Tuesday, December 18, 2018

December 18, 2018

Hi Gardeners

It’s looking like we won’t have a white Christmas here although we may get a bit of snow either Friday or Sunday and it’s possible it will stick.  That’s fine with me, I am not a snow worshipper and I don’t care anymore if Christmas is white.  I read that some of you are likely to get a lot of snow-or rain – over the holiday.  I hope it doesn’t ruin any of your plans and everyone stays safe.

Today it’s sunny and 36 degrees here with a brisk wind. It’s cold outside with the wind but I can look out the window at green grass.  And I did get out with my dog today for a quick tour of the yard.  My chickens are roaming, scratching through the damp leaves and finding green things to eat so they are happy too.

We couldn’t see the meteor showers or comet this past week because it was either cloudy or foggy every night.  I heard they were impressive in some areas of the country. I hope some of you enjoyed the celestial display.

Today, the 18th, is Bake Cookies Day. I have been busy baking this week.  The 21st is winter solstice, start of the holiday season and everyone needs comfort food and yummy sweets to celebrate but I like to be done with preparations by solstice so that I can properly experience it and Christmas.  This year solstice arrives with a full moon and close to moon perigee so it’s even more impressive.

Because of Christmas there will be no blog post on the 25th.  But I’ll be back with a post on January 2.  No matter what holiday you celebrate this season I hope you have a good one.

Winter Solstice

There was a time when winter solstice was the most sacred holiday of the year. The calendar revolved around it. Ancient people made it a point to know when winter solstice occurred.  This was the time when the sun stopped its descent to the horizon and began to climb again in the sky.  The ancients knew that the sun was the key to life.  When the sun “turned and began to come back” it was a signal that life continued.  The celebration was a symbol of hope and joy, rebirth and a new year.

While some of man’s earliest ancestors may not have been aware of the cyclic nature of the sun because of their closeness to the equator, where there is no seasonal difference, by the time they appeared in Northern Africa, they had grasped the significance. The pyramids and other monuments that track the sun’s journey are proof.

But by the time humans migrated to more northerly areas of the middle east and Europe they became very aware of the sun’s seasonal fluctuations.  The days grow shorter and the sun is lower on the horizon and its warmth wanes.  The people felt great relief when they could determine that that cycle was reversing.  Over generations they learned to determine this turning point at almost the instant it happens.  That still seems amazing, that they could pinpoint the start of solstice, without any of our modern instruments and our knowledge of how the earth revolves around the sun and turns on its axis.

Long, long before Christmas our ancestors celebrated winter solstice.  It was believed that man was closest to the spiritual realm in the days around winter solstice.  It was a solemn time of meditation and reflection, a time to relinquish fears and cares in the old year and look forward to better times in the new. Fires were lit to symbolically burn fears, cares and transgressions.  Sacrifices and promises were made.

At the end of about 3 days of solemn retrospection, there was feasting and visiting with the community to celebrate life and the promise of the new year.  Small gifts were given, mostly for luck in the new year, which is the probable origin of gift giving at this time of year.

In all the bustle that precedes and follows winter solstice now, the Christian, Jewish, and other cultural rituals co-opted from earlier ones, it’s important to remember the significance of winter solstice. Life on earth is going to continue for our species, (at least for a while), because there is a familiar, constant and comforting law of nature.

The ancients had it right when they believed that this time of the year, the winter solstice, should be a time for reflection on the past year.  It’s a time to examine our lives and decide how we want to live going forward, with the coming of a new year.  We should take 3 days of every year, beginning at solstice to be introspective, spiritual and thoughtful. Have a bonfire and burn your cares and worries. Make your resolutions at this time, when the new year truly begins.

After the period of reflection, the joyful celebration can begin.  It would be wonderful if that could be less about material things and more about connecting to others and being glad to be alive and having a fresh start.  May you have a spiritual, reflective solstice and a joyous and fulfilling new year.

Aphids on houseplants

Aphids are small egg-shaped insects that come in white, black and every color in between, depending on the species.  Adult aphids have wings, but aphids don’t usually fly very far.  Aphids can be found in the garden, the greenhouse and on houseplants.  There are species of aphids that prefer certain plant species and some that are generalists. Some plants are very susceptible to aphid infestations and other plants rarely host them.

Houseplants that are more susceptible to aphids include; asparagus fern, cyclamen, Fatshedera, Fatsia, fuchsia, impatiens, kalanchoe, ornamental peppers, roses, schefflera, streptocarpus, and tropical hibiscus.  Some plants that rarely get aphids are succulents, spider plants, pothos, ferns, sanseveria, and Norfolk pines.  Many types of plants occasionally get aphids.

Aphids suck plant juices and usually concentrate on areas of the plant that are young and tender, like new shoots and flower buds.  Their feeding can cause some plant stress and they sometimes carry diseases from plant to plant.  Their poop is called honeydew, it’s a sticky substance that is often found on the lower leaves of plants and on things next to plants.  It can mold, turning black (sooty mold), which is unsightly and blocks light from plant leaves and impedes their respiration.

