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Friday, June 26, 2015

What's wrong with my plant?

“My string-of-pearls plant feels sticky and has patches of what looks like white fuzz on it. What’s wrong?”

Looking through several books, including David V. Alford’s Pests of Ornamental Trees, Shrubs, and Flowers, The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control, and Insect Disease and Weed I.D. guide, we diagnosed the plant with mealybugs. Female mealybugs are covered with a fluffy white wax, and they lay their eggs in similarly fuzzy-looking white wax sacs. (The male insects have wings and are small and difficult to see.) Mealybugs eat sap and secrete something called honeydew, which gives the plant a sticky feel. (Ants also like to eat the honeydew, so a mealybug infestation may give way to an ant infestation.) According to Pippa Greenwood’s Pests and Diseases, succulents (like the string-of-pearls) are some of the most common mealybug hosts.

Our gardening books provided a wealth of ideas for combating the infestation. Debra Lee Baldwin’s Succulents Simplified suggests moving the plant away from any others to somewhere with good air circulation and spraying it down with a mix of isopropyl alcohol and water until all the bugs are gone. Introduce ladybugs, parasitic wasps, or mealybug destroyers, if possible, as they’re all some of the mealybug’s natural predators. Commercial pesticides are also available. If a spray doesn’t seem to be penetrating the mealybugs’ protective waxy coating, try using a small paintbrush to dab it directly on them. The Plantfinder’s Guide to Cacti and Other Succulents by Keith Grantham and Paul Klassen and Cacti and Succulents by Hans Hecht both suggest painting the mealybugs with denatured alcohol or an alcohol/dish soap mixture to remove the waxy coat. Leaf shine spray is also effective against mealybugs, but it will also remove the pleasant powdery bloom on any plant with glaucous leaves.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why do people say "kick the bucket"?

Most people are familiar with the expression “kicked the bucket,” which is used as a humorous euphemism for “died,” but no one we spoke to was quite sure where it originated.

Common Phrases and Where They Come From by John Mordock and Myron Korach had a few guesses, both fairly gruesome. They say the phrase may have come from the days of execution by hanging, when the executioner would kick the bucket out from under their victim’s feet. It’s also possible that the idiom originated in the slaughterhouse, where livestock would sometimes kick a literal bucket as they died.

For the curious, Marvin Rubenstein’s American English Compendium has more information on English slang, sayings, and acronyms, including a section comparing British and American English.

Friday, June 5, 2015

What causes pit split?

“All the peaches I bought at the supermarket have split pits. Why does that happen?”

According to, split pit disorder occurs when the pit of the fruit begins to harden, about forty days after the tree blooms. As the pit hardens, the fruit flesh will cling tightly to it. If the fruit begins to swell at the same time, the pressure on the pit could cause it to split, or even to shatter. Pit split can occur in peaches, nectarines, cherries, and plums.

In her paper “Split Pit,” written for the University of George Department of Agriculture, Kathryn C. Taylor puts forth a few hypotheses as to what causes pit split. When peaches are thinned too much, whether by the farmer or through a frost, the pits are more apt to split or shatter. Too much water (again, whether on purpose of through an act of nature) or too much fertilizing too late in the season can also be a factor.

If you’re interested in growing your own peaches, Melissa’s Great Book of Produce by Cathy Thomas, How to Grow Food by Richard Gianfrancesco, and The Backyard Orchardist by Stella Otto are all available for borrowing here at the Newton Falls Public Library.