Learn With Us – March

Durham Garden Forum: Designing a Rightsized Foodscape with Brie Arthur of BrieGrows
Tuesday, March 16⋅7:00 – 8:30pm via Zoom

Foodscaping is all about making the most of the available square footage for a successful harvest. Brie shares insights on designing and managing a rightsized garden, including container growing, minimizing animal browsing, aeroponic systems and live screens. For Registration Information, contact durhamgardenforum@gmail.com

Bull City Gardener Learning Series: Online and In-person classes are being offered. Check the schedule and Register here: https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/01/bull-city-gardener-learning-series-live-and-virtual-events/

Click here for a selection of programs highlighted by Sarah P. Duke Gardens: https://gardens.duke.edu/resources

Triangle Gardener magazine has compiled another list of area programming: https://www.trianglegardener.com/garden-events/

AFRICAN VIOLET (Saintpaulia ionantha) – My favorite houseplant

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

Very few houseplants exist in my home. My gardening efforts are concentrated outdoors in our temperate climate; but there is one houseplant, no matter where I live, that I always like to have for both aesthetic and nostalgic reasons, and that is the African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha). My mother and her mother always had them sitting on a table next to a sunny window in small pots with saucers, so I feel I should carry on the tradition. Several years ago, my mother repotted my current African violet plant during her last visit to my home. I have a great spot for it in front of my westerly facing window and every year it sprouts new crown growth, which I divide, repot and give away. It takes very little care. If they have the perfect growing conditions, African violets can flower almost continuously.[1] Extensive care guides are available from the Missouri Botanical Garden [2] and the African Violet Society of America[3] but I will summarize the basics for you in this little post.

African violet (Saintpaulia ionantha) in clay pot with glass saucer in west facing window. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz February 10, 2021


The African violet is native to mountains of Tanzania and Kenya (Eastern Africa). Despite its occurrence in homes worldwide it is now only believed to grow wild in the Amani Nature reserve in Tanzania[4]. The flower of the original species typically has 5 petals and ranged from pale blue to lavender in color. In 1892, the plant was officially discovered by Baron Walter von Saint Paul Illaire, serving as the imperial district governor of Tanginyika, who sent seeds back to his father in Germany. His father took the plant to the Royal Botanical Garden director and botanist, Hermann Wendland, who gave it the botanical name Saintpaulia ionantha. The genus is named after the Baron and the species is named for the Greek word ‘resembling a violet’, referencing its flower. Two British botanists discovered the plant previously and took it to Kew Gardens to be recognized but the plants were in such poor condition that they could not be scientifically classified4.

A New York florist introduced the plant in 1894 but the drafty homes of the time meant the plants died when they were chilled and they gained a finicky reputation. With the advent of fluorescent lighting, better understanding of their required growing conditions and the development of a wide variety of flower colors, foliage and sizes, African violets became a more popular houseplant2. The first African Violet Show was held in Atlanta in 1946 and the 75th or Diamond Celebration of the African Violet Show, organized by the African Violet Society of America, will be a cyber affair this year from May 30 to June 6[5].


African violets are low compact plants that typically grow in a rosette form with thick hairy green leaves and stems with velvety purple flowers usually having 5 petals (two smaller petals at the top and three larger petals on the bottom) and yellow centers. The flowers emerge in small panicles (multi-branched) above the foliage. There are now a wide variety of cultivars that vary in size from micro-miniature (less than 3 inches across) to the large variety that can be more than 16 inches wide. My African violet is the standard variety and currently measures 14 inches wide and from the crown to top of flowers is 6 inches high. Various foliage types have also been developed, for example, leaves with wavy leaf edges, variegation or trailing habits.  Flower types can be single blossom or double (10 petals) and multi-colored petals like white, pink, crimson and even yellows. Over 3000 photos displaying the diversity of African violet cultivars can be viewed in the photo gallery of the African Violet Society of American website.[6]