Outside aphids have many natural predators and they rarely become too abundant.  On plants in the house though, natural predators and heavy rains that wash them off plants are absent, so they can build up into huge populations.  Houseplants may get aphids when they are outside for summer vacations but even plants that have never been outside may get aphids.  Greenhouses also have problems with aphids and they are often brought home on new plants.  Seasonal plants like poinsettias and Easter lilies may even give them a ride inside.
Aphid giving birth

Once they get inside a home aphids can reproduce rapidly.  Most aphids inside reproduce by giving birth to nymphs, baby aphids that look like smaller adults without wings.  Some aphids outside lay eggs.  To find aphids look at new shoots, and buds for clusters of tiny insects of varied colors.  Look under curled or yellowed leaves for aphids that may be hiding there too. The sticky “honeydew” aphids produce can look shiny when fresh or like blackened areas if it molds.  (Scale insects also produce honeydew.)

Aphids are not the tiny insects flying around in your home in most cases. Those are gnats or whiteflies.  Aphids can fly but prefer to crawl from plant to plant.  Even when touched they rarely fly.

Aphids rarely kill a plant although they make it look sickly.  Leaves may yellow and curl. Buds may drop off or flowers may look deformed.  Most gardeners want to control them.

Control indoors

If you are able to move your potted plants into the shower easily, simply set them in the shower and spray them vigorously with warm water.  Concentrate on young growth and buds if any.  With light infestations you may be able to use a spray bottle with plain water to spray plants too large to move easily.   You may have to do this several times until you cut the population.

If you just have a few clusters of aphids on your plants, you may be able to just clip off those areas and dispose of them aphids and all.  You may miss a few but you will help control the population this way.  If you don’t want to trim plants there are other things you can do.

You can spray the plants with an insecticidal soap solution.  This is not something you mix up in the sink with dish detergent.  Don’t let anyone convince you that Dawn dish detergent is the same thing.  Dawn or other dish detergents strip the oils off leaf surfaces and make it easier for aphids to feed.  You’ll need to purchase the insecticidal soap from a horticultural supply store. Mix it according to label directions.

Horticultural oils are also an option but since they affect some plants adversely check the label to see if it’s safe for the plants you want to spray and can be used indoors.  Neem oil is an insecticidal oil that’s fairly safe to use indoors too. Protect things around the plants you spray so the oil doesn’t stain them. 

Most spray type or contact insecticides aren’t safe to use inside. Check all pesticides for the label directions and only use them inside if the label says you can.  If you have a place you can move the plants to when you spray them, so that the spray isn’t in the household air you are breathing, that would probably be the best way to use these pesticides. They only need to remain isolated until the spray dries. Remember some of these sprays might harm pets if they chew treated leaves.

You could opt to use a systemic insecticide product to kill the aphids.  Systemics are poured on the soil and the plant roots take them up and the plant distributes the pesticides through its whole system.  It takes 2 weeks or more for these products to start working but then they protect the plants for a long time and there are no pesticides in the air to breathe.
Most systemics are in the neonicotinoid class of pesticides and can harm pollinators.  If you are treating plants that never go outside or that don’t flower this is probably not a problem. Neonicotinoids like Imidacloprid remain in soil or potting medium a long time.  Don’t dump any treated soil outside because plants nearby could take up the pesticide and theoretically harm pollinators. This class of pesticides is practically non-toxic to mammals if used as directed so most pets shouldn’t be affected. 

I have found that if you can keep the aphid population low without using pesticides through the winter, your plants will survive until warm weather when you can move them outside.  Outside the aphid problem is generally quickly resolved and plant recovery rapid.

Plants may someday charge your phone

Some fascinating new research has revealed that when the wind blows across a plant the plant produces electricity.  Plants strengthen their stems when wind moves them as many growers know.  Evidently it is an electrical stimulus that cause the plants to “bulk up”.  When wind moves across the leaf surface it produces an electrical charge on the surface which is immediately transported into plant tissues and moved to other parts of the plant.

Researchers at IIT-(Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia) in Pisa, Italy found that a single leaf being brushed by the wind can produce 150 volts of electricity. Researchers were able to capture the electricity by making artificial “plants” whose leaves touched the real leaves of an oleander plant.  Electricity then flowed through the artificial plant to be metered or to power LED lights.  A single plant leaf blowing in the wind can light up 150 LED bulbs.

The researchers have a project where they are making a robot that will make “growing motions” and they hope to at least partially power the robot with plant produced electricity.  Sounds complicated but this project has opened up a whole new area of research into green energy.

