Soil Testing Resumes

The North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS) has resumed testing soil samples submitted by the general public. To help limit the spread of COVID-19, the labs had previously restricted their testing to agriculture.

The labs continue to operate with reduced staffing and turnaround time for routine soil sample results may be longer than usual. Soil testing is free from April through November.

Local gardeners can pick up soil sampling supplies outside the Durham County Cooperative Extension building at 721 Foster Street, Durham. Drive around to the back of the building to find the supplies in a box on the railing at the back entrance. See photo.

Rear entrance to 721 Foster Street, Durham looks like this. Note soil sampling supplies are in a box hung on the railing. Photo by A. Troth

You can pick up both the home and lawn forms (and the more extensive farmer form), instructions on how to submit a sample, and of course soil boxes.

You will need to deliver the samples to the lab yourself by mail or in person (but contact-free). The mailing address is:  1040 Mail Service Center, Raleigh NC 27699-1040. The physical address is:  4300 Reedy Creek Road, Raleigh. The lab is in the Eaddy Building. Once you arrive at the building drop off the sample at the loading dock. The entrance gate will be open during normal business hours and closed during the evenings and on weekends.

Frost in May?

A frost/freeze warning has been issued for Durham County (and most of NC) for Sunday morning. Temperatures may dip close to or below freezing. If you’ve already planted summer annuals, warm season vegetables, or eagerly await blossoms on fruit trees or ornamentals that typically flower later in spring or summer, you will want to protect them before dark on Saturday.

Extension master gardeners in Buncombe County, NC posted an excellent article this morning about the nuances of a late frost, plants at risk, and actions gardeners can take to minimize damage from late frosts. The article was written by Alyson Arnold, Buncombe County’s consumer horticulture agent, and the advice holds up for Central North Carolina, too. Follow this link to read the article.


May: To Do in the Garden

by Gary Crispell EMGV

Is this a great country or what?! We get to stay home and play in our yards and the government sends us a check. Of course, on the down side if we don’t stay home, we could die. Meh.

The 350,000 wildflower and pollinator seeds I sowed last November ALL came up (except where I backed off the driveway and smushed some). My family and I were initially rewarded with a blue blanket of campanula (Campanula persicifolia).undefinedThey are still there, but the red clover (Trifolium pratense, pictured above) is beginning to draw more attention. There are some poppies (Papaver orientale) waving their red heads in the seemingly constant breeze and the cornflower (Centaurea montana) plants are showing signs of bloom buds. We eagerly await their azure wonders. Here and there are some unidentified (by me, anyway) delightful small flowers in various hues. Each like a small surprise. The bearded iris (Iris germanica) I moved from our last home and which hadn’t bloomed in several years have been spectacular (proving the benefit of dividing perennials every now and then). But, enough about my yard. It is May. I am frustrated in not being able to do an effective Maypole weave all by myself. If you figure that one out, let me know. I do think your time would be better spent in the garden working on the following list of things to do.

Lawn Care

So, after 40 years of preaching the no-fertilizer-after-mid-May mantra for cool season grasses, I read that the erudite scientists at that esteemed university on and around Western Boulevard in Raleigh have determined that it is actually okay to feed your fescue (and bluegrass) into the late spring and possibly beyond.  However, “moderation in all things” should be the goal using a balanced (e.g. 10-10-10 or equivalent) fertilizer. 

Warm season grasses (Bermuda, zoysia, centipede) will benefit from an application of a slow release fertilizer if you didn’t get that done in April.

Mow cool season grasses at the 3-inch to 4-inch setting on your lawn mower to help shade out weeds and keep the root zone cool.

Other Fertilizing

Long-season crops (those that produce over an extended period or take a season to produce) would enjoy a balanced fertilizer snack about now.

Summer flowers will be ecstatic if you would give them a bit of balanced sustenance.

Non-native rhododendrons and azaleas (sort of redundant there) can be fed with an acid fertilizer if a lower pH is needed. Have your soil tested to be sure.


