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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July Garden Tasks

The growth of many plants and insects can increase with the temperatures, and watering becomes even more of a priority! Here are some things to consider:

Perennials, annuals, bulbs
🏡 Inspect your plants regularly. Aphids, beetles, thrips and white flies are at their worst in July. You can hand pick and drown them in a bucket of soapy water.
🏡 If needed, divide and transplant daylilies, irises and peonies after they bloom.
🏡 Remove spent flowers from perennials and annuals to promote plant growth.
🏡 Remove one-third of growth off fall-blooming perennials to encourage abundant flowers and compact growth.

🏡 Plant beans and carrots now. Collard plants and brussel sprouts can be set out mid-July.
🏡 Through August, start seeds indoors for collards, spinach, cabbage, broccoli and cauliflower.
🏡 Plant tomatoes for fall.

Trees, shrubs and groundcovers
🏡 Fertilize trees and shrubs for the last time this year.
🏡 Do not prune spring flowering shrubs after July 15.
🏡 If shrubs need light trimming, do it now. Otherwise, the tender regrowth could be killed back over the winter.
🏡 Hot, dry weather fosters powdery mildew. Once spotted, spray every 7-14 days. Spider mites are another problem during hot, dry weather. Reduce their numbers with horticulture oil or spray with insecticidal soap.


The OMPH of Ornamental Grasses!

Did you know that we can utilize Ornamental Grasses to create privacy, enclosures, hedges, borders, edges, and focal points?  This diverse group of plants thrive in our heat and humidity, are deer-resistant, can be used in place of shrubs, emerge in early spring, mature in summer, and produce graceful plumage from late summer throughout the winter.  Allow the dried grasses to stand in winter – they provide food and shelter for the birds, can be used in flower arrangements and holiday decorations, and create outdoor visual interest to enjoy.  Cut back using hedge trimmers in February to restart the circle of life.

When choosing grasses, focus on their form (upright, arching, compact, open); height (short, medium, tall); and color (blue, golden, red, purple, striped, lime or deep green). There is a grass to meet all needs and designs, whether formal or informal.   

There are a multitude of selections to consider, but check out these 7 showstoppers that are native to North America:

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum):  Airy plumes in late summer/fall – Full sun to part shade – Up to 5’ tall – Well-drained soil – Zones 4-9

Cordgrass (Spartina pectinata):  Spreading prairie grass – thrives in moist soils (great along a pond or stream) – Full sun – Up to 7’ tall – Zones 4-7

Fiber Opticgrass (Isolepis cernua):  Tender perennial often grown as an annual – Low, mounding habit – Full sun to part shade – Up to 6” tall – Zones 10-11

Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium):  Fast spreading with decorative seed heads – Full sun to part shade – Well-drained soil – Up to 3’ tall – Zones 5-9

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium):  As tough as it is beautiful – Great fall color – Full sun and well-drained soil – Up to 3’ tall – Zones 4-9

Blue Fescue (Festuca glauca):  Short grass for edging or groundcover – Full sun to part shade and well-drained soil – Powder-blue, 1’ tall mounds – Zones 4-8

Pink Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaries):  Misty pink plumes, attractive specimen or in mass planting – Thrives in poor soil – Full sun to part shade – up to 4’ tall – Zones 5-9

Photos courtesy of istock 




Fireflies and summertime go together perfectly, often bringing us back to a magical place in our childhood. Chasing the soft yellow glow of friendly bugs on a warm evening in the yard, maybe catching them in our hands or a glass jar… and the nostalgia sets in and perhaps we feel a sense of freedom as our imaginations awaken once again.

For this writer, fireflies are magical; however, I didn’t know that there are more than 170 species in North America and over 2000 worldwide. Nor did I know that fireflies are classified under Lampyridae, a family of insects within the winged beetle order. This writer is also a gardener and guess what else I didn’t know… gardens make great habitats for fireflies assisting in the replacement of their natural habitat. The Big Dipper firefly, Photinus pyralis, (the common firefly) takes on an organic habitat. They eat slugs, snails, worms and a variety of other insects aiding gardeners like myself.

Our glowing friends spend 95% of their lives in the larval stage and up to two years growing until they finally pupate into adults.  Fireflies only live 2-4 weeks as adults. Before becoming adults, they live in leaflitter, soil and mud. Soil moisture is needed in order for the larvae to develop. This means that my less than kept gardens offer a haven for female fireflies to lay their eggs in!

Here are some tips to attract more fireflies to your garden:

• Don’t rake your leaves

• Wet bags attract slug and snails. The wet bags can be kept in the shady parts of your yard

• Using bag compost (compost made of leaves) in the spring, make mounds and till it into the soil

• Repeating each year will surely help to bring more fireflies to your yard

• Avoid pesticides and add nutrients to poor soil

• Turn off the outside lights at night

Sadly, fireflies are fading and the magical, summer nights of the past might just stay that way, “of the past.”  Scientists believe that urban development and light pollution may be the cause for this. Consider the tips listed above and let’s help continue the magic of summer nights for future generations.

