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.

No Leaves, No Problem: All You Need Is A Twig — Tree Identification in Winter

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

If you are hiking in the forest this winter or even ‘intentionally walking your own yard’ (recent post on and want to identify a tree, the best way to identify the species in the wintertime is to use the morphological features of the tree that botanists utilize. To start with, all you need is a twig! 

I recently attended a Tree Identification In Winter Workshop by Matt Jones, Extension Agent, Horticulture at the Chatham County Center in Pittsboro where I was introduced to such precise methods and I practiced identifying twigs using the ‘tools of the trade’1.  To differentiate between character traits of tree species one can use the North Carolina State University (NCSU) Dichotomous Key (Key) developed by Dr. Alexander Krings for our particular geographical region of the Piedmont2. Dichotomous keys start by presenting the user with two sets of plant characteristics in a couplet form, then the user has to select one of the two choices, which more accurately describes the specimen in hand1. The user’s choice leads them to the next couplet and so on until they reach a species name and there are no more choices to make. The Key gives the species name in Latin to avoid confusion from the many common names a tree species can have. An easy way to obtain the common name if you are not familiar with the Latin species name is to use the online NCSU Plant Toolbox3.

The features of the tree which are visible in winter and which are most diagnostic of each species are based on the woody plant morphology which does not include the bark of the tree. Bark can be diagnostic for some trees with very pronounced characteristics like the smooth bark of a beech (Fagus grandiflora) for example but depending on the age of the tree or the position of the bark on the trunk, different bark texture may be observed on the same tree which can lead to confusion and it is not always diagnostic. For the typically difficult genus Quercus or oak, it also helps to look for acorns around the base of the tree as the acorn’s morphological features can differentiate between species.

The main morphological features included in the Key are the following: the arrangement and position of buds, bud scales, arrangement of leaf scars, pith anatomy, number of vascular bundle scars, stipular scars and armament. A hand lens, a set of pruners and a bright area to work in will also help in discerning these relatively small species-specific character traits on the twig. It is essential that the user know the vocabulary4 of the Key, such as but not limited to:

Petiole – The stalk that joins the leaf to the stem.

Alternate – The arrangement is at alternating points from one side of the stem to the other or staggered.

Opposite – The arrangement is on the same spot on stem but on opposite sides of the stem.

Leaf scar – A visible thickened crescent mark on stem where the leaf was attached.

Pith Anatomy: The core of the stem can be homogenous (solid and uniform), diaphragmed (sections), chambered (hollow sections) or excavated (hollowed out).

Diaphragmed: Horizontal breaks in the core of the stem and each section is filled with material.

Bud scale:  A modified leaf that forms a protective covering over the bud.

Valvate bud scale: The scale forms two parts of the coating like a clamshell. 

Bud Scale Scar: The concentric rings formed by bud scales from the previous year’s terminal bud.

Stipular scars: A pair of appendages found on many leaves where the petiole meets the stem, tiny and attached around the stem and can be slit-like or ring-like.

To practice my newly acquired knowledge, I cut a small twig from a tree in my front yard and brought it inside with, to my surprise, a caterpillar.

Twig of tree (3 cm diameter) Photo by Wendy Diaz on January 25, 2020
Caterpillar on tree twig. Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

The first step was to determine to which structural group the tree belongs by deciding if the leaf scars were alternate or opposite.  The leaf scars were alternate .

Black arrows–alternate arrangement of leaf scars. Grey arrow-encircling stipular scar.
Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

For the second step, the stem had to be sliced longitudally so it’s pith anatomy could be examined. The second couplet asked if the pith was chambered/diaphragmed or homogeneous. The pith of this stem was diaphragmed so the next step using the Key was to proceed to Group 2 where the couplet asked if the stipular scars were encircling the twig or if they were absent.  

Diaphragmed pith anatomy with horizontal breaks in the core of the stem with each section is filled with material. Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

The stipular scars were clearly encircling the twig so that lead to the next couplet.

Green arrow – valvate but (two parts). Gray arrow – stipular scar encircling the stem. Photo by Wendy Diaz January 25, 2020

This couplet described the bud as either cap-like and pointed apex or valvate and rounded apex.  These buds were valvate (two parts) with a rounded apex guiding me to the final lead, which is the species name of Liriodendron tulipifera or Tulip Poplar!

Liriodendron tulipifera or Tulip Poplar photo by Wendy Diaz January 31, 2020

The NCSU Dichotomous Key can be a little daunting if you are not a botanist, especially if the tree species you are trying to identify requires multiple couplets and it is at the end of the Key such as Carpinus caroliniana (American Hornbeam). I found clicking on the + symbol next to each couplet, which links to a photo of an example image, is a great visual aid and helped me on whether or not to continue on to the next couplet or backtrack. Practice makes perfect, but if you get frustrated with the Dichotomous Key, you can always wait for spring and the leaves to come out or identify your trees with leaves by attending the companion workshop offered by Matt Jones in September 5.



