The Gardener’s Dirt February 2015

Picture of a hand spadeInformation you can really dig into.

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 and control, insect identification and lawn establishment and maintenance.

Click here for a printable version of this newsletter.

Shawn Banks
Extension Agent
Agriculture – Consumer Horticulture


Trees That Provide Food For Birds

By: Shawn Banks

I am by no means a bird watcher like my wife. However, I do enjoy seeing the different colors and sizes of birds at the feeder. I love the bright blues of the blue jays (mean birds that they are) and the black and white markings on the titmouse. I can’t tell one bird song from the next, but I love to listen to them all. There is nothing quite like getting up early on a summer morning, sitting on the front porch, and listening to the birds greet the new day.

Picture by: Shawn Banks

Picture by: Shawn Banks

I was asked to write a little something for the bird lovers out there who want to attract more birds to their yards. More specifically, I was asked to write about trees that would provide food for our fine, feathered friends. I started by thinking of trees that produce soft fruits like berries. Here is a list of the ones I thought of myself. Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) produces bright red berries August through October. Red Mulberry (Morus rubra) produces sweet blackberry-like fruit May and June. Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica) produces black berries August through October. Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) produces fruit in June and July. I also thought of two native hollies – the Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) and American (Ilex opaca) hollies that provide berries September through February. These are just the ones that came to mind. The publication “Managing Backyards and Other Urban Habitats for Birds” has a much more extensive list of trees with soft fruits that birds love to eat.

Picture by: Shawn Banks

Picture by: Shawn Banks

While looking over the publication mentioned above, I also found a list of trees with hard fruits or seeds that birds like to eat. Here is a small sampling of the trees that I had not thought about as providing food for the birds:  River Birch (Betula nigra), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Pine trees (Pinus spp.), Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera), and Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). All provide hard fruits or seeds for different types of birds. Again, this is a small sampling of the plants that provide food for the birds. There are several trees in this group that I had not considered as producing food for birds.

When it comes to trees that feed the birds, you may recognize some I’ve listed here as being ornamental trees you already have in your landscape. If not, maybe you have room to plant one or two. Besides food for the birds, trees also provide shelter and a place to make a nest. Bring more of nature to your yard by planting a tree to feed the birds!


Moorman, Chris, et. all, “Managing Backyards and Other Urban Habitats for Birds”, AG-636-01.




By: Brenda Clayton

Best-known fact: In 1941 the blossom of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) was declared the North Carolina State Flower.

Our familiar flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) are native here in the southeast. They are understory trees, meaning that they like growing under the canopy of taller trees. Their modest size of 20’-30’ makes them welcome even in a small yard.

Considered by many to be the finest all-around tree, dogwoods have become a favorite ornamental tree of homeowners.

Picture by: Tom Gill

Picture by: Tom Gill

In spring, they explode with white or pink, even red bracts radiating out from the center cluster of real flowers. In summer, blossoms give way to light green leaves. And in fall, that foliage turns a wine red color, leaving a beautiful winter silhouette of distinctly layered branches and bark with square plates resembling alligator skin.

Dogwoods prefer partial sun and rich, well drained soil. They like to be shaded from the hot afternoon sun. Because their roots are shallow, flowering dogwoods benefit from extra water when the weather is dry.

The Japanese dogwood (Cornus kousa) is more drought tolerant and can handle more sun. Seeing them out in the open, I cringe, thinking they are going to wither away under our blazing southern sun. However, they blossom freely and happily, showing no evidence of need for shade. The kousas bloom about 4 weeks later than the native and their bracts are pointed at the tips, rather than rounded and notched as the native dogwood. Blooms appear after the tree produces its leaves whereas the native blooms before the leaves appear.

Wait until flowering is completed to do any pruning, as very little is needed. But do it immediately after flowering so as not to interfere with next year’s buds.

Dogwoods produce red berries in clusters known as drupes. They ripen in late summer and early fall and are an important food source for birds, which then distribute the seeds.

Little known fact: In 2012, the United States sent 3,000 dogwood saplings to Japan to commemorate the 100th year anniversary of the Washington, D.C. cherry trees given as a gift to the U.S. by Japan in 1912.


“U.S. eyes 3,000 dogwoods for ‘sakura’ anniversary. The Japan Times; Posted: Jan.17, 2012”;


Extension Gardener Classes begins January 29th, meeting every Thursday for 13 weeks. Time: 6pm – 9pm. $5 per class you attend. Please preregister by calling  919-989-5380, and payment is required with registration.

       February 5 – Soils and Nutrients
       February 12 – Wildlife in the Garden
       February 19 – Weeds and Diseases
       February 26 – Plant Propagation
       March 5 – Entomology: Insects in the Garden

Winter Weed Control Workshop: Saturday, February 21, 2015 at The Johnston County Ag Center, 2736 NC Hwy 210, Smithfield, NC from 10am -12pm. Please call 919-989-5380 to register.

