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.
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 in Southeast Texas and all along the 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 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:
Gardeners who want less strenuous work, good vegetable production, and continuous soil health might want to give no-till gardening a try.
As St. Augustine grass goes dormant in the fall, many homeowners over seed their lawns with winter rye. While winter rye does add a lush greenness to an otherwise dull lawn, homeowners may want to rethink this habit.
When grass begins to turn yellow or brown in fall and winter, it’s not a sign that it’s dying. Turning color is a sign that the grass is going dormant.
Yes, the roots are still alive. In good soil, those roots will be digging their way deep into the soil to get water and nutrients. But good soil is another story.
In late spring and summer months, local grasses need no more than an inch of water a week. Not so in the fall and winter.
The average rainfall in the cooler months in Montgomery County, Texas ranges from 5.4 inches in October to about 3.18 inches in February, more than enough to supply the minimum amount of water that local grasses need during the dormant season.
The statistics are pretty clear: October receives an average of 5.46 inches per month; November, 4.76; December, 4.09; January, 4.22; February, 3.18, and March, 3.03. That is more than enough water to satisfy the needs of lawns. Even most landscape plants can thrive on that much water, unless they are native to tropical rainforests (which would be most out of place in The Woodlands).
Take October for example, with an average rainfall of 5.4 inches. That’s approximately 1.35 inches per week. That’s much more than St. Augustine requires, especially in the fall. On a 4,000 square foot lawn, that much rainfall equates to 3,370 gallons of water. In a month, that becomes over 13,000 gallons of rain. On a small lawn, that comes to almost $40 in savings on your water bill for one month.
Refraining from sprinkler irrigation in the cooler months can also help lower sewer bills. Many Municipal Utility Districts (and all in The Woodlands) calculate sewer charges based on the average water used by a customer in December, January and February. That average sets the monthly sewer charge. By not irrigating during those months, a resident can save more money.
Of course, it may not rain each and every week. Some residents see that possibility as a problem. Assuming soil has high amounts of organic nutrients, much of the rain that falls can be captured in the ground where its use can be extended. That also results in much less runoff, as well.
Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.
Although golden autumn colors are great to behold, those beautiful leaves also possess another type of treasure – black gold, which, when coaxed out, recycle earth’s bounty. “Black gold” is what gardeners call compost, that rich mixture of nutrients and decayed matter that works wonders on all plants.
Leaves contain nutrients that the plants have taken out of the ground through their roots, pumped up their stems and trunks, up to the organs that make food for them…the leaves. The leaves fall and decay. Those nutrients that were trapped in the leaves return back to the earth, where they are reused again by plants.
In a forest, it takes about two years from when the leaf hits the ground to when it becomes part of the soil. A backyard gardener, using a well-managed compost system, can make a fairly large amount of good, rich “black gold” in about three months.
The decaying process is carried out first by microbes. When you see smoke rising from a compost pile in the winter, it’s not because the sun has heated it. The reason is that billions of bacteria are actually dissolving the materials and it is they who are creating the heat. A well-constructed compost pile can heat up to 130 F or more.
The microbes feed on the leaves and other sources of carbon. This could be shredded newspaper, shredded cardboard, old hay, sawdust, small ranches and twigs and pine needles to name a few.
The microbes need another ingredient – nitrogen – to grow and reproduce. Nitrogen sources vary: coffee grounds, tea bags, grass clippings, kitchen scraps (but no meat or dairy), aged manure, alfalfa pellets (yes the same used as rabbit food), and cottonseed meal are a few. Manure from chickens or herbivores is okay to use if it is aged, but carnivore or omnivore manure (pigs, dogs, cats) should be avoided as they may carry pathogens that the composting process will not kill. Weeds should also be avoided, unless they do not have seed heads.
Although there is a complicated formula to measure the exact amounts of carbon and nitrogen materials required to start a compost operation, the general rule of thumb is equal weight of carbon and nitrogen. These should be mixed well – a cake mix, not a lasagna.
Water and oxygen
Since all living things need water, add water while mixing the materials. When finished, the compost pile should have the wetness of a wrung-out sponge. Now, it’s ready to start cooking. In two weeks, the compost should be ready to turn. A compost fork is the best way to turn it.
Turning the pile fluffs up the material and adds more oxygen to the mix. To turn, just take forkfuls from one pile and dump them into a second pile. Some gardeners like two or three compost bins to turn one into another. Remember to add water if needed.
After this, turn the pile every week or two. Now, the other, larger organisms will come into your compost pile: earthworms, pill bugs and other detritus-eating animals, further breaking down the materials.
In three months, all these materials will end up as good, organic compost, or black gold.
Types of bins
There are numerous compost bins on the market. Wire bins or bins that are open at the bottom seem to work best because they sit directly on the ground. That way, earthworms and other organisms can access them. Additionally, open bins allow the air to circulate more freely. Drum bins work, but not as well as open bins.
