The best prevention is to be sure your trees are healthy and happy
Woodpeckers are part of the Picidae family that also includes piculets, wrynecks, flickers, and sapsuckers. They are found in most of the world except for Australia, New Zealand, Madagascar, and extreme polar regions. We have 17 species here in California.
They can range in length from just under 3 inches to nearly 20 inches and can be fairly drab in color (olive and brown) to vividly bold (bright red, black, white and gold). They have short, strong legs, and most species have four toes, two of which face backward, making it exceedingly easy to climb and grasp onto tree trunks and limbs.
Although it may seem that a persistent woodpecker is killing your tree, the opposite is generally true. Woodpeckers actually feed on insects that have invaded the bark of an already distressed tree.
Woodpeckers are attracted to wood-boring beetles, termites, carpenter ants, caterpillars, and spiders. However, they will also eat nuts, fruit, bird eggs, lizards and small rodents.
They prefer wood that is already dead for their foraging and nest building. Since most trees have some amount of dead wood, these birds are usually not considered harmful. When they detect insects within decaying wood, they use their strong beaks to make small holes and then extract the prey using their extremely long, barbed tongues.
Sapsuckers, as the name implies, prefer to feast on tree sap and the insects that are attracted to tree sap. These birds are known to voraciously attack trees, causing serious damage and sometimes death to the tree. They are migratory birds and can wreak havoc on entire groves of trees throughout the United States. According to the U.S. Forest Service, sapsuckers cause mortality rates in 67 percent of gray birch, 51 percent of paper birch, 40 percent of red maples, 3 percent of red spruce, and 1 percent of the hemlock that they attack.
They frequently return to the same trees year after year. They increase the size of their holes, looking for more sap and inflicting more and more damage. As the tree declines, bacteria and fungus can take hold, amplifying the damage and increasing the likelihood of tree mortality.
Sapsuckers usually make tiny holes in a horizontal pattern around the tree, while woodpeckers mostly make large, random holes. Most damage is caused during their breeding season that runs from February to June.
All woodpeckers are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, and some are listed as endangered species.
So what can you do to protect your trees?
Wrap burlap or hardware cloth around the areas of the tree that have been attacked. There are also repellents such as Tanglefoot Bird Repellent that will help fend off the noisemakers. However, when deterred, they will usually seek out another tree. If they are attacking an already sick tree, one you are not particularly fond of or one that is not in the best location, it may be best to just let them peck in peace!
The best preventative measure is to regularly inspect your trees for signs of infestation. Termites and carpenter ants love to feast on wood, and trees are a good source. So, if you see an invading pest, deal with it right away.
First and foremost, determine what type of pest you have and then use an eco-friendly, organic method of control. When using any pesticide, (organic or conventional) it is important to determine exactly which type of pest you are trying to kill and use only the recommended dose. More is definitely NOT more, and if you aren't careful, you can wipe out an entire ecosystem of beneficial insects and species.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the February 17, 2019 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
It's a good idea to know about our local fungi, especially if you have children or pets
Mushrooms are actually the spore-bearing, fruiting bodies of fungi. They pop out of the ground in order to spread their spores for reproduction. They have an underground network of threadlike cells called mycelium that can live for many years, often growing in mulched areas, compost piles or on decaying tree bark and roots.
Mushrooms are a highly sought-after delicacy around the world. But don't start picking them and bringing them into your kitchen without knowing what you're doing. In fact, never consume a mushroom you find unless you are 100 percent certain what it is or have had it properly identified by a qualified professional. I've listed some resources below.
Mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes. Some mushrooms have caps (curved tops) with gills (feathery membranes) or pores (small holes) underneath. The caps are usually supported by stipes (stems/stalks). Others have rings and cups. Some varieties have stems that rise from a cup (also called the volva). In order to properly identify some mushrooms, a “spore print” and molecular identification is often required, said Hung Doan of the UC Davis Department of Plant Pathology.
One of the most common mushrooms here is the turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), which can be found nearly anywhere you find decomposing stumps, logs or old wood. Their clustered, fan-shaped masses have contrasting shades of brown to reddish-brown, and their caps are velvety and slightly fuzzy.
Another common species found in our area is the Armillaria (often called honey fungus), one of the largest living organisms in the world. It is a parasitic fungus that feeds on living and dead plant material. Their yellowish-brown caps can be convex or conical and are generally moist and sticky to the touch.
One specimen of the species, Armillaria solidipes, found in Oregon, is said to be 2,400 years old, and covers more than 3.4 square miles!
