ants in outdoor potted plants

Why are Ants in my Plants, Pots and Soil?

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Do you ever see ants running up the stems or along branches and leaves? What about your pot plants? Do you notice them in your potting mix? Or in your lawn making little mounds that blunt your mower blades?

Perhaps you’re wondering WHY they are there and WHAT they are doing? Are they causing damage or are they just annoying? If you want to know the answers and how to get rid of them naturally, read on.

Why are Ants in my Plants, Pots and Soil?

The answer is simple. Ants are extremely smart insects and ALWAYS have a good motive for inhabiting your plants, pots or soil. The two most likely reasons are for:

  1. Food
  2. Shelter

Seems reasonable enough, doesn’t it? We all need a roof over our heads and something to eat! Believe me, ants won’t expend energy doing anything unless there’s something in it for them.

If you see little black ants ON your plants, it’s likely because they have found a source of food. Ants are often a clue you have a bigger problem. Don’t shoot the messenger! They are just the ‘couriers’ delivering you a message. They’ll take you straight to it. By being more observant, you’ll understand what they’re doing and why. Assuming they are harming your plant may be a BIG mistake because you only have part of the picture!

Most likely, if you look closely and follow their trail like a good detective, you’ll find it ends in sap-sucking insects like aphids, scale, mites, whiteflies or mealybugs. These pest insects are what you should be really looking for! Ants are your ‘tour guide’ and can detect the presence of these pests with their antennae. Smart hey?

So, instead of treating them as the enemy to be killed, learn to value their presence. Why? Because they have alerted you to the problem you really need to deal with! Micro gardening is about looking at details; learning to understand who, what, where and why things happen and ‘joining the dots.’

The Link between Ants, Pests and Disease

Common garden ants are attracted to these sap-sucking insects for a very good reason. They have ‘sweet tooths’ and know these pests leave behind a sugary reward that no self-respecting ant can resist!

These pest insects suck the sugary juices out of your plant, taking what they need for growth. At the same time, they are weakening your plant. If there are a lot of aphids present for example, your plant can suffer considerable damage in a relatively short time. Young leaves and flower buds are particularly vulnerable.

As these pest insects feed, they release a sweet ‘honeydew’ substance that sticks to your plant’s leaves or stems. Ants take this sugary syrup dessert as ‘payment’ for providing ‘bodyguard security protection services’ for these pests. Ants fiercely fend off any beneficial predators like ladybirds or hoverflies, that might turn up to feed on this free insect banquet. Of course, ants are going to defend their food pantry!

Ants protecting and guarding young aphids

It’s a pretty sweet ‘win-win’ arrangement for the ants and the pests, but not for you! If this is your problem, you need to remove the pest insects and the ants will disappear and find food elsewhere. If there are only a few aphids or scale and the problem is very minor, it’s likely your beneficial insects will keep the numbers under control. However, if there are lots of pest insects present, it’s a different story.

If you ignore this issue, you may end up with more problems like black sooty mould. The honeydew provides the perfect environment for mould spores to grow and spread over the plant leaves. This black layer can slow or stop photosynthesis, so the plant can’t make enough energy to grow. This in turn, weakens your plant and can retard growth, flower and fruit production. A snowball effect!

This citrus leaf has a heavy infestation of black sooty mould blocking sunlight

So be thankful the ants are on your plants – they are giving you the heads up!

How to Keep Ants away from Plants Naturally

If you remove sap-sucking insects like aphids, scale and mealybugs from your plants, the ants will leave. If the food source disappears, so will they! These are some natural options.

1. A sharp spray of the hose should dislodge the sap suckers. You may need to repeat this several days in a row. This strategy may be enough to remove the majority and send them elsewhere. Or you can try hand picking if there’s only a few.

2. Encourage more natural predator insects. For example, ladybirds and hoverflies in greater numbers than ants, will help consume the pest insects.

Ladybird predator insect in a balanced food fight with one ant protecting many mature black aphids

Plant nectar and pollen-rich flowers in your garden to attract beneficial insects. They will be ‘in residence’ ready to come to your aid when needed.

3. Use an organic horticultural oil spray to smother the pest insects. This kills them naturally without harming the ants or other beneficials. I use EcoOil or EcoNeem only when absolutely necessary. Be patient. Sometimes you need to wait a few days for nature to get the balance right. Avoid petroleum-based horticultural oils. These are based on chemicals and not safe for use in an organic garden.

How to Stop Ants on Trees

If you can prevent ants from crawling up the trunk or stem of a tree or shrub, they can’t play bodyguards to pest insects. So how do you stop them in their tracks? There are organic sticky but safe solutions such as fruit tree grease bands, tree wraps and barrier glues. These may be an option in your situation.

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Ants in Pots and your Soil

In your garden, ants are part of the overall ecosystem. They search for food; occasionally pollinate some plants; eat the eggs of some insects; distribute seeds; and are also a food source for larger insects, birds, lizards and frogs. They play many roles!

