What’s the Dirt?


Have you ever wondered what soil is and if that dirt in your yard is any good for gardening? Although Buncombe County has dozens of soil types, understanding soil basics isn’t that hard. All soils have the same ingredients: minerals, organic materials and the spaces between them, which are filled with air and water. Minerals—mostly weathered rock—make up the bulk of any soil. The smaller amount of organic matter comes from the decay of any living thing, plant or animal! In an ideal soil, half is solids, with equal amounts of air and water filling the space that’s left. This perfect soil provides support for plants’ roots, and the water and nutrients they need to grow.

Ideal Soil:soil piechart

Of course, it’s unlikely your patch of earth is faultless! The types of rock on a site, the land contours, and climate and biological processes combine to produce soil’s texture, mineral content and acidity (pH). For a plant, these soil characteristics may mean the difference between life and death.

Soil Image

Soil texture is related to the mix of sand, silt and clay particles and affects the ability of the soil to contain air and water. Buncombe County soil types tend to have more clay particles, making them finer-textured, able to hold too much water and susceptible to compacting.

On the plus side, minerals in clay particles are more chemically reactive than those in sand and silt, making them better able to hold nutrients. Buncombe County soils do tend to be acidic (low pH).This makes some of the nutrients, such as phosphorus,  unavailable, while releasing others that may be toxic to plants, such as aluminum.

Using plants that prefer the soil you have is an efficient and effective approach to gardening. You can improve your soil by increasing organic matter through mulching and adding lime to raise very low pH to more hospitable levels.

If you want to learn more about soils, a low-cost online course is available from NC Cooperative Extension at:


And 2015 is the International Year of Soils:







Soil Testing

Soil-image-300x206-100x100With the garden asleep for the winter, many gardeners anticipate new plants in the coming months.   But what about the garden soil? Is the soil pH acidic or basic, adequately fertile and with appropriate levels of essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfur, manganese, copper and zinc? A soil test will answer these questions and help in deciding on plant choices, soil preparation and fertilization.

soil-sample1Soil test kits can be picked up at the county Cooperative Extension office. Using a clean stainless steel or chrome plated trowel, dig about 6 inches deep in 4 to 5 spots in the testing area. After collecting equal amounts in each spot, place the dry soil in a clean bowl or bucket. Be sure to combine well, fill the soil test box to the fill line and label. Take separate samples for different areas, such as lawn, blueberries, vegetables or flowerbeds. Complete the soil test form, place on top of soil test boxes in a cardboard box, and mail to the address listed on the form. It is helpful to keep a ‘cheatsheet’ at home to remind you where each sample came from.

After the lab has tested the soil samples, you will receive a test report with recommendations for fertilizer and pH amendment. During the winter it takes about 2 months to receive your test results and there is a charge of $4 per test kit box.

Knowing your garden’s soil type, pH, and base fertility will allow you to garden more knowledgably with better results. Now you have a reason to get back out in the garden this winter.

For more information:   http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/a-gardeners-guide-to-soil-testing.pdf


Poinsettia Tidbits


Statistically, poinsettias are the bestselling of any potted flowering plant in the United States. Total yearly retail sales add up to around 144 million dollars, with North Carolina being second only to California in sales.

Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima) is of the spurge family and is native to southern Mexico and Central America, growing in the deciduous forests at moderate elevation. In its native habitat, it will grow to 15 feet; the leaves were used by the Aztecs as a dye and the sap as a medicine.


Native poinsettia

Poinsettia supposedly got its Christmas orientation in the 1600s when priests sent young girls out to gather flowers to place around a nativity scene. The plant was introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Poinsett (hence its American name). Poinsett, an amateur botanist and the first ambassador to Mexico, sent cuttings back to his plantation in Greenville, SC.

Contrary to popular belief, poison control centers have determined that the plant is not poisonous. There are some skin irritating components, but none are serious.



Modern breeding, which did not begin until the 1950’s, has produced over 100 different cultivars with colors of varying shades of red, pink, white and spotted bracts (or modified leaves). Modern cultivars will hold the leaf color for a fairly long period of time and will live for extended periods of time if well-tended.

