October 29, 2008

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Molly Keck, Texas AgriLife Extension Service integrated pest management specialist, usually keeps Rosie, her pet tarantula, at her office. Though scary-looking, tarantulas actually make docile pets, she says. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo by Molly Keck)

This crazy rasberry ant female probably belonged to a colony with a population numbering in the millions. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Jason Meyers)

The mature bed bug is a brown, wingless insect about three-eighths of an inch long. When full from a blood meal, the insect's body becomes larger and changes color to a dull red. (Texas AgriLife Extension Service photo by Dr. Mike Merchant)


Trick or treat: New creepy crawlies pose nightmares for pest control experts

By Robert Burns
Texas AgriLife Extension Service

If you're looking for a good scare for the Halloween season, you need look no farther than your hotel room, dormitory bed or backyard, say Texas AgriLife Extension Service entomologists.

"Just when you think you've got the technical side of the pest control business all figured out, things change," said say Dr. Mike Merchant, AgriLife Extension urban entomologist based in Dallas. "New pests emerge, old ones develop bad habits, and familiar pests get harder to control."

Merchant's list of such insects includes bed bugs, crazy ants and rover ants.

For most of the last 30 or 40 years, bed bugs were rarely seen, but in recent years they've made a real comeback. Merchant primarily works with pest control professionals, and bed bugs are their worst nightmare, he said.

"Infested structures are mostly hotels and apartments, arguably two of the least profitable and most difficult places to service," Merchant said. "Infestations are usually centered around beds and bedrooms, often the most cluttered and private rooms of a home. Good service is extremely time consuming and requires diligent follow-up to be successful."

Bed bugs are no picnic for those whose bedrooms are infested either. When bed bugs bite, their salvia causes irritation and inflammation.

No one really knows why bed bugs have become more common, but increased international travel has probably contributed to the rise, Merchant said. Crazy ants, a.k.a, "crazy rasberry ants," and rover ants are the "biggest pest surprises in recent memory," Merchant said.

Crazy ants are called "crazy" because of their erratic, running behavior. The insect will bite humans, but its bite is not nearly as painful as that of the red imported fire ant. It's primary nuisance is its taste for electronic equipment, including traffic signal boxes, computers and air conditioners. Thousands of their flea-sized bodies disable equipment by interfering with switches and circuits.

Currently, reports of crazy ants have been limited to a few counties in the Houston area, but the pest is potentially devastating to agriculture in both livestock and crops, Merchant said. First identified in Houston by pest control professional Tom Rasberry, the ants are difficult to control, even for professionals, Merchant said.

More information on crazy ants can be found on the Texas A&M Center for Urban & Structural Entomology Web site at http://urbanentomology.tamu.edu/ants/exotic_tx.cfm.

The only positive note, Merchant said, is that crazy ants seem to drive out imported red fire ants when they move into an area.

Another pest, the rover ant, is more of a nuisance than a threat.

"This ant is believed to be a relatively new immigrant from South America, and is one of the latest in a string of exotic pests that seem to have found themselves a new home in the U.S.," Merchant said.

Rover ants are very small and dark colored. Not seen only a few years ago, they are emerging household pest from Dallas to Corpus Christi.

"In contrast to rasberry crazy ant, which has spread over only five counties in approximately the same time period, reports of rover ant problems seemed to appear almost simultaneously from north to south Texas," Merchant said.

Other ants have been in the U.S. for sometime, but are nonetheless scary, said Dr. Tanya Pankiw, associate professor with the Texas A&M University department of entomology at College Station.

For example, Africanized honey bees, colloquially known as "killer bees," have been documented to be in more than half of the 254 counties in Texas.

But the current policy for safety purposes is to consider the entire state as "Africanized," Pankiw said.

"Africanized bees are well-established now in Texas — and not just in rural areas but in urban areas too," she said.

In 1991, when killer bees were first making inroads into the state, there was one death attributed to their stings, she said. Since then, the deaths per year have increased yearly, with three in 2006 and eight in 2007.

"They're here, and they're not going away," Pankiw said.

Pankiw contributes to a Web site about Africanized bees at http://honeybee.tamu.edu/africanized/.

And though deaths from their stings are rare, don't forget imported red fire ants, said Dr. Bart Drees, AgriLife Extension entomologist in College Station.

While one sting can "burn like fire," it is more common for a person to receive multiple stings from ants swarming out of their disturbed nest, Drees said.

About 1 percent of stung individuals are allergic to the venom and at risk of severe medical complications. Deaths from stings have been reported, and lawsuit awards of more than $1 million have resulted from stinging incidents, he said.

