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

March: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

March, noun – the third month of the Julian calendar, verb from middle French meaning to trample, (Not in my garden, please.) To move in a direct and purposeful manner (as toward the garden).  Be sure to wear your boots!

By the time y’all read this winter may be gone—or not. We might be able to get into the garden—or not.  It may still be raining three out of every five days whether it needs to—or not. And so goes the Piedmont Carolina winter lament. The magnolia in the front yard never had a chance this year. On a brighter note, it appears that the vast majority of the 350,000 wildflower and pollinator seeds I sowed have germinated. The grand experiment continues. I’ll keep you posted.

The following are the things you should be able to do in March. However, if the current climate pattern continues you may want to consider turning your yard into a large scale rain garden. Hey, they don’t have to be mowed.

Lawn Care
Cool season grasses (Fescue and Kentucky bluegrass) can be fertilized with a non-slow release fertilizer such as 10-10-10. DO NOT fertilize cool season grasses after March 15 and do not use a slow release fertilizer now. Save it for Fall. Fertilizing later than mid-March will increase the likelihood of turf diseases in the heat and humidity of summer.

Apply crabgrass control to all lawns when the forsythia is in bloom and before the dogwoods reach full bloom.

Commence mowing activities when you can do so without losing your mower in the mud. Cool season grasses should be mowed at a height between three and four inches. Warm season grasses are still dormant; Your turn will come later. Mowing frequency should be such that you do not remove more than one-third of the growth.  Leave the clippings on the lawn to help reduce fertilizer needs by up to 25 percent. If circumstances are such that more than one-third has to be cut, collect the clippings and use them as mulch. They DO NOT belong in the landfill.

Fertilizing
Feed your shrubbery remembering “moderation in all things.”

Shade trees can be fertilized now, however unless you have poor soil (as indicated by your SOIL TEST) these plants can usually fend for themselves.

Fertilize asparagus beds early in March before the spears emerge.

Emerging flowering bulbs can be fertilized now.

Planting
This entire section is based on the rain stopping and the ground not refreezing and actually drying out (whatever that means. I’ve forgotten.)

Trees and shrubs can be transplanted now as well as fruit trees and grapevines up to bud break. Plants planted now will require more diligent water management through the summer than ones planted last Fall.

Perennials can be planted now.

Start annuals and warm season vegetables inside if you haven’t already.  (I know about you first tomato freaks.)

Rose bushes can be planted now.

Cruciferous vegetables (E.g. cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower) can be set out in the garden in the middle of the month.

Root veggies (E.g. potatoes, beets, turnips, carrots) can be planted in March as well as salad greens (E.g. lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, kohirabi and bok choy) can also be planted in mid-March.

Pruning
Prune fruit trees.

Dead head spring flowering annuals like pansies (Viola x hybrids) as the blossoms fade to prolong flowering.

Roses can be pruned in the latter half of the month.

Overgrown broadleaf shrubs can still be severely whacked.

Spraying
Check for the following insect pests:  euonymus scale, juniper-spruce spider mites, hybrid rhododendron borers. Spray as necessary following label directions.

Apply dormant oil to fruit trees to eliminate several insects. This is especially important if you have just pruned the trees.

Spray apple and pear trees in bloom with streptomycin to prevent fire blight.

Stuff to Do to Get Ready for Prime Time:
Check all your gardening equipment to ensure proper working order. You don’t want to spend the first really great gardening day running around looking for parts for your broken garden gizmo.

Think about experimenting with new varieties of annuals, perennials and veggies.  Experimenting is fun and has few lasting side effects.

Photo: Daffodils, credit: A. Laine.

An Introduction to NCSU Plant Disease and Insect Clinic

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

You know you’re a serious gardener when you get excited about preparing a sample for the NCSU Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. I just wish I had engaged this problem-solving staff sooner and I hope you will learn from my experience.

Over the last three or four years, the mature evergreen azaleas in my landscape – of which there were many – began to succumb to a sudden dieback. Where there was once dark green glossy leaves and abundant flowering, seemingly overnight a swath of vertical branches would turn brown and die. I was alarmed, but knew not what to do. So, I did next to nothing: I trimmed out the crispy parts and hoped for the best.

