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The Gardener’s Dirt March 2008

 March 2008

The Gardener's


Information you can dig into.

North Carolina State University
College of Agriculture and Life Sciences
North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service
Johnston County Center
2736 NC 210 Highway * Smithfield, NC 27577
919 989-5380    

Shawn Banks
Extension Agent
Agriculture—Consumer Horticulture

In this Issue
Feature Article

Spotlight Plant


Pest Alert

Gardening To-Do
This newsletter offers timely information for your outdoor living spaces
Addressing the most common questions ranging from container gardening,
tree pruning, wildlife management, to fire ant control, insect
identification and lawn establishment.  

Feature Story Banner

Using Mulch
By: Sharon Austin

As spring approaches, I get Spring Fever.  Every year presents challenges.  This year’s forecast of long-range drought has me very concerned.  We must think of ways to protect established plants and give new plants a good start.  One of the most effective ways is to apply “mulch”.  Mulch is any organic or inorganic matter laid on top of the soil as a cover.  Mulching is really nature’s idea.  Each day nature produces large quantities of mulch in the way of fallen twigs, leaves, needles, spent flower blossoms, pieces of bark and many other organic materials. 

To understand what mulch is, you could go for a walk in the woods.  Notice the ground is not bare.  It is covered with leaves and other matter.  If it hasn’t rained for a while, you will notice the top leaves will be dry.  If you turn the top layer over you will see moisture on the soil and the ground is cool.  You may see earthworms, insects and other organisms eating the mulch, breaking it down, and making the nutrients available to the plants.  By applying mulch to our gardens we mimic how nature cares for plants in the wild: 


  • Protects soil from wind and rain erosions.
  • Retains soil moisture
  • Shades the soil from the sun.  Hard, baked soil repels water and limit’s the movement of oxygen into the soil.
  • Keeps soil cooler in summer and warmer in winter, keeping soil temperature even.
  • Organic mulches improve the soil structure.
  • Reduces weed growth, when applied deeply enough to prevent weed germination or smother existing weeds.
  • Prevents soil from splashing, which stops soil erosion and the spread of soil-borne diseases.
  • Adds to the beauty of landscaping by providing uniform color and interesting texture.


  • Mulch Toxicity:  Sour mulch can quickly damage plant tissue and lower soil pH, which can result in injury or death.  Good mulch smells like freshly cut wood or has the earthly smell of good garden soil.  You can check the pH level before use; sour mulch will have a pH of 1.8 to 2.5.  Symptoms of using sour mulch include yellowing of the leaf margins, scorching or dropping of leaves.  Poor handling causes sour or “acid” mulch.
  • The Artillery Fungus:  This fungus shoots spore masses high in the air.  They stick on leaves of plants, cars, etc.  They are very difficult to remove.  To avoid this fungus, use mulches that do not contain wood.  Use bark mulches, especially pine.  If already in place, cover hardwood mulch with pine needles.
  • Slime Mold:  Slime molds are another type of nuisance fungus.  They first appear as bright yellow or orange slimy masses that may be several inches to a foot in diameter.  They are harmless to plants, but unsightly.  One of the most commonly known is “Dog Vomit Fungus”.  There is no control, but removing the mass will reduce the chance of seeing it again.
  • Stinkhorn Fungi:  Consist of fruiting bodies or mushrooms, which often come up in the fall and exude a very unpleasant odor.  Removing and disposal of the mushrooms as soon as they appear will reduce the odor.  Consider a replacement of hardwood mulch with pine bark, pine needles, or composted mulch.

Mulching is one of the most important ways to maintain healthy landscape plants. The choices of mulch are extensive both organic and inorganic.  Whatever you choose will be a wonderful asset to you and your yard.  It will take some hard work, but the benefits you reap will far out way the work.

 Spotlight Plant banner
Wax Myrtle plant near a building
Wax myrtle near a two story building


Wax Myrtle

Myrica cerifera

Here is another native plant to the southeast United States.  It is found in the wild in a variety of location from swamps and marshes to fence-lines in fields.  It will tolerate a wide range of soils and growing conditions.  One advantage of this plant is that it can fix atmospheric nitrogen.  This quality allows it to live in infertile soils.  As with most plants it does much better when given good fertility. 

