A Recipe for Gardening Success: Start with Good Soil

In South Carolina Low Country kitchens, there is an inviolate rule when it comes to making shrimp and grits: Start with good shrimp. What does this have to do with gardening in Western North Carolina? Everything. To make a healthy, productive garden, start with good soil. 

Contents of good soil

What is good soil?
Think of soil as a mixture of solid material (minerals and organic matter), air, and water. The ideal soil contains 50 percent solid materials, 25 percent air, and 25 percent water.

Plant nutrients
Healthy plant growth depends on 18 nutrients in this mix. The primary nutrients include carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, as well as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Secondary nutrients are calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. Micronutrients are iron, chlorine, manganese, boron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, nickel, and cobalt. 

Think of fertilizers as supplements. There is no substitute for starting with well-balanced soil, but fertilizers can provide elements that may be lacking in the soil and can stimulate plant growth. All fertilizers, synthetic or natural, slow or fast release, are labeled with three numbers:

  • N for nitrogen, responsible for foliage growth and color;
  • P for phosphorus, which promotes early root growth and the production of flowers, fruits and seeds; and
  • K for potassium, which helps with hardiness and disease resistance.

Use a soil test to determine what nutrients your soil may need. For more information about soil testing, see http://www.buncombemastergardener.org/testing-soil-advantage-free-testing-december-1-soil-sample-form-gardeners/.

Regardless of what kind of fertilizer you use, be sure to read the directions, use the proper proportions, and follow the manufacturers’ safety guidelines when applying.

Compacted soil has too little air. Poorly drained soil holds too much water. Adding organic matter can help remedy both. North Carolina Extension soil specialists recommend adding about 2 inches of organic matter—compost, manures and pine bark (less than ½ inch in diameter)—to make up about 25 percent of the top 8 inches of your garden soil. For clay soils, they say composted leaves (leaf mold) and pine bark are best—they do NOT recommend hardwood bark, peat moss, pine straw, sand, or wood chips.

Putting it all together
When soil texture and nutrients are in the right balance, plants, beneficial insects, and bacteria thrive. Think back to that bowl of shrimp and grits. We’ve got fresh and flavorful shrimp, but what about the grits? The best grits are smooth and have a consistent texture. The same holds true for soil.

This means removing clods of clay and breaking up large clumps of dirt. The amendments and fertilizers are evenly distributed. Like a cake batter, your ingredients are well-mixed. Finally, rocks and debris are raked out and removed. The product is a luscious soil that is easy to turn, well-drained and rich in the elements that create a welcoming environment for your garden and all the organisms that support it.

Worth the work
When the days lengthen and temperatures moderate, our heads fill with spring dreams of fresh lettuce, rosy radishes, and sugar snap peas.  But before putting a seed in the ground, think of shrimp and grits. Work from the ground up: test the soil, then (like a good cook) add the necessary ingredients to make your soil the best it can be. It’s time well spent and your garden will show its appreciation all year long.

Article written by Janet Moore, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

Useful NCSU Extension publications include:
“Soils and Plant Nutrients”
“Soil Facts: Modifying Soil for Plant Growth around Your Home”
“A Gardener’s Guide to Soil Testing”
“Vermicomposting for Households”

Time to Maintain: Winter Pruning of Crape Myrtle Trees

Potomac 04 Crape myrtle trunks_Jeremy Cherfas_CC BY-NC-ND 2.0_FlickrCrape myrtle trees (Lagerstroemia species) may benefit from winter pruning to improve their shape, encourage new growth, and increase the profusion of flowers in the coming season. But too often, gardeners create such unattractive trees that their pruning methods are dubbed “crape murder”! Proper pruning techniques allow the crape myrtle to grow to its natural shape—multi-trunked, open and vase-like—and to showcase its richly-colored bark in winter. 

Do you need to prune?
Start by taking a hard look at your tree while it’s dormant in late winter (February through early March). Are there crossing branches or branches that grow inward toward the center of the tree? Removing these branches back to the point where they join a larger branch or main trunk will open the center of the tree and create an upward and outward branching structure.

How many main trunks does the tree have? Usually three, five, or seven trunks will be plenty to form a nicely shaped tree. Multiple trunks sitting too close together in the center of the tree or trunks drastically different in diameter may justify removal. If you do remove a main trunk, cut if off at ground level and plan to clip back the suckers that will sprout during the growing season.

Proper tools
For large branches and trunks, use sharp loppers and a pruning saw. Cut branches at a 45-degree angle above the branch collar rather than cutting flush with the trunk.  If branches are thick and heavy, use the three-cut method to prevent bark from splintering—up from the bottom 4 to 6 inches from the collar, down from the top, and then remove the stub.

