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Euonymus alatus - burning bush

Euonymus is a large genus of plants which includes many species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs, trees, and vines.

Euonymus 'Silver King' is a beautiful variegated evergreen form.

Euonymus ‘Silver King’ is a beautiful variegated evergreen form.

Probably one of the most well-known of these is Euonymus alatus (Winged Euonymus, a.k.a. Burning Bush). This deciduous species is especially popular for its beautiful red fall color. Other popular species are the evergreen forms, Euonymus japonicus, Euonymus kiautschovicus, and the trailing Euonymus fortunei. Many of these evergreen cultivars have attractive variegated foliage.

Because of its diversity, euonymus has many different uses in the landscape. Some varieties are planted as stunning specimen plants, while others are used as an attractive living screen or hedge, and still other varieties create a lovely evergreen ground cover or trailing rock wall cover.

Burning bush in all its glory!

Burning bush in all its glory!

Few shrubs in the landscape provide brilliant fall color as reliably as the “Burning Bush” (E. alatus). When the temperatures begin to drop in the fall, this beautiful shrub transforms from a deep green to a striking fiery red. It’s no wonder these shrubs are so popular in the landscape – many even consider them overused! It should be planted in full sun to achieve the most intense fall color.

Unfortunately, Euonymus alatus and another popular deciduous species, E. europaeus, have escaped into the wild and have become invasive in some areas of the country.

Fruit capsules of E. europaeus will split open to reveal bright red seeds

Fruit capsules of E. europaeus will split open to reveal bright red seeds

The colorful fruit capsules which appear in the fall and add to their beauty in the landscape split open exposing equally colorful seeds. These seeds eventually drop to the ground and can produce hundreds of seedlings under the shrub or are eaten by birds and dispersed to other areas where they can germinate and grow.

The evergreen species, Euonymus japonicus, includes many of the more colorful variegated cultivars. Variegated cultivars should be planted in full sun to light shade for the best color.

Spreading euonymus (E. kiautschovicus) is a beautiful evergreen or semi-evergreen species with glossy dark green leathery leaves that is often grown as a hedge or living screen. ‘Manhattan’ is one of the most popular cultivars. Unfortunately, this species is prone to winter burn in colder zones.

Winter creeper, E. fortunei, is an evergreen species with a trailing habit which, depending on the cultivar, can be used as a ground cover, low shrub, rock wall cover, or as a climbing vine. There are many beautiful variegated cultivars in this species as well.

Finally – Pruning!

I originally began writing about euonymus because a few days ago I received a post on our discussion board about pruning these plants. I got a little off topic! Here is the question:

I have several overgrown Euonymus shrubs that have come into my hydrangea shrubs. I would like to cut the [euonymus] back but how far can I cut them and when is the best time?

How Much?

As far as how much they can be cut; these plants can really be pruned back as hard as you want or need to. Like many shrubs, euonymus has dormant buds in the bare wood and new growth will sprout below the pruning cuts so eventually you will end up with a beautiful, fresh, new but more compact shrub.

When?

The timing for pruning euonymus depends on the type, deciduous or evergreen – hence my discourse on the various species!

Euonymus alatus pruned to tree form.

Euonymus alatus pruned to tree form.

Deciduous euonymus should be pruned in late winter or early spring before they start to leaf out. As I mentioned, these shrubs can be pruned hard if needed, even back to 3″ – 6″ from the ground. They can also be pruned less drastically, removing dead and crossing branches, thinning out about a third of the oldest stems (all the way to the ground), and pruning the remaining stems to create an attractive, natural looking shrub.

These euonymus can also be trained to grow as a small tree by pruning out all but 1-6 main stems and removing any lower branches that develop along these main stems.

The pruning time for evergreen euonymus depends on how hard you need to prune them. If they need to be cut fairly hard to rejuvenate them or to bring them down in size if they have grown too large for your space, this should be done in late winter or early spring while they are still dormant.

If you just need to prune them back to shape them or reduce their size a little, you can prune them in the late spring or early summer when they are growing. It is best to avoid pruning them after the end of July or any new growth will not have time to harden off before winter.

Remember

If you need to do any “severe” pruning of your other shrubs like holly, boxwood, rhododendron, or yew, now (while they are still dormant) is the time to do it.

