Food lover’s holiday

There’s no holiday that stimulates the palate quite like Thanksgiving. Oh, I know food shouldn’t be our reason for looking forward to it. Despite the problems our citizens face we still have plenty to be thankful for, and I hope we never forget why we celebrate the holiday. It’s more than a time to stuff ourselves.

That said, it’s hard not to look forward to the food. It seems each region of the country has its own traditional staples. Turkey generally finds its way into most homes regardless of the locale, but the way we prepare it might vary a little.

Since deep fried turkey is largely cooked outside it stands to reason it is more popular in warmer regions. Louisiana and Kentucky were the first states to document the technique about 80 years ago. In California, grilled turkey is quite popular, and that tradition is spreading. It’s pretty common around here.

Collards are a major tradition in the south. It seems you can find them anywhere this time of year, but I never ate them growing up in Maine. We never had sweet potato biscuits or pecan pie either. Boiled onions and turnips were always on the table. I like both vegetables, but I never cared for either cooked that way. Raw or grilled suit my palate much better. We always had plenty of sweet apple cider, which I do relish.

Stuffed lobster is a Maine tradition, but it was too pricy for our Thanksgiving meal. Besides, we didn’t live on the coast where it was more prevalent and part of local culture. Mussels are popular holiday fare in many northern coastal places too.

For dessert, pumpkin and sweet potato pies are interchangeable. In fact, many can’t tell the difference, but pumpkin is more popular further north. We could grow pumpkins in Maine, but the season was too short for sweet potatoes. Whether used as a dessert, casserole or vegetable, sweet potatoes are as common on a southern Thanksgiving table as winter squash is on a New England one.

When I lived in West Virginia, mincemeat was a popular Thanksgiving treat. Pies were the usual use, but my mother-in-law made great mincemeat cookies. They were always loaded with freshly collected black walnuts and shagbark hickory nuts. Apple pie, green beans, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes and gravy always adorned her table too.

Stuffing seems to be a staple everywhere, but cornbread stuffing seems to be more popular here than wheat bread or rice-based types. Blue cornbread stuffing is popular in southwestern places. It’s usually spiced a little hotter too. We always stuffed our bird when I was young, but that is frowned upon now. The flavor and moistness were tough to beat though, and it’s funny how we never got sick. Maybe we had better immune systems back in the day.

In Texas and other border states Mexican-style cooking abounds. They sport a different pumpkin dish on the Thanksgiving table. Pumpkin empanadas are miniature pumpkin pie-like tarts. Corn pudding is a Midwestern tradition. When in Hawaii expect Thanksgiving dishes spiced with coconut, papaya, pineapple, macadamia nuts and other local staples. You might even find recipes incorporating spam.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Cranberries can be an all season treat

Most people only eat cranberries at Thanksgiving or maybe Christmas. When they do find their way to our plates they’re usually smothered with sugar. If people only knew the benefits of this tart fruit they might try eating them more often and more naturally.

Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) are native to much of the Northeastern part of North America. Sunny places with moist sandy acidic soil are necessary for them to thrive. Growth requirements are quite specific. Soil pH should be no higher than 5.0, which is far too acid for most plants. Additionally, plants are shallow rooted and not drought tolerant, so water must always be abundant. Wild ones can be found in isolated areas in our area and in the mountains of western North Carolina but we are at the southern edge of their range.

Plants are very low growing. Often mature plants are less than two feet tall, so they can be easily shaded by taller and more aggressive species. Tiny oblong leaves emerge singly on creeping stems. Most branches creep along the ground but the ones that produce fruit are upright.

These delicate wiry vines produce their bounty in late fall. Cranberry season generally lasts from October until December. Each berry contains four seeds. Fruits are very acidic in taste, having a pH in the range of 2.3 to 2.5. Throughout the summer the developing cranberries are white, and they stay that way for a long time. White fruits should generally be avoided. Many people who see unripe cranberries think they are poisonous.

When these berries ripen they are not only edible, but they are among the healthiest fruits you can find. Only blueberries have higher levels of antioxidants. Interestingly, both belong to the same family. Cranberries are rich in vitamin C, E, K and fiber. They only contain about 50 calories in a one cup serving. That assumes you eat them raw without sugar, something many find hard to do.

These bright red fruits have strong antibacterial properties and are helpful for treating urinary tract infections. Part of the reason is that they turn urine acidic and bacteria generally struggle in acidic environments.  Acidity also helps prevent formation of alkaline calcium ammonium phosphate stones in the urinary tract.

