Evergreen bagworms are a major problem in our landscapes


A short time ago I received an email encouraging me to write about bagworms. I haven’t written about them here and they are quite evident now so I’ll gladly address the subject.

There are numerous types of bagworms, but the one of greatest importance to our area is the evergreen bagworm. This is somewhat of a confusion to many. Evergreen bagworms prefer coniferous evergreens like junipers, arborvitae and Leyland cypress, but they also attack broadleaf evergreens and even deciduous trees and shrubs.

These insects are more likely to cause lasting injury or even death to coniferous species though. Bagworm larvae attack branch tips first.  As larvae grow larger, feeding damage becomes more noticeable. Severe infestation can kill host plants, especially evergreen species because their leaves do not sprout and replenish as readily as those of deciduous species.

Despite the name, bagworms are not worms at all. They are moths. The larval stage is wormlike, so that’s where the name originates. The bagworm lives its entire life inside the security of its bag, which it constructs with its own generated silk and interwoven bits of foliage.

When the hatchling larvae emerge from their cocoons, they spin a strand of silk that catches the wind and drift to another place. Then they begin work on their protective cocoon. They weave foliage fragments into the silk they produce. The result is what we call the bags.

These voracious insects are often hard to spot until they have caused substantial damage, especially on conifers. The little camouflaged bags appear at branch tips. These structures look a little like buds or cones until we scrutinize them. Once the bags begin to turn brown and nod downward they are much easier to spot. However, at that point major damage could already have occurred.

Only the adult male moth leaves the security of the bag when it is ready to mate. Adult males are black with roughly clear wings. Length and wingspan are each about an inch long. Neither the male nor the female adult feeds. Females live a week or two while males emerge, find a bag with a female, breed and are dead within two days.

Females produce a pheromone to attract males or this process would be far less efficient. When females are finished laying their eggs they either mummify around them or exit the bag and die. Either way the eggs rest safely in these bags and each bag could contain up to 1000 eggs.

Bagworms do have enemies. Several species of parasitic wasps can help control them. Many birds also like them, but usually they don’t eat sufficient amounts early enough to prevent damage.

Several insecticides are effective at killing bagworms but early treatment is necessary. Biological insecticides, such as those containing the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis can be effective too, but early treatment is still necessary. Once bags develop major damage has occurred. Inspect plants early in the growing season and hand pick and destroy bags whenever you see them. It’s a challenge.

Evergreen bagworms attacking Leyland Cypress

Single bagworm long since gone

Bagworms killed this Leyland Cypress

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

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Rediscovering the sweet pawpaws


Pawpaw (Asimina triloba) is a native fruit that is common but easily overlooked. Nearly every fall people ask me about these curious fruits but they’re often hesitant to try them. Ripe fruit are shaped like green link sausages. They have soft bright yellow very sweet flesh and curious large dark flattened seeds.

Flavor is somewhat similar to a combination of banana and mango. They’re also juicy and soft like mangoes. Some people confuse pawpaw with papaya but I consider them nothing alike. They’re not related taxonomically. Fruits don’t have similar flavor or texture and seeds are totally different.

Fruit size can vary tremendously. Around here they usually weigh just a few ounces each, but in other parts of their range they can get as large as a pound.

According to the literature they are rare near the coast, but we have pockets around here that are thick with pawpaws. Fruit set might be poor but plants are plentiful. They’re also easy to spot even though trees are small.

Pawpaw trees have large dark green leaves that emerge from stems singly. They are one of the last trees to leaf-out in the spring. In this area most trees are found on sandy soils near the edge of swamps. In the Midwest they’re considered an upland species.

There’s good reason why fruit set is often poor around here. Pawpaws often spread from root suckers. That means that plants are genetically identical or essentially the same tree. Pawpaws must be cross pollinated to set fruit and pollinators might not spread from one patch of trees to another.

Pawpaws flower in the spring. This means it’s important that we have plenty of spring pollinators. Bees are great pollinators for most crops and they often travel great distances, but they seldom visit pawpaws. Instead, pawpaw flowers are pollinated by beetles and various flies. Generally these insects don’t range very far. Consequently, pollination can be inadequate resulting in poor fruit set.

Assuming we are able to find a good supply of fruit we are met with another dilemma. Pawpaws don’t keep very long. Once fruits are ripe we must eat or process them. We can pick them when they’re not quite ripe and let them ripen like we do tomatoes.

Assuming we have enough to process, we must first separate the soft flesh from the skin and seeds. A colander can get the process started but usually handwork is also necessary.

