Try No-Till Gardening

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:

  • 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.

10 reasons not to plant a winter lawn

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.

  1. Save water. Winer rye needs watering three times a day for the seed to germinate. Once established, ryegrass needs watering every three to four days. Dormant St. Augustine needs little or no water.
  2. Save money. In much of the area, annual sewer rates are determined by the amount of water used during the winter months of December, January and February. This is typically when the least amount of water is used. The watering requirements for winter rye increases the amount of water used dung that period, thus raising sewer bills for the rest of the year. Additional costs include mowing, labor and cost of seed.
  3. Prevent fungal diseases. Although damage from take-all patch and brown patch becomes evident in late spring and summer, these diseases actually attack St. Augustine in the winter. Other fungal diseases like rust and powdery mildew are common in winter rye. Winter rye seed may be infected with one or more of these fungal diseases. Irrigation during the winter actually encourages these to infect and damage the lawn.
  4. Save on fertilizers. Augustine does not require fertilization in the winter. Winter rye usually does.
  5. Prevent pests from infecting St. Augustine. Rye grass attracts army worms, wireworms and aphids, all of which can wreak havoc with St. Augustine. Many of these insects can overwinter in the topsoil and return in spring to re-infest the lawn.
  6. No need to scalp lawns. Planting winter rye usually means scalping the lawn first. The problem here is that St. Augustine should NEVER be scalped. St. Augustine spreads by above-ground stolons. Scalping severely damages the plant.
  7. Decrease noise pollution. While some enjoy the droning of mowers and blowers, these noises may not be the most welcome sound while sitting in the backyard on a mild winter day.
  8. Preserve the quality of water. We don’t live in a vacuum. Foregoing the planting of winter rye means less fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides will be used. A significant portion of water pollution of our streams and waterways comes from runoff of these products.
  9. Give your St. Augustine a break! over seeding with winter rye can be very stressful for St. Augustine. Scalping the lawn to plant ryegrass stresses it. In spring, rye competes with St. Augustine for water and nutrients, further weakening it.
  10. Save time and frustration. Seed germination problems, diseases, irrigation, fertilizing, noise, stress to the grass and to the homeowner, are additional reasons to forego winter rye.

Watering lawns in fall and winter

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.

Making black gold

Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.

~Jim Bishop

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.

Carbon-Nitrogen Ratios

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:

  • It recycles nutrients back into the soil. One of the things that make plants different from animals is that they make their own food. In order to do this, plants need essential elements like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium and others.
  • It improves soil structure. Adding compost helps create “aggregates,” or tiny clusters of soil particles. Soil with a large amount of aggregates is full of tiny (some microscopic) channels and pockets, through which air and water can pass or accumulate in small amounts. Compost also helps with silt or clay soils, breaking them up so air and water can penetrate and plant roots can expand.
  • Compost conserves water. It’s a simple fact. Soil which has compost in it holds more moisture. Soil with five % organic matter can hold up to three quarts of water per cubic foot. Composted soil acts like a sponge. The compost helps soak up moisture. A pound of heavily composted soil can hold almost two pounds of water. Compost also inhibits evaporation of moisture in the soil. In drought conditions, composted soil continues to provide moisture to plants.

Wildflowers…Now’s the time to plant

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:

  • Scarlet flax
  • Cosmos
  • Drummond phlox
  • Tickseed
  • Coreopsis
  • Evening primrose
  • Mexican hat
  • Milkweed

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.

Fall is time to sow spring blooming plants

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.

Native wildflowers

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.

Native grasses

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.

Other transplants

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.

Earthworms: Free fertilizer for lawns

“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:

  • They tunnel through the soil, aerating it as they go.
  • Their channels also allow water to enter and penetrate the soil more quickly.
  • Grass roots can also grow better in soil loosened by earthworms, resulting in a deeper root system and healthier lawns.
  • Earthworms neutralize the soil, either lowering the alkalinity or raising the acidity. Turf grass likes soil nearer to the middle between acidic and alkaline.
  • Earthworms consume organic material (like thatch).
  • Worms can compost four times quicker than a well-managed composting bin.
  • A large population of earthworms helps control pests. Many soil-borne diseases are reduced significantly when earthworms are present.

