Here some statistics about lawns along the Gulf Coast that might interest you:
Connection with gardens, even small ones, even potted plants, can become windows to the inner life. The simple act of stopping and looking at the beauty around us can be prayer. -Patricia R. Barrett
We have a number of potted plants in and around our home. In the front yard, a lei plant (plumaria) sits outside the front entrance. Two rosemary plants pose like sentinels, each ensconced in large glazed pottery. Another very large glazed urn outside the kitchen window holds irises and crinums.
The back yard is filled with potted plants. Some are in nicely aged terra cotta, others in glazed urns and still others in black plastic nursery pots. The plants in nursery pots are those I have started from seed, cuttings or tubers. They include ginger (the kind you eat), milkweed (for the monarchs), mint, night-blooming jasmine, angel trumpets, and more, and are waiting until I can get them into the ground or in permanent pots. Many seeds I’ve collected will go into pots in the fall.
But you don’t need a yard to have container plants Our inside plants include a small herb garden, some African violets my wife cares for and various other plants that need more tender care – all sitting on the kitchen windowsill. We’ve got pothos (you know that ivy thing that you see in just about every doctor’s office) in many rooms in our home.
Pothos, by the way, is the Greek word for “longing,” which was considered a divine power. In mythology, Pothos (the god of longing), his brothers Eros (love) and Himeros (desire) were the sons of Zephyr, the westerly wind.
Pothos (the plant, not the god) has a great reputation for scrubbing the air. Along with the peace lily, spider plant (also called airplane plant), and several other indoor plants, , it can remove formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene, toluene, xylene, ammonia, and carbon monoxide from the air.
What to use for pots I get ill when I have to use euphemisms all the time. “Plant container” is a high sounding word for “pot,” which comes from the Old English word “pott,” which means, unbelievably, “pot.” There are a lot of different types. Clay (terracotta), hypertufa, metal, molded plastic, glazed or unglazed pottery, stone, and simple recycled materials (old shoes, washtubs, wheel barrels, wagons, carts and toys are possible receptacles. Imagination can work wonders. For pros and cons of different container types, see here.
Put the soil in the coconut Soil in planters tends to dry out and compact very fast, even indoors. Never, never, never use regular topsoil or even soil from the yard for your potted plants. Instead, mix a batch of good soil yourself. Mix a third compost, a third perlite, and a third coconut coir into a wheelbarrow or tub. I used to recommend peat instead of coir, but peat moss is not a renewable resource. Coir, made from coconut fiber, is. Add some solid, slow-release organic fertilizer perhaps about a quart for a cubic foot of mixture.
Clean pots make good neighbors Wash your pots, especially if they’ve been used before. Plant diseases, insect eggs and pathogens may exist in the pots. Use soap, warm water and a scrub brush. Rinse and let them dry – except for terra cotta. Terra cotta needs to be soaked throughout before planting anything it.
Ready to plant? Fill the pot halfway with your new mixture. You may want to add a tablespoon of organic fertilizer to the top of the soil at this time. If you’re using a nursery-bought plant, remove it from its nursery pot. With a sharp knife, slice through the root ball from the top to bottom on four sides of the plant. This stimulates the roots to grow.
Put the plant into the pot, and fill in the spaces around it with your prepared mixture, until the soil reaches the base of the plant. Now, add more in, because when you water it, the moisture will compress to soil down.
Place your plant in a sunny window, water it well, and let it do its work.
Watering Your plant is going to need water. There are two ways to check that: a moisture meter, or the finger meter. Stick the moisture meter (available at any garden store) into the soil around the plant, and wait for the meter to register. I use the finger meter, which works like this: stick your finger into the soil. If it comes out dry, it’s time to water your plant. If not, it doesn’t need water yet.
Add a teaspoon of fertilizer about once a month. Scratch it into the surface of the potting soil, and water.
If you have any questions about potting plants, please address them to the address on this website.