Since entering the U.S. in the 1930s, red imported fire ants now infest the eastern two-thirds of the state and some urban areas in western Texas, Drees said.

"They have now spread over 320 million acres in the U.S., with recent incursions reported from Australia, Taiwan, China and northern Mexico," Drees said.

AgriLife Extension and Texas AgriLife Research entomologists and agricultural economists now estimate the economic impact of the pest to be $1.2 billion annually in Texas alone, and more than $6.5 billion nationally across both urban and agricultural sectors.

"The bad news is that they are probably here to stay," Drees said. "The good news is that, with relatively little cost and effort, you can prevent most of the problems they cause using currently available methods."

More information can be found on the Texas Imported Fire Ant Research and Management Project Web site at http://fireant.tamu.edu/ and http://eXtension.org/fire+ants.

Economic considerations aside, the creepy-crawlies most people are most afraid of are spiders. Arachnophobia may not be the most common phobia, but it is certainly among the most common, said and Molly Keck, AgriLife Extension integrated pest management specialist.

Among Keck's many duties as an integrated pest management specialist is to help educate local youth about insects, and among the insects she brings as a kind of show-and-tell program is "Rosie," her pet Chilean rose hair tarantula.

"It's sort of like entomology 101," said Keck, who is based in San Antonio. Keck said tarantulas actually make good pets. Most are docile, particularly the Chilean rose hair breed.

"Tarantulas get a bad rap as being scary and harmful animals, but they really aren't," Keck said. "They are slow moving and, unless extremely threatened, do not bite. They will also give you fair warning, by rearing up and standing on their hind legs."

Nonetheless, Keck said in most groups, about half the students are not afraid of the tarantula because it is so slow moving.

"They may not want to touch it, but they're not afraid to get up close."

"I think many more people are simply afraid of spiders and may not have actual arachnophobia — an irrational fear of spiders," she said. "But once you educate them about the benefits of spiders — only two in Texas are actually poisonous to humans — it's easier to let go of that fear a little. Spiders are just misunderstood."

Keck usually keeps Rosie at her office, but must take it home with her on occasion when she has to give an early morning program at an area school. Her husband is "understanding" when it comes to Rosie, she said.

"But he really doesn't like the hissing cockroaches," Keck said.

Scientists and other experts from Texas AgriLife Research and other Texas A&M System entities have developed several new adapted hybrids to help Southwestern U.S. producers heat up domestic fresh pepper production. (Texas AgriLife Research photo by Dr. Daniel Leskovar)

New plants could prompt more prodigious pepper production in Southwest

By Paul Schattenberg
Texas AgriLife Extension Service

By themselves or as an ingredient in a variety of foods, including salsa, America's top-selling condiment, peppers have found a warm spot in the hearts and stomachs of U.S. consumers.

But while U.S. Department of Agriculture figures show consumption of fresh peppers at an all-time high, only a fraction are grown domestically.

Currently more than 70 percent of all fresh peppers consumed in the U.S. are imported from Mexico and another 18 percent are imported from Canada, according to the USDA.

"Ironically, our domestic fresh pepper production has been declining steadily in a region renowned for its love of peppers — the American Southwest," said Dr. Daniel Leskovar, a vegetable physiologist with Texas AgriLife Research.

Leskovar said U.S. fresh pepper production has declined significantly in the past decade due to global competition, labor issues, inconsistent market prices and inefficient agricultural practices.

"These factors, along with drought, plant disease and other challenges that are prevalent in the Southwest, have made it difficult for producers in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona to grow peppers profitably," he said.

"Pepper production in the Southwest is often marred by drought, heat and plant diseases, which cause severe plant stress and reduce marketable yields by up to 50 percent," said Leskovar, who works from the Texas AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde.

To help Southwestern pepper producers, Leskovar and other Texas A&M System scientists and agriculture experts have teamed up to develop several new adapted fresh pepper hybrids.

Leskovar said that the objective of this research is to "maximize pepper production efficiency and improve the quality of specialty peppers so producers in these four states can increase their profitability."

"We developed several new cultivars that were more well adapted to climatic conditions and plant diseases of the Southwest, as well as to consumer preferences," he said.

The team has already bred several new cultivars of jalapeno, serrano, Habanero, poblano ancho, bell and other fresh pepper plants.

"Most of the breeding and selection of these new pepper hybrids has been done in test plots at the Uvalde center," Leskovar said. "Uvalde is a good test area because the soil and climate are similar to many other parts of Texas and the Southwestern U.S. where peppers are now being grown."

