Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Very Slow and Occasionally Sticky Inferno

So here's what's been going on.

Watering the plants has always been time-consuming and tedious, but it got worse in April. I've been watering almost everything in the house on a 14-day rotation. A lot of the plants would prefer more frequent checks than that, but 14 days is what I'm able to do, so they either live with getting watered every 14 days, or they die, or I make a special exception for them and check them every seven days. Previously, the special exception category was limited to about 10-15 plants on a small table in the plant room, but in April, I decided that about 500 plants in the basement also needed to be getting checked every 7 days, because a lot of them were seedlings or newish cuttings or plants that are just really drought-sensitive, and they wouldn't survive if I tried to keep them on the 14-day schedule.

What this has meant is that instead of checking about 1000-1050 plants every 14 days, I was suddenly checking about 1500-1600 plants every 14 days. So I took the most tedious and time-consuming part of the hobby and made it like 50% worse, basically.

And because of the extra work, I thought to myself at some point in May or June or probably both: I bet I'm never going to be lying on my deathbed thinking, "Gee, I wish I'd spent more time watering plants." And as I started mailing out plants to people I was selling to or trading with, I started fantasizing about how I could scale back the collection in a way that didn't involve outright killing anything, because that always makes me feel bad.

Open this in its own tab and you can even see its disgusting little legs.

And then the scaling back started to happen, in the most literal way possible: I started finding scale insects on the plants. One plant at the end of March. A handful at the beginning of May. And then at the end of June, the floodgates opened and I was finding scale everywhere:

1 Alpinia zerumbet variegata (plant room; 31 March; discarded)
3 Alworthia 'Black Gem' (basement; 1 May; discarded)
1 Aloe NOID (basement; 8 May; discarded)
1 Albuca bracteata (basement; 28 May; treated)
1 Strelitzia reginae (plant room; early June?; treated)
1 Aloe polyphylla (basement; 26 June; discarded)
1 Philodendron squamiferum (living room; 27 June; treated)
1 Agave desmettiana, variegated (basement; 28 June; discarded)
1 Agave titanota (basement; 2 July; treated)
1 Agave americana (basement; 2 July; treated)
2 Agave 'Blue Glow' (basement; 2 July; treated)
2 Agave lophantha (basement; 2 July; treated)
3 Aloe vera (basement; 3 July; discarded)
3 Gasteraloe x beguinii (basement; 3 July; discarded)
1 Aloe x 'Silver Ridge' (basement; 3 July; discarded)
13 Alworthia 'Black Gem' (basement; 3 July; discarded)
5 Hoya polyneura (basement; 9 July; discarded)
1 Philodendron hederaceum micans (basement; 11 July; discarded)
1 Philodendron erubescens 'Red Emerald' (basement; 11 July; treated)
4 Pereskia aculeata var. godseffiana (basement; 12 July; discarded)
1 Ficus benjamina 'Black Diamond' (basement; 12 July; treated)
1 Hippeastrum 'Red Lion' x ? (basement; 16 July; discarded)
1 Hippeastrum 'Red Lion' x ? (basement; 23 July; treated)

I think there were three separate infestations here, based on what plants were affected and when I noticed.

The first plant, the Alpinia, was I think was a single isolated infestation: I don't know where the scale could have come from, since I hadn't brought anything new into that area, but the plant was stressed, so it's possible it had a low-grade infestation for a long time, and then it got a lot worse really fast when it got stressed.

Scale on the Alpinia.

The second infestation barely counts: somebody sent me a cutting in June that had some scale on it, but I found them pretty much immediately, and it wasn't very advanced, so I think that's not going to be a big deal either.

And then the third. I think it came in on an Aloe polyphylla I received in December as a gift, because the outbreaks have all been taking place on plants that had been grown near the plant in question at one point or another. This is the infestation that swept the basement, might still be sweeping it, and what's caused all the troubles.

