In organic gardening circles these days, on the cutting-edge fringes of the sustainability movement, the principle focus is on how humans can get what they need (food, shelter, water, etc) from nature by intervening (ie screwing things up) as little as possible. There is a growing recognition, for instance, that either leaving natural cycles alone, or finding ways to stimulate or imitate them, results in better yields, less damage, and perhaps most importantly, less human labour required. These are some of the key values behind permaculture (about which I’ll write a lot more), no-dig /no-till/lasagne gardening, and companion planting, just to name a few movements steadily gaining popularity.
Gardening itself is an intervention into natural cycles, of course, and it’s debatable whether human communities have ever not manipulated nature to serve their needs. In fact, we often forget that we are not outsiders to nature who have an unfortunate and inherently destructive impact. We are inextricable members of the eco-systems we inhabit, and like other creatures, our actions benefit some species and consume/destroy others, with nature always striving for life, biodiversity, and balance. I’m convinced that part of my (our) learning curve is patience and observation (also one of the first principles of permaculture). When we begin with observation, we learn to better understand the cycles of our backyard ecosystems, their members and inhabitants, and hopefully become able to intervene lightly, if at all, in order to meet our human needs.
This process recently became very real. We have a big area at the back of our garden that was a weed patch and home to the burn bin. It’s a big, full-sun space close to the compost pile that the Skipper decided way back would make an excellent potato patch. It’s been cleared, manured, topsoiled, and covered with some landscape fabric just to keep the weeds down while we waited to plant. Last weekend, we pulled back the fabric and at the wooden edges of the bed out spilled a gazillion wee ants! They streamed like… well, an ant colony unexpectedly exposed to the light and startled by us giant observers. We watched, fascinated, for a few moments as they rushed about in a panic, and then we wondered what to do. Skipper went to the greenhouse where we had inherited a variety of bug chemicals that we had never intended to use. He brought out the one for ants, read through the ingredients and warnings. It said it would harm bees. We didn’t like that. We wondered what kind of ants these were and what they might be doing. To the internet!
I did some research and discovered that these were likely the dreaded carpenter ants, the ones that eat wood and destroy houses. Oh no! After poking about the bed a little more, Skipper came in with some bad news. The bed is ringed/ terraced with some old stumps. When he poked a stick around the stumps, he found….TERMITES!!! Panic stations!
But termites had come up in my readings about carpenter ants–because both can do unbelievable damage to wood-frame homes. I went back to a webpage to confirm an interesting tidbit: carpenter ants EAT termites. Who knew?! In a house, carpenter ants are in fact an indicator that you might have termites, because the ants go looking for the buffet! (This is a blog about food, after all 🙂 )
So what did we do about these buggies in the end? Nothing.
Termites and carpenter ants live naturally in our landscape. There is no such thing as getting rid of them. They arrived because of our hospitable conditions: rotting wooden stumps and non-treated wooden edging. We can’t take the wood out without losing the bed, which at the moment, planting-time, doesn’t make sense. Although termites and ants can damage crops, they are unlikely to at this point because of the ample food supply in the stumps. The ants might eat up all the termites, and then move on to find another food supply. The nests are both FAR away from the house, and pose no real harm to us at this point. The ants are probably a yummy food supply for the birds and other critters about the yard. “Solutions” like ant and termite poisons–even mild ones like boric acid–aren’t great for the ant/termite predators, ants and termites are part of the bee family (who knew?!), and we are trying to protect the bees. And who wants poisons next to potatoes?
In the fall/winter we might think again about getting rid of the stumps, or sending some boiling water down the nests. But for now, we live in peace. And I must say, doing nothing certainly took less time and effort!