A pair of rubber gloves makes the process less messy and more sanitary. Usually seeds need to be hand cleaned for higher yield. The resulting pulp resembles a puree. It freezes very well. I’ve never tried it, but I bet it would be great in ice cream, sorbet, or a smoothie.

I’ve modified a banana bread recipe and it was pretty good. When I get another batch I’m going to modify my sweet potato pie recipe.

According to my research, flavor is best preserved when the fruit is prepared in unheated creations. Perhaps folding pureed pawpaws into vanilla pudding and serving it chilled in a pie shell would be tasty.

Small ripe fruit showing seeds

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Fall vegetable gardening can be a productive pastime


It seems most vegetable gardeners look forward to spring for their home grown produce. I won’t argue with that but fall is a great time too for many reasons.

Assuming water is available in late summer, seed germination should be pretty good because soils are warm. Weeds can be a problem, but that’s mainly because growing conditions are good. Transplanting seedlings is another possibility. Water is the chief limiting factor there too.

One problem I have with my spring-summer garden is that summer is the only time I have to vacation. If I’m gone a couple weeks the garden can be so overtaken by weeds I feel like plowing it under. Cleaning up a weedy garden in oppressive heat is no fun. That’s less of a problem in fall.

Crops that grow well and will mature in cool weather are cabbage and all its crucifer relatives like broccoli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts, collards and kale. Turnips and mustard are productive too.

Most leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce are great fall crops. Radishes and watercress grow quickly and are great in a salad. Onions can be planted anytime.

Don’t forget the root crops like beets, carrots and parsnips. Parsnips especially should be grown in fall as freezing enhances sweetness. Many folks around here are unfamiliar with them but sautéed parsnips are one of my favorite dishes.

Carrot foliage dies back somewhat after several hard frosts but the roots may be left in the ground all winter. Sweetness becomes even greater and they don’t get tough. Beet greens get damaged by hard frosts but add some mulch and the roots don’t get hurt around here. Your garden can be one big underground refrigerator.

Without a doubt broccoli is my favorite fall vegetable. In most years broccoli can be harvested all winter. The only problem is that successive harvests don’t hold for a long time before they flower. When it’s ready you need to pick it.

Spring collards don’t have the same flavor as those grown in the fall. Frost is essential for proper flavor and texture. Most collard lovers will tell you that.

Probably my biggest reason for liking a fall garden is that the air temperatures are cooler. That makes weeding less of a chore. Also, once plants become established, cooler temperatures mean less watering too.

Post frost pest problems are usually less. However, deer and rabbit damage could be worse as other food sources become depleted. A good fence helps. So does hunting season.

If crops aren’t in the ground yet, time is getting short for some. It might already be too late for Brussel sprouts. Cauliflower and beets are close. We still have plenty of time for lettuce, spinach, radishes, watercress and onions.

Here in eastern North Carolina we can have produce from our own gardens year round. You might not get corn and melons in winter, but you’ll get some of the sweetest carrots and crunchiest broccoli you’ll ever eat. Also, it really picks up ones spirits in the winter to see things growing.

 

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

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Here in the south, fall is a great time to landscape


We are all accustomed to planting in the spring. There are many reasons for this, but is it really the best time for long term plant survival? I guess that depends on a lot of things. There is no easy answer.

On the downside plant availability is better in the spring. Garden centers know then they sell most of their plant material and that is in the spring. That often means nurseries have healthier plants at their disposal then.

However, stress on newly installed plants is much less in fall around here. Growth of leaves and stems slows down and goes dormant. Trees and shrubs require less water when they enter dormancy. Watering becomes less critical than it is in spring. In short, it’s easier to take care of new landscaping.

Another reason to plant in the fall is below ground. Root growth is much more vigorous in fall. This only makes sense. Soils are warm and they take longer to cool than air temperatures because water has a high heat capacity.

Because of this, roots continue to grow well into the fall. They put down a network for water absorption that will help with the following summer’s heat stress. In our area summer stresses most plants more than winter does. Winter rarely damages deciduous trees and shrubs at all unless soils are too wet.

Plants can become stressed in winter, particularly when they are marginally hardy. I’d be hesitant to plant zone 8 plants too late in the fall. Certain evergreen shrubs or trees like eucalyptus should become established well before they must face cold winter winds. In northern climates this effect is even greater.

Another negative to planting in the fall is that the job generally looks less spectacular. Usually plantings aren’t as colorful as most flowers are dying back. Patience is definitely a virtue here. Plants will jump in the spring.

