Chores for the June Garden

Summer heat is arriving with its usual ferocity. Some plants may be suffering from it– as well as some of us. That’s no reason to stop our favorite pastime. Set up a drip irrigation system. Plant some okra, southern peas, and sweet potatoes. Start an herb garden.

Drip irrigation

Drip irrigation has come a long way since it was first developed about 60 years ago in Israel by Simca Blass. There are now hose timers, both manual and electric. Add a solar-powered timer to the hose bib to reduce your work load. New WiFi-directed hose bib controllers add pizzazz to drip irrigation systems. Drip gets the water directly to the roots of the plants where it is needed.


Don’t let the temperature stop you from planting heat-tolerant vegetables. Okra loves the heat, as do southern peas, and some greens (Malabar and amaranth). It’s also not too late to plant sweet potatoes.

By this time, beans and other spring crops have probably stopped producing. Tomatoes will stop producing when daytime temperatures are above 90 degrees and nights are consistently above 75 degrees. Remove the non-producing plants and compost them. Gardeners who practice the “no-till” method can snip the plants off at the ground and allow the root systems to decompose into the garden soil. 

Lightly fertilize summer vegetables once or twice a month. The exception is southern peas (black eyes, purple hulls, crowders, and zipper creams, and several other varieties. Southern peas have a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in the soil and do not need fertilization.

Beware of grasshoppers, stink bugs, and leaf-footed bugs. Peas are particularly susceptible to bean leaf beetles and aphids. Okra and tomatoes suffer from stink bugs, leaf-footed bugs. Neem oil is an excellent way to organically treat for these pests or you can simply pick off the bugs and drop them into soapy water. Insecticidal soap also works well.

If you don’t plan to have a summer garden, use this time to build up nutrients into the soil, ready for your fall garden. Mix compost into the garden. The compost adds nutrients into your garden, and inoculates the soil with beneficial microbes.


Many herbs originate in the Mediterranean area and are thus accustomed to heat and dryer conditions. Some of the herbs that do well here include basil, mint, oregano, peppermint, rosemary, sage, and tarragon. These herbs thrive with morning sun and partial sun in the afternoon.

Dill, fennel, yarrow, marjoram, lemon verbena, and lavender require more sun – about 9 hours-  to produce the essential oils they are known for


It’s still okay to sod lawns this month. Remember that newly-sodded lawns require only an inch of water per week. Overwatering can cause serious fungal problems that may not be evident for months.

Even with established lawns, ½ to one inch of water is enough to keep the grass healthy. Watering an inch a week, less if it rains, will keep your lawns green and healthy.

Begin mowing once a week to encourage growth. Healthy turf will choke out weeds and provide you with a beautiful green lawn.

Don’t forget to mulch the cut grass back into the lawn. Recycling the clippings in this way will provide enough nutrients to equal two or three fertilizer applications.


Think about planting flowering ornamentals, like vitex, althea, buddleia, and hydrangeas, which bloom well into the summer. There are many varieties of salvias that also provide summer color. Tropical sage, Mexican bush sage, mealycup sage, Gregg’s sage, and blue anise sage are examples.

Also, consider plants that do not flower, but provide summer color. Some of these include artemisia, caladium, canna, coleus, shell gingers.


Cowpeas? Southern Peas? Or Just good eating?

Whatever you call them, they’re just plain delicious. These legumes are generally boiled, along with onions, garlic, bits of ham or bacon. Here in the south, we eat them over rice, cornbread, some mustard greens on the side, and perhaps a large glass of iced tea.

Originating in Africa, specifically in regions that are now Nigeria and Niger, cowpeas are some of the oldest domesticated crops in the world. By 2,300 BC, they reached Southeast Asia. The legumes came to North America in the same ships that carried the tragic cargos of slaves to the New World. Jamaican records show them in use in 1672, Florida, in 1799 and North Carolina in 1714.

High in protein, cowpeas are cultivated on about 31 million acres, eaten by 200 million humans every day, and are a food staple in many underdeveloped countries.

In North America, they gained the name cowpea, because of their use as cattle fodder. Easy to raise, even on marginal land, they grew in popularity, particularly in the south. However, cattle were not the only consumers. Slaves and sharecroppers also ate the legume, and it because known as a “poor man’s” food. And since the location of most “poor men,” i.e., slaves and sharecroppers, lived in the south, they also became known as Southern peas.

Southern or cowpeas come in many varieties, but the best known are black-eyes, purple hulls, crowder, and cream.  

As a legume, they put a considerable supply of nitrogen back into the soil.  That makes these peas an excellent rotation crop to plant between spring and fall gardens. Drought-resistance and low water requirements make it an ideal crop for our hot Gulf Coast summers.

This plant loves light and sun, well-drained soil, and it does not need fertilizer – another plus. In fact, the plant does not like highly fertile soil, which will severely reduce yield.

Cowpeas mature in 65-75 days. Thrips, aphids, and stinkbugs are three pests that can infest them. Spraying the crop with insecticidal soaps will take care of most infestations.

Plant the peas one-half to one-inch deep, in rows three feet apart.  I generally plant two seeds every two inches, increasing the chances of germination. After they form real leaves, you can thin to one plant every four inches.
Seedlings will emerge in 10 to 14 days, depending on soil and weather.

An aside: My Cajun grandmother used to make an excellent dish she called “fevres au riz,” translated “beans and rice.” But when pronounced a little differently, it became “favori,” which means “favorite.” And it certainly was one of my favorites. With chunks of ham and perhaps andouille, slow-cooked over a low fire, it was a fantastic dish, particularly on a cold, wet winter day.

Tomato Growing tips

Just about every vegetable gardener along the Gulf Coast has tomatoes coming into fruition in April. Here are some helpful hints for you.

Prune your plants I don’t mean just prune the suckers on your indeterminate tomatoes. Tomatoes, like its sister plant, potatoes, can form roots anywhere along its stem. See the little hairs on the stem of your plant? Each one of those tiny hairs is just waiting to contact with the soil so it can turn into a root.

Many times – in fact, almost always – there are some branches off the main stem that touch the ground. These may root. The rooting of these auxiliaries will take nutrients away from the main stem and reduce yield. They will also obstruct airflow through the plant.

