House plants and bugs

Common Houseplant Pests -how to identify and control them-

Your pampered houseplants present a tasty smorgasbord for insects that feed on plants. The healthier your plants are the more enticing they will be. It’s possible for a plant to coexist with a few pests but the problem comes when one or two insects multiply into a full-blown infestation. Too many insects feeding on a plant can cause significant damage. There is also the risk of pests spreading from one plant to other nearby plants. Help keep your houseplants safe by learning to identify common insect pests and how to control them.

The most common pests

Mealy bug

White cottony masses found along the stems and underneath the leaves are actually soft-bodied insects. Mealy bugs use their sharp mouth parts to pierce plant tissue and feed on sap.

Spider mite

Spider mites feed and lay eggs on the underside of leaves. They’re quite tiny; a magnifier is helpful for identifying them. Plant symptoms include webbed areas along the stems, yellowing foliage, and tiny eggs and debris on the leaf undersides.

Scale

Smooth, rounded bumps along stems and on leaves are the protective shells of the scale insect. Scale use their needle-like mouth parts to feed on plant sap, so they can remain in one location for a long time.

Fungus gnat

Tiny flies that are attracted to moist soil where they lay their eggs. The larvae, once they emerge, feed on decomposing organic matter in the soil and plant roots.

Aphids

Soft bodied insects that suck plant juices through the leaves and stems. They’re often found feeding on the soft tissue found at a plant’s growing tips, tender new leaves, and undersides of leaves. Plant symptoms include curled, distorted new growth and a sticky residue on the foliage.

Thrips

These tiny winged insects can be difficult to see without a magnifier. They may be easier to identify by the damage they cause. Thrips puncture plant tissue by tearing it away with their strong mouth parts and they suck the plant juices from the wound. Areas where they’ve scraped away plant tissue are thinned and often appear as brown or silvery blotches.

Whiteflies

Whiteflies can be found on the undersides of leaves or flying near a plant. They pierce plant tissue and suck out the juices. Plant damage can include yellow, mottled foliage and leaf drop.

Roaches

Roaches are common indoor pests whether or not you have houseplants. Normally they aren’t a problem, but houseplants do provide moisture and shelter that a roach could find appealing. Don’t entice roaches by putting un-composted food scraps or beverages into your houseplants.

Where do houseplant pests come from?

It’s surprising how many ways insects can find their way to houseplants. Here are a few of the most common:

  • Fresh produce from the garden or the grocery store
  • Cut flower bouquets
  • Potted gift plants
  • Newly purchased plants
  • Plants kept outdoors for the summer
  • Potting soil
  • Carried in on clothing
  • Open windows – tiny insects can even get through window screens

Managing pest infestations

What to do if you find insect pests on your houseplant:

  • At the first sign of a pest problem, move the infected plant away from other plants.
  • If possible rinse the plant with water in a sink, tub or outdoors to try to physically remove as many pests as possible from the foliage.
  • Rubbing alcohol in a spray bottle or cotton swabs dipped in rubbing alcohol can be applied directly on the insects. The alcohol evaporates quickly, killing the pest without harming the plant.
  • Pests can’t survive dish soap. A mix of 1/2 teaspoon dish soap mixed in a quart of water in a hand-sprayer can be sprayed directly on pests.
  • Insecticidal soap is a commercially available product for spraying indoor or outdoor plant pests. Use according to package directions.
  • If the outbreak is small, and you’re not bug-squeamish, insects can be manually removed with tweezers or paper towel.
  • Chemical insecticides for houseplants are available. Check the product label to make sure the insect you are trying to control is listed, that the product can be used on your specific plant, and that the product is safe for indoor use.

Tips for preventing pest infestations on your plants

The best way to prevent insects from taking over your plants is by catching them before they get a chance to “make themselves at home”. Here are some tips for keeping pests from bugging your houseplants:

  • Inspect plants thoroughly at time of purchase. Avoid any plant with obvious pests, including insects flying around the plants.
  • To avoid infecting existing houseplants be sure to isolate a new houseplant for about a month. Keep a close eye on it until you’ve established that the new plant is pest free.
  • Keep plants clean. Remove dead foliage and wash the plant leaves periodically with water.
  • Use a magnifying glass to occasionally inspect plants for pests.
  • If plant has had a serious infestation, replace the soil with fresh potting mix after treatment.
  • Make sure plant gets the recommended amount of light, water and fertilizer (check plant label) to keep it in optimum health.
  • Keep away from cold or hot drafts found near windows, doors, or air ducts that could stress and weaken a plant.
  • Always use sterilized potting mix when repotting plants.

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it can be hard to get insect pests under control. If the population has managed to grow quite large, the plant can become disfigured, defoliated, and unattractive. The best control method, in a case like this, may be to simply discard the infested plant and replace it with a new, healthier plant. Trying to salvage one infested plant can put all of your plants at risk.

