TWGC is a charitable organization focused on sharing gardening and natural beauty thru education and civic programs in New Bern, NC.
by Judi Lloyd
How do I prune my crape myrtle?
By Judi Lloyd
A: Two words: very little. Many gardeners and maintenance companies prune the trees with what is commonly termed “crape murder” or “crape maiming”. This is the practice of cutting back the tree to the main stem each year leaving knobs or “fists”. This practice is at the very least unnecessary and at the most potentially harmful to the tree. The reason to prune a crape myrtle is to maintain its natural shape and to produce strong branches to hold up the large blooms. Drastic pruning doesn’t accomplish either of these goals. What harsh pruning does is lead to a “witch’s broom” effect that that is no longer in proportion and is so dense it does not allow good air flow and necessary sunlight to penetrate the center of the tree. The spindle-like small branches also get overburdened with the large flowers and are predisposed to breakage. As if this wasn’t enough, it also increases susceptibility to pests and diseases and creates wounds on your tree that do not heal well. There is no solid horticultural argument for heavy topping of these beautiful trees.
The right time to prune a crape myrtle is late winter. First, remove any suckers coming from the base of the tree. You can also prune any cross branches, branches that rub and those small branches growing inward toward the center of the tree. These unwanted branches are best removed before they get thicker than a pencil. Remove side branches up to 4-5 feet if you want a more upright look. If you want, you can remove the seed heads but it is not necessary. Nature will take care of them and it reduces your workload. Plus, if you have a 20+ foot tree it becomes very impractical. There are many good videos on the Internet that will demonstrate the best practices on how to prune your crape myrtle. Try the following Missouri Extension video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzzNaId-XjE
So, what if you inherited a previously topped crape myrtle when you bought your house? There are ways to rehabilitate it. One way is to cut the branch beneath the knobs and keep one new sprout as a new trunk. As other sprouts spring up, pinch them off. This may take a couple of years to create a nice new structure but it is worth it. Auburn University college of agriculture in Alabama has a crape myrtle recovery program that demonstrates ways to properly maintain and prune crape myrtles and bring them back to a healthy beauty after over pruning has occurred.
If you feel the tree needs to be topped because it is too tall, you are dealing with the wrong cultivar in the wrong place. It might be best to start over with a more suitable sized crape myrtle. There are several beautiful cultivars with different growing habits. You can choose a small dwarf that is 3-5 feet or a taller tree that can grow 10-30 feet. You can also choose the color of the flowers from white, pink, magenta, lavender or bright red. Bark colors from light brown, gray and to cinnamon also bring interest to your garden. Have fun researching what tree will work best in your landscape. Start with the NCSU article at: https://content.ces.ncsu.edu/crapemyrtles-for-north-carolina
Amaryllis are the royalty of all the indoor blooming bulbs
By Judi Lloyd
The classic Christmas flower, amaryllis provide dazzling displays for holiday decorations, gifts and much needed color throughout the colder months when we do not have much color.
Few bulbs are easier to grow than amaryllis and few bloom with greater exuberance and beauty. Just plant the bulb in good potting soil, water regularly and provide bright, indirect light. A support stake is handy for keeping the blooms upright, but little else is required. Most varieties will begin blooming six to eight weeks after planting; some can take as long as ten weeks, if the bulbs are large.
Plant the bulb, pointed-end-up, in potting mix (never in soil from your garden). Pack the soil gently around the bulb so approximately one-third of the bulb remains above the soil line.
Place the pot in a spot that gets bright, indirect light. Water sparingly until you see about 2″ of new growth. From then on, water regularly. As the plant grows, turn the pot periodically to keep the flower stalks growing straight. Flower buds will appear at the top of each stalk, followed by a dramatic floral display. The blooms will last longer if you keep them out of direct sunlight.
Some amaryllis bulbs sprout leaves first, and then the flower stalk emerges a little later. Others send up the flower stalk first, followed by the leaves. You should see the flower stalk peeking up between the leaves soon.
The stored bulb contains all the “food” your amaryllis needs to sprout and bloom, so it will not need any fertilizer.
How many flower stalks your bulb produces depends on the variety of amaryllis, and the quality and size of the bulb. In general, the larger the bulb (for the particular variety) the more flower stalks you’ll get. When it comes to amaryllis bulbs, bigger is better.
As individual flowers begin to fade, you can carefully snip them off. Once all flowers on a flower stalk have faded, cut the stem back to within a few inches of the bulb.
