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Back to My Roots

Let’s talk about pests, baby: Spider mite edition

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It’s that time of year when seasons change and the bugs come out. My first real encounter with a pest outbreak came last spring with the surprise arrival of both spider mites and fungus gnats. Needless to say, I freaked.

I watch a lot of plant content, so I knew about pests and what to watch out for; but for some reason, I thought it would never happen to me. Well, surprise — plants get pests!

Now that I’m on the other side, I’ve found that most of the time, pests aren’t a big deal and can be treated easily with household items. 

The pests that make the most frequent appearance in my collection are spider mites. Spider mites are classified as a type of arachnid, making them relatives of spiders, ticks, and scorpions. They tend to be reddish brown or white, depending on their current life cycle stage, and typically hide on the backs of leaves near the petiole or stem. They’ll also create web systems on the leaves that are difficult to see with the naked eye, unless you know what you're looking for.

In my experience with spider mites, they look like a cluster of white dots. There will be webs that extend from the petiole to the leaf lobe.

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Spider mites latch onto leaves, sometimes burrowing into any grooves on the leaf shape, and proceed to suck the life out of the plant. An indicator that you might have spider mites, even if you don’t see webbing, is small dots of discoloration on the leaves. These dots will either be muted spots of color or white spots. This is where the spider mites sucked the plant fluids from. This process will eventually kill off the leaf and, if not prevented, may kill the whole plant. 

To inspect for spider mites on plants, shine a flashlight on the backs of the leaves and pay close attention to the petiole area. The webs will reflect the light and you can usually spot the outbreak. If you don’t see anything there, check the front of the leaf as well; I’ve had plants that only had an outbreak on the top of the leaf, which was odd, but it helped me treat the issue sooner. 

Basic spider mite treatment includes washing off the leaves; because spider mites thrive in dry environments, this disruption will cause them to leave. Some people simply blast their infested plants with water and thereby rid themselves of the spider mites.

Another easy treatment method is mixing water, hydrogen peroxide, and dish soap in a spray bottle, shaking it up, and going at your plant with full force. I don’t have a real recipe for the amounts and mostly eyeball the measurements each time, making sure to only use a splash or two of the hydrogen peroxide.

Using the concoction, coat the entirety of the plant’s leaves, not just the visibly infested one, and make sure to give a little spray to the soil while you're at it for good measure. 

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With this mixture on the leaves, I then like to use an old paintbrush and follow the natural shape of the leaf to help disrupt any spider mites hiding in the plant grooves. There is some controversy about this physical removal method, because some people worry that it actually spreads the spider mites. In my opinion, this technique helps get rid of them better, but everyone has their own experiences with pests.

Another great alternative is using neem oil in a spray bottle. Neem oil, a naturally occurring pesticide, is a tried-and-true method for a lot of folks. While I agree that it works, a lot of people have trouble with the strong smell.

I’ve purchased mine prediluted and ready-to-use from Lowe’s or Home Depot, though most local nurseries should have the oil as well. If you purchase neem oil concentrate, make sure to dilute it before using it on the leaves. If you don’t dilute, the neem oil will damage the leaves.

I also enjoy using an insecticidal soap spray for treatment to cover all of my bases. 

With any of these methods, you’ll need to repeat them a few times to ensure you’ve killed all of the pests. Make sure to check surrounding plants for any infestations, because spider mites do spread very easily and quickly. If possible, affected plants should be quarantined.

I tend to use a mix of the aforementioned methods over the course of a week to treat the pest outbreak and ensure the plant is healthy before returning it to its home.

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During my first outbreak, I felt as though I had failed as a plant owner. I felt so awful about how infested some of the plants were. How could I not have known this was going on? How did I let 30 plants get spider mites before I noticed?

If you’re not properly inspecting and practicing pest management, pests will happen. But even if you are doing those things, pests can still happen. It’s just part of owning plants. All you can do is get moving and start addressing it.

Reach Health & Wellness Editor Iseabel Nance at arts@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @iseabel

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