Pesticide Use: Do You Need a License or Certificate?

Home gardeners do not need to have a license when using unrestricted pesticides—insecticides, fungicides, weed killers, and such that are sold to the public—in our own gardens. If we help someone else with these pesticides—with the property owner’s permission, of course—and if we do not get paid, then we don’t need a license. 

Applying unrestricted-use pesticides for pay or as part of a job could require a license or certificate. If your neighbors pay you to apply a pesticide to their property, you may need a license. If you ask an employee to put pesticides down at a school or church where you are helping with a landscape, they may need credentials.

The Law
Cliff Ruth, Extension Area Agent Agriculture for Commercial Horticulture, sent out a checklist you can use to see if a license or certificate is indeed required in a given situation. To review it, click this link:

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Wildfire Smoke Can Be Hazardous to Your Health!

If you’re spending any extended time outside on these smoky days—working, walking, or just waiting around—you should be wearing some type of protection for your eyes, nose, throat, and lungs. But not just any mask will do the job. And wet towels or bandanas don’t work either.

Look for a face mask called a “particulate respirator” and choose one labeled N95 or N100 that has two straps that go around your head. Don’t choose a one-strap paper dust or surgical mask that hooks behind the ears. Choose a size that fits under your chin, over your nose, and tightly against your skin. Unfortunately, sizes that fit small children may be difficult to find.

For a good seal, put the upper strap above your ears, against that bump on the back of your head. The other strap goes below the ears to hold the mask firmly in place. (Beards don’t seal at all! A clean shave is best.)

You cannot clean and reuse these masks. If you’re working all day and wearing a mask, it’s best to replace it daily. Or if you perceive more difficulty breathing, simply toss the mask and replace it with a fresh one.

For more information, go to

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Firewise: Erosion Control after Wildfire

With heavy rain possible in our area, landowners with wildfire damage need to be alert for possible erosion of fire-damaged soil.

What you’re trying to accomplish is to slow the water down and spread it out so it can soak into the ground. Unfortunately, fire-damaged soil can develop an impervious layer which makes your job even more challenging.

The University of Colorado has these suggestions:

  • Fell damaged trees across, not down, the slope to slow water runoff from rainfall.
  • Create check dams in drainage areas using straw bales.
  • Spread straw to protect the soil and help reseeding efforts.
  • Use water bars to reduce soil erosion on roads.

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Protecting Your Woody Plants from Winter’s Wrath

In October, the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) forecast a warmer than normal winter for our area. That’s not good news for us gardeners, or for our woody plants! 

Why warmer weather isn’t better
Our shrubs and trees struggled all summer—and now into the fall—with higher-than-normal temperatures and lower-than-normal moisture. Once cooler weather arrives, even short increases in temperature can cause buds to break dormancy. And lower-than-normal cold snaps that accompany our increasingly irregular weather make things worse.

Which woody plants are most vulnerable?
Plants aren’t equally sturdy. Make sure you know what shrubs and trees are in your landscape, as well as their specific requirements. Many popular landscape choices are only marginally cold hardy here in the mountains and your terrain has a lot to do with cold hardiness. Cold air settles in low-lying areas of your yard. Whether a plant is on the north versus south-facing side of your home and has or doesn’t have protection from winds all affect how your plants fare. Evidence is mounting that woody plants with less chlorophyll (green) associated with the foliage—those that are variegated, gold, or purple—are less vigorous than all-green parent species.

Hinoki Cypress_Bark Split from Freeze-Thaw Cycle

Bark split on Hinoki Cypress from freeze-thaw cycle.

What can you do?
To protect your plants from those freeze-thaw cycles—as well as the sunburn, wind, snow, and ice that really do the damage, particularly at higher elevations—you need to provide some additional layers. For plant roots, a good layer of mulch is an appropriate defense. Mulch doesn’t keep the roots warm, but it does protect them from temperature extremes that come with the ground freezing then thawing.

Similarly, protect the upper part of a tender plant by surrounding it with a “blanket.” Drive stakes into the ground around the plant and staple burlap to the stakes. Stuff the spaces between the branches with pine straw. The intent is to keep the plant cold on warm days, rather than warm on cold days. This keeps dormant plants dormant! Avoid using plastic, which traps heat, causing temperatures to rise well above the temperature of the surrounding air.

For evergreens, burlap may help protect from sun- and windburn. Anti-desiccant sprays purport to provide protection, but it may be short-lived. Making sure the roots are well-watered is a better plan to prevent woody plant loss.