The benefits of compost:
Everyone in Texas wants bluebonnets. Their velvety leaves topped with blue flowers announce that spring is here. I have a friend who plants them in pockets around his yard and then mows around them until they have dropped their seeds.
Bluebonnets are not the only wildflowers native to Texas. In fact there is a long list of beautiful plants and flowers that thrive in the fertile soils of southeast Texas and particularly in Montgomery County
Another friend has planted wildflower seeds in garden beds alongside more exotic species.
I on the other hand, am actually making new beds just for wildflowers. Several of my neighbors, used to our water-guzzling St. Augustine lawns, have looked askance at my antics, as I ripped out large patches of the weed and replaced it with some good organic soil. My objective: eventually to have a yard full of native and drought-adapted plants.
My back yard is already that way. I have Texas star hibiscus, both red and pink Turk’s cap, passion vine, American beautyberry, lantana, coral bean, wood fern, lanceleaf coreopsis, angel’s trumpet and salvia. Several small red buds and a Mexican plum live there as well. My backyard also sports a raised 4 foot by 20 foot vegetable garden, placed to receive maximum sun in my shady backyard.
My front yard is slowly becoming something like my backyard. Already bushy bluestem and inland sea oats, both unique and beautiful native grasses, grow there – as do porterweed, verbena, parsley hawthorn, salvia, Louisiana irises, milkweed, native roses, and more lantana.
In the spring, the patches of soil I’ve laid bare will sprout wildflowers. Lots of them.
I’m doing this not only because I like wildflowers. I’m also doing it because native wildflowers are easy to grow here. After all, for millennia before humans ever set foot in Texas, these plants have been existing and thriving…watered only by rain and fertilized by the rich soil of this area.
Although Montgomery County is technically in the southwestern corner of the Pineywoods Region of Texas, three other distinct ecosystems exist on its borders -the Blackland Prairies and Post Oak Savannah in the northwest and the Gulf Prairies and Marshes to the south and southwest.
These four ecosystems have created a widely diverse collection of plants which do extraordinarily well in gardens here.
Take for instance the purple coneflower. Native not only to Texas, but to all of the southeastern U.S. and much of the Midwest, it is a great accent plant, especially when planted in groups. There are also hybrid varieties now which feature light pink and white.
Or black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). This plant loves to reseed itself and rewards with some spectacular blooms that continue well into the summer.
Indian blanket is one of my favorite plants. It’s scientific name is Gaillardia pulchella (pulchella being the Latin word for “pretty.”) And it certainly is a pretty plant.
Here are some other natives or adapted wildflowers:
In addition to beauty, many of these plants are hosts to the larval stage of desirable butterflies. Others provide nectar for adult butterflies and hummingbirds. The dried seed heads provide food for birds during the winter.
As I see it, there’s no downside to wildflowers and native plants. A beautiful palette of colors and shapes grace my yard, the flowers attract desirable flora and fauna. I save money by not having to provide water, fertilizer and other chemicals to an always thirsty and hungry lawn, much less mow it. And I give my neighbors something to talk about. Everyone wins.
Two valuable books on wildflowers that you might want to own:
Wildflowers of Houston and Southeast Texas, John and Gloria Tveten, University of Texas Press
A Field Guide to Texas Wildflowers by Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller, University of Texas Press.
Everyone becomes a gardener in spring. However, it takes a determined gardener to see ahead to the net season. If you want beautiful gardens in the spring, now is the best time to sow or transplant wildflowers and many perennial spring bloomers.
There are many plants gardeners can put in the ground now that will bring color and texture to spring and summer gardens.
The list of native bloomers which are grown from seed is quite large. Purple coneflower, Texas blue bonnets, Indian Paint brush, black-eyed Susans, Drummond phlox, liatris, mealy blue sage, purple clematis, blanket flower (gaillardia), evening primrose are a few. Wildflowers add splashes of brilliant and subtle colors, shapes, and textures to an otherwise boring garden. While native seeds can be planted in very early spring, planting in the fall is more in keeping with their nature. Wildflowers propagate themselves in natural surroundings by dropping their seed in the fall. The seed drops to the ground and spends the winter in dormancy. When spring arrives, the seeds germinate. Most of the wildflowers require full sun but some, like the purple clematis, are quite happy in the shade.
Many people think that just strewing wildflower seed on the ground is sufficient for the seed to germinate. Instead rake the soil lightly first, then sow the seed (strewing is okay at this point). Then tamp the seeds into the soil by walking on them, or, for larger areas, use a roller. Do not fertilize. Native wildflowers are adapted to growing in low nutrient soils. Lightly shower to allow them to sink into the soil. Too much water may cause them to germinate too quickly.