The insects common to houseplants are highly adaptable and very skilled at hiding within a plant to protect themselves. They can be a little tricky to control, but certainly not impossible, especially if you catch them early. Knowing what to look for and being able to correctly identify houseplant pests can make all the difference in keeping your plants healthy and insect-free.

Spring is here and summer is approaching and with these seasons come open windows, screen doors, and an invasion of house Plant PestLearn how to identify and treat the plant pest called Whitefly at https://www.houseplant411.com/glossary/whitefly-plant-pestss, not that we haven’t been have our fair share all fall and winter. Once an insect infects one or your plants, the chances are fairly good that it will spread to the rest if you don’t isolate the infected plant immediately. Removing dead plant debris, providing good air circulation, keeping leaves clean, and never using products like milk or mayonaise to clean the leaves are good preventative measures. Check your plants often, because bugs like AphidsSee a picture, learn to identify, and read about Aphid houseplant pests in the Glossary of Houseplant411.com. reproduce so quickly you may have none one day and a week later have hundreds. Be sure to look at the underside of leaves and stir the soil to see what might be hiding. Keep a package of Yellow Sticky Insect Cards on hand so you can quickly put a few pieces in your plants and start trapping the pests as soon as you see them. Here are the most common insects that attack our houseplants and some pictures to help identify them. You can find more detailed information about Plant PestLearn how to identify and treat the plant pest called Whitefly at https://www.houseplant411.com/glossary/whitefly-plant-pestss and how to get rid of them in the Glossary Section of HousePlant411.

AphidsSee a picture, learn to identify, and read about Aphid houseplant pests in the Glossary of Houseplant411.com.

Fungus GnatsThis small dark skinny pest flies and jumps around plants and people driving us all crazy. Fungus gnats develop in moist potting soil, feeding on root hairs and emerging as adults every 30 days. The best way to get rid of fungus gnats is to allow the soil to thoroughly dry out. This eliminates the eggs and gnats in the pot. Use yellow sticky cards to trap the gnats that are flying around.

Mealy BugsLearn how to identify and treat Mealy Bugs, a houseplant pest that leaves sticky, white, cottony residue on houseplants.

scaleSoft Brown Scale is the most common scale that attacks indoor houseplants especially ficus, ivy, spider plants, ferns, aralia, and schefflera. It appears as small bumpy brown spots that appear to move. As the scale sucks on the sap of the plant it secretes a sticky substance called honeydew. The honeydew attracts black mildew. Because of the shell-like exterior, sprays are only partially effective against scale. Wipe off the lines of brown oval bumps with your finger, a cloth, or a child’s toothbrush then spray the plant with Neem Oil. Use the Green Solution to clean off the black mildew.

thripThrip are tiny winged brown insects that feed on the surfaces of plant leaves, flowers, and buds. They leave silver spots around their feeding areas and dark dots of excrement. Thrip not only weaken plant growth and distort buds and flowers, they transmit viruses from plant to plant as they fly around. The Green Solution, Neem Oil, and Yellow Sticky Cards all are effective in eliminating thrip.s

whiteflyLearn how to identify and treat the plant pest called Whitefly at https://www.houseplant411.com/glossary/whitefly-plant-pests

Last summer our house was overrun by the caterpillar(?) shown in the attached…

Hi
This is not a caterpillar but a millipede. It can live up to seven years in the organic matter in woods and in mulch. As numbers increase and organic matter becomes scarce or dry weather sets in (not likely this year) they tend to migrate to find new feeding areas. They prefer moist, humid areas so your home and cracks in pavement may be a place for them to temporarily reside until better conditions allow them to move on.Control Measures
Millipedes, related to lobsters, crayfish, and shrimp,
require moist habitats and areas of high humidity. It is
important to keep the house and outside area as dry as
possible. OSU has a factsheet 2067A published in 2010, access by going to our website [email protected] In the next couple paragraphs are excerpts of the factsheet :
“Prevention
Millipedes prefer moist, decaying organic matter
(similar to forest soil) and shade. Always keep compost
piles, grass clippings, rotting wood, leaf piles, plant debris,
stones, etc., away from the house foundation as far as
practical to reduce moist, damp, dark places where feeding
and reproduction can occur. Be sure to check for wood
imbedded or buried in the soil.
Also, ivy beds and mulch near the house may become
a favored habitat. Rake and remove trash or leaf litter in
a strip three feet wide surrounding the house foundation
if practical, exposing the soil surface to drying from the
air and sunlight. Repair and seal cracks and openings
in the foundation wall and around door and window
frames with caulking compound, weather stripping, or
door sweeps.
Properly ventilate basements and subfloor crawl spaces
to eliminate excess moisture. Indoors, many will die of
desiccation (drying out) and can be collected by broom
and dustpan, vacuum cleaner, or other mechanical means
and discarded.
Insecticides
Total control of millipedes during migration periods
is difficult. But several insecticides are registered for
“perimeter” treatments. The concept is to apply a barrier of
insecticide that will either repel or kill the millipedes that
try to cross the barrier. Both liquid sprays and granular
formulations are available at most garden centers. These
products should list millipedes on the label as not all
insecticides are able to control these non-insect arthropods.
Retreatments are commonly needed though some
products claim to provide season-long control.
Sprays, fogs, and total-release insecticides (commonly
called bug-bombs) are not effective in preventing millipedes
from entering a home or building. At best, these
may kill any active millipedes, but most of these products
have no long-lasting residual effects”

