2016-01-28 / From The Garden

Time for a Houseplant Checkup

By Cynthia Gibson

Scale insects are slow moving and large enough to be visible. Scale insects are slow moving and large enough to be visible. From now until the end of February, you may start finding insects settled on the leaves and stems of your houseplants. If you put them outdoors during the summer months, they are bound to bring insects inside that will hatch during the winter. The three most prevalent pests you will have to contend with are mealybugs, scale insects, and whiteflies.

Scale insects are brown, oval in shape, and can grow to almost an eighth of an inch in diameter. They will attach themselves onto the backs of leaves and on the stems of your woody-branched plants, such as ficus and citrus. They are referred to as scale because that is exactly what they look like. If you find one or two, it means that hundreds are on their way! These tiny hard-shelled creatures overlap each other, upon infestation, and look like snakeskin or scales.

They will not harm you if you touch them. If you can remove them and they are brown when squished, they are alive. You must get rid of them immediately, as they are parasites and will suck the sap (lifeblood of your plant) to death. Their telltale signature is the sticky-clear shiny residue known as honeydew they leave behind on the leaves while extracting the plant sap with their needle-like mouth. An infestation of scale insects can result in the honeydew dripping right on to your floor. The leaves will start to discolor and turn yellow; ultimately, they will die and fall off. The insects will continue to cover the stems and branches of your small trees and plants (orchids too) and continue to kill the plant.

The other pests to look for are mealybugs. These problem bugs are truly strange as well. They are similar to scale in size (some can be smaller), are white, fuzzy, and ultimately as deadly. Mealybugs are not as selective, and will attack any houseplant. Not only do they feed and create their own honeydew, they feed on the honeydew of scale. And where you find one, there is usually a second right behind!

Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Cynthia Gibson is a gardener, food writer and painter. She gardens and tends her miniature orchard in Newport. Whitefly is one annoying pest. They really are not flies at all, and are related to scale. Unfortunately, they are found in greenhouses and will usually come home with your plant. They are tiny and grow in clumps on your plants and multiply quickly.

To keep your home free from these pests, be observant and proactive.

The sooner you remove them, the healthier your plants will be. If you have small numbers of scale, you can remove them with tweezers. Neem oil is an organic oil that, when mixed with water, will suffocate these insects. A more preventive method for removal of these insects is with an insecticidal soap that you can make.

Homemade Soap Spray

One qt. of distilled (not tap)
One tbsp. of pure soap, such as
Naptha or Dr. Bronner’s pure
castile soap (liquid varieties are
easier to mix)
One qt. plastic spray bottle
(make sure you label it)
Shake well

The solution is excellent, and pure soaps are the key. Never use a liquid soap with bleach, a degreaser or moisturizers, as they will kill the bugs – and your plant.

Before spraying your entire plant, it is always prudent to test one small area rather than spray the entire plant. Certain leaves and stems are more tender than others, and can burn.

Remember to spray both the tops and bottoms of your leaves and the stems and branches. You can also put a light spray on the soil, which is where the insects came from in the first place.

The soap suffocates the insects and they die. Should the problem continue, spray again in two weeks. Do not spray near fabrics or wallpaper. Spray in the kitchen sink or take them to the basement. Make sure the plants are well-soaked.

Christmas Houseplants: Toss or Keep?

. A Christmas amaryllis will
bloom again. It will need full
to filtered sunlight in a south-facing window. Clip off the
stem and all leaves and water
once a week, all winter long. In
the spring, as soon as the temperatures hit 50, place it outdoors. If the bulb is large (a diameter of at least five inches), it
will bloom in either July or August. If smaller, your chances
of seeing blooms are not good.

. Christmas cactus is a keeper! They love remaining in their
plastic pots and really do not like
terracotta at all. It is difficult to
kill this plant. They will re-bloom
once in the summer (a small
amount of blooms) and then follow again with a full display in
November and December. I have
three that are over four years
old. This year I will re-pot them
in larger plastic pots. Christmas
cactuses are fairly common as
far as houseplants go, but their
color and shape of exotic flower is a welcome sight in the
winter. They run by an internal
clock that seems to know that
Christmas is around the corner.
. Poinsettias are now so inexpensive they are not really
worth keeping. Ten years ago
they were far more exotic, in
new and unusual colors; now
they are huge and about one to
five dollars a pot. I would keep
them only if it is a school science
project. In the winter months,
keep them in their pot with saucer in a warm dark place (a closet works) and water once every
two weeks. In the spring, put
them near a sunny window so
they become acclimated to the
light. They will start sending out
new green leaves and if you are
lucky, with the addition of fertilizer, they will start producing
red leaf bracts you’ve come to
know as flowers.

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