Fixing low spots in a lawn is not a one size fits all

After a rain it seems like all the imperfections show up in our lawns. Fixing them usually requires patience and the remedy varies depending upon soil type, time of year and grass species.

Repair options can be gradual. This is usually my favorite option. If the ponding area isn’t too deep and the existing soil texture is sandy, like it often is in eastern North Carolina, I like to use successive thin layers of washed sand. By thin layers I mean no more than a quarter inch or so at least two weeks apart.

If you go on the internet most literature tells you that straight sand is the wrong way to go. That’s true if you have a fine textured soil. Contrasting soil textures can worsen drainage. Water sits on top of the clay soil and saturates the sand. The area doesn’t drain.

I call it the bathtub effect. The same problem happens when installing shrubbery in clay soil. Most folks think that adding potting soil or sand to the hole will help. The opposite is true.

On sandy soils if sand is added and clippings are incorporated through regular mowing, grass will respond well. The key is not to get greedy and add too much at a time.

Adding too much topsoil with finer particles in it can suffocate a lawn as the existing grass has a tougher time penetrating it. The result is a patchy muddy lawn. Since sand is looser, slightly excessive applications are less severe.

On clay soils, mixing organic matter with dry loam and spreading thin layers on the low spots can help. However, the layers of topdressing must be thin. It will take a while to achieve perfection. If that’s not satisfactory, possibly major renovation is the only option.

Regardless of the soil mix, when top dressing, the grass must be actively growing. Now is a good time to topdress a fescue lawn. Late September is not a good time for warm-season grasses. It’s not a good time to replant them either. Warm season lawns should be addressed in late spring.

When applying any type of topdressing it’s important that weeds are not introduced. I like coarse builder’s sand because it’s most likely to be inert. Mixing that with good quality potting soil or peat moss will also result in fewer weeds than topsoil.

Often, low places in the lawn often become weedy because the grass is stressed. If this is the case, filling the dip won’t solve that problem and serious renovation is necessary. This is also when you could address the soil texture problems.

When doing serious renovation, amending the soil is fine if you incorporate the amendments. In other words, if your soil is clay you can add a sandy topsoil to it, provided you mix it well. The same goes for the sandy soil.

Your lawn will probably look patchy for a while. If that’s unacceptable, your only recourse is to start from scratch, at the proper time of year for the entire lawn.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Solving plant problems requires knowing what the enemy is

A couple weeks ago somebody brought me a Ziploc bag full of blueish gray bugs with orange stripes and spots on them. He told me they were killing his crape myrtles. Many of the leaves were falling prematurely.

He also brought a few leaves that were curled, sticky and discolored. Some of the leaves had a powdery black substance on them. Others were almost totally black.

I immediately asked him if he sprayed or in any other way tried to kill these bugs. He hadn’t. He wanted me to tell him what to spray and if the trees were even savable.

The insect specimens he had were lady beetle larvae. Most people call them ladybugs. In another week or so he would have recognized them.

They weren’t what was causing his problem. In fact, they were in the process of partially solving his problem. Some folks buy lady beetles specifically to eat pests on their plants.

Using predators to kill pests is a type of biological control. Sometimes people use other insects like parasitic wasps to accomplish the same goal.

The insects responsible for the damage to his crape myrtles were aphids, most likely crape myrtle aphids. They are small, nearly clear and often hard to see. Aphids are a favorite food of ladybugs.

The sticky substance was honeydew produced by the aphids. It became the food for the black powdery stuff called sooty mold. While sooty mold is unsightly, it doesn’t greatly affect the health of the plants. It usually shows up in fall when trees lose their leaves anyway. The aphids weaken plants by sucking fluids from leaf cells. Aphids also can transmit viruses.

So often what we perceive are our problems really aren’t. Sometimes plant leaves and stems on our houseplants start to wilt. Many folks immediately assume the plant isn’t getting enough water. They feel the soil and it isn’t dust dry. However, they water the plants anyway, assuming they’d rather be safe than sorry.

Their beloved houseplant usually winds up dying. The problem was not dryness. It was lack of oxygen to the roots caused by wetness and usually compounded by insufficient light.

This summer I lost a mature white pine. Someone suggested it must have been too cold last winter. However, white pines live as far north as central Canada, where winter temperatures often reach 40 below. Cold wasn’t the problem. Too much water was. White pines don’t like wet feet.

Until the end of August, most places around here have been much wetter than normal. Prior to last week I haven’t been able to mow parts of my lawn since early June. Even then I got stuck a few times and had to pull the mower out with the truck and a chain. Try that without getting covered with mud.