How to Tell Good Caterpillars from Bad Caterpillars

If you ask any gardener, there are very few “good caterpillars.” These eating machines can lay waste to a garden over the course of a few days and nights, often leaving vegetables inedible and dying.

A few caterpillars, though, are worth celebrating. Among them is the woolly bear caterpillar, a familiar fall sight in cooler regions of North America. Another favorite is the caterpillar that becomes a monarch butterfly. That caterpillar is often reared in special cages as part of a school’s science curriculum.

After those two favorites, the idea of good caterpillars fades fast. In their place is a long list of vegetable, fruit, berry and tree marauders. While these caterpillars serve a place in the ecology of an area, it can be hard to convince any gardener that they should be tolerated since they can so quickly decimate a season’s worth of hard work.

What Are Caterpillars?

Caterpillars are not a type of animal in the same way as, for instance, cats. They are not an individual species or group of species. Instead, caterpillars are the larvae form of butterflies or moths, both of which are insects in the order of Lepidoptera.

Most caterpillars share a number of characteristics, including an elongated body and a hardened head capsule. While it may seem like caterpillars have dozens of legs, the truth is they have only six real legs. Additional sets called “prolegs” are stumpy, used for climbing and not present in their adult form.

Beyond those features, caterpillars can vary widely in appearance. Some have hair, some have spots or stripes and they come in a variety of colors, too.

What Do Caterpillars Eat?

For the most part, caterpillars eat plants to bulk up and fuel the transition into the pupal stage of life. Which plants do they eat? It varies from species to species, which explains why some plants are so vigorously attacked – it’s often the only suitable food available.

What Eats Caterpillars?

Almost every caterpillar can fall victim to a hungry bird. Caterpillars are full of protein and often easy targets for birds. What’s a little more surprising is that wasps and other insects regularly target caterpillars.

Those wasps may eat the caterpillar directly, but are far more likely to use the caterpillar as a host for their own larvae. They lay eggs on the caterpillar, and their larvae eat the host caterpillar as the wasp larvae grow.

Caterpillars on Your Hit List

Many caterpillars are out to destroy your favorite plants, whether they’re after a seasonal vegetable, berries or a favorite tree. Some even target your lawn! Here’s a look at some of the worst:

Armyworm

Armyworm –The armyworm is so named for its troop-like procession as a group eats through all available food sources. Once done, the group marches to the next available food source, essentially decimating all vegetation in its path.

  • Targets: Grass, oats, wheat, fall rye, corn, barley, bean, cabbage, carrot, onion, pea, pepper, radish, sweet potato
  • Features: Mature larvae are about 1 ½ inches long and are dark green to black. Sides have white, orange and brown stripes.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, biological control, parasitic flies, predation

Bollworm

Bollworm – Several species of bollworm exist and many prefer to target cotton plants but they will also infest many other garden vegetables. One species, the corn earworm, is listed below in its own entry.

  • Targets: Cotton, tomato, corn, okra, soybean, potato, pigeon pea, chickpea, cow pea, sorghum, rice,
  • Features: Green and yellow to red-brown in color with a yellow head. Dark stripes along the 1 1/2-inch-long body.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, biological control, careful weeding, winter watering

Cabbage Looper

Cabbage loopers – This well-camouflaged caterpillar chews a variety of holes in cabbage leaves and is a serious pest in many gardens.

  • Targets: Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, many other vegetable crops
  • Features: Green with two white lines down the back and one along each side. Measuring about 1 ½ inches, they move in an inch-worm fashion.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, biological control, hand picking, row covers, weed control in off season

Corn Earworm

Corn earworm (also called tomato fruitworm) – Many consider the corn earworm to be one of the top North American insect pests based on the financial damage it causes to a wide variety of crops.

  • Targets: Primarily corn and tomato, but many other vegetables, field crops, weeds, fruit and berry plants are occasional targets
  • Features: Larvae have an orange or light brown head with a body that can be a variety of colors, including brown, green, pink, yellow or black. Pupae are a mahogany brown.
  • Eradication: Insecticides, biological control

Cutworm

Cutworm – This caterpillar usually attacks a young garden at night, literally chewing through the stem of a young plant. This tactic usually kills the plant shortly thereafter.