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Should I Worry About Wildfire Threatening My Home?

Wildfires in the news are a reminder that North Carolina ranks among the top states in the country for the number of homes in the Wildland Urban Interface: the transition zone between unoccupied land and human development. Homes adjacent to—or surrounded by—forests and other unoccupied land are at risk for wildfires, as are communities within one-half mile of this zone. The risk to your home, though, depends on many factors.

Take the quiz!

Your home and yard
– Do you have a combustible, wooden shake roof or wooden or vinyl siding?
– Do you have decks, porches, or overhanging eaves that could trap heat from a fire?
– Do you have large picture windows or vents that could provide heat access to the interior of your home?
– Do you have combustible plants, such as ornamental grasses or evergreen trees and shrubs (pines, rhododendrons) within 35 feet of buildings?

“Yes” to any of these questions may be reason for concern!

Firefighters’ resources
– In case of fire, where would the fire department get their water? And whence cometh the water if the fire crew must bring water in and needs to replenish their tanks? Is a water source—such as a lake—readily accessible?
– How close can firefighters get their equipment to your house? (Think of parking a big dump truck.)
– Are your street or road signs and mailboxes fireproof so that a fire crew can find you?

Plan ahead!
I’m sure these questions will raise other questions! Consider asking your local fire department to make a visit, look things over, and give recommendations about how to make your property more firewise. Insurance agents may also make suggestions about improving fire safety.

A final word: If you keep any important papers in your home, such as wills, titles, and irreplaceable photos, store them in a fireproof container. If you anticipate that an evacuation could be imminent, take action! Pack those documents and other priceless belongings, along with basic clothing and any medications you many need, in your vehicle. And park that vehicle headed out!

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Read more about firewise landscaping and protecting your home:

Making Great Soil: Compost, Worms and More!

When gardeners meet, they greet each other with an endless flow of questions: “How are the tomatoes over your way?” or “Are your roses doing okay in this drought?” But you never hear “How is your soil doing?”Soil

Soil tests identify mineral content
Fortunately, one way to find out how your soil is doing is to do a soil test. Most gardeners think they need to add fertilizers to their soil to feed their plants. Experienced gardeners know that a soil test will help them pinpoint which specific nutrients—if any—their plants need, and in what proportions. The North Carolina Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services provides free soil test boxes, instructions, and soil analyses for North Carolinians between April and November. There is a $4 charge per sample for those received December through March. Pick up boxes and instructions at the Buncombe County Extension office and then ship your samples to the lab in Raleigh.

Soil as a living organism
But soil tests only give you information about the mineral elements essential for plant growth. Mineral elements are a small part of what soil scientists, biologists, and plant specialists call the “Soil Food Web.” This web is an intricate interrelationship of earthworms, insects, arthropods, and microorganisms, such as beneficial nematodes, protozoa, fungi, and bacteria. Their job in the soil is to make mineral nutrients available to the plants, preserve soil moisture, improve soil texture by opening spaces for air, and continually replenish the soil through the decomposition and recycling of organic materials.

Be a composter!
The $64,000 question? How do we increase the organic content of our soils? One of the most common answers is through composting. Composting involves recycling of organic materials— grass clippings, leaves, small twigs, weeds, garden refuse, and vegetative food scraps—from your yard, garden, and kitchen. 

“Chop and drop”
In addition to creating a separate compost pile with such materials, you can use an in-place composting technique called “chop and drop.” Simply cut weeds, leaves, vegetable scraps from the kitchen, and so forth into small pieces. You can do this by running your lawn mower over them or chopping up things with a knife or shears as you gather them. Pull back the mulch in your planting bed, put down the chopped up stuff—cover with a sheet or two of newspaper if you want to help conceal the contents—water, and then put the mulch back over the drop spot.

Be a worm whisperer!
It’s possible to do double duty to improve your soil: recycle organic matter and become a worm whisperer! Two types of worms help improve our garden soil: Nightcrawlers  (Lumbricus terrestris), which dig deep vertical channels, aerating the soil and allowing for water penetration, and red wigglers (Eisenia foetida), which dig more horizontally, speeding the decomposition of the organic matter they eat. Both pass worm castings that are rich in nutrients for the plants and for the tiny microbes working within the soil. You can purchase red wigglers if you want to set up a worm-composting bin (also known as vermiculture).