I take my pruners and cut all branches that touch the ground. These, of course, go into the compost. The main stem will grow straighter and more robust as well.

Birds and critters Birds (and squirrels) had a good time ruining my tomatoes in the past.  Both these species wouldn’t eat the whole tomato, but just enough to make it inedible.

They are not after the tomato, per se. In fact, there is no evidence that either birds or squirrels actually like tomatoes. What they are seeking is the water inside the fruit. 

There are ways to protect your tomatoes.

  1. Put bird netting over your tomatoes. It will most likely keep the birds out, but may not stop the squirrels.
  2. Put a “sock”  made of light-weight ground cover and place it over the individual tomatoes. I have never tried this, but I heard it works.
  3. Pick your tomatoes at first blush or even just before first blush and let them ripen inside.
  4. Since birds and squirrels are actually after water, place a birdbath or other source of water nearby.

Tomato hornworms

These hungry green devils can destroy an entire tomato plant in a single day. And, because of their incredible camouflage, they are tough to find.

Don’t lose hope. There is an incredibly easy way to find these little beasties and destroy them. The secret: hornworms show up under a black light. So get a black light flashlight, go into your garden after dark, and inspect your plants (with the black light on). If you have any, you will see them right away.

The tomato hornworm is the larval stage of the Five-spotted hawk moth.

Stink bugs,  leaf-footed bugs, spider mite I’ve found that the best way to get rid of leaf-footed and stink bugs is to flip them into a pan or any container with some warm soapy water in it. Dishwashing liquid does best. They will die instantly. That’s a lot cheaper than expensive pesticides and a lot safer too.

If the infestation is too large to handle in this way, try using Neem Oil. This oil has replaced “horticultural oil,” which was a petroleum-based product. Neem Oil is made from the Neem nut. It clogs the brachia and causes the bugs to suffocate.

For the smaller creatures like spider mites and aphids, a hard spray of water underneath the leaves will dislodge them from their feeding ground.

Fertilizing Since your plants are off to a good start, they won’t need a lot of nitrogen. They will, however, need phosphate and calcium (to prevent blossom-end rot). Add a fertilizer with low nitrogen (N), but higher phosphorus  (P), and calcium. The best application is as a liquid.

I hope your tomato harvest is the most abundant ever.

Controlling Pests in your spring garden

Just about now, hungry bugs are finding your garden. Some are pests. Others are predators. In fact, 99.9 percent of all insects on the planet are either beneficial or benign.

Our job is not only to manage our gardens but to manage the organisms that benefit our gardens. Mass and indiscriminate spraying of pesticides kill not only the ubiquitous stink bugs but also bees, ladybugs, praying mantids, and other beneficial insect predators. But remember that the good bugs need something to eat, so don’t kill all the bad bugs in your garden.

As a youngster, I remember walking through a recently sprayed rice field and seeing thousands of dead bees, strewn out along a 10-yard-long path. The entire hive, which was obviously swarming when hit by the pesticide, died en masse. With the spread of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder, our bees need all the help we can give them. And it’s not only honeybees. Along the Gulf Coast, there are at least 4,000 species of native bees that also contribute heavily to pollination.

Take wasps, for instance. Wasps are efficient and aggressive predators. They’re not out to harm us, though I’m sure that most of us gardeners have felt their painful sting at least once. If you watch red wasps, they fly under leaves, looking up to see the caterpillars and worms that camouflage there. Some people argue that wasps are indiscriminate killers and that they will eat monarch and other beneficial insect larvae. Of course, this is true. However, I make the suggestion that we cover our milkweed and passion vines with fine netting to keep the wasps out. They will then go on to find more natural prey.

Here are some organic remedies for bad bugs in your garden that actually work. Remember, most pests live on the undersides of the leaves, so don’t forget to treat there.

Soft-bodied insects: (aphids, whiteflies, mites, thrips, lace bugs).  Spray with orange oil or Neem Oil. You can also use organic pyrethrin, but remember that even organic pyrethrin is a neurotoxin, so you may want to go easy with it, or eliminate it from your organic repertoire.

Scale: these hard-bodied insects are pretty tricky, but not impossible, to kill. Mix orange oil and Neem Oil (1 oz orange oil, 2 oz. of Neem Oil to a gallon of water. Spray every week for three to four weeks. That should get them. If not, repeat the process.

Caterpillars, armyworms, sod webworms: We had large infestations of sod webworms last year, and they killed large swathes of lawns. Now, I don’t care much for lawns, but, if you do, spray with Bacillus Thuringiensis (BT). This is a bacteria that kills insect larvae by preventing them from eating. Be careful, though. BT only works on insect larvae, not the adult. And, though it is short-lived, spraying indiscriminately will kill all the insect larvae it comes in contact with. Don’t spray on flowers or vegetable plants where bees congregate. Bees will bring contaminated nectar and pollen back to the hive and feed it to the larvae, which will then die. New GMO crops like corn, sorghum, cotton, and soybeans have BT genetically bonded to the plant’s cell structure. Some scientists believe that plants genetically modified with BT splicing, have a much more lasting effect on all animal life. In fact, scientists are finding cells with the new GMO BT in human blood cells, particularly among women. Even with organics, we need to be very careful.   For sod webworms, spray the infected area on the lawn only.

Stink bugs and beetles: For stink bugs, I just carry around a small bucket with some warm soapy water. I flick the bugs off into the water, and they die instantly. It’s pretty easy and efficient unless you have a massive infestation. Then, there are other ways to handle pests other than spraying your vegetables with poisons.

Fire ants: Spinosad works, but I prefer the old Texas (or Cajun) two-step. Use Spinosdad on the mound (do it when it’s dry). Follow up a few days later with a good drenching of the hill with orange oil (6 oz. of orange oil to a gallon of water. 

Mosquitoes: for any standing water (for instance, birdbaths, rain barrels) use mosquito dunks. They also contain BT but are not harmful to birds or mammals, and since their use is very localized, it likely won’t affect any other insect larvae. For more widespread control, spray garlic oil around infested areas. Don’t be afraid to spray bushes, lawns, ground cover, decks, building walls, fences, and any other structure that might harbor them.

We gardeners should follow the same Hipppocratic Oath that doctors take: First, do no harm.

I have committed tomatocide!

“The best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang oft agley.”

