install and arrange as you please. Although the design is not constrained to vertical garden use, the pouches lend themselves well to such installations. Watch this video for further description:

Flora Grubb Gardens is featuring an example vertical garden installation in their store.

Wooly Pocket installation

For a more complex system, pre-made frames are available for sale from several manufacturers. Gro-Wall offers easy to stack frames.

VGM also offer green wall modules. Drip irrigation coupled with the effects of gravity water the plants in both systems, although this can also be adapted.

Our favorite option at Eco Brooklyn for small walls is using salvaged pallets as a frame for a living wall. We are currently creating a wooden pallet living wall installation in the Green Showroom. Simple and effective, this method limits the amount of new material needed for the project and decreases life cycle emissions and cost.

Pallet living wall

 

Pallets can often be found for free at local gardening stores. Pallets without significant back support may need to be augmented with scrap wood on the back. You can then staple landscaping paper to the back, bottom, and sides to create a secure void for the soil. Soil is poured through the slats and the selected plants are then planted in place and watered. Once planted, the pallet needs to remain horizontal for one to two weeks until the roots can take and stabilize the soil.

There are two easy ways to create your own frame.

The second method does not require the additions of any soil!

Succulent frames

Method 1: Cut 4 pieces of lumber to the desired length and nail them together at the corners to create a box frame. Staple or nail wire mash to the front face of the frame and a piece of plywood to the back face. Fill the void with soil and then poke the stems from plant cuttings through the mesh. Allow the installation to remain horizontal until the plants are securely rooted. Water lightly or use a drip irrigation system. For smaller frames, it may be easiest to lay it flat when watering and allow the soil to drain before hanging it back up.

Note that the above method works best for small frames, as it does not require a complex irrigation or fertilizer system.

 

Method 2: This last method is the most involved in terms of infrastructure but very rewarding. It isn’t that green either since it requires a pump. It is however the most popular system and many massive walls have been created this way.

Noémie Vialard’s book Gardening Vertically offers a more in-depth description of the process, which was initially developed by Patrick Blanc. While it is possible to make a portable system, it is most effective as a permanent display.

Wooden battens are first fixed to the selected wall space, and then a PVC panel and two layers of irrigation matting are added over the battens. The irrigation system consists of a perforated pipe connected to a pump, which activates a couple times a day for a few minutes.

Nutrients can be diluted into the water tank to fertilize the ecosystem. The plant roots are inserted through holes in the second layer of felt (such that the plant is secured between layers of irrigation matting).

Because the system has no soil substrate, there is no water retention. To mitigate the high water usage, you may want to plant perennials at the foot of the wall to consume surplus water or create a fish pond at the base. Use gray water to irrigate if possible.

Apart from the electric load, this system is not sustainable in another way: if you stop the pump the plants die quickly since there is no humid soil to keep them. In that sense it is a very artificial environment. The closest natural habitat is a rock wall in a tropical jungle.

For this reason we prefer the soil based living walls. We build our own structure instead of buying pre-made products because it allows us to save costs and customize to the space.

A vertical garden installation can beautifully augment the aesthetic value of your home. Living walls do not need to be grandiose or complex and the concept can easily be adapted to personal usage. Outdoor walls are easier because you don’t have to worry about flooring issues in the house. But indoor walls, provided they get sunlight, don’t get blasted by weather extremes. Indoor walls need special attention to avoid mold issues, but if that is under control they add a freshness to the air that is wonderful.

Eco Brooklyn is a living wall installer because we really love what a living wall does to a space. It fits perfectly with our mission to turn NY green!

Recycling Wood Joists for Siding

We wanted some siding for a wall we built. So we used some 100 year old joists.

We took the joists and cut them into long strips.
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Then we sealed them on both sides so they don’t warp.
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Then we put them onto strips that we had attached to the wall. This way there is air behind the siding that keeps them dry.
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And VOILA! We have a beautiful wall of siding. The wood lived a productive life for over a hundred years holding up a floor in some Brownstone. Now it can live another 20 protecting this Brownstone.
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