I am currently waging war in my backyard. My foe is tiny in comparison to me but knows how to inflict a painful bite when my feet get too close for their comfort. I am proactively searching out ant mounds, which are often cleverly hidden in an attempt to get rid of them. Ant poison isn’t an option as my dogs and desert tortoise, Aesop spends time out in the back garden. So, I need help, which is why I asked Emily of Gardening Wizards if she would share her tips for annihilating fire ants.

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Have you ever felt the sting of a fire ant’s bite? I’d rank it as one of life’s most horrible yet somehow trivial surprises, alongside a mildly sprained ankle and spilling pickled beet juice onto your shirt. However, unlike those problems, fire ants can keep coming back like a bad rash if you don’t take the proper precautions and efficiently slaughter them like the pest they are.

The issue here is that most conventional bug sprays and pesticides aren’t exactly healthy for your plants, since they’re literally poison, only targetted at another species. Just like how humans would still have problems having to eat rat poison, you don’t really want to expose your garden to too much bug spray.

Luckily, there are a handful of convenient, garden-safe ways to get the job done, so put on some face paint and scream to whatever deity you worship, because we’re about to go to war. With a little DIY know-how, those ants don’t stand a chance. I’ll also give some tips on how to prevent fire ants from even showing up, which saves a lot of stress (and pain, let’s be real) without much effort.

Tried and True Methods

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Fire ants generally respond pretty poorly to having their mounds drenched in various liquids. Commercially sold pesticides are often spread across your whole lawn, but they’re both unhealthy and expensive. Invest the effort to find all the mounds so you can drown the menace in stuff you have at home, and the results will be better in the long run, especially if you grow vegetables.

Keep in mind that you may often encounter people claiming these methods aren’t perfect, and they’re not. If all you’re interested in is efficiency, pesticides are the way to go, but when you have kids, or you grow crops, it can be extremely unhealthy, not to mention more expensive. These methods cause next to no harm to your surroundings, especially with careful use.

The Fun Method – Baking Soda and Vinegar Volcano

Have you ever made one of these as a kid? It’s a fun way to get children interested in basic chemistry since it lets them replicate the fizzy effect they sometimes see in cartoons when scientists mix chemicals (they probably won’t get to see it much in class, if my chemistry experience is anything to go by).

If you can provide enough protective clothing (let your kids know that the best scientists always come prepared and they need to be up to the challenge), an effective way to clear out fire ants is to make that volcano erupt vinegar on top of the ant mound.

With some luck, the kid could also get to see the spectacle of ants being literally flushed out. Keep in mind that it’s the vinegar that kills the ants, not the baking soda, so try not to be wasteful. Also, prepare to smell vinegar for a while.

The Long Con – Dish Soap

If you’re feeling like some sadistic supervillain, you could also try dish soap. The reason this is particularly sinister is that it doesn’t directly kill the ants; instead, it eats away at their outer protective layer which causes them to dehydrate.

Another bonus effect is that unlike vinegar and a lot of pesticides, dish soap smells really nice, though make sure your pets or children don’t try to eat it. Mix it with water to be able to spray it on points of interest (usually the paths they take to enter your house) and laugh maniacally at their impending doom.

The Easiest Method – Hot Water

Good old hot water is surprisingly effective at murdering ants, though obviously, you should take care not to get any of it on you or splash it just everywhere. A lot of plants will not tolerate being accidentally tortured like a medieval criminal, so maybe other methods are more appropriate if the fire ant mounds are located near precious foliage. Water also has the advantage of being cheaper than any other method since it’s just water, and everyone has more than enough to spare.

The Trap – Cornmeal

Fire ants love cornmeal, and this makes no sense given how much cornmeal doesn’t like them. They will gladly try to eat it, but they can’t digest it. It’s silly, right? Cornmeal is also safe for most pets and definitely safe for children, so you don’t have to worry when you spread it anywhere.