"At the same time, we've been developing these cultivars to produce higher yields of peppers with the size, shape, color, capsaicin (the active "heat" ingredient) level and nutritional content American consumers want," said Dr. Kevin Crosby, a plant breeding expert with AgriLife Research in College Station and key team member.

Both Leskovar and Crosby are affiliated with the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center, part of Texas A&M's department of horticultural sciences. The center is dedicated to supporting and strengthening the vegetable fruit industry through research.

Crosby, who received national attention by developing a milder version of the notoriously hot Habanero pepper, said the new hybrids are meeting or exceeding expectations for appearance, yield and quality.

"These peppers not only look good, they taste great and the plants produce impressive amounts of fruit, all of which should please both the producer and the consumer," he said.

The team has established the first-known poblano pepper production in Texas through a partnership with San Antonio-based Constanzo Farms and is collaborating with other large producers in New Mexico and Arizona. They also have licensed two hot pepper cultivars in the past three years and have provided stock seed for commercial production, as well as providing large quantities of trial seed to pepper growers in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Though some of the team's efforts began as far back as three years ago, "results have had to be replicable and it has taken time to conduct trails, collaborate with growers, packers and processors and retailers, and get their feedback," Leskovar said.

Along with cultivar development, the team also is investigating additional strategies for overcoming other challenges to Southwestern pepper production. Some of these include working with regional producers on more efficient irrigation and cropping techniques, and developing a cropping system more suitable to machine harvesting.

"After drought and disease, probably the biggest obstacle to pepper production in the Southwest is labor," Leskovar said. "Pepper harvesting is very labor-intensive because it's done almost exclusively by hand. And it's also difficult for producers to find adequate labor when it's needed."

The team already has tested numerous jalapeno, green chile and Habanero lines in Texas and New Mexico to determine suitability for machine harvesting.

"We've developed pepper plants that have less foliage, bear more fruit and require less labor-intensive harvest," Leskovar said.

He added that the new cultivars also are being bred for higher amounts of vitamin C, phytochemicals and antioxidants.

"Peppers are a good source of dietary fiber and contain a number of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are known to promote human health," Leskovar said. "And research on capsaicin, the ingredient that makes peppers hot, has shown it has some positive uses for human health and wellness."

According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, capsaicin is already used as a "topical anti-arthritic and anti-inflammatory agent" and is "generally recognized as a powerful local stimulant with no narcotic effect."

Additional research indicates capsaicin may have cancer-fighting properties and may also facilitate insulin production. It also has been identified as a useful pharmacological component in treating chronic pain.

Crosby said increased domestic production of fresh peppers might help address another "health" issue — consumer concerns about product safety.

"Between high U.S. standards relating to product safety and the closer proximity of production to the point of use, consumers will be able to feel more secure about the fresh pepper product they're buying," Crosby said.

"We're hoping our efforts will lead to a reduction in cost of production and an increase in the yield and quality of peppers so growers in the Southwest can remain competitive," Leskovar said. "Since people in the Southwestern U.S. consume so many peppers, it seems only right that producers in the region should derive an economic benefit by supplying them."

Gardening tips

If you have rocky or heavy clay soil, you know how tough it can to be to grow carrots, particularly those full-length varieties. Next time, try growing them in a large container or tub using a sandy loam soil mix.

Have a favorite gardening tip you’d like to share? Texas Gardener’s Seeds is seeking brief gardening tips from Texas gardeners to use in future issues. If we publish your tip in Seeds, we will send you a free Texas Gardener T-shirt. Here’s a chance to get published and be a garden stylist as well! Please send your tips of 50 words or less to the editor at: Gardening Tips.

Did You Know...

The first “lawns” where actually flower meadows that were cultivated in medieval times. Since there were no lawn mowers back then, gardeners would rip up and replant the turf when it got too leggy. And we thought we had it tough sitting on our riding mowers in the hot Texas sun!

Upcoming garden events

The Woodlands: Compost Fair & Native Plant Sale, Saturday, November 1, 10 a.m. to noon. Restore your landscape. Get the scoop on organic matter, learn the fine art of composting and get your bin cooking. Perennials, woody shrubs and trees from Pineywoods Nursery and Diane Cabiness' Native Plant Nursery. Gardeners Gift shop, bagged compost and organic products also for sale. Drawings, give-aways and more! 8203 Millennium Forest Dr., off Research Forest Dr. For more information visit www.thewoodlandsassociations.org/site/environment/default.aspx?page=435 or call (281) 210-3900.

The Woodlands: Brenda Beust Smith in How to Reduce the Size (for the Ecology's Sake) without Infuriating Your Neighbors rescheduled for Thursday, November 6 at 7:30 p.m. Best known for her Lazy Gardener column in the Houston Chronicle, Brenda Beust Smith shares her gardening wit and wisdom. Learn easy-care landscaping methods that are earth-friendly as well. L.G.I. Lecture Hall at McCullough Jr. High, 3800 S. Panther Creek Dr. For more information visit www.thewoodlandsassociations.org/site/environment/default.aspx?page=355 on Environmental Services or call (281) 210-3900.

Buda: The Master Gardeners of Comal, Guadalupe, Travis and Hays Counties will sponsor a gardening conference entitled “Heirloom Treasures — Jewels of the Garden,” Saturday, November 8, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Texas Disposal System’s Exotic Game Ranch and Pavilion in Buda. Featured speakers include Dr. Bill Welch of Texas A&M, Roses and Perennials; Dr. Tina Cade of Texas State, Landscape Design; Sean Watson of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, Heirloom Seed Saving, plus more. Visit our vendors, including Texas A&M Press, for books, garden ornaments, plants, herbal soaps, lavender products, birdhouses and much more! Malcolm Beck will brew up fresh compost tea for us — bring your own pint or quart bottle! Visit www.tcmastergardeners.org for more event details, registration form and driving instructions.


Kilgore: Northeast Texas Organic Gardeners meets at 10 a.m. on the first Wednesday of each month at Wildwood Eco-Farm in Kilgore. For more information, call Carole Ramke at (903) 986-9475.

Allen: The Allen Garden Club meets on the first Thursday of each month at 7:30 p.m. at the little blue-gray house located at 102 N. Allen Dr., Allen. For more information, visit www.allengardenclub.org.

Austin: Austin Organic Gardeners meet at 7 p.m. on the second Monday of each month at the Zilker Botanical Gardens in Austin. For more information, visit www.main.org/aog.

Schertz: The Guadalupe County (Schertz/Seguin) Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT) meets the second Tuesday of each month at the Guadalupe County Annex, 1101 Elbel Road, Shertz. A plant exchange and meet-and-greet begins at 6:30 p.m. followed by a program at 7. For additional information or an application to join NPSOT, contact guadalupecounty@npsot.org.

Friendswood: The second Tuesday of each month the Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners hold a free evening educational program for the public, called the Green Thumb Series, at Southeast Church of Christ, 2400 W Bay Area Blvd., Friendswood, about 1 mile west of I-45 and Baybrook Mall. For more information visit http://hcmgap2.tamu.edu or call (281) 991-8437.

Rockport: The Rockport Herb & Rose Study Group, founded in March 2003, meets the second Wednesday of each month, with the exceptions of June and July, to discuss all aspects of using and growing herbs, including historical uses and tips for successful propagation and cultivation, meets at 619 N. Live Oak Street, Room 14, Rockport at 10 a.m. Sometimes they take field trips and have cooking demonstrations in different locations. For more information, contact Linda (361) 729-6037, Ruth (361) 729-8923 or Cindy (979) 562-2153 or visit www.rockportherbs.com.

San Antonio: The San Antonio Herb Society meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday of each month at the San Antonio Garden Center, 3310 N. New Braunfels (corner of Funston & N. New Braunfels). For more information on programs, visit www.sanantonioherbs.org.

College Station: The A&M Garden Club meets on the second Friday of each month during the school year at 9:30 a.m. at the Exit Center, 1600 Rock Prairie Road, College Station. Expert speakers, plant sharing, and federated club projects help members learn about gardening in the Brazos Valley, floral design, conservation topics, and more. For more information, visit www.sallysfamilyplace.com/Clubs/GardenClub.htm.

Dallas: The Rainbow Garden Club of North Texas meets the second Sunday of each month at 2 p.m. Everyone is welcome. Meetings are held at member’s homes and garden centers around the area. For more information, visit www.RainbowGardenClub.com.

Sugar Land: The Sugar Land Garden Club meets on the third Tuesday of each month, September through November and January through April at 10 a.m. at the Sugar Land Community Center, 226 Matlage Way, Sugar Land. The club hosts a different speaker each month. For more information, visit www.sugarlandgardenclub.org.

Denton: The Denton Organic Society, a group devoted to sharing information and educating the public regarding organic principles, meets the third Wednesday of each month (except July, August and December) at the Denton Senior Center, 509 N. Bell Avenue. Meetings are free and open to the public. Meetings begin at 7 p.m. and are preceded by a social at 6:30. For more information, call (940) 382-8551.