Further reading
Useful Extension publications include “Soils and Plant Nutrients”
“Soil Facts: Modifying Soil for Plant Growth around Your Home”
“A Gardener’s Guide to Soil Testing,” which you can find online at
“Vermicomposting for Households”
A comprehensive book on the subject is Keith Reid’s Improving Your Soil, 2014 Firefly Books.
For fun, read Amy Stewart’s “funny and profound” The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earth Worms, 2004, Algonquin Books.

Article written by Mary Hugenschmidt, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Testing Your Soil? Free Testing until December 1. New Soil Sample Form for Gardeners.

As a timely reminder that the Peak Season Fee for soil testing goes into effect from December 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017, the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has introduced a new form for submitting your soil samples. To avoid paying the $4 per sample fee, ship your samples to arrive before Thanksgiving, or you’ll have to wait until April for free testing.

New form for gardeners
Replacing the current “one-form-fits-all,” the new form, Lawn and Garden Soil Sample Information—NC Soil Only, is for gardeners, not farmers. We no longer run the risk of getting a recommendation for “tons per acre” of lime or fertilizer for a row of beans!

First, the sample!
The form includes an explanation entitled A Guide to Soil Sampling—A Soil Test Is Only as Good as the Soil Sample Taken! The advice recommends using a clean, ungalvanized tool and a plastic bucket. (A galvanized tool or bucket may affect zinc levels.) For lawns and other untilled areas, like a planted flowerbed, sample soil to a 4-inch depth. For a tilled vegetable bed, take a slice to a 6-inch depth. Soil that is too wet to mix well is too wet to sample. Wait for it to dry out.

What areas of your yard to sample?
The new form offers Lawn and Gardening Planting Codes that include the following categories:

  • Flower Garden
  • Vegetable Garden
  • Landscape Tree
  • Shrubs
  • Azalea / Camelia
  • Rose
  • Mountain Laurel / Rhododendron
  • Blueberries
  • Berries / Fruits / Nuts (except blueberries)
  • Lawn (not centipede), unless you have a lawn of Centipede grass for which there’s a separate code! 

Sample identification
The form provides space for you to identify each soil sample, note any lime applications you’ve made in the last 12 months, and indicate the Lawn and Garden Planting Code for the area sampled. You’ll need to provide an email address for your results. Also requested, but not required, is the PALS (Public Access Laboratory-information-management System) number from past soil testing, if you have one. 

Soil boxes
You can print your own copies of the new form, but you’ll still have to pick up soil sample boxes at the Extension office or at Extension Master Gardener Volunteer events. Write your address and sample information on the boxes before you assemble them. Then fill each box to the red line with your soil sample. No plastic bags or tape are allowed.

You can stop by the Extension office to pick up the new forms and sample boxes, and to get further help if you need it. You can still use the old forms, if you have them. There’s also a phone number for the soils lab, 919-733-2655, which is answered promptly, politely, and in a helpful tone. 

Article written by Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer. 

Click here to download the new form,
Lawn & Garden Soil Sample Information, Form AD-15, Sept. 2016,
or go to and select
Soil Test Submission Forms.

Fall Arrived on September 21. Get Ready to Plant!

Regardless of the thermometer reading, fall is in our future! With fall comes the best time for planting many woody—as well as herbaceous—perennial plants. Plus, nurseries often have fall sales to move their existing stock.

Keys to successful fall planting
If you find plants you like, you might think: “Where can I put this particular plant?” A better question is: “What plant best fits my landscape scheme for this spot?”

  • Before you buy have a site in mind.
  • Be sure that spot meets the desired plant’s requirements for sun, moisture, and nutrients.
  • Know how much space the plant needs and how quickly that plant will spread. Don’t bring home an invasive “Backyard Bully”!
  • How about the soil pH? A soil test will tell you if you need to lime or add any nutrients.

The results of a soil test may change your mind. Consider choosing plants that will match the site characteristics. 

Woody plants have additional needs
Trees—and even large shrubs—need special attention to their future size. Pruning may not be a viable answer to a tree that is shading too much of your homestead or threatening a power line, or a shrub that’s blocking a view. Consider how the planting will work in all four seasons. And think about how your placement will affect your neighbors, too. You can’t call in a moving company to cure a poor decision if your planting outgrows its space.

Are you prepared to do your own planting?
When looking at a woody plant you intend to plant yourself, consider the size, shape, and weight of the root ball. How is the root ball contained or restrained? You’ll need to remove that container or restrainer during the planting process, so be sure you have the appropriate tools. It is best to discard burlap or wire that may restrict future growth. 

