Getting Back to Basics

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.   

Microclimate. Climate affected by landscape, structures, or other unique factors in a particular immediate area.

N-P-K:  Acronym for the three major plant nutrients contained in manure, compost, and fertilizers. N stands for nitrogen, P for phosphorus, and K for potassium.

Coreopsis major, blooming along roadsides now, is a native perennial hardy in zones 5a to 9b. It attracts butterflies and songbirds and is deer resistant. The flowers are large (for coreopsis) and the stems are tall. Photo by A. Laine

Annual: Plants started from seed that grow, mature, flower, produce seed, and die in the same growing season.

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. Tender perennial:  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. Herbaceous perennial: 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 the environment.

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.

— A. Laine

Resources & Further Reading

Glossary Chapter of Master Gardener Handbook:

Find your plant hardiness zone:
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, 2012. Agricultural Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Noxious weeds in NC:

Voles, Ugh!

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

I should have known I’d have voles in my garden this Spring. Afterall, I had a mole last fall. It left behind underground tunnels. When I began to dig around in my perennial beds in March I could feel the spongy soil at the surface along the tunnel lines. A warning sign was right there in front of my eyes! But I was preoccupied with doing all the garden chores that come with spring including enthusiastically adding new plants.

A brief summary on moles vs. voles. Moles are meat eaters. They swim through the soil a foot or more below the surface and consume insects, grubs, worms, and spiders in their path. This action can disturb the root systems of plants in their way which may harm the plants, but won’t necessarily destroy the plants. Voles are vegetarians. Two species of  vole are found in central NC. I probably have pine voles  (Microtus pinetorum) which use the tunnels left vacant by a mole to reach bulbs, tubers and roots of plants, trees and shrubs to eat. Voles will also eat stems and fruits. The herbaceous plants they pick have little chance of survival. Moles work alone; voles work in groups of several adults and young.

As I continued with my spring gardening, I began to take notice of once healthy perennials and annuals suddenly showing signs of decline. Thinking it might be too hot and dry too soon in the season, I watered more, placed a shade tent over a new Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, and hoped for the best as I turned my attention toward the myriad other tasks on my garden’s “to do” list. A short time later the plants I had on my ‘watch’ list began to flop over and reveal … the dreaded vole hole.


Had I resumed gardening with more awareness this spring, I may have taken some strategic actions to deter voles from staying in my garden. Voles feed all year. Damage to woody plants is greatest in winter. So, better late than never – I acted in June and will keep my defenses up.  

Here are some actions to consider, beginning with those deemed most effective by Extension resources:

  • Trap voles with mousetraps baited with apple slices or peanut butter. Be aware that a depredation permit is required to trap voles and you may attract and kill shrews with traps. So before expressing glee at a capture, understand how to identify between the two. Shrews have pointier snouts and shorter tails than voles. Trapping is the only way to positively identify the animal that is doing the damage. I have assumed that I have pine voles because meadow voles typically live in grassy habitats at ground level, however, meadow voles sometimes burrow underground, too.  (Distinguishing features of each are noted in the first link under Further Reading.)  When handling dead rodents and traps, wear disposable gloves and wash hands well afterward. Bury the dead rodents immediately.
  • Invite predators. Voles live a few inches underground which provides protection from their wild predators: Snakes, owls, hawks, crows, weasels, foxes and coyotes. Building a lookout perch can help crows, hawks and owls scan the landscape for voles. I have noticed more crows than usual in my yard this year; in the future this could be a warning sign for me. Of note, a pet cat is one of the best predators of voles.
  • Reduce their habitat. Laying three inches of mulch in your landscaped beds is great for shutting out weeds and helping the soil stay cool and moist, but it also provides great cover for voles. Woody groundcovers like juniper and fabric weed barriers act similarly. Use one-inch of mulch and commit to stay on top of weeding chores (easier said than done). Also, in the fall, rake fallen leaves away from the base of trees and shrubs.
  • Protect trunks of younger trees and shrubs with wire mesh. (Guards made of other materials are not as effective.) Embed cylindrical wire guards up to three inches into the soil at the tree base. Guards should be taller than average snow level. These are easier to install at planting time, and damage to tree roots is also less likely if these are installed at planting.
  • Get sharp. Surround new plantings with coarse gravel. And, place small piles of pea gravel around the base of fruit trees to prevent chewing by voles. This is another action that falls under habitat renovation. It dissuades voles from sticking around because scurrying around among hard material with pointy ends is uncomfortable.
  • Water in a repellent.  Much like commercial sprays formulated to deter deer, rabbit or squirrels from munching on plant foliage, similar products coat the roots of plants in distasteful substances. To reach the roots, you sprinkle grains of repellent on the soil surface then water well. The repellent is made from natural ingredients.   
  • There are chemical solutions termed rodenticides; they require a license to use.

It’s hard to believe that a few small rodents can do much damage to a garden, especially to established trees and shrubs. Voles are a mighty force of nature. They can kill trees by eating the bark at ground level. This is called girdling and it removes the tree’s phloem thus preventing the leaves from transporting food to the roots. Over time, the tree will die.  

