Gold is Good but ‘Plantinum’ is Better! Creating a Bird-friendly Habitat: The Sequel

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

On July 9, 2020, the New Hope Audubon Society (NHAS) revisited my suburban yard to evaluate it after I implemented their recommendations of their initial visit two years ago. I wrote about this very interesting experience in three installments for the Durham Master Gardener Blog[i] in November 2018. I earned the “Gold” level of certification from the NHAS Bird Friendly Habitat back in August, 2018 but I did not receive the highest level of Platinum, largely because greater than 10% of my available property, which is about 13,250 sq. ft. of a total of 16,117 sq. ft., was still covered by high-threat invasive species despite already having removed some exotics. These areas were located mostly along the north side yard and east-facing back yard of my property and native plants only covered 30% of the remainder of my yard. I had to increase the native plant coverage from 30% to 50% and remove the invasive species to less than 10% in order to achieve the platinum level. This was a fair amount of work but surprisingly easy when I did it in stages over two years. This time, two representatives (Alan Johnson and Jeanne Arnts) came from the New Hope Audubon Society and walked around my yard and natural buffer area and patiently answered all my questions. Jeanne Arnts took notes and both of them pointed out species of plants that were good for the birds.

It is well documented that planting native plant species is beneficial for birds and other wildlife[ii]. Native plants, especially native trees, host a variety of insects that are necessary for birds to feed their young and these plants host the insects that are vital to birds and the complex food webs that evolved in our local area. Not only do native gardens provide food, they provide shelter and nesting sites for birds. They also have the added benefit of reducing the need of added resources such as fertilizer because they are uniquely adapted to and thrive in our local area. Even with a portion of my suburban backyard preserved as a natural area with mature hardwoods, much of my yard space had at one time, 10 of the 17 most invasive species listed as species to avoid in the Piedmont North Carolina[iii]

  1. English ivy (Hedera helix), 
  2. Privets (Ligustrum spp.), 
  3. Autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellate), 
  4. Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis), 
  5. Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), 
  6. Mimosa (Albizia julibrissin), 
  7. Periwinkle, Vinca (Vinca spp.), 
  8. Bradford pear (Pyrus calleryana)
  9. Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum)
  10.  Sacred bamboo (Nandina domestica)

In addition, I unwittingly planted the non-native invasive species: Golden rain tree (Koelreuteria paniculata), burning bush (Euonymus alatus) and monkey grass (Ophiopogon japonicas) and other invasive plants just appeared in my yard without my help, like purple beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma) and Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta).

The 2018 visit was a custom assessment of my yard and garden with respect to native plant species and wildlife habitat and a very educational two hours. I was delighted to be informed that I had several native wildflowers growing in my natural area like the diminutive native Crane-fly orchids (Tipularia discolor; also a subject of another blog article https://durhammastergardeners.com/2020/07/) under my beech tree (Fagus grandifolia) as well as another shade-tolerant native Redring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata L.) near a very large white oak.  In the natural buffer area there was one of North Carolina’s smallest woody plants, Spotted Wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate). A native ground cover of Virginia snakeroot (Aristolochia serpentaria) was also scattered throughout the leaf litter. Other native shrubs of arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) and St. Andrew’s-cross (Hypericum hypericoides (L.) Crantz) were quite common in my backyard, not to mention a young Black gumtree (Nyssa sylvatica), which sadly succumbed to a dry spell in September, 2019 when I was out of the country.

Redring Milkweed (Asclepias variegata L.) near a very large white oak.
Photo taken June 3, 2020

The Work

A few weeks after the first visit my husband and I started to tackle the invasive species removal. We waited until there was a substantial rain to loosen the soil around the plant roots. We took out the invasive species armed with hand pruners, lopper, shovel, lawnmower and chainsaw. In a matter of a few days stretched over the past two years we completed Stage 1 and 2 of the removal of invasive species. One of the advantages of pulling and rolling the periwinkle (Vinca major) after a rain to loosen the soil or just mowing was that I did not have to use an herbicide which may have harmed the soil and prevented germination of native plants which could germinate now that they were exposed to sunlight. 

