How to Use Neem Leaf as a Natural Pesticide
Neem Trees (Azadirachta indica)
I'm an organic coconut farmer living in Brazil. Here on our farm, we use a natural pesticide made from the leaves of the neem trees that we have growing here. Today, I would like to show you how we do this.
For those of you who aren't familiar with the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), it is an evergreen tree that is found in tropical and sub-tropical areas. The neem tree has many uses including medicinal, culinary, and as we use it on our farm, as a deterrent to pests. It's related to the curry tree but where a curry leaf tree is called a sweet neem, this neem is considered bitter. The tree grows rapidly about 10 feet a year and the seeds are encased in a skin that is surrounded by a juice.
Some of the birds we have here will suck the juice out of the berry and others swallow it whole. The monkeys love them as well and can often be seen sitting in the trees eating them. The bats take the berry and fly off with it causing young neem trees to be scattered around bases of many of our trees here. The juice that surrounds the seed, is okay for the animals but I have tried it and it is rather bitter and unpleasant.
These trees are seen a lot in Brazil in city centers for their mosquito repellent properties and because they are a fast-growing tree. The dark green serrated leaves are also attractive and are excellent as a dense shade tree. They are also resistant to drought, in fact, too much water will damage the roots and cause the leaves to turn yellow.
Using Neem Leaves as a Pesticide
We have 400 dwarf coconut trees that we spray with our neem pesticide. Don't get too hung up on the term pesticide, it isn't killing the bugs, it is preventing them from chewing the leaves of our trees. If the insects are solely reliant on eating coconut palm leaves then they will eventually starve, or at least on our farm. Unlike a commercial product that kills the insect on contact, this doesn't occur when using this neem mixture. We are coating the plant leaf with a substance the insects don't like. Instead of killing the insect, we are protecting the plant.
We use this natural pesticide to guard against:
These are the main insect problems that we deal with on our farm. Although we spray regularly, our trees are also checked daily so we can stop an infestation before it happens.
I want to clarify that this article is about using the neem leaf.
For a more concentrated version of the pesticide, the neem oil can be extracted from the seed. This is done by grinding down the dried seeds into a powder using a grinder or a mortar and pestle. This powder can then be reconstituted with oil. If you don't have access to neem trees or you prefer to purchase neem oil, this is produced from the seeds, not the leaves.
The neem oil, although more effective than using the neem leaves, is less pungent to smell.
As I am writing this in the middle of December 2018, our neighbors, both upwind and downwind, are suffering from an infestation of whitefly on their cashew trees. We have 3 large mature cashew trees here on our farm and although they haven't been sprayed with the neem solution due to their size, we don't have any whitefly. My husband believes it will be in our best interest to spray our upwind neighbor's trees and also near our fence. This will make an unpleasant barrier for the whitefly and hopefully confine them to a smaller area.
Neem Is a Pesticide
A pesticide targets many insects whereas an insecticide is specific to one.
Removing the Leaves
Once cut, we bring the small cluster of branches back to our patio area. This next part, of removing the leaves from the stems is time-consuming and also hurts the back. It isn't that it is difficult to do, it is just repetitive and we have yet to find an easier way to do it.
We simply sit down and drag our hand down the stem allowing the leaves to drop into the bucket. We continue doing this until our bucket is full and then it's time for the next step which takes place in the kitchen.
Chopping up Neem Leaves
To chop up the neem leaves, I use my food processor. I fill the container without packing them too tightly. As I put the leaves in, I ensure there are no stems or seeds which may damage the blades of the food processor.
I then switch the machine to pulse until I see movement at the top, only then do I turn it on high. If I switch it on high from the start, I'd end up with finely chopped leaves at the bottom of the processor and uncut leaves on the top. What you want are leaves roughly the same size.
This could be roughly chopped using a cutting board and a knife if you don't have a food processor or blender. Just to clarify, I'm not adding any liquid to this, I am just chopping up the leaves.
Making Neem Tea
Don't be put off by the term, tea in the title. This is just the stewing of leaves in water. We don't use warm water for this just our normal well water from our faucet.
The bucket of chopped up leaves is put into a 50-liter plastic barrel. We fill this half full of water, put the lid on and leave it for 3 days to brew.
You'll know if your mixture is ready as it will smell like a cross between urine and onions. Not a pleasant smell but effective against insects. Because of the smell, you may want to make the mixture away from the house.
Adding Oil and Detergent
Using another barrel, we strain the mixture which has brewed for 3 days, through a nylon mesh sieve. An old t-shirt works equally as well. This removes the leaves and we are left with the mixture that will be sprayed on the trees.
To make sure the pesticide sticks to the plants and doesn't just run off, we need to add oil and dish soap. For this, we use 3 ounces of cooking oil and the same of dish soap. The role of the dish soap is to break down the oil, and the role of the oil is to make it stick to the leaves.
The stewed leaves from your mixture can be used in your compost heap or around the base of your plants.
Using a Sprayer
As you can see from our photos, my husband uses a backpack style sprayer. This carries 10 liters which is a little more than 2½ gallons. You may be able to handle a larger one but my husband is 68 years old and an amputee. Walking from tree to tree with the sprayer on his back keeps the oil and detergent mixing because of the movement. If you were using a hand held spray bottle, a quick shake before applying is a good idea as the mixture may separate.
Ours is a hand-pressurized mechanism which works off a lever on the left-hand side of the sprayer. We have extended the nozzle length on ours to ensure he can reach the upper leaves of the coconut trees without having to use a ladder which would be too cumbersome to take from tree to tree.
This holds 4 gallons of liquid which will weigh 32 pounds when fully loaded not including the weight of the sprayer. The load is spread across your back making it more comfortable but this is a consideration before you buy. This one is self-pressurized which is a bonus, no more pumping away to keep a steady stream flowing.
The large opening tells me someone has thought about the design, as we have poured the liquid into a smaller one and because of the weight, spilt some.
Some items are crucial on a small farm like ours, we have 8 acres and a sprayer is part of the equipment we need to keep us both organic and as pest free as possible.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Once made, how long will neem leaf pesticide keep without going stale?
We use ours straight away. Any that you don't use should be poured away.Helpful 18
Can I use dried neem leaves to make a natural pesticide?
Yes, by putting them in water to use as a spray or around the plant to decompose.Helpful 14
What ratio of chopped leaves in kilos to that of water in liters should I use to create the pesticide?
We never weighed the leaves, but a full yellow bucket as you see in the photo, once chopped, resulted in a 50-liter container being one-third full of leaves. Then we filled the 50-liter container with water.Helpful 12
Can neem repellent be used on edible leafy plants, like spinach? My worry is the bitter residue taste may remain and make them unpallateble.
I haven't tried it specifically for the reason you mention. When I see the residue on our coconut leaves I'm certain it will affect the taste. What I would suggest is that you used leaves, around the bases of the plants. These could be composted down but will still be beneficial without causing a change in the taste of plants such as spinach and lettuces.
The residue I am seeing is that iridescent look of the oil in the mixture. However, because the plants aren't being eaten by insects, I can assume, the residual bitter taste from the neem mixture is working.Helpful 11
Can ground neem leaf be used as fertilizer?
It most definitely can. Here on our farm, we always tip the leaves straight under a coconut tree or add the leaves to a composting area.Helpful 8
© 2017 Mary Wickison