Friday, February 3, 2017

Points on Pruning

This is the time of year that we can get a little bit clip happy.   So before we head out, loppers and folding saw in hand, let me slow you down with this statement from Texas agri-life horticulturist, Douglas F. Welsh, " In most cases, it is better not to prune than to do it incorrectly".     On to a few pruning basics. 

Have a specific reason to prune a plant.   Here are a few:
  • for the plants health
  • for better flowers and fruit
  • to control its size
  • and to train it into a particular shape, such as an espalier. 
Make sure your tools are clean and sharp.   Most blades can be sharpened with a simple file and cleaned with a steel brush or bleach and water solution.   Rub linseed oil into the metal and wood with a soft cloth.  

Roses and fruit trees are both pruned this time of year - for better flowers and fruit AND for the plants health.   Open up the plant by removing: 
  • any deat or unhealthy wood
  • any branch that cross another one, 
  • any branch growing directly below another one,  
Older or overgrown shrubs can be rejuvenated by one of the following techniques.  If your shrub is looking more like a tree than a shrub, consider one of these

  • Every year remove about a third of the oldest, thickest stems, cutting them at ground level.   This encourages the growth of new stems from the roots.   
  •  With shrubs that have multiple stems (like a cane-growth habit), cut all canes back as close to the ground as possible in early spring.   In some areas or with some plants, you may lose this seasons flowers.   I use this technique for my vigorous growing shrubs, like thyrallis, lantana, firebush, shrimp plant. canna lillies, shell ginger, andTurk's cap. 
Pruning a mature tree is best left to a certified arborist.    A crepe myrtle, however, can be pruned by most gardeners with the use of loppers and a hand saw.   I'm noticing quite a bit of improper pruning of crepe myrtles right now - the culprits are topping the trees instead of taking the time to properly remove unwanted branches at a joint or suckers at the ground level.  They really are topping the tree and garden experts refer to it as crepe murder.  The pic below is a crepe myrtle that has been property pruned through the years. 

And for comparison's sake, here is a crepe myrtle that has been topped.   It has thick knobby joints that will break easily in the wind. 

For more information, visit the sites of these experts:
Proper Pruning Techniques - EarthKind Landscaping
Pruning Techniques with Lee Reich - Fine Gardening
Pruning Crape Myrtles - Neil Sperry and Bram Franklin
Pruning Fruit Trees - Texas Gardeners
Pruning Palms - University of Florida
Tree Trimming - Simmons Oak Farms

Thursday, February 2, 2017

February in the Garden

Although Puxatawney Phil saw his shadow this morning and we will have six more weeks of winter, I think we can safely prepare for Spring.  There are a number of things that gardeners do before Valentine’s Day.  It’s not that there’s anything magical about February 14th; but it is just before spring growth typically begins and is an easy date to remember.   Here's my guide for gardens tasks in deep south Texas:

  • Rose growers prune around Valentines Day:  If you grow modern hybrid roses, cut them back to 18-24”.   Antique or “found” roses are simply pruned to fit the space; try not to remove more than 1/3 of any cane (or branch).   Do not prune spring-blooming climbing roses until after they bloom.   If course, remove any dead canes.   
  • I also prune my peach and fig trees this month -  hopefully before they bloom and begin to set fruit.  The peaches are blooming right now in Harlingen.    Remove branches when they cross each other or when one is directly below another.  Keeping your fruit tree open will lessen the chance of disease.   Again, remove any dead wood. 
  • At the end of the month, you can begin cutting back your woody shrubs.   Some (like lantana, mistflower, and Little John bottlebru) are budding and even blooming now, so I am very tempted to trim a little early this year.  

