Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Molly Hackett
Master Gardener 

Dealing with ants, tomatoes and potato scab

Dirty Fingernails


August 1, 2019

Photo provided

Molly Hackett, Master Gardener

Q: Can you tell me how to kill the ants in my garden?

A: I know of nothing short of nuclear attack that would kill ants, but I can tell you how to get them out of the garden easily, as long as you don't insist that they die in the process.

Ants require their homes to be in dry dirt. If you turn their home into a mudhole, they move away. It is that simple. The easiest method for moving ants that I know of is to lay a garden hose on the ground, with the end near the anthill. Turn on the water just enough to keep barely a trickle of water coming from the hose. Leave it for two days. When you move the hose, you will discover that the ants are gone. With luck they will rebuild their hill far from your garden. If they move elsewhere in the garden, repeat the hose trick.

If you have only a few ants roaming through the vegetables, consider yourself well served. Ants are champions of soil aeration, good for all the plants as long as they don't put an anthill in the bed and start burying the plants. That happened to my lavender one year, so I decided to use a hose to move the ants instead of the lavender. They left during the night and I never knew where they went.

Ants also are beneficial bugs because they eat bad bugs--often the eggs or larvae of undesirable insects. The ants seldom are thanked for gobbling up the baddies because they removed the problem before any damage was done.

Q: My tomato plants are huge, but they are starting hardly any tomatoes. What is going on?

A: When any plant – tomato, potato, pepper, for instance – grows exceptionally large, it is probably because of a surplus of nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen feeds leaves on plants. But too much of a good thing means that plants grow enormous leaves and little else.

Plants have many sources of nitrogen. They take it from the air. Both manure and compost supply more nitrogen than other plant foods. In commercial fertilizers, where the package shows three numbers, nitrogen will be the first one, and usually the largest. (It also is the least expensive to produce, so that fertilizers heavy on nitrogen may seem to have bargain prices.)

Tomatoes and other vegetables certainly need some nitrogen to grow green and healthy. If they are larger than usual, and especially if they seem to be growing only leaves, do not give them any more fertilizer for a month. See if that does not get their food intake more balanced. Because nitrogen breaks down quickly, you should notice changes within weeks.

To avoid surplus nitrogen in the future, be stingy when applying pelleted fertilizer. Aim to scatter just one pellet on every square inch of garden soil. When using organic soil amendments like compost or manure, aim for a layer not more than an inch thick.

Q: How can I keep my potatoes from getting scab?

A: Those spots of scab on the potato skins are caused by a disease organism that lives in the dirt. Without potatoes to feed on, it will eventually die away but perhaps not while you are still gardening. Once scab exists, there is no way to remove the disease organism from the garden soil.

Prevent scab on potatoes by planting in a different place every year. If the potatoes are infected by scab in one spot, plant elsewhere. Also, grow scab resistant potatoes. Some varieties are, and the sack of seed potatoes will be so labeled. Plant only certified seed potatoes, not ones that you have saved or ones that someone gave you. Because potatoes are subject to many diseases, you can't be too careful about the stock that you plant.

Hackett welcomes reader questions related to gardening, pest management, plants, soils and anything in between. Submit questions to, call 406-961-4614 or mail questions to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875.


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