For removing small branches or seed pods, use hand pruners. Cutting off the seed pods is unnecessary, but if your tree isn’t too tall, and you can reach them, this makes the tree look neater in the winter and may encourage more summer flowers.

For more advice on pruning crape myrtle trees and good “before and after” photos, see Chatham County Extension Agent Charlotte Glen’s articles:

Article written by Beth Leonard, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.

A New Take on Vegetable Standbys

Do you grow the same vegetable varieties every year? Or are you easily seduced by the latest new thing? I’ve tried both approaches, but neither reliably supplies me with the bounty of veggies I imagine! Now, I think I’ve found an easier way to have delicious produce, while minimizing disappointing crop failures.

New/old vegetable varieties
Whether you’re perusing the latest seed and plant catalogs, or cruising your favorite nurseries, box stores, and farmer’s markets, you’ll see plenty of familiar vegetable varieties that are tried and true. You’re also going see the latest award-winning varieties. But have you considered that sometimes it is an older, less touted variety that can save the day? 

What’s different?
Although many gardeners are rediscovering heirloom varieties—typically defined as open-pollinated species in cultivation for at least 50 years—the choices I’m finding more useful in my home garden are not necessarily heirlooms. I’ve succeeded by trying more obscure varieties, as well as different species, subspecies, or even a different genus than the vegetable varieties you’d typically plant. Genetic differences may make these choices better-suited to our soil and climate conditions, or make the plants more resistant to the pests and diseases we typically encounter.

Asparagus bean

Green beans
I know I am the exception, but I have a terrible time growing green beans (Phaseolus vulgaris). Even when I succeed, I don’t enjoy picking them, cutting or breaking off the ends of each bean that grows beyond the tiny stage, or “stringing” those that require fibrous bits removed.

I tried “asparagus beans” (Vigna unguiculata subspecies sesquipedalis) on a whim when my daughter gave me a packet from a Japanese seed company as a “stocking stuffer” one Christmas. They not only grew and produced a steady crop of beans, but the long beans were easier to pick and cut into lengths to fit your recipe!

These beans are the same species as cowpeas—southern peas, black-eyed peas or crowder beans—usually grown for shelled beans. The subspecies that comes to us via Asia produces very long beans, delicious picked once the pods are filling out, but the individual beans aren’t yet visible. You can shell these beans if the pods mature. Grow them on a trellis, like pole beans. These beans do have a “drier” taste, but one I enjoy!

Cucumber 'Poona Kheera'_by TangledBranches_CC-BY-NC 2.0_Flickr

‘Poona Kheera’ cucumber

Cucumbers often succumb to a variety of pests and diseases, and when they don’t, you may find them bitter or that they produce more than you want to eat fresh or pickled. Poona Kheera (Cucumis sativus), a variety from India, is one cucumber that is not as likely to be bitter, is edible at almost any size, and good for cooking as well as eating fresh.

Poona Kheera looks quite different from other cucumbers, fatter with a whitish skin that turns brown as it matures. Grow this variety as you would any other cucumber, but enjoy the unique appearance and excellent flavor!

Tatume squash_by Karen Hine_CC-BY-NC 2.0_Flickr

Tatume squash

The squash borer is my worst garden pest. I don’t use pesticides in my garden, in part because I don’t want to bother about the timing of spraying or dusting. Every year I consoled myself that the few summer squash (Cucurbita pepo) I harvested before the borers struck were plenty—but I could eat yellow squash all summer, just like I do tomatoes and never tire of it!

I’ve had some success with timing plantings or watching for egg masses or killing grubs when they first invade, but nothing reliably worked. I’ve tried growing summer squash substitutes—some edible gourds (Lagenaria siceraria, Luffa species) and winter squash (Cucurbita moschata) harvested early—because they are less susceptible to borers, but the taste just didn’t compare.

Enter Tatume or Tatuma (Cucurbita pepo) and I fell in love! This variety does require space, but is either less attractive to borers or better able to survive their attacks. If you don’t harvest it small—before it reaches softball size— you can use it as a winter squash, too.

Finding vegetable seeds
I always look forward to garden catalogs as the first signs of spring! Whether you are new to gardening or not, you may need help in finding sources for the varieties you want to plant. Many seed companies are now putting their catalogs online and a resource for searching these catalogs makes finding varieties and comparing prices a lot easier! Once you’ve identified a company that sells the seeds you want, check to see if their seeds are available at local retail outlets to save on shipping costs. 

Article by Debbie Green, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer.


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 http://www.doh.wa.gov/Portals/1/Documents/Pubs/334-353.pdf

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” https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/extension-gardener-handbook/1-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 http://content.ces.ncsu.edu/a-gardeners-guide-to-soil-testing
“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 http://www.buncombemastergardener.org/resources/ and select
Soil Test Submission Forms.