  • Targets: Most garden crops
  • Features: Dull brown caterpillar that measures 1 to 2 inches. Additional markings help it blend in with the soil.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, keeping your garden sparse of other plants or weeds, protective borders around stems, hand picking at night

Diamondback Moth Caterpillar (Image courtesy of University of Illinois)

Diamondback Moth – Cabbage and related plants are the prime food for this caterpillar, which probably came from Europe but is now found on several continents including North and South America.

  • Targets: Cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collard, watercress, turnip, radish
  • Features: Green with white spots on a half-inch body that is mostly hairless.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, biological control, heavy rainfall

Fruittree Leafroller

Fruittree leafroller – Feeds on new leaves, giving them a ragged appearance. In order to pupate, they roll and tie fruit tree and ornamental leaves together. Several species of leafroller caterpillars exist.

Green Cloverworm (Image courtesy of Iowa State University)

Green Cloverworm – From from the East Coast to the Great Plains, this worm is commonly found in soybean fields, although it rarely reaches pest levels.

  • Targets: Soybeans, alfalfa, bean, clover, cowpea, strawberry, vetch
  • Features: Pale green with one or two white stripes on each side of the half-inch body.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, biological control, predators, cleaning up debris

Gypsy Moth

Gypsy moth caterpillar – This invasive insect has been spreading from the Northeast since 1900 and reached epidemic proportions in 1980 and 1981. Since that time, massive outbreaks have been rare.

  • Targets: Oak, maple, elm, apple, birch, alder, poplar, willow
  • Features: Look for five pairs of blue spots followed by six pairs of red on its back.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, trapping with burlap rings set at eye level on the trunk

Imported Cabbageworm

Imported cabbageworm – First observed in Quebec, Canada, in the 1860s, by the 1880s it had spread to the Rocky Mountains. It’s now widespread through much of North America.

  • Targets: Cabbage, cauliflower, collard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, horseradish, kale and kohlrabi. Occasionally found on some flowers.
  • Features: Green, velvety appearance measuring a little more than an inch long.
  • Eradication: Insecticides, biological control, row covers

Mimosa webworm – Introduced to the U.S. in the 1940s, this pest spins a web around leaflets and then feeds inside this protective sack.

  • Targets: Mimosa, honeylocust
  • Features: A bit longer than a half-inch, it has a slender gray or dark brown body with five white stripes.
  • Eradication: Insecticides, biological control

Orange Tortrix (Image courtesy of Washington State University)

Orange tortrix – This pest is generally found in California, Oregon and Washington state where they usually target grape plants and make webbing nests among berry clusters. Its feeding habits usually trigger rot around soft tissues.

  • Targets: Apple, grape, avocado, citrus, blackberry, dewberry, raspberry
  • Features: Straw-colored with brown heads. A total length of ½ inch.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, careful cleaning and weeding, parasitic wasps, spiders

Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Tent caterpillar, Eastern – Tent caterpillars, the eastern tent, in particular, were first observed as far back as 1646, and these tent caterpillars experience population outbreaks every eight to 10 years. The presence of tent worms is usually indicated by the appearance of silky bags attached to the crooks of trees.

  • Targets: Cherry, crabapple, apple. Occasionally attacks other deciduous trees and shrubs.
  • Features: Hairy, yellowish-brown 2-inch-long caterpillars with a row of blue spots on their backs.
  • Eradication: Insecticides, removal of nests, removal of egg masses, parasitic wasps, predators

Western Tent Caterpillar

Tent caterpillar, Western – This early-season defoliator usually hita host plants in May and June. Its silken tent is usually the first sign of an infestation.

  • Targets: Aspen, willow, poplar, cottonwood, mountain mahogany, birch, apple, plum, cherry, oak
  • Features: Two-inch-long black body with a white stripe down the back.
  • Eradication: Insecticides, removal of nests, removal of egg masses, parasitic wasps, predators

Tobacco Budworm

Tobacco budworm – This light-colored caterpillar bores into the buds and blossoms of a variety of plants. It is closely related to the corn earworm.

  • Targets: Tobacco, soybean, flax, cotton, clover, alfalfa, tomato, lettuce, cabbage, cantaloupe, pea, squash and many others, including weeds and flowers
  • Features: Green-tinted body with white bands that measures about 1 ½ inches.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, biological control, parasitic wasps, weeding

Tomato Hornworm

Tomato hornworm – This major garden pest targets the upper portions of its host plants with its voracious appetite. Gardeners often have a hard time spotting these large caterpillars because their color camouflages them so well.

  • Targets: Tomato, eggplant, pepper, tobacco, moonflowers, potato
  • Features: A pudgy green caterpillar with v-shaped markings on its sides. A black horn-like protrusion juts from its backside, giving its name.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, biological control, hand picking, parasitic wasps, weeding to limit egg-laying opportunities

Tomato Pinworm

Tomato pinworm – Look for this pest in perpetually warm states, including Texas, California and Florida. Outside of these areas, this worm may appear in greenhouses.