How lucky are those of us in Eastern NC! We can force amaryllis bulbs to bloom indoors for the holidays and then plant them outdoors to enjoy forever. Amaryllis means to sparkle in Greek.
Garden cleanup has its virtues but can do more harm than good if taken to excess. For instance, many gardeners like to clear dead leaves out from beneath shrubbery, where the leaves often come to rest after fall winds give them a few swirls around the yard. In fact, trees and shrubs would love to have their roots cozied in beneath a thick blanket of leaves. Such a blanket keeps roots warmer in winter, cooler in summer, and moister year-round. All of which spurs roots to grow more, and more root growth means more robust plants.
Many gardeners similarly wield leaf blowers and rakes to remove leaves that have drifted onto the lawn. But these leaves do no harm there, unless they blanket the ground so thickly that they exclude light.
A final pass with the mower might be all that is needed to grind leaves fine enough to filter down through the grassy blades to the soil. A mulching mower, or a conventional mower fit with a mulching blade, does this job well. The benefits of working the leaves into the lawn are similar to those of raking leaves beneath shrubbery. Next summer, your lawn will look nicer and be better able to survive periodic droughts.
Let’s next take a look at all those dead and misplaced tree and shrub branches, many no longer hidden behind green leaves. Wouldn’t it be nice to prune these plants to look healthy, prim and pretty now? Anytime you notice them is a good time to prune dead branches and, in most cases, diseased ones too.
Generally, though, don’t prune for beauty at this time of year. Fall pruning might stimulate a little cell activity at a time when plants should be shutting down in preparation for the cold. And wounds left by fall pruning stay exposed all winter. So, plants are more likely to be injured by cold weather, and pruning wounds are more likely to get infected if plants are pruned now than if pruned in late winter or early spring. Don’t bother with wound dressings to avert infections; they’re generally useless.
If you can’t resist the urge to grab your pruning shears and beautify some trees and shrubs, work with plants that are very cold-hardy and subject to few diseases — ornamentals such as spirea and ninebark.
The place to put most of your tidying energy is into your vegetable and flower beds. Old, infected plant parts left lying around can help spread diseases like tomato leafspots, powdery mildew of zinnia, phlox, and other plants, and peony botrytis.
For specific concerns such as these, it pays to thoroughly clean up this time of year. In this case, ripping dead, old plants, stems or leaves out of the garden and then carting them away to the compost pile also carries away some potential pest problems. Another reason to clean up vegetables and flowers now is to give you an earlier start next spring when the urge strikes you to plant. But some restraint is needed even where vegetables and flowers grew. A few plants left here and there will capture snow and hold it on the ground. Snow insulates the soil and even adds a bit of nitrogen for next year’s plants.
A few stalks left here and there also liven up the drab winter landscape. Birds will flit about old sunflower heads looking for a few remaining seeds. And while seed heads of coneflower and teasel hardly get a second glance in summer, they begin to look mighty interesting come February!
Do your basil plants have dead looking brown spots on some of the leaves? Can they be saved?
By Judi Lloyd
Investigate the possibility that your basil plants have developed basil downy mildew. This is a devastating disease that affects many types of basil. At first, you’ll see leaf yellowing, followed by leaf browning. Leaves will curl and wilt. Check the underside of the leaves for a gray-purple fuzzy material. I’ve listed some sites below where you can compare photographs of your affected leaves to leaves with basil downy mildew.
This is caused by a fungus-like organism called Peronospora belbahrii. It can come from contaminated seed, infected transplants, or from wind-blown spores. It spreads by wind, by rain and water splash, or by your hands, clothing or gardening tools that come in contact with an infected plant. It thrives in humid warm conditions and can spread very quickly, ruining your entire basil crop.
Unfortunately, there is no known cure. Once you see it on your plants you must take prompt action. You can harvest the healthy leaves that show no sign of disease. However, they should be used immediately so get out your favorite pesto recipe. The entire plant and all infected leaves should be bagged and disposed of in your garbage. Do not add this material to your compost pile.
Green-leafed varieties of sweet basil are most likely to develop basil downy mildew. To avoid this problem in the future, look for the sweet basil cultivars ‘Prospera’, ‘Rutgers Devotion’, ‘Rutgers Obsession’, ‘Rutgers Thunderstruck’ and ’Rutgers Passion’. They are new releases that have been naturally bred to be resistant to basil downy mildew. Purple-leafed varieties, Thai basil, lemon basil and spice basil are less susceptible to this disease.
