Sapsuckers and Soil

By Jeff Rugg

May 14, 2014 4 min read

Question: I discovered rows of holes on the trunk of one of my new pine trees and the holes are oozing sap. I have never seen anything like this, and I don't want the tree to die above all these holes. I thought maybe house caulk would stop the sap, and the tree might heal itself? Can I save the upper part of the tree?

Answer: I think you are noticing the unique feeding pattern of a sapsucker. There are four species in North America. They drill shallow holes, about as big around as a pencil eraser, in neat grid patterns on tree trunks. They usually prefer sticky or sweet trees like evergreens, birch, maple and fruit trees. They come back to each tree and eat any insects stuck to the sap. They also drink the sap. They eat berries and other insects, too. The holes tend to be superficial and not harmful to trees, although they do leak a lot of sap and may look very bad.

Other birds use these trees as feeding sites. Hummingbirds follow sapsuckers north in the spring during migration. Sometimes due to weather conditions, there are not many flowers blooming, so the hummingbirds also eat both the sap and the insects. Trunk dwelling birds like nuthatches also take advantage of this food source.

They spend the winter in the Southern U.S. and Mexico. They nest in the western mountain states, the Great Lake states and Canada. In April, May and September, October many of them migrate to and from wintering areas, so the damage tends to be seasonal.

Few trees are harmed by these birds, but you can wrap the trunk with burlap or tree wrap paper for protection. If there are no holes leaking sap now, you can wait until fall to wrap the tree as they do tend to use the same individual trees for several years.

Question: I was told that there is a product that could be added to my hanging baskets so that I wouldn't have to water them for weeks at a time. It sounds too good to be true. Is there such a product?

Answer: It may be too good to be true that you can go for weeks at a time, but there are several products that work pretty well at holding water in the soil. There are products based on starch and products based on polyacrylamide polymers. The latter products are also used in disposable diapers and you know how well they hold water. A problem with the polymers can develop when they need to release the water to the plant and the plant doesn't get it fast enough.

The starch-based products are more biodegradable, non-toxic and as they decay, they support microorganisms that benefit the soil. They need to be replaced more often, but should last a year or more, so they will be fine in hanging baskets and gardens that get new soil mixes or tilled up each year. Some of the products also absorb fertilizers so they won't leach away and reducing the need for you to fertilize.

These products absorb hundreds of times their weight in water, dry out slowly and reabsorb more water when it becomes available. The water is stored in the soil where the roots are. The plants are healthier as they don't go through as much stress from heat and dry soil. The plants will still need to be watered, and it may take you a while to get used to the actual timing of when they need to be watered. The plants can still be overwatered when the soil pores that are supposed to have air in them are filled with excess water. They won't be overwatered due to the water absorbing granules in the soil.

As long as you follow the directions, they will all work. Your local garden center should have at least one of these products on their shelf.

Email questions to Jeff Rugg at [email protected] To find out more about Jeff Rugg and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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