                Robert Burns

I am a true testament to Bobby Burns’ poem. I’ll tell you why.

Last December, with a slight case of ennui, I decided to correct my lazy ways and get busy for the spring growing season. Spurred on by a YouTube video on “DYI Grow Light Operation,” I purchased a section of 2” PVC, cut it to proportions, glued the pieces together, added a regular LED bar suspended from an adjustable chain, and voila! I had my own grow light.

I might mention that even with hand tools, I cannot cut a straight line. With electric devices, I am dangerous to a fault. That’s one of the reasons I love gardening. I can cover a multitude of sins with mulch. Crooked cuts are a different story.

I was proud of my work, and my wife, who has forbidden me to use any electric tools to cut, shape, or build anything, under pain of bodily harm, actually approved of my handiwork. (I secretly used a circular saw to cut the PVC, but what she doesn’t know won’t hurt me – unless she reads this post or one of you tells her about it. Please be discreet.)

Well, in January, I planted about 30 tomato seeds bought from Johnny’s Seeds. I like Johnny’s Seeds because they’re quality products and the company is owned by the employees – another plus in my mind. I also put in some eggplant and cayenne pepper seeds.

A word about cayennes. The etymology of the word is uncertain. Some believe it came from the Old Tupi language in Brazil, while others believe it originated from Guiana – as in French Guiana. Some, however, say that French Guiana was named after the pepper, so I suppose it comes to which came first, the chicken or the pepper, to mix metaphors.

But I digress.

I keep a spray bottle of rainwater (collected from my rain barrels) infused with Ocean Harvest, a liquid organic fertilizer made of fish emulsion, kelp, and other ingredients. This I use to fertilize my burgeoning seedlings.     

It is also my habit to keep a spray bottle of bleach on my shelf to sterilize my pruners, my knife, and any other tool that might need disinfecting.

Both are clearly labeled, and I keep them in separate locations…usually. I think you can guess where this is going.

Arriving home late one evening after giving a gardening talk a couple of hours drive away, exhausted and hungry, I first went to spray my little seedlings, now about four inches tall, with my bottle of nutrients.  The garage was dark, except for the grow light. I reached for the bottle of fertilizer and began to spray my little children.

Fish emulsion has a distinctive odor.  I realized though that the liquid I was spraying on my little darlings did not smell like fish emulsion. Instead, it had a distinct aroma of bleach. Unfortunately, I realized that I had just doused the seedlings with a liberal spraying of bleach.

How I grabbed the bleach instead of the fish emulsion, I have no idea. Perhaps my brain synapses malfunctioned since both of the bottles were clearly labeled. Maybe I wasn’t thinking. More likely, it was due to my short attention span and sometimes muddled thinking.

Anyway, all my babies died, and I am guilty of tomatocide, as well as peppercide and eggplanticide. Perhaps the Great Solanaceae God will forgive me for my lapse in judgment. Although I hope this is true, I think I noticed some angry looks from other members of that family, especially from the Brugmansia, night-blooming jasmine, and datura growing in my backyard. Should I lock my bedroom door?

Do you know where your garden seeds come from?

Did you know that Monsanto owned 40% of the garden seed market? That’s right, the maker of that premier Agent Orange product, Roundup, crept into the home gardening scene a few years ago. Already known for it’s development of genetically-modified organisms and for developing (and owning the patents on) a large number of vegetable and grain varieties), Monsanto sought not only to gain control of the seed genetics, but of the market itself.

In 2005, the chemical and agricultural giant bought Seminis, then the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world for $1.4 billion.

Last year, the chemical giant Bayer bought Monsanto for $66 billion. Bayer, as you may know from your history, used slave labor during WW2, and conducted medical experiments on female prisoners. Of course, that was 80 years ago, and we all tend to forget.

Bayer now controls the seed for 55 percent of the lettuce, 75% of the tomatoes, and 85 percent of the peppers in U.S. groceries. The company also holds a significant portion of the markets on beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach, and peas. Interesting food for thought, not so interesting for our bodies and health.

In the list below. You’re sure to recognize the names of some important and popular seed sellers.

Here is a list of companies which are owned by Bayer (Monsanto), or sell seeds from them.

American Seeds


Audubon Workshop

Breck’s Bulbs


Cook’s Garden

Dege Garden Center


De Ruiter

Diener Seeds

Earl May Seed

E & R Seed Co


Fielder’s Choice

Flower of the Month Club


Gardens Alive

Germania Seed Co

Garden Trends

Gold Country Seed



Heritage Seeds


Hubner Seed



Jung Seed

Kruger Seeds

Lewis Hybrids

Lindenberg Seeds

McClure and Zimmerman Quality Bulb Brokers

Mountain Valley Seed



Park Bulbs

Park’s Countryside Garden



R.H Rea Hybrids

. Shumway

Roots and Rhizomes


Seeds for the World

Seymour’s Selected Seeds



Spring Hill Nurseries



Stone Seed

T&T Seeds

Tomato Growers Supply

Totally Tomato


Vermont Bean Seed Co.

Wayside Gardens

Western Seeds

Willhite Seed Co.

What the Heck is pH?

Remember the high school science class? No, neither do I, but if we were paying attention, we would have learned about the “litmus test.”

Here’s how it went, I’m told. First, you dip a piece of litmus paper into a solution, and it turns color…either red or blue. If the paper turns red, then the solution is acidic. If it’s blue, it’s “basic” or alkaline. If you’re interested in what litmus paper is, I think it’s made from lichens. I could go into that a little deeper, but I’m not that interested. If you are, either Google it or send me a message.

The critical point is that it tells you if the solution is acidic or alkaline. Chemists call the range between acidic and alkaline “pH.” 

The term “pH” was first described by Danish biochemist Søren Peter Lauritz Sørensen in 1909. The o with the slash is called a “minuscule” by the way, and that’s all I know about it.

pH is an abbreviation for “power of hydrogen” where “p” is short for the German word for power (potenz), and H is the element symbol for hydrogen. Why a Danish scientist used a German word is Greek to me, but he was a scientist, and I’m not, so I’ll just go with the flow. The H is capitalized because it is standard to capitalize element symbols. So now you understand about as much as I do.

Chemists and soil scientists have assigned a number to the pH test, ranging from 0 (highly acidic) to 14 (highly alkaline).