It's now been a couple weeks since any new scale was spotted, so possibly the worst is over. For a while there, though, I'd have to throw out more plants every time I watered, and that was depressing as hell.

But did I let myself sink into despondency and depression? Hell, no! I took action! For a few plants that I suspected had been exposed, but which I couldn't find any scale on, I decided to get out there ahead of the infestation and spray neem oil on them, to stop the infestation before it became visible. Which sounds like a good idea, right?

Yes. Well. You know how the directions on neem oil say not to use it on plants that are in direct sun, or that will be exposed to sun within a few hours of application, and all that? They should probably also add fluorescent lights to that warning, because within 24 hours, I'd completely defoliated two small Euphorbia trigona cuttings, and produced a few bleached spots and several ominous dark brown blisters on my baby Agave victoriae-reginaes. The former have bounced back, but the latter look to be permanently disfigured:

Agave victoriae-reginae, neem damage.

Which was even more discouraging, not that I learned my lesson. I then sprayed a plant room Euphorbia milii and Pedilanthus tithymaloides with neem because there was some kind of fungus that had been growing on their leaves. The Euphorbia responded by dropping about 95% of its foliage, immediately. The Pedilanthus was less of a drama queen about it, and only lost about 30% of its leaves, over the space of a month. Either way, though.

Euphorbia milii, after neem oil treatment for fungus. It was technically a success, I suppose, in that I'm no longer even remotely concerned about the fungus. Probably what happens next here is that I take cuttings and start new plants, but I haven't tried that yet.

Also, some of the Agaves I treated with neem and stuck outside also bleached (no blistering, though); they'll probably come back inside again in the fall, because the scale is probably not a problem anymore, but it'll be sad regardless, since they looked better when they had scale but no sunburn: I didn't really have the time or means to try to ease them into the outdoor light, and we don't have much for shady spots.

So then I started sinking into despondency.

All this was happening on top of the usual plant attrition, too. Not saying I encourage it or anything, but it's normal for me to lose a plant here, a plant there, for various reasons over time, and this was an exceptionally good summer for that.

I finally had it with Crassula ovata 'Gollum' and threw the lot out, because they persisted in developing a stupid fungus (maybe the same fungus, maybe a different one; I have no idea) even though I told them not to, and I didn't have a way to make them stop if they weren't going to listen.

The Salvia elegans all dried out (even getting checked weekly, they still dried out!) and died, save for one, which had a round of spider mites and is only barely alive now.

The Aeschynanthus radicans all gave up due to underwatering.

I threw out most of the Gynura aurantiacas I had when became clear that nobody was ever going to want to buy one. This is something I should probably have learned last year, but I'm slow.

The Fatshedera x lizei got spider mites and was thrown out. In fairness, I should note that I'd been expecting that to happen for almost two years, so it should probably get some kind of posthumous medal.

One of the Hatioras ("Easter cactus") imploded, the way they do.

And so on.

It was basically like the plant collection had caught fire. A very slow, and occasionally sticky, inferno. Everything was sort of slowly falling apart: scale, drought, scorching, defoliation, 50% more watering to do, spider mites, and fungus. It also wasn't getting any better. I had no way to know what plants might go bad next. There wasn't much I could do about it. And when I tried to do something about it, I mostly just made things worse.

The upshot of all this being that for about two or three weeks, I basically hated my plants. I didn't want to think about them, talk about them, or take pictures of them, and I sure as hell didn't want to water them, because the surest way to find something horrible hiding in your plant collection is to pick them up and look at them. Which you have to do, in order to water the way I water. (I still did take care of them, of course, because I recognized that I'd probably like them again eventually, and that there was no point punishing the healthy plants upstairs for the scale infestations of the plants downstairs. I just hated doing so more than usual.)

Echinacea 'PowWow Wild Berry,' at the ex-job, with what I believe to be aster yellows disease. PATSP has an official celebratory flower (Gazanias), so it seems only appropriate that PATSP should have an official flower of depression (It's pretty amazing that I've gotten by without an official depression flower for four and a half years, honestly.), and this was kind of the best I could come up with. My apologies to any Echinacea fans in the audience.