Standard size African violet. Photo taken of rosette on February 28, 2021; thick green hairy leaves photo taken February 14, 2021 and close up of five petal purple flowers photo taken on February 10, 2021 Photos by Wendy Diaz


Because their natural habitat is tropical in moist and shaded conditions on steep rock crevices near streams, the African violet thrives indoors with humidity of 50 to 60%, in moist but well-drained soil in small shallow pots next to a sunny window but not in direct sunlight. My westerly facing high efficiency window appears to be ideal for my African violet all year but you may have to move your African violet from a south-facing window in the summer months. It likes acidic soil with good aeration (25%). You can buy specifically prepared soilless mix to grow your African violet but I have been successful with just potting soil taking care not to overwater and an occasional application of fertilizer to keep the flowers coming (1/8 teaspoon 20-20-20 fertilizer per gallon of water). Homemade soil mixtures should contain 3 parts sphagnum peat moss, 2 parts vermiculite and 1 part perlite and care should be given to position the crown of the plant just above the soil surface1

African violets can flower almost continuously if their growing conditions are similar to the original habitat of wild African violets. Clockwise: In winter on February 10, 2021, in the fall on October 25, 2020 (pink dahlia and white muhly grass flowering outside in the background) and in the spring on April 25, 2018. Photos by Wendy Diaz

The ideal pot should be smaller than the mature plant (they flower better if the roots are a little cramped; think crevice) and shallow (roots spread outward than down). In North Carolina if you don’t have your AC unit on high there should be enough humidity for the plants to thrive.

A small recently divided African violet in a two inch pot with a 7 inch spread from the larger African violet (in the background). February 28, 2021 Photo taken by Wendy Diaz

Water the roots not the plant and keep the foliage dry. There are self-watering African violet pots available to help make sure the plants get proper moisture and humidity but I have had success with a small clay pot placed on a dish. About once a week, when the soil feels dry to the touch, I gently part the leaves and pour room-temperature water from a narrow spot watering can, directly to the soil making sure water spreads over the entire soil surface. I discard the excess water that drains into the dish making sure the pot does not sit in a dish of water for long. If you can remember and desire to maintain a symmetrical rosette form you can turn your plant a quarter-turn weekly. Occasionally, I snip off dead outside leaves at the base of the plant and pick off spent flowers. Each row of leaves produces a set of flowers only once.

Weekly watering of my African Violet. Photo taken February 28, 2020 by Wendy Diaz

The most common problems are cold temperatures (they need between 60 and 80 degrees F), not enough light for flowering to occur (position within 24 inches of a window) or crown rot due to overwatering. If you notice spotting on the leaves it is probably because you splashed cold water on them. If the plant develops long stems they need more light or if they lose their green color the plant needs less light (bleaching has occurred).

If you have a sunny window facing south, east or west and a small pot and saucer you can easily grow an African violet. I recommend the African violet for a continuous flowering houseplant that will brighten your home, even in winter, and who knows you may inspire a new generation of African violet enthusiast or create your own southern tradition of a ‘passalong’ African violet.

In memory of my mother, Marion Millar (1930 to 2020) who introduced to me to gardening and African violets.

Durham, North Carolina October, 2009




[3] https://africanvioletsocietyofamerica.org/learn/violets-101/

[4] http://www.flowers.org.uk/plants/plants-by-name/a-c/african-violet/

[5] https://africanvioletsocietyofamerica.org/next-convention

[6] https://africanvioletsocietyofamerica.org/look/photo-gallery/

March: To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Officially we had the second wettest meter logical winter in history.  Really?!  You wouldn’t know it here at Lake Ankledeep.  Not only was it the wettest it was the dreariest.  My circadian rhythm couldn’t even find the back beat.  Give me some sunshine, PLEASE.  I went out to check on the Accidental Cottage Garden and lost a boot in the mud.  All I can do is change the oil in the tractor and lubricate the attachments.  Sigh.

Well, when the ground dries out there are a lot of things to do.  Start with this list and get creative (not wild) after that.


