Wait a little longer before pruning most plants

We’ve had a few frosts in eastern North Carolina and fall is definitely here, but pruning some plants now could be harmful to them. We haven’t had a hard freeze yet and many plants could yet have a growth spurt.

I know folks are anxious to tidy up their yards, but plant like angel trumpet and lantana should be allowed to die down completely. Pruning them now could encourage a flush of growth and almost certain major winter injury. I’d place butterfly bush in that category too.

There are plenty of other jobs that can be done around the flower garden on these pretty fall days. Weeding is one. Edging is another.

I don’t like fall pruning anyway, but as a general rule it should be avoided especially if plants are marginally hardy. We are in Zone 8, so zone 7 and 8 plants should never be pruned until they are completely dormant and that means winter. Early spring is fine too.

This is also true for fruit trees. Sometimes fall pruning encourages them to bloom. That poses a problem for winter hardiness and spring fruit set. It can encourage disease organisms too. Even if trees are damaged from injury I’d wait until they were dormant before working on them.

Plants in active growth become less winter hardy. Plant sap contains fewer solids and those solutes are essential for what I call plant antifreeze. Pure water freezes at 32 F. However, if sugars, salts, and other molecules are dissolved in it the freezing point is lowered.

Actively growing cells contain lots of water. When they freeze, their cell membranes are perforated by expanding sharp ice. The cells will die. In animals we call that frostbite.

When plants go completely dormant this phenomenon is far less likely to occur. This makes fall the worst time to prune. Fall is also bad if you have spring flowering trees and shrubs. All you will do is cut next spring’s flowers off.

Azaleas, Rhododendrons, dogwoods and redbuds should never be pruned in the fall. Neither should forsythia, lilac, Loropetalum or deciduous magnolias. Encore azaleas, the re-blooming types, need very little pruning. They should be trimmed immediately after they flower in the spring.

Many annual plants are still alive. I have some scented geraniums that are leggy but still hanging on. Since they are annuals and need to be replanted in the spring anyway, go ahead and clean them out if they bother you. This goes for any of your summer annuals.

Most perennials will be better served if they aren’t disturbed until winter. Mum buds might start to swell if plants are pruned now. This is also true for verbena. Candy tuft should also not be pruned until spring.

Usually, by the first or second week in December many plants are totally dormant and winter has set in. This is not one of those years. The main thing is to inspect your plants and pay attention to the weather. Serious cold could hit us in the next two or three weeks. Local forecasts call for frigid weather for mid-week, but it’s short-lived. We need a steady dose of winter for a week or two. Then some of your plants might be in line for some trimming.



Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Was it sweet potato or pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving?

People line up on both sides. In this locale more folks probably favor sweet potato over pumpkin, but you can’t go wrong with either.

I laugh when I hear people argue over it. To be honest, if spiced the same it’s challenging to tell the difference. I bake my sweet potatoes before I put them into a pie. Many folks boil them. Other than texture differences boiled sweet potato pie and pumpkin pie are nearly indistinguishable, especially if the pumpkin flesh is strained and puréed. The texture difference is less pronounced by thinning down the sweet potato mix with a little extra evaporated milk.

I have a northern relative who says she doesn’t like sweet potato pie and wouldn’t eat it. I made one once, thinned it down to stretch the filling, said it was pumpkin, and she liked it. I never told her any different.

I made that miscue once. My wife’s Maid of Honor refused to eat venison. At the time that was my major meat source and I made a big batch of spaghetti and meatballs. My sauce had all the trimmings and she attacked it like she hadn’t eaten in days.

When she went back for thirds I asked her if she liked the deer meatballs. That was a mistake. She threw the plate in the sink and it broke into a million pieces. It was one of those Corelle ware plates. They’re pretty durable but when they break they shatter into tiny slivers. I learned my lesson after that.

I think the biggest reason people generally don’t distinguish my pumpkin from sweet potato is that I spice both of them identically and very heavily. I don’t spare the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves or brown sugar. The only thing I do is lower the sugar slightly for the sweet potato pie.

Growing up in Maine, we couldn’t grow sweet potatoes, so we seldom ate them. Pumpkins grew like crazy in our garden. Pumpkin pies were always on the table at Thanksgiving. It was the same in West Virginia.

Since I moved here I’ve converted to sweet potato, mostly because they’re more available in fresh form. I’m not a major fan of canned fillings though I’ve used them from time to time.

I think the secret to a great sweet potato pie is baking the sweet potatoes. Baking them to the point of slight caramelization is even better. I know they aren’t quite as bright and pretty, but I’m a big fan of brown sugar or molasses.

From a nutrition standpoint, sweet potatoes have more calories, but they also contain more protein and fiber per pound of flesh. Sweet potatoes are also slightly more vitamin dense too, but not enough to make a major impact on our diet.

