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 (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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Does anyone remember horehound candy?


When I was young I remember eating this strange hard candy. A few of my elderly newspaper customers usually had it around. Whenever I had a cough, this one lady always gave me some. You’re supposed to suck on the candy, but I usually chewed them, so I doubt they helped my cough much.

That candy was called horehound, and it had a unique flavor. I characterize it as a cross between sassafras and Moxie soda, which is made from gentian root. I’m from Maine, so I always get my fill of Moxie whenever I go back there.

Some people describe horehound candy as some variation of licorice and root beer. I don’t know, but horehound is clearly different than most hard candies.

Most folks under sixty might not have even heard of horehound candy, much less eaten it. It used to be in every candy store, but now only novelty or health food places carry it. I haven’t checked, but I bet Cracker Barrel sells it. They usually stock stuff like that.

Horehound is a perennial herb in the mint family. It spreads by seed. Actually, there are several species of it. White horehound is the most common, and it gets its name from the foliage, which is covered with hair like material. This herb looks a little like catmint.

Plants grow up to two feet tall and tolerate poor soils. They thrive in sandy soils with full sun. Since horehound is in the mint family, one would expect it would be an aggressive plant. It is. However, long periods of wet winter weather can depress hardiness.

Horehound is no stranger to folks into herbal medicine. It has a long history of medicinal use. Years ago, many cough medicines contained horehound. It also has antimicrobial qualities and has been used as a component of mouthwashes and toothpastes, too.

Horehound is also used to lower blood sugar and blood pressure. It also contains several antioxidant and anti-inflammatory chemicals. For this reason, some people take preparations for respiratory inflammation and menstrual pain.

Remedies to countless other maladies are attributed to the use of this herb. Among them are: cancer treatment, muscle spasms, fluid retention, appetite loss, high cholesterol, bloating and liver and gallbladder problems. It’s even prescribed for control of both diarrhea and constipation. That seems like a stretch.

With all the information on the internet nowadays, herbal medicines can be scary. Anyone can post anything they want. Always check out several sources and often you will spot parroting of each other.

I think holistic medicine has merit, but I like to get several opinions. I also think it is important to talk to your medical professional before taking any holistic medicine. Accurate dosage is difficult to attain. This is particularly important if you are already taking prescription medication.

That said, horehound candy, unless eaten in large amounts should not pose a problem. Large doses usually result from taking extracts of some kind. Many plants in the mint family have medicinal properties. They also can be eaten in small quantities or used to spice food with no ill effects.

 

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

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Broomsedge is a native grass indicative of infertile soils


We know we are approaching fall when we begin noticing clumps of tall fluffy grass called broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus). It’s not really a sedge at all. It’s a warm-season perennial grass.

Some folks call it broom sage, which is incorrect. There is a plant called broom sage that is common in California and Arizona. Strangely, it’s not actually a sage. It’s in the aster

family. Another name for it is scale broom.

When the name broomsedge is mentioned, livestock farmers scowl. Seeing broomsedge in a field means that the soil is probably acidic and infertile. Likely, the pastures have also been overgrazed. In short, land management hasn’t been the greatest.

The result is that this prairie grass is also wasting space that could be utilized by grasses animals like. Most livestock won’t eat broomsedge. Even if they did, it has little nutritional value, especially when mature.

Fertilizing pastures and liming the soil makes other desirable grasses more competitive. Addressing the soil alone won’t take care of the problem.

Broomsedge will still grow under more fertile conditions, so it must be removed. Plants are shallow rooted, so removing them manually isn’t a problem if numbers are small.

Killing broomsedge with herbicides is difficult, and the chemicals often injure or kill desirable species. This is less of a problem in cool-season grasses and legumes like clovers. Stands can be killed with a non-selective chemical like Round-up and then immediately planted with cool-season species.

Broomsedge is a warm-season grass and it doesn’t begin growing until early summer. At that time, it’s too late to plant cool-season grasses or clovers.

Keeping a thick stand of desirable forages can crowd it out. However, soil nutrients, especially phosphorus must be in good supply. Broomsedge will creep into thin places, so overseeding is usually necessary.

Cattle farmers abhor broomsedge, but many others see its benefits. It’s a great conservation grass, because it requires no management. In fact, it grows better on marginal land. It often is the only thing that will grow on strip-mine soils. Without it, erosion would be a major problem in these places.

This range grass is an important species for many nesting birds. It also provides great fall cover for grouse and quail. Plants produce lots of seed, but it’s not a major food source for birds.

Many people like the way it looks, especially when it’s in flower. There are even ornamental cultivars available and they perform well without additional water or fertilizer. Its upright growth habit makes a striking contrast in many perennial gardens. Also, as one might expect, broomsedge is not subject to deer damage.

Broomsedge originally got its name because people used its long stiff stems to make brooms. These sturdy stems make great dried material for floral arrangements too.

Broomsedge has no foraging value for humans. Herbalists have used extracts from the roots to treat back aches. Leaf teas have been used to treat diarrhea and these teas can be used topically to treat minor skin irritations. However, this grass is not a major player among medicinal herbs.

