One of the most essential skills in the indoor gardener’s arsenal is pest control. Every plant hobbyist has likely experienced pest infiltration. POV: you find a seemingly healthy plant at the store that catches your eye and just have to bring it home. Soon you find the newest addition to your collection was not so healthy but is covered with creepy crawlies.
Before you can properly diagnose and treat the infestation, the rest of your plant family is suddenly littered with small bugs too. Leaves are wilting, new growth is lost, and some plants even give up and embrace death due to stress. Soon your once prized plant room is now looking like a graveyard. Carnage.
Mistakes are a part of becoming a better gardener. To learn through doing, you must allow yourself room to fail. It’s often one of the hobby's most rewarding and cathartic aspects. But to get you further down that path, here is a walk-through of common houseplant pests, their remedies, and prudent strategies for those that need a little helping hand or would rather excel the first time.
When it comes to pests, the best defense is a good offense. Preventing a bug takeover is much easier than treating one. There are loads of ways you can mitigate the risk of pests.
- Scrutinize any new plants for signs of bugs before purchase. Bugs can and will quickly spread to neighboring plants. Assume every newly purchased plant has bugs hiding somewhere. Quarantine them away from your collection for about six weeks, and treat and check them regularly for pests.
- A healthy plant is more resistant to bugs, so do your best to ensure your plant’s individual needs are adequately met. Stressed plants are easier targets for pests.
- If you like to reuse pots, always clean them with insecticidal soap and sterilize them in vinegar or a rubbing alcohol bath, depending on the type of pot. Terra cotta pots have a porous surface providing perfect shelter for micro-pests.
- Outdoor plants are highly susceptible to pests. If you regularly bring an outdoor plant indoors for the winter (typical for succulents in colder areas), inspect the plant and treat it accordingly. Quarantine it much like you would for a new plant from the store.
- Regularly inspecting your leafy friends for changes can prevent an outbreak before it gets too big to handle.
Ants don’t typically feed on potted plants directly but are instead attracted by a sweet excretion from other common pests called honeydew. For this reason, ants are usually a sign that you have more significant problems, and they are bound to get worse without intervention.
With any pests, you have two options: control with chemicals and pesticides or seek alternative natural solutions. The best way to exterminate ants is to bait them with poison ant traps while treating the plant with insecticidal soap. You can create a mixture of 1-quart water to 1-2 tbsp of insecticidal soap and submerge the entire pot and soil. Some people prefer to remove the plant from the infected soil, submerge the roots directly, and re-pot with a clean pot and fresh soil.
Natural remedies involve strong-smelling substances that repel ants, like citrus, coffee grounds, cinnamon, cloves, and more. There are also store-bought natural solutions mainly consisting of essential oils, which work fine and smell great.
Mealybugs are tiny, off-white insects – quickly spotted and extremely common in store-bought succulents. You might find them gathering around the base or underside of leaves. They like to feed on new growth which causes deformities, so say no to succulents that exhibit an abnormal and lumpy growth pattern.
Mealybugs can be persistent, producing a white wax that makes them resistant to pesticides. In a severe infestation, you can expect to treat plants daily for weeks and may ultimately decide to discard a plant before risking healthy plants.
Wipe away mealy bugs with a cotton swab doused in 70% rubbing alcohol or less (any higher may damage plants). Spray plants daily with rubbing alcohol, applying thoroughly to the undersides and crevices between leaves. Some species feed on roots, so an insecticidal soap bath and repotting may be in order. For outdoor plants, neem oil is an effective natural remedy for mealy bugs when applied regularly.
Spider mites are common in plants that remain indoors year-round. They are tiny, so you’ll likely notice their thin webbing first. They suck plant sap which results in small dots on leaves and discoloration. If you see one, it will look like a tiny reddish-black speck.
Many can effectively manage spider mites with water, spraying robust plants directly to destroy their webs and dispel mites. You can also spray plants with insecticidal soap or neem oil extract weekly to manage mites. Make sure to apply thoroughly and expect systematic treatment.
Aphids are small and usually green but can be pink, brown, black, or yellow. They are between the size of mealybugs and spider mites, and the adults may or may not have wings.
These guys usually feed on the undersides of leaves or new growth but can also be found attacking roots. They cause deformities much like mealybugs and discoloration and spotting like spider mites. Fortunately, they are easily distinguished from other bugs.
Treat aphids much like mealy bugs or mites. You can remove visible aphids with an alcohol cotton swab before regularly treating with insecticidal soap, neem oil, or 70% rubbing alcohol. Much like the other bugs on this list, expect to repeatedly treat the surface of plants for aphids as these are not a quick fix. You can also try adding Imidacloprod granules to the plant’s soil, which will treat them indirectly.
This list summarizes some pests your plants are likely to attract, but there are many more out there. Notice that the treatment of these bugs is widely similar, so mastering their treatment is likely to translate to everything you will encounter. If you’re unsure about using a specific chemical, the bottle should include a list of bugs it is effective against as well as types of plants it has been tested on safely. Remember never to get discouraged by gardening mistakes, but instead, grow from them.
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