Although thought to be rare here in California. I found what appears to be Boletus erythropus in my own backyard. Since the mushroom is not fresh, proper identification can be difficult. Doan said it is likely one of two species — Suillellus amygdalinus (formerly Boletus amygdalinus) or Boletus erythropus.
Its unusual and varied color really caught my eye. The large caps vary from dark to light brown or even coppery bronze. The pores start out orange and then become bright red to rusty brown. The spore tubes are lemon-yellow but turn bluish-green when cut or bruised. They can be found under spruce and beech trees, and occasionally under oaks, as this one was.
Several varieties of mushrooms are toxic, but very few are actually deadly. One of the most deadly found here in the Bay Area is the Amanita phalloides, Death Cap, which has rings and cups as described above. It accounts for nearly 50 percent of all deaths caused by mushrooms. Symptoms of toxicity include severe cramping, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain. It can cause liver and kidney damage, and as the name implies, often death.
Its large, spore-less cap can be 2-6 inches wide and can range in color from pale yellow to olive-green. The cap is covered by a thin white veil. Stems and gills are usually white and have a ring and cup (you may have to dig into the soil to see them). It is often mistaken for the edible Paddy Straw mushroom (Volvariella volvacea), which has pinkish-brown gills.
Death Caps are generally found when out hiking and or foraging in our coastal hills where coast live oak and cork trees are found but can be found in urban areas as well.
There are edible varieties of Amanita, but avoid them unless you are a skilled and experienced “shroomer”.
There are many mycologists (those who study fungi) right here in the Bay Area. To learn more, or to join an upcoming foraging adventure, check out these organizations:
- Bay Area Mycological Society (BAMS)
- Mycological Society of San Francisco (MSSF)
- Sonoma County Mycological Association (SOMA)
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the January 27, 2019 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
“Rodale's Basic Organic Gardening: A Beginner's Guide to Starting a Healthy Garden”, by Deborah L. Martin
If you want to start your first garden or want a refresher on the basics of organic gardening, this is a good book to start with. It is written in a friendly, easy-to-read style. It provides information on soil, plant care, pest and weed control, and attracting beneficial insects to the garden.
“California Plants, A guide to Our Iconic Flora”, by Matt Ritter
The gardener interested in California native plants will love this book. The photos are fantastic and there's one for every plant mentioned. Not only does the book list both the common and scientific names, it also includes the history and origin of each plant. There are also maps that show growing regions.
“Private Gardens of the Bay Area”, by Susan Lowry and Nancy Berner; photographed by Marion Brenner
This well-done, coffee table format book showcases more than 35 private gardens in the San Francisco Bay Area. It has stunning photos as well as inspiring landscaping ideas for tiny spaces, hillsides, and even rooftop gardening. Information on soil and microclimates is included as well.
“Hot Color, Dry Garden: Inspiring Designs and Vibrant Plants for the Waterwise Gardener”, by Nan Sterman
Drought and dry weather are becoming the new normal here in California. If you want to have colorful, vibrant, low-water gardens that are teaming with birds, butterflies, and wildlife, this book provides good information and photos to get you going.
“Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children”, by Sharon Lovejoy
This is a great book to get your kids excited about gardening! You'll find instructions for creating a moon garden, pizza garden, pumpkin garden and even a garden in a boot. With a list of the 20 best plants for kids and instructions on making seed tapes, your kids will be digging right in!
“The Flower Gardener's Bible: A Complete Guide to Colorful Blooms All Season Long”, by Lewis Hill and Nancy Hill
Although the authors live on the East Coast, the information and format provided in this book will be useful to both the novice gardener or seasoned guru. It not only offers really good design information, it also has details on soil fertility, plant groupings, watering, cuttings, bouquets, gardening arts, and lighting.
“Golden Gate Gardening ” by Pamela Pierce
The third edition of this famous book, often called the go-to encyclopedia of vegetable gardening, has more than 400 pages of tried-and-true information on growing year-round herbs, fruits, and veggies throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. Concise, clear data is given on what and when to grow from seed and transplant, pests, disease, weeds, watering and even harvesting.
“The New Western Garden Book: The Ultimate Gardening Guide Sunset”, by The Editors of Sunset
Known as the Gardening Bible of the West, and now in its ninth edition, this is THE book almost all nursery experts and gardeners go to. The new addition has added more than 500 new plants and even more photos. It provides details on our local hyper-climates, planting in regard to space requirements, how to plant, plant care, pruning and much, more. …
Thanks to the Master Gardeners who gave their input on great garden books to give: Ingrid Graeve, Janet Hamma, Paula Larkin Hutton, and Heather Dooley.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the December 23, 2018 issue of the San Jose Mercury News.
