How To Get Rid Of Ants In Your Potted Plants Naturally

I know the feeling; you look at your beautiful bromeliads and, suddenly, you notice tiny little creatures crawling all over the pot… ants! “Why are they there? How do I get rid of them?” These are, of course, the first thoughts that spring to mind. Don’t worry, there’s a solution to everything.

Ants crawling in your pots and even on your houseplants are not a danger to your plants; they are a nuisance though.

You can solve the problem with natural and even non-violent solutions, without using chemicals and insecticides.

Possibly the easiest and most convenient method to get rid of ants in potted plants is to use essential oils (thyme, yarrow, lavender or citrus), pour a few drops in a spray bottle full of water then spray the plant, soil and pot.

If you wonder why your plants are attracting ants, whether they are dangerous pests, and what you can do to make them leave your pots, just read on…

How to Get Rid of Ants in Your Potted Plants Naturally 1

Why Are Ants In My Plants, Pots And Soil?

Why are ants in my plants, pots and soil?

If you have ants crawling around your house plants, there can be a few reasons, some are natural, and some are due to you, your home and where you live. Still, understanding why they come to “visit” your plants can explain how you can get rid of them.

  • Ants have a sweet tooth; yes, these tiny animals like sugary food; in fact, possibly the best way to attract ants is to put a teaspoon with even a tiny drop of honey on it and in minutes, it will fill with ants. They can “smell” (their sense of smell is different from ours) sweetness from a distance. This is because sugar gives them a lot of energy. 
  • Plants produce sugary substances; they do it when they blossom; but what is more, there are small insects (pests if you want) like aphids that produce sweet excretions; ants go crazy for these sweet drops they literally harvest from the back of aphids. So, if your plants have other “guests” that produce sweet substances, ants will just follow.
  • Ants are natural garbage men; they collect organic matter from the ground and take it to their nests. They are so specialized at doing this that they have a whole logistic structure to look for it, send “collectors” and take it home. But there is more, some ants are actually farmers and literally grow their own food. They even use organic matter to grow fungi which they then eat.
  • Ants are great explorers; even if there is not much to take home in your pots, you may find the odd ant wondering around; this is because the little animal is looking for food and exploring new places where it could find it.
  • You may have left “ant food” in or near the pot; if they are crumbs on the floor, or even if the pot is near a smelly food source, ants will be attracted to these and, on the way, they may find that your pot is an interesting place to find food too.
  • Ants drink water; what’s more, they can smell it from a distance. If it is very ghost and dry outside and you water your plants, well, you can’t blame them if they come and have a sip from your pot…

Of course, it is easier to get ants in your pots of you live on the ground floor, or if there we ants in your walls.

You can find these six-legged insects in your cupboards if you leave flour or crumbs there, so, don’t be too surprised if they take a detour to your pots as well.

The Link Between Ants, Pests And Disease

The link between ants, pests and disease

Let’s start with a clear point: ants are not pests. On the contrary, ants are so useful to the environment that it is hard to see how the whole world would exist without them.

If you have a garden, an outdoor one, you would want to welcome ants, in fact.

They have a fundamental function on soil maintenance and improvement in fact; they can aerate it by digging into the ground; this allows many small organisms to set in, and that, in turn, makes the soil fertile. In fact, the fertility of soil depends as much on microorganism as it does on nutrients.

Ants are part of the decomposition process, and a key part at that. They break down carcasses of dead animals (even big ones), which is one of the first steps of decomposition, thus natural fertilization.

Ants actually eat pests, like larvae, termites and small insects. They are, in fact, great predators and they keep pest populations at bay.

This is why we cannot say that ants are pests. What is more, do not damage plants directly; they may chew away at decomposing material, but they are not a direct threat to your plants, like some caterpillars, for example.

So, we can call ants a nuisance; they may be annoying indoors, you may not want to see them crawling around, but in the wild, or in an outdoor garden, ants are actually a sign of a good ecosystem.

On the other hand, ants are not just farmers, but also breeders… Yes, they literally breed other insects, like aphids, and they do that for that very sweet excretion which they collect.

When doing this, though, ants also defend aphids from predators.

Aphids are not a deadly threat to plants, but they do suck on the lymph of plants. When they are few, this is no problem at all, but if the aphid colony (or “flock” as ants may call it) becomes big, they can weaken the plant, which then can get attacked by other diseases, like fungi, molds, soot etc.

So, there is a natural balance which we need to understand. Ants are good against some pests but have learnt to breed other insects which, especially on weak plants, can set the conditions for the plants to then get sick by weakening it.

It is all a matter of processes and consequences, as you can see.

Ants Outdoors And Ants Indoors

Ants outdoors and ants indoors

While outdoors you should always welcome ants – well, maybe you don’t want a colony of killer ants in your garden, but we are talking about “normal” ants…

 We were saying, while outdoors they are a fundamental part of the ecosystem, indoors, things are different.

The problem, to be correct, is not actually the ant colony; the problem is that indoor plants do not profit from a whole interconnected ecosystem. I’ll explain.

