Last month, my column was all about rooting for the underdog and being willing to open up to the possibility that certain “nuisances,” like weeds, are actually quite beneficial. It was about love and acceptance, of a sort.
But not this time. For this month’s column, I will do a complete 180 and tell you about my archnemesis within the gardening world. Evil, thy name is aphid. Whatever open-mindedness and loving nature I manage to reserve for weeds and other huge swaths of our ecosystem, I snatch away like a veritable Scrooge when it comes to aphids.
Ever since I was a youngling trying to grow a jalapeno plant on our apartment’s second-floor patio, I have been at war with aphids. I’ve had them infest my plants in hordes of greens and blacks and oranges. I’ve tried many different solutions with many different outcomes. My hope is that we can use my pain and experience to save you and your plants from a similar fate.
When it comes to aphids, the best offense is a good defense. If you can prevent them in the first place, you will save yourself a LOT of heartache.
My two favorite defenses against aphids are ladybugs and garlic. They’re basically my friendly neighborhood superheroes as far as my garden is concerned.
Ladybugs eat aphids with glee, and planting things that attract ladybugs can be a ticket to a smaller aphid population. Calendula, marigold, nasturtium, cilantro, dill, chives and fennel will all attract ladybugs.
Some of them, like marigold and nasturtium, will also attract aphids — but hey, if it keeps them off your vegetable plants, then more power to them! Just plant them away from your veggie patch.
Then there’s garlic. You’ve probably heard me get a little poignant about the allium family in other columns, so I’ll try to keep it simple.
The allium family (think onions, garlic, chives, leeks, etc.) is a freaking powerhouse in the garden. Besides all of the health benefits, garlic and its cousins play a huge role in pest prevention. Planting them around your vulnerable specimens can go a long way in keeping aphids and a number of other pests away.
Is garlic foolproof? No. There are a lot of factors at play regarding infestations. But I’ve had very positive results planting chives around the filet mignon of the aphid world, my hibiscus standard. Last year, I only had one small aphid infestation — and if you’ve ever worked with hibiscus, you’ll know that’s saying a lot.
So what happens when prevention doesn’t work? Well, garlic can come to the rescue again.
Many pests despise garlic and onion. So take a garlic bulb and a tablespoon of cayenne pepper, puree them and steep them in a quart of water for an hour or two. Strain the pulp out, put your magic potion in a spray bottle and go to town. Cover your affected plants in garlicky pepper-water, paying close attention to the undersides of leaves.
Repeat this every few days until the aphids have fled. It will often take at least a week to get all of them.
If the smell isn’t working for you, you can get a similar effect by mixing a teaspoon of dish soap with a quart of water and a tablespoon of cayenne. Make sure your dish soap doesn’t have any additives that might harm your plant. (They generally don’t, but you can always test the mixture on a leaf and wait 24 hours to be sure.) Reapply every three or four days, for up to two weeks.
I have had good success with the garlic water and the soap water. I’ve actually had more success with them than with some commercial pesticides.
There are over a hundred different aphid species and some may be more or less susceptible to different approaches. Don’t be afraid to experiment, just be safe about it. Find what works for you, and enjoy your aphid-free garden!