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Gardening: Understanding springtails and caring for roses

gardening by Mary Robson, WSU Cooperative Extension
Early 1996 finds the maritime Pacific Northwest in a mild spell, with weather offering us temperatures approaching spring-like 50s. Of course, the weather changes so quickly that gardens may be utterly frozen by the time this gets into local newspapers!
   One symptom of the mild days in late December and early January has been the appearance of masses of springtails in some landscapes. Have you seen a moving mass of "sooty-looking" or purplish creatures, piling up in driveways, in backyards, or on the surface of mud puddles?
   "A moving mass of wobbly creatures?" Or one single odd jumping creature that suddenly multiplies? Springtails are harmless, and indeed even beneficial, but their appearance is so peculiar that it's hard to convince the average person of their usefulness.
   They are primitive insects that live nearly everywhere in the world, from intertidal ocean beach areas to snow fields. Most of them are blue to gray, though masses seen locally have been blackish or purplish. They are small (less than 1/8 inch) and lack wings. They are called springtails because they can jump or throw themselves up to four inches by a tail-like mechanism that tucks back under their abdomen to propel them. This springing or jumping characteristic causes some observers to confuse them with fleas, which also have a jumping action. Springtails do not bite, and assemble in completely different aggregates than do fleas.
   Springtails need moisture, and may be found anywhere there are damp spots under bark, on pool surfaces, under boards, especially in shady places. They are beneficial because they help break down decaying vegetation in the soil, and they feed on a variety of fungal organisms. They are also relatively short-lived and will disappear once sighted.
   An intriguing characteristic of springtails is that they are one of the rare organisms known to be able to break down DDT in the soil, making them particularly beneficial in locations where that banned pesticide may still be used or present in soil.
   Springtails can be ignored when they are outside, but large masses of them may build up and make their way into houses through doorways or screens. Warm house temperatures and low humidity will ordinarily cause them to die quickly. However, they can persist inside the house in and around houseplants with decaying leaves present in soil or around pipes with free moisture, such as in basements. It's rarely necessary to control them. Sweep them up if they are inside, and dispose of them. Vacuuming the remains of the mass if they die inside is a quick solution. Eliminate sources of mold such as old rags or mattresses, because any moist moldy area can provide habitat for these insects.
   So if you see a moving blackish or grayish mass trekking down the driveway, don't panic! Springtails are short-lived and will move on. For more information, you may wish to contact WSU Cooperative Extension and request the bulletin "EB 1510, Springtails" ($1): in King County at 296-3900, Snohomish County at 338-2400.
   And now, for something completely different: Roses! Bareroot roses may be available late this month, but it's still a bit early to plant. Concentrate on being sure your roses are protected against potential future freezes.
   In my own garden, roses were pushing out leaf buds on bare stems on Jan. 3, and this means they would be more liable to freezing if the temperatures drop. Roses aren't completely dormant now, since the temperatures have been so mild.
   If you haven't cleaned up all the fallen leaves around the roses and stripped old dead foliage off the plants, do so now. This is a prickly job but a necessary one. Getting rid of last year's leaves, whether they have fallen or not, is one way to reduce the disease spores of common rose leaf diseases. Black spot, powdery mildew and rust infesting the plants from previous years will remain on the old leaves.
   Do not be tempted into pruning roses now. Old wood left on the plant will help to keep the plant protected against temperatures drops. I vividly recall pruning roses one mild Jan. 30 and having them killed by arctic blasts during the first week in February. February can often produce some of the maritime Northwest's coldest winter weather. So hide those pruning shears!
   If you have not done so yet, protect the bud union. This is the bulbous area just above the soil surface (or perhaps 1 or more inches above). Many hybrid roses are sold grafted on to an understock, and this swollen area is in the site of the graft. Covering this area with soil piled up over it and the bottom few inches of rose stem will help insulate the plant. You can also use sawdust, wood chips, bark chips, or even tree leaves (from trees without any disease problems.)
   Tree roses need special protection. Some growers wrap the entire trunk with insulation, or surround the trunk with pre-molded gray pipe insulation. Tree roses have two grafted areas, one at the soil level and the other beneath the top branches. Be sure both are protected.
   Container plants need special protection, whether they are holding roses or any other hardy plants. Move them into a covered shelter such as an unheated garage where the temperature stays above freezing. Or sink the pots in soil up to the rim, or pack them completely with insulating material such as leaves or sawdust.
   If your garden is still unprotected from winter's blasts, do it now! Don't remove the protection until late February or early March.