Tag Archives: organic gardening

Ants on Your Plants: Are They Bad for the Garden?

When you start gardening, you’ll probably start noticing more of the life that visits your yard. For most non-gardeners, insects only come into focus when they enter houses, but for gardeners, they suddenly play a bigger role on stage. You start noticing the earthworms in the soil, the pillbugs scurrying around in your mulch, and the slugs that come to chew big holes in your kale. Many folks will spot ants visiting their garden and wonder what they’re doing there. Are they pests or garden allies? 

Why Are There Ants on My Plants?

Ants may be visiting your garden for several reasons. Like us, they must meet a few essential needs to survive: moisture, food, and shelter. These needs are met in different ways depending on the species of ant, and there are almost 800 ant species found in the United States today! Though these species vary widely, below we’ll cover some of the more common reasons you’ll spot them on your garden plants. 

Collecting Water

The way that ants source water varies with species. Some ants are specifically adapted to get all their moisture needs from their food sources. Harvester ants, for instance, can get most of their moisture needs from seeds, while other ants may get most of their moisture from flower nectar. 

However, it’s not unusual for ant species to gather water from dew droplets or puddles. If you often spot ants visiting your plants that tend to collect dew, they could be harvesting the water. 

Ant farming aphids on a plant stemFarming Aphids, Scale Insects, and Mealybugs

Many ant species, including Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), Allegheny mound ants (Formica exsectoides), common citronella ants (Lasius claviger), and longhorn crazy ants (Paratrechina longicornis), all enjoy feeding on honeydew, a rich, sugary substance secreted by aphids, scale insects, and mealybugs as they feed on plant sap. 

These ants will go to great lengths to ensure a steady supply of honeydew. The ants actually farm the aphids and other insects almost the way we do livestock. They will protect the aphid colony, keeping their habitat clean and fighting off predators. They also cull certain insects, especially older ones, that produce less honey-dew. When they want to collect honeydew, they gently tap the insect’s abdomen to encourage them to secrete honeydew. 

Amazingly, ants will also carry these insects to new plants to increase production. Obviously, this behavior can be problematic for gardeners. 

Thankfully, aphids are usually a reasonably easy pest to eliminate. A strong jet of water to kill or blast the aphids off the plant may be enough to do the trick. You can also use insecticidal soap or soapy water to kill the aphids. However, this method comes with some risks. It can destroy the waxy coating on leaves and may burn foliage, especially during hot and humid weather.

Harvesting Other Sugary Foods

Many of the ants that enjoy honeydew also love other sugary foods, such as flower nectar, fruit juices, and human food scraps. While the ants may seem like a nuisance if they show up at your picnic or climb into your flowers to gather nectar, they don’t do any harm. Usually, they don’t harvest fruit or juices unless the produce is already damaged. 

For example, finding ants in a hole in strawberries is often a significant complaint. Interestingly, it’s not typically the ants making the hole. Usually, slugs eat strawberries and other fruit at night, and then the ants harvest from the opening that the slugs have created during the day. Usually, if you can eliminate the slugs, the ants will cease to be an issue. 

Line of ants carrying leavesLeaf Cutters

You may also see leafcutter ants like the Texas leafcutter ant (Atta texana) in certain parts of the United States. These interesting ants can often be seen carrying large pieces of foliage back to their nests. This particular species has been known to work together as a colony to defoliate a citrus tree in less than 24 hours!

These foliage foragers aren’t eating the leaves; they take them back to their nest and chew them into a paste as fertilizer for their fungus gardens. Regardless, they can spell trouble if you’re trying to grow plants and trees within a colony’s range. 

Unfortunately, for people coping with leaf-cutter ants, many of the organic “ant baits” you see recommended aren’t effective because these species only feed on the fungus they grow in their nest.

We don’t have personal recommendations because they aren’t an issue for us. However, many permaculturalists in other areas recommend raising guinea fowl or treating the nests with boiling water. 

Harvester Ants

Harvester ants collect grains and seeds, which they store in granary areas within their nest. These ants aren’t usually a significant issue for vegetable gardeners, though you may observe them gathering seeds from plants around you. They can be an issue for grain farmers.

Benefits of Ants

While we may sometimes butt heads with ants and other creatures in our garden, it’s important to remember that they have their place. There are several benefits to ants that many gardeners and nature lovers can appreciate.

  • Many ground-dwelling species, like northern fungus-farming ants (Trachymyrmex septentrionalis), aerate the soil and improve fertility. These industrious ants bring minerals and nutrients up from deep below the surface, making them accessible to trees and plants.

  • Many ants, like large imported big-headed ants (Pheidole obscurithorax), are voracious predators of other pests. Researchers have found that one species, Buren’s Pyramid Ant (Dorymyrmex bureni), often feeds on invasive fire ants (Solenopsis invicta).

  • Some ants, like American winter ants (Prenolepis imparis), plant wildflowers. About 11,000 plant species, including many native wildflowers like bloodroot, trillium, and violets, have developed seed appendages that attract ants, encouraging them to harvest the seeds and transport them to new locations.

  • Ants clean up carrion, food scraps, and other waste, helping reduce the number of flies and other animals attracted to a location.

  • Some ants, like black harvester ants (Veromessor pergandei), help landscapes recover from wildfires, drought, and overgrazing. Researchers have found that the rims of their nests are “islands of fertility.” In these fertile soils, plants recover more quickly and help re-seed the nearby landscape. 

Depending on the species, seeing insects in the garden can bring joy and worry. Hopefully, this will help you understand why you’re seeing ants in your garden, what they’re up to, and what steps you may need to take. 

