How To Get Rid of Bugs on Indoor Houseplants and Keep Them Gone

Photo: Getty Images / Lumina
Dealing with a pest infestation is every plant owner's worst nightmare. But don't give up! It is possible to get your indoor garden back to normal with a little extra effort. There are a handful of ways to go about getting rid of all kinds of houseplant bugs.

"Common plant pests include mealybugs, scale, spider mites, fungus gnats, thrips, and slugs," says Erin Marino, plant expert and director of marketing at plant company The Sill. "These pests might sound creepy crawly, but it’s important to remember these bugs are only interested in your plants—not you, your pets, or your furniture."

Experts In This Article
  • Erin Marino, former director of brand marketing at The Sill
  • Jesse Waldman, former director of marketing and e-commerce at Pistils Nursery
  • Jules Acree, Texas-based wellness blogger and plant expert
  • Maryah Greene, plant expert and founder of Greene Piece
  • Nick Cutsumpas, plant coach and urban farmer behind Farmer Nick
  • Paris Lalicata, plant education coordinator at The Sill
  • Susan Spanger, professional gardener and floral designer of Bloomful Floral Design

Even just being near greenery can boost your mood, so you want to keep your plants happy and healthy. Wondering how to keep bugs out of indoor plants? From homemade sprays to non-toxic treatments for your plant's soil, here's how to get rid of bugs on plants naturally. These methods are almost foolproof and promise to keep your plants insect-free with regular maintenance.

What causes bugs in indoor plants?

Often, plants attract bugs when they're not doing so hot. For instance, fungus gnats appear when you've over-watered your plant.

"When your plants are stressed, they actually can attract pests," says Jesse Waldman, former director of marketing and e-commerce at Pistils Nursery in Portland, Oregon. "Poorly cared-for plants, a plant that's experiencing stress, whether that's water-stress or light-stress, or just any of those sorts of environmental factors that make your plant happy or unhappy. If it's stressed out, it's possible that it will become more likely that it will get a pest."

If you keep your plant happy and healthy, you don't really have to worry about attracting bugs.

"There are bugs in our home, whether we like them or not. Fruit flies show up magically after an apple sits out for too long. Ants just are genius, little critters at getting inside. Bringing in houseplants isn't going to really increase that in any specific way. Like a spider that found his way into your home—if there are some plants there, it might choose to make its web between your plants rather than between your curtains and your window, but that same spider's going to be there one way or another."

How do I get rid of little bugs on my houseplants? Options from homemade sprays to non-toxic treatments

1. Insecticidal soap

If you're dealing with soft-bodied insects like spider mites, aphids, whiteflies, and mealybugs, your best bet is to use a plant spray for bugs. While you can pick up one from the store, creating a DIY insecticidal soap using natural ingredients is easy. Simply put 1/4 cup vegetable oil and 1 tbsp liquid dish soap ($9)—it must be free of bleach, degreaser, synthetic dyes, and fragrances—in a spray bottle ($8), then fill it to the top with warm water, and shake. You can spray the mixture onto your plants once a week in order to combat pest issues.

2. Neem oil

"Another option would be neem oil ($21)," says Waldman "It's an oil extracted from a nut of a specific tree. It has antimicrobial, antibiotic, and anti-pest killing properties."

3. Essential oils

Jules Acree, the Austin, Texas-based wellness blogger and plant expert, likes to keep pests away with a DIY repellent. To make this indoor plant pesticide, she mixes 1 tbsp of tea tree oil ($9 to $52) and with one cup of water in a spray bottle.

4. Diatomaceous Earth

Acree also tops the soil of all new plants with a pet- and kid-safe food-grade diatomaceous earth powder. This dries out the insects and their larvae.