Cranberries do contain significant levels of oxalates, which could contribute to Calcium oxalate stones, however. Not all kidney stones are the same. High levels of vitamin K also could be a problem for people on blood thinning medicines.

Cranberries can keep in the refrigerator for up to two months. They also freeze well. While I’ve raved about their fresh use, they are also a great addition to your favorite apple pie recipe. Add cooked cranberries to your apple sauce too. They add flavor and color. They’re super in salads too, fresh or dried.

These red morsels should be part of our diet all year, not just at Thanksgiving and Christmas, though that is when they are most plentiful. Learn to appreciate their tart flavor and give these powerful disease fighting vitamin packed fruits a spot on your table all year.

small bunch of cranberries all cleaned up and ready for use

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Catnip and catmint are confusing cousins

To most folks they are interchangeable. Catnip and catmint are closely related perennial herbs in the mint family. If I had to state their greatest deference it would be that catmint has more ornamental value. Catnip is more of a medicinal herb.

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) and catmint (other Nepeta species distinctly different from N. cararia) both thrive in full sun and both can tolerate significant drought once established. Neither tolerates acid soil particularly well, and both prefer well-drained conditions. In our area, long periods of hot humid days can be problematic.

Catmint varieties normally grow 12-18 inches tall, while catnip might reach heights of more than four feet. Catnip also tolerates shade better. Both are very winter hardy.

These mints have tooth edged leaves that emerge in groups of two. Stems are square, and both have sprawling growth habits. Both are easily propagated by seed or stem cuttings. Seeds are very small and produced in large numbers.

Catmint also blooms more profusely. During summer it can be a sea of purple. Catnip has far more foliage, is more stemmy and sports short spikes of lavender flowers.

These herbs attract hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators. Deer avoid them. In fact, some people plant catnip and catmint simply to repel deer. However, in areas with dense cat populations it’s sometimes difficult to get these perennial herbs established. Cats will roll in them and root them out.

These pungent herbs belong to the genus Nepeta and contain the compound nepetalactone. This is what drives cats crazy. The chemical is somewhat stronger in catnip than catmint.

Though people have told me differently, from everything I’ve read, no corroborating evidence exists that catnip has lasting long-term effects on cats. However, nepetalactone will alter their personality in the short term. Many cats aren’t affected that way, and some show no interest in it at all.

Some research claims catnip and catmint to be effective insect repellants. However, their effectiveness is short-lived. Constant re-applications are necessary. I’ve heard these herbs can be planted around barns to keep rats and mice away. I suspect that’s mostly because the plants would draw cats.

As far as humans go, both these herbs are commonly used. Catmint makes a relaxing herbal tea. Most folks might want to sweeten it. Both mints are used in cooking, but flavor can be overpowering in large amounts.

Leaves can also be eaten raw in salads. It’s my opinion that the smell of catnip is better than the taste. In concentrated doses it can be used to promote vomiting. If that doesn’t sound appetizing, sometimes catnip preparations are applied directly to the skin to relieve pain.

Both catnip and catmint are used as diuretics. They increase urine flow. Lithium is used to treat bipolar disorder, depression, schizophrenia and some eating disorders.  Catmint or catnip use can interact and limit how the body rids itself of excess lithium. That’s not good.

Catnip is often used as a sedative to cause drowsiness. This could pose a problem for people already taking medication for this. It’s always critical to consult your medical professional before embarking on any new herbal medication regimen.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Dianthus provide a wide variety of great cool-season flowers

When folks ask about dianthus I smile. It’s like asking a kid if he likes candy bars. The obvious answer is yes, but there are so many different kinds to choose from.

Dianthus is a genus with a great variety of members. Their common name is ‘pink’, but many are not that color. All pinks have flowers with ragged edges, almost like their petals have been attacked by pinking shears.

Dianthus are carnation relatives. In our area, most are perennial, but many types are marketed as annuals. Numerous varieties are even winter hardy when planted in containers in eastern North Carolina.

Some types have solitary flowers, usually a couple inches or more across and can be from six inches to over two feet tall. These are what we generally call carnations (Dianthus caryophyllus).

. They can be grown in perennial gardens and are often used as cut flowers. Carnations have been cultivated for many centuries and are a florist industry staple.

Some true carnations have much smaller flowers, so we call them dianthus and not carnations. We usually reserve the carnation name for the large flowered types, whether they are tall or not.

A second old time type is called Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus). These are popular because they are easily established from seed. Sweet Williams are true biennials, but we usually treat them as perennials, because they re-seed themselves so freely.

A biennial is a plant that completes its life-cycle in two years. They produce a strong root system with plenty of stored energy in their first year, and they flower and go to seed in the second. Copious amounts of seed mean many new plants and the appearance of being perennial.