Be sure to fertilize them with Espoma Holly-tone, Plant-tone, or Tree-tone after you prune!

Until next time – Happy Spring!

Grafted melon at Merrick Farm, Wilbraham, MA. Photo: Megan Poljacik

When I first heard about grafted tomato plants several years ago, I thought the idea was crazy. I was very aware of the great cultural benefits of grafted trees and shrubs but why in the world would you spend the time and effort to graft a vegetable that only grows for a season then dies with the first frost?

Grafted tomato

Grafted tomato; Cornell University Cooperative Extension

It didn’t dawn on me at the time that the same disease resistance and increased overall vigor that the rootstock imparts to a grafted fruit tree could also work for a grafted tomato plant. When you think about it, this is a brilliant concept because tomatoes and many other vegetable crops have a plethora of disease and pest problems that we as gardeners are constantly battling.

It turns out that grafting vegetables is not a new practice at all – they’ve been doing it in Asia for a long time!

What is grafting?

Grafting involves taking the top of a plant (the scion) that has very desirable fruit qualities like superior taste (but low vigor and disease resistance) and attaching it to the bottom of a plant (the rootstock) that is known for its vigorous growth and disease resistance.

Getting ready to graft a melon (scion) to a gourd rootstock at Merrick Farm, Wilbraham, MA

Getting ready to graft a melon (scion)
to a gourd rootstock at Merrick Farm,
Wilbraham, MA  Photo: Megan Poljacik

One of the main advantages of grafted vegetables is their resistance to soil-borne pests and diseases.

Remember my whole diatribe on crop rotation? There are a lot of people with small backyard gardens that don’t have the space to rotate their crops. Planting grafted vegetables reduces the need for crop rotation. The rootstock that is used for the graft is selected for its resistance to a wide range of soil-borne diseases, including those that persist in the soil for many years. So even if diseases like Verticillium wilt, Fusaruim, bacterial wilt, or tobacco mosaic virus are lurking in your soil, grafted tomatoes are less likely to be affected because of their vigorous, disease resistant rootstock. You have a super plant!

Completed melon graft; Merrick Farm, photo: Megan Poljacik

Completed melon graft; Merrick Farm, photo: Megan Poljacik

What about diseases like early blight and late blight that travel to the plants via wind and rain? Are grafted plants protected from these devastating diseases? Unfortunately, these diseases attack the above ground parts of the plants – the foliage, stems, and fruit and the rootstock of grafted plants cannot directly provide resistance to these foliar diseases. However, as I have said many times before, healthy, vigorous plants are much less susceptible to disease and pest pressure.

An heirloom tomato grafted on a superior rootstock will theoretically be more vigorous, healthy, and productive than if it were growing on its own roots. The root system of the “super rootstock” will be much more extensive, thus providing more surface area for absorption of water and nutrients. This should lead to a healthier plant. Many of the grafted tomatoes that you will find are heirloom varieties. These very tasty tomatoes can be more prone to disease problems than hybrid tomatoes so grafting may offer a healthier, more productive plant.

Conversely, if a blight resistant tomato such as Defiant is grafted onto a hearty, disease resistant rootstock, you could end up with a seriously disease resistant tomato! Actually, this is a popular grafted tomato that is available!

Tips for growing grafted tomatoes

Grafted tomato planted with the graft well above the soil line.

Grafted tomato planted with the graft well above the soil line.

Remember how you have always been told to plant your tomatoes as deeply as possible because they will develop roots all along the buried stem and you will end up with a more robust plant? Deep planting is a no-no for grafted plants. It is extremely important to keep the graft above the soil line when you plant. If the graft ends up below ground, roots will develop above the graft, which totally defeats the purpose of having a grafted plant! When the scion roots into the soil, the disease resistance of the rootstock is bypassed and the plant is no longer protected. Money wasted! This may be the reason why some people are not successful with grafted plants and feel that they are not worth the expense to purchase.

Keep the graft at least an inch above the soil when you plant.

As the plant grows, provide it with a good support system to keep it off the ground. Any stems or branches that touch the ground can take root – again, bypassing the disease resistance of the rootstock. We grow our tomatoes on a trellis and keep all the side shoots tied up as well as the main stem. You can also tie them to stakes or a fence or grow them in cages – anything that keeps the plant from sprawling on the ground where it can take root.