Clockwise from left: On November 5 and 12, 2018 Chinese wisteria (Wisteria sinensis) was removed with loppers and the trunk was cut with a chain saw. A woodpecker and robin immediately investigated the newly exposed soil. On November 3, 2018, after a good rain, the periwinkle was pulled up by the roots behind the birdbath and near the concrete bench. I found the periwinkle stems matted and could be rolled as I progressively pulled up the roots and made a ball. My husband used a chainsaw to take out the firebush on December 16, 2018. The following year on May 7, 2019 I dug out the coreopsis and monkey grass that was taking over my front perennial bed. The monkey grass roots were so tangled that I was able to remove it in one long caterpillar-like piece. On April 28, 2019, I mowed the large patch of periwinkle and Japanese honeysuckle along the north side yard with the lawn mower. My son mowed it again several months later when new shoots appeared but the second mowing along with a dry September finished it off for good except for an occasional plant that I weeded this year. 

I also planted some pink and white muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) to replace the crabgrass that inevitably takes over the strip of lawn between the driveways. The last job was the removal of the forsythia hedge (bottom right corner) for a spring planting of Fothergilla bushes (purchased just before the Covid-19 lockdown) behind the birdbath in addition to a bed along the south side of the house on March 14, 2020. I did not have a chance to purchase any more native plants this year but Mother Nature helped out with the abundant rainfall this spring and many Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginians) grew and filled in the area on the north side along with Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia). Plants that I purchased like Virginia sweet spire (Itea virginica), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata) and wild ginger (Asarum canadense) became established and spread. It has been an excellent year for moss and it has spread downslope with little encouragement, from our fairy garden to our cedar bench along our property boundary. I also collected wild columbine seeds and spread them around the newly exposed areas. I did not amend the soil other than spreading leaves and pine needles, which I gathered off my fescue lawn, around my native plants.

White Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergla capillaris ‘White Cloud’ Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 10, 2019
One of two moss gardens I maintain (weed and sweep only) that has slowly spread downslope from the base of red maples to the cedar bench along our north property boundary. The fairy moss garden in the foreground got special mention in the Audubon report. Along with the moss are natives both planted and natural: Wild ginger (planted in April, 2019), fern (planted 2014), Hearts a Bustin’ (Euonymous americanus), St. Andrew’s cross (Hypericum hypericoides), Tulip poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera) seedling, arrow wood (Vibrurnum dentatum) and Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia).
The fairy moss garden was a pandemic project on Memorial Day and received special mention in the Audubon report. My neighbor removed invasive bamboo from their backyard and I used the tips to construct the fairy fence and my husband cut tiny pieces for the red cedar door window grill.
Photo taken May 27, 2020

We managed to complete both Stage I and Stage II Removal plans as outlined in my blog article of November, 2018 without complaint but, due to Covid-19 and other extended family duties, I did not plant as many of the alternatives recommended to me by NHAS in their report from the first visit. I wasn’t having much luck sourcing some of the native ground covers I wanted to plant anyway like Frog fruit (Phylla nodiflora). I updated my plant list with the recent purchases of native plants in the fall of 2018 and spring of 2019 and 2020 (muhly grass, wild ginger, dwarf crested iris, fothergilla etc.) along with other natives pointed out to me by the Audubon Society representatives on their second visit: American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) and American boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum). I transplanted some blueberries from under my beech tree to the south yard. This year several plants of spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate) have now appeared under my beech tree along with four more groups of cranefly orchids (Tipularia discolor). I developed a nursery of Eastern red cedar in an area mostly covered by wild columbine, which tended to have numerous red cedar seedlings anyway. I will transplant them along my southern property boundary as a privacy screen when they get a bit larger. 