NCSU has an excellent planting chart for annual vegetables named Central North Carolina Planting Calendar for Annual Vegetables. The chart has a wide variety of vegetables, herbs and flowers listed with guides for planting as seeds, transplants, crowns or tubers. There are also instructions concerning plant spacing. Learn more


Sharpen up those shears and loppers. A farmer once told me the best time to prune is when the shears are sharp, but I like to think we are more sophisticated than that. Non-native rhododendrons (and azaleas) may be pruned as soon as they are through blooming. Pruning needs to be completed before the Fourth of July as any done after that will run the risk of cutting off next year’s buds.

Check camellias and azaleas for leaf galls and remove any that you find. They are not pretty, but will not harm the overall health of the plant.

Keep garden mums pinched back until mid-July if fall blooms and full plants are the goals.

Resist the urge to cut back foliage of spring bulbs. The plants need the foliage to produce energy to store in the bulbs so they may bloom vigorously again next year.  Let them turn yellow before the annual haircut.

Spraying (if you must)

Insecticide for borers on iris, rhododendron, blueberries and squash.

Fungicide on fruit trees and bunch grapes, tomatoes with signs of blight.

Continue a regular program for roses.

Check for bagworms on trees and shrubbery. They will be “out of the bag” soon and vulnerable to pesticide application. Learn more

This is a good time to spray invasive vining weeds like poison ivy/oak, honeysuckle, English ivy, etc.

Other Things with Which to Occupy Yourself in the Garden in May

Check cruciferous plants (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.) for worms. Spray as needed.

Entomological adventures – Look for insects and arachnids on azaleas (lace bugs, spider mites), euonymus & camellias (tea scale), boxwoods (leaf miners—check for adult flies on outside of leaves). If the weather becomes hot and dry, check all your houseplants (inside and out) for spider mites and aphids.

Mulch, mulch, mulch!! Shredded hardwood, pine bark, shredded cypress and pine needles (pinestraw) are horticulturally sound and aesthetically pleasing choices.  Consider using decorative gravel (river stones) next to structures as the ubiquitous termites find them difficult to digest.

If you must spray pesticides please be gentle with the environment. Use the least amount and the least toxic product that will do the job. There are a growing number of organic products on the market that work well in a variety of situations. 

Enjoy May in the garden. It is the kindliest month in North Carolina.

Run the flag up the pole on Memorial Day and thank a veteran.

If you have questions ask an Extension Master Gardener Volunteer. It’s our job to help. Call 919-560-0528 — Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 4 p.m. or email your questions to

Also, there are numerous publications from the NCSU extension service online. Learn more

Photo credit: Sanja565658 CC BY-SA 3.0

Snags, Tree Cookies and Lean-tos: Things You Can Do To Help Reptiles and Amphibians in Your Yard

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

At the beginning of this year and before the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the world, I attended a talk by Brian Bockhahn, regional education specialist, North District Office of the North Carolina State Parks entitled “Reptiles and Amphibians in Your Garden.” It was impossible not to be drawn in by his enthusiasm and impressed with his advocacy for our native reptiles and amphibians. These “cold-blooded animals are in the group called herpetofauna or herps for short1.” He was an engaging speaker and his passion for herps was ‘contagious’ and inspired me to write this article and even though I am more of a bird lover he made me more appreciative of these animals.


In Piedmont North Carolina, we have many reptiles including six species of small ground snakes: worm snake, smooth earth snake, brown snake, rough earth snake, ring neck snake and red belly snake; and, several medium-sized snakes: black rat snake, black racer, eastern king snake, rough green snake, corn snake, eastern hognose snake, eastern garter snake; and, one venomous snake, the copperhead. The copperhead has darker brown cross-bands that look like Hershey kisses and is most active at dusk. The copperhead is a native species of all 100 North Carolinian counties and is typically not aggressive and poses a threat only if provoked and for the most part ‘wants not to be seen.’ In addition to describing these snakes, he explained how to handle them if they need to be removed from an area. A six-foot long snake stick with hook is the best way to move a snake and don’t use tongs or pincers.

May 19, 2019 Rough green snake climbing in a holly hedge (Opheodrys aestivus) Photo by Wendy Diaz May 19, 2019
Possibly a small brown snake (Storeria dekayi) under my rose arbor (not on the snake list for the Piedmont) Photo by Wendy Diaz April 11, 2019

Here are lists of other herps in our area:

Snapping turtle
Painted turtle
Eastern box turtle
Yellowbelly slider
Green anole
Eastern fence lizard
Five-lined skink
Broadhead skink
Southeastern five-lined skink
American toad
Fowler’s toad
Eastern-narrowmouth toad
Southern toad
Eastern newt
Marbled salamander
Spotted salamander
Southern dusky Salamander
Two-lined salamander
White-spotted slimy salamander

We used to see an Eastern box turtle frequently in our backyard up until 2003 when the forest behind our house was developed into a subdivision.


