Plants to avoid this summer

Poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac are all things that we want to avoid when spending time hiking, camping or even golfing (can you tell I have looked for a few golf balls in the woods). The first and most important part of prevention is learning to identify the plants. The attached links show what these plants look like to help you to know which ones to avoid when you are out having fun!

Here are some things to remember if you come in contact with any of these plants.

  • It is important to wash the oil off as quickly as possible with soap and water. The oil enters the skin quickly and can leave skin with an itchy red rash with bumps or blisters. Make sure that you pay attention to your fingernails as well.
  • The rash does not spread by the fluid from the blisters. Once the urushiol oil has been washed off the skin it will not spread from person to person.
  • Most people don’t react to the urushiol immediately. It can vary from 6-8 hours or it may even be days before you see the rash develop.
  • All items that have come in contact with the plant oil need to be cleaned well. The oil remains on tools, clothing, shoes and pets for a very long time. If you come in contact with those items in the future it can cause the rash to return if it was not cleaned off.
  • Keep your pets from coming in contact with these plants so the urushiol doesn’t stick to their fur which can spread to you. If you think your pet has been exposed give your pet a bath and use long rubber gloves to keep from spreading it to your arms.
  • Wash all of your clothes immediately in your washing machine. Be careful to not have the clothes touch the outside part of your washing machine or the floor. If you feel those areas may have been exposed wash with soap and water. Remember to wash sleeping bags, jewelry, gloves or anything that may have come in contact with the oil.
  • Wear long sleeves, long pants and socks when you are walking in areas that may have these plants.
  • Do NOT burn poison ivy, oak or sumac to get rid of it. The resins can be spread in the smoke and anyone breathing it could have severe reactions. See a medical professional immediately if you are having trouble breathing and you think you may have been exposed to smoke from the burning of these plants.

Being out in the woods is a fun summer activity but being aware of your surroundings and able to identify these plants is important. Teach yourselves and your kids what to look for and what to do if you are exposed.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Grow your own pineapple

One of my many hobbies is gardening and growing houseplants. I’ve filled my sewing room and quilting studio with plants as well as the AnswerLine office.  We have some really good growing conditions in our office and we have successfully grown a wide variety of plants.  We have started seven avocado plants and a sweet potato vine.  The avocados (all but one) have gotten too big and spindly for the office.  Our sweet potato vine grew and grew until the vine was up in the ceiling tiles.  We had to dispose of those plants.

I’m always on the lookout for something new and fun to grow.  I was at my local quilt shop a couple of weeks ago and saw this pineapple plant growing.  The owners have some seriously Pineapplegreen thumbs; I’ve never seen a potted pineapple with fruit growing on it.  Guess I’ll have to buy a fresh pineapple when I am at the grocery store this weekend.

If you, too, are thinking of starting a pineapple plant, follow these directions from Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Hortline.

Cut off the top of the pineapple about 1 inch below the cluster of leaves. Trim away the outer portion of the pineapple top, leaving the tough, stringy core attached to the leaves. Also, remove a few of the lowest leaves. The pineapple top then should be allowed to dry for several days. The drying period allows the moist core tissue to dry and discourages rotting. After drying, insert the pineapple top into perlite, vermiculite or coarse sand up to the base of its leaves. Water the rooting medium. Keep the rooting medium moist, but not wet, during the rooting period. Finally, place the pineapple top in bright, indirect light. Rooting should occur in six to eight weeks.

When the pineapple has developed a good root system, carefully remove it from the rooting medium. Plant the rooted pineapple in a light, well-drained potting mix. Water well. Then place the plant in bright, indirect light for three to four weeks.

After three to four weeks, the plant can be placed in a sunny window. Keep the potting soil moist with regular watering. Using a soluble houseplant fertilizer, fertilize the pineapple once or twice a month in spring and summer. Fertilization usually isn’t necessary in fall and winter. The plant can go outdoors in late May, but must come back indoors before the first fall frost.

I’m looking forward to getting our pineapple plant started.

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Storing Your Garden Vegetables

imageMost of us have harvested our last produce from the garden for the year. It is now time to find ways to store them to maintain their best quality over the winter months.  Here are some suggestions for some produce commonly found in home gardens from Richard Jauron, Iowa State University Extension and Outreach Horticulturist.