Online tool: NCSU Botanist’s Little Helper: 2.

Online tool: NCSU Plant Toolbox: 3.



Book References:

Terminology: Plant Identification Terminology An Illustrated Glossary James G. Harris Melinda Woolf Harris second edition

Advanced reference: Woody Plants of the Southeastern United States: A Winter Guide, Ron Lance, University of Georgia Press

Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima’

by Flora O’Brien, EMGV

This is the time of year we appreciate architectural elements in the winter garden. After the dazzle of fall we could use a bit of color, especially when the days are dreary or snow is on the ground. Enter the red twig dogwood.

Red twig dogwood. Photo by F. O’Brien

Cornus alba ‘Elegantissima,’ commonly called Tatarian dogwood, is an eye-catching shrub with bright red stems. In Spring there are gray-green leaves variegated with pure white edges, which last into fall. As the leaves disappear, the red stems remain. There are flowers, white, small and mostly hidden by the leaves in the spring. Drupes ripen by mid-summer and are enjoyed by the birds. The shrub grows eight to 10 feet tall and about five feet wide. The stems are reddest if the plant is grown in full sun. It tolerates various soil conditions and a moist, well-drained site. The new growth has the most color so it is advisable to prune back some of the oldest growth to six inches in early spring.

Elegantissima (synonymous with ‘Argenteomarginata’) tolerates deer and rabbits and is attractive to birds and butterflies. It grows wild in central Asia where the Tatars live, giving it its common name. All in all, the red twig dogwood would be a most lovely addition to your garden.

Resource & Further Reading

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

Mow the fescue
One more time.
Remove the leaves
To keep it fine.

Landscape plants
Can still be planted
There in that space
Where you’ve always wanted.

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.

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:

Young Black Gum Trees Planted in Historically Significant Black Wall Street Gardens

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

Fall is the season when nature displays its brilliant colors and thanks to trees planted recently in the Black Wall Street Gardens, we should see more of that fall splendor in the coming years right in downtown Durham. Black Wall Street Gardens is a small but centrally located green space that was improved in 2018 as part of the 2014 Downtown Open Space Plan that intended to further develop the former park located at 102 West Main Street into the ‘southern node of an enhanced linear park connecting City Hall to Main Street’.1 The improvements included the planting of four small Black Gum trees alongside a new curvilinear path and larger brick pavement center area with tables and chairs for seating. A public art piece to ‘commemorate and illuminate the importance of Black Wall Street and the legacy of Durham’s African-American business community’2, will be located at this location in the near future.

Foreground: Newly planted Black Gum tree near pathway in Black Street Gardens. Background: The recently completed One City Centre, tallest building in Durham.
Photo by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2019

Black Gum or Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

Black Gum, also commonly known as Black Tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is a slow-growing tree species native to Eastern North America and a deciduous hardwood tree recognized for its brilliant display of red and almost purple colored leaves in November. The spring flowers are small and produce excellent nectar for bees3. It is dioecious as the female tree needs a male pollinator tree to set their dark-blue fruit. The tree prefers acidic soils, has long taproots, tolerates poorly drained soils so it can be used in rain gardens and endures droughts due to its deep root system4. The Black Gum typically grows from 30 to 50 feet tall with a crown spread of 20 to 30 feet. They can live to be very old and some live more than 600 years.

Deep red fall color of leaf of newly planted Black Gum. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

The pyramidal growth habit along with a centralized leader and the Black Gum’s ability to tolerate compacted soils are all desirable attributes for the urban environment.5 One undesirable attribute for an urban walkway is the fruit litter of the female trees unless plant cultivars such as Nyssa sylvatica ‘Firestarter’ or Nyssa sylvatica ‘Red Rage’ are planted which do not produce fruit5. Another quality of this tree is the strong connection between its smaller branches and the trunk (branches grow at wide angles horizontally along the trunk) requiring less pruning and maintenance and making it a good candidate for wind tunnels between high buildings in the city.

Crimson color of leaf on new Black Gum Tree in Black Wall Street Gardens. Photo by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2019

Black Gum trees are perhaps best known for their brilliant scarlet fall color display in North Carolina. Only a couple of leaves have turned red on the newly planted trees in the Black Wall Street Gardens this week and the waxy green summer leaves predominate.

Fortunately, not far from downtown on North Broad Street is a grand old blazing specimen in the backyard of a home in Old West Durham neighborhood and a subject of a previous Master Gardener blog post6.  

