Ants are a common companion for avid gardeners. Often crawling about their day without causing any problems. But once in a while, these little buggers decide to set up camp in your lovely outdoor potted plant. The question becomes:
Do ants harm (potted) vegetable plants? Ants are usually part of a healthy ecosystem and help plants by feeding on harmful insects. However, they can become an issue when they start farming aphids or their population gets out of hand.
But how would you know whether the ant is beneficial or a pest? To answer this, first get to know the following.
- Are ants in the home garden a bad thing?
- What are some common ant types?
- What ants can be found in the kitchen garden?
- Do ants reside in potted plants?
So let’s decide together whether the ants are your enemies or bosom friends.
Do Ants Harm Your Vegetable Plants?
Seeing ants –moving up and down a plant in a line– provokes the same instincts in both novices and experienced gardeners: Kill them before they kill your plants!
But that’s not always the best solution. Surprisingly, professional vegetable growers see many insects as partners in gardening.
So what do ants indicate? Usually, ants show the presence of mealybug, aphid, or sap-sucking insects that attack the plant. These insects produce honeydew, a substance that ants need.
- First, ants hit the insect with their antennas, causing them to discharge sweet liquid.
- Ants then swallow the sweet liquid and store it in their stomach. Ants have special holding stomachs.
- Next, ants go back to their nests and share the honeydew with the queen and other workers.
- Some ants might keep aphids in their nest, using them as a food source.
Technically, the presence of some ants is beneficial for your home vegetable plant. It will become easier if you know the ant types and their roles in a vegetable garden. That will help you decide whether the ant is a foe or a friend.
Common Garden Ant Types
Ants differ in size and color, and sometimes it is hard to identify them. Knowing the ant species you’re dealing with is vital to determining the next steps
In this guide, we have covered some common ant species found in vegetable gardens and pots.
Black Garden Ants
Black garden ants are the most common variety and harmless to plants. They help in pollination by crawling around from flower to flower, looking for nectar. Plus, they can kill caterpillars that may harm the vegetable plant.
Black ants do not damage vegetation; instead, they act as a pollinator. However, watch their population. too many ants may impose other problems.
Like black garden ants, fire ants are harmless to plants but have a painful sting. They have deep red color, live in small nests, and are active foragers. Fire ants, unlike black ants, are more aggressive.
These are mound-building outdoor ants that usually nest outside and are millions in numbers. They only come inside in search of food. Outdoors, you find them in: mulch areas, lawns, patios, decks, and sidewalks.
In short, fire ants don’t pose any danger for your plants but you might want to avoid stepping into their nest.
Carpenter ants nest inside walls, attics, or wooden structures that are water damaged or rotten. You often find their nest in firewood, gutter, tree trunk, decks, soffits, and sheds.
Carpenter ants that nest in wood don’t eat the wood around the nest, but their tunnels lead to more decay. If you do not control carpenters, they will cause more damage over time. They vary in size and color, but all have the same nesting behavior: make a hole by digging.
Carpenter can bite if their nest is disturbed, but their bites are not that painful. Also, when disturbed, these ants produce a robust acidic odor. Nevertheless, carpenters help plants by eating insects that may harm the vegetable garden. Don’t worry too much if you come across them in your garden, except when they come from the direction of your home.
Yellow Meadow Ants
They are tiny insects, and you can only see them on the surface while disturbing their nests. Yellow meadow ants live below the soil and feed on small insects. Generally, these insects are harmless but may leave small earth mounds on flower beds.
Benefits of Ants in a Garden
It’s nice to have some tiny ants around your garden, as they are beneficial for vegetable plants and known for providing good services to the garden.
Ants often act as natural pest control. They feed on young pest and their eggs. In fact, during eating, they disturb other pests, which helps to get rid of them.
Ants are so good at their service of controlling pests that back in 300 A.D, growers purposely introduced ants into the garden as an effective pest control strategy.
Though unintentionally, ants are excellent at pollination. Ants aid pollination by roaming from bloom to bloom. However, it’s important to invite various pollinators into your garden. Having a few ants crawling around shouldn’t prevent you from optimizing your garden for other pollinators
Plant roots need water, oxygen, and nutrients for growth. Ant aerates the soil by excavating the tunnel, which supplies water, oxygen, and nutrients to plant roots. Moreover, ants speed up the decomposition of dead insects and leaves, which fertilizes the plants.