Photos courtesy of istock


Gather the Herbs


Seasoning summer dishes with fresh herbs is one of summer’s joys.  Herbs thrive on being snipped throughout the summer.  Since a plant’s prime goal is to “go to seed,” invigorate them by harvesting often, especially the fragrant and tasty flowers.   Cutting larger leaves, from basil, for example, allows smaller leaves to get more light.  Cut all the way back to a sturdy stem to create bushier growth, keeping the plants shaped and not top heavy.

Herbs are low feeders, so fertilize at half strength every four weeks, especially if plants are in pots or poor soil. Most herbs are happiest when simply watered regularly.  Put your harvest in a vase of water; often the cuttings will form roots. Otherwise, wrap in a damp towel and store in a cool place. 

If you notice your parsley disappearing, it is most likely the Swallowtail Butterfly caterpillar this is munching it away.  Sacrificing your garnish for a beautiful butterfly might not be a bad deal.  Next year, plant more to share!

Perennial herbs, such as lavender, rosemary, oregano, sage, marjoram, mint, bay laurel, thyme, lemon balm, chives, and tarragon can be snipped up to a month before the last frost.  Annuals, such as basil and cilantro, will die at the first frost, so harvest as much as possible during the summer, then let some go to seed for next spring’s planting.  Parsley and dill are biennial: they thrive the first year, grow through the winter, then go to seed the second year. 

“Vegetables, herbs and spices. If you can combine those ingredients, that would be the best dish you’d ever cook!” ~ Chef Rinrin Marinka

Photos courtesy of Pixabay




Milkweed flowers of all species are beloved of pollinators. Milkweed is particularly known, however, as the food of the caterpillars that become Monarch Butterflies. Monarchs are among the insects that are considered ‘specialists;’ they evolved with milkweed, and the leaves of milkweed species are the only food they can eat. Habitat loss, particularly the loss of prairies and meadows in the Midwest that have been converted to corn fields, has resulted in a scarcity of milkweed for our Monarch babies to eat. Farmers and ranchers spray weed killer on the plants if they invade fields. Now it is up to suburban and rural yards to grow milkweed to help the Monarchs survive. If you are interested in growing host plants for Monarchs and other butterflies make sure you and your near neighbors do not use a mosquito spraying service or another pesticide in your yard. Pesticides are not specific to one kind of insect, they will kill all insects.

There are three common milkweed species grown in our area, Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), and Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). All of them are great pollinator plants but are done blooming by the time the monarch butterflies come through laying eggs on their way back to Mexico in late August. However, having blooming flowers near your milkweed at that time helps nourish the butterflies on their way south and also may bring them to lay eggs on your nearby milkweed leaves. Any of the goldenrods and asters are great plants for nectaring at that time of year for the butterflies. I also usually try to have some zinnias in bloom too, which they seem to like.

Common Milkweed grows large and has big leaves that will feed a lot of caterpillars. It blooms in June and the blooms are fragrant and very attractive to bees and butterflies. The leaves will get kind of tough and beat up by the time the butterflies come to lay their eggs, so I cut some of mine back after blooming so that there will be some of the new tender leaves that the caterpillars prefer. The downside to Common Milkweed is that it spreads pretty uncontrollably if you have it in the ground, and you may end up with a 20’ x 20’ thick patch of it. Enclosing it in concrete will not discourage it from moving outside of (or under) that confinement. So, only grow it in an area that you can devote to it, or grow it in large pots to prevent spread.

Butterfly Weed is a very attractive plant that stays much shorter and doesn’t spread, just gets bushier and wider with age. The flowers are yellow to dark orange and bloom in late May to early June. They can grow in full sun to light shade and are happy in dry or occasionally moist conditions once established. This one gets regular water.

Swamp Milkweed has very pretty pink flowers that bloom in late June or early July. As the name suggests, it prefers a moist soil and full sun. It also doesn’t spread by runners but can grow more stems and become wider and bushier with age. It can be as tall as Common Milkweed.

Every garden can and should have one or more of these milkweed plants. They grow easily from seed planted in the fall or winter and are not only beautiful but help feed our insects and even our birds.

Photos courtesy of EMG Jean Wilson

Vermiculture:  Composting with Worms!!


“They don't chirp or sing, they don't gallop or soar, they don't hunt or make tools or write books. But they do something just as powerful: they consume, they transform, they change the earth.”

Amy Stewart, The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms

Worm composting, also known as vermiculture, uses specific types of worms, as well as microorganisms, to break down organic waste and convert it into castings. That opulent, slow-release organic compost is rich in plant macronutrients—nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (N-P-K)—and micronutrients. Unlike hot composting techniques, worm composting works at normal temperatures and with minimal materials and effort. The worms do all the work of turning and digesting kitchen scraps, churning out finely textured, nearly odorless castings in a fraction of the time compared to other composting techniques. The castings are effective, inexpensive, and organic sources of nutrients for lawns, trees, perennials, annuals, vegetables, and potted plants.

Want to know more or get started on this composting method?  Check out our Know to Grow on Vermiculture.   It shares the benefits, steps to building your own bin, what to put in the bin to get started, the types of worms to use, what to feed the worms to keep them happy, bin maintenance and harvesting methods. Here also is a helpful video from NC State on Vermiculture. This could be a great summer project to start with kids!

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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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.