7 Eco-Friendly Solutions to Houseplant Pests

Guests often ask me about the colorful insects flying around my houseplants. “Those are ladybugs,” I reply. “My natural pest control solution. Aren’t they cute?”

When it comes to dire predictions about the future of our planet, many of us feel helpless. The good news is there are small things we can do at home that will make a difference to Mother Earth in the long run, like choosing eco-friendly pest control options for our indoor gardens.

If you find scale on your ficus or fungus root gnats buzzing around your African violets, don’t panic. Yes, pests are annoying, and yes, they do cause damage, but they’re also a natural part of the plant world and just doing their job. Change your perception about pests and diseases and it’s easier to deal with them.

Most people have been trained to fear and dread all bugs and are encouraged to pull out the pesticides and blast anything that moves. After application, things do become eerily quiet for a while, but it’s a lot like a B-rated horror flick. The pests you thought you got rid of become resistant to the insecticide and come back — only worse. You’ve also killed off more fragile beneficial insects that are happy to feed on bad bugs, if only you’d let them. And worst of all, you’ve poisoned your indoor environment.

According to Jessica Walliser, author of Good Bug Bad Bug: Who’s Who, What They Do, and How to Manage them Organically (St. Lynn’s Press), fewer than 10 percent of insects are what gardeners would call harmful — the remaining 90 percent are benign or beneficial. All pests have at least one, if not many, natural predators, and it’s possible and a lot of fun to introduce good bugs into your indoor garden. Greenhouses have successfully used such biocontrols for years. And if insects — even cute ones — aren’t your style, there are plenty of other nontoxic options.

Consider these eco-friendly solutions to controlling houseplant pests.

Check your houseplants regularly. It’s much easier to deal with a pest problem in the early stages, so frequent inspections are important.

Wash them away. If you do find a few pests, a good blast or rinsing with water will often knock off a majority of intruders. If the infestation is minor, a bath may be all your plant needs. When the infestation is heavy, a good washing is your best first step.

Try manual removal. Some pests can be taken off with a cloth or your fingers. This is an especially effective method for scale and aphids.

Serve up alcohol. Many indoor pests will dry and shrivel up when sprayed or dabbed with good old rubbing alcohol. You can use it full-strength or dilute with 50 percent water.

Suffocate them. A variety of products on the market are designed to smother pests, such as horticultural soaps and oils. Neem oil is an all-around great botanical control that is also an insecticide, miticide, fungicide and appetite suppressant.

Introduce friendly bugs. If you’re the adventurous sort, try bringing in “beneficials.” Ladybugs like the “Crypt” mealybug destroyer (Cryptolaemus montrouzieri) are considered predators, which hunt down pests and eat them. Other biocontrols are parasites. They don’t directly consume a pest, but instead take up residence inside an unwanted bug and feed off its insides. A good example is the mealybug parasite Leptomastix dactylopii.

Develop tolerance. Complete pest eradication isn’t possible, practical or healthy. The key is to live with tolerable pest levels, which is possible if you take a kinder, gentler approach.

Julie Bawden Davis’s latest book, Indoor Gardening the Organic Way: How to Create a Natural and Sustaining Environment for Your Houseplants (Taylor Trade) is available through booksellers and at HealthyHouseplants.com.

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