Before (left photo taken August 26, 2019) Chinese wisteria removal. Trees along property boundary and in the background: Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora), Smooth sumac, Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis), Fringe tree, dogwood (Cornus florida) and Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria Japonica). After the wisteria removal (right photo taken September 9, 2020). Move arrow to the left to see newly planted and self-seed native species near hanging garden structure: cross vine (Bignonia capreolata; on left post), Fothergilla (Fothergilla Major ‘Mount Airy’; around the right post), purple flowers of the New York ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and Wild columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Cryptomeria snag (died September 2019) behind New York ironweed. The bird feeder was installed in July, 2020. In the area formerly covered by the Chinese wisteria, climbing dogbane, Smooth sumac (Rhus glabra Linnaeaus) and Hairy skullcap have appeared as well as a family of Eastern fence lizards.
Before (left photo taken October 17, 2018) and after periwinkle removal (right photo taken September 10, 2020). A gourd is temporary ground cover until I find alternative native plants. Not many weeds appeared as the pine needles are thick in this area. Occasionally, Golden rain tree seedlings need to be weeded. A few St. Andrew’s Cross seedlings were transplanted in front of the newly planted fothergilla bushes that replaced the forsythia hedge. Wild columbine, frost aster and St. Andrew’s cross all volunteered to grow instead here in the former perwinkle bed.
Left: Small area of periwinkle near concrete bench and hammock. Daphne odora (near bench) died in 2019. Smooth sumac shrub (self-seeded) and turned bright orange and yellow (behind bench). Photo taken November 3, 2018 Right: Periwinkle was removed by pulling up the roots and rolling it into a ball. Area was thinly mulched beneath my husband’s hammock in 2020 and some native plants appeared: Wild Columbine, Virginia creeper, Smooth sumac and Eastern red cedar. I planted iris bulbs and replaced the Daphne (behind clay pot) with a propagated seedling. A volunteer dogwood and coral honeysuckle (staked to the right) in the less-shaded front of the former periwinkle bed. Photo taken September 10, 2020
Large bed of Periwinkle and Japanese honeysuckle on north side yard. Photo taken April 27, 2019.
North side yard has American beauty berry (planted), muscadine grape, Virginia creeper, wild columbine (seeded), Virginia sweetspire (planted), hairy skullcap, dwarf-crested iris (planted), Virginia snakeroot, fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia; propagated) and Eastern red cedar.green-headed coneflower (Rudbeckia lacyiniata) in background adjacent to moss garden. Japanese hop and Chinese elm next to stake on the left side of photograph was removed. Photo taken August 28, 2020.
Former bed of periwinkle is filling in nicely with planted and self-seed native species after only one year. The Virginia sweetspire has a bit of fall color and the beauty berry is loaded with purple berries. Green-headed cone flower in bloom in the background at the end of the moss garden A red maple snag is located on the right side of the Virginia sweetspire. Photo taken September 15, 2020

The Maintenance

They don’t call them invasive species for no reason and some species need constant vigiliance and weeding. It is a task that takes very little effort now that our new Covid-19 habit of walking through our yard reveals new invaders when they first appear and are easily dealt with. A new crop of mimosa seedlings sprouted up in the north side yard after the abundant August rain this year but they were easily dispatched. And it has been five years since we cut down the mimosa tree! In addition, the occasional golden raintree seedling shows up in the bed behind the birdbath. If I find myself missing the bright yellow blossoms of the golden rain tree out my bedroom window I will look at this photograph instead which is just as enjoyable but without the additional work of weeding.

Also, new alien plants appeared in the north side yard like the Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia), Japanese hop (humulopsis scandens) and the dayflower (Commelina communis) which were also pulled up. Photographs from left: Golden rain tree seedling, golden raintree in bloom (now removed) and mimosa seedlings in foreground next to dwarf-crested iris.

I would like to purchase some spice bush (Lindera benzoin) to fill in the areas where the forsythia hedge was removed and also to increase the midlevel landscape with shrubs in my yard and shade out the weeds. I plan on replacing the non-native morning glory at the mailbox next year with the native clematis viorna (Clematis viorna).

