A houseplant infested with insects, woodpecker control and seed-starting mix
Q: I’ve been interested in the recent questions about jade plants. I’ve been raising these succulents for decades, but twice I’ve run into issues with a bug that spreads from plant to plant and is encased in tiny white fluffy balls with some webby growth between leaves. What causes the problem and will I need to completely replace the soil now that I’ve unpotted and thrown out the infected plant? — Susan Johnson, Fargo.
A: Your description and photo depict mealybugs, which are slow-moving insects that protect themselves with a covering of cottony or waxy growth. Mealybugs suck sap from leaves and stems, often injecting toxins or plant pathogens into host plants, causing premature leaf drop, dieback and eventually death if left unchecked.
As they feed, they excrete a sticky substance referred to as honeydew. Each adult can lay up to 600 eggs. After hatching into a brief crawler stage, mealybugs insert their needlelike stylet to feed, and usually remain anchored in that spot permanently.
Throwing out severely infested plants is sometimes the best practical solution. If only a few insects are seen, pick them off or dab each one with an alcohol-soaked cotton swab. A forceful spray of lukewarm water can sometimes dislodge mealybugs. If spray-type houseplant insecticides are tried, such as neem oil, insecticidal soap, pyrethrum or others, thoroughly saturate the insects and their coverings. Systemic granular houseplant insecticides applied to the soil can be very effective, as they’re taken up by the plant, killing insects as they suck sap.
Replacing soil can help, but mealybugs and their eggs can hide in plant crevices, so additional measures are usually necessary.
Q: I just saw your article in which you mentioned woodpecker damage. I have a garage with natural cedar siding and trim. The pileated woodpeckers used to tear out large chunks of wood, and I thought you might be interested in the way I found to discourage them. — Al Martin, Merrifield, Minn.
A: Thanks, Al. When we discussed woodpecker damage to tree trunks previously, we mentioned using sticky Tanglefoot at first sign of activity, or scare-type materials. When woodpeckers attack wood siding, Tanglefoot would make a mess, and scare tactics are often best.
Al describes the method he found effective: “I decided to try the plastic tape used by surveyors, cut into strips about 5 feet long, attached to the building corners with push pins. The tape comes in orange and also a light fluorescent green, which seemed more aesthetic. I put two strips on each corner, and as breezes blow, the tape scares off the woodpeckers. Some years ago, small birds were crashing into my large picture window. I attached two 4-foot strips to the middle of the window, and it seemed to stop the bird deaths."
Q: I know it’s too early for starting seeds indoors, but I’m getting the itch. I’ve got fresh potting mix left from a large bag I bought for houseplants. Would that be a good mix for starting seeds? — Dan M., Fargo.
A: It’s better to use mixes that are specially formulated and labeled for starting seeds. Such mixes are usually finer textured than other potting mixes, which is especially important when planting small seeds.
Garden centers sell seed-starting mixes like Jiffy Mix and Miracle-Gro. Locally owned greenhouses might have a brand they use and recommend.
Because seed-starting mixes are usually very dry in the bag, always moisten and stir the day before intended use. Then fill seed trays with this lightly moistened, mellow mix, plant the seeds and then water with lukewarm water.
Your leftover houseplant potting mix can be used when it’s time to transplant the seedlings out of the seed tray and into cell-packs or pots.
If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler, NDSU Extension-Cass County, at email@example.com or call 701-241-5707. Questions with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.