April: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Welcome to April in the age of pandemic. Who knew two months ago that we’d all be practicing “social distancing” (though a friend opined that we’re really practicing physical-distancing and e-socializing), sheltering-in-place from an invisible invader and dealing with a shortage of toilet paper? BTW, my sister suggested that those of y’all who do needlework should knit or crochet granny squares to make up for the shortage of TP. Talk about sustainable. And what a great time to be a bidet salesperson!

Oh, wait. This is supposed to be about gardening. My bad. At my age it is easy to get distracted. Did everybody enjoy the March-in-North Carolina weather roller-coaster? I think it does that so that we will appreciate April and May more. So, while we’re all confined to our own yards, (Surely “stay home” doesn’t mean “hide in the house with the covers pulled over your head!?!) let’s go garden.

Lawn Care
Go ahead and fertilize the warm season grasses (Bermuda, zoysia, centipede). They will be breaking dormancy soon and will be grateful for the feed.

STOP fertilizing cool season grasses (tall fescue, bluegrass) unless you want to invite a host of fungal diseases to spend the summer decimating your lawn.  Just sayin’.

Climate change may have made it too late to apply crabgrass preventer this year. The marker is to apply before the dogwoods bloom (usually mid-April), but mine have already begun to open.

Warm season grasses can be planted by mid-month. Seeding is possible, but not recommended.  Sodding and plugging are the preferred methods. NC State’s Turf Files website is an excellent resource for information on all things grass in North Carolina. See resources below.

Fertilize
Any shrubbery that you didn’t get around to in March. See also: Lawn Care.

Planting
It is time to get giddy in the garden! The average last frost date in Durham, NC is April 13, give or take 12 days. I suspect this year it was in mid-March. So, put on those knee pads and plant, plant, plant.

From seed: melons, squashes, pumpkin, beans, cucumbers, corn (okra at the end of the month). Transplants:  tomatoes and peppers. Hopefully your soil has already been amended according to the recommendations of your soil test 🙂 Please plant enough to share with those who may not have any, especially this year because that might be a neighbor who works in a “non-essential” industry. 

Pruning
Remove winter damage from trees and shrubs.

Refrain from pruning spring flowering shrubs such as azaleas (Rhododendron x hybrid), lilac (Syringa spp.), forsythia, spiraea, weigelia, etc. until after the petals fall from the blooms, but before the end of June.

Prune fruiting shrubs like holly (Ilex spp.), and pyracantha while they are in bloom so as not to remove all of this year’s berries.

Prune spring flowering trees such as flowering cherry (Prunus hybrids) and redbud (Cercis spp.) only as needed for damage removal and/or aesthetics.

Spraying
Be on the lookout for the following pests: azalea lace bugs, boxwood leaf miners, euonymus and tea scales and hemlock/ juniper-spruce spider mites. Spray only as needed and follow label instructions.

Spray iris bed for borers.

Continue in perpetuity a rose spray program (please consider organic products).

Treat cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, etc.) for worms.

Spray squash plants near the base of the stem to control squash vine borers. Continue doing so weekly until June 1 using a pesticide labeled specifically for vegetables.

Spray apple and pear trees with streptomycin while they are in bloom to control fire blight. Apply twice. Once at early bloom and again at full bloom. If the weather is rainy a third application may be desirable.

Begin weekly fungicide applications for bunch grapes.

Begin weekly fruit tree spraying once the flower petals fall. Again, please consider organic products.

Other Stuff to Do to Avoid Spring Cleaning of the House and Garage
Mulch, mulch, mulch. And did I mention mulch? Unless you are a very recent arrival to the area you know that at some point in the coming summer it will be HOT and at some point, it will be DRY and at some point, it will be both simultaneously. Then you will be glad you MULCHED. Mulch will help to mitigate the effects of a Piedmont North Carolina summer and cut down on your water bill.

And, of course, like death and taxes, there will be weeds. Unless there are an overwhelming number of them, pulling is the recommended (and therapeutic) method of removal. Just be sure that if you get down low enough to pull weeds you can get yourself back up because if you need assistance it will require a block and tackle apparatus in order for the assistor to get you up from a distance of six feet.  You don’t want to go there.

Stay healthy. Stay connected. Take care of each other and keep gardening.

Resources and Further Reading
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/interpreting-freezefrost-probabilities-from-the-national-centers-for-environmental-information

Everything you need to know about lawn care in NC
https://www.turffiles.nscu.edu

About rose fertilizers
https://www.rose.org/post/2018/03/20/a-fertilizer-primer-what-s-in-that-rose-food

If you grow roses, learn more about the Rose Rosette Virus
https://extensiongardener.ces.ncsu.edu/2020/03/rose-rosette-virus-flower-killer/?src=rss

Pruning trees and shrubs
https://chatham.ces.ncsu.edu/the-science-and-art-of-pruning/
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/pdf/general-pruning-techniques/2014-09-29/general-pruning-techniques.pdf

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.

