Question: I was told to set out my tomato and cucumber plants on a cloudy day. Why?
Answer: Some people like to do this if possible because it gives the tomato plants a little more time to become acclimated to harsher outdoor conditions such as a full day of wind and burning sun. Moving a plant that has spent its entire life in the windless, humid atmosphere of a greenhouse to the outdoors can quickly lead to windburn, sunburn and even death.
Some nurseries will harden off tomatoes and some other vegetable plants by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions before they are sold. These hardened-off plants will be better adapted for the move into the garden. However, because they are not usually as green and lush as their hothouse counterparts, some people pass them by even though they are more likely to thrive.
Whenever you have the opportunity to set them out, you should shade tender vegetable plants with branches of shrubs and trees (properly pruned of course), newspapers or commercial hotcaps until the plants are acclimated to the wind and sun. You should also water your tomato plants thoroughly when you set them out and monitor them every day until they become established.
Q: Please help me identify a tree in my neighborhood. It is small, sort of like a flowering dogwood, but the bark is smoother and the overall tree is looser. The flowers are whiter than a dogwood and hang down from the stems. They look sort of like the flowers of mock orange. Any ideas?
A: It sounds like one of the silverbells, perhaps Carolina silverbell (Halesia tetraptera, formerly known as Halesia carolina) or the two-winged silverbell (Halesia diptera). Those are the two species most commonly seen and sold. Silverbells are native to areas of the eastern United States and bloom in mid spring. They prefer moist, well-drained soil and semi-shade.
Silverbells are not planted as often as they deserve to be. They can be more difficult to find than some other trees but are worth searching for. In the landscape they combine well with numerous trees and shrubs including rhododendrons, mountain laurel, native azaleas, fringe tree/grancy graybeard, sarvis/serviceberry, flowering dogwoods and pieris.
Q: What are catkins?
A: Catkins are thin, cylindrical flower clusters that are usually inconspicuous because they have no petals. They are usually wind pollinated. Numerous species of plants have flowers that are catkins including pecans, oaks and willows.
Usually, as in the case of the familiar pecan tree, the catkins are the male (staminate) flowers and the female (pistillate) flowers are at the tips of the branches. Both are needed to produce nuts.
Q: What is the difference between creamed and whipped honey?
A: Whipped honey and creamed honey are different names for the same product. It is also called spun or churned honey. It is made by controlling the crystallization process so that the final product is smooth, fine-grained and spreadable. This is done by seeding the honey with fine-grained honey crystals that act as a starter to get the liquid honey to form small crystals instead of the large crystals it does naturally. (The starter can be a jar or container of purchased whipped honey.) All honey will crystallize eventually, but with whipped honey the crystallization is started and controlled so that the end product is of a desirable texture. At room temperature, whipped honey can be spread like butter or jelly.
Some people prefer whipped honey to the liquid form for spreading on biscuits and toast. Check with local beekeepers to see if they supply whipped honey in addition to other kinds of honey.
Q: What can you tell me about the lanky plant that blooms at night with large, fragrant flowers that are supposed to represent the nativity scene?
A: You are probably referring to the night-blooming cereus (Epiphyllum oxypetalum), a cactus with gangly, flattened stems that look like leaves. Although a cactus, it is not native to deserts but to tropical forests.
The night-blooming cereus likes dappled shade in the summer and a sunny window in the winter. It prefers a well-draining potting soil high in organic matter. 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.
Night-blooming cereus is easy to propagate. Just stick one of the stems or “leaves” into some soil and in a few weeks you’ll have a plant of your own. The cactus is extremely easy to grow and is long lived. It is rarely offered for sale except from mail-order nurseries specializing in houseplants. It is most frequently shared from gardener to gardener.
An interesting characteristic of the night-blooming cereus is that some people visualize parts of the Christmas story within its flowers. The cluster of stamens in the center is the manger, the clumps of stamens on each side of this are Mary and Joseph, the stamens at the top are the open arms of an angel, and the star-shaped pistil represents the star of Bethlehem. Granted, you have to have an imagination to see this, but when you are under the spell of the fragrance and beauty of such a flower, it’s not difficult to let your imagination run wild.
Q: Will squirrels eat strawberries?
A: We love strawberries, many birds love strawberries, slugs and snails love strawberries and apparently squirrels do, too. As if robbing us of pecans, apples, tomatoes and birdseed were not enough.
You may want to try netting supported with hoops like a row cover or with a similar apparatus to protect your berries from Squirrel Nutkin and his kin. A dog can help scare the squirrels away. If you don’t have one, perhaps friends will bring theirs over when they come for a visit or you can dog-sit for them during strawberry season. Although you may feel like you are giving aid and comfort to the enemy, you can try to lure the squirrels to another part of your property by offering ears of dried corn or cheap birdseed. Your county Cooperative Extension agent may have other suggestions specific to your situation.
Q: I want to become a dog walker/pet sitter – to go to people’s homes and take care of their dogs and cats while they are away on trips. Do I need to be licensed by the Georgia Department of Agriculture?
A: No, but you will need a kennel license if you open a business in which you are boarding animals for people while they are away. For more information, contact the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Animal Protection Office at 404-656-4914.
Q: How long can you keep hard-boiled eggs?
A: Hard-boiled eggs (also referred to as hard-cooked eggs) can be stored in your refrigerator for up to seven days, either left in their shells or peeled.