Before you plant, examine the root ball. Are there broken or circling roots? Many horticulturalists recommend carefully washing off the planting medium to correct any root problems before planting. At a minimum, remove circling or broken roots and then score or cut through the root ball to encourage root growth. For more information about root systems of woody plants see:  

Planting and irrigating
Backfill with the soil you removed when you dug the planting hole, and water as you fill. Tamp the soil gently; you don’t want to compact the soil, just put it in contact with the roots. Roots will continue to grow all fall and winter as long as the soil is not frozen at their level, so keep the root ball moist.

Finish by spreading mulch over the root ball. Not only will mulch retain moisture, but the mulch “blanket” helps maintain a stable temperature, so that a surge during a warm spell won’t cause the plant to prematurely break dormancy. But don’t mound mulch around tree trunks or shrub stems.

Pick a cool day and enjoy the exercise.

Article written Glenn Palmer, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Gardening on Slopes: A Recap of Tips and Techniques

For the past few weeks, we’ve shared a series of blogs about gardening on slopes. Here’s a recap of the tips and techniques covered.

Before you plant

  • Spend a year looking out your windows before you ever put the first plant in the ground. What do you see—or would like to see? What problem areas need fixing?
  • Analyze your site, define your goals, and develop a plan.
  • Resolve stormwater runoff problems.
  • Tackle weeds now—and forever.
  • Install steps, paths, and hardscapes.
  • Do research to find the right plant for the right place. Be aware of the growth habits of different varieties within a plant species.

When you plant

  • Camouflage the slope so it’s not so overwhelming to look at. Do this by varying your plant heights, shapes, colors, and textures.
  • Create backdrops and focal points. These are places the eye stops and rests as you survey the garden. Use plants that act as visual markers of slope edges or entranceways to different parts of the garden.
  • Buy plants in small containers—one, two, and three-gallon sizes. They’re much easier to plant than large root balls, they establish themselves quicker, and they will soon catch up in size—and save you money in the process!
  • Slopes can be dry. A drip irrigation system is very effective and eliminates the need to drag heavy hoses up and down the hillside.
  • Reduce maintenance on slopes wherever you can. Fill in with ground covers and evergreen shrubs. Use reseeding flowers. Let your plants grow together and happily cohabitate.
Steep slope garden uses diverse plantings for visual interest, privacy, and erosion control.

Steep slope garden uses diverse plantings for visual interest, privacy, and erosion control.

While gardening on slopes can be challenging, those slopes need not intimidate you. With good gardening practices, you can create a beautiful and enjoyable steep slope garden paradise to enjoy for years to come.

Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Gardening on Slopes: It’s Never—Ever—Maintenance Free

Regular maintenance keeps slope gardens tidy and healthy.Minimal maintenance is an oft-stated and laudable goal when it comes to slopes. But know that there’s never a maintenance-free garden—except maybe Mother Nature’s forests! We maintain to help our plants grow and establish, and to keep our gardens tidy and healthy.

Initially, you’ll find yourself crawling around on your slopes to pull weeds and fertilize new plantings. But if you’re persistent, if you install a good base of mulch or groundcover, and once your plants become established, maintenance gets easier and easier each year. If you’ve selected the right trees and shrubs for the space, you should have to do very little pruning beyond developmental pruning the first couple of years. If you’ve planted or seeded annuals and perennials, you may need to clean up spent flower heads and stems at the end of the season. Ornamental grasses need to be cut back in late winter. If you have grassy paths, you’ll need to string-trim or mow. If your paths are mulch, gravel, or wood chips, you will need to periodically refresh them.

I grab a bucket and walk through my garden once a week, hand-pulling weeds when I see them. This way, they never get out of control. At the same time, I look over my shrubs for signs of disease or insects that need attention. My grassy paths get a string trimming once every three weeks during the growing season. I allow perennials and annuals—echinachea, poppy, heliopsis, coreopsis, and cosmos—to reseed themselves freely on my steep slopes. Then I spend one nice day in December or January removing the spent flower stems and cleaning up the bank. I estimate about four to eight hours a week of maintenance in my half-acre steep slope garden.

My biggest maintenance challenge is replenishing mulch every other year as it decays and enriches the soil. I use double-ground hardwood mulch that knits together and sticks nicely to the slope. Climbing the hills and spreading the mulch one bucketful at a time is not an easy task. But as my groundcovers and shrubs fill in, I need less mulch each year and even this task is becoming easier.

Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.