There are nine frogs in our area consisting of four True frogs: American bullfrog, Green frog, Southern leopard frog and the Pickerel frog, and five Tree frogs: Green tree frog, Cope’s gray tree frog, Northern cricket frog, Upland chorus frog and the Spring peeper. The Green tree frog was once only found on the coastal plain but now is common in southern Durham County.

Herps are beneficial by keeping their prey in check. For example salamanders eat insect larvae and snakes eat rodents1, frogs eat insects and in turn frogs are prey for fish, birds and reptiles. Amphibians, because of their permeable skin, are an important harbinger of toxins in the environment and are an indicator of environmental health of an ecosystem.

With the increase in construction and development in the Piedmont of North Carolina, amphibians and reptiles are suffering from habitat loss and fragmentation, traffic hazards and sedimentation and pollution in urban and suburban areas. The Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina), the state reptile, used to be very common and is declining in population due to habitat loss and fragmentation and road kills. It needs a one- to two-square mile range, reaches sexual maturity at six years of age and can live to be 100 years old. If you are lucky enough to have a vernal pool on your property, protect it as these seasonally wet or ephemeral pools provide essential breeding areas for frogs, toads and salamanders to hatch and turn into terrestrial adults.

Startled Eastern Box Turtle in my back yard in July, 2003. Photo by Wendy Diaz

We, as gardeners, are already plant naturalists and are aware that the plant choices we make can benefit birds and beneficial insects and this practice also benefits amphibians and reptiles. So why not help out the fauna as well as the flora with some other horticultural endeavors and practices and use our yards for maximum benefit for our stressed out environment/ecology. Besides planting natives, additional garden practices are needed to help our herps. Amphibians need both wet and dry sites. Ideally, a pool or pond (without fish) will benefit amphibians but if you can’t provide breeding habitat you can provide shelter and basking sites for these cold-blooded animals. Even crevasses under rocks or stump holes provide access to hibernacula or places for reptiles to hibernate in the winter. Natural features like dead vegetation and logs provide cover for herps as well as brush piles, rock piles and even amphibian houses.1 Upside down clay flower pots (or toad abodes) with portion of lip removed for a door placed in a shady part of your yard is ideal for toads and salamanders. Tree stumps make stools and rock walls and logs become good basking sites.

Even a garden birdbath can provide valuable resource to a green anole during the summer. Photo by Wendy Diaz July 5, 2019
Eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulates) enjoys some sunshine and warmth on a rock pile. Photo by Wendy Diaz September 2, 2019

Other simple things Brian recommended for ‘Backyard Habitat Enhancement’ are:

Snags – A dead standing tree that provides good habitat for birds2 also provides lizards with good shelter to cool off or to hide from predators and to ambush prey like insects for food.

Snag or upright dead tree. Photo by Wendy Diaz February 17, 2020

Tree cookies  – Slices of a tree trunk or wood discs that hold the moisture in the ground beneath and make a nice refuge for a salamander.

Tree cookies for salamanders: six inch slices of red cedar over leaf litter below beech tree in back yard. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz February 15, 2020

Lean-tos – An untreated piece of wood supported by a stick on one side located beneath a shade tree with natural leaf litter provides shelter for a turtle to cool off during the hot summer months.

Lean-to for a turtle made from thin piece of untreated wood and a stick for support. Photo by Wendy Diaz Photo taken February 15, 2020

Other very helpful practices are: keep cats indoors, brake for turtles, plant native diversity, reduce mowing yard, leave natural areas, limit chemical use and let a tree fall and rot in the woods. These ‘chain-saw’ chairs from a dead tree can both provide habitat for herps and decorate the garden.