As I’ve said in other blogs before, soil is made up of living and non-living materials, both inorganic and organic.  This melange of components creates some complicated chemistry. The pH designation and number are considered a “master variable” in soil science.

If I (or you, as the case may be) change the pH of a soil, the process can change biological, biochemical, and chemical processes in the soil and the interaction of those processes.

And here’s how it affects gardeners and farmers.

Let’s use phosphorus as an example. As most gardeners know, phosphorus is one of the three major nutrients that plants need. The other two are nitrogen and potassium. When you buy fertilizer, the law requires that each container on the bag provides the percentage of these three chemicals…nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), or NPK.

Phosphorus is an excellent example of how pH can help or prevent plants from taking up nutrients in the soil. Phosphorus is essential to a plant. It plays a role in photosynthesis, respiration, energy storage, energy transfer, cell division, cell enlargement, and several other processes in plants. If the pH of the soil is between 5.5 (somewhat acidic) and 8.5 (slightly alkaline), plants can take in phosphorus.

But if the pH is outside those levels (lower than 5.5 on the acidic side or higher than 8.5 on the alkaline side), the phosphorus interacts with other soil minerals like iron oxides and carbonates. This interaction then locks up the phosphorus and make it unavailable to plants.

 There is a “Goldilocks Zone” where the pH is just right. That range is between 6.5 and 7.5 and this is the range in which most plants can access the nutrients they need.

How do you find out your pH? Get a soil test done. Here’s where you can go:

Texas A&M Soil Testing Lab

LSU Soil Testing

Mississippi State Soil Testing

Alabama Extension Soil Testing Lab

University of Florida Soil Testing Lab

More articles you might like:

Soil-The Living Layer of Earth

The World Under Our Feet

The Soil Food Web

Making Your Soil Fertile

What Is Soil? It’s Not Just Dirt!

Interview with a Soil Scientist

Soil-The Living Layer of Earth

A noted French theologian once said that “man is the living layer of earth.” He was referring to the spiritual realm, I’m sure. Because there is another “living layer of earth” right below our feet – the soil.

That’s because good soil is alive with millions, billions, trillions – countless mega trillions of living creatures which are born, live, procreate and die every second. A teaspoon of good soil would contain millions of living creatures, while a shovel-full would hold billions. An acre would contain more living organisms than there are starts in our galaxy… perhaps in the entire universe.

These organisms are part of the complex nature of soil – which is different from dirt. I’ll call good soil simply soil in the rest of this article.

I have already written about how soil is formed. Here is a deeper view. Once the tiny bits of grains have deposited and some organic material begins to grow and die, bacteria, single-celled animals and fungi begin to colonize the growing soil and mineral mixture.

Picture yourself in a forest. A tree sheds its leaves. Those leaves, now on the ground, begin to decompose. It’s not a process that just happens. The organic compounds in the leaves are being consumed by living microscopic creatures (and some larger ones). A single bacterium lives about 12 hours, after which it divides. In 7 generations, that single cell with become more than 16 million duplicates of itself. You could see that, in a year, the total bacteria population would completely cover the earth.

However, there is a failsafe, which contributes to the soil being enriched. Bacteria in the soil are being consumed by larger single-celled animals, like amoebas and protozoans. And while these cells are dividing, they are being consumed by even larger creatures.  Now, while all these microbes and macro-organisms are going through their life cycles, microscopically fine threads of symbiotic fungi are making their way from root to root.

It’s not over yet. Larger creatures – earthworms, pill bugs, beetles and other detritus-eating plants, munch away at the larger pieces of debris that the microbes did not finish consuming. The earthworms are especially adept at this, and they do more. By passing the detritus through their gut, they inoculate the particles with beneficial bacteria, which they then excrete back into the soil. Worms also make vertical tubes, allowing air and water to penetrate the soil.

Spiders, bug-eating beetles, ants, and other predators begin feasting on the earthworms and their helpers, adding their carcasses or depositing it as excretion onto the ground.

Now, even larger creatures come into the soil – like moles and birds. These predators love the other creepy crawlers and provide a useful purpose.

Every time I turn my compost in the spring, a robin perches near me waiting for worms. Since my compost is usually full of worms, except during the coldest days of winter, I don’t mind sharing them with this friendly avian. She waits until I have tossed four or five wriggling ones her way, she daintily picks each one up with her beak until she has all of them captured. Still holding them in her beak, she slams the worms against the crushed granite walkway until she has them dazed enough to her satisfaction. A quick flit to her next in a nearby oak, a couple of minutes there, obviously feeding her chicks and she’s back waiting for a more worm largesse. Occasionally, I’ll find her on top of my compost pile, scratching on her own – which is okay with me. I’ve got plenty of earthworms.  

This is the natural flow of things making up the living layer of earth and an essential part of the planet’s recycling process.

Making Your Soil Fertile

It really doesn’t matter what type of soil you have in your yard, garden or landscape. Any soil can be amended to make it fertile and robust.

As you can see from the chart above, each type of soil has its own properties. Clay soil has good nutrient- holding and water-holding capacities, but water and air cannot infiltrate into the clay. Clay is also hard to work. Dig a hole into clay soil and fill it with water. You can see what I mean. It takes forever for it to drain. Since clay is so dense, plant roots find it difficult to penetrate very far, leading to a weakened root structure and unhealthy plants. Soil amendments increase the porosity and allow water and air to flow through the soil.

Silt soils have medium capacities in all the categories, but to get the best results it will need to be changed somewhat.

Sand doesn’t hold nutrients or water very well. Pour water into sand and see how fast it drains through. Adding good amendments to sandy soil increases its water- and nutrient-holding abilities.

Now, loam is a different matter. Loam is an almost ideal plant-growing medium. It’s a mixture of equal parts of clay, silt, and sand. But, to make REALLY good soil, a few more ingredients are needed.

“ A soil amendment is any material added to a soil to improve its physical properties. In other words, you want to increase water retention, permeability, water infiltration, drainage, aeration, and structure. The overriding reason for this is to provide a better environment for roots,” according to a Colorado State University paper by J.G. Davis and D. Whiting.

There are easy ways to develop good soils.