February: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Welcome to the newly minted month of ‘Febril.’ Seems like we did this last year. Therefore, beware, lest you let your guard down and get caught by the other new month—Maruary which could easily be just around the corner, lurking, waiting to zap your saucer magnolia blossoms and any other non-cold hardy vegetation. And, it ain’t snowed yet neither. So, as tempting as 70 degrees might be, be smart. Just for the record, I didn’t just pull this stuff outta the air. I done researched it like them professors learned me to in Horticulture (yea, I can spell, too)  School on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh. Pay attention, y’all. It’s real stuff.

Lawn Care*

Cool season grasses (i.e. fescue and bluegrass) should be fertilized with a slow-release fertilizer following the recommendation of your SOIL TEST.

Late February/early March is the best time to apply a pre-emergent to prevent crabgrass. There are several easy-to-use granular products on the market. Be sure to read and follow the directions on the label for safe and proper handling and application. Calibrate your spreader to ensure accurate application amounts. Too little will not give you effective control and too much may damage the turf.

Fertilizing

See Lawn Care above and Planting below.

Planting*

And so it begins: the vegetable garden. The reason for existence, for frozen fingers in February, summer sunburn and the endless supply of liniment in the medicine cabinet.

It is time for root vegetables and salad. Vegetables you can plant now include cabbage, carrots, leaf lettuce, onions, potatoes, radishes, rutabagas, spinach and turnips. Work a little fertilizer into the soil that was tested in October (while it was still free to do so) following the recommendations of said SOIL TEST.

Be cognizant of soil moisture levels.  It appears that Mother Nature is going to maintain that for now, but she can be really fickle.

Pruning*
If you have been ignoring previous posts, now would be a good time to prune bunch grapes and fruit trees.

Also due for judicious trimming are summer flowering shrubs and small trees. That list includes crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia species), butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii), and hydrangeas that bloom on new wood (Hydrangea arborescens & H. paniculata). Blueberry bushes will also benefit from a February pruning.

While you’re out there whack back the ornamental grasses, also.  The new blades haven’t emerged yet and the plants are looking a bit tired anyway.

Got some overgrown shrubs that you’ve been meaning to (or reluctant to) prune heavily? Go for it now.  I understand that if you’ve never done it before it can be a bit intimidating. Trust me. The plant will almost always not only survive, but also thrive. I am aware of the never-more-than-a-third rule, but sometimes that is not enough. If it needs to go back to 12 to 18 inches, go for it. Chances are you and the plant will be glad you did.

Spraying

The orchard needs attention. Peaches and nectarines should be sprayed with a fungicide to prevent leaf curl. Spraying a dormant oil on the fruit trees will help control several insects later in the year.

Other fun stuff to do outside in February
Perennials can be divided if the soil ever gets dry enough.

Many landscape plants can be propagated via hardwood cuttings this time of the year. Some of the plants in the category are crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia species), flowering quince (Chaenomoles species), junipers (Juniperus species), spiraea (Spiraea species) and weigelia (Weigelia species).

Bluebirds will be most appreciative of a through house cleaning before the Spring nesting season. Remove all the old nesting materials and let them start afresh. It’s like clean linens for them.

Oh, yeah. Lest we forget … order flowers or other living things from the plant kingdom for your significant other. Just for the record, guys like flowers and plants, too. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Think positive thoughts about an early Spring and no late freezes.

Additional Reading from NC State Extension

Carolina Lawns: A guide to maintaining quality turf in the landscape
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/carolina-lawns

Planting calendar for annual vegetables
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/central-north-carolina-planting-calendar-for-annual-vegetables-fruits-and-herbs

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

Plant propagation by stem cuttings
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/plant-propagation-by-stem-cuttings-instructions-for-the-home-gardener

In 2020 I Resolve to …

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

If you’re still searching for a new year’s resolution, I’ve got a really good one for gardeners. It doesn’t require sacrifice or expense yet can be very rewarding. Repeat after me: “I resolve to go on a monthly walk … in my own yard!”

Intentionally walking your yard on a monthly basis will result in a custom task list for your garden. Sure there are things we know we ought to do at certain times of the year, but it is easy to overlook them when they are out of view. During a monthly tour, nothing remains out of view.

I’m the only bonafide gardener in my household, so I do a solo walk. But if your partner gardens alongside you, then include them on the tour.

If not for the monthly tour, I would miss the little joys in a winter garden like the orange hips on this Gardenia ‘Lynn Lowrey.’ Photo by A. Laine.