While in a field ants have a wide choice of plants, and so do aphids, to be precise, the plants in your living room are partly isolated from the natural world out there. This means that their small ecosystem can be thrown off balance very easily.

Of course, indoors ants do not have the same role as outdoors; and having ants around your plants will soon find them heading for your cupboard too.

So, what can you do to get rid of them?

The Two Perspectives On Ant problem Solving

There are almost two different world views when it comes to getting rid of ants: one is quite violent and drastic, and it is to kill them.

The other is a gentler and more “humane” and is is based on the principle that they are very useful living beings and there is no reason to kill them, because you can just send them packing.

No need to say that this is a moral and ethical choice. For many people the first approach is just unacceptable. But there is more than the moral reason why killing ants is, to say the least controversial…

An Inorganic And An Organic Solution

In terms of difficulty (or lack of) the two solutions don’t differ.

Let’s see an inorganic one first.

  • Take a tablespoon of chemical insect repellant, there are many you could use, like N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide based products.
  • Mix a small dose (it is usually about a spoon, depending on the product) as indicated in a spray bottle full of water.
  • Shake well.
  • Keeping about 12” (30 cm) at least from your plant, spray it.
  • Ventilate the room.

This is simple, isn’t it? However, it is slightly toxic, and it can cause vomiting and nausea.. Of course, you are unlikely to ingest it in big doses, but children and pets may still be affected.

What is more, most chemical repellants damage the mycorrhiza, small fungi that live in symbiosis with roots and allow them to absorb nutrients. In simple world, you will be hurting your plants.

Getting Rid Of Ants In Container Plants Naturally

  • Choose one of the following essential oils, according to your taste: lavender, thyme or yarrow.
  • Fill a spray bottle with water.
  • Put a few drops in the bottle (at will, but about 5 will suffice).
  • Spray the plants from about 12” (30 cm) away.
  • Spray it on the soil.
  • Spray it also on the outside of the pot.
  • You can leave the window closed if you want to keep the aroma in the room.

No damage done to your plants, no risk for children and animals, and a nice scent around your room.

The Case Against Chemical Pesticides

The case against chemical pesticides

It may be easy to think, “Well, I’ll sort it out with a pesticide,” but this choice has serious consequences:

  • It kills the ants, and they are very, very useful animals, actually, they are indispensable for the whole of the ecosystem.
  • It uses chemicals; these, of course have an impact on the environment, starting with their production.
  • It pollutes; these pesticides actually pollute the soil you grow your plants in. Pesticide use is one of the major causes of soil degradation; this is not just a matter of having polluted soil, it also gets less fertile.
  • They weaken plants; pesticides are really damaging to the immune system of plants.
  • It means having poison indoors; think about it for a moment… are you sure you want poison in a pot or on a plant the same room where you have your pets, children and the air you breathe?

6 Natural Ways To Getting Rid Of Ants In Potted Plants 

Getting rid of ants naturally: prevention

Ants like sweet food and organic matter? Then don’t attract them with it! Keep your cupboard clean; don’t leave crumbs on the floor and food lying around after meals. If you have quite a few ants, it may mean that they are doing the spring cleaning which you have kept on the back burner for far too long…

Gardening, agriculture and most people are moving away from these methods, which are, to say the least, old fashioned. Thankfully, there are natural ways of getting rid of ants.

1: Repotting The Plant To Drive Ants Out

How to Get Rid of Ants in Your Potted Plants Naturally 2

If you notice that the ants are going into the houseplants soil, then it means that there is something inside it that they like. These may actually be small pests, and they may even be chewing away at the roots of your plants.

This way, we can look at ants as indicators that your plant is not too well indeed… Ants should not, unless they have a reason, burrow into the soil of your pots.

If this is the case, then repot your plants and put them in a sterile and clean pot. The chances are that there is a fungal infection.

If you notice pests in the soil as you do this, then change as much as you can of the soil, and you can even sterilize the soil naturally if you suspect that there is some fungal infection within it; all you need is some organic activated charcoal; just sprinkle a thin layer in your pot, and this will solve the problem.

What is more, this is a long term solution, as it also keeps fungi and molds at bay for a long time.

2: Lemon Juice In The Saucer Or On The Pot

Ants don’t live in your pot, do they? Just follow the trail and see where they come from, then block their way. How can you do this? Well, let me tell you a secret: if ants love sweet, they hate strong acidic substances.

These literally confuse them; ants detect chemical substances, they are very sensitive to them. A very simple, cheap, and totally effective substance to keep ants away is lemon juice. You will never find an ant anywhere near them. Alternatively, you can even use vinegar.

So, drop some lemon juice on the way path they follow to get indoors, and they will just keep away.

Do it in the morning before they wake up, so you don’t block any ant inside. Otherwise, the ones trapped indoors will keep going back and forth trying to find a way out.

Natural ways of sending ants packing: lemon juice in the saucer or on the pot

You can use lemon juice to protect your pots form ants.