One day we may simply plug into plants to light our homes or charge up that phone.  Maybe you could carry a special plug when you are hiking in the wilderness, so you can plug your phone into a friendly tree to charge it.  You might have to stand there and blow on some leaves if the wind isn’t blowing -LOL-.
There’s no data that I saw on whether harnessing the electricity the plant is producing and diverting it for our use would harm the plant.  But if a tree has millions of leaves that might not be a major problem unless we got greedy.  Just plant a few trees by the house and voila!- no electric bills.

We used to do a 4-H project where several potatoes powered a small clock and they weren’t even blowing in the wind. The potatoes were able to power the clock for several days while on exhibit at the fair.  (And the potatoes were still edible when they stopped producing energy).  I guess you could say the potato tubers were the batteries where the potato plant stored electricity. So, it makes sense that if we found the right way to harness and store energy from plants, we could become even less dependent on fossil fuel energy.

More reading

Plants don’t like to be touched

If you are a person who constantly fusses with your plants, shining their leaves, stroking and poking them-beware, you are stressing them out.  And when plants are stressed, they don’t grow as well, and their immune system is less effective.
Research published this month in the The Plant Journal (https://doi.org/10.1111/tpj.14183) found that every time a plant is touched stress hormones are triggered which are energy intensive for the plant to produce.  To a plant touch is not pleasurable, rather it signifies that something is going eat them, so they need to defend themselves. Even when other plants touch a plant it causes stress. 

The more a plant is touched the less energy it has for other functions like growth and reproduction.  Plants that are frequently touched are not as healthy as plants who aren’t touched.  The research found that plants whose nutritional needs were well met had less of a setback, but that touch was still not a good thing for plants.

Preliminary research suggests plants can’t differentiate types of touches, good touches, like in pollination, and bad, like a grasshopper landing on them.  We may discover eventually that they can.  Research also hasn’t determined if different plant species have different levels of response to touching.  However, since the stress caused by touching causes a change in gene expression, researchers think that it might be possible to breed plants that handle touch better.

I don’t know what this means for the idea of harnessing electricity from plants- see the article above-because that involves touching leaves with a fake leaf.  I suppose we’ll weigh the pros and cons and choose what’s best for us.  However, all you gardeners who want healthy plants should do your best to keep your green thumbs off them.

More reading;

New tick species to watch out for

In 2017 a foreign tick was discovered in New Jersey.  The tick, called the Asian Longhorned tick (a stupid name because it is so similar to Asian Longhorn beetle, another recent invasive species) was found in these additional states this year: Arkansas, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.  A new study warns that the tick will probably spread to many more states rather quickly.

This tick has some tolerance for cold and will probably spread as far north as southern Canada.  It does not like hot, dry areas and the southwest is the least likely place it will spread.  This tick can reproduce without mating (parthenogenic) and is quite prolific.  It will feed on wildlife, livestock, pets and humans. It likes the same habitat as other species of ticks.

The Haemaphysalis longicornis tick is native to East Asia but is also well established in Australia and New Zealand.  It’s a prominent livestock pest and that may be how it arrived here. Thousands may be found on one animal, severely weakening it.

In Asia it transmits several tick-borne diseases to livestock and humans.  So far, the CDC has not found any Asian Longhorned ticks in the US that are infected with disease.  Entomologists say that is likely to change.

As far as identifying the species, that is hard for the layperson to do.  It’s a plain reddish- brown tick.  You can see pictures in the link below.  The CDC and USDA-APHIS would like people to submit ticks that they don’t recognize so they can track the spread and test them for disease.  There are directions in the fact sheets below for how to do this.  If you have been bitten by a tick- it attached to you and fed on you- should contact your doctor or the local health department.

Soil ingredient might help you lose weight

Did you eat dirt as a child?  You may have been on the right track to a svelte body. As part of research on the best delivery of certain drugs to the human system, scientists in Australia stumbled upon the discovery that a substance found in some soils, smectite, a form of non-metallic clay, may someday help people lose weight by absorbing fat in the digestive system.

Smectite is also known as montmorillonite or sodium bentonite and is composed of hydrated sodium calcium aluminum silicate. It is produced by the weathering of volcanic ash. The form the researchers were using had been spray dried.  The substance is harmless to humans and passes through the digestive system. Sodium bentonite is used to seal porous soils to make a liner for ponds and sewage lagoons.  It’s also used in kitty litter.

Sodium bentonite has been used in medicine to absorb toxins from the body and treat diarrhea. Various folk remedies using it exist. There are studies that suggest it might help promote good gut bacteria. It’s also used in cosmetics.  Overdose though, can interfere with blood electrolytes.

The researchers were using the clay to improve the delivery of certain medications when they discovered that it soaked up fat goblets in the digestive system and then carried them out of the body.  They decided to compare smectite with Orlistat, a weight loss drug, in animal studies.  They found the clay caused more weight loss than Orlistat.

