Plant-Palooza: Inaugural Plant Festival and Annual Plant Sale Coming in April

By Melinda Heigel, Master GardenerSM Volunteer

You don’t want to miss these two exciting events! For more information on both events, visit the website

The inaugural Plant Festival on Saturday, April 1 will feature over 20 exhibitors and Master GardenerSM Volunteer plant experts to answer questions about native plants, non-native plants, trees, and shrubs, vegetables, herbs, annuals, and houseplants. You can also tour our on-site demonstration garden. To learn more about the festival, check out

For the annual Plant Sale on Saturday, April 8, please note that the line forms early and plants go quick! Please be green and bring your own box to the plant sale to carry your plants home. Find a list of plants available at the sale along with photos, descriptions, and a searchable database at


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Celebrate A Master Gardener

By Pana Jones, Extension Master Gardener Coordinator, Durham County

March 20 through March 26 is National Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Week! Has a Master Gardener helped you solve garden issues, inspired you to grow a garden or a particular plant, or shared some helpful information? If so, let us know! Contact Pana Jones, Durham County Extension Master Gardener Coordinator at

For more information about how to become an Extension Master GardenerSM Volunteer, check out NC Cooperative Extension’s informative site or contact the local extension office in your area.

Image credit: Mary Knierim

Swarm Season Cometh

By Mark Anthony Powers, Master GardenerSM Volunteer and NCSBA Certified Master Beekeeper

A swarm hanging from a branch and later captured by Karen Lauterbach, Master GardenerSM Volunteer and me. (Image credit: Mark Anthony Powers)

Spring is for dogwood blossoms, fresh-picked strawberries, and…honey bee swarms. If you’re lucky you may have the opportunity to witness one of these amazing sights. Thousands of these fascinating creatures may hang from a tree branch or a garden sculpture in your own backyard.

Please don’t call pest control or spray insecticide on these hard-working homeless insects. There are beekeepers just waiting to hear about valuable free bees for their hives. Your county beekeeping association should have someone available on a swarm patrol who will happily scoop them up or shake them into a box and give them a home (Click here for local resources in Durham County and Orange County).

A large swarm captured in a box at a business in Durham. Once the queen is inside, the workers follow. (Image credit: M.A. Powers)

Honey bees in a swarm have bellies full of honey and are in their gentlest of states. The hanging mass of bees has bivouacked and may stay for an hour or a couple of days while specialized scout bees search for a suitable site to settle and create a new home. If you look closely, you can see these scouts dancing in straight lines while rapidly shaking their abdomens. This is called a waggle dance and tells other scouts how far away and in what direction a potential home exists. After more scouts visit these sites, a consensus is reached, and they all do the same dance. In 2019, I filmed a swarm at the Briggs Avenue apiary and you can watch it on YouTubeTM. Soon after consensus is reached, this vagabond colony will lift off in an impressive honey bee tornado and make a beeline for their new home which could be a hollow tree, a baited swarm trap strategically located by a clever beekeeper, or your neighbor’s attic.

Preventing a swarm colony from setting up housekeeping in someone’s home is just one reason to have a beekeeper expeditiously relocate them. The other is that, left on their own as a feral colony, they will likely succumb to parasitic varroa mites, an imported scourge that needs to be vigilantly managed with interval testing and treatments. Honey bees are actually livestock and need to be taken care of to survive.

Why do honey bees swarm? Spring is when they have ample food sources, and the colony (as a superorganism) is rapidly expanding. There is one queen, and she secretes a pheromone, “queen substance,” from tarsal glands on her feet. Her worker bee retinue spreads it around the hive where it suppresses the ‘urge’ (please excuse my being anthropomorphic) to initiate the cascade of events that leads to swarming. If there is crowding and the bottoms of frames don’t get enough of this pheromone, workers will create several wax queen cells that look like peanuts.

Swarm cells at Briggs Avenue Apiary. The center one has a larva and royal jelly. (Image credit: M.A. Powers)

After the queen drops an egg in each of them, and the egg becomes a larva, nurse bees feed the larva a steady diet of a high-protein substance called royal jelly until they seal the cell. The larva becomes a pupa, then an adult queen. The transformation from fresh egg to adult queen takes about 16 days. The first virgin queen out makes a piping sound and the other virgins, still in their cells, quack in response. The first queen then locates them and kills them, trying to ensure her place as hive monarch. Sometimes, if the colony is quite large to start with, workers will protect a few of these virgin queens, and they can accompany one or more subsequent smaller swarms, called afterswarms.

Afterswarm on a garden statue in our backyard. (Image credit: M.A. Powers)

Each swarm event takes about half of the workers from the original hive. It takes a week or longer for a virgin queen to mature and complete her mating flights, then another 21 days before her eggs become adult worker bees. This combination of loss of bees and delay making new workers weakens the hive and drastically reduces its productivity, especially its honey production.

