Q: I sowed a packet of “mixed sunflowers” and was surprised at some of the tall plants that produced clusters of flowers. I guess I was thinking all sunflowers have big, single heads. Are these clustered kinds unusual?
A: The sunflowers that produce the clusters you describe are sometimes called branching sunflowers. They are closer to the wild sunflowers of the American prairies than the single-headed sunflowers are. Fortunately, there are a lot of these branching sunflowers on the market. They are sometimes grown commercially for cut flowers or are just grown by gardeners who enjoy their beauty.
Sunflowers sometimes re-seed themselves, so you may have some seedlings to come up again next spring. You may consider trying some of the other varieties of branching sunflowers with rusty brown, maroon and creamy yellow petals. Some branching sunflowers have brown centers and others have yellow ones.
While annual sunflower are sown in the spring, you may consider planting a perennial sunflower in the fall or in the spring. A favorite is the swamp sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). It is also known as the narrowleaf sunflower and is native to Georgia and other Southern and Eastern states. It naturally grows in moist conditions but tolerates ordinary garden soil and is covered with hundreds of dark-eyed golden flowers in October.
Q: I think the gas station near my house is watering down the gasoline it sells. Who should I contact?
A: No station is going to “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 and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. This number and address are 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: Are shishito peppers hot or sweet?
A: Shishito peppers are sweet, but there are reports of an occasional hot one. They are also versatile and easy to prepare. They are not thick like bell peppers. Because they are thin, they can be grilled briefly to give them a char and then sautéed quickly in hot oil. They can be grilled and sautéed whole with the stems serving as convenient handles for eating as hors d'oeuvres or as a side dish with eggs, steak, pork chops or a tomato sandwich. Eat the entire pepper including the seeds. Try them with a topping of a cream cheese dip or with a dash of salt or lemon juice.
If sliced and seeded, the peppers can be sautéed with fresh corn, squash or okra. They may be sliced and eaten raw on a salad.
The shishito is one of many kinds of peppers grown in Georgia. Look for it and others at farmers markets and grocery stores.
Q: I’ve gotten lots of cherry tomatoes this year. What can they be used for besides salads? Can they be frozen?
A: Cherry tomatoes and other small tomatoes can be very productive, but fortunately they can be used in a variety of ways and can be frozen for later use.
Fresh cherry tomatoes can be halved or quartered and mixed with cubed avocados and peppers. Use them as a topping for guacamole or to make fresh salsa. Halve them or use them whole on saltines topped with pesto. Quarter them and mix them into a dish of pesto pasta. Cut and mix them into warm grits to add color and vegetable goodness to breakfast. Dice them into balsamic vinegar and olive oil for a homemade salad dressing. Use them to make a marinade for meats. Halve or quarter them to and make a tomato sandwich. We know it is not the same as having sliced slabs of tomato across the bread, but the flavor is still there.
Instead of using them only as an addition to a lettuce salad, make the tomatoes the star of the salad. Halve them and toss them with an oil and vinegar dressing with some salt and pepper. This is an especially attractive dish if you have different colors of tomatoes. Add some sliced cucumbers if you like.
They can also be roasted in the oven but that may not be something you want to do in the heat of summer. Cherry tomatoes may also be cooked and made into soups, juice, salsas and sauces. You may want to freeze them now and cook them in the winter. Dice them or freeze them whole. To maintain the individual integrity of the whole tomatoes so they can be added to a pot roast with carrots, onions and potatoes, place them on a cookie sheet and then place the frozen tomatoes in a freezer bag.
And, of course, you can always share.
Q: Is cutleaf coneflower the same as green coneflower? Someone gave me one at a gardening talk but I think it is something I already have.
A: They are both common names for the same flower (Rudbeckia laciniata). It is also called “tall coneflower.” It has been known to reach nine feet in the wild, but is usually three to five feet in cultivation.
The height can sometimes cause a blooming cutleaf coneflower to flop over. Staking can prevent this. Cutting them back to half their height in April or May will help keep them shorter. There are shorter varieties available and some with larger flowers than the one found in the wild.
Cutleaf coneflower is easy to grow, and is valued because of its late summer and fall flowers which are good for cutting. Cutleaf coneflower seeds itself readily where it is happy so cutting off the seed heads before they mature will help with that.
Cutleaf coneflower is native from Canada to Florida to the Rockies. In Georgia you are apt to see it in moist soils at the edges of rich woodlands or in forest clearings. It will grow in full sun, but gets extra points from gardeners for being able to tolerate and thrive in shade. Many Georgia gardeners are looking for flowers to brighten dark areas, and cutleaf coneflower is a native perennial they should consider.
Q: Can yellow patty pan squash be used like crookneck squash?
A: Absolutely. Fry it, grill it, roast it, stew it, use it like any other summer squash. People often have their own favorite varieties of squash depending on what they use them for. Some prefer straightneck types and some prefer crookneck types. Patty pan squashes, also known as scallop squashes, are less common but have their proponents, too.
Some people may only think of the old white patty pan varieties, but there are yellow and green varieties available.
Consumer Qs is a weekly question-and-answer column written by Arty G. Schronce of the Georgia Department of Agriculture. It appears in various newspapers across the state. For more information write Georgia Department of Agriculture, Room 330, 19 MLK Jr. Drive, Atlanta, GA 30334 or via email to email@example.com.