A light covering of hay or pine straw is okay, as long as you can see the soil through the covering.
Residents of southeast Texas are extremely lucky to have a wide variety of attractive native grasses: bushy bluestem with its white tufts and straw colored stalks; inland sea oats, it’s attractive seed pods trembling in the wind, and reflecting sunlight; several varieties of muhly grasses that are not only native to Texas, but specifically native to SE Texas and our coastal regions. Plant any of these grasses now for lush green foliage and interesting textures in the spring and summer and spectacular shows next fall and winter. Sow seeds for native ornamental grasses in the fall as well.
Bulbs and rhizomatous plants
Plant (or separate and transplant) narcissus, Dutch hyacinths, crinums, lilies and amaryllis, irises, monarda (bee balm) and yarrow now. This allows the plants to establish their root systems in time for them to burst into color after the end of winter.
Fall is also a great time to transplant Texoma stans (yellow bells), spirea, cross vine, lantana, Pride of Barbados and a variety of other spring bloomers.
When transplanting any plant, make sure the transplant hole is already dug and prepared before you dig up the plant. The old adage “don’t put a $10 plant into a $2 hole” holds true for transplants, either from your garden or from a nursery. Except the price of plants has risen considerably. A crinum, for instance, costs upwards of $20. Dig the hole twice as big as the container, or if you’re transplanting from your yard, twice as big as the root spread. If the hole is too deep, add some of the soil back into the hole and tamp it down. Also, add some compost, and, if you want, a little organic, slow release fertilizer.
Planting in the fall has two benefits for gardeners: it prepares the landscape for spring and it gives inveterate gardeners their soil fix before winter sets in.
“It may be doubted that there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.”
-Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.
The best method to judge the health of the soil beneath a lawn is to discover how many earthworms are present.
Earthworms can restore the hard pan of compacted dirt so prevalent in lawns. Their castings are rich in nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, three major elements necessary for plant growth and photosynthesis. Castings also contain magnesium, carbon, calcium – all very important plant nutrients. In just one year, a thousand earthworms (and their descendants) can transform one ton of organic waste into high-yield fertilizer.
Some important ways earthworms help transform the soil:
How to attract earthworms:
There is no need to add earthworms to your lawn. There are earthworms in the area and will be attracted to chemical-free, organic ally rich soil. And the turf grass will be well on its way to being healthy and green.
There’s nothing like sitting in the backyard, cool drink in hand, smelling the sweet aroma of freshly-mowed grass. Through the years, gardeners learn about lawns – how to care for them, how to make them lush and green, and how to keep them healthy. But along with the good information passed on, there might be some incorrect and misleading data.
Here are some myths about good lawn care, and some practices that can improve the health of lawns while lowering overall lawn care costs:
Myth 1: If watering a little is good for lawns, then watering a lot must be better.
Too much water on lawns actually encourages grass to produce shorter and weaker root systems. In turn, weak roots are more susceptible to diseases and insect damage. Too much water will also kill beneficial organisms in the soil. And, since heavy watering can also promote fungal infections, over-irrigation creates a bundle of problems.
Lawns should receive about an inch of water every 7 to 10 days. That includes rainwater. Rain sensors can tell the gardener how much water has fallen in a given period of time. If, for instance it has rained a half an inch in the last week, then grass should receive only a half-inch of water that week through irrigation.
Myth 2: Automatic sprinkler systems save money and time.
Often, automatic sprinkler systems without rain sensors attached actually waste water (and thus money). It’s common in Montgomery County to see water running into the storm sewer from an overactive sprinkler system. And it’s not uncommon to see sprinklers running while rain is falling.
Myth 3: Manually operated sprinkler systems are the only way to go.
If the sprinkler heads are misdirected or damaged, the water may be going to the wrong place anyway. Whether a system is automated or manually operated, it still should be inspected by a licensed irrigator to make sure it is still operating properly. Many MUD districts offer free inspections by licensed irrigators.
Myth 4: Grass will dry out and die if it is not watered every day or every other day.
Grass doesn’t need to be watered every day or every other day. If it starts to curl, or keeps the impression of a footprint, it is time to water. (See Myth 1.)
Myth 5: Watering too much only wastes a tiny bit of water.
Fifty to 75 percent of all drinking water used in municipalities goes to watering lawns and gardens. In dry summer months that can increase to 80 percent or more. The amount wasted can be enormous. As population grows, more and more water is being drawn out of underground aquifers more quickly than the aquifers can recharge. Above ground reservoirs also become stressed.
Irrigating wisely helps create healthy lawns, conserves water, and saves money. Here are some helpful tips for watering.
Here’s what you should do instead
This forces the grass to grow long, healthy roots, helping the plant with disease resistance. It also helps the grass during periods of drought, because deep root systems can store plant nourishment and water. Stronger roots can also seek water from the soil more easily. Adding too much water may help increase nitrous oxide emissions from lawns. Nitrous oxide is a dangerous greenhouse gas.
