“Robins in flocks, winter still knocks; Robins in pairs, spring is in the air.”

That old saying may work most of the time,  but this year, with its ups and downs, all bets are off.  I’ve seen robins in pairs, and Canada geese too, and then back to flocks and now in pairs again.  They’re as confused as we are!

Michigan artist Russell Cobane's Springtime Robins

Michigan artist Russell Cobane’s Springtime Robins

But there are all kinds of signs.  Years ago I planted potatoes at the Nature Center using the signs of the moon:  “Plant root crops in the dark of the moon, above ground vegetables in the light of the moon.”   We planted equal size beds under the “right” and the “wrong” signs.   For two years when we dug the potatoes those planted in the dark of the moon out-produced the others by 25% or more.

During that same demonstration we planted corn using the “scientific” criteria and using the “natural” signs.  Old timers say to plant when the white oak leaves are the size of a mouse’s ear while the scientific measure is to plant when the soil temperature is 50 degrees, one inch below the surface at 7 AM.   Best I could tell, these two events occurred about the same time.

Another sign that does seem to work is to have pre-emergent crabgrass preventer spread on your turf by the time dogwoods bloom.  Or “put it out when the Forsythia blooms”.  But, like birds, plants can get confused too.   Winter Jasmine, Jasmine nudiflorum,  normally blooms in January hereabouts, but I’ve seen it in full bloom just this week.

So, fellow gardeners, my message is to keep good records or a diary.  Make up your own signs that match your garden.

And, I’d rather be a little late than try to rush things and get caught in a late cold snap.

Swarming Bees in April

It’s spring, and birds are rushing worms and bugs back to their open-mouthed hatchlings.  Fields are dotted with cows, sheep, and  goats nursing their young new generations of life;   both plant and animal abound.   But for honey bees, reproducing is not about the queen laying eggs and raising more bees.

courtesy of Kansas State University Extension Entomology Department

courtesy of Kansas State University Extension Entomology Department

Honey bees are a fascinating example of a highly social insect where the entire colony of 10,-50,000 bees is just one super organism.   Honey bees reproduce by splitting the single colony into two colonies and they do that by swarming.

April is the height of ‘swarm season’ when large, healthy colonies send out the old, original queen with about half of the population to find a new home. A new queen is raised in the original hive… and voila– two colonies.

But many swarms die in the wild,  so if you see a honey bee swarm (a tight ‘ball’ of bees hanging in a tight cluster, sometimes from trees but they will also cling to any fixed object like picnic benches, fences, automobile fenders)  -  call the Extension office ( 828/255-5522) and we will give you numbers for local beekeepers eager to capture it.

Note:  Since honey bees only sting to defend their home, swarms generally are quite harmless.  The bees are much less defensive, plus they are stuffed full of honey that they packed for their trip to a new hive and cannot physically flex to sting you.

To Mulch or Not to Mulch…That is the Question!

This is the sort of “between the seasons” period when we sometimes look around for things to do in the garden, just to be outdoors on nice days.  And checking the mulch in your shrub borders or flower beds is one of those things than might occur to you.

But why mulch in the first place?  Well, mulch can keep down weeds. It won’t prevent all their seeds from germinating, but it can make it easier to pull them. It can insulate the soil from temperature swings, both summer and winter, and help retain moisture so that plants have a constant supply.  An absorbent mulch can prevent splash that might pass a disease from the soil to the plants and control erosion from water and wind. And as it decomposes organic mulch feeds the plants and the worms, microbes and other organisms that benefit the plants.

straw mulch to discourage weeds and retain moisture

straw mulch to discourage weeds and retain moisture

And, it can add to the esthetics of the garden just by providing a unifying feature.

“Should mulch be replaced every year?”  No! Replenished perhaps but not removed and replaced.

“Can I use cardboard or shredded newspaper?”  Sure, they’re organic and will decompose.  But consider that voles can find shelter under the cardboard and shredded newsprint may blow around. And there is controversy as to whether office paper should be used at all because of the various chemicals involved in its production.  I’d avoid it as a mulch.  Just ship that paper off in your blue bins.

“How deep should mulch be?”  Three to four inches is enough, and of course that will be reduced as the mulch composts.

Say NO to Mulch Vocanos

Say NO to Mulch Vocanos

The exception here is around trees or shrubs .  Mulch piled against the trunk can serve as an “umbrella” shedding water that the roots need or when it does retain moisture two things may happen: the new roots grow upward rather than down or horizontally and the added moisture can lead to fungal canker and trunk decay.  You want to be able to see the curve where the roots go out from the main stem.  Don’t create a “volcano”!

