Ants in Plant Roots + How to Get Rid of Them

When ants dig into the soil, they increase airflow into the plant roots via the little holes and burrows. They also improve the soil’s fertility when they break down other organic matter as they feed. This is beneficial to plants but only if they are in small numbers. However, An ant infestation can be harmful to plants especially if they are still young and weak. 

Ants are never attracted to roots because they want to feed on them. In most cases, they are looking for habitat in the soil. Ants will only dig around a plant’s root if the soil is dry with a neutral PH level around it. Spreading Diatomaceous earth around the roots is a safe and efficient way of killing ants in plant roots.

Just like in the homes, ants are attracted to sugary food and content. Plants excrete amino acids and exude sugars into the soil. For ants, accessing the sugary content is a building component to improving their energy for their daily activities. Plants with high excretion rates are more attractive to ants, which form anthills to have easier access to the sugar excretion in the plant roots.

Ants in plant roots
Ants in plant roots

Are ants harmful to plant roots?

Ants are harmful to plants when they attack them in large numbers while feeding on their young roots. They go for weak and fragile stems or roots since they are easy to cut or chew. However, most ants do not eat plant roots. They are only interested in making a home around it.

Young plants do not have roots that are well established in the soil. The roots are still shallow. If ants dig around them in large numbers, they may dry out after 2-3 days depending on the species and age.

For bigger plants, the duration of survival is dependent on the ant colony and the plant size. Grown plants have roots way deep in the soil such that ants cannot destroy them easily.

The Argentine ants are one of the most common species that can easily nest in the soil. While indoors, they are one of those ants in potted plants that crawl on the stem or the soil. A colony can have several queens and an infestation in the garden may sometimes be a threat to young plants.

The sight of ant-infested plants might cause a worry, especially if they are expected to have high yields. The major challenge is to get rid of the ants without damaging the plants. Using the wrong DIY solutions can sometimes leave you with no option but to start planting again.

How to get rid of ants in plant roots without harming the plant

Plants can be damaged if the wrong solutions are used to get rid of ants around a plant’s roots. It is through the roots that they get all they need for survival. Therefore whatever is poured around the roots should not interfere with the soil’s natural PH and minerals. It is therefore important to find ways of removing the ants without hurting the soil and roots.

1. Cold water

Ants hate cold water and this can help in getting rid of them around the roots. Sprinkling it on ants around the roots is fine. However, be care full not to overuse it since cold water below 60°F can stress your plants. Roots that are over-watered with cold water can damage plant cells which can lead to their death.

It is a good practice to use water between 65°F to 70°F for house plants. When getting rid of ants around the roots with cold water, try and use it in mall quantities but efficiently. Meaning that you can spray it on visible ant burrows to maximize the contact. If the ants are away from the roots, it is okay to use a good amount.

The use of cold water for plants is also encouraged on a hot sunny day since the soul is relatively warm. It will still get rid of ants on contact while the warm soil will stabilize the temperatures fast. Therefore, there will be less exposure of roots to the negative cold effects of water.

2. Diatomaceous earth

Diatomaceous earth can get rid of ants in soil because it absorbs moisture from the ground. It is a compound made from hard-shelled algae in fossil form. When placed near an ant nest, it dehydrates, suffocates, and forces the ants to move or die.

If not used with caution, Diatomaceous may be harmful to humans and pets. Therefore, be careful when using it for ants in houseplants. The amount used should be controlled to reduce the toxicity levels.

Pets can really have negative reactions if they inhale it. If possible keep the ant-infested ant away during treatment. Alternatively, use small amounts or simply keep your pets away from the plants.

The use of food-grade diatomaceous earth is only efficient if it remains dry when applied to the garden. When it rains, the solution has to be re-applied since it may be washed away. It could take a week to show results, but the impact lasts for long.

3. Introducing nematodes

Nematodes are effective in controlling an ant infestation around the roots yet they are not harmful to plants or humans. Introducing beneficial nematodes also offers a solution to getting rid of ants in plant roots while the plants remain healthy. They are applied by spraying them close to the plants and in the nests.

It takes 28 days for nematodes to kill ants since they need time to locate and work on them. However, this depends on the size of an infestation. The Steinernma Carpocapsae is one of the best natural solutions for ants and other tiny pests in the soil.

4. Orange peels

A simple homemade solution is using the orange peels spray which can keep ants from damaging your plants. Here is how to make an orange peel spray that is safe to use on plants:

  1. Peel 5 big oranges and put them in a blender
  2. Then add 200ml of water to it and blend the two to form a solution
  3. Pour it into a spay bottle and sprinkle it around the roots and holes to repel ants

How to stop ants from nesting around the plant roots

After getting rid of ants in plant roots, it is not a guarantee they will not invade the plants again. If there is an ant problem in the area, you have to find measures and solutions that will keep them from nesting around the roots in the future. Natural repellents can work since it is important to take care of the plants as well.  

In most cases, ants are attracted to aphid excretions that are left on plant leaves, stems,s and around the roots. Controlling the aphids population reduces the number of ants infesting a plant. To rid of aphids:

  • Spray plants with a strong stream of water to remove the aphids from the leaves although not advisable for young leaves/ plants
  • Remove aphids by hand. The aphids easily fall off the leaves when knocked off the plant. Collect the aphids in soapy water solution to kill them. Letting them fall on the ground only creates more ant problems
  • Spray plants with essential oil solution. Mix water in a spray bottle with 4-5 drops of essential oils such as clove, peppermint, thyme, or rosemary. Spraying the solution on the plant suffocates the aphids
  • Use soap and water solution. Liquid soap and water solution applied directly on the aphids soaks the aphids and the protective outer layer of aphids. Removing the protective layer of the aphids skins exposes them to natural elements and eventually kills them

Natural repellents

Ants are repelled by strong odors. Introducing strong odors such as cinnamon and cayenne pepper deters them from plants. Cinnamon or cayenne pepper is placed around plants and can be sprinkled near the nests of ants within the garden. It is also a naturally effective solution that will stop ants from digging the soil in potted plants.

Use a mixture of water and vinegar to kill and repel ants in plant roots. To prepare the solution, mix 50% of water and with 50% apple cider vinegar. The solution can be sprinkled around the roots with the help of a spray bottle to deter ants.

Vinegar and water can also be sprinkled on ants that attack tomato plants. This solution can also be applied to their nests and trails. How far ants dig into the soil depends on its acidity, texture, and particle size. Vinegar should never be used in its pure form since it is acidic.