Too many people watering too much have a cumulative effect. The more water put onto a lawn requires pumps to work longer, thus increasing carbon dioxide emissions.
Leave grass clippings on the lawn
Grass clippings increase carbon storage in the soil by almost 60 percent. It also adds the nitrogen from the tips of the grass back into the soil. It saves time and money. Additionally, it promotes continuous root growth and decreases need for fertilizers.
Don’t “crew cut” a lawn. When grass shoots are taller, they help create a healthy root system. Healthy root systems mean less watering. Grass should be cut at three inches or higher. Keep mower blades sharp so it cuts the grass keenly. This reduces a plant’s water loss and stress.
Water the lawn in the coolest part of the day
This minimizes evaporation and reduces stress.
Following some or all of these tips can lead to a healthier, more disease-resistant lawn, possibly saving money, time and water in the long run.
via New Tab.
There is a saying that one cannot be a good gardener if she (or he) has not killed at least a thousand plants. That said, there must be a large number of great gardeners.
Gardening mistakes can be time consuming and ultimately costly. Correcting some of these mistakes may sound counterintuitive, but understanding and avoiding very common errors helps create healthier and more attractive lawns and gardens.
If you have a question or would like to respond, please do so below.
And the night-blooming flowers open,
open in the same hour I remember those I love.
In the middle of the viburnums
the twilight butterflies have appeared.
A night-blooming jasmine stands next to my front door. It has bloomed several times this year. The flowers are tiny and not showy. But the wonderful scent…almost overwhelming, greets us in the evening every time we open the door.
Out our bedroom window, a line of eight-foot tall angel trumpets.
Just after dusk and well into the night, sphinx moths and other nocturnal Lepidoptera gather around the fragrant blooms of night-blooming jasmine ( Cestrum nocturnum) and angel trumpets (Brugmansia). Later in the evening, the Mexican long-tongued bat and the lesser long-nosed bat, having traveled thousands of miles from southern Mexico, may fly in and sip nectar from the pungent blooms of both.
The perfumes emanating from these two plants are intoxicating.
Angel Trumpets (Brugmansia
In zones 8 and 9, it is considered a perennial, and may stay green all winter. A cold winter though could freeze it down to the ground. Have no fear, it is a “herbaceous perennial,” which means the root system is probably intact. If it does freeze back, it will probably come back stronger than ever. However, it does equally well in pots, and can be overwintered inside.
Angel trumpets relish sun and will tolerate partial shade. However, there are many specimen plants along the coast which have grown to 10-12 feet in the shade, and some which have grown to 20 feet. Average height is about 6-8 feet high and 5-8 feet wide. Angel trumpets, like all members of the nightshade family, like regular fertilization. Use a slow release, organic fertilizer and apply once a week. They are also foliage feeders. Spray the leaves with fish emulsion or compost tea. Brugmansia like well drained, light, fertile soil, and need to be watered frequently. They bloom spring, summer and fall, and sometimes during mild winters. They are deer resistant.
Night-blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum)
This night-blooming shrub generally grows up to six feet tall (although it can grow up to 13 feet tall if trained. Mine are at least 8 feet) and is a cousin to Angel trumpet. Although the blooms are nondescript, it out-competes Brugmansia in fragrance. Although it does provide an interesting backdrop in the garden, with its green glossy leaves and fanning pattern of its branches, gardeners generally plant it for the fragrance.
Although the plant is not frost tolerant, and might freeze back to the ground in winter, it too is an herbaceous perennial. Unless the winter is exceptionally cold for a prolonged period, it will generally sprout back up from the still-living root system in the spring. Growing the plant indoors, it will bloom all year round, filling the house will its delightful fragrance. Make sure the plant receives enough light, fertilizer and water and is kept in temperatures between 70 and 80 degrees F.
Night blooming jasmine likes sun, but not too much. Planting it in an eastern facing garden where it receives some shade during the afternoon is ideal. The plant also likes water, but not too much. Too much water can rot the roots and encourage mold.
Angel trumpets and night-blooming jasmine are members of the Solanaceae family, which includes nightshade, tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, petunias, and tobacco, and should be handled with some care. Angel trumpet contains a powerful hallucinogen and should not be consumed. However, simply handling the plant is not dangerous, and if concerned, wear gloves. They are also poisonous to pets, but no more so than lantana, azaleas, castor bean or moonflower.
Both can be easily rooted from cuttings. A smidgeon of growth hormone on a new growth twig, with the bark shaved at the end, planted in a ½ gallon nursery pot filled with compost will be fine. I’ve started them in winter under a grow light and in the warmer months outside. Keep watered. It will root in a couple of weeks. Start several.
Above all, enjoy these two plants.