However, if you see ants in your potting mix or lawn, they’re likely there for another reason. They need a ‘house’, so the ant colony is making a nest to lay eggs and raise their families. Fair enough. If you watch them, they’re quite industrious and pretty good parents. They’ve chosen a dry, sheltered spot as home.

Anthill nest site in dry soil

In the garden or lawn, ant tunnels can actually help aerate your soil, improving drainage and soil structure. However, soil disturbance can encourage weed seeds to germinate and the mounds can blunt mower blades.

Ants can indirectly cause other problems. When they build their nests underneath plants, the soil they bring to the surface as mounds, may bury smaller plants. Large colonies of ants can bring a lot of soil to the surface.

The bigger issue is that your plant roots may be disturbed and lose valuable moisture around the root zone. This is your next clue. Their presence may indicate those plants NEED WATERING.

Do you have Hydrophobic Potting Mix?

In pots, ants are a BIG problem because it’s very common to lose potting mix out the bottom. Their tunnels in the potting mix also create air pockets that can cause water to run straight through instead of soaking in slowly to benefit your plant.

Do a simple test. Count the seconds when watering, to see how quickly the water runs out the bottom. If it’s only a few seconds, you know your potting mix has dried out and needs to be thoroughly re-wet.

Do a watering test to see if your potting mix is absorbing moisture

Again, the presence of ants is simply a clue you have another problem and they are just taking advantage of it. Ant tunnels in pots usually means one thing. Your soil mix is dry. VERY DRY. Same in your lawn.

This may be an indication of a bigger issue – your potting mix could be hydrophobic. If the water is running through quickly, it has started to repel moisture. While re-wetting your potting mix is a short-term fix, you need to address this, or the same issue will keep happening. This problem is extremely common with bagged or commercial potting mixes. They start to repel water after time.

Hydrophobic soil or potting mix repels moisture

What’s the solution to hydrophobic soil? You can either:

How to Remove Ants from Pots

Ants won’t nest in moist potting mix or wet soil. Fix that, and you’ll see them move house.

So, to remove ants that are nesting, simply make sure your pots or lawn are watered more often. Self-watering pots, a sprinkler, regular watering and a moisture-holding potting mix can all help deter ants.

To stop ants moving into pots, there’s an easy fix. Cut some fine flyscreen mesh to size and line your pot at the bottom before adding potting mix, so they can’t enter from the base. Sneaky!

You can also try sprinkling cayenne pepper or cinnamon on your pot mulch or rims to help deter them.

For small pots, you can add them to a bucket of water and submerge until air bubbles stop coming to the surface. Then remove. This should temporarily re-wet the potting mix and buy you time until you fix the problem properly.

If you can’t remove the potting mix easily or the pot or plant is too large, you may need to drench or soak the pot to re-moisten the soil and send them packing. A layer of mulch is essential to retain moisture in your pots.

Ants eat decayed organic matter helping to improve soil structure, aeration and drainage

Ants in your Compost

If you see ants in your compost, they may be recycling nutrients by eating decaying insects, helping your composting process. Or by now, you should have figured out the other reason they could be there. Because it’s too dry! Add water and you’ll see them leave.

So, if you have common garden ants in your plants, hopefully now you’ll put your ‘detective’ hat on, go follow the clues and solve the problem with ease!

Related Articles
  • Imitate Nature for Higher Yields & Less Pests
  • Easy DIY Potting Mix Recipe
  • Revitalising & Re-using Old Potting Mix
  • How to Make Potting Mix at Home Guide

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What ants are doing? How do you get rid of them? Ants may be a clue to other problems like pest insects, dry soil & watering issues. Learn easy solutions!

How to Get Rid of Ants in Your Potted Plants

Craig is a self-sufficiency gardener who lives in Auckland, New Zealand. He has six vegetable gardens, a 7-meter glass house, and 35-tree orchard that provide food for his family. All spray-free. He is a prepper who likes strange plants and experiment with heritage plants to save seeds.

It’s an aggravation every gardener faces. You check out your potted plant and, upon investigation, you discover ants and thousands of eggs in the pot.

Sometimes you see the critters coming and going, and other times you might only see evidence of their presence.

Either way, discovering an ant nest in your potted plants is frustrating, so it’s important to figure out why this happens and what to do to avoid it.

Why Are Ants Attracted to Potted Plants?

The simple answer is that they’re just trying to survive. Potted plants provide ants with food, shelter, and warmth. But of course, there’s more to it than that.

Ants aren’t usually after your plants. Often an ant infestation coincides with other insect pests attacking the plant above soil level, or they’re looking for somewhere hospitable to hang out. But an infestation can indicate that your plant isn’t as healthy as it should be.

Also, ants probably aren’t making a potted plant their home base. The likely have a main nest somewhere else, so your job is to encourage them to go there instead.

Let’s look at some of the reasons ants might decide to visit your potted plants.

Pest Insects

Aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies and soft scale insects all produce honeydew. This is a sticky sweet excretion that ants find appealing. If you have an ant infestation in your potted plants, it may be because pests are feeding them.