It is also important to remove any growth that develops below the graft.

Many different vegetables are being grafted these days.

Melons are commonly grafted to improve disease resistance and yield.

Melons are commonly grafted to improve disease resistance and yield.

Although tomatoes are the most common, you can also find (or create your own) grafted peppers, eggplants, cucumbers, squash, melons, and watermelons. Each of these is grafted onto vigorous rootstocks that are developed specifically for that particular vegetable type and the specific diseases that attack it.

Grafted vegetables not only have increased vigor and resistance to soil-borne diseases but, because of the superior root system that develops in these plants, they also show an increased tolerance to environmental stresses like drought, temperature extremes, and nutrient deficiencies. The extensive root system increases the area that the plant can exploit for the water and nutrients needed for growth. The result is a healthier plant that not only bears well, but potentially requires less fertilizer, is drought tolerant, and has a reduced need for pesticide applications.

This may be the year that we give grafted plants a try. We may try to pick up a tomato plant or two at a local garden center. It will be especially interesting if we can find a grafted version of one of the varieties that I plan to grow from seed. That would be a cool experiment! I will keep you posted!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Brrrrrr! It’s Cold!

A heavy snow shower blows into the valley on saturday creating near whiteout conditions. Photo taken by Melissa Jones.

A heavy snow squall with high winds blows into the valley on Saturday afternoon
briefly creating near whiteout conditions. Photo taken by Melissa Jones.

It’s very cold – for us, that is.

The high temperature for Fishersville, VA was only 11°F today. The low tonight is supposed to be four below with a wind chill of -8! Everyone in New England is probably laughing at me – considering this to be a heat wave compared to what they have been experiencing during this very cold winter.

Helleborus foetidus with its green bell-shaped flowers pokes up out of the snow.

Helleborus foetidus with its bright green
bell flowers pokes out of the snow.

Luckily, we have a bit of snow to insulate our plants during this frigid cold snap. It isn’t as much as we had hoped, but it will help. I know the vineyards in the area were hoping for at least a foot during this last storm. With the extreme cold that is now upon us, they were hoping to have a good snow cover to protect the grape vines. Unfortunately for them, the storm didn’t pan out as predicted. This was a light, fluffy snow that came down in fine, tiny flakes and accumulated very slowly. The totals in most places fell way below the 8″-12″ that was predicted. We only got 4.5″ at our house – but still, it was beautiful and it will provide some protection for the plants in our gardens.

Begonia grandis seed heads have already dropped their seed. Daffodil foliage pokes up in the background.

Begonia grandis seed heads. Daffodil
foliage pokes up in the background.

Snow has excellent insulating properties, especially when it is at least 10″ deep. The temperature under a deep snow pack is generally around 32 degrees even when the air temperature is below zero! I suppose this might be some consolation for those New Englanders who are buried under several feet of snow. They certainly have been hammered up there! Of course, with that much snow, many shrubs could be pretty flattened by the spring thaw! Here are some tips to help with that when the time comes.

Buddleia sprouts from roots.

This Buddleia died back completely
but came up from the roots.

Frigid temperatures without any snow cover can be very damaging to some of the trees and shrubs in the landscape. Those that are marginally hardy where you live are especially susceptible to winter damage and winter kill. I expect that there may be a lot of winter dieback on crape myrtles and butterfly bushes in our area after this winter. Get your pruning shears and pruning saw ready! Hopefully the roots will be protected underground. If the roots survive, new growth should pop up from below to form a new plant.

Luckily, the wind chill does NOT affect plants; only the actual air temperature. Wind chill only affects warm-blooded animals like us and our pets, farm animals, even the wild creatures like birds and mammals; critters that are trying to maintain a constant body temperature.

Winter burn on Nandina

Winter burn on this Nandina.

This is not to say that winter winds don’t affect our plants. What can harm the plants are the drying effects of the wind. The air in winter is very dry, as evidenced by our dry skin, chapped lips, and static electricity shocks! When the wind blows this cold, dry air over the plants, it carries precious moisture away from the surface of the plants. Evergreens, both broadleaf and needled, are especially affected because they continually lose water through their leaves during the winter; the wind accelerates moisture loss. When the soil is frozen or dry, it is hard for the plant to replace this water by uptake through the roots. This can result in winter damage and winter burn to leaves and even whole branches.