  • Targets: Tomato, eggplant, potato, nightshade family
  • Features: Larvae are tiny (about 1/3 of an inch) and yellowish gray with a small head. Pupae start out green and turn brown and measure about 1/5 of an inch.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, parasitic wasps, thorough cleanup at the end of the growing season since pupae hide in ground debris

Tussock Moth Caterpillar

Tussock moth caterpillar – Found in the south, this hairy caterpillar can defoliate small trees and they assemble hard-to-scrape-off cocoons. Watch out, their hair can be irritating to the skin.

  • Targets: Oak, bald Cyprus, cherry, hackberry, willow, maple, birch
  • Features: Three species exist, but they all have black tufts of hair at the head and rear.
  • Eradication: Insecticide, placing individuals in soapy water or removal of cocoons.

How to Get Rid of Caterpillars

Safer® Brand has several solutions to battle the caterpillars ravaging your lawn, garden and flowerbeds.

Two potent caterpillar fighting products that use biological control are Garden Dust and Caterpillar Killer (available as a 1 gallon concentrate). These solutions incorporate a bacteria to attack the caterpillar from its inside. Once applied to foliage that the caterpillars ingest, the bacteria (bacillus thuringiensis) releases a deadly toxin in the insect’s gut that causes it to stop eating and starve to death. As further measure, the bacteria begin colonizing the creature, eating it alive from the inside.

A third product, Insect Killing Soap, will eliminate caterpillars by using potassium salts of fatty acids to break down the caterpillars’ head capsule. Safer® Brand’s Insect Killing Soap, Garden Dust and the 16 oz. Caterpillar Killer are also certified by OMRI to make them compliant for use in organic production.

Additional methods for fighting caterpillars include hand-picking the insects off affected plants, encouraging predators and removing nests and egg masses from the area. Many gardens will also benefit from a thorough cleanup of debris around the garden at the end of the season since many species will overwinter in leaf litter.

Your Battles with Caterpillars

Are you at odds with some caterpillars in your garden? Let us know all about your struggles! Take a picture of one of the little devils and share it with us when you visit Safer® Brand on Facebook, where you can join in on the conversation with the organic gardening community!

Looking for good info on our products? Subscribe to the Safer® Brand E-Newsletter for special tips and articles to help you in your organic journey.

Moths don’t bite, buzz, or sting — but discover wriggling larvae in your cereal or chewed holes in your cashmere sweaters and it’s clear that a moth infestation is nothing short of super frustrating. Eliminate these fluttering pests from your home by following these easy steps.

Identify whether you have clothes moths or pantry moths.

Homeowners usually come into contact with one of two types of moths: pantry moths and clothes moths. Just like their categories imply, these insects go after different food sources in different parts of the house.

An adult Indian meal moth is usually half an inch long with gray and bronze wings. Getty Images

The pantry variety can include species like the Indian meal moth but most go after grains and dry goods: cereals, crackers, rice, and other stored foods, according to Orkin entomologist Chelle Hartzer. You might notice icky webbing or tiny caterpillars inside your snacks, a not-so-pleasant gift from the pupae and larvae.

The common clothes moth, also called the webbing clothes moth, looks whitish-gold in color. Getty Images

Clothes moths naturally like closets and wardrobes, with the caterpillars relying on natural fibers like linen, wool, silk, or fur for sustenance. Besides holes, these pests can also leave behind shed pupae skins, webbing, and frass, insect excrement that looks like large grains of sand, according to pest management brand Woodstream.

Start cleaning and throw out infested materials.

The first step in stopping a moth infestation is getting out the trash bags. Throw out any potentially contaminated food and get it out of the house.

YOUR PEST PREVENTION GUIDE

If you’re dealing with clothes moths, start making a laundry pile. Wash what you can with hot water and detergent, then dry on low heat to kill larvae, advises Carolyn Forte, Director of the Cleaning Products and Textiles Labs at the Good Housekeeping Institute. Dry cleaning can also debug garments.

In both the kitchen and the closet, vacuum everything: the carpet, walls, baseboards … you name it. Then throw out the vacuum bag right away as it may contain eggs. Finally, scrub shelves and walls thoroughly.

Call in a professional if you can’t identify the source of the problem. A pest control operator can also help with widespread infestations or hard-to-clean items ike moth-infested furniture or rugs.

Skip the mothballs and seal everything up.

Reusable Vacuum Storage Bags Spacesaver amazon.com $29.99

Your grandma’s favorite method is on the outs now that many experts consider the chemicals — naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene — a health risk. California already considers the pesticides known carcinogens, and the European Union has banned naphthalene.

