The Daily Southerner, Tarboro, NC

April 4, 2011

Q and A with the master Gardeners

Sallie Carlisle

TARBORO — Hello again. I don’t know about your garden, but the weeds are already winning in mine. They must feed on moonbeams or some stardust fertilizer formula, the way they get an overnight jump on me. I am considering an 11-3 shift on my knees to close the gap. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not puling, not yet anyway, just pointing out the obvious. No one has dropped a “Garden of the Month” sign in my yard, not even by mistake!

My colleagues have compiled a long list of questions for this month that we hope will be timely and helpful. Here goes:

First, some questions dealing with the planting of seeds:

   1. When planting seeds, should the seed bed be moist before the seeds are sown?

Definitely, but recognize the difference between “moist” and “wet;” beads of water should not form when you squeeze a handful of soil. If the soil is dry, water the beds first to ensure they are evenly moist before sowing. After sowing, water again.

   2. Which soil mix is best for seeds sown indoors?

Use a soilless mix such as half sand, perlite or vermiculite and half peat moss; or pure fine sand, vermiculite or sphagnum moss.

   3. One colleague complained that when she filled her flats with a perlite soil mix and then watered the mix prior to sowing, all the perlite floated to the top, and the soil mix didn't moisten evenly. How could she get control of this process?

There are two ways to get control of the process. You can put the soil mix into a large bowl or plastic bag and add one to one and a half cups of warm water for every four cups of soil. A second approach is to lower the filled tray very gently into a shallow pan of water and allow the water to be absorbed from the drain holes below. Be patient. Sing a gardening song or some such.

   4. Why do seedlings sown in the house grow to about an inch, bend over and die? Yet another cause for onset of gardeners’ despair.

This is due to a fungus disease called damping off. Using the sterile soilless mixes will solve this problem in most cases. You can also help prevent it by treating the sowing medium with a fungicide, thinning seedlings properly and not overwatering.

And now some other lawn and garden questions:

   5. Are there some plants which should NOT be fertilized?

While some plants such as nasturtium, spider flower, portulaca, amaranthus, cosmos and gazania prefer a lean, infertile soil to insure proper growth and flowering, it is best to let your soil test report guide you in any fertilizer application.

   6. Is it true that if flowers are picked off, the plant will bloom better?

It is absolutely beneficial to deadhead plants to encourage continued flower development. Picking off the flowers as soon as they fade prevents the formation of seed that is a drain on the plant’s energy. And dedicated gardeners will attest to the stress-reducing effects of deadheading. Imagine that rude clerk or the customer service agent in New Delhi as you pinch and toss those lifeless blooms. It really works!

   7. Are grass clippings good for use as mulch?

As with any yard waste, when properly composted, these green by-products return nutrients to the soil and can reduce weed germination. Remember, however, that as yard debris decomposes, it gives off a great deal of heat and ties up nitrogen, which can damage nearby plants.

   8. How close should you spread mulch to the bases of trees and shrubs?

Keep the mulch two inches from trees and one inch from shrubs.

   9. When is the best time to lay sod for my lawn?

For warm-season grasses, late spring is the ideal time because root growth initiates when soil temperatures reach 70 degrees.

   10. Are wood ashes good for the lawn?

Wood ashes supply lime and potassium to a lawn. Because it's fairly difficult to spread ashes evenly on a lawn, you may want to save them for the garden. Watch out though. It's very possible to overuse them if you spread them on the same soil year after year. The soil, even in the most acid of areas, simply becomes too sweet (has too high a pH), in which case you might have to reverse the action by adding sulfur to the lawn. A reminder here that soil testing will give you the best idea of whether the ashes will benefit a particular area of your garden.

   11. How can I encourage birds to nest in my yard?

Here are some cheap enticements to lure the birds your way. Use leftover fabric scraps from craft projects which you have cut into six-inch strips. Place these along with pet hair (which has not been treated for fleas or ticks) into a suet feeder. If you don’t have a suet feeder at the ready, roll the fabric scraps and hair into a loose ball and secure it with wire. Then suspend the ball from a welcoming bough and watch the home decorating begin. Small piles of twigs and untreated grass clippings left about the yard are equivalent to an avian mattress factory and pottery barn combined.

 I know you’ve all been perusing the various nurseries, glorying in the lovely colors and multitude of choices of annuals and perennials available for purchase. Let me share a very meaningful definition of a perennial: a perennial is a plant which, had it lived, would come back every year. With that definition in mind, I did a little survey in the local nurseries and am proffering a list for you of those perennials which might best tolerate our unforgiving heat and drought conditions and truly come back every year: Salvia "Sensation White," Lavandula "Mulberry Ruffles," Dianthus "Rosish One," Verbena "Homestead Purple," Aguilegia "Origami Mix" (Columbine), Coreopsis auriculata "Nana," Phlox subulata "Scarlet Flame." Best of luck with these.

   Meanwhile, Mr. Filbrun is cultivating a most promising crop of new Master Gardener volunteers over at the County Extension Office. By now, they have sunk their roots deep into that voluminous white resource book and plowed through the reams of supplementary reading on subjects ranging from muscadine management to soil sampling. They know how to prune and propagate and they will soon come eye to eye with those nasty nematodes under the microscopes at N.C. State University.

   I am delighted to addend a testimonial of sorts from Ben Brinson, a highly coveted male member of the 2011 Class of Master Gardener volunteers. Ben was a most reluctant candidate. He admits to being submitted to an intense level of coercion to join the class.

   He feared, as many do, that he might expire from lengthy lectures on lawns and lettuces. Instead, he has found himself in the company of a very congenial group of classmates whose primary interests range from frogs and fish to birds and blueberries. He has found that the coursework relates and applies in a myriad of wondrous ways to his own interests and is opening up other paths to pursue, all within the blooming boundaries of the garden. He joins me in inviting you to consider becoming a Master Gardener volunteer, Class of 2012.