Rhododendron with tightly curled leaves. The flower bud is protected but heavy bud scales.

Rhododendron with tightly curled
leaves. The flower bud is protected by
heavy bud scales.

Rhododendron leaves droop down and curl up tight like little cigars when it is extremely cold. This is a reaction to the cold temperatures but there is still a debate as to why they curl. Read more about it – it’s pretty interesting!

One way to help protect your evergreens from wind burn and winter damage is to spray them with an anti-desiccant like Bonide Wilt Stop. Wilt Stop protects evergreens from winter injury by forming a soft, clear flexible film over the leaves. Wilt Stop also protects evergreens from salt damage which can occur when you have a hedge near a road where salt is spread during the winter. Apply according to the label directions.

Until next time – Happy Gardening and try to stay warm!

Boxwood bronzing in winter

Orange is an interesting color for a boxwood!

Orange or bronze colored boxwood are common in winter but if you aren’t prepared for this color transition, it can be quite alarming to suddenly notice that your boxwood aren’t green any longer!

Several years ago, I wrote a post about this seasonal color change and it always receives a lot of views at this time of the year. The boxwood hedge at the nursery entrance is again sporting its orange and green winter coat. It is so interesting how the Korean boxwood turns orange but the other species of boxwood right beside it remains green throughout the winter.

Here’s the post from February 2012 …

We recently received an interesting question on our discussion board:

I’m curious to know what has caused the leaves on some of my boxwoods to turn orange during the past two months.

Here’s a snippet of the answer I wrote out to him:

“If exposed to full sun and frequent frost and wind, the foliage of some boxwood may become orange or bronze in the winter …”

Such a contrast between boxwood species

Such a dramatic contrast between
two different boxwood species.

This is really quite common especially in certain boxwood varieties such as the small-leaved Korean Boxwood (Buxus microphylla var. koreana).

In fact, the other morning when I was taking pictures in the Viette gardens, I noticed that the Korean boxwood in front of an outbuilding had a very definite orange/bronze tint while the boxwood right beside it, a different species but growing under the same conditions, was still a nice healthy green color. The contrast was striking and a neat display of the seasonal variation that can exist between two different species.

On the protected leeward side, the foliage remains green except towards the top where it is more exposed.

On the protected side, the foliage
remains green except towards the top
where it is more exposed.

Even more interesting is the fact that only one side of the Korean boxwood is showing the bronzing of the leaves; namely the side that faces west and is exposed to the prevailing winds and the sun. The side that faces the building (which is about 8 feet from the hedge) is still green except for some bronzing near the top where branch tips are more exposed. This provides pretty good evidence that the bronzing occurring here on this particular variety is due to the environmental effects of sun and wind. The building is definitely providing the boxwood with protection from the elements.

There are certain things you can do to help protect boxwood and other evergreens from sunburn and winter winds that might cause discoloration of the foliage.

The windward side has become bronzed from wind and sun exposure.

The windward side has become bronzed
from wind and sun exposure.

Most important is to keep them watered during the winter especially when the ground is not frozen. Gardeners often forget that evergreens continue to function physiologically (albeit at a reduced rate) throughout the winter. Cold winter winds can suck moisture from the leaves and if this water is not replaced through uptake by the roots, winter injury can occur. This is why it is important to water your evergreens deeply in the late fall before the ground freezes. During dry winter weather when the ground is not frozen, be sure to check your evergreen trees and shrubs and water deeply if necessary. This is especially important during a mild winter like we’ve been experiencing so far this year. The addition of a layer of mulch will help retain the soil moisture.

Boxwood bronzing

The small-leaved Korean boxwood
typically turns bronze in winter.

Feed your boxwood in the spring and again in the fall with a slow release organic fertilizer like Espoma Holly-tone or Plant-tone to keep them healthy and vigorous.

Spraying evergreens with an anti-desiccant like Bonide Wilt Stop will also help to protect them from winter injury by forming a soft, clear flexible film over the leaves. In colder areas, the more tender broadleaf evergreens like Camellias and some varieties of boxwood and hollies should be sprayed with Wilt Stop and then carefully wrapped in burlap for additional protection from sun and wind.

.

The answer, continued:

“The good news is, though many consider it unattractive, this bronzing will not kill the boxwood and they should green up again once temperatures warm up in the spring.”

