Pests: What to Look for on Indoor Plants

Leaf&Paw.com

It’s time! Finally, the weather is warm and you can open your windows after a long, cold winter. However, winter is harsh on indoor plants, and usually leaves them with pests problems. I’ve listed the typical pests I look for on my plants, complete with photos of my once infected friends. My plants are just as excited about spring as I am, and they deserve a makeover before their favorite time of year.

Monstera Deliciosa sun damage.
Some damage may be caused by winter conditions, like dry heat.

In New York, winter can be horrible, but I’ve embraced it after my indoor plant collection has grown. It gives me a time to get in touch with them, check for pests, learn their watering patterns and sunlight tolerance, and how they like their coffee. Come summer, they spend most of their time on my enclosed porch or outdoors. My house becomes empty and a bit pale without the jungles in every room. To be honest I love having everyone in my house, but know they are much happier in a humid porch. On the plus side, my house  suddenly becomes much bigger.

Plants on porch
Everybody outside for the spring.

Pest problems are common in winter though; harsh heat, dry conditions, and cold drafts do a number on them. I usually loose one or two every year just because I live in an historic house with irregular heating spots. Keeping plants alive all winter is hard. My hedgehogs need a warm temperature, so most of my rooms are a toasty 69-71 degrees Fahrenheit. This makes it dry for indoor plants that love humidity. And that’s like, all plants.

Cats and plants sunbathing.
Cats and plants sunbathing. Typical all day affair.

Speaking of temperature, it gives pests a breeding ground. All winter and, especially once the weather warms, I check for bugs. I search undersides of leaves, stems, tops of the soil and all crevices. They’re are sneaky little bastards and can be anywhere. ANYWHERE. So bring out your best Sherlock Holmes magnifying glass and go bug hunting.

What you see: Tiny white fluffy things on stems and leaves.

The Pest: Mealybugs

Mealybug pests
Mealybugs on my Jade.

These are mealybugs and the most common indoor plants problem. They offer nothing to the world and only suck plants dry of energy leaving them to slowly die a horrible death. They are small and fluffy, usually surrounded by some kind of webbing and are a bloody mess if you squish them. That being said, destroy them upon first sight. They’re most commonly under leaves and along the stems. If there are only a few (and look at the WHOLE plant), take a cotton swab/ball drenched with rubbing alcohol and place over bugs. This will suffocate them. Either wipe them off or remove with tweezers until all visible bugs are gone. If there is any white fluff  embedded in leaves, dredge the section in alcohol as well. Place plant in quarantine until there’s no sign of the devil creatures.

Mealybug pests on Bird of Paradise
Mealybugs on Percy my Bird of Paradise.

If it looks more like a house party of mealybugs, use your best judgment. Try the alcohol method as many times as you need, but if there’s a lot of bugs you will need to go to your nearest garden center for their best systemic pest removal. A systemic is a pesticide that gets absorbed into the roots and stem and continues to work even after the initial applications. This will have to be applied outside, and always follow pesticide directions thoroughly.

Mealybug pests on Bird of Paradise
More on Percy, he didn’t have a good winter.

What you see: Brown or white flecks on leaves

The Pest: Scale

Scale pest damage on Staghorn fern.
You can see the light green spots where the scale was. Also, a fern hand!

I’ve never had a problem with scale until I blindly purchased a Staghorn fern from a garden center. He was covered in little white and brown specs, which I didn’t notice until I got home. It wasn’t mealy bugs, but scale pests, and they were slowly sucking life out of my new plant. My fern above shows where each scale bug was, you can actually see the chlorophyll depleted. So, so sad. I actually used a combination of dish soap and water to get rid of them, about 2 Tbsp per gallon of water. I submerged the top of the plant and left it for a few minutes. Anything left on the plant I handpicked off slowly, and, hours later, he was good as new. Ferny is on the mend, but the scale scars are still around. Lesson learned-  always, always check plants for bugs before buying.

