Q: What are some easy, durable houseplants to grow?
A: Some of the common houseplants generally considered among the easiest and most durable include aglaonema/Chinese evergreen, snake plant/mother-in-law’s tongue, peace lily/spathiphyllum, pothos/devil’s ivy, cast-iron plant/aspidistra, heart-leaf philodendron, Norfolk Island pine, peperomia, dieffenbachia, zeezee plant/ZZ plant (Zamioculcas zamiifolia), arrowhead vine (Syngonium podophyllum), spider plant and rubber tree.
These are just some suggestions. There is not a guarantee that you will succeed with these or fail with others. A lot depends on you and the conditions you provide. For example, people with sunny rooms may find jade plants and other succulents or cacti among the easiest, but these plants will languish in darker homes. A horticulturist at your local garden center can provide more details and possibly other options.
As you research what houseplants to buy, remember that unusual or less-than-commonly sold plants may not get included in “top ten” or similar lists because they are available from only a few sources or their charms may appeal to only a select group of people. However, these may be easy and durable as well as rewarding. Two examples are rohdea and crown-of-thorns.
If there is a houseplant you want to grow and think you can meet its requirements, give it a try whether it is listed as easy or not. We know of experienced gardeners who have trouble with African violets and orchids, but these plants thrive with novices who can provide the right conditions or have just the right touch.
It is important to remember that overwatering is probably the most frequent cause of houseplant death, so perhaps too much work and over-attention is to blame rather than lack of durability, and some houseplants would be easier to grow if we would “take it easy.”
Q: Is one variety of Lenten rose better than another? I thought there was only one kind, but when I visited the garden center last week I found 12 different kinds on sale. I bought several. Can I plant them now or wait until spring?
A: Until recently, most Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus, sometimes listed as Helleborus orientalis) sold were grown from seed. All of them were good but, without seeing them in bloom, you were not sure exactly what color or size flower you were getting. The colors generally ranged from white to purplish pinks.
With the rising use of tissue culture, growers were able to propagate large quantities of Lenten roses and other hellebores that had colors or other characteristics they liked. Besides selecting for certain traits, growers have also done more breeding and hybridizing in recent years. The fruits of these efforts are now appearing in the marketplace. Today, you may find Lenten roses and other hellebores with white, yellow, green, pink, rose, purple and even purplish black flowers. Some even have double flowers. Leaf colors vary as well.
We do not have any recommendations about which varieties are best; many are quite new and they are all worth trying. We have not had a negative experience with any.
You should go ahead and plant your Lenten roses now. They will do much better in the ground than sitting in pots.
One of the favorite traits of Lenten roses and other hellebores is how they bloom in winter or early spring when not much else is in flower. If you are unfamiliar with them, visit a public garden or your local garden center to see some. Another thing that endears them to many gardeners is that deer leave them alone.
Q: Is it just my imagination or are there more purple vegetables than there used to be?
A: There may not be many more, but there are definitely more showing up at farmers markets and in the produce section of grocery stores. Today you may find purple varieties of kohlrabi, asparagus, sweet pepper, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, carrot, Irish potato, sweet potato and radish alongside the more familiar colors of these veggies along with old purple favorites such as eggplant and red cabbage. (Color terms may sometimes be relative, with “red” cabbage being perfectly purple and some varieties of “purple” tomatoes being deeper pink than the typical red ones.)
Many of the purple veggies you see are not new but are being offered more frequently than in recent years to meet the market demands of consumers who are more adventurous in their food selections and may even seek out what is different or unusual.
Color does not define a vegetable. Give a purple one a try.
Q: I saw a television commercial that said bumblebees should not be able to fly because their wings are too small. Is that true?
A: No. There is a misconception that bumblebees should be unable to fly due to their large body and small wings. The false belief that a bumblebee is defying the laws of physics still arises occasionally. However, the commercial was done in humor and we are sure was not intended to deliberately mislead anyone on the facts of insect biology and aerodynamics.
Q: I saw a large, shiny, black beetle crawling among the leaves next to my sweet-bubby bush on a warm afternoon last week. It had parallel grooves along the back section of its body. It was more elongated than round. I carefully picked it up to look at it, and it started making a squeaky squealing noise. What is it? Is it harmful to my plants or house?
A: It sounds like you are describing a Bess bug (Popilius disjunctus), also written as bess bug and bessbug, a large, native beetle that is sometimes also called patent-leather beetle, Betsy beetle and horned passalus beetle. Males have a small horn on the head. Although its mandibles look like they could pinch or bite, the beetle is harmless to you, your pets, plants and home.
The noise the beetle made when you disturbed it is from stridulation, the act of rubbing body parts together to create sound such as the chirps of crickets. Stridulation of Bess bugs serves for communication and defense.
Bess bugs feed on well-rotted logs. They are beneficial in helping with decomposition. They are not a wood-destroying insect such as a termite so they pose no threat to your home. They must have moist conditions to survive so don’t worry about them coming inside your house.
Although the beetle is attractive and beneficial, the high-pitched sounds emitted by a Bess bug may be a little unsettling the first time you hear them, like tiny insect screams, and remind you of something from a 1950s science fiction movie.
Q: I saw some small trees with colorful foliage planted along a street. I was told they were parrotias. Can you give me more information about them?
A: Persian parrotia (Parrotia persica), sometimes simply called parrotia, is a desirable but relatively uncommon small to medium-sized tree. It is sometimes grown as a very large shrub while young. One of its most is valued characteristics is its fall foliage with a broad range of colors from maroon to crimson to scarlet and gold. As the tree matures, its bark begins to exfoliate revealing shades of gray and brown, making it an especially nice feature in the winter landscape. Parrotia’s rosy flowers in early spring are attractive, but not particularly showy.
Although it may be a little harder to find than some other trees, Persian parrotia is worth seeking. It is an excellent alternative to the overplanted and problematic Callery pears such as the Bradford pear.
Q: What are some good roses to grow in pots? I want to grow one in a large pot or whiskey barrel.
A: With the exception of large climbers, most roses can be grown in containers provided a few basic considerations are met. It is important that the container be large enough to provide ample space for the roots. Generally, the bigger, the better. It should also have drainage holes. Choose a sunny location with good air circulation just as if the rose were planted in the ground. You will need to water more frequently because of the limited root space.
Consider miniature roses when selecting varieties for containers. These tiny versions may not be what you had in mind when wanting a rose, but their small stature makes them ideal candidates.
There is also a group of roses called “patio roses” that you should look at. They are compact but not as small as the miniatures. Dwarf polyanthas are another group to consider. Some of the “antique” roses have small stems and statures and may be good choices.
Your best option is to visit a garden center in late winter or early spring when they generally receive their selection of bare-root roses. Find one whose color, fragrance and other attributes appeal to you and ask about growing it in a container. The horticulturists there will be able to offer advice as well as pointing you to some suitable containers if you don’t have one already.
Q: How many peanut farmers are there in Georgia?
A: According to the Georgia Peanut Commission, there are approximately 3,500 peanut farmers in the state. These farmers planted peanuts in more than 75 Georgia counties.
Q: Is corn a grain or a vegetable?
A: It depends. Corn can be considered either a grain or a vegetable based on when it is harvested. Corn that is harvested when fully mature and dry is considered a grain. It is processed into cornmeal, grits, hominy and other products. Popcorn is also harvested when mature and is considered a grain.
Fresh corn is harvested when it is soft and has kernels full of liquid. It is considered a vegetable.
“Sweet corn” is the type of corn that is usually harvested fresh and eaten as a vegetable. It has a higher sugar content than “field corn,” the starchier type of corn that is grown as a grain. Field corn can, however, be harvested earlier and eaten as a vegetable but it is nowhere near as sweet as sweet corn.
To complicate matters, you can say that, from a botanical standpoint, an ear of corn is also the fruit of the corn plant. But things are complicated enough already.
Q: I am looking for a fairly small flowering tree. I like crape myrtles, but there are a lot of those already in my area. I want something different. Do you have some suggestions?
A: Crape myrtles are beautiful and durable, but it is always a good idea to have numerous kinds of plants in an area to increase aesthetic interest though the year, provide more options for pollinators and wildlife and as insurance in case a disease or pest decimates one kind of plant.
A few alternatives to consider include American witch-hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), Ozark witch-hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) and other witch-hazels, Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa), blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium), sarvisberry/serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), chaste tree (Vitex negundo and Vitex agnus-castus), pomegranate (Punica granatum), rose-of-Sharon/shrub althea (Hibiscus syriacus), Eastern redbud/American Judas tree (Cercis canadensis), Chinese redbud (Cercis chinensis), wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana), saucer magnolia (Magnolia x soulangiana), star magnolia (Magnolia stellata), grancy graybeard/American fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus) and Chinese fringe tree (Chionanthus retusus). Some of these are larger than crape myrtles and some, such as pomegranate and rose-of-Sharon, are more shrub-like but can be trained as small trees.
American smoketree (Cotinus obovatus) and common smoke tree (Cotinus coggyria) do not have typical “showy” flowers, but they are attractive nonetheless. They cover the trees with a misty, smoky haze.
Don’t limit yourself to trees with showy flowers. Consider small trees with colorful fruits. Two examples are winterberry (Ilex verticillata) and possumhaw (Ilex decidua). These native deciduous hollies light up the winter landscape with red berries and can make a display as bright as a tree covered with flowers.
A horticulturist at your local nursery or garden center will be able to tell you more about the plants listed here and even make other suggestions.
Q: I received a bluebird house (nestbox) for Christmas. Is it too early to put it up or do I wait for spring?
A: Go ahead and put it up. The Eastern bluebird is a permanent resident of Georgia, and the bluebirds may use nestboxes for roosting on cold nights. For more information visit the website of the North American Bluebird Society (www.nabluebirdsociety.org).
Q: What are mole beans?
A: Mole bean is another name for castor bean (Ricinus communis). Castor beans are sometimes planted to repel moles, but they have not been shown to be effective, especially for a large area. The plant is not a bean. In fact, it is poisonous so children should be warned not to eat any part of plant, especially the seeds.
Castor bean is often grown as an ornamental plant. There are purple and green-leaved varieties. The plants grow six to eight feet tall and have large leaves that can provide a bold, tropical look to a garden. They are easy to grow from seeds which are available from garden centers and catalogs. Prepare yourself before you open the seed packet; the seeds look like bloated ticks. In fact, the genus name Ricinus may come from the Latin word for tick.
Castor bean seeds are the source of castor oil. Heating during the oil extraction process denatures and deactivates the toxic protein ricin that the seeds contain. Trying to extract your own is not recommended.
The castor bean is believed to be the plant (translated as “gourd” in the King James Version) that grew up and shaded the prophet Jonah after the city of Nineveh repented following his preaching there (Jonah 4:6). So besides being an ornamental and a possible mole repellent, castor bean may also be a good choice to illustrate a Bible story in a church garden.
Consumer Qs is a weekly column written by Arty Schronce about agriculture, food safety, horticulture and services or products regulated by the Georgia Department of Agriculture. If you have questions please review the department's website (www.agr.georgia.gov) or write to write to Arty at firstname.lastname@example.org.