Optimists hope frigid winter temperatures might quell bugs


Whenever we have a mild winter folks complain that mosquitoes and other insect pests will be worse. This past January we had some of the coldest temperatures in several years. People have asked me if that weather might have a silver lining. It’s wishful thinking.

Think about it. I’m originally from Maine where the mercury plummets far more than it does here. Mosquitoes are worse too. I’ve heard they are especially bad in Alaska also, and it’s much colder there. Standing water is the key to high mosquito populations, so if we have a wet spring we can expect more of the ravenous blood sucking devils. If it’s dry in April and May, we might have fewer.

I hate to be a wet blanket, but the same goes for most crop pests. Spring weather influences pest populations much more than winter weather does. Even without the protection of a few feet of snow, frigid temperatures in our area have virtually no effect on crop pests either. Don’t expect the near zero temperatures to deminish the corn borers in your garden this summer.

Long-term cool temperatures have a greater impact. All arthropods are what we commonly call “cold blooded.” Their body temperature depends on their environment. If it’s warm they are active. Cool temperatures cause them to be lethargic. If it were to be cool during March, April and May, many pests would not reproduce at the same rates they normally do. Cold temperatures would certainly create other problems, however.

Moisture is far more important to bug populations than temperature, particularly past temperatures. Many insects overwinter in soil. Dry conditions are generally not suited for their survival.

Too much water will benefit mosquitoes, but it will harm populations of other insects. Ants and other things that basically live underground would be negatively impacted.

Temperature has little to do with diseases that harm plants either. Controlling plant pests is more effective with proper culture and sanitation. Many diseases are made worse because infected tissue remains in the field and the same crop is planted the following spring.

For a disease to manifest itself three factors must be present. Without a susceptible host, a virulent pathogen and a favorable environment a disease could not occur. However, removing all plant residue is usually unnecessary.

Cover crops can cause what I refer to as a microflora civil war. Different microorganisms compete for resources and often the beneficial ones outcompete the pathogenic ones. It doesn’t always work in some agricultural situations, but that’s basically how nature works.

On the positive side, bees and other beneficial insects shouldn’t be bothered by this winter either. Both predators like lady beetles and praying mantis along with parasites like many wasps should be out there killing the bad guys. Pollinators should be doing their thing too.

Since we’re disposing of myths, woolly worms don’t forecast coming temperatures. They’re an indication of what’s already happened. The more they have molted, the browner they become. Different species also have different patterns. Some naturally are more brown while others are more black. Direction of travel is a myth too. Northward crawling caterpillars do not forecast a mild winter. Sorry.

 

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

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Honey has many sweet uses


Nearly everyone has used honey as a sweetener. It is far sweeter per gram than table sugar. That means fewer calories per serving.

About thirty-five years ago I remember watching my future father-in-law dehorning cattle. After tying off exposed bleeding blood vessels he lathered the exposed tissue with honey. At the time I as perplexed and skeptical. I assumed the sugary substance would draw flies or at least provide a substrate for microbial growth.

I was wrong. The sores healed perfectly with no evidence of infection. Honey sealed off the wounds and kept them dry.

The only previous experience I had using honey as a medicinal substance was when my mother mixed it with glycerin, ginger and bourbon for cough syrup. As a kid I thought the only reason the honey was in there was to make it sweet, so we wouldn’t spit it out.

Honey contains compounds that are naturally antimicrobial. One of these is hydrogen peroxide. Honey is also acidic with an average pH of about 3.5 to 3.9. That in and of itself inhibits most bacterial growth.

For this reason, honey is often incorporated in soaps and shampoos. It’s also a component of many body lotions.

Honey also contains antioxidant enzymes and flavonoids, which are also antioxidants. Antioxidants reduce stress on our bodies. Buckwheat honey, a particularly dark type, has very high antioxidant properties.

One thing to remember though is that all honey is not the same. Even all raw honey isn’t the same. Consuming pasteurized honey will destroy vitamins and other antioxidants found in honey. Processed honey is prettier, but many of the natural benefits are lost.

Despite containing many different compounds, honey is still largely a sugar rich substance. However, type II diabetics need not totally abandon its use. Some research has shown honey to improve insulin resistance. This means sugar is transferred from the blood to the cells more efficiently, which is good.

Other researchers claim there is not a bump in insulin resistance, so more research is needed. It’s important to keep in mind that honey is basically a mix of sugars. Large quantities aren’t good for diabetics. Honey possibly could pose fewer problems than refined sugar or artificial sweeteners, but sugar is sugar.