The Reward

I was delighted to see many native wildflowers either spread or appear for the first time without me planting them in the areas I cleared of Chinese wisteria, periwinkle and Japanese honeysuckle and observing the garden become more vibrant. I also refrained from applying a thick layer of mulch in other parts of the natural tree area this year. It is amazing what nature can do with a little less competition from invasives and a little more sunlight. And of course, it helped that my neighbors and I organized and advocated to preserve a 30-foot tree buffer between our neighborhood and the proposed new subdivision, which replaced the forest behind my house back in 2003. Photographs clockwise from left: Blue-eyed grass (Sisryrinchium angustifolium), lyreleaf sage (Salvia lyrata), spotted wintergreen (Chimaphila maculate), redring milkweed (Asclepias variegata L.), flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata), hairy skullcap (Scutellaria elliptica), American boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and wild columbine (Aquilegla canadensis).

The abundant rainfall this spring produced native plants such as Coral honeysuckle, St. Andrew’s cross, Virginia snakeroot or Dutchman’s pipe and climbing dogbane to appear in the former Chinese wisteria area of the backyard. My tulip poplar tree in the front yard also had an unusual amount of blossoms for the bees to enjoy.

One of the requirements for certification is to have eight or more wildlife habitat options from the Audubon list of 13. I managed to have the entire list: water feature/bird bath, no cats or kept indoors, several functional birdhouses, brown-headed nuthatch birdhouse (species of concern), rock piles and branch bundles, pollinator garden(s), several snags (maple, black gum, cedar and cryptomeria), window stickers to reduce collisions, leaf litter, reduced lawn areas, minimal use of nonorganic fertilizers, no usage of rodenticides and replaced 30-year-old gas lawn mower, hedge-clipper and weed-eater with battery powered tools. Thanks to my industrious neighbor and friend, Roger Fortman, who made and gave me a bird feeder and two more birdhouses, I have more than the minimum required wildlife habitat options and a very good wildlife habitat suburban garden and yard.

Beautyberry hedge (Callicarpa Americana) along the south property boundary with southern exposure. Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) snag in the background provides habitat and forage for insects and supports a new birdhouse. Photo taken September 10, 2020

If You Plant It They Will Come

My yard now has 73 native plant species including canopy and understory trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and vines which flower at different times throughout most of the year. I also have large areas with leaf litter in my yard and a few trimmed dead trees left standing (snags). As the native plants have spread and established themselves, I have observed more caterpillars, butterflies, bees, fireflies and birds as well as lizards, toads and frogs. Photographs clockwise from left: Eastern tiger swallowtail and monarch butterfly on common milkweed (Asclepia syriaca), bumble bee and common buckeye butterfly on butterfly weed (Asclepia tuberose) and Eastern tiger swallowtail on Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and scarlet rose mallow (Hibiscus coccinneus).

Photographs from left: Bumble bee on purple passionflower (Passiflora incarnata) and dragonfly on dead milkweed leaf.

Many birds have been observed in the yard this year. Photographs clockwise from left: Female Red-bellied woodpecker and fledgling, bluebird, juvenile Ruby-throated hummingbird, goldfinch, White-breasted nuthatch, male bluebird with beetle and Red-tailed hawks.

Learning about many new native plants since that first NHAS visit in 2018 has been interesting and I found the follow-up visit rewarding and well worth the effort. I do not have any regrets about removing all invasive ornamental plants from my yard as it has given me the opportunity to learn and discover new native alternatives to plant and a chance to welcome nature’s gifts each spring. My yard is much more interesting and entertaining as well because there is a large variety of plants which flower throughout most of the year and wildlife to watch. This transformation to a yard where I can enjoy nature couldn’t have happened at a better time. All the work was worth it and I achieved the highest level of certification. 

While I have achieved my goal of Platinum certification, my gardening work is never done and the plan is to remove the severely pruned Burford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Burford’) foundation hedge at the front of the house. Alan Johnson suggested native alternatives such as dwarf yaupon holly (Illex glabra) or sweet pepper bush (Clethra anifolia) to replace the old hedge. He said the ‘Hummingbird’ cultivar produces numerous flowers and good fall color. To compliment these new shrubs other sun-loving herbaceous perennials such as golden alexander (Zizia), mountain mint (Pycnanthemum mutium) and aster (Symphyotrichum spp.) were suggested. There are many other natives to choose from but they reminded me that it is very important to choose native plants that were grown without the use of neonicotinoids and they provided source nursery’s that did not use this systemic insecticide in their four page report which they emailed to me shortly after their visit.