Blueberry Production Workshop: Saturday, February 21, 2015 at The Johnston County Ag Center, 2736 NC Hwy 210, Smithfield, NC from 2pm – 4pm. Please call 919-989-5380 to register.

For accommodations for persons with disabilities, contact Bryant Spivey at 919-989-5380 no later than Five business days before the event.

Tomato Grafting Workshop: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 at JCC. $10 per person for this workshop. Contact Misty Hawk at 919-209-2517 for more information and to register.


Control winter weeds before they flower to reduce winter weeds next season.



Gnaphalium spp.

Pseudognaphalium spp.

Gamochaeta spp.

By: Shawn Banks

Picture by: Shawn Banks

Picture by: Shawn Banks

Have you ever walked outside on a spring morning and your yard looked like the squirrels had a pillow fight on the lawn overnight? Don’t blame the squirrels. It’s more likely that you have cudweed in your lawn. There are three different species of cudweed. They are similar in appearance and can be difficult to tell apart. Each starts off as a basal rosette of leaves, similar to what you see in dandelions before they flower. The leaves are simple leaves with a smooth or entire leaf margin. Differences occur in the width of the leaves and the amount of hair or pubescence on the leaf. Some only have pubescence on the lower side of the leaf, while others have pubescence on both sides of the leaf.

Picture by: Shawn Banks

Picture by: Shawn Banks

The flower is born on a stalk that emerges from the center of the basal rosette in the spring. Some species have a single flowering stalk, while others have a flowering stalk that branches out to form many flowering stalks. Different species will also have different flower color or structure. All species have a white fluff attached to the seeds to aid in wind distribution of the seeds.

To control this weed in your lawn, maintain a dense, healthy turf through proper mowing and fertilization. In shrub and flower beds, a fresh layer of mulch each year should prevent seed germination. If chemical control is the preferred method, products that contain 2,4-D, dicamba, glyphosate, or imazaquin as an active ingredient will do a fine job. When using chemicals for weed control, remember to follow the label directions for use and safety. Chemicals work best on the weeds when they are actively growing. The best time to spray is when temperatures are above 50 degrees F.

For more information visit:



Sassafras albidum

By: Margy Pearl

Picture by: NCSU

Picture by: NCSU

Did you know the original flavoring for Root Beer was from an oil called safrole, supplied by the roots of the Sassafras tree? Used to flavor tea, the oil was thought to be a cure-all by Native Americans and colonists. Though safrole is banned today as a likely carcinogen, the green winter buds and young leaves of the sassafras are pleasantly spicy in a salad!

Form and Size:  Ht. 30-60ft. by 25-40ft. width. With moderate to rapid growth, this deciduous tree can sucker and form a multi-stemmed shrub. Suckers can be easily removed to control the growth into a pyramidal single tree form, or transplanted to propagate young trees. Transplanting large trees is problematic, though, due to the large taproot.

Foliage and Bark: Three easily identifiable leaf forms are:  mitten-shaped, oval, or three-lobed (“glove”-shaped) leaves. Leaves are bright green on top with white undersides. Fall color varies from clear yellow, orange, and pink, to scarlet and purple. The leaves are larval hosts for the Spicebush, Tiger and Pale Swallowtail, and Palamedes butterflies. The bark is a natural source of orange dye.

Flower and Fruit:  Spring blooms are yellow, slightly scented flower clusters at branch ends. The blackish-blue berries form on pollinated female trees, ripen in September, and attract birds.

Site and Other Conditions:  In full sun or part shade, Sassafras is easily grown in moist, well-drained soil, but is adaptable to dry, sandy or clay soils. It is deer tolerant. If the soil is too alkaline, the leaves may yellow while the veins remain green, a sign of chlorosis. Note that Sassafras is allelopathic, discouraging the growth of some plants within its root zone.

May be Purchased from:

Campbell Family Nursery – Harmony, NC  28634    Phone #:  704-775-2425

Arbor Day Foundation



Potatoes In A Bag

By: Tiffany Whitchard

Picture by: Tiffany Whitchard

Picture by: Tiffany Whitchard

As gardeners, we have a lot to worry about. There is always weather, pest and disease to contend with. My biggest issue, though, is space. You see, I spend most of the Winter months bundled up against the cold, watching grey clouds scuttle across even bleaker skies and dreaming of a time when things will finally be lush and green again. Then the seed catalogs start to fill my mailbox and I pore over the selections endlessly – does this sound familiar, readers? Choosing far too many plants to grow. By the time the weather warms and it’s time to sow my spring plots, my ambitious plans have gotten the best of me. Where in the world am I going to put everything I’ve ordered?

