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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After three painful years of crop-destroying diseases on our beloved heirloom tomatoes, my husband and I decided to give straw bale gardening a try.
I had tried grafting—attaching an heirloom scion onto a hardy root stock—for two years with some success, but it was a long, painstaking process, and we still weren’t getting the yields we enjoyed in the days before the dreaded fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases took over in our garden. We also tried disease-resistant tomatoes like Early Girl, Better Boy, Celebrity, Sweet 100, etc., but we missed the complexity of flavors and variety of colors of our favorite heirlooms like Carbon, Amana Orange, Green Zebra, Pineapple, Lucky Tiger, and more. We also tried removing the lower branches of our plants to keep them away from disease spores in the soil as well as spraying with copper sulfate—it all seemed a lot of work for a limited return on investment!
I started researching straw bale gardening in January, thinking it offered the advantage of a sterile environment for the tomato plants as well as the effect of a raised be d. I found a book written by the man who pioneered the concept, Joel Karsten. He came up with the idea after observing healthy, vigorous weeds sprouting in old straw bales on his family farm. He began experimenting with vegetables, and over decades, developed the techniques for gardening with straw bales. Since then, he has published two editions of his book, Straw Bale Gardens, and has spoken all over the world about what is touted on the book jacket as “the hottest new method of veggie growing.” The book contains a wealth of useful information, plans, diagrams, and more.
Our first task was to find straw bales—they must be wheat straw bales, not hay. They are not cheap, especially given the size of our garden. The best price we found was about $6 a bale. We inquired about delivery and were told by several farm supply stores that they sell the bales at a loss or break-even and were not interested in delivering them. So, several pick-up truck trips later, we had lots of bales on our garden site.
The next step was placing and conditioning the bales, a process that takes 10-12 days. Conditioning should be started two weeks before the average last frost date.
Although I had reservations about the fertilizer recipe given in the book, we decided to just follow the instructions and evaluate the results. Over the conditioning period, fertilizer and water are applied to the bales according to a day-by-day schedule. My reservation concerned the recommendation of nitrogen-rich “traditional refined lawn fertilizer.” Instructions are also given for organic nitrogen sources, but this seemed more complex, and we followed the conventional method. Fertilizer is sprinkled over the top of each bale, and water carries it deep into the bale, starting the bacterial process of breaking down the bales to release nitrogen.
On Day 10, the instructions call for one cup per bale of 10-10-10 general garden fertilizer, watered in.
Planting can begin on Day 12. A little sterile potting soil can be used to anchor the plant in the straw bale, but all the nutrients and growing medium the plants will need are contained within the conditioned bales. Adding garden soil or compost could introduce fungal spores to the sterile bales.
Our concerns about using lawn fertilizer were confirmed over the spring and early summer: TOO MUCH NITROGEN! Our plants quickly became enormous, with fewer blooms than normal. They also began to shade out the eggplants and herbs that we had planted beside the tomato plants. We added a phosphorous- and potassium-rich fertilizer and gradually the plants started to have more blossoms and bear fruit. We also noticed that plants growing in straw bales require more diligent watering. Karsten recommends placing soaker hoses on top of the bales, controlled by a timer.
In researching this article, I found an N.C. Cooperative Extension Service article (see “Hay” Bale Gardening link below) that recommends a different conditioning method. It calls for simply watering the bales for three days. On Day 4, you add 2 cups of dolomitic limestone and a half cup of ammonium sulfate, and water it in. On Days 5-9, you add more ammonium sulfate, followed by a cup of 10-10-10 or 8-8-8 on Day 10. Planting commences on Day 11.
This year we did lose a few plants to “the *%#* fungus,” our common term for fungal, viral, and bacterial diseases including early blight, late blight, fusarium wilt, tomato spotted wilt, various cankers—you name it. My husband also sprayed the plants with copper sulfate as a preventative.
Overall, we deemed the straw bale gardening experiment a success. We canned, made salsa, roasted, sliced, and froze plenty of colorful tomatoes to get us through the winter. We plan to try it again next year using the Extension Service-recommended fertilizer recipe.
I also plan to graft tomatoes again next year after taking this year off. And, I’ll give some of the newer disease-resistant varieties a try. Some I’m particularly interested in include Iron Lady, described as “super resistant,” and Mountain Magic, which was developed by Dr. Randy Gardiner, professor emeritus at North Carolina State University. Apparently, some breeders are also developing disease-resistant heirlooms, including two old favorites of mine, Lemon Drop and Mr. Stripey.
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.
affected by landscape, structures, or other unique factors in a particular
for the three major plant nutrients contained in manure, compost, and
fertilizers. N stands for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium.
started from seed that grow, mature, flower, produce seed, and die in the same
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. Tenderperennial: 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. Herbaceousperennial: 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
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.