Inconsistent Watering/Dry Soil

I returned home from a holiday in summer to find a massive ant infestation in one of my potted plants. The pot had dried so much that the soil shrunk due to dehydration, making it the perfect environment for an ant colony.

You don’t even have to be away from home for this to happen. If you’re watering is inconsistent and the soil gets dehydrated, ants will come knocking.

Dry potting mix can also happen when some of the soil has escaped through the bottom of the pot and air has gotten in, drying things out.

Old Potting Mix

Commercial potting mix often becomes a water repellent. Over time, it dries out and water can’t soak in. This is what’s called becoming hydrophobic. Water should seep around the edges of your plants and out the bottom.

Instead, the water runs straight through without soaking in, which creates a hospitable environment for ants in the soil.

Transferred by You

Ants often take up residence in compost because there’s food in there for them or it’s dry and warm. Then, you transfer the compost to your pot as mulch or fertilizer and you introduce them to their new home in your pot.

How to Get Rid of Ants in Potted Plants

For each problem above there are chemical solutions and natural solutions. Both can work equally well, so it depends on what your needs and goals are.

Eliminate Pests

First, get rid of the insects providing the ants with honeydew to eat. Use an insecticidal soap or pyrethrum spray.

If you have honeydew, you need to wash the plants or ants will keep returning. You need to remove the honeydew to prevent mold.

For a small plant, spray and wipe the leaves down with a soft cloth. For bigger plants or bad infestations, tilt the plants and pour soapy water on them and then rinse.

Soak the Soil

If dry soil is the problem, give your plants a good soak. If the plant is indoors, first take it outside or put it inside of a large plastic container.

Then, mix a solution of 3 tablespoons of insecticidal soap with one quart of water. Make enough to fill the container. Pour the solution onto the soil until it overflows out of the original pot. Leave everything to soak for 30 minutes. Pour out any excess.

Replace the Soil

Sometimes all you can do is replace the soil. Remove the plant from the pot and set aside, but be careful as you will have an entire ant colony running in all directions. Move the pot to a location where this won’t cause a problem.

Gently remove as much of the soil around the roots of the plant as possible using your hands, a brush, and a gentle spray of water.

Empty the pot of all soil and scrub clean if necessary.

Replant back into the pot with new potting mix and water with the insecticidal soap mixture.

From this point on, keep the plant healthy and well-watered.

Natural Deterrents

Ants don’t like citrus. Boil the skin of six oranges in water for half an hour, then blend everything together to make a paste. Pour this around the plant in the pot.

You can also make a peppermint deterrent. Add a tablespoon of dish soap to a pint of water and several drops of peppermint oil. Pour this solution around the base of the plant. You may need to do this several times before all ants are gone completely.

Other things ants don’t like are:

  • Coffee grounds
  • Tea leaves
  • Mint
  • Cinnamon
  • Cloves
  • Chili powder

Make a mixture using any of these and place around the soil to ensure the plant pot becomes inhospitable.

Diatomaceous Earth

In my opinion, diatomaceous earth (DE) is the most effective remedy and preventative measure you can use.

Spread a thin layer of DE over the surface of dry soil. Both the soil and the DE need to be dry to be effective, as you want the DE to dehydrate the ants.

This isn’t my favorite solution. However, it may be necessary to get control over a large infestation.

Place bait around the potted plant and leave for the ants to consume. Ants usually eat the bait and die either in the nest or nearby. Then, they’ll be eaten by other ants who will also die.

Be aware not to let children and pets get into the bait as it’s toxic.

White Vinegar

I poured a liter bottle of vinegar into a particularly stubborn ants nest in one of my large pots. They left straight away. Be wary of this method though. Some plants can die from the acidity of the vinegar.

Preventative Measures

Prevention is much better than finding a cure, so remember the causes of infestations.

  • Don’t let your potting mix be consistently dry.
  • Replace the mix in the pot every couple of years
  • Soak the mix if you think it has become a water repellant
  • Watch for and eliminate pest insects, especially those that excrete honeydew.

Ants are beneficial to your garden and plants. They prey on destructive insects, so don’t make your goal to kill all ants. You want them out of your potted plants for the sake of the plant itself.

Often ants get into neglected plants, so take care of your plants to avoid infestations and ensure you remove any unwanted plants swiftly, rather than letting them die off in a pot.

Use Pot Feet

The worst infestations of ants I’ve had have been when the pot sits directly on the ground or deck. Use feet to lift the pot above the surface. This ensures good airflow to the bottom of the pot.

Essential Oil

Place the pot in a saucer or larger container and pour water into the base container. Add a good amount of essential oil like peppermint. You can also use citrus or cinnamon oil as well.

You’re effectively creating a water barrier between the entrance to the pot and the ant.

The Bottom Line

Ants can be an irritating problem in your potted plants, so keep an eye out for their presence. Don’t wait to deal with an infestation because their numbers grow exponentially rapidly.

That said, it’s not impossible to get rid of ants in your potted plants once you know what to look for and how to deal with the underlying issue.

It's beyond frustrating to discover ants in your potted plants. Get rid of them and make sure they don't come back with these tried-and-true techniques.