Don’t plant your basil in the same spot year after year. Instead, rotate your crop. Grow your plants in a way that will keep them dry. Plant in a sunny location. Space plants as far apart as possible to increase air circulation. Avoid overhead watering, such as with a sprinkler. Water early in the morning so foliage dries quickly. Use a drip or soaker hose to water. If you use a watering can, wet only the soil, not the leaves.
Once it appears, fungicide treatments available to the home gardener are not likely to control the disease adequately, if at all. Using these products would be a waste of time, effort and money.
Tropical hibiscus shrubs are the darlings of many warm winter gardeners. They flower on and off throughout the growing season in locations that don’t dip below 45F. They often are grown in containers, even in warmer areas, for ease of growing. If you want the same effect, and more, from in-ground plants in colder climates, grow hardy hibiscus. Tropical hibiscus look great planted in shrub hedgerows, as foundation plants or as container plants. While there are many flowers per plant and varieties come in a range of colors, nothing tops the show the hardy hibiscus puts on this time of year.
Hardy hibiscus grows slowly in spring and often you think you’ve lost the plant to winter. However, it eventually starts growing. Once the warm, summer weather hits, the plants explode into color with up to 12-inch diameter, disk-shaped flowers in a range of colors from white to deep burgundy. They stay in flower right up until frost. ‘Lord Baltimore’ is an old- fashioned variety with red flowers. ‘Lady Baltimore’ is similar with white flowers and a red throat. ‘Plum Crazy’ has frilly, pink colored flowers. Give plants full sun and well-drained soil amended with compost and mulch to control weeds. Once the flowers pass, deadhead to prevent self-sowing and cut the plant to the ground after a frost. It will come back year after year. If your plant self-sows seedlings, chances are they will revert to red colored flowers, regardless of the parentage.
Fortropical hibiscus,select varieties, such as the Shades of Summer Series and Tropical Escape series, from a broad range of color choices. Keep plants well-watered and fertilized. Give them enough room to grow in the garden since they can reach 8- to 10- feet tall and wide. Grow them in containers and move containers indoors in winter, even in warm climates, so they will flower longer and get a jump on spring.
Expect leaves and flowers to drop as the days shorten. Cut back on watering and don’t fertilize. The goal is to get the plant to survive, even if it looks ratty come late winter. Come spring it will send out new growth and start setting flower buds for another bloom show.
What are microgreens?
By Judi Lloyd
Sprouts, microgreens, and baby greens are very young, tender plants, used as salads or garnishes on many types of dishes. Each of the names- sprouts, microgreens, and baby greens are all considered different products, as the plant is harvested for eating at different times. They can add color, texture, and interesting flavors to meals.
Microgreens, in particular, are gaining popularity among chefs and more farmers are growing them. These are easy to grow and sprouts and microgreens can be grown indoors at home. Sprouts are the youngest of the three. They are exactly as the name describes—seeds that have just germinated. They may not have any green color to them. Typically, the entire plant is eaten including the shoots, the roots, and the seed, which may still be visible. Popular seeds for sprouting include mung beans, alfalfa, sunflower seeds, lentils, peas, mustards, and others.
Sprouts can be grown in a simple sterilized jar, covered with a couple of inches of water, and then by a food grade cloth The real key with sprouts is sanitation. There is a risk of contamination with Salmonella and E. coli, which is often the result of contaminated seed. Growing them at home does not mean they are safer since seeds are often the source of infection. It is very important to purchase seeds that are sold specifically for sprouting and that have been tested for the presence of microorganisms. Wash hands thoroughly before setting up your sprouting operation.
Microgreens are the next size up from sprouts. Many edible plants make excellent microgreens, including plants whose greens are not often consumed, such as carrots. Lettuces do not make good microgreens because they are too delicate. Common choices are broccoli, dill, basil, arugula, beets, and mustards. They each add a unique flavor and texture to any dish. The flavors are often similar to the mature version of the plant but tend to be more subtle.
Growing your own microgreens at home is easy. Microgreens are grown in soilless potting media, such as a peat moss-based mix with vermiculite or perlite. To grow your own, put potting media from ½” to 1” into a sterile tray with drainage holes. Broadcast seeds across the entire tray or plant in rows and gently press into the media. Some harder seeds, like beets, will germinate more easily if they are soaked in water before sowing. Keep the seeds moist with by misting until they germinate. After germination, keep moisture in the media from below the tray with a solid tray that holds water. Avoid watering the microgreens directly because this can encourage disease to develop. Because they grow in media, do not eat the root. Instead, harvest microgreens by cutting the plant above the soil line when they are approximately 1.5-2.5” tall. Use clean scissors to cut them and gently scoop the harvested handfuls into a clean receptacle.
