Check for Scale Insect Before Houseplants Come Back Inside

Soft Scale Insects on Plant Stem

Soft scale insects on plant stem

Scale is an insect which is common on houseplants. Scale rarely kills a plant, but the honey dew excrement makes a sticky mess which attracts ants and even mold. If you notice sticky spots or ants gathering on surfaces below a plant, chances are the plant has scale. Look on stems and the bottoms of leaves for small, waxy brown bumps which are easily scraped off with a fingernail.

Since scale are part of the natural outdoor environment, houseplants moved outdoors for the summer often become infested. Many gardeners just assume that any plant which was outdoors for the summer is infested and treat for scale before bringing it indoors. A safe, organic way to kill scale and discourage them from returning is to spray the plant with a horticultural oil, neem oil, or insecticidal soap. Spray two applications ten days apart, making sure to follow the directions on the label.

If you know a houseplant has scale, isolate it from your other houseplants until you know it is no longer infected. Since scale insects live in soil, it might help to replace the soil in the pot. Be sure to thoroughly clean the pot before repotting the plant. Scale can be difficult to get rid of, so, unless the plant is very special to you, it is often better to just replace it than to risk infesting your other plants. Ferns, when left outdoors, almost always become infested and are nearly impossible to rid of scale.

For more information about scale on houseplants, go to

Article written by Diane Puckett, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Lawn Maintenance: How Much is the Right Amount?

How do you keep your lawn looking respectable year-round? You know you have to mow, but how much else do you need to do? Do you want a great lawn or a “good-enough” lawn? Here are tips on how to have the lawn you want.

Photo by Joey Williamson, Clemson Univ ExtensionMowing
Mowing is key to keeping your lawn presentable, no matter what! Your goal: keep your cool-season grasses three inches tall, mowing off no more than a third of the height at a time. Never let your lawn get above five inches. Grass may need mowing anytime of the year that temperatures get into the 70s.

Lawn growth varies wildly and individual lawns need individual evaluation. Overheard last week: “We’ve had so much rain that my husband is mowing the lawn every four days!” “Well, we’ve had so little rain that I haven’t mowed in three weeks!” Plan accordingly—fixed schedules won’t work!

Many mowers will bag your cut grass, but you can save time and money—including on fertilizer—by leaving the clippings on the lawn. Mulching mowers keep the clippings small so they quickly dry out. Turf specialists estimate those clippings provide about 25 percent of the nutrients your lawn needs each year.

If your mower leaves clumps of cut grass, you may need to mow more often, or be sure the lawn is drier. Break up clumped clippings to avoid smothering the remaining lawn. If you bag or rake clippings, use them elsewhere in your garden or compost—hot composting will kill weed seeds!

Core Aerate LawnCore aeration
Aerating helps root growth in compacted soil and is worth doing, especially in years you overseed your lawn. Aerate this fall or when growth starts up again in the spring. Rent equipment that brings up small cores of lawn or hire someone to do the aeration. Just poking holes in the soil creates more compaction! Cores gradually break down—rake to break them up if they bother you. Mark irrigation system emitters and hoses so you do not damage them!

Lawns in active growth need consistent watering—an inch a week from rain or irrigation. Cool season grasses go dormant and brown up in the heat of summer. You may want to encourage dormancy to minimize maintenance. Dormant lawns may be able to go without rain for six weeks, but it is best to provide some watering every three weeks. Turf specialists advise that as little as ¼ inch may be enough.

Grass can’t effectively use nutrients if your soil is too acid. Many WNC lawns desperately need lime, but only a soil test will tell you how much. Lime takes awhile to work on soil pH—don’t expect immediate results. Test again in two or three years before liming again.

Yearly nitrogen is a given, but some lawns need phosphorus, too—check your soil test! A lush lawn may require 2.5 to 3 pounds of nitrogen a year, but you can certainly use less, especially if you leave your grass clippings on the lawn. Plan to apply at least one pound of nitrogen every September and possibly another pound in October or November. If your lawn is still struggling, provide the remaining half-pound or pound in February. Fertilizing any later may lead to even lusher growth, but may make your lawn susceptible to fungal diseases come summer.

Dandelion weed in lawn

Dandelion weed in lawn

Weed management
With proper maintenance, you’ll find weeds aren’t as much of a problem. Identify your weeds. Pre-emergent herbicides can prevent crabgrass—an annual weed—from sprouting in bare spots. Decide if perennial weeds justify treatment. White clover may be a desirable addition to your lawn if you don’t need a uniform stand of grass. If you have a few dandelions, or other broadleaf weeds, try digging them out. Pervasive aggressive weeds may justify broadleaf herbicides.

