Q: I live in south Georgia, and we have quite a lot of palm trees in our landscapes. I have one that has ripe yellow fruits each year. It has fernlike fronds and is a full-grown tree. I really like it and want to treat it properly. My concern is what to do with the brown fronds that hang from the lower section. Do I cut these off? If I do, at what length and at what time of year? Does it have any special fertilizer needs?
A: According to your description, your palm sounds like a jelly palm (Butia capitata). It is also called the wine palm and pindo palm.
The brown fronds on the lower section are dead and can be cut off at any time of year. You do not have to cut the dead fronds off, but you may want to do so to make the palm look neater. There is no rule about how far back to cut the dead fronds; just don't damage the trunk. Most people leave a few inches of stub and make all the "boots" uniform. (Boots are the stubs of dead fronds that encircle the palm trunk. They create the cross-hatch pattern that is familiar on our native cabbage palmetto.) The fronds are easy to cut off with a large pair of loppers. Leave the green fronds. They are manufacturing food for the tree. Be careful when you are on a ladder doing any kind of pruning!
Your jelly palm doesn't have any special nutrient or fertilizer needs. When it comes to fertilizer, too little is always better than too much especially with woody, mature plants. Jelly palms are naturally slow growing; you should not try to force a lot of growth with fertilizer, even when they are young. If you apply any fertilizer it should be in the late spring or early summer. Your tree probably doesn’t need any fertilizer at all.
Q: What are “cooking apples?”
A: These are apples used primarily for cooking rather than eating raw. Some of these varieties have firm flesh that doesn't break down much when cooked. This is an especially good characteristic when using them to bake pies. If you are cooking applesauce or apple butter, how they hold up during cooking is less of an issue. Some cooking apples may be tarter than apples for fresh eating.
A few varieties recommended for baking include Arkansas Black, Granny Smith, Jonagold, Jonathon, Horse, Empire, Rome Beauty (aka Rome or Red Rome), Mutsu, Newtown Pippin/Albemarle Pippin, Cortland, Fuji, Winesap, Stayman Winesap, Lady, Cripps Pink (aka Pink Lady®), York Imperial, Detroit Red and Ozark Gold. Crabapples are another kind of cooking apple that are used primarily for jellies and pickling.
Many apples are dual- or multi-purpose. They can be used for baking, eating fresh or making cider or juice. The farmers at a Georgia orchard or farmers market may offer more information about the varieties they grow and the best ways to use them.
Q: I was told that antifreeze must contain a “bittering agent.” What is a bittering agent and why must antifreeze contain it?
A: A bittering agent is a substance that makes the antifreeze taste bitter. It helps prevent accidental (or intentional) poisoning by consuming antifreeze and protects the lives of people and animals. Antifreeze sold in Georgia must contain the bittering agent, denatonium benzoate, at a minimum of 30 parts per million and a maximum of 50 parts per million.
Q: My peanut plants are beautiful. I have a row of them in my garden. How long will the pegs get? My plants are knee high, and I have pegs all the way to the top. Do I force the plants closer to the ground or will the pegs get long enough to produce?
A: It is best if you can get the pegs as close to the ground as possible. Gently bend the plants down if necessary. However, it is mid-September. Many people are harvesting their peanuts now. If yours are just starting to produce pegs, the plants won't have time to produce a crop.
Q: Should the rows in my vegetable garden run east-west or north-south to maximize sun exposure?
A: There is not universal agreement on this, but most people hold that north-south is better for a little more sun exposure. However, if your garden is on a slope, make your rows across the slope rather than up and down it in order to reduce soil erosion. That will be more important than orienting the rows to the sun. Also, do not plant tall vegetables such as sweet corn, okra and tomatoes where they will block the sunlight from shorter vegetables.
Getting maximum sunlight is just as important, or more important, for a fall vegetable garden as it is for one in the summer. However, many gardeners grow some of their fall vegetables such as leaf lettuce, radishes, turnips and various greens in patches rather than rows, and there are not many tall vegetables to worry about – the tallest being collards.
Q: What kind of soil is best for a night-blooming cereus cactus? When is the best time to transplant one?
A: This gangly cactus from the tropics likes a potting soil that drains well and is high in organic matter. A regular potting mix should do just fine, but if you like, you can add about 10 percent sand to the mix.
Spring and summer are the best times to transplant cactuses. You should go ahead and transplant now if your night-blooming cereus is in a container or in a soil mix that is detrimental to its health.
Make sure there is at least one drainage hole at the bottom of the pot so water does not accumulate and rot the roots. When you water the plant, do so thoroughly. Allow the top third of the soil mix to dry before watering again. The plant requires much less water in winter than in summer. It doesn’t like much fertilizer, but during summer it appreciates a monthly feeding of liquid fertilizer at half the recommended rate. Do not fertilize in winter.
Q: I have planted different shrubs for privacy, but they have not grown. I think it’s because it’s a shady area. What shrubs do you recommend that will grow in low lighting and help provide some privacy?