So what’s my choice? I don’t have one. They’re far less important than family. Thanksgiving is all about realizing how lucky we are. Spending the holiday with family and good food is something we all should be thankful for.

Why argue about pie? Can you really go wrong with pie anyway? There’s plenty to disagree with, like football games and whose favorite team is better. Pumpkin and sweet potato are both winners. By the way, don’t expect to see a food picture. I’ll leave that to the millions of other people who post stuff. I don’t want to steal anyone’s thunder.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Carob makes a great substitute for chocoholics

Nearly 40 years ago I began experimenting with carob. My reasoning wasn’t that it might be more nutritious. I didn’t even care that it contained no fat or caffeine. It was cheaper and I didn’t waste money.

I’ve always liked to cook. It’s sort of a self-sufficiency thing. As for carob, I don’t even remember who turned me on to it.

Carob and chocolate have slightly different flavors and I don’t consider them entirely interchangeable. For fudge or frosting there’s no comparison as far as I’m concerned. However, when blended in equal amounts I must admit it’s hard to distinguish from straight cocoa in most recipes.

When eaten separately, carob has a milder, sweeter flavor. Recipes require less sugar and do taste a little different than those made with cocoa. Chocolate cake is darker and richer than a carob cake using otherwise the same recipe.

Since carob has naturally sweeter flavor, cakes, cookies and brownies require less sugar. Using the same amount will make them too sweet. If calories are your thing, carob is the better option, but remember that the flavor is not identical. It’s similar to chocolate but not an exact match. Also, foods contain so many other ingredients so neither chocolate nor carob are primary calorie sources.

Both carob and cocoa contain fiber that is important for proper digestion. Carob has much more.

Chocolate has caffeine and a chemical called theobromine. Some people are sensitive to these. Theobromine is a compound that is highly toxic to dogs because it is a strong heart stimulant. Carob doesn’t have any caffeine or theobromine, so it’s safe if your dog gets into the brownies.

In people, theobromine is not always bad. It dilates blood vessels and that can lower blood pressure. I wouldn’t use that tidbit as an excuse to go on a chocolate binge. If you are on any blood pressure medications always check with your medical professional before trying any weird diets.

So where does carob come from? It’s made from ground seeds of a tree in the pea family that grows naturally in parts of Africa and the Mediterranean. Trees are hardy only to zone 9, so we could not grow them here.

In the southwestern US some people have used carob trees (Ceratonia siliqua) for landscaping. They tolerate dry conditions and grow well there. The problem is that male flowers produce a musky bitter smell far stronger than American chestnuts or Bradford pears. Female trees don’t have that problem, but fruits can’t be produced without both types. A small percentage of trees also contain both types of flowers.

These carob trees are also called locust bean or St. John’s bread trees. In fact, many sources claim it is the beans from the tree that provided sustenance for John the Baptist in the wilderness, not grasshoppers. Grasshoppers were a common food source during that time and place however. Who knows, both could be true.

Both chocolate and carob have benefits. Both contain antioxidants. Both contain essential minerals like iron, but that’s not the reason we consume them. We eat them because they taste good. Still, we also shouldn’t overdo it.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Clear-cutting is an important strategy for forestry management

It seems most folks are put off by clearcutting. Their emotions tell them that what may look unsightly is also unhealthy. In some cases they might be right, but there are reasons some places are harvested that way.

The species of trees present in the forest are a large reason. Some baby trees cannot grow under the shade of bigger ones. We call these trees shade-intolerant. Most pines as well as valuable hardwoods like black cherry and black walnut belong to this group.

Some trees, like hickories, birches and most oaks tolerate some shade. Maples, beech, persimmon, tupelo and ash will begin to grow under extreme shade. Most understory trees like dogwoods and hornbeams will develop under shaded canopies.

If we only selectively cut down trees we would eventually lose our shade-intolerant trees. Nature keeps that from happening. Forest fires are largely caused by lightning. They create large cleared areas for shade-intolerant trees to develop. However, it’s not a preferred method.

Foresters try to limit the size of these cleared areas for numerous reasons. That’s one reason why prescribed control burning is a critical practice. Limiting the available fuel helps keep fires from starting and makes them easier to control if they do.

I think there is no question clearcutting is essential for healthy forests including healthy wildlife. However, limiting harvest acreages is important especially on steep slopes. Proper forest road construction is important too. Poor forest road design can cause more erosion than anything else.

Many people think that economics is the biggest reason to harvest this way. It’s not. The goal of this strategy is to develop a healthy forest with desired species. Removing weedy exotic trees is an important component. Timber harvesting is important, but not as crucial as maintaining a sustainable forest. Often, loggers don’t want to be bothered by removing unmarketable trees.