Q: I have been looking for more native plants for my landscape and want to include some native azaleas. Do you have any suggestions?
A: We haven’t met a native azalea we did not like. There are many kinds and all are worth protecting if they are growing on your property, and all are worth planting if you have a spot for them. And there is probably one or more that will fit into your landscape or color scheme as they come in red, pink, white, yellow and orange.
To best answer your question, we turned to two experts who spend their working days among some of the finest displays of Georgia’s native azaleas: horticulturist and author Erica Glasener who is currently marketing manager at Gibbs Gardens in Ball Ground, and Patricia Collins who serves as director of gardens at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain.
“The top of my list of favorite native azaleas should be, and is, the plumleaf azalea (Rhododendron prunifolium),” said Collins. The plumleaf is the signature plant of Callaway Gardens. Cason J. Callaway discovered some of the azaleas blooming on a July afternoon. He and his wife Virginia developed Callaway Gardens partly in an effort to preserve the azalea.
Collins likes the azalea because it blooms in midsummer “anywhere from late June through August” and for its eye-catching deep red flowers “especially on a hot summer’s day when you don’t expect much in the way of native plants or native azaleas in color.”
Another late-bloomer Collins likes is the sweet azalea (Rhododendron arborescens). She noted its white blooms and red stamens and its sweet fragrance. “This one should be planted near a walkway, front door or a patio so you can enjoy the smell,” she suggested.
“As for the early-blooming natives, I think my favorite is probably the Florida azalea (Rhododendron austrinum). It has nice yellow to yellow-orange flower color and a wonderful, lemony fragrance,” she said.
Collins also advised that there can be a lot of color variation within a species and they readily hybridize in nature. If you are set on a specific color, she recommends purchasing native azaleas when they are actually in bloom so that you know exactly what you are getting. She said there are some named varieties of which you can be sure of the color, but also said that when planting a mass of azaleas “I tend to like a little variation.”
Native azaleas have long been a favorite plant of mine,” said Glasener. “They are easy to grow, pest and disease resistant and many are fragrant. And, unlike many of the cultivated azaleas, the plants don’t hold on to their spent blossoms.”
She also likes the plumleaf azalea because of its late-blooming period, striking color, and the way it draws butterflies. Another favorite is the swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) with its “strongly fragrant clove-scented flowers.” True to its name, it will tolerate boggy soils.
Glasener said that one of the azaleas to get the most comments from visitors to Gibbs Gardens is the Piedmont azalea (Rhododendron canescens). “There is a group that is the size of small flowering trees. The flowers range from white to pink and perfume the air for several weeks.”
As for planting native azaleas in the home landscape, Glasener likes to combine them with evergreens including native rhododendrons, Florida anise (Illicium floridanum) and Florida leucothoe (Agarista populifolia). Oakleaf hydrangeas and native hardy gingers and ferns are also good companions.
One final piece of advice from Glasener, “Give them room to grow. Many native azaleas want to be small trees. Some will reach eight to 12 feet or taller.”
While some native azaleas are available at nurseries, gardeners should watch for plant sales held by the Georgia Native Plant Society, Master Gardeners and public gardens.
Q: My George Lindley Taber azalea has sprouted purple blooms. One bloom is half purple and half the normal orchid color. Is this the result of weather? What is going on?
A: Nothing is wrong. Occasionally some plants will exhibit a mutation or “sport” that is different from the original. This genetic instability is harmless. Horticulturists will sometimes propagate these sports to create a new variety. For example, the George Lindley Taber azalea itself is the result of a sport from the rosy purple Omurasaki azalea. The white Mrs. G.G. Gerbing azalea is a sport that was propagated from George Lindley Taber.
These mutations are not particularly rare but can be disconcerting if you don’t know the reason. They occur with various cultivated plants, including roses and camellias as well as azaleas. They may be irritating if they disrupt your color scheme or landscape design. A renegade purple azalea may stand out like a sore thumb among a line of white ones, for example.
These mutations can also be a little exciting. If you see a branch of any shrub exhibiting something truly different, you can propagate it and possibly have your own new variety.
Q: Why do earthworms come out of the ground when it rains? Will they drown if they don’t?
A: When it rains, earthworms may leave the ground because the wet surface makes it much easier for them to move from place to place without drying out in the hot sun. An earthworm’s skin needs to remain moist for the worm to survive. It is also easier for them to find mates on the open ground as compared to underground isolated in their burrows. It is a misconception that earthworms come out of the ground because they will drown if they do not.
Q: I purchased a potted orange flower labeled “sun star” next to the Easter lilies in the grocery store. Can you tell me more about it? Is it hardy in Georgia?
A: Sun star (Ornithogalum dubium) is also known as orange star flower. It is a bulbous plant native to South Africa and hardy to about 15 to 25 degrees F. It is a colorful houseplant but would not be considered winter hardy in our state. If you live in coastal or southern Georgia and want to try it outdoors, plant it in a protected spot and give it a layer of mulch.
Sun star can be purchased from bulb companies in the fall for forcing as a winter houseplant. Indoors, it likes cool temperatures and a bright location. If you want to get your plant to bloom again next year, place it in a sunny area this summer and keep it watered. In the fall, put the pot inside in a dry, frost-free place and repot it in the spring.
Consumer Qs is a weekly column that appears in numerous newspapers in Georgia as well as here. If you have questions about agriculture or about the services or products regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, write to Arty G. Schronce at email@example.com.