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.

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.

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

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.

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:

This publication for homeowners and landscapers describes how to mow, fertilize, irrigate, and control weeds in a zoysiagrass lawn.

Learn about Azalea lace bugs:

Roses and the insects of summer:

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.

August: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell EMGV

Already it’s August! We must be having fun ‘cause the time sure is flying. It’s a good thing we’re supposed to be staying home mostly. I surely don’t have time to go anywhere. Nature abhors a vacuum and so, like most folks, I’ve found plenty to do without going anywhere.

I don’t know about your yard, but ours didn’t get a drop of rain from the first week in July until the 29th.  The Accidental Cottage Garden looks like an accident happened. It is sad. There are a few black-eyed susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) hanging on along with some coreopsis (C. lanceolata and C. verticilata). The butterfly weed (Asclepeis tuberosa) and a late blooming daylily (Hemerocalis x August Flame) are making an orange show and some blanket flowers (Galardia pulchella) are thumbing their noses at the droughty-ness.

We stuck some tomatoes in Earth Boxes in front of the kitchen window and they are very happy. Then there’s the basil … Last year we had three plants. (I like basil.) This year we have 10,378 – more or less.  Basil as a weed species is a novelty to me!

Anyway, here are a few things you can do in your garden when the heat index is not in the stratosphere.

Lawn Care
– Check the lawn for grubs.  If you find some, treat with an appropriate insecticide. If you do not find any be grateful and put the sprayer away.
– Late in the month prepare any areas that need to be seeded with cool season grass (tall fescue, bluegrass).

– Give your strawberries a shot of nitrogen fertilizer.
– DO NOT fertilize trees or shrubbery until December.

– Sow pansy seeds this month in flats, indoors, to transplant to the landscape in September.
– Perennial seeds, such as hollyhock (Alcea rosea), larkspur (Delphinium) and Stokes aster (Stokesia Laevis) can be sown now, outdoors, for healthy plants in the spring.
– Repot more house plants.
– Plant a fall garden with beets, Chinese cabbage, cucumbers, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mustard, radish, rutabaga, squash & turnips.

Nada! Nope. Don’t. No pruning of trees or shrubs until November. In case of hurricane damage disregard the above admonition.

– Same stuff as last month. Look for spider mites on coniferous evergreens (juniper, arborvitae, etc.) and lace bugs on azaleas and pyracantha.
– Continue rose spray program and weekly spraying of fruit trees and bunch grapes.
– Watch for worms on cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower) and borers on squash.  Spray only if necessary. Follow the label instructions.

You may still take cuttings of shrubs.

More things to do if you just can’t get enough of the August heat:

  • Read our Tomato Grafting Project page and up your game for next year’s tomato crop.
  • Make sure your Landscape Plan is up to date especially if you plan to modify the landscape this fall.
  • Keep running up the water bill when the August thunderstorms skip your house.
  • Build a compost bin.
  • Dig Irish potatoes.
  • Stay cool and hydrated.
  • Wear your mask and wash your hands.

September and October will soon be at hand and we can do all those things in relative comfort.

Additional Extension Resources

How to make a meadow:

Maintaining quality turf:

Plant a fall vegetable garden:

Propagation by stem cuttings

Landscape planning and design:

How to build a compost bin

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.

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

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. 

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.

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

Everything you need to know about lawn care in NC

About rose fertilizers

If you grow roses, learn more about the Rose Rosette Virus

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


See Lawn Care above and Planting below.


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.

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.


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

Planting calendar for annual vegetables

Pruning trees and shrubs

Plant propagation by stem cuttings