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Seymore J. Sunshine keeps a close eye on his plants.

He's on his bug patrol. And they can't hide under leaves or in the soil from his expert eyes.

"I look every day," said Sunshine, a master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County. "It's a lot easier if you catch the problem early."

When he sees a stray bug, he zaps it with a spray, usually containing only soap and water.

Mites, mealybugs, aphids, thrips, fungus gnats, whiteflies and scale all love to attack houseplants. They sneak into homes on clothing, through windows or on new plants.

But you can control and sometimes even kill -- these pests. Sunshine cleansed a greenhouse infected by whiteflies and other pests using only soap, water, oil and alcohol.

There are thousands of home remedies and commercial products. Every gardener swears by something different. Trial and error is the only way to find out what works best for you and your plants.

Before trying a treatment, test it on a few leaves and wait a day to see if it does any damage. Some plants, such as African violets, are more sensitive than others. Using warm water instead of cold water may may minimize damage.

As soon as you see a bug on a plant, isolate that plant. This keeps the problem from spreading. However, you may want to treat all plants in that area. Whenever you bring a new plant into the house, isolate it for at least a few weeks and as long as a few months. Some critters, such as mites (considered one of the hardest pests for the home gardener to eradicate), can take a while to appear.

Next, try to identify the pest. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County (652-5400) or your local nursery may be able to help. Do not bring sick plants into nurseries. They don't want your bugs. Instead, leave it in your car and ask someone to come outside, or put part of the plant in a sealed Zip Lock bag.

Often the problem with a plant is not a bug at all. Often the problem is with water, fertilizer or light. It might also be a fungus or a mold.

Even if you know which bug is bothering your plants, you may have to experiment to find the treatment that works best.

A good first step with most bugs is to put some tin foil around the base of the plant and put the plant under running water to knock off the bugs. This works especially well with aphids and whiteflies. You can also vacuum the bugs off some plants.

Then, remove the tin foil and spray the plant with either insecticidal soap or a tablespoon of dish washing detergent such as Joy or Dawn mixed with one gallon of water. You can also dip smaller plants into the solution.

Insecticidal soap does not do the same thing as dish washing detergent. Insecticidal soaps are made of potassium salts of fatty acids and are less likely to harm plants. Dish washing detergent is designed to dissolve grease, not kill insects, and may dissolve the waxy cuticle on the surface of leaves.

"Make sure you get it under the leaves and on the soil," said Fran Evans, a master gardener with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Erie County. "That's where they lay eggs."

Leave on for a hour or so and then rinse the soap off the plant.

"With any of these treatments, you have to repeat on a two- to three-day schedule for at least two weeks," Evans said. "You have to pick up all the hatching eggs. That's true whether you use natural or chemical treatments."

For some insects, such as mealybugs, alcohol works better than soap. Mix one cup of isopropyl alcohol with one quart of water and spray on the plant.

Another solution is oil. It works especially well on scale, aphids and whiteflies.

Many gardeners swear by horticultural oils such as neem oil, a natural insecticide that is absorbed by the plant, making it a systemic treatment.

Other gardeners prefer a homemade recipe. Take one cup of vegetable oil and add one tablespoon of dish washing detergent such as Joy or Dawn. Add one to two tablespoons of the soap and oil mixture to one cup of water and spray.

If these remedies don't work, some gardeners will use more aggressive pesticides. Just like less toxic treatments such as soap, pesticides must be applied repeatedly over several weeks. They're not a shortcut.

Only use these pesticides if the label says to use them on your specific plant and for your specific pest.

One of the most common pesticides are pyrethrins. Although they are an extract of the chrysanthemum flower (pyrethrum), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classifies them as pesticides and gardeners should use caution when applying.

Pyrethrins are often sold in a solution that also contains rotenone, a tropical plant extract that the EPA also classifies as a pesticide requiring caution.

However, both pyrethrins and rotenone break down quickly and have low toxicity.

The last resort of many gardeners is malathion, an organophosphate.

It disrupts the nervous system in insects and can affect the nervous system in humans. Like pyrethrins and rotenone, malathion breaks down quickly, but all pesticides pose some danger to humans and pets.

Weight the risks and benefits. Sometimes the best course of action is to throw a plant away and buy another.

Steps in dealing with bugs

1. Isolate the plant.

2. Identify the bug, if possible.

3. Test any solution on a few leaves before applying to the entire plant.

4. Try insecticidal soap or dish washing detergent.

5. Try isopropyl alcohol or an oil.

6. Consider using more aggressive pesticides.

7. Throw out and replace the plant.


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