The Uninvited Holiday Guests that Stayed Too Long

Happy Gardening New Year! As I was in the midst of my un-decorating flurry this week, I moved my displaced houseplants back to their permanent spots and noticed that we had uninvited guests come to visit over the holidays. Just as we look for a warm place to spend the winter, so do the bugs and many times your houseplants provide the perfect cold weather refuge.

The most common critters you’ll notice are aphids. These soft bodies insects appear in almost any color and left untreated they will suck the sap out of your plant, killing it quickly. They reproduce quickly and an infestation can appear in just a few days. My favorite way to treat aphids and most other insects on houseplants during the winter months is with Bonide Systemic Houseplant Insect Control. These are easy to use granules that you simply shake on top of the soil then water in. Systemic insecticides work by moving up through the capillary system of your plants killing the insects as they feed on them. The active ingredient is imidacloprid and while many people take issue with this chemical because of its effect on bees, using it indoors will not harm them. Since it is a systemic, be sure not to use it on any edibles such as lemon, orange, or lime trees. Effective for several months, it’s is a neat, easy way to clean up aphids, whiteflies, and many other insects quickly, particularly in indoor areas where you don’t want to spray.

Whiteflies are tiny flying insects that tend to hide on the undersides of leaves, but you may see them flying around at times too. They kill plants by sucking on leaves and stems and this is another insect that reproduces quickly so you want to be sure to catch an infestation early on. In addition to the Bonide Systemic, you can also treat whitefly populations with All Season Oil as an organic control to smother them, or use yellow sticky traps to simply catch them.

Fungus gnats are little, dark flying insects that hover around the surface of your soil. Adult fungus gnats aren’t the real problem and by the time you spot them, there has probably been damage done by the young or larval stage gnats that feed on your plants roots. They come from keeping the soil in your plant too moist so the first way to combat them is to scoop out the top inch or so of soil in order to remove the larvae then replace it with fresh, dry soil. Apply Systemic Granules, then allow the plant to dry out, then keep the watering to minimum to control the infestation. Yellow sticky traps will clean up the flying adults.

Mealy bugs are also a problem during the winter months. These are easy to spot because they look like small, white, blobs that resemble cotton balls. They are also sap suckers and because of this, your plants may appear to be drying out, even after watering well. Unfortunately, mealybugs are very difficult to get rid of. You can try dabbing them with rubbing alcohol but they tend to spread fast and many times you are best to simply get rid of the plant.

Scale is a tiny insect attaches to the plant then covers itself with a hard, oval shaped shell. Scale is difficult to combat because that hard shell makes it tough for pesticides to penetrate and be effective. Spraying with neem oil then applying Bonide Systemic Granules to clean up whatever may be lingering in the soil can be an effective one two punch.

Finally, western flower thrip infestations have become rampant in recent years. These little buggers are microscopic and the damage is recognizable because your plant will show signs of twisted, distorted growth. Spot thrips by taking your plant and holding it over a piece of white paper. Tap gently. They will show up as tiny specks running around the paper. Spray with Capt’n Jacks (spinosad), but be sure to add some table sugar. Since they are a sucking insect, the table sugar acts to draw them out of tightly packed foliage so that they ingest the pesticide. Follow up with Systemic Granules to treat the soil.

My hospitality throughout the holiday season ends with little critters on my plants. Keeping an eye on your houseplants now will ensure that they survive the winter happy and healthy and ready for their growth spurt this spring when the warm temperatures return and the days start to lengthen.