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In Good Thyme

"A fellow Master Gardener, Carol Anderson, recently pointed out that one of our most commonly reported problems is sick and dying spruce trees. This is particularly prevalent following a mild winter like last year's. Most affected are landscape trees such as Colorado blue, Sitka, Alberta and Norway spruce. Starting in late spring and continuing through the summer months, gardeners report cascades of falling needles and defoliated branches. The tree looks bare and dead and will not produce new growth except for the tip ends, which are tufted with new green needles. By the time it reaches this stage, the damage has been done. And as Carol points out, there's not a darn thing you can do about it in spring and summer. The culprit is a tiny green insect, Elatobium abietinum, the spruce aphid. This creature, introduced from Europe, does its damage in the winter, sucking the life out of the needles. Then it goes on summer vacation, off the tree and out of reach of the frustrated gardener. The time to catch the aphid in the act and destroy it is during January and February. First, check to see if the tree has an infestation. Every two weeks during the winter, place some light-colored cardboard or heavy paper beneath the lower, inner branches where these bugs like to work and, with gloved hands, give them a good shake. The tiny green specks on the white surface are spruce aphids. You may need a magnifying glass to see them. If you spot little alligator-like insects on the paper, they're most likely the larvae of ladybugs and lacewings. Leave them be! They're the good guys; they're protecting your tree by eating the offending aphids.If there are only two or three aphids, you can dispatch them with a sharp blast of water from the garden hose. If they're numerous, you'll have to resort to the heavy artillery. Washington State University recommends spraying the tree thoroughly with a solution of horticultural oil or insecticidal soap, used according to package directions for conifers. It's the least toxic effective stuff you can use. However, if you choose horticultural oil, you'll notice that it will turn blue spruce needles green. Of course, you'll have to pick a dry day to do your spraying, which may be a challenge around here. If your spruce is two stories tall, spraying is difficult unless you hire a tree specialist. If you go this route, try to find an environmentally aware business that will not use insecticides such as Diazinon. It's harmful to birds and the environment in general, and is scheduled to be taken off the market.You can avoid the spruce aphid problem altogether by avoiding spruces; they prefer to live in a colder climate, anyway. Consider replacing them with other, less troublesome conifers such as pine, hemlock, fir or cedar. There are also a few aphid-resistant spruces on the market. Your local nursery can suggest several attractive, pest- resistant evergreens that do well in Western Washington.HUMMINGBIRDS IN JANUARY? Yes! Anna's hummingbirds have been spotted on the Island, and it's far too soon for these tiny creatures to find a decent meal of flower nectar or small, flying insects. If you spot these way-too-early birds, please, put your hummingbird feeder out, filled with sugar water (no red dye, please) at a ratio of one cup granulated sugar to four cups water. On very cold nights, you may have to take the feeder in to prevent it from freezing.Other wild birds will also appreciate your help in getting through the winter. Black oil sunflower seeds are a good all-around food for a variety of birds. Suet cakes will help keep the birdies' energy up. Most important, however, is a reliable source of clean water, especially during freezing temperatures. If you have a birdbath, keep it clean, filled and thawed. We've been using a low-voltage birdbath heater in our garden for about a decade. It doesn't heat the water, just keeps it from freezing over. We only plug it in when the temperature plummets. Believe me, the chickadees, juncos, towhees, sparrows, finches, robins, nuthatches, jays and woodpeckers like it. Taking care of these little creatures helps them immensely and makes the wintry view from your windows much more colorful and lively! "

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