Manage bagworms now so they don’t harm trees

“Why are the pinecones on my tree moving?” a client asks.
“Because those aren’t pinecones, they’re bagworms,” I reply.  

Dangling from evergreens like teardrop-shaped Christmas tree ornaments, bagworms cause many a homeowner to scratch their head in wonder. Pinecones that dance?

Bagworms dangle from a juniper branch.
Credit: Erik Rebek, Bugwood

But the tell-tale thinning of trees that can follow is no laughing matter. Covered with bits of needles and leaves, the bags that give bagworms their name serve as protection for the caterpillars inside. Bagworm caterpillars are the juvenile form of a moth.  

That sounds innocent enough, but like all caterpillar-like insects, they are born hungry. Walking stomachs, they prowl among your trees, munching away to cause sometimes serious defoliation. They particularly enjoy evergreens such as arborvitae, cedars, junipers, and pines. But they will also dine on maples, locusts, lindens, and other deciduous trees.  

Eggs hatch out from bagworms’ bags in May. Tiny larvae spin an eighth-inch bag with bits of needles or leaves glued together with webbing. Like tiny backpackers, bagworms tote those bags around as they feed. As they grow, the bags get bigger and bigger and your tree foliage gets thinner and thinner.  

I don’t know if bagworms have an adventuresome streak, but they do a bit of hang-gliding. They spin a fine web and use the wind to glide to other trees in a stunt called “ballooning.” 

By August or September, the bags – and bagworms – are 1- to 2-inches long.  They stop wandering and feeding and tie up to a twig using tough silky threads. In late summer, they transform into moths. But get this, ladies, only the males have wings.  So the gals just hang out in their bags and wait for the boys to, um, visit. Post rendezvous, each female bagworm lays 200 to 1,000 eggs in its bag. Next spring, the eggs hatch to start the cycle over again.

Stopping that cycle is important and now is a crucial time. Mid-June to mid-July is the best time to treat trees with bagworms with a very effective organic control called Bt. A naturally occurring soil bacteria, Bt or Bacillus thuringiensis kills only small caterpillars. And guess what? Bagworms are just the right size right now.  Bt doesn’t harm humans or animals and is easy to find. It’s sold in hardware stores and garden centers under names like Dipel and Thuricide. Applying Bt is a do-it-yourself job if you can reach your trees with a sprayer. If not, call in a pro.

Even easier is picking off the bags if you have only a few bagworms. Snip them off with scissors or pruners, bag and trash them. Don’t leave them on the ground where the eggs can hatch. Since there can be as many as 1,000 eggs in each bag, removal is important. Get those bags gone. And gone before the eggs hatch in May.  

Tiny bagworms are hard to spot when they first appear in May on plants such as this Colorado blue spruce.
Credit:  Dave Lantz

Learn more about bagworms and see some great photos on the HGIC website.

You can beat bagworms and keep your trees safe. Fortunately, this is one insect for which there is an easy – and organic – fix.  So get out there and bag some bagworms.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Understanding plant tags: light, zones, natives and more

Gardening beginners and pros alike can get flummoxed by plant tag terminology.  What do words such as full-sun, zone, native and determinate mean? Allow me to elucidate, um, explain.  See, even I can make things complicated.

Light is oh-so-important.  Matching the right plant to the right lighting is crucial.  So tags tell you how much light each plant needs to not just survive, but thrive. If a tag says “full sun” that means the plant needs at least 6 hours of sun a day.  If it says “full shade”, that means it wants deep shade.  Part sun or part shade means it can handle a bit of both. 

In trying to find the perfect lighting, remember that buildings, trees, sheds, and other structures cast shade.  So what might be full sun now may be shaded later in the day.  It pays to note where sun and shade fall across the days and seasons.  Visit your gardens at different times to see where you have true full sun, deep shade, and those grey areas in-between.  

Not all plants do well everywhere.  Some prefer heat.  Others prefer cold. So the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, came up with a map divided into numbered strips or zones, where particular plants survive an average low temperature.    It’s called the hardiness map.   

Here in Washington County, we are in zone 6B which means that any plant with a hardiness range that includes the number 6 should survive our winters.   For example, a river birch is labeled with a tag that says “zone 4 to 9,” so it will do well here.  A gardenia labeled for zones 8 to 11 will not.   So you enjoy it until the weather gets cold.   

Plant tags help you know which plants will survive and thrive in your gardens.  
Photo credit:  Annette Cormany

You may see the word “native” on a plant tag.  Native plants naturally occur in an area and have been here since European settlers arrived.  They’ve survived hot, dry, cold, and wet years and are tough, naturally resisting drought and disease.  Native plants also co-evolved with native insects and wildlife and support them with better nutrition and habitat. So if you want to help pollinators and other wildlife, native plants are a good choice.  

Look for them.  Ask for them.  That’s how we get more in the marketplace. Learn more about native plants and get some plant suggestions on the HGIC website.

If you’re buying tomatoes, you may have noticed the words “determinate” and “indeterminate” on the tags.  These are tomato types.  Determinate or bush tomatoes max out at 4 feet. They produce their fruit all at once – at a determined time – which makes them great for canning.  They also need less staking.

Indeterminate or vining tomatoes keep growing all season and produce fruit over a longer time so you can enjoy them for slicing, cooking, side dishes, and more.  They need to be staked.  

I hope I’ve simplified some plant tag terms.  No get thee to a garden center and check out some plants! 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Deciphering plant tags: annuals, perennials and biennials

Do you remember the first time you went to a garden center? All those colors. All those plants. All those fancy tags with gobbledygook. Help! Plant terminology can vex everyone, even plant geeks. So let me give you the lowdown on some terms that flummox newbies and pros alike.  

The first thing you need to know is that for plants, it’s all about sex. Their number one priority is to make more of themselves. So they are committed to growing robustly to make flowers and seeds. How they get there is different. So we use words like annual, perennial, and biennial. These often confuse folks. Which one do I want? How do they work? What’s the best deal?

It’s all about a plant’s life cycle. Annuals live for a year. Perennials live longer. And biennials take two years to complete their life cycle. Annuals are especially driven to produce seeds because they only have one year to do so. So they push out flowers like mad to make more seeds.

Tithonia – an annual flower. Photo by Marie Bikle.

Annuals’ key selling point: color throughout the growing season. That’s why they are the darlings of container gardens, a blessing for filling gaps and ideal for a sweep of long-lasting color.  

Annuals are less expensive since they last only one season, dying with the first frosts. You can save seeds and replant them, but few do. Some come back from dropped seeds, but that’s rare. 

The downside to annuals is the need to replant them every year. So the cost savings may not be there in the long run and you spend much more time planting. 

In gardens, geraniums, begonias, pansies, marigolds, zinnias, petunias, and snapdragons are commonly treated as annuals.

Perennials are one and done, planted once and persisting for years. Most die to the ground with cold weather, but come back again from their roots, bulbs, or tubers. Most perennials bloom for about a month, but some bloom 2 or 3 times a season if deadheaded. So you don’t get the long flowering time of annuals, but they return year after year.

Perennials cost more but don’t need to be replanted. Plus, they give a different look to your garden throughout the growing season with myriad colors and forms. Perennial gardens have spring, summer, and fall wardrobes. They also are the gift that keeps giving, since you get free plants by dividing perennials every few years. This mitigates their initial higher price tags.  

There are hundreds of perennials including coneflowers, lavender, coral bells, coreopsis, columbine, bee balm, phlox, asters, and goldenrod.  

Biennials flower in their second season. They push out leaves the first year, then flower, make seeds and die in their second year. Hollyhock, foxglove and Sweet William are common biennials. Some biennials reliably reseed so they act like perennials with new plants coming from dropped seeds. Hollyhocks are notorious for rewarding growers year after year.   

I hope I’ve simplified some plant tag terms and made it easier for you to pick what’s right for you – and your gardens – on your next visit to a garden center. 

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.

Norfolk pine is a charming Christmas tree

branches of Norfolk Island pine trees
Norfolk Island Pine

Uh oh. You need a last-minute gift or a tiny tree to brighten a corner of your holiday home. Here comes a Norfolk pine to the rescue. Whew. That was close.

Looking like miniature Christmas trees, Norfolk pines pop up at garden centers and other stores over the holidays. Bedecked with bows and balls, they’re festive and cute as can be.

With a graceful, pyramidal shape and tiers of gently arched branches, they are loaded with appeal. They look delicate but are actually tough, long-lasting little trees.  

Technically a Norfolk Island pine, this pint-sized evergreen is native to – you guessed it – a place called Norfolk Island, just east of Australia. Captain James Cook discovered this tree on his second expedition to the South Pacific in 1774.

Norfolk pines are subtropical, hardy in zones 9 to 11. So they can’t handle our winters but are happy to summer outside and hang out with us indoors when the mercury drops. 

They are fairly carefree houseplants. Put them in a bright spot with some direct light. Water them when the top inch of soil feels dry. 

Norfolk pines love humidity, so mist them or group them with other plants. Fertilize them every week to two from spring to fall.

Transition them to outdoor living in the summer by putting them in the shade for a few days, then introducing them to bright light. Just remember to keep them watered and bring them in before the first frost hits.

Norfolk pines’ roots resent disturbance, so repot them only every few years. Once they get three feet tall, replace only the top few inches of soil instead of repotting the whole plant. 

They are slow growers. Norfolk pines generally top out at three to six feet indoors, but they take their sweet time getting there. In their native climes, they can top out at 200 feet.