Ah, but hope springs eternal. While watering in a round of vole repellent one day, I noticed a small sprig of sedum making its way through the soil surface. Evidently, some fragment of root escaped being munched by the voles and is yearning to live.

Sources & Further Reading

Reducing vole damage. This link includes illustrations useful in identifying mouselike rodents.

NC pesticide law and regulations:

About depredation permits:

All photos by A. Laine

July 13 class canceled

Please note: The Managing Pests in Your Yard and Garden class scheduled for Saturday, July 13 at For Garden’s Sake nursery in Durham has been cancelled.

This class would have covered Integrated Pest Management (IPM) an approach that uses knowledge about pests and their life cycles, cultural practices, nonchemical methods, and pesticides to manage pest problems.

Learn about IPM from these NC State Extension resources:

Chapter 8 of the Extension Master Gardener Handbook:

This article from TurfFiles is about insects and other pests you may encounter in caring for your lawn. Scroll to the bottom of its page and you’ll see links to fact sheets on 30 different insects commonly found in lawn and gardens. The fact sheets include pictures to aid in identification.


by Bob Shaw, EMGV

Japanese beetles have emerged in Durham County. We have been picking them from our orchard trees at Briggs Avenue Community Garden since the start of June. This time of year takes me back 40 years to our first house out in Orange County sitting in a large yard, but surrounded by woods. On an early June morning, as the sun warmed the ground, I watched in dismay as clouds of beetles rose from the turf. For the next years, I warred against them — inoculating my lawn with milky spore bacteria (then available only from the county extension agent) and with traps. More about traps later. Each afternoon, I’d come home from work and empty a full gallon of beetles from my traps into a bucket of soapy water. Over the years, I accumulated a large pile (not quite a mountain) of beetle husks. Eventually, I controlled them and my apple trees no longer had all their leaves turned to brown lacework, no longer were my peaches gnawed to brown, nasty pulp.

Japanese beetles on an apple tree.
Photo by Bob Shaw

At Briggs, we don’t have a plague and we manage them with an old plastic container of soapy water. In the cool morning, when they are still lethargic, one holds the container beneath the beetles’ leaf and, obligingly, they drop into it; this works best at 70 degrees or lower. As the temperature rises they are more active and are likely to fly as you approach. Collecting one is very satisfying, even more when a pair is caught in flagrante delicto or, even three or more, when onlookers are present.

We find beetles on, and eating leaves of, roses, apples, peaches and persimmons in the community garden. A few beetles are on our figs, but they haven’t eaten the leaves. Likely the broad, flat, green leaves provide a nice landing zone. But as the population grows, they range more widely: into mint and blackberries.

About traps:  As described above, I used them many years ago and traps saved us. If beetles are a plague, as they were with me, collection in cups of soapy water may not seem practical. However, be aware that beetles must be emptied from the traps every day or two to prevent them from rotting and releasing ammonia which is repellent to other Japanese beetles. Traps also can attract beetles from your neighbor’s yard, increasing the population in your yard. So what? – We want to be good neighbors, don’t we?

Sources & Further Reading

Coping During Japanese Beetle Season

Hallo Rabbit

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

A juvenile Eastern Cottontail (common name: wild rabbit) calls my garden home. He’s bigger than four inches yet well under 12.5 inches, the low end for an adult rabbit.

Rabbits build their nest in low, dense vegetation … like this stand of Eastern Columbine marching down my perennial bed (see photo). I’ve not seen the nest, but I always see the rabbit in this general area and when s/he senses my presence s/he jumps into the thicket of columbine. You may not think of columbine as making a thicket, but my plants have reseeded so profusely that that is precisely what it looked like in April.  

A “thicket” of Columbine. Photo by A. Laine

The first couple of times I startled the rabbit, s/he dashed into the columbine (Aquilegia spp.) so swiftly that I heard but did not see it. I suspected a rabbit, but all I had to go on was a swoosh of plant leaves and the crunch of dried leaves underfoot. I spent a lot of time in my garden this spring, and eventually s/he stopped jumping away. While I went about my business of putting in new plants or pruning established shrubs, s/he was cautiously content munching on the leaves of a big patch of creeping jenny (Lysimachia N. Aurea). I have a lot of it so, I didn’t worry. I have a lot of columbine, too, so I wasn’t concerned about one bunny living in and feeding on it either. As a precaution, I sprayed the hostas with a commercial rabbit deterrent. I didn’t think to spray the Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ I planted in March and which was looking really good until suddenly it wasn’t. Now I know that succulent plants provide rabbits with water. Glad(?) I could help.

Creeping Jenny in background, Columbine in foreground, Eastern Cottontail in center.
Photo by A. Laine

A common food for the Eastern Cottontail is blackberry but s/he hasn’t touched any of mine. It seems s/he preferred some young phlox (gone) and a new aster. The hardy begonia also mysteriously disappeared. Hardy – ha!

I became more diligent with the commercial rabbit deterrent spray and soon after I realized that the rabbit was the least of my garden critter worries and probably not the cause of my disappearing phlox and begonia, nor damaged sedum. I noticed a vole hole. Ugh!  My gardening season is off to a rough start.

More on voles in an upcoming post.

Sources & Further Reading

I’ve heard rabbit stew jokes aplenty, but hunting season doesn’t begin til November 17.