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

December: To do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

How did it get to be December already? Wasn’t it 100 degrees and October yesterday? Unbelievable! So, I was looking at last year’s December calendar and I can’t think of how to improve it. Therefore, y’all get an encore! Heck, come next year it might be a new tradition.

The holidays
Are upon us.
It’s cold enough
To prune the euonymus.

Most of the leaves
Have fallen down
And into the compost
Raked and blown.

The door is closed
On the potting shed.
Most of the garden
Has been put to bed.

But before the year
Turns over anew
There are a few more things
Left to do.

Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens’ Little Gem Trees CC BY-ND

Lawn
Mow the fescue
One more time.
Remove the leaves
To keep it fine.

Planting
Landscape plants
Can still be planted
There in that space
Where you’ve always wanted.

Prune
Prune the nandina
And red-berried holly.
Arrange them on the table
To make it look jolly.

Herbaceous perennials
Can still be cut back.
While weeds and “bad” trees
Can be thoroughly wacked.

Spraying
While some of us think
Spraying is fun
In the month of December
There should be none.

Other Stuff That’s Mostly Fun
The Christmas tree
Really needs water
And will appreciate
Being away from the heater.

To keep your poinsettias
Cheery and bright
Put them in the room
With the sunniest light.

As to your soil recommendations
Apply the lime.
Save the fert
For the warmer springtime.

If it’s viticulture
Or an orchard you seek
Order plants now
To plant by March’s second week.

For your strawberries
A sweet straw bed
Either wheat or pine
A blanket for their heads.

May your holidays
Be blessed and merry
As bright and cheery
As the holly’s berry.

And may next year’s garden
Be like my Grandmother’s
A bounty for you
And a bounty for others.

Further Reading
December is a good time to explore the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox: https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/

November: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Rain glorious rain and it isn’t cold yet, at least not as I write this. What more could one ask for? Now that there’s some moisture in the ground it can really be planting season. I have a large number (more than 70) mostly perennial plants to stick in the ground, but I haven’t been able to get a shovel into it. Now it is “just do it” time. Perhaps I shall first make a chiropractor’s appointment for next week. So, that’s my plan. What are you doing with the rest of your fall?

Lawn

If you have a warm season grass lawn all you need to do is keep it relatively free of leaves. If, on the other hand, you have a cool season grass lawn, you are still cutting it 3.5  to 4 inches tall AND keeping it relatively leaf free. Continue the battle with fire ants.

Fertilizing

Not much going on here. If your lawn’s soil pH is low, less than 6 (I’m sure you were astute enough to get the soil tested before NCDOA starts charging for the service later this month), apply the recommended amount of lime. A good way to incorporate it into the soil is to core aerate the lawn before the application.

Wood ashes from your fireplace can be spread on your gardens and shrub beds. Be careful to avoid acid-loving plants such as azaleas, camellias, gardenias, etc.

Planting

  • Let me repeat, “Fall is for planting!” There is still lots of time to add/transplant plants in your landscape (per your PLAN, naturally).
  • Plant one-year-old asparagus crowns now.
  • Sow a cover crop over the veggie garden if it is done for the year. A planting of annual rye, wheat or barley will help prevent erosion and keep weeds to a minimum. Besides you can just till it into the soil in the spring as a bonus.

Pruning

  • After Jack Frost has claimed the last of your herbaceous perennials, including existing asparagus, they can be cut back to the over-wintering rosettes or the ground.
  • Dead and/or diseased wood can be pruned out at any time.
  • Weeds and undesirable trees can now be removed without the aid of three bottles of water per hour, head sweat band and insect repellent.

Spraying

Surely by now you have cleaned up and put away the spray equipment. If not, just do it.

Other stuff to do that will keep you outside

  • As mentioned earlier, add lime where recommended. No fertilizer until spring.
  • Walk around the yard on mild days; It may be awhile before we see any more of them.
  • Okay. You can go inside now and order those fruit trees and vines you’ve been talking about. They will be delivered in time for planting in February or March. (Did you know hardy kiwi will grow well in a sunny place and produce a prodigious amount of fruit?)
  • While you are in there look at your landscape and/or gardening plan and make adjustments based on this year’s experiences.
  • Oh, yeah.  Don’t forget to stuff that bird, mash them taters, and bake that punkin pie.