Organic Material I have found that organic materials are best, although some swear by inorganic methods. Organic amendments have come from something that was once alive…composted leaves and grass clippings (although it’s much better to mulch the clippings as you are mowing), peat moss, manure of many kinds, organic humates,  straw (not hay because hay has tons of seeds),  rotted wood (not fence slats or loading pallets) but wood from trees), fresh vegetable scraps, worm castings, and more. Although wood ash is organic, it is also high in sales and has a high pH.

Benefits of Organic Material in Soil You should also know this about organic materials. It helps the soil retain water, while also providing infiltration of both air and water. Soil with five percent of organic matter can hold up to three quarts of water per cubic foot. A 4,000 square foot lawn with that amount of organic matter (thus 4,000 cubic feet) can hold up to 3,000 gallons of water, and an acre can hold about 33,000 gallons. If water is a problem (many residents along the coast have their own water wells), it pays to remember that a good soaking rain can save a ton of water-and money – just by adding organic material. Some people make their own compost -others buy organic material (or steal it from their neighbor’s green recycling bin.)

Inorganics Inorganic materials include vermiculite, perlite, pea gravel, sand, several other mined materials, and man-made crosslinked polymers. These materials are readily available.

I definitely prefer organic methods. I make my own compost- although I can never make enough to meet my needs. I do buy a lot, but I purchase it from local organic compost manufacturers. You can find a local organic composter near your area here.

One other good thing about organic material is that it inoculates the soil with beneficial organisms, which in turn help make nutrients more available to plants, as well as increasing the health of the soil.

Soil Types Along The Upper Gulf Coast

A variety of soil types exist along the Gulf Coast. And, they are all somewhat different.

Gulf Coast Marsh Soils

Found immediately along most of the upper Gulf Coast, these soils can be divided into four types: freshwater, intermediate, brackish, and saltwater. Lakes, bayous, tidal channels and man-made canals crisscross the area. Most of this land is highly susceptible to flooding.

The soils are poorly drained, almost continuously saturated, soft and can support little weight. The organic soils contain a layer of thick, gray undecomposed organic material over a clay-like sub soil.

Coastal Saline Prairies

Covering over 3 million acres and extending from Mexico through Louisiana. Just at sea level or a couple of feet above, it also contains areas of salt-water marsh and drainage is slow. The water table is either at or just below the surface. Used mostly for cattle grazing, or wetland wildlife refuges, residents have developed wonderfully bountiful gardens by amending soils.

Coastal Prairies

Spanning over 9 million acres and stretching through Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the coastal prairies range from 30 to 80 miles north of the Gulf. Even though surface drainage is slow, much of the soil includes dark-colored clays and loams. As most of us who live along the coast know, the topography is level and the soil amazingly productive. Rice, sorghum, cotton, corn, hay and sugar cane are major crops and productive home gardens abound through this area.

Alabama has coastal prairies as well, but little saline prairies and few coastal marsh soils. The Alabama coast, east of Mobile Bay, more closely resembles the upper Florida coast, with barrier islands, thin lines of beaches and then flatland forests inland.


Whichever of these areas you live in, you need to get your soil tested. See below for links to soil labs in each state:

Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service Soil, Water and Forage Testing Laboratory

LSU Soil Testing Lab

Mississippi State University Soil Testing

Alabama Soil, Forage and Water Testing

Florida Extension Soil Testing Laboratory

There are some chemical properties you can determine on your own.

Soil Color

What color is your soil? Soil color reflects the amount of organic material, conditions of drainage and the level of oxidation and weathering of the soil.

Light-colored soil means low organic matter. Darker colors mean higher organic content. Also, light or pale colors of soil could mean courser soil and heavy leaching.

Dark colors can also mean high water tables and poor drainage (for instance the gumbo soil along the coast, or from the color of the parent material.

Red and yellow shades can mean finely-textured soil. It can also mean, as in the case of red dirt in Alabama and Florida, oxidized iron in the soil.

Red and brown subsoil show that there is free movement of air and water through the soil.


How coarse or how fine the mineral particles in the soil determine texture.

Sandy soils are generally coarser, while silt is fine, smooth and feels floury.

The finest soil particles make up clay, while loam has mixtures of clay, sand and silt, and also humus. There are different types of loam, each with its own characteristics: sandy loam (feels sandy and rough but has some silt in it; silt loam (feels smooth – like flour, when rubbed between your thumb and fingers); silty clay loam (feels smooth when dry – sticky and slick when wet but has noticeable amounts of silt in it; and clay loam (smooth when dry and sticky and slick when wet – there may be some amounts of silt and sand in it, but there is noticeably more clay).

Which turf grass is best

There are over 5,000,000 acres of turf grass grown along the Gulf Coast. All are warm-season turf grass, each with its own characteristics and its own pros and cons. Others, like buffalo grass – although considered a warm-season grass – do not do well in Gulf Coast lawns. There are, however, three types of grass which grow reasonably well here. (Lawn statistics for the Gulf Coast)

Bermuda grass

If you’re new to the area, and want to see what Bermuda grass looks like, go to the nearest sports field. Sports fields usually have one of two types of surfaces. One is artificial turf. The other is Bermuda grass. The chief advantage of this turf grass is it has few disease or insect problems and, although it is a warm-season grass, it is more cold tolerant than other warm- season grasses. However, the main requirement for Bermuda grass is that it needs full sun. It is also much more tolerant of traffic than other types.

One disadvantage is that it does not tolerate shade, it turns brown after the first frost. However, just because it turns brown after the first frost, it is still alive but dormant. It will return to green in the early spring. Many gardeners (including myself) despise Bermuda grass because it is aggressive, quickly invades garden beds and is a devil to remove.

Bermuda grass needs about one inch of water a week during the growing season (April-October). That includes rainwater. So, if it rains an inch this week, you don’t have to water it at all – good news on your water bill. In fact, the three warm-season grasses mentioned here go dormant in the winter. Here is an example of a lawn that has not been artificially watered in over 2 years.

St. Augustine grass

St. Augustine is the most commonly used turf grass along the Gulf Coast.It is relatively shade-tolerant and may remain green but dormant throughout most winters here. Like Bermuda grass, it does need a lot of water (about one inch a week). It is the most tolerant of salt water, which can be a boon during hurricane season.

This turf grass is susceptible to disease and insect damage, its two major disadvantages.


