Q: There are hundreds of maple seedlings on my lawn this summer. Usually there are a few, but I have never seen anything like this year's numbers. Did I do anything that caused this to happen? I mow them with the grass. Should I do anything else to get rid of them?
A: Mowing the seedlings regularly should prevent the lawn from turning into a maple grove. The sprouted seeds cannot grow unless they have leaves to make food; the seedlings will simply die before they get well started.
No one is sure why, but many common trees make a bumper crop of seeds periodically. The current idea is that the trees are trying to guarantee their next generation. Since their seeds are a favorite winter food for birds and small mammals, virtually all the seeds are eaten before spring. If every half dozen years a tree floods the surrounding area with seeds, the seed eaters cannot dispose of the whole supply. Some seeds will live to sprout, and an occasional one will grow into a tree. Because making seeds takes so much energy, trees cannot afford to create huge numbers every year. They can splurge on seed making one year and then use the next several years to recuperate before trying again.
Q: My peonies had hardly any flowers this year. What is wrong?
A: There are four possibilities to check on: Peonies bloom less in shade. Do nearby bushes or trees need pruning to give the peonies access to sunlight?
Peonies do not compete with other plants. Is grass or any other flower impinging on their root space?
Peonies have very long lives but stay healthy only in good soil. Are they getting some kind of fertilizer every year?
Most likely of all is that particles of dust and dirt have accumulated around the base of the peonies. Peonies cannot bloom if their buds are more than two inches below the surface. Probe around the stems with a finger or a trowel. Find the crown and the fat pink buds which will be next year's flowers. If they are covered by more than two inches of dirt, scrape away the excess. As if by magic, the peonies will bloom next summer.
Q: Our Virginia creeper leaves have some dead brown spots. The vines are full of some kind of tiny flying insects. Are the bugs the problem?
A: They are. The bugs are leafhoppers, now grown to be flying adults. When they were young, they could only hop. They were about an eighth of an inch long, and light green. They lived by sucking plant juices, and you are seeing the results of that now. There seem to be a veritable plague of leafhoppers this year, and I don't know why. They are in my Virginia creeper, as well as hop vines, raspberries and bell peppers.
Leafhoppers can be killed with the organic insecticidal spray called neem, but not now. To be killed, they must be sprayed early next summer, before they can fly. Make a mental note to look for spring-loaded bugs the size of aphids. When they appear, spray the host plants weekly with neem. Keep on until a weekly check disturbs no more leafhoppers.
Probably this year is the height of a leafhopper population cycle, but you will not want your Virginia creeper to be the breeding ground for a perennial population.
NATURAL PEST CONTROL
A gardener asked me to report on the success of natural controls and the patience required to let them operate. She discovered an artichoke plant whose base was covered by a mass of aphids. There seemed to be no ladybugs in the garden, but a neighbor's daughter brought four ladybugs found on their plants. They released the four on the artichoke and waited to see what would happen.
A day later two ladybugs had disappeared, but two were still on the artichoke. In two more days the mass of aphids seemed to be shrinking. Two weeks later, one ladybug was seen elsewhere in the garden, and the artichoke was healthy and aphid-free.
Master gardener Molly Hackett, whose motto is “Never trust a gardener with clean fingernails,” welcomes your questions. Send them to 1384 Meridian Road, Victor, MT 59875; call 961-4614; or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include a garden-related subject line in emails. Hackett writes a twice-monthly Dirty Fingernails opinion piece for the Missoulian.