Pest Management In Your Care Routine
As plant lovers, we're no stranger to pests. Common bugs like fungus gnats, mealy bugs, and scale occasionally find their way into our personal collections. And since we love our plants – we have to reckon with these sap-sucking intruders. But how?
Before we jump into pest identification and management, let's spell out some hard truths about pests:
- If you own multiple plants, you're going to get pests. This is something all plant lovers deal with from time to time. You can think of bringing a plant into your home as bringing a part of an ecosystem inside. Often, creatures that are higher up on the food chain show up to chow down.
- Having pests does not make you a bad plant parent. Pests are simply a fact of plant ownership. What separates amateurs from pros is the ability to spot them and deal with them early.
- Pests are not a big deal. Bugs are not an automatic death sentence for your plants. Some plants happily live with controlled pest populations for decades. With practice, identifying and managing pests can be an easy addition to your plant care routine. Identifying an issue early will allow you to control the spread and population, and often eradicate it entirely.
Where do pests come from?
Indoor plant pests can come from all sorts of places. However, the primary cause of indoor plant infestation comes from that fact that we keep these plants indoors. Think about it this way: these plants are grown in greenhouses and outdoors – places open to the elements and the environments around them. A plant in those conditions could have a small colony of scale, but its population is controlled by overhead watering, wind, and natural predators. Bringing a plant indoors removes nearly all those controlling factors, so even the smallest hibernating colony of scale can start to spread.
At Tula, we regularly quarantine plants before putting them up for sale, and we also inspect and clean plants thoroughly upon arrival. But this is not the only way plants can be exposed to pests.
Once they're brought home, tiny bugs like spider mites and fungus gnats can slip through screens and find plants to feast on. Fresh produce and cut flowers can also bring in common pests, and adding new plants or fresh potting soil to your collection could introduce bugs as well. Larger home intruders like ants, roaches, and mice (not to mention residents like pets and humans) can also carry plant pests into our homes.
Common Pests And How to Control Them
When treating our plants for pests, it's important to keep in mind the health of the plant itself. Often, a small, managed infestation does less harm to a plant than treatment with harsh chemicals. While the remedies we suggest below are meant to keep the plant's health a priority, there is always the chance that a plant can have a bad reaction to treatment. If you're afraid of doing harm to a plant, consider spot treating one section or a couple leaves, then watching how the plant reacts over the course of a day.
Fungus gnats are difficult to miss. These airborne intruders make themselves known by seeking out humidity and moisture.
These gnats nest in wet soil and easily spread from plant to plant. However, keep in mind that while other pests on this list could actively harm plants, fungus gnats are relatively harmless to your collection.
The most annoying habit of fungus gnats for humans is their pesky habit of flying directly in and around our faces. They are seeking CO2. And where best to find it in our plants and in the CO2 we are exhaling with every breath.
Identifying Fungus Gnat-Infested Plants
Examine the soil of your plants. If you see these bugs crawling on the surface of the soil or flying up out of it once it's watered or disturbed, you have found a pot infested with fungus gnats. And perhaps, you have all of a sudden found yourself swatting tiny gnats out of your face.
Preventing Fungus Gnat Infestations
Since fungus gnats need standing water to spread, prioritize pots with drainage in your collection. Then, build a watering schedule that allows for temporary soil dryness that makes it difficult for these pests to nest.
The best prevention however, is to find the right balance of water, sun, and heat. This creates the ideal eco system for your plant. Your plant needs sun and heat to photosynthesize and water to replenish the energy it has used to grow. If you are adding water to your soil, and the plants root system is not pulling that water for replenishment, then you are creating a perfect breeding ground for fungus gnats who love standing water in wet, humid soil.
Treating Fungus Gnat-Infested Plants
Many methods for treating fungus gnats are out there. Here are a few:
- The best method to rid of gnats is to first significantly decrease watering frequency and move your plant to more sunlight so the soil will dry out faster between watering. Next, scoop out at least 1" of your top soil. Gnats live in the top of the soil. Then with a chopstick, gently aerate the soil. Lastly, let the soil dry out as much as possible. Fungus gnats thrive on moisture and will die off if standing water is not available. This is the number one solution to fungus gnat control and nearly always works.
- Another method is to water thoroughly with 1 part hydrogen peroxide / 1 part water. Let the plant sit for a few minutes, then water thoroughly with water only. Since you are adding water to your already too wet soil, move your plant to a sunnier location and allow the soil dry more than normal after treatment.
- For an effective home remedy to swarms of fungus gnats, look to apple cider vinegar. Place a bowl out with the vinegar (unfiltered is best) and a few drops of dish soap. This should catch and kill a ton of fungus gnats in a matter of hours.
Maybe the cutest common plant pest, mealy bugs are small, white, and fuzzy ovals that crawl slowly across their host plant, focusing on newer growth and nesting in nooks and crannies.
Identifying Mealy Bug-Infested Plants
Mealy bugs often are easy to spot on plants, given their larger-than-normal pest size and white coloration. One or two can easily be treated. Check the undersides of leaves and crooks of stems for tightly-knit, silky white nests.