Zoysia grass is becoming more and more popular among residents along the Gulf Coast. It’s almost as shade-tolerant as St. Augustine and has few disease or insect problems, Zoysia also requires much less water than either St. Augustine or Bermuda grass and it tends to be more wear-resistant than either of the two other grasses.

A disadvantage is that it is the earliest turf to turn brown at the first frost. It is also the last to green up in the spring.

When to sod

Although theoretically, all three grasses can be sodded anytime, the very best times to sod are late October and early April. Those months are cooler than our hotter late spring and summer and allow the grass roots more time to grow without the stress of extremes of temperature. April is also the best time to aerate your lawn and add compost to it.

Where do those winter weeds come from and how do we control them?

Every winter and early spring along the Upper Gulf Coast, weeds begin appearing in even the best-maintained lawns. Chickweed, henbit, burweed, dandelion and other weeds, carried in by the wind, by birds, or merely lying in the soil for years until sprouting, begin their annual blight across our landscapes.

Whatever way they got there, our main concern is “how do we get rid of them?” Don’t despair. Homeowners have many choices to remove and eradicate these annoying plants.

Mow them down before they seed. Most of the weeds that appear in the lawn in late winter and very early spring can be destroyed completely by simply mowing them down before they form seeds. These weeds are annuals, like corn, tomatoes, begonias, petunias, nasturtiums and others – which means they only live for one year. They propagate their species by making seed and dropping it onto the ground in the spring. But if these plants are mown before they create seed heads, they cannot propagate. This is the least invasive method of getting rid of weeds in your garden.

Add organic material in spring and fall. Most lawns here are varieties of St. Augustine turf. St. Augustine is a very rugged, aggressive and durable warm-season grass. Healthy, strong, disease-free St. Augustine will eventually force out weeds. A quarter inch application of organic material, once in mid-October and another in mid-April will help the St. Augustine grass itself to eliminate the weeds.

Pull the weeds. Work-intensive and probably not the preferred method for homeowners and landscapers alike, this requires a lot of stooping, bending and kneeling. If one seeks a good workout, then this might be an acceptable method.

Pre-emergent herbicides. I do not recommend chemical herbicides. Herbicides containing benefin, trifluralin, isoxaben, pendimethalin and dithiopyr are effective as pre-emergents do work, but residents must be very careful in their use, read and follow instructions to the letter, avoid run-off (they can cause damage to both fresh and salt water marine life, as well as beneficial microbial life in the soil), and ensure that children and pets are not around when applying. Also, avoid tracking the material into the home. Wash clothes worn during application and run the washing machine empty immediately after washing those clothes.  If the above doesn’t scare you or at least get your attention, then you should probably read Rachel Carlson’s book, Silent Spring.

Let the weeds grow. Although neighbors and covenants would probably object, the adage of “one man’s weed is another man’s flower” does have a certain charm.  And, as Emerson said: “What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have never been discovered.”

The only garden tools you absolutely need to get the job done.

“What tools should I get for gardening?” It’s a question I get just about every time I give a gardening lecture.

I’ve got a lot of gardening tools. Hand rakes, and four of five different shovels and spades, several types of pruners, a couple of pruning saws, as well as a bow crosscut, three or four hoes, some long- and short- handle weeders, dibbles, a hori-hori knife, a ton of hand tools, and a plethora of other instruments.

Interestingly, I rarely use them. For my vegetable gardening, I generally use only seven tools.

Hoe – I use a Japanese Draw hoe for weeds, to break up clods when I add soil to my raised beds, and to help create rows. It’s just the right size for me, and, because of its design, I can even use it with one hand.

Rake – I use a plain garden bow rake. It’s useful for spreading out soil and compost on my beds, and really helps in levelling beds. For fine leveling, I just turn the rake upside down with the tines sticking upward and drag the top of the rake across the soil. I also use my rake to mark rows for beans and other vegetables.

Hand trowel –  My bend-proof garden trowel works well for digging holes for transplants, for patting down soil or adding soil or compost over seeds. It’s stainless steel and rust resistant, and I don’t have to worry about it bending (which has happened to less well-built trowels more than once. There are several makers who carry bend-proof trowels, so check them out and decide which is best for you.

Wagon – I grew tired of rolling an unwieldy wheelbarrow around the garden, especially when it was full of soil or other heavy materials. So, I splurged and bought myself a nice little wagon. It’s made of strong plastic, can hold up to 300+ pounds, and I can pull it along – a lot easier than pushing a one-wheel wheelbarrow. The wagon also has a lever that allows me to dump the contents – a great boon when unloading heavy compost.

Gloves I have two sets of gloves. The nitrile pair is for summer use, and they last me for about one season. The other is more heavy-duty and somewhat insulated which I use for winter work.

Pocket knife – I always carry my Kershaw pocket knife. As a master gardener, I never know when I will get called out to check someone’s plants, and I can use my trusty knife to do a little soil investigation. It’s great for cutting twine, perhaps cutting small soil roots, prying seedlings out of pots and scoring rootbound seedlings.

My pruners – I have a set of Felco pruners, which are over 10 years old. Whenever I work in the yard, I always carry them in their holster attached to my belt. There are always situations that come up where my Felcos will be useful. And I keep them sharpened and well-cared for. I swear by my Felcos. And they offer right and left handed pruners…something us lefties see very seldom.

That’s about it. I won’t say that I never use my trenching shovel, because I do need it on occasion. Or my scoop shovel that comes in handy unloading a yard of compost from my pickup.  Very occasionally, I will use one of my pruning saws to trim an errant shoot from my vitex or redbud. But those are really exceptions to the rule.

If you love buying tools, go ahead. But if you want to keep things simple, or you’re working on a tight budget, the seven things I mentioned are really the only tools you absolutely need to have a bountiful  garden (vegetable or ornamental).

One word of advice: clean your tools and put them out of the weather after you use them. I wash mine with water making sure all the dirt and grime is off the tool. Then, I use rubbing alcohol and an old rag to sterilize them. I then coat them with a fine film of oil. My pruners and knife usually need sharpening, so I make sure I sharpen them, sterilize them and use a little drop of oil to keep them from rusting. Take care of your tools and they will last a long, long time.

Plant tomatoes soon!

I know it’s still January, but spring comes very early along the Gulf Coast. I’ve already ordered seeds for my spring vegetable garden, along with some annual flower seeds to enhance the look of my native garden.