Arrows point to herp backyard habitat enhancements and garden accents: rock wall, tree stump and chainsaw chairs.
Photo taken by Wendy Diaz April 13, 2019

As it got warmer outside this spring, watching my resident lizards bask in the sunshine during these past few weeks of social isolation has unexpectedly brought me joy as they continue with their lives blissfully unaware of what has befallen us humans. Although I frequently see lizards and snakes I have yet to observe salamanders, hopefully that will change with my new tree cookies.

Here is a challenge while we stay at home, why not try to observe (no touching) as many reptiles and amphibians in your yard and garden as you can and share your observations with iNaturalist. If you are having trouble identifying the herp species, this is a useful website If you don’t find any, maybe it is time to add some snags, tree cookies and lean-tos in your yard.

Green anole (Anolis carolinensis) basking in the sun.Photo by Wendy Diaz April 3, 2020
Close up of the watchful eye of a Green anole (Anolis carolinensis). Photo taken by Wendy Diaz April 3, 2020
Photo taken by Wendy Diaz July 5, 2019



Further reading:





Garden Tours to Enjoy at Home

In the weeks since stay-at-home orders went into place, museums, opera companies and institutions around the world have made their art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Well, that’s all well and good but, I’d rather visit a garden, wouldn’t you? That is  possible, thanks to the sites and resources listed below.  

In North Carolina

Audobon North Carolina is hosting a virtual Field Trip this Saturday, April 18 from 9 –to 10:30 a.m. via Facebook live. Nesting pelicans, singing songbirds and backyard owls are the stars. Tag along at

Via their Facebook page, Durham’s Sarah P. Duke Gardens posts videos of their staff demonstrating best practices for home gardening. To date, topics have included planting, tree pruning and  dividing perennials.  The videos are several minutes in length.

Mark Weathington is the director of J. C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh. He is presenting an hour-long video lecture via Zoom each Wednesday at 3 p.m., Midweek with Mark. The lectures are being recorded so you can watch later if you’d like.  Learn more.  

Native plant landscapes are the highlight of the live video feed on the website homepage of the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill. (Scroll down the page a bit.)  The Plant Power Podcast is also worth a listen.

Take a virtual trip to the mountains and visit Arborcrest Gardens, a 25-acre ornamental plant evaluation garden in Boone. There is a short aerial video plus photo galleries for every season. Learn more

a little farther from home

The Missouri Botanical Garden is a fabulous place to visit, even if only virtually.  There are dozens of virtual tours, aerial drone videos and videos of featured flowers to enjoy. Their YouTube channel is robust. Learn more

The Brandywine Valley near Philadelphia is home to some wonderful public gardens and, there, spring has just sprung. (So we get to enjoy it all over again.)

The virtual tour of Mt Cuba Center is a most realistic walking tour of this exquisite native plant conservation garden. Learn more

Our Gardens Your Home is an online, curated selection of ways to experience the best of Longwood Gardens from home. It is updated weekly. Learn more

Chanticleer Garden is a colorful, contemporary garden within a historic setting. Never been to Chanticleer? Then you’ll want to go on the virtual tour first, then poke around the more educational offerings such as pruning a boxwood hedge or planting an asparagus bed. Learn more

Go abroad

If you like tulips, head to the Netherlands. Or to the YouTube channel of Keukenhof Holland for a bold glimpse of 7 million bulbs, 800 varieties! Learn more.

London is home to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and they have a YouTube channel, too. Fifteen of the videos are less than one month old.  Learn more.

Get educated

Plants, Pests and Pathogens is an educational offering from NC State Extension. It’s a series of 90-minute  webinars that are recorded and available to the public. Follow the link to view an index of recordings by date that lists speaker and topic for presentations going back to 2009. Learn More.

Curious about land conservation? Triangle Land Conservancy has hosted webinar conversations with their conservation staff. All are recorded and posted on their website. Learn more

Plant Knowledge

As you are introduced to plants that you might like to add to your own garden, visit NC Extension Plant Toolbox. This online database of thousands of plants will show you which plants will grow best in your landscape. You can search for a plant by its common name or its scientific name. Then read about each plant’s growing requirements, potential disease and insect problems, and scores of other pieces of information useful to deciding if the plant will thrive wherever you live in North Carolina. Learn more.

This list was compiled by Extension Master Gardener Volunteers who serve Durham County. We wish you happy travels from the comfort and safety of your home.