Pretty much everything I’ve read advises not to feed honey to children under a year old. This is due to the potential of botulism or reaction to any of the myriad of chemicals found in honey in trace amounts. Babies do not have a developed immune system capable of dealing with impurities that would have no effect on adults.

It’s a shame there are no significant wild bee populations today. Forty years ago, robbing bee trees and filtering the honey was a fun pastime. A disease spread by mites and imprudent pesticide use has eliminated wild bees in many places.

The mite problem might be a difficult fix, but more careful and timely application of pesticides can help save bees. Spraying when bees are active is a problem and we should try to adjust out treatment to accommodate the bees.

 

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Much of our landscaping has been hit hard by cold weather


Ever since the first of the year we’ve experienced strange weather in eastern North Carolina. A few days have been warm. We’ve even seen temperatures in the 70s, but most of it has been cold. Many folks have experienced frozen water lines. Landscaping has been hit hard too.

We’ve had two significant snowstorms already this year. People from Great Lake or New England areas might not consider these snowstorms major, but here in eastern North Carolina it’s a big deal.

It’s not just the snow. Single digit temperatures have been commonplace since the year began. One night it was around zero. Some people don’t realize it, but having snow on the ground actually might have helped us. The insulation provided by a few inches of snow might have saved a few pipes and plants.

Snow can make some plant problems worse, however. It’s more difficult for animals to find food. Mice, deer and rabbits can eat the bark and buds. That can kill trees and shrubs.

At this point there’s really nothing we can do about our plants but wait until spring. Damage has been done. Problems will only be compounded by dealing with them now. That includes trying to repair trees that have been split carrying the weight of snow and ice.

Many evergreens have a lot of bronze colored leaves. They might come out of it, but I’m skeptical. Osmanthus and Indian hawthorn have been particularly hard hit. Many hollies in the area show signs of winter damage. However, damage will only be exacerbated if we try to treat the shrubbery now.

In spring we can assess them. That means scraping the stems with a knife or fingernail. If the bark is still tight and green that means that portion of the stem is still alive. If the bark slips off easily and is brown then that part of the stem is dead.

Some large shrubs like wax myrtle can show bronzing and have many broken branches from snow load. The good thing here is that they will not only tolerate, they will thrive from severe pruning in spring. Other shrubs will die if pruned severely.

Most conifers won’t tolerate renewal pruning. Leyland cypress, Cryptomeria, arborvitae and all the pines will not grow back when severely pruned. If they have been severely damaged they need to be removed.

Even deciduous plants should not be pruned now, especially spring blooming ones. Trimming them back into shape will only serve to limit their flowering. Let them flower and then shape them. This also is true for fruit trees.

I think most of our winter damaged plants will recover. However, many of us try to stretch the hardiness zone a little and this year we’re likely to get burned. It’s fun to grow plants like Eucalyptus, banana, and some of the palms, but eventually a winter like this one comes along and plants get damaged.

The main thing to remember is that what’s done is done. Now is not the time to try to doctor those plants. Wait until spring when it’s more comfortable. We’re getting close here.

I think my gardenia might be toast

I’ve never seen Vinca major with this much winter damage this far south.

Snow may have saved the base of this Indian Hawthorn.

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

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Pussy willows tell us spring is on the way


I know we’ve had some rough weather for this area. We’ve had substantial damage to some of our landscaping too. However, some shrubs have begun to awaken from their slumber. I’m speaking of pussy willows (Salix sp.). There are many species of them.

Pussy willows are hardy shrubs to small trees and they’re not common around here. We’re on the southern reaches of their range. These plants with the furry grayish flower buds are one of the first woody plants to break winter dormancy. I was at the Asheboro zoo in late January and the pussy willows were near their peak of attractiveness.

Some plants were showier than others. As you might suspect, they are a dioecious species, meaning entire plants are either male or female. This might come as a surprise, but male plants are generally more dramatic than female ones.

The furry buds are protected by a single bud scale. This silvery grayish material protects the male or female flower parts until later in the season when the pollen matures and is spread by insects. At this time the hairs wither and flowers become yellowish green and unattractive.

Pussy willows are a fast growing species. They also thrive in full sun to partial shade and are a terrific landscape choice in wet areas. They also naturalize well at the edge of wooded areas or along streams. As one might expect, willows tolerate wet places very well.

These plants are great for informal landscaping. They require very little pruning, but they can be shaped to form attractive specimen plants or a hedge, especially if one wants a tall hedge.

