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Hydroponic gardening is so much cleaner than growing in regular soil that it's easy to forget you can have the same problems as growers with mud on their boots. Spider mites are an example of an indoor/outdoor problem that can have a devastating effect on your crop if you're not vigilant. The good news is that it's possible to spot spider mites before they get out of hand, and you can usually eradicate them with inexpensive materials available at your local hydroponics store.
What's a Spider Mite?
Spider mites are from the arachnid family, but they're not spiders. They're more closely related to ticks, although they don't bite people. They're very small, usually less than a millimeter in length. That can make them very hard to spot until they begin to do damage to your crop. Different types of spider mites are different colors, and their eggs are tiny and transparent when they're freshly laid. Spider mites also prefer to live on the underside of plant leaves. Taken together, these characteristics make it very easy to overlook spider mites on your plants until they've gotten out of control.
How Spider Mites Hurt Your Plants
Spider mites don't eat your plants like a beetle would. They puncture the plants and feast on the sap. At first this simply stresses the plant, making it look weak and spindly. If left unchecked, these mites will eventually kill the plant.
Spider mites get their name from the webs they produce. Unlike true spiders, the webs aren't designed to catch prey. These webs are very fine, almost like gauze, and they're designed to protect the eggs and mites from predators. By the time you spot these webs on your plants, your mite infestation is pretty far along.
How To Spot Spider Mites Early
It's hard to see spider mites with the naked eye. They're really tiny, and they like to stay underneath the leaves on your plants. The first sign a grower might see is yellow or brown spots on the leaves of the plants. These are areas where the mites are sucking out sap. As the stress on the leaves grows, the spots will become larger and more noticeable. Eventually, the leaves will curl up and look like they've been burned, and may begin to fall off the plant.
Finding What You Need at the Hydroponics Store
It's better if a spider mite infestation is caught early. Most of the products available to deal with a spider mite problem work best if the plants aren't already covered with mites. While products like insecticidal soap, neem oil, and pyrethrins are kind to your plants, a heavy infestation will stress the plant to the point where it might not be able to be saved.
If your crop is small, and the infestation is in its first stages, you might be able to get by with a single spray can of insecticide. You can also buy larger containers of pesticides that can be used in your own sprayer, and diluted if necessary. In most cases, you'll need to repeat the application to truly rid yourself of infestation, because you have to outlast the life cycle of the bugs and their eggs to eradicate the problem. Because the chemicals in the sprays are so mild, many growers use them regularly whether they spot trouble or not, just to be sure. Some sprays do contain fish by-products, so be careful if you're allergic.
Think Twice About Sharing CuttingsThe best way to avoid problems with spider mites is to avoid introducing them in the first place. The most common way spider mites find their way into your plants is when you share cuttings or whole plants with friends. Your local hydroponics store is a friendly place, and it's common for people to meet other growers and begin to swap advice and hydroponic supplies. Unfortunately, because spider mites are so hard to spot early in their infestation, it can be easy to overlook them on a plant or cutting you introduce into your grow environment. They can even hitch a ride on accessories like a grow light if you're not vigilant.
There's no reason to completely avoid swapping plants and cuttings with your friends. Just prepare a diluted bath of insecticidal soap, and dip the entire plant. Cleaning supplies containing pyrethrins can be used on things like reflectors and grow lights. Your local hydroponics store can help you choose the right product.