Welcome to Garden Zone, a monthly newsletter for anyone interested in gardening. ​​It's produced by Extension Master Gardener volunteers in Mecklenburg County.

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Where do I start? 

Whether you want to revamp or simply tweak your landscape, it can be a bit overwhelming. Barry Pettinato, an Extension Master Gardener volunteer in Mecklenburg, offers these suggestions:

1️⃣ Study the sun exposure on the site over several days. Take photos at different times of the day! It’s important to know the number of hours of sunlight and/or shade the area gets. Plants are labeled with their light needs ranging from full sun, part sun, full shade and part shade. This prevents a common misstep of planting the wrong plant in the wrong place.

2️⃣ Study the site for drainage issues: Are there any areas that don’t drain well and collect water after a heavy rain. If so, they may need to be mitigated prior to planting.

3️⃣ After laying out the location of the bed, prep the soil. Start by getting a soil test (kits are available from the local Cooperative Extension office). This will tell you if you need to adjust the pH in your soil (a measure of acidity and alkalinity). Creating good soil is key to a successful garden. I recommend the following mix: 1/3 of the clay soil you find here in the Piedmont, 1/3 potting mix (from a big box store) and 1/3 organic matter, such as compost from Compost Central or mushroom compost. Compost is essential as it adds nutrients, space for water and oxygen, and microbes, which break down nutrients and make them available to plants. If possible, amend the entire bed from the start so it will be ready to receive your future plantings without additional prep.

4️⃣ Carefully consider what plants to purchase. This includes the light and water needs of the plant and the size of the plant at maturity. This information is included on the plant tag. A common mistake is to overplant, giving them little to no space as they mature. Plants need air circulation around them to prevent fungus and other diseases.

5️⃣ Plant at the right time.  Plant in the spring (after danger of frost has passed) and the fall (this lets them get established before cold winter temps set in). If possible, avoid planting in the hottest months of July and August (unless you are prepared to water daily to keep your new plantings alive). Dig a proper hole for your plants: twice the width of the root ball but no deeper than the soil line in the pot. Roots mostly grow out, not down as this is where the oxygen and nutrients can be found.

Here are three good resources: 

➡️ Right Plant, Right Place is key to creating a successful garden landscape

➡️ 9 things to know: starting a garden from scratch

➡️ Landscape Design basics from the NC Extension Gardener Handbook. It’s very good and include sample designs.


Barry started his garden 4 years ago after moving into a new house.

Keep this toolbox handy!

The North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox is a great resource for anyone interested in plants. It's full of information and images of over 4,500 plants. 

It includes “Identify a Plant,” “Find a Plant” and “Design a Garden.”

Not sure what your plants are? Click on the Identify tool which brings you to a drop-down menu of plant features. Select all the features you observe about your unknown plant to discover the mystery name. 

“Find a Plant” lets you choose plant features and preferences. For example, if you are looking for a low-maintenance shrub in part shade that provides fall flowers, the database will list 27 choices with full descriptions and pictures.

Need inspiration? The Design Gallery offers images of successful garden designs. Use the drop down menu to narrow the list to the type of garden you prefer. Each garden is described, with names and descriptions of the plants in the garden. 

Use the Search tool to find varieties of a particular genus.

Explore the Toolbox often for changing elements such as Seasonal Plants, Feature Articles, and Quick Plant lists. You can also download images and QR codes to take with you to a nursery.


August garden tasks

It's the hot, sultry days of summer. Watering and weeding may be all you think about. Here are some things to add to that list:

Perennials & annuals
✳️ Did you know ferns can become dormant if they get too dry? Check the soil regularly for watering needs.
✳️ Renew annuals by pinching leggy growth and deadheading. Fertilize with a liquid fertilizer, such as fish emulsion, to encourage blooms through the fall.
✳️ Continue to prune perennials to keep in a desired space and for air circulation.

✳️ Start seeds now for fall and winter vegetables.
✳️ Pinch the stems of basil regularly to prevent flowering, and harvest about once a week. Gather herbs for drying as they mature.

Trees & shrubs
✳️ No fertilizing is necessary this month.
✳️ Trees and shrubs should NOT be pruned after Aug. 15.