They are also extremely easy to propagate. Simply stick a piece or dormant branch into the ground and it will most likely grow. It’s that easy, at least on moist soils. They are not the best choice on dry sites.

Another advantage of pussy willow is that since it flowers so early it is one of the few food sources for pollinators in the late winter and early spring. Believe it or not, pollinators and nectar feeders are out when we have a stretch or mild winter days.

Butterflies and songbirds love the flowers. Songbirds thin the insects that flock there as part of their winter food. Hummingbirds often use the furry stuff from them to line their nests.

As with most willows, pussy willow has extensive roots. This makes it great for conservation purposes but bad if planted near septic tanks and leach fields.

At this time of year when the flower buds are showy they can be cut and used in floral arrangements and other crafts. They also can be preserved by drying. Dried pussy willow branches maintain their attractiveness for a long time.

As is the case with other willows, the bark of pussy willow can be made into an analgesic tea. All willows contain varying amounts of salicylic acid, an aspirin derivative.

As with all collected herbal medication, use caution. It’s difficult to know how much active ingredient you’re ingesting. If you are sensitive to aspirin you should avoid it altogether. Always consult your medical professional before trying anything new.

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Dementia is something we all worry about


I was racking my brain trying to come up with a timely column this week. Somebody suggested dementia. I laughed. After a little musing I decided it was a fair topic to discuss.

I’ve noticed memory lapses, particularly short-term in myself. I don’t know whether most of it is real or imagined, but I’m concerned just like many people my age are. Loss of hearing and close range focusing also are an irritation.

I realize these are normal effects of aging and not specifically related to dementia. Still, I wonder how many people wind up with dementia after being told they are simply getting older. I don’t want to sound like a hypochondriac, but I think this is a topic we all should respect. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

There are many herbal treatments and I’ve alluded to several in other columns. Turmeric and ginkgo are two. Rosemary is another. In addition, we have all seen the Prevagen commercials.

Prevagen is a preparation from a type of jellyfish. One of the active ingredients is a chemical called apoaequorin. Conflicting information convinces me it is not a silver bullet for this problem. Potential side-effects are numerous too. The commercial preparation is also quite expensive.

CoQ10 is also a commonly referenced supplement. Numerous commercials extol this chemical. Take a walk down the aisles of any pharmacy for proof. Dozens of companies produce their version of coq10 and make huge claims.

Most of the claims for CoQ10 revolve around heart health. However, increased blood flow means more oxygen to the brain cells, and that correlates with better brain function.

Like many maladies that degrade us over time, finding a panacea is probably a longshot. That doesn’t mean we stop trying. It also doesn’t mean we abandon trying to live a healthy lifestyle.

We ingest foods every day that have high antioxidant properties. Antioxidant rich foods are important to proper health, especially when it relates to our nervous systems. Also, we don’t ever have to worry about getting too many water soluble antioxidants. Our bodies won’t store them very long. Brightly colored berries and other fruits are always good.

Exercise is never a bad thing. Neither is a balanced diet with as few processed foods as possible. Leafy green vegetables contain large amounts of folic acid. Folic acid is one nutrient often listed as helpful for lessening the effects of Alzheimer’s.

Wild caught fish like salmon contain large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids and they are recommended for any diet, especially for those fighting this problem. Vitamin D is also richly referenced in the literature. As one might expect from this, many medical professionals also recommend that patients spend some time outdoors.

Reading and writing are also widely recommended to reduce the effects of this problem. Those are things we all can do and they don’t really cost anything. Any activities that stimulate our brains can only help us.

I am not a medical professional. I don’t pretend to be. These are just my opinions. I expect that continued research will lead to earlier and more accurate diagnoses. That’s something we can all look forward to as we get older.

 

 

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

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Feeding birds is a fun winter pastime


Birds will visit a feeder any time of the year, but winter is when we notice them most. Maybe it’s because they have less available food. Maybe it’s because there’s less leaf canopy to conceal them. Maybe it’s because we have fewer diversions ourselves, so we watch the birds.

My grandfather probably fed at least 300 pounds of bird seed and another 40 pounds of suet each winter. I realize Maine winters are harsher than North Carolina winters, but that’s still a lot of bird feed.

His favorite birds were black capped chickadees and he had them eating out of his hand. He also loved nuthatches, goldfinches, downy woodpeckers and mourning doves. He wasn’t crazy over evening grosbeaks or blue jays but he had plenty of them too.

