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Houseplant RX, Part Two

Through a magnifier, the viewer can see tiny, red spider mites on the back of a plant's leaf.
Pests, like spider mites, can infect your house plants. Learn ways to treat them and how to avoid them entirely.

Aphids, mealybugs and spider mites, oh my! In this episode, we'll learn how to identify and tackle household pests, plus how to avoid them in the first place. We'll also find out more about common houseplant critters like white flies, scale and fungus gnats.

There are five or six pests that are usually the cause of problems on your houseplants. Aphids are a common culprit, which hitchhike on the underside of leaves when you bring plants inside from the outdoors. Try cutting back on fertilizing and use insecticidal soap to bring them under control.

Mealy bugs often infest rubber plants, ficus trees or big, potted houseplants. To rid your plants of them, wipe them off with a cotton swab dabbed in rubbing alcohol. This will dry the bugs out.

Another common pest is the spider mite. These are microscopic red mites that suck the juices from the underside of leaves and cause them to yellow. Rid your plants of them by increasing the humidity. You could try a pebble tray with water, mist them or set up a humidier and clean the plant leaves with insecticidal soap.

Q: My orchids are inundated with oyster scale insects which only seem to barely be controlled by individual weekly and very time consuming removal by scrubbing with Q-tips and alcohol. — Al, in Whitehall

Treat the cottony cushion scale with rubbing alcohol in the same way as you treat mealy bugs. You could also put some alcohol in a spray bottle and mist the orchid, ensuring you don't overspray onto other plants. For the hard-shell scale, try insecticidal soap, horticultural oil or Neem oil. Make sure to isolate the plants, too, so the problem doesn't spread.

Q: Re: white flies on house plants, I have tried spraying with organic products and homemade soap mixture then wrapping the plant in plastic to cutting it back to the ground and yet they keep coming back. It's a desperate situation! — Mai, in Reading

Try re-potting the plants and isolate them, too, so the flies won't spread. Another treatment you can try is pyrethrum. This is harsher for indoor plants but does a great job.

On the subject of re-potting plants, we also go an inquiry from Andrea, in Cornwall. Andrea asked about using last year's seed-starting soil as a replacement for potting soil. That wouldn't work well for houseplants. Instead, so the seed-starter won't go to waste, sprinkle it in a raised bed for now then get some fresh potting soil and re-pot with that.

Q: What are those tiny bugs that can begin to fly around plants? More importantly, how do I get rid of them? Have you heard of Mosquito Bits? — MaryAnn, in Burlington

Fungus gnats are a big issue, though, luckily, they aren't harmful to the plants or to humans. They are just a nuisance! Try a layer of sand on top of the potting soil. This way when the gnat lay their eggs, they fall into the sand and dry out. You can also try using an organic compound, like Mosquito Bits which works for the larvae.

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All Things Gardening is powered by you, the listener! Send your gardening questions and conundrums and Charlie may answer them in upcoming episodes. You can also leave a voicemail with your gardening question by calling VPR at (802) 655-9451.

Hear All Things Gardening during Weekend Edition Sunday with VPR host Mary Engisch, Sunday mornings at 9:35.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a messageor get in touch by tweeting us @vprnet.

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Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.
Charlie Nardozzi is a nationally recognized garden writer, radio and TV show host, consultant, and speaker. Charlie is the host of All Things Gardening on Sunday mornings at 9:35 during Weekend Edition on Vermont Public. Charlie is a guest on Vermont Public's Vermont Edition during the growing season. He also offers garden tips on local television and is a frequent guest on national programs.
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