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Keep ahead of potential problems in the garden

By Susan Hawkins

Horticulture Extension

Agent, Davie Center

Warmer weather is here and many people are already out in their gardens.

The joy a gardener feels at the sight of those first seedlings sprouting or first spring flowers blooming is always wonderful. But experienced gardeners know that for each joy, there’s a potential problem lurking in the garden. Here are some tips to get ahead of problems, and help keep gardening a source of pleasure.

Prune dead or diseased growth from shrubs and trees. Not only will your garden look better, the plants will be healthier. Insects may infest dead limbs, weakening the tree or shrub. Diseased limbs or branches can be a source of infection for healthy plant tissue. Discard the pruned branches if there is any sign of disease, as a compost heap may not get hot enough to kill the pathogen.

Some people don’t cut back perennials in the fall but leave them over the winter to shelter native bees. Now is the time to cut back the remaining perennials from the previous fall. If the trimmings are disease free, they may be composted; otherwise, discard them.

If you have spring bulbs such as daffodils blooming, don’t be in a hurry to cut back the foliage after the flowers are gone. Wait until the foliage is yellowing and dying to remove it. This will keep bulbs healthier and give more flowers next year. Divide bulbs and replant when the foliage is dying if needed.

If you have a warm-season lawn, such as bermudagrass or zoysiagrass, May will be the time to start fertilizing. If you haven’t done a soil test lately, a good rule of thumb is that zoysiagrass can be fertilized with one pound nitrogen per 1,000 square feet in May and July, while bermudagrass can be fertilized at the same rate in May, July, and September. Don’t fertilize cool-season grasses such as fescue from now until September. Fertilizing lawns properly and mowing at the correct height go a long way to have a healthy, lush lawn. Healthy lawns are less likely to become diseased or have bare spots that weeds can invade.

People who have Leyland cypress or arborvitae are often all too familiar with bagworms. Although many people don’t notice the bagworms until the summer when the pests start spinning their protective bags, May is actually the time to start looking for them. The eggs hatch in May or June and the small larvae start feeding. Bagworms are easiest to control at this stage, so if you see the larvae on your plants, spray with a pyrethroid or permethrin. Late May and early June are the best time to spray. Once the larvae start spinning bags, insecticides are not as effective in controlling them. You can also remove the bags as you are able throughout April and early May. Each bag can contain 500 to 1,000 eggs, so removing will also remove potential problems.

April is a good time to start a vegetable garden, if you haven’t already. Transplants of broccoli, lettuce, kale, cabbage, and collards can be planted throughout April. Squash transplants may be planted in April also, but waiting until after the middle of April will give better results. Vegetables that may be direct-seeded into the garden in April include turnips, beans, radishes, and spinach. Peas can also be planted through the first part of April. Wait until the soil warms up in May to put out transplants of tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant for best results.

In the landscape and the garden, be vigilant and scout often for weeds, insect pests, and plant diseases. It is much easier to control weeds when they are small and before they have gone to seed. Small weeds are easily removed by hand or with a garden hoe. Insect pests may also be removed by hand when populations are low. Some insect pests may be excluded from preying on the plants. For example,  the clear-wing moth that produces the squash vine borer may be prevented from laying eggs on squash plants by keeping row covers over the plants until they start to bloom. Usually the moths will have died by the time the row cover comes off.  Using cultural and mechanical controls to combat insect pests and being judicious with spraying insecticide helps to protect pollinators and other beneficial insects.

If you didn’t get around to doing a soil test in the fall, and it’s been a couple of years or more since you’ve done one, now is a good time. In North Carolina, soil testing is free from April 1 to the end of November. Soil testing is the only way to know for certain the pH of your soil, so that you know whether or not to add lime, and what nutrients you need to add to your landscape and garden.

A flourishing garden starts with healthy soil, and a soil test is an essential tool to make sure that you have healthy soil. Soil test kits are available at the Davie County Extension Office at 180 S. Main St. in Mocksville. If you can’t pick one up during working hours, there are kits available in a box right outside the door. Each soil test kit for homeowners includes an instruction sheet to guide you through taking samples and sending them to the Soil Lab in Raleigh. This time of year, the turn-around to get results is about two weeks.

If you need help interpreting the results, or have gardening questions, please call the Extension Office at 336-753-6100 or email susan_hawkins@ncsu.edu.