Onions should be harvested when most of the tops have fallen over and begun to dry. Carefully pull or dig the bulbs with the tops attached.

After harvesting, dry or cure the onions in a warm, dry, well-ventilated location, such as a shed or garage. Spread out the onions in a single layer on a clean, dry surface. Cure the onions for two to three weeks until the onion tops and necks are thoroughly dry and the outer bulb scales begin to rustle. After the onions are properly cured, cut off the tops about 1 inch above the bulbs. As the onions are topped, discard any that show signs of decay. Use the thick-necked bulbs as soon as possible as they don’t store well. An alternate preparation method is to leave the onion tops untrimmed and braid the dry foliage together.

Place the cured onions in a mesh bag, old nylon stocking, wire basket, or crate. It’s important that the storage container allow air to circulate through the onions. Store the onions in a cool, moderately dry location. Storage temperatures should be 32 to 40 degrees F. The relative humidity should be 65 to 70 percent. Possible storage locations include a basement, cellar, or garage. Hang the braided onions from a rafter or ceiling. Since the temperature in an unheated garage may fall well below 32 degrees F, an alternate storage site will be needed when bitterly cold weather arrives.


Potatoes can be harvested when the tubers are small and immature (“new” potatoes) or when the crop is fully mature. “New” potatoes are dug when the plants are still green and the tubers are greater than 1 inch in diameter. New potatoes should be used immediately, as they do not store well.

Potatoes grown for storage should be harvested after the vines have died and the crop is mature. To check crop maturity, dig up one or two hills after the plants have died. If the skins on the tubers are thin and rub off easily, the crop is not fully mature. Allow the crop to mature for several more days before harvesting the potatoes. When harvesting potatoes, avoid bruising, skinning or cutting the tubers. Damaged potatoes should be used as soon as possible.

After harvesting the potatoes, cure the tubers at a temperature of 50 to 60 F and high relative humidity (85 to 90 percent) for two weeks. The curing period allows minor cuts and bruises to heal. Thickening of the skin also occurs during the curing process.

Once cured, store potatoes at a temperature of 40 F and relative humidity of 90 to 95 percent.  Store the crop in a dark location, as potatoes turn green when exposed to light. If storage temperatures are above 50 F, the tubers may begin to sprout in two or three months. When stored below 40 F, potatoes develop a sugary, sweet taste. Sugary potatoes can be restored to their natural flavor by placing them at room temperature for a few days prior to use. Do not store potatoes with apples or other fruit. Ripening fruit give off ethylene gas, which promotes sprouting of tubers.

Winter Squash and Pumpkins

To insure a long life, pumpkins and winter squash must be harvested, cured, and stored properly. Immature fruit are poor quality and cannot be successfully stored. Mature fruit that have been removed from the vine are still alive. Proper curing and storage slows the rate of respiration and prolongs the storage life of the fruit.

Harvest pumpkins when they have developed a uniform orange color and have a hard rind. Mature winter squash have very hard skins that can’t be punctured with your thumb nail. Additionally, mature winter squash have dull-looking surfaces. Harvest all mature pumpkins and winter squash before a hard freeze. A light frost will destroy the vines but should not harm the fruit. However, a hard freeze may damage the fruit.

After harvesting, cure the pumpkins and winter squash (except for the acorn types) at a temperature of 80 to 85°F and a relative humidity of 80 to 85 percent. Curing helps to harden their skins and heal any cuts and scratches. Do not cure acorn squash. The high temperature and relative humidity during the curing process actually reduce the quality and storage life of acorn squash.

After curing, store pumpkins and winter squash in a cool, dry, well-ventilated location. Storage temperatures should be 50 to 55°F. Do not store pumpkins and squash near apples, pears, or other ripening fruit. Ripening fruit release ethylene gas which shortens the storage life of pumpkins and squash. (Actually, the best storage temperatures for most apples and pears is 30 to 32°F.) When storing pumpkins, place them in a single layer where they don’t touch one another. Good air circulation helps to prevent moisture from forming on the surfaces of the fruit and retards the growth of decay fungi and bacteria. Placing pumpkins in piles generates unwanted heat which may result in the rotting of some fruit. Periodically check pumpkins and winter squash in storage and discard any fruit which show signs of decay.

Properly cured and stored pumpkins should remain in good condition for 2 to 3 months. The storage life of acorn, butternut, and hubbard squash is approximately 5 to 8 weeks, 2 to 3 months, and 5 to 6 months, respectively.


