Looking for a natural aphid control to protect the tender growth on your plants? You’ll need a two-pronged approach, controlling both the aphids AND the ants.
Odds are good that if you have an aphid problem, you also have an ant problem. If you see ants marching up and down the main stems of your plants, take a closer look. Check the underside of leaves and the soft stems for signs of an invasion. Do you see both ants and aphids? It’s time for a little aphid control with a two-pronged approach.
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While ants are generally harmless—and can even be counted on to aerate the soil and help decompose organic matter—they become a nuisance when they start to cultivate garden pests like aphids. These sap sucking insects secrete a substance known as “honeydew” and ants love it. They love this sweet food source so much in fact, that they work to keep these garden pests close at hand. (Scales, mealybugs, and leafhoppers also secrete honeydew.) This symbiotic relationship means that you can tackle large aphid populations by also controlling the ants.
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What are aphids anyway?
These small pests have pear shaped bodies, ranging in color from light neon green to dark green and brown. They have soft bodies and suck plant juices from infested plants, causing them to wither and ail. Singly, small aphids are difficult to spot. When a plant becomes infested, you’ll easily spot them, usually covering the tender new shoots of garden plants and orchard trees.
Natural aphid control
Sometimes a strong stream of water is enough to blast aphids from an infested plant. If you have a larger invasion you can whip up a batch of homemade garden bug spray. I don’t have my recipe here on the site (yet) but here are a few others to check out:
- Organic Bug Repellant [Little House in the Suburbs]
- Natural Garden Pest Control [Weed ’em and Reap]
- Homemade Insecticidal Soap [Five Little Homesteaders]
- Organic Bug Spray [The Elliott Homestead]
Another very important aspect of controlling garden pests is to encourage beneficial insects — the kind that will nosh on the bad guys. Aphids are a particular favorite of ladybug larvae. Here’s the catch-22: Even natural sprays can deter natural predators. Spray to kill aphids, and the ladybugs might stay away.
Years ago I was fretting over a serious infestation of aphids on my pluot tree. The poor leaves were just covered and the tree was really looking unhealthy. Just as I was about ready to break down and spray, I happened to be out in the garden with a friend and we spotted something odd.
Little yellow things on the underside of the leaves alongside the aphids. I did some research and discovered that those little yellow things were ladybug eggs! Mother Nature doing her thang, right there in my backyard.
It wasn’t long before we spotted lots of ladybug larvae (photo above) munching on the aphids, and the problem ultimately resolved itself very quickly. If I had gotten involved, it might have resulted in a very different outcome.
Banish the ants
“How do I get rid of ants?” is probably the question I am asked most often. There’s no magic bullet, unfortunately. For the most part, I let the ants do their thing as long as they stay outside. But when they start creating a little aphid buffet for themselves on my garden plants, it’s time for action.
There are a couple of things that have been somewhat successful in my garden. (Note that I don’t say “foolproof.” I don’t know that there is such a thing while maintaining a natural/organic garden.)
One natural aphid control method that also works on ants is diatomaceous earth. I sprinkle this natural powder around the base of plants and over any visible ant trails. (It’s good for many natural control of other garden pests, too.) The fine powder is abrasive and absorbent; ants (and other pests) that crawl through it will essentially dehydrate and die.
The second is something called Tanglefoot. Now, this is a petroleum product so some of you might take exception to its use. But I’ve had the same tube for about four years now — it goes a long way, so I feel like the end justifies the means. To use it, you simply spread a band of the sticky stuff completely around the base of plants. Make sure there aren’t leaves touching the ground or other ways for ants to climb up, too. The ants can’t cross the barrier and therefore their aphid farming days are over. You will need to reapply every once in awhile. As dust and dirt lands on it, the effectiveness becomes limited.
Another consideration is one that I read about years ago in a book called Natural Pest Control: Encourage ants to go farther afield by putting out some non-poisonous bait in areas far from your garden beds. The idea being that the ants will shift their interest from they honeydew laden aphids to the sweet snack of sugar or fresh fruit you put out on the other side of the yard. Then you won’t even need a natural aphid killer — problem solved!
Originally published June 2014; this post has been updated.