Spring is in the air! The sun is warming our wind-chapped faces and life begins to emerge from the cold, desolate cracks of winter. Unfortunately for us that includes garden pests! So we thought it was perfect timing to ask Urban Garden reader, product tester and blogger Eliab Lozada to relay his recent battle with aphids after they infiltrated his indoor garden.
What are Aphids?
Aphids (aka plant lice) are soft- bodied, pear-shaped insects that feast on your plants. Outdoors they are most prevalent during the spring and summer seasons. Aphids are common garden pests – the green variety is the most well-known, although they can also take pink, brown, yellow and black forms. In all, there are over 200 species of aphids. Some varieties are quite specific to certain plant groups, whereas most are not that fussy and will munch on a wide variety of different plants. Aphids are capable of asexual reproduction and can spawn throughout most of the year, sometimes producing nearly 100 young per aphid in the course of just one week! Indoor growers need to be especially wary of aphids. If you don’t spot them early, a relatively small intrusion will soon turn into a massive infestation unless you act quickly.
What’s the Damage?
Aphids injure your plants by puncturing plant stems and stalks with their skylets – powerful suction devices built into their mouths. Their goal is to find some plant sap which, once located, they suck mercilessly, gorging themselves at the plant’s expense. Prolonged aphid attacks will considerably weaken your plants. Common telltale signs of aphid damage include curled, discolored, and deformed leaves. Also, keep an eye out for “sooty mold” which is caused by mold colonies feeding off the sticky waste the aphids leave behind after their feeding frenzy. If all that isn’t enough, aphids can also spread incurable plant diseases. In short, aphids SUCK big time!
Greetings Urban Gardeners and welcome to my “Aphid Diary.” I enjoy growing plants both indoors under grow lights and outdoors under the big halide in the sky. Garden pests outdoors are a completely different scenario to pests indoors. Outdoors, Mother Nature maintains a balance with natural predators and the cycle of the seasons. However, if pests manage to infiltrate an indoor garden, they are often left to breed uncontrollably in a perpetual summer and fall. In short, pests in your indoor garden are a complete nightmare and you should carry out every preventative step possible in order to stop them finding your indoor plants. And what better way to start than learning from the mistakes of others. Just a shame that, in this case, those mistakes are mine …
The wind began gusting with enough force to knock down my outdoor tomato plants. In order to save them, I had to continually move them in and out until the gusting ceased. It didn’t take long until the task of moving 40+ pots from the front yard into my two-bedroom apartment became onerous and inconvenient. Confronted with a living room and kitchen full of plants, I had no other place to put them than right in front of the door to my indoor garden. There (and everywhere in the house), my outdoor plants were spared from the 50-mile/ hour winds outside. I left them there for just over an hour. The strong winds passed so I proceeded to return all the plants outdoors. Little did I know that this would be the dumbest, most destructive thing I had ever perpetrated on my beloved tomato plants.
I woke up and began my regular morning watering of my outdoor plants. During this activity it’s not uncommon for me to spot the occasional caterpillar or earwig enjoying its breakfast, but today was different. Instead, I stumbled upon a family of aphids nesting on my tomato leaves. Temperatures had begun to hang in the 50s and 60s, and I was expecting the usual aphid wave that comes in the fall. So when I saw the little critters, I thought “well, the wave is here. I’ll start squishing aphids and wipe them out with some neem oil. No big deal.” And so I focused my attentions on pest control for my outdoor plants. And it worked! In less than two days’ time, my tomatoes appeared to be completely pest-free. Fortune, it seems, is not without a sense of irony.
Today was reservoir change day, always a logistically challenging endeavor considering how little room I have to move around in. First step is to empty my indoor garden of plants so that I stand a chance of reaching the ebb and flow table positioned against the far wall of my walk-in grow closet. As I moved and inspected the plants from the mid-section of the room I began to notice some light green bumps on the leaves of my sweet banana peppers. I got up close and saw these shiny, six-legged little critters standing on the leaves, their antennae bent towards their backs, gross-looking, and engaging in some serious sap-sucking. APHIDS! And if experience told me anything I knew that there were probably plenty more to be found. Sure enough, my heart sank when I discovered that all of the pepper plants on my ebb and flow table were populated with aphid “families.” Everything from my Dorset Nagas, my Ajíes Dulce and Caballeros, my Bhut Jolokias, and (oh, noooo!), some pimento plants that came from seeds saved by my late Grandmother – everything was covered in aphids! Panic eventually gave way to pragmatism. The remainder of the day was mostly taken up with bug-squishing and a frenzy of neem spraying. The reservoir change was postponed for another day or two. I had more pressing matters to attend to!