Future project this fall will be to remove the Burford holly and nandina (circled in red) and plant native foundation shrubs and flowers. Beautyberry, New York ironweed and American pokeweed (green arrows) have already ‘moved in’ to this sunny part of my front yard.
Photo taken September 10, 2020

I proudly hang the Audubon sign on my mailbox for passersby to see and hopefully it will encourage at least one neighbor to undertake this certification process and rewarding experience. I want to inspire like-minded gardeners to contact the New Hope Audubon Society for their own certification so they too can sit back and enjoy the birds they will attract. I am looking forward to next spring and to observing how the garden has matured and perhaps I will see the spotted wintergreen finally flower or a brown-headed nuthatch take up residence in its waiting home. In the meantime, I will buy a frame for my Platinum Certificate from the New Hope Audubon Society.

References:

[i] https://durhammastergardeners.com/2018/11/ November 7, 2020; November 10,  2020 and November 21, 2020

[ii] http://www.bringingnaturehome.net

[iii] https://nc.audubon.org/sites/default/files/piedmont_plants_final.pdf

Resources for Bird Friendly Habitat Certification:

Certification Request Form:

Brochure: http://www.newhopeaudubon.org/wpcontent/themes/nhas/library/docs/certificationBrochure.pdf

Native Plant List and Suppliers:

Bird Friendly Habitat Information:

700 Bird-Friendly Native Plants for North Carolina

https://nc.audubon.org/700

Further Reading:

  1. http://ncbg.unc.edu/uploads/files/ControllingBooklet.pdf
  2. https://projects.ncsu.edu/goingnative/howto/mapping/invexse/index.html
  3. http://www.ncwildflower.org/plant_galleries/invasives_list
  4. http://moinvasives.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/03/MNRC_EmergingInvasives_QuinnLong_2016_0203_NotesPage.pdf

A Garden Surprise

by Cathy Halloran, EMGV

My husband and I were in need of a break from our usual, daily Covid-routine of exercise, gardening and deciding on dinner. In pre-Covid days, we would take the Durham-Washington DC Amtrak to visit friends in D.C. One stop we always found curious was Wilson, NC. It didn’t look like a very vibrant town, yet it was an Amtrak stop. So, in late June, we packed a picnic and headed East/Southeast to Wilson.

We suspect Wilson, in its glory, was a prosperous tobacco town. Its downtown is now quiet and sedate. However, on the edge of town is a jewel called the Wilson Botanical Gardens. It surrounds the site of the Wilson Agricultural Center and was started in 2003 with grants to develop a community garden. The gardens are maintained by the Wilson County Extension Master Gardener Volunteers. The gardens were designed to show the diversity of plant materials that can be used in the home landscape, and to educate and entertain visitors.

The garden delivered its intent. There are sections for every interest, from native plants to perennial borders, to trees, ornamental grasses, pollinator attractors, and a children’s secret garden. 

The area we found most interesting and educational was how they incorporated STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) into the garden. Each STEM sign had a bar code to access more detailed information once one leaves the garden.

The Science section showcased and explained a rain garden and carnivorous plants. 

Solar energy and a weather station were used to demonstrate Technology, plus they added an old-fashion human sundial and explained how it can tell time.

A windmill and hydroponic garden were used to demonstrate Engineering. The windmill, when powered by wind, circulates the water in a holding basin where they grow plants.

The hardest area was Mathematics where the Fibonacci Spiral was explained and the use of only three measurements to calculate the height of a tree.

The last section we enjoyed was the Culinary and Medicinal Herb Garden. Each plant was marked with the usual botanical information, then added its medicinal qualities.