This evergreen plant can be used as a short screening plant.  It reaches a normal height of about 10 to 15 feet tall and has a nearly equal spread.  The leaves are a dark olive green in color.  With a closer look there are yellow resin glands dotting the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves.  As the weather warms in the spring the leaves give off a wonderful “bayberry candle” aroma. 

The white flowers and dark gray fruits are very small and usually not very noticeable.  They are in clusters on the stems so they can be noticed if the plant is limbed up to be more like a tree than a shrub. 

There are several newer cultivars available on the market including some that are dwarf in stature or more dense in foliage.  A new one that may not be on the market yet has variegated foliage to add a new color to an older plant.

Wax Myrtle leaves and berries
Wax Myrtle leaves and berries
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Hand holding clipboard          Announcements banner heading            Hand holding clipboard

  • How to Make a Rain Barrel Monday, March 10, 5:00pm to 8:00pm.  This is actually a 1 hour workshop that will be offered 3 times in one night, at 5:00pm, 6:00pm and at 7:00pm.  This workshop will cost $35.00 to cover the materials to make a rain barrel.  Participants will get to make a rain barrel to take home.  Space is limited and will be filled when the space is paid for.  Please call the office for more information on how to reserve your space.  (919)989-5380  This class is currently full.  We are trying to schedule another class.  If you are interested please call and let us know.
  • Dormant Pruning of Woody Ornamentals Saturday, March 15, 10:00am to 12:00 noon.  In this two-hour workshop participants will learn how to make proper pruning cuts and have the opportunity to make prune plants at the Extension Office. 
  • Growing Organic Cover Crops and Weed Control Thursday, March 27, 7:00pm to 9:00pm classes continue with a class on weed control and cover crops.  Come learn how to manage weeds in the garden using cultural methods that reduce or eliminate the need for chemicals.
  • Southern Ideal Home Show at the Raleigh Fairgrounds April 4-6,.  Extension Master Gardener's and Extension Agents will be on hand to answer gardening question.  The theme this year is Drought Tolerant Plants.  The price to get into the show is $8.00.  For more information visit the show's website. at http://www.southernshows.com/hsr/ .
  • Lowe’s Home Improvement Clinics Saturday, April 19, 10:00am to 12:00 noon, Clinic at Lowe's Home Improvement in the 40/42 area.  The Extension Master Gardener's will be in the garden center area talking about dealing with drought.  Stop by and learn how to manage your landscape to survive the drought and learn what plants are most likely to survive during a drought.  The Master Gardener's will also be able to help with other gardening questions as well.

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 Insect Investigator banner
 Easten tent caterpillar egg sack and larva

Egg sack of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar

Eastern Tent Caterpillars

As the leaves emerge on the trees the tent caterpillars emerge from their egg sacks where they have been resting all winter.  Driving down the road you will soon notice webs at the point where the branch meets the trunk of the tree, these are the nests for the Eastern Tent Caterpillars. 

It is best to treat them while they are small using a pesticide containing B.t. as the active ingredient.  B.t. is a bacteria used as a chemical spray that targets caterpillars specifically.  Two of the available products are Worm Whipper and DiPel.  There may be others available.  Ask at the local garden center to find out which product they sale.

For more specific directions on mixing and spraying chemicals, read and follow the label directions.

 Tent caterpillar nest in a wild cherry

The nest of the Eastern Tent Caterpillar
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Gardening to-do Banner


(or this month it's 'What do I do about weeds?)

  • REMEMBER, the best defense against weeds is a healthy lawn.  Learn how to care for your lawn throughout the year.  Visit TurfFiles and click on Turf Tips to learn more about your lawn type.  Keep it happy, healthy and weed free.
  • Control existing weeds now, before they get large and/or set seed.  A little work now will save a lot of trouble later.lawn mower clip art
  • For
    yards with an established weed problem, use pre-emergent herbicides to
    kill seedlings as they germinate. Pre-emergent herbicides can be used
    to control crabgrass and other broadleaf weeds.  Pre-emergent
    herbicides (according to label directions) should be applied while the
    forsythia  is in bloom, late February to mid-March.
  • Sharpen mower blades!  A sharp blade cuts.  A dull blade tears – making grass susceptible to diseases.


