Pest Problems Related to Indoor Plants

Mealy bugs by mpshadow2003

TheGardenLady received this question from Ben about pests problems with indoor planting.

I know you have answered a few questions on dormitory planting before, and I have settled on starting with an Aspidistra and branching out once I’m comfortable with what seems to be a relatively easygoing plant. I’m simply looking to spruce up my room aside from the obvious posters and lights, so a plant and a small fish tank are on my to-do list this summer.

However, no one seems to address any kinds of pest problems related to indoor planting. Are there any major bug issues I should watch out for when dealing with dorm room plants? I have a room to myself as a Resident Advisor next year, so a south-facing window sill will be available year-round in Midwest temperate weather.

I like to keep the window open during the day so stagnant air should not be a problem, but I worry that circulation will increase the risk of infection either to or from the plant(s).

If I have missed anything or made some kind of gross assumption, your input would be much appreciated. Thanks!

You want to be prepared. Though you are correct to be concerned about raising plants indoors, most people have plants indoors and get away without serious problems. Raising plants indoors would not be such a popular hobby if there were that much to worry about.

Since all living organisms can have problems, I hope you are aware that fish can have health problems in their tank.  I remember how sad we were when our fish developed a disease known by its abbreviated name, ich.  We knew something was wrong in our first aquarium when we saw all those white spots on the fish. But raising fish is still popular and fun. You just have to be vigilant to see that everything in the tank is healthy.

You are wise to start with plants that have few problems and will tolerate benign neglect like the aspidistra, also known as the cast iron plant (for good reason) and  sansevieria commonly called Mother-in-law plant. TheGardenLady believes it is more satisfying to have plants that are not difficult to raise in a dorm room. You want the rewards of easy care plants at this stage of your life.   Also, because you are a college student who will be busy and may not have time to devote to the plants even if you want to.

Problems of plants can be abiotic or biotic. Abiotic problems are the nonliving factors that can affect your plant. Is the plant in the best environment to thrive and if it isn’t how can one improve the environment? By providing the best environment for the plants, you prevent problems.

You do have to concern yourself with the amount of light and heat in your dorm. For example, even though TheGardenLady has lots of south facing windows, these windows are surrounded by trees and shrubs so that there is not enough light for flowering plants indoors unless I were to use grow lights. How can I tell that the plant doesn’t have enough light? One thing I can do is just look at the color of the leaves to tell me if the plant has enough light. Does the plant have proper drainage? When you open a window in the winter for circulation will the plants freeze?

Biotic means problems that are caused by living factors which can include insects, fungus or bacteria. These are the concerns that your email seems to be most concerned about.

But abiotic and biotic problems go hand in hand. When the plant is stressed or weakened from abiotic reasons like overwatering or improper temperature, these weaken the plant which makes it more vulnerable to biotic problems. A plant that is stressed is a plant that is vulnerable.

Let’s take the abiotic problem of over watering. Excess water can cause the roots of the plants to not get enough oxygen which can kill a plant. Or over watering can cause a fungus in the soil to become active and cause the root to rot. How will you know if the root is rotten? The plant will probably topple over. And if the root rot is from the fungus, the root when pulled out will stink.

I hope all this hasn’t frightened you. I want to be reassuring. Plants really are not that difficult to care for and almost everyone does have success raising them. Plants want to live and most problems will be curable. So what should you do?

There used to be an expression that said, “Talk to your plants.” People used to laugh when they said a person talked to his/her plants because they thought plant talkers were a little “off their rocker.” Those who laughed were taking this expression a little too literally. (Of course, you have my permission to take it literally and talk all you want to your plants.) But you should take the expression to mean that you go over to your plants fairly regularly to inspect them to see if you notice anything different about them. Check the leaves to see if they are turning brown. Turn the leaves over and look underneath. Check the stems and branches. What are you looking for? You are looking for something different that you hadn’t noticed the day before when you were “talking to your plants.” You might see that the leaves don’t look quite right yellow or you might see what looks like white spots, except that these spots fly up when the leaves are hit. Or you might see a scale substance on the stems or branches of the plants or on the veins of the leaves. Or you might see that your plants are perfectly fine and healthy and happy.

Some of the more common insects that can attack indoor plants are the whitefly, scale and mealy bugs.  You can read about them here.

Whitefly by Mean and Pinchy

Whiteflies are tiny, heart-shaped flies that rest in very large numbers on the undersides of leaves. When you touch the plant, the flies will fly out in a cloud. Mealy bugs look like bits of cotton that are stuck on the plant. Scale is harder to see because they might just look like little bumps on the plant.

There are many books written on the subject of plant problems. Scientists are constantly working on the problems. But if you are bringing in healthy plants and know what these plants look like in a healthy state, then if you have problems, you can see what the best treatment to get rid of the problems will be. Sometimes the treatment is as easy as a hard spraying of water on the insects on the plant. If you do get a problem perhaps your college or university has a green house where they will ID the insect and tell you how to treat it. But let us hope that your dorm plants will stay happy and healthy under your good care and watchful eye.

If this didn’t quite answer the question you had, don’t hesitate to write again.

Good luck.

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