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Master Gardener: Protect your home from the wrath of woodpeckers

Answer: Woodpeckers can cause a lot of damage to a house! Several years ago, I noticed drywall dust on my bedroom nightstand, looked up, and discovered a hole in the wall. A pileated woodpecker had pecked through the cedar siding, sheeting, insulation, and drywall, causing $1,000 worth of damage. I then discovered that insurance doesn’t cover damage from birds. During the past week I have been chasing them off the house every time I happen to hear rat-a-tat-tat.

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There are nine species of woodpeckers found in Minnesota. Flickers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers leave for the winter, but the others stay here year-round. Don’t consider shooting them out your window because woodpeckers are a protected species — it is illegal to kill or trap one without a permit. Wood siding, especially soft wood like cedar, attracts woodpeckers who leave behind holes ranging in size from one-fourth inch to one inch or more. Woodpeckers peck for three reasons: communicating, feeding, or roosting. They often focus on the area just below the eaves. The “drumming” you hear is the woodpecker searching the house for hollow spaces. If a woodpecker is looking for food it will usually leave several small (less than one-half inch) feeding holes scattered over an area or formed into rows. One or two larger holes (an inch or more) are typically a sign of roosting or nesting behavior. It is critical to take action as soon as a woodpecker starts making holes in your siding, and before it has time to make it a part of its routine.

There are some techniques you can try to scare off your woodpeckers, but before you begin, cover or repair any existing holes. For small pea-sized holes, you may want to squirt a small amount of linseed oil in the openings to kill any insects that may be attracting the woodpeckers. Seal all openings in your siding with caulking to keep insects to a minimum. Following are some ideas from the University of Minnesota and the DNR:

  • Hang bird netting from the outside of the eaves to the side of the house about 18 inches below the roof line. Bird netting can also be hung to cover the whole side of a house. Hang at least 4 inches out from the house starting at the roof line. You will need to close off the ends so that birds cannot get underneath.

  • In hard hit areas attach 1-inch by 1-inch boards to the house and then place metal screening over the boards to prevent the woodpecker from reaching the house.

  • You can purchase “Scare-eye balloons”, which are designed to look like a large predatory bird eye. The balloons should be placed in front of the affected wall or area and should be moved or removed after about a week so that the bird does not get used to it.

  • Fake owls with mechanical heads that rotate and screech have been effective as a deterrent. They should be placed 10-15 feet high in a visible spot, such as the edge of the roof or upper floor deck railing.

  • Bird scare tape, also called “flash tape,” is a thin shiny ribbon of Mylar. It is silver on one side and colored on the other. When properly used, the tape flashes in the sun and rattles in the breeze. The flashing and rattling frighten birds. Tack several long streamers above the affected surface about a foot apart, making sure they are able to move in the breeze.

  • Attach pie tins or unusable CDs or DVDs to a string and hang them in front of the affected area. Tins should be placed so that they spin freely in the wind.

Dear Master Gardener: Should I cut back my hydrangeas now or wait until spring?
Answer: It depends. You can leave them for winter interest and wait until spring if you wish. I get tired of the dried flower heads blowing around on top of the snow so I always prune mine back in the fall. You can go all the way to the ground if you want, but I prefer to leave about 30 inches so that the base of each branch is a little sturdier next year. The heavy flower heads will stand a little straighter and are less likely to flop in the first rainstorm.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: The keys to successful planting in shaded areas

Like Jackie, I prune my Annabelle hydrangeas to about 30 inches, but I wait until early spring. I don’t prune my Hydrangea paniculata plants because one (Quick Fire) is new this year and the other is a dwarf variety (Little Quick Fire) that only gets three to five feet tall and wide at maturity. Hydrangea paniculata don’t need to be pruned every year, but if you decide to, they can be pruned in late fall or early spring. As a general rule, removing about one-third of the oldest branches each year will give you a fuller and healthier shrub and help manage the size. If size is of no concern, just remove spent flowers and any broken stems. (Jennifer)

Dear Master Gardener: I would like to save the seeds from my sunflower plants for planting next year. What should I do?

Answer: You can dislodge the seeds from the flower heads by hand, working from the outside in or rub the heads across hardware cloth (or any coarse metal mesh). Do not remove the hulls. Rinse the sunflower seeds, lay them out to dry overnight away from birds and squirrels, then store them in an airtight container in a cool, dry place. They will remain viable for about six years.

Related: Ask the Master Gardener: Longer-blooming perennials keep the colors flowing through the growing season

Dear Master Gardener: Should I cut down my peonies now?

Answer: Wait until the first hard frost to cut your peony stems down. I wait until the stems have turned brown and flopped over, then cut the herbaceous peonies near ground level and the intersectional hybrid peonies (Itoh) to two to three inches above ground level.

Dear Master Gardener: I saw a guy power washing his lawn. Is he nuts?
Answer: Yes. It doesn’t seem science-based to me.

You may get your garden questions answered by calling the new Master Gardener Help Line at 218-824-1068 and leaving a message. A Master Gardener will return your call. Or, emailing me at [email protected] and I will answer you in the column if space allows.
University of Minnesota Extension Master Gardeners are trained and certified volunteers for the University of Minnesota Extension. Information given in this column is based on university research.

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