Home-grown apples that will be stored should be harvested when they have reached minimum maturity but are not yet ripe. Mature apples are full-size and have a light straw or greenish-yellow undercolor. The undercolor is the “base” color beneath the red blush. The intensity of the red color is not an indicator of maturity. At minimum maturity, apples will be hard and crisp. They will have developed their characteristic flavor but will be somewhat starchy.

Sort the apples that are to be stored. Remove any that are bruised, cut, or show signs of decay. Plan to consume the larger fruit of any cultivar first, saving the smaller ones for later in the season. The larger apples are usually the first to lose their quality and show signs of internal breakdown.

Low temperature slows the respiration rate and preserves good quality. Apples last several times longer at 32°F than they do at 70°F. Most apple cultivars should be stored at 30 to 32°F for optimum storage. However, McIntosh apples should be kept around 36°F. If possible, the storage temperature should remain constant. The freezing temperature of apples is 27.8 to 29.4°F, so it is best not to store apples in unheated locations where the temperature may get too low. Once thawed frozen apples deteriorate quickly, resulting in softening of flesh and loss of texture. Relative humidity must be kept high, between 90 and 95 percent, in a fruit storage area. If the humidity is not maintained, apples dehydrate and shrivel, particularly Golden Delicious.

Apples can be kept well in humid cellars that maintain a cool temperature below 40°F. They also can be stored in unheated outbuildings or garages, in Styrofoam chests, or with hay or other insulating materials piled around them to prevent them from freezing.

If you are interested in harvesting and storing other vegetables here is some additional information.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Gardening to Attract Butterflies

SwallowtailWe have been thinking and talking a lot about gardens this fall at AnswerLine.  One topic we don’t always think about is planting things in the garden that will attract butterflies.  I seem to remember seeing many more butterflies when I was young.  Even when my children were young, I remember seeing butterflies more often than I do now.

This fall, while my garden efforts are still fresh in my mind, I want to plan what I will do next spring to attract butterflies to my yard.  I KNOW that my grandchildren will really enjoy watching and trying to catch them.  Iowa State University Extension and Outreach has a new publication that explains everything you need to know to plan your garden.  Butterflies and bees will also help pollinate other garden plants, so planting to lure them to my garden will help the rest of the plants and fruit trees in my yard.  I’m going to get to work on my new garden plan this weekend.

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Family Gardening and Food Preservation

raspberriesMy oldest son after graduating from college, getting married and buying a house has become quite an urban gardener! This summer they planted about 15 different tomato and pepper plants. He has been supplying his neighbors and the family with wonderful produce. We have canned salsa, pickled peppers and frozen tomatoes. Some of our canning lessons have been in person but one was even done by Facetime! My how things change with technology! I love that they are interested in food preservation and that they want to learn the correct and safe way to do it!

Recently they transplanted some raspberry bushes from my daughter in laws family farm. They picked their first berries this spring but the production this fall on their everbearing bushes has been incredible! They have over 10 pounds in the freezer already with many more to pick. I thought I would share with you some of the recipes that I shared with them. Just use the attached links for recipes and directions for raspberry jam, raspberry jelly, raspberry syrup, freezing and canning. These are from the National Center for Home Food Preservation and are tested, research based recipes.

I have also shared with him information on maintaining healthy plants from our Extension and Outreach Horticulture specialists. He was having a problem with small black bugs and with the suggestions given he has eliminated the problem.

Little did I know when I started my job with AnswerLine how the resources that we have could not only help consumers that call in, but also be learning experiences that I can share with my family!

Now our middle son and his wife have purchased a house and are moving into it in November. One feature of the house is that it has a garden. I can’t wait to help them as they grow, can and freeze. The wonderful tradition continues.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Tips for using Green Tomatoes

Green Tomatoes

The leaves are starting to turn colors, the farmers are in the field and the nights are becoming cool! These are all signs that fall is here and the end of gardening is definitely in sight! Many home gardeners still have green tomatoes on the vine and they are calling us wondering what they can do to preserve them. Here are some steps for selecting, picking and storing tomatoes.

