What to do about ants in your plants

Garden optimism is in increasingly short supply. Punnets of seeds failing to thrive; chooks escaping into garden beds to broaden their palate; sudden dumps of rain that go nowhere in our clay soil; frost that brings a gorgeous icy dusting to winter mornings before dissolving into a desolate wasteland of burnt plants. There’s the dog that forges new paths directly through garden beds and repeatedly fertilises what was supposed to be the herb garden, despite the 10 surrounding acres she has to choose from.

And then there are the ants and slaters.

A little research on slaters has me begrudgingly convinced they are good guys. Also known as wood lice, these multi-legged crustaceans feed on decaying organic matter and help build the soil.

But when their culinary interests are misdirected, they also nibble the tender stems of young plants, which makes me feel less inclined to support the continuation of their lifecycle.

Orange trap for slaters

Happily a little home remedy found on this ABC Gardening Australia Fact Sheet seems to do the trick in distracting them away from my plants. By filling hollowed out orange halves with potato peelings and placing them open-end down around the garden, slaters head for these “traps” in large numbers and can then be moved elsewhere. While it by no means gets rid of them, it has the double-whammy effect of protecting nearby plants and making use of citrus scraps that chooks, worms nor compost heap want.

But I’m going to need a whole lot more convincing on ants.

The enclosed garden bed is a cover for a multicultural subterranean world where odorous house ants live side-by-side with bull ants and the mean-spirited Jack jumper ants, the sting of which is only surpassed in discomfort by the itch that hits a few hours later.

Last month, succumbing to the futility of the exercise, I decided not to plant anything there. Instead I let the chooks in. If I couldn’t have the garden bed, then neither could the ants.

So while my feathered army tackled the six-legged one, I decided to do some more research with a carefully constructed question to Google: What’s the point of ants?

According to Quora my question might be better posed as “what is the ecological purpose of ants?”

Scavenging

Like slaters, ants apparently break up the soil by recycling dead things. This process aerates the soil, allowing water and oxygen to penetrate. Ants also help control pests like termites, cockroaches, fleas and flies. They are frighteningly efficient, too, as this video of ants cleaning up a dead gecko demonstrates.

It reminds me of a cheery sign I once read at a nature sanctuary informing visitors that if ants were the size of dogs they would hunt humans.

Amazing, awesome wildlife stuff

OK, so ants are pretty clever and super strong. They form an incredibly organised and well-structured society ensuring the proliferation of their global population of an estimated 10 quadrillion. Given there has been no ant census, we can’t be sure. However someone somewhere has done the maths and calculated that there are 1 million ants for every human on Earth. Shall we watch that gecko video again?

Food source

I have noticed lots of skinks hang out around the edges of the garden bed and that’s because ants make healthy snacks for lizards, birds and other insects. And hopefully my chooks.

Pollinators

Sometimes ants can pollinate certain species of plants and spread seeds by storing them in their tunnels. I don’t think that’s happening in my garden, so I remain unimpressed.

Aphids on the make.   Photo credit: Microfotos

Mafia Thugs

Technically speaking, the ecosystem would crumble if not for ants.

I also appreciate that lettuce and carrot seedlings don’t rate highly on an ant’s menu.

But, while they might not be the ones personally causing havoc to my baby plants, their presence encourages the garden bullies.

Ants enjoy supping on honeydew; a sugary substance produced by sucking insects such as aphids, whitefly, scale and mealy bug.

So in return for the meal these insects supply, ants provide protection by attacking predators including – gasp! – ladybugs.

That’s like a gang of mafia thugs taking out a sweet old lady to steal her silverbeet and roquette. Not cool, ants. Not cool.

In short, they have got to go.

Ants eating honeydew from aphids. Photo credit: The Tree Care Guide

Of course, I am not advocating the wholesale decimation of ants. I would simply prefer they take their important work away from my vegie patch. So here are a few “organic” combat strategies in case Operation Chook fails.

  • FLOOD nests with water.
  • WIPE over ant trails with pennyroyal or eucalyptus oil.
  • INCREASE humus levels and mulch. whilst keeping nitrogen levels low. This means using compost that does not contain lazy chunks of food scraps.
  • MAKE baits with 1/2 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 tablespoons of borax dissolved in 1 1/2 warm water. You could also try using peanut butter in case your ants have more of a savoury persuasion. Half fill a small jar with cotton wool, saturate with the sugar solution and put holes in the lid large enough for the ants to get in and out. Leave it where ants will find it, but pets and small children won’t. It might take a few weeks, but is an effective, lox-toxic option.
  • VAMPIRES hate garlic and so do sucking insects, such as aphids. Garlic spray, or growing garlic and cutting the leafy tops from time to time can deter them, thereby removing the ants’ food source.
  • PAINTING white oil on fruit trees – make it by combine 1 cup of cooking oil with 1/4 cup of dishwashing liquid – can also keep sucking insects at bay.
  • ENCOURAGE ladybugs and praying mantises with small dishes of water, groundcover and colourful, fragrant plants.
Protect the ladybugs

After a week of chooks on the frontline, it seems the ants have retreated. It might also have been the heavy rain driving them away for now. Nonetheless, I took the chance and planted seeds in one section of the garden. I diligently placed potato-stuffed oranges as slater deterrents and all was looking good.

Can you sense where this is going?

This morning there were paw prints right through the middle of it all. And they did not belong to ants.

Help me feel normal. What is greatest source of frustration in your garden?

 

“If ants are such busy workers, how come they find time to go to all the picnics?”

-Marie Dressler

 

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