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

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

Happy Holidays

Blog posts will resume on January 8, 2020. Til then, we hope you enjoy this video from NC State Extension and our previous posts about winter plants traditionally used in holiday decor.

North Carolina grows 40,000 acres of Christmas trees. Learn more about this industry in a new 4-minute video from NC State Extension:

A refresher for reflowering poinsettias

Forcing and “pickling” paperwhites

Mistletoe and running cedar in the winter landscape

Holiday Cacti and Holiday Cactus Care

Evergreen plants for holiday decorating

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

Our Straw Bale Gardening Experiment

by Marty Fisher, EMGV

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.

Results  

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.

This was our first harvest this year–it got better after we adjusted the fertilizer.
Good old fashioned canned tomatoes! Heirlooms make the jars so colorful.
Tomatoes growing in straw bales in our garden. In addition to diseases, we also battle squirrels, hence the large cage under construction.

All photos taken by Marty Fisher.

Sources

Straw Bale Gardens Complete, by Joel Karsten

Understanding Tomato Varieties:
https://lee.ces.ncsu.edu/2019/05/understanding-tomato-varieties/

How to Grow Better Tomatoes
https://forsyth.ces.ncsu.edu/2018/05/how-to-grow-better-tomatoes/

Grafting for Disease Resistance
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/grafting-for-disease-resistance-in-heirloom-tomatoes

Blight Resistant Tomato Varieties Worth Growing
https://www.growveg.com/guides/blight-resistant-tomato-varieties-worth-growing/

“Hay” Bale Gardening
https://pamlico.ces.ncsu.edu/2013/05/hay-bale-gardening/