Diseases and insects
There are many lawn ailments and pests, but with proper maintenance, damage is minimal, especially if you employ proper lawn maintenance practices. North Carolina State University provides many resources for identifying and treating lawn problems.

Article written by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Photo of woman mowing lawn courtesy of Joey Williamson, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University,

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Kid’s Blog: What are Seed Bombs? Do They Work?

SeedBomb_CC BY-SA 3.0Recently, we’ve seen a lot about kids making seed bombs to grow flowers, but do they work? Let’s find out!

In August, we’re almost guaranteed afternoon showers. Here’s a quick, fun, and not-too-messy project for your budding gardeners, while waiting for the storms to pass.

Seed bomb lore
The seed bomb is a “no-fuss” planting method that some say goes back to ancient times! Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka popularized making seed balls to help seeds grow with little work in areas difficult to farm. Now, “guerrilla” gardeners are using these balls as “bombs” to get seeds into neglected areas where they’d like to see plants grow.

What you’ll need

You can find dozens of recipes online, many with different ingredients. You may want to compare how well different recipes work or how different ingredients work. If you want to increase your chances of success, here’s advice from Chris Burley, who produces seed bombs called “Seedles”:

“We’ve found the ratio that works best for us is 4 parts compost to 1 part powdered clay by weight (very important to do it by weight). The compost needs to be somewhat moist, but not wet by any means.”

—Chris Burley, Crafting a Green World

Directions for making the bombs

  • Measure your compost and clay into the bowl.
  • Mix the compost and clay together in the bowl—hands work best!
  • Add seeds. The compost/clay mixture must surround the seeds, so don’t use too many! Save about half your seeds if you want to test how well seed bombs work.
  • Add water very gradually! Use only enough to make the mix the consistency of modeling clay.
  • Roll small amounts of the mixture to make marble-sized balls.
  • Place them in the box to dry for 24 to 48 hours.

How seed bombs are supposed to work
Now that you know how to make them, this is why they should work:

  • The compost and clay protect the seed from drying out, washing away, or being eaten by birds.
  • As weather breaks down the seed bomb, the compost and clay will allow the seed to root and take hold.

How to use your seed bombs
Many people don’t know that you can plant seeds in the fall, but you can use your seed balls in fall or spring!

  • Find a bare area where nothing is growing.
  • Make sure you have the owner’s permission!
  • Toss the bombs in that area.
  • Check after each rain to see when the bombs start breaking down.
  • Once the bombs start disappearing, check for small seedlings.

Did they work?
You may see seedlings this fall or next spring, and flowers next spring or summer. That shows your seed bombs succeeded. Or not!

Would it have been better just to take the seeds and plant them? You could try half and half. Toss seed bombs on half of a bare area and plant seeds on the other half, according to the directions on the seed packets.

Watch for seedlings in both areas. Which one looks better and has more plants growing? Are the seed bomb plants too close together? Maybe the answer is a little of both! It might work better to plant seeds on level ground that is easy to reach and save seed bombs for hillsides or where it’s difficult to walk.

Article written by Nancy Good, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Container Gardens: A Quick Way to Perk Up the Garden at Summer’s End

copperpotIs your garden showing the effects of this summer’s weather extremes? One way to perk it up is with containers—by either refreshing existing containers or adding new ones. Containers can add a bit of color by the front door, decorate a deck or patio, or fill bare spots in a garden bed. Nurseries generally have a good supply of plants suitable for containers from early spring to late fall.

You can use a grouping of small pots or one large container holding several different kinds of plants. Large pots will dry out more slowly than small ones. Terra cotta pots will dry out faster than plastic or ceramic. Any container will need more water and more frequent fertilizing than plants in the ground. Drainage holes in the bottom are absolutely critical. Use a good commercial potting mix in your container instead of garden soil which can carry pathogens and insects as well as being too heavy.

Designing container gardens is simple if you remember this rule: “Include a thriller, filler, and spiller.” Start with something tall to catch the eye, then fill the pot with medium sized plants, and finally, add something that drapes over the side. Think about color and texture. Get ideas for your containers at nurseries where appropriate companion plants are often grouped together. You don’t have to use flowering plants. There are enough varieties of coleus alone to meet all the design criteria. And a pot of hardy herbs by the kitchen door can last through a mild winter.