Why You Should Know About Why Trees Loose Bark

The bark of a tree is dead tissue, placed there to insulate the tree to some extent and protect it from damage…squirrels and bears climbing, lawnmowers running into, etc.  As the tree grows and expands the bark naturally has to give and separate a bit.  On rough-barked species we generally don’t see those cracks but on smooth- or thin-barked trees they may occasionally show up. Sometimes, as on a birch tree, we declare that the curling bark is attractive and we enjoy it.

On others,  maybe you ought to be concerned.  So when should you worry?Frost Crack .... University of MichiganFrost Crack …. University of Michigan

On young or smooth-barked trees we occasionally see “frost cracks” caused on a winter day when the sun warms one side of the tree.  The bark expands a bit,  but then the sun goes down and cold air shrinks the bark;  voila, a crack appears on the south, warmest side.  Or more often two appear,  one on the east, another on the west…points where the difference between warm and cold is greatest.  (Rapid growth, as from a wonderfully moist growing season such as we had in 2013 can lead to similar cracks.)

Good for the tree?  No!  Should you be distressed?  No.  Trees have been getting frost- or growth-cracked for eons and somehow survived.

Sometimes on rough-barked trees, the outer layer will pull away from the main stem as it grows. Should this perturb you?   Not necessarily.

Diseases and insects, though, can cause bark to loosen and sometimes fall away,  so in this case investigation is in order.  Get a little concerned.  Take a good look at the inner surface.  If you see tiny drilled holes or winding grooves, those may be insects that are tunneling into the tree.  Not good.

Possible Slime Flux...NCSU

Possible Slime Flux…NCSU

When should you worry?

Perhaps you see soft, dark, perhaps oozy and foul-smelling areas. These indicate a bacterial rot sometimes called Slime Flux. Or you may encounter the light-colored, stringy or fluffy material that indicate a fungal disease.

Begin to be apprehensive..

Back off and take a good look at that tree.  Are there areas of bare branches overhead?  This is the portion of the tree fed by the sap that used to pass through that diseased or insect-infested area.    Dead branches can be a hazard.

Now begin to worry!  Get an Arborist to look at that tree. The tree’s condition, the cause of the problem, options for treating the disease or dealing with the insect, the tree’s location, the possible damage that would result from falling branches or the whole tree, the effect on the landscape by removing it, all need to be weighed to help you decide if it’s time for real distress.

“National Invasive Species Awareness Week”

“National Invasive Species Awareness Week” is February 23-28.   And according to experts with the Weed Science Society of America (WSSA), it’s a topic that deserves our attention.  Non-native plants, animals and pathogens can harm humans and the environment and impact our nation’s economy.  The damage done by invasive plants alone costs the U.S. an estimated $34.7 billion a year.  Invasive weeds can produce skin irritation, trigger allergies and poison pets and livestock.  They can clog waterways, kill native trees, and shade out crops, ornamentals and prized native flora.  They are found in every imaginable habitat, including oceans, lakes, streams, wetlands, croplands, rangelands, natural areas, parks, forests, urban environments, yards and gardens.

Take Kudzu for example.  Please!

Mountain Home In Kudzu Forest

Mountain Home In Kudzu Forest

“Though the impact of invasive species is profound, there are important steps we can take to manage infestations and prevent their spread,” says Lee Van Wychen, Ph.D., director of science policy for the WSSA.   “It all begins with awareness.”

Eight ways you can help:

  1. Learn about invasive species, especially those found in your region.  Your county extension office (www.csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html) and the National Invasive Species Information Center (www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/index.shtml) are both trusted resources.  NC State University’s Going Native website (http://www.ncsu.edu/goingnative/index.html) holds a wealth of information regarding urban landscaping with native plants and helping with the design of your landscape.   The Western North Carolina Alliance has a wallet-sized Do Not Buy Guide (http://wnca.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DoNotBuy_Pocket-Guide_Website-cutout1.pdf) to help stop the spread of invasive species at the source! This guide tells you which WNC invasive plants to avoid purchasing and the native alternatives you can use instead. Just print it out, fold it up and keep it with you when you go to your local nursery to get your spring plantings!

    Oriental bittersweet is an invasive that WNCA and its partners are working to mitigate and remove in Western North Carolina.

    Oriental bittersweet is an invasive that WNCA and its partners are working to mitigate and remove in Western North Carolina.


