Snake in the Garden

Timber Rattlesnake

Timber Rattlesnake

The snake lies coiled, aware of me long before I see it. Only feet away, I have been lost in the summer heat, weeding a rocky slope, my mind miles away. Catching it out the corner of my eye, I scream and jump backwards simultaneously. Now what?

My first impulse is to grab a shovel and kill that snake. Instead, I reach for my phone, and take its picture to identify it later. Then I back away, allowing the snake to move along.

Copperhead Snake

Copperhead Snake

Western North Carolina has many snake species. Only two, the timber rattlesnake and the copperhead, are poisonous. These two, both pit vipers, have hollow fangs to inject a large amount of venom into their prey when hunting, but in defensive strikes often release no venom. A pit viper bite produces one or two puncture wounds, while nonvenomous snakes‘ small teeth make only horseshoe-shaped scratches.

Pit vipers have small pits on their heads between their eyes and nostrils that serve as “heat detectors,” to help sense prey. Another identifier is their triangular-shaped head. Some nonvenomous snakes flatten their heads into a triangular shape when aggravated, however. Another complicating factor in identifying snakes is that juveniles can look different from the mature reptile.

Rattlers or copperheads have “cat’s eye” pupils, while nonvenomous snakes have round pupils, but who wants to look a snake in the eye? If you could see their bellies, venomous snakes have one row of scales below the anal vent, and nonvenomous ones will have divided scales below the anal vent. But don’t try flipping a snake over to check!

Snakes eat many creatures that gardeners don’t want around, including rodents, insects and smaller snakes. Being part of the food chain, they are also food for some birds. I have a large resident black snake in my stone wall that helps keep the chipmunks, moles and voles in check.


imageSo, instead of killing that snake in your garden, consider leaving it alone; 80% of bites occur when trying to kill or handle a snake. When gardening, be aware. Turn over rocks with a long handled implement and use a hoe or shovel to check around grasses or shrubs while working. Keep lawns mown and weeds under control. There is no need to be afraid, just be observant.

This is the time of year to be putting your IPM into gear. But what is an IPM anyway?

Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is an economical, environmentally sensitive and effective way of dealing with pests in our gardens, whether they are bugs, blights or other bad news.

According to Penn State University, the very first farmers didn’t “control” pests, but instead allowed their presence by planting enough for them to eat too. (That gives new meaning to the term “share cropping!)

Around 2500 B.C., things like sulfur, tobacco, soap, arsenic or copper sulfate compounds, and all kinds of voodoo-like materials were used to combat pests, generally by killing them. That went on up until modern times though there were a few folks who recognized alternatives. An example:

“The agriculture journals have presented various recipes, as preventive of the attacks, or destructive to the life, of the “curculio,” the “apple-moth,” the “squash-bug,” etc. These decoctions and washes are as useless in application as they are ridiculous in composition, and if the work of destroying insects is to be accomplished satisfactorily, we feel it will have to be the result of no chemical preparations, but of simple means, directed by a knowledge of the history and habits of the depredators.” In other words, there were alternatives to chemicals. (The Practical Entomologist (October 30 1856)

Then came Rachel Carson whose Silent Spring brought the issue of pesticide safety to the attention of the public. She pointed to the adverse effects of things like DDT on wildlife, water quality, and human health. And, in the early 1950’s, that led to the beginning of serious research concerning integrating various approaches of managing pest control to find the least toxic, most effective options. We now know this as Integrated Pest Management or IPM.



As a home gardener I see our IPM consisting of:

-A garden planned following the “right plant, right place” concept, whether it be ornamental or vegetable—considering sun, shade, soil pH, moisture, etc.

– Regular inspection tours to identify changes, problems-in-the-making in our gardens.

– Resources that are available to help us identify the culprit and our most appropriate alternative.

-Chosen pesticides applied according to the label

-maintained records so that next year we have a “heads-up!” to help guide our plant choices and our surveys. When should we watch for what?

Debbie Green will soon be posting a list of useful on-line references. From time to time during the growing season our BLOG will be issuing IPM ALERTS—what to look for and what to do if you see it. Stay tuned!


