Out, damn pest! Three common indoor plant pests and how to send them packing

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Just as outdoor gardens are subject to all kinds of unwelcome pesky visitors, so too are indoor plants, and while they might not be as big and furry as the average herb-annihilating urban possum, they can be just as destructive. There is nothing more frustrating than the sight of clusters of mealy bugs and spider mites on your lovingly tended orchids or ficus. But once you have spotted them, it’s best to act fast and act decisively to get rid of them.

There are all kinds of products on the market that will eliminate such nasties but there are also some easy and less chemical DIY approaches to pest elimination that will be just as effective. Here are three of our most detested plant pests and some sure fire ways to make sure they get out and stay out.

Aphids

Ugh. I can stand these little buggers. They are very small, pear-shaped soft-bodied bugs that collect in large groups on the underside of leaves or new growth and can be amazingly resilient. They can be white, black, brown, grey, furry, yellow or pink but their tiny size can make them hard to spot until they are well and truly ensconced. They feed on plant juice from the stem, flower, fruit, root or buds of a plant and can cause deformation, yellowing and stunted growth. See what I mean? Nasty!

Like many other pests, they produce a waste called honeydew which can attract other insects and cause mould on the plant. Honeydew can actually be a helpful sign that all is not well with your plant. If there is a sticky layer on the floor or pot around your plant, chances are it’s honeydew and you need bring in the big guns. So to speak.

  • Try spraying cold water on the leaves to dislodge them or for a larger infestation dust the plants with flour which gives the aphids constipation. Ha! Take that!
  • You can also wipe or spray the leaves with some water mixed with dishwashing detergent or, for more of a kick, add a pinch of cayenne pepper.
  • The organic chemicals in Neem oil can be a very effective pest repellent but, as with any insecticide, be aware that it may also discourage the presence of beneficial insects in your garden.
  • A combination of essential oil including peppermint, clove, rosemary and thyme is another effective way to kill aphids and their larvae

Spider mites

Spider mites are spider-like in the sense that they create a fine, silk web that can cover an entire plant. Spider mites also cause small yellow and brown spots on the leaves and can eventually cause a plant to deteriorate and die. Again, the little buggers are teeny weeny making it very hard to spot them until they’ve started doing some damage. If you think you might have them, hold a piece of white paper under the leaf of a plant and shake it lightly – the spider mites will drop off like ground pepper onto the paper.

  • Again, a good way to start is with water which is a simple and often effective way of dislodging them from the plant. Always be sure to get the undersides of the leaves also.
  • Introducing natural predators of spider mites is a great way to tackle an infestation. These very helpful insects can include ladybugs, predatory thrips, lacewing and – my personal favourite for this purpose – the spider mite destroyer!
  • Neem oil is, as usual, good to have on hand but stay away from pesticides because spider mites are resistant and you’ll only end up killing your sweet ladybugs.

Mealy bugs

Mealy bugs look like fluffy little tufts of cotton wool but are much more unpleasant. They have long sucking mouth parts to extract the sap from plants – ew, gross – and, like their pesty buddies, enjoy hanging out on the underside of leaves where it’s hard to see them. As well as sucking the sap from plants and exuding honeydew which leads to sooty mould, they also produce a damaging toxic saliva.

Need any more reasons to get rid of them? Here’s how to do it:

  • A homemade chilli or garlic soap or a commercial insecticide will definitely do the trick but first of all try removing them from the plant by scraping them off or with water.
  • You can wrap a bit of aluminium foil around the bottom of the plant which will bounce light off the underside of the leaves – they will really dislike that!
  • They thrive in humid, nitrogen rich environments so watch that you don’t over water or over fertilise.
  • Ladybugs and lacewings to the rescue again! These guys do not get along with mealy bugs and will happily drive out an infestation. Ants, on the other hand, protect mealy bugs and love the honeydew so by keeping ants under control you can make life harder for the mealy bugs.

Many of these organic solutions to plant pests will work for all kinds of nasties that want a piece of your lovely indoor garden. If you’re still struggling, give us a call. We can recommend some other strategies or commercial insecticides that won’t douse your house in awful chemicals.

It’s worth being vigilant with your indoor plants – love them, and they will love you back. And remember to check new plants thoroughly for pests before introducing them to your existing collection. A week or two in peaceful quarantine to get them settled and bug-free can be a good idea!

Images from top: Lounge room via www.insideout.com.au, aphids via Natural Living Ideas, ladybug eating aphids via Garden of Eaden, spider mites via Planet Natural, green lacewing via Planet Natural, mealybugs via the Bug Geek

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  • Paul Hopper