Certain branches became more orange

A few branches became a brighter 
orange with no green remaining.

Personally, I think this winter “off-color” adds some interest to the boxwood – sort of like “fall color” in the winter! And keep in mind that for some boxwood like the Korean boxwood, this color change is normal during the winter months.

It is important to note that the overall bronzing of the foliage that I am talking about here is a seasonal discoloration, not winter kill. Winter kill is permanent and must be pruned out in the spring – but that’s another story …

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Oh and Happy Groundhog Day!

 

Korean boxwood in early April has lost most of the bronze coloration

By early April the Korean boxwood had
lost most of the bronze coloration

A postscript to this post -

That same year (2012) on April 2nd, I took another photo of the same Korean boxwood. The foliage had almost completely transitioned back to its rich green color.

An amazing transformation!

Until next time -

      Happy Gardening!

Apples in September

Mature apple tree in full bloom.

Mature apple tree in full bloom.

After working hard to plant and nurture your fruit trees, it can be very discouraging if you are not soon rewarded with a bountiful crop of delicious fruit.

Since many fruit trees can take up to 5-6 years (or more) before they are old enough to bear, problems with fruiting may not become evident right away – which is even more frustrating.

There are several reasons why fruit trees fail to bear; but one of the most common is lack of pollination. If the flowers are not pollinated, fruit cannot develop (in most cases).

What leads to pollination problems?

Japanese plum blooms in spring.

Japanese plum blooms in spring.

Many fruit trees, for example apples, pears, sweet cherries, and many plums, require cross-pollination in order to set fruit.

If you are growing these types of fruit trees, you must have at least two compatible varieties planted within 50 feet of each other in order to ensure successful pollination. Compatible varieties are those that are in bloom at the same time and have compatible pollen.

For instance if you want to grow Gala apples, you will need to plant at least one other variety, such as Braeburn, Fuji, or Granny Smith, as a pollenizer. These are just a few of the many apple varieties that would successfully cross-pollinate Gala.

Crabapples produce pollen that is compatible with many apple tree varieties.

Crabapple pollen is compatible with
many apple tree varieties.

In fact, most apple varieties have quite a number of different trees that can act as a “pollination partner” – you just need to do a bit of research. Even crabapples will meet the pollination requirements of many apple trees.

Almost all varieties of pears require cross-pollination. Even more specifically, Asian pears require another compatible Asian pear for pollination and European pears require another European pear as a pollination partner. These two pear types cannot cross-pollinate each other.

This is also true of Japanese and European plums.

How do you find a compatible variety? Sometimes the pot tag will recommend a pollenizer or the nursery staff where you purchase the tree can suggest compatible trees. If you purchase from a mail order company, their catalog or website will suggest the best pollination partners for a particular variety. This holds true for all fruit trees that require cross-pollination.

Most peach trees are self-pollinating.

Most peach varieties are
self-pollinating.

Some fruit trees are self-pollinating or self-fruitful, meaning they can set fruit without cross-pollination with another variety. These include most varieties of peaches, apricots, nectarines, and sour cherries. In the case of self-pollinating fruit trees, only one tree has to be planted in order to get fruit.

However, most of these trees will bear more reliably or produce heavier crops if more than one variety is planted. Cross pollination will usually improve fruit set.

This may explain why we have never gotten apricots on our solitary apricot tree even though it is hardy in our area and is supposed to be self-pollinating. It blooms beautifully but only a few fruits form and these always drop off when they are quite small – sounds like a pollination issue to me.

Of course there are other reasons why fruit trees may fail to produce fruit.

Environmental conditions can affect fruit set in some years.

  • A honey bee visits a crabapple flower

    A honey bee visits a
    crabapple flower

    A very cold winter can damage or kill the dormant flower buds. This is especially common when fruit trees are planted on the fringe of their hardiness range. Obviously, this will result in few or no flowers the following spring.

  • Late spring freezes or frosts just before or during the bloom period can damage or kill the flowers before pollination occurs.
  • Misty, rainy, or cold weather at the time of flowering can inhibit or limit pollination because bees are not as active in these conditions. If weather like this persists, it can affect pollination and result in a reduced fruit crop.