Cool season grasses (fescues and bluegrass) can be fertilized now with 10-10-10 or similar fertilizer.  Avoid high nitrogen (the first number) and slow-release fertilizers as they can increase disease problems during the hot and humid NC summers.

Preemergent crabgrass control can be applied as soon as the forsythia bloom and before the dogwoods are in full bloom.

Mowing can begin when appropriate (like when the mower won’t sink up to its axels).  Cool season grasses should be mowed to between 3 and 4 inches.  Mow frequently enough to only remove 1/3 of the blade length.  Let the clippings stay on the lawn unless they are so wet and heavy as to cause damage.  Clippings don’t belong in the landfill.  Use them as mulch or compost them.


Things (ok, plants) that can be fertilized this month include shade trees, shrubs and spring blooming bulbs.

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

Work some fertilizer into your vegetable beds (according to the results of your SOIL TEST) before planting. 

Add lime if the SOIL TEST recommends it and it didn’t get added in the fall.  It takes 3 to 6 months for it to be available to the plants.


 Plant trees and shrubs now that didn’t get planted in the fall or winter.  Just know that their water requirements may be greater than that of plants planted in the fall.

Plant 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 be planted also.

You can plant root crops (beets, turnips, carrots, potatoes) and salad greens (Bok Choi, cabbage, leaf lettuces, chard, kale) now.

There is still time to start annuals and warm season veggies inside.


Finish pruning fruit trees asap.

Prune roses in late March.  Remove winter kill and prune for aesthetics by cutting back long canes.  Cut to a 5-leaflet branch to improve flowering.

Prune spring flowering shrubs shortly after the blooms fade.

Dead head (pick off faded blooms) pansies to prolong bloom time.


You can spray broadleaf plants for euonymus/tea scale and coniferous (needle-like leaves) evergreens for spider mites now.  Check the plant for pests before spraying.  Always identify the pest before spraying— “Know your enemy.”  ALWAYS read the label and follow the instructions of any pesticide.

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


Prepare all of your equipment.  Sharpen things that are supposed to be sharp.  Change the oil and lubricate motorized equipment.  Calibrate sprayers.  ETC.  Consider trying a new plant or vegetable this year.  Maybe a different annual or a shrub that catches your eye.  Who knows, you may just find a new BFF for the garden.

Plant a tree for Arbor Day.  That is the first Friday after the 15th which is the 19th this year.

Have fun.  That’s what gardening is all about.

*Resources & Further Reading

Looking for the perfect tree to add to your yard? Check out https://gardening.ces.ncsu.edu/gardening-plants/trees-3/

Organic Lawn Care Guide

Central North Carolina Planting Calendar for Annual Fruits, Vegetables, and Herbs

General Pruning Tips

North Carolina Pruning Calendar

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox (find your perfect plant or figure out what that unknown weed is!)

NATIVE YAUPON HOLLY (Ilex vomitoria)


By Wendy Diaz EMGV

Last September, I wrote about receiving Platinum certification from the New Hope Audubon Society (NHAS) for a Bird Friendly yard, (https://durhammastergardeners.com/2020/09/) but I wanted to continue to enhance my yard by gradually replacing exotic species that remained with even more native plants. In October, this rewarding experience motivated me to remove the four large severely-pruned Burford hollies (Ilex cornuta ‘Burford’), which formed the foundation hedge along the front of the house. NHAS suggested native alternatives such as dwarf yaupon holly (Illex glabra) or sweet pepper bush (Clethra anifolia) to replace the old hedge. I chose and purchased three, 3 gallon Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’ or Dwarf Yaupon Holly, from my local nursery, to anchor this west facing 12 foot long front bed. I had plenty of space, after the old hollies were cut at their base, in front of the new shrubs to plant additional native plants such as herbaceous perennials like Coreopsis ‘Cosmic Eye’, Eastern Grey Goldenrod Solidago nemoralis and Bee Balm Monarda didyma and this increased the diversity of plants in my front bed.

