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.

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

Planting
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. 

Pruning
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.

Spraying
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
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/interpreting-freezefrost-probabilities-from-the-national-centers-for-environmental-information

Everything you need to know about lawn care in NC
https://www.turffiles.nscu.edu

About rose fertilizers
https://www.rose.org/post/2018/03/20/a-fertilizer-primer-what-s-in-that-rose-food

If you grow roses, learn more about the Rose Rosette Virus
https://extensiongardener.ces.ncsu.edu/2020/03/rose-rosette-virus-flower-killer/?src=rss

Pruning trees and shrubs
https://chatham.ces.ncsu.edu/the-science-and-art-of-pruning/
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/pdf/general-pruning-techniques/2014-09-29/general-pruning-techniques.pdf

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.

Fertilizing
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.

Planting
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.

Pruning
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.

Spraying
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.

Fertilizing

See Lawn Care above and Planting below.

Planting*

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.

Pruning*
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.

Spraying

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
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/carolina-lawns

Planting calendar for annual vegetables
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/central-north-carolina-planting-calendar-for-annual-vegetables-fruits-and-herbs

Pruning trees and shrubs
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/pruning-trees-and-shrubs

Plant propagation by stem cuttings
https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/plant-propagation-by-stem-cuttings-instructions-for-the-home-gardener

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/

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!