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Reader Q&A

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With that cold, damp nip in the morning air and snow on the Boise Front Range, can winter be far off? I still have plants in pots that need to be bedded down into the insulating warmth of Mother Nature's dirty bosom. I have garden cleanup to do, leaves to rake, weed piles to burn and turf to mow. Having always lived in areas of the country that definitely had four distinct seasons, I can't say that I'm ever totally surprised when Old Man Winter rises up to push the sun farther away, but the compulsory stoppage in outdoor gardening and the lack of a warming sun does put a damper on the days to come for me. So I don fingerless gloves and wool socks, and continue my garden work out in the rain. I'm not alone, as there are other gardening diehards out there. Let's talk with a few of them who sent in e-mails and letters.

Last year when we brought wood in to burn, I started seeing these huge black ants walking across the carpet. Someone told me they might be carpenter ants. I kill the ones I see, but are they something I should worry about? —Melissa, Boise

The answer to that one, Melissa, would be "yes." Although most insects infesting wood won't cause a problem when taken into your home, carpenter ants and termites are two that can be a major issue, especially for older homes. Carpenter ants are large black ants up to half-an-inch or more in length. They're hefty looking fellows with big mandibles that pass from egg stage to adult in about 60 days. The natural food of the carpenters is other insects and any sweet material, such as decaying fruit or aphid honeydew. They don't eat wood, like some folks mistakenly believe, but they do remove it to expand their nest site in the wood. They are often found in old stumps, fallen logs or rotting house timbers. They can also extend their nests into sound wood inside a home, which can cause considerable damage by the time they are finally discovered.

A man came into my office several years ago with two floor boards from under his hot water heater. The hot water heater, unbeknownst to him, had a slow leak. Once the carpenter ants discovered the spot, they turned that area into their nest and those boards ended up resembling sheets of brown corrugated paper when they finished with them. The only reason he discovered he had an insect problem was because his hot water heater had fallen sideways.

If you find carpenter ants in the firewood you're gathering, split the wood and knock them out while you're in the woods and leave them in their native habitat. It's better for them to be in a rotting stump than in your house. Another technique to rid the gathered wood of ants is to split it and expose infested pieces to the sun for drying. This can even be done under a sheet of clear plastic to intensify the sun's rays. Carpenter ants prefer moist wood and will leave or die if their nest area becomes very dry. Just to be on the safe side, burn any pieces suspected of having carpenter ants first.

Termites are rarely found in firewood unless the wood has been lying on the ground. If you do happen to find termites, you'll recognize them easily because look like tiny white ants except they're missing that hourglass "waist" that ants have. These tiny wood-eaters are about a quarter-inch long or less. Leave termite-infested wood in the forest or split it and dry it in the sun. Termites must have a cool, moist, dark place to call home in order to survive.

A final word of caution: Avoid stacking firewood up against trees or wooden structures to help prevent a transfer of insects.

Is it too late to apply my fall lawn fertilization? —Ben, Meridian

Actually, the best time to fertilize cool season grasses like bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and tall fescue is in the fall: once in September and once in November. You're not too late for the November fertilization. Fall fertilizing helps beef up those little grass plants over the winter as they gather nutrients in to build healthy root systems and hold nutrients in reserve for a good push of growth when the weather warms. Come spring, you'll have the greenest lawn in the neighborhood.

I planted healthy spring bulbs last year following the depth instructions on the package. I also used bonemeal in the holes, like my neighbor suggested, yet hardly any bulbs came up. What happened? —Lois, Nampa

Well, Lois, if you started with healthy bulbs and you planted at the correct depth and spacing, there are two possible explanations as to why your bulbs did not yield plants. It is possible the bulbs rotted in the ground due to heavy soil and poor drainage, or that the bonemeal was in contact with the bulbs and caused them to rot. Make sure that at least an inch of soil is placed between the bulb and the teaspoonful of bonemeal at the bottom of the hole. Squirrels and mice will eat spring bulbs, but rodents will leave some evidence of having been there, like dug up areas, bulbs left showing teeth marks or their ground tunnels nearby.

Suzann Bell is a horticulturist with the University of Idaho Extension Service in Ada County. Send your gardening questions to Suzann, c/o Boise Weekly, or e-mail: