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Georgia Department of Agriculture

Consumer Q's October 2015

Question: I occasionally catch the “Pick, Cook, Keep” spots on television about Georgia Grown crops. Are they viewable online?
Answer: The 33 episodes of “Pick, Cook, Keep” can be viewed by visiting the Georgia Public Broadcasting website at www.gpb.org/pick-cook-keep/episodes. You’ll get information about honey, greens, tomatoes, beans, apples and other Georgia commodities along with recipes and instructions on how to use them.
     
Q: I saw a huge caterpillar in early October in Conyers. It was at least six inches long and an inch in diameter.  It was reddish brown and had some pale green spots on its side.  It had some horn-like things on it and some hair. Do you know what kind of caterpillar it is? Is it harmful?
A: From your description and photo it looks like the caterpillar of the imperial moth, one of our largest and most beautiful insects. There are brown and green forms of its caterpillar. Yours appears to be the brown form. The caterpillar is neither poisonous nor harmful. It does not damage crops or gardens. Caterpillars of the imperial moth will feed on a wide range of host plants including pines, oaks, box elder, maples, sweet gum and sassafras. The adult moths do not feed. They are quite large, sometimes with a wingspan exceeding 6 inches. They are yellow and purplish brown. If you are ever fortunate enough to see one, you will be amazed at its size and beauty.

Q: Someone gave me a “dancing bones cactus.” What can you tell me about it?
A: Dancing bones cactus (Rhipsalis salicornioides, formerly Hatiora salicornioides) is not a desert cactus but is an epiphytic one like the more familiar Thanksgiving and Christmas cactuses. It is native to the forests of Brazil. It is an interesting, easy-to-grow houseplant. Ordinary potting soil that is well-drained and a window facing south, east or west will suit it fine. Allow it to dry out between waterings.
    Dancing bones cactus has small yellow flowers that fade to salmon. It is grown mostly for its overall appearance, not the flowers. Older stems on mature specimens can become woody and make the cactus look like a pseudo-bonsai. It would be an excellent choice to train to look like a miniature multi-trunked tree in a large bonsai pot.
     The cactus gets its name from its jointed stem segments. These segments can resemble little bottles and provide the plant’s other colorful and alliterative name, “drunkard’s dream.”

Q: Are dwarf pomegranates edible?
A: Technically, yes. However, the shrub is grown more for its ornamental qualities such as the attractive small fruits, bright scarlet flowers and waxy buds. The fruits are generally quite sour and too small to be worth the effort.  

Q: I think the gas station near my house is deliberately watering down the gasoline it sells. What should I do?
A: No station is going to deliberately “water down” its gasoline. Gasoline is not like Kool-Aid that can be watered down and stretched to save money. Water and gasoline do not mix, and adding water to gasoline could leave a gas station with stalled vehicles on its premises and angry drivers demanding restitution. If excessive water gets into a station’s storage tanks, it is the result of a leak, flooding or some other accident.
     If you have any concerns about gasoline, notify the station manager and call the Georgia Department of Agriculture immediately. Our toll-free line is 1-800-282-5852. This number is on all gasoline and diesel pumps in the state. Our Fuel and Measures Division will send an inspector to investigate. If there is a problem with the gasoline, the affected pumps will be locked down until the problem is corrected.

Q: Can you explain the mystery of the disappearing potting soil? I filled planters two years ago. Now the soil level is down by two or three inches.  What happened? Did I buy poor-quality soil?
A: There are several reasons why the soil level has dropped. Potting soil is high in organic material that decomposes and breaks into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces become more compacted which reduces the soil’s volume. This is a normal process; it does not mean you purchased an inferior product.
     It is also possible that some of the soil may have splashed out of the top during heavy rains or when someone was watering. Some may have washed out of the drainage holes or was thrown out by digging squirrels or chipmunks.

Q: I saw something called a ‘North Georgia Candy Roaster’ at the farmers market. What can you tell me about it?
A: ‘North Georgia Candy Roaster’ is an heirloom winter squash. There are different strains of Candy Roaster squashes. ‘North Georgia Candy Roaster’ is a smaller (about 10 pounds, typically) strain that comes from northern Georgia and is shaped like a giant orangey pink banana with blue-green tips.
     Some describe the appearance as beautiful while some say it is homely. All people seem to agree that the flavor is superb. Roast them, fry them, bake them or use them to make soups or pies. (Candy Roaster pie is supposed to be so good it makes a pumpkin pie blush with shame. Even the name sounds delicious.)
     Look for them now at farmers markets. If you want to grow your own next year, seeds are available from several sources including Baker Creek Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, A.P. Whaley Seed Company and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

Q: Did you sell all of the miniature horses in your last auction? Will there be another horse auction soon?
A: Yes. They all found homes. The next auction will be Saturday, November 14, at the Mansfield Impound Barn, 2834 Marben Farm Rd., Mansfield, Georgia 30055.
      The horses may be inspected that day at the facility beginning at 10 a.m. The sale will start at 11 a.m. For more information, contact the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Equine Health Office at 404-656-3713. (M-F 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
      The exact number of horses to be auctioned will not be known until closer to the sale date, but at this time we estimate that 12 horses (Coco, Justice, Addie, Mike, Buster, Babe, Dolores, Lucius, Bellatrix, Venus, Pate and Ellis) will be available for new and loving homes. No minatures this time.