It's now been a couple weeks since I've found a new scale infestation. (New mealybugs as of last Wednesday, alas, but the scale seems to have slowed down.) In the last couple weeks, the plant collection has done two big things which I am choosing to interpret as apologies too. I won't tell you what those are yet, but there should be posts about them in the relatively near future. So we're getting back to the point where I'm able to appreciate plants again, somewhat, but I'd still rather not spend a lot of time thinking about them.

The blog, consequently, will be a bit up in the air for a while. I'm officially no longer on hiatus, but I'm probably not going to be posting very often, and I'll probably only be doing that when something exceptionally cool happens. And I'll keep going like that until . . . something changes and I start doing something else, I guess. Your guess is pretty much as good as mine right now.


sandy0225 said...

You might want to try marathon granules in your plants. It's pretty safe to be around and easy to use. It can really do wonders on the scale and mealy bugs. Been there myself with the spider mites myself this summer. Have you tried 2tablespoons of cooking oil and 2 tablespoons of shampoo in a gallon of warm water as a spray for the spider mites? Just keep a spray bottle with you when eating and shake up and then blast away when you see them starting up. Best way to control them before they get bad.

Melody said...

That's terrible news, I unfortunately know how you feel. On a much smaller scale, (get it? heh heh,) I had to treat the majority of my cacti after a mite outbreak due to some exceptionally hot, rainy, and humid weather that was non stop for a few weeks. Now some have started to grow fungus in the damaged parts so I have to spray for that too. It's the worst when you can't catch it fast enough to save everyone and problems multiply as you attempt to fix them! On a related note, have you found neem to work well enough to use it in favor of chemical pesticides if the plants in question can be kept in the shade?

CelticRose said...

Yikes! No wonder you haven't been posting. I hope things get better for you soon.

Long Haired Lady Rider said...

Oh yeah, that is exactly what happens when I get too many plants -- they self-select until they are back in the range of what I can take care of. I used to think that my collection was only limited by *space*, but it turns out that isn't true, it is limited by my *time* that I have to devote to them.

I don't know how you feel about this, but every time that I repot I sprinkle a dose of marathon into the soil. This has dramatically cut down on the critter poplulation in my house. But with the way that you water, that would probably not work as well for you as it does for me.

RIP, all your little plants that have gone to flora heaven!

mr_subjunctive said...


The problem with systemics (I have some imidacloprid granules that are a few years old but should still be good) is that although they're effective, they also take weeks to start working, and by that point, the scale's spread to half a dozen other plants. I don't have enough of the granules to treat everything in the basement.

That said, it probably would have made more sense to use the granules on the Agave victoriae-reginaes and Euphorbia trigonas instead of the neem, since I hadn't seen any scale on them yet. (I haven't actually used the granules for anything in a long time, so I tend to forget that I have them.)


Well, neem is still a chemical pesticide; it doesn't really change anything if the chemicals are synthesized by plants instead of by people.

That said: my situation is a little weird, because I have so many plants, and an outbreak is so potentially devastating (see above), that it's usually a lot more sensible for me to just throw a plant out instead of try to clean it up. Plus I hate, hate, hate the smell. So even though I have neem oil here, I don't actually try to use it very often. When I do, yes, it usually works well enough that I'm happy with it, except for the smell. I'm not sure how to explain the recent unpleasantness, though; I wasn't doing anything this time that I hadn't done previously. It might be a good idea to wait until after sunset to apply it, also, just to be sure.

Long Haired Lady Rider:

I might start doing that for some of the basement plants, now that you've raised the idea; it might be a good way to get things back under control. Trying to check every surface of 500+ plants once a week is getting old.

Lew said...