Play it safe and deter clothes moths other ways, Forte advises. Seal seasonal clothing in airtight bags; the vacuum-sealed variety are a good bet. While you can try the natural repellent cedar, don’t rely on it as a quick fix or lasting remedy. The wood’s oils may prevent infestations by harming small larvae, but it won’t clean up existing ones and the effect loses potency after a few years.

In the pantry, stash foods in airtight containers. This has the bonus effect of deterring moisture-loving mold and other pests like ants and cockroaches. It’s also a good idea to check food from the grocery store before bringing it inside too, as that’s how infestations usually start.

Vacuum and clean regularly.

Prevent future pest problems with regular housekeeping. Wiping down surfaces and getting rid of dust, fibers, and crumbs will go a long way. Monitor for signs of moth activity not only in your clothes and food, but other places as well. Pantry moths often go for birdseed, Hartzer says, so keep that away from the house and garage.

According to Woodstream, clothing moths will also find homes in antiques like wool rugs, horsehair-stuffed furniture, preserved animals, piano felt, and old dolls with real hair. Check these items before you snap them up at an estate sale, and inspect them regularly afterwards. Another favorite? Pet fur, so check your dog’s supplies too. Keeping a watchful eye could prevent you another major headache later on.

Question

I found some small earthworms in the soil of one of my houseplants. I think they’re affecting the growth of the plant: it seems to be declining. What should I do to get rid of them?

Paul T.

Answer

Earthworms are not very common in houseplants, largely because the conditions in our homes aren’t much to their liking. Certainly, they can’t reproduce there and, moreover, remain small. Plus, there is often only one or two in the pot, not dozens.

You may occasionally find small earthworms in your houseplants. Photo: http://www.growweedeasy.com

Inevitably, you’ll find earthworms only in plants that spent the previous summer outdoors. The worms moved into the potting soil while the plant was outside and remained prisoners when it was brought back indoors in the fall.

Most home gardeners don’t even notice their plants have worms unless they repot and find worms burrowed in the soil, but sometimes you discover their castings (little heaps of poo) under the pot, near the drainage holes, or see the worms themselves when they rise to the surface after a particularly abundant watering.

You’ll likely only find earthworms in the soil of plants that prefer moist conditions; worms just don’t thrive in soil that dries out completely between waterings.

Normally, earthworms aren’t harmful to plants. On the contrary, they’re beneficial, aerating the soil through their tunnels and enriching it with their castings. But in pots, their main food, the organic matter normally present in soil, isn’t very abundant, especially since most potting soils are largely composed of peat or coir (coco fiber), two materials slow to decompose and mineral-poor offering almost nothing that an earthworm can consume. Under those circumstances, the worms begin to eat the young roots of the plant growing in the pot and that can, of course, hinder its growth, even possibly kill it.

What to Do?

Let’s start with prevention.

Soak the pot in soapy water to chase earthworms out. Ill.: Claire Tourigny & http://www.clipartmax.com

Before bringing your houseplants back indoors in the fall, plunge their pots into a bucket of soapy water and keep them entirely emerged for about 20 minutes or so. Earthworms dislike both water and soap and will rise to the surface, trying to escape. You can then pick them up and put them back in the garden. This will also rid the potting mix of most other soil pests.

If you skipped the first step (soaking the plant before bringing it in), you can also eliminate any worms by letting the potting soil completely dry before watering again. That’s why you rarely find earthworms in pots of succulents and other plants that are allowed to dry out deeply on a regular basis.

If you find them in houseplants that won’t tolerate their soil drying out completely, just repeat the same treatment you should have used in the fall before bringing the plant in: give the entire rootball a 20-minute soak in soapy water, then remove any worms that show up.

In winter, however, you won’t always be able save the worms you find. After all, you can’t successfully release them outdoors if the ground is frozen. Instead, try putting them in your compost bin: it may be just warm enough to keep them alive. Otherwise… well, let’s just say that dead earthworms are an excellent composting material!

Earthworms are a great companion of plants, although you should remember that they did not evolve to strive in a “relatively small pot – Photo by Dodo-Bird in Flickr

Looking at my little basil plant I was wondering if having worms in its soil might be of any good for it. After all many people mentioned their benefit. Hence, I did a bit of research to figure it out if that’s the case and here is what I surprisingly found.

Hence, can worms be beneficial for indoor plants? Worms can be beneficial for indoor plants although only if they find enough nutrients in the soil, otherwise they might start eating the plant’s roots. Moreover, care is required to make such animals thrive in the confined environment of a container making them less attractive options for indoor plants.

It is interesting to notice that there is a significant amount of different opinions on the matter even among experienced gardeners that I will share with you in the following.

Earthworms and Indoor Plants, not Exactly the Best Companions

The most striking outcome of my research was the absence of a unique opinion on a subject, that, apparently is not as simple as it might sound.