Drawbacks of Ants in a Garden
Ants feed on the honeydew produced by small insects like Aphids. They employ some creative methods to increase the production of this sweet liquid. One such way might include relocating aphids to better locations – incentivizing higher honeydew production. That’s all well and good until the “better location” is your healthy, well-cared-for vegetable plant.
Ants love sweet things. Leaving anything sweet outside for a few hours is sure to attract these little bugs. They aren’t that picky when it comes to the source of the sweet taste, anything from soda to cake is a surefire way to see some ants. While annoying this isn’t all that bad. However, ants also like the taste of ripe fruits – often to the dismay of avid fruit tree growers.
Ants In Potted Plants
Most of the time, gardeners ask about ants in their pots. Are they going to harm the vegetable plant in pots? Why are they there, and what are they doing?
Like human ants also need a roof over their heads and something to eat. Even in pots, ants rarely bring harm to the vegetable plant but are great indicators of other issues. Ants aren’t after your plants, if you see a lot of them on your green buddy, it’s that some other pest (like aphids) attacks your plant.
Similarly, if you notice these tiny creatures building a nest in your pot. Ants love making houses in dry soil and usually avoid potted plants because of the wet conditions inside the container.
Below are the most likely reasons ants might decide to inhabit your potted plants.
Inconsistent watering and dry soil in a pot is a perfect environment for ant colonies. Ants building a nest in your potted plants is a great indicator to increase your water frequency.
Ants Indicate A Pest Problem
Another reason ants are present in your potted plant is their love for sugar. Aphids and mealybugs produce a sugary liquid called honeydew which sticks to plants and appeals to pest insects.
These pest insects swallow this sweet sticky fluid and make it a source of their food. Remove the Aphids and the ants will be gone too.
Bad soil in your pot
Ants in a pot is a clue of another big problem. Commercial mix or bagged potting mix usually quickly deteriorates throughout the season. Bad potting soil, doesn’t absorb or retain water properly. Encouraging the soil to dry out quickly and inviting an ant infestation. Healthy soil is essential for proper plant development. I wrote a comprehensive guide on creating perfect garden soil, which also applies to potting soil.
Transferred via compost
What’s better than having a nice home? A house with a free delivery service of your favorite foods! Compost piles make a great home for many outdoor ant colonies. They are also quite beneficial for the composting process by breaking down dead organic materials and aerating the soil. However, once we decide to use the compost as fertilizer we often unknowingly invite ants into our garden/pot.
How To Get Rid Of Ants?
Usually, you can leave the ants be. They typically don’t cause damage to your plants and will most likely move next Spring. But what can you do if you really want to get rid of the ants in your pot/garden?
There are different solutions for each problem. You can use both chemical or natural methods to solve the issue. Generally, it’s best to stick with the least harmful method for each situation.
Remove Their Food Source
First, you have to eliminate the pests, which are feeding ants. One way to get rid of an aphids overpopulation is by introducing or attracting predators like ladybugs. Alternatively, you can use insecticidal soap or pyrethrum spray. Wash off any residual honeydew.
Removing honeydew is also vital to prevent mold. For small plants spraying and wiping the leaves down will do the job.
By now, you know ants do not take residence in wet soil or moist potting mix. So to fix the ants in your pot, make sure you water them more often. You can deter ants by doing the following;
- Buy self-watering pots
- Use a potting mix that holds water for a long time.
- Use sprinklers
- Above all, regular watering is the key
There is another easy fix to stop ants from setting camp in your pot. Line your pot bottom with an appropriate size of fine fly screen mesh before adding potting mix to it. This will act as a blockade and prevent ants from entering from the base. Using a layer of mulch helps to retain water in your pot.
Another way to deter ants from entering your pot is to sprinkle cinnamon or cayenne pepper over mulch or rim.
For small plants, take a container filled with water and submerge your pot in it until air bubbles stop coming to the surface. However, rewetting your pot mix is only a temporary solution.
Borax Traps for hopeless Ant infestations
Set a borax trap for ants by creating a mixture of sugar with borax.
- Take one cup of both borax and sugar. Mix it.
- Sprinkle this sugar mixture around the hills where ants will come and eat it without detecting borax in it.
- Wait until ants take this mixture with them to their colony.
Borax is lethal to ants; eating it will kill them and even wipe out the entire colony.
Ants play an important role in your garden’s ecosystem. They can be a helpful garden companion and a great indicator if things are going south. Usually, it’s best to just let the ants do their thing and focus your energy elsewhere. Taking care of the underlying issues will keep their population size in check.