Ants in Your Plants

Winter time rolls around and I have a handful of tropical or otherwise tender plants I have to bring in. There’s a large pineapple plant, some lemongrass, and a bunch of succulents. It helps brighten up the front room and helps me remember to water the rest of the plants.

However, because these plants are outside most of the year and, in the case of the pineapple, sitting on the ground, they can develop ants. There’s an ant species around here that LOVES pots. It smells of citronella when disturbed and very quickly moves nests from pot to pot. I’m pretty sure that it also likes to farm plant parasites because I used to have awful problems with wooly scale on my citrus whenever I got these ants in the house. Since I’ve given up on the citrus, I’ve developed a much better relationship with these ants.

How? Well, fish love to eat them. If I heavily water a pot they’re nesting in and cause them to scramble to move the nest, I can use the dust broom to sweep them up and dump them in a fish tank. Interestingly, certain species are better than others at seeing and eating ants on the water surface. Black neon tetras and angelfish are the best of the species in my house.

But the best thing about them is that they love the pitcher plants. They don’t seem to be harming them or farming anything on them, but they end up falling to their doom in the pitchers in pretty decent quantities. Last winter was the first winter I had ants and pitcher plants in the same place and it was the first year I had pitchers all winter long. The plants did MARVELOUSLY. I had one that had been struggling along finally put out more leaves. So this year I was actually pretty hopeful that the ants would come in. And they did. I now have seven functioning pitchers on one plant and two on a plant I wasn’t sure was going to make it to this year. Not bad for plants that usually dump all their pitchers in late fall.

Ants on the rim of a pitcher

After a few days of inantivity, the ants were back in force. This pitcher is a particular favorite. They congregate around the rim the most. There must be something there that attracts them. They seem to move around it pretty freely but there must be a spot where it gets dangerous and easy to fall because the trap is full of ant corpses.

Ant on a leaf

A worker ant travels down a leaf to the pitcher. They crawl all over the plants, coming from the pineapple pot and the coffee tree. When a new pitcher opens, I move it so that it’s touching one of those plants. That seems to be the trick to getting it fed on ants.

Ants on Pitcher Plants

Not sure what they were looking for around the bottom of this pitcher, but there was a bunch of them there.

I decided to seed a newly opened pitcher with some ants to build up a scent trail to it. I grabbed some that were going up another stem and set them on the lid of the pitcher. They immediately began to chew on these little clear dots on the lid. I’m guessing it’s some sort of insect bait the plant puts out. Once the dots were all gone, the ants began to wander around the pitcher and eventually back up the plant itself. Hopefully this will cause others to visit the food source and become food sources themselves.

I’m sure that some people are totally grossed out by my leaving ants in my house but I’ve a couple of reasons why it doesn’t bother me much. The biggest one is that they don’t travel far. They’re in the front of my house and I don’t see them move much further than about a third of the way towards the back. The dogs are really good about policing up any crumbs and there hasn’t really been any reason for the ants to move towards the kitchen, so far as I can tell. I also leave spiders everywhere. I figure they’re going to be way better at insect pests than I am, baring chemical death I don’t want to use because it’s extremely toxic to fish. So the spiders and I have a compact wherein I leave them in their out of the way corners and they get free ants. (as a sidenote, spiders are horrible housekeepers on a human level and the downside of this arrangement is that I have to vacuum up ant corpses they’ve tossed out of their webs pretty regularly.) There’s the other 500 words I’ve written on how they keep my pitcher plants alive. And finally, the tropical plants go back outside in March or April, depending on global warming, and take the ants with them. I’d rather do some more vacuuming in order to have my carnivorous plants be large and healthy. And hey, they’re not mosquitoes so I feel like I’m winning.

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Seed Exchange

Hey gardening friends! I’m going through my seed collection and purging stuff that didn’t work for me or that I have extra of. Yours for a kind word. I’ll list what it is, where I got it from, and approximately how old it is. If you want it, leave a comment. I’ll cross out anything that’s claimed. This stuff all germinated for me last year.

