Christmas in July? It must be bagworms

bagworm bags

Inside each spindle-shaped bag is the larva of the leaf- and ~needle-eating bagworm ( )..

Sometimes I need to heed my own advice and spend more time scouting my garden and landscape for problems. As we all know, small problems tend to be easier to solve than big ones. This past weekend, I ran into a big problem with my Atlantic white cedar (Chamaecyparis thyoides), which was adorned with a variety of nearly identical “Christmas ornaments”. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that Christmas was more than 5 months away, and that these nature-based “ornaments” hanging from the scantily clad limbs were the handiwork of bagworms (Thyridopteryx ephemeraeformis).

Bagworms, the larval or caterpillar stage of a moth that is rarely seen, defoliate many other conifers, including juniper, arborvitae, cypress, spruce, and hemlock.  They also will consume the leaves of many other trees. In fact, these voracious buggers attack more than 120 species of woody ornamentals, including deciduous shrubs and trees such as black locust, buckeye, elm, honeylocust, maple, sycamore, and willow.

Heavy bagworm infestations can lead to branch dieback.  Sometimes trees can be killed outright, especially after having been completely defoliated over one or two seasons.

These gourmands of the insect world intrigue me, mostly because of the spindle-shaped bags constructed by the young caterpillars or larvae as they feed.  Each larva builds a bag of silk and bits of leaves and twigs from the host plant so its appearance varies from plant to plant.

Unbeknownst to me, the bagworms larvae were feasting and toting their bags for 8 to 10 weeks; they gradually enlarge their bags with every molt. When the larvae reach full size, they stop feeding and secure their one- to two-inch long bags to a twig to pupate. About a month later in September and early October, the brown furry male moths with clear wings will emerge, fly to the wingless females, and mate with them inside her bag.

Although the female bagworm is a moth, she doesn’t look like one.  She has no wings, eyes, legs, antennae, or functional mouthparts.  In fact, her soft yellowish-white body never leaves the bag.  After mating, she lays 500 to 1,000 eggs inside her bag before dying, encasing her clutch with her mummified body.  There is only one generation a year.

The best course-of-action right now is to remove the bags by hand to interrupt mating and to reduce next year’s population. These bags may be difficult to remove without damaging the twig, so pruning shears may be necessary to cut the threads. From my single 5 ½-foot tall Atlantic cedar, I picked and discarded 132 bags. Sadly, my wife or daughter expressed no interest in this task; they didn’t believe me when I told them that it was like removing ornaments from a Christmas tree.

OK, I’ve learned my lesson. Next year I’ll be on the lookout for small bagworm caterpillars emerging in late May or June. Egg hatching begins when the black locust flowers begin to fade and is complete when the Japanese tree lilacs are in full bloom. When the young larvae start feeding and building their bags, I will consider applying the bacterial insecticide, Bacillus thuringiensis var. kurstaki (Dipel® or Thuricide®) or spinosad (Ferti-Lome® Borer, Bagworm, Leafminer & Tent Caterpillar Spray or Spinosad). See “Less Toxic Insecticides” for additional controls.

This weekend I felt that I was alone in my battle against bagworms, but I’m not.  Working in concert with my efforts are birds and several ichneumonid and chalcid wasps that parasitize the larvae.  Also, low winter temperatures can damage the overwintering eggs. I just hope that next year the birds, parasites, and parasitoids that relish bagworms pick up their game so I won’t have to.

© Bob Polomski 2015


To water or not to water my lawn….

Ben Franklin was right when he wrote in his self-titled autobiography: “When the well is dry we know the value of water.” We’re not sharing the same experience as California residents who are receiving rebates for replacing their front lawns with drought-tolerant plants or rocks and pebbles, installing synthetic turf, and painting their brown lawns with nontoxic green paint, but we know drought. In fact, our state has experienced drought conditions eight of the last ten years. We need to respect water—especially potable water—now and in the future, and use it wisely, especially when it comes to summer lawn care.

Know that you have the choice to water or not to water your lawn. If you choose not to turn on the spigot, don’t be alarmed by the dead brown leaves. The lawn grasses have gone dormant. Grass plants possess buds in their crowns and rhizomes (underground stems) that may remain alive and grow when more favorable conditions return.  Tall fescue is an exception because it has no means of escape. Three weeks or more without rain in the summer can injure or kill tall fescue. Nevertheless, any bare areas that arise can be easily repaired in the fall with seed or sod.

