Now or never for critical yard maintenance

Published 9:43 am Wednesday, April 13, 2011

by Neil Clark

By way of introduction, my name is Neil Clark and I have been pleased to serve as the interim agricultural extension agent in Southampton County since July.

I also greatly appreciate the recognition of the importance of agriculture expressed by The Tidewater News in its periodic articles, Rex Alphin’s column, the excellent Ag Week insert of March 13, and now the establishment of this column.

Many of you are eager to break out of your cabin fever by tackling those projects around the yard. Given the timing, I thought it might be best to mention many of the frequently asked questions that are hot topics at this time of year.


Almost everyone knows that fertilizer helps plants grow, however not everyone is aware of many of the fine points that vary with soil types, longevity, temperature, plant requirements and the like. In some cases a soil can have quite an abundance of nutrients, but they may not be available to the plants because of low pH.

This is why lime is important especially for acidic, sandy soils, which are quite abundant in our area. Nutrients don’t hang around long in the sand, so frequent application of smaller amounts of lime and fertilizer is best.

Ideally, lime takes some time to activate and is best applied in the fall, or at least several weeks before planting to avoid any nutrient limitations that may occur as the lime initially interacts with the soil. As usual, there is the ideal, then there is the real.

Ideally, a soil sample should be analyzed sometime between late fall and early spring, however results of samples taken now may arrive too late for treatment to be applied. So at this point, the good “middle ground” recommendation would be to apply 40 pounds of nitrogen and 1.5 tons of lime per acre, or equivalently 1 pound of nitrogen and 80 pounds of lime per 1,000 square feet.

Those are very mid-level figures that will improve conditions over not applying anything and against applying way too much, which may damage plants, but would certainly be a waste of money.

Then make preparations to perform a soil test sometime between November and February of next year for precise recommendations.


Weed control is important as they are aesthetically unpleasant, reduce growth of your target crops, and in the case of burweed (or locally sometimes called sandspur) with its spiny structures, can be quite painful.

Burweed is best battled in the fall with pre-emergent herbicides, however can also be treated as soon as possible before those seeds and spurs form. Along with your other broadleaf weeds, they can be treated with a “three way” (2,4-D, MCPP and dicamba) lawn herbicide. Follow label directions exactly. Also some of these products will harm St. Augustine and centipede grass so make sure the material you choose is compatible with your lawn.


Time is also running short to prune those fruit trees and grape vines. Pruning invigorates new growth and enhances fruiting by allowing more energy to be directed toward the fruit rather than tree growth.

The Agriculture Cooperative Extension office can provide you with detailed timing and techniques for pruning individual species. For most edible fruit trees, you will want to keep the tallest leader cut back and lateral branches removed so that adequate space is provided to maximize sunlight and improve air circulation.

Never prune more than a third of your branches at a time. Always clean your cutting tools with a 10 percent bleach solution between cuts to avoid contamination if disease happens to be present.

Sanitize the area by properly removing and disposing of all dead branches, dropped fruits, etc. These materials can become breeding grounds for fruit tree pests that can bother you for years to come. Some “bleeding” of sap may occur but this is the plants way of protecting those new wounds and is not harmful to the tree or vine.

Do not delay on pruning however. After the growth flush has completed (or “the sap has risen” as the old folk say), pruning is then a liability to those trees.

Our office is a buzz with youth projects in addition to addressing those agricultural needs. So if you have a young person in your household who is enthusiastic about the outdoors, raising livestock, camping and learning leadership skills, there is a good chance that we have a club that aligns with those interests. So give us a call. We stand ready to help in any way possible, as Cooperative Extension has done now for 97 years.

NEIL CLARK is an interim agriculture extension agent for Virginia Cooperative Extension in Southampton County. He can be reached at