Preventing Mealy Bug Infestations
Treating plants regularly with neem oil could help prevent mealy infestations. Spray and wipe down leaves to polish, then mist the leaves with water or water the plant from above. Be aware that leaving neem oil on plants that receive direct sunlight could lead to leaf burn.
Isolating plants infested with mealy by putting them in another part of the house or outdoors could help prevent their spread to other plants.
Mealy bugs can be found on almost any houseplant.
Treating Mealy Bug-Infested Plants
For small infestations, apply rubbing alcohol to a q-tip. Delicately touch the mealy bug. It should immediately die, turn red, and adhere to the q-tip. Dispose of the dead bug. Repeat until all bugs are gone.
For larger infestations, spot eradicate with the q-tip as listed above, getting nests as well as pests. Then, spray the plant liberally with insecticidal soap or neem oil. Allow that spray to sit, then wipe down the plant and mist heavily or water from above. Repeat this process every few days.
Once the plant is clean, if you do have outdoor space that suits the plant's needs (related to temperature and lighting conditions), consider putting the plant outdoors. Natural pests and wind should help eradicate the remaining population of mealy bugs.
Hard, knobby, and stationary, scale is often mistaken for just another part of the plant that it is feeding on. Easily controlled in small infestations, scale is however one of the more difficult pest varieties to eradicate on plants, and could easily lead to a plant's death if it goes unchecked.
Identifying Scale-Infested Plants
While watering or pruning, inspect the stem and stalk of your plant. Clusters of barnacle-like brown lumps could be scale. Run your fingernail along the problematic spot. If these lumps easily come off, you can be certain these are not part of the plant and are likely a scale colony.
The surface of plants with scale often have a sappy texture, and many a hardwood floor has gotten sticky around plants with bad scale.
Preventing Scale Infestations
Like mealy bugs, treating your plants regularly with neem oil could help prevent scale infestations. Spray and wipe down leaves and stems, then mist the leaves with water or water the plant from above. Be aware that leaving neem oil on plants that receive direct sunlight could lead to leaf burn.
Treating Scale-Infested Plants
Treating scale is similar to treating mealy. For small infestations, apply rubbing alcohol to a q-tip. Delicately touch the scale. It should immediately die and adhere to the q-tip. Dispose of the dead bug. Repeat until all bugs are gone.
For larger infestations, spot eradicate with the q-tip as listed above. Then, spray the plant thoroughly with insecticidal soap or neem oil. Allow that spray to sit, then concentrate on removal in the harshest way possible without harming the plant. On hardier plants like cacti or trees, use a toothbrush to scrape off the pests. On delicate tropical plants, wipe hard with a microfiber cloth. Mist heavily or water from above after treatment. Repeat this process every few days.
Once the plant is clean, if you do have outdoor space that suits the plant's needs (related to temperature and lighting conditions), consider putting the plant outdoors. Natural pests and wind should help eradicate the remaining population of scale.
Tiny and quick-working, spider mites can proliferate across a plant and even infest a whole collection. If caught early, however, they are some of the easiest pests to eradicate.
Identifying Spider Mite-Infested Plants
While tending to your plants, inspect the leaves and stems for soft webbing that looks like cobwebs. If you discover this, examine the webbing closely. If you see tiny specks that could be grains of sand – you likely are dealing with spider mites.
Spider mites are more common on some plants than others – including palms, English Ivy, and Alocasias.
Preventing Spider Mite Infestations
The best method for spider mite prevention is to imitate a plant's tropical outdoor environment in the home. Increase humidity by buying a humidifier and airflow with the help of a fan. Regularly misting and watering from above in the shower or sink to clean the leaves can also help with prevention. Spider mites love dusty leaves.
Like with the other pests on this list, treating your plants regularly with neem oil could help prevent spider mite infestations as well. Spray and wipe down leaves and stems, then mist the leaves with water or water the plant from above. Be aware that leaving neem oil on plants that receive direct sunlight could lead to leaf burn.
Treating Spider Mite-Infested Plants
There is no spot-treating spider mites.
Use neem oil or insecticidal soap to thoroughly soak the plant, both stem and leaves, making sure to get nooks and crannies and undersides of leaves. Allow that spray to sit, then wipe down the plant with a microfiber cloth, pulling as much visible webbing and mites from the plant. Mist heavily or water from above after treatment. Repeat this process every few days.
Consider moving these plants outdoors too. Natural pests and wind should help eradicate the remaining population of spider mites.
Not All Bugs Are Bad
For treatment and prevention in larger collections, consider adding a new level to your indoor food chain with the help of beneficial nematodes, lady bugs, or green lacewings. These insects do the work of naturally hunting and eating common houseplant pests.
As we said above, pests are extremely commonplace and easy to tend to. They are a natural addition to bringing a piece of the natural world inside our homes. However, if gone unnoticed, these creatures can thrive in indoor conditions and quickly become a problem for your plants. Incorporate pest inspections into your regular plant care routine, and you should be able to notice these critters before they become a problem.
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