  • Squeeze a lemon.
  • Put it into a small spray bottle.
  • Just spray it on the pot.
  • Do it in the morning before they wake up and then repeat as necessary.

The smell will keep ants at a distance.

Alternatively, you can put a few drops in the saucer; now, this is fine as long as the plant is an acidophilic plant (like azaleas, caladiums and Japanese iris, also, most succulents like slightly acidic conditions).

If your plant likes a fairly alkaline soil (hyacinth and crocus for example) then spray it only on the outside of your pot.

If you don’t have lemon, any string citrus smell will put them off (bergamot for example), but not orange (they love it).

If you want to have a longer lasting effect, use citrus essential oils. Just a few drops will last for days.

3: Use Cinnamon Sticks (Or Powder) Cinnamon To Get Rid Of Ants In Plants

Natural ways of getting rid of ants: cinnamon sticks (or powder)

There are many smells ants love, and many they can’t stand. Fortunately, those that they despise are very pleasant to us! So, you can “save two birds with one stone” (I don’t like “kill”) and refresh your room with a nice fragrance while getting ants out of the way.

And guess what? Ants detest cinnamon; what is for us reinvigorating smell is for them a”terrible pong”.  How can you do this?

  • Buy a few cinnamon sticks if you don’t have any in the kitchen.
  • If you just put a cinnamon stick on the soil of your pot and leave them there.

Ants will keep as far from it as possible. This way, you will also enjoy some aromatherapy for yourself and your household.

You can use cinnamon powder instead, but the aroma does not last as long as sticks.

4: Water In The Saucer

Getting rid of ants naturally: water in the saucer

This is a very simple solution; ants don’t like to swim, and if you put water in the saucer, you will create a “moat” a bit like they used to with medieval castles…

This solution is very simple and straightforward, however, you need to be careful because it is not without risks.

To start with, not all plants like to have water in the saucer; doing this with succulents, for example, means risking root rot. With other plants, still, especially if they like dry soil, you may have two solutions:

  • Put a wider saucer under the plant’s saucer, forming a ring that you can fill with water. This way, you will keep the plant dry and still keep the ants away.
  • Put the pot on stones, bricks, or any short platform; this too will keep the roots dry while allowing you to fill the saucer with water.

Note that succulents do not even like the humidity coming from the saucers, even if they are not directly in touch with the water. These solutions are fine with other dry loving plants, like thyme, orchids and sago palms.

5: Drive Ants Away With Mint Essential Oil

Getting rid of ants naturally: mint

You guessed it; ants do not like the string smell of mint either. Using mint essential oil will keep them at a distance; put a few drops in the saucer (or on the pot), and you will refresh your room while also sending ants away (and mice)!

6: Plant Marigold For Ants

Getting rid of ants naturally: plant marigolds

There are plants that some insects can’t stand. Geraniums are famous for keeping insects away, and this might well be one of the reasons why we find them in window boxes of Alpine cottages. But if you want a plant that ants really cannot stand, then plant beautiful marigolds!

To be honest, marigolds are unbearable to many insects, ants included. You can plant them around your house (and that’s why they are common in borders around buildings) or just keep a pot of marigolds among your other plants.

What better way to fend off ants from your pots with beautiful flowers?

A Natural End To The problem

Let’s remember that ants are only a nuisance, and that they are much more useful to the world than we Humans are or possibly ever will be.

Using chemicals to kill them is, to use a sad metaphor “overkilling it”. It is unnecessary and dangerous, for the environment, and for your health and that of your family or household, including your pets.

There are natural ways which are safer, cheaper, more humane and as effective. What is more, they are actually fun, and have many perks too.

You can just use water, or maybe add some nice fragrance to your room while keeping ants away, and you can choose from citrus, mint, lavender, yarrow or even cinnamon…

The easiest and most convenient way is to use essential oils diluted in water and a spray bottle. Alternatively, you can even grow flowers to get ants packing…

Let’s be honest, the natural way is not just the better way, it is also the more (the only) creative solution to a very small problem indeed.

Adriano Bulla

Written By

Adriano Bulla

After many years as an academic in London, Adriano Bulla became a writer, publishing books like A History of Gardening, Organic Gardening and Elements of Garden Design; he then decided to become a gardener, following his childhood dream, and has been following his dream writing and gardening professionally in Southern Europe, where he has specialized in new and innovative organic gardening fields and techniques, like permaculture, regenerative agriculture, food forests and hydroponics.

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  1. Thank you so much! I will plant marigolds among my Geraniums in my pots this year

  2. Im going to try the cinnamon sticks.

  3. Avatar photo Iris Thomas says:

    Ways to get rid of ants in the garden soil: frequently water your garden soil, use ant repellent scents, pour boiling water into ant’s nest, use an ant bait using borax and sugar, apply nematodes, plant herbs that repel ants, apply diatomaceous earth (de) to the soil.

  4. Avatar photo Dean Braun says:

    The most ants I saw were in pots of mint! Thus, I don’t think they hate the odor…