This has been a crazy year. From the start, we have experienced extreme cold, unseasonably warm late winter weather, and a wet spring and summer. Farmers and homeowners have had many problems to contend with. Misdiagnosis only adds to the problems.


Lady beetle larva crawling under a crape myrtle leaf

Newly emerged adult

Pupa ready to emerge


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Evening primrose is a stunning native wildflower

Everyone has seen those tall weeds with long narrow leaves and covered with cup-shaped yellow flowers. Sometimes they can grow to be five feet tall. For foragers and herbalists, it has a bounty of uses.

The plant in question is evening primrose (Oenothera biennis). Most people consider it a weed as it grows along roadsides and in waste places. Some consider it a wildflower. Evening primrose is a common pasture plant, and it thrives in open fields.

This herbaceous plant is classified as a biennial. Other closely related species can be annual or perennial. They can have pink, white or lavender colored flowers. Each individual bloom lasts only a day or two, but they are prolific and blossom in summer and early fall. Flowers tend to open more in the late afternoon, hence the name.

Biennial evening primrose produces only foliage and thick roots in its first season. In the second year the plant flowers. The thick fleshy roots can be cooked and eaten like potatoes. Roots become fibrous as the second season progresses.

Evening primrose roots remind me a little of parsnips. In early spring of their second year they develop a sweeter flavor like parsnips do. Cold temperatures are partially responsible for converting some of the starches to sugars.

Roots aren’t the only palatable part. All parts of the plant are edible, even the seeds. Some people utilize young leaves as cooked greens.

Others like to make tea from the flowers. Flowers can also be used in salads. Hummingbirds and other pollinators like them too. Plants are high in natural linolenic acid, an essential fatty acid often referred to as Omega-6.

Evening primrose grows best in well-drained soils. It tolerates a wide pH range and greatly benefits from large amounts of organic matter. Some gardeners like to domesticate it and plant it in their beds.

This one is aggressive, but like most other tap rooted plants it’s difficult to transplant. Once it gets established evening primrose can take over. It’s a prolific seed producer and the thick roots can crowd other plants. However, being a native plant makes it attractive for many people.

In recent years several companies have harvested seeds and pressed them to make evening primrose oil. This oil is often used to treat eczema and acne. For women it is used to ease PMS symptoms and menstrual breast pain. During menopause it’s often used to minimize hot flashes.

Some herbalists prescribe evening primrose oil to help reduce high blood pressure and improve overall heart health. Evening primrose oil is also recommended to reduce diabetic nerve pain. Anti-inflammatory properties of this oil also contribute to its use to treat the bone pain of rheumatoid arthritis.

Taking evening primrose preparations could be a problem for those taking blood thinners. Evening primrose oil does the same thing and results can be magnified. For people who experience seizures, evening primrose oil could make them worse.

As with any herbal medicine, always consult with your medical professional before embarking on any treatment. Natural herbal medicines are not automatically safe. Read and ask questions.

Evening primrose plant beginning to go by

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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Four o’clock flowers are beautiful and hard to remove

When I was in graduate school I lived in a hillside apartment that had beautiful four o’clock flowers in the front yard. They came in different colors, mostly bright pink to magenta, and they self-seeded themselves every year. I liked them. Hummingbirds liked them too. Even the large shiny black seeds were pretty.

Every afternoon the flowers would open, and the front yard went from green to colorful. Generally, four o’clocks (Mirabilis jalapa) grow better in full sun, but this area was partially shaded.

The soil wasn’t overly fertile in that spot. These plants grow best in deep fertile soil, but they thrived anyway. I never watered them either, and I remember 1983 was a very dry year in West Virginia. Four o’clocks usually have few disease and insect problems, which makes for low maintenance.

Plants grow two to four feet tall, so they can be pruned into a hedge for the growing season. Four o’clocks bloom throughout the summer and fall, and the flowers are quite fragrant. They die to the ground in winter.

Four o’clocks are in the nightshade family along with potato, tomato, peppers, eggplant and tobacco. This one is bred for its flowers. I wouldn’t recommend eating it.

When I moved to North Carolina I learned to dislike this plant. They became a true perennial and developed huge tubers that virtually engulfed whole flowerbeds. In all but the sandiest soils they were nearly impossible to remove.

If that weren’t enough, the large black seeds spread everywhere. I never noticed this before in northern areas. Perhaps that’s because I lived in town. Birds eat the seeds, so this can be quite an invasive plant in warm climates like ours.