White Scale on Staghorn Fern
Bit of white scale on my fern.

What you see: Tiny gnats flying around the soil

The Pest: Fungus Gnats

While the name “fungus gnats” is enough to make be barf, these are the worst pests of the bunch because they are incredibly annoying. The don’t just buzz around plants, but food, pets, people, your mouth, eyes, computer screen, sugary drinks, coffee, dear lord make it stop! So I did and here’s how.

Fungus gnat pests
DEAD fungus gnats. The best kind.

This took some digging. Literally. They live in the soil of houseplants so you can’t actually see them. The larvae feeds on fungi in soil, plant roots, or starter plants and seedlings. These then grow into the monsters you see flying around your head at night. Soggy wet plants are their favorite, so check your soggy plants without drainage holes first. Sometimes gnats leave a slimy trail on the top of the soil, but that’s not always visible. You really have to dig.

Fungus gnats
Getting rid of fungus gnats using sticky traps.

The first step, once you find the infected plant, is drying it out. The gnats can’t survive without sign fugusy water, so by drying the plant out you are killing the larvae. Next drain any extra water that is left after watering your plant (this includes water in saucers). Step two is to put the plant outside or in another location until the gnats have died down. If that isn’t an option (maybe it’s winter outside), secure some fly paper all around the top of the soil. Monitor how many get stuck everyday then rejoice when the paper is clean. If you want to go the extra mile, clean up any debris or dead leaves or roots around the plant.

Moisture meter!
I love my moisture meter for detecting water levels in big plants. This guy is a rescue on the mend, he suffered from severe under watering and mealybugs.

There are other pests of course I haven’t mentioned, but these three are the top offenders. Keep in mind that if a pet-friendly plant is infected, don’t use chemicals (such as insecticides) on them. If the plant is then ingested by a cat or dog, they can cause serious stomach issues. After all, chemicals are poison, even “organic” ones. The most natural approaches for pest removal I have listed above, using isopropyl alcohol, dish soap, and fly traps pose no threats to pets. Always be mindful of furry friends when destroying pest enemies. I hope this helps and happy spring!

Plant Portrait: Monstera Deliciosa

Monstera Deliciosa

One of the best parts of the IG plant community? #monsteramonday, featuring the exotic Monstera Deliciosa.

 

Out of all the social media platform, Instagram is my top. I use my personal account sparingly, mostly posting pictures of Henrietta. Once Leaf&Paw was born I was excited to create its own account. First off, every Monday is #monsteramonday. IGers present luxurious photos of these giant Jurassic Park plants that I had never seen before. Maybe it’s just NY, but Monstera Deliciosa, also called the Swiss Cheese Plant, is not a common one.  After seeing photo upon photo of green deliciousness (get it? like “deliciosa”), I had to have one of these. Since they are scarce in NY, so I was shocked, SHOCKED that weeks later I saw one, ONE in Wegmans for $15. It was fate since I have never seen one there again. Maybe the garden faeries left it just for me.

monstera deliciosa

So, now I have one of these monsters (get it? like “monstera”)  it has ultimately become my favorite plant child. Leaf&paw became active in #monsteramondays and I was surprised to receive a message asking why I own a toxic houseplant, despite my blog being safe plants for pets. Makes sense, so I’ll clear the air.

Monsteras are philodendrons – which is a vast plant family. It includes different types of monsteras, the heart shaped philodendron (above), and the elephant ear plant (below), as the most common. Part of the Araceae family, they are considered toxic, but less than its siblings, the Calla Lily and Dieffenbachia.  These two plants are more poisonous in general on the toxic scale, so I recommend avoiding those. Monsteras are only toxic in excess, causing stomach upset if consumed consistently.

In my Ficus Elastica post, I came across this similar situation – I have quite a few plants that are toxic to animals and I’ll explain why.