Houston: The Native Plant Society of Texas — Houston (NPSOT-H) meets at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month except for October (4th Thursday) and December (2nd Thursday). Location varies. For locations, for more information on programs, and for information about native plants for Houston, visit http://www.npsot.org/Houston.

Rosenberg: The Fort Bend Master Gardeners meet at 7:15 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month except December at the Bud O’Shieles Community Center located at 1330 Band Road, Rosenberg. For more information, call (281) 341-7068 or visit www.fbmg.com.

Seguin: The Guadalupe County Master Gardeners meets the third Thursday of each month at the Texas AgriLife Extension Bldg. at 210 E. Live Oak at 7 p.m. For more information, phone (830) 379-1972 or visit www.guadalupecountymastergardeners.org.

Longview: The Northeast Texas chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas meets the third Thursday of each month at St. Mary’s Parish Hall in Longview. For more information, call Logan Damewood at (903) 295-1984.

Edna: The Jackson County Master Gardeners present their "Come Grown With Us" seminars on the fourth Tuesday of each month, January through October, beginning at 7 p.m. at 411 N. Wells, Edna. The seminars are free, open to the public and offer 2 CEU hours to Master Gardeners or others requiring them. For additional information, contact the Jackson County Extension Office at (361) 782-3312.

Fort Worth: The Organic Garden Club of Forth Worth meets at 7 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month except July and December at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens main building. Refreshments are served. For more information, call (817) 274-8460.

Seabrook: The Harris County Precinct 2 Master Gardeners hold an educational program at 10 a.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month at The Meeting Room (on the Lakeside) at Clear Lake Park, 5001 NASA Road 1, Seabrook. The programs are free and open to the public. For more information, visit http://hcmgap2.tamu.edu.

Dallas: The Dallas Organic Garden Club meets at 6:45 p.m. on the fourth Thursday of each month at the Fretz Park Recreation Center, located at the corner of Hillcrest and Beltline Road in Dallas. For more information, call (214) 824-2448 or visit www.dogc.org.

Arlington: The Arlington Organic Garden Club meets from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. on the last Thursday of each month (except November and December) at the Bob Duncan Center, 2800 S. Center Street, Arlington. For more information, contact David at (817) 483-7746.

If you would like your organization’s events included in "Upcoming Garden Events," please contact us at Garden Events. To ensure inclusion in this column, please provide complete details at least three weeks prior to the event.

The Southern Kitchen Garden

By William D. Adams and Thomas R. Leroy

A kitchen garden, or potager, is a celebration of the seasons: brimming with vegetables, herbs, flowers, and even fruit trees, it’s our link with nature and a source for fresh produce. The kitchen garden has always been an important part of life in the rural South, at times meaning the difference between being well-fed or going to bed hungry. In recent times, the kitchen garden has become more fashionable and now more and more homeowners are reaping the delicious rewards of growing their own food.

A kitchen garden needs little more than a small raised bed, so an aspiring gardener with only a modest backyard will have plenty of room to get started. If you have more space on your hands, then you can include some produce requiring a little more space like fruit trees, corn or pumpkins.

In the book, the authors with take you through the process of starting your very own kitchen garden from location to soil preparation to planting and then to harvest. It is also loaded with useful information on propagation, pest control and is laced with mouth-watering recipes and beautiful color photographs.

$21.30 plus shipping*

Order online with credit card at www.texasgardener.com or call toll-free 1-800-727-9020.

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Wish you’d saved them?

Are you missing an important issue of Texas Gardener? Or, perhaps, just tired of thumbing through stacks of back issues looking for the tips and techniques you need to make your garden grow? Three new CDs provide easy access to all six issues of volume 24 (November/December 2004 through September/October 2005), volume 25 (November/December 2005 through September/October 2006) and volume 26 (November/December 2006 through September/October 2007)*.

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Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac

Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac is a giant monthly calendar for the entire state — a practical, information-packed, month-by-month guide for gardeners and "yardeners." This book provides everything you need to know about flowers and garden design; trees, shrubs, and vines; lawns; vegetable, herb, and fruit gardening; and soil, mulch, water, pests, and plant care. It will help you to create beautiful, productive, healthy gardens and have fun doing it.

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Grow-Web encourages plant growth and development, and also provides protection from insects, birds, diseases and frosts. It is also air and water permeable and allows for ventilation. Grow-Web provides excellent protection to seedlings when applied directly to the seedbed.

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Texas Gardener’s Seeds
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