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Aphids 101

aphids on a branch

We can certainly count ourselves as lucky here in Iowa that our garden pests aren’t as intimidating as warmer states. But just because we aren’t facing down dangerous pests like army ants, venomous spiders, and scorpions, doesn’t mean that our own pests aren’t annoying. While a single aphid by itself can seem nearly harmless, the damage that they can cause when they gather in numbers makes them rank up close to mosquitoes as most hated local insects.

Iowa fall perennial japanese anemoni

Aphids 101:

It’s their numbers that make aphids – also aptly known as “plant lice” – such a burden in our gardens. Each tiny bug sucks the sap from the plant they are on. With enough of these plant lice, it can have devastating effects on your plants as they have the life literally sucked out of them. Your poor plants can go from gorgeous to limp, discolored, or even dying in what seems like the blink of an eye. Aphid infestations grow fast, so you’ll need to be vigilant to save your backyard oasis from invading pests.

The problem with aphids is that they can reproduce incredibly quickly. A couple aphids can easily turn into an invasion overnight. These tiny insects can reproduce sexually or asexually, and the females often hatch from their overwintered eggs already pregnant. With a maturation time of only a week, aphid families grow at an exponential pace adding up to millions of invaders.

aphids on a branch and under a leaf

Aphid Spotting:

Being proactive is a great defense against aphids because it’s easier to deal with getting rid of a few bugs than a horde. Your plants will thank you for protecting them before the damage is done, and you’ll be pleased to maintain the lush, healthy garden aesthetic that you’ve worked to achieve in your garden all year.

Aphids are easy to spot, regardless of the type. While they can come in any variety of colors, from green to gray, or even spotted, they are almost all pear-shaped. They hang out in clusters, often on the new tips of growing plants or on the underside of leaves.

Aphids can be particularly troubling in the late season. Take care to keep a close eye on your plants to spot them early to save you extra work tending to unsightly damage.

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Aphid Damage:

While many gardeners are familiar with what aphids themselves look like, most of us are all too familiar with what aphid damage looks like, and are keen to avoid it every year in our own gardens. Different plants will present different complaints from aphid damage, but often show yellow discoloration, as well as wilted or curled leaves.

As if this attack on our gardens wasn’t enough, the presence of aphids is an invitation for fungus and mold to set in, as well as a likely way for diseases to be spread to your gardens.

aphids on a damaged leaf

Getting Rid of Aphids:

Our problems with aphids start with their sheer numbers, but thankfully for us, these pests have almost no defenses, and almost every other garden creature you can think of loves to eat them. The best defense you have against invading aphids is their natural predators, especially if you’re able to identify the pests early before they take over.

For an easy, chemical-free solution, release ladybugs into your garden to do all the heavy lifting for you. Not only are these gorgeous beetles like charming jewels in the garden, they are aphid-devouring machines. These beetles will stay in your garden as long as they need to, so long as they have tasty aphids to eat.
Instead of releasing ladybugs, you can also easily knock off collections of aphids on the undersides of leaves with a strong jet of water, tackling some of their numbers easily and with minimal effort or invasive pest control.

hose spraying leaves with water

For larger or persistent aphid infestations, some gardeners find that they need to turn to more powerful solutions before the damage to their garden is irreversible. When using these stronger solutions, we recommend following these steps:

Neem Oil – an organic insecticide that disrupts the aphid life-cycle and repels other pests. To use, dilute the solution in water as directed on the package and spray affected plants until completely wet.

Insecticidal Soap – a plant-safe liquid soap that is effective against many soft-bodied pests, including aphids. To use, apply in the morning by spraying plants with water, then follow with soap solution. Wait 30 minutes and rinse with water.

Pyrethrum – a very strong chemical insecticide that kills aphids on contact. To use, spray affected areas in early morning. This should only be done if the above steps failed to work.

Using strong chemicals can not only get in the way of you and your family enjoying your garden and yard, but they often wipe out all insect life in your garden. While this sounds promising, it often means that your aphids problem will bounce back even worse after using strong pesticides, because they won’t have any of their predators keeping them in check.

When it comes to aphids, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of treatment. These pests are tenacious and annoying but can quickly become more frustrating if they take over and damage your beautiful backyard. As we get into aphid season, remember to check your plants often for suspicious starter colonies of the pests so that you can keep your yard and garden aphid-free and beautiful all summer long.


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