My problems with cell phones

This is not my typical column, but anyone who knows me knows I don’t carry a cell phone. I have numerous reasons for not totally joining the 21st century. Some may not make any sense to anyone.

I used to keep a phone in my vehicle, but somebody decided he needed it more than I did. I left it charging on the seat and it sprouted wings. That made me mad, but it didn’t affect my life very much. There are phones everywhere.

Even before I lost my phone I always gave people my wife’s number. My voicemail message stated that there was no need to leave a message. I never carried my phone, so I likely would not call them back. I’m sorry if that sounds rude.

Some people are totally consumed by their electronics. They’re on their phones constantly. I think if they could have a chip implanted in them that would function as a phone they would.

I’ve watched drivers run off the road because of cell phones. In many states texting while driving is a crime, but the penalty must not be much, or the laws are rarely enforced. I see folks on their phones all the time.

A few years ago, I almost got into an altercation in a local grocery store with a man on a hands-free phone. He was walking toward me and spoke my name. Naturally, I asked him what he needed, and he got smart with me in a nasty tone of voice.

I’m glad I’ve matured or at least mellowed a little over time. Thirty years ago, things might have been different.

Another reason I choose not to carry a phone is that I don’t see particularly well up close. I’m also clumsy with touch screens. I usually hit the wrong character or maybe two characters at once.

Texting for me is agony, and I can’t bring myself to send texts that aren’t complete sentences. I refuse to send anything with misspelled words or incorrect grammar, and if I notice a minor mistake I must backspace until I correct it. If a message comes in while I’m typing, it totally messes me up. Sometimes it takes me five minutes to send a brief message.

My biggest problem with cell phones stems from what I’ve seen in my classroom. Fifteen years ago, few students had them and all the devices would do is make conventional calls. It was easy to police. All I had to do was take the phone and fuss at the person on the other end of the conversation.

Today, I’d say even with the top students a teacher has at best 70% of their attention. The rest resides with that phone. Removing the phone isn’t as simple as it sounds. Many students have two and will gladly relinquish their back-up. I’m not searching kids.

I’m afraid many school systems would have trouble initiating policies to eliminate them altogether from schools. There wouldn’t be a large enough building in town to house parents that would complain about it. I’d like to think I’m wrong.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Water Hemlock is a common poisonous native plant

We’ve all heard the story of how Socrates was forced to drink a potion containing poison hemlock (Conium maculatum). All parts of it are toxic, and the plant is relatively common in many places including this region. Plants are deathly poisonous to livestock, pets and humans.

We have another lookalike to this toxic weed. Not only does water hemlock (Cicuta sp.) look like poison hemlock, it’s even more common and more toxic. All parts of the plant can kill you in as little as 15 minutes. According to several sources, it only takes a piece of root the size of a walnut to kill a 1200-pound cow or horse.

Both species strongly resemble Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), often called wild carrot. Wild carrot is a commonly used medicinal plant and is often found near the poison impostors. All are in the same plant family, as is wild parsnip (Pastinaca sativa), a common foraging herb. It can be confused with its poisonous relatives also.

Water hemlock, like the name implies, is usually found in wet places. Many ditches are full of it. It’s blooming right now as are most of its non-poisonous cousins. Plants are usually three to six feet tall, but I’ve seen some significantly taller.

Flowers grow in white circular clusters called umbels. Several small umbels make up a larger disc-shaped structure called an inflorescence. Leaves emerge from stems one at a time. They are what botanists call tri-pinnate, in that they branch three times and individual blades run three directions. Blades have toothed edges.

Most folks need not worry too much about water hemlock, since it generally grows in wet places they do not frequent. However, their pets might romp in thick patches of it. Furthermore, seed can be dispersed into places where livestock might consume it.

Killing it can be a little tricky. I’ve read where a combination of glyphosate and imazapyr can be effective. Both are non-selective, which means they kill whatever they hit. Both are also systemic. That means they kill the entire plant.

Finding herbicides that will kill water hemlock only solves one part of the problem. There are regulations concerning spraying pesticides in waterways. Contacting someone who knows the regulations is important or you might wind up in trouble.

There are guidelines that must be followed before spraying pesticides in or near water, particularly if there is risk to drinking water supplies or a neighbor’s property. Sometimes hiring a professional with proper licensing and liability insurance is a wise move.

Another problem with spraying water hemlock is that while plants are dying, palatability for livestock increases. Keeping pets and livestock from accessing treated areas is critical.

Now that I’ve thoroughly scared you, water hemlock is still used as a medicinal herb. Preparations can be made to control migraines, menstrual pain and intestinal worms. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone under any conditions. Much safer options are available.

