The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

July 13, 2012

Ask A Master Gardener

Bob Filbrun

TARBORO — Edgecombe County’s Extension Master Gardener Volunteers, now 35 members strong, are launching a local Q&A column, called “Ask A Master Gardener” for the purpose of engaging the county’s residents in solving common problems concerning horticulture, gardening, and pest management through the utilization of a trained and supervised volunteer staff, staged locally through phone calls and emails.  The Extension Master Gardener program is an educational program designed to enhance public education in consumer horticulture.

For submissions of your questions, an email address will be created in the next week or so.  In the meantime, please call the local Extension Center at 252-641-7815 and tell them you have a question for a master gardener. You ask the questions and a local Master Gardener will return your call with a solution to your problem and share it with readers of this column.

This column also wants to include your “tried and true” gardening techniques and the “old wive’s tales” that you consider sure-fire gardening tips; please share with “Ask A Master Gardener”.

The series of problems and solutions will be those that Edgecombe’s Master Gardener interns have encountered as well as others sent in or called in by our readers.  Answers will reflect research collected from land grant universities (NCSU or NCA&T) and through a national extension website,  

 Q. Why aren't my hydrangeas blooming?

A. Here are a number of possible answers/solutions (from horticulturalist Dick Bir, NC State University):

•    Improper pruning, removing the flower bud for next year's growth

 •    Too much fertilizer, especially a high nitrogen fertilizer, encouraging leaf production

 •    Too much shade. In the east, hydrangeas grow well under the high shade of pine or deciduous trees

•    Weather: a mild winter followed by a cold snap can kill flower buds that have started to swell and are ready to grow.  However, leaf buds are not affected by this temperature change and will continue to grow.

Q. I'm confused about deadheading annuals and perennials. It seems that in some cases you're supposed to take just the flower head, and in others, you cut all the way down the stem. Is there a rule?

A. The purpose of deadheading is to encourage more blooms and prevent the setting of seed. Especially with annuals, the plant needs to be confused into thinking that its purpose has not been fulfilled: propagation of itself. We do this by plucking off (deadheading) the spent flower blossom, thereby making the plant bloom again. It doesn't matter how this is done as it is really a matter of aesthetics. So choose whatever method looks good to you.

Q. Can flower seeds be saved to use during the next growing season?

A. (from Colorado State University Extension Service): The art of saving seed has been practiced by gardeners long before there were commercial seed producers. In fact, most of the vegetables and flowers available today owe their existence to the fact that early gardeners, with an eye for quality, saved the seed of their best plants, sowed them the next year, and in this way improved the species.

Before saving seed, consider the method of pollination, the time of seed bearing, whether the plant is a hybrid, and the manner of seed collection.

There are three pollination methods of concern to the home Gardener: air-borne, insect and self.  If the seed produced is to have the same genetic composition of its parents, it must be pollinated with pollen from the same variety.  In the case of air-borne pollinated crops, there must be no other varieties within a mile shedding pollen at the same time. If there is, some of the harvested seed will result from a cross between these two varieties. The closer the varieties are located, the higher the percentage of crossing.

If a crop is insect pollinated, there should be 1/4 mile separating varieties. Otherwise, some of the seed saved may result from the crossing of the varieties located within this 1/4-mile radius.

Self-pollinated Crops offer the best opportunity for a home Gardener to save seed because the pollen is transferred directly to the stigma within the flower. Even though this occurs automatically, there is some pollen that escapes and can be transferred to an adjacent variety.  Avoid this by separating varieties with a few rows of another crop.

Q. How do you harvest seeds from sunflowers?

A. (from Ohio State University Extension Service): Harvest begins in mid-September and can run into October. A check of the flower head will indicate maturity; florets in the center of the flower disk are shriveled, heads are down-turned, and a lemon yellow color is on the backside. Pull a few seeds and split them with a knife to check if seed meat has filled. Poorly filled seeds may be due to a lack of pollinating insects. To harvest, cut the seed head with about a foot of stem attached and hang in a warm, dry, well-ventilated, rodent and insect-free place. A paper bag with holes or cheesecloth can be placed over the heads to catch falling seeds as they drop during drying. Seed heads can be allowed to ripen on the plant, but cheesecloth or nylon netting will be needed for bird protection. Once the seed is dried, it can be rubbed easily from seed heads. Humidity levels must be kept low to prevent spoilage. As a side note, your sunflowers grown from this seed may not look like their parent plants, especially if they were a hybridized variety.

Q.  What can I do about exposed tree roots in my lawn?

A. (from Plantalk ColoradoTM) - A great portion of a tree's roots are in the upper 12 to 15 inches of soil.  Very often, roots will grow along the surface of lawns, making the area it difficult to mow, fertilize and aerate.

- Removing surface roots may harm the tree or make it unstable and prone to falling under windy conditions. Tree roots should not be covered with soil because this may also affect the tree's health.

- Try replacing grass near tree roots with other shade-tolerant, ground-cover plants which do not require mowing, or mulch the area to hide the roots while allowing oxygen and water to make their way down to the tree's roots.

Q. Where can I get information about becoming a Master Gardener?

A. Call the local NC Cooperative Extension Center at 641-7815.  Participants in the program must complete the training program, pass an examination and volunteer a minimum of 40 hours per year through the local Cooperative Extension Center. The program's objective is to train volunteers to help Extension meet the overwhelming demand for information on horticulture, gardening, and plant problems. Volunteers participate in a series of science-based educational sessions that include many aspects of horticulture and related topics. Then, in return for this training, they assist local Extension personnel in providing information and education.  Currently there are over 3,000 active Master Gardener volunteers in 73 counties in North Carolina.  Three Master Gardener graduating classes have been certified since it the program was first offered in Edgecombe County in 2010.  The next training will begin in January of 2013.