Try not to only rely on cornmeal if you have a huge infestation on your hands, as it’s a pretty localized method, if you get what I mean. It’s not going to destroy a whole mound, but it will deal with entry points and healthy groups of ants in the near vicinity. It’s also not super-risky for surrounding plants like hot water or similar methods.

A Less Brutal Approach – Driving the Ants Away

Photo: Shutterstock.com

Sometimes you don’t need to slaughter every ant that has ever appeared on the face of the Earth. If spotted early enough, a fire ant incursion can be repelled using a few strategic baits and fear tactics. Some of these are less common in most households, but if you’re in a pacifist mood (for some reason), these are a good choice.

Strong Scents

If you sprinkle some, let’s say, cayenne pepper in high-traffic areas, it helps keep the ants away. Have you noticed a pattern emerging in most of these substances? Fire ants really dislike strong scents, as it messes up their communication and makes them unable to follow the invisible scent trail their scouts leave between the mound and a source of food. These peppers are also known as red hot chili peppers. Yes, like the band. And they’re used for chili powder, which has a powerful scent.

A helpful way to focus where you apply those strong smells is by using ant balls. No, that is not a gourmet dish served only to the richest people. It’s a name used for small cotton balls drenched in a special oil (or white vinegar, as a convenient alternative) that deter pests such as ants. Try not to leave puddles around, and keep them hidden from children. You should see at least a good decrease in how many ants you encounter.

Chalk

Chalk is another funky way to hide the scent trail from any fire ant invaders. A thick enough chalk line in the ground will often keep fire ants away, and this is another way to get your children involved. Tell them the chalk is magic and that drawing a thick line around the house/mound creates a force field that keeps bad guys at bay. It’s technically not wrong; you just sprinkled some fantasy on top of things! This works especially well when combined with other methods.

General Tips:

  • Don’t leave garbage hanging around for any extended period. Take out the trash regularly, as it attracts not only fire ants, but flies and other annoying bugs.
  • Try to keep your kitchen and bathroom free of puddles. Fire ants will seek out water just like any other critter, so you don’t want to give them more incentive to infiltrate your home.
  • The shorter the grass is around your house, the easier it becomes to spot signs of an infestation before it gets out of hand. You don’t want to be surprised by multiple mounds at the same time, especially if you’re walking around in flip-flops or something similar. You don’t need to salt the earth or anything to keep things safe, just mow the lawn regularly and you’ll be fine.
  • Avoid using things like gasoline to deal with ants, as you really want to avoid the risk of setting plants (and God knows what else) on fire. There is no need to use things that dangerous.
  • Try not to keep trash cans outdoors. Even if you empty them regularly, providing easier access to garbage only promotes fire ant infestation. Composting heaps can be problematic for a similar reason.
  • Don’t try to shovel away the mounds, or place them on top of one another. It could create a big mess, creating more work for you instead of helping.
  • If you get stung by fire ants (you’ll know if it happens, trust me), there are ways to treat the bite, but if you have an allergic reaction, call medical help immediately.

And there you have it! All of these things can be found in your home or through a quick trip to a DIY store of some kind, and they tend not to cost much.

Fire ants are probably the worst kind of pest you can encounter if you have kids or pets, so taking care of this problem puts you mostly in the clear.

After your next great harvest or once your flowers all bloom healthy, you will thank yourself for not resorting to risky pesticide solutions.

Let me know if any of these methods worked! I would love to hear your stories, as having more info is never a bad thing when facing an enemy like fire ants.

About the Author

I’m Emily from Gardeningwizards.com. After a ten year career as a journalist, I have moved on to share my passion for gardening. While getting out in the garden is one of my favorite hobbies, and helps me de-stress after a long day in the office, I often found myself frustrated at not getting the results I wanted from my plants. Through blogging, I have uncovered the answer to lots of common problems and now I want to share my knowledge with other horticulture enthusiasts.