A: There are numerous shrubs to grow in the shade and that may help provide privacy. While evergreen shrubs are usually considered for screening or blocking a view, do not discount deciduous ones. Deciduous shrubs can provide complete screening for most of the year and partial screening for the winter months. You may want to consider two rows of different shrubs, perhaps one deciduous and one evergreen. Such a double-row arrangement can be more effective in blocking sound as well as blocking a view. By using different shrubs, you are not “putting all your eggs in one basket” in case some do not thrive. Some trees can be kept pruned as large shrubs. You may want to consider them as well.
A horticulturist at your local nursery can provide you with more information to help you make decisions. It will be useful if you show photos of the site, describe the conditions there (including exactly how much shade the site gets) and tell what didn’t work before. All shady sites are not alike. Soil and moisture conditions can be limiting factors just as the amount of sunlight a site receives.
Here are a few possibilities for shady sites:
Evergreen: Japanese anise (Illicium anisatum), Florida anise (Illicium floridanum), aucuba (Aucuba japonica), needle palm (Rhapidophyllum hystrix), Florida leucothoe (Agarista populifolia), camellia (Camellia japonica), mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Isu tree (Distylium racemosum), Carolina cherrylaurel (Prunus caroliniana), Japanese cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera), inkberry holly (Ilex glabra), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitora), wax myrtle (Myrica cerifera), American boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), Canadian hemlock (Tsuga canadensis), Carolina hemlock (Tsuga caroliniana), rhododendrons and azaleas (Rhododendron spp.), some yews (Taxus spp.) and Japanese pieris (Pieris japonica).
Deciduous: blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), sweet-bubby bush (Calycanthus floridus), Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), Japanese kerria (Kerria japonica), blueberry (Vaccinium spp.), black jetbead (Rhodotypos scandens) and American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana).
Here is more information about some of the plants: Needle palm is a thick, shrubby palm that is hardy throughout practically all of Georgia and very shade tolerant. Some shrubs, such as Japanese kerria and sweet-bubby bush may not that effective as a screen on their own but are if combined with other shrubs. Wax myrtle, American boxwood and other shrubs and trees may be thicker with more leaves in full sun but will grow in partial shade and serve to provide a screen. Evergreen azaleas and rhododendrons may not be as tall or, in some cases, as thick as you need for a screen, but they can be effective when used with other shrubs. Wooly adelgids are insects that are killing hemlocks in many places. You should look into this if you want to plant hemlocks.
Visit a Georgia nursery to discuss some of your options. You may also want to drop by a public garden or arboretum to see some of these plants used in the landscape.
Fall is an excellent time to plant trees, shrubs and perennials in Georgia. Survival rates are higher and you have to water less than if you plant in the spring.
Q: Is there a place in Georgia that offers witch finger grapes?
A: With curiously tapered fruits, witch finger grapes look like a grape version of a ristra of purple chile peppers. These table grapes are beginning to appear in some supermarkets. All of them that we have seen in stores were grown in California. We do not know of any farmers in Georgia growing the fruits or nurseries producing the plants to sell.
Q: When do I begin to keep my poinsettia plant in the dark in order for it to set blooms? How many hours of darkness does it need to receive?
A: A poinsettia needs a continuous dark period at night to form its colorful bracts. Starting the first of October (for an eight- to 10-week period) the plant must be kept in total darkness for 14 continuous hours each and every night. Keep the plant in darkness by moving it to a closet or covering it with a large box. Any interruption of the dark period with any kind of light (turning on the closet light or removing the plant’s cover) will delay flowering. During this period, the plant must also receive six to eight hours of bright sunlight during the day. Depending on the response time of the particular variety, the plant will come into full bloom during November or December.
Q. I saw a strange item called “dragon fruit” at the grocery store. What exactly is it? How do you eat it? Can we grow this in Georgia?
A. Dragon fruit, sometimes called “pitaya,” is a fruit that grows on several species of tropical cactuses. Dragon fruits are often red, pink or fuchsia on the outside with white flesh on the inside with small, edible, black seeds. Some dragon fruits have yellow skin or red flesh. It has a very striking appearance inside and out. The fruits have a mild, sweet taste. They can be sliced in two and the flesh scooped out and eaten with a spoon. You can also peel them and cube the flesh to use in fruit salads or as an addition to green salads of spinach, mache or microgreens along with avocadoes and Georgia pecans. In fruit salads it blends well with pomegranate, blueberry and oriental persimmon. Slices of dragon fruit are an attractive garnish on a plate of chicken salad. The flesh is also used in juices, teas, sorbets, smoothies and shakes. The fruits are grown commercially in Central and South America, South Florida, South Asia and Australia. They cannot be grown in Georgia except in a greenhouse to protect them from freezing temperatures.
Arty Schronce writes this weekly question-and-answer column to address questions about agriculture and questions about the services and products regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. If you have a question, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, contact Arty Schronce at 404-656-3656.