Healthy forests have higher photosynthetic rates. Trees grow faster and more useful timber can be harvested. Much of it comes from shade-intolerant trees like our common loblolly pine. Thick stands often result in weak growth. Lower branches become parasitic and overall photosynthetic rate is less.

Newly established forests also provide food and cover for wildlife. Diversity provided by blocks of varying maturities is healthy for most wildlife. This method provides edge areas many wildlife species love.

Not all situations lend themselves to clearcutting. Uneven aged stands provide a diverse environment where numerous wildlife species thrive. This is especially true for many non-game species.

Utilization of all harvest methods is the best answer. People driven totally by their emotions don’t realize we’ll lose biodiversity if we don’t open some areas up to sunlight. Some folks object to clear-cutting because it makes the landscape look ugly. They would prefer clean-cutting, since all residue is shredded and applied to the area once harvesting is complete. This is not always the best technique to slow down erosion or provide cover for wildlife. Either way, opening up an area is necessary to provide a place for shade-intolerant trees to grow.

Squandering resources by losing species is not acceptable. Trees are one of our greatest resources. A healthy forest is the best situation for limiting soil erosion. Learning about the requirements of all our trees will help us manage them.

There’s a ton of misinformation on the internet describing clearcutting as an outdated practice. It’s not true. The practice might be overused out of expediency sometimes, but it’s a sound silvicultural technique.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Ragweed can be more than a fall problem

A few days ago I overheard someone complaining about goldenrod causing her allergies. I wanted to say something but felt it was prudent to keep my mouth shut. Uninvited conversations seldom end well.

The truth is that goldenrod has very nectar rich sticky pollen. It’s highly unlikely that it would be airborne and cause someone to breathe it in. However, goldenrod is very conspicuous this time of year and has often been considered the culprit for people’s discomfort.

Ragweed grows in similar locations, is less obvious and produces copious amounts of pollen that tends to float in the air. Most likely, there’s your problem. Ragweed pollen will be with us until the first hard frost. After that, plants will soon wither and pollen release will cease. Sometimes foliar diseases destroy plants before that.

Ragweed isn’t the only plant that produces pollen that causes allergy sufferers discomfort. It’s just the most common. Generally speaking, bright colored flowers are usually not a problem. They are most likely insect pollenated and have sticky pollen.

Wind pollinated plants like ragweed are the ones that cause problems. Flowers from these plants are usually less showy, so we don’t notice them. Additionally, many of these plants produce tremendous amounts of seed, meaning problems for future years.

Pigweed and lambsquarter are heavy pollen and seed producers without showy flowers. Both are wind pollinated and cause problems for allergy sufferers. Both also make excellent cooked greens, so harvesting them before they flower can be a double win.

Some folks can ingest ragweed greens with no ill effects. I can and consider them pretty good. However, many folks with severe ragweed pollen allergies also are sensitive to the foliage. Sometimes even pulling a bunch of ragweed from flowerbeds can cause skin rashes.

Recognizing ragweed foliage could be helpful. That’s not as easy as it sounds. There are numerous species of ragweed and the only real common features are the flowers, and they aren’t very showy.

Common annual ragweed has foliage that strongly resembles cosmos except leaves of ragweed are hairier. Plants generally grow upright and can obtain heights of three to six feet. Leaves are deeply lobed and much wider at their base.

Giant ragweed leaves emerge from stems in groups of two and have three distinct pointed lobes. Stems grow very tall, often more than ten feet. They will begin to develop flowers before they get to that point, however.

Both of these should be removed from the area before they flower. Any of the dozens of other similar species should too. Some folks might wish to wear gloves and wash up afterwards. In general it’s good practice to remove any weeds before they flower. This isn’t easy, especially if you have cosmos in your flowerbeds.

It’s also a good idea to keep ragweed pollen outside if you can. Pets that travel in and out can bring large amounts of pollen into the house. People should groom pets outside which can help prevent pollen from spreading into the house and the ductwork. Your guests with pollen allergies will appreciate it.

ragweed foliage far past its prime. Flowers have exhausted all their pollen

more sick ragweed plants against a crab apple.



Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Field bindweed and morning glory are pretty weeds that destroy ecosystems

Both have beautiful petunia-like flowers. Both are aggressive vines. Both are in the sweet potato family. Both are a menace in crop fields, and both invade non-crop areas.

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is perennial and morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea and other species) is annual. Field bindweed always has white flowers and morning glory can be found in many colors. Field bindweed is always considered a noxious weed, while morning glory is often planted in flower gardens.

Annual morning glories are a very close relative to the commercial sweet potato. They are both in the genus Ipomoea. Morning glories produce large quantities of seed. Sweet potatoes rarely do.