This nightshade family member is one of the plants deer and rabbits normally avoid. When plants are damaged they usually recover quickly. Deer, dogs and other animals may not eat landscaping, but they still trample it.

Speaking of dogs, four o’clock tubers and seeds are highly toxic to them. Dogs, especially puppies often like to dig up and chew on the tubers. Alkaloids are the likely toxicity culprit. Symptoms range from vomiting, diarrhea, skin rash and redness around the mouth. When detected early it isn’t fatal.

Regardless, it’s not a good idea to treat it yourself. If you suspect four o’clock poisoning, the smartest option is to take your animal to your local vet.

Many broadleaf weed killers will kill four o’clocks. This is probably the way to go when they spread into lawns. Round-up will control it too, but you must be careful to hit only the targeted plants.

As far as four o’clock culture goes, they are great north of zone seven. In warmer climates some thought is required. Eventually they will take over an area, and that is fine if you like them. Another option is to plant them in pots.

Likely they won’t overwinter in pots around here, but it wouldn’t matter if they did. I still have a soft spot for them, but I prefer to plant them away from other things.

Four o’clock flowers and shiny black seeds

Sorry, I posted the wrong picture earlier. That one was evening primrose and I’ll post that column next week.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Sericea lespedeza has good points as well as bad ones

Most of our land is not prime farmland. Some places have problems with soil moisture, fertility or erodibility. We can’t grow row crops anywhere we want, and we usually can’t afford to fertilize places that may not provide a return on our investment.

Enter sericea lespedeza (Lespedeza cuneata). It was brought to this country as early as the 1890s. Throughout much of the 20th century is was used as a forage on marginal land. It was also used for erosion control. Most of you have likely seen it but never paid it any mind.

From a distance, sericea lespedeza looks a little like rosemary. It’s a semi-woody plant that often grows five feet tall. Upon closer inspection there is little resemblance except for growth habit. There is little branching. Leaves emerge from stems singly and are composed of three slender blades.

Sericea lespedeza is in the pea and bean family just like clovers and alfalfa. Plants in that family can form a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen fixing bacteria. This means they often don’t need to be fertilized with nitrogen, the element most responsible for plants’ dark green color.

This tough legume tolerates a wide range of soil conditions. It also forms a deep root system that helps prevent erosion. For that reason, it was a popular choice on roadsides, reclaimed strip mines and rangeland.

Its merit as animal feed is mixed. Cattle don’t particularly care for it, so beef production is low. Goats, on the other hand seem to love it. There also seems to be another benefit for sheep and goats when fed a significant amount of this legume in their diets.

Sericea lespedeza appears to be a natural deworming material. Results are mixed, but many goat farmers swear by lespedeza hay and pasture. Part of the reason for this benefit might be the high amounts of bitter tannins in the leaves. That’s also the most logical reason for its low palatability with cattle.

Goats thrive in lespedeza pastures and will readily eat lespedeza hay. When fields are stocked with goats there is no need to try to eliminate lespedeza from the area. Otherwise, this plant has many downsides.

Pastures often develop a large percentage of lespedeza because it shades out shorter growing plants. Beef farmers can naturally thin out lespedeza by letting goats graze with the cattle. Over time the stocking rates of each can be adjusted and the forage composition is also changed.

For those simply wishing to eliminate this plant, many herbicides will control it. Round-up is a popular non-selective herbicide but a high rate must be used. Furthermore, Round-up kills the grasses too. PastureGard and Grazon are popular selective weed killers that kill only broadleaf plants.

A reason for removing this plant from the landscapes is that it reduces biodiversity and creates monocultures. That topic has gained traction in recent years. In the western prairies, Sericea lespedeza limited natural food supplies for many native rangeland birds. The same is probably happening but to a lesser extent here in the east.

Piece of sericea lespedeza plucked from the roadside.

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Sometimes beauty is only skin deep

There are many plants in our landscape that we don’t want, at least in that location and we call them weeds. A major one in soybean and other crops is one from that same bean family. It’s called sicklepod (Senna obtusifolia).

Sicklepod is an annual that has paired yellow flowers, curved pods up to six inches long and foliage that looks like peanut leaves. Individual plant specimens can sometimes get more than six feet tall but are usually shorter. When mature, pods burst open releasing the seeds. They are dark brown, flattened, irregularly shaped and less than a quarter inch long.

Plants grow well in the coastal plain. Sicklepod is adapted to sandy soils with adequate drainage and fertility. They’re common on cropland and roadsides and they spread quickly. They spread primarily by seed, so cutting them prior to flowering can be effective. Keeping them from becoming established in the first place is best.