  1. Clean hiking boots, waders, boats and trailers, off-road vehicles and other gear to stop invasive species from hitching a ride to a new location.
  1. Avoid dumping aquariums or live bait into waterways.
  1. Use forage, hay, mulch and soil that are certified as “weed free.”
  1. Plant only non-invasive plants in your garden, and remove any known invaders.
  1. Report new or expanded invasive species outbreaks to authorities.
  1. Volunteer to help remove invasive species from public lands and natural areas.
  1. Ask your political representatives at the state, local and national level to support invasive species control efforts.


Prune Hydrangeas at the Wrong Time and You Snip off the Season’s Blooms

Late winter is pruning time for many trees and shrubs but we probably get more questions about hydrangeas than other type.  So here’s a quick rundown:

Plants that are grown for their flower display need to be pruned at the right time of year in order not to interfere with flower production. Unfortunately the time of year depends on the type of hydrangea you have.  Here are some guidelines:

Bigleaf and Lacecap Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla)): This common hydrangea generally has pink or blue flowers. the blue shades coming from more acid soils.  For a mature plant removing only the dead wood by cutting those stems to the ground in late winter will allow more air and light to enter.  Any other pruning should be done after the flowers fade but not later than July. If you do prune later you’ll be cutting off the flower buds developing for next spring’s blossoms.

Hydrangea macrophylla

Hydrangea macrophylla

Smooth Hydrangea ( H. arborescens ‘Annabelle)    Because of its untidy growth pattern most gardeners prune the entire plant to 6-12” from the ground annually.  Do this in late winter as the flowers appear on the current year’s growth.

Peegee Hydrangea (H. paniculata ‘Grandiflora”) can get to be a large shrub producing lots of smaller blooms. Severe pruning- cutting back to only two buds at the base of each stem- in early March will produce a smaller shrub with larger flowers. It too blooms on current year’s growth.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (H. quercifolia) is a native and is generally left to grow its natural form. It blooms for a long period on last year’s growth so any pruning should be done as soon as the flowers begin to fade.

For just about any woody plant you can safely follow the rule “If it blooms early in the season on last year’s growth, prune after it blooms, not now. (Forsythia is an example here.)

If it blooms later, on growth that occurs this year, do only limited pruning now, like solving real problems that are difficult to see after the plant has leafed out. Wait until after the blooms have faded before any other major pruning.

Short Day, Long Day….Does it Make a Difference to an Onion?

As you work through a seed catalogue and stop in the Onion section,  you’ll be confronted with a choice between “short day” and “long day” types. So what does that mean and is one better than the other for our area?


This is a comparative term which refers to the approximate hours of daylight a variety of onion will need in order to start developing the bulb.  Short Day means about ten hours a day,  while long day means twelve hours or more. Vidalia, as in Georgia, is a short day onion.

Onions are considered a cool season crop.  In theory, short day types would be better suited to the South; they would mature before summer temperatures arrive and the threat of bolting arrives, sending up a seed stalk, that is.

The Walla Walla, as in Walla Walla, Washington, is long day variety, more appropriate to the north where somewhat cooler conditions prevail.  At least that’s the theory.

But of course plants don’t always go along with human theories.  Talking with a number of experienced vegetable gardeners, at least in our area it doesn’t seem to make much difference which type you plant.  The variety itself, in terms of sweetness, color, size and days to harvest, how and when you’ll plant them and how you’ll use them- green or as keepers- will have a greater impact on your success than just the long or short day label.



Protect Your Potted Hardy Plants

Blog Post Borrowed (with permission) from Jason Reeves, Research Horticulturist at the University of Tennessee.

With the upcoming single digit temperatures predicted, you may want to think about protecting your outside potted plants.   I typically think of plants as being one full zone less hardy when in a pot as opposed to being planted in the ground.   Let’s take Loropetalum for example.   It is a zone 7 (0 to 10 ˚) plant.  If the temperatures drop between 10 – 20 ˚ (Zone 6) for any length of time, I would be concerned with it setting above ground.   A lot of hardiness has to do with the length of time that the temperature is held at such.   One night at 10˚ will likely do little to no harm but a few days at or below 10˚ could be the kiss of death.

Hardiness Zones are as below:

Zone 5 is -20 to -10˚;  Zone 6  is -10 to 0˚;  Zone 7 is 0 to 10 ˚;   Zone 8 is 10 – 20˚

There are several things you can do to help protect plants with questionable hardiness.  The most obvious is to move them indoors.   An enclosed garage usually does the trick.   You can bring them into a heated space, but it is best for them to remain dormant so don’t leave them in for more than a few days.   Other options include digging a hole in the ground and planting pot and all,  but that’s probably not an option today or tomorrow.   Raking leaves or pulling mulch around the pots is another option.   You can even pile leaves over the top for added protection.   If the plant is a conifer (needled evergreen), don’t leave the raked leaves over the foliage for an extended time (several weeks) or you stand a chance of causing damage to the foliage.