Clump of broomsedge spot killed with glyphosate

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Fixing low spots in a lawn is not a one size fits all


After a rain it seems like all the imperfections show up in our lawns. Fixing them usually requires patience and the remedy varies depending upon soil type, time of year and grass species.

Repair options can be gradual. This is usually my favorite option. If the ponding area isn’t too deep and the existing soil texture is sandy, like it often is in eastern North Carolina, I like to use successive thin layers of washed sand. By thin layers I mean no more than a quarter inch or so at least two weeks apart.

If you go on the internet most literature tells you that straight sand is the wrong way to go. That’s true if you have a fine textured soil. Contrasting soil textures can worsen drainage. Water sits on top of the clay soil and saturates the sand. The area doesn’t drain.

I call it the bathtub effect. The same problem happens when installing shrubbery in clay soil. Most folks think that adding potting soil or sand to the hole will help. The opposite is true.

On sandy soils if sand is added and clippings are incorporated through regular mowing, grass will respond well. The key is not to get greedy and add too much at a time.

Adding too much topsoil with finer particles in it can suffocate a lawn as the existing grass has a tougher time penetrating it. The result is a patchy muddy lawn. Since sand is looser, slightly excessive applications are less severe.

On clay soils, mixing organic matter with dry loam and spreading thin layers on the low spots can help. However, the layers of topdressing must be thin. It will take a while to achieve perfection. If that’s not satisfactory, possibly major renovation is the only option.

Regardless of the soil mix, when top dressing, the grass must be actively growing. Now is a good time to topdress a fescue lawn. Late September is not a good time for warm-season grasses. It’s not a good time to replant them either. Warm season lawns should be addressed in late spring.

When applying any type of topdressing it’s important that weeds are not introduced. I like coarse builder’s sand because it’s most likely to be inert. Mixing that with good quality potting soil or peat moss will also result in fewer weeds than topsoil.

Often, low places in the lawn often become weedy because the grass is stressed. If this is the case, filling the dip won’t solve that problem and serious renovation is necessary. This is also when you could address the soil texture problems.

When doing serious renovation, amending the soil is fine if you incorporate the amendments. In other words, if your soil is clay you can add a sandy topsoil to it, provided you mix it well. The same goes for the sandy soil.

Your lawn will probably look patchy for a while. If that’s unacceptable, your only recourse is to start from scratch, at the proper time of year for the entire lawn.

 

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

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Solving plant problems requires knowing what the enemy is


A couple weeks ago somebody brought me a Ziploc bag full of blueish gray bugs with orange stripes and spots on them. He told me they were killing his crape myrtles. Many of the leaves were falling prematurely.

He also brought a few leaves that were curled, sticky and discolored. Some of the leaves had a powdery black substance on them. Others were almost totally black.

I immediately asked him if he sprayed or in any other way tried to kill these bugs. He hadn’t. He wanted me to tell him what to spray and if the trees were even savable.

The insect specimens he had were lady beetle larvae. Most people call them ladybugs. In another week or so he would have recognized them.

They weren’t what was causing his problem. In fact, they were in the process of partially solving his problem. Some folks buy lady beetles specifically to eat pests on their plants.

Using predators to kill pests is a type of biological control. Sometimes people use other insects like parasitic wasps to accomplish the same goal.

The insects responsible for the damage to his crape myrtles were aphids, most likely crape myrtle aphids. They are small, nearly clear and often hard to see. Aphids are a favorite food of ladybugs.

The sticky substance was honeydew produced by the aphids. It became the food for the black powdery stuff called sooty mold. While sooty mold is unsightly, it doesn’t greatly affect the health of the plants. It usually shows up in fall when trees lose their leaves anyway. The aphids weaken plants by sucking fluids from leaf cells. Aphids also can transmit viruses.

So often what we perceive are our problems really aren’t. Sometimes plant leaves and stems on our houseplants start to wilt. Many folks immediately assume the plant isn’t getting enough water. They feel the soil and it isn’t dust dry. However, they water the plants anyway, assuming they’d rather be safe than sorry.

Their beloved houseplant usually winds up dying. The problem was not dryness. It was lack of oxygen to the roots caused by wetness and usually compounded by insufficient light.

This summer I lost a mature white pine. Someone suggested it must have been too cold last winter. However, white pines live as far north as central Canada, where winter temperatures often reach 40 below. Cold wasn’t the problem. Too much water was. White pines don’t like wet feet.

Until the end of August, most places around here have been much wetter than normal. Prior to last week I haven’t been able to mow parts of my lawn since early June. Even then I got stuck a few times and had to pull the mower out with the truck and a chain. Try that without getting covered with mud.

This has been a crazy year. From the start, we have experienced extreme cold, unseasonably warm late winter weather, and a wet spring and summer. Farmers and homeowners have had many problems to contend with. Misdiagnosis only adds to the problems.

 

Lady beetle larva crawling under a crape myrtle leaf

Newly emerged adult

Pupa ready to emerge

 

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

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Evening primrose is a stunning native wildflower


Everyone has seen those tall weeds with long narrow leaves and covered with cup-shaped yellow flowers. Sometimes they can grow to be five feet tall. For foragers and herbalists, it has a bounty of uses.