How to attract earthworms:

  • Spread ¾ inch of organic material twice a year onto the lawn (mid-October and mid-April are the best times).
  • Use a mulching lawnmower and let the clippings drop back onto the lawn. Earthworms will bring much of this material below ground to eat and digest.
  • Don’t use pesticides or use them in extreme moderation. Choose organic pesticides if necessary. Pesticides are indiscriminate and kill earthworms and other beneficial organisms.
  • Don’t use man-made chemical fertilizers. “Chemical” fertilizers contain sulfuric and hydrochloric acids which are deadly to earthworms. Few worms exist in soils treated with chemicals. Use organic fertilizers instead.

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.

5 Lawn watering myths debunked!

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

Minimize watering

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.

Mow high

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.

Top 10 Mistakes Gardeners Make

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.

Common Mistakes

  1. Overwatering encourages shallow root systems, stresses plants, wastes water and increases their susceptible to disease and pests. Watering every day is one of the largest mistakes. Water deeply, but only once or twice a week. Most plants (including lawns) go dormant during the fall and winter, so they don’t need much or any water.
  2. Too much fertilizer can cause real problems in the landscape. Too much fertilizer may kill beneficial microbes in the soil, actually encourage disease and requires extra water. Especially dangerous are chemical fertilizers which contain lots of salt. Salt kills organisms, and good gardeners know that the micro- and macro-organisms in the soil are important to soil and plant health. Additionally, fertilizer runoff is one of the largest polluters of our streams, waterways and esturaries.
  3. Kill all those bugs. The goal is to get the unwanted pests under control and the good ones encouraged. Using chemical pesticides kills beneficial soil organisms and the insects that keep pests and diseases at bay. Even organic pesticides should be used sparingly. As with fertilizers, pesticides leach into our water systems.
  4. Misdiagnosing a problem. Know thine enemy. Search the internet for answers or use the local master gardener hotline (if there is one in your area) to identify the problem and possible solutions. Contact the local extension service. There are probably a number of master gardeners in your area who would be happy to help you as well. Two good books for plant and garden care are The Vegetable Book, a Texan’s Guide to Gardening, by Dr. Sam Cotner and Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac.
  5. Non-native or non-adapted plants. Azaleas – yes. Palms – no. There are several great sources for native plants and ones that are adapted to the Gulf Coast region. One source is Earthkind. This site, produced by Texas A&M, provides hundreds of plants that are adapted to the region. Simply choose your region or input your zip code and the website will lead you through the rest. Another valuable site is Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database, which will guide you to lists, planting instructions and habits of hundreds of native species.
  6. Right plant but wrong place. Think and plan before planting. Plants that love the sun probably won’t do well in a shady area. Plants that like dry, well-drained soil won’t be happy in a bog garden.
  7. Not preparing soil before planting. Healthy soil = nutrients and beneficial microorganisms = healthy plants. Use good, organic compost. If you are buying from a local compost operation, ask for specifics on the compost. Compost is generally sold by the bag, or by cubic yard. If buying from a big box store, check the labels to see if it discloses anything about the compost. Find A Composter  is a good place to start.
  8. No mulch. Mulch helps the soil retain moisture, keeps soil at a more constant temperature and discourages weeds. As it decomposes, mulch adds nutrients to the soil. A word of caution. Those pretty mulches which are orange or black are probably dyed. The dye is not something to worry about, because it is made from soy-based dyes,.But the source of the mulch is something to worry about, especially if it discloses that it is made from “recycled” wood (mostly from shredded shipping pallets). Many of these pallets contain wood that has been saturated with chromated copper aresenate (CCA), as a preservative. The CCA can leach into the ground. It can also be taken up by the plant into leaves and fruit. If you must use dyed mulch, do not use it on your vegetable garden.
  9. Planting or pruning at the wrong time. Plant and prune trees in the winter when they are dormant. Don’t resod in the winter.Plant spring blooming flowers in the fall. Plant fall blooming flowers in the spring.
  10. Short-term thinking. How big is that little sapling  going to get in five or 10 years? How much space will the one-gallon esperanza need in a couple of seasons? Remember that those little plants being well irrigated by your sprinkler system now may have a lot of trouble watering everyting when the plants get big. Consider installing drip irrigation in your beds. Drip produces no wastage, gets water down into the root systems where it’s needed and reduces your water bill.

If you have a question or would like to respond, please do so below.

Night-blooming jasmine and angel trumpets…haunting scents of the evening

Night-blooming jasmine
Night-blooming jasmine

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.

Giovanni Pascoli, Night Blooming Jasmine 

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.


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