The USDA tells us that the “average” date of the last frost here is around February 27. It also reports that we are “almost” assured that we will receive no frost between March 20 and November 1, making the frost-free growing season around 270 days.

I shoot for the average, and always plan to get my spring garden planted by the end of February, or the first week of March at the latest.

I try to get tomatoes in as soon as I dare, because even the shortest maturing tomatoes take about 55 days to produce fruit. That means that tomatoes won’t begin to come in until the third week in April. Tomatoes with longer maturities may go into May. By that time, it’s beginning to get really warm. Since tomato pollen is no longer viable when daytime temperatures reach 85-90 degrees and nighttime temperatures are at 75 or higher, it’s important to make sure they’re planted early enough.

If I wait until March 20, the date I am almost assured of no more frost, some of my tomatoes won’t be maturing until late May. By then it’s going to be far too warm for them to set fruit.

Here are some varieties which do well along the Upper Gulf Coast, along with how long it takes for the harvest to come in.

Variety Days to Harvest
                   Large Tomatoes(12 oz. +)
Better Boy 70
Bush Goliath 68
Sunny Goliath 70
                 Medium 4-11 oz.
Carnival 70
Celebrity 70
Champion 70
Dona 65
Early Girl 52
First Lady 66
Heatwave 68
Chico III 70
Roma 75
Viva Italia 75
                      Small (under 3 oz.)
Jaune flame 75
Jolly 70
Juliet (Grape) 60
Small Fry 65
Sun Gold (Cherry) 65
Sweet Chelsea (Cherry) 65
Sweet Million 65

Try “No Till” in your vegetable garden

Humans have tilled the earth since they stopped being hunter-gatherers and became farmers. The tradition has been to turn over the earth before planting to get rid of weeds and to make it easier to use fertilizers to plant crops. Mechanical tillers have made things easier, but tilling is still one of a gardener’s most difficult tasks.

However, soil scientists are now realizing that tilling interferes with the complex relationship of the soil and the micro-organisms that keep the soil healthy and productive. Tilling also compacts the soil, brings long-dormant weed seeds to the surface sale and adds to erosion. In fact, poor agricultural practices like tilling helped develop the Great Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930s.

Gardeners who practice the “no-till” method never disturb the bed once it is established. Instead, they add amendments like compost, manure, peat, lime and fertilizer to the top of the bed.  Water and the micro-organisms in the soil pull the nutrients down into the subsoil.  Instead of weeding, they use mulch to prevent weeds from germinating. The results of “no-till” gardening: good, spongy soil, rich in micro-organisms and beneficial fungi. This allows the roots of young seedlings to penetrate through the soil.

“No-Till” Gardening Benefits

Aeration and drainage

Earthworms, micorrhizal fungi and other soil organisms are keys to good soil structure. Worm tunnels provide drainage. Their excretions help fertilize the soil and bind the soil to provide for aeration. Gardeners who practice the no-till process say that their vegetable plots are freer of diseases and pests.

Water Savings

Good layers of mulch allow water to pass through into the soil, while shading the soil, keeping it at a more constant temperature. This is especially important along the Upper Gulf Coast, where late spring sun beats down mercilessly on garden beds. The mulch also prevents evaporation, and helps create a moist growing environment.

Less weeding

Most garden beds contain weed seeds which stay dormant until they become exposed to sunlight. Dormant weed seeds will remain dormant indefinitely in no-till gardens. Gardeners can easily remove the few weeds carried in by the wind or birds.

Saves time and energy

Some gardeners till with a shovel, turning over the soil one scoop at a

Leaving the roots of plants in the soil adds to the organic content.
Leaving the roots of plants in the soil adds to the organic content.

time. Others use gas-powered tillers. No-till gardeners save time and energy.

Keeping the carbon in the soil

Good soil has a great deal of carbon. Humus, compost and other decaying organic matter provides carbon and other carbon-dependent nutrients to plants. Tilling the soil speeds up the breakdown of organic matter. When this happens, it releases the nutrients too quickly, increasing the need for more fertilizers. Good plant growth requires a slow, steady release of nutrients. No-till gardening promotes this process.

Earthworm population

Soil without earthworms tends to be poor soil. A good earthworm population in garden soil is a good indication that the soil is healthy. Earthworms create tunnels which help water and air to filter deeply into the soil. Tilling destroys these structures. In addition, earthworm excretions (called worm castings) are extremely rich in desired micro-organisms and nutrients.

Reduces Erosion

The no-till method reduces erosion. It increases the carbon in the soil, which helps prevent fertilizers and topsoil from being washed away.

Types of mulches

Since mulch is such an important component of no-till gardening, it’s important to know what types of mulches work best. First, remember that mulch and compost are not the same thing. Mulch is organic matter that has not yet become compost.

Good sources of mulch:

  • Straw: Excellent mulching material, as opposed to hay, which may have weed seeds.
  • Pine straw: Don’t curse the pine needles in your yard. Save them for mulch. Many municipalities and homeowners are using pine straw. It degrades slowly and therefore has a longer life than many other mulches.
  • Leaves: A great source of carbon and other nutrients. After all, the largest amount of all nutrients in a plant are in its leaves. There are two easily-fixed problems with leaves. They sometimes tend to mat, and they tend to blow away. Spreading leaves in thin layers and sprinkling a little soil on each layer will help prevent both these problems.
  • Newspaper: Since paper is made of wood, these are good sources of carbon. However, newspapers tend to blow away. As with leaves, sprinkle soil between each layer.
  • Seaweed: Seaweed has a large amount of trace minerals that plants need. Slugs don’t like it, so it acts as a slug repellant as well.

Gardeners who want less strenuous work, good vegetable production, and continuous soil health might want to give no-till gardening a try.

Lawn and Garden Chores for May

May is coming on strong, and we can expect some serious heat. Now is the time to prepare for the next stage in our yard and garden.


At month’s end, spring vegetables start failing. It’s time to start thinking about whatever you’re going to put in next.

Most herbs do very well in a hot, dry climate, e.g., our summertime. Basils, oregano, mint, rosemary. A reminder: mint is a beautiful herb, great for flavoring iced tea, lemonade, and more adult drinks. But mint is not very well behaved.  Unless controlled, it can take over your entire garden. Mint is better grown in containers.

