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If you’ve ever sloughed a roto-tiller through uneven sod and weeds to start your garden, you may know that this is the least enjoyable task. Perhaps you even thought, is there an easier way? The good news is that there are ways to start and maintain your garden without ever tilling the soil. In addition to the pleasure of not pushing heavy machinery around, this method can also increase soil health, reduce weeds and save your back and knees.By not turning the soil over, we are fostering the life underground, which is mostly invisible to the naked eye. There is more life in one handful of soil than there are humans on our planet. And when you consider that less than 1% of insects are pests, then these microscopic creatures could be doing some really important work.For instance, earthworms will create tunnels that aerate the soil, feed on bacteria and leave their droppings behind. There are also fungal networks within the soil that can help fix nitrogen from plants, such as legumes. Tilling frequently can decrease organic matter. This is because the increased air in the soil expedites decomposition.In our wet, temperate environment this isn’t as big of an issue but when tilling, soil particle size is made smaller and that can cause water to not drain as quickly. And of course, when we move soil around we can bring up dormant weed seeds that have been lying and waiting for the chance to germinate.If your curiosity is piqued and you’re wondering how to go about this, it can be quite simple and there are numerous resources to tap into. Charles Dowding, a United Kingdom native, is considered a founder of this no-dig method and has free videos online, along with Josh Sattin, a North Carolina farmer located in Raleigh. But, I will give you an overview here.One of the first steps to creating your garden without tillage is to kill any existing weeds or turf. The most common method is to use plain cardboard, free of shiny coatings, glue and tape, and simply lay it on the location and soak it with water. Other cardboard alternatives can be newspaper or rosin paper.Then you want to apply your growing medium, ideally compost that is free of persistent herbicides and sludge. When you apply your compost, be sure to get 8 to 12 inches on there, so weeds can’t reach the surface. Since compost can be difficult to source, you could start out with store-bought garden soil, but the life within the soil is critical to this method working and bagged soils are often sterilized, lacking microbiology and sometimes poorly decomposed. Over time, these soils will increase in microbiological activity with the addition of organic matter.Now you could stop right there and begin transplanting or sowing seeds, but keeping living soil alive means keeping it covered. And keeping plants alive means keeping them fed. In order to cover your soil, a variety of materials can be used such as pine straw, leaf mold or ramial wood chips that have been well-decomposed.For fertilizer, I prefer to use a slow-release organic type, but the best results I see come from adding aged manure. Once your bed is established, mulch and fertilizers should be added every fall to continue feeding the plants and the soil.Following the principles of achieving living soils can create beautiful and productive gardens to enjoy for years.If you have questions or need more information, contact the Transylvania County Cooperative Extension at (828) 884-3109, send an email to [email protected], visit the website www.transylvania.ces.ncsu.edu/ or visit in person at the Transylvania County Farmers Market, first and third Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon starting in May.May gardening tips in Transylvania County from extension master gardener volunteersFertilizingFertilize summer flowering shrubs such as crape myrtle and rose-of-Sharon with one cup of 10-10-10 per plant.Side-dress or fertilize your vegetables six to eight weeks after germination.Fertilize new plantings with one pound of 10-10-10 per 100 square feet if you have not done a soil test.Fertilize grape vines, blackberries, raspberries and blueberries.Planting (last estimated frost date is May 10)Plant containerized and balled and burlap shrubs, perennials and ground cover plants.Plant gladioli, canna, dahlias, lilies and other summer flowering corms and bulbs this month.Plant tender summer annuals such as begonia, geranium, marigold, petunia and zinnia this month after danger of frost or where they can be covered if frost threatens.The following vegetable plants can be set out this month: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, eggplant, pepper, tomato and sweet potato after danger of frost or where they can be covered if frost threatens.The following vegetable seeds can be direct planted this month: bush, pole and lima beans, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cantaloupe, corn, cucumbers, lettuce, okra, southern peas, radishes, pumpkin, summer and winter squash, Swiss chard and watermelon.PruningPrune hybrid Rhododendron after blooms fade. Always prune to a whorl of leaves or to the next branch.Limit growth and encourage fullness of fast growing evergreens by pinching off half of the length of the “candles” or new growth at the tips of branches.Prune hedges including abelia, holly, euonymus, boxwood, etc... as desired. Always make the top of the hedge narrower than the bottom to allow sunlight to reach the lower branches.Begin pinching your chrysanthemums and continue through early July.Pinch zinnia, salvia, celosia, petunias, marigolds and snapdragons to slow top growth and encourage branching and more blooms.Pick off azalea leaf galls as they form. Do not compost, throw in the trash.Do not cut back spring bulb foliage until it turns yellow and brown.Managing Pests and DiseasesIf needed, spray iris beds for borers.Continue rose spray program.Continue spraying your fruit trees and bunch grapes according to the fungicide program.Monitor vegetables for insects and diseases, spray as needed. Spray your squash plants near the base of the stem to control squash borer. Continue through June 1 and use only the recommended insecticide.Monitor for insects and if needed, spray the following landscape shrubs for the following insect pests: Arborvitae (bag worm), azalea (lace bug), boxwood (leaf miner), euonymus (scale), hemlock and juniper (spruce mites, aphids), pyracantha (lace bug and hybrid rhododendron borer).Use pesticides sparingly. Spray/treat only when needed.Lawn CareFertilize zoysia this month after it has greened up. Do not fertilize tall fescue now.Start warm season lawns.Mowing heights for your lawn are important. Cut tall fescue and bluegrass at three inches, zoysia at one inch.Apply broadleaf herbicide as needed.Apply insecticide for grub control as needed.Apply one inch of water per week if you seeded your lawn this spring.PropagatingTake softwood cuttings of plants such as azalea, rhododendron, forsythia, clematis, geranium and chrysanthemum in late May.Miscellaneous To DoMove houseplants outside if desired when all danger of frost has passed.If weather has been dry, give favorite plants a good soaking once a week.Design and plant window boxes and container gardens.Put out hummingbird feeders.
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