Early spring activity
Early-blooming crocus are a sure sign of spring. (Submitted photo)

As the snow and cold of winter retreat, the heralds of spring arrive. Small flowering bulbs unfurl their petals to the warming sun, a welcome sight to bees and gardeners alike. Most of us are familiar with the yellow, white and purple goblets of crocuses, but there are other less-familiar bulbs that can add a welcome splash of color.

Earliest of all, elegant green and white snowdrops (Galanthus) have been in bloom for at least a month, even beneath the snow cover. Next to follow are winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) with cheerful daisy-like blooms of bright yellow surrounded by a fringe of green, and the refined cool of Iris reticulata with its deep blue and purple flowers.

All of these are low-growers, blooming about 6 inches or less above the ground, but they stand out even at a distance amidst the general tan drab of soil, grass and mulch. I like to admire their beautiful forms and colors close-up as I check for signs of my perennials’ emerging growth.

And because they all grow from small bulbs that are so easy to plant in fall, and because they will naturalize and spread, it’s easy to have hundreds of them to help you usher in spring.

As the snow melted, I also noticed extensive signs of vole activity and damage. Networks of crisscrossing trails in the lawn indicate the runways that meadow voles used to travel under the snow. These travel lanes are shallow, about 1 ½ inches wide, and are usually hidden by overhanging vegetation. But under the safety of snow cover, the voles extend their runways into areas they would not normally venture, such as open lawns, in search of food. Once the snow melts, the voles leave these open areas, and the lawn quickly recovers when it resumes growth.

I found some trails that led to above-ground vole nests, a globular accumulation of dry grass about 6 inches in diameter – one nest was tucked under an evergreen sedge plant, and the other was at the bottom door of a compost bin. Someone once brought me a vole nest that he had found in his outdoor barbecue grill.

Meadow voles also create burrows 3 to 4 inches underground and will make use of underground tunnels created by moles or pine voles. Voles are often confused with moles; but moles create much deeper and more extensive underground tunnel systems and are insectivores, eating grubs, beetles and worms in the soil.

Voles are mostly herbivores, eating a wide variety of plants, including grasses, herbaceous plants, seeds, tubers, bulbs, roots and rhizomes. The roots and stems of grasses and groundcovers are particular favorites. In winter, they will gnaw on the bark of trees and shrubs, causing damage by girdling. Exclusion, habitat modification, baiting and trapping are the recommended methods of control.

Stinkbugs

Cumberland County Master Gardeners were at the Mid-Atlantic Garden Show in York on March 5, answering garden questions for visitors to the show. Two of the most common topics were stinkbugs in the house and how to get rid of them, and hydrangeas and how to prune them, which I will address in a future column.

Brown marmorated stinkbugs (BMSB for short) are a foreign pest accidentally introduced into eastern Pennsylvania sometime in the 1990s. BMSB have now spread in the last 15 years into many areas in the mid-Atlantic region. They can be a real nuisance in the fall as adults congregate to find a warm protected site – such as inside our homes – to overwinter.

With the approach of spring, the days get longer, the sunshine stronger, and the temperatures warmer, and BMSB become more active; only now they are trying to get OUT of your house, not in, to complete their lifecycle.

Encourage their freedom by sweeping or vacuuming them up and disposing of them outside. That’s about all you can do right now; the use of insecticides inside the home to control them is not recommended. Before next fall, try to seal cracks and crevices around the house to prevent the next generation from coming back in when the weather begins to cool.

Annette MaCoy is the consumer horticulture extension educator and master gardener coordinator for Penn State Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. If you have garden questions, contact Annette at 240-6500 or by e-mail at ahm11@psu.edu.

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