Q: There is a small, brown bird that occasionally roosts on a ledge at the top of a column at the corner of my porch. It looks like a tiny ball with feathers. It is gone at dawn. I saw it one evening before it roosted. It has a stubby, upright tail and curved bill. It gave a loud, trilling call followed by raspy squawks before it finally flew up to its roosting spot. What could it be?
A: It sounds like you are being visited by a Carolina wren. This cinnamon brown, squat, little bird could be described as the little bird with the big voice. If you are nearby when one starts to sing, you may think it is three times its size. Because of its singing, friendly personality and ability to eat insect pests, it has become a garden and farm favorite. South Carolinians designated it their state bird in 1948.
     According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, insects and spiders make up the bulk of the Carolina wren diet. Common foods include caterpillars, moths, stick bugs, leafhoppers, beetles, grasshoppers, crickets and cockroaches. They occasionally eat small lizards, frogs and snakes. They also consume a small amount of berries and seeds including those of waxmyrtle, sweetgum and poison ivy.
     You can build or purchase specially designed nesting boxes to lure Carolina wrens. However, they are not necessarily particular. We have seen them nest in hanging baskets and potted plants on a balcony. For more information: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Carolina_Wren/id

Q: I accidentally carried in a cricket when I brought my houseplants inside last fall. I like crickets, but not in my bedroom. The chirping sounds a lot louder in an enclosed space than it does outside. It kept me awake. How can I prevent the same thing from happening this year? I don’t want to spray the plants with an insecticide before bringing them in.
A: Check all plants for insects before bringing them into the house. This includes pests such as mealybugs and scale. It is easier to treat and deal with them outside than inside the house. Consider low toxicity sprays such as insecticidal soaps if treatment is needed.
        In regard to crickets specifically, check the loose soil at the top of the pots to make sure none are hiding there. Knock the plant out of the pot, if possible, to examine the root area. Some people put a layer of rocks or shards at the bottom of their pots. This area can provide pockets where insects hide. Thoroughly soak the root ball of the plant to flush out any hiding crickets. You may want to set your plants individually in a garage or on a porch for a night or two to quarantine them so that you can discover if any of them may be serving as a refuge for crickets.
        You are not the only one to have experienced cricket-induced insomnia. In 1984 a cricket breached White House security and kept first lady Nancy Reagan awake. The plants it came in on were removed, but by then it had taken up residence in the radiator vents which had to be taken apart and sprayed. In the meantime, Mrs. Reagan’s press secretary said the first lady kept reminding herself that it is supposed to be good luck to have a cricket in the house.  

Q: I saw a photo of a lovely flower called a “toad lily” in a catalog. Can we grow it in Georgia?  
A: Toad lilies (Tricyrtis spp.) are an excellent perennial for shady gardens. Besides being beautiful and durable, they bloom in the fall while most woodland flowers bloom in spring.
     The most probable explanation for their name is that the flowers and leaves of some of them are spotted like toads. One of the best species, Tricyrtis hirta, has the unflattering name of “hairy toad lily” due to the fine hairs covering its leaves, stems and buds. Despite what they are called, toad lilies possess an intriguing beauty. Many people say the flowers remind them of orchids. Colors range from purple to white and yellow.
     Toad lilies combine well with hostas, rohdea, ferns, Lenten roses, Solomon’s seal, heuchera, little pigs/wild ginger (Asarum spp.), celandine poppy and green-and-gold.
     Visiting Georgia nurseries in the fall gives you the opportunity to see plants you may have missed in the spring. Late-bloomers such as toad lilies and native asters that didn’t look like much in April are now in full glory. Seeing them may convince you to aim for having a garden that is as filled with flowers in autumn as it is in spring and summer.

Q: How can I keep track of where I planted bulbs? I don’t want a garden littered with tags and labels, but I am tired of accidentally digging up or cutting through bulbs that I forgot about.  
A: Here are some suggestions that may save you some heartache and some cash, too:
     Use rocks and stones to outline the area where the bulbs are planted. Choose colors that blend in with the mulch or soil. Also place rocks in the ground next to the bulbs when you are planting them. These rocks may deter a shovel if you forget you have planted bulbs in that spot. Mixing pea gravel into the planting area will not only help the drainage but will help remind you that you have bulbs planted there.
     Purchase or recycle transparent or black plastic forks, spoons or knives and use them to outline or mark the area where you have planted bulbs. The black or clear utensils will not be as visibly distracting as white ones.
     If you have some leftover plastic plant pots, cut out the bottom and sink them into the ground. They will serve as a collar that will protect the bulbs from your shovel as well as from other digging creatures. Be sure to cut out the bottom or make sure there are adequate holes or the bulbs will drown because water will not drain through. Use black or non-obtrusive colors. The rims can be hidden with mulch.
    Photographing your garden and making a planting chart will also help.  