Gosh... I have 10 houseplants, 13 indoor succulents/cacti, 3 orchids, one tiny front yard, one small back yard, and one little vegetable garden, and I thought my next career could be starting a nursery.

Your plight has set me straight (well, not straight straight). I'll stick to my current job.

Best wishes to a full recovery for you and your plants.

TiaHermanaMaggie said...

This is the time of year that I hate my plants, even without the catastrophes that you've suffered. They become grabby, needy little monsters, requiring division, re-potting, trimming, more light, less light, watering, watering, watering....!!!

I begin to feel fond of them around October, when the leaves are changing color and the temps are dropping. By the end of December, when the world outside is gray and drab,(we don't get white winters in the Hudson Valley anymore) I love their springy, vibrating greenery with all my heart.

I love your blog. I've learned so much from it. So, take a break. Hate your badly behaved plants for awhile. And then come back, OK?

Anonymous said...

Long time reader here...so sorry to hear about your plant problems. I would suggest taking cuttings and starting over. Get rid of everything that is suffering and those that you always disliked caring for. Sometimes it's better to start over with your "favorites" after such a disappointment.

I went through the same thing when I just had to rescue a rubber tree from a big box store, which proved to harbor quite a scale infestation. What a mess and a headache! I finally put everything outside during the late fall. Whatever survived came back in before the first freeze. I also rooted my valuable (to me) babies. After the scale situation cleared up and I started over with rooted cuttings, it was actually a relief to be rid of so much stuff. And I got to see the babies develop into mature specimens, which reminded me why I started collecting houseplants in the first place.

mr_subjunctive said...


Yeah, living organisms are not the place to look to for career stability. Or wealth.


The low point for me is always February-April, when I'm thinking about propagating plants to sell, and trying to keep up with the plants I've already got. Though this year, obviously, an argument could be made for July.


In some of those cases, there's no way to take cuttings or offsets, and it would be difficult to trust cuttings from a previously-infected plant anyway: how could I ever be sure they were clean?

So far, most of the plants affected have been things that I had duplicates of, things that I think will clean up okay, or things that I didn't care about that much to begin with. The most dispiriting case so far was actually the variegated Agave desmettiana, which was an offset I'd separated from the parent plant and which had been doing well on its own until all this happened. And I can replace it easily. (The parent has been outside this summer, and is producing several new pups.)

Pat said...

I got fed up of the smell of neem every month or two. I gave all mine a spray with a neonicotinoid in March and not a trace of pests since. Unfortunately my problem is that the council put up scaffolding round the building at the end of last year. It cuts out more that half the light and the house never seems to warm up. To add to the injury it has been a horrible dark, rainy year. The tougher plants are hanging on but I have lost about a quarter of my plants. The last to go was a Lithops that looked fine until last week when it just fell over and turned to mush.

I wouldn't mind if I saw a builder on the scaffolding more than once a week.

I can't afford to set up the lights I've got.

The Echinacea looks lovely, like a frame from a science fiction transformation.

Hope things get better and I am looking forward to seeing these cool things.

Lauren said...

I'm glad you didn't decide to just leave the hobby. I rely on your blog for a lot of care information, and I find your blog generally hilarious, so it would be a shame to see that happen.

Sorry about your infestations! I saw your email re: the mailed plants, and I am glad it's mostly under control now. Scale is the most vile plant pest, right next to mealybugs. *shudder*

Long Haired Lady Rider said...

Mr. S,

I have read that Marathon/Imidacloprid only protects new growth, and I have read that it protects the whole plant -- I don't know which is true. When you use it, you don't want to flush water through the pot, or else you are wasting the chemical. This is fine for my collection because they are just about all in Oyamas or wick watered in common trays. However, you water differently so it's more of an issue for you.

But I wonder if, instead of adding granules to 500+ pots (ugh, how grim is that), you could find a liquid formulation and add it to all of your water for, say, 6-10 weeks? That is, if it actually does protect old growth. If it only protects new growth then it won't really help clear things up.


