Q: What kind of Christmas tree is best? There seem to be so many to choose from now.
A: There is no one Christmas tree that is best. They all have different qualities, and people have different tastes and needs. The best may not be the most expensive or be the one the latest maven of design would choose. Some people adore the scent of pine or fir, while it irritates others. The color of one type of tree may clash with your ornaments or its branching pattern may be unsuitable for them. A red cedar or Virginia pine may bring back happy childhood memories of tramping through fields with a parent or grandparent and cutting one of these native trees. Some people may want a tree they can plant in their yard after the holidays.
Georgia Christmas tree growers and sellers have numerous kinds of Christmas trees to choose from including Leyland cypress, Murray cypress, white pine, red cedar, deodar cedar, Carolina Sapphire cypress, Blue Ice cypress and more. There are farms where you can take the whole family and choose and cut your own. Yes, there are many options, but don’t be daunted by them.
Q: Is there a record of the tallest tomato plant grown in Georgia? My church youth group grew a huge one, and we want to see how it compares.
A: You may find numerous reports and photos of very tall tomatoes in newspapers, but there are no official records. Contact your county Cooperative Extension office to ask if the agricultural or horticultural agent has seen taller ones than yours. Your local Master Gardeners group may also be able to provide some insight. And keep teaching young people about growing tomatoes, but be careful with the ladder when you harvest!
Q: I saw a photo of a Christmas tree in a magazine that was decorated with garlands of dried “yellow Billy button” flowers. I have never heard of this flower before. What is it?
A: The plant is Craspedia globosa and is more commonly called “drumstick flower.” It is native to Australia and has flower heads that look like a toy drumstick: little yellow balls on a stick. We have seen seeds offered in catalogs but can’t recall seeing plants for sale at garden centers or growing in gardens here.
If you want to grow drumstick flower but can’t find it, you may want to substitute the familiar and easy-to-grow gomphrena, also known as globe amaranth. Its round flowers are shades of purple, white, pink and red make excellent dried bouquets. It is readily available for sale as seeds and as plants in the spring. If it’s yellow dried flowers you want, try a variety of achillea. They are perennials that are generally readily available as plants. They must have well-drained soil and lots of sun, however, or they tend to rot away.
Q: What is the name of the camellia that blooms in the fall before the other camellias bloom?
A: The most popular fall-blooming camellia is the sasanqua camellia. It is sometimes simply called “sasanqua.” It blooms before the Japanese camellia, which is usually just referred to as “camellia.”
Sasanquas generally have smaller leaves and flowers than Japanese camellias. They begin blooming in the fall and into the winter while the main period of blooming for most Japanese camellias is winter into spring. There are far more varieties of Japanese camellias than sasanqua camellias. Sasanquas are sometimes used as an evergreen screen as well as being a specimen plant.
There are other fall-blooming camellias such as the tea-oil camellia (Camellia oleifera) and the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), the source of the tea we drink. These, however, are not commonly sold. Their flowers are not as showy as the sasanquas or Japanese camellias, but they are worth seeking if you want something different.
To learn more about camellias of all kinds, consider visiting Massee Lane Gardens in Fort Valley, home of the American Camellia Society (www.americancamellias.com
Q: Do I need to remove the dead leaves and dead stalks of perennials now or wait until spring?
A: Generally, it’s a matter of choice and aesthetics. If something is ugly or looks too unkempt for your taste, clear it away. If you like it, leave it.
For example, the seed heads of black-eyed Susan, purple coneflower, baptisia, showy sedum, Queen Anne’s lace, achillea/yarrow and other perennials can be attractive in winter. So can the silvery stalks of Russian sage and whitish stalks of some of the perennial hibiscuses. The leaves and seed heads of ornamental grasses can have a wispy grace as well as provide gentle rustling sounds in the breeze. Branches of taller perennials can provide some shelter and perches for small birds. The stalks of Adam’s needle yucca are favorite perches of hummingbirds in the summer and other birds in winter. Also, leaves that fall can help nourish the soil and provide a little more mulch. However, if something looks mushy or unattractive, clean it away and consider a layer of mulch to provide some winter protection and a level of neatness.
If you wait until later, consider cutting away last year’s growth on a warm day in February or March before new growth begins. At that time, the stems you cut away can be broken into pieces that birds may use for building nests.
Q: What is a settlement rain?
A: There is not a meteorological definition that we know of for “settlement rain,” but we have heard the term used by some farmers and gardeners to refer to a gentle rain that comes and settles in for a while, even a few days, as opposed to thunderstorms that give a few minutes or an hour of rain, often torrential, before dissipating or moving on. There may be other definitions or descriptions that vary from place to place as settlement rain is a colloquial term and not a scientifically or universally defined one.
