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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May Garden Tasks

Get ready to pinch, prune and weed! The start of May means more tasks in the garden. Here are some:

🌷Have you already put mulch around your plants? Applying 1-3 inches can help plants conserve moisture during the heat and humidity we'll soon see in central North Carolina.

🌷By the end of May, pinch back perennials to delay flowering and encourage more compact growth and blooms. This may not be your favorite activity, but it will get you the results you want to see in your garden.

🌷Also pinch back the first flowers of summer annuals. Pinching off spent blooms will encourage more blooms later.

🌷Prune early flowering trees and shrubs (azaleas, forsythia, spirea, etc.) as soon as the blooms have faded. Also prune deciduous vines (wisteria, Lady Banks roses) after flowering.

🌷Remember to water low (vs using an overhead sprinkler) on your plants, or use drip irrigation.

🌷 Lawn care: For tall fescue, remember not to fertilize in late spring or summer. For bermudagrass, apply post-emergence herbicides in May, as needed, to control summer annual and perennial broadleaf weeds. In late May, start replanting bare or worn areas using sod or sprigs.

Prepare for Summer Drought and Beautiful Landscape

Anticipating the hot, dry spells of summer, Mecklenburg gardeners can do more than merely hope their plants survive. Our gardens will thrive by preparing the soil, selecting the right plants, and improving an irrigation regimen.

Start with the soil

Excellent soil encourages the development of deep roots which access nutrients and water. First, measure the soil pH and nutrient levels with a soil test from NC Agronomic Service. Then, using the test report, make the recommended amendments.  Create a more friable soil by adding organic material such as yard compost, shredded leaves, and lime. Dig or till everything together six inches deep.  Soil should not be mushy or hard when squeezed into a ball.

Plan the landscape

Identify different water accessible areas of the yard, such as wet areas near run off, air conditioner condensation lines, decks, and shade. Dry areas need more water, such as lawns, trees, and sunny areas.

Group drought tolerant plants together and water dependent plants together. When choosing permanent plantings, opt for the one gallon over 5-gallon size. The smaller plant will develop deeper roots and soon catch up to be the same size as the larger plant. Finally, apply 2-4 inches of mulch to help prevent evaporation and keep roots cool.Gardeners are often surprised to find there are over 800 plants that are drought tolerant. Find pictures and descriptions at the NC Extension Plant Tool Box.  The right plants for our 7b/8a zone will establish themselves more successfully.

Water Wisely

Watering deeply and slowly also encourages deep roots. Plants with deep, healthy roots require less irrigation.  One inch of water reaches 6-8 inches into the soil.  Measure how many minutes your watering system takes to deliver 1 inch using a shallow container.  Sprinklers work best for large areas such as turf, but soaker hoses and drip irrigation are better choices for beds because water is delivered directly to the root area and off of leaves. 

Water in the morning or evening to lessen evaporation; however, watering in the evening can lead to fungus and mold growth. 

Trees especially need water.  Soak the ground not at the trunk area, but at the drip line of the outermost branches where the roots are growing.  Beautiful gardens can be achieved while still conserving water.  We can do it! 


Native azaleas

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the very showy Asian evergreen azaleas so often used as foundation planting in Charlotte. But did you know that there are more than a dozen species of deciduous azaleas that are native to the southeastern US?  Most of them will grow happily in Charlotte in acid soil with morning sun and afternoon shade or filtered sun throughout the day. They would be grateful for some extra water during our hot summers. These plants are more delicately shaped than the Asian evergreen ones and fit beautifully into our partially shaded yards. One species to look for is ‘austrinum’ or Florida Flame. It is fragrant and usually yellow but also can be pink or orange and tolerates our hot summers very well. Another, the white to pink Pinxter Bloom, or 'periclymenoides', is found locally in parks and natural areas along stream banks. The species 'flammeum' which is native to a little further south can have very red flowers and also grows well here.