From one side we have those gardeners (even with decades of experience) that, no matter what, claim that worms are the best companion for any plants. From the other side we have another group of experienced gardeners, botanists and even academics who claim that, in certain conditions, worms can be more harmful than good, especially for indoor plants.

I have been convinced by the argument shown by the latter for one simple reason. I totally agree that earthworms and plant evolved to be the plant best companion (helping each other). However, did this happened inside a 5-inch container? No! This mutual adaptation happened in open space with specific conditions that the confined environment of a container might not be able to guarantee at all time.

To better understand this concept I will guide you through the benefits (few of them pretty unusual) in having worms in your plant soil highlighting how, such advantages, might be a problem for an indoor plant:

  • Earthworms move through the soil mixing it as a consequence. This allows air to circulate and consequently roots to breath very easily. This is extremely important for the well being of any type of plant, either in a pot or in a garden;

  • Earthworms usually eat decaying organic matter. This might be produced by decaying leaves, dead insects or dead small animals (and their corresponding casting) when they land on the soil in the proximity of the plant. This material is all over the place in the open space of a garden. Is that the same for an indoor plant? The soil of an indoor plant is, almost by definition (as indoor) poorer in decaying organic matter. Indeed, you might remove dead leaves from the soil, you might not have insects around (we are inside a house) even less decaying small animals. Moreover, the soil used for plants that you might find in the supermarket is really poor in such worm nutrients that in a more diverse and open environment are easier to be found. So you might likely end up with an indoor plant with a “too” clean soil from which worms cannot find enough food.
  • Worms are converting machine that eats decaying matter and produce/transform in nutrients through excrements (yes, poop also called casting or worm manure) that is one of the best food for plants. Indeed, it is rich in nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (whose importance has been mentioned in this article). These nutrients are also slowly released in the soil, positive aspect for the good growth of your herb, as this casting is covered in a gel produced by the worm. However, for the previous point, if there is not much food around, the worms might not be able to produce the precious casting (and survive in the first place)
  • What happens in case the worms get too many? In an open garden is not a problem as they have plenty of space. However, this does not apply for a small container. Such worms might escape through the drainage holes looking for food or more space. Having them in the kitchen counter where you might have placed your potted herb might not be the best of the experiences. Either case that’s a problem that only indoor plant owner might face as, again, space is not an issue in a garden. This, in turn, requires extra attention in not overfeeding worms in a container;
  • Earthworms require constantly moist soil to develop. At the same time, you cannot exaggerate with water otherwise, to avoid drawing they will go to the surface and you might find them in the kitchen counter or on the floor! However, such moisty soil might not be suitable for a few herbs such as rosemary thrive more in dry soil, where worms will have a hard time to survive.

Earthworms require constantly moist soil – Photo by USDAgov from Flickr

  • Do worms eat roots? This is the last but most important topic of all in which I noticed the highest disagreement even among really expert gardeners. Many claims that worms will never eat “living” roots, only those that are already decaying. However, also many sustain that in emergency and lack of food, worms have the capability to eat living roots. Recent studies, even under the attention of the BBC (UK national television channel), demonstrated that actually, earthworms eat living/healthy plant roots.

Hence, in general, earthworms can be good for an indoor plant, however, the attention you should pout on it, in my opinion, does not worth the effort. Indeed, you need to be careful to not overwater the plant, to not overfeeding them (otherwise they will become to many for your container), not underfeeding (otherwise might start feeding on the plant).

For such reasons, especially if you are a beginner in managing herbs, I do not suggest to use worms. However, if you still want to go ahead, it is possible to grow them and use at the advantage of your herb (and also have a lot of fun!).

Where Can you find Earthworms For your indoor plants?

Hence, you decided to go for earthworms for your indoor pot! But, where to find them? There are two options: Worm hunting or buy them (a bit boring, but quick). I guess you know which one is my favorite.

Worm hunting: I suggest going to a park after a rainy day for some digging. Little advice: in some countries, you might not be able to dig public soil without permission. However, for a few worms should not be a problem and, if you are lucky, you might not even need to dig at all. Use your worst clothes as you might get a bit dirty/wet.

Once in the hunting field (park) look for spots with birds walking on the ground. If so you are lucky, these are likely to be areas with worms. If the rain was heavy you might also find worms that got lost and are wondering on the nearby road, pathway. I usually go for them as easy to catch.

Earthworm on clear sight on a footpath probably close to a green area. This happens after a heavy rain that flooded the worm canals -Photo by Jo Naylor from Flickr

If you are not that lucky you need to get dirty and start digging. You might found that around the web a few suggests using a trowel, but honestly, I do not see the point as you might slice your precious little friend with it. Worms are quite delicate. Once you manage to take them out would place them, with the same soil, in a small plant container that you might need to cover to avoid worm invading your car.