I woke up determined to get that reservoir change out of the way. I ventured into the bowels of my indoor garden and began to remove the plants from the tray as before. This revealed just how badly infested my plants were: colonies of aphids had pitched tents all over the plants’ leaves, stems and shoots. All of the lower leaves were suddenly looking really crappy: some had begun to show brown spots and the spotting looked like it was creeping upwards toward the plant canopy. Now I had a disease to identify on top of my aphid problem! It was not long before I identified the leaf spotting to be Anthracnose, a viral plant disease (for which there is no cure), which is often carried by aphids. That’s when the seriousness of the matter really struck home. My beautiful pepper plants were screwed. Even if I were to effectively eradicate what was now a full-blown plague of aphids, I’d still be left with sick plants! I’d screwed up royally by breaking that one important rule: Never bring outdoor plants into your indoor garden! If you absolutely have to, make sure they first undergo a lengthy quarantine period!
The plants had to be destroyed. Man, I was gutted. It didn’t matter so much that my Nagas were in the midst of setting fruit or that my pimentos had a special significance — all my infected plants had to be killed. So I took my camera and snapped a few shots of the unwanted guests and, without making too much of a stir, began to hack and bag branches until only the plants’ stems were left. All the containers were dumped – substrate n’ all – into a reinforced garbage bag. All infected plant matter was then doublebagged and immediately thrown in the dump outside. The reservoir was emptied and bleached thoroughly. The rest of the plants in my indoor garden were thoroughly inspected. Some contained one or two aphids, and were cleared of all visible pests and removed from the indoor garden. I sprayed a 10% bleach solution on the walls, floor and ceiling. All equipment inspected and sterilized. An hour of sparing an outdoor plant from wind damage had already compromised my whole indoor grow. This time I would leave nothing to chance.
After my indoor garden was cleaned, I re-checked all the plants and decided to just do away with any seedlings that showed signs of aphids or anthracnose. It would not be worth the time, effort and money to raise a plant that was doomed from the start. The rest of the plants were sprayed with neem oil in order to slow down the life cycle of any aphid youngling I could not catch. Inspections were performed daily until the problem was under control; I scheduled neem oil treatments every 3rd day, but this ended up being performed every other day due to the resurgence of young aphid colonies. Some leaves were beginning to appear rather leathery – probably because of the excess spraying of neem oil. At the end of that week I discovered some aphids nesting on the young shoots of my baobab tree. No other aphid affront had been this cheeky. I don’t mind admitting that the sight of more aphids at this point tipped me over the edge. It was time to call in the big guns.
I marched to my local hydro shop and made a beeline for the pest control aisle. There I picked up the largest can of pyrethrin-based spray. The store owner seemed surprised to see me buy a can of bug spray because I am a neem-type guy, so I let him in on the battle that was taking place in my indoor garden. He assured me that I had done all I could and that the bug spray would definitely take care of the problem. Once back home, I inspected all the plants and manually killed as many aphids as I could spot – only a handful at this point. This was good news as it indicated to me that the bulk of the infestation had been eradicated by disposing of the infected plants. Now my task was to prevent a re-infestation. In order to achieve this I had to do more than merely reduce their numbers: they needed to be obliterated!
The pyrethrin spray was applied after the lights went out, using short bursts and kept 1-2 ft away from the plants. This would ensure a more ample, gentler coverage while still delivering the pyrethrins to any potential pests. I sprayed my plants once again during mid-week and decided to wait a few more days and re-evaluate its effectiveness. My concerns about burning the plants dissipated throughout the upcoming week, as none of my plants showed signs of contact burn. Not only that, but I was seeing fewer & fewer aphids around the area, and my baobab tree exhibited none by the end of the week. Having seen good results from the pyrethrum spray, I decided to incorporate it into my pest control program. From then on, I would be lightly (but thoroughly) spraying my plants on a weekly basis.
There are lessons to be learned and relearned from our mistakes. My first mistake was the breaking of this most-important rule: Never bring outdoor plants into your indoor garden without first undergoing a quarantine period. You can also say that I screwed up by not destroying the pepper plants immediately after finding the first aphids indoors. But then again, no signs of Anthracnose were initially observed. I should have erred on the side of caution and assumed that where there are aphids, diseases follow. My third mistake was over-applying neem oil. Neem did not burn my plants, but it certainly turned my leaves hard and leathery (and I do not know if that is a good thing for their tiny, delicate stomata). However, all in all, I think I was lucky to have been able to control it by using pyrethrin; otherwise, all my plants would’ve been for the trash!
Moment of silence for Eliab’s loss. Now … got an aphid-assaulting tip or horror story you care to share? Post it below!