If you’ve gardened for any amount of time, then chances are you’ve gone from Hmm, why does this leaf look funny? to Wait, what are those tiny green bugs on my plant? to Oh no! It’s an aphid infestation! in about five seconds flat. Aphids are pretty much ubiquitous in the vegetable garden—they are, unfortunately, one of the most common pests gardeners have to deal with.
If left unchecked, aphids can go forth and multiply quickly, and heavy infestations can mean significant damage to your plants. Don’t stress though. You’re not going to leave this problem unchecked. Because you’re here, and guess what? We’ve got effective ways to control aphid infestations, plus some tricks to keep your plants healthy and protect your vegetable garden from future issues.
Before we look at some natural and organic remedies to get rid of aphids, let’s make sure we’re talking about the same pest.
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HOW TO IDENTIFY APHIDS
Aphids are small, soft-bodied insects—they’re so small, in fact, that they make a tasty little snack for ladybugs, which are pretty small themselves. The aphids on your plants might come in various colors, including green, black, brown, orange, yellow, or even pinkish red, depending on their species. Most are wingless.
The telltale indicator that the little bugs on your plants are indeed aphids is their number. They almost always come in large groups. It’s a whole aphid party. Every aphid in the area was invited and RSVP’d yes, and the venue is the underside of the leaves and along the stems of your plants.
SIGNS OF AN APHID INFESTATION
I always say the best form of pest control is the gardener’s shadow. What I mean by this is, just checking on your plants every single day can go a long way in preventing major issues. For aphids, you’ll want to examine the underside of leaves, particularly soft new leaves, which aphids prefer to older leaves. Recently, I realized I had an aphid problem on my mizuna plants when I noticed a ton of little off-white dots in the very interior of my plant where the new leaves emerge.
You might notice dark spots on your plant leaves where the aphids have sucked out the juices. In heavier infestations, the leaves of your plants will curl up and die. You might also notice a sticky sap-like substance on the leaves. This is an aphid’s… let’s say secretions, known euphemistically as honeydew. This sugary sap attracts ants. Thus, another sign you’ve got an aphid problem is ants crawling all over your plants. (Since ants enjoy honeydew so much, they sometimes fight off natural predators of aphids, which can make your aphid problem even worse.)
Signs of an aphid infestation include:
- curling leaves
- lots of soft little bodies on the bottoms of leaves or along stems
- dark spots on leaves
- sticky residue on leaves
- ants on plants
WHICH PLANTS DO APHIDS ATTACK?
Aphids have their plant preferences, just like we do. The aphids that were attacking my mizuna plants, for example, left my lettuces, which were right next door, completely alone.
Aphids most commonly attack the following plants:
- bok choy
- mustard greens
- Swiss chard
HOW TO GET RID OF APHIDS
The sheer volume of aphids on your plants can make them a little more difficult to get rid of than, say, a single hornworm that you can just pick off and toss into soapy water. That being said, aphids are pretty simple to take care of as long as you’re willing to check back every day and repeat treatments as needed.
The following are organic options to rid your garden of aphids. There’s really no need for sprays with a bunch of ingredients you can’t even pronounce to fight these tiny pests.
Attract Beneficial Insects and Natural Predators
Nature can sometimes take care of problems for you, especially if you give it a little nudge. A long-term strategy to control aphids in your garden is to encourage the presence of natural predators like ladybugs, parasitic wasps, and lacewings. These are all beneficial insects that keep aphid populations in check.
To attract these garden good guys, plant lots of flowers like marigolds and yarrow, plus plants like dill and fennel, which are basically magnets for aphid predators.
Spray Your Plants with Water
Before I ever use any kind of pesticide to treat smaller pests, I first spray my affected plants with a strong stream of water from my garden hose for several days in a row. This scatters aphids about, and the displaced little bugs are actually really bad at regrouping.
Make a Homemade Soap Spray
If spraying your plants with water for several days in a row doesn’t help, then you can make a mild soap spray from Castile soap or dish soap and water. Soap works to remove the protective coat around soft-bodied insects like aphids, which causes their bodies to dehydrate. To be effective, however, this solution must be sprayed directly on their bodies.
Mix about 4 teaspoons of soap per gallon of water in a spray bottle. Spray the top and underside of your leaves where these pests like to hang out. (Make sure to do a test run on a small section of a plant first and then wait for a few days to check for damage.) Reapply every couple of days until your aphid problem is resolved.
Shop Castile Soap on Amazon.