Free Class: A Garden For Cutting

Buncombe County Extension Master Gardeners will offer a free class about growing a cutting garden on Thursday, May 21st at 10:00 am at the Cooperative Extension offices, 94 Coxe Avenue in Asheville.

Join EMG Gail Banner and learn about floral design which includes greenery, fillers and flowers. From spring with daffodils to autumn with asters, your arrangement can be right outside your door. Gail will be demonstrating a floral design with flowers cut from her own garden.image

The talk is free but pre-registration is requested by calling 828-255-5522
Free parking is available in the lot across the street at the corner of Coxe and Hilliard Avenues

Additional lectures in the Gardening in the Mountain series will cover a variety of garden topics. They will be held on the third Thursday of each month through October.

Spring Fling Plant Sale May 9



Container Gardening

P5090074Spring is finally here! As the days get warmer, the trees leaf out, spring bulbs explode with color and our azaleas begin to bloom in all their glory, we begin to think about summer flowers. Container gardening is a fun and easy way to bring color to any garden regardless of space. There are a few basic steps before planting that will get you well on your way to success:


The requirements are simple for a container—it has to hold soil and have holes in the bottom for drainage. Common containers are clay, glazed pottery, and buckets, or let your imagination guide you. If the containers have previously been used, I suggest scrubbing them and sanitizing by soaking in a 1:10 bleach solution.


I like to use a good quality soil-less potting media that does NOT have fertilizer added. Mix 3 parts potting media to 1 part compost. Mix into the top 4-6 inches an all-purpose organic fertilizer such as Espoma’s Plantone, which is my choice.


Select plants for your container that suit the location: shade, partial shade or full sun. You will often hear about spiller, thriller and filler plant choices. I use a combination of flowers, herbs, leafy greens, foliage plants and trailing plants. Spillers are your trailing plants and there are many choices: lime green or dark sweet potato vine, trailing coleus, bacopa, creeping thyme, creeping jenny, calibrachoas , wave petunias are a few. The fillers are plants such as coleus, caladiums, dusty miller, ferns, petunias, zinnia, Swiss chard, red lettuce, kale, basil, lavender, lantana, verbena, snap dragons for a few ideas. The thrillers are single plants that are a tall focal point such as fountain grasses, cannas, elephant ear, dwarf spruce, cordyline, spikes, hibiscus, or feathery reed grass, for example. This is your time to be creative with color and texture. Don’t be afraid to place the plants close together. As the plants grow they find the room they need and will mix and cross each other creating interest.


Adequate watering is very important. These containers will dry out quickly and do need frequent watering. Also, deadheading is important for continuous blooms. If plants become too leggy, pinch them back. Watch for pests. Many of the common ones can be treated with a simple soap solution. Lastly, fertilize often. I use a fish and seaweed emulsion with great success.

Have fun and happy planting.



Link for 2015 Garden Tour Tickets

Tickets now available at


Bringing Houseplants Outside

imageLast fall, as the evening temperatures dipped below 50F, I brought my houseplants inside off of my deck and porch. They have sat in a south-facing window for about six months now. Low humidity, less light than needed, and sporadic watering have taken their toll. They need to go back outside soon.

So when can they be safely moved out of the house? The 50F temperature that dictated the move inside in the fall works for bringing them out this spring. When the evening temperatures stay above 50F, the plants can safely go out. That is typically the month of May in Buncombe County.

There is a caveat. The plants can experience shock and even death if not first being acclimated to their new location. This acclimation, also called hardening off, allows plants to adjust to changes in temperature, light and wind. I open the windows a few weeks before the plants go out, making the temperature adjustment easier.

Both temperature and light need to be gradually adjusted. Even if your houseplants wintered in a sunny window, light intensity is greater outside. First place the plants under a tree or on a shaded porch so the change will not be too great. Then move to a brighter location for a few hours a day. Then they can be moved to a sunny location. Just make sure that the plant needs bright sunlight. If they are shade lovers and placed in bright sunlight, no amount of adjustment will keep that plant from being burned. Shade lovers should remain in the shade.

Rootbound plants can be repotted at this time. Remove the plant from the pot, and if the roots are circling around the root ball, repotting is indicated. Select a new pot that is slightly larger and use fresh potting mix. This change will encourage root growth. Water the new transplants thoroughly.

