What puffballs are and why they’re fascinating to kids

Credit: Walter Reeves

Credit: Walter Reeves

Q: We found what we at first thought was some kind of animal poop in our fenced backyard, but when I tried to move it, it was like a powder that blew in the air. Valerie Kassel Jr., email

A: It’s a puffball. There are thousands of species in the world and dozens in Georgia. They usually emerge as an inconspicuous ball from the ground in spring. They grow larger as they consume organic matter in the soil. Over a period of a few days, the skin of the puffball hardens and cracks, revealing the millions of spores within. Occasionally kids find a puffball before it cracks open. They delight in kicking it, releasing brown “smoke” (spores) around their shoes. A small percentage of the spores find a propitious place to grow and help nature continue its mission of breaking big things down into smaller bits.

Q: I have three maple trees in my yard that for 35 years had full dense foliage. You could not see through them. This year, the trees have about 25% of the leaves that they’ve had in the past. They have more than normal dead branches. I’ve noticed other maples in my neighborhood with the same problem. Is this from the late freeze? Is there anything I can do? Bill Flynn, email

A: I think it is very possible that the winter freeze caused the damage. Some species and some varieties of maple vary greatly in their tolerance of cold weather. At this time in midsummer, all you can do is keep the trees watered. I think enough time has passed to identify branches that are truly dead so you can hire a certified arborist to take them out and shape the trees. Fertilizer now will only stress them. Very early next spring, put down some organic slow-release fertilizer like Osmocote or Holly-Tone.

Q: I haven’t seen fireflies or lightning bugs this year. Is there a reason? Donna Snyder, email

A: I can’t remember seeing many either. In all likelihood, lawn pesticides, hotter summers, and general climate change are to blame. Firefly decline makes me sad, as I imagine it does you. One of my favorite memories is running down a grassy hillside at my Grandpa Cowart’s property and collecting fireflies to put in a jar. All the way home, there was a glow from the backseat. So what can you do? Besides limiting pesticides, you can leave undisturbed areas in your landscape. A 2-inch layer of decomposing leaves provides the moist, humusy environment that firefly larvae love. See bit.ly/GAfirefly.

Email Walter at georgiagardener@yahoo.com. Listen to his occasional garden comments on “Green and Growing with Ashley Frasca” Saturday mornings on 95.5 WSB. Visit his website, www.walterreeves.com, or join his Facebook page at bit.ly/georgiagardener for his latest tips.