Photos courtesy of EMG Jean Wilson



Along with butterflies and bees, dragonflies are pretty cool insects.  Unique with their two sets of clear wings and huge eyes, they dart around all summer long scooping up flies, midges and mosquitoes. Dragonflies have been around for millions of years.  However, early on they were much bigger; about the size of a crow!  If you’ve ever seen a dragonfly flying across water and dipping the end of her abdomen into the water, she is depositing jelly-like eggs. The eggs develop into the nymphal stage (naiads) for several months to years depending on the type, and then last only from a few weeks to a few months as adults. While nymphs, they feed on aquatic insects including mosquito larvae but also small fish or even frogs.  They may molt up to 17 times before crawling from the water and a few days later emerging from their skin (pupa like) into adults. Dragonflies do not sting or bite.  Birds, spiders, frogs and larger dragonflies feed on dragonflies; however, their great vision and high-speed flying are a great deterrent.  If you want to attract more dragonflies to your yard, consider installing a water garden.  Dragonflies are not pollinators but they are beneficial in that they can eat hundreds of mosquitoes (larval and adult) per day. Keep an eye out for these cool, colorful insects in your yard this year!

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Raised beds built around the trunk of an established tree

The internet seems to be full of plans and photos encouraging people to build a retaining wall and pile dirt and plant flower beds around the trunks of established trees. Several of my neighbors have done this, even to the large Willow Oak street trees which belong to the city. In spite of the pictures you see on the internet and in magazines showing how attractive this can be, the reality is that adding dirt over the roots of a tree, and particularly up against the trunk, is very likely to kill the tree within a few years.

Picture number 1. A healthy tree planted properly has the root flare showing at the surface.

If you plant a tree too deeply it will die. It may take a few years, but it will die. If you pile dirt around the trunk afterwards, in effect planting it too deeply, it will also slowly die.

This should not be done, see picture number 2.

Picture number 3: The even the ‘before’ picture here does not show the root flare

Pictures Curtesy of Pinterest and Home Addict



Pictures curtesy of EMG Jean Wilson


To Bolt or Not to Bolt – Lettuce Ask the Question

Lettuces are often considered the centerpiece of delicious salads and a critical ingredient in a BLT sandwich.  Many of us would agree that nothing beats the taste of homegrown, crisp leafy greens in our culinary creations.  But someone didn’t tell lettuces that we needed their sweet leaves all year round – not just in the cool seasons.  Their tendency to bolt and go to seed as soon as the temps get warm created a real problem for us backyard gardeners.  

Luckily, many savvy researchers were working on this dilemma and conducted trials to test which lettuces were the most bolt-resistant.  One such study of 50 types of lettuces, grown organically and planted from June through September in extremely hot and dry conditions, resulted in the following list of the top three bolt-resistant lettuce varieties:

Batavian lettuces (Nevada, Sierra, Tahoe) grew all summer without bolting and could be harvested throughout the season.   

Butter lettuces (Bibb and Boston) were rated second-best.   

Red Romaine lettuces (Red Sails, Lollo Rossa, Redina, Benito) were best when picked as baby lettuce and individual leaves harvested all summer long. 

We are finally able to start planting our warm season vegetable gardens after unusual ups and downs in this spring’s weather.  So rejoice!  We now have a proven selection of lettuce varieties to include in those perfectly-spaced, color-coordinated rows of nutritious, delectable vegetables.  Or, in my case, what I call my whimsical mix of vegetables, herbs, and companion flowers scattered throughout my raised beds.  Bon Appetit!

Images courtesy of Dreamstime


Planning Ahead Leaf-footed Bugs on Tomatoes

Have you ever heard of Leaf-footed bugs (Leptoglossus phyllopus)? Maybe not, but if you grow tomatoes, you may have seen them. They get their name from leaf-like flare on their back legs. The adult bugs are greenish gray to black in color growing to an upwards of ¾” long while the juvenile bugs (nymphs) are a reddish orange color and are found in groups. While these bugs resemble leaves, this gardener finds them to be scary looking and downright menacing.

Ripening fruit beware! These bugs will cause a discolored blemish/slump on the fruits beautiful fresh skin. This will lead to puncturing of the tomatoes causing secondary pathogens to move in and rotting to take over.

The adult Leaf-footed bugs live in tall grasses and weedy areas for protection making their way to tomatoes as they start to ripen.  Consider keeping weedy areas mowed down and not planting ornamental grasses close to your fruit and vegetable gardens. Check your fruit and vegetable gardens daily, early in the morning if possible. Wearing gloves, hand pick the bugs and drop them into a bucket of soapy water.  Warning: they smell bad.

Take note: citrus fruits, apples, beans, pears, bell peppers, corn, berries, squash, plums, peaches and eggplant can also be affected.

Photos courtesy of Plant Care Today and iStock

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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.