Plants and Pests - Very Real, and Very Manageable
Plant Pests (mealybugs, mites, thrips, aphids, scale, etc.) are definitely a very real (and a very manageable) thing, and their existence has been loudly shouted about in plant communities lately, much more so than in the years prior to 2020.
Here's a breakdown of some facts to remember when it comes to plant pests, as well as a few methods you can use to control and limit pest infestations in your own collection.
Just as Plants exist in Nature, so do bugs. The symbiotic relationship between flora and fauna has existed for billions of years, and will continue for many more.
Since about March 2020, the boom in plant sales, and subsequent plant shortages, has meant many retailers having to get plants from new or different sources, some of which may not have as disciplined pest management procedures as others. It has also meant that with many new plant parents (as much as a 600% increase in YOY plant sales in the US), the level of experience dropped significantly, and that contributed to an increase in dialogue about Plant Pests, and the fact that many people are experiencing them. The good news is- most pests are easily treated.
At some point, all of us have had, or will have, to deal with pests of some sort on our house plants. It is part of the hobby. Being prepared for this, and knowing how to respond when faced with a pest problem is your best ammunition. Below, we will go over several methods of preventing and/or treating for pests. Please note that these are not the ONLY methods you can use, and they may not be the BEST method, depending on the pest, the plant, and your individual situation, but they are what has worked well for us, and so we want to share them with you!
Follow procedures when purchasing new plants (no matter where you get them) in order to protect yourself and your precious plant collection from getting infested with pests.
The steps listed below are a suggestion, but by no means a foolproof method, and certainly not the only way to control or limit pests on your plants. However, these are tried and true methods that have worked well in our experience.
1. VISUALLY INSPECT each plant prior to purchase. Take out your phone and use the flashlight! If the seller gives you a hard time, there's a good chance it's because they know it's got pests. In that case, you probably don't want to do business with them.
2. When you get the plant home, INSPECT AGAIN. Use a bright light and magnifier if you've got one, dig around in the soil a bit, open up spaces between leaves, check underneath leaves, especially around the base of the plant. You want to look for 2 things- active pests, or signs of active pests. Signs can include things like: their waste stuck to the undersides of leaves, or webbing, strung across leaves and petioles or stems, dead pests, live pests, leaf damage or discoloration, etc. There are several different signs, depending on the type of pest, and the damage they do on the plants can be different as well. For example- spider mite damage is often visible to the naked eye, and often occurs on the outer margins of the leaves, indicated by webbing, yellowing or browning of the leaves, small spots, to overall leaf discoloration in advanced infestations. The spider mites often congregate in groups at the base of the leaves, where they meet the stems, and often at the base of the plant, down by the soil, and they often find protection in the darkness, unless we check the undersides of our leaves. These gatherings of spider mites are like a group of web-like homes, filled with burnt-out bugs sucking the sap from your plants' leaves.
3. TREAT NEW PLANTS!
If you have a large, or valuable collection, you may already do this. Hopefully, some of you do this no matter the size of your plant collection!
Spray down each new plant you purchase, prior to introducing the new guy to the rest of the gang. You can start with the shower, washing off each leaf, and finish with a natural pest treatment, such as a neem oil/horticultural soap/dish soap, etc. solution. If you see bugs, remove the plant from the pot, and gently shake the soil from the roots before washing it down again. Sanitize the pot, and toss the soil into the trash. Using an insecticidal soap is sometimes required, especially when you see actual pests. This is a safe to use, non-toxic to pets and humans, knock-down insect spray. Knock-down means that it kills most plant pests on contact, rather than some insecticides that take some time to eradicate. Many people swear by Neem Oil, which is derived from the Neem tree, and spend hours each week applying it to their plants, but this is not something that I suggest or use for pest management. There are a couple of reasons- Number one, I think the smell of Neem Oil is rancid, and don't want my home smelling like it. Number two, it is a fair product to use as a leaf cleaner/shine/pest maintenance product, but with an actual infestation, it's not going to cut it. I would even venture to say it's ineffective for treating active pest issues. There are several much better options- in my opinion- for treating bugs, and they are as safe, and smell much better than Neem Oil!