Selecting and Picking

  •  Pick ripe, nearly ripe and mature green fruits before frost occurs.  Mature green tomatoes are those with a glossy, whitish green fruit color and mature size.
  •  Select fruits only from strong healthy vines, and pick only those fruits free of disease, insect or mechanical damage.
  •  Remove stems to prevent them from puncturing each other.
  •  If dirty, gently wash and allow the fruit to air dry.


  •  Store tomatoes in boxes, 1 to 2 layers deep, or in plastic bags with a few holes for air circulation.
  •  If you have a cool, moderately humid room, simply place them on a shelf.
  •  Keep fruit out of direct sunlight.  They may be stored in the dark.
  •  As tomatoes ripen, they naturally release ethylene gas, which stimulates ripening.  To slow ripening, sort out ripened fruits from green tomatoes each week.  To speed up ripening, place green or partially ripe fruits in a bag or box with a ripe tomato.

Green, mature tomatoes stored at 65-70° F, will ripen in about 2 weeks.  Cooler temperatures slow the ripening process.  At 55° F tomatoes will slowly ripen, but may of inferior quality. Likewise if tomatoes are stored where the humidity is too high then the fruit can mold and rot.  If humidity is too low, the fruit may shrivel and dry out.  Since homes vary in humidity levels, you will need to learn by trial and error what works best for you.   Unfortunately tomatoes ripened indoors are not as flavorful as vine ripened fruits.  However, compared to store bought, you will be delighted with your own home ripened tomatoes.

If you would prefer to use the tomatoes when they are green and are looking for some recipes there are several to choose from including fried green tomatoes, green tomato pie, green tomato bread and green tomato relish. If you are interested in these recipes use this link to download the publication A Harvest of Green Tomatoes from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service.

Whether you choose to ripen them or use them green you will be enjoying the fruits of your labor and the wonderful dishes that you can make from growing things in your garden.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Home Food Preservation Courses

Preserve the taste of summer2There’s nothing better than fresh-picked produce right out of the garden.  Many times we grow more than our families can eat at harvest time and we preserve that extra food to enjoy when the weather turns cold.  During the summer months here at AnswerLine we typically receive hundreds of calls with questions about home canning and other methods of food preservation. Some of the more common calls include questions about what can or cannot be safely canned in a hot water bath canner vs. a pressure canner. We recommend using only recipes that have been tested for safety by a trusted source such as the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation or the USDA.

While home canning is a popular method of food preservation, there are other ways to enjoy the bounty of fresh produce throughout the year. Dehydrating food has gained significant attention for its ability to preserve the flavors and nutrients of fruits, vegetables, and even meats. By removing moisture from the food, dehydrated products not only have a longer shelf life but also offer convenience and versatility in the kitchen. If you’re looking to explore the world of dehydrated food, visit for a wealth of resources, tips, and recipes that will inspire you to create delicious and nutritious meals using this preservation method. Discover the art of dehydrating food and savor the taste of summer all year round.

Call or email the staff here at AnswerLine if you need advice or tested recipes. We can mail or email the information or read it over the phone if you need it immediately.

If you’re interested in learning more about home food preservation, there are courses available for both home and professional preservers in each of the three states covered by AnswerLine. Some of the courses are hands-on workshops taught by certified professionals and some courses are online that you can take right in the comfort of your own home.

For information and registration information about these courses, click on the link below for the state you reside in:



South Dakota:

Here at AnswerLine we provide a valuable service to residents of Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota with toll free hotline numbers as well as residents of other states who wish to call our non-toll-free number.  It’s not too early to start gathering the information you need for the canning, freezing, and drying season and the staff here is ready and willing to assist you.

Jill Signature

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Asparagus All Year

AsparagusA sure sign of spring is when you see the asparagus arriving in the grocery store or if you are lucky, in your home garden.  If you are purchasing or growing more than your family can eat you might want to freeze some.   To freeze you should select young tender spears.  Wash them thoroughly and sort them into sizes.  Trim the stalks by removing scales with a sharp knife and cut the stalks into even lengths.  Water blanch the small spears for 2 minutes, medium spears 3 minutes and large spears for 4 minutes.

To blanch, use one gallon of water per pound of prepared vegetables.  Put the vegetables in the water and it should return to boiling within 1 minute.  If it doesn’t you are using too many vegetables for the amount of water.  Start counting the blanching time as soon as the water returns to a boil.