I am ashamed to admit this experience was after my master gardener training. In training we certainly learned about the services provided by the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic, but either I didn’t think my plant problem was important enough to bother someone at NC State, or I was too lazy to prepare a sample. Probably a little of both.

Inspired to act

Fast forward to this summer when two things happened that inspired me to act. First, the mysterious dieback attacked a stand of azaleas that are a key structural element in the design of my landscape (see photos above). And secondly, I noticed the exact symptoms on a few azaleas in a Durham neighborhood far from my own. The problem no longer belonged just to me; I resolved to seek a diagnosis on behalf of all of us.

My first step was to collect a soil sample from the vicinity of the azalea with the most recent dieback. The results showed that the soil pH was too high – 6.2 – where azaleas prefer a number between 4.7 and 5.3. Phosphorus was high and potassium was a little low. While all that is not a great situation for these acid-loving plants, it did not explain the sudden dieback. I needed to delve deeper.

I decided to access the NCSU Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. (You’ll find a direct link to it on the right side of this blog’s homepage as well as in the list of resources below.) I dug up a smaller azalea that had browned out a year or so earlier, left a good bit of the roots and soil intact and plunked it into a double plastic bag. Back indoors, I downloaded a submission form from the Clinic’s website, filled it out to the best of my ability and brought it and the sample to the master gardener office where I enlisted the help of our County Ag Agent Dr. Ashley Troth. Ashley submitted the sample on my behalf and we included digital images of the affected plants in my landscape. The more information a client can provide, the better will be the diagnosis and recommendations.

I had decided to remove these small, scraggly azaleas from the landscape anyway. So, I used half of one as my sample to the Plant Disease and Insect Clinic. Photo by A. Laine.

A diagnosis

A week later the diagnosis was in:  Symptoms are typical of Phomopsis dieback, a fungus disease. “The disease can be very serious if the fungus moves into larger branches and the base of the plant. This dieback was found down into the base of the plant submitted,” wrote Shawn Butler, an ornamentals diagnostician. “Presence of this disease,” he continued,  “often is an indicator of stressed or injured plants. Photos show that there is probably a problem in the root zones of these plants.  No root rot pathogens were isolated from these roots.  If the plants have been water-stressed in the past, then that might be the primary problem.” 

He also sent a root sample out to check for presence of damaging nematode populations. Some parasitic nematodes were found but populations were not high enough to cause damage.

A new pledge

I will take away at least two lessons from this experience (and I hope you do, too). The first is to seek help sooner, and the second is to not ignore long-established shrubbery. (These azaleas were planted at least 20 years ago.) The plants I inherited with my landscape deserve tender-loving-care equal to that which I provide to the plants I personally select for the landscape. 

Yet another azalea is affected. Removing it would leave a hole in the bush to the right as they have grown together over the decades. Photo by A. Laine.

Resources & Further Reading

How to submit a sample to the clinic: https://projects.ncsu.edu/cals/plantpath/extension/clinic/submit-sample.html

Meet the staff
https://projects.ncsu.edu/cals/plantpath/extension/clinic/about.html

Fees for the Clinic’s diagnostic services: https://projects.ncsu.edu/cals/plantpath/extension/clinic/services.html

Azalea care – a factsheet from Clemson University
https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/azalea-care/

A comment about old azaleas from Louisiana State University
https://www.lsuagcenter.com/portals/blogs/southerngarden/problems-with-old-azaleas

Durham Master Gardener Program News

Public Events
Is your community planning a feast, fair or festival? Add to the excitement by inviting the Master Gardeners to staff a table at which your guests can have their gardening questions answered. Our “Ask an Expert” program travels all over Durham County to provide this service. Call 919-560-0528 to make a request or learn more.   


Soil Sampling
Statewide, the soil sampling kits and associated paperwork are now available in Spanish and English! Locally, you may pick them up at 721 Foster Street in Durham from the Durham County Master Gardener office.

The season for free soil samples is coming to a close next month. The last day that samples will be collected at 721 Foster Street is November 25, 2019. From December 1, 2019 through March 31, 2020 residents will be responsible for delivery of their soil samples to the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Sciences in Raleigh and paying for their soil to be tested ($4.00 per box).  Extension will resume accepting soil samples on March 19, 2020. There is much to gain by testing your soil! Learn more.