  • Don't put away your freeze protection material just yet.  Mine are just a bunch of old sheets and light blankets.   Most of my plants are hardy to the mid-20s and if not hardy, will just suffer damage that will grow back when its warmer.   We have received some arctic blasts in February before.    According to Plantmaps, our last frost date is said to be between February 11 and February 20.    You can check your Texas frost map here
  • Continue to collect and shred leaves for ground cover and to compost. 
  • This is a great time to apply a layer of mulch to all your planting beds. 
  • But tree-trunk-painting is NOT on my list of things to do this month.  Or any month!
  • Trees and Shrubs:   All trees, including fruit, with the exception of citrus.   This is also a good time to plant non-tropical shrubs.  
  • Vegetables:  broccoli, carrots, cucumber, melons (cataulope and honey dew), peppers (sweet), radish, squash, tomatoes, watermelons.    Cucumbers and melons will cross pollinate so do not plant them near each other. 
  • Herbs:  basil, catnip, dill, fennel, garlic, mint (in a pot to contain the roots), parsley, rosemary, rue, thyme.   A frost will harm your basil so it is best in a pot which can be brought in during inclement weather.  
  • Flowers from Seed or Bulbs:  alyssum, amaryllis bulbs, larkspur, poppy, stock. 
  • Flowers from Transplants: dianthus, ice plant, geraniums, impatience, kalanchoes, petunias, ruellia (Mexican petunia), and salvia
  • Rose bushes
Vegetable Planting Date Sources:  Texas Extension Service and the Old Farmers Almanac .


  • Roses.   Include a systemic insecticide if you grow grafted roses.   Found or Antique roses are supposed to take care of themselves. 
  • Citrus:  There are good organic and traditional citrus fertilizers.  Apply in January or February for a better bloom or in May or June as a post-bloom for better fruit set.  
  • Acid fertilizer for your acid loving plants like gardenias. 
  • Add some inches of high-quality compost to your vegetable beds before you plant.  

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Is It Spring Yet?

With the warm winter we are enjoying, its tempting to take on Spring gardening tasks, like pruning, earlier than we should.   Cutting back your woody ornamentals does a couple of things: it tells the plant it's time to begin growing again and it leaves them susceptible to freeze damage.    Check the last freeze date in your area before beginning to prune   When I searched online for the last freeze date for Harlingen, I got anything from January 31 to February 17.    Tradition is that when the mesquites begin to leaf out, winter is over.

I'm biding my time by brushing up on pruning best practices - both online and with Doug Welsh's Texas Garden Almanac

The articles in this month-by-month guide are organized by when they are most pertinant.   All the information and advice is science-based.   Reading the month's chapter just prior to that month reminds me what to be aware of in my garden.  

Back to pruning . . .   There are multiple reasons to prune a plant

  • to control its size
  • for the plants health
  • for better flowers and fruit
  • and to train it into a particular shape, such as an espalier. 

Check back for some specific tips on proper pruning.  For now, exercise patience and wherever you live, wait until the chance of freezing weather has passed.

Friday, January 6, 2017

January in the Garden

January a wonderful month in deep south Texas to spend time in your garden!  But when we get 80 degree days like earlier this week, we're tempted to jump the gun on some garden tasks.  Here's a guide for January Garden Tasks in our area.  

  • Gather and shred your fallen leaves.  They can easily be shredded with a mower or an inexpensive leaf shredder.   I have an electric leaf shredder, like the one pictured, that is indispensable this time of year.   The shredded leaves can then either be composted or used as mulch, where they will help suppress weed seed from sprouting and cool the soil during the summer. I have heard people say not to use live oak leaves because they contain too much tannin and tannin keeps the leaf from breaking down.   If you shred your leaves, they will decompose just fine.   Much to my husbands dismay, I am a proud leaf rustler.  I try to keep the back of my car empty so that I can pick up any bagged leaves that have been left at the curb.   You just can't have too many shredded leaves.
  • Water only as needed.   Much of the landscape will be dormant and will not be using much water.   But dry cold fronts, high winds, and low humidity can dry your plants quickly so check them regularly.   Water an established lawn only every 10 days or two weeks.    
  • Be prepared to protect your tender vegetation from any freezing temperatures that we may get. Go here to read more about this. 