Typical Home Nursery

Typical Home Nursery

Any plant that is borderline hardy as well as plants that are considered hardy once established, but were fall planted (in the ground) would also benefit from some added protection of leaves and mulch.   Plants I would be most concerned with include loropetalums, crapemytles, gardenias, edgeworthias, less hardy cultivars of Encore azaleas, variegated chinaberry, ‘Florida Sunshine’ Illicium and purple muhly  grass.

Contrary to what many people think, most all plants, particularly those that hold their foliage during the winter need to be well watered before the soil freezes.   Once the soil freezes the plant cannot take up moisture but the foliage continues to need water and will desiccate in the winter wind.  Once the soil freezes the plant cannot take up moisture but the foliage continues to need water and will desiccate in the winter wind.

Another thing to keep in mind is that as temperatures begin to rise , the freeze/thaw cycles do damage to the root systems.   It is best if plants held in pots can be placed in a shaded location to temper the thawing process.

A Recipe for Planting a Live Christmas Tree

ChristmasTreesSo you’ve got a live Christmas tree.  What are you going to do with it after Christmas?

First of all, get it out of the house soon.  Ideally a week in a heated home would be maximum. But remember, nature didn’t put that stem there to be used as a handle. Never pick it up by the stem! The root ball is heavy and you can damage the tree that way.

Choose the planting site now.  Recognize that this six foot tree will grow,  so consider its size twenty years from now, both height and width.  In other words don’t put it under a power line or right next to the front door.

If the ground is frozen I suggest waiting for warmer weather because it’s hard to pulverize frozen soil for backfill.  If you can’t plant it right away store the tree in semi-shade out of the wind.  Keep it vertical and the root ball moist.  Covering the ball with leaves will help to retain moisture and insulate against a freeze-thaw cycle that can damage the roots.

You’ll want the root ball to sit on firm soil at the same depth it was growing in the field. Dig the hole a lot wider than the ball but not deeper.

A ball wrap of natural burlap will decompose so you don’t need to remove it.  Open it and fold it under so that it won’t restrict root growth or act as a wick, drying the soil around the ball. If the wrap is plastic, though, remove the wrap after the tree is in place.

To encourage root growth, mix a little, about a cupful, of superphosphate, 0-46-0, into the hole as you backfill.  Add water to settle the soil and eliminate voids.  Don’t fertilize with nitrogen because you don’t want to encourage the growth of new needles now.

Finally, plan on giving that tree lots of TLC for the next three years.  It’s been through a very traumatic experience, one you want it to forget.

Recycle your Christmas Tree! Christmas trees will be collected by the city of Asheville according to the regular brush collection schedule.  Residents are asked to remove lights, tinsel, ornaments, and stands prior to placing the trees to the curb for collection.

Residents can also drop off Christmas trees for recycling at the Buncombe County Landfill located at 81 Panther Branch Road and at private yard waste facilities.

Mistletoe, a Plant of Contradictions


Mistletoe in a Silver Birch

Mistletoe in a Silver Birch

We don’t see much mistletoe in the mountains but it does grow here.  It’s interesting that Mistletoe is toxic yet it is used for wine and medicine. Mistletoe is lauded as forage for birds, yet it is parasitic on trees. Mistletoe is native from the mid-Atlantic to Florida, easily found in the Piedmont and low-country of the Carolinas, yet is uncommon in our mountains.  Mistletoe is considered a pest in many states yet is the State flower of Oklahoma.  And people seem to get an urge to kiss when they stand beneath it.  Truly a plant of contradictions.

There are many species of Mistletoe but the one we see most is Phoradendron leucarpum.  It is semi-parasitic on certain trees, penetrating their bark to get moisture and nutrients but using its own leaves to photosynthesize sugars and starches.  It weakens the host tree but seldom causes its death.  Mistletoe is dioecious meaning that there are separate male and female plants.

Mistletoe Berries

Mistletoe Berries

So how does Mistletoe get up into the tops of trees?  Nature arranges that by making the winter berries attractive to birds but quite sticky.  A bird eats the fruit. It then flies to another branch rubs the sticky seed off its bill where it sticks.  With luck that seed eventually germinates and voila, another Mistletoe plant.

Enjoy your Mistletoe!