Have you ever seen the beauty of cactuses showcased in containers? Adding a cactus to a container helps to set it apart from the rest of the landscape and helps it to stand out so that its unique texture and shape really stand out. However, if the thought of having to plant a prickly cactus yourself has given you second thoughts about doing it yourself, it isn’t as hard as it seems. Let’s take a closer look at how to plant a cactus in a pot.

I have planted my share of cactus in the past, usually without getting accidentally stabbed with the spines. My method of choice was to use an old towel to cover the cactus while I removed it from its pot and planted it. However, on a recent trip to B&B Cactus Farm in Tucson, I was able to observe an expert plant my newly purchased cactus.

B&B Cactus Farm

 

Whenever I find myself in Tucson, I try to find time to visit this cactus nursery, which has a large selection of my favorite type of cactus. Torch cactus (Trichocereus hybrids) are rather unassuming when not in flower, but are transformed when their large blossoms open, several times in summer.

‘First Light’ Torch Cactus Hybrid

I first traveled to B&B Cactus Farm last year with the intention of buying one torch cactus. However, as often happens with me and plants, I came home with two, including this stunning ‘First Light’ torch cactus.

This time, I decided to buy one more torch cactus hybrid – unsurprisingly, I bought two again as well as a colorful container to plant one of them in. 

I had planned on planting it myself once we returned home, but a conversation with one of the cactus experts changed my mind.

Damon was busy potting cactus at a table with a large pile of succulent potting mix behind him. I struck up a conversation with him and found that he had an interesting story that had him ending up at a cactus nursery in Arizona. He worked in the banking industry and moved to Arizona from Oklahoma a year ago, and began work at a local bank. After awhile, he decided that being a banker wasn’t for him and found happiness working with cactus. As he put it, “People are always stressed about money when they visit the bank, but everyone who comes to the nursery is happy, because plants make people smile.”

We had a great time talking and I decided to have him pot my cactus, which would make it easier to transport home. When I explained that I had a gardening website and wanted to take a video of him potting the cactus, he graciously agreed and provided lots of helpful advice.

So here is a banker turned cactus expert, showing you how to plant cactus in a pot: 

I hope you enjoyed Damon’s helpful tips. For more helpful videos, subscribe to my YouTube Channel

As a garden writer and horticulturist, I am often asked to review new gardening books, which is one of my favorite things to do; especially if the books are about growing plants in the desert.

Years ago, there were precious few books that dealt with the unique challenges and solutions to creating a beautiful outdoor space in a hot, arid climate. Nowadays, there are several books that focus on desert gardening, but most just scratch the surface of how to do it. When I was contacted by The Desert Botanical Garden to see if I would review their new book, Desert Landscape School: A Guide to Desert Landscaping and Maintenance, I said yes.

The origins of the book arose from the Desert Landscape School at the gardens, which offers classes for individuals who are interested in specializing in certain aspects of desert landscaping. Graduates earn a certification in one or more areas, including desert plant palette, planting and maintenance, and desert design. A large group of experts was brought together in the creation of this book, including many that work in the garden.

 

Thumbing through my copy, I looked to see how the information was laid out and whether it addressed common landscape dilemmas that are unique to desert gardening. As you may expect, a book from this prestigious garden didn’t disappoint. I found myself reading through its pages and reliving my early days as a horticulturist learning not only the basics of arid gardening principles but also strategies and tips for growing plants that I didn’t learn until later.

This book is for those who want to learn the reasons why we garden the way we do in the desert to more fully understand it. There is also valuable information regarding plant selection, design, sustainability, installation guidelines, and how to properly maintain the landscape. 

I’ve always said that “gardening in the desert isn’t hard, it’s just different” and the book offers practical tips that make growing plants in an arid climate, easier. For example, connecting tree wells using swales and gravity to allow rain water to flow to where it’s needed instead of down the street.

For those of you who have read my blog for awhile, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was interested in the pruning and maintenance section, as I am passionate about teaching people correct pruning practices. One illustration that grabbed my attention was the right and wrong way to prune palm trees.