Incorporating fall flowering plants like mums, pansies and ornamental kale can spice things up. Encore azaleas have been a nice fall color addition. Most perennials like hosta, iris and daylily are best divided and replanted in the fall.

Spring flowering bulbs are planted in fall but they have no immediate impact. Bulbs should never be planed too early in the fall or they might break dormancy and not flower properly.

Around here, tulips are rarely successful over the long term as deer love them. Hyacinths generally aren’t too successful either. Narcissus species like daffodils and paper whites are another matter. They grow fabulously around here and they come back year after year. Deer won’t eat them either.

On balance, I think fall is a great time to plant, especially the basic framework. It’s also cooler and easier on the person doing the planting. For most trees, shrubs and perennials I’d say survival is better under conditions of less care.

Supplementing plantings with spring color is always a plus. Besides, after going through winter I know I’m not the only one who wants to add a little color to the picture. Spring annuals can spice up any landscaping.

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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More and more people are discovering lemongrass


When we think of herbs, usually culinary uses come to mind first. We generally learn about other values later. Lemongrass is a fine example and the name fits. You can’t miss the lemon scent.

Lemongrass contains chemicals used to repel mosquitoes. Many people even confuse citronella grass for lemongrass. The essential oils are extracted the same way and the aroma is somewhat similar. Stem bases of citronella grass are somewhat reddish while they are faint green on lemongrass. Lemongrass stems are often red though.

Lemongrass is an herb I always associate with aromatherapy and medicinal uses. However, it’s also a delectable cooking herb. Its upright flowing growth habit makes it a good fit in many ornamental situations. So where do we start?

Let’s first discuss how to grow it. Lemongrass is a hardy annual or tender perennial, depending upon your perspective. It’s marginally hardy in zone 8. Elizabeth City is zone 8. That said, I think we have to consider it an annual here, much like purple fountain grass.

Lemongrass will achieve heights of six feet when plants live through the winter. It’s likely to grow about half that when it needs to be planted from seedlings every year. Another option is to dig some clumps of it, cut them back and keep them as houseplants in a sunny window in the winter. More or less let them remain dormant, only watering to keep the soil somewhat moist.

Plants require full sun and they thrive in the heat. Flowering would be extremely rare in our area as plants bloom late. Fall frosts would have already caused them to go dormant.

This herb grows best in well-drained soils, but it tolerates lots of moisture. In fact, it requires adequate water for rapid growth. When in active growth lemongrass benefits from adequate nitrogen too.

Lemongrass is great in marinades, especially for fish. Young tender leaves or stem bases seem to work best. Leaves are also great to season items on the grill. Some folks use it in stir-fry. Still others make a lemon tea from the leaves or stem bases. I’m only scratching the surface here. Culinary uses abound.

Medicinally, Lemongrass is used for treating digestive system problems, high blood pressure, convulsions, vomiting, cough, arthritis, fever and exhaustion. It also has antimicrobial properties. Some people use essential oil preparations externally to control muscle pain and headache.

Lemongrass essential oil is used as aromatherapy to treat muscle pain and the common cold. Aroma therapists claim it reduces stress, lessens insomnia and relieves general pain. The essential oil is also used in perfumes, soaps and many other general hygiene products.

I probably get more questions about the effectiveness of lemongrass, citronella and many of the scented geraniums as mosquito and tick repellants than any other use. I’m still not totally sold. Yes, they certainly have value, but plant concentration must be high.

Frequent retreatment is necessary to keep these critters away. Continued research will likely improve that. One thing is for sure. The pleasing scent is better than any of the repellants on the market.

Pot of leggy lemongrass that should have been planted

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

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Cicadas are a lot more than noisy insects


My first real experience with cicadas was back in the mid-60s in Maine. I remember riding my bicycle really fast down a hill and getting smacked in the face by one of the noisy red eyed critters. It hit me hard and I was lucky to maintain my balance. I’d never seen that many of them before, but that year they were everywhere.

Checking the history that year must have been 1965. That was a year of the 17 year cicada. They emerge in droves every 17 years. The last time they invaded that area was 2013.

This year they emerged in West Virginia and I was there in 1982 when you could sweep them up in garbage can loads. I visited by brother-in-law last year when they emerged again. There’s a brood that emerged in North Carolina this year, but I haven’t seen many.