Q: I was away for a few weeks and have stalks of okra in the garden with large pods on them. Are they too tough to eat?  
A: Yes, they are probably too tough to eat. However, you can cut the stalks, let them dry and use them in dried floral arrangements. The pods may also be used with lotus pods, dried flowers and nuts to make a harvest wreath. They may be painted to make icicle ornaments for the Christmas tree. They are commonly made into angel ornaments or Santa Claus ornaments with the tip of the pod being the tip of Santa’s beard and the cap of the pod becoming his cap.

Q: When is the next “Stallion to Gelding Day?”
A: Equine veterinarians across Georgia are joining the Georgia Equine Rescue League (GERL) to host the 5th Annual Georgia Stallion to Gelding Castration Day, a low-cost castration clinic, for $100 per horse on Saturday, November 14. GERL will pay $50 and the owner/client will pay $50. Only Georgia residents can take advantage of this opportunity. Proof of tetanus inoculation is required and no cryptorchids are accepted. For more information contact the GERL website at www.gerlltd.org. The website has a list of participating vets.

Q: Last Saturday I saw what looked like a hummingbird feeding at the moonflower vine growing at the edge of my porch. It was well past midnight. Was this one working the third shift or was it just a night-owl hummingbird?

 A: Hummingbirds were having sweet dreams when you saw your midnight visitor. What you probably saw was a species of sphinx moth. Some of these moths are quite large with heavy bodies with narrow forewings. They can be strong and fast fliers with a rapid wingbeat. Collectively they are also known as “hawkmoths” because of their swift flight. They feed on the wing similar to the way hummingbirds do. Because of their size, flight and manner of feeding, it is easy to think you saw a hummingbird.
     Some species of sphinx moths are more familiar in their caterpillar stage than in their adult form. Gardeners know the tobacco hornworm (Carolina sphinx moth) and tomato hornworm (five-spotted hawkmoth). As caterpillars, both species will feed on tomato foliage, and other members of the nightshade family. Fishermen know the catalpa worm as bait. If they escape being fish food, catalpa worms will become catalpa sphinx moths.
    The hummingbird clearwing and the snowberry clearwing are two common species of small sphinx moths that feed during the day and look like a cross between a hummingbird and a bumblebee.   
     You are most likely to see one of the sphinx moths feeding at white or light-colored flowers, especially night-blooming flowers or flowers that become fragrant in the evening. A few favorites include butterfly ginger (hardy ginger), moonflower (moonvine), tuberose, abelia, evening primrose, petunia (especially old-fashioned re-seeding ones), nicotiana, manfreda, garden phlox, Abyssinian gladiolus, four o’clocks and angel’s trumpet. Plant some and enjoy the speedster moth show.

Q: What are some good blooming houseplants? I want something other than greenery.

A: We are entering houseplant season in which you will begin to see numerous flowering selections at garden centers and grocery stores. Some are basically temporary ornaments that are usually discarded after blooming. They provide color but are not usually treated as long-term houseplants. This group includes florist’s cyclamen, gloxinia, paperwhites and other potted forced “spring-blooming” bulbs such as hyacinths. Poinsettias may also be considered in this group although many people keep poinsettias as houseplants and go to great lengths to entice them to bloom again.
     Christmas and Thanksgiving cactuses, although often sold as holiday plants, make good long-term houseplants that will repeat their holiday blooming for many years with minimal care. Amaryllis is another houseplant commonly sold as a Christmas gift or holiday decoration but that will provide years of flowers.
    African violets are an old favorite that are available in many colors and forms. Phalaenopsis orchids are one of the easiest orchids to grow and are more readily available than ever before. A few other possibilities that produce a lot of blooms include crown-of-thorns, angelwing begonias, wax begonias and geraniums.
    Clivia is a flowering houseplant that is praised for its durability, for tolerating lower light levels than many other flowering plants and for producing incredibly bright and beautiful clusters of flowers. The standard flower color is deep orange, but yellow and other colors may be found.
Of course, there is the very popular peace lily (spathiphyllum). It is primarily a greenery plant but may reward its growers by producing primitive, white flowers.
     Visit your local garden center for more information and options about what flowering houseplants will be best for the conditions in your home.
     And if it is color you are looking for, don’t forget that there are many houseplants with variegated and multicolored foliage that will brighten your décor without even the hint of a flower.

                                                                                                                                           -- Arty Schronce

If you have questions about services or products regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, write Arty Schronce (arty.schronce@agr.georgia.gov) or visit the department’s website at www.agr.georgia.gov.

 

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