Luckily, with a crop like potatoes that typically take up a lot of prime garden real estate, I’ll grow up rather than out. You see, the traditional method is ‘hilling’, but I choose to use upright burlap sacks or feed bags to grow my spuds in. Depending on where you source them, the sacks are cheap (or free). Although you can buy specially made grow bags in catalogs, you’ll also want to look for burlap sacks at hardware/feed stores and at coffee shops where they roast their own beans. The bonus is that these woven bags naturally allow for lots of air circulation and good drainage.

When choosing your potatoes, you don’t want the run-of-the-mill grocery store variety either. These grocery store potatoes can sometimes harbor disease and are often treated with a chemical that inhibits sprouting. You’ll want, instead, to choose ‘seed’ potatoes. Seed potatoes are usually golf ball sized potato starts that are specifically made for growing. They can be put directly in the soil, and are available at reputable garden centers, online and through seed catalogs.

If the pieces of your seed potatoes are especially large, you’ll want to cut them in chunks. Just make sure that each chunk has two to three ‘eyes’. (Eyes are the little bumps where the sprouts will emerge.) Now, this next step is important, so don’t skip it, okay? If you’ve cut your potatoes, you’ll want to let them sit in dry, warm, well-lit room for a few days. This allows the pieces to callous over a little and that will mitigate rot.

Picture by: Tiffany Whitchard

Picture by: Tiffany Whitchard

Once you’re ready to plant, you’ll want to roll down the sides of the burlap sack so it’s about 12” high. Choose carefully the location of your bag. Remember, you want plenty of sun. Some soil under the bag won’t hurt either. Because the bags are a one-and-done proposition, you’ll want to choose a place where the potatoes can remain until harvest. During the season, the fabric of the bags eventually starts to break down and a hole will form in the bottom, so moving it later is not an option.

Now that you’ve chosen your location, add 6” to 8” of good quality soil or compost into the bottom of the bag. (Potatoes aren’t picky and will tolerate a pH between 5.0 and 6.8, although they do best when soil is slightly acidic). Just remember to leave out manure as that has been known to cause potato scab. Now, bury your seed tubers in the soil 3” to 4” deep, making sure they’re completely covered.

Water every few days. You want the soil to stay moist, but not wet. After a couple of weeks, the green stems will start to peek out of the soil. This is the exciting part because the longer the stem, the more productive your plants can be and the bigger your harvest. Once the stems are about six inches high, add more soil and/or compost, nestle in a few more seed potatoes and cover all but the top set of leaves. The stems will continue to grow and you’ll repeat this process, layering. As the soil line gets higher, unroll the bag to match it. At this point, you’ll continue adding soil up to about 2 to 3 feet. You can then continue with soil or mulch with straw or leaves to fill the remainder of the bag.

Picture by: Tiffany Whitchard

Picture by: Tiffany Whitchard

As the first leaves emerge, you may begin to notice pests like the destructive Colorado potato beetle munching on your plants. Check daily and destroy any that you see. As a precaution, it’s always a good idea to check the underside of leaves for clusters of bright yellow-orange eggs or humpbacked red and black larvae. You can use foliar sprays after eggs hatch or insecticides on the beetles themselves or you may wish to crush the eggs or take the affected leaf and clip it off submerging it in soapy water. Be vigilant whatever method you choose, because these striped beetles and their babies can wreak havoc on your plants.

Once the plant blooms, you’ll want to dial back on the amount of water you are giving it. Those pretty flowers signify that your potato has started to form new tubers. Keep the water amount moderate and even from that point on.

Small ‘new’ potatoes can be harvested early but the bulk of your crop should remain in the soil until the top foliage dies completely back. When you are ready for harvest, allow the soil to dry out slightly. Then put your hand in and carefully begin to feel around for the tubers. The skin of potatoes is very delicate and nicks or cuts can be problematic during storage so you want to keep each potato as blemish-free as possible.

For me, this is possibly the best part, because I feel like I’m a pirate unearthing a newly discovered treasure chest! Keep digging, gently brushing soil from your harvest and setting the potatoes aside one by one. Resist the urge to wash them. Instead, you want them to cure first. Curing toughens the skin and helps with the storage life. To cure, lay your newly harvested spuds out on sheets of newspaper in a cool (55 degree or so) well-ventilated, dark space. Irish (baking) potatoes require around 2 weeks. Sweet potatoes, by contrast, take far longer to cure and develop their characteristic flavor and texture (10 days cure time and a minimum of 6 to 8 weeks storage before eating).

Do you have any additional questions we can answer about potato growing or other spring crops? If so, don’t hesitate to e-mail us or give us a call.