Cicadas can be destructive, but they are very intriguing insects. Many people incorrectly call them locusts, but they don’t swarm and consume every green object like grasshoppers do.  Some have an annual life cycle and some emerge every 13 or 17 years, depending upon the species and locale. Emerging adults find something to land on so they can dry their wings. Sometimes they light on people’s clothing.

This is nothing to be concerned about. They won’t bite or sting. In fact, adult cicadas don’t eat anything at all. They drink water, procreate and make a lot of noise, at least the males do. Adult cicada males are the noisiest insects in the world. They can be heard from a half mile away. Adults only live about a month.

The periodic cicadas are the most intriguing in my opinion. They live underground for years and then all of a sudden, when the soil temperature at about an eight inch depth reaches 64 degrees they tunnel out.

They don’t hibernate. Cicadas just have a slow metabolism and exist on a diet of tree roots. They don’t actually eat the roots. They suck the sap from them.

Once they emerge, the cicadas aren’t adults yet, unfortunately for us. Immature cicadas do like to eat and damage trees, particularly hardwood trees. Soon thousands of exoskeletons become attached to trees and just about anything else that doesn’t move.

Once adults, females lay up to 400 eggs on twigs in trees. These eggs hatch in about six weeks. Young nymphs start to grow by sucking plant sap. Nymphs eventually burrow into the ground and subsist on a diet of root sap, which has less sugar and fewer nutrients.

Burrowing into the soil; is a good survival practice. Numerous animals like to eat cicadas. Some people even like them. Fat white nymphs are the biggest delicacy. Adults are plentiful but not really in demand.

Popular ways to eat them are roasted or sautéed in olive oil. Only hardcore bug nuts eat them raw. Those with shellfish allergies should avoid them.

I like to collect wild foods but will refrain from eating cicadas unless I become lost in a desolate place and pickings are slim. I wouldn’t want to deprive the wildlife of such a fine low-carb gluten-free food source anyway.

cidada resting on the hot concrete

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

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Basil is probably the most popular herb for gardeners.


For the last few weeks I’ve profiled perennial herbs. No herb garden would be complete without adding this annual one. Basil is probably grown by more gardeners than any other herbs.

There are so many different types and cultivars of basil it’s mindboggling. There’s purple ruffles basil, lemon basil, cinnamon basil, lime basil, dark opal basil, Thai basil and the list goes on. They all may have different textures, colors and aromas, but all have the distinctive flavor that turn a tomato dish into a delicacy.

If this sounds good, you’re in luck. Basil is easy to grow. Well drained soil with a slightly acid pH is necessary, but that can easily be obtained through some soil amendments or a container or raised bed. Basil is a moderate nutrient user, so some fertilization will be in order.

Whether direct seeding or setting out plants, don’t be in a hurry to plant your basil outdoors. Soil temperatures should be well into the 50s and dangers of frost should have passed. Basil does not tolerate frost well, especially when young.

Basil likes warm temperatures, so don’t stress it by bringing pots outside too soon. They shouldn’t be fertilized if temperatures are cool, either. Fertilizer should only be added when plants are in active growth.

Also, this plant, like many herbs, thrives from pruning. Seed heads should never be allowed to develop unless you plan to collect seed. When flowers develop they steal some of the energy from the plant. If you’re growing basil for the table you should constantly deadhead it.

Basil can be grown indoors. Light is going to be the biggest obstacle in this environment. Basil grows best in full sun and that’s not available indoors. Therefore, the sunniest window is the place to keep this aromatic herb. Fertilization should be dialed back indoors too.

Most people prefer fresh basil, and for some dishes it’s necessary, but basil dries well. You will probably not notice much difference in most sauces. Salads, pesto and other fresh uses call for fresh basil.

When most folks think of basil culinary uses come to mind. However, basil is a popular medicinal herb too. Uses vary from treating digestive disorders to intestinal worms, to insect and snake bites.

Basil also contains significant amounts of flavonoids and anthocyanins, two major groups of antioxidants. It also contains significant amounts of Vitamin K, but instead of helping to clot blood basil can inhibit it. This is likely due to Basil’s high amounts of essential oils.

Basil essential oils are also used to help treat high blood pressure. This is something to consider when taking blood pressure medicines. It might get too low.

Don’t let any of this scare you. Always consult with your medical professional if you have concerns. However, when I refer to medicinal uses, I’m normally talking about doses that would far exceed anything one would ingest by simply consuming the plant in cooking. These essential oils are extracted and concentrated. It won’t hurt your pet if he gets into your basil patch either.

Leggy lemon basil mixed in with other herbs

Basil plant that should have been deadheaded

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

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