  • Trees and Shrubs:   All trees, including fruit, with the exception of citrus.   This is also a good time to plant non-tropical shrubs.  
  • Vegetables:  broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, Swiss chard, collards, kale, leaf lettuce, leeks, onion (plants, not seeds), parsley, potato, radish, spinach, and turnips.  
  • Herbs:  basil, dill, fennel, mint (in a pot to contain the roots), rosemary, rue, thyme.   A frost will harm  your basil so it is best in a pot which can be brought in during inclement weather.  
  • Flowers from Seed or Bulbs:  alyssum, amaryllis bulbs, calendulas, calla lillies, petunia, larkspur, poppy, stock, calendulas.     Some say you can still plant bluebonnets and nasturtium seed but, in my experience, those are best planted in October.
  • Flowers from Transplants:   pansies, petunias, alyssum, dianthus, snapdragons, and violets
  • Rose bushes
Vegetable Planting Date Sources:  Texas Extension Service and the Old Farmers Almanac 

FERTILIZE:   Citrus trees that are at least 3 years old, your annuals and vegetables.  Do not fertilize tropicals right now; let them rest. 

  • Landscape trees.  Most established landscape trees will require a certified arborist to properly and safely prune. 
  • Peaches, figs, and other fruit trees.  I prune to remove dead wood, to shape the tree. and to keep it a size where I can reach the fruit.   We are going to plant a mango and an avocado tree and I am going to try to prune them shorter so their fruit is accessible.   I never wanted to grow them before because they get so tall, I felt like I'd be growing the fruit for the possoms, racoons, and other vermin.   
  • Do not prune your shrubs yet.   Some of our worst cold snaps (and ice storms) have arrived in February.     

Gardening adds years to your life and life to your years.         

Sunday, November 20, 2016

It's Bone Broth Season!

Nothing has improved my cooking more than using homemade bonebroth in my recipes.   I started making this a couple of winters ago because it was supposed to be good for me . . .  and because it was so warm and yummy to sip a cup of it on a cold winter evening!   I was a little slow to click in to what that rich flavor could add to my recipes.    I like to make mine in a crockpot and cook it for 24 hours or more.   The actual recipe varies from time to time, depending on what I happen to have in the refrigerator.   Here is my basic recipe:

Start with the bones from a roasted chicken - or if it's Thanksgiving week, the bones from your Thanksgiving turkey.   I try to buy chickens that are labeled hormone and antibiotic-free but I am not above buying a grilled or roasted chicken at the grocery store and then using those bones.   Add celery stalks (or the ends of celery stalks and use the celery in your dishes), 1/2 to 1 onion (quartered), two or three carrots, a bunch of parsley, and a couple of bay leaves.   Toss in some whole peppercorns and cover with water.   I use filtered water.   Now turn your crockpot on and set the timer for 24 hours.   I've read it takes this long for the marrow from the bones to leach into your broth.

The first winter that I made bonebroth, I did it on the stovetop.  I had to constantly add water to the pot and was afraid to keep the burner on over night.   I cook with gas and running the burners for 24 hours to make broth ran through LOTS of propane - and turned out to be very expensive broth!   That's when I switched to the crockpot and I love this process.   It cooks slowly enough (even on the high setting) that I don't have to add extra water.  This gives me a nice, richly colored broth.

This is what the chicken and veggies look like after a day of simmering.    Remove them from the crockpot with a big straining spoon.    You won't be able to get ALL of the solids - at least I am not patient enough to get all of the solids out during this step.   At this point, I may add some more spices.   It really depends on what my plan for the broth is.  If I'm cooking with it, I don't bother with more spices.  But if the broth is for sipping, it probably needs some salt and pepper - and a little tumeric or cumin can be tasty too. 
Let the broth cool for 30 minutes or so and then it's time to strain it.   My system is above.    Look at that color!   I made this with a couple of turkey necks and a part of a chicken carcass.    I only had part of a chicken carcass because still haven't trained all my family (i.e. my husband) not to through away chicken bones that are in the refrigerator . . . . 

I know you saw the broth in the last picture, but it was so pretty I thought I'd show you another picture of it!
The final step is to put it into jars.   It usually makes about four quarts.   I just drink what doesn't fit into the jars.   It will stay fresh in the refrigerator for 1 week or in the freezer for 3-6 months.    You can freeze it flat in plastic ziplock bags or in a jar.   For the freezing, I like the bags but for the defrosting and using, I like the jars.    If you freeze in a jar, freeze it first without the lid, leaving room for expansion.   After being frozen for a day, you can cap the jars.   Otherwise, you are risking some broken jars.