Garden Cress, Baker Creek, ~2013, 1 package
Watercress, John Scheepers, ~2013, 3/4 package
Chives, Burpees, 2014 (about half a package)
Black Plum Tomatoes, Baker Creek, 2015 (about 25 seeds)
Purple Peacock Broccoli, John Scheepers, 2015, (about half a package)
Honey Nut Mini Butternut Squash, John Scheepers, 2015, (at least 20 seeds)
Love-In-a-Mist Mixed Colors (flower), Baker Creek, 2015, 2 packages
Mystery peppers, home grown, 2014, 1 package

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This summer’s garden

This summer’s garden is ridiculous. It helps that we’ve had a shitton of rain compared to the last few years especially, but I think it might be a bit more than that.

Last year’s early spring garden looked like this:

View of garden from porch showing two triangular raised beds on the left, a stone path in the middle, and a triangular bed of raspberries on the right with 3 large turquoise pots around it

For this year, I kept the two triangle beds on the left but got rid of the raspberries bed on the right. They mostly just shaded out everything until they died back mid-summer and then the squirrels at all the berries anyway. I added the surviving canes to the blackberry patch in the woods out back. I don’t know if they’ll do anything long term, but I hate to just dump still-living plants. After digging out the old, old wood that made up that bed, I filled up everything with new soil. I also acquired a bunch of heirloom apple trees that I’m espaliering against the fence. I think one of them will end up not getting enough sun, but that’s okay. The other major change was rather than using wood scraps and large pots as a way to keep Greta from charging the fence and fence-fighting neighborhood dogs, I actually set up a dog exclusion fence. I picked up a bunch of no-dig fence panels from Lowe’s. They were super easy to install and I really like the look. Early spring garden looked like this:

Garden Left, Early Spring. Two triangular beds with a stone path between, young plants, azaleas and whiskey barrel pots on the perimeter

Garden Right, Early Spring. Square garden bed with young plants and two turquoise pots at opposite corners. 2 sides wood fence, 2 sides metal fence.

Greta walks up the stone garden path between to metal-fenced garden sections.

The metal fence panels on the garden left didn’t quite fit the space I needed them to so the opening on this side is filled with a potted pineapple. The leaves on that fucker are pointy as hell and I don’t recommend running into it. So far Greta hasn’t tried it. The fence is also keeping her from jumping up on the whiskey barrel pots that have my heirloom figs in them. They made it through the winter well and are putting out some great growth now. I ran into a similar problem on the garden right and moved the large turquoise pots to fill there. Thankfully those seem to stymie her in this configuration and she hasn’t tried to go over them yet. It helps that the azalea in the one is bigger. Also I’m getting better at getting her to go in the house when I hear people coming. Jerkdogs are fun.

I got my shit together in a serious way this year with seed starting. I had a spreadsheet of what I bought and when to start it and actually followed it! I had really good sprouting success with almost everything I tried. In these early pictures you can see summer squash, zucchini, mini butternut squash, three kinds of cucumbers, celery, basil, tomatoes, tomatillos, and mystery peppers. I kept the seeds from a pepper I really liked and decided to give them a go. No idea what they’re going to turn out like because I’m sure they’re cross-pollinated by like 5 different kinds of pepper. It’ll be an eating adventure.

So those pictures were from mid-May. Here’s mid-June.

Garden Left, Early Summer. Same as above but with plants grown 3 feet tall.