Q: I was looking for raw peanuts in the grocery store but could not find any, only roasted and dry-roasted ones. Any suggestions?
A: Try looking for them in the produce section. Sometimes they are stocked there as well as raw Georgia Grown pecans and other raw nuts. Always ask the store manager. If they don’t stock an item, another of their stores nearby may offer it. Also check with state and local farmers markets.
Q: I am finding fleas in my house. What can I do to get rid of them? I never allow my cat to go outside so I do not know where the fleas came from.
A: Vacuum thoroughly (including furniture) every day until you get the infestation under control. Vacuuming removes up to 30 percent of the larvae and up to 60 percent of flea eggs from carpet, as well as the larvae’s food supply of dried blood found in the fecal material of adult fleas. Discard vacuum cleaner bags at least once a week. Fleas can continue to develop inside vacuum cleaner bags and re-infest the house, so change the bags outside.
Change your pet’s bedding. Wash all throw rugs, slipcovers and other similar washable items.
Your pet’s first line of defense is a flea comb and a good bath. Flea combs have fine teeth that remove adult fleas from fur. Pay special attention to the face, neck and the area in front of the tail. Dip the comb frequently in soapy water or an alcohol solution to kill fleas removed from your cat. Your infestation may require more than a bath and combing, however. There are numerous treatments for cats and dogs including insect growth regulators that interrupt the flea’s life cycle and topical insecticidal treatments that have low toxicity to mammals and pose little risk to pets or people. Consult your veterinarian or visit a pet store for over-the-counter options.
Several low-toxicity insecticides are available for indoor use. Some of these kill fleas on contact but evaporate quickly and leave little residual protection against emerging fleas. Be sure to treat areas where pets spend a lot of time.
When you find fleas in your house, begin a control program early for best results. Don’t wait until they get out of hand. Always follow all label directions carefully for safety and for best results when using any pesticide or chemical.
It is possible that fleas could have entered your house attached to your clothing if you walked through an infested area. Buildings can become infested even when there are no pets. Other animals such as roof rats, squirrels, raccoons and stray dogs or cats may take shelter or nest in structures and be the source of the infestation. Check your attic, crawlspace, carport, underneath porches or other spaces that may be the main source of infestation. Seal openings through which these animals may have entered. If you cannot control this problem yourself, pest control companies may be able to help.
Q: I didn’t grow up with collards. I have tasted them at restaurants (and like them) but to be perfectly honest, I don’t really know what they are. Are they a Southern version of kale?
A: Think of collards as kale’s stronger and bigger brother or as a cabbage that is less uptight and more intense. Kale, cabbage, collards, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi are all the same genus and species, Brassica oleracea, but are categorized into different groups based on their forms. It sort of like Great Danes and Chihuahuas; they are both dogs, but they are quite different in the way their canine genes express themselves.
You can find fresh collards now at grocery stores and farmers markets if you want to cook some yourself or try some other recipes using them such as collard salads, slaws and chips.
Q: Do you have a recipe for peanut brittle that can be made in the microwave? Also, is there one for pecan brittle?
A: Here is a recipe from the Georgia Grown Test Kitchen. Pecans can be substituted for peanuts. The pecans should be coarsely chopped. If chopped too fine they will overcook.
MICROWAVE PEANUT BRITTLE
1 cup sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
1 heaping cup raw Georgia peanuts
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 – 1 ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon baking soda
Combine sugar, corn syrup, peanuts and salt in a microwavable bowl. Microwave on high for 4 minutes, stir, then microwave for an additional 4 minutes. Add butter, mix in, and microwave for 2-4 minutes, depending on your microwave oven. The mixture should be starting to turn deep golden but not too brown. Stir in vanilla and baking soda, mixing quickly. Mixture will be light and foamy. Pour quickly onto buttered baking sheet, spreading as thin as possible. Let cool. Break into pieces. Store in an airtight container. Soak mixing bowl in hot sudsy water for easier clean-up. About 16 servings.
Q: I don’t think there is a Christmas tree recycling program in my community. What are some good uses for the tree after Christmas?
A: Check with your county or local municipal government or the grower or seller you purchased the tree from. There may be a public or private effort you are unaware of with a collection point to take trees so they can be utilized for some purpose or chopped into mulch or chips that can be used on paths or playgrounds. Perhaps a 4-H club or a Boy Scout/Girl Scout troop has a recycling effort.