Organic Weed Management

Spring is an exciting time in the garden. We have beds full of freshly sprouting plants, transplants hardening off, and perennials returning to life. Many of you may even be eating the year’s first salads or tender asparagus. While it’s an incredibly fun time in the garden, it’s a good time to look ahead too. They may not be a problem yet, but soon, weeds will start trying to outcompete our precious vegetables, herbs, and flowers. Learn about the different methods of organic weed management and keep up with them from the start.


Weeds are easiest to take care of when they’re small. When you’re direct seeding, mark your rows well so that you can conquer small weeds early, even if they’re too tiny to tell what they are. There are several ways to do this, but I have a couple of favorite tools for keeping up with small weeds. 

One of my favorite tools for this is the stirrup or hoop hoe. It has a long wooden handle and a U-shaped blade that oscillates back and forth, cutting weeds off just below the surface as you move it. 

For longer beds, I like to use a wheel hoe with similar stirrup hoe-type blades attached. Wheel hoes generally have single (one blade) or double configurations (two blades). If you have one of these, it’s a good idea to plant your crops so that a wheel hoe can easily be maneuvered through the rows, at least while your plants are small. 

Flame Weed

Flame weeding comes at the cost of propane, but it can be a huge labor savor. When weeds are between 1 and 4 inches, it’s nearly 100% effective. A basic flame weeder consists of a propane tank, hose, and torch, which allows you to burn weeds. Typically, the propane tank is carried in a backpack-style carrier, but this may be unnecessary for small gardens.

Flame weeding has become increasingly popular among small commercial farms. Today you can find flame weeder torches that can be rolled over the bed or even carts that include multiple torch heads and spot for the propane tank for those doing large amounts of garden space.

The goal of flame weeding isn’t to burnt the plant in its entirety, just slowly pass the flame over the plants. The heat damages the plants’ cell structures, and they die over the next few hours or days. Flame weeding is a great technique to use just before planting. If you already have crops in the bed, be sure to avoid getting too close to them.

Austrian Winter Peas (cover crop) in flower as part of organic weed managementRotate Your Crops & Employ Cover Crops

Crop rotation helps prevent soils from becoming unbalanced and makes it more challenging for certain weeds to become established. Including some fast-growing crops in your plan is a great idea that can help outcompete weeds in trouble areas. These crops may include winter squash, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, and dent corn. 

Cover crops are an essential part of any crop rotation plan. They help build soil structure, improve fertility, and suppress weeds. Some rapidly growing cover crops like buckwheat can quickly outcompete many weeds and are great for problem areas. Some cover crops like mustard, oats, rye, and Sudan grass are allelopathic, producing a chemical inhibiting weed growth. Cover crop residue also serves as a mulch in no-till systems.

Solarize Your Beds

Another method you can use to prepare a bed and kill weeds is to solarize the bed. Place a clear plastic tarp over your bed and allow it to heat the soil and any weeds that are growing. Typically, this is done for weed control, but some studies have found this heat treatment also helps kill some pathogens. 

Keep the Areas Around Your Garden Cleared

Weeds can quickly spread into gardens from unmowed paths or perimeters. Weeds going to seed in your yard can be spread into your garden with just a bit of breeze. Some weeds also reproduce by stolons or creeping vines that root at the nodes to form new plants. Keeping these cut back will help reduce the weeds you need to handle.

Don’t Water Your Weeds

Another way you can lessen the weed growth in your garden is to avoid watering them. Sprinklers are a common and affordable choice for many gardeners but don’t focus water on your plants. They water all the weeds around them too! This is wasteful and encourages weed growth. If it’s an option for you, consider switching to drip tape or soaker hoses, which can direct water to the roots of your crops and not the entire garden.

Minimize Soil Disruption

Many weed species have seeds that can lay dormant in the soil for years until they are disturbed and exposed to light. In a natural setting, this helps the plants take advantage of new openings, but in our case, it makes them ready-made to colonize fresh-tilled earth quickly. Opting for no-till or minimal-till can help you see a decrease in weed germination over several years. 


Apply a layer of mulch to your garden beds as soon as you can. Mulch helps prevent some seeds from sprouting by blocking out light and is tough for young weeds to go through. You can use various materials as mulch, including grass clippings, old leaves, straw, wood chips, or hay.White bindweed flower (organic weed management)

What Can You Learn From Your Weeds?

Sometimes the weeds we struggle with tell us something about our gardens. While it isn’t always the case, if you have a lot of one weed species, it could indicate something about your soil. Here are a few common weeds and the types of conditions you’re most likely to find them in:

  • Crabgrass (Digitaria spp.): sandy soil, compacted soil, low calcium, low nutrients 
  • Bindweed (Convolvulus spp.): poorly drained, compacted, crusty soil
  • Dandelions (Taraxacum officinale): compacted soil
  • Dock (Rumex spp.): poorly drained soil
  • Henbit (Lamium amplexicaule): high nitrogen
  • Lambsquarters (Chenopodium album): rich soil, high nitrogen
  • Mullein (Verbascum thapsus): acidic soil, low fertility.
  • Mustard (Brassica spp.): dry, sandy soil, high in phosphorous
  • Plantain (Plantago spp.): compacted soil (often heavy clay), acidic soil, low fertility
  • Pigweed (Amaranthus spp.): Rich soil, high levels of nitrogen
  • Quackgrass (Elymus repens): compacted soil
  • Quickweed (Galinsoga spp.): high levels of nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium 

You can have perfect soil and still have weeds, but sometimes it’s worth exploring why a particular weed is so prevalent in your garden. If you haven’t had a soil test in a while, they’re always a good idea.


Weeds may not seem like a problem right now, but they will be if we let them get out of hand. Use these organic weed management techniques to stay on top of the weeds and have a productive, enjoyable summer garden.