Publications (Paul's Blog)

June 24, 2010

RURAL LANDSCAPING

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 9:25 pm

  During the past twenty years or so, there has been a marked increase in the number of homes being built on small acreage. City folks desire a little elbow room – less noise, more privacy and enough land to pursue their dreams. There are many adjustments that the average person must make in the transition from city to country living. Some changes (longer commute) are expected, while others (raccoons eating the dog food) will come as a complete surprise.

  One such surprise is the landscape. Many city dwellers make the mistake of attempting to landscape their new home in the country in the same manner as they did in the city. The new homeowner often discovers that he has unwittingly saddled himself with a couple of acres of Bermuda grass to mow. Likewise, the same guy may find that he now requires a good many trees and shrubs to provide shade and screening since the bulldozer destroyed most of what was there to begin with. He will also soon find out that much time and effort is entailed in keeping new transplants alive in the full exposure of the drying winds and brutal heat of a Texas summer. Dragging 500 feet of water hose gets old in a hurry!

  To avoid those mistakes, it is important to take time to evaluate your land before you do anything. Become familiar with the vegetation that already exists on your property. Seedling trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses can be utilized in your landscape. Be aware that what appears to be a weed in one season may actually be a beautiful stand of wildflowers later on. There are a number of good reference books that can help you identify plants. You may also seek consultation from local professionals, including your county extension agent, Parks & Wildlife biologist, university professor or landscaping consultant. Any good landscaping consultant will be well worth the fees, provided they are experienced in natural landscaping. Stay clear of those who envision your property as     becoming the next botanical garden or arboretum.

  Next you should take your ideas and what you have learned and draw a plan. This can be a simple pad and pencil drawing or a detailed scale drawing. A plan will help you put things in perspective. For example, the lawn area (if there is one) should be no larger than you need for your family. Some folks enjoy mowing and for them it is good therapy, while most of us view this as just another chore. It is much easier to put your dream on paper and reflect on that than it is to have to go back and change something after the fact. If you pay a professional to draw a plan, bear in mind that even the best plan is just an idea and changes are inevitable.

  Trees are the most important players in any landscape, and this counts double in the country. Tag all the trees you want to save before you talk to builders. Don’t hire a contractor until you find one who is comfortable working around existing vegetation. Trees are very sensitive to grade changes and soil compaction. It is a good idea to have someone responsible on the property anytime heavy equipment is being used even if it costs a bit more. Trees are worth it.

If your acreage has no trees, you may go ahead and plant those that will be out away from the house and other areas of construction as soon as water is available.

While we are on the subject of water, I encourage you to consider becoming your own water resource. Build a pond if you have the space or drill a well. While these are often expensive projects, they will pay for themselves in the long term. Most rural utility   companies charge a premium rate for water, and these rates increase over time.   Collecting rain water from your roof is another option. Modern polyethylene tanks are very cost effective to use as cisterns or as really big rain barrels if you prefer. Even the sewage from your house can be recycled using aerobic systems or by running effluent through bog plantings then into a holding tank or pond. Remember that any amount of water you can collect or recycle will cost you little or nothing. You will be wise to seek professional advice. Explore your options and do what you can to become self-sufficient.

If your property has no desirable vegetation or the bulldozer left you with nothing to salvage, you must begin the restoration process. Your first consideration should be to plant a mixture of short native grasses and groundcovers. Remember that diversity is what nature is all about. The seed mix should be composed of plant species that exist in your area. Stay clear of one-size-fits-all wildflower or pasture mixes that contain imported species. It may cost a bit more to choose the plants you want and create your own mix, but the end results will be worth it. The more land that you are willing to restore to natural vegetation, the less work you will have to do down the line.

Finally, we come to the selection of ornamental plants. This includes everything that you will use as foundation plants, decorative plants, screening, windbreaks, and so forth.

It comes as a shock to some folks to learn that many of the plants that were standard fare in their old neighborhood just won’t work well in the country. The truth it that within the city limits, the extremes of wind and temperature are moderated by the presence of buildings, fences, concrete and other structures. There generally is no pressure from grazing animals such as deer, pigs, and goats. Likewise, even though we do see damaging insects within the city limits, they usually don’t show up in such devastating numbers as they do in open country.

  Once again, the answer is to look first at local native plants. Among them you are certain to find trees, shrubs and flowering plants that are perfectly suited to your needs.

The plants that are indigenous to your area have been able to survive the repeated onslaughts of insects, common diseases, the weather and even grazing animals to a great extent. If not, then these plants would have died out long ago instead of tenaciously clinging to their particular niche in the environment. You may use native plants in the same style and manner as you would use any of the imported plants that have been used in traditional landscaping. If you wish to have a formal look or copy a design you saw in a magazine, you can easily do it by simply replacing the more demanding exotic plants with natives that have the same approximate size, shape, or color. You’ll find our native species “clean up” real nice and don’t necessarily have to look wild or unkempt.