As I understand it, Mealies and Scale are closely related. That makes sense since they are both slow moving and excrete a substance around themselves to protect themselves.

I think Anonymous is on to something. It's much easier to clean cuttings and give them the systemic treatment/preventative than it is to treat an established plant with an established problem. Earlier this year I had scale on several of my Nematanthus. I took cuttings that didn't have visible scale, dipped them in rubbing alcohol, and set them to root with Marathon in the medium. They are all looking good now.

However, I have heard people say that once you have scale in your house you can *never* completely eradicate it... Sigh.

Now I'm off to see about what the hell a neonicotinoid is. "No Critters" sounds good, even though "spraying 300 plants" doesn't.

mr_subjunctive said...

Long Haired Lady Rider:

It's always been my understanding that systemics protect the whole plant: I hadn't even heard of the idea that it protects new growth only until you said it just now.

Neonicotinoids are chemicals similar to nicotine, which work on the same enzymes. I gather that the main appeal is that they're less toxic to mammals than nicotine itself. Imidacloprid is currently the most popular and widely used neonicotinoid.

The granules I have are supposed to be timed-release, so even if some of it did wash out with every watering, more would be released into the soil and taken up by the roots in between waterings. It's not ideal, and there are environmental concerns (concern about the environmental consequences -- minor though they would be for such a small amount of imidacloprid -- is the main reason why I haven't used the granules up already), but it would be better than nothing, and probably still effective against any lingering scale. Once the plant's taken it up, it's not going to get washed out, after all.

Mealybugs are a subtype of scale; both are in the superfamily Coccoidea of the suborder Sternorrhyncha, per Wikipedia. (The Sternorrhyncha are basically Everything Bad Ever: not only scale and mealybugs, but whiteflies and aphids. If a genie ever asks you what group of insects you'd like to see eradicated from the earth, say the Sternorrhyncha. Or else the Culicidae, the mosquito family. Not that the situation is likely to come up, but it's good to have an answer ready anyway, just in case.)

Anonymous may be onto something, but I'm not sure it's anything that helps me. My Nematanthuses have so far not had any visible scale on them; if they don't have scale, then starting over from cuttings doesn't benefit me any, and if they do have scale, the scale are likely to be on the cuttings too. The Hippeastrum has had scale, but there's no way to start it over from a cutting. The stuff that has definitely had scale, which could be restarted, is mostly stuff that couldn't be cleaned up adequately -- like, I could restart some of the Alworthia 'Black Gem,' but the way the leaves grow, I could never actually reach all the spaces between leaves adequately. And in some cases, the affected plants have been duplicates already, so it doesn't hurt that much to throw out the affected plants and start over from the clean stock plants.

I'm pretty sure it's not the case that once you've had scale, you always have scale, though it does require a degree of diligence that may not always be possible with large collections. Throwing away any plant with a detectable infestation ought to work eventually, even without spraying or systemics.

Liza said...

I think the whole country needs an official flower of depression. And an official flower of anxiety, stress, discouragement, ignorance, apathy and guilt.

The worst part about houseplant pests is that eliminating them is a process. A long, frustrating process. Neem oil won't kill anything on the first try (except my sense of smell). And even if it could, there will still be new pests popping up all over the place. Rubbing alcohol is an ok substitute but you still have to give repeated treatments.

No can blame you, mr_s, for discarding rather than trying to save infected plants. With the plant numbers you have, pests aren't just a headache, they're devastating.

Good luck!

Tom said...

Aster yellows...::shudder:: (No that's not ALL I got out of this, it's just that I'm so insanely late anything I have to say would be outdated and dumb). Aster yellows basically ruined my life this summer (or at least my work life)

Bom said...

So sorry to hear about your plants. Scale is really so hard to treat and is something I've had to be consistently diligent about. My prominent pests are scales, spider mites and caterpillars, and I find that I have to be on the lookout for these the most. Hopefully things will improve for you and your plants soon.