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March 18, 2015 | Donna Balzer

I'm a failed gardener...

The trials and tribulations of dealing with scale in the yard and garden

Last week, I was outside in the shed sorting last year's plastic pots before bringing them inside for cleaning.
When I came in, I noticed a sticky mess on my little lime tree. Sadly, I knew what the trouble was. It was the same trouble I have been tackling since I bought the tree a year ago.

The trouble was scale — insects that have a crawling stage where they march up stems to new leaves, insert their pointy beaks into the leaf and build a hard tortoise cover over themselves, often looking like bumps on a branch. But I didn't notice any of this. In fact, until the pests started sipping sap and, in turn, the inevitable discharge arrived, I didn't really see them. The bug pee dripped slowly onto the lower leaves, then the pot edge and finally the hardwood below.It is disgusting.

I looked at this plant and I felt like a failed gardener.

I noticed the scale problem last summer and immediately kicked the plant out of the greenhouse. If it was going to have pests, I didn't want the lime indoors with its citrus buddies.

I then sprayed it with a simple mix of canola oil, water and a drop of soap. When that didn't work, I purchased eggs of brown lacewings for $75. I also wrapped the tree in Reemay fabric to hold in the beneficial insects so they wouldn't fly away as they hatched.

After a month, the plant started to look clean. Just in case, I started hosing the plant off weekly, reaching up into the underside to wash off insects including crawlers and eggs.

But when I brought it indoors last fall, I noticed the sticky leaves again. I decided to manually scrub the top and bottom of every leaf with a soapy water solution and a clean micro-fibre cloth. That seemed to work and I became a slave to my plant – washing it more often than I wash behind my ears.

And then I went away for two weeks.

Without warning, I had a new batch of scale and a new dose of drips, like a runny nose, pooling on the leaves and floor.

In an online chat room, I saw "Cath" mention: "I have successfully used straight rubbing alcohol applied with a toothbrush to get rid of scale. The toothbrush gets the adults off of the leaves and stems and the alcohol kills them and removes the goo they create."

So I tried rubbing alcohol – on the plant, of course.

I know there are toxic chemicals registered in other countries for scale control, but I can't go there at any price. Instead, I admit I am a failure and will move on, dragging the tree outside to a sudden-death showdown. No more leaf washing – after all, it's almost spring and I have pots to wash and seeds to sow.

Donna Balzer is a garden writer and entertaining speaker. Check out her blog at or follow her on twitter @NoGuffGardener.

Tagged: Garden | greenhouse | Guest Column | pots | scale

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