Before: Burford Holly foundation hedge and nandina Photo taken September 10, 2020 After: Three newly planted Dwarf Yaupon Hollies in front bed. Photo taken February 8, 2021 by Wendy Diaz

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria) Basics 

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria[1]is a broadleaf evergreen shrub or small tree and a great landscape plant if you want to use natives and an evergreen.[2] Yaupon hollies are naturally adapted to the maritime forest of the North Carolina coastal plain and can grow on dunes[3] and in wet swamps and are more tolerant of heat than other hollies. They reach heights of 25 feet tall and form thickets and can be multi-trunked. 

Volunteer Yaupon Holly with upright irregularly branched habit in the natural buffer area of my backyard. Photo taken February 12, 2021 by Wendy Diaz

The species prefers acidic organically rich, well-drained soils with medium moisture in both full sun and part shade conditions. There are no serious insect or disease problems with this plant but heavily compacted wet soil should be avoided so not to stress the plant. The branches have smooth light gray bark but the young stems are burgundy. The alternate, thick leathery elliptical-shaped small evergreen leaves are 1 to 3 inches long with crenate or toothed leaf margins. The leaves contain caffeine. Native Americans dried and made a ceremonial emetic drink that when consumed in large quantities induced vomiting; hence the Latin name vomitoria applied to this species.[4]

Thick glossy deep green foliage of Yaupon Holly. Photo taken February 12, 2021 by Wendy Diaz
Burgundy color of new stem of Weeping Yaupon Holly. Photo taken February 13, 2021 by Wendy Diaz
Closeup of burgundy young stems and comparison to gray color of older stems of the Weeping Yaupon Holly. Photo taken February 13, 2021 by Wendy Diaz

Spring Flowers

Tiny fragrant white flowers appear in April and attract many bees. The Yaupon holly is dioecious and male and female flowers occur on separate plants. Only female yaupon hollies produce the attractive red berries (drupes) that form in the fall and last into the winter months. The light gray bark contrasts well with the red berries. 

Photo courtesy of North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.

Wildlife Value

It is the host plant for the Henry’s Elfin Butterfly and the genus Ilex supports the specialized bee Colletes banksi3. Small mammals and birds eat the red berries. Birds also like to nest and shelter in the thick branches of my Weeping Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria f. ‘Pendula’). Our resident green anole hides in the thick branches of the plant too.


The different forms of the seven cultivars of this species can be used in a wide variety of areas in the garden landscape such as a hedge, foundation shrub, windbreak, and screen or specimen plant. All cultivars can be clipped and shaped and the plant is used for topiary and even Bonsai[5]. Weeping forms of the Yaupon holly make an ideal specimen tree (Ilex vomitoria f. ‘Pendula’)[6] that can grow 15 to 30 feet in height and 6 to 12 feet in width. It tends to get thick and twiggy and I frequently prune dead branches from the center of my Weeping Yaupon Holly.

Weeping Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘pendula’) Photo taken on February 13, 2021 by Wendy Diaz

Dwarf Yaupon Holly or Ilex vomitoria ‘Nana’ is a dense compact rounded and mounded form. This dwarf cultivar of the species typically grows to 4 feet in height and has brittle, close-knit branches. It is slow growing cultivar and spreads wider (3 to 5 feet spread) than it grows tall. The leaves tend to be darker green on the top than beneath the plant and new leaves are a yellow-green color. The red berries (drupes) are not as common or as visible on this cultivar as in the ‘Pendula’ but they will occur if the flowers of the female plants are pollinated[7]. This cultivar has been used for Bonsai. Other cultivars comprise the Dwarf Yaupon Holly group such as Bordeaux, ‘Schillings’, ‘Taylor’s Rudolph’-female. The cultivar ‘Virginia Dare’ is taller and is used for hedges and also produces berries. “Will Fleming’ is a pencil-thin upright form. Photo of cylindrical hedge courtesy of Jim Robins from North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox.

