Warm weather brings more than flowers and joyful birds. As early as April, you'll probably start seeing aphids in your garden. These garden pests are just a minor nuisance in small numbers, but they reproduce fast. One female can produce 70 to 80 offspring in a week, and they take just one more week to grow to maturity. And guess what they like to eat? Sweet, tender flowers and juicy leaves. Aphids can seriously damage a garden if left unmanaged, so protect your young seedlings and always stay vigilant.
1. Protect Your Assets
Though aphids may not kill mature plants, they can certainly murder young seedlings. If you've got an aphid-prone garden, plan ahead. Start your seedlings indoors, and wait until they're at least a month old before transplanting. If you must start seeds outdoors, protect them under covers and cloches whenever you can. Meanwhile, cut and remove anything in your garden that's populated with aphids.
2. Go Aphid Hunting
The most natural method is also the most time-consuming, but it works very well when you've got small aphid populations. Examine the upwind side of your garden, the undersides of tree leaves, and any place you see ants. Ants often "farm" aphids for their honeydew, and an ant trail up the trunk of a tree is a dead giveaway. When you find aphid groups, spray them with a strong stream of water. This removes the bugs and their honeydew. If you've got a serious infestation, clip off the affected foliage and get it out of your yard.
3. Spray Attack
Make your own aphid spray using tomato leaves, which contain alkaloids that poison aphids naturally. Chop a cup or two of leaves finely and steep them in two cups of water overnight. Strain the water into a spray bottle, and spray directly onto aphid groups. This works fairly well, and is safe for plants, humans and beneficial insects. Or try this spearmint, hot pepper and horseradish spray. Though these will certainly slow aphids down, a mild natural spray won't be good enough for large infestations. If you've got a serious problem, spray your plants with neem oil or insecticidal soap. Just be careful not to overdo it.
4. Get More Bugs
If you've got a big aphid problem, your best option is to enlist the help of the insect kingdom. Parasitic wasps, ladybugs and lacewings will gobble up aphids quickly, and are a good solution for backyard gardeners. Naturally-occurring predators are a better choice than storebought ones, so make your garden a friendly habitat. Plant things like fennel, alfalfa, fruit trees and alyssum (see more bug-friendly blooms), and make sure you've got fresh water in the garden. If you do need to buy a flock of ladybugs, release them early in the morning and spray your plants with water for them to drink. This will encourage them to stick around, but you'll still probably need to get more ladybugs in about a week.
Want more information? Here's the definitive guide to aphid management.