Get those ants out of my garden!

Ants in your garden?

It’s no fun when you’re digging in your carefully managed raised bed with its lovely loose and loamy soil—and you uncover a nest of ants. The little buggers, when interrupted this way, will go into a frenzied panic, frantically carrying their egg sacs in multiple directions, trying to work out a path to bring them to safety.

Ants definitely do have their place in our ecosystem. They keep soil aerated; they contribute to organic matter in the soil. They remove the carcasses of other dead insects. But there are times when you just have too many of them, and want to take steps to get them out.

Ant nests

Understanding how an ant nest works can help you plan your strategy. Ants dig tunnels that lead to chambers. In these chambers, they store eggs and food. If the chambers become compromised, the ants will grab as many eggs as they can and relocate them somewhere more secure.

Ant advocates claim that ants don’t damage plants, but there’s another side of this debate that gives very convincing arguments to the contrary.

  • Ants like to burrow tunnels. If there’s a network of tunnels under your plants, there’s a possibility that water going into the bed will run down the tunnels and away from the plants’ roots, depriving them of water.
  • If a plant’s roots grow into a tunnel or chamber, this can prevent the roots from absorbing needed nutrients and the plant will suffer or die.
  • But the worst thing ants do to plants is when they farm aphids. Aphids produce a sweet nectar that ants are crazy about, and ants will protect aphids from other insects in order to get and keep access to this nectar. Aphids are very destructive to plants and breed at alarming rates. While you can’t blame the ants directly for harming the plants, chances are that if you find ants in your garden, you’d better start looking out for aphids.

So what are your options if you decide you want to get rid of those pesky ants?

There are basically two ways of dealing with ants:

1) Deterrents that will force a relocation, or

2) Formicide.

Obviously, you don’t want to do anything to the ants that will damage your plants or your soil. If you don’t mind the ants but just want to get them out of a specific area of your garden or yard, there are lots of deterrents.

Deterring ants

  • One approach is to flood them out. Put your garden hose on the bed, turn the water on and let it run. This won’t kill them, but it will force them to pack up and move. If you just want them out of a single area—your garden—this may be all you need to do. However, if you’re in Southern California or any other area where drought is a problem, this may not be the best solution.
  • Sprinkling cinnamon or cayenne powder can temporarily stop ants (they will not cross a powdery trail), but this is a repulsion, not a long-term solution.
  • It appears that ants don’t like citrus. You can make an anti-ant spray by soaking citrus peels in water for a few days, then straining the water off the peels. Use the water to spray where the ants are. It won’t kill them, but will encourage them to relocate.

Death to the little buggers!

If you’re going to declare war and go for total annihilation, there are a couple of good nontoxic (to people) solutions.

  • If you haven’t planted the area yet, locate the entry to the nest, then pour boiling water into it. This will only work if you find the entry points, and if there are no plants on top of the nest with roots that could be damaged by the boiling water. You may need to do this more than once.
  • Ants have a sweet tooth, and you can use this to your advantage. Make a paste of equal parts sugar and Borax, adding just enough water to make it mushy, not juicy. Put the mix in a small container or soak cotton balls in the mixture and place it near the ant activity. The ants will take this stuff home with them, thinking it’s sugar. But the Borax will be the end of them! It will take a while to kill them off this way, but it will get the job done.
  • Some folks also swear by diatomaceous earth for getting rid of ants. Apparently the DE will shred the ants’ exoskeletons. Goodbye ants!

Ant farm

So if you don’t want to share your garden with the local ants, if you don’t want to convert your yard into the neighborhood ant farm, try some of these techniques. There really is no need to get chemical with them when there are so many natural, organic, non-toxic approaches available.

Su Falcon, Editor in Chief
The Dirt on Organic Gardening Magazine



NOTE: This article originally appeared in Issue 14 of The Dirt on Organic Gardening Magazine.