You’ll notice that so far in this article, I have not mentioned any specific plants. This is because Texas is a mighty big piece of real estate containing ten distinctly different vegetation zones or ecoregions. The plants I would recommend for the panhandle would be drastically different from the plants I would choose for the piney woods of eastern Texas. However, you will find that nurseries that specialize in native plants are popping up all over the state. You will find quite a few advertised within the pages of this magazine. The Native Plant Society of Texas also has a number of member nurseries listed on their website (“http://www.npsot.org/”). The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center has over two thousand listings under “Native Landscapers” (“http://www.wildflower.org/”) on their website. Find the one closest to you. That will be your best plan to get specific plant recommendations. These knowledgeable people can save you thousands of dollars compared to the money that could be lost due to trial and error planting.

For example, Carissa, Burford and Needlepoint are all cultivars of Chinese holly (ilex cornuta). These imported hollies are considered excellent landscape material statewide. Yet when these hollies are planted in areas that are prone to grasshopper infestations, the grasshoppers chew them right up. Yaupon holly (ilex vomitoria) is one of our hollies that is native to Texas and also widely used. Given the same situation, you will notice that the grasshoppers tend to stay off the yaupons. Even if the grasshoppers do chew the leaves off for lack of anything else green to eat, the native shrub will bounce back quicker and be less likely to die than the Chinese imports. The reason for this is pretty simple. Our native yaupon has lived with our Texas grasshoppers for thousands of years. In this time it has had to develop survival techniques to deal with the occasional insect infestation. Perhaps the smaller leaves are harder to chew and digest, or maybe the plant has developed a chemical compound that just doesn’t taste good. Whatever the case may be, it becomes perfectly obvious that when the insects do come, they will eat your imported hollies first and the native yaupon last. In the nursery business, we speak of imported exotics as being well adapted to a particular area. Your local native plants are perfectly adapted. Big difference.

Texas lantana (lantana horrida) is another well known native plant that has little or no problem with chewing insects. Just crush a leaf between your fingers and smell it. The strong odor will affirm that this plant must also have a very strong taste that is unpalatable to most insects. Deer and cattle, however, do occasionally graze on it. Keep this is mind if you have an abundance of grazing animals around your property. Plant it in an area where cattle, horses, and goats can be kept away by fencing. A well established plant can regenerate itself quickly and thus withstand a certain amount of grazing as long as the animal is decent enough to leave a bit behind. This is a very good plant for attracting butterflies and hummingbirds to feed on nectar. Larger birds such as quail and turkeys feed on the berries that appear in summer and fall. So here is a native plant that repels some critters and is attractive to others.

Some of us that live in the country are in areas that are overpopulated by deer and will want to use plants that are not going to be eaten. Some may live in areas where wildlife is scarce and will want to use plants that attract deer and other critters. Others may wish for a bird sanctuary or a haven for butterflies. Whatever category you fit in, there are plant lists available. Your local native plant experts or Parks & Wildlife biologist can help you get started. If there is a Native Plant Society chapter in a nearby town, go to some meetings. You can quickly learn a lot and find people enthusiastic and willing to share their knowledge. The trick is to use plants that are utilized by the wildlife you wish to attract or concentrate on plants that will repel or at least not be eaten by the critters that can become a nuisance.

I hope that these general ideas and suggestions will help. I can assure you that all I have written here has come from the hard won experience or personal successes and failure. I continue to see so many folks attempt (with good intention) to create a rural landscape that can only survive with constant maintenance or is destined to fail altogether. True success can only be achieved by working in harmony with nature.

SEASONAL GARDENING PART I

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 9:19 pm

  There are some forms of gardening, gardening practices, and a number of plants that require us to pay close attention to the weather or season. For instance, here in North Texas, winter would not be a good time to pot some petunias for the front porch. Pansies, on the other hand generally will bloom through the winter if planted in the fall. If you read instructions on a seed packet of tomatoes it will recommend waiting until all danger of frost is past which in my neck of the woods would be mid-April but any veteran tomato grower in Texas knows it best to start them indoors (or in a greenhouse) as early as January. What’s up with that? As a person that does weekly call-in radio and cable TV programs I am well aware that “When should I prune, plant, water, fertilize, etc.” is not well understood by the general public. Here are a few stock answers.

  I think the most often asked questions are regarding pruning. People seem to think that they will somehow cause irreparable damage by pruning in the wrong season. Yet if we look at how plants get pruned by natural occurrence we find fire, high wind, hail, ice, insects, disease, and grazing animals. Plants can have any or all of their above ground parts compromised or removed entirely by any one or several of these natural events. These random events can occur at any time of year so the ability of plants to regenerate (and they do) is nothing short of phenomenal.

 Another good example is to watch your tree and lawn maintenance guys. These guys are out there twelve months of the year hauling tree limbs and shrub clippings every day. You can rest assured that what they are pruning is not in danger of death or they would be out of a job pronto. So when the gardening guy starts talking about WHEN to prune, just be aware that he is talking about the OPTIMUM time. Yes I do tell people to prune their roses and fruit trees in February. However, if someone has a situation in mid-summer where that same rose needs cutting back I say, “Have at it.”