Researchers at the University of South Australia then decided to combine smectite clay with Orlistat.  Orlistat does cause weight loss by blocking the absorption of fat by the body. However, some people can’t tolerate it because the excess fat in the digestive system causes severe diarrhea.  In animal studies the combination of Orlistat and smectite caused weight loss without gastrointestinal distress. Human studies of the combination will soon be starting.  In the meantime, don’t start eating soil or kitty litter, there could be other complications.

More reading

"So the shortest day came, and the year died,
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees;
They hung their homes with evergreen;
They burned beseeching fires all night long
To keep the year alive,
And when the new year's sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, reveling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us - Listen!!
All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This shortest day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, fest, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!!"
-   Susan Cooper, The Shortest Day

May you have a spiritual solstice, a merry Christmas or the wonderful holiday of your choosing.  See you next year.

Kim Willis
All parts of this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without permission.

And So On….

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Newsletter/blog information
I write this because I love to share with other gardeners some of the things I come across in my research each week (or things I want to talk about). It keeps me engaged with people and horticulture. It’s a hobby, basically. I hope you enjoy it. If you are on my mailing list and at any time you don’t wish to receive these emails just let me know. If you or anyone you know who would like to receive a notification by email when a new blog is published have them send their email address to me.  KimWillis151@gmail.com

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

December 11, 2018

Hi Gardeners

Another cold and gloomy day here in Michigan but I won’t complain too much.  It could be much worse- like North Carolina.  Soon the longest night will pass and we’ll be climbing the hill again.

I am already planning what new things I’ll buy for the garden next year.  I am exploring catalogs and websites to add to the list I keep on the right side of the blog- and I see so many interesting things I’d like to grow.  I’ll be adding new listings to the page through January- take a look when you have time.

The birds have been busy at the feeders. I hope you are feeding the birds because it’s so interesting to watch them in the winter.  I put out only two items in the winter, black oil sunflower seeds and suet.  Ninety percent of the birds here in winter are attracted to those two items and nothing else is needed. I have tried mixed bird seed, but the birds waste a lot of it. Cracked corn is liked by some birds but it attracts deer so it doesn’t go out here.

I spent some time moving my plants around indoors this weekend because I wanted to bring the amaryllis’s off the porch into warmer conditions. That took some juggling, but I managed. My holiday cacti are all blooming nicely now.  Hibiscus are blooming nicely too.

I was noticing on the porch how nice the large canna still looked. They aren’t blooming but the foliage is still pretty, and they are actually adding new leaves.  They could be a candidate for those of you who like large, big leaved houseplants. Just bring them in before frost.  I keep mine potted to make that easier. 

There are many colors of canna foliage.  I have a maroon and a green leaved variety.  I let the tropicanna variety, with striped foliage, get hit with frost and it hasn’t come out of dormancy yet.  I think that canna could even bloom inside if they had enough light. I just don’t have room for canna’s in the main part of the house.

I will be busy baking cookies and making meat pies this week.  I hope all of you are making and eating your favorite holiday foods and seeing your favorite people.  Just don’t let the rush of preparing for the holiday spoil your joy.
Holiday plants you may want to avoid

Plants have been brought into the home to decorate it around the winter solstice for hundreds of years.  They have become part of the tradition and lore of the holidays and the practice persists even today.  But not all holiday plants are safe for children and pets and knowing which ones are poisonous is important for a happy holiday.

The poinsettia has long been listed as a poisonous plant, but as toxic plants go, it’s probably not that harmful.  Yes, if someone ate a lot of poinsettia there could be serious consequences, but that scenario is unlikely.  The sticky white sap of the poinsettia is unpleasant tasting enough that even the naughtiest dog probably wouldn’t eat enough to get more than a stomach ache.  It would take eating several large plants to be lethal to a pet or child, if that.

Mistletoe on the other hand is extremely poisonous and just a few of the berries dropped on the floor and eaten by a pet or child could cause death. All parts of the plant are toxic, dried or fresh. Mistletoe is a plant that does not belong in homes where children and pets are present.

Holly is often used in decorating for the holidays but all parts of the plant are poisonous.  The leathery leaves would be unlikely to be eaten but the bright red berries that some holly has would be attractive to children and pets. 

Another very poisonous plant that is sold around the holidays as a potted plant is the Jerusalem Cherry (Solanum pseudocapsicum).  The plant is a compact bush-like house plant with glossy green leaves and bright orange-red berries.  All parts of this plant are poisonous.

In fact, around the holidays many plants with red or orange berries are sold.  Some of these are new to the trade and little is known about their toxicity - whether they are poisonous or harmless.  It’s a good idea to place any of these attractive plants out of the reach of children and pets.  Always keep a plant label with a plant so if any part is ingested you can tell poison control what it is.

