Gardening Tips: August 20, 2014

Q and A
I must begin this week’s column by thanking everyone who pointed out last week that I neglected to mention that there are also timber rattlesnakes in our region. They are not as common as copperheads but they may occasionally be encountered in remote rocky areas in both the “Gunks” and the Catskills. Unlike copperheads, which have no rattles, Timber rattlesnakes vibrate their tails quite nosily when threatened. Most people should notice this warning, but I have to admit that my only close encounter with a rattlesnake was near Lake Champlain and I was so interested in a patch of ginseng plants that I failed to hear a rather large rattlesnake less than six feet away. Fortunately, my hiking companion did hear the snake and yelled for me to “freeze” before I almost stepped on it! I will not go back to that spot anytime soon (ever).

I also mentioned that copperheads are often confused with harmless milk snakes because they have similar, hourglass like blotches on their bodies, (as do some water-snakes) but all poisonous snakes have very broad heads, much wider than their necks, whereas non-poisonous snakes do not share this characteristic. This may be observed at a safe distance. Another distinguishing feature is that poisonous snakes have vertical pupils in their eyes, like a cat does, while non-poisonous snakes have round pupils. Poisonous snakes also have a pit or sunken area between the nose and eye. I am not getting close enough to check out any of those details myself. Even non-poisonous snakes may bite you however, but I don’t consider them much of a risk.

It is illegal to kill any snake in NY State, even if it is living in your house. They are all protected by the DEC. It is also illegal to capture and relocate any other critter that may be harassing you. This includes woodchucks, skunks, raccoons, possums, squirrels and even chipmunks! The proper procedure is to call a licensed wildlife removal agent to get rid of the offending animal. Your local cooperative extension office can usually provide the names of these people. There is a fee for this removal, of course. Certain animals considered as nuisance wildlife may be trapped and killed however. Check out DEC’s website for more details.

Another reader noticed large numbers of half-sized acorns falling from oak trees weeks before this should be occurring and wondered why. Most likely this is because the flowers were not properly pollinated in the spring. Oaks are wind pollinated but they do not self-pollinate since the female flowers are not ripe when the pollen is produced on the same tree. They need pollen from a different oak tree to allow for the seed to develop. Late frosts or even just cold temperatures can often kill flowers of one sex or the other before they are mature.

Lots of folks have been wondering why there are so many flowers on their squash, pumpkins and cucumbers but so few fruit. Unless you have only one or two plants in the garden, the lack of fruit is likely due to lack of bee activity. Wild honeybee populations are much lower than they have been in recent years. I am still awaiting my first ripe, full size, tomatoes of the season. I have a few Sun Gold cherry tomatoes ripening but a catbird has also been munching on them. Soon there will be more than he or she can eat, so I will just have to be patient. Tomatoes do self-pollinate with just some wind induce vibration, so we cannot blame that on the lack of honeybees.

When pollen is transported by wind, this is called anemophily. Many of the world’s most important crop plants are wind-pollinated. These include wheat, rice, corn, rye, barley, and oats. Many economically important trees are also wind-pollinated. These include pines, spruces, firs and many hardwood trees, including several species cultivated for nut production.

Wind-pollinated plants do not invest in resources that attract pollinating organisms, such as showy flowers, nectar, and scent. Instead, they produce larger quantities of light, dry pollen from small, plain flowers that can be carried on the wind. Female structures on wind-pollinated plants are adapted to capture the passing pollen from the air, but the majority of the pollen goes to waste. We would not starve without honeybees but our diets would be seriously compromised!