Apply Organic Pesticides
Apart from soapy water sprays, there are a few organic pesticides that can help control aphids. These commercial products include:
This is a naturally derived pesticide that’s long been used to control pests like aphids and spider mites in the garden. It can, however, be bad for bees and can even burn your plants, which is why I only recommend turning to these products if spraying with soapy water hasn’t done the trick. Make sure to dilute Neem oil with water according to the instructions on the bottle, and then just spray it on the affected plants after doing a test on a small portion of the plant. When I have used Neem oil, I’ve found it to be quite effective.
Shop Neem oil on Amazon.
-Captain Jack’s Insecticidal Super Soap
This is an insecticidal soap that comes ready to spray right on plants. It’s an organic product that kills on direct contact and through ingestion.
Shop Captain Jack’s Soap on Amazon.
-Arber’s Bio Insecticide
I have recently started using products from Arber and am loving the results. Their organic bio insecticide uses good bacteria to fight off pests like aphids but is harmless to beneficial insects.
Shop Arber’s bio insecticide here.
image source: growarber.com
Apply a Cayenne Pepper Spray
Aphids are repelled by the pungent smell of hot peppers like cayenne. You can make your own hot pepper spray by mixing a tablespoon of cayenne pepper powder with a quart of water. Let the mixture sit overnight, then strain it and pour it into a spray bottle. Apply the spray to the affected plants, paying extra attention to new growth and the underside of leaves. This homemade pepper spray acts as a deterrent and helps protect your plants from aphids.
5 WAYS TO PREVENT APHID INFESTATIONS
When it comes to keeping creepy crawlies like aphids out of your garden, it’s often better to focus on prevention. Trust me, it’s much better to prevent an outbreak from occurring in the first place than to deal with a full-blown infestation.
Here are some preventative measures you can take:
One – Cover Your Garden with Garden Mesh
Adding a physical barrier to your garden is the simplest, most effective method of organic pest control. Simply lay ag fabric garden netting or mesh over you garden as soon as you plant seeds or starter plants. That way, aphids never even have a chance to come into your garden and attack your plants, much less lay their teeny tiny aphid eggs.
The holes in the mesh are small enough to keep aphids and other pests out, while letting in water, air, and sunlight. Plus, you can still see your plants to check in on them. Plants like herbs and leafy greens can be grown entirely under garden mesh. Fruiting plants that need pollination will require you to open the mesh and give pollinators access to the flowers during the day during fruit production.
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Two – Add Plants That Aphids Hate to Your Garden Space
Certain plants can actually deter aphids. These include marigolds, chives, mint, and garlic. These plants release scents that repel aphids and other garden pests, so you’ll want to plant them throughout your garden space.
Three – Water Your Garden Consistently
Stressed out plants literally call out to pests. (It’s true! Just because we can’t hear thirsty plants screaming for water doesn’t mean pests can’t.) Aphids and other critters know that plants are less able to defend themselves when they’re stressed. That’s why maintaining healthy plants is essential in preventing aphid problems.
Water your plants consistently, prune them regularly to maintain good air circulation, and give them compost and other nutrients. Overall, well-nourished and robust plants are simply more resistant to aphid infestations.
Four – Check Your Garden Daily
Make it a habit to regularly inspect your plants, especially the undersides of leaves where aphids often hide. By catching early signs of aphids, you can take immediate action and prevent their population from growing. Remember, your best defense is your shadow.
Five – Plant Flowers to Attract Beneficial Insects
Have you heard the quote “If you build it, they will come”? Well, for your garden, think “If you plant them, they will come.” In this case, the “them” that you’re planting are flowers, and the “they” that will come are ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Flowering plants provide nectar for these gardening good guys as a thank you for transferring their pollen around.
Remember how aphids hate the smell of marigolds? Guess which bugs are drawn to marigolds. Ladybugs. You can also attract ladybugs with flowers like echinacea, sweet alyssum, cosmos, calendula, and zinnias.
Your garden is a little ecosystem. Aphids may be pests to you, but they’re also important food sources for predatory insects. If you see a little aphid party here and there but you know you’ve got ladybugs coming to your garden regularly, you can rest easy.
I know dealing with pests like aphids can be frustrating, but keep in mind that pests are a part of nature. Outdoor plants grown organically are going to be home to some things that you wish weren’t crawling across your food. It just happens.
Give your harvests a good washing and know that you’re growing and eating something so delicious every bug around wants a bite. Throw yourself a little people party to celebrate all the good you’re doing in your garden by not reaching for synthetic chemical pesticides at the first sign of pest pressure.
Remember, it’s not our job as gardeners to weed out every ounce of wildlife from our gardens. Aim to keep your plants happy by protecting them and giving them a healthy environment to grow in, plus regular watering and tending. Then, when necessary, use moderate pest control methods. That’s the best way to keep pests at bay and maintain a thriving garden.
Let us know if you have any questions about dealing with aphids in the comments below! Happy gardening!