Here's how to send these little pests scattering away from your home or garden.

With every garden comes a range of pests-some that work wonders for your crops and others that make it hard for plants to reach their fullest 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. Generally harmless, you won't have to worry about ants eating your plants, but they can cause a little stress on your garden. If ants have become an issue or you simply can't stand their invasiveness Don Gabel, Director of Plant Health at the New York Botanical Garden, has a few tips.

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 builds up, marking 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 their excavation, ants look for a specific type of consistency. "Ants tend to look for loose soils, sandy soils, soils with an open structure. They also prefer drier soil and sunny locations. A good soil site will allow ant colonies to flourish and will tend to have repeat occupants," says Gabel. "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. Some ants actually 'farm' aphids, protecting them from predators, moving them to new locations so the ants can feed more," explains Gabel.

Because older and more established ant colonies cover so much ground, getting rid of them entirely can be a challenge. Gabel says 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 only often only provide partial or temporary relief and would have to be applied several times during a season." So, how exactly do you tame ant beds? The complete solution may not exist but there are definitely ways to decrease and push out the ant population in your garden.

Avoid Oil and Water

Home remedies are great, but only when they work. Gabel cautions us against believing everything we read. "I have heard of using gasoline; that's crazy! It's an environmental pollutant. Scalding water is suggested, but that only works where it gets to. Scalding water will also kill the plants," warns Gabel.

Spice It Up

Spicy foods tend to wake most of us up, and "hot pepper" concoctions are no different for ants. "While concentrated essential oils like capsicum can kill insects, it's unlikely that a homeowner could make a product that is concentrated enough to kill insects. It is more likely to agitate them and make them move," says Gabel. "You can purchase these types of essential oil insecticide products, which are registered to kill insects and are relatively safe for people, pets, and the environment."

Diatomaceous Earth

Diatomaceous Earth, a common suggestion, works when ants come in contact with it. Consisting of the ground remains of a type of phytoplankton called diatoms, Diatomaceous Earth, or DE, is 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 food grade, which can be found at home improvement stores and online retailers. "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. Wet soils will be more conducive to insect-killing fungi that are found in most soils," says Gabel.

Go Natural

Sometimes, the simplest solutions may be one of the best. Gabel mentions that heavier soils like clay soils or wet soils, will be less conducive to ant beds. Another option is to utilize natural repellents. "Plants such as lavender, mint, rosemary, thyme, and marigolds will repel insects in general," adds Gabel. Turning to nature is always an option as well. While you may not want them to do any damage to your garden either, Gabel mentions that "several insects, rodents, and birds are known to be occasional predators of ants," which includes doodlebugs, ground beetles, wrens and sparrows. Sometimes, it's just about compromise.


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