All photos by C. Halloran

If you need an outing where you are surrounded by beautiful plants and trees, and want to learn something and have fun, we highly recommend the Wilson Botanical Gardens. They have benches tucked in shady areas to enjoy a picnic. The garden is open 365 days a year and restrooms are accessible 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday – Friday. The garden is located at 1806 SW Goldboro Street, Wilson, NC. Masks and social distancing are required.

A map of the garden:
https://www.wilsonbotanicalgarden.org/map

September: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

September, it appears, is upon us which means only two more months of obnoxious political ads.  Except for baseball,  it’s PBS (and books) for me until November.

The Accidental Cottage Garden looks like most perennial gardens in September—more than a little scraggly. There are a few hanger’s-on:  Galardia (Galardia puchella), both coreopsis species (C. lanceolate and C. verticilata), balloon flowers (Platycodon grandifloris) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) are still pretty. The surprise to me is the tenacity of the forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica). They have been faithful since May. The canna lily (Canna cv. Unknown) has a new friend, swamp aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum).

Forget-me-nots. Photo: Joshua Mayer CC-BY-SA

The tomato hornworms (Manduca quinquiemaculata) have been especially prolific this year. We have six plants and have forcibly removed over 20 caterpillars. Might have to go inorganic.

On an unrelated note, we have a much greater respect and admiration for school teachers. Twice a week our house becomes Zoom school for a kindergartner and a first-grader. Helping them stay engaged is a challenge for those of us who are in the room with them. Watching teachers who are not present with their students attempt to import knowledge and maintain some semblance of order is amazing. Bless all the teachers out there.

And now to the garden.  Bet you thought I’d never get there.

Lawns 
September is the best time to seed/reseed tall Fescue lawns. Loosen the soil in bare areas and cover any area larger than one square foot with wheat straw.

Apply lime and fertilizer as recommended on your FREE SOIL TEST.  (You got one, right?)

Do not fertilize warm season grasses (Bermuda, Centipede, Zoysia).  Fertilizing them now is like giving sugar to your kids at bed time. They’ll get really active much to their (and your) detriment.

The window to treat your lawn for grubs is open until the middle of the month. They tend to go sleepy-by after that.

Pruning
Nope FERGIDABOUTIT!! Sharpen the shears and put ‘em back up.

Spraying
Same bad guys as last month. Wooly Adelgid on Hemlock, spider mites on all coniferous evergreens, lace bugs on Azalea and Pyracantha, and Tea Scale on Euonymus and Camellia.

Spray peach and nectarine trees for borers

Maintain your rose program.

Many insects and diseases are more active in the fall. They like this weather, too.

Propagation
You may dig and divide spring flowering bulbs now. Daffodils will be especially appreciative of this and will express it in the spring.

And I just learned (who said you can’t teach an old reprobate new tricks?) mid-August until November is prime time to transplant peonies. Dig a big hole and a big root ball. Do not plant too deeply. Cut back the stems from this year.

More Things for When You Can’t Get Enough of This Beautiful Weather

  • Mulch shrub and flower beds.
  • Clean and put away sprayers and other equipment that you won’t need again until spring.
  • For those without a fall garden (sad) it is time to chop, burn, or toss dead veggie plants. Especially burn or toss plants that had disease or insect problems.
  • Take somebody’s kids to a park.
  • Just get out of the house and do something. September and October only come around once a year and outside is safer than inside. Besides, you have all winter to stay inside socially distanced and masked.

Stay safe y’all!

Further Reading
2020 Top Performing Tall Fescue and Kentucky Bluegrass Cultivars:
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/top-performing-tall-fescue-and-kentucky-bluegrass-cultivars

This publication for homeowners and landscapers describes how to mow, fertilize, irrigate, and control weeds in a zoysiagrass lawn.
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/zoysiagrass-lawn-maintenance-calendar

Learn about Azalea lace bugs:
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/azalea-lace-bug

Roses and the insects of summer:
https://www.rose.org/single-post/2020/07/01/Roses-and-the-Insects-of-Summer

Peonies for the home landscape:
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/peonies-for-the-home-landscape

Visit our Tomato Grafting Project page – A group of Durham County Extension master gardeners grafted their favorite tomatoes onto disease-resistant root stock and wrote about the results.