Badly pruned palm trees

I had taken this photo a couple of weeks ago of palm trees that had been pruned incorrectly with too many fronds removed. Overpruning weakens the tree and leaves it open to other stresses, which the book addresses.

The structure of the book is set up so that each section can be read on its own, so readers can focus on what they are interested in learning most. Of course, I recommend reading the entire book as it contains invaluable information which leaves the reader well-informed and confident in their ability to garden successfully in the desert southwest as well as other desert regions.

Desert Landscaping & Maintenance is truly a one-of-a-kind book that serves the role of several desert gardening books in one, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this brand new desert gardening guide.

Right now, the book is available for purchase for visitors to The Desert Botanical Garden or you can buy it online.

It’s one of my favorite times of year in the garden – my peach trees are heavily laden with delicious, sweet fruit ready for picking.

Many people are surprised to learn that you can grow peaches in Arizona, but they do very well. However, they do ripen earlier than in cooler climates. May is peach season here in the desert.

My peach trees sit outside my kitchen window, and I’ve been keeping my eye on them to see when they were ready to harvest.  Finally, the day arrived, and I brought out my bushel basket and got to picking.

One peach tree can provide you with most of the peaches you need. Last year, I made peach blueberry jam, which was so good, that it didn’t last long. Today, I’m planning on making regular peach jam, but I can always buy peaches from the store at another time to make other variations if I choose to.

Every May, I haul out my water bath canner, canning jars, and spend 2 hours making delicious peach jam.

Growing peaches and making jam isn’t difficult or expensive, but there are guidelines to follow. I made a video of the process, from what type of peach trees do best in the desert, how to tell if your peaches are ripe, and how to make jam.  I hope you enjoy!

https://youtu.be/jEcyAzCB-W4

Red globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)

Did you know that some flowering, desert perennials are grown easily from seed? It’s true. Many of the plants in my garden are volunteers that grew from seed from my established plants.

I have several ‘parental’ plants in my front garden along with their babies that have come up on their own with no assistance from me.

Pink globe mallow 

My favorite perennials that grow from seed are my colorful globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua).  The most common color seen in globe mallow is orange. However, they also come in other colors such as red, pink, and white. You can purchase the less common color varieties, but they can be hard to find at your local nursery.

White globe mallow

When I first designed my garden, I bought pink, red, and white globe mallows. These plants are now over 17 years old and produce a large number of seeds once flowering has ceased.  Because these colors can be hard to find, people ask me to sell them seeds that I harvest each year from my colorful perennials.

Light pink globe mallow

Harvesting seeds from spent flowers is easy to do. Once the flowers begin to fade in spring, I look for tiny, dried out seed pods, which is where the seeds are contained. I then pick them off and place them in a little bag.  It’s important to keep the colors separate so if someone wants red globe mallow, they won’t be growing pink or white ones.

Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata), firecracker penstemon (Penstemon eatonii), and verbena (Glandularia spp.)

There are other desert perennials that come up easily from seed, such as the ones pictured above in a garden I visited a few years ago. 

So how do you grow these drought tolerant perennials from seed? Surprisingly, it’s not hard to do, and if you go to a lot of trouble and fuss over them, they probably won’t grow. So starting them in little pots and transplanting them isn’t the best way to go about it. Instead, sprinkle the seed throughout the landscape, allowing some to fall a foot away from a drip emitter or near rocks. You want to mirror the natural conditions where they sow their seed in nature. Warning: this only works in areas where pre-emergent herbicides are NOT used. 

Growing these perennials from seed is very inexpensive, but some patience is needed while you wait for them to sprout.  Not all will come up, but those that do, will add beauty to your garden and before you know it, you may be harvesting seed to share with your friends.

What type of plants have you had come up in your garden from seed?

Do you grow garlic in your garden? If so, you know that it takes a long time to grow with planting in October and harvesting it in May.  During the long growing period, the leafy green tops of the garlic plant are all that is visible while the garlic bulb is growing below ground.