If I offend any herbalists out there, I’m sorry. Using water hemlock to treat any human or livestock ailments is insane. Even the slightest dosage miscalculation could be fatal.

good stand of water hemlock with a soybean backdrop

Water hemlock among the cattails

Water hemlock at the edge of the road


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Mullein is a useful drought tolerant weed

Common mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is that tall fuzzy leaved plant that many people confuse with lamb’s ear. Once plants begin to flower, the two bear fewer similarities. Mullein has taller flower stalks with yellow flowers and those of lamb’s ear are pink to purple.

Mullein is a biennial well adapted to dry places. It forms a deep taproot and a basal rosette of leaves in its first year. In the second year it produces a copious seed on unbranched stalks that can sometimes be eight feet tall.

Mullein has no stolons or rhizomes, so reproduction is restricted to seeds. That said, individual plants can produce 100,000 seeds. These seeds can remain dormant in the soil for over 30 years.

When plants are in full flower they can be striking. However, their large size makes them awkward for use as ornamental plants. Also, they are biennals, which means they only flower in their second season. Large white furry leaves are attractive, but most people like to see flowers.

In pastures mullein plants are a problem, especially in dry years. Livestock won’t eat them, and plants tolerate drought much more than the desired forage. Consequently, a dense mullein population poses a real problem for livestock farmers.

I’ve always felt it’s important for livestock farmers to walk their pastures, especially in the spring. Noticing weeds like mullein early and treating them can pay dividends later in the season.

Numerous broadleaf herbicides are effective against mullein. However, the biggest problem is their fuzzy leaves. That thick pubescence forms a barrier, so chemicals often aren’t absorbed by the plant.

It’s critical that a detergent called a surfactant is mixed with the herbicide. This will break the surface tension and make the weed killer work better. For maximum effectiveness, plants should be treated when they’re young. Plants are less pubescent, and they can be killed before producing seed.

Is mullein all bad? Many herbalists don’t think so. Mullein has been used medicinally for centuries. It was initially brought to this country by early settlers as a medicinal herb to treat a plethora of ailments.

Compounds in roots, leaves and flowers are used to fight cold symptoms and as a cough suppressant. Some people even use preparations to address ear infections.

Mullein is often used to combat skin infection. Supposedly, it has antimicrobial and antiviral properties. It has even been used to fight the herpes virus. Mullein preparations can also be applied to the skin to treat wounds and burns.

While there is not enough concrete evidence to support all the copious claims, there are few documented side-effects either. I’ve also been unable to document any interactions to common medicines. Still, it’s best to consult your medical professional before self-medicating.

Interestingly, another common name for mullein is Cowboy Toilet Paper, because of its large soft and absorbent leaves. I suppose the leaves could be used for this purpose in a pinch, but some people are sensitive to the pubescence on the leaves. Campers with sensitive skin might not wish to chance it. Pack a little paper in your pocket.

Common mullein plants on the edge of a field

Closer view of flower stalk now setting seed

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Signs of summer

How do we know when it’s summer? Each locale is different, but certain sights, events or smells remind us of different seasons, and summer is no exception.

For me, once I see the smoke of the wheat fields, I’m satisfied spring is behind us. In Maine, that first mess of new potatoes and the end of black fly season signaled it. In West Virginia, the openness of fields after the first hay cutting meant summer was here.

For some folks, that first tomato in the garden means summer. I always look forward to the blooming of crape myrtle and southern magnolia. Daylilies blooming in the ditches along the roadsides always bring a smile to my face.

When summer comes, cornfields explode. It seems like corn grows more than a foot a week. This year in most places it was so wet that corn wasn’t planted until much later than normal. Still, it’s summer and the corn is catching up.

Here in eastern North Carolina, summer memories always seem to wind up at the beach. We always anticipate when the water is warm enough to swim. Fishermen judge the calendar when certain species of fish can be caught.

Not all summer beach memories are sweet though. Summer also means traffic, and routes 158 and 12 can sometimes seem like parking lots.

In Maine, warming waters meant smallmouth activity increased. On a negative note, summer signified when salmon fled to deeper water and could not be caught on the surface with streamer flies.

Up there, July meant the mackerel were in, and I spent many summer days with my grandfather hauling in mackerel. We built our own smoker and smoked tons of them.

Summer is the time when most songbirds fledge. I love to watch the young bluebirds, cardinals and robins fledge. Some take to the air naturally, while others need some help. I also must dodge little killdeer running across the lawn when I’m mowing. The same goes for baby rabbits.