Looking north along west side of Broad Street at brilliant fall color of mature Black Gum tree.
Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019
Mature Black Gum tree on Broad Street. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

Its fall foliage is a little past its prime in mid-November but one can still see some very bright crimson and scarlet leaves this week and maybe even into December.  This brilliant display is something to look forward to in the coming years for downtown.

Late fall color of crown of Broad Street Black Gum tree. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019
Closeup of brilliant crimson color of fall mature Black Gum tree on Broad Street. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

Black Wall Street 

Historical plaque commemorating Black Wall Street on the northwest corner of North Magnum Street and Parrish Street Photo by Wendy Diaz November 13, 2019

The four young Black Tupelo trees are located near the north end of the garden park close to West Parrish Street or Black Wall Street. Black Wall Street referred to an area ‘of concentrated African-American wealth, economic and political power’ along the north side of Parrish Street in downtown Durham during the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1900’s, West Parrish Street started to convert from light industrial to commercial use when the black-owned and operated North Carolina Mutual and Provident Association (later renamed the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company) purchased several lots along the north side of this street.9 After the insurance company’s construction of its first office building in 1905, the street soon became known as “Black Wall Street.10  This two-story brick building, also housed the Mechanics and Farmers Bank on its first floor. By around 1910, the entire north side of the block was a black business complex of two- and three- story brick buildings11 . At the start of the 20th century as many as 200 businesses including groceries, shoe stores, banks and insurance companies comprised this interconnected business sector. Scholars Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois nationally acclaimed the street as an exceptionally prosperous black middle class business sector. Perhaps the most well known black-owned businesses were the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Mechanics & Farmers Bank8 at 106 West Parrish Street, located around the north corner from Black Street Gardens. After urban renewal projects and desegregation, black-owned businesses no longer concentrated downtown.

Looking southwest from the northeast corner of West Parrish Street and North Magnum Street at the former buildings on the site of Black Wall Street Gardens in 1963. Photo courtesy of OpenDurham.
Looking from the same corner of the above 1963 photograph at the north end of Black Wall Street Gardens. Two young Black Gum trees are circled. Photo by Wendy Diaz on November 13, 2019

On the south side of Parrish Street, a  commemorative sculpture is located near the north entrance of the Black Wall Street Gardens and the former site of a two story building built between 1910 to 1915 and demolished between 1968 and 1973 and formally housed a shoe store, Jewelry store, Tailor and Loan company11.  

Sculpture dedicated to the ambitions of the African-American business community on Black Wall Street (West Parrish Street) located at north entrance to Black Wall Street Gardens. Arrow points to young Black Gum tree. Photo by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2019

Prior to 1970 and the construction of the Durham Freeway, Parrish Street businesses actually connected all the way to Fayetteville Street to the Hayti Neighborhood. ‘Urban Renewal’ displaced more than 4,000 families and 500 businesses, and the freeway cut off Hayti from what’s now considered downtown Durham12. Leaders in the community are trying to reconnect Hayti community to Black Wall Street by planning a safe walking route along Fayetteville Street to the Black Wall Street Gardens for Hayti residents.

Angier Corner

The northwest corner of West Main Street and North Magnum Street was known as Angier Corner long before it became the south part of Black Wall Street Gardens. The first mercantile store built in Durham was located here and operated by M.A. Angier and the store and corner became known as Angier’s General Store and Angier’s Corner, respectively13

Looking at the northwest corner of West Main Street and Mangum Street in 1884. Angier’s General Store is the wood frame structure on the right and Morehead Bank is the small building to the left. Note the large brick building in the background (north side of Black Wall Street Gardens) and the wagons parked in between the buildings. The two large deciduous trees in the foreground do not look healthy. Photograph courtesy of Durham County Library
Looking northwest from the sidewalk along the south side of Black Wall Street Gardens and several yards to the west of where the figures are standing in the historical photograph above. Photo by Wendy Diaz October 24, 2019

Brick buildings replaced the wood frame structures in the 1890’s. In 1899, 102 West Main was occupied by the Haywood King drugstore. In 1906, King sold his interest in the drugstore to D. L. Boone, and the drugstore became Haywood-Boone. In 1937, Haywood and Boone sold this store to Walgreens. Walgreens operated here throughout the mid-20th century. John Schelp a local historian, who interviewed John Loudermilk, said this was the store where Loudermilk picked up a candy bar (for his East Durham girlfriend) and flowers were on sale and inspired him to write the song “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” in 195612. These buildings were demolished around 1970 by the city as part of the Federal Urban Renewal program as they were vacant for some time and the area was developed into a park. 

What a better way to commemorate and beautify such an important and central part of Durham’s commercial legacy of its diverse communities’ industriousness than the planting of such beautiful long-lived trees and the promise of fall color in a park dedicated to black entrepreneurship during the Jim Crow Era.



More on Black Wall Street: