Winning the War on Fire Ants

Kill Fire Ants with Common Household IngredientsToxic Tidbits for Uninvited Visitors

This is my fault. I deserve this. By ignoring the yard for two years a brief hiatus, I turned my back for two years a minute and the fire ants took that as a Welcome Home sign.

If you don’t live in the southern US, you may be less familiar with these tiny instruments of torture. This is not like when you forgot to put the pizza box in the fridge and the next morning, there was a line of cute, benign insects marching through the dorm. Those are what we in Texas call sugar ants. Or black ants. Or ants.

Fire ants (Solenopsis Invicta) are different. These demon’s spawn, also called Red Imported Fire Ants, migrated accidentally from South America to Australia, New Zealand, several Asian and Caribbean countries and the United States. They are mostly red, but the back end is black. They chew through nearly any material and love to nest where you least want them: lawn, house walls, bathtub faucets…

Their reputation, however, is all about their venom. First you feel a small sting. Then it grows. Then it starts to burn. Soon you’re scrabbling at a square centimeter of skin with the urgency of a four-year-old who has to pee. You immediately flick off the itty bitty black speck that is the epicenter of the flame and there is relief–for a second or two. Now the area turns red. It swells. It itches. And finally, you have been initiated into the All Fire Ants Must Die club. You can enjoy the pustule that forms later, but for now, we must plot the downfall of S. Invicta.

Getting to Know Fire Ants

They suck. That’s about it.

If you must have more details, you can find them under the large mounds conveniently arising throughout your manicured grass. They also love to take over trash cans, compost bins, electrical outlets, and if you sweat at night, you may wake up to find them in your hair. (Not making that up. Wear a cap.)

If fire ants weren’t such a problem, one could admire their resourcefulness and innovation. In the wake of Hurricane Harvey hitting the Texas coast this weekend, this tweet showed why nothing stops their spreading path.

Making Ants Feel Welcome — to Leave

Enemy of My Enemy

Since I hate ants, I also love whatever they hate. Therefore, I have compiled a list of my favorite things to offer these intruding guests.

  • Orange oil
  • Peppermint oil
  • Tea tree oil
  • Cornstarch
  • Corn meal
  • Cayenne pepper
  • Vinegar
  • Boiling water
  • Eucalyptus
  • Lavender

You’ll notice these are almost all organic items. Having pets and young children, we prefer to keep the balance of nature away from chemicals. Plus several of these non-chemical controls make the area smell great! (Maybe not the vinegar or boiling water.)

Attack Strategy

I want to make it perfectly plain that the ants started this conflict. This not a pre-emptive strike; those guys invaded my home, and since I pay the mortgage, they have to go! Therefore, the plan must be for total eradication, but without causing harm to those who are a welcome part of the yard’s ecology. Think long-term, deadly micro-accuracy, and a residue to keep them from coming back. Therefore, it’s time to start testing insecticide recipes that won’t harm the living things that we like.

Tip: That first explosion when you disrupt the anthill will be surprisingly expansive, so wear closed shoes and step back from the show. Otherwise you’ll be running back into the house with anti-itch cream on your mind.

We tried a few recipes, but the results were mixed.


Nope. We sprinkled it liberally, waited 24 hours, then wet the stuff. And what happened? Nothing.

Orange Oil

Now we’re seeing some results. We sprayed 9 parts water, 1 part orange oil all over the area. After 24 hours, we were discouraged by the new soil piled up around the mound. The only result seemed to be getting these guys to burrow in more…until we looked closer.

Those are the bodies of the dead ants that the surviving workers removed from the area. We found piles like this all around the perimeter of the mound, which inspired immediate desire to make even more piles of dead ants.

after spraying water and orange oil

By the third recipe, we finally found a winner!

Ant Slayer Insecticide

Ant Slayer Recipe

The experiment only lasted three or four days, which was not nearly long enough to enjoy their discomfort. In the end, the Ant Slayer recipe is our favorite, especially since there is already another ant mound over by the rosemary bush. Now that Hurricane Harvey has passed by, we’re keeping this stuff on hand as the ants burrow back out from the storm.


How to Wet Your Plants

How to Water Plants like a Pro | Back Yard Saga
Photo: Anita Berghoef.

Water Your Plants like a Pro

You read that right. There is a right and wrong way to water plants. If you’re giving your plants a drink, but they still look tired, you might be missing a couple of tricks.