 No way are you going to kill a plant by removing a few limbs or excessive vegetation. On the other hand, bear in mind that any time (even the optimum recommended time) you prune any living parts of any plant, it is damaging. You are in fact removing the food manufacturing and storage parts while creating a wound that must be healed. Something to think about.

 Yes, pruning is an art and to really get good at it you must study it, but for practical purposes you may prune any plant at any time of year without fear of death or permanent damage. It will grow back.

 The second most often asked questions deal with planting times. To simplify this I say that any plant that is not your lawn grass but has a life span of more than one year is best planted in the fall, winter, or very early spring. When you think about it, our trees, shrubs, and perennial beds are the big players in our landscape. These are the things that give our landscape character and color. The real killer of these valuable plants is usually not the winter but that first hot, dry, Texas Summer. The best time to plant is in the fall once we are fairly certain the truly hot weather is past.

 My main job is designing and installing landscapes. Just like the maintenance guys I am out there putting plants in year round. I never stop. I am the first one to know if new plantings become stressed or die. We take our heaviest losses during summer without a doubt. I am quick to tell my clients the optimum time to plant is during the fall and winter to give those roots some establishment time before the stress of summer but we can plant at any time with a reasonable chance at success. Just bear in mind that it is always best to have the optimum season working for you if you can. By the time the local Megamarts start their big Spring ad campaigns in April you should be done planting. Your plants will then be able to take full advantage of the spring rains instead of having to get over transplant shock with summer just ahead.

 The exceptions to optimum fall planting are of course warm season veggies, warm season bedding plants, and lawn grasses. Although many folks still want to attempt sod or seeding lawns in March or April, the ground in North Texas is usually still too cold. Buffalo grass, Zoysia, Bermuda, and St. Augustine all need soil temps of 65 degrees or better to germinate seed or to establish sod quickly. Contrary to popular belief, the hotter it gets the faster these grasses will establish. The heat of summer is just what they want provided they get plenty of water. Plant grasses from late spring on into early fall.

 Warm season veggies and annual bedding plants are a different issue. It is best to plant them after the last frost but before the really hot weather arrives. This will give them the advantage of cooler temps and (hopefully) help from beneficial spring rains. This naturally raises the question of knowing exactly when spring has sprung.

 Most veteran Texas gardeners know to rely on signs from Nature rather than to depend on the calendar and/or average first/last frost dates. I have come to rely on flowering trees for spring. When the first flowers appear on local fruit trees, I know there are usually one or two more light freezes in store, but the time is near. In the Fall I look for the annual migration of monarch butterflies as the first sign and migrating geese honking by to tell me truly cold weather is at hand. I find these natural occurrences much more reliable than weather averages. If you will pay attention to record highs and lows given on the weather report you will grasp my meaning. The true arrival of spring and fall can easily vary 4 to 6 weeks from year to year.

 Texas weather allows us two good growing seasons (Spring/Fall) and two dormant seasons (Summer/Winter) yet in reality there are plants actively growing here in all seasons. Our native plants can be put in three basic categories. Cool season plants which tend to come up in the fall, grow through winter, and flower in spring. These would include our spring wildflowers and winter grasses. Then we have the warm season plants that generally come up in spring to bloom in summer or fall. Finally we have a number of trees, shrubs, and perennial plants that put on growth during the spring and fall rains. These plants will flower at different times during the year. Some can flower sporadically throughout the warm season.

 I hope what you have gathered from this so far is that landscaping and pruning can be done at any time of year. There are optimum times when it is best to pursue these activities but no such thing as guaranteed failure because you did it in the wrong season. Of course there are exceptions and finer points to these issues and for that reason the folks who do call-in gardening shows, magazine articles, and other information media continue to be popular. In general, planting perennials and pruning are kind of like going fishing. Sometimes the fish bite better but you still go whenever you have the time and inclination to fish, regardless of the season.

 I’ve used my allotted space for this month, but I will continue with my discussion of seasonal gardening next month. I will cover some of the other aspects of gardening that my callers ask about frequently. I hope you will make sure to reserve a copy of next month’s issue. Until then…………go on ahead and prune.

SEASONAL GARDENING PART II

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 9:16 pm

 Last month I dealt with pruning and planting. These are two things that are most often asked of me from the general public regarding the proper season in which they should be done. My answer was that contrary to popular belief there is no particular season that you absolutely must not prune. Likewise, we can plant any and all plants from containers at any season with the exception of lawn grasses, annual bedding plants, and of course vegetables. There are optimum times like fall for planting and late winter for most pruning. This is I believe where the confusion lies. Because there are ideal times to do these things some folks then assume they cannot be done at any other times. Then this misinformation gets passed along as gospel.

