“Do you know of any safe pesticides?” asked Susan, an employee at one of my client’s offices yesterday. “I have small children at home so I’m worried about using the bug-killers they have at Home Depot.”

In my small plant care business, Good to Grow, I get questions like that a lot. Most of my clients are in office buildings, very few of which have windows that open and allow for circulation. I can’t spray toxic chemicals in them – I wouldn’t do that to those employees! But that’s ok, because there are plenty of safe alternatives.

I told Susan that she should use a safe pesticide whether she had kids or not (her own health is important, too!), but before I could steer her in the right direction, I needed to know more.

“What kind of plant is infected?” I asked. “And with what kind of bugs?”

“Well, I bought a plant at Home Depot a few weeks ago,” she answered, “And now it’s covered in what looks like clumps of cotton. But it’s not cotton, it’s bugs”

“Ew. Mealy bugs,” I told her. “They’re gross, aren’t they?”

I got this photo of an infected Janet Craig from the web, I believe it originated at the University of Kentucky. See what I mean? Gross!

I had to ask several more questions before I figured out that she had bought a Dragon tree (Dracaena Marginata) that was infected with the bugs. The Dragon tree and the Janet Craig pictured above are both Dracaenas, and both are susceptible to Mealy bugs. The Dragon trees in particular are also susceptible to Spider Mites, which are also gross and will kill your plant if left to their own devices.

She probably didn’t check the plant for bugs before buying it. But even if she had, she may not have been able to see the bugs at the store – they certainly didn’t have the same appearance they have now. They tend to “hide” and then suddenly “come alive” once you get them in your house. Grrr!

You should always check carefully for bugs before bringing a plant into your house because oftentimes, you can actually see them or see signs that the plant is not as healthy as it should be. But again, even if you do check, sometimes they slip by because they are buggery little boogers.

It’s ok, I know how to get the plant healthy again.

I wrote this down for Susan (even though it’s laughably easy, people get busy and forget).

Recipe for Non-Toxic Pesticide:

1 spray bottle

1 bottle of rubbing alcohol (you won’t need the whole bottle, but it’s good to have)

3-4 drops of dish soap (Palmolive, Dawn, it doesn’t matter – they all work the same)


Take the spray bottle and pour a 50-50 mix of the rubbing alcohol and water. Then add a few drops of dish soap. Shake well. Spray the plant thoroughly with the non-toxic mixture.

The rubbing alcohol will fry the Mealy bugs, but won’t hurt the plant. The dish soap helps the alcohol stay on the leaves, and also cleans the leaves at the same time. The rubbing alcohol will stink up the joint for a few minutes, but at least it won’t cause any harm to you or the plant.

I told Susan that she would have to wipe the dead Mealy bugs off the plant – I suggested using the shower since it’s a little cold this time of year for the garden hose – and that she should keep spraying the plant once a week until she’s sure they are gone.

The rubbing alcohol mix also works like a charm on Spider Mites, which is probably the most common houseplant pest. It can work on Scale if you are dedicated and persistent, although Scale is the one pest that I generally think you need to pull out the toxic stuff to kill (if one of my plants gets Scale, I usually throw it away, because Scale is difficult to kill).

She could also use rubbing alcohol directly on the leaves, using cotton balls or Q-tips to wipe the bugs away. I like the spray mixture because it’s easier.

Non-Toxic Pesticides Are Cheaper, Too!

A bottle of rubbing alcohol will set you back about a buck, maybe a buck fifty. Compare that to myriad harmful pesticides out there selling for ten bucks or more for just a few ounces. What a racket!

Susan also asked me if my rubbing alcohol mixture would work on flying insects (Gnats, Fruit flies) as well. Seems she bought some potting soil at Home Depot and it was infected with Gnats, which are now flying around her house.

That’s one of my biggest pet peeves, so tomorrow, I’m going to go on a RANT about Fungus Gnats and the crappy potting soil we’re being offered these days. It’s going to be aimed at the manufacturers who are selling us already infected soil, as well as the retailers who make matters worse by leaving the bags outside in the elements where the Gnats can multiply by the thousands. Drives. Me. Crazy.

I will also provide a few tricky, but safe, ways to rid your home or office of those pesky Gnats – without pesticides, of course.

So check back tomorrow! Until then, happy indoor gardening everyone!