Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Family Feud: Enlist Your Local Library

April Cushing is the Adult Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript & Bulletin.

I recently wrapped up a nasty fight with my new neighbors, the Formicidae family. While I had the undisputable size advantage, I was badly outnumbered. Grudgingly, I came to respect them for their dogged refusal to budge despite my best efforts to send them packing. I’m talking about the little black ants that took up residence in my backyard and systemically destroyed my grass.

I suffer from lawn envy. Walking the dog around the block I find myself battling the green-eyed monster while ogling thick carpets of turf. But I’m not the only one coveting my neighbor’s blades. Duffy delights in stopping for a roll in the lushest patch of grass we pass. Sometimes it’s all I can do not to join him.
I have a place on the Cape that once boasted a beautiful lawn. Over the years it’s suffered some benign neglect. Drawn to poor, sandy soil, the ants came marching in one day and decided to set up camp.

I headed to the local Agway for some insecticide but was overwhelmed by all the choices. It came down to the advertising. Who could resist the lure of “Season-Long Ant Control” or “Once & Done!” (hah). When I read the promise, “Kills on Contact,” I was sold.

Rather than broadcast the granules with a spreader as recommended, I decided to attack the tiny Tent Cities like the Navy SEALS who brought down Bin Laden--by going for the direct hit. By the way, if you want a riveting read about Operation Redwing, SEAL Team Ten’s ill-fated attempt to take out a prominent Taliban leader in Afghanistan in 2005, check out Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell. But back to the battle in my own backyard.

The morning after the blitzkrieg I sprang out of bed to count the casualties and declare victory. To my dismay I discovered my nomadic nemeses had simply packed up and moved, mere inches from their earlier campsites, multiplying in the process. I dumped more poison on the offending mounds and watched the little critters scurry around sounding the alarm.

The following weekend I returned to the scene of the crime only to find them rebuilding with renewed energy. It was clearly going to take more than a little Gamma-Cyhalothrin to bring them to their knees.

This was getting expensive—and exasperating. I tried another chemical combination from Ocean State Job Lot and actually followed the directions, more or less, even buying an insurance bag for spot treatments. This scenario continued until I’d experimented with virtually every insecticide on the market. The guilt over my egregiously ungreen behavior was taking its toll. There was so much poison on the premises I was surprised the dog was still alive, although it certainly didn’t seem to be bothering the ants. It was time to bring out the big guns.

There are several books at the Morrill Memorial Library on the subject, but I struck pay dirt with Natural Pest Control : Alternatives to Chemicals for the Home and Garden by Andrew Lopez. The first chapter spoke to me—“Dances With Ants: How to Control Ants Organically.” Organically? What a concept. Another eye-opener was Common-Sense Pest Control: Least Toxic Solutions for Your Home, Garden, Pets and Community by Olkowski and Daar. Did you know that ants are numerically the most abundant social insects around, with an estimated 1,000,000,000,000,000, or one quadrillion of them on earth at any given time? I wondered what percentage of that population lived on my property.

To crash their party, Paul Tukey suggests, in his Organic Lawn Care Manual, simply raking the “unsightly anthills that develop from time to time.” He also recommends pouring boiling water over the hills to “discourage the ants,” or, if you feel you need to eradicate them completely (I’m definitely feeling it) you can treat the area with a solution of boric acid and sugar which acts as a stomach poison in the ants. In The Truth About Garden Remedies: What Works, What Doesn’t and Why, Jeff Gillman says hot pepper sprays containing the compound capsaicin have been successful.

Continuing my quest for other eco-friendly ant killers, I consulted the American Horticultural Society’s Garden Problem Solver by Pippa Greenwood. Since it may be difficult to get adequate chemical into the nest to completely eliminate the ants, she advises opening up the nest first with a fork. She goes on to explain that anthills may loosen soil so much that the grass dies, (I noticed) “and are certainly not the best place to sit.” Thank you, Pippa.

I’m pleased to report that most of my six-legged neighbors have since relocated. The other day I noticed that three peach-colored coneflowers I’d just planted had been nibbled down to the nub. Horrified, I saw a cute little cottontail emerge from the garden and stare me down. The battle of the bunnies was officially on, and I knew just where to turn for help.