Schedule your monthly walk for a day of the week that you are generally home and for a time of day when the yard is well lit. This is especially important if there are shady spots on your property. It can also be beneficial to conduct your walk at different times of the day throughout a season to observe where light falls in your yard.

Wear comfortable, seasonal-appropriate shoes and clothing. Take along a notebook and pencil, or a smartphone or tablet if you prefer. Whatever suits you for note-taking. The amount of time to allocate will depend on the size of the property and how many plantings it has. I generally spend 30 minutes or so to tour an acre.  

Your mission is to stroll the property at a semi-leisurely pace. Cover as much ground as possible and observe what’s happening in the garden. Get close to plants, linger a little. As you go along, record what plants or areas need attention and in what way(s). Empty spaces — opportunities for new plants — will become more clear. The monthly walk is also an optimal time to note what’s in bud or bloom or current weather conditions if you keep a gardening journal or would like to begin one.

On my January 3 tour, I noticed the first blossoms on a Camellia Japonica — a very early occurrence as this one usually blooms in February. Photo by A. Laine.


The challenge is to note what needs doing without actually doing it right then and there. I know this is hard, but it is important, so please try. Resist the urge to pull a few weeds, deadhead a flowering plant, or sweep a walkway. Help yourself stay focused by not bringing any gardening tools with you. I don’t even wear gloves (and I always wear gloves to garden).  

The monthly tour is something I’ve come to look forward to as I find it relaxing and meditative as well as productive. It really sets me up well for a good day’s work on the following days of the month that I do devote to actual working in the garden. One year my September monthly tour revealed a downed maple tree (about six-inch trunk diameter) behind our detached garage. It had most likely fallen during a recent tropical storm, but would have gone unnoticed for much longer had it not been for a sighting on the monthly tour.

Further Reading
The monthly garden tour is an excellent way to begin a garden journal. Here are two good Extension resources to learn more about what that may entail.
https://extension.psu.edu/garden-journaling

https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/appendix-a-garden-journaling

January: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Congratulations! We all made through another decade (although technically the new decade doesn’t start until 2021). We gardeners have seen it all—extended heat and drought, a week below freezing, too much rain, not enough rain, eight inches of snow in December, 100 degrees in mid-October. You name it, meteorologically, and we had it. Yet we persist.  Like farmers, we are eternally optimistic … or just plain nuts. Your call. That being said, here’s the “To Do” list for January, weather permitting, of course.

Lawn Care
If you haven’t already cleared the lawn of leaves, exactly what are you waiting for? There won’t be anymore leaves falling until the oaks shed their bottom leaves in the spring. Just do it, already.

Take a really good look at the grass area of your yard and see if there is the possibility of eliminating some (all?) of the grass. Less lawn equals less expense and greater sustainability.* Think about it. It’s your planet, too.

Fertilizing 
Nope.  Nothing to see here folks.

Planting 
Maybe some asparagus crowns, but that’s about it for January. I take that back. I have successfully transplanted trees from the nursery in January. Just remember, if it turns dry, they need water even if they don’t have any foliage.

Pruning *
This is it! Your best reason to go play in the yard in January. Trees and shrubs are less traumatized by January pruning. The wounds heal faster from January infliction than in other months. Also, unless you have an actual hedge, please resist the temptation to use the hedge trimmer. Shearing is best left to the English, French or Japanese formal gardens. Hand pruning individual branches will produce healthier and more aesthetically pleasing plants.

Spraying
So, the plants you brought in off the deck for the winter had “friends” on them and now they are somewhat bothersome? It happens. If possible, take them back out on a nice day and spray them with a horticultural oil or insecticidal soap. Let them dry, then bring them back inside. If you have to spray them inside, be careful. Wipe up any over-spray. ALWAYS READ THE LABEL.

If you have azaleas planted in a sunny location you probably have azalea lace bugs. They will be actively feeding whenever it is much above 40 degrees. Spray them with a horticultural oil and be done with them (at least until hot weather).

What to do when January is too inhospitable to play outside
Three words: seed catalogs, Google. Think about places in the garden where you might experiment with plants you haven’t tried before. Research the plant’s appropriateness for the space. “Right Plant Right Place” isn’t just a catchy phrase. Especially think about natives. Is the sunniest part of your yard right out front? Stick some tomatoes in with the petunias and marigolds, peppers in the perennial bed. It’ll give the neighbors something to talk about until you start sharing the tomatoes. If you have an HOA, my condolences.

Stay warm, y’all. March is closer than you imagine.

*Resources & Further Reading
Bull City Gardener Learning Series – Sustainable Lawns and Alternatives: April 16 and April 18, Learn more: https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/

General Pruning Techniques for Trees & Shrubs
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/pdf/general-pruning-techniques/2014-09-29/general-pruning-techniques.pdf