Oh, and did I mention that a Norfolk pine is not a true pine? Technically Araucaria heterophylla, is part of a genus of 19 species of pine-like conifers. 

But let’s not split botanical hairs. 

The Norfolk pine is an appealing tree. For those with small spaces, it’s an ideal Christmas tree. For the rest of us, it is just a tiny charmer, a sweet little elf of a tree.    

Big or small, I hope your holiday tree is the center of a warm and blessed holiday season spent with family and friends.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Christmas cacti make lovely gifts and décor

Christmas cactus are popping up everywhere. They’re lovely living gifts that enliven holiday décor and add beauty year-round. If you like floral irony, this is your plant. Even though they are fleshy succulents, they originated not in arid regions but in the rainforests of Brazil where they drape themselves over tree branches as epiphytes.  

Arching stems on cactus
Arching stems give Christmas cactus – and this Thanksgiving cactus – handsome structure when not in bloom. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Lauri Ricker

As with many tropical plants, Christmas cactus delivers a double dose of drama. The first is the strong architectural form of arching stems made up of a series of scalloped pads. But it’s their cascading flowers in pink, salmon, red, or white that are the real showstoppers. Stacked layers of swept-back petals with prominent stamens, they are very oh-la-la. They also have a long bloom time, flowering from two weeks to two months.

Heavy blooms are a hallmark of Christmas cactus and its cousin, this Thanksgiving cactus.    
Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Wilma Holdway.

Also long is their lifespan. They can live for decades, often becoming family heirlooms. I once received cuttings from a plant started by a – ahem – mature friends’ grandfather. This caused a commotion at airport security.  What IS that thing on the x-ray? And yes, the kindly man let me keep my cuttings once I showed them to him and shared their story.

Christmas cactus has beautiful cascading blooms. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Leora Smith

Care is fairly basic. They like bright indirect light, not full sun. Keep the soil slightly moist. Mist regularly or put the pot on a dish of moist gravel to boost humidity.

Christmas cacti need cooler temps and less water to nudge them to bloom again. They need a chill to give you a thrill.

Master Gardener friends report that the natural drop in temperature and day length in fall is enough to encourage buds indoors. Others let their cactus summer outside in light shade, keeping them out until fall temperatures drop to 50 to 55 degrees. Regardless of how you stimulate flowering, resume regular care when buds form. After your cactus finishes blooming, give it a cooler rest period and less water for two months.  

And yes, Christmas cactus has many cousins including Thanksgiving cactus and Easter cactus, all named for the times they bloom. Mine never consulted calendars and bloomed as they liked. 

How can you tell which cactus you have? Easter and Thanksgiving cactus have pointed edges on their leaves while Christmas cactus leaves have more rounded scalloped edges. 

Thankfully, Christmas cacti are a snap to propagate, so they are easy to share.  Just break off a stem at a joint, slip into well-drained soil and keep the soil moist. It will root in a few weeks. 

I love a good story, and these plants have several. My favorite is a Brazilian legend that tells of a poor boy in the jungle who prays repeatedly for a sign of Christmas. One day he awakes surrounded by colorful flowers on the tips of cactus. And so the cactus became a symbol of answered prayers. 

So Christmas cacti are a symbol of hope. With their long lives, colorful blooms, ease of care, and sharing, they make wonderful gifts for friends, family, and your very own green thumb. 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

Frightfully fun jack-o’-lantern lore

Spooky or silly?  How do you carve your jack-o’-lantern?

Whether you go for fun or fright, jack-o’-lantern carving is a family-friendly way to mark the season. Have you ever wondered how the tradition got started?

As with much folklore, it started with the Celts.  Northern Europeans carved frightening faces into beets, potatoes and turnips to fend off restless evil souls.  To illuminate them, they placed a burning ember or candle inside. A glowing cast of an early carved turnip lantern greets visitors to the National Museum of Ireland – Country Life with blazing eyes and a crooked grin.

A more macabre theory is that Jack-o’-lanterns allude to pagan customs of severed heads as war trophies.  That certainly puts the sin in sinister.  

The link between jack-o’-lanterns and Halloween started with – you guessed it – another Celtic tradition.  The Celts believed the worlds of the living and dead blurred on October 31, the night before their new year began and the start of a long, hard cold winter. So they lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts.  Through the years, secular and sacred traditions overlapped and All Hallows Eve became Halloween with its scary connotations including our buddy, Jack.

But who put the Jack in jack-o’-lantern?  In 17th century Britain, it was commonplace to call any man you didn’t know “Jack.”  A night watchman became “Jack of the lantern.” 

The Stingy Jack 18th century Irish folktale also colors the tradition.  Stingy Jack tricked the devil and was fated to spend eternity traveling between heaven and hell with only an ember of coal in a turnip lantern to light his way. 