Lawn & landscaping
✳️ Watch out for yellow patches, leaf curl or poor growth. You may need to increase watering if you see these signs.

Watering tips
✳️ Water outdoor container plants daily, if needed, as they dry out quicker than plants in the ground. Water early morning to prevent mildew from occurring.

See our complete list of gardening tasks for August. 


It's blooms, bees and butterflies at the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden at Freedom Park!

A colorful choice for a water-wise garden

If you've never grown Penstemon, you might reconsider! There are 280 species in the genus Penstemon, some of which are native to every state in the continental U.S.

Penstemons are commonly known as beardtongues, because when you look into their flowers, you see a characteristic tongue-like filament, called a staminode, inside or sometimes protruding from the end. 

Why we like them:

✳️ Penstemons are low-maintenance. The main requirement for success is that they need to be planted in well-drained soil -- they do not like to have wet feet or crowns.

✳️ Most of them appreciate full sun, but some varieties will tolerate afternoon shade.

✳️ After the plants bloom, remove spent blooms to encourage a rebloom. Leave behind a few stems with seed capsules for self-seeding.

✳️ In addition, selecting penstemon varieties that are native to this area helps to encourage populations of native pollinators – bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds.

✳️ To propagate, seed can be sown in late summer, cuttings taken in summer, or they can be divided.

Here's information from the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox, including various cultivars. 


Penstemon digitalis 'Husker Red'; Photo: Calgary Plants


Penstemon 'Dark Towers'; Photo: Plant Shed

Native secrets for your shady garden

Join us for this online presentation! Margaret Genkins, Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Emeritus in Mecklenburg County, will give tips and techniques for gardening in the shade with a selection of shade-loving Carolina native plants.

✳️ When: Monday, Aug. 9, noon-1 p.m.

✳️ RSVP here

✳️ Sponsors: Myers Park Library Garden Club in conjunction with Matthews Library

We guarantee you’ll leave this session with lots of great ideas!


Photo: NCSU Extension

Plant a tree

We may still be in the dog days of summer, but now is the time to start planning to improve our landscape when cooler temperatures arrive. We often think of how to beautify our property but there is so much more to consider. How about reducing noise pollution, cleaning the air and increasing your property value?  But wait … a huge benefit would be to improve the energy efficiency of our homes.  So how is a homeowner going to accomplish all of this? PLANT TREES! 

In the summer, they provide shade that reduces heat gain from the sun.  Think of how much cooler it is under a tree than it is on your patio or driveway.  The Department of Energy reports that having more plants and trees in your yard can reduce air temperatures significantly. 

Plant deciduous trees on the south, southwest and west sides of your home to reduce air conditioning costs in summer. After the leaves have fallen, sunlight can shine through in fall and winter to warm the house. When selecting a tree, always consider what the mature height and width of a tree will be and plant an appropriate distance away so that they do not cause foundation or roof damage. 

Without plants, winter winds increase our heating bills so incorporating a windbreak in open areas is helpful. The most effective barriers include a mixture of evergreen trees and shrubs planted on the north and northwest sides of your home. They should be at a distance of 2-5 times the mature height of the trees for best results. Closer to the house, planting smaller shrubs and bushes will help insulate it against both winter cold and summer heat. 

Always check with your electric provider about how far away newly planted trees should be from their lines before making your final selections. Nothing looks worse than when their crews shear off tree limbs growing under the power lines.

So, plant a tree – hug a tree – sit under a tree – whatever!  As Joyce Kilmer once wrote, “I thought that I would never see, a poem lovely as a tree.” 


Carolina Sweetheart Redbud (Cercis canadensis), developed by NCSU and Star Roses and Plants Nursery.

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The Mecklenburg Extension Master Gardener Volunteer (EMGV) program operates under the Mecklenburg Center of the NC Cooperative Extension Service (NCCES), a part of NC State University and NC A&T State University. 

NCCES is a part of Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.

NC State University and N.C. A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity and prohibit discrimination and harassment regardless of age, color, disability, family and marital status, gender identify, genetic information, national origin, political beliefs, race, religion, sex (including pregnancy), sexual orientation and veteran status. NC State, N.C. A&T, U.S. Department of Agriculture, and local governments cooperating.