Caring for your holiday poinsettia is easy. The average household temperature will be sufficient, and lighting from a window will sustain the plant in the winter months. The plant should be watered only when the top part of the potting soil is dry. Overwatering is not a good thing.

imageTo extend the life of your poinsettia and to regain color for the next year is much more time-consuming, but it can be done. This winter, continue to care for your poinsettia until after the last frost, and then move it outside, remembering not to overwater. Introduce the plant to brighter light in increasing increments, as the leaves will burn if moved directly into the sun. Maintain during the summer as any potted plant. Around the first of October and before first frost, move the plant inside. To obtain bract color, the poinsettia will require 13-14 hours of TOTAL darkness every day for about 2 months. The remaining 10-11 hours a day should be the brightest light that is available. Any introduction of light during the darkness hours will retard color development. It’s probably easier to go to your favorite nursery and purchase a bright-colored, beautiful poinsettia grown under controlled conditions in a greenhouse.


Holiday Plant Videos

Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Agent Alison Arnold has created two very helpful videos. We hope you enjoy these videos and find them useful. We encourage you to share them with others.


The first video tells how to purchase and care for healthy holiday plants.



imageThe second video tells how to purchase and care for Christmas trees, both cut and live.



Your Buncombe County Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Volunteers wish you a very joyous holiday season and a new year filled with gardening success!


Your Christmas Cactus May Not Be a Christmas Cactus

ChristmasCactus2Did you know that there are actually three different cactuses that most folks think are Christmas cactus (…and by the way, they aren’t cactuses; they are Epiphytes). The beautiful winter blooming plant is a non-parasitic native of the rain forests of Brazil and grows in the tree branches and in rock crevices on the ground, using nutrients from air and rain.

There are three botanical names… Schlumbergera truncata, commonly known as Thanksgiving cactus, Schlumbergera bridgesii, commonly known as Christmas cactus, and Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri, commonly known as Easter cactus. The three are known for the month (or holiday) during which they bloom, natively established by their natural elevation in the rain forest.
Most of the cactuses we see for the Christmas season are actually Thanksgiving cactuses, forced to bloom for our Christmas season. You ask…How do you know which is which?  The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) has flat leaves with rounded smooth teeth and anthers that are purplish-brown.

Schlumbergera bridgesii

Christmas Cactus….Schlumbergera bridgesii

The Thanksgiving cactus (Schlumbergera truncata) has flat leaves with pointed teeth & hairs, and anthers that are yellow.

Thanksgiving cactus…Schlumbergera truncata

The Easter cactus (Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri) has bristles on the leaf segments; the blooms are star shaped.

Easter Cactus….Rhipsalidopsis gaetneri

Many folks have trouble getting the beauties to re-bloom year after year. Quite simply, it seems that neglect works for me. In the spring, I take the root bound pot outside to a shady area for the duration of the summer. Rain is the only water it gets (well, maybe a drink during the dry time). The experts say to fertilize through the summer months with a soluble solution of 20/20/20, but I don’t think I’ve ever fertilized mine. Before frost, bring the cactus inside. The key to bloom is shortened daylight hours with cool 50-55 degree temperature nights of total darkness. (above 65-68 degree nights and it will not bloom). Controlling these conditions will determine when the plant blooms. Letting the fall weather dictate the timing, my cactus bloomed early in November this year. If the humidity in the home is rather low, there can be a problem with bud drop. Broken leaves and stems will root easily in moist (not soggy) potting soil… add about 20% perlite to the mix to get good drainage. Overwatering, especially with the Easter cactus, can be their death wish.

Whence cometh our Christmas trees for Yule?

imageHave you ever seen the acres of nicely shaped Christmas trees on a farm and wondered how the farmers do that?

Although there are several tree species grown for this purpose, in western North Carolina the most popular is the Fraser fir, followed by Colorado blue spruce, white pine, and sometimes Scotch pine. Each has special cultural needs and shearing techniques so let me generalize on what goes into preparing a 6-8’ tree for sale.

Seeds are generally collected from the wild. They’re cleaned, chilled, and sown into well prepared beds where they receive lots of TLC in the form of irrigation, weeding, being covered with a shade cloth, pest control and more. Even so, germination is low, perhaps only 10%.

Two to three years later they are large enough to be moved into line-out beds for another two years until finally being transplanted into the growing field. A typical density will be 1500 or more trees per acre.

Then starts the pruning and shearing that gives the Christmas tree its symmetrical and balanced shape. Timing and frequency depend on the species but most will receive one or more visits each year.image

The actual shearing can be done with hand pruners and machetes, but many growers will use some sort of motorized device, perhaps something like a weed-eater with a sharp blade.

In addition to shaping, the trees must be fertilized, weeds controlled, pests spotted and controlled, and often irrigated.