Keeping morning glory seed from dissipating usually solves the weed problem. However, these aggressive but beautiful vines usually don’t play nice. They will cover anything that doesn’t move. Fortunately, once a good frost hits a plant, it’s gone. Sometimes simply lower night temperatures and higher humidity is enough for foliar diseases to set in and do the trick.

Bindweed is another story. It’s a perennial with an aggressive root and rhizome system. This weed can reduce crop yields by more than half. It’s not easily chemically eradicated either. Many herbicides that will kill it will also harm crop plants. Problems are the same in flower gardens.

In broadleaf crops like soybeans, cotton, potatoes and sweet potatoes control is especially challenging. If crops are harvested with some potential growing season left, control is more promising. Treatment with a broadleaved systemic herbicide or a non-selective systemic like glyphosate can begin to destroy the underground parts of the plant.

Control is a little easier in grasses like wheat and corn. Broadleaf herbicides won’t hurt these crops and eventually bindweed can be controlled. Killing plants before they go to seed is important too. A single plant can produce over 500 seeds and each one can potentially remain dormant for decades.

Vines with white funnel shaped flowers and leaves shaped like arrowheads must be stopped as soon as possible. The vines with bright colored flowers aren’t as problematic.

Reducing crop yields and destroying landscaping aren’t the only reasons to control these two vines. Both contain toxic alkaloids that are poisonous to livestock. Usually livestock won’t eat them, but that’s not ideal either. Weeds that are unpalatable to livestock will usually spread through a pasture.

Seeds are toxic too. They also contain alkaloids and other toxic substances. Some folks like to experiment with them. They shouldn’t any more than they should sample poisonous destroying angel fungi. When I was in college some people ate or smoked morning glory seeds. It’s a good way to get yourself killed.

Even the stems have chemicals that can be sensitive to some people. Therefore, it’s a good idea to wash your hands and arms thoroughly after cleaning up morning glory or bindweed vines. I’ve heard this sensitivity is rare, but why play with fire.

I’ve been hesitant to write about plants that might make people sick or worse. However, I’ve received inquiries about nefarious uses of morning glories and I wanted to set the record straight. People should be wary of things they read on the internet. One stupid experiment can ruin or end your life.

Morning glory climbing

morning glory flower

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Hop Hornbeam is a curious native tree with hard wood

Nearly everyone wants to know about native trees. Hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) is a member of the birch family and is quite adaptable around here. It gets its name because its clusters of seeds look like the hops used to make beer. It is no relation to true hops at all.

Hop hornbeams generally grow 25 to 50 feet tall. They tolerate shade well but also thrive in the sun. Trees can grow in a wide variety of soils but prefer a moist environment when young. Once established they tolerate drought well and can grow in extremely acid soils to mildly alkaline ones.

These birch relatives usually develop vase shaped canopies when growing in partial to full shade. If established in the sun tree branch spread is often wider than tall. They make great specimen trees for courtyards.

Leaves have a distinctive toothed margin referred to as doubly serrated. Sharply pointed teeth are of two sizes. As trees develop the bark becomes light grayish brown and slightly shredded into vertical strips.

Trees have two types of flowers on the same plant. Male flowers look like green caterpillars at the tips of branches. Female ones are in clusters and have a pink tinge to them.

Fruits develop into balloon-like capsules and gradually begin to look like hops. These hop-like seeds can be quite interesting and persist well into the fall and winter. Fall foliage is yellow and makes a nice contrast to most other landscape plants.

One factor that renders them less attractive for landscape use is that they have a strong taproot. This can make them difficult to transplant successfully. Trees are slow growing, but they have a long lifespan. This makes them desirable for landscaping, at least for the client.

Trees also have incredibly hard wood. Resistance to storm damage is very high. Hop hornbeams won’t tolerate long periods of flooding, however.

Despite their hard wood, hop hornbeams are rarely used as timber trees. Often the wood has specialty uses though. Its hardness is prized for tool handles or walking canes.

Wood makes great firewood with high energy value. Logs will last a long time but they are difficult to split. This hard dense wood also makes high quality charcoal.

Wildlife generally won’t bother these trees. Birds normally don’t eat the seeds until nothing else is left and browsing animals like deer and rabbits don’t like the foliage either.

These trees have little value as human food either. You’d probably burn more calories separating the seeds from their covering than are in the seeds, themselves. However, seeds are not poisonous.

Some Native American tribes used inner bark and heartwood teas to treat sore throat, toothaches and kidney problems. It was also used in bathwater to soothe aching muscles. Very little recent information is available.

I’ve yet to find hop hornbeam in any local nurseries but I wouldn’t be surprised to find it soon. Natives are all the rage right now and usually some enterprising soul is ready and willing to take advantage of situations like that. That’s one thing that makes America great.

close-up of hop hornbeam fruit

Hop hornbeam branch with lots of fruit on it

hop hornbeam bark

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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