 Another one of these easily misconstrued facts of gardening concerns watering. Most people water too much in the spring (it’s nice to be outside then), not enough in the summer, and not at all in the winter. Others who own automatic systems sadly leave them to run year round.

 The answer to irrigation is really rather simple. You water when it is dry. You don’t water when it’s wet or when good rain chances are in the forecast. Naturally this does mean you must pay attention to the weather. Most people don’t want to hear this. They want a schedule. So many novice gardeners will come in a buy a plant then ask, “How many times per week should I water this?” Wouldn’t it be nice if things were really that easy? In reality an inch of rain will do fine for a whole month in January but may last only a few days in July.

 Rate of evaporation is one of several factors that determine when and how you should water. Understanding this is one of the main things that separates the green thumbs from brown thumbs. Consider that soil type, wind speed, temperature, slope, mulch, drainage, exposure, and the amount of organic matter present in your soil all have a bearing on how often and/or how much water is needed. You can see that there is no one size fits all easy answer here. However, it is always my goal to simplify matters for you so here is my basic formula.

 The closest thing to a schedule that I recommend to my customers is once a week if it does not rain and by rain I mean at least 1/2” or more during the warm season. Assuming that you have planted native and well adapted plants, one good deep watering per week will carry you through all but the worst heat waves. Research has proven that it is best for most plants to dry out between waterings rather than have constant surface moisture available. While some take pride in their pampered lawns they are in effect making a huge “couch potato” out of their landscape. Recent droughts have proven that pampered plants are the first to suffer when we have to conserve or stop watering altogether. The opposite is true of plants that are watered well then allowed some dry time. They develop deep roots as they follow the moisture down.

 A gardener’s worst nightmare is drought. When the local municipalities ask us to conserve is the exact time when the gardeners need it most. To offset this we encourage people to stop watering altogether during spring, fall, or any time we have a good rainy spell. If we conserve in times of plenty then we just may have water to irrigate during dry times. Those dry times are most likely to occur during summer and (oddly enough) winter. This holds true over much of the state although devastating drought can and does occur in all seasons. Normally we can roll those hoses up or shut the automatic system off during the cold season, but again good research has proven that winter damage is much less likely if our landscapes have adequate moisture before the cold snap arrives. Irrigation is truly about paying attention to current weather rather than schedules.

 One more practice that most people perceive as a seasonal issue is fertilization. This does hold true to a certain extent when using pre-emergent type fertilizers. I do hope that you are not using the over rated but (for the most part) highly toxic synthetic “weed and feed” fertilizers and have made the switch to corn gluten meal. Be that as it may, the name pre-emergent suggests that you have this in place BEFORE new weeds emerge. Typically this happens in early spring and again in early fall. However, because Spring or Fall often is early or late in arrival you must still pay close attention to the weather rather than marking a date on the calendar. When you read or hear about your local gardening experts recommending a specific time for this bear in mind they are usually talking about “average” or “normal” times when you may be having a very abnormal year. Heads up.

 Most people tend to fertilize at the onset of spring or fall as these seasons are when we normally see our plants put on growth. However, it is very likely that our plants are receiving all the nitrogen they need through natural rainfall at these times. Therefore any extra that is applied may not be used and may contribute to nitrate pollution rather than helping the plant. A more logical way to fertilize would be to apply later in spring to help through the stress of summer and also mid-Fall as we see the approach of winter. Fertilizing during the heat of summer is the worst time as this promotes top growth which in turn causes the plants to use more water. Likewise fertilizing in the dead of winter is not a good idea either.

 Another aspect worth mentioning is that if you are using a true organic fertilizer that works through microbial activity rather than water or synthetic coating as a release mechanism, it is near impossible to burn your lawn or cause stress as the nitrogen from natural sources is typically low and released slowly. Organic fertilizers applied during the cool season will still benefit plants later when things warm up since microbial activity slows down with cool temperatures. Therefore there is really no season when organic fertilizers are a waste of time and money unless they are applied too frequently.

 The professionals who manage golf courses and athletic fields practice what is called “spoon feeding.” Smaller doses of fertilizer are applied more frequently to keep the grass well supplied. Those who seek the perfect lawn should try this. Bear in mind that the trick is to supply low doses. Overfeeding is just plain wasteful.

 Just as with pruning and planting, there are optimum times to water or fertilize. However, these times have more to do with current conditions than strict adherence to calendar dates. With few exceptions, timing is just not as critical as most folks perceive it. Perhaps we should be more interested in HOW rather than WHEN we should prune, plant, water, and use fertilizers. The worst thing that could happen is wasted effort, longer healing time required, or perhaps a frozen tomato plant. These things happen far too often despite the interest most people have in knowing the proper season. Doing these things the wrong way (even during the optimum time) can be far more damaging and wasteful.

  My stock answers to these questions are prune as needed, water when it’s dry; fertilize poor soils when you can. Instead of fretting over the correct time you should instead concentrate on doing these things properly. Then you can be a successful gardener in all seasons.