  • Divide fall-blooming perennials that are overgrown, such as asters, primrose, irises, violets, shasta Camillia with leaf gall diseasedaisies and mums. This is an easy way to enlarge your garden.  
  • Control
    leaf gall on azaleas and camellias. Leaf gall, a fungal disease, shows
    up as swollen leaves covered with a white powdery material. It is
    unsightly but generally not harmful to the plant. Pick off the affected
    leaves and dispose of them to avoid spreading the fungus.  
  • Do not compost diseased plant material.
  • Remove
    protective winter mulch from tender perennials in early March to warm
    the soil and stimulate the plant to grow.  Apply fresh mulch in April
    after perennials have emerged.  Mulch helps with water conservation and
    weed control. https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-608.htmlCarolina yellow jessamine
  • Spring
    flowering shrubs such as quince, spirea, forsythia, azalea, Camellia
    japonica, Carolina Jessamine , viburnum, mock orange, weigela, Oriental
    magnolia and Indian Hawthorn flower on old growth. Prune them soon
    AFTER they bloom.
  • Time for heavy, rejuvenation pruning of summer-blooming shrubs.  Prune holly, Nandina and Beautyberry before new growth begins.
  • Althea,
    Buddleia, Vitex, Crape Myrtle and Pomegranate can be pruned at the
    beginning of March to stimulate more flower production later.
  • Prune roses before bud break. https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-641.html
  • For a better show next spring, let the foliage of spring-flowering bulbs die back naturally. 
  • Are
    you fighting to keep grass growing under your trees? Or is there bare
    ground that erodes in heavy rains? Trees usually win in any competition
    for moisture and nutrients, and turfgrass is not well adapted to life
    in the shade. Mulch or living groundcovers are better choices than
    grass under large trees.
  • Ground covers act as "living
    mulch." Low-maintenance, shade-tolerant ground covers include
    pachysandra, periwinkle (vinca), ajuga (bugleweed), liriope or mondo
  • A 2-3” thick layer of composted mulch conserves
    moisture, reduces erosion and provides nutrients to the tree. Keep
    mulch away from the trunk of the tree to discourage rodents and rot.
  • Protect
    shade tree roots from injury. Remember that most of a tree's feeder
    roots are near the soil surface, under and just outside the tree
    canopy. If digging, foot traffic, or vehicles injure roots then damage
    to the tree can range from slowed growth (minor) to the death of the
    tree (major!). Some trees, such as dogwoods, are very susceptible to
    root damage; others, like maples, are more tolerant.


  • radishesPlant
    cool-weather vegetable crops such as lettuce, mustard greens, sugar
    snap peas, radishes, onions, potatoes, spinach, and cole crops (such as
    cabbage and collards) as soon as soil can be worked. https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/hort/hil/hil-8016.html
  • If a ball of soil crumbles when squeezed in your fist, the soil is workable.
  • Take a soil test (we have free kits here) to see how much fertilizer to apply around pecan trees.  It's time!
  • Beets, broccoli, cauliflower and Chinese cabbage can be started by the third or fourth week of March. 
  • Now
    is the time to start seeds indoors for vegetables such as tomato,
    pepper, eggplant, and others to get a jump-start on the summer growing



  • Take photographs of your yard while your spring bulbs are blooming, so you can remember where to plant more bulbs in the fall.

HOUSEPLANTSBegonia in cream color pot

  • Repot houseplants in fresh commercial potting mix. 
  • Before
    re-using old pots, clean them with detergent and water, or a 10%
    chlorine bleach solution, to remove salts and disease-causing
  • Wait a month after repotting before fertilizing.

Need Help



Got Questions? We've got answers!

If you have a gardening issue you would like to see addressed in this
newsletter please let me know I will do what I can to get you the
information you need.  Contact me by e-mail at shawn_banks@ncsu.edu or by phone at (919) 989-5380.

The Johnston County Master Gardener Volunteers are available Monday,
Wednesday, or Friday from 1 to 4 pm to answer questions as well.  They
can also be contacted by phone at (919) 989-5380 or by e-mail at jcmastergardener@yahoo.com

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