Amaryllis bulbs are often sold around the holidays either in bloom or as kits that you add water to and watch it grow.   They are often sold as a bulb in fancy pots.   They have long strap-like leaves which appear after the bloom stalk.  The amaryllis bloom is trumpet shaped; there may be one or several blooms on each tall stalk.  It comes in red, white, pink and other pastel shades.  All parts of the plant are poisonous.

Another bulb often given as a gift kit is the narcissus or daffodil bulb.    The common one sold is called paper white narcissus.  They are often set in gravel and water to grow roots and bloom.  They have flat, grass like leaves, and the typical daffodil flower of a “cup” surrounded by a ring of petals.  They are white or yellow and have a strong fragrance.  All parts of the plant are quite poisonous as is the water surrounding the bulb, or if the blooms are cut and put in a vase of water, that water is also toxic.  Narcissus and daffodils should never be put where children or pets might taste them or drink the water they are in.

Yews are not used as often as some evergreens for holiday decorating but they are sometimes used in floral arrangements and unsuspecting homeowners may bring branches inside for decorating.  They have soft, flat dark green needles and are often sheared into hedges around a home. The yew is an extremely toxic plant with only a bite of the plant causing death to a pet.  It sometimes has fleshy red berries with a hard seed inside that attract children and pets.  The soft part of the berry is harmless, but a few swallowed seeds can be deadly.  A mouthful of the plant can kill a grown cow.  It is not a plant that should be brought into the home.

Sweet Annie or other kinds of wormwood (artemisia) are often used in wreaths and other dried arrangements.  While unlikely to be eaten in quantity, these plants are also poisonous, and munching should be discouraged.  Since wreaths, dried arrangements and fresh floral arrangements can have all sorts of exotic plants tucked in them and might be sprayed with chemicals, it’s a good idea to keep them out of the reach of children and pets.

Growing Hazelnuts or Filberts
Immature hazelnuts
wikimedia commons
A new study by Oregon State University found that when older adults were given about a third cup of hazelnuts per day for 16 weeks it improved their blood levels of magnesium and vitamin E.  These two nutrients are often lacking in modern diets.  Other studies have found that people with low levels of these nutrients were at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Did you know that most gardeners can grow these healthy nuts?
Some of you may know hazelnuts as filberts. Hazelnuts and filberts are essentially the same thing. The name depends on what country you are in and what species of Corylus you are growing.  There are native hazelnuts in both Europe (Corylus avellane, Corylus maxima) and North America (Corylus americana, Corylus cornuta).  There are also other species and hybrids of species.
Hazelnuts have alternate, heart shaped or oval leaves with toothed edges, (double serrate) that are paler green underneath and sometimes lightly hairy.  
These nuts grow as small trees to about 15 feet or as shrubs depending on the conditions and pruning. Hazelnuts spread by suckering and soon form thickets of trees or shrubs. They are deciduous and fall color is variable, ranging from a dull yellow to pretty rose or purplish reds.
Male flowers are long yellowish drooping “catkins” that appear before the leaves.  Female flowers are small globes with red "petals” (stigmas) sticking out.  They also appear before the plant leaves. They are in clusters and a rough, jagged looking set of leaf bracts will surround them as they mature into nuts.
Each hazelnut plant has both separate male and female types of flowers but flowers on the same plant cannot mate in European hazelnuts and while you may get some nuts from a single American hazelnut, production is greatly improved with two or more plants. They are wind pollinated. For best production plant at least two hazelnuts.
The seed (nut) has a tough leaf bract, a thin hard shell, and a papery husk before you get to the part we call the nut meat. (Leave the shell on if you are planting a nut.)  It takes 7-8 months to mature on the tree and then the nuts fall.  Harvest is done by picking up the nuts after they fall.
Hazelnuts are cold hardy to at least zone 4 but nut production is often diminished from late frosts in zone 4-5. They will grow in most types of well drained soil and prefer full sun. In the south they tolerate partial shade but don’t produce as well in those conditions.
Gardeners may want to buy small trees to start a hazel nut grove. If you plant 3 feet tall trees, you’ll probably get a harvest in about 3 years.  It takes about 8 years to a harvest from planting a seed.  Buy domesticated cultivars if you want nuts for personal use as the domestic cultivars have larger nuts and a more abundant harvest. If you want them for wildlife, you can plant wild types.
Since hazelnuts sucker and produce a dense thicket if left alone you should prune out suckers too close to each other, leaving at least 6 feet between plants. Or if you want neat, tree shaped plants remove all suckers. You can prune hazelnuts so they form a shrub, to make them easier to harvest, by pruning down the leader or main stem by about a third.  Prune when dormant to shape the plant but you can take out suckers at any time.
Hazelnuts mature over an extended time period and will be ripe up to a month before they fall from the tree. Ripening may begin in September.  It’s easier to wait until they fall to harvest them, because you will know they are ripe then. You can give the trees a shake to speed things along.  Mow the area under the trees short when they start falling so you can see them.  Pick them up daily or animals will get them. The nuts may have fallen without the papery bracts or you can remove the bracts from nuts.
After you pick them up spread them out on newspaper in a warm, dry place for about two weeks.   A ripe nut has a firm, cream colored meat.  Nuts in the shell will last several months.  If you remove the nut meats store them in closed containers in a cool place.  Freeze them if you will be keeping them more than a month.
Hazelnuts are prone to blight diseases and some areas have problems with one strain of blight while others have problems with another. Look for blight resistant varieties grown locally. Dorris, Jefferson and Felix are some blight resistant varieties. Many animals and birds like the huts and you will have to compete with critters to get them.
Two types of worms, the filbertworm and the nut weevil, can infect hazelnuts.  This will leave tunnels in nut meats, or you may see small worms.  These will need to be controlled by insecticides.  Talk to your local Extension office to see what to use and when to apply it.