PEAT MOSS

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 8:51 pm

  Perhaps one of the most widely used soil amendments in the continental U.S. This being true, I find it odd that it is also one of the least understood. What is it? Where does it come from? More importantly, what does it really do for the soil? With a little research, you will immediately find the term peat moss is often used to describe three different materials. That in itself is confusing. Let’s have a closer look.

  Moss- Moss is usually a tiny, very ancient plant form. Moss grows on stone, bark, decaying wood, and on bare soils. Mosses are a very large family of plants. Sphagnum moss is one of the larger sized species of moss that covers huge areas of Earth in cold latitudes. Sphagnum moss grows in peat bogs. As it dies and slowly decays, sphagnum moss adds to the volume of the peat bog. Moss, in and of itself, is not used as a soil amendment.

  Peat- True peat is described as being the beginning stage of coal. Peat bogs that become buried through siltation, seismic action, and other catastrophic events or any combination of such events will eventually form coal if enough pressure (overburden) is applied. 

  Peat can be formed by any organic matter (not just moss) including animal remains. Plant and animal remains that fall into bogs decompose very slowly. This is called anaerobic (lacking or without oxygen) decomposition. Combined with cold temperature which decreases microbial activity, it can take thousands of years for organic matter to fully decompose. This is made evident by the discovery of many prehistoric animal and human remains in peat bogs. Some still retain flesh and even hair after thousands of years. Some peat materials have been carbon dated to be as old as 360 million years.

  True peat can be dried and burned as fuel. This is the most common use of peat. Being high in carbon, concentrated minerals, and humic acids, true peat would make an excellent soil amendment, but that is not what is being sold at the local garden center.

  Sphagnum peat moss- This is the material commonly sold to gardeners. Peat bogs composed largely of decaying sphagnum moss are easily accessible in the Canadian provinces. These bogs take thousands of years to form. It is said that these sphagnum bogs grow only one millimeter per year. Thus a two foot layer of peat moss has taken a thousand years of anaerobic decomposition to form.

  Sphagnum moss that is harvested as a live plant has been used as a growing medium for orchids and other epiphytes (plants that grow on other plants), for hanging baskets, and as a decoration. Sphagnum moss is not considered a soil amendment.

  Sphagnum peat moss is considered a good soil amendment mainly for its capacity to absorb and hold water. However, other qualities have been highly overrated. The environmental impact alone does not justify mass harvesting of sphagnum peat moss. We are harvesting millions of tons of a substance that took thousands of years to form; this is definitely not a sustainable practice.

  In my opinion, sphagnum peat moss rates on the lower end of materials available as soil amendments. In other words, if fresh compost rates a ten then sphagnum peat moss would rate about a two.

  In the first place consider volume. What you see is what you get. Although a compressed block of peat moss will fluff up to make a good wheelbarrow full of loose material, what is compressed out of that bale of peat moss is merely air. Peat moss will become compressed again once it is added to the soil. Let’s say you paid $15 for a bale of peat moss that weighed fifty pounds. What you got is only fifty pounds or 2 cu. ft. of material. That 2 cu. ft. will amend about 18 sq. ft. (2” deep) of average soil. If you spent that same $15 on bulk compost you would be getting about one thousand pounds of material that would amend about 150 sq. ft. of the same soil. Do the math using whatever scales you might have and you will find sphagnum peat moss is just not cost effective for large areas.

  As stated earlier, the best quality of peat moss is its water holding capacity. Recent studies done on clay soils showed that peat moss would absorb moisture away from clay particles. We all know that once clay is wet it tends to stay wet and once completely dry it will actually repel water. Dry peat moss will also repel water. What most plants want is evenly moist soil and good percolation. Adding peat moss to improve clay soils may be counter productive altogether. It does seem to work better in sandy soils.

  I live in an area where soil ph ranges from alkaline to very alkaline. I was led to believe that peat moss was really good at lowering ph levels. True, peat moss is acid by its very nature and when tested in its pure form. However, due to the absorbent nature of peat moss, it will absorb chemical compounds from the surrounding soil. This means that over time sphagnum peat moss will become as alkaline as the surrounding soil. Any gain on soil acidification will be short term at best.

  Next consider that sphagnum peat moss is really just very, very, old compost that is anaerobic. I hope all of you understand by now that anaerobic decomposition does not make good compost. It smells bad, breeds disease organisms, and takes a long, long time to break down. We turn our compost piles to introduce oxygen. Oxygen stimulates fast reproduction of decomposing microbes causing the release of energy (heat) which kills off disease organisms, and thwarts insect reproduction. Well made compost is full of beneficial microbes and available nitrogen as well as all minerals and elements needed for plant growth. Anaerobic compost has few beneficial organisms, little if any useable nitrogen, and may harbor insects and disease. Sphagnum peat moss is thousand year old anaerobic compost which contains very few active components at the point of sale.