If I Knew Then What I Know Now

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

In a short time I will relocate to a place with entirely different land features and growing conditions than I have enjoyed in Durham County. Of all the places I have lived (three states and six dwellings) my current home is where I have had the biggest amount of land on which to garden and ample time each week to spend gardening. It is also where I learned a lot more about gardening: as a volunteer at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, as an Extension master gardener, and through trial and error in my own yard.

Reflecting on my gardening experiences has brought forth a list of recommendations I would like to share. Each recommendation is followed by the reason it made a difference to me and a tip about implementation. Of note, my garden is primarily ornamental and includes two natural areas, the property (1.74 acres) is fenced (so, deer-free but I contend with my share of rabbits and voles), and I have no outdoor pets.

If I knew then what I know now, I would:

Plant on top of the soil.  Digging through clay and rock is not fun for anyone and, often enough, not even successful, resulting in improper planting. When I first heard this tip, I dismissed it as cheating. Years later I gave in and tried it, and I haven’t looked back. Yes, I still attempt to dig a proper hole first. But if it proves too difficult, I dig what I can and make up the difference with commercially bagged garden soil or compost piled on top of the hole and mixed with the native soil.

Add a dose of compost every spring. As with planting on top of soil, before laying down compost rough up the soil surface a few inches deep. It will encourage the existing soil and the compost to mingle and improve the soil more effectively. Great gardens begin with great soils (and soil tests)!

Mulch every other year. Did you know that you are supposed to rake off old mulch before applying new mulch? I have too much garden for that chore! Yet not doing it while mulching every year (as I did for a while) does no good; layer upon layer of undisturbed mulch becomes compacted. Compaction causes a barrier where water runs off and air pockets beneath the soil line are compressed. Lately I’ve compromised by giving the mulch an extra year to break down. I poke and turn it with a pitch fork the days before new mulch is applied. This option is easier on my wallet, too.  

Weeding grass out of flower beds is no fun!

Lawns … a) Seed fescue grass every other year (alternating with mulch years) unless it really needs it. b) If ornamental beds haven’t been mulched in a while, don’t seed the lawn (see photo). c) Skip fescue entirely and plant zoysia or another warm season grass. It’s too hot here for fescue to thrive, especially without a lot of time and money.

Plant more native shrubs. I’ve come to appreciate native plants for their benefits to native wildlife. I’m no scientist but I’m in my garden a lot and the more natives I’ve added or let be, the greater variety of insects and birds I’ve observed. But frankly, the native plants are more carefree and thus bring me more joy.  (Granted I could really make a difference by getting rid of my lawn …)

Be bold about removing things that aren’t “right plant, right place” (apple tree in a shady valley, hostas in too much sun, hydrangeas in a cramped spot). They will struggle to flourish and you’ll be disappointed. Once something un-spectacular is gone from sight you will hardly remember that it was ever there.

Raise a few chickens. I had never lived anywhere that backyard chickens were allowed. So, it’s no surprise that it took me this long to consider raising them myself. There’s a perfect site in my yard (remember that shady valley where the apple tree struggled). And mine is an egg-eating household. Plus, chickens and gardens play well together.

Rejuvenate or replace the hedge sooner. Hedges are high maintenance. At least the really good-looking ones are. I’m always shy about making the first cut but have rarely regretted giving my hedge a confident trim or applying a rejuvenating prune to a shrub in need. Alternatively, plant a loose hedge; one that need not be squared off or rounded to look decent. Fragrant tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans) is a great choice as is the anise tree (Illicium floridanum).

Photo by A. Laine

Foundation plantings. Think twice before putting shrubbery up against the house. Mine were present when I moved in; But had I removed them a decade ago, they would not be the nuisance they sometimes are today. Vegetation up against the house is not necessary (in my opinion) and it’s a pain when it comes time to paint the exterior, power wash, or make a repair. It’s also a hassle to trim bushes placed so close to the house!