New Partnership with HUB Farm
Durham County Master Gardeners now serve The Hub Farm, a 30-acre farm, forest, and aquatic educational center in Durham whose mission is to improve the academic achievement and well-being of students in Durham Public Schools through experiential outdoor learning. Hub Farm engages students, teachers, and the greater Durham community in environmental stewardship, health and nutrition, and career development. The farm is a program of Durham Public Schools Career-Technical Education Department and is guided by a small staff and advisory board. It is located at 117 Milton Road. Learn more about Hub Farm.

Edible Plants Sale in April
The addition of a greenhouse at Briggs Avenue Community Garden has enabled on-site seed-starting to flourish. The gardeners hope to share their bounty of seedlings of edible plants at an Earth Day event in Durham in 2020. Stay tuned for more information!

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
Though still a work in progress, the North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox is a great resource. It contains detailed descriptions and photographs of 3,311 plants that grow in and around North Carolina. You can search for a plant by its common name or its scientific name. Use the “Find a Plant” feature to select a plant for a specific location, or  try “Identify a Plant” to determine the name of a plant based on its flower and leaf characteristics.

The primary goal of the plant database is to help consumers select plants that will bring them joy, provide a valuable function in their landscape, and thrive where planted. Users are encouraged to consider year-round functionality and potential disease and insect problems as part of their selection process. Access the database at https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/ now and in the future. It will only get better!

— A. Laine

Getting Back to Basics

September is synonymous with school. So, this week we are getting back to basics with a post that defines foundational gardening terms. The better you understand these terms and phrases, the easier it will be to identify, select and care for plants in your landscape.

Growing season:  The period between the beginning of growth in the spring and the cessation of growth in the fall.

Hardiness zone:  Expressed as a number and letter combination from 1a to 13b, the US Department of Agriculture has assigned a zone to every geographic area of the United States based on the average annual minimum winter temperature. Tags on plants sold commercially often identify the zone(s) in which the plant will grow.   

Microclimate. Climate affected by landscape, structures, or other unique factors in a particular immediate area.

N-P-K:  Acronym for the three major plant nutrients contained in manure, compost, and fertilizers. N stands for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium.

Coreopsis major, blooming along roadsides now, is a native perennial hardy in zones 5a to 9b. It attracts butterflies and songbirds and is deer resistant. The flowers are large (for coreopsis) and the stems are tall. Photo by A. Laine

Annual: Plants started from seed that grow, mature, flower, produce seed, and die in the same growing season.

Biennial: Plants that take two years, or a part of two years, to complete their life cycle. By freely reseeding, a biennial plant may seem to come back year after year, but you are actually seeing new plants.

Perennial: A plant that lives more than two years and produces new foliage, flowers, and seeds each growing season. Tender perennial:  A perennial that is not tolerant of frost and cold temperatures. Applying a winter mulch can help it survive It may die off above ground and regrow from the roots.

Woody perennial: A plant that goes dormant in winter and begins growth in spring from above-ground stems. Herbaceous perennial: A plant that dies back in the winter and regrows from the crown in spring.

Exotic: A plant of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized.  Naturalize: The process whereby plants spread and fill in naturally.

Native plant: A plant indigenous to a specific habitat or area. Nativar: A plant that is a cultivar of a native plant. Cultivar: A cultivated variety of a species. Propagation of cultivars results in little or no genetic change in the offspring, which preserves desirable characteristics.

Integrated pest management. A method of managing pests that combines cultural, biological, mechanical, and chemical controls, while taking into account the impact of control methods on the environment.

Invasive. Growing vigorously and outcompeting other plants in the same area; difficult to control.

Noxious weed. Weeds that have been declared by law to be a species having the potential to cause injury to public health, crops, livestock, land, or other property. Noxious weeds are very invasive. There are 124 plants in NC that meet the legal criteria.

When a gardening term has you stumped, refer to the glossary chapter of the Master Gardeners Handbook for a definition – there are hundreds of entries — and a small dose of continuing education.

— A. Laine

Resources & Further Reading

Glossary Chapter of Master Gardener Handbook: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/glossary

Find your plant hardiness zone:  https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, 2012. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Noxious weeds in NC: https://plants.usda.gov/java/noxious?rptType=State&statefips=37

https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/coreopsis-major/