Originally Published: March 11, 2006 4 a.m.
I love gardening and my other passion is fishing. So when I mentioned to the Frontier Rotary group last week that I was heading down to Mexico to do a little fishing, the first response from the crowd was to ask what photo would be with my column the next week. Here you go! My buddy Pete and I are holding a 40-pound yellow fin that measured from 36 to 40 inches in length and took about 20 minutes to land in the boat. We didn't land many, but the ones we caught were huge.
I come back this week and spring is here. The apricot in my front yard is in full bloom, daffodils are open and leaf buds have emerged on the willows, all sure signs that spring is here. A couple of springtime problems I have noticed already in all parts of the tri-cities are aphids and scale. Based on the number of customers coming into the nursery reporting definable symptoms, these invaders have reached epidemic proportions. It's time to check the health of your yard.
First let's look at the easier problem to correct. Aphids are very small and attack a plant by the thousands. Because they take on the color of the plant they're sucking the juices out of, they can be difficult to spot. The honeydew residue is the obvious giveaway that there is a problem. The excrement of this bug drops a covering over the entire plant. Sometimes it's a beautiful glistening residue that looks as though the plant has just been rained on ... not good.
The insect itself will range in colors of green and orange to black and can be as small as the head of a pin. It pierces the skin of the plant and sucks the sugars from its sap. You may also notice smaller white scaly insect-like bits around this bug. These are the exoskeletons left behind from larger aphids and means they have been on the plant for awhile. You need to spray and kill these bugs, or at least thin the numbers.
Aphids are easy to kill. The key is quantity, not quality of the insect spray. Because they come in such numbers, you may need to spray a couple of times to get them under control. The most environmentally-friendly spray I recommend is dormant oil. The oil strips the bug's outer layer so the insect literally dies from dehydration. A good thing about dormant oils is that they don't have the nasty smell of so many other insecticides. While you have the sprayer out, go ahead and hit all your fruiting plants and flowering shrubs. This will clean up any insect eggs and bugs that have wintered over.
Now let's talk about the more difficult scourge to battle, scale. Scale is the greatest culprit of piñon deaths in the region. The bark beetle is credited with most of these deaths, but in truth piñon scale is the one that weakens this pine so the bark beetle is able to finish off the execution.
Signs of scale on a pine tree will be small black dots showing on the needles. It looks like someone took a Sharpie pen and placed several dots on each needle. Other signs may be a white cotton mass collecting at the base of the tree or in major crevices and branches at the trunk. This is an egg mass for this year's scale. Collect as much of this white cotton substance as possible and throw it out with the next trash pick-up. You want these eggs off your property!
Also, you may notice small bugs crawling up the pine. This is the easiest stage to kill scale. As a scale hatches, the insect easily crawls to the end of each branch and attaches itself to the tips of this year's new growth. At this point it will grow a hard outer shell over its body then suck every bit of life out of the needle. At this stage scale is difficult to kill, but not impossible. For either of these stages I recommend spraying with the high-quality dormant oil Scaleside.
There is now a preventative method available in the war against scale. A new systemic insecticide created by Bayer Chemical Co. kills scale by poisoning the sap with a scale-specific toxin. It's called 'Tree and Shrub Insect Killer.' I recommend using this product on any pine you deem valuable to your home. It will keep insects in check throughout the year.
I just read a fabulous book that is so good I now sell it at my garden center. The title is "The Sunset Garden Guide," and for a national publication its coverage of our part of the country is surprisingly accurate. It suggests the easiest-to-grow flowers and edibles that would be on my recommended list for the tri-cities. Very well written, full of photos, with accurate garden information, it's a terrific value for under $10. If you are new to the area, you need a copy. If you like keeping up to date on the latest garden trends and plants, this one is at the top of my suggested read list.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona Certified Nursery Professional and Master Gardener.