One of the questions I am frequently asked, and which is difficult to answer to any satisfactory degree, is how to get rid of ants – and what harm do they do. I am pretty tolerant of ants in the garden and they are not the worst garden pest. More importantly, the combined intelligence of a nest of ants, and their work ethic, means they are more than a match for all but the most dedicated ant exterminator. I have a rather relaxed attitude to them and try to inspire others to do the same, though there are exceptions.
Firstly, ants in the soil will not do a lot of harm, though they are a nuisance in lawns when they make ant hills. When they decide to carry out their nuptial flights I agree that they are a pain. Their earth-moving abilities are a nuisance in lawns but are far worse when they take up residence in pots. They do this because the soil in these is well-drained – or dry. My pot of tulips, which had to be tipped out early so I could re-use the pot, was a perfect ant nest, but the tulips had not been affected. But the nests can often disturb plant roots and all those tunnels mean that water runs through rapidly and shrubs in pots can be killed, as much from lack of water as any direct harm from the ants. They certainly should not be encouraged.
The fact that ants are such intelligent litter critters leads to other problems. They love sweet things, including the honeydew exuded by aphids and scale insects and they will move these around plants, farming them and protecting them from predators. If you see ants running over your plants it is a good bet that you have another problem.
Controlling ants is not easy as I have discovered recently when (somehow) they set up home in a pot in the conservatory. Boiling water may be effective (though unforgivably cruel, if ‘green’) on the patio but don’t try it on the lawn or your pots of petunias! Nematodes are a suggestion for ants in lawns and pots, if the soil is moist, but some sort of bait or poison is a last resort for ants in pots. I would suggest that, in the garden, they should be left alone. If you can’t bear that, then keep disturbing the ground by forking it over. Even if the ants don’t get the hint they will, usefully, be mopped up by wild birds.
And, as promised, the first of the streptanthus is just about open, so gets a mention. See yesterday’s post.