But, did you know that the garlic greens can be used in some of your favorite dishes? Here is how I use them…

It’s always fun to find new ways to enjoy the vegetables in your garden. Have you ever tried garlic greens or other non-traditional parts of vegetables?

For tips on how to grow your own garlic, click here.

Friendship Sage (Salvia ‘Amistad’)

Talk to most homeowners about what they want in their garden and they will usually reply “color”.  I am no different and when I was given the opportunity to try out two new plants, courtesy of the folks at Monrovia, I jumped at the chance to showcase more examples of their plants, which are available at Lowe’s or at your local garden center.

I would like to share with you two plants that will add a pop of color to your garden.

The first is Friendship Sage (Salvia ‘Amistad’). Recent visitors to my garden couldn’t take their eyes off of the vibrant purple flowers and the lush green foliage of this new plant.

This particular salvia does best in filtered shade and should be kept away from full sun, especially in hot, inland areas.  Hardy to zone 9, it is suitable for climates with mild winters.  

I would recommend pairing it with yellow-flowering perennials like angelita daisy (Tetraneuris acaulis), or gold lantana (Lantana ‘New Gold Mound’). I can hardly wait to see the hummingbirds flock to the tubular blooms.  Flowering occurs in spring, summer, and fall.  However, in hot climates, flowers may disappear in the summer only to resume in fall.

Hummingbirds will flock to the tubular blooms so be sure to place friendship salvia where you can view it up close.  Flowering occurs in spring, summer, and fall.  However, in hot climates, flowers may disappear in the summer only to resume in fall.

Salvias have always been a huge favorite of mine and I am so happy to have this new addition to the garden.

*Learn more about this and other colorful plants at Monrovia.

‘Little Janie’ Gaura

The second perennial that I’d like to show you is a variety of pink gaura.  ‘Little Janie’ gaura (Gaura lindheimeri ‘Little Janie’) produces masses of small, pink flowers, which are shaped like butterflies.

They thrive in full sun to light, filtered shade and are drought tolerant.  

Gaura have a long bloom period, beginning in spring and lasting through fall.  They are also very cold and heat tolerant and can be grown in zone 6 gardens (-10 degrees F.) while easily handling summer temperatures over 100+.

I like to group 3 gaura together and plant them next to boulders or plant them in perennial beds along a front entry.  

My new ‘Little Janie’ gaura has lots of buds, ready to open up to reveal their pretty, pink flowers.  They look great next to purple-flowering plants such as Blue Bells (Eremophila hygrophana) or purple trailing lantana (Lantana montevidensis).

These are just two of the beautiful plants from Monrovia that you can find at Lowe’s or your local nursery.  Simply look for plants in the green ‘Monrovia’ containers.

*Learn more about Monrovia and their ‘Grow Beautifully’ campaign to help you create a colorful outdoor space.

Petoskey, Michigan Lighthouse

While spring break is a time where masses of people escape the cold for warmer climates (like Arizona), we decided to do the exact opposite.  We flew out of warm, sunny Phoenix and headed to cold and snowy Michigan.

Now before you start to question my sanity, I have an excellent reason for bundling up and bracing myself for the cold, windy weather.  My daughter and her family call Michigan their home now, and since then, we try to make it out at least twice a year, and spring break just happened to be the best time to do it.

I always look forward to visits to their town of Petoskey, which sits on the shore of Little Traverse Bay.  It is a popular summer destination, and I spent several weeks here last year helping my daughter move into her new house and add new plants to her garden.

It is always fun pulling out my warm weather gear, which seldom gets used at home.  I knit these fingerless mittens a few years ago and rarely have a chance to wear them.

As a Southern California native and Arizona resident, I must admit that I have relatively little experience with cold weather so, it has been fun exploring the landscape and seeing the effects of winter.  Seeing the bay frozen in time where we waded in with our feet last June was exciting.