Summer also means thunderstorms. Sometimes they can be violent, but it’s sure nice when temperatures drop out of the stifling levels. Usually hurricanes hold off until the end of summer.

When skies darken, out come the fireflies. We used to catch them as kids and keep them in jars. In summer, the sound of whippoorwills rings through the night. My wife once told me her dad wouldn’t allow her to go barefoot until the whippoorwills called. She always listened for them intently.

For me, summer always means berry picking. Strawberries come first, then raspberries, blueberries and blackberries. Black cherries come about this time too. That is if you can beat the birds to them. Elderberries come along a little later.

Speaking of food, summer means cookouts. Walk through any neighborhood on a summer evening and enjoy the aroma of the grill. I grill often and everything imaginable. Cooking inside heats up the house and makes electric bills skyrocket.

Probably best of all, summer is the only time when I can leave the house in daylight and return home from work before dark. That’s nice.

Sunflowers are a sign of summer too. This is my daughter, the new Horticulture Extension Agent for Pasquotank County North Carolina. The picture was taken back in 2013.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Putting up hay brings back memories

It was hot sticky dirty work. In rural areas it was also one of the few ways teenagers could earn spending money in the summer. Those who have put up hay in the heat know what I’m talking about. Baling hay was a job meant for the hottest part of the day.

Cutting, raking or baling hay early in the morning wasn’t practical. Heavy dew usually blanketed the field. Dew often fell in evening when temperatures cooled. That left the hot part of the day.

It wasn’t just the heat. Chaff would stick to your sweaty skin and much of the dust would go down your throat or up your nose. Eyes would often weep and occasionally develop a case of pink-eye. Tossing 55-pound bales into a second story barn door wore on the shoulders.

Sometimes poison ivy or briars were mixed into bales. I remember my wife telling about baling one field and finding half a copperhead in several bales. She always wondered how many didn’t get cut in half.

There were tricks to making the process run smoothly. Raking the forage into even windrows was important as was travelling at a proper speed. If hay wasn’t dry enough the bales were brutally heavy. That wasn’t the worst part. They could mold, sometimes causing enough heat to burn down a barn.

As with any job, speeding up the process is usually better, but getting greedy leads to problems. Making the rows of dried hay too large or moving through them too fast meant breaking shear pins or worse. That slowed things down. Turning on steep ground with a tractor, baler and wagon tethered together could be challenging too. Thinking ahead is critical.

Once the bales were on the wagon they had to be secured if hauled any distance. Quick and secure stacking keeps the crew from loading it twice. Falling off a truckload of hay isn’t much fun either.

Suffice to say, putting up hay is hard work. One would think the pay would be good. Think again. Back in the 70s and 80s, slinging several hundred bales in a day would net about two dollars an hour.

If rain was in the forecast, work never stopped. There were no breaks. Sometimes if you had your work done you would help the neighbors get their hay in before the rain.

I remember helping my wife’s grandfather in the hayfield. He’d offer me two dollars an hour like the rest of his crew. I never took his money.  I told him I’d love to help and would work for free, but I didn’t work for two dollars an hour.  He never understood my logic.

Still the same, I really enjoyed all the times I handled hay. I still love the look and smell of a freshly mowed meadow. It was so satisfying to see such a difference in a field and barn.

A lot has changed. Production has transitioned to large round bales. Some farmers even use the huge square bales and all the loading is accomplished with machinery. They even make plastic bonnets, so hay need not be placed in barns.

It’s hard to find small square bales anymore. I remember my father-in-law charging a dollar a bale back in the 80s. I bought some recently for twelve dollars each. He’d turn over in his grave, or maybe he’d smile.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Virginia creeper is another aggressive native vine

Last week I profiled trumpet vine, a ridiculously aggressive woody vine. This week belongs to another nemesis, and it’s also marketed as an ornamental.

Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) is that vine many people confuse with poison ivy. It has leaves with five leaflets instead of three. Berries are purple instead of white. It also doesn’t have the same hairiness on the stems. This material is root tissue that clings to things. Correctly they are referred to as adventitious aerial roots.

Unlike poison ivy, Virginia creeper doesn’t contain urushiol, which causes the running sores resulting from poison ivy exposure. Some folks to experience a minor and short-term irritation from it. In addition, it is far more aggressive than poison ivy and covers landscaping and buildings in a fraction of the time.

Virginia creeper doesn’t climb exclusively by adventitious roots. It has tendrils like grape vines do. One would expect this, as it is in the grape family. These woody vines can grow to the tops of most trees and up and down utility poles.