  Still, sphagnum peat moss is useable in sandy soils and as a component in various potting mixes. However, the cost involved in harvesting, shipping, and loss of habitat is causing this to change. When you consider the fact that anything (including soil mixes) you can do with peat moss is really done better with compost, then any company producing soil mixtures will sooner or later have to look at composting local materials rather than shipping peat moss out of Canada. Perhaps there was a time when cheap oil and affordable equipment made harvesting of peat moss lucrative. Those times are all but gone.

  Twenty years ago, if you walked into any store that sold gardening products you would expect to see great stacks of peat moss bales. During that same time, oddly enough, there was little commercially available compost and absolutely no such thing as locally produced compost in bulk form. Like everyone else, I used plenty of peat moss and believed what I was told about the quality of it. Today we see the exact opposite. Most garden centers offer several choices of bagged or bulk compost plus we don’t see so much baled peat moss. I sold our last bale somewhere around 1993 as more commercial compost hit the market although I had learned some about the true pros and cons of peat moss before then. I suppose there are still quite a few gardeners out there who believe it is worth buying. I hope this article will help change that. Give me compost; you get more for the same money plus greater benefits. I’m done selling peat moss.

THE RUBY PRIDDY BUTTERFLY CONSERVATORY

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 8:16 pm

In April 2007, the doors opened on a brand new conservatory in the state of Texas. One might assume that a facility like this would be located in the highly populated Dallas/Ft.Worth Metroplex, Austin, San Antonio, or Houston, but such is not the case. The 6,000 sq. ft. Ruby Priddy Butterfly Conservatory is the crown jewel of Riverbend Nature Center in Wichita Falls. Our city of modest proportion (no daily traffic jams) has long been considered the hub of what we proudly refer to as Texoma. Located just south of the Red River, Wichita Falls is one of the major crossroads into Oklahoma and westward to the Panhandle. What sets the Ruby Priddy Butterfly Conservatory apart is the exclusive use of local native plants, animals, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and of course butterflies. There is not another butterfly conservatory in Texas (indeed, in the entire U.S.) that does not sport tropical environments or at best a mix of foreign and domestic plants. It was decided early on that our conservatory would celebrate the flora and fauna of the Rolling Plains and Western Cross Timbers. As such, it has a greater value to local students of nature, old and young alike. The conservatory, which was built into a hillside, begins with a stroll through short grass and mixed grass prairies, then falls gently through the sandstone escarpments of the Cross Timbers, winding up with riparian environments at the lower end. Our small pond (or large aquarium if you prefer) is stocked with local fish species and has become one of the favorite displays. Along the pathway you will find models of various birds, reptiles, and four legged creatures, each in their preferred habitat. Each habitat has its own kiosk which explains life above and below ground through the seasons. And of course, lots of butterflies!! On any given day you will be greeted by hundreds of butterflies representing 20 different species that live in or migrate through North Central Texas. Most of the butterflies are ordered in chrysalis form and kept in a glass case so we can observe as they morph into one of Nature’s most interesting creatures. Other butterflies have taken up permanent residence to live out their life cycles inside the conservatory. Martha Davis, exhibits curator and NPSOT member, has found it a constant struggle to keep the larvae supplied with host plants. Hundreds of caterpillars confined in a small area can consume plenty of vegetation in short order! Besides the butterflies and fish, Martha and the Riverbend staff continue to add other live critters to the displays. This past year she included a bullfrog, tarantula, an Amarillo lizard, rough green snake, king snake, and (everybody’s favorite) a black chin hummingbird. The latest additions are bobwhite quail. Doubtless Martha will continue to expand on local flora and fauna as time goes by.

A WET YEAR

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 8:05 pm

  Ever wonder how we get those rainfall averages that so often seem misleading and disappointing? Well, in order to get an average of say 30” per year, you would expect that most years should equal out to near 30” give or take. In reality, because of our roller coaster weather pattern that is so typical too much of Texas we find that an area which averages 30” will have dry years that total 20” or less and wet years where 40” or more may fall. This is why we find ourselves either above or below average at any given time of the year and conversely almost never are we exactly average.

  As farmers and gardeners we study the weather and rely on local averages to tell us the best time to plant and when we should expect a harvest. During a somewhat “normal” year there is plenty of good data we can use and everything falls into place at the right time. The problem has always been that these “normal” years only occur about twice in ten years so that most of the time we find ourselves trying to second guess the weatherman. If we manage to plant before a good rainy spell then we are repaid with high germination rates, good viability of transplants, or quicker establishment of trees and shrubs. If on the other hand a dry spell sets in at planting time, the overall effect is exactly the opposite. This is why our local meteorologists are generally considered imbeciles and more often than not the target of much abuse among the coffee crowd even though their technology has improved greatly over the years. Contrary to popular opinion, the weatherman is usually right more often than wrong……….at least in the short term.

