Invisible `biter' in the house may just be dry skin of winter

BACKYARD Q&A

February 27, 2005|By Jon Traunfeld and Ellen Nibali | Jon Traunfeld and Ellen Nibali,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Something in my house is biting me. I've used foggers, had pest control companies come, but no one can even find the little pest. I'm at my wits' end. The itching is driving me crazy. Help!

No insects that bite humans are invisible to the naked eye. However, there is a long list of things that make people feel as though insects are biting them. This phenomenon is known as "delusory parasitosis," but the sensation of being bitten is usually anything but delusory. Possible causes can include medication side effects, hard water, harsh detergent, wool allergies and aging.

In your situation, the time of onset hints at a cause. When forced-hot-air heating systems kick on in the fall, they can dry skin to an uncomfortable degree. This can be aggravated by other causes, including foggers. We recommend that you see your doctor or dermatologist. Your solution may be as simple as adding a humidifier to your furnace.

I have been reading about the use of beneficial mycorrhizal fungi. They are said to form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots that helps to increase their root network for better access to water and nutrients. However, most of this information comes from companies selling the fungi. Does your office recommend use of mycorrhizal fungi?

In healthy soil, mycorrhizal fungi are already present. The ability of mycorrhizae to extend the root system of plants to an astounding degree is undisputed. They are essential to most plants. Research continues, however. The question is whether commercial products always deliver the same results as mycorrhizae in the natural environment.

Homeowners may derive the most benefit from commercial products when planting in soils that have been rendered lifeless by home construction or whose microorganisms have been killed by heavy fertilizer salts or pesticides. Another option: Noncommercial organic soil amendments, such as compost, teem with microorganisms.

My neighbor is a pack rat with a dog kennel. His yard is incredibly unattractive. I put up a 6-foot fence, but can still see into his yard from my deck. What can I plant that will screen out this area and block noise but doesn't get wide? There's only 16 feet between the fence and my deck.

First, determine the ultimate height of the plant you need. To do this, stand on your deck and have someone hold a pole or other tall device by the fence to measure at what height a plant will cover the undesirable view. If you need a plant that will grow 10 feet tall, select a shrub that would potentially grow 10 to 12 feet. A plant that grows to the proper size greatly reduces future maintenance.

In general, broad-leaved evergreens such as hollies and rhododendrons tolerate shade, while needled evergreens need a lot of sun to remain full and dense. You have several good choices, including Foster holly and upright varieties of arborvitae, yew and juniper (avoid privet.) If evergreen is not necessary, try upright varieties of deciduous shrubs such as viburnum, pyracantha, summersweet (clethra), crape myrtle, smoke bush, rose of Sharon (sterile types) and Carolina allspice. Read plant tags carefully for ultimate height and width and don't get lured into purchasing fast-growing evergreens that turn into overbearing giants.

Checklist

Spray trees and shrubs that have had aphid, mite or scale problems with dormant oil. Be sure that temperatures are expected to remain above freezing for 24 hours after you spray.

Fruit trees can be pruned now but hold off on pruning peaches until buds begin to break. Mow fall-bearing raspberry plants to the ground and place your order now for fruit plants you plan to set out this spring.

Early spring seeding will help give your new grass a head start on weeds. Late February through March is the second-best time to overseed your lawn to make it thicker or cover bare areas (the best time is late August through October).

Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist, and Ellen Nibali, horticulture consultant, work at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center. The center offers Maryland residents free gardening information and answers to plant and pest questions. Call the center's "hotline" at 800-342-2507 (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.) or e-mail questions to www.hgic.umd.edu. (You can also download or order publications and diagnose plant problems online).

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