One summer day, the neighbor kid helps me water the plants in the yard. Like most folks, the kid gave each pot a quick squirt and moved on. The plants were already droopy, and a little spritz was only going to tease them.  This was the perfect time to show how to water plants inside and out.

Poor Watering

Poor Watering | Back Yard SagaWhen soil is dry inside a pot, it compacts and shrivels up. You’ll see the soil shrink away from the inside edge of the pot. When this happens, it needs a serious soaking to the roots. You’ll first need to check to see if your pot has a drain hole.

1) The water goes straight to the bottom of the pot. If there’s a drain hole, the water pours right out of the pot and doesn’t make any difference for the plant.

2) If the pot has no drain hole, then the water will slowly soak into the soil–but only around the outer rim of the soil. The roots are still stuck in a dry core.

Good Watering

Pots with No Drain Hole

Good Watering | Back Yard SagaThis is easy. You can simply pour water into a non-draining pot until the soil expands and is moist to the touch.  Not too much, though! Plants prefer a moist towelette, not wet socks. A good test is to tip the pot a little and see if any excess water pours back out. Just let the extra water drain out the side and all will be well.

Pots with a Drain Hole

These pots are a little trickier because they can work against you, but there is a super easy solution: put physics on your side.

Step 1: Fill a Bowl with Water

water bowl | Back Yard Saga

Step 2: Place the Pot in the Bowl

If the soil is really dried out, the pot might try to float when you put it into the bowl of water. Pour some water into the top of the pot to weigh it down.

place plant | Back Yard Saga
Leaves are curled inward, dirt is dry and pulled away from the rim of the pot

Step 3: Leave the Pot in the Water Until Soil is Saturated

The water will slowly travel through the entire ball of dirt, including the roots. It will be nice and heavy now. It takes a while, but you won’t have to worry about watering for several days.

Soil is fully moist, expands to the rim of the pot
Soil is fully moist, expands to the rim of the pot
Leaves are full, bright and turgid.
Leaves are full, bright and turgid.







Ta da! You can see from the final photos that a nice soak is all a plant needs. Wasn’t that easy?

How To Mend A Garden Hose (After You Accidentally Mow Over It)

How to Mend a Garden Hose - Back Yard Saga

It happens. Sometimes we mow over stuff that’s hiding in the tall grass. In my case, it was the hose. Not just some crummy bargain hose, either. It was the one we shelled out for as an investment. Husband was kind, but I felt guilty about wasting a necessary and costly tool.

Back to the rule of Homesteading: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” It turns out that it’s a simple, cheap project to mend your garden hose.

Step 1: Buy hose mender

We easily found a hose mender on Amazon for just a few dollars. Tip: Make sure you order the right size. The first time, we ended up with a mender that wouldn’t fit into the hose!

Mend Garden Hose | Back Yard Saga
Orbit 1/2″ hose mender – male/female shanks

Step 2: Trim your edges

The mower left a large hole in the hose with ragged edges.

Mend Garden Hose | Back Yard Saga

This edge won’t hold water, so  we took a utility knife and sliced the edges to have even, clean cuts.

Step 3: Slide the clamps onto each end of the hose

Step 4: Insert the shank into hose ends.

Mend A Garden Hose | Back Yard Saga

Step 5: Tighten the clamps

Mend A Garden Hose | Back Yard Saga

Step 6: Turn on the water

Your hose should look something like this now. All that’s left is to test the connection and make sure it doesn’t leak. If the connection is spilling out water, you can try tightening the clamps. If that still won’t work, you might need a larger size shank for your hose. (Back to that thing about ordering the right size)

Mend a Garden Hose | Back Yard Saga

You are no doubt impressed that you can mend a hose for a few bucks and 5 minutes of your time. One more way to keep costs down and build your confidence. Besides, now you have skills!

First Rule of Homesteading

Weeds actually do fight back against a mower.
Weeds actually do fight back against a mower.

The growing season is well in swing, weeds happily congregating in cliques throughout the yard.  Time to mow!–except my 8-year-old mower is hurting. The drive control cable is frayed, which means instead of the mower propelling itself and helping me out, I’m pushing the darn thing with every muscle. It also hasn’t had a tune-up in years, but the blade still cuts (if I drag the mower backwards). Decisions: Let mower limp along or buy a new one? The mower can’t do its job anymore, so we can’t ignore it. But we don’t have spare cash right now, either, so a new purchase is unappealing. Third option: My dad taught me as a teenager to work on my car, and I took auto mech in school. Maybe I can fix it. Why was I thinking of a new mower? Because the stores told me to. This is one of those things you just go along with–until it backhands you mid-sip of your grande soy non-fat decaf latte.  Then you reconsider. First, I switched to store brand coffee with milk.  Next, Amazon had the cable for $10 and the tune-up kit for a few more bucks. The mower blade was at Home Depot for $16. It was a simple matter to snap in the new cable, and the tune-up was easier than on my high school VW Bug. The mower blade attaches with a single nut. There is value in fixing things that are still usable, but there is another lesson to this that shouldn’t be missed: the mower gave me a challenge and I won.  