  This year (2007) has been a wet one and for most of us a good one. As I write this article on June 26 my home town of Wichita Falls has been receiving moderate to heavy rainfall since before sunrise (it is now approaching noon). Much of Texas and Oklahoma is under a flood watch. The thermometer outside reads 68 degrees (it would normally be in the low to mid 90’s) and the forecast is rain will be likely for the next three or four days. The drought that has plagued us all for the past decade is well and truly broken (at least in the short term). The dry years have left us with a huge deficit in low lake levels and dwindling groundwater supplies. These are definitely being recharged at present.

  Most of my articles are written to educate or at least bring new ideas to the minds of veteran and novice gardeners alike. This one is intent on acknowledging what a blessing this one wet year has been. Even though there has been some flooding and loss of life. Although there has been hail, high wind, tornadoes, and the weather service is predicting a very active hurricane season, most of us are still very appreciative of the rain. We endure severe weather every year. That comes with the territory. Hopefully when we do finally drop back into the frying pan or when the next drought ensues we can look back on 2007 and relish in the memory of a wet year.

  At the nursery this spring we did not make the money we normally would have due to the rainy days. Still, business is good on the dry days and I trust our season will extend into the summer because of cooler temperatures and adequate soil moisture. So far, Nila and I have not had to answer too many “I think my plants are dying” calls. So far all of the trees and other plants we have installed for folks have done well. So far I have not had to rush home to water the vegetable garden in dwindling daylight just to keep it alive. In fact, the only watering I have done at all is whenever I planted something. What’s up with that??………Rainfall!!

  Normally when we do get ahead on our rainfall, it is due to one big rain event that brings with it erosion and flooding problems. So far this year the rain has been timely. We dried out just enough for most local farmers to get hay cut and wheat harvested. Beneficial amounts generally less than two inches at a time have soaked in to replenish dry subsoils. Dry springs have begun flowing. Area ponds are brim-full. Now the lakes that have been running half empty (half full?) are beginning to refill. Certainly a spring this good has not occurred in my professional career. Even a few of the old timers are beginning to say that such a rainy spring has not been seen here in their lifetime!!

  “My tomatoes are not setting fruit, what is wrong?” is another call that Nila and I have been used to but are not receiving this year. With the rain has come mild temperatures and high humidity that keeps those veggies happy. Vegetable gardening has been easy with just enough dry weather to make it possible to harvest. Our local farmers will hold their annual “Peach Festival” this Thursday, June 28th. The branches are heavy with juicy fruit. There is a 70% chance they will get rained out on Thursday but I don’t think they will mind. Likewise, with our other major tree crop. Pecans are hanging in 5 to 7 nut clusters right now. It appears there will be an excellent harvest with enough available subsoil moisture to carry the trees even if it does turn hot and dry this summer. Last year there was no “Pecan Show” due to the fact that there was no harvest to speak of.

  Those of you who study the weather will recall above average rainfall last winter. This was due to an El Nino event in the Pacific. This phenomenon of warming water off the coast of Peru is one of the events we have learned to count on to throw abundant moisture over Texas and the Great Plains. This El Nino was predicted to last through April 2007 so we were all geared to have a wet spring. However, the El Nino died off in late February dashing our hopes and causing the long range forecast to reflect below normal rainfall and above average temperatures for spring and summer 2007. Well….. that did not happen much to the surprise of certain weather gurus and the delight of the rest of us. I won’t go into details of why this occurred but it does prove a couple of things. Number one, long range forecasting is still pretty much a crap shoot and two; El Nino is just one of many influences that factor in our weather.

  I was one of those optimistic few who went ahead and predicted a good year. I am not taking credit here because I too was astonished at just how well things actually turned out. My reasoning has always been fairly simple. I have noticed over the years that once we get seriously dry, we tend to stay dry and once we get good and wet the chances are good we will continue to see rain. This may seem overly simple and it is…… given the complexity of weather systems. However, available surface moisture does play a role in spawning those afternoon and evening thundershowers which account for much of the rain we see here in North Texas. Weather fronts need some local moisture to work with as they sweep across the continent. If it has been dry then the chance of rain with the cold front may be just a drizzle or nothing at all. Even wet tropical systems that come from the Gulf or Pacific Ocean can fizzle quickly once they hit the dry land. So this past Spring I was merely speculating that after a wet winter the moisture we already had at the surface should be enough to interact with cold fronts. It did……….and as things warmed up the rain machine really kicked in. Right now we are so wet that the slightest disturbance is enough to kick off showers.

  With Summer officially here now and the 4th of July just a week away I am going to continue in my childish exuberance and cast my lot with those predicting a seasonably mild and wetter than normal summer. I figure that with all this surface moisture the chances of afternoon and evening thunderstorms should stay good at least through the next 30 days even if our normal high heat with low humidity does occur. .

Postscript June 30th: Unfortunately the rain event that prompted this article wound up causing flood problems in much of Texas and Oklahoma. Still it is not unusual to have too much at once in this part of the country. What is unusual is that we have had steady rain for three months now. Officially we are near 8” above normal for this time of year. Most area lakes are full if not overflowing.