Lawn Care

  • Cool season grasses should be fertilized mid-month. If a soil sample has not been taken, use a fertilizer of at least 30% slow release Nitrogen at the rate of 1 pound of nitrogen per 1000 square feet.
  • Crabgrass usually will start to germinate about the same time the Forsythia blooms. If you have had problems with crabgrass in the past, then you may want to apply crabgrass preventer when the Forsythia blooms.
  • Pulling wild onion/wild garlic is the best way to get rid of these pesky bulbs, but make sure you get the bulb. If there are too many to pull, a product with 2,4-D works well to help control this weed. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s directions found on the label. Complete control may take two or more years. Apply 2,4-D at half the recommended rate on centipede lawns otherwise it will damage the grass.

For more tips on lawn care visit Turf Files on the internet.
Trees, Shrubs, and Ornamentals

  • Cut back dormant ornamental grasses to about 10 to 14 inches above the soil, before new growth starts. Evergreen ornamental grasses (or grass like ornamentals) such as Liriope and Mondo Grass should be cut short or mowed to remove last year’s unsightly foliage. If the clumps have become too big for the area they can be divided and shared with friends or planted in other areas of the yard.
  • Summer blooming shrubs bloom on new growth so they can be pruned hard in February to encourage new growth and many flowers. Examples include Abelia, Hibiscus, Hydrangea, Beautyberry, Butterfly bush, Althea, Rose of Sharon, and bush or Tea Roses.
  • Spring blooming shrubs such as Azaleas, Rhododendrons, Forsythia, Spirea, Quince, Weigela, and Climbing Roses bloom on last years growth and should not be pruned until after they have flowered.
  • Deciduous trees, especially those that bloom in the spring, should not be pruned this time of the year. Examples being Dogwoods, Red Buds, Maples and several others.
  • For many evergreens this is the best time of the year to prune if they haven’t been pruned already.
  • Summer blooming roses can be pruned this time of the year. Remember not to remove more than 1/3 of the growth. Remove old mulch and leaves from around plants, this removes many overwintering fungal spores. Put down fresh mulch.
  • Bare root roses and trees can be planted this time of the year. Soak the roots overnight to rehydrate them before planting.
  • Spring flowers such as Sweet Williams, Pansy, Viola, Calendula, Forget-Me-Nots, English Daisies, Poppy, Alyssum and Dianthus can be planted now. Don’t forget to deadhead pansies and fertilize toward the end of the month.


  • Asparagus crowns can be planted now through March.
  • Transplant cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower out into the garden.
  • Strawberry plants can be planted now for spring fruits.
  • Beets, carrots, peas, lettuce, mustard, radish, spinach, irish potatoes, and turnips can be sown outside.
  • Starting seeds indoors is easy and economical. Sometimes it is the only way to get the color or variety of the plants you want to grow. It is not necessary to use “grow lights”, ordinary florescent tubes will usually be enough. For more information you can read the pamphlet “Starting Plants from Seeds”, it is on the web at
  • February and March are good months to prune fruit trees.
  • It is time to start a spray program for peach trees to control the many diseases and insects that attack peaches.


  • Control overwintering insects such as scale and their eggs by hand picking or using a dormant oil spray (also know as horticultural oil ). Be sure to check for scales before spraying. Follow the manufacturer’s directions when applying any pesticide. Do not apply dormant oils to broadleaf evergreens when freezing temperatures are expected.
  • Cool-weather mites are not visible to the naked eye. Junipers and other needled evergreens are a favorite hang out of these mites. If you had some of these plants that were an unsightly brown last year, check them with a hand held magnifying glass to see if cool season mites are to blame. Horticultural oil or other registered insecticides can improve their situation and appearance.


  • Even houseplants need a little rest once in a while, and this is a good time to give them a rest. Keep them watered but give them a break from the fertilizer as most houseplants don’t do much growing during the short days of winter.
  • Turn and prune houseplants regularly to keep them shapely. Pinch back new growth to promote busy plants.
  • While this may sound extremely silly, your houseplants will thank you for it. When dusting the furniture, also dust the plants. Wipe dust from broad-leaf plants at regular intervals using a cloth dampened with clean water. If the plant has small leaves, consider placing several in the shower to wash the dust off.
  • Keep an eye open for pest on indoor plants. Most can be treated with insecticidal soaps.

    If you have gardening questions you would like to have answered contact the Extension Master Gardener Volunteers by phone at (919) 989-5380 or by e-mail at

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    Past Newsletters                                        Johnston County Lawn and Garden

Written By

Photo of Angie FaisonAngie FaisonCounty Extension Support Specialist, 4-H Department, Horticulture, Field Crops (919) 989-5380 (Office) angie_faison@ncsu.eduJohnston County, North Carolina
Page Last Updated: 3 years ago
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