Containers, Bulbs, and Gnats

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Pictured clockwise from left to right: Dahlia, muscari (grape hyacinths), ranunculus, and anemone. Planted November 2014.

For the last five years I’ve been gardening cacti, succulents, an African violet, and an assortment of other tropical houseplants. When I moved into my apartment after graduating, I finally had an outdoor space, and I wanted to make my patio a flowering paradise. After much consideration and reading, I decided that I would create my paradise using bulbs. Honestly, I thought it would be easy, but the last 8 months have proven me very wrong.

In my post Spring Flowers I talked about how in January the bulbs were growing beautifully and my first muscari (grape hyacinth) was poking its head through the soil. This Georgia winter was fairly mild which caused the bulbs to grow and come through much earlier than anticipated. Early as in early January early. Shortly after the bulbs were about an inch tall, there was a cold front that put temperatures in the teens and below freezing for several consecutive weeks. As a new bulb plantlady, I didn’t like the idea of leaving them outside in that kind of weather. So, I brought them inside. I put them by different windows on different days to give them enough light. I also turned them each day to make sure they didn’t get too leggy, or tall. What I didn’t count on was what was inside my house that could and would hurt them.

After about a week inside my bulbs started to become more droopy and lookingIMG_2228 more yellow. After a close inspection I realized the soil I had put them in was moving. Even as a novice gardener I know that soil isn’t supposed to move. After looking through the soil I found small flies and fly larvae as well as very moist soil. From there 2 things happened:

  1. Through copious Googling, I discovered the flies in the soil were gnats, and that these gnats like to feed on dead, decaying plant material.
  2. I discovered Dahlia bulbs should not be watered until the first green stems and leaves come up. Dahlias also should be planted after the last frost and won’t begin to come up until the weather is significantly warmer than 60 degrees. I planted my dahlia with the other bulbs in November, had watered it, and had exposed it consistently to temperatures below 60 degrees. Needless to say it rotted and created a gnat smorgasbord.

To top it off, I found that had been overwatering my bulbs. Because I had brought them inside, the water in the soil had not evaporated as quickly as it would have if the plants had been outside which caused a build up of excess moisture. Because these bulbs, and plants in general, don’t like being damp they started to rot. With the muscari, anemone, and ranunculus beginning to rot and the dahlia already completely rotted in the soil I had created the perfect breeding ground for gnats.

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Muscari bloom circa January 2015

Naturally, I was pretty distraught. My bulbs were dying and there were tiny gnats flying all over my apartment. Luckily, during my summer soiree in veggies and flowers from seed, I learned that using a rosemary essential oil and water solution is an excellent bug repellant and killer. I used this in conjunction with leaving a vinegar and honey mixture in various spots in the container. My bulbs received a reprieve for a little while and my muscari began to come up in bunches.

While the muscari proved to be very resilient to the prevailing weather conditions and the gnats, the other bulbs weren’t so lucky. While using my rosemary spray and the vinegar/honey pot remedies worked OK for a couple of weeks during the worst of the late winter frost, the gnats made a resurgence as the weather warmed and I placed the bulbs back outside. I thought that keeping the plants outside would help things and allow the bulbs to be low maintenance. I quickly learned this wouldn’t be the case. I had to be extremely meticulous about how I kept them. I went outside every day, inspected the plants for any yellow or brown foliage, and removed any dying or decaying plant matter I could find. If I didn’t find it, then the gnats would and my bulbs would start to die.

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Plant Colony during the late winter freeze circa late February, early March 2015. Muscari, ranunculus, & anemone bulbs pictured in the black container, right. Tulip bulbs also pictured in glass container, far right.

Going through this constant cycle of gnat resurgence was emotionally draining and annoying, so, after reading multiple articles, I decided to use poison-free pest control: goGNATS insect control concentrate and Sticky Stakes. The goGNATS is a “poison-free alternative for the control of soil-fungus gnats, mites, aphids, moths and other garden and hydroponic pests.” I don’t grow my plants using hydroponics, but using this solution diluted in water and sprayed over the top of the soil knocked out the gnats within a week. The Sticky Stakes managed to catch the stragglers who escaped the spray, and my bulbs were good to go! I would highly recommend using this concentrate in conjunction with sticky stakes to anyone who is waging the never ending fight against gnats and other pests as they were highly effective.

One word of caution: If you’re going to use goGNATS concentrate in your garden, I strongly suggest keeping it away from pets and small children as ingesting it will cause extreme illness. I also highly recommend following the proportions on the bottle. Speaking from experience, if you don’t follow the proportion guidelines, the concentrate will burn your plants and hinder their growth, especially if sprayed directly on the plants.

While using these products helped reduce my gnat problem immensely, they did not completely fix the problem. Gnats are particularly persistent and difficult to get rid of, so I have had to take continuous precautions to help my plants survive. When I dug up my bulbs, I had to discard many of them because they were infested. I also needed to completely get rid of the soil I had used for these bulbs because it was entirely infested. In addition to discarding the soil, I washed and bleached the container they were in in order to kill any remaining gnat corpses are eggs.  In my reading about gnats, I learned that even if a female gnat dies, the eggs inside her will still hatch. The bleach and intense antibacterial soap scrubbing I did helped to eradicate any dead bodies and their zombie eggs.

I still use the sticky stakes and the goGNATOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAS periodically to get rid of the gnats that have come in on plants as well as soils I have brought home from Wal-Mart. I’ve since stopped buying my soil and plants from places like Wal-Mart that keep bagged soil inside and that do not water their plants often enough. Wal-Mart tends to dry out their plants until they begin to lose foliage then overwater them. These watering practices help to cause gnat and mite infestations because wet, decaying plants are a gnat’s dream. Leaving soil outside exposes it to rain and the plastic bag the soil is kept in tends to trap water and cause the soil to be excessively moist. While there are typically no leaves in bagged soil, there is a certain amount of compost, which when remains wet attracts gnats and fungus flies. I’ve found that avoiding these plants and soils has significantly reduced the gnat population in my apartment and porch.

In regards to my experiment with bulbs, I think categorically it was a success because I managed to get all of the bulbs (minus the dahlia) to come up. Of this batch of bulbs, the muscari were certainly my greatest successes because they bloomed from February until March. I was very happily surprised by two anemones that flowered in April. Their faces were so beautiful in their unexpectedness. In the weeks since, I’ve taken all I’ve learned about watering, soil, and gnat prevention, and have directed it into growing tulips, lily of the valley, and dahlias. In my next post, I’ll talk about my experience growing my second round of bulb flowers and the benefits of using a green house!

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