Question and Answer
Q. I live in the country and have a gopher problem. They are digging holes around the bird feeders. I have even seen them in the bird feeders. They are digging so much that the pipes the bird feeders are on are about ready to fall down. -- Barbara La Cross, LaOtto , Ind.
A. Begin by going to Purdue Animal Damage Control Web site at http://www.entm.purdue.edu/wildlife/wild.htm to make sure you've identified the culprit properly. There are several animals that are known for their burrows.
The plains pocket gopher is a small, solitary rodent. It is 5 1/2 to 9 inches long. It has large forefeet with strong claws and toes with bristles for digging. It uses its front teeth to dig and to gnaw roots and tubers. The pocket gopher is an Indiana species of special concern, defined as any animal species about which some problems of limited abundance or distribution in Indiana are known or suspected and should be closely monitored. If you have pocket gophers, call the Department of Natural Resources hotline at 1-800-893-4116 (within the state of Indiana ). Pocket gophers leave soil mounds on the surface of the ground. The mounds are usually fan-shaped and tunnel entrances are plugged, keeping various intruders out of burrows.
The woodchuck is a stocky animal weighing between 4 and 14 pounds and having short, powerful legs, small ears and a short, bushy tail. The body fur is long, coarse and grizzled grayish-brown in color. There are four clawed toes on each front foot and five toes on the hind feet. The woodchuck's short, stocky appearance gives the impression that it crouches close to the ground as it moves about. Thus, the animal is often referred to as a "groundhog." Around private homes, one or two woodchucks are capable of ruining a small garden almost overnight.
Thirteen-lined ground squirrels have many common names, such as "thirteen-liner" or "striped gopher." "Gopher" is a misnomer because true (pocket) gophers belong to another family of rodents. True to its name, the thirteen-lined ground squirrel has 13 light stripes with rows of light spots that run the length of its back. The background color is tan or brown, and the belly is white. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels are usually about 11 inches long, including a 5- to 6-inch tail. Adults weigh 4 to 5 ounces in the spring but gain considerable weight in the fall as they prepare for winter hibernation. Their call, a high-pitched trill, sounds like a birdcall but is unmistakable to the trained ear. Thirteen-lined ground squirrels can cause problems when they create burrows in lawns, golf courses, cemeteries, parks and earthen dikes. They also dig up newly planted seeds, consume sprouting seeds and damage garden vegetables.
These rodents should not be viewed only as pests. Their burrows often provide refuge for other wildlife. They also contribute to the aeration and mixing of the soil through their burrowing activities. Moreover, many people derive enjoyment from watching these rodents, and they should be controlled only when they are causing damage.
Control measures, including exclusion and "dig-barriers," for these animals and many others can also be found on the Web site previously mentioned. If you do not have Web access, call the DNR hotline and request information.
(View images of pocket gophers, woodchucks and thirteen-lined ground squirrels at http://www.entm.purdue.edu/wildlife/Wildlife%20Information.htm#Mammals.)
Q. My friend gave me a peony. It bloomed for her, but it hasn't ever bloomed for me. Can you tell me what might be wrong? -- Thelma Waddle, Birdseye , Ind.
A. Usually peonies do not bloom because they are planted too deeply. Cover the uppermost buds (eyes) with only 1-2 inches of soil. If yours are too deep, lift the plants in the fall or spring and reset them at the proper depth. They may not bloom the year after resetting but should bloom in following years.
Other possibilities include excess nitrogen fertilizer, which encourages foliage growth at the expense of flower production, or insufficient sunlight. Peonies require at least a half day of full sun.
Q. How come you never tell the people to use newspapers in the garden to keep the weeds down? I never use plastic. I just save my newspaper, and, when I plant my garden, I put the paper close to each plant and I have no weeds. Over a year, the newspaper goes into the soil and makes the soil loose. Also, it helps to retain the water so the soil doesn't dry out so fast. I always have a nice garden, and I use what is at hand instead of buying it at a store. -- Sylvia Jones, Shoals, Ind.
A. Mulches, including newspaper, have been suggested in this column before. In extremely dry conditions, mulching can make the difference between life and death for some plants. Mulching dramatically conserves water that is otherwise lost through evaporation from the soil surface. Sites that are exposed to heat, sun and wind dry rapidly, but even shady areas benefit from mulch. Because the mulch prevents light from reaching the soil surface, the ground stays cooler and most weed seeds will not be able to germinate. A 2-4 inch layer of mulch should be sufficient to conserve moisture and keep weeds controlled.
Many materials can serve as garden mulch, the most common being hardwood bark, straw and rocks, but many other materials work just as well. A good mulch is one that is clean of weed seeds, insects and other pests, easily applied and economical.
Unwatered lawns don't generate many clippings in summer, but if you have been watering, you could bag the clippings as you mow and spread them in your garden. As long as the grass has not been treated with weed killers, the clippings can make an excellent short-term mulch.
Other common materials that can be used include pine needles, sawdust and newspaper. Sawdust, as well as some other organic mulches, may cause a nitrogen deficiency in the soil. You may need to add a little extra nitrogen fertilizer to the garden to offset nitrogen that is used by the microorganisms in the soil as they break down the materials. Newspaper can be used either shredded or in sheets, but be sure to weigh down the paper if sheets are used.
Black plastic mulches also work well in combating weeds and conserving soil moisture, but they cause the soil to heat up rather than cool. This warming effect is a great advantage in spring to get a head start on the season but is less desirable in hot, sunny weather. Most spring plantings should have sufficient foliage cover to shade the plastic, but, if not, a shallow layer of other mulch might be helpful in cooling the soil.