At the beginning of our week, the temperatures were in the mid 20’s with a brisk wind, and we were excited to see an unexpected snow shower.

I realize that many of you who have lived in areas with cold winters may be rolling your eyes at this point, but for someone who has always lived where winters are mild, the weather has been a novelty.

However, the novelty quickly wore off this morning when I stepped outside, and it was a frigid 16 degrees, and I learned why people start their cars a few minutes before they get in to let them heat up inside.  But, I braved the few steps from the house to the car, and we were off to my granddaughter Lily’s preschool class where I was to give a presentation on the desert and Arizona.

I brought photographs of the animals, cactuses, and flowers of the desert.  The kids were a great audience and seemed especially impressed with the following pictures:

  • The height of a saguaro cactus with people standing at its base 
  • A bird poking its head out of a hole in the saguaro
  • Cactus flowers
  • Aesop – our desert tortoise

I was struck by how different the desert is from the Michigan landscape and felt honored to expand their horizons.

On the way back from pre-school, we were tasked with bringing the classroom pet, ‘Snowball’ the guinea pig home where he will stay with Lily for spring break.  Doing little tasks such as this bring back happy memories of when our kids were little.

We will be home soon, and spring is a busy time for me.  I have new plants coming in the mail (straight from the grower) for me to test in my Arizona garden, I’ll be showcasing two new plants from the folks at Monrovia, and in a couple of weeks, I’ll be traveling again – this time to Savannah, Georgia for a fun project that I’m excited to share with you soon.

*What are you doing for spring break?

There is nothing quite so refreshing as the fragrance of lemons as you slice through their yellow skin.  Lemons are a very popular fruit tree for those of us who in zones 8 and above and their lush green foliage and yellow fruit add beauty to the garden.  

If you have been thinking of adding a lemon tree to your landscape, March is the best time of year to plant new citrus in the garden as it gives them time to become established before the heat of summer arrives.

I am often asked about what type of lemon is best for the garden.  My personal choice is ‘Meyer’ lemon for a number of reasons.  You may have heard of this type of lemon tree, but what you may not know is that it isn’t a ‘true’ lemon – it’s actually a naturally occurring hybrid of a lemon and ‘Mandarin’ orange.  This results in a pseudo-lemon that is sweeter and less acidic than true lemons such as ‘Eureka’ and ‘Lisbon’.

See why you should consider planting a ‘Meyer’ lemon tree in your backyard in my latest article for Houzz.com.  (Click on the photo below to read the article).

*What type of lemon tree to you grow?

Today as I was downloading photos from my phone, this one caught my eye.  It is a picture of an artichoke agave (Agave parryi ‘truncata’) along with her babies.  For some reason, it spoke to me about family relationships.  Some of her tiniest children are venturing a bit too far like our kids do as toddlers when they walk into the street without any fear.

Some of her tiniest children are venturing a bit too far like our kids do as toddlers when they walk into the street without any fear.  Then there are those slightly older babies who I like to describe as ‘tweens’ who still enjoy their mother’s protection while looking outward into the world.

Then there are those slightly older babies, nestled under their mother’s protective leaves, who I like to describe as ‘tweens’ who still enjoy their mother’s protection while looking out toward the wonders of the world.

The medium-sized agave baby is the teenager who enjoys the illusion of independence while still being attached to their mother by an underground root – kind of like relying on their parents for allowance, paying for their phone, and driving them where they need to go.

I especially love the largest of the babies and the relationship to its mother as it speaks of my relationship with my two oldest daughters.  They are individuals, yet they enjoy being close to their mom and go to her for advice and even enjoy hanging out together.  

Black Spine Agave (Agave macroacantha)

Many species of agave propagate themselves by producing ‘pups’, which are attached to the parent plant by an underground stem.  These new agave can be removed and replanted elsewhere in the landscape.  It’s not hard to do and I wrote about how to do this, which you can read here.  

Have you ever replanted an agave baby?