Mulch selection makes a difference
Several years of drought have killed over a million trees in California since 2010. Most of those trees died in 2016, and more are doomed. Many local trees are not as healthy as they could be due to drought, bark beetle infestation, and disease. These trees have more dead leaves and twigs, making them susceptible to fire. Rather than allowing fire to race through your landscape, create spaces that slow or stop those flames.
California state law (PRC 4291) requires that all rural homes have a 100-foot defensible space. This space helps keep you, your family and our heroic firefighters safe. While suburban homes have different laws, fire safety is still critical and fire-safe gardening just makes good sense.
Defensible space is made up of two zones. Zone 1 is a 30-foot perimeter around any structures. Keeping Zone 1 fire safe means removing all dead vegetation from the ground, roofs and rain gutters, pruning tree branches at least 10 feet away from buildings, moving patio furniture away from trees and shrubs, and moving wood piles and other flammables into Zone 2.
Zone 2 extends 100 feet from your home. To keep Zone 2 fire safe, mow grasses to 4 inches or lower, rake up dead vegetation, and create spaces between trees and shrubs. This means removing any tree branches that are 6 feet from the ground or less, and pruning trees to be 10 to 30 feet apart, depending on the slope. Because shrubs can flame upward, they should be placed or pruned so they are three to six times their height from any trees, depending on the slope.
Mulch can add fuel to a fire, or slow its spread. The most dangerous mulches include shredded rubber or western red cedar, gorilla hair, and pine needles. Pine bark nuggets, Tahoe chips and other plant biomass from tree chipping operations create a moderate risk. Composted wood chip mulch does not create a significant fire risk.
There are no truly fire-resistant plants. Keep your home safe by planting low-growing, high-moisture plants closest to your home. When deciding where to install plants, imagine your home in the bottom of a shallow bowl. Plants should get taller, further from buildings. This helps draw fire away, rather than closer. Despite their name, evergreens are far more flammable than hardwoods.
If fire risk is especially high, remove shrubs and vines that touch your home (plant new ones later), and rake mulch at least 5 feet away from all structures.
Create a fire safety plan. Seriously. It takes 20 minutes and could save your life.
Above all else, in case of fire, get out and stay out. Everything else is temporary.
by UC Master Gardener Kate Russell
This article first appeared in the August 16, 2018 issue of the South Valley Magazine.
I planted it in a spot on the side of our home near the driveway where I had had a hard time getting anything to grow and really take off.
Let me tell you, I hit passion-pay-dirt with this little one-gallon plant! Not only has it taken off, it is trying to take over the side of my small, built-in porch.
Passiflora, or passion flower, is a genus of more than 500 species of flowering plants. Most are vines that have prolific tendrils for climbing, but some grow as hearty shrubs or even trees. Ninety-five percent of Passiflora edulis, or passion fruit, (often known as granadillas) come from South America. The rest come from Asia, Australia, and North America. They are edible, vining varieties that are coveted for their fruit as well as their juice. Fruit can either be purple, yellow or bright green and can range in size from as small as a pea to as large as a grapefruit.
They are sensitive to severe frost and prefer a moderately cool area when planted in warm climates. They like a relatively humid, moist area – but not too wet. If you decide to plant one, be sure to provide enough irrigation throughout the warmer months, but cut back on the water when the cooler weather hits.
Be sure to amend with organic compost, agriculture lime and bone meal. When I planted mine, I mixed in organic soil amendment, some compost and a little bit of slow-release organic fertilizer (as I do with most everything I plant).
Passionfruit are really beautiful plants with dark green foliage and unusual, striking flowers that look like little fringy-starbursts. Flowers can range from vibrant red and brilliant fuchsia to blue, pink, all shades of purple and even tricolored.
Although my plant had no tag, I believe it is the common purple granadilla because of its creamy white petals, deep purple crown and lime green ovary, anthers, and stigma.
It has been in the ground for six to eight months, and I am so impressed with how easy it has been to grow. I am trying to train it into an espalier form. I just trimmed away about half of the plant and made four horizontal branches across the length of my porch (see photo).
I have already harvested a couple of fruits and they are quite tasty.
Even though flowers only last for a day or two and plants only survive three to six years – I would highly recommend trying one out. If you have the patience, you can try to grow it from seed, but if you're are like me just pick up a transplant from your local nursery or farmer's market and give it a grow!
You can sometimes find fresh passion fruit and juice in your local market. It is also becoming a popular ingredient in drinks, cakes, icing, ice cream, and yogurt.
by UC Master Gardener Rebecca Jepsen
This article first appeared in the November 25, 2018 print issue of the San Jose Mercury News.