It’s August and hot, dry days may be coming our way. At least that’s what happened last year. With all the rain we haven’t had to use our irrigation systems for a while. We’ve had our systems turned off (hopefully) during the monsoons. Some of us are anxious to see those sprinklers throwing water on our lawns again.
Be cautious, though. Last summer when the rains ended, residential usage went from 500 million gallons to over a billion gallons. When water bills went out of sight, some outraged residents blamed leaks or misread meters for the spike.
However, the meters were correct. After checking over 1000 meters, The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency found only a 1 percent discrepancy. The other 99% of the readings were accurate.
That left only one conclusion: some residents (but not most) heavily increased irrigation when the rains ended – generally to the detriment of their lawns (and pocketbooks).
Now that same pattern may occur this year, with water use rising significantly, and cost of water escalating in relation to use.
However, if you do think your water meter has been misread, you can double check the meter reading yourself. As soon as you receive your water bill, turn off all running water inside and outside your home and read your water meter. For a step-by-step guide, go the Waterworks NewsBlog at The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency. An in-depth article on how to read your water meter is posted there.
Fungus, insects, disease
St. Augustine, Zoysia and Bermuda grasses, already saturated by unprecedented rain, are now highly susceptible to fungal diseases and insect damage. Too much water at this time makes these problems worse, not better.
Doubling water use during August is not a solution to maintaining healthy lawns. Instead, moderate watering (if it hasn’t rained), following two day-per-week Defined Irrigation Schedule that covers most of The Woodlands, monitoring rain events and turning off sprinklers during that time, and caring for your lawn in other recommended ways (irrigating no more than an inch of water a week, sharpened blades on your mower, not crew-cutting the lawn but mowing a third of the length of the grass blade, aerating, adding organic material, and following best practices) lead to a healthier lawn and much less costly water bill.
The other day, I found one of my large tomatoes, still green, sitting half-eaten on my back deck. The next day, another. A few days later, my daughter caught a fat little rascal munching down on another green tomato. He (or she…I haven’t learned to tell them apart) dropped it and ran for the large oak in the back yard.
Now, I don’t mind the squirrels eating some of my tomatoes. After all, they have to eat too, and The Woodlands has an ordinance against using firearms. A BB gun did come to mind, but after thinking it through, I decided that sitting in my back yard in the mid-day heat, waiting for one of them to approach my vegetable garden, wasn’t that appealing either. Besides, growing up, I hunted squirrels often in the piney woods of south Louisiana. That took some skill and the squirrel had a chance of surviving –especially if one was a poor shot. Shooting backyard squirrels is like shooting fish in a barrel.
I have found out that squirrels are pretty opportunistic eaters. In fact, there’s not much they won’t eat – they’re not picky by any means.
Native fruits (ever wonder why your passion vine rarely has fruit), flowers , nuts, trees, insects, berries, and mushrooms. (I do not know how they can tell the difference between edible or poisonous mushrooms, but from the way they act sometimes, I think they may sometimes consume psilocybin fungi). And, of course, they also consume TOMATOES!
While the kids are trying to avoid eating their vegetables, the squirrels will go after just about anything you have planted in your garden. They’re fond of radishes, corn, squash, beans, greens, okra, eggplant, Brussel sprouts, carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, cabbage, and leeks, to name a few.
Speaking of kids, squirrels also love children’s breakfast cereals: shredded wheat, corn flakes, grape nuts, and any cereal with extra sugar. The little monsters (the squirrels… not the kids…although that could be true as well in some cases) also like pizza, cheese of any kind and crackers.
Squirrels don’t restrict their diet to vegetation and human food. They will also eat lizards, snakes, worms, birds (babies and eggs mostly).
As the world gets more and more populated, the squirrel population has expanded as well, sharing our space, and also sharing our eating habits. Now, squirrels will eat discarded food in parks (or anywhere else). This includes half-eaten sandwiches…hamburgers, hot dogs, bologna, egg salad. They consume dog food with as much relish as your family pet, your cat’s treats, and just about anything else you leave out.