Virginia creeper produces fruits that look like miniature grapes. However, they are poisonous in large quantities. These berries don’t taste very good, so children likely won’t eat enough to cause serious problems. Birds and squirrels will eat these fruits though and spread the seeds everywhere. Pretty soon, you will find seedlings all over your yard.

Sometimes pets will eat these vines and results are variable. Plants contain oxalate compounds which can lead to kidney problems or mouth irritations. Usually large quantities must be eaten.

For those who want native landscaping, this one fits the bill. However, its aggressiveness will frustrate you. It thrives in sun or shade. Technically, it’s not considered invasive, since it’s native. That’s just semantics. This is not a plant to encourage. You won’t be able to contain it.

I admit it has beautiful red foliage in the fall, but so does poison ivy. I can tolerate wisteria. It has beautiful fragrant flowers, and it doesn’t spread as fast from seeds.

Round-up is effective for killing Virginia creeper. Unfortunately, it kills whatever it hits, so you must pull the vines off the plants first. Round-up also kills grass, so laying vines on your lawn to be sprayed isn’t the answer either. Cutting the vines down and treating freshly cut stumps with concentrated Round-up is the best solution.

Vines encroaching onto the lawn can be controlled by broadleaf herbicides like 2,4-D, dicamba, or mecaprop. A combination of the three works well too. These chemicals are effective for lawn use only. They will kill most flowers, shrubs and trees.

The important thing to remember is to not let this plant get ahead of you. It’s a fast grower and can destroy landscaping quickly. It also will ruin siding.

Also, don’t assume you’ve solved the problem after your initial treatment. Several applications are usually necessary to get it all. Seeds can also remain dormant and new plants can pop up at any time. Don’t get talked into planting this one. The longer you have it the more you will hate it.

Virginia creeper is taking over my Lady Banks Rose

Virginia creeper is taking over this doorway

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Some native plants sound good but have huge downside

I walked around my yard recently and realized certain plants are taking over my landscaping. Most of the culprits are woody vines. Most are also native species and natives are all the rage right now.

Just because a plant is native doesn’t mean it’s desirable in one’s landscape. My greatest problem comes from a vine with gorgeous reddish orange flowers. These flowers attract hummingbirds in droves. Butterflies and native bees love them too. The vine in question is called trumpet creeper or trumpet vine (Campsis radicans).

I read an article recently profiling this aggressive vine as one of the native species we must encourage. First, it needs no encouragement. Even kudzu is easier to contain. Trumpet vine will quickly cover shrubbery, trees and buildings. It’s also a prolific seed producer and these seeds will spread everywhere. Plants will spring up in your lawn and garden beds in no time.

Internet articles abound detailing how to propagate this menace. It may have some good points, but this is not a plant to encourage. It’s on par with Callery (Bradford) pear. It has an aggressive root system and will eventually take over your yard.

Some people plant it in pots to lessen its invasiveness. Some even bury pots in the ground to slow this vine down. I think this is wishful thinking. I’ve declared war on it on my property and I’m still losing.

I’ve pretty much eliminated poison ivy, but trumpet vine is in all my crape myrtles. It’s also growing up the sides of my house and has invaded all the shade trees bordering my property. Muscadine grapes are tough, but trumpet vine has crept its way into them too.

For those who don’t know what it looks like, it has a woody stem much like grape, Virginia creeper or wisteria. Leaves with multiple blades emerge from stems in groups of two. Vines climb by tendrils and can grow 40 feet tall.

Flowers are brightly colored and grow in bunches. As the name indicates, they are trumpet-shaped. As flowers fade, bean-shaped seed pods develop, and they are filled with dozens of seeds.

These plants have copious roots, so controlling their spread is difficult. Simply killing the tops or cutting them down won’t put a dent in them. Several applications of systemic herbicides are necessary to kill them.

I usually use Round-up (glyphosate) on the stumps at full strength after first cutting the vines close to the ground. Repeated treatments are still often necessary. No options are available to spray directly on trees or shrubbery. Some broadleaf herbicides can limit the growth of trumpet vine in lawns, but they’re hard to kill.

Reports are mixed as to whether this vine is poisonous to pets. According to most sources, the worst symptoms are a mild dermatitis. People face the same risk, although symptoms are far less than from contact with poison ivy or its relatives.

I would never recommend encouraging this plant even though it is native and has beautiful flowers. I cringe every time I see it being sold in nursery catalogs.

close-up of trumpet vine flower

Trumpet vine with seed pods trying to take over a saucer magnolia

Trumpet vine blasting through vinyl siding

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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