When watering, always completely soak your plant, as the roots are normally in the bottom two-thirds of the pot. Check to see if watering is needed by putting a finger about ½ inch into the soil. If the soil is dry, water. Pots become lighter as the soil dries, so lifting the pot when newly watered will feel heavier than a dry pot.

Since the plants will now be actively growing, fertilizer is needed. Many houseplant fertilizers have a formulation of 20-20-20. Fertilizing in spring and summer is needed about once a month, but first read the fertilizer label. Too much fertilizer can cause a decrease in growth, burned or dried leaf margins, browned roots, loss of lower leaves, and even death of the plant.

Warmer weather is coming, and both you and your houseplants can enjoy the summer outdoors.

Join the 10% Campaign


WNC offers many opportunities to purchase food from local producers. Some tailgate markets are open year-round and seasonal tailgate markets have reopened. Many WNC restaurants offer local foods.

The Center for Environmental Farming Systems develops and promotes just and equitable food and farming systems that conserve natural resources, strengthen communities, improve health outcomes, and provide economic opportunities in North Carolina and beyond. Since 2010, the 10% Campaign has worked to build North Carolina’s local farm economy.

Here’s how it works:

  • Pledge to spend 10 percent of your existing food dollars locally.
  • Receive a weekly email with a few simple questions.
  • The 10% Campaign will track your progress, and you’ll see our progress statewide.

This is a terrific way to support the local economy, community, and environment while eating well. For more information

The Basics of Vegetable Gardening in Containers

Yes, you can grow veggies in small places, on patios, on terraces, even on balconies in containers. There are multiple reasons to do so, but I see it as a convenience. One can place a container almost anywhere, and assuming there’s enough light, almost any veggie can be grown in it. The only negative about container veggies is that they will require more frequent watering than in-ground vegetables.Container-box-planting-

There are some fairly specific “rules” to follow when growing vegetables in containers.

The container, whether it is plastic, wood, or terra-cotta, must have good drainage. If purchased pots are being used, try to get ones with drainage holes around the sides rather than in the middle. If you create containers from 5 gallon buckets, drill the holes on the side of the bucket rather than in the bottom. Vegetable roots will drown in standing water.

Growing medium for your vegetables can be a packaged ready-made, soilless mix, a packaged potting soil, or your own mixture of equal amounts of peat moss, soil, vermiculite (or perlite) and manure. Whichever one you choose, fertilizer will be needed throughout the growing season. Slow-release fertilizer should be added as you prepare the mix. Through the growing season, water-soluble fertilizer may be the easiest way to provide the nutrients your veggies need to produce fruit.BarrelVeggie

Sow seeds in your container as you would into the ground. Transplants are done the same way. Tall vegetables and vining ones are going to need stakes or trellises. Growing vegetables in a large enough container is important. Roots need space. Five gallon buckets or equivalent size containers are ideal for larger veggies.

Most important, container vegetables must not be allowed to dry out. Consistent moisture is the key to success. Let your finger be the judge of moisture. During warm and windy days, watering twice may be necessary. If containers are allowed to dry out completely, feeder roots are damaged and fruit production is minimized. Using mulch on top of your container will aid in moisture retention; soilless mixes dry out faster than soil mixes. Moisture beads can be added to the mix before planting. Soil dries out faster in terra-cotta pots.DeckVeggies

After production has ceased, plant material and growing medium should be disposed of to prevent spread of disease. Containers should be disinfected with a 10% chlorine bleach solution before using for your next crop.

Online informational brochures are available for selecting products and plants for container vegetables. There is information on what size containers to use for each individual type vegetable, plant varieties to use for best results, and recipes for growing mediums, etc. These are provided by universities who have done research on what works best. Links for some are:





Rain Barrels for Sale

imageBuncombe County Cooperative Extension sells 80-gallon rain barrels. The rain barrels are made in North Carolina and can be seen online at  We are able to offer them at a reduced price of $110 plus $7.70 tax, payable by check or cash. Rain barrels are available at the Extension office, 94 Coxe Avenue, Asheville.

For more information about rainwater harvesting and use of rain barrels, go to