Aphid infestation is the stuff nightmares are made of

Erin Schanen

I woke up with a start the other night from a nightmare that only a gardener’s subconscious would bother with — every surface of my house was covered in aphids.

I didn’t have to think hard about where that dream came from because I have a nightmarish situation happening in the corner of my basement where I start seeds under grow lights. First there were fungus gnats, obnoxious little critters that anyone who’s been gardening for any amount of time knows about. But then there were aphids — at least two types that I can identify.

I first noticed them as tiny (like, get your magnifying glass out tiny) green bumps on a little pepper seedling stem. I was taking a closer look because the curled leaves on my Pot-a-peno pepper seedlings were a sure sign that something was amiss. Little did I know that those curled leaves were a sign that a real-life nightmare was just beginning.

Next I noticed a few aphids on some romaine lettuce, notable in part because that was the only one of five different varieties that seemed to be affected. I also found them on ‘Dalmation Peach’ foxglove seedlings, slyly hiding on the backside of the wide, flat leaves.

There were a few on my tassel flower (Emilia coccinea) seedlings, although none on the corn cockle (Agrostemma) seedlings in the same tray.

Aphids don’t just come out of nowhere, so I racked my brain to figure out the source, particularly given that I’ve never had this problem before. And I didn’t have to look far. Growing just one shelf down under lights was a purple bell vine (Rhodochiton atrosanguineus) I had brought in last fall to overwinter, and it looked much like my nightmare, crawling with at least two kinds of aphids. It was rapidly dispatched outside, and thankfully I’d taken cuttings from it several weeks ago so I didn’t have to entertain the idea of a rescue mission, although I doubt it would be possible.

It turns out that my great idea of maximizing my grow lights by overwintering plants under them before I start seeds had one major flaw ­— I got lazy. I should have done a better job ensuring that I wasn’t bringing pests in with my plants, and I definitely should have moved those plants out of the area and cleaned everything well before putting a bunch of seedlings, with their succulent new foliage perfect for aphid feasting, in the same area.

I still think there’s hope to come back from this. Aphids are squished when spotted, and I check every plant twice a day. I’m also using insecticidal soap, although seedlings can be damaged by it so I’m only using it carefully about once a week. And I’ve started using neem oil on the foxgloves, which seem to be the most affected.

I’ve also started hardening off cold tolerant plants like the lettuce, foxglove and tassel flower in my pop-up greenhouse, which functions mostly as a cold frame. Healthy plants are less likely to be attacked by insects, and growing them in cooler conditions in natural light should help.

As I was doing one of my semi-daily inspections over the weekend, I spotted a stink bug sitting on the plant rack. A new nightmare may be just beginning.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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