May your Thanksgiving be
bountiful enough to share with those
whose Thanksgiving will not be.

October: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell, EMGV

Well, the calendar says it is October. The thermometer says it is August and the rain gauge left town due to sheer boredom. Me? I am just confused. Do I keep watering for the benefit of the plants and to the detriment of the checking account? Or, do I just let most of the plants go and start over in the Spring?  Most of the established landscape plants are okay; A little dry, but okay. So, maybe I’ll water the few potted plants that I really love and let the rest go (or maybe it’ll rain). Such a conundrum. So stressful.

The following are wonderful things to do in a statistically normal year and are more or less applicable even this year. Besides, it is October and not going outside is not an option.

Fertilizing

Not much to do here unless you are planting spring flowering bulbs. Should that be the case, incorporate a little balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or equivalent) into the soil as you plant. Store any leftover fertilizer in a dry place for the winter.

Planting

  • The above-mentioned spring flowering bulbs (e.g. hyacinths, tulips, daffodils, crocuses, etc.).
  • Pansies! Those plucky members of the Viola genus who can brighten up a gray winter day should be on everyone’s list unless, of course, there are deer nearby. Apparently, the pansies make a great dessert after a meal of azalea branches. Plant them soon as the more established they are when it gets cold the better able they will be to withstand the cold.
  • “Fall is for planting.”  It’s not just a slogan from the nursery industry. It is gospel. The very best time to plant any new landscape plants you have been planning for is now.
  • Peonies can be planted or transplanted now.
  • In the vegetable garden consider a nitrogen fixing cover crop like red clover, hairy vetch or winter rye. This will help keep down the weeds and add nitrogen to the soil. In the spring, just till it into the soil to add nutrients and organic matter.
  • If you happen to be one of the foresighted people who have a cold frame, now is the appropriate time to plant a winter’s worth of salad. Lettuce, green onions, radishes, carrots, spinach and other leafy greens will grace your salad bowl all winter if planted now.

Pruning

Once frost (It’s October. It is going to frost!) has finished the decimation of the perennial garden cut off all the dead tops and throw them on the compost pile.

Root prune any trees or plants you plan on moving in the spring.

Spraying

Unless you have a lace bug problem it is time to clean up and winterize the sprayer and store the pesticides in a secured dry location that will not freeze. As to the lace bugs, they are active whenever the leaf surface temperature is warm enough (i.e. whenever the sun shines on the leaves). A horticultural oil spray can be helpful in controlling both feeding adults and egg stages.

Lawn Care

  • Maintain adequate moisture levels for any newly seeded or sodded lawns. 
  • Avoid leaf buildup on lawns.
  • Tall fescue and bluegrass (not the fiddlin’ kind) can still be planted in October.

Propagation

Keep an eye on any new cuttings in the cold frame (the one without the salad greens in it). They should be checked at least twice a month and watered as needed. If you are a gardener lucky enough to be able to grow rhubarb now is the time to dig and divide it.

Other stuff to do that will keep you outdoors while the leaves turn color

  • Take soil samples while they are still FREE. NC Department of Agriculture will charge for them from November 27 to April 1, AND you will have to get them to Raleigh yourself. (Durham County Master Gardeners will deliver soil samples to Raleigh for you between April 1 and Thanksgiving.)
  • Put those raked or blown leaves into the compost bin or till them into the veggie garden.
  • Clean, fill and put out the bird feeders.
  • Dig and store (cool, dark, dry) tender summer flowering bulbs (e.g. gladioli, dahlia, caladium) before frost.
  • Clean up lubricate and otherwise prepare lawn and garden equipment for its long winter’s rest.
  • A mea culpa. This writer neglected to inform you that it is time to band trees that are susceptible to canker worm invasions. This involves wrapping and securing the trunk with a coarse material like burlap or quilt batting about 4 or 5 feet above the ground. That in turn is wrapped with a corrugated paper wrap that is then covered with the stickiest gooeyest stuff you’ve ever played with. All these materials are available at some nursery/garden centers one of which is very proximal to the Durham Extension office.
  • For a fun activity now that will yield fresh living flowers in the bleak mid-winter, try your hand at forcing spring flowering bulbs. Plant bulbs in pots early in October and place them in the refrigerator. In 12 weeks bring them out into the house and watch them grow and bloom. Kids love it.

Happy Gardening!