The Barrier Pesticide: Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceeous earth is simply a dry white powder.

Diatomaceous earth is a fine white powder composed of the fossilized skeletons of microscopic algae called diatoms. They are extremely sharp, like glass, and that’s precisely the utility of diatomaceous earth in the gardening world: you apply it where harmful crawling insects are likely to be found. When they come into contact with the product, it causes small abrasions in their body and the pest gradually loses its body fluids, dehydrates and dies. Despite claims to the contrary, diatomaceous earth does not kill mollusks (slugs and snails), but they find the particles irritating and will hesitate to cross a barrier of diatomaceous earth.

Note too that diatomaceous earth is considered biological pesticide, so safe for the home vegetable bed. Even so, use it judiciously, only when you have a pest problem you absolutely need to solve, as it can harm beneficial insects. For example, avoid getting it on flowers to avoid harming pollinating insects. And when applied to soil, it can harm earthworms.

Garden Use

Diatomaceous earth can be sprinkled on foliage to control leaf-eating insects.

Diatomaceous earth is most often sprinkled directly onto the foliage of infested plants to treat leaf-eating critters like potato beetles and inchworms.

It is also applied to the soil around the base of plants as a barrier to prevent crawling insects and mollusks from reaching the plant. Don’t mix diatomaceous earth into the ground, however: it must remain on the surface to be effective.

It is important to understand that this pesticide is most effective in dry weather: it loses effectiveness once it is moistened. So water first, let the plants and soil dry, then apply it.

And rain and even dew will also render diatomaceous earth ineffective: it will then just dissolve away into the soil below. It is therefore best to apply it when no rain is announced for several days.

Keeping Insects Outdoors

Where diatomaceous earth is most useful is in and around buildings. In such spots, it is dry all the time, so the product can remain effective for months. Apply it to cracks and fissures in your house, around windows, and other places insects (ants, earwigs, crickets, cockroaches, etc.) might enter the house. Obviously, it would be more effective to properly caulk those entries to prevent insects from entering once and for all, but diatomaceous earth still makes a good stopgap measure.

If you’re wondering if such a simple organic product could possibly be effective, it is worth noting that is widely used as a barrier pesticide by professional exterminators.


Diatomaceous earth is not toxic to humans, but can be irritating, so avoid inhaling it or getting it in your eyes. That’s way it’s best to wear a mask and goggles when you apply it. Outdoors, only apply it on windless days to keep it from drifting. And store it out of reach of children.

Not the Pool Product!

Many pool owners are familiar with diatomaceous earth, because it is used as a filtering product for home pools. But be aware that diatomaceous earth sold for pool use has been calcined (heat treated) and will not be effective against insects.

Where to Find It?

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The word diatomaceous earth appears only in small letters on many products.

Almost all garden centers sell diatomaceous earth in one form or the other, but often the name is not in evidence. It is often sold under names like “insect dust”, “ant killer”, “crawling insect killer”, etc. Alternatively, the label may call it silicon dioxide (just another name for diatomaceous earth). So if you want to get the right product, either read the label carefully or ask a clerk to help.

No, diatomaceous earth will not solve all your garden pest problems, but it is an interesting and fairly safe product to add to your pesticide arsenal.20160709D

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

3 comments on “The Barrier Pesticide: Diatomaceous Earth

  1. Karen Switzer

    We have Sand Wasp. Is it safe to use the diatomaceous earth on the beach of our pond? Our grandsons play in the sand.

    • Diatomaceous earth is not harmful to the environment as long as you don’t breathe it in, as it could be irritating to some people.

  2. Pingback: What to Do About Sand Wasps? – Laidback Gardener

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