Free Press column: Can ants in your garden help your plants to thrive?

Columnist Lydia Lakemoore shares her views on the relationship between the humble ant and her beloved garden.

Tuesday, 21st January 2020, 4:46 pm

Last summer, I noticed that an odd phenomenon was taking place within my greenhouse.

I had grown six cucumber plants from seed.

Once my these had reached a safe size I had transferred them from their starter cells into the earth at the far end of my greenhouse.

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Lydia Lakemore - Doncaster Green Columnist.

My cucumbers began to grow at an alarmingly fast rate.

The leaves had turned a dark green and there were more fruits and flowers on those plants than I had ever seen on any cucumber crop.They quickly became the envy of my whole food growing family but I couldn’t work what I had done differently.

I picked a cucumber from the bottom of one of my plants and that’s when I realised that there were ants all over them.They were on the compost, in the compost and everywhere.

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My infestation was quite great and they began to take over my entire greenhouse.

I left them alone because I suspected something rather interesting was happening.

The next nest I found was in one of my tomato tubs.

This particular tomato plant had, just like the cucumbers, suddenly begun to look greener, bushier and healthier.

A recent study that I found published on the Oxford University website, Department of Plant Sciences, had examined this very relationship. The study was focused on food security and examined the nitrogen levels of plants due to the presence of ants. Gardeners and plant lovers know how vitally important nitrogen is to plant growth and yield. Basically, and in very simple yet exciting terms…ants poop nitrogen. Ants have the ability to inject their nitrogen-filled faeces directly into plants. This process is faster and more efficient than any fertiliser, natural or otherwise that is traditionally absorbed by the plant roots through the compost in the ground.

If ants are able to provide crops with nitrogen in such a direct and efficient way should we be further investigating the importance of ant and insect health as well as soil health?