Everyday Gardener: Missing butterflies, fruitless zucchini and other gardening mysteries

Well, the basil is slumped out back in its pot like a skinny, black ghost of its former self, so I guess it’s time to wrap up the season and start cutting things down and bagging up leaves. If any of you everyday gardeners have questions about fall cleanup chores, go ahead and e-mail me what’s on your mind. I’ll get right back to you. In this column, I’m going to answer some of the questions that have come in from folks over the past couple of months that seem, to me, like stuff a lot of people might want to know about. (Do know, however, that I have already answered the gardeners who sent these in, so it isn’t like your questions will go to the dark recesses of my inbox if you ask me something.) Here we go.

Q: Was it my imagination, or were there a lot less butterflies than usual this year?

A: It was not your imagination. All over the country, people have noticed declining butterfly populations. In fact, a recent survey by the North American Butterfly Association showed that populations in many states are about half of what they were in 2008. This is particularly true in the northeastern part of the country where some surmise that cool spring temps and cloudy skies may have deprived butterflies of the warmth and sun they needed to complete their life cycles. Right now, it seems, people are hoping this is an anomaly rather than a trend.

Q: I have several zucchini plants, but they’re not producing fruit and the flowers are just falling off. Why is this happening?

A: I get this question a lot. It sounds like you’re suffering from a lack of pollinators. Zucchini plants have both male and female flowers and only the female flowers produce fruit. (Female flowers are attached directly to the main vine rather than by a stem.) While it is not uncommon for some of the male flowers to bloom first and fall off before female blossoms have started to open, if a lot of blooms are falling off without fruiting it’s probably because they aren’t being visited by pollinators. In order to flower, pollen needs to be transferred between male and female flowers by insects. Perhaps cool, wet or windy weather has kept pollinators away this year. If you spray to control insects or plant problems, be aware that herbicides and pesticides can also harm beneficial insects like bees.

Whatever the reason, if you lack pollinators, you can hand pollinate plants yourself by using a Q-tip or small paintbrush and swirling it inside a flower and then moving from flower to flower as a bee would, swirling the Q-tip or brush gently each time.

Q: Why are there so many mushrooms in my lawn this year and how do I get rid of them?

A: Mushrooms naturally pop up in lawns when we get a lot of rain, as we have at various times this summer. Most mushrooms will do no actual damage and are not associated with any lawn disease. To get rid of mushrooms, just rake them up and bag them up with other garden debris or add them to your compost.

Q: My trees are being attacked by woodpeckers. What can I do and why are they suddenly doing this?

A: Sometimes, woodpeckers start drilling into trees for no discernable reason. Usually, though, they’re after insects they’ve detected within. So what you want to do now is try to figure out what type of insect has invaded your tree and treat the problem as quickly as possible. I would recommend contacting a tree service for this and, if you do this, be sure to hire a company that uses certified arborists. Trees add a lot of value and beauty to a home and someone who isn’t qualified to care for them may wind up doing more damage than good in the long run. If bugs aren’t the problem, try hanging pie tins, CDs or other shiny objects from the tree the woodpeckers after and they’ll probably move on.

Q: When should I remove the stakes from newly planted trees?

A: This question comes up a lot and, no wonder. There is a lot of debate on this subject. Some experts say young trees should be staked for their first year. Others say no, arguing that staking keeps trees from developing the strong root system they need by not allowing them to move freely in the wind. I come down somewhere in the middle of this debate. If a young tree seems fine without staked, don’t use them. But if you buy a tree that’s really tall for its root ball (as I did this spring, a bare root nannyberry), I would use stakes to support it until you feel it can stand alone safely — no more than one year. I would also recommend staking if you’re planting in a sandy area.

The last thing I want to mention is Japanese beetles. Sadly, I got a lot of questions about these from gardeners in our area. I found a couple of the metallic-looking creatures in my garden this year, too. Though they’re kind of cool looking, these beetles are extremely harmful to a wide array of landscape plants, including trees. Thankfully, the damage often looks much worse than it is and plants will recover unless they are already stressed, as many of our plants are from long-term drought.

There are several methods available for controlling heavy infestations of Japanese beetles, including insecticides, hanging traps and more eco-friendly strategies such as nematodes and parasites. (As always, I’d hesitate to use chemicals unless the problem gets really bad because of the risks to humans, pets, wildlife, beneficial insects like bees and the environment.) Keep those gardening questions coming!

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can email it to meleah@everydaygardener.com.