Here's a printable version of my recipe.

If you haven't tried bone broth, I hope  you will.   It's super easy, super tasty, and super good for you!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Repotting the Unfriendliest of Plants

I don't do many container plants and when I do, I try to make sure that they are easy-care as possible. Translate to low water plants and BIG(ger) containers.   Last spring I gathered up some small pots and put them together in a mixed succlulent-ish container.   I thought I had the nice mixture of size,  texture, and color.   One plant was the cutest cactus with long, soft looking, yellow thorns in a 8 inch pot.   I had bought that little pot to decorate for a party and the cactus had just stayed exactly the same for 4 or 5 months.

I don't remember, but that little cactus must have been rootbound because once it got its roots into a larger pot of soil, it grew . . . and then
grew some more.   Within a few months, it looked like this.

The cactus was taking over. 

Time to re-pot and this cactus is COVERED with LONG spines.    First things first . . .   I am using a new terra cotta pot so it needs a good soaking.   If I omit this step, the clay will suck all the moisture from the potting mix.   Instead of watering continually post-planting, I'd rather just soak the pot pre-planting and then water normally. 

The first time that I transplanted the cactus, a piece of folded newpaper was the only tool I needed.   It could work again . . .   Well, the newspaper hack was helpful to hold the cactus while I added more potting mix.   To actually remove it from the pot, I ended up taking it to the lawn and very carefully removing it with a shovel.  (Hand tools didn't keep even a gloved hand far enough away from those spines!)  There were actually three cacti growing together so I split them up and shared with a friend.

And the finished product   It has room to grow BUT I will be happy to let it become rootbound.   I sure don't want it to get too big for me to handle!

I wish I knew what this little guy is.  But as it grows and blooms, maybe I'll be able to identify it.   Frankly, I'm not very good with cacti.   

Monday, November 14, 2016

Why Yardmap?

Lately, I've been binge-listening to Margaret Roach's gardening podcast and was interested to hear about Cornell's Yardmapping website!     Actually, the correct name is Habitat Network and it is a joint project of the Nature Conservancy and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.   The mapping program is called Yardmap.  It holds a group of tools to help you map your property and, then, to manage your property in a manner which attracts birds, butterflies, and bees (my words, not theirs).   Of course, all the information that you share with your map helps the scientists learn more about these little creatures.  

Here is my map and the basic breakdown of what is there.   The first few times I worked on it, the property was just listed as "home" - so very generic!  I had always wanted to give our home a name but anything I came up with either sounded stuffy or just didn't ring true.   So, I swiped a friend's community garden's name - because it fits here too!   The first thing we hear when we go outside are the mockingbirds!   And there's nothing stuffy about mockingbirds!

Back to YardMap.   Here is how it works, more or less:

  • The site finds your property on GoogleEarth and then you outline the property.  That's the quick part.   Note: I didn't say that's the easy part because the entire process is pretty easy . . .  but it can be a bit time consuming, especially as you are learning.      
  • After you have outlined your garden, or yard, or yarden, you mark what areas are grass, buildings, pavement, dirt, native forest, water, wetlands, etc. 
  • The final step is that you place your individual trees, shrubs, compost bins, bird feeders, bird houses, bird baths, etc.   Here you can use an INFO tab to add all sorts of details.   
At this point, you start getting feedback -  Habitat Network will feed pertinant articles about how you can make your property more nature-friendly.    Remember the site is hosted by the Cornell Lab or Ornithology (which is a fancy-schmancy word for "birds")  

This is a citizen-scientist project, where non-scientists help collect observations or data from more locations than a scientist could alone.    Besides feeling good about helping out, I expect to learn a lot along the way.  In fact, I have already learned quite a bit.   The mapping has been a fun process and I know that it will help me make Mockingbird Farm more bird friendly.    Won't you join this project?