The Dirt on NC Soil

When I moved to North Carolina from Massachusetts in 1993, I was eager to start planting. I had heard how many more varieties of plants could be grown here than in Zone 4, including warm season grasses, and I could not wait to get my hands in the soil. So you can imagine my surprise when, after great effort, I came up with a shovel full of red clay and rock. I wondered how anything grows here! I sought out the advice of local experts, and began the hard work of amending my soil. After 24 years of soil building, resulting in beautiful, rich, black dirt … we decided to move. We chose to build in Durham and I took a soil sample from the new lot. The test results are the 2nd worst I have seen in 20 years in NC horticulture.

To test your own soil, take core plugs from several spots in the yard and mix them together to get an overall sample. Or you can take several plugs per area (lawn, vegetable garden, etc.). A soil probe is a helpful tool for taking core samples. For each sample you will need about 3/4 of a sandwich baggie. The NC Department of Agriculture  offers free soil testing most of the year, charging a small fee December through March. Bring your sample to the lab in Raleigh and they will give you a form and a box to submit your sample. Results are emailed to you in about 2 weeks. Outside NC, check with your state agriculture department.

The NC report will look like this: Soil Test Report

Over the years I have performed hundreds of soil tests on my clients’ yards. The most telling number on those tests is the HM% – the percentage of Humus Matter (organic matter) in the soil. Ideal is 5%, but in my 20 years in the horticulture industry in NC, I have yet to see one above 1%. The average is 0.46%. Mine is 0.04%. Pitiful.

The pH is another important number. The form you fill out will ask what is being grown in the area sampled. I wrote  TifTuf Bermuda because that is what I intend to use for my lawn. I will (of course) also be planting perennials, trees, shrubs, vegetables, herbs, hops… but I digress. Ideal pH for most lawns (not Centipede) is 5.8-6.5 and, as you can see above, mine is 5.3. The lab recommends I add 80 pounds of lime per 1000 square feet. That is a lot of lime. I have work to do.

The solution to poor soil quality is soil building. In the Triangle, our native soil has the following layers: gray clay, red clay, and if you are lucky, a bit of organic matter on top. Most new construction is missing that important top layer. Nature builds soil in these layers, so for best results we should imitate Nature.

To remedy a lack of organic matter,  work compost into new beds and continue to amend your soil by adding a layer of compost yearly. I highly recommend Super-Sod’s Soil3 compost. One cubic yard comes in the signature BigYellowBag and can be delivered to your home! Soil3 is made from grass clippings, wheat straw and cow manure. It is inoculated with mycorrhizae and other beneficial organisms, and turned regularly to maintain a temperature of 160 degrees. The result is rich, humus compost that is OMRI  listed for use in organic vegetable gardens.

There are other important numbers to note on the soil report. The lab tests available Phosphorous and Potassium in the soil, but not Nitrogen because it is too unstable and the results will not be reliable. Under “N-P-K Fertilizer Recommendations” they will tell you how much fertilizer to add. Be sure to do this at the correct time of year for the plants you are growing. CEC measures the soil’s ability to absorb and release nutrients to the plant roots. Ideal CEC is 15+. High levels  of zinc, copper and manganese can be problematic as well. Be sure to read the Agronomist’s comments to see if further action is needed.

We move in to our new home at the end of December, and I will begin shortly thereafter improving my soil. I will start with a dump truck load of 50/50 topsoil/compost, and then top-dress annually with Soil3.  It will be a long process, but the results are well worth the effort. I will keep my readers updated as the new landscape develops. Happy gardening!

Building Stone Walls – 3 Techniques

I am so grateful to work for Super-Sod, a company that encourages creativity and continuing education. The monthly classes offered here on Saturdays throughout the growing season are now available on YouTube. I hope you find them helpful. The class on building stone walls demonstrates 3 techniques: dry-stack, mortared, and natural stone veneer. I’d like to give a shout-out to my friend Daniel Medina, the stone mason featured in this video. I do the talking, but the talent is all his.

For more information about our videographer, Charles Register, click here: http://charlesregister.com/

stone-wall-1

Bee Better Garden Tour 2016

Nothing inspires you to whip your garden into shape like committing to a garden tour. Suddenly you have a hard and fast deadline. And then there is the pressure of dozens of people with high expectations coming to tour the garden and…gasp…critique it! I commit to a tour about every 10 years or so. So my garden looks (almost) perfect every 10 years.

This year I signed on to the Bee Better Garden Tour. Bee Better is a great local non-profit dedicated to educating homeowners on the critical importance of pollinators. http://www.beebetter.info  I kept bees for about 3 years, but the bees were better off with another beekeeper. This is not a hobby for someone who works 6 days a week. However, I learned quite a bit about what to do, and what not to do, and beekeeping strengthened my commitment to gardening organically.

Years ago, when I was young and my back was strong, my husband and I would have done all the work ourselves. This time around, I hired two dear friends (and excellent gardeners) to help me with the heavy work – removing overgrown and crowded shrubs, pruning the ones that had “high aspirations”, and hauling away the debris. The detail work I did myself. My husband was a huge help as always. The day was a great success! So much so that I am inspired to commit to another garden tour…in about another ten years.