They even ate the mealworms we put out for the bluebirds. We tried putting hot pepper on the worms, but that didn’t deter them, although the hot pepper suet did keep them away from the bird feeder.
I have to admit, I do like to see them scrambling through their little highways in the trees, barking as they twisted and turned through the meandering branches.
I realize that squirrels, like everything else, don’t live forever. They are a part of our new suburban ecosystem though, and have adapted to survive, just as we humans have. And they have natural predators…feral (and domestic) cats, hawks and eagles, and snakes all predate on the furry creatures.
Several years ago, as I was sitting in my backyard reading Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a squirrel apparently disturbed by my blocking its way to greener pastures, was scolding me from the oak tree. Something whooshed above my head. As I looked up, I saw a very large red-shouldered hawk flying away with the very fat little squirrel in its talons.
Every living thing has two moments of pure truth: when we are born and when we die. The squirrel met his moment of truth naturally. I suppose we need more hawks.
I love making compost as much as I love actually putting it in my garden. Last week found me turning my bin of cooking compost. The process of putting the pitchfork in, bending my knees and swinging my torso to drop the load into a new pile reminds me of Tai Chi. I find that practicing fluid, unhurried movements – fork to pile, swing to the new pile, dump the detritus onto the new pile, and then swinging back for another fork load, becomes a spiritual exercise as well as a physical one.
In my mind’s eye, I see a complete ecosystem of organisms, from the tiniest bacteria to the fat earthworms that wriggle in and out of the decaying vegetation. There is a certain thrill to the fact that I am part of the process of this cycle of life…and death.
I can’t see the microscopic bacteria, amoebas, mites and protozoans, but I can see their handiwork as they consume nitrogen and sugars from the green and brown materials I have mixed together in this nature cake. I can see the smoke rise and feel the heat as their billions multiply, die and are consumed by larger, but still microscopic predators – themselves destined for the same fate by even larger organisms. Composting is one of the most “mindful” activities I can think of. I’m not going to belabor the Zen thing, but you get the idea.
Earthworms begin to populate the pile when it cools. I pick out worm every tenth load or so and throw it into a bucket…not for fishing (although I do like to fish), but to add to the worm population in my vegetable garden. I throw in some rotting vegetation for the worms to eat and hide in while I finish turning the pile.
I turn my pile every week or two, until I’ve got good, rich, dark humus, letting it heat up as bacteria begin to multiply again. I could go on about mesophilic and thermophilic bacteria species that alternately heat and cool the pile, but I’m going to spare you the agony. Just know that as the pile heats up, the worms head for cooler pastures, only to return when the pile cools off again.
Earthworms are fascinating creatures. They eat decaying, green vegetation, apple cores and even coffee grounds. That goes through the enzymes and bacteria in their gut and comes out in rich worm castings, which is a euphemism for… well…you know. The castings are also filled with beneficial bacteria which continues to inoculate the soil long after it has left the worm.
A good population of earthworms in an acre-foot of soil can turn eight tons of soil per year. That’s over 1,613 cubic yards. My small pickup can carry about one cubic yard of soil, so that gives you an idea of how much earthworms work.
I’ve always said that if you have earthworms in your soil, you have good soil. Some experts argue that good soil attracts earthworms, while others say that earthworms make good soil. Either way works for me.
Many of the earthworms found here are not indigenous to North America. Instead, they came from Europe. Early colonists – the Jamestown settlers, the Spanish conquistadores, the French, Dutch and German farmers – unknowingly brought native European worms over in plant soil. Once having breached the ocean, the annelids (that’s a generic name for them) didn’t need human assistance to spread themselves across the continent. In some cases they replaced populations of native worms. In other cases they took over areas that had no worms. In Canada and the Upper Midwest, where glaciers scraped the soil from the rock 10,000 years ago, European worms exploited this niche successfully.
Here in Southeast Texas, scientists tell me that we have abundant populations of European species, as well about a 100 native species. Believe me, I can’t tell the difference, although I have no doubt the worms can.
Charles Darwin was one of the first contributors to the study of earthworms. In fact, he published The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms, with Observations of their Habits, the compilation of years of studying the lowly creature. In fact, the book actually outsold his previous book, On the Origin of Species. Read more about Darwin and his worm studies here.
Aerate your lawn to keep it healthy and lush
Landscapers know that one of the most crucial elements to having a beautiful lawn is healthy soil. Healthy soil is loose and aerated, a place where roots can spread deeply and organisms thrive.
Compacted soil, which lies underneath most lawns in The Woodlands, actually sets off a chain reaction. It encourages puddling. The soil dries out quickly and becomes rock hard. When that happens, air, water and nutrients cannot penetrate the soil. Beneficial organisms that are necessary for healthy soils die and the soil becomes barren. The consequences don’t stop there.
Insects, disease and weeds thrive on barren soil. Fungus infections, chinch bugs and other pests attack shallow-rooted grass. Roots struggle to penetrate the compacted soil. They become weak and thin. The beneficial organisms which help process nutrients for the turf and decompose organic material cannot survive in such an environment.
Instead of growing lushly, turf will focus energy on simply surviving. Without moisture, air flow and organisms, it eventually loses the battle. Then the homeowner is forced to resod.
The best practice to combat compacted soil is to aerate followed by a top dressing of organic matter. This allows oxygen, nutrients, micro-organisms and moisture to penetrate into the soil. Aerations involves removing plugs of soil at intervals. Top dressing with organic matter (compost) and water it in, the compost will filter down into the holes.
How to aerate
It’s much better to remove the plugs of soil than to simply spike the soil. Spiking simply compacts the sides of the holes. Aerators come in different configurations. Several are simply hand tools resembling garden forks. However, instead of solid tines, they have small cylinders which remove plugs of soil. Some come with hose attachments. These add water to the hole at the same time they are taking plugs out. There are push aerators, which resemble reel lawnmowers, and larger ones with gasoline engines that power themselves. There are also professional landscaping companies which have large industrial aerators. Some outlets rent aerators.
Organic matter and fertilizer
After aeration, add organic matter. Simply spread ½ inch of compost over the turf and either rake or water it in. A 1,000 square-foot lawn needs about 1.5 cubic yards of compost.
Fertilize lightly. Too much fertilizer, or fertilizer with too much nitrogen, can actually harm turf grass by attracting insects that feed on the grass, or damaging the lawn with high levels of mineral salts. Too much fertilizer will also cause a high flush of growth that can lead to fungal diseases.
Weed and feed products also stresses turf, especially St. Augustine. These can also damage tree roots. It’s also a waste of money. Herbicides need to be applied in late winter, while fertilizer should be applied in late spring. Using them both at the same time wastes one or the other.
By Bob Dailey
Resembling trumpets heralding the arrival of a king, amaryllis blooms are some of the most striking flowers in Montgomery County gardens.
Sold mostly as indoor plants, they fare well in outdoors in southeast Texas, jazzing up the spring garden, just after irises and before daylilies and crinums (which are also members of the amaryllis family).
These dramatic flowers originated in West Cape, South Africa. They have attractive strap-like leaves, which generally keep their shape and color all year round in Montgomery County.
All the varieties are showy. There are really bold colors – red, bright pink, orange. There are other cultivars that are more subdued, but equally dramatic. Subdued shades of salmon, rose, pink and white are available. Others are striped and multicolored.
Caring for and planting amaryllis outdoors
Amaryllis do not like their feet wet. They need well-drained soil. Build up a low area with compost to help drainage. The plants like sun, although they will grow in partial shade.
Amaryllis grow from bulbs. They can be planted from September through April. Set the amaryllis bulb in a hole and cover it so about an inch of the bulb is above the ground. To tell the difference between the top and the bottom of the bulb, look for a flat area, which probably has roots on it. Plant the bulb with that part down.
Water the bulb well after planting. Don’t flood it with water, but gently soak the soil around it. Then, slow down on the watering. Unless it’s sending up flower stems, it doesn’t need much water. Amaryllis foliage is evergreen in the county. The leaves are about 1.5 inches wide and can grow up to three feet long.