Rule 1| Back Yard Saga


Recipe Review: Henbit Flapjacks and David Hasselhoff

real live foraging

It got too tempting.  We caved.  Weeds are everywhere, and they’re

During our session, Google added a photobomb of David Hasselhoff for April Fool's.  AWESOME.
Google added a photobomb of David Hasselhoff for April Fool’s Day. AWESOME.

free, so it’s time to start putting our spatula where our mouth is. Here you have our first recipe review. Normally, you probably wouldn’t care about a stranger eating weeds, but Google has set the mood for you (right). How can you not read this now?

What’s a good choice for a first-time weed eater?  Because I’m a chicken foraging is new to us, we started with an armful of henbit.  Also known as Lamium amplexicaule and a member of the mint family, it seemed pretty innocuous, so we could dip our tastebuds into the shallow end of the weed pool. It was tempting to put the weeds on a cheeseburger and pretend to have the drunchies (in honor of The Hoff), but let’s hold onto some dignity, shall we?

A quick search led us to Southern Forager and a recipe for Henbit Flapjacks.  Believe it or not, there are a lot of henbit recipes out there. Don’t worry, we documented the experience for your education and amusement…

Overall Score:  ♥♥♥♥

Notes: The flapjacks tasted like flapjacks, delicious as always. The henbit didn’t add or detract from the flavor (that we could detect), and the twins gave it a strong thumbs up.  The main difference was the texture of herbs, yet because they were finely chopped, it was not a deterrent.

Summary: Why put henbit in flapjacks if they don’t change anything?  According to Green Deane of Eat the Weeds, henbit is highly nutritious, containing iron, vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants.  So it’s sort of like putting carrots in your brownies or spinach in your smoothies; you can eat like a kid while nutrifying like a grown-up.

Yeah, so…this is compelling.  Since the kids are cheering for it, let’s try henbit in some other meals.  Maybe a soup would be good.  Watch for recipe reviews every Wednesday!

What Is It? Should I Eat It?

Morning yard walk, strolling through the weeds. There certainly are a lot of

These mustard flowers are so much easier (and prettier) than St. Augustine. grass.
These mustard flowers are so much easier (and prettier) than St. Augustine. grass.

them.  Not in numbers, but how many kinds there are! It boggles the imagination that we work to keep St. Augustine grass, yet these charming flowers are unwelcome.

The twins helpfully pull crabgrass and offer it to the dog, who chews it blindly. Why does she look so surprised that she doesn’t want it?

We are still in the stage of telling the kids “Yes, you can eat that” and “No, not that one!”  The offspring are finally discerning enough that they ask first, taste second. It has led to a nice acquaintanceship with the local flora.  (How else do you think I found those wild onions?) In fact, there is a surprising number of edible native plants that have simply made themselves at home here.

Henbit: a mint cousin.
Henbit: a mint cousin.


Did you know Henbit is an edible member of the mint family?  It doesn’t smell/taste minty, but the flowers taste like honeysuckle. So use it to entertain friends, but not to brush your teeth. According to Eat the Weeds, the name Henbit is a reference to its status as a favorite snack for chickens.  This site also gives a recipe for Spicy Henbit since the stems, leaves and flowers are all edible.

I’ll think about it.

 Common Vetch

Common Vetch:
Common Vetch: a dainty vine with purple blooms
Common Vetch: most call it a weed.  It's actually a legume.
Common Vetch: most call it a weed. It’s actually a legume.

This little vine has adorable tendrils and delicate purple flowers.  It seems perfect for settings like A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  However, Common Vetch is actually a relative to the pea plant.   Plant Guide says it is well cultivated throughout Europe because of its value to Romans for foraging.   In fact, Wikipedia says this wild tidbit was part of the human diet as far back as the Neolithic period.

These days, Common Vetch is valued for its agricultural use as livestock feed.  It seems humans feel they are too good for this stuff, now preferring sushi instead.