Irish immigrants brought their traditions to America in the 19th and 20th centuries and discovered that our native pumpkins were much easier to carve than the turnips or taters from the Old Country.

Ever try to carve a turnip? 

Local pumpkin patches and garden centers are loaded with jack-o’-lantern potential.

Thrill-seeking youngsters soon realized that the glowing faces of carved pumpkins had serious scare potential and used them to frighten passerby.  Boys will be boys.

Literary references morphed from benign to sinister.  In his “Twice Told Tales,” Nathaniel Hawthorne offered up the first known literary reference to jack-o’-lanterns.

Discussing where to hide a bright gem, his character says, “Hide it under thy cloak, say’st thou?  Why, it would gleam through the holes and make thee look like a jack-o’-lantern.”   

Washington Irving’s 1820 “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” dialed up the fear factor when his headless horseman tossed a glowing jack-o’-lantern at Ichabod Crane who disappeared forever.

Cue the spooky scream. 

jack o lanterns

While jack-o’-lanterns are part of the scene that is Halloween, their meaning has mellowed.  Many consider them a symbol of community, a big orange welcome mat for trick-or-treaters.

Last year, I followed the laughter down my street to find a neighbor and her kids gleefully gutting three huge pumpkins for carving. Tossing a gooey handful of seeds, she grinned and said, “It just isn’t Halloween without jack-o’-lanterns!”  

Whether you find jack-o’-lanterns fun or frightful, I suggest you grab a plump pumpkin by its stem and have your way with it to honor the long-standing tradition.

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

Create a pollinator-friendly garden

What did you have for breakfast? 

If your plate included toast with jam, fresh berries, granola with nuts, coffee and juice, you had a nice balanced breakfast, right? Take away everything that needs a pollinator and your left with only dry toast and plain granola. That’s how dull and diminished our diets would be without pollinators.

Bees, butterflies and other pollinators are responsible for one in three bites we eat.  They are crucial to not only our food supply, but to our ecosystems. Pollinators build healthy habitat. They keep plant communities vigorous and able to reproduce naturally, supporting biodiversity and providing food, cover and nesting sites for wildlife.  

Unfortunately many pollinators are threatened by habitat loss, pesticide use, disease and changes in the way we manage the land.  They need our help.  While bees and butterflies are our pollinator poster children, we should also thank wasps, flies, moths, beetles, hummingbirds and bats for their services. 

How does pollination work?  Buzzing, flying, crawling and humming along, pollinators get dusted with pollen as they sip nectar and gather pollen from a flower.

Bee on bee balm
A bee searches for nectar and pollen in the tubular flowers of hyssop. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Barb Hendershot

When they visit another flower – bam! – pollen gets transferred which triggers the formation of seeds and fruit.  That is how plants grow our food.

Without pollinators, there would be no strawberries, juicy peaches, crunchy nuts or corn on the cob.  I’m not willing to give that up.  Are you?

I didn’t think so.  So join me in helping pollinators by creating a pollinator-friendly garden.

Start with diversity. Plant many different flowering plants that bloom from spring to frost so pollinators have a constant source of pollen and nectar. Mass plants to give them a better chance of being noticed by pollinators.  Plant three coneflowers, not just one, to put out the welcome mat.  

Include native plants.  Since native plants co-evolved with native insects – including Maryland’s 400 species of native bees – they naturally support them best with better nutrition.

A silver spotted skipper butterfly explores a zinnia.
A silver spotted skipper butterfly explores a zinnia. Photo credit: Washington County Master Gardener Barb Hendershot

Think big.  Include not only annuals and perennials, but trees, shrubs and vines. Each plant type provides habitat for different pollinators’ needs from food and shelter to places to raise young.

What are some favorite plants for pollinators?  The list is long but includes columbine, phlox, purple coneflower, bee balm, butterfly weed, goldenrod and asters, redbud, ninebark, oak and birch. Here are some good resources for pollinator plants from the Xerces Society and Pollinator Partnership: and this guide on pollinator.org.

Provide habitat for nesting and egg-laying by pollinators by adding shrubs, grasses, a brush pile and orchard mason bee house.  Add water with a birdbath with a few rocks for pint-sized pollinator access. 

To really boost your yard’s pollinator appeal, limit or eliminate pesticides.  Bees, in particular, are very sensitive to chemicals.   Opt for kinder, gentler organic controls like insecticidal soap and hand-picking.

Learn more about creating a pollinator garden at our University of Maryland fact sheet. You’ll find resources for native and pollinator plants as well as tips for garden design and maintenance. 

I hope you will make your garden a pollinator hot spot, the place to be.  Or is that bee? 

Annette Cormany, horticulture educator, University of Maryland Extension – Washington County

This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media.