The countries that produce the most hazelnuts are Turkey, Italy and the United States in that order.  Hazel nuts can be eaten raw or roasted, made into a paste or “butter” and an oil can be expressed from them. They are often combined with chocolate in desserts called truffles, used in cakes, made into the spread called Nutella and a liqueur called Frangelico. 
There is an effort by the Arbor Day Foundation to locate wild North American hazelnuts so that genetic diversity can be preserved. If you know where some are growing you can contact them at;  https://www.arborday.org/programs/hazelnuts/consortium/locate.cfm
More reading

Can your spices make you sick?

Do you sprinkle your food with black pepper when it’s on your plate?  You may want to reconsider that practice and how you use other herbs and spices.  We often don’t stop to think about spices and herbs being responsible for food poisoning or lead poisoning, but we should be paying more attention. Spices and herbs have caused several confirmed outbreaks of food poisoning in the US and numerous hospitalizations and even deaths.
A new study done in New York found that many herbs and spices are contaminated with all sorts of things, such as heavy metals like lead, pesticides, molds, and bacteria like salmonella and E. coli.  Insect parts, rodent feces, animal and human hair, plastics and other synthetic material are also common contaminants.

Studies have found that the spices most likely to be contaminated with salmonella are black pepper, thyme, oregano and turmeric. The New York study found the highest levels of lead in a spice called kviteli kvavili, or "yellow flower." Other spices with lead contamination included turmeric, hot pepper, chili powder, and paprika.  But all spices can be contaminated.  Cinnamon and ginger rarely have bacterial contamination because they have anti-bacterial properties, but they can be contaminated by other things like heavy metals and filth.

Most spices are grown in other countries.  We have little control over the conditions they are grown in, stored in, and processed in.  Contamination can happen in the fields they are grown in, from harvesting or in the packaging, storing and shipping process.  Spices and herbs that get damp for example, may grow molds, some of which are carcinogenic.  Expensive spices are often cut with other cheaper plant products, and they may not have been harvested cleanly.

Spices are often a small farm crop and in many countries these crops are fertilized with manure, and animals roam the fields and may even be used in harvesting.  Irrigation water may be contaminated with heavy metals, pesticides are used that are banned in the US.  The nature of spices and herbs means they are often stored for years, in various types of facilities.  And harvests from different farms and even different countries are mingled, making contamination difficult to trace. The FDA tries to test spices for contaminants, but our system currently doesn’t test every package in every shipment. 

Where should you buy spices?

While many people feel they are getting a bargain when they buy bulk spices and others think buying spice mixes sold at farmers markets or flea markets are tastier and fresher, those are the two places with higher levels of contaminants in several studies.  Bulk spice containers where consumers scoop out their own often test positive for bacteria common to human feces.  You may have noticed people scooping up a bit of bulk spice with their hands to smell or taste.  Children may be allowed to put their hands in bins. Mice and roaches may roam the store after hours. 

While some spices sold at farmers markets may be locally grown and dried many are simply repackaged mixes of bulk spices the seller purchased elsewhere. There are many spices that aren’t grown in the US.  Every time spices and herbs are handled increases the risk for contamination. Improper storage containers, ones that aren’t sealed, are also a problem.  Some sellers may have meticulous handling practices as they package spices, but no control over how the bulk spices they purchased were handled.

Researchers feel the safest spices and herbs to buy are those that are individually packaged in sealed containers soon after harvest by reputable companies.  Those little cans and bottles may cost more than bulk spices, but they are safer.  A sealed can of black pepper, for example, can be stored safely for years.  Large, well known companies are also likely to test for heavy metal and pesticide contamination.  Avoid bargain spices and herbs, spices sold bulk, and farmer and flea market offerings. 

Also, bacterial contamination of spices is harmless if they are heated to 160 degrees F for 5 minutes or more.  That means season the food before you cook it and avoid adding spices and herbs after cooking.  Also, be careful using spices on foods that aren’t cooked. Of course, heat won’t remove heavy metals or pesticide contamination.