If you choose to irrigate your lawn, water efficiently:  water the lawn when it exhibits drought stress symptoms; apply an appropriate amount of water; and water at the right time of day.

A “thirsty” or drought-stressed lawn develops a bluish-gray cast, footprints stay in the grass after you walk over it, and leaves become wilted and rolled.

To prevent the lawn from going dormant, apply about one-inch of water to your lawn. (It takes 640 gallons of water to irrigate 1,000 square feet with one inch of water.) This amount wets most clay soils to a depth of 6 to 8 inches. If all of this amount cannot be applied at once because water runs off the lawn or puddles up, then apply one-half inch at a time.  Allow the water to soak in before continuing.

To apply the right amount of water, calibrate your watering system by following these simple steps:

1.      Place several equally-sized coffee cans or other straight-sided, flat-bottomed containers randomly throughout the area to be irrigated.  For above-ground, portable, hose-end sprinklers, arrange containers in a straight line away from the sprinklers to the edge of the water pattern.

2.      Turn the irrigation on for 15 minutes.

3.      Turn the water off, collect the cans and pour all of the water into one of the cans used.

4.      Measure the depth of water you collected.

5.      Calculate the average depth of water by dividing the total amount of water in inches by the number of cans. For instance, if the total depth was three inches, and you used six containers, then the average depth would be 3/6, or 0.5 inches.

6.      Multiply the average depth by four to determine the application rate in inches per hour. For example, one-half inch multiplied by four equals two inches per hour.  If you run the system for one hour, it will apply two inches of water; run it for half an hour, and it will apply one inch.  If, during irrigation, water runs off the lawn, apply a half-inch, stop the system and let it soak in, then apply more.

Water late at night or early in the morning when dew has already formed. Watering at night cuts evaporation in half, to 15 to 20 percent.

Whether you choose to water or not to water the lawn –stick with it.  Flip-flopping between the two can weaken and injure your lawn.

In Bloom: Southern Magnolia

This native southern aristocrat has become a sensation over the past 30 years with the release of several cultivars that come in a variety of habits, sizes, and leaf shapes that make the species more suitable for smaller landscapes. Left to its own devices the moderately growing species becomes gargantuan (60-80 ft. high and 30-50 ft. wide). Select from the many available cultivars to acquire the right shape and density. The plastic-like leaves have a dark green waxy surface and green to fuzzy brown (indumentum) on the underside. The large 8 to 12 in. wide fragrant flowers appear in May. Flowers open sporadically in the crown and are often scattered; they do not open all at once like the deciduous magnolias. Many years are required to flower from seed (12 to 15), which is why you should select vegetatively propagated clones rather than sexually-derived ones.

The fruit is composed of follicles that occur in 3- to 5-inch long “cones.” The individual red seeds emerge as the cone matures. Once established this heat- and drought-tolerant species is well-suited for planting in groups, hedges, large screens, in streetscapes, and parks. Several exceptional cultivars include ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, ‘Claudia Wannamaker’, ‘D.D. Blanchard,’ ‘Hasse’, ‘Kay Parris’ (introduced by Kevin Parris in 1993, it is believed to be the result of a cross between M.g. ‘Little Gem’ and ‘M. g. ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’), ‘Little Gem’, ‘Mgtig’ (Greenback®), ‘Southern Charm’ (Teddy Bear®), and ‘TMGH’ (Alta®). Brackens Brown Beauty M grandifloraBrackens Brown Beauty M Grandiflora flower

Armitage “Diggin’ It” at Brookgreen Gardens

I was so fortunate to serve as the opening act for Dr. Armitage. With both of my talks–“Learn to avoid these top 10 landscape mistakes” and “Have you checked your trees recently? Learn how to inspect your trees to keep them and you safe”–I had the good fortune of speaking to a large audience. Dr. A., on the other hand, was treated to a packed, standing room only audience. As expected, he delivered two solid presentations: “Tales From The Gardens: Who in the World is Nellie Stevens?” and “Color – People Never Get Tired Of It”. Dr. A. made us laugh and made us think. He’s such an incredible storyteller who weaves his passion and enthusiasm for plants and people into a thought-provoking, side-splitting presentation.

Over the years I’ve attended a number of Armitage talks, sometimes I’d be in an audience of growers, and at other times I’d be alongside Master Gardeners and consumers. Back then and now–he always brings his A-game to the delight of us all.

“Diggin’ It” at Brookgreen Gardens on March 21

Friends, I have the distinct honor and pleasure of being the opening act for Dr. Allan Armitage. For me, it’s like opening up for The Rolling Stones, U2, and Bruce Springsteen!