4. QUARANTINE. It's not just for humans or pandemics! If you aren't comfortable with the idea of preemptively (just in case) treating for pests, keep your new purchases away from the rest of your collection, until you are SURE that it's pest free. Inspecting your plants regularly can help prevent a full on infestation, because you can catch it before it's spread to your other plants. It certainly wouldn't hurt to Treat and Quarantine!
5. USE NATURE AGAINST ITSELF. Ladybugs, green lacewings, predatory mites, nematodes and more are all readily available at many plant shops and garden centers, and can help control or prevent most infestations. Better yet, they're natural remedies, rather than soaking your plants/home with chemicals, which can burn the leaves of many plants, not to mention are usually STINKY!!!
A reason that plants have issues with pests inside our homes, is because they are inside our homes. In the wild, these pests each have natural occuring predators that consume them, and prevent most from being a real problem to the plant. You may have heard of the 'Circle of Life' or 'the Food Chain'. That's what they're talking about. In your home, these predatory bugs don't usually exist (except for the random spider), so introducing them onto the plants is always a good, natural and chemical free pest management option.
Use Predatory bugs combined with Spray Treatments (on off cycles, or else you're killing the good bugs, too!) for best results.
6. Give your plants a better chance at Pest Resistance by PROVIDING THEM WITH THE BEST ENVIRONMENT; (giving the proper water, lighting, soil, and space to your plants, all contribute to keeping your plant healthier, and less likely targets to pests! Studies have shown that plants that are stressed or sick release a signal that tells the pests they are weak, and the pests are attracted to them more, seeing an easy meal. Imagine a motel, with its 'VACANCY' sign lit, announcing to all- 'Hey, we've got several rooms available, all with free continental breakfast!' This is the invitation that pests get from a sickly plant, one that's not in the ideal conditions, or an overcrowded one. Spacing your plants out from each other not only minimizes this, but it also makes it harder for most pests to spread from one plant to another.
7. ASK THE RETAILER what their IPM (Integrated Pest Management) procedures consist of. Use their response, along with your gut, to make the decision on buying that plant. If you have any doubts, don't risk introducing new plants into your collection.
Plants exist as a part of nature, as do bugs. They always will.
Thank you so much for reading!Hopefully, you took something away from this post that can help you become a better plant parent, or perhaps you learned something new about caring for your plants.That is always my goal- To share my personal experiences with other plant people, with the hope that it helps someone in some way, either by trying a different way to do things, and getting a different result, or simply by providing a different perspective, so that someone looks at a situation differently and figures out another successful method on their own.There are multiple ways to grow plants successfully, and sometimes, what is considered successful to one person, may not be to another person. In the big picture, I believe that all of our experiences with plants should be positive, even if one of them dies. If we take that event, learn from it, and do things differently next time, to a better outcome, that's the goal.A 'learning experience' is the best thing to come out of a 'negative experience'.There's no doubt about the therapeutic benefits that come from having plants in the home, and both physical and mental health improvements that occur by keeping plants in the home, it would be a shame for it to become so stressful that they actually cause strife. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been a lot of people turning to plants as a way to deal with the daily stresses of the world we live in. Some have jumped in so far, so fast, that they are feeling overwhelmed trying to care for them. If this is happening to you, please reach out to me, and I will do everything I can to help you.As always, if you have had differing or similar experiences, please comment below, and share them, as I always enjoy hearing other's experiences. If you find any information that I posted that is incorrect, or nonfactual, please also comment below or reach out to me directly. These blog posts are written from my personal experiences, as well as experiences others have shared with me, but, as we are human, so it is possible to make mistakes. Just let me know, so that I can correct and learn from them.Stay Safe & Be Healthy.-Jeff