Garden Right, Early Summer. Square garden bed bordered by black metal fencing filled with plants between 3 and 5 feet tall

The tomatoes and tomatillos are five feet tall. The squash has grown over and through the metal fencing. The cucumber has grown over its trellis and over and through the wood fencing. I’ve found cucumbers basically embedded between the slats in the fence that can’t be removed. Everything is growing marvelously well. Well, except the artichokes. They’ve done fuck all and I’m okay with that. I didn’t plan on the plants being this huge. I’ve never seen them this huge. I think it’s the combo of rain and new fancy soil. Maybe it was also my awesome compost? It can’t just be the source of more mystery squashes. (so many squashes.) I haven’t even hardly been putting aquarium water in the garden because it’s been raining so much. I did finally figure out a soaker hose system for the different beds using a modular system from Gardeners.com. Super simple to set up and while they say you’re supposed to use it with a hose to get the right amount of pressure, I’m having just fine results using a 55 gal barrel up elevated about 2-3 feet above the garden.

I don’t have pictures of mid July yet but I should take them. Things are going really well. The tomatoes have started getting ripe and the squirrels haven’t quite twigged to them yet. Either they can’t spot them in the giant mass of plants, or don’t realize they’re ripe because they’re not traditional reds. They’re a purple plum tomato and look a bit odd. I’ve pickled many a cucumber into dills and bread & butter pickles. The peppers are just starting to fruit now and I started the pole beans late as I wanted them to start way after the bush beans from the front yard. (so many beans.)

So all told, it’s doing fantastic.

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Aquaponics

I’ve done aquaponics – which is basically using fish to fertilize the water you use to grow plants hydroponically – out of the Battlestar before but this is the first time I’ve done a fruiting plant. I had a volunteer cherry tomato show up in my back garden thanks to throwing moldy tomatoes out for the squirrels. It got nice tomatoes on it before the end of the season so I decided to take a couple of cuttings and try growing it inside. Basically all I did was stuff the cuttings into some plastic pots with clay hydroponics substrate that I wired up to sit on the top of the tank and then let nature take over. Only one cutting ended up rooting and taking off, but boy has it grown.

tomato plant sprawling on the top of a large aquarium

Here it is 20 days ago, finally  getting its first fruits. The roots are on the other side of the glass tank cover. The light source is a AquaUFO + Red LED fixture.

On the other side of the tank I have my giant mass of watercress and some Garnet Rose Lettuce starting.

Lettuce seedlings sprouting

Here’s a picture of the whole tank. We’ve got the top wrapped with black paper because the LEDs are so bright that they make tv watching impossible. They’re also pretty uncomfortable to look at directly, although not dangerously so. Please excuse the state of the tank as I really needed to clean the filter before I took this picture. The aquatic plants at the bottom aren’t edible and have been in there for years. It’s mostly a mix of cryptocorynes and tiger lotus (Nymphaea lotus) as that seems to adapt best to the constantly changing light conditions and my lack of attention.

large aquarium with plants growing out the top

Twenty days later, we’re really cooking now.

The whole tank

It’s a bit hard to compare because the lighting conditions make photography tricky, but the tomato plant now spreads from one end of the tank to the other and has branches up to almost the ceiling. I did clean the filter so there’s less murk. I also had to change the position of the powerhead I have in the tank so it’s blowing the root ball of the tomato to the front of the tank. Makes for a somewhat less attractive showcase tank, but it’s fun to watch the fish hunt for food and spawn in the roots. My diamond tetras reproduce in the tank pretty regularly. I have less fry lately because of the addition of some more predatory fish, but eventually they’re going to be too big to comfortably be able to fit in all of the root structures and I’ll see more fry again.

Tomato Plant

Behind the light guard, you can really see how the tomato plant is covering the top of the tank. I’ve got tons of flower, young fruit and two ripe tomatoes! Jason tasted one of the tomatoes last night (because I don’t actually like them!) and said it was a completely perfectly ripe tomato with excellent flavor and sweetness. I am very excited to have them continue to succeed!

On the other end of the tank, the Garnet Rose Lettuce is starting to leaf out and turn a beautiful red. This is a new breed for me and I’m looking forward to tasting it.

Garnet Rose Lettuce seedlings

If anyone has questions about fish stocking, feeding, or any other specs, let me know.

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