UNITED STATES—No one really hibernates here. Well, ground squirrels might, but they are unlikely to be a problem in refined home gardens. Winter weather is sufficiently mild for most of the most troublesome vermin to remain active, even if somewhat subdued. Some are more active in autumn before food gets scarce. They store food for later, and eat more to gain weight.
Now that it is spring, vermin are more active than they are at any other time of year, even autumn. Gophers, squirrels, rats and mice want to party like it is 1999; well, like spring of 1999. Although they all fattened up last autumn, and stored plenty of food for winter, they now want to exploit abundant spring vegetation. So do raccoons, skunks and opossums.
Generally most vermin, which most prefer to describe more politely as ‘wildlife,’ are not a problem for home gardens. Some might be beneficial. Skunks may trench into lawns, but only because they want the grubs that would otherwise cause more damage from below. They also eat snails and slugs. Opossums eat snails and slugs too, as well as baby rats!
They are known as ‘vermin’ for a reason.
However, skunks and opossums can do more harm than good. They eat vegetables and fruits as they ripen, and pet food. Raccoons cause more significant damage, and can be very dangerous to pets. These three types of vermin are nocturnal, and therefore difficult to dissuade or confront directly. Fortunately, they are not very common in urban gardens.
Conversely, squirrels are everywhere except the harshest desert climates. Although they cause significant damage to new spring growth, and will later damage developing fruits, they are more tolerable than other vermin. Some people actually feed them to draw them to their gardens! Rats and mice are less tolerable, probably because they lack fluffy tails.
Gophers are likely causing more damage than other vermin now. Their growing families voraciously devour many of the fresh roots that disperse in spring. Now that their tunnels are not too muddy, gophers are remodeling to expand accommodations. Young gophers do not live with their parents for very long, so will eventually infest new adjacent territory. Lawns and vegetable gardens are most preferable.
Highlight: Star Magnolia
Spring seems to develop suddenly, and without a very precise schedule. Star magnolia, Magnolia stellata, which can bloom as late as early in April, is already finished blooming in most regions. It should be no surprise. Technically, it can bloom before March. Foliage does not compete with bloom on otherwise bare stems. It appears as bloom deteriorates.
The bright white flowers are about three inches wide, and lavishly profuse. Cultivars with pale pink bloom are increasingly popular. Their pink color may be variable, according to the weather. Flowers have more than a dozen narrow tepals. Some are fluffier with twice as many. Fragrance is mild. Stems can be cut and brought inside just as buds pop open.
Star magnolia is more of a deciduous flowering shrub than a small tree. It should not get much taller than six feet, although it can eventually get to be nearly twice as wide. Partly shaded specimens can reach ground floor eaves. The lime green leaves darken through
summer, turn pale yellow for autumn, and finally defoliate to reveal sculptural gray stems.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.