One simple way of recycling at home is to simply stand the Christmas tree in your garden until the needles fall off. (Dig a hole, if necessary, to help it stand upright.) It will provide winter shelter (from cold as well as from predators) for small birds such as chickadees, wrens, titmice, nuthatches and song sparrows. You may even want to hang a block of suet inside the tree for the birds to eat. Eventually, the tree will become brittle and easily be cut or broken apart by hand or into a chipper.
Another option is to trim off the branches to use for mulch to provide some extra winter protection for plants. You can use the branches (or the entire tree) in gullies or washed out areas to prevent further soil erosion.
Sometimes trees are sunk into ponds or lakes to provide cover for small fish.
With any tree recycling effort, you will need to remove all decorations, tinsel and wires from the tree. Flocked trees or other similarly sprayed trees may not be recyclable. Do not burn your tree in a fireplace or woodstove as it could lead to creosote buildup.
Q: I was given a blooming amaryllis as a gift. Can I plant it outside after it finishes blooming?
A: If you want to try to grow your amaryllis as an outdoor plant, wait to plant it outside until spring after danger of frost is past. Plant it in good, well-drained soil and mulch it well in the fall. Some varieties may be more cold-hardy and more vigorous than others, and some blooms may hold up better to the sun and wind than others. We know of gardeners who have had positive as well as negative experiences attempting to grow these large-flowered Dutch types as outdoor perennials.
If you have doubts about planting your gift amaryllis outside this spring and leaving it there, consider St Joseph’s lily (Hippeastrum x johnsonii) that is also known simply as “hardy amaryllis.” It is red with a white star at its center and is generally considered hardy into USDA Zone 7 or even colder areas. It is more difficult to find for sale. It is a pass-along plant that is not common in the nursery trade but may be available from local and mail-order nurseries that specialize in perennials.
Q: My lemon tree is blooming. It makes the sunroom smell wonderful! Does it need another lemon tree blooming in order to set fruit?
A: Lemons and most citrus are self-fertile and do not require another tree to provide pollen. However, you will need to play the part of the honeybee when your lemon tree blooms indoors. Take a cotton swab or feather and make sure pollen from the ring of stamens lands on the sticky knob of the pistil in the center of the flower. No buzzing is required.
The white flowers of lemons and other citrus fruits are wonderfully fragrant. In fact, even if they never produced fruit they could be considered excellent houseplants for sunny exposures. Besides having attractive fragrant flowers, the leaves of a lemon tree release a fresh smell of pungent lemon when rubbed.
Q: I am downsizing and have garden books and magazines that I don’t have room for or am no longer using. I also have some old cookbooks that it is time to get rid of. Do you know who could use these?
A: Perhaps a public or school library could use them or offer them in a book sale. Also check with your county Cooperative Extension office to see if Master Gardeners or 4-H clubs want them. The books and magazines might find good homes, and make an enjoyable meeting, if offered to a garden club. Cookbooks that were locally produced such as those from a church, Junior League or other group might be welcomed by an area historical society.
Q: Where can I find the Green Tower boxwood? It is a narrow-growing variety of boxwood.
A: There are so many different varieties of plants that even the largest nurseries and garden centers cannot carry every one or keep it in stock all the time. If you don’t see it at any local garden centers and nurseries, ask for it; they may be able to order it from a wholesale grower. If they can’t find it for you, they may have other suggestions for narrow, columnar shrubs that will meet your needs. This is true for all plants you are looking for.
Q: I am looking for an apple my grandmother called June Harvest. It ripened in June and had a pale yellow to yellow-green skin and white flesh that was somewhat soft rather than hard and crisp. The skin had a slight powdery coating I think, and the fruit was more round than elongated. The flesh was mellow, not particularly sweet or tart, if I recall correctly. (It’s been about 40 years.) The skin did not have any blush or russetting. Do you know what it could be or if it is available?
A: We could not find any information on an apple named June Harvest, but it can be difficult to determine the identity of an old apple even when you have a name. The same variety may be known by different names in different places, and sometimes people make up their own names when they don’t know the actual variety name.
You may never know for sure the exact identity of your grandmother’s apple. Many old varieties have been lost over the years because they did not become a part of commercial production or for other reasons. Also, varieties may be similar in appearance and differ primarily in ripening time or another characteristic.
In researching antique apples, three varieties sound like possible candidates for your mystery apple, but these are only possibilities: Early Harvest, Yellow Transparent and Yellow June. Read the catalogs and websites of nurseries selling heirloom apples and consider giving one or more these or another possibility a try.
If you have questions about services or products regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, write Arty Schronce (firstname.lastname@example.org) or visit the department’s website at www.agr.georgia.gov.