This evergreen plant has definite appeal during all four seasons in the garden landscape with fragrant flowers that attract pollinators in the spring, glossy green foliage in the summer, attractive red berries in the fall that attracts birds and evergreen foliage in the winter. If you need a shrub for a border, hedge, foundation plant or you just need a specimen tree consider a cultivar of Yaupon Holly. Choose the form you need for the space you have and it will improve the aesthetic value and ornamental interest in your garden landscape year round while also providing support for wildlife. 



[2] https://www.uaex.edu/yard-garden/resource-library/plant-database/shrubs/dwarf-yaupon-holly.aspx



[5] https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ilex-vomitoria/

[6] https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ilex-vomitoria-f-pendula/

[7] https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/ilex-vomitoria-nana/

Learn With Us, February 2021

Durham Garden Forum: “Reptiles & Amphibians in Your Garden” – February 16, 2021, 7:00 – 8:30 PM, via Zoom. Register in advance for this meeting. After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing information about joining the meeting.

KISS THE GROUND movie – March 1-4
With support from the Kiss the Ground organization, the film will be available through Duke Gardens for 72 hours, followed by the discussion session listed below.

People are calling KISS THE GROUND “The Most Important Film You’ll Ever Watch” — which is a really big claim. But it just may be true. Kiss the Ground is an inspiring and groundbreaking film that reveals the first viable solution to our climate crisis.

Kiss the Ground reveals that, by regenerating the world’s soils, we can completely and rapidly stabilize Earth’s climate, restore lost ecosystems and create abundant food supplies. Using compelling graphics and visuals, along with striking NASA and NOAA footage, the film artfully illustrates how, by drawing down atmospheric carbon, soil is the missing piece of the climate puzzle. This movie is positioned to catalyze a movement to accomplish the impossible – to solve humanity’s greatest challenge, to balance the climate and secure our species future.

Kiss the Ground is committed to their mission of awakening people to the possibilities of regeneration, to providing everyone with the pathways to find their unique way forward and the resources to do so. Beyond the film they have published a book, offer stewardship training and resources to farmers and other land stewards and connect people to share knowledge, funding and resources.
Duke Gardens is working with the team at KISS THE GROUND to make the film available to you for a 72-hour period – watch at your own convenience with the link sent on March 1. Then register for the discussion session on March 4 to hear directly from KISS THE GROUND team members and Duke University faculty and staff.
Monday through Thursday, March 1 to 4, watch at your convenience.
Fee: Free to all with registration. (link below)

KISS THE GROUND panel discussion – March 4, 7PM
Online with Kiss the Ground Team Members, Dan Richter, Professor of Soils and Forest Ecology, Duke University and Annabel Renwick, curator The Blomquist Garden of Native plants. Moderated by Kavanah Anderson, Education Program Coordinator.
Each of us has had the opportunity to watch this amazing film and now, to join a panel discussion and Q&A session with members of KISS THE GROUND and Faculty/staff from Duke University. The film, KISS THE GROUND, introduces proven strategies to reverse global warming and presents the research, practice, and hope we need to move forward. Together. The discussion will focus on the relationship between human health, soil health, and planetary health and what each of us can do in our daily lives to nurture a healthy world for future generations.
Fee: Free to all with registration. REGISTRATION LINK:

Bull City Gardener series: The two identical March LIVE workshops, “All About Briggs Ave. Community Garden and Intro to Grafting” will take place on 3/16/21 and 3/21/21. More information and how to register are here: https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/01/bull-city-gardener-learning-series-live-and-virtual-events/

Small Fruit Workshops – Dates, times, course descriptions, and how to register are here: https://durham.ces.ncsu.edu/2021/01/upcoming-online-workshops-for-small-fruit-growers/

Programming from Sarah P. Duke Gardens: Duke Gardens Winter 2021 Adult Programs – Browse program listings

Events at JC Raulston Arboretum (many are online): https://jcra.ncsu.edu/events/calendar/index.php

Follow this link to learn about several NC Cooperative Extension webinars in February that may be of interest to gardeners: