Tips for Summertime Gardeners

Duke grad student, staff members share their green successes

Bobby Mottern, director of horticulture at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, poses for a photo in the Page-Rollins White Garden at Duke. Courtesy of Bobby Mottern
Bobby Mottern, director of horticulture at Sarah P. Duke Gardens, poses for a photo in the Page-Rollins White Garden at Duke. Courtesy of Bobby Mottern

About half of the produce Myron Taschuk eats as part of his regular diet comes from his backyard garden, in which tomatoes, squash and cucumbers thrive during the summer months.

Over the last few years, Taschuk, a project manager within Duke Facilities Management, has learned important gardening lessons. He's moved his garden to a sunnier spot in his yard and improves the local soil with compost in his raised beds. He has even built his own low-budget greenhouse to extend his growing seasons.

"Just watching things grow, that's probably the most rewarding thing," he said. "Eating fresh produce is really wonderful, but I just get a kick out of the fact that with a little input from me, you see this wonderful thing happen. Nature provides a lot."

Here are a few tips from other Duke gardeners on how to have a healthy and thriving garden:

1) It all starts with soil

The Triangle region doesn't offer very good soil for gardening, said Bobby Mottern, director of horticulture at Sarah P. Duke Gardens. He works with a staff of 15 horticulturists on a daily basis to make planting decisions and deal with pest issues, such as fire ants, in the 55-acre public garden. At home, Mottern considers himself a plant collector. Plant such as coral honeysuckle and cypress vines thrive during the summer in his yard.

Add organic matter such as compost to break up and loosen the clay soil, he said. Add layers of compost above the clay or make raised beds. The Duke Gardens soil beds for perennial plants, rose gardens and terraces all include about a foot and a half of organic soil, he added. This helps with drainage, moisture retention, adding nutrients, and benefiting soil organisms such as earthworms, which help break down organic matter.

2) Give plants the correct sun exposure

Determine if you have a sunny or shady yard, Mottern said, then get to know your plants. Shop for specific plants that will do well in your yard. He recommends looking for plants native to the region because they are drought tolerant, can survive N.C. winters, are resilient to many pests and support native backyard wildlife.

"Gardening is such an evolutionary kind of process because you're always learning new things," Mottern said. "That's really the fun of it, matching the right plant to the right location. Gardeners joke it's sometimes easier to keep their plants in the wheelbarrow because they move them around so much."

3) Let compost work for you

Duke genetics and genomics graduate student Tony Burnetti picks green beans at the Duke Community Garden along Faber Street. Photo by April Dudash

Duke genetics and genomics graduate student Tony Burnetti helps organize the Duke Community Garden, which has 34 plots located along Faber Street. He has teamed up with a lab colleague and they manage a combined plot.

"Between gardening and molecular biology, I have built an interesting rule of thumb of matter and energy flows that go into soil ecology," he said.

He recommended starting a compost bin, in which organic waste turns into nutrients for plants. Do not put meat, dairy, oil or baked goods into the compost bin, Burnetti said. Instead, add items such as banana and avocado peels and pieces of vegetables. Always even out the green in your bin with brown (dead leaves). The compost is ready to be spread when there isn't any rotten food inside.

4) Keep fire ants at bay

Lay coffee grounds on top of fire ant piles. Once the grounds dry out, Burnetti said, the ants will eat them and die. "You won't destroy a colony with coffee grounds, but you'll keep it small," he said. The grounds also serve as a form of compost, so it's good for the soil.

5) Grow things you like to eat

People sometimes pick classic plants for their garden before thinking about what they want on their dinner table. Pick plants you like, Burnetti said, and "you'll be motivated to keep trying to get it right, and you will be happy when it does work." One of his favorites is the Mortgage Lifter heirloom tomato plant, which produces fleshy and large fruit.