So, what can beekeepers do to prevent swarming? The first action is to try to stay ahead of crowding and to add space when brood, pollen, and nectar/honey fill more than three quarters of the hive frames. If beekeepers find swarm cells, then the bees are already committed to swarm. If a beekeeper can get to it before the colony swarms, the best strategy is to trick this superorganism into ‘thinking’ that it’s already swarmed. To do this, one has to find the original queen among the 60,000 or so bees (think Where’s Waldo on steroids) and to place her along with brood, food, and enough bees to keep house in a new hive, called a split. This epic step usually works, and beekeepers get to keep all their bees in the two colonies. Two colonies was the bees’ goal to start with. And that’s why a superorganism of honey bees are programmed to swarm.

A queen among workers. Can you spot her? (Image credit: M.A. Powers)


Resources and Additional Information

North Carolina State University’s Department of Entomology and Insect Biology and Management’s site offers a wealth of resources about honeybees and beekeeping. To find links to The Wolfpack’s Waggle, a newsletter about apiculture, plus extensive articles on honey bee biology and management, visit their website.

To learn more about becoming a beekeeper and for local chapters and programs on apiculture, visit NC Beekeeper’s Association’s informative website.

Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center has a great factsheet on swarm FAQs. For more information, see the link below

For gardeners interested in doing their part to support bee habitats, NC Cooperative Extension agent Debbie Roos’s site on pollinator conservation offers advice on the best pollinator-friendly plants and much more.

Visit the author’s website to learn more about beekeeping through his fiction which features the world of bees.

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Plant This, Not This: Alternatives to Invasive Plants

By Karen Lauterbach, Master GardenerSM Volunteer

English ivy like the ‘Gold Heart’ cultivar pictured here can revert to green, more aggressive forms and pose real problems in the landscape. (Image credit: Joey Williamson, HGIC Clemson Extension)

I am still regretting some of my plant choices from 30 years ago, especially English ivy (Hedera helix ‘Gold Heart’). At some point, it reverted to the wild type and began spreading across our wooded lot and climbing trees. It has been a years-long battle to bring it under control, and I’m still not sure who will win in the end. It is a tenacious foe.

I wish I had heard the recent Durham Garden Forum talk years ago. Charlotte Glen reviewed common invasive plants in the North Carolina Piedmont and recommended alternatives: plants native to our area and non-natives that are not invasive. Glen is the state coordinator for the NC State Extension Master Gardener program. Glen said that woody invasives – trees, shrubs and vines – pose the most severe harm to our ecosystems. She noted that only a very small percent of introduced species become invasive. But when they do, they can replace native plants, create a monoculture, and change the whole function of an ecosystem. Glen said that by planting natives, gardeners can increase biodiversity and benefit the environment.

So, what are the invasive plants that gardeners in the NC Piedmont should avoid? Two of the top offenders are Bradford pears (Pyrus calleryana) and privet (Ligustrum sinesis and Ligustrum japonicum). What appeared to be the perfect landscape tree – the Bradford pear – has now become the number one tree to avoid. Instead, plant okame cherry (Prunus ‘Okame’), Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’) or trident maple (Acer buergerianum). Native options include redbud (Cercis canadensis), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier grandidfora), sweetbay (Magnolia virginiana) and two-winged silverbell (Halesia diptera). Still available in the nursery trade, privet (Ligustrum spp.) should be avoided. Instead plant cleyera (Ternstroemia gymnanthera), Distylium ‘Linebacker’, holly osmanthus (Osmanthus heteroplyllis), or dwarf burford holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Dwarf Burford’).

Emerging invasive shrubs include nandina (Nandina domestica), leatherleaf mahonia (Berberis bealei), and barberry (Berberis thunbergii). For more about these shrubs and what to plant instead, view the PowerPoint slides from Glen’s presentation1

Some of the worst invasive vines–in addition to my foe, Hedera helix–are Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Japanese wisteria (Wisteria floribunda), Chinese wisteria (Wisteria senensis), and sweet autumn clematis (Clematis terniflora). Glen said that good alternatives for Piedmont NC gardeners are the following natives: coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens), and climbing hydrangea (Hydrangea barbara).

Glen also demonstrated a new resource for North Carolinians: The NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. The Plant Toolbox contains over 4,600 plants that grow in and around North Carolina. The toolbox is designed select plants that will thrive where they are planted. The link to the Plant Toolbox home page is

To join the Durham Garden Forum and have access to a video library of all presentations since 2021, fill out the membership form and mail it with a check for $25 to the address shown. You can find the membership form at Membership includes discounts at area garden centers (For Garden’s Sake and The Durham Garden Center). Upcoming presentations are listed below.

• March 21: “Propagation” with Sara Smith, Durham County Extension Master Gardener.
• April 18: “Landscape Design,” with Anne Spafford, Ph.D., Professor of Horticultural Science at NC State University.
• May 16: “Plant-to-Plant Interaction,” with Anita Simha, community ecologist and PhD candidate in Duke University’s Program in Ecology.
• June 20: “Bamboo: Uses in the Landscape and Effective Removal,” with David Benfield, founder of Brightside Bamboo. 
• July 18: “NC Native Herbal Plant Remedies,” with Arvis Boughman, a member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and the author of Herbal Remedies of the Lumbee Indians, and Robert RedHawk Eldridge, who is of Sappony decent and a storyteller. He travels across the country sharing stories about his ancestors and Native American culture.


1–Link to Glen’s presentation slides

Resources and Additional Information

NC State Extension Gardener Handbook has an through chapter available online about native plants for NC.

The NC Botanical Garden has a great list of native trees, shrubs and vines for your landscape as well as an illustrated online booklet about how to control invasive plants.



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March To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

My, my.  Wasn’t February sweet?  The second warmest on record although another day or six of sunshine would have been nice.  Apparently, there was enough sun to keep SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) from getting crazy.  I fear we will pay for February this month.  That has been the pattern the last couple of years.  Maybe we could make February be 31 days long and March just 28.  It is such a meteorologically volatile month anyway.  Let’s just get it over more quickly.  Then we can get to the gardeners’ favorite, April, faster.  Win-win!

There’s lots of green stuff showing up in the Accidental Cottage Garden (ACG) and a few hopeful daffodils along with a forsythia (Forsythia intermedia).  The saucer magnolia (M. soulangeana) was almost gorgeous when we were blessed with a 29-degree night.  Consequently, it never reached its full potential.  Thus, it is when a zone 8 plant is on the wrong side of the zone 7/8 line.  For now, we will enjoy the pansies (Viola tricolor x cvs.) in pots on the deck.

It is time to actually start doing stuff in the garden as opposed to sitting inside staring at it wistfully.  Here is the list, however, “Beware the Ides of March.” (and much the rest of the month as well).


 Cool season grasses (fescues and bluegrass) can be fertilized now. Pre-emergent crabgrass control can be applied as soon as the forsythia bloom (like now) and before the dogwoods (Cornus sps.) are in full bloom.

Mowing can begin as soon as it is appropriate.  Mow cool season grasses to a height between 3” and 4”.  Mow often enough to only remove 1/3 of the blade length.  Allow the clippings to remain on the lawn to return nutrients to the soil naturally.  You may need up to 20% less fertilizer over the course of a year.  If the clippings are wet and heavy (You probably should have waited until the lawn was drier.), remove them and compost them or use as mulch.  Lawn clippings do not belong in the landfill.


Stuff (like plants, for instance) that can be fertilized this month include shade trees, shrubs and spring blooming bulbs.

Asparagus beds can be fertilized in March before the new shoots appear.

Amend your vegetable beds (per your SOIL TEST results) before planting.

Add lime (again, per SOIL TEST recommendations) if that didn’t happen in the fall.  It takes three to six months for the lime to become available to the plants.


Now it begins.  Plant trees or shrubs that didn’t get planted in the fall.  Be forewarned that they may require more frequent watering through the summer than plants planted in the fall.

Perennials such as columbine (Aquilegia sps.), hollyhocks (Alcea rosea), coreopsis (Coreopsis sps.), daisies (Leucanthemum sps. Or Bellis perennis), phlox (Phlox sps.) and roses (Rosa sps.) can also be planted in March.

Root crops (beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes) and salad greens (Bok Choi, leaf lettuces, cabbage, chard and kale) can be planted now.


Finish pruning fruit trees ASAP.

Prune roses in late March.  Remove dead wood and winter kill.  Prune for aesthetics by cutting long canes back.  Cut back to a five-leaflet leaf to promote blooming.

Prune spring flowering shrubs after the blooms fade.

Keep pansies dead headed (remove spent blooms) to prolong bloom time.


You can spray broadleaf plants for euonymus/tea scale and coniferous (needle-like leaves) evergreens for spider mites now.  A horticultural oil will smother the insects and their eggs.  Check the plants for pests and always identify the pest before spraying (It might not be a pest and could be a beneficial insect species.)  “Know your enemy.”  ALWAYS read and follow the label of any pesticide.

Applying the same horticultural oil to fruit trees, especially those that have been recently pruned will help prevent several insect problems later.


Make sure all of your equipment is ready.  Change the oil and lubricate moving parts of your motorized equipment.  Sharpen anything that is supposed to be sharp.  Calibrate sprayers.  Etc.

When was the last time you experimented with a new plant or vegetable variety?  How ‘bout this year?

Plant a tree for NC arbor day (which for some reason is different than Nation Arbor Day).  This year it is on the 17th.  Make it a really green day and plant a shamrock, too.

Have fun.  It’s what gardeners do.

Resources and Information

Free soil sampling resumes on April 1. Plan ahead and learn all about soil sampling here:

Zone 7? Zone 8? Check out the USDA Hardiness Zone map for NC.

This video gives an overview on cleaning and sharpening garden tools. The presenter suggests doing this in late summer of fall, but many of us grab our tools year-round. Keeping them clean and sharp is worth the time and efforts no matter the season.

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