A few years ago, I was on a cruise down the Rhine River, touring the charming medieval village of Rothenburg ob de Tauber in Germany. Rothenburg is a storybook maze of cobblestone streets, uneven lanes, tilted buildings. It’s an impossibly adorable place. I was taking it all in – every wooden doorframe, every surprise cuckoo clock, every exaggeratedly slanted roof – the best way possible, over a slanted beer at an outdoor café on a hill with some friends. While looking at the brightly colored flowers decorating every building, I noticed something. Every window was open (most of Europe is morally opposed to air conditioning). Wide open. None of them had screens and all of them had window boxes full of plants.
All I could think about from that point on were the bugs. The city apartment I was living in at that time had a backyard with an inherited garden nobody maintained. It also had these disturbingly large, aggressive, mutant mosquitos. Every time I so much as opened the back door they would swarm, attacking relentlessly until both Seamus and I were covered in bites. Sometimes they’d form a cloud and follow us back upstairs into the apartment. It got to the point where I wouldn’t even open the windows that faced the yard because they would squeeze through any hole in the screen.
Later, I was talking with a Rothenburg tour guide in and I asked if they had mosquitos there. She said yes, cautiously, like I was setting up some kind of joke that was about to get lost in translation.
“But all of the windows are open,” I said. “Don’t they have screens?”
“No, they have geraniums,” she answered. “To keep the mosquitos away.”
“What? How does that work?” I asked, in complete disbelief. This was blowing my mind.
“Well… the mosquitos don’t like the geraniums,” she explained patiently, in earnest. And there it was. The simplest, easiest, prettiest solution straight from the days of medieval Germany.
Fast forward a few years and I once again found myself with a backyard full of unwelcome visitors every summer. These were just regular mosquitos, not mutant ones, but they were nonetheless uninvited. For various health reasons (for myself, my dog, my beekeeping neighbor’s bees), I didn’t want to use any chemicals or pesticides – but I wanted the mosquitos gone, immediately.
I tried a ton of bizarre homemade bug spray recipes that involved everything from mouthwash to stale beer. All of these chemical-free options required near-daily spraying and I wasn’t even that happy with the results. I bought myself a natural bug spray, because it seemed easier than regularly spraying the whole yard. When I smelled the geranium, I suddenly remembered the window boxes in Rothenburg.
Now I always plant geraniums – especially in pots near doors and windows. Through some trial and error, I found some other natural solutions that actually work, in the form of very common summer plants: citronella, lemongrass, rosemary, basil, marigolds, lemon balm, lavender, peppermint. The key is that you need several plants and you have to be very strategic about where you use them depending on how big your space is. They don’t have a huge radius of protection, but in my experience, these are great repellers. Plus, there is something deeply, karmically satisfying about annoying mosquitos.