Thursday, November 21, 2019

Trials of Indoor Gardening pt.1: spider mites, aphids, and thrips oh my...

Posted by: John Stolzle, Jefferson County Extension
One of the best things about indoor gardening is being surrounded by green foliage during winter. But this also brings a potential for pests to thrive 365 days a year.

The indoor garden remains unaffected by an early season blizzard; fresh produce as of this publication date!
One of the greatest challenges my garden has faced has been a battle against aphids and spider mites. In outdoor environments, natural predators do much to keep populations of pests (like aphids and spider mites) in check. But in the climate-controlled world of an indoor garden or greenhouse pests can reproduce unchecked by predators and lead to imbalanced (aka. out of control!) populations.

Where did they come from?
With a few exceptions, plants which I started from seed have remain unscathed; however, a few plants which were placed next to incoming nursery stock encountered problems.
Damage from inadequate watering and spider mites on a Jalapeño
Case in Point: one poor Jalapeño (photo above) that was started from seed caught a bad case of spider mites from another pepper plant which was purchased from a commercial nursery/greenhouse. Initially things in the garden were great but while I went away on vacation, insects were busy chowing down on my pepper plants. I returned to what you see in the picture.

Some time after this, I purchased a sad looking (#discount) Taro plant. I placed it in the garden, wiped off its leaves and stalks with a damp paper towel, and watched it closely. After some weeks, I began to notice many tiny glistening, sticky spots on its leaves; the spots were honeydew, evidence (waste) left by aphids. I took a closer look (picture below) and saw tiny green insects (aphids) moving around the leaves.

Aphids on a Taro leaf
A lack of patience.
One pepper which had become infested with spider mites appeared to stop growing after treatment. I became frustrated because it hadn’t produced a new leaf over the course of two months! So, I decided to rip out the pepper and use the pot for something else.
Pepper plant after 3 months of growth in an 18cm (7in) diameter pot.
Little had I known that the plant had been developing a very robust root system. Sigh.. a root system that would have been able to support many specialty peppers. On the flip side, now I know the plants are growing and that this container was likely too small for the plant anyway. Recommendations for adequate container sizes can be found here

What can be done... aside from tearing out a plant?
It is important to first know what may be attacking a plant. For example, after looking for some time (phone cameras, magnifying glasses, hand lenses, and microscopes can be helpful!) I observed not only spider mites but also thrips on my pepper plants! These two insects require slightly different management strategies. Note: Information on thrips is linked-to at the end of this post.

Spider mites and aphids lay eggs on plant material and go through a roughly 2-week life cycle (important to know when planning follow-up treatments). A jet of water is often enough to dislodge these pests from many plants. Have a spider plant (‘Chlorophytum comosum’with spider mite webbing between its leaves? - Give it a shower in the sink!

It is easier to battle 10 insects than it is 10,000. Washing a nursery plant upon its arrival can save headaches  by preventing major outbreaks from ever occurring. Note: Not all plants like to have wet leaves. It can be helpful to look up a plant’s general care recommendations.

Insecticide products do exist for treating spider mites, aphids, thrips, and other various plant pests. Insecticidal Soaps with the active ingredient Potassium Salts of Fatty Acids, and Horticulture Oils (e.g. Neem, Cottonseed) can be effective parts of an integrated pest management strategy. It may not seem like it, but Insecticidal Soaps and Horticultural Oils can be harmful to humans and pets and other non-target organisms. Pesticide product labels should always closely be followed and adhered to. Note: when applying an insecticidal soap (active ingredient: 'Potassium Salts of Fatty Acids') any insect not completely wetted (e.g. an aphid hidden in a rolled up leaf) will not be affected.

What I wish I would have known.
  • That placing plants in the shower or sink or (even better!) taking them outdoors prior to treatment can make cleanup a much easier process.
  • Some plants can react poorly to Insecticidal Soap and/or Horticultural Oil treatments. It can be mildly traumatic to see a plant drastically defoliate a day after being treated.
  • Yellow sticky pads can be incredibly effective at managing indoor populations of fungus gnats (sometimes mistakenly referred to as fruit flies).
  • Patience is key (in reference to the pepper I tore out).
For more information on a variety of topics, please see the links, below.

As a fun aside, insects (like 'Lady Bug' and Lacewing larvae) which feed on spider mites, aphids, etc. can be purchase from locations around the USA. Here is a very impressive list of BioControls and example locations from across the US where they can be acquired:

For an introduction to this indoor garden, please see this blog post:

 Best of Luck in all your gardening endeavors! 
- John 


  1. You mentioned yellow sticky pads to catch fungus gnats. Where can those be purchased? Is there a brand name?

    This was a very helpful article to me!

    1. Glad you found it helpful! Fungus Gnat control is discussed in good detail on the following page: (I've now updated the blog post to include this link).

      The linked factsheet mentions 'Gnat Stix' as one brand name for example purposes and not as an endorsement. I have had the best luck online using the following search term: 'dual sided yellow sticky traps'

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