This plentiful pest is tiny but mighty when it comes to the havoc it can wreck on your plants.
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With every garden comes a range of pests—some work wonders for your crops, while others make it difficult for plants to reach their full potential. One of the more common and plentiful pests you're likely to encounter? Ants. Wherever there's soil, you're sure to find these tiny critters scurrying about and, at times, making their way into your home. They won't eat your plants, but ants can damage your flowers and vegetables in other ways.

Ant on flower
Credit: Mark Weich / Getty

Ant beds are defined as the mound of materials, such as dirt, sand, tiny rocks, or clay, that mark the entrance or exit of an ant colony. The process of ants carrying these underground materials outside and placing them near colony openings is what creates their dome-like shape. "In excavating their 'beds,' they may disrupt the roots of small plants such as new annuals, seedlings, and such. Larger colonies (hence an extensive network of underground tunnels) may dry out the soils near plant root systems, causing some damage," explains Don Gabel, Director of Plant Health at the New York Botanical Garden.

Related: How to Keep Squirrels Out of Your Garden

Because older and more established ant colonies cover so much ground, getting rid of them entirely can be a challenge. Gabel notes that because tunnels can be extensive, "forcing any substance down this network poses some difficulties, since you can't truly guarantee that the substance will reach as deep into the tunnels as needed. Some remedies are not outright killers but often only provide partial or temporary relief and would have to be applied several times during a season." 

Ahead, Gabel's tips for getting rid of (or, at the very least minimizing) the pests.

Avoid the Oil and Hot Water Myths

Home remedies are great, but only when they work. Gabel cautions against believing everything we read. "I have heard of using gasoline—that's crazy! It's an environmental pollutant," he points out. "Scalding water is suggested, but that only works where it [can reach]. Scalding water will also kill the plants."

Spice Up Your Soil

Jalapenos and other hot peppers repel ants, but don't try to make this type of repellent on your own; purchase an essential oil variation instead. The commercially produced repellents are "registered to kill insects and are relatively safe for people, pets, and the environment," says Gabel. While concentrated essential oils like capsicum can kill insects, he notes, it's unlikely that the average homeowner could make a concoction strong enough to get rid of the ants in their garden. "It is more likely to agitate them and make them move."

Try Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous Earth (or DE), a common suggestion, works when ants come in contact with it. It's an abrasive dust that absorbs the oils and fats from the cuticle of an insect's exoskeleton, causing it to dry out. You want to buy a food grade iteration, which can be found at home improvement stores and online retailers. Try combining the spicy essential oil method with this one. "Using a capsicum-type concoction to irritate the ants to move around will increase the likelihood that the ants will come into contact with the Diatomaceous Earth," says Gabel.

Change Up Your Dirt

This simple solution may be your best bet. Gabel explains utilizing heavier dirt, like clay soils, will make your garden less appealing to ant colonies. "Ants tend to look for loose soils, sandy soils, or soils with an open structure," he says. "They also prefer drier soil and sunny locations." Even watering your garden frequently (if your plants can take it) will make it less attractive to ants, since wet dirt is heavy.

Utilize Natural Repellents

Some plants will keep ants naturally. "Plants, such as lavender, mint, rosemary, thyme, and marigolds, will repel insects in general," says Gabel. He adds that certain animals, including doodlebugs, ground beetles, wrens, and sparrows, prey on ants and may be helpful in minimizing the tiny bugs, as well.

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