Postscript August 11th: Our first day of 100 degrees officially. This broke the previous record for the latest 100 degree day which had been July 31st. We are officially 8.7 inches above normal rainfall. Storms in the tropics are beginning to develop………no hurricanes threatening just yet.

Postscript October 8th: Wheat crop in the ground and it has been unseasonably warm and dry for about 6 weeks now. Hit or miss storms missed most of us but managed to find our official rain gauge at the airport. Ten inches above normal now but the local vegetation is brown or wilted for the most part.

  Postscript November 24th: Continued dry with our new wheat crop being sparse to non-existent. We managed only 1/2” for October and so far November has offered a mere trace although it has sprinkled a bit today. While we were 10” above normal earlier this year, the past couple of months have whittled that bonus down. If December follows suit to remain dry we will end the year at 4” or 5” above normal which lends credibility to my opening statements.

  Sure enough the current long range predictions are for a dry but warm winter followed by a warm spring with equal chances of normal rainfall through the summer into fall. The winter of 2008 is predicted to be wet. We shall see. By the way, the hurricane season of 2007 did produce some monster storms but the continental U.S. and particularly the Gulf Coast was spared any major storm. Also, looking back to our wet year, nobody was able to predict that. So I leave you to your own memories with something I say quite often, “In Texas we either fry or we float.” It seems each year we do a little of both.

SUSTAINABLE LANDSCAPING

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 7:44 pm

  1. Turn off the water.  Water will become the main issue concerning home landscaping. At present, most of us still have access to all the water we can use as long as we are willing to pay for it. Water costs have risen dramatically over the past decade and this trend will continue. As our population increases so does the demand for fresh water; it is just that simple. Water restrictions and ordinances concerning the use of water in the home landscape have already been put in place by municipalities across much of Texas. These types of restrictions will also increase. What happens when the demand for water becomes so great that we can not afford to waste it for the sake of green lawns? Water only to offset severe drought. Turn the water off to determine which plants in your present landscape are able to survive on rainfall alone.

 2. Harvest rainwater.  Many people think that because they own a well and don’t pay a water bill that they should not have to worry about water. Drilling wells is not the answer. Water wells tap in to the same aquifers or ground water sources that supply our neighbors and local communities. These sources can be depleted from overuse and during extended drought.

  A better solution is to harvest and store runoff from rain. Different methods range from collection ponds for large properties, parks, cemeteries, and golf courses to guttering roofs or channeling runoff from hardscape areas to cisterns or holding tanks. Any vessel that holds water can be employed right down to your 5 gallon bucket set under the drip line of your house. Any amount of harvested water comes with little or no cost. This will reduce reliance on outside sources and can be expanded to supply all your water needs. There are a growing number of households today that are run entirely on collected rainwater. Some even have swimming pools.

  Although rainwater harvesting is still limited by drought, self reliance with a good backup plan is much better than being totally dependent.

  3. Plant smart.  Once you have determined which plants in your landscape should be replaced you will want to begin looking for suitable replacements. This can be a bit tricky when shopping in self help stores. The one-size-fits-all plant tags can be misleading. Terms like cold hardy, drought tolerant, heat tolerant, well adapted, and so forth can easily be misunderstood. What you need to know is that these terms are relative. Thirty inches of rain may be a drought year in Houston but that would be a flood in Midland. Heat tolerant to what temperature? Cold hardy to what zone? Well adapted to where? Relying on the opinions of friends, neighbors, and even avid gardeners can also steer you wrong. Even those of us who are professionals still have our favorite plants and opinions.

   The number one criteria for creating a truly sustainable landscape is using plants that can survive your particular climate and soil conditions without any special treatment  This may sound pretty simple until you see what is available at your local nursery. Most of the plants that are sold in the traditional market are geared to areas that receive more than 30 inches of annual rainfall. Supplemental irrigation is a given. Like any other industry, the plant market is driven by sales. Sales are made by offering folks what they think they want, so those of us in the nursery trade continue to produce plants that are exotic, interesting, and pretty to look at………. just add water.

  Thankfully this is beginning to change. The hot items in the industry today are natives, heirloom varieties, and heat/drought tolerant plants. This is direct response to consumer demand. There are a growing number of family owned nurseries who specialize in these plants. For now, you may have to do a bit of searching to find these places which are typically off the beaten path, but we do expect this trend to become mainstream.

  Regardless of where you live there are plants that are perfectly adapted to your region. These are your local native plants. Within your local region you will find trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowering plants that you will enjoy. Once arranged in an artistic and suitable manner, these plants can look every bit as showy (or formal if you wish) as their traditional exotic counterparts. The idea that native plants look wild or unruly comes from the fact that we are used to seeing them in the wild where they are in fact, wild. The neatness of any garden is up to the gardener. All plants come from the wild.

  Besides being perfectly adapted to your climate, native plants are also much less susceptible to insects and disease. Having lived and evolved with common insects and diseases your native plants have