Before it blooms, the amaryllis plant will send up one or two stalks. Both stalks may not appear at the same time. At this point the plant will need about 1/2 “ – 1” of water. Again, water slowly and gently, letting the water soak in deeply.
The stalks are leafless, with a bulge at the top. The bulge will explode into three to four large flowers each of which can be up to eight inches across.
After blooming has ended, cut off the flower stalk at the neck of the bulb, but keep the leaves on the plant. It needs the foliage to produce food so the bulb can again offer beautiful flowers next spring. Add a handful of slow release fertilizer and water well again.
In late fall in the northern part of the county, add about 3 inches of mulch (leaves or pine straw work best) to protect the plant from freezing.
Many garden amaryllis started life as a “forced” Christmas flower. Once the “forced” bulb has finished blooming, it can be planted in the garden.
Amaryllis in planters
Amaryllis bulbs grow quite large. Additionally, the flowers and the stalks are heavy. Use a planter large enough and heavy enough to withstand the weight. If not, the pot may tip over in a wind.
Use good soil in the planter. Don’t use topsoil in any planter for any vegetation. Instead, use a lawn and garden soil, and add enough compost to take up about a third of the volume.
A good point to remember: amaryllis plants originate in the West Cape of South Africa. The climate there is Mediterranean-like: warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. In their native habitat, they do not receive a great deal of water, so they should not be overwatered or over-fertilized. The soil should be well-drained.
Taken care of properly, amaryllis plants will provide years of beauty to the spring garden.
Beneath the cover of your now greening lawn, there exists a teeming jungle of rapacious creatures, eating (usually each other), multiplying and doing all the things that creatures in a jungle do.
Decillions and more single-celled bacteria take in carbon dioxide and convert it to life-giving oxygen to billions of other microscopic organisms. These organisms in turn eat the bacteria. The protozoans, microscopic mites, nematodes and other miniscule creatures are eaten by larger creatures like earthworms and insects. Thousands of miles of symbiotic microscopic fungus, called mycorrhizae, colonize grass roots, providing plants with increased abilities to absorb water and nutrients. In return, the plant provides the fungus with carbohydrates it has formed through photosynthesis.
Your yard is, in fact, a micro-ecosystem, teeming with diverse life. This whole process allows grass roots to grow deeper and stronger, helps turf grasses to fend off diseases like take-all patch, assists in keeping weeds down and pests, like chinch bugs, out. This diversity is what keeps the grass green and lush.
Too much water, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides and other “cides” adversely affect the life cycles of all these organisms, making turf more susceptible to disease and damage. Too little organic matter can also contribute to short-lived lawns.
According to Texas A&M turf research, grasses like St. Augustine, Zoysia and Bermuda, need no more than an inch of water a week. In fact, one city in north Texas monitored lawns for a year and discovered that the grass there only required a full inch of water for three weeks during the hottest part of the summer. That same city recorded that there was a number of weeks in spring and summer when it rained enough that no irrigation was required.
Rain sensors, connected to irrigation controllers will regulate watering in case it rains. There are even more sophisticated gadgets on the market, which take into account rainfall, evapo-transpiration rates, soil temperature, ambient humidity and temperature. Residents of The Woodlands who live within the area served by the WJPA, can get a 50% rebate on the purchase of rain sensors or more sophisticated devices.
Cycle and Soak
Different types of soils have different abilities to soak up water. If the soil is hard and compacted (like most of the lawns in The Woodlands), it will not absorb water quickly. Instead of irrigating for 30 minutes per zone, break up the watering time to three 10 minute cycles per zone. That will give water time to penetrate through compacted surfaces.
Perhaps the least understood component of maintaining a good lawn is the part organic matter plays. Organic matter inoculates the soil with beneficial organisms and provides nutrients for organisms already there. It helps increase the water-holding capacity of soil (soil with five percent organic matter can hold up to three quarts of water per cubic foot). It helps to fluff up the soil so air and water can better penetrate it, and so grass roots can grow deeper.