If you grow your own spices and herbs, make sure they are dried in a clean place and that they are kept away from animals.  Handle them with clean hands.  They should be stored in tightly sealed containers.

Go through your spices and herbs periodically and throw out the older ones.  Store the herbs and spices in their original containers tightly closed or put them in containers which can be tightly sealed. When you measure spices and herbs pour them into the spoon instead of dipping the spoon into the container.  When adding spices to cooking food put the spice in a spoon then add it to the food.  Sprinkling spices from the container over hot food often results in steam getting in the container, which can cause caking and also mold.

Spices and herbs make food taste better and even have health benefits, so I am not trying to discourage you from using them.  Just use caution about what herbs and spices you buy and how you store them.

More reading

Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 2019; 25: S63 DOI: 10.1097/PHH.0000000000000876

Christmas gifts for gardeners

Need some ideas for gifts? If there’s a gardener on your list here’s dome ideas.
The number one thing you can get gardeners for Christmas is a gift certificate to their favorite garden store or catalog.  If you need a list of catalogs look to the right of this blog where I have assembled a page with links to hundreds of catalogs.  Or look around the gardener’s house- what garden catalogs are lying around?  And it’s not just plants, a gift certificate for a load of compost, manure or woodchips is also appreciated by many gardeners.

Buying actual plants can be a tricky situation unless you too are a gardener and know the gardener you are buying well.  If they have expressed the hope or desire for a certain plant and you can find it then that’s probably a good choice.  But if you don’t know what plants a gardener likes or has the right conditions for, it’s probably better to go the gift certificate route.  And remember live plants have to be properly cared for while you are waiting to give them to a gardener.

Wind spinner

An amaryllis bulb is often a good plant choice for a gift.  Many are sold around Christmas with elaborate planters.  They vary in price from around $10 for a common colored, smaller bulb in a plastic pot to more than a $100 for large or multiple bulbs in gorgeous pots.  There are rare and unusual colors and flower shapes to choose from for the gardener who already has the common red amaryllis.  Amaryllis bulbs are good choices for introducing kids to gardening.  The bulbs are easy to get to bloom (that first time anyway) and make an impressive flower display indoors in winter.

Amaryllis from


To learn how to keep your amaryllis bulb and get it to bloom again see this article; https://gardeninggrannysgardenpages.blogspot.com/p/houseplants-amaryliss4-amaryllis-did.html

Grow lights and grow light systems are popular gifts this year. That may be because many places have legalized growing pot or because many people want to grow fresh herbs and greens inside. There are a lot of choices on the market now. You can choose LED bulbs that fit a variety of fixtures or buy a system that includes lights, fixtures and planters. There are grow “tents” and grow “closets”.  It helps to know what crop the gardener wants to grow before you choose. Larger crops like pot and tomatoes need larger systems than a system for growing greens on a countertop. 

One note on grow lights.  There are sodium halite grow bulbs on the market that produce intense light for growing things like pot and tomatoes. These are much harder to install, usually requiring an electrician, and they are a fire risk as they get very hot. I would not buy them as a gift unless a gardener has told you they want them.

Garden art, d├ęcor, fountains and the like are tricky to give as gifts unless you are sure you know the gardeners taste, or they have hinted to you they want a certain piece. If a gardener has a preference for a naturalistic theme, they may not appreciate a plastic statue of a boy peeing.  That said, wind spinners and fancy wind vanes are popular garden art now, as are bottle trees, and leaping glass or china fish. Rain chains also remain popular.

fish garden art from 

Tools are always a good gift for gardeners especially if they are high quality tools.  Ergonomic tools for gardeners with arthritis or other disabilities are a good gift.  Here too, it pays to know what tools the gardener already has and listen for hints about what they need. 
Ergonomic mulch fork from Plow and Hearth

Garden gloves are usually a good gift.  Buy good quality gloves that will fit the gardener’s hands. Every gardener can use back up gloves, even if they have a pair they love. Other gardening clothing, like hats and aprons, can be a good gift too.

Garden books or a garden class can be great gifts.  Can you buy your gardener a ticket to a garden expo or seminar, or pay for a Master Gardener class?  Make sure the event will fit into the gardener’s schedule.  If you have lots of money to spend on the gift you could book the gardener a trip to a famous garden.
Things for the birds and bees may be appreciated by your gardener.  A complete bee keeping start up can be an expensive gift, but you can buy homes for native bees and bee feeders for a reasonable cost.  Bird houses and feeders are good garden gifts too.
Native bee hotel

If you still need those garden gifts better get shopping.
  There’s still time to order by mail if you hurry. 

Is an artificial tree better for the environment?

One of the biggest environmental myths is that buying an artificial Christmas tree is somehow saving the environment.  The mistaken theory is that you are keeping a tree from being cut down each year you use one of those awful plastic trees.  What some people don’t realize is that Christmas trees are a crop, grown to be cut, and that they are constantly being re-planted.  Over 95% of Christmas trees sold come from tree farms and are not harvested from the wild.