Most bird lovers have their favorites. Our state bird, the cardinal, is very conspicuous because of its bright red color. Other birds like finches and bluebirds are popular too. Some folks like nuthatches and Carolina wrens. Very few people wish to attract starlings, grackles and pigeons.

The problem most bird enthusiasts face is luring desired birds and discouraging ones that bully others or are just plain messy. This can be a complicated problem. It’s difficult to attract birds not living near your feeder already. Feeders also need to be filled with the right kind of feed.

Generally speaking, inexpensive feeds containing corn, millet, sorghum, wheat and sunflower seeds will attract birds most people don’t want. Also, feeding seeds that generate trash like whole sunflower seeds can draw rats and mice. Hulled sunflower seeds won’t do this but they are more expensive. Regular cleaning under feeders usually eliminates the problem too.

Many desired birds enjoy sunflower seeds and these seeds are very available. Cardinals, nuthatches, finches, woodpeckers, Carolina chickadees, titmice and blue jays hit them hard.

Blue jays often hit other songbirds hard too, so many bird enthusiasts discourage them. Jays don’t like black oil sunflower seeds as much as they do the large striped ones, so these smaller ones might be a better choice.

Safflower seeds are often a good feed selection. They attract popular birds like cardinals, white-throated sparrows, finches and doves. Squirrels and starlings don’t really like them.

Nyjer, commonly called thistle seed is a popular choice for finches and other small birds. These seeds are not related to thistles but they look a little like thistle seeds. They are dark colored, slender and about a quarter inch long. Cardinals and larger songbirds usually leave them alone.

Suet feeders are popular for attracting wrens, nuthatches and woodpeckers. Cardinals, finches, titmice, chickadees and doves like suet too.

My biggest problem with feeding suet is that many undesired guests appear. It’s a magnet for starlings, grackles and red-winged blackbirds. Even worse, rodents, possums, skunks and raccoons love that greasy stuff which often becomes rancid.

Numerous options abound for feeding birds. Watching birds at a feeder is almost like having pets without all that responsibility. Sure, they don’t respond to you like a dog or cat, but you can gradually gain their trust.

 

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

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Cast iron plant is tough inside and out


I run into so many people who love houseplants but just don’t have enough light for them. It’s also difficult to find plants that will truly thrive in the shade outdoors. Cast iron plant is one that can do both year-round.

Hardy to zone 7, cast iron plant is tough and versatile. It survives a wide temperature range. Its only weakness is too much sun, which will result in leaf scorch. This is rarely a problem indoors, but outside plants must grow in full shade.

Cast iron plants belong to the genus Aspidistra. There are about 100 different species in the genus but the most common is Aspidistra elatior. Most commonly encountered cast iron plants are of this species.

This species is a slow grower, but it lives a long time. For that reason cast iron plant is not common in nurseries, since

rapid reproduction usually means more profit. This is one of those plants often passed down from generation to generation.

While these plants grow slowly they are very easy to propagate. Plants produce many rhizomes and making divisions from them is easy.

Also, since cast iron plant is a slow grower it requires little water or fertilizer. Too much of either will not make it grow faster. In fact, too much fertilizer will make variegated types turn totally green.

This is a perfect plant for a college dorm room. They flourish from neglect and won’t suffer from being left on a cold dry window sill in between semesters. They tolerate it much better than that goldfish does.

Also, unlike many houseplants this one isn’t toxic to humans or animals, so it’s safe in any interior situation. Though not poisonous, it’s not edible either. Several sources state it has medicinal properties, but it isn’t a widely used medicinal plant.

Plants aren’t flashy. Leaves are dark green and have a rough textured appearance. Some types are variegated. Leaves look a little like peace lily foliage. However, plants rarely flower and when they do the flowers are often unnoticed.

If you’re lucky enough to see them, the flowers are really cool looking. They are usually purple or red and have very short stalks. Most flowers are eight pointed. Being borne close to the ground, flowers are pollinated by slugs and crawling insects.

Cast iron plants have few problems with insects or diseases. Spider mites and mealybugs are common pests but they usually don’t harm these tough guys as much as they do most plants.

If cast iron plants become infested you can take them outside and spray them with a water hose. This is a good way to whisk the dust off too. These plants can take the beating.

When planted outdoors cast iron plants are perfect under the dense shade of oak trees. Plants tolerate the light early in the season before the tree canopy develops. After that they require very little care and don’t need to be divided very often.

Plants thrive in well-drained soil but will tolerate soggy clay soil too. Extended periods of flooding can cause their downfall though.

Cast iron plants in above ground pots after several nights in the single digits

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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