Poor pruning practices; avoid over-pruning or pruning at the wrong time

Poor nutrition due to lack of fertilizing. Espoma Tree-tone is a good organic fertilizer for all fruit trees. Apply in the early spring before growth begins and in the fall after the leaves drop but before the ground freezes.

In severe cases, cedar-apple rust can weaken and eventually kill apple trees.

In severe cases, cedar-apple rust can
weaken and eventually kill apple trees.

Disease or insect damage to flowers or flower parts can prevent successful pollination. Spray in late winter with a horticultural oil such as Bonide All Seasons Oil and follow a recommended spray schedule through the growing season.

Trees are weak due to repeated disease problems, insect infestations, or poor care.

The bottom line

Before you purchase your fruit trees, be sure to do your research!

  • Choose varieties that are hardy in your area.
  • If cross-pollination is required, choose two or three varieties that are compatible and will successfully cross pollinate each other.
  • Remember that even self-pollinating varieties will benefit from cross-pollination.
  • Keep your trees properly fertilized and watered.
  • Prune your trees according to the training system recommended for each particular fruit type.

Let’s grow some fruit!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Freezing Fog?

Rime ice settled on winterberry fruit

Freezing fog was lifting

The fog was lifting by 9:00am

It was beautiful yesterday morning. The sun was beginning to come up through a hazy fog as I looked out of the window. I could just see a hint of orange glow through the trees. It was 21°F and there was still a dusting of snow on the ground from our little snow squall the day before.

Looking off to the west, the fog seemed a bit denser and the trees looked ghostly white in the distance.

The fog was lifting by the time I was driving to work but the crystalline world that it left behind was breathtaking. The trees, shrubs, fences, and almost any solid surface were covered with white ice crystals.

Rime ice covers the tree branches

Rime ice covers the tree branches

My first thought was that this was hoar frost but hoar frost develops on cold, clear nights. Wednesday night had been cold but overcast. As dawn approached, the humidity rose above 90% and the dew point dropped to within 2 degrees of the air temperature (data from Weather Underground). The combination of these two things led to the formation of a light fog.

Because the temperature was so cold, the tiny droplets of water that made up the fog became “supercooled” but remained liquid – until they came in contact with a solid surface at which point they froze almost immediately, forming beautiful ice crystals on whatever they touched.

Rime ice covers dogwood branches

Rime ice covers branches of a dogwood

This phenomenon is called freezing fog and the ice crystals that it forms are called rime ice. Hoar frost can look very similar to rime ice but hoar frost forms when the water vapor in the air turns directly to ice crystals without first condensing into water droplets. This can occur on cold, clear nights. Rime ice forms from fog (freezing fog).

The tops of mountains are often covered with rime in the winter. I often see it in Vermont when low clouds envelop the mountains (fog is just a type of low-lying cloud). When the clouds lift, the trees on the mountain tops are cloaked in brilliant white ice crystals. It is beautiful!

Rime ice covers trees on top of Bromley Mountain in Vermont

A heavy coating of rime ice covers trees on Bromley Mountain in Vermont

I wandered around the nursery gardens for a while armed with just my iPhone for a camera. When I left the house, I didn’t expect to find myself in the midst of a spectacular winter wonderland! Oh well, I still managed to capture some of the beautiful ice formations before the sun managed to destroy them.

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Rime ice covers pine needles

Beautiful mahonia foliage is outlined by crystals of rime ice.

Beautiful mahonia foliage is outlined by crystals of rime ice.

Flower buds of Mahonia are covered with ice crystals

Flower buds of Mahonia are covered with ice crystals

sapsucker damage to white birch

Woodpeckers are a common sight around our house. We often hear their cackling calls as they fly through the woods or the drumming of their beaks on dead trees as they search for insects.

A male downy woodpecker

A male downy woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpeckers are frequent visitors to our suet feeders as are the little downy woodpeckers. Less common at the feeders are hairy woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers, flickers, and yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The flickers and sapsuckers normally just come for the water we always provide on our deck.

Pileated woodpeckers are really awesome birds. They are the largest woodpeckers in the U.S. (assuming the larger ivory-billed woodpecker is truly extinct). Once in a while, one will fly in to the suet feeder but we normally just see them flying through the woods. These large woodpeckers have a crazy, undulating flight pattern which catches your eye if you happen to be looking in their direction.