The plant in question is evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). Most people consider it a weed as it grows along roadsides and in waste places. Some consider it a wildflower. Evening primrose is a common pasture plant, and it thrives in open fields.

This herbaceous plant is classified as a biennial. Other closely related species can be annual or perennial. They can have pink, white or lavender colored flowers. Each individual bloom lasts only a day or two, but they are prolific and blossom in summer and early fall. Flowers tend to open more in the late afternoon, hence the name.

Biennial evening primrose produces only foliage and thick roots in its first season. In the second year the plant flowers. The thick fleshy roots can be cooked and eaten like potatoes. Roots become fibrous as the second season progresses.

Evening primrose roots remind me a little of parsnips. In early spring of their second year they develop a sweeter flavor like parsnips do. Cold temperatures are partially responsible for converting some of the starches to sugars.

Roots aren’t the only palatable part. All parts of the plant are edible, even the seeds. Some people utilize young leaves as cooked greens.

Others like to make tea from the flowers. Flowers can also be used in salads. Hummingbirds and other pollinators like them too. Plants are high in natural linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid often referred to as Omega-6.

Evening primrose grows best in well-drained soils. It tolerates a wide pH range and greatly benefits from large amounts of organic matter. Some gardeners like to domesticate it and plant it in their beds.

This one is aggressive, but like most other tap rooted plants it’s difficult to transplant. Once it gets established evening primrose can take over. It’s a prolific seed producer and the thick roots can crowd other plants. However, being a native plant makes it attractive for many people.

In recent years several companies have harvested seeds and pressed them to make evening primrose oil. This oil is often used to treat eczema and acne. For women it is used to ease PMS symptoms and menstrual breast pain. During menopause it’s often used to minimize hot flashes.

Some herbalists prescribe evening primrose oil to help reduce high blood pressure and improve overall heart health. Evening primrose oil is also recommended to reduce diabetic nerve pain. Anti-inflammatory properties of this oil also contribute to its use to treat the bone pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

Taking evening primrose preparations could be a problem for those taking blood thinners. Evening primrose oil does the same thing and results can be magnified. For people who experience seizures, evening primrose oil could make them worse.

As with any herbal medicine, always consult with your medical professional before embarking on any treatment. Natural herbal medicines are not automatically safe. Read and ask questions.

Evening primrose plant beginning to go by

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Four o’clock flowers are beautiful and hard to remove


When I was in graduate school I lived in a hillside apartment that had beautiful four o’clock flowers in the front yard. They came in different colors, mostly bright pink to magenta, and they self-seeded themselves every year. I liked them. Hummingbirds liked them too. Even the large shiny black seeds were pretty.

Every afternoon the flowers would open, and the front yard went from green to colorful. Generally, four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) grow better in full sun, but this area was partially shaded.

The soil wasn’t overly fertile in that spot. These plants grow best in deep fertile soil, but they thrived anyway. I never watered them either, and I remember 1983 was a very dry year in West Virginia. Four o’clocks usually have few disease and insect problems, which makes for low maintenance.

Plants grow two to four feet tall, so they can be pruned into a hedge for the growing season. Four o’clocks bloom throughout the summer and fall, and the flowers are quite fragrant. They die to the ground in winter.

Four o’clocks are in the nightshade family along with potato, tomato, peppers, eggplant and tobacco. This one is bred for its flowers. I wouldn’t recommend eating it.

When I moved to North Carolina I learned to dislike this plant. They became a true perennial and developed huge tubers that virtually engulfed whole flowerbeds. In all but the sandiest soils they were nearly impossible to remove.

If that weren’t enough, the large black seeds spread everywhere. I never noticed this before in northern areas. Perhaps that’s because I lived in town. Birds eat the seeds, so this can be quite an invasive plant in warm climates like ours.

This nightshade family member is one of the plants deer and rabbits normally avoid. When plants are damaged they usually recover quickly. Deer, dogs and other animals may not eat landscaping, but they still trample it.

Speaking of dogs, four o’clock tubers and seeds are highly toxic to them. Dogs, especially puppies often like to dig up and chew on the tubers. Alkaloids are the likely toxicity culprit. Symptoms range from vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash and redness around the mouth. When detected early it isn’t fatal.

Regardless, it’s not a good idea to treat it yourself. If you suspect four o’clock poisoning, the smartest option is to take your animal to your local vet.

Many broadleaf weed killers will kill four o’clocks. This is probably the way to go when they spread into lawns. Round-up will control it too, but you must be careful to hit only the targeted plants.

As far as four o’clock culture goes, they are great north of zone seven. In warmer climates some thought is required. Eventually they will take over an area, and that is fine if you like them. Another option is to plant them in pots.

Likely they won’t overwinter in pots around here, but it wouldn’t matter if they did. I still have a soft spot for them, but I prefer to plant them away from other things.

Four o’clock flowers and shiny black seeds

Sorry, I posted the wrong picture earlier. That one was evening primrose and I’ll post that column next week.

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

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