 

Groundhog Day Starts the Garden Season

If you have seen the movie Groundhog Day, you know the theme: if something really matters, keep repeating it until you get it right. As a gardener in NC, this hits home every February when it’s time to venture out into the garden and begin again, repeating the annual gardeners’ rites of Spring – cleaning, pruning, composting, mulching, re-designing – all in an attempt to get it right this year. I’ve ordered my organic vegetable seeds, and my Big Yellow Bag of Soil3 compost. It’s time to put on the gloves, pick up my tools and get to work.

Task List:

Cut back perennials and ornamental grasses

Prune shrubs that bloom on new wood – particularly my roses

Prune fruit trees and Japanese Maples

Identify hops rhizomes to share with beer brewing friends (mmmmm, beer!)

Muck out the water garden

Edge the beds to create that clean line between beds and turf

Top-dress perennial, annual and vegetable beds with compost (I love Super-Sod’s Soil3!)

Clean out containers and add more compost in preparation for new plants (mmmmm, new plants!)

Clean outdoor furniture and yard art

Check landscape lighting and add new bulbs as needed

Pruning Roses Groundhog Day 1 BYB

Have I forgotten anything? I know I have! Will my garden be perfect this year? Of course not, but is that really the point? Every gardener knows the process is more meaningful than the end result. My nails are short, my hands are calloused and scarred, I have lots of sensible shoes and I know my way around tools. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. So out I go to try to get it right…I’ll do the same next year with a smile on my face. Happy Groundhog Day!

 

 

Winter Warm-up – The New Normal?

Like most folks I know, I have been enjoying this taste of Spring in December. Long walks in the woods, evenings around the fire pit, games on the lawn with my grandson, cut flowers in Winter… But at the back of my mind there has been a nagging worry. What does this mean for gardens and gardeners? Is this the new normal?

First let’s focus on what it means for our plants this year. These unseasonable temperatures will have consequences this Spring. The plants themselves are not at greater risk, but blooms now mean fewer blooms in Spring. Fewer blooms mean less fruit, seed and nut production. Less food for us, less food for foraging animals, and less nectar to feed our pollinators.

I’ve seen a few bees out foraging this week.  Foraging now means they return to the hive hungry, and feed on their precious store of honey – honey that they will need to get them through the Winter. If you keep bees, make sure to supplement their food this Winter. Come Spring, they will venture out and find fewer blooms, less nectar. The life cycles of pollinators may not coincide with flowering this year, and that will have a negative effect on both pollinators and plants. We will see reduced pollination and thus less fruit production. This is sad for home gardeners, and financially troubling for commercial growers.

Whatever you do, don’t prune yet! It is tempting to get out in the warm weather and do some cleanup, but pruning now will encourage new growth that will be susceptible to winter kill when the temperatures drop again. Fruiting plants need more cooling hours before they are ready for production, so leave them be until February.

So is this the “new normal”? Climate science says we can expect continued gradual warming, and Winter warm-ups like this will become more common. http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg2/index.php?idp=353 While an individual cannot change the weather, we can do our part to reduce our personal carbon footprint, and put pressure on corporations to do the same. And we can keep on gardening, organically whenever possible. Please reduce or eliminate your use of pesticides to give our bees a fighting chance. Our Personal Edens have a net positive effect on our local air quality, soil health, wildlife health, and our own health. So keep up the good work, fellow gardeners! Keep Calm Garden On. Magnolia in December

 

Dead of Winter Garden Check List

Rainbow over Foster Hill

To avid gardeners, Winter can make you feel separated from your beloved Personal Eden. The leaves and the blooms have retreated and the ground is hard and cold. There may not seem to be one single reason to venture out into the garden, so I’ll give you 7 reasons that will allow you to reconnect with Nature and get excited for Spring. And you’ll get a little exercise too!

  1. If you’re like me and you haven’t done this yet, cut back perennials and pull up dead annuals. I should have done this in November, but… And look for Winter-damage. Ice storms can cause damage to tree limbs and shrubs. If you see ragged tears, use a sharp edged tool to make a clean cut. Ragged tears are open wounds and are very susceptible to insect and disease infestation.
  2. Pull winter weeds – in the middle and lower South, we have them! In February, you can add corn gluten to the lawn and beds where you will not be seeding. Corn gluten is a great organic pre-emergent weed killer. But for now, eliminate weeds the old-fashioned way. Weeding warms you up!
  3. Fluff your raised vegetable beds and add compost. Not all commercial composts are the same, so be sure to do your homework. I add 3-6” of Super Sod’s Soil3 compost because it is OMRI listed for use in organic gardens, and the results have been amazing! http://www.soil3.com
  4. Feed the birds with seed and suet. If you keep bees, feed them too! Food is less available in the winter months, and if we get a warm period, the bees will go out foraging, expending energy. They will return from their expedition empty-handed and dip into the stored honey they need to get them through to Spring.
  5. Walk your garden path with a pad in hand and make notes of changes you would like to make. The bones of the garden are obvious now, and it’s easier to see the need for design changes or new placement of yard art. Winter is a great time to identify areas that need screening – like your compost bins, a busy street, or the neighbor’s trampoline. Or plan a new garden! There’s always room for more.
  6. Clean, sharpen and organize your tools. You will be pruning soon.
  7. Go inside, warm up, and order seeds! Some of my favorite sites for organic and non-GMO seeds are www.seedsofchange.com www.highmowingseeds.com www.southernexposure.com