If you’re planning for a late summer garden, you might want to look at the following: okra, southern peas (crowder, black-eyed, purple hull, zipper cream), watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and pumpkin. You can find detailed planting, growing, and harvesting information here:

Texas A&M Agrilife Extension

LSU AG Center

Mississippi State University Extension

Alabama Extension Service

University of Florida Extension

Remember the harvest. Beans, squash, and cucumbers while they are young and tender. If you’ve got bugs eating your crops, take the action that does the least harm. Stink bugs and leaf-footed bugs can be flipped off the plant into a tin of soapy water. It kills them instantly. Spraying upwards under leaves will rid plants of aphids, spider mites, and other pets.

If your garden is like most gardens in the area, birds and squirrels are already after your tomatoes and other veggies. Plastic netting works. As does wrapping each ripening fruit with a piece of light groundcover material. However, I’ve found the best way is to pick the fruit at first blush (or even just before first blush) and let it ripen inside.

Birds don’t especially like tomatoes. They’re after the water inside the tomato. If you keep a birdbath filled with water nearby, the birds will most likely avoid attacking your tomatoes.

Be on the lookout for tomato hornworms. These fat green devils can destroy a whole plant in a day or two. And they’re hard to find because of their ideal camouflage. Take heart. They are highly visible under a black light at night. Get yourself a black light flashlight, wait until dark, and then inspect your plants with the light. The hornworms will stick our like a sore thumb. Then you can either pick them off the vine and destroy them. If you’re squeamish, use gloves.

Crepe Myrtles and other trees

About this time every year, our master gardener hotline gets calls about the black sooty substance on crepe myrtle leaves. The soot is caused by a mold growing on the surface of the leaf. The mold is growing from excretions of aphids living under the leaf above the sooty leaf. Despite being unpleasant to look at, the “soot” probably won’t harm the tree, but the aphids certainly can. Spraying a steady stream of water aimed under the leaves will dislodge the aphids. Subsequent rain or irrigation will wash the soot from the leaves.

An aside: please don’t “knuckle” your crepe myrtles. This is called “crepe murder,” it not only leaves the tree with ugly bulges, but it shortens the life of the tree. See Agrilife Extension Agent Robert “Skip” Richter’s video on pruning crepe myrtles here:

If you planted any type of tree last fall or winter, make sure you’re keeping them watered for at least a few more months to make sure they’re established.


Don’t bag your grass clippings. Most of the nutrients in any grass plant are in the leaves. When you clip and bag that blade of grass, you are permanently removing those nutrients. Then you need to replace the nutrients you just removed with expensive fertilizers. Use a mulching lawnmower and leave the clippings on the lawn. The nutrients will return to the soil and provide free fertilizer for the yard.

Almost time to plant a spring garden

We’ve had a very mild, somewhat wet winter this year, but gardeners shouldn’t rush out to plant their vegetable gardens just yet.

The temptation to put plants in the ground before March is sometimes overwhelming, so anxious are we to begin our spring garden. Late unexpected frosts around the end of February can lead to disaster for tender seedlings, even if they have been hardened off.

According to the USDA cold hardiness zone map, the last frost date in Zone 8, is between February 22 to March 30.  Much of the upper Gulf Coast is in Zone 8, but in the southern part of that zone. For those of us who live in Zone 9, the average last frost date is between January 20 to February 28. Use your own judgement, but I would not plant any spring crop before March 1 and would probably wait until March 5 or, just to be sure.

Now, what to plant. You can see the chart above which has dates for planting. The information from this chart is taken from Texas Agrilife Extension Service and applies to Zones 8 and 9, and it provides windows in which to plant various spring vegetables.

Of course, tomatoes are the very first concern for most of us. Second probably comes peppers. Tomatoes should be planted after the last spring frost. Take the info above about last frost date and do with it as you wish. I will plant my tomato seedlings the first week of March, and barring any problems, I should have delicious tomatoes by April.

As for peppers, I have a friend who has a chili pequin TREE that he’s kept alive for decades. It’s still bearing fruit. I’ve kept a mucho nacho jalapeno alive for three years, but I’m sure some of you have done better than three years. Don’t know anyone except my friend who’s kept one alive that long.

Gardeners can plant vegetables, like eggplant, cantaloupe, okra, southern peas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, and watermelon far into the summer.

Note that different varieties of the same vegetable may have differing ripening times. For instance, Early Girl tomatoes have a fruit maturity time of 55 days, while Celebrity tomatoes mature in 70 days. Most store-bought plants have maturity dates on the pots and seed packets do as well.

Remember too that many hybrid varieties of plants are resistant to different viruses and bacterial diseases. If you’re an organic gardener, note that hybrids are not GMOs.

Access these websites for more information about suggested varieties for the Gulf Coast area and days-to-harvest for each variety.

Aggie Horticulture Vegetable Varieties for the Gulf Coast

LSU Ag Center

Mississippi State Agriculture

Things to do in the garden in January

  1. Start your tomato seeds. Remember that tomatoes started from seed need at least six weeks before they are ready to put in the ground. If you start them now, they should be prepared by the end of February or early March to transplant.
  2. Plant fruit trees now.  The ground never freezes along the Gulf Coast, so January is a perfect time to put in fruit trees. Check area nurseries for healthy fruit trees. Or you may want to look around for other sales. Some master gardener organizations have fruit and nut tree sales o in January, as do arboretums and other gardening groups.
  3. It’s been a very mild winter, but keep an eye open for cold snaps. A few years ago, after an unusually warm winter, I planted my tomato seedlings on February 27, thinking (logically, I assumed) that winter was over. Two days later, an unexpected freeze came barreling down from the north. Although I covered them, I guess you know what happened to my babies. And you know what they say about “assuming.”
  4. You can also start peppers and eggplant from seed now.
  5. You could plant cool weather annuals now, but we’ve only got a month and a half left of possible cold weather.
  6. This is also a great time to have your soil tested.
  7. If you’ve got St. Augustine grass on your lawn, there’s no need to irrigate during January and February. In fact, St. Augustine goes dormant of most of the winter, and we get enough rain along the coast to provide for adequate moisture.
  8. You are probably already receiving seed catalogs. Use this time to plan out your garden and order seeds.
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