I am honored and shocked by this wonderful opportunity. I’ve seen him speak a number of times and even interviewed him on the radio. Now I have the chance to share the microphone with him. I hope you can make it to this event.

From the Brookgreen Gardens web site (

Just as Spring Arrives Brookgreen Hosts Garden Festival ‘Diggin It’                      Saturday, March 21

Diggin’ It, our annual garden festival, offers a full day of expert and entertaining gardening advice. This year, Dr. Allan Armitage will be a featured speaker. Engaging as well as knowledgeable, he has lectured worldwide and will offer a morning and afternoon program. Dr. Armitage is professor emeritus at the University of Georgia and a prolific author. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Medal of Honor from the Garden Club of America and the National Educator Award from the American Horticultural Society.
We are pleased to welcome Dr. Robert Polomski back to Brookgreen Gardens for two lectures we are sure will interest you. As a horticulturist and arborist, Dr. Polomski has educated commercial and consumer audiences for more than two decades on a wide range of topics in a variety of media that includes radio broadcasts and television appearances. He has published his research in scientific journals and authored regional gardening books.

Diggin’ It Programs in the Wall Lowcountry Center Auditorium

Dr. Robert Polomski
10 a.m. – 11a.m.
– Learn to avoid these top 10 landscape mistakes.
An attractive landscape can add beauty and value to your home. Avoid costly mistakes and unnecessary effort to create a landscape that’s easy on the eyes and easy to manage. Learn about these “Top 10 Landscape Mistakes” so you can create a healthy, attractive landscape that looks good and saves you money.

Dr. Allan Armitage
11:15 am – 12:15 pm

Tales From The Gardens: Who in the World is Nellie Stevens?
Where do plants come from? How does our garden grow? Why is yarrow called woundwort? How do the spots of lungwort affect medical research? How did unmarried men let available girls know their marital status? These are stories your mother never told you, and they may include plants you are not familiar with, but they are fun to hear.

Dr. Robert Polomski
12:45 p.m. – 1:45 p.m
. – Have you checked your trees recently? Learn how to inspect your trees to keep them and you safe.
Trees provide numerous benefits to our homes and communities, but they may become liabilities when they fall or break apart. Some tree failures are unpredictable and cannot be prevented, but others can be avoided with a simple tree inspection. Many potential failures can be corrected before they cause damage or injury. Bob Polomski will address seven common structural tree defects that often result in failures, such as uprooting and trunk and branch breaks.

Dr. Allan Armitage
2 p.m. – 3 p.m
. – Color – People Never Get Tired Of It
Dr. Armitage will present his recommendations on color in the garden, showing off the latest and greatest annuals that will take the heat of a southern summer and still look great in the fall.

In between lectures, the Brookgreen Horticulture staff and volunteers will be on hand to offer activities and tips on how to become a better home gardener.

Representatives from local organizations will have informational tables throughout the day outside the Lowcountry Center. All the programs, speakers, and exhibits are free with gardens admission.

Amazing Silent Auction Opportunities
Diggin’ It Silent Auction offers rare opportunities for avid gardeners to participate in exclusive tours, excursions, and experiences full of valuable horticulture ideas and advice. All auction proceeds help support the gardens throughout the year.

Private Evening Tour with Vice-President of Horticulture for up to 5 people [1 bidding opportunity]
Enjoy an exclusive after-hours tour (2 hours in length) with our Vice President of Horticulture and Conservation, Sara Millar. Sara will guide you and your guests through the Gardens while sharing one-on-one horticultural and historical insights. She will share valuable information and tips on a range of gardening topics, including plant selection and care, garden design, and the intensive maintenance program the Horticulture Department implements to create the beautiful gardens on property.

Brookgreen Gardens Plant Collection Talk and Tour for up to 5 people [1 bidding opportunity]
Enjoy an exclusive tour (2 hours in length) with our Curator of Plant Collections, Christy Anouilh. Christy will guide you and your guests through the Gardens and identify special plants in our collection. She will highlight plant care and culture, nomenclature, and discuss the significance of plants at Brookgreen Gardens.

Landscape Design for Your Yard [1 bidding opportunity]
Opportunity for a consult with our Manager of Horticulture, Katherine Rowe, to be followed by a landscape design for identified areas of your yard. Katherine’s background is in landscape architecture and horticulture and she’d love to combine the two for your landscape. The package will include a one hour consult at your home, a hand-drawn design for one selected area in your yard, a general work plan, and a recommended plant list.