Pileated woodpeckers are striking birds

Pileated woodpeckers are striking birds

We usually hear them more often than see them, though. They have a very loud and distinctive “wuk, wuk, wuk” call as they fly through the woods. Almost like something you’d hear in a tropical jungle. Very cool to hear!

Pileated woodpeckers also make their presence known by the loud hammering sound they make as they drill powerfully into dead trees in search of their favorite food, carpenter ants. I’m happy for them to eat all the carpenter ants they can find!

They create a very characteristic rectangular hole as they peck, shred, and tear away at the rotten wood, usually leaving a pile of wood chips at the base of the tree. Most other woodpecker species excavate holes that are round rather than oblong.

Rectangular holes drilled in a dead tree by a pileated woodpecker

Rectangular holes drilled in a dead
tree by a pileated woodpecker

Wood chips pile up at the base of the tree

Wood chips pile up under the tree

Last fall, we watched a male pileated woodpecker chip away at the base of a large dead pine in our yard. We had had the tree cut down years ago but asked the tree company to leave about a 20-foot stump – just for the woodpeckers. I guess the woodpeckers, insects, and the weather finally took a toll on the stump because a few weeks ago, it just fell over and rolled down the hill!

Most woodpeckers do not damage live trees. They normally feed on trees that are already dead or those that are so heavily infested with insects that they soon will be. Like the nuthatches and brown creepers, they sometimes feed on insects living in the bark crevices of live trees but this usually doesn’t harm the tree. Nest cavities are generally excavated in dead trees. If you want to encourage woodpeckers, leave some dead trees standing in your woods – as long as they are not a threat to anything or anyone when they eventually fall.

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker

Male yellow-bellied sapsucker

One group of woodpeckers, the sapsuckers, is an exception. These destructive woodpeckers drill a series of small holes in the bark of live trees and feed on the sap that pools and flows from the holes. They have a specialized tongue for lapping up the sap. Sapsuckers also feed on small insects that are attracted to the sweet sap but unlike most other woodpeckers, their main food source is tree sap.

The yellow-bellied sapsucker is common in our area. It is similar in coloration to the downy and hairy woodpeckers but is between these two in size. Both the male and female have a bright red crown on top of their head which distinguishes them from these other two species.

Male hairy woodpecker - black crown, white breast

Male hairy woodpecker –
black crown, white breast

Male downy and hairy woodpeckers have a black crown and a red patch on the back of their head not on the top and the females have no red markings at all. Male yellow-bellied sapsuckers also have a bright red throat. I’m just telling you this so you won’t blame these other woodpeckers for the destruction caused by sapsuckers!

Sapsucker holes are drilled very close together in horizontal or vertical rows. The pattern is very distinctive. They can kill a tree outright if they drill enough holes to girdle it. At the very least the holes are unsightly and can also provide a pathway for disease and insects to enter the tree.

Though yellow-bellied sapsuckers feed on many different tree species, they are partial to birch and maple trees because of the high sugar content of their sap. There are quite a few white birch trees on my mom’s property in Vermont that have sapsucker damage and my sister has problems with them damaging the birch trees she has planted in her landscape.

Sapsucker holes in this white birch probably led to its death.

Sapsucker holes in this white
birch probably led to its death.

Sapsucker damage; viburnum

Sapsucker damage; viburnum

There are a few things you can do to try and stop sapsuckers from drilling into your trees. One method is to wrap burlap around the trunks where they are actively drilling holes. My sister has done this and it has helped to some extent. Hanging visual repellents like flashy CD’s, pie tins, or hawk silhouettes from branches of the tree being damaged has also been known to work.

These birds are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act so lethal control methods are not an option.

All-in-all, woodpeckers (except the sapsuckers!) are pretty nice to have around because they eat many of the insects that are destructive to our trees. They dig out borers, beetle larvae, carpenter ants, and feast on many of the foliage eating caterpillars. I would say they are “friends”!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

Extensive sapsucker drilling has girdled and killed this pecan tree. Photo sent by Shelby. See comments below ...

Extensive sapsucker drilling has girdled and killed this pecan tree. Photo sent by Shelby. See comments below …

A female yellow bellied sapsucker is caught in the act on Shelby's pecan tree.

A female yellow bellied sapsucker is caught in the act
on Shelby’s pecan tree.

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