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I've been growing vegetables for several decades, in the ground and in containers. Even so, this year is the first time I've ever experienced aphids on my plants.
When I first saw them, I thought they were whiteflies, which I had trouble with last year. Upon closer inspection, however, I figured out the little critters were aphids. I first discovered them on one of my bell pepper plants, which prompted me to closely inspect my entire container garden. I found infestations on a few other plants, so I set out to win the battle with the aphids.
Aphids are tiny pear-shaped insects. They can be black, gray, brown, pink, red, or green. In my case, all the aphids I've seen have been very pale green—almost white.
They prefer young, tender leaves, where you might find them on the underside of the leaves, happily sucking vital sap from your plants. Another sign to look for is “honeydew.” It's a sweet, sticky substance secreted by aphids, and ants love it.
As I already mentioned, aphids usually prefer feeding on tender new leaves, but I've found them on every plant part, from new buds to old, leathery leaves at the bottom of the plant.
From my experience, aphids prefer some plants to others. For example, they love my eggplants and pepper plants, but they haven't touched my other vegetable plants.
Aphids have soft bodies, so they're very easy to kill, individually. They're not, however, easy to stop as an invading horde. What they lack in physical durability is made up for with sheer numbers, due to their bizarre methods of reproduction.
Female aphids can reproduce with or without a male. They can bear live young or lay eggs. Aphids born alive are born pregnant. Furthermore, some aphids will develop wings and fly to a new host plant and start a new colony.
An average aphid lives for about a month, and a single female might produce more than forty generations in just one summer! Unfortunately, as a species, they're very successful.
Some gardeners simply knock off the insects from a plant by using a strong jet of water from a hose. I've used this method, and it seemed to work pretty well—for the moment. I worried, however, that some of the bugs would find their way back to my plants, so I don't totally trust this method. If you decide to spray away the pests, be careful the jet of water isn't forceful enough to damage your leaves. Also, be sure to spray the entire leaf—top and bottom surface.
Another way to handle aphids is to introduce beneficial insects into your garden that naturally prey on aphids. These include ladybugs, lacewings, parasitic wasps, and crab spiders. Some bird species also feed on aphids. The problem is getting these predators into your garden. Yes, you can purchase ladybugs, but how do you convince them to stay where you want them?
I tried very hard to avoid chemical pesticides in my container garden, so I turned to neem oil. I have to say the neem oil I used had no effect on the aphids. I found out later that I should be using only cold-pressed neem oil, which I wasn't using. If you decide to use neem oil in your battle against aphids, be sure to use the cold-pressed type.
You can easily make your own insecticide using liquid dish detergent. Although Castille soap is supposedly the best, just about any brand will work. Mix together one teaspoon dish detergent, 4 teaspoons vegetable oil, and two cups of water. Place mixture into a spray bottle and agitate until well combined. Spray plants all over. Do this in the morning or evening, not in the hot part of the day. By the way, if you add a teaspoon of garlic oil, this spray will probably be even more effective.
Aphids, like several other garden pests, are attracted to the color yellow. I suppose this is because most blooms found on vegetable plants are yellow. You can use this preference to your advantage by creating yellow traps for aphids.
There are a couple of different types of aphid traps you can use to slow down the bug population: sticky traps and cup traps.
You can purchase ready-to-use yellow sticky traps, or you can make your own by spreading petroleum jelly on yellow posterboard. Place the sticky traps around your garden, near susceptible plants.
The other type of aphid trap is a yellow plastic cup. Simply fill the cup about three-fourths full of water and add a drop of dishwashing liquid. The dishsoap breaks the surface tension of thew water, causing any visiting aphids to drown.
I don't like using chemical pesticides in my garden, but it got to the point where I had to, unless I wanted to hand over my vegetable plants to the aphids. First, I used liquid Sevin, but it had little to no effect on the bugs. Next, I used a 3-in-1 spray, which didn't help, either. Finally, I used Malathion—once. This pesticide definitely helped, but even it didn't completely eradicate all the aphids. It did, however, greatly reduce the numbers, allowing me to keep the sapsuckers in check with the next method.
The pesticide made it so the number of aphids on my vegetable plants was manageable. Every morning, while it's still relatively cool outdoors, I examine my affected plants by hand.
I suffer from spinal stenosis, so I have to do almost all my gardening while sitting. I just pull my outdoor chair up to a plant and examine every leaf and every bud carefully. When I spy an aphid, I rub it off, killing it in the process. If you use this method, remember not to rub hard enough to damage the leaves. If you're squeamish, you might want to wear gloves during this process.
This method of aphid-killing has worked very well for me. This morning, for example, I found only two aphids! You might find this strange, but I find this endeavor to be relaxing.
Because aphids multiply so rapidly, you have to get ahead of the game, before the bugs become too numerous. As you water your plants and harvest your vegetables, do a cursory inspection on the new leaves. If you see aphids or evidence of aphids, take the time to check the entire plants and destroy any aphids you find.
Getting rid of aphids is extremely important. Not only do they suck the life from your plants, they also carry viruses and can infect your plants with sooty mold. I'm not sure there's any one method that will work to completely eradicate all the aphids in your garden, so I suggest using a combination approach, employing several different strategies. The most important thing is to be vigilant. Don't let the aphid population become overwhelming before taking action.
KarlynButler on July 29, 2020:
I have an aphid infestation on my bell pepper plants, which are planted in pots. I am at the point where a pesticide needs to be used! I sprayed the leaves and stem, but of course, they are back!! I am wondering if it is beneficial to spray the pesticide in the soil? Incase the aphids or eggs are in the soil? My only concern is the pesticide will not break down if I put it in the potted soil because it is not in the ground? Any thoughts or suggestions?
Virginia Allain from Central Florida on July 08, 2020:
I've been using a spray of dish detergent and water, but will add the oil now. Hoping for better results. Thanks!
Marlene Bertrand from USA on June 24, 2019:
I once had an aphid infestation on my rose bushes. First it was just one plant and then all of a sudden it became all of them. I just couldn't get ahead of the little bugs. Finally I cut down all of the rose bushes and then managed from there. But I just love your idea of the yellow cups. I'm going to try it in my garden this year.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on June 24, 2019:
Yes to all of it! This is the first time in a long time we haven't had aphids. We must be doing something right. :)
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on June 23, 2019:
Fantastic. Read and did it. Thank you.
Jennifer Jorgenson on June 23, 2019:
I just love all these chemical free solutions! We get aphids on our roses every year until the lady bugs hatch. I've had some success with the soapy water method but I'm definitely saving this article so I can try some new techniques next year! Thank you!