30 April 2012

I was launching into a diatribe against ants at a dinner party the other evening when my friend Brian interrupted me. Brian is Australian, and an olive farmer here in Umbria; he’s not organic but is tolerant towards my foibles in that direction, or at least he gives the impression of being so.

He told me that many years ago, he used to rent a flat in the house of someone who was totally organic. So that one spring when the flat was invaded by ants, Brian felt he had to respect his landlord’s philosophy and spent hours following ant trails until he could fill their holes in with silicone or douse the beasts in boiling water. But the ants were winning, so he called his super-ecological landlord in. “Don’t mess about with that rubbish,” said the landlord, handing him a big spray can of heinous chemicals. “Just zap the bastards.”

Which of course made me feel a little better about the one breach in my wall of anti-synthetic-chemical rectitude. But only a little.

I had been feeling all that day that divine retribution was being wreaked on me for my weakness. The combination of wet-then-heat brought a tsunami of the little devils into the kitchen, my office (the floor was black and shifting), the living room… all over. So I decided to do what I’ve always said I’d do but never done. Instead of quick spurts and post-factum moppings up with fiendishly expensive (and ghastly) sprays, I was going to do blanket-coverage with an eye to prevention.

So I invested in a big pack of the powder you sprinkle about the place, which ants are then meant take back into their nests, thus causing a hecatomb and solving all your problems. This stuff also claims to be water-soluble, and suitable for spraying. Which is where my problems began. It’s not very water soluble at all – and certainly not sufficiently so not to gum up my fruit-tree sprayer big time. So instead of a quick, painless whip around the exterior of the house house – all decked out, needless to say, in gas mask and hat and glasses and gloves and long sleeves etc – spraying the bottom metre of the walls on all sides, plus the outside window and door frames, I spent the best part of an afternoon and the following morning shouting and cursing at a sprayer which was either belching out thick gobbets of white lumpy stuff, or emitting nothing at all.

By the time I’d sorted it, I might simply have lain down and had a bath in the foul brew, I was so covered with it. I still feel vaguely nauseous when I think about it.

Perhaps the nadir in this experiment was the following morning when I came down to the kitchen to find the sink heaving with ants. I couldn’t believe that all my guilty feelings and principle-abandoning could have had no effect at all. But these ones, I think, had already set up home inside the house – perhaps behind the cupboard above the sink – and a tiny judicious spray of some pyrethrum-based stuff seems to have dealt with them.

Which reminds me, I need to do pyrethrum on my thriving broad beans too, to stop the ant-herded aphids from devouring the lot. Ditto the roses: the insect population is absolutely on the move already.

For the record, the walls of the house seem, for the moment, to be ant-free and none of the little bastards are popping under the doors. Fingers crossed. But I still feel bad about my inconsistency. Can I make up for it by being extra-good elsewhere? Difficult when you’re an extremist like me…

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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