Adding a half-inch of organic matter over the lawn twice a year can produce magical results. Mid-April is one of the optimum times to spread it. There are many residents in The Woodlands who put nothing on their lawns except organic matter twice a year. Their lawns are lush, green and free of disease and weeds.
While winter-dormant St. Augustine lawns have yellowed, something is going on under the soil.
Winter weeds are beginning to germinate. And a lot of weeds do well here. Plantain weed, nutsedge, henbit, spurge, purslane, chickweed, and thistle are a few of the unwanted guests that plague our lawns in late winter and early spring.
Don’t despair. St. Augustine is the best weed-suppressing grass there is, followed only by Zoysia. Both are aggressive plants and, if properly maintained, will keep the weeds to a minimum, if not entirely eliminate them.
Weeds do like compacted, poorly-drained soil, bereft of available minerals, nutrients and organisms.
Residents who apply organic matter to lawns in mid-fall and mid-spring have already established a strong defense against weeds. And although these are ideal times to spread organic matter, anytime is okay. Aerating the lawn before adding organic matter is another step in the weed war. The organic matter helps soil to drain, and simultaneously holds enough water to establish a strong root system, and is the first and most important step in having a beautiful lawn.
Winter weeds start poking their heads up when the first string of warm days come in January or February. The best method to get rid of them is to simply pull them up and dispose of them in your green waste. Mowing them down before they seed also gets rid of them, but a grass catcher is necessary to keep the weeds from falling back onto the ground.
But weeds are ornery and persistent. Even in the most well-cared-for lawn, it’s probable that a few plantains and thistles are going to pop up. While “manufactured” herbicides may not be the best choice, there are a few products available to the environmentally conscious homeowner.
Agricultural vinegar is available at many garden stores. It is tried and tested and will destroy even the most persistent weeds. It even works on that super weed – nutsedge. Just be careful. Agricultural vinegar is much stronger than the normal white vinegar that most people keep in their kitchens. Wear gloves (preferably rubber gloves) when applying.
One application of agricultural vinegar eliminated a sizeable stand of nutsedge growing in the Alden Bridge Community Garden recently. Ammoniated soap of fatty acid or potassium soap of fatty acid are also effective herbicidal treatments for weeds, though more effective on plantain, wood sorrel, and spurge.
Whether using vinegar or soap of fatty acid, it’s not necessary to spray a whole area. Simply spot spray each weed. A spray bottle works well.
While corn gluten has been touted as a great pre-emergent herbicide, but there seems to be some disagreement as to its ability to suppress weeds. It’s also extremely expensive.
Whatever method residents use, creating a healthy lawn is an ongoing process, not an isolated event.
You betcha! And there are scientific reasons why.
If you’re feeling the winter blahs, here’s a suggestion: instead of reaching for that glass of wine, put on some warm work clothes and work gloves, grab your garden tools and head out to the yard.
Active gardeners say that the simple act of gardening lowers stress levels and lifts spirits. Many gardeners say it’s meditative, a gentle exercise, fun, and allows us to be nurturing and to connect with life on a fundamental level.
Now, there is some scientific evidence to give credibility to their claims.
The soil itself has a natural ingredient that may stimulate serotonin production, which makes people more relaxed and happier. Microbacterium vaccae, a bacteria that lives in the soil, is the origin.
A number of disorders, like obsessive compulsive disorder, bipolar problems, anxiety and depression have been linked to serotonin deficiencies. In recent animal trials using the bacteria, animals showed increased cognitive ability, lower stress, and better concentration than the control group. The results in the animal trials lasted for three weeks after initial exposure.
Scientists are also studying the bacteria in boosting immune systems to treat cancer, Crohn’s disease and rheumatoid arthritis. These recent scientific discoveries give new meaning to “playing in the dirt.”
Here are some gardening activities that anyone can do in February to reduce stress and anxiety and perhaps get a dose of Microbacterium vaccae:
Get your hands dirty and enjoy the benefits of nature.