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Here’s how to tell if your houseplants caught a bug this summer

  • Author: Jeff Lowenfels
    | Alaska gardening
  • Updated: October 12, 2017
  • Published October 12, 2017

Aphids often sneak indoors during the summer and hit houseplants. (Jill Burke / Alaska Dispatch News archive)

When it comes to gardening, certain activities are designed to prevent work. It is almost winter, so one of those is marking driveways and pathways so that you can (try to) control where snow is removed and where it is put. This will protect garden beds, lawns and shrubs from damage this winter.

You can use all manner of markers, from those with reflectors to plain old tomato stakes. Personally, I buy a sheath of survey markers, the kind with fluorescent flags. They are cheap, which means I don't mind when they get run over, and they are easy to stick in the ground — no hammer needed.

Obviously, this is a chore that needs to take place before the hard frosts hit. Don't delay. If you are the type that walks around or plays in your yard during the winter, you may also want to mark landscape features that are invisible when covered with snow. We have a few "Japanese style" landscape rocks I definitely don't want to ski over, by way of example.

Next, houseplants should be inspected for problems that might damage your plants during the winter. Aphids often sneak inside and hit houseplants. And, when the heat comes on in the fall, there is always an increase in reports of spider mites. Scale often grows and multiplies during the summer when you are not paying much attention to your houseplants.

So, what you need to do is take a careful look at your plants. Obviously, look for bugs, but be aware of their symptoms, too. Sticky goos, yellowing leaves and generally unhealthy plants are easy to locate. You just have to look, that is all.

Neem oil or organic products containing it, can generally take out light infestations. Scale is the hardest to deal with. If the infestation is light, you can hit the shell with alcohol on a Q-tip. And by all means, use your smartphone's camera to see what the problem might be. Good phones all allow you to magnify and enlarge pictures of critters. You can then look them up using Google Images.

Toss out plants that are heavily infested. Isolate those that are undergoing treatment.

While you are at it, consider adding a quarter- to half-inch of compost on all your indoor plants. And, you might want to consider mulching them. Almost all are perennials and would do well with a brown mulch — either leaves or even some fine barks. Along with the compost, you will get decay and food for the plant's soil microbes that are feeding the plant. Plus, mulched houseplants look good.

Then there is light. (You knew I was going to get around to this.) Your plants need the best you can provide in order to continue to serve you best. At the very least, clean your south-facing windows. Some sort of supplemental light system, however, is really in order. It doesn't have to be huge, just big enough to rotate your plants under so that they get some quality light during the dark winter months.

My standard fare consisting of a shop fixture and one cool and one white fluorescent bulb still stands, along with a timer, but as noted in previous columns, Alaska has an increasing number of grow shops that specialize in all manner of indoor (and outdoor) systems. These places should be treated the same way we treat nurseries: They should be visited several times a season to see what is new and to purchase what you need to keep your houseplants healthy.

While you are visiting a grow shop, consider a hydroponics or aquaponics system. They come in all sizes, shapes and costs and can really help while away those long winter days that are surely coming.

Finally, do finish all your outdoor chores! The end is nigh!

Jeff’s Alaska gardening calendar:

Composting with worms: Noon-1:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 24. Tickets are $75 at eventbrite.com ($70 for members of Alaska Botanical Garden) or call 907-770-3692.

Kids fall camp: 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27 at the Alaska Botanical Garden. Sign up here: eventbrite.com.

Houseplants: It is a great time to get new ones. Clean up old ones. Get those lights!

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