After the blanching is complete remove the asparagus form the water and put in ice water.  This allows it to stop cooking and will give the asparagus good color, texture and flavor.  After it is cooled drain and package, leaving no headspace.  Freeze using a freezer container or freezer bags for best results.

Now you can enjoy the treat of eating asparagus all winter long.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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Experience and answers at our fingertips

AnswerLineOne of the nice things about working on campus with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach is learning about the different opportunities for assistance that are available.

AnswerLine staff members are home economists so some of the questions we get are outside of our area of expertise.  We are lucky to have several other hotlines available that we can share with callers to get those questions answered.

The horticulture line 515-294-3108 is available for callers from 10-12 and 1-4:30 Monday through Friday.  Richard Jauron will answer questions for callers throughout the state of Iowa.  Hortline began in 1983.  It was initially a toll-free number.  Because of demand, a second person was hired to answer hortline calls in 1991.  Unable to keep up with demand and after considering several options, the hortline number was moved from an 800 number to a standard (515) direct dial number in 1997.  A single person has answered hortline calls since 1997.

In Minnesota, callers may call the Yard and Garden line at 612-301-7590.  These callers will be instructed to leave a message and will receive a return call with an answer.

In South Dakota, the website allows consumers to ask questions on-line or callers can phone us at AnswerLine with the question and we will submit the email for them. Consumers will receive a call with an answer if they do not choose to use email.

We also have a Plant and Insect identification lab.  You can reach them by phone or email.  They can help identify plants or insects you find in your home or yard.  They also have some great articles and pictures to help you solve problems or identify insects.

The Iowa Concern line is another hotline that you can call at 800-447-1985.  They can help with legal issues, financial questions and family transitions.  They began in 1985 and were called Rural Concern as they assisted the agricultural community during that farm crisis. During the floods of 1993 the name was then changed to Iowa Concern as the program began assisting in urban areas as well.

If Iowans call us with entomology questions, we will likely transfer you to the Entomology department at Iowa State University.  Dr. Donald Lewis is often the specialist you will speak with and he will be able to assist you.

We are really fortunate to have so much expertise and experience readily available to answer your questions.

Liz Meimann

I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Food Science at Iowa State University. I love to quilt, sew, cook, and bake. I spent many years gardening, canning, and preserving food for my family when my children were at home.

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Gift Ideas for Your Special Mother

flower potMother’s day is a special time to tell our mothers and grandmothers how much they mean to us.  It isn’t always easy to come up with a gift that is as special as they are.  Here are some suggestions that she will enjoy not just on mother’s day but for many days after as well!

However, if you find yourself unsure about where to find these special gifts, fear not. Navigating through the myriad of choices can be made easier by exploring Favy, a website that offers a plenitude of options for your favorite products and services. Whether you’re seeking a meaningful piece of jewelry, a spa experience, or a carefully crafted gift basket, website provides a convenient platform to browse through a diverse array of offerings. Visit the website to discover a plethora of services available for your gift, ensuring that your Mother’s Day gift is as unique and cherished as the incredible mothers and grandmothers in our lives.

  • Gather pictures and print a photo album, calendar or notebook.
  • Arrange to take a family picture. Then have it developed and framed.
  • Select a flower pot with her favorite colors and plants. Be sure and pay attention to where she can put it. Some plants do better in shade and some need lots of sunshine!
  • If she has a tree near a favorite chair or window in the kitchen, get a bird feeder and food. She will enjoy watching the birds and the birds will enjoy it as well.
  • Arrange with a local florist to have a flower arrangement delivered each month, every other month or even a couple of times a year. It will be something that she will be able to look forward to and is perfect to bring cheer especially during those cold winter months.
  • Give a gift card to her favorite coffee shop or lunch spot.
  • If she has a cell phone have a case made personalized with a family picture. Many photo processing stores can do this. Just make sure you get the case for the phone that she has!
  • If your mom likes to garden give her some gardening tools or new gardening gloves. A favorite of mine is a pad to kneel on when weeding!
  • Purchase rose bushes, day lilies or other plants that grow every year. To make the gift even more special arrange for a time to help plant them together!

Mom’s and grandma’s do so much for us.  Coming up with a way to thank them can evolve into a fun activity for the whole family.

Beth Marrs

I graduated from Iowa State University with a degree in Adult Home Economics Education. I love to cook and entertain and spend time with my family.

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