A Guide for the Novice Gardener

BY Jeff Minnich

Southern gardens never really sleep. Yet as the days lengthen and the suns rays strengthen all gardeners get the urge to get outside and get their hands dirty. As our gardens come back to life its time to get busy. Here are some things to keep in mind.



In southeastern North Carolina camellias are still the stars of the show until the azaleas bloom in April. Cut camellias last a surprisingly long period of time especially those blossoms floated in shallow dishes filled with water. Any shallow dish can become a camellia bowl though there are dishes made especially for them. Often old camellia bowls are passed down through families.

Be sure to clean up all fallen blossoms under your camellia plants to help prevent the recurrence of blossom diseases next year. Once blooming is complete its time to prune the trees and shrubs and feed them with camellia food or other fertilizers meant for acid-loving plants. Rather than shearing the plants on the outside its best to go deep within the plants and open them up to the air selectively pruning and shaping. Camellias are at their best when their natural shape is allowed to shine versus shearing them into tight lumps. Its been said that birds and butterflies should be able to fly through camellias without touching a leaf.


Crape Myrtles

You do not need to commit crape-murder for your crape myrtles to bloom. This is a false belief. All crape myrtles bloom off new growth. Given the full sun they love they will bloom whether pruned or not but nothing looks more ridiculous than a gorgeous crape myrtle hacked practically to death. The new growth is weak and too dense.

Instead get into your plants and open them up. Prune out the dead branches and selectively prune and thin them. Topping any kind of tree is not a good idea because the tree is prone to disease and weak growth.

The best solution is to plant the proper size variety for your yard. Crape myrtles now come in very dwarf to very tall varieties in many colors and heights. All are hardy in the Wilmington area. If your crape myrtle is too big for your yard consider removing it and planting a smaller variety so you dont have to hack at it every year. Let the true form of your crape myrtle shine.


Flowering Bulbs

Enjoy their beauty. Cut and bring them inside for their fragrance and cheer. The time to fertilize bulbs is right after they bloom. Use Bulb-tone or a similar product. DO NOT cut back the foliage while it is still green. The plant is producing food at this time which it will store in the bulb for next years growth. Foliage can be removed as soon as it has turned brown and is easily pulled out of the ground not before or next years bloom could be sacrificed.



Now is the time to clean up all dead leaves and branches and dispose of them. Cut back all of the dead tops of perennials while many of them are emerging. Some perennials are late to come up though so dont be alarmed. Also pull up last years dead annuals that may not have been removed.



Get hoses and sprinklers out of storage turn on outdoor faucets and test the irrigation system so youll be ready to go when your garden needs water.



Our warm-season turf grasses are just now coming out of their winter dormancy. Mow the lawn at approximately two and a half inches high with a newly-sharpened mower blade. (Tough grasses can really dull a blade.) Leave the clippings on the lawn.

Apply lawn fertilizers about two weeks after green-up if desired. Be sure to follow package directions carefully.

If you had crabgrass and goosegrass last year apply pre-emergent herbicides starting when the forsythia blooms and finishing by the time the dogwoods are in full bloom. Other broadleaf weeds can be pulled or treated with broadleaf weed killers. Read directions and apply carefully so you dont burn your lawn and check to be sure your lawn variety is not sensitive to certain herbicides.

Once your lawn starts to grow it needs one inch of water a week. If the spring is dry youll need to irrigate if you want a green lawn.


Weed Prevention

Get those winter and early spring weeds out as soon as possible especially if they are ready to go to seed. You can use Preen on the beds after you mulch. Its not a cure-all but it does help prevent weed growth. Its a pre-emergent so it zaps the weed seeds as they are beginning to surface. It will also zap any seeds coming up so its not a good idea to use it in areas you are seeding like vegetable and annual beds.

Know this about the herbicide Roundup too: It is non-selective so if you spray to control weeds it will kill everything in its path. It must be sprayed on actively growing plants and it works through the plant not the soil to kill the plant to the roots. Be careful what you hit when spraying Roundup. You dont want to lose a prized plant.

When using any pesticide please be sure to read and follow the directions carefully for your safety and the health of the plants in your garden.


Pruning &Trimming Trees & Shrubs

Some general guidelines for pruning:

All spring bloomers like forsythia lilac azaleas dogwoods camellias should be pruned after they finish blooming as severely as desired. Better to thin than shear so their natural shapes can shine. Be sure to finish this spring pruning no later than July Fourth because next years flower buds will be set on summers new growth.

Summer bloomers like crapemyrtle summer spireas Rose of Sharon hydrangeas (except the blue/pink macrophyllas) should be pruned in late winter. These varieties bloom off of the new growth produced this spring. Pruning clematis hydrangeas and roses varies on their pruning rules even by variety or type. Often the reason plants dont bloom is because they were pruned at the wrong time of year.

Non-blooming plants deciduous or evergreen offer a lot more leeway. You can prune almost anytime. But like anything else remember there are exceptions to the general rules of pruning. When in doubt check before you cut.


Fertilize Shrubs Groundcovers Landscape Plants

Fertilize if you think a plant could use a boost but if a plant looks vigorous and healthy its probably not necessary. Woodace Plant-tone and Holly-tone all work well. Old-fashioned 5-10-5 and 10-10-10 also work well on annuals and perennials. Use well-rotted compost or manure for your vegetable and annual beds. For pots Osmocote works well; its time-released and lasts throughout the season. On all fertilizers follow the instructions on the sack so you dont burn the plants or pollute the waterways. If plant leaves are yellow with the green veins showing they probably need iron which is very common in plants like azaleas gardenias and other acid-loving plants. Use Ironite or a spray-on chelated iron product. Palms and roses are heavy feeders and benefit from regular feeding with a good palm or rose food respectively.


Edging & Mulching

Re-edge beds with a spade so they are nice and crisp then mulch with no more than two to three inches of pine straw (needles) pine bark or shredded hardwood or cypress mulch. The bigger the chip on the pine bark the more it floats and the harder it is to plant annuals around it as the trowel stabs the chips. Do not mulch against tree trunks and plant stems. Plants need to breathe and there is a lot of oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange going on where the trunk/stem meets the soil.

If you have many layers of old mulch already in place you may want to rake some out or just very lightly top dress the existing mulch. Studies have shown that a mulch layered too deeply turns into a false soil layer encouraging the roots of a plant to grow easily in this layer and not grow deeply into the soil. The thick mulch layer does not have the nutrients of the soil below. This can result in deficiencies. Too much mulch commonly causes iron deficiency.


Planting Times

All trees and shrubs can be planted now. Ask your nurseryman about transplanting; it may be too late for some plants. Plant perennials after the ground has warmed a bit and the plants have had a chance to get some growth on them. April is a good month.

Annuals like pansies snapdragons calendulas and stocks to name a few can go in the ground now for last minute cool-season color. The pansies will decline when it gets hot. Plants and seeds of tender annuals like marigolds and zinnias for example shouldnt go in until the ground warms and the chance of frost has passed. In the Wilmington area the average last frost is around April 2 later to the north and west earlier to the south and east of the city. Frosts can and have occurred as late as April 18 so be aware of the weather forecasts. You will not gain anything by planting early for two reasons: The chance of a sudden frost and sulking plants that will not grow if it is too cold.

Some cool-season vegetables such as lettuces and radishes can be planted now but wait until April or later for tomatoes peppers okra corn and beans. They like hot soil.

Once it gets hot gardeners tend to slow down but our gardens and weeds keep growing. Its much more pleasant to tackle the hardest gardening chores in the lovely spring weather.