Focus, Focus, Focus. If I knew then what I know now, I would have heeded the advice to design and landscape one section of my yard at a time. Not strictly adhering to this rule haunts me on dry summer days as I traipse around the garden with a hose or watering can tending newly planted trees, shrubs or perennials.

There’s no time like the present to learn from our mistakes.  Ask yourself what you would do differently and then set out to do it.  

Extension Resources & Further Reading
Publications and factsheets from NC State Extension
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/

A comprehensive look at soil compaction
https://extension.umn.edu/soil-management-and-health/soil-compaction

A guide to maintaining quality turf in NC
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/carolin a-lawns

Create your own native landscape, even in an urban landscape
https://projects.ncsu.edu/goingnative/create/index.html

Raising chickens
https://poultry.ces.ncsu.edu/backyard-flocks-eggs/
https://extension.psu.edu/successfully-raising-a-small-flock-of-laying-chickens

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu

Pruning shrubs and trees
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/pruning-trees-and-shrubs

Gardening Shorts

Here are some gardening activities for the dog days of summer. These are the kind that may keep us out of the garden (and out of our gardening shorts), yet still keep gardening on our minds.

EXTENSION PROGRAMS

Extension’s Food and Consumer Sciences program offers free, 30-minute webinars on Wednesdays at 2 p.m. titled Gardening & Grub: A Weekly Chat About All Things Food. Extension Agent Cheralyn Berry discusses a new fruit or vegetable each week and talks about its cultivation, nutrition and cultural uses. Each topic is a delightful surprise – one week it was the banana tree, another week the lychee nut. Cheralyn also shares recipes and answers viewer questions. Connect: https://go.ncsu.edu/allthingsfood . If you miss it live, you can tune in at your convenience by visiting the Durham Cooperative Extension Facebook page; and clicking on “Videos.” 

Things are hot at the Briggs Avenue Community Garden! Hot as in growing chili peppers from around the world. “Everything from the original progenitor chili to the common sweet pepper to the spiciest pepper in the world is growing at Briggs right now,” says Cheralyn Berry. Stop by between 8 and 11 a.m. any Friday or Saturday for the next few weeks and receive a mini educational tour. The garden’s address is 1314 S. Briggs Avenue in Durham. For more information call 919-406-4606.

To help produce fun and food this summer, Extension’s 4H program offered Victory Garden Kits – priced at $20, but free to families in need of financial assistance, no questions asked. The summer kits were so popular that a fall kit is in the works. Learn more at: https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/4-h-victory-gardens/

PHOTO CONTESTS

Do you take photos of your garden – LOL — Who doesn’t, right?! Well, two local organizations are interested in your photos: 

1) WPTF Weekend Gardener magazine is looking for a photo to grace the cover of their Fall issue (circulation 10,000). Act soon, deadline for submission is August 31. To participate and/or learn more: https://wptf.com/contests/weekend-gardener-magazine-cover-photo/ .  The photographer will receive credit in the magazine.

2) NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill is collecting submissions for a Community Photo Exhibit. You can submit up to five photos of native wildflowers. The photos could have been taken anywhere in the state of North Carolina. Deadline for submissions is October 1. They’ll share the photos in a digital gallery, and at the end of the year, they’ll display selected images in an exhibit in the DeBerry Gallery. To participate and/or learn more: https://ncbg.unc.edu/visit/exhibits/community-photo-exhibit/

DURHAM GARDEN FORUM – Monthly Lectures
Durham Garden Forum (DGF), a valuable resource for Durham residents and others in the Triangle area. Now entering its 11th year, the DGF holds lectures from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month. At present the lectures are presented online via Zoom. To receive a meeting invitation, send your request to durhamgardenforum@gmail.com

Here’s a peek at topics of upcoming lectures: 
– August 25, Beyond Daffodils and Tulips — a review of all geophytes, including bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes, and tuberous roots.
– September 15,  TreesDurham – a review of historical policies that have created today’s inequitable tree distribution in Durham.
– October 20, Hosta! Gardening with hosta, with a look at some of the newest varieties.

— A. Laine