Horticulturist for a Day [4 bidding opportunities]
We’d love to host you for a behind-the-scenes garden experience with the Horticulture department. This will include an opportunity in the greenhouse to propagate plants for the Gardens (and to take home!) and to plant a specific spot in the garden for the season, in addition to other garden opportunities. Lunch with staff and a Brookgreen T-shirt are included.

Horticulture Consultation for Your Landscape [4 bidding opportunities]
Enjoy a one-hour consult with a Brookgreen horticulturist at your home. We’ll offer suggestions for any problem areas, ideas for plants and landscape enhancement, and recommendations for your yard. We love to travel, but this is for local residents only (zip codes 29576, 29575, 29588, 29577, 29585).

Exclusive Early Bird Shopping for Spring Plant Sale [5 bidding opportunities]
Here is an exclusive opportunity to enjoy the prima plant selection before the crowd arrives. Bring your spouse, partner, or best gardening buddy with you for two hours the day before the sale to purchase the plants at the top of your list. Horticulture staff will be on hand to answer your questions and give you personalized attention.

Diggin’ It Spring Garden Festival is sponsored in part by



Confederate rose: a fall-flowering chameleon

Like aspiring Hollywood actors, there are some lesser known fall-blooming garden plants that perform brilliantly in our gardens, but are rarely found in the marketplace. These plants have beauty, talent, and the ability to make passersby stop for a longer look.

One of those plants that should receive top billing is Confederate rose (Hibiscus mutabilis). Although it spends most of the growing season looking rather ordinary with large, fuzzy sycamore-like leaves, it’s not until late September and October when she makes her debut. The first one I saw several autumns ago rose more than 10 feet high and had red, pink, and white peonylike flowers-all on the same plant! I was awestruck.

Like a chameleon, Confederate rose flowers open up white and then change to pink and then to red before they begin to fade. Some cultivars of Confederate rose, such as ‘Plena,’ have double-flowers that change from white to pink.’Flore-Plena’ is a common cultivar that has double pink, camellialike flowers.

Confederate rose prefers full sun to partial shade in a well-drained location. In the Piedmont the woody stems die back to the ground when temperatures drop to 15 degrees F. However, new shoots slowly emerge in the spring.

Although Confederate rose may be hard to find in the nursery trade, you should find one growing somewhere in your community. The folks I know who grow “The Rose” have always been generous about passing along a handful of easy-to-root cuttings. Like self-appointed publicity agents, they’re determined to make Confederate rose famous.

“Barney Berries”: a visual autumn treat

I’m very fond of using fruiting ornamental plants in the landscape. Often, they pack a one-two punch of interest: colorful autumn leaves and gorgeous fruits. Sumacs, hollies, cotoneasters, crabapples, and viburnums are eyCallicarpaamericana_fruite-candy for us and a food source for wildlife.

One of my favorite fruiting plants is the beautyberry. I’m particularly fond of our native species, American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana). During the growing season this plant looks like any other green leafy shrub with long, slender branches. From June through August it produces attractive lavender-pink flowers along its stems. It’s not until late summer and fall when American beautyberry gets noticed. Clusters of golfball-sized iridescent purple berries occur along the length of each branch. Often the shiny purple berries will persist until December, long after it sheds it yellow leaves.

My daughter used to call these shrubs “Barney Berries,” in honor of that famous purple dinosaur on PBS. The fruit clusters are big, boldly colored, and beautiful. Serious gardeners may ask: “What can you grow alongside your beautyberries that will complement their purple fruits?” Since beautyberries can be grown in full sun to part shade, plant them at the edge of woodlands or in beds with ornamental grasses to serve as a foil to that earthy color scheme. Others have successfully combined its purple berries with asters and goldenrods.

If purple is not your color, then consider the white-fruited ‘Lactea’ or ‘Russell Montgomery’ American beautyberries. Their pearly-white berries will go with anything. But if you want to make folks look twice and ask: “What’s that?”, then you have to go with purple.

Beautyberries are rather easy to grow. In the spring cut them back close to the ground. Since flowers and fruits are produced on current season’s growth, drastically cutting them back will give you a terrific display on a multitude of gracefully arching branches. During very dry summers I water it occasionally.
If you’re also interested in growing edible fruits, such as blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries–the ones with antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins—then feel free to shoehorn them among your beautyberries. After all, anything goes with purple.