Finally, after at least eight to ten years and dozens of visits by the grower, the tree is ready for harvest. The consumer sees it, whether pre-cut, or balled and burlapped, or perhaps harvested by the family itself from a tree farm, as an important part of a holiday tradition. To the farmer that tree represents the maturing of a sizeable investment in capital and labor.

Microclimates and Creating Them

A microclimate is the climate of a small (or sometimes fairly large) area that is different from the area around it. It may be warmer or colder, wetter or drier, or more or less prone to frosts. Microclimates are created by the environment, but we can help nature along by some of the things we do and where we do them.

As gardeners, one of the first things we learn is that some plants just won’t live in certain climates. Thus, the USDA developed a cold hardiness zone map (http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/) to help us know what will survive and thrive in certain areas, and that map is a truly good guideline to set parameters for us to follow. We can stretch the limits of the cold hardiness zones by using, to our advantage, the microclimates that are naturally occurring and also creating new ones ourselves.

Micro MicroNaturally occurring microclimates are usually not changeable, so we learn to work with them. Examples are lakes and streams (ever heard of lake effect weather?), slopes and their directions, boulders, elevation, and wind velocity, just to name a few. Lakes and streams are naturally at lower elevations and are wetter; therefore, the area around them will be cooler and more prone to frost, thus a microclimate. Remember, cooler air slides downhill. South facing slopes will get more sun in the winter and a microclimate is created. Large boulders (also brick, stone walls, etc.) absorb the sun’s heat in the daytime and radiate that heat out as temperatures drop, so again, a warmer microclimate is produced. Higher elevations not only mean lower ambient temperatures but also heavier wind. Wind will dry out vegetation, especially evergreens and woody plants.

Painting this south-facing privacy fence white might have toasted the vegetation in front of it.Micro2

Creating our own microclimates will involve planning and analyzing the landscape around us. Planting questionable hardiness vegetation should be done after careful thought of the environment. Remember that the unobstructed south side of your home will naturally get more sun and less wind, so less hardy plants will be more likely to survive than on the north side. If that south side of the house is stone and/or brick, that vegetation will be even more likely to survive. As hardscaping is planned, keep in mind that a light-colored object, i.e. fencing, will reflect more heat than a darker object. Obstructions, like fencing, will also form microclimates behind them. Remember cooler air slides downhill and will puddle behind the fence on a downhill slope.

For further thoughts and ideas on microclimates, visit Cornell University’s http://www.gardening.cornell.edu/weather/microcli.html .

November Garden Tasks to Save Time and Money

November 1st brought first frost, first freeze, and first snow, all in one morning! Winter is on the horizon, but there are still some essential gardening tasks to be done.

Soil tests save time and money! Your lawn and gardens will grow better, and you will not waste money on unneeded fertilizer. Free soil tests are available for samples received in Raleigh by November 25th. After that, they will be $4 per sample. Soil test boxes and instructions are available at the Extension office. For more information about soil testing, go to http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/a-gardeners-guide-to-soil-testing.pdf

Regardless of soil test results, now is the time to fertilize your lawn with one pound of slow-release nitrogen per 1000 square feet. Lime may be applied if a soil test indicated pH below 6.0. Keep leaves off your lawn, and save those leaves for composting.

Autumn leaves

Any remaining diseased foliage should be removed and bagged for the landfill. Perennials can be divided and dead foliage removed. Remember that wildlife needs shelter for the winter. Often this is dead foliage and fallen evergreen branches, so consider leaving non-diseased foliage in place until spring. The birds, bees, and other small critters will appreciate it.

Clean and oil your garden tools and equipment so they will work better and last longer.

For the best return on your investment, now is the time to plant trees, shrubs, ground covers, and spring-flowering bulbs. Roots will grow through the winter, and plants will do better when summer heat returns.

Safety Recall: Fiskars 32″ Titanium Bypass Lopper, Model 6954

This information is provided as a public service because of its safety implications.


Sold at Home Depot from May 2011 through June 2014 for about $40.00.  The lopper handles can break when attempting to cut branches, posing a risk of serious injury and laceration. Model 6954 is located on handle label as shown in the image below. No other titanium loppers or models are affected by this recall.

If you have this lopper, stop using the lopper immediately.

Fiskar would like to send you a prepaid shipping box to return your 32” Titanium Bypass Lopper Model #6954 to them for a free replacement. Please visit the following website to provide your information in the form below, or contact them at (877) 495-6645 (anytime).


No endorsement of the product nor the manufacturer by NCSU Cooperative Extension Services is intended nor should be implied.