Caterpillar delivers sting

GARDEN Q&A

September 24, 2005|By Jon Traunfeld and Ellen Nibali | Jon Traunfeld and Ellen Nibali,Special to the Sun

Last week I felt stinging on my arm while I was pruning and realized I brushed against a caterpillar. It reminded me of a weird Scottie dog, brown with fuzzy "ears" at both ends, green in the middle with one neat brown spot. The sting hurt like the dickens, until I put the old baking soda-water home remedy on it. What was that caterpillar?

The saddleback caterpillar is the larval form of a common East Coast moth. Eggs are laid in clutches, and initially caterpillars can be gregarious, feeding in groups. Their barbs or spines (urticarial hairs) cause painful dermatitis when touched. Even the cocoon can deliver a sting. However, their population is so low it does not merit control.

My figs died back last winter, then sprouted late from roots. I'll mulch them heavily this fall, but am wondering about cutting them back to fit under a bushel basket. Too much moisture or not enough light?

Unprotected fig tree wood is killed when winter temperatures dip down to 10 degrees to 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Figs grown in bush or shrub form are easier to overwinter than tree form, though pruning now is not recommended as this would reduce fruit production next summer. Low pliable branches can be pinned to the ground and covered with burlap or a tarp. One easy method is encircling the fig with wire mesh and filling the space with straw or leaves. Another option is to surround your figs with building insulation and then cover them loosely with a plastic tarp. All exposed wood should be covered. In spring, remove the protection after danger of frost has passed.

Checklist

Bring houseplants in when night temperatures dip into the mid-50s F.

Sow a late crop of lettuce, spinach, arugula and kale and cover the bed with a floating row cover or cold frame to extend the growing season.

Jon Traunfeld, regional specialist, and Ellen Nibali, horticulture consultant, work at the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension's Home and Garden Information Center, which offers Maryland residents free gardening information. Call the center's hotline at 800-342-2507 (Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-1 p.m.) or e-mail plant and pest questions through the Send a Question feature at www.hgic.umd.edu.

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