Buy worms: even online is a good option. Yes, they are going to deliver to your door a little plastic box containing dozens or hundreds of such living creatures. But do not worry, for them, earthworms, in the right container, can easily survive a few days of delivery time. Remember to go for “earthworms garden” otherwise you might come up with worms for fishing or for compost purposes.

The problem with such an approach is that you are forced to buy lots of worms (they are sold in hundreds), way more than what you might need for a couple of indoor herbs. However, the prices are pretty competitive with 200+ worms (way too much than enough for an indoor plant) for around 10 dollars.

How To Feed Earthworms?

As I said earlier you do not want your worms to get hungry otherwise they will start eating your plant’s roots or they will go to the surface (and out of the pot) looking for food. Hence, what and how should we give them?

Simple, you need to provide them decaying matter that they typically find in open space. Worms are pretty adaptable and can “eat” a significant variety of food, with few exceptions.

You can add organic matter such old leaves, compost, bark (you can find the latter online). For an even more simple solution “made yourself”, you might use fruit and vegetable scraps (for instance the peel of a fruit, the outer layer of an onion, a rotten apple that you might have forgotten in the counter, tomato, eggshell, bead, teabags, rest of a salad that you did not finish).

Such food should be buried a few centimeters below the soil level and made in small pieces (ideally using a grinder) so that your worms can feed it. Also, the coffee ground can be used, but in moderation, as this will make the soil acidic (and worms, as well as a few plants, do not thrive in such soils). Avoid meat, any fatty, processed and dairy products.

In my opinion, this is the best way to feed your worms for a simple practical reason: given the limited amount of worms you will have (I am talking about indoor plants, in relatively small pots) you will not need to produce kgs of food scraps daily. So what a normal family (or even one person) can produce is, in general, more than enough.

As always there is the lazy solution, buy the so-called “worm food” (just google it when you buy it online) that you might need to mix with the soil of your plant. This looks like regular soil but in reality, is a mixture of grated of organic matter coming from different sources (such cereal), specifically designed for worms.

However, I do not recommend this path as you need to buy kgs of them at once, way too much for a few herbs in indoor containers and more suitable for gardeners with many plants on an outside field.

On a side note, ideally, you should feed your worm with an average daily amount of food equal to half their body weight (less is still ok, but not more). I do recommend to weight the worm you put in, so you can have a rough idea on who much food scarp or worm food you need to put. Indeed, you do not want to overfeed them otherwise their population might grow dramatically with the risk that most of them will escape from the container for lack of space.

Related Questions

Do earthworms bite? No, earthworms do not bite, although some other type of worms can.

How long do earthworms live? Depending on the species of earthworms for up to 9 years, although some claimed that can live up to 20 years.

Further Reading

What Fertilizer Should You Use For Your Basil?

Tips to grow massive basil

Best potting soil for your herbs

Growing potted plants using healthy soil will create nothing but good garden produce. Whether you’ll be growing fruits, vegetables, herbs, or even flowers, planting these in soil that is well-nourished, will develop well through time; more so when you pot them using red wigglers castings. Compost from worms are food waste that are broken down during a quick timeframe. These organic scraps, in their finer and richer form, will also return back to the earth with more nutrients in tow. Apart from its other beneficial uses, it also helps support all the other microbes that also depend on the soil for their survival.

Red worms castings

The physical look of worm castings actually resemble that of the soil from the ground. It’s crumbly to the touch, and is also dark-brown in shade (although it’s also been referred to as black topsoil).

The benefits to using red wiggler worms castings

Red wiggler worms are certainly important organisms that can truly help build beneficial soil. Besides turning organic wastes into rich soil, red worms also have the ability to aerate the soil that they’re in, (helps introduce oxygen into the soil), and also enhances the soil conditions for all the other beneficial organisms present in the soil (such as good bacteria, fungus, etc.).

The Eisenia foetida (the scientific name for red wiggler worms) worm is actually a vegetarian. It only means that this earthworm only eats off of natural materials (except for a few wastes such as meat or poultry, as these are much harder to breakdown). Now the great thing about this worm is their digestive process since they help create soil that is made out of decomposing organic wastes. They can certainly consume a selection of kitchen scraps and garden wastes, and have these excreted into a nutrient-rich kind of soil amendment and organic fertilizer.

The value of worm castings to potted plants

The application of worm castings on potted plants can be very beneficial in several ways as it allows the nutrients to be made readily available to the plants (as opposed to chemical fertilizers that still needs to be broken down through a certain period of time). It can help improve the structure of the soil, help improve its water retention ability, as well as keep the soil healthy and protected from potential diseases. A worn out soil, when applied with worm compost can be gradually brought back to its best shape (applying red wigglers castings can also help prevent soil compaction, therefore lets the roots to spread expansively). When the soil is healthy, organic matter such as plants will be able to develop further and increase in yield. Plants that are rooted into a well-nourished system will also be warded off of plant diseases.
Uncle Jim’s recommends 1000 Red Wigglers

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