The main reason I possess these plants is leaf size. My cats, and it seems cats in general, fancy stringy, grass-like leaves that are easily chewable – like palms and spider plants. I have never had a problem with cats or dogs chewing, or even showing interest in large leaf plants, since they seem more like furniture than a salad. The Monstera is no exception with its plasticky leaves’ average size being 10″ in diameter. Honestly, leaf size is the key. So, to those wondering if it is ok to get one of these beauties, I say yes, as long as your pets aren’t destructive-consuming-plant-vacuums. In the end, you are the only one who knows your pet.

Monstera Deliciosa :: Leaf and Paw

Basic Care: Monsteras are super easy to take care of. The soil should stay moist in all seasons and they like a decent amount of filtered light and humidity. Mine is still in the plastic it came in and he seems just peachy. The photo below is when I first got him (plastic brontosaurus for scale), and the first picture in this post is his size now. Sniff, I’m so proud.

Monstera Deliciosa

 

How to Snag Free Indoor Plants

What? Free plants?! You bet. With a little know-how and patience, obtaining free plants is a lot easier than you think.

At this point, I know I’m a plant enthusiast. One hint is the amount of money I have spent on plants, planters, soil mixes, pruning sheers, etc, etc, etc, to make my leafy buddies happy. Another reason is my need to add new plants to the family. So, instead of going into crippling debt to keep up with my hobby, I got creative and thrifty – managing to add new plants nearly free.

Connect socially with other plant enthusiasts.

Free plants at a plant swap

Honestly, this comes from Instagram. Once I created an Instagram for leaf&paw, I became connected plant lovers like myself who wanted to grow their collection. I saw a photo of a user’s rubber tree I wanted and messaged her for a cutting if she ever pruned. She agreed, and I paid for shipping (like $1, so not totally free) and got a cutting of a variegated ficus I could not find anywhere in NY. Locally, check your local garden center or a plant boutique for plant groups to join. Many times groups will do an annual plant swap to clear out extras and starter plants they no longer need.

Check Craigslist.

Free Plants on Craigslist

Believe it or not, but houseplants are common on Craigslist and Facebook selling groups. It’s not unusual I guess, since people move, houseplants get too big, or a family gets a new pet and are concerned about toxicity. Whatever the circumstance, it doesn’t hurt to check on FB or CL, especially during spring, summer, and fall. On Craigslist you’ll find them in the free, farm+garden, and household sections. On Facebook, there are actual plant groups (as said above) but county or city selling groups almost always have plant that needs a new home. Below is one of my pothos that was free from a friend who was closing her B&B. After a bit of trimming, he’s happy and growing like crazy.

Pothos

Birth your own.

Propagating Jade

It’s not what you think. More or less you can create your own free plants with propagation. I won’t go super into depth in this post, but by taking cuttings from your already mature or healthy indoor plants, you can easy multiply your collection. I’ll give you one example: if you are a cat-owner, you most likely have a Spider plant (since they are 100% safe for cats). Once they get a medium size (they’re fast growers) they will produce little “baby” spider plants on their leaves. These can be snipped from the mama plant and be put in water to further grow some roots. The baby can then be planted in potting mix and will soon grow big and strong. It’s an endless cycle that, honestly, gets you free plants – all you need is the patience. Above is my Jade as a cutting and below is 18 months or so later. Nature, you are magical.

Jade Plant

The end of the season.

I live close to a large garden center that closes for the winter months, and they are not keen on keeping all of their stock in the greenhouse. Because it takes heat and money to keep plants in the garden center, they do a huge 70-80% off discount on all tropicals and houseplants. Every year this almost cleans them out. The selection may not be as great as prime time, but I have gotten many a plant from this sale, mostly for $1-2 a piece. This also works for seasonal farm stands, high end plant stores, and hardware stores like Lowe’s that do a clearout before dormant months. Also, it never hurts to ask if there are any throwaway plants on their way to the dumpster. Last year I took a tray of coleus home free from the garbage that was deemed to leggy to sell. They flourished in my garden all summer.

Holiday sale!