Woodpeckers can cause permanent damage to trees, but it is possible to get them to move elsewhere
"Fielding Questions" columnist Don Kinzler answers questions about a damaged chokecherry tree, as well as how to control the common weed purslane and if it makes sense to fertilize yards right now.
Q: We have an Amur chokecherry tree in our backyard, and this year much of the tree has fewer leaves than normal. I noticed one of the main trunks has small oval holes in the bark. Do you know what is causing this? — John N.
A: The holes in the trunk are made by sapsucker woodpeckers that make a series of holes in neat rows in tree trunks. The holes fill with sap, which the birds then drink.
The holes can disrupt the flow of water, sap and nutrients within the tree, and if the holes are numerous enough, the tree can be injured. A common symptom is a thinning of the tree canopy and eventual dead branches.
If sapsucker activity is noticed before they make too many holes, the affected area of the trunk can be wrapped with burlap or aluminum foil, and the birds will usually move elsewhere. If the area of damage is too high to reach, you can attempt to frighten the birds from the tree with shiny helium balloons or aluminum pie tins suspended from the tree.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a good way to bring the tree back to good health once the sapsucker damage has advanced to the point of causing branch decline. When a cycle of decline begins, it usually continues, eventually causing the tree’s death.
Q: Can I still fertilize my lawn now in late July? It gets watered a half-inch twice a week. Or should I use weed-and-feed? Also, is there anything I can do about the spiderwebs around my plants and the millions of crickets which are feeding them? — Darin K.
A: Fertilizing lawns in the height of summer isn't recommended by most turf research universities. The grass species that compose our lawns slow down in midsummer heat, even though irrigated, and don't need the extra nutrients like they do in periods of vigorous growth in spring and fall.
Fertilizing lawns in midsummer can be risky. Not only doesn’t the grass need the extra nutrition at this point of the season, but fertilizer can damage and burn grass plants in summertime heat. September, around Labor Day, is a prime time to fertilize lawns, and that's only a month and a half away. Waiting until then is preferred.
Applications of lawn herbicides in midsummer are generally not recommended, either. Lawns are usually under some heat stress and there’s greater danger of turf damage. September is a better option for weed control in lawns; there’s less danger of damage and herbicide applications are more effective.
About the webbing, most of the webs caused by spiders appearing now on lawns and flowers seem harmless, and no control is usually advised. Crickets, on the other hand, do attack garden produce like tomatoes and muskmelon, besides being truly annoying when they get indoors. Granular cricket baits can be purchased at garden centers and hardware stores, or you can spray the areas with insecticides like Sevin or Eight.
Q: In a recent column, you addressed ways to prevent purslane in gardens and flower beds. I recently read that purslane is edible, and is purposely cultivated in many countries as a food source and is not considered a weed. I just tried some, and it really is quite delicious! Maybe we should reconsider calling it a weed. — Linda S.
A: A weed is defined as any plant growing where it’s not wanted. Many plants were introduced into North America with very good intentions. Dandelions were imported as a medicinal plant or a source of edible greens. Crabgrass was purposely introduced to the continent as a potential livestock forage. Quackgrass creates a vigorous, low-maintenance groundcover. One person’s valuable plant can become another person’s weed, especially when it becomes difficult to keep within bounds.
We can have that same discussion about purslane. I’ve eaten it myself, and with a side of ranch dressing, it’s delicious. It’s high in vitamins and minerals and is very nutritious. But it spreads wildly in my garden and, if uncontrolled, it crowds out vegetables such as carrots and many others. For gardeners who opt to cultivate purslane, keeping it in bounds might prove a challenge.
If you have a gardening or lawn care question, email Don Kinzler, NDSU Extension-Cass County, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Questions with broad appeal may be published, so please include your name, city and state for appropriate advice.