Beyond agricultural fields, sicklepod can also invade our vegetable and flower gardens. Someone brought me a sample of this a while ago and asked for its identification. He said it was a really pretty plant with bright yellow flowers, interesting foliage and showy pods. He wanted to know if he should save the seed and if I wanted some. I chuckled and politely declined.

It’s not the first time someone has noticed a plant they found attractive and wanted it for ornamental use. That’s one reason kudzu became established here. Though flowers are pretty, and foliage often forms an enticing contrast to ornamental plants, this one is best eliminated from your landscape.

Some people call it coffeeweed, because seeds from relatives of it were once roasted and used as a substitute for coffee. However, another common name is arsenic weed. That should throw up a red flag. Years ago, plants were used medicinally but they seldom are today.

Although young shoots can be eaten as cooked greens, they are bitter unless cooking water is changed a couple times. Other plant parts particularly seeds contain toxins called anthraquinones. My recommendation to foragers and herbalists is to remove this plant and destroy it whenever you see it growing.

Most livestock refuse to eat hay contaminated with sicklepod. They won’t graze live specimens either, so eliminating it from these areas is important. Wildlife don’t find it palatable and move to other things. Heavy infestations also lower crop yields. Furthermore, seeds are sometimes difficult to separate from soybeans, drastically lowering their market value.

Many broadleaf herbicides will kill sicklepod, so they are less of a problem in a crop like corn or wheat than they are in cotton or soybeans. Since they are in the same family as soybeans, many chemicals that will control sicklepod will harm soybeans. Roundup ready varieties have alleviated competition from sicklepod, but it’s still a nuisance.

Another reason to control sicklepod is that it harbors insects and diseases common to crop plants. Eliminating sicklepod can help lessen problems these other organisms cause. Sometimes pretty flowers and showy foliage are not sufficient reasons to let these invaders populate your landscape.

Thick mass of sicklepod

sicklepod sample close-up showing the curved pods

Dense stand of sicklepod with a little morning glory mixed in

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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Old Woodsman fly dope brings back memories

When I was a kid, I spent numerous hours fishing with my grandfather. Some of the places we went were havens for mosquitoes, blackflies, ‘no see ums’ and deerflies.

Grampa always had the perfect tonic for them. It was called Old Woodsman fly dope. I’ve heard the odor of that stuff referred to as a mixture of citronella and kerosene. I’d say that’s pretty accurate. I think coal tar must be in there somewhere. It was strong. I remember more trout than insect bites, so the concoction must have been reasonably effective.

I also remember lathering that stuff of his big black lab’s muzzle. It was greasy since it contained mineral oil, but old Nick never fought it. He eased his head toward me, so I could get his ears too.

Grampa and I often fished this little brook full of tiny brook trout. Sometimes we’d each catch over a hundred, before we could go home with our limit of eight fish each over six inches long. I don’t think I ever caught one longer that 12 inches in that little stream, but I was with my grandfather and we had our aromatic Old Woodsman.

Some places we fished weren’t pristine trout streams either. My brother, grandfather and I canoed the nearby Royal River and caught mostly suckers, chubs and eels. Occasionally we’d haul in a brown trout. It didn’t matter. We were together, and we had our Old Woodsman.

Frank Lawrence Robinson died in 2002, two months before his 100th birthday. On the morning of his funeral I searched his garage and found a near empty bottle in a dusty tackle box. I knew he wouldn’t have minded my taking it, so I took the lid off to get a whiff of the stuff. It was the end of January in Maine, so I never bothered to take it with me and I never looked for it again.

Since then, I often wished I’d put the bottle in my pocket. None of the stores carried it. Recently, my brother emailed me a Bangor Daily News article about the product’s resurgence. The term ‘fly dope’ has been removed from the name, but the original recipe  from 1882 remained intact.

I jumped on the internet and found several vendors. A few clicks later and the deed was done. I’ll be checking my mailbox. To many, I’m sure it sounds unusual to get nostalgic about insect repellant. Oh well.

Anyone who spends much time outdoors wants an effective insect repellant. I can identify with that, but to me, the most important part of Old Woodsman is that familiar smell. Most people might think it smells disgusting. I don’t care.

Many effective repellants are now available. They might even work better and last longer, but that aroma reminds me of the many hours I spent fishing with my grandfather.

He was so special to me that I made him the best man at my wedding. I can’t wait to rub some Old Woodsman on and imagine he’s right there fishing with me again. I hope I can be half the grandfather he was to me.


Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (

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