Cheddar pinks (Dianthus grataniapolitensis) and maiden pinks (Dianthus deltoides) are two other perennial types commonly used in gardens. Maiden pinks provide a delicate texture and pleasant fragrance. Cheddar pinks bestow a mass of color to a planting. Most varieties are pink.

Cheddar pinks are often used as ground covers and they form dense patches. In our summer heat they usually struggle unless soils are sandy, or they are planted in raised beds.

Another type of pink is annual dianthus (Dianthus chinensis). This is somewhat of a

misnomer, as in northeastern North Carolina most are perennial. Some cultivars don’t persist more than a few years, but they still come back in the spring. This type usually flowers heavily.

In our locale, all dianthus species thrive and flower more heavily in cooler weather. They also perform better in sunny well-drained soils. I think that’s why they do so well in large pots with coarse artificial mix.

Dianthus flowers are also edible and are sometimes used to decorate salads. They make a delicate flavored tea too. The upper portion of the petals have sweet pleasant taste. Petal bases can be bitter. Years ago, dianthus species were widely used medicinally. They aren’t anymore.

When I was a kid I remember farm animals trying to steal Captain Kangaroo’s carnation. I assumed that meant plants were palatable, but deer and other animals usually leave them alone. I guess I can’t rely on memories from 55 plus years ago.

Dianthus showing the tooth-edged petals

Marketed as annual dianthus, it is perennial in eastern North Carolina.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Snapdragons are an underused cool-season flower

Nearly everyone who desires fall color in their yards in eastern North Carolina plants pansies and mums. A few grow ornamental cabbage and kale. They’re pretty, but I like variety, and snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) can provide a wide array of color and different texture to our fall plantings.

Some years they continue to bloom well into the winter. As with mums and most flowers, plants should be deadheaded to encourage more flowering. Once they set seed, blooming diminishes rapidly.

Snapdragons can often provide more than fall color. In our area they’re usually perennial, at least for a few years. They often don’t flower much during the hot summer months, but they perk up when temperatures cool. Some winters, like last year, wipe them out. Heavy fall mulching can help protect roots and nurse snaps until spring.

Another problem that limits their long-term survival is Pythium root rot. Several fungicides will control it, but usually we don’t do anything if they look healthy. Once symptoms appear, it might be too late.

Even if we treat snapdragons like annuals, they are still worth planting. Children love the way the flowers can be manipulated to open and close like they have jaws. They also add height to a planting or pot by the porch.

Snapdragons thrive in full sun, but they can grow in partial shade. They also must have well drained soil. Raised beds are preferred but not necessary.

Snapdragons are in the figwort family, which makes them kin to mullein and butterfly bush. They have flowers in long spikes much like those of gladiolus. Dwarf varieties are often only six to nine inches tall, while some types might be over four feet.

For those who like cut flowers, snapdragons could be for you. They persist in a vase for a long duration. The best time to cut them is when the florets are about half open and the top half are closed. Keep deadheading the bottom ones as they wither, and stems can stay blooming even longer.

Some floral designers collect dried snapdragon pods to use in arrangements. When dried, the pods look like little skulls, so they could be appropriate in Halloween arrangements.

Snapdragon flowers are also considered edible and are occasionally used to decorate salads. However, there are plenty more tasty flowers to eat. Yes, they make an attractive garnish, but they are too bitter as far as I’m concerned. That’s saying something, because I’m not a picky eater.

As far as medicinal use is concerned, parts of the snapdragon plant have been used over the years to treat various ailments. However, snapdragon is not a major player in the medicinal herbs industry anymore.

When considering pets, snapdragons are safe. Somebody told me recently that they heard snapdragons were toxic to dogs. That is incorrect. I don’t think dogs, even puppies, would want to eat the bitter flowers anyway.

It’s a little late this year, but in the future, I think snapdragons should be considered in fall plantings. As for myself, I get tired of nothing but mums and pansies.

Snapdragon plant offering companionship to a pumpkin

close-up of snapdragon flower

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Epsom salts are an old time and probably over-rated remedy

Over the years Epsom salt has been recommended to treat so many ailments it is mind boggling. For generations this simple chemical composed of magnesium sulfur and oxygen has been used on humans, livestock and plants.

Some gardeners swear by it. Many folks who grow tomatoes, peppers and roses seem particularly enamored by it. Epsom salts are used for fertilizer, disease and pest control. Blossom end rot, a major tomato disease, is said to be controlled by Epsom salts as are slugs and snails.