The different plants used for microgreens vary in time from planting to harvest, but typically the process takes 7-21 days. It is easiest to sow only one cultivar in a tray but if you would like variety, consider planting cultivars that germinate and reach harvest stage in the same amount of time. Baby greens are the next size up. Plants used for baby greens are typically more familiar to us as greens- baby spinach, lettuces, kale, beet greens, and others. We only eat the leaves from baby greens and they are often used in salads.
Next time you’re out at a restaurant or farmers’ market, look for microgreens and give them a try! If you like them, and enjoy growing things at home, consider growing a tray yourself, to add variety to winter cuisine.
Winter is not a time to forget about your garden
By Judi Lloyd
Here are some tasks that should be taken care of over the winter.
Trees and shrubs: Keep leaves raked off lawn and around shrubs as they can create a hiding place for pests.
Lawns and ornamental plantings: Over-seeding with annual rye grass may make for a green lawn over the winter, but it is harmful to lawns, especially centipede. Clean and winterize your mower for the season. Drain gasoline or add a fuel stabilizer.
Flowers: Plant spring flowering bulbs between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And, don’t forget the Master Gardener bulb sale at the Farmers Market! A 2–3” blanket of mulch will protect overwintering perennials and help minimize weeds. Label plants with durable markers and consider mapping flower beds as backup.
Vegetables: Hungry for fresh greens? Start a micro-greens garden on your window sill. Sow micro-green seed mixes in shallow trays of potting soil and harvest when seedlings are 3–4” tall. You can start a new crop each week to continue getting your “salad” all winter. The average crop-time for most micro-greens is 7-10 days from seeding to harvest. Kale, cabbage and collards are the hardiest crops. You can continue to harvest them throughout the winter. Carrots can be left in the ground and harvested as needed. I’m even trying some out on my back deck in pots this year. If temperatures are expected to dip in the mid-20s, cover lettuce, broccoli, spinach and beets to prevent cold injury.
Fruits: Remove any unharvested fruit from trees. Citrus trees, including lemon, grapefruit and mandarins are not hardy outdoors in zone 8, but can be grown in large containers that are brought indoors for the winter.
Houseplants: Cut back on watering for the winter. Allow tap water to come to room temperature before using to water house plants. Because municipal water is treated with chemicals like chlorine or fluoride; it’s a good idea to let the water sit in an open container for 24 hours prior to watering. Place poinsettias in a brightly lit area where temperatures stay above 55°. Remove them from the foil wrappers before watering. If you force amaryllis bulbs to bloom for the holidays, cut back the stems after flowers fade. Place plants in a brightly lit area and water as needed. These bulbs are hardy and can be set outside in April.
– This is good time to take soil samples to send to NC State (there is a $4.00 fee for processing from November until the end of March) to see what you need to do to improve next year’s lawn and garden soil. Note: this should be done every 2 to 4 years.
– Check bird feeders and refill as needed.
– Drain and store hoses and sprinklers.
– After your mums have finished blooming, cut stems back close to the ground and dispose of leaves and stems.
– Winter damage to plants results from drying, freezing and breakage. Keep plants watered during dry spells.
– Store clay and cement planters in a cool, dry location to prevent damage from freezing.
– If you have a pond, prepare it for winter by removing and cleaning filters and pumps.
Is Mistletoe the romantic plant we think of?
By Judi Lloyd
We all think of a romantic encounter when we think of mistletoe. However, mistletoe is actually a semi-parasitic evergreen shrub or plant.
While most plants will root in the ground, when a mistletoe seed lands on a suitable host plant (typically a tree), it sends out roots that penetrate the tree limbs and draw on the trees nutrients and water. As a green plant, mistletoe does contain chlorophyll and is able to make some of its own food, so it does not completely deplete its host tree. But a severe infestation of mistletoe can kill a tree by robbing the tree of its nutrients. There are at least 100 different trees that are susceptible to a mistletoe infestation, but typically the infestation will appear on hickory, pecan, oak, red maple and black gum trees.
Mistletoe is most easily seen in winter. Look for ball shaped green masses up to 3’ wide connected to otherwise bare tree branches. Each mass in a tree is an individual mistletoe plant and a single tree may host only a few or many mistletoe plants. Birds are responsible for spreading mistletoe by seed. They relish its white berries, which ripen in early winter. When birds feed on these berries, the seed inside the berry passes through the bird’s digestive track surrounded by a sticky film that helps the seed stick to tree branches.
Mistletoe spreads and grows relatively slowly and is rarely considered an immediate threat to tree health. Healthy trees are able to tolerate a few mistletoe plants with little harmful effect. Trees that are heavily infested with mistletoe may become less vigorous, stunted, and can possibly be killed if subjected to additional stress from drought, extreme temperatures, root damage, insect infestation, or disease. If mistletoe is growing on trees in your yard the best thing you can do for them is to provide extra water during drought and a 2”-3” layer of mulch or ground leaves around trees from the trunk out to the edge of the canopy. This will reduce competition from grass, conserve moisture, and protect trees from injury by mowing equipment.
If there are trees on your property where mistletoe growth cannot be tolerated, you can simply cut the mistletoe back flush with the branch. Although this will not kill the parasite, it will help slow its growth. Removal of infested branches should be done 1-2 feet below the point of attachment. But if this is going to result in a huge pruning wound, then long term you’re creating additional problems for the tree.
In a tree where many branches would have to be removed to rid it of mistletoe, simply letting nature to take its course is the better option as removing multiple branches is harmful and often fatal to trees. Pruning trees to remove mistletoe is best done in winter by a certified arborist.
Like many organisms that at first appear to only be pests, mistletoe also has some benefits. It is tremendously valuable to wildlife, particularly birds and insects. For most property owners, the presence of mistletoe should be considered a sign of a diverse ecosystem rather than a threat to tree health.
How do I prune my drift and knockout roses?
By Judi Lloyd
Roses can be intimidating for many gardeners. But truly, roses are tough customers that can stand up to a good pruning and even tolerate mistakes more readily than many other plants. Pruning is vital for plant health. It helps protect against diseases and encourages continued blooming for the types of roses that will repeatedly set buds. It also helps shape the plant and opens up the interior for better air flow, preventing fungal diseases. Another reason to prune your roses is to keep them from producing seeds, which will sap their energy and can prevent further blooming.
Basic rose pruning involves removing dead, damaged, or diseased branches and can be done at any time of year. Damage often occurs on crossing branches, where wind causes thorns to rub against adjacent canes.
There are several types of pruning:
Spring Structural Pruning – The purpose is to shape the plant once the threat of frost is past; spring pruning removes dead wood and any damaged wood that may have died back over the winter. It’s better to prune late than too early and suffer unnecessary dieback.
Summer Pruning– Make your cut lower than the first leaflet to manage shape and growth. Both deadheading and shaping can be done from June through September.
Deadheading – This is a good practice for all roses. Make the cut at the 1st set of leaves that have five leaflets on the stem. Normally this is the second or third set down the stem.
A few basic tips for good, general pruning are:
Make your pruning cuts at a 45-degree angle, about 1/4 inch above the bud of an outward-facing leaflet. By pruning at a leaf with 5 leaflets, the buds will grow branches that will produce more flowers. Pruning above that, where there are only 3 leaflets on the stem, can produce non-flowering stems.
Pruning to an outward-facing bud promotes outward growth, opens up the plant to air circulation, creates more pleasing shapes and helps to resist disease.
Look at the overall shape and health of the plant, but begin pruning from the base of the plant. Remove any weak or twig-like branches thinner than a pencil. Removing spent blooms will tidy up the plant and spur further blooms.
Buy the best pruning tools you can afford. Bypass pruning shears are best because they cut cleanly using a cutting blade against a non-cutting edge. You’ll also need bypass loppers or even a small saw for large rose bushes. Good puncture-proof gloves are a must to protects your hands from sharp thorns!
Sharpen your pruning tools periodically and wipe them after each use with a soft, lightly oiled rag to prevent rust. Store tools in a dry area.
Now that you have some tips on pruning your roses, hopefully you’re feeling more confident to take on this task that you may have been avoiding in your garden. It’s easier and less risky than you might have thought. Like anything else, practice makes perfect. So, go ahead, pick up a pair of pruners and give it a try. It’s okay to make mistakes – your rose bushes will forgive you. Remember, it’s better to have a healthy, blooming plant that may experience a rough cut or two than one that, without any pruning, will grow increasingly unattractive and unhealthy.
Information in this article is cited from Monique Allen’s blog in The Garden Continuum.