It takes water and some protective chemicals to grow great Christmas trees but it takes a lot of far more harmful chemicals and water to make that plastic tree.  Dangerous chemicals are used to make the fake trees including polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and lead.  The manufacturing of products from PVC releases dioxins into the environment.  Dioxins accumulate in fatty tissues and become more concentrated as in the tissues of animals high in the food chain, like man.  There they cause cancer and other dangerous health problems.

While many of those toxins remain in China- where most, (85%), artificial trees are produced by minimum wage workers, some does make it into our food supply.  Some chemicals, like lead, may be given off as the plastic slowly degrades and reacts to other environmental chemicals and those go right into the air of your home, where the tree is displayed or stored.  In fact, California requires plastic Christmas trees to have a warning label about lead poisoning.

Fake trees sometimes have actual wood “trunks” or other parts and this wood from China has been responsible for at least one exotic pest, a wood boring beetle, to be brought into the US and has the potential for other pests to be carried in the plastic tree shipments.

Plastic trees cannot be recycled; the plastic used in them is not commonly recycled.  A real tree will break down in the environment and do good instead of harm like the plastic trees leaching chemicals into the air and soil.
 Are you worried about fire safety with a real tree?  Thinking a plastic tree is safer is wrong, fire statistics say its faulty wiring that causes most Christmas tree fires and both real and fake trees will ignite.  Make sure to always keep a real tree in water.

The production of Christmas trees uses land in a sustainable way and fewer fertilizers and pesticides are used on tree crops than conventional crops so it’s good to encourage the local tree farmers.  While trees are growing, they release oxygen, moderate the temperature, filter the air and provide homes for wildlife.  Help our environment, buy a US Christmas tree and help keep dioxins in China.

It takes a little more time and effort to use a real Christmas tree each year, but the smell alone is worth it.  And who doesn’t want to do good in the holiday season?  Many Christmas tree lots are run by charitable organizations who use the money they make to help people in need, so you help people while you are helping the environment

Snickerdoodle cookie bars

I made a batch of these this weekend and they were delicious as usual.  It’s an easy recipe and the spicy goodness works well as a holiday gift or dessert.  I like bar cookies because putting all those individual cookies on pans takes a lot of time.

The biggest thing to watch with these snickerdoodles is getting them baked without overbaking.  The sides should be lightly browned but still a bit soft in the center when done baking.  Cut these while they are still warm but let them finish cooling in the pan.


1 ½ sticks (12 tablespoons) butter at room temperature
1 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar
½ cup packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup butterscotch baking chips


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Spray a 9 x9 or 8x8 pan with pan spray.

Combine the flour, 2 teaspoons of the cinnamon, nutmeg, and baking powder.  Blend well, set aside.

In another bowl cream the butter, the brown sugar and 1 cup of the white sugar until fluffy with electric mixer.

Add the eggs and vanilla and mix well.

Slowly beat in the flour mixture until a soft dough forms.

Spread the dough evenly in the pan.

Mix the remaining cinnamon and sugar together and sprinkle evenly over the top of the dough.

Bake about 25-30 minute, watching carefully near the end of the baking time.  You want lightly browned, firm sides and a slightly soft center.

Remove pan from oven and sprinkle the butterscotch chips evenly on top immediately.

Let the chips soften a bit – about 2 minutes, then spread them out evenly with a knife to cover the cookie bars.

Cut the snickerdoodle bars into the sizes you prefer while still warm but let the bars cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes before trying to remove.

If left overnight the bars will be a bit firmer/drier. To store cover tightly. 

“Now is the time of fresh starts
This is the season that makes everything new.
There is a longstanding rumor that Spring is the time
of renewal, but that's only if you ignore the depressing
clutter and din of the season. All that flowering
and budding and birthing--- the messy youthfulness
of Spring actually verges on squalor. Spring is too busy,
too full of itself, too much like a 20-year-old to be the best time for reflection, re-grouping, and starting fresh.
For that you need December. You need to have lived
through the mindless biological imperatives of your life (to bud, and flower, and show off) before you can see that a landscape of new fallen snow is THE REAL YOU.
December has the clarity, the simplicity, and the silence you need for the best FRESH START of your life.”
― Vivian Swift, When Wanderers Cease to Roam: A Traveler's Journal of Staying Put


Kim Willis
All parts of this blog are copyrighted and may not be used without permission.

And So On….

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I write this because I love to share with other gardeners some of the things I come across in my research each week (or things I want to talk about). It keeps me engaged with people and horticulture. It’s a hobby, basically. I hope you enjoy it. If you are on my mailing list and at any time you don’t wish to receive these emails just let me know. If you or anyone you know who would like to receive a notification by email when a new blog is published have them send their email address to me.  KimWillis151@gmail.com