Historically, this simple molecule of magnesium sulfate has been used by livestock farmers too. It is also used topically and internally to treat human ailments. I admit I use it sometimes, too. The question becomes, “how much is fact and how much is fiction?”

When it comes to plant nutrition, the answer is mixed. Magnesium and sulfur are both essential plant nutrients. However, they are not needed in the same quantities as the big three: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. Magnesium is an important component of the chlorophyll molecule, so it stands to reason plants would benefit from it.

The problem is that unless magnesium and sulfur are insufficient in the soil, there is no advantage to adding more. Nutrients should be in balance.

As far as blossom end rot of tomatoes goes, there is little hard evidence that Epsom salts help control it. Calcium deficiency is more important for blossom end rot development, and higher magnesium often leads to less calcium uptake. Magnesium salts do little for slug and snail control, unless individual mollusks are contacted.

If too much is added to the soil, the soil could be temporarily poisoned. When residue remains on the leaves, too much water could be drawn from them and they would scorch. It’s important to calculate application rates of anything.

My father-in-law frequently used Epsom salts when doctoring cattle and sheep. He used it internally to treat constipation and grass tetany. Grass tetany results from insufficient magnesium. These are both appropriate and effective uses. Taking Epsom salts internally will help bowels move in people, too.

He also used Epsom salts topically on wounds to keep them from getting infected and to reduce swelling. Again, these are proven uses. However, soaking in water alone can be effective too, as can soaking in salt water.

I soak puncture wounds and splinters in hot Epsom salts. A hot bath with this compound often is recommended to reduce muscle aches. Hot soaking with magnesium sulfate is also a traditional remedy for athlete’s foot and toenail fungus. Cold Epson salt preparations are sometimes used to treat poison ivy and insect bites.

Many medical researchers feel that much of the relief of symptoms is psychosomatic. Patients think it will work, so it does. Maybe that’s why there are claims for so many different ailments.

While there is no hard evidence soaking in Epsom salts helps alleviate problems, there is also no indication of side-effects either. Furthermore, magnesium sulfate is cheap. Sometimes we pay big money for drugs or supplements and they don’t help either.

For some folks, this little box of Epsom salt can fix almost anything

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Pumpkins signal fall

It’s October, and while summer temperatures keep holding on fall weather is inevitable. Pumpkins are also on display. They are major decorative symbols of both Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Pumpkins find their way on nearly every porch in the fall. Some are carved. Some are painted. Some become the heads for scarecrows and such. Some just stand alone.

They also are a big attraction for our State Fair. I always look forward to seeing the biggest pumpkin. Often, they can be over a thousand pounds.

When I was a kid we raised a lot of pumpkins. Our summers in Maine were perfect. We never grew any that big, but we occasionally had them approach a hundred pounds. I was raised by depression era parents, so our biggest use for pumpkins was for food.

Decorative value was a distant second. Larger fruits never seemed to have the same cooking qualities, so we only planted a few of the large fruited types. I think my parents only grew them for us kids.

The growing season was too short for sweet potatoes, so pumpkins and squashes had to satisfy our taste for traditional holiday pies. We tried growing sweet potatoes a few times, but we didn’t have enough hot days to develop husky roots. We could grow pumpkins like crazy, and we ate a lot of pumpkin and squash pie.

All our pumpkins and squash were kept in the basement. It was heated, but much cooler than the rest of the house. We also kept a dehumidifier down there, so storage conditions for these fruits were pretty good. Pumpkins should be stored at about fifty to sixty degrees and moderate humidity. Extremely low humidity is not good, either.

We also saved some of our garden seeds, and we had an unusual breeding program for pumpkins and winter squash. As pumpkins and squash began to degrade we cut off bad spots and used the rest. We never wasted anything.

If more fruits got rotten places on them, we canned or froze the excess. We also cleaned up the seeds and roasted them in the oven. They make a tasty nutritious snack.

Eventually, we were left with only the soundest fruits. These were the ones we used as our seed for the following year. I know this isn’t a controlled experiment, but I believe over the years we improved the keeping ability of our pumpkins and winter squashes. We threw

very few of them away.

Modern day varieties are hybrids and not the open pollinated types of fifty years ago, so this technique would not be appropriate. Saving seeds is not practiced much anymore. Some people save heirloom tomatoes, peppers, beans and other fruits, but in general most people buy their garden seeds and plants, even heirloom ones.

As I drive down the road and observe all the pumpkins I can rest assured that cooler temperatures are on their way. I’m not saying setting pumpkins on your porch will hasten fall, but it can at least get us in the mood. The heat has got to break soon.

Plump pumpkin chilling with an agave

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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