Common chickweed

Chickweed is reportedly delicious, edible and nutritious.  It's just also a pain in the butt.
Chickweed is reportedly delicious, edible and nutritious. It’s also a pain in the arse.

This cute sprout turns out to be a great staple for human and cattle consumption.  It’s even a traditional ingredient for a spring festival in Japan.  However, it carries heavy seed sets and is hard to control.  Apparently, it competes so well with small grains, it reportedly causes up to 80% losses in barley.  (A. Davis, K. Renner, C. Sprague, L. Dyer, D. Mutch (2005). Integrated Weed Management. MSU.)

Even though chickweed is well regarded as an herbal remedy (mainly for skin conditions), it also serves as a favorite food of moths and cutworms.  So I’m exiling this guy out to the wild fields and well away from my garden.

These are just a few ambassadors of the riot of vegetation out back.  While I like thinking of them as weeds and pests, it must be noted that they are beautiful, prolific and settle here effortlessly. Even though they are clearly at home, it is our reflex to fight them. When (and why) did we decide that St. Augustine grass is more valuable than these other plants?

Lesson: Just because you didn’t put it there, that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Find the value in what is given; give the value of what you have.

Tromping through the tulies with our favorite buddy.
Tromping through the tulies with our favorite buddy.

Grass Isn’t All That’s Greener

setting the stage

From a distance, it might be mistaken for grass
From a distance, it might be mistaken for grass.  It’s ragweed.

As my neighbor and I stood chatting, we shared our tips on keeping lawns low maintenance without inciting the wrath of the HOA police.

You see, every spring a new weed overtakes our neighborhood yards.  The only people with actual grass are those with a lot of spare time. The rest of us mow the weeds and try to keep a low profile.

Growing up in California, the yards were styled as elaborately as a celebrity’s coiffure. Moving to Central Texas was therefore a shock. Yards have a lawn, a few perfunctory bushes, and a tree or two. The most decorative sight was the mulch.

Ten years later, my Texan husband explained, “We don’t want to waste the water.” To our credit, people now want sustainability over perfection. It shows a marked change in values, and not just for a small group of us.  A major shift toward learning “post-apocalyptic skills” explains why no-mow yards are the new wave.

Wild onions from neighbors lawn!  Whaaaat?
Wild onions from neighbors lawn! Whaaaat?

So as I talked with the neighbor and glanced at our yards brimming with non-lawn, something jumped at my eye.  Was that…?  I pulled up a  bunch of wild onions! My mind raced. What else will thrive here?

This is what led me to Evelyn J. Hadden’s books.  Her 2012 title, Beautiful No-Mow Yards: 50 Amazing Lawn Alternatives, asks, “Which would you rather have: a front lawn, or flowers and food?” The book changes the paradigm by offering broad possibilities and drawing a road map to results.  It’s her new book, however, that got me to sit up straighter.

Hellstrip Gardening: Create a Paradise between the Sidewalk and the Curb is due out June 2014. It solves a major dilemma– How to deal with that little strip of grass? Suddenly, it seems like a great spot for herbs or a zen sand garden!

Lesson: Keep your mind and your options open.  With planned communities and HOAs, we forget how many ways we can use a yard. Instead of asking how to blend in, try asking what is possible.

Since then, I scoured sites for ideas.  Want to see what I found?

Monday Status Report: Fence, Run, Dog, Tree

Back to the Topic at Hand

After so much talk, the good news is that there is (some) progress!


Husband - 1, Block - 0
Husband – 1, Block – 0

Remember that concrete block problem? Husband got the last word, like so.  After that, it was simple to set a new post in concrete on the fence line.  However, we need to buy fence pickets.  Forgot about those.

At least that new post is perfectly level.  Yeah.

Dog Run

Yeah…I got nothing. No dog run.


Meet Jinx, a shepherd/heeler mix.
Meet Jinx, a shepherd/heeler mix.

We got a dog! Her name is Jinx, and she guards us firmly, but never shows aggression. No escapist tendencies, so the fence and dog run are now irrelevant. She plays tug-of-war and chases a flashlight beam like a cat.  She also makes it easy to deal with salesmen at the door.  This is the bestdog ever!


Mulberry’s progress over several weeks.  Finally noticeable!

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

While it seems like so little, there is a zen beauty to watching daily as nature unfolds. Instead of my hasty run to complete this project, the yard is teaching me patience, tranquility, and consistency. And it’s about time.