5. Dry out your plants

If you're noticing pests on the dirt, it's time to explore how to get rid of bugs on indoor plant soil. Pests like fungus gnats that thrive in moist soil in houseplants can be combated by simply taking away what they love: the moisture. (Sorry, gnats.) According to Susan Spanger, professional gardener and floral designer of Bloomful Floral Design, the best thing you can do in these types of situations is water your plants less often than you normally would in order to completely dry out the top couple inches of soil. "Watering frequently and keeping soil consistently damp is ideal for egg hatch and larvae survival,” she says.

Without moist soil, you're taking away fungus gnats' food source: fungi in the soil. By allowing it to dry out, The Sill says that major food source will be gone—and, because of that, the fungus gnats will be gone, too. Spanger says you can spread a half-inch of sand over the surface of your soil as well. "It dries out quickly and provides a scratchy surface that’s unappealing for adult fungus gnats looking to lay eggs," she says. Those houseplant bugs will be gone for good.

How to prevent bugs on indoor plants

1. Check and quarantine new plants

The best way to keep your houseplant bug-free is to tackle the issue as soon as you bring it home. Even if a plant looks pristine, there might be bugs hiding between the leaves and in the soil. As soon as Acree, gets home with a new plant, she puts it in the bathtub in order to do some pest control."You never know what might be lurking in the soil waiting to hatch a few weeks later, so you always want to be one step ahead," says Acree.

2. Keep your tools, pots, and hands clean

When repotting a plant, be sure to put it into a clean pot. And clean any tools, like pruning shears, before and after you use them. That way, you're not spreading bacteria and other irritants between plants. Plant doctor Maryah Greene recommends disinfecting these items with rubbing alcohol. "Before you go in and cut your plant, or even switch between different plants, make sure [your shears are] clean, and they have a sharp edge," she says. You also want to make sure you're handling your plants with clean hands.

Houseplant bug FAQs:

1. Is it common to have bugs in your houseplants?

"Plants are living things. Pest infestation is totally normal and treatable," says Marino.

2. How can you tell if your indoor plants have bugs?

The most noticeable sign is yellowing, browning, or dropping leaves. But, these are also symptoms of other common plant issues. That's why it's important to regularly inspect plants and look out for signs of bugs.

"Each pest leaves a specific calling card that is unique to them," says Nick Cutsumpas, the plant coach and urban farmer behind Farmer Nick. "For example, spider mites spin thin webs at the base and underside of the leaf, while scale bugs attach themselves to stems and leave a sticky residue."

3. What types of houseplants repel insects?

Plants that repel insects do it because the bugs don't like their scent. "There are a lot of common herbs you can grow [in pots] in your windowsill that repel bugs including rosemary, lemon balm, lemongrass, peppermint, and lavender," says Paris Lalicata, a customer experience coordinator The Sill. Marigoldspetunias, and chrysanthemums are insect-repelling flowers. "Not only do they look pretty outside, but you can have big, flowering pots of them inside too and they look beautiful," says Lalicata.

4. What should I wipe my plant leaves with?

Grab the spray of your choice from above and a clean cloth ($15) and you're good to go.

5. Should I put Epsom salt on my plants?

Epsom salt can be helpful if your leaves are yellowing due to nutrient-deficient soil. Epsom salt gives plants adequate magnesium.

6. Is hydrogen peroxide good for indoor plants?

Hydrogen peroxide can be used to kill fungus gnats on plants. Plus, when used sparingly, it can help plants grow by giving the roots added oxygen. Just be sure to dilute it—use 1 tsp of hydrogen peroxide per cup of water.

7. How do bugs spread between houseplants?

When plants are clustered together with some overlap, it's easy for pests to spread. That's why it's important to quarantine infected or new plants so pests can't spread.

8. When should I give up on a dying houseplant?

Say the infestation really did a number on the plant. You've sprayed, cut off dying leaves, and repotted. But, the plant is on its last leg. If you've exhausted all of your options, it may be time to pull the plug. "Think of this as an opportunity to test out new plants, as those empty planters will need to be filled," says Marino.


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