Article written by Joyce Weinberg, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Lawn Replacement: More Lawn or Something New?

You can see your lawn is beyond renovating, but what to do about it? Once you’ve killed off the struggling grasses and the rampant weeds, your choices are to start over with a new lawn or to replace it with one of many alternatives.

How to decide
First, assess the area where you had your lawn. Be realistic about where you can expect grass to grow. Eliminate those areas that are too shady, too wet or dry, or too steep and concentrate on what remains.

Next, think about what purpose(s) your lawn space serves. Do you need a recreation area for sports, a play area for children, or space for your pets to roam? Does your homeowner’s association require you to have a lawn?

Finally, do you like the look of a lawn and enjoy maintaining it—or don’t mind paying someone to do so? If yes, you’re ready to start over and do your lawn right this time! If not, go back to the reasons you have a lawn and consider ways to achieve your goals with little or no lawn. 

Cutting back lawn area
Consider keeping a lawn only in those areas where you really want or must have one. Instead of lawn, consider mulched soil, areas planted with groundcovers, or paved surfaces. Increasing impervious surfaces can cause stormwater management problems, though, so consider using gravel or other permeable materials where practical.

New lawn: seed or sod?
Now is the time to plant cool season fescues and Kentucky bluegrass, but you have a choice of seed or sod. If you choose to seed, study the seed bag label and buy certified seed. Cheap seed mixes may have less desirable grass varieties and some percentage of noxious weeds. You can find tall fescue and fescue/bluegrass sod grown in North Carolina from several sources. Check that your sod is certified, too. Whether you seed or sod, you will need to prepare your soil.

Photo by Joey Williamson, Clemson Univ Extension

Till to prepare soil.

Soil preparation
Once you have killed off your grass and weeds and have your soil test results, remove any obvious debris, and work your starter fertilizer and lime into the top six to eight inches of the soil surface. This is one of the few situations where rototilling is useful! Rake the surface smooth before seeding or sodding.

Use a lawn spreader to apply your seed evenly to your prepared soil surface and then gently rake to cover the seed just barely. Mulch lightly with a weed-free hay or straw and keep the soil watered to a depth of at least 1.5 inches, being careful not to wash the seed away! This may require watering more than once a day to keep the seeds moist enough to sprout. As the grass begins growing, water less frequently, but more deeply. Let your plants reach about 4.5 inches before you mow to 3 inches. Fertilize your lawn again about six to eight weeks after it sprouts, using your lawn spreader.

Photo by Joey Williamson, Clemson Univ Extension

Lay sod in brick-like pattern.

Be sure your prepared soil is well-watered, but not muddy. You may want to seek professional advice about how to estimate the amount of sod you’ll need and consider having a professional install it. Time your sod delivery so you can lay it within 24 hours and keep it in the shade so it doesn’t dry out. Start laying sod from a straight edge, using a brick-like pattern. You may need to stake the sod to keep it from slipping. Always lay strips lengthwise, or across the slope, even on gentle slopes. Use a lawn roller to ensure good contact with the soil and then water.

Not happening? Consider alternatives to lawn
Now that you know what it takes, maybe you’ll consider planting trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, vegetables, and herbs instead of lawn! University of Delaware Extension personnel call lawns “turf grass madness” and make a strong case against them as high maintenance, water-using, polluting, and of low wildlife value. Some increasingly popular alternatives are edible landscaping, moss lawns, and pollinator gardens.

To learn more, visit the following websites: 

Article written by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

 Photos courtesy of Joey Williamson, HGIC Horticulture Extension Agent, Clemson University,

Register Now for WNC Gardening Symposium, October 12

Registration is now open for the 2016 Western North Carolina Gardening Symposium which will be held on Wednesday, October 12, at the DoubleTree Hotel Asheville-Biltmore.

WNC Gardening Symposium_Graphic_2016This year’s theme is Our Gardens in a World of Change. Speakers will share ideas for developing resiliency as we learn to cope with changes that affect our gardens and ourselves. Keynote speaker Laura Lengnick is a soil scientist and leader in sustainable agriculture and climate resilience planning. She’ll open our day with “Cultivating Resilience in a World of Change” and close the program with “What Path to a Resilient Future.” We’ll also hear from Tamara Houston of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Meghan Baker, Extension Agent—Agriculture, Small Farms, and Beekeeping, and Linda Alford, Buncombe County Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

This program offers five hours of continuing education for Master Gardeners. The fee is $50 until September 5 and $55 after that date. All registrations must be received by October 5. The registration form with full program details is available on the Buncombe County Master Gardener website:

WNC Gardening Symposium_logo

Time for Lawn Assessment: Maintain, Renovate, or Replace?

Mid-August and early September are good times to focus on lawn care. This blog is the first of a three-part series on lawn assessment, replacement, and maintenance.

Lush LawnTake a good look at your lawn. Is it struggling? That’s not surprising given the punishing heat and drought this summer! Don’t despair, though, we have answers for you.

The right grasses
A healthy lawn starts with choosing grasses. Here in Buncombe County, we grow fescues and Kentucky bluegrasses, cool season grasses that look good much of the year, but languish in the summer heat. We don’t grow warm season grasses—such as zoysia and bermudagrass which like the heat of summer—because they brown up as they go dormant in the cooler weather we have most of the year.

Sun, water, and nutrients
Like all plants, grasses require sun, water, and nutrients to thrive, so even the right grasses may die out, or be quickly overrun with weeds. Grasses need sun much of the day, so look carefully at where you’re trying to grow a lawn. Give up on areas where buildings, trees, or shrubs shade your grass.

Too little and too much water are both problems for lawns. Avoid grasses in very dry or very wet areas of your yard unless you can provide irrigation or improve drainage, respectively.

Lawn grasses often require lime to be able to take advantage of soil nutrients and nitrogen fertilizer annually. Soil testing at least every three years will tell you how much lime to add and if you need phosphorus or potassium in addition to nitrogen when you fertilize.

Mowing considerations
Don’t have more lawn than you can keep regularly mowed. Cool season grasses do best mowed to three inches, cutting off no more than an inch or so of the grass blade. In the mountains, slopes pose another obstacle to having a great lawn. Although grasses can help prevent erosion, don’t plant a lawn where you won’t feel comfortable mowing!

Decision time
If your lawn is growing in all the places you want it to grow, you need only to follow a good maintenance plan this fall to have the lawn of your dreams. (Watch for coming blog!) Not your reality?

Renovate as temperatures begin to drop after mid-August. NC State turf specialists recommend overseeding bare spots with a seed mix of tall fescue cultivars at the rate of 6 pounds per 1000 square feet of lawn. Fertilize with a lawn starter fertilizer high in phosphorus. You must keep your seeds moist with light, gentle, watering, which may need to be done more than once a day if the soil starts to dry.

If your lawn is in dire condition, consider replacement by killing off the existing grass and weeds to put in a new lawn or lawn alternative. Now is the time to begin the replacement process! Kill a lawn by:

  • Smothering: burying the surface under several inches of mulch, such as arborist’s wood chips.
  • Solarizing: covering with clear plastic for 4 to 6 weeks. (This is unwieldy and kills off beneficial soil organisms.)
  • Stripping off the turf with a sod cutter. (You may rent these.)
  • Using a broad-spectrum herbicide that will kill both grasses and broadleaf weeds.

For smothering, solarizing, and stripping, you can cut the lawn low to help kill the plants. If you use herbicides, be sure you apply to an actively growing, uncut, well-watered lawn, and be very careful you don’t allow any of the product to drift onto desirable plants or shrubs.

While your lawn is dying, consider what you want in its place! We’ll have some suggestions!

Article written by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

For help with grass and weed identification, go to

Mosquito Control: Let’s Do Our Part

The press coverage of the campaign to arrest the spread of the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases is a reminder of a responsibility that we homeowners and gardeners have to our communities: namely, the control of mosquitoes on our homesteads.

Find standing water and eliminate breeding sites
The mosquito species in our area go through their breeding cycle, egg to maturity, in less than two weeks. So control boils down to frequently eliminating any standing water. And that may call for using your imagination, too! Not just dumping or covering unused pots, but discovering where else on the premises water accumulates. Even a hollow tree or temporary puddle can serve as a breeding ground. Look for potential breeding sites around the homestead—places like discarded tires, plant pots, tarps, rain gutters, or low spots in the yard. Empty or flush them out every few days. Don’t overlook the ordinary tasks like changing the water in bird baths almost daily. Besides, the birds will appreciate the fresh water!

What about rain barrels?
Some standing water, such as in rain barrels, may be a necessary part of the landscape. A piece of window screening over a rain barrel inlet can keep mosquitoes from entering in the first place. Screens can clog though and there may be other gaps where mosquitoes can enter. If they do get in, or perhaps as a precautionary measure, an NCSU newsletter suggests the same shock treatment used to decontaminate wells: one-half fluid ounce of bleach per gallon of water to suppress them. The chlorine, about 200 ppm, will dissipate within 48 hours, after which the water should be safe for plants.

Using biological or chemical controls
Another option would be one of the biological larva control products containing Bacillus thuringiensis israelensis (Bti). Mosquito Dunks® or Mosquito Bits® are related to the bacterial pesticides commonly used in the garden against caterpillars. Read the label as you probably don’t need an entire wafer and one dose should least several weeks. The pesticide lies on top of the water, so to get full advantage of it don’t empty the barrel completely. Leave a couple of inches of water at the bottom. Do not use any chemical larvacide for this purpose unless the label states something like “will not affect plants, people, pets, or livestock.”

Incidentally, you’ll also see ads for mosquito traps that use radiant heat, sonic waves, or carbon dioxide. These can be moderately effective in luring mosquitoes, but they are expensive to buy and operate. Electric “bug zappers” are not effective as the majority of insects killed are actually beneficial in some form.

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Kids Post: Kids Can Enter the Fair,Too!

NC Mountain State Fair_2016_logoThe North Carolina Mountain State Fair is September 9-18. There is much fun to experience with all of the shows, rides, exhibits, and animals. In addition, there are the smells of many types of food and cotton candy.

There is something to interest every age group from cooking, canning, and quilting to art and photography. Each competition is divided by age groups to include children. For times to enter and everything you need to know to prepare your winning entry, check out the section that interests you at

Fair_FlowerShow_Youth entries_2014Buncombe County Extension Master Gardeners sponsor two flower shows that children can enter. Children ages 6 to 19 should pre-register by August 26 to compete in their age group: 6 to 8, 9 to 13, or 14 to 19 years old. Bring in flowers with clear glass containers to enter the first show on September 7 and the second show on September 13. Judges will award ribbons. The first place prize is $10 for a blue ribbon; $6 for a second place red ribbon; and $4 for a third place white ribbon. Over $14,000 of prize money is available for the Flower and Garden competition!

While you’re at the Fair, check out the Master Gardeners’ educational display in the Expo building for information about growing herbs, annuals, and perennials. Take a look at the Fair through a child’s eyes. School-age children are admitted free on the opening day of the Fair and can proudly show their entries to parents and grandparents. With two flower shows, you can experience the excitement of competition twice during the ten days at the NC Mountain State Fair!

We hope to see you at the Fair!

Article written by Gail Banner and Barbara Hayes, Extension Master Gardener Volunteers.

Plan Now to Enter Flower Shows at the NC Mountain State Fair

NC Mountain State Fair_2016_logoLook to your garden now and make plans to enter the Standard Flower Show (September 7) or the Flower and Garden Show (September 13) at the North Carolina Mountain State Fair September 9-18. Buncombe County Extension Master Gardeners sponsor these shows and encourage amateur gardeners of all ages to enter the competition.

Cash awards are presented for blue, red, and white ribbons. Best of Show and the Judge’s Choice can also be awarded. The exhibitor must grow all the plant material for the horticulture specimen classes. Container-grown plants must be established in the container for at least three months. Artificial and silk flowers, endangered species, and extremely invasive plants such as Oriental bittersweet are not allowed.

A complete set of rules for submitting entries and other useful information can be found at Click on ‘Mountain State Fair’ and select ‘Competitions’ in the drop down menu. To find Exhibitor Rules and Entry Forms, scroll down the page to locate ‘Department M Flower and Garden’ and ‘Entry Form for Department M.’ Complete the entry form online or print and mail it to the address shown on the form. All entry forms must be received by August 26.

Standard Flower Show categories include:

  • Cut Annuals
  • Cut Perennials
  • Dahlias
  • Cut Foliage (no blooms or seed heads)
  • Culinary Herbs
  • Flowering or Berried Shrubs and Trees
  • Ornamental Grasses
  • Cut Roses
  • Hanging Plants
  • Container Grown Plants
  • Wreaths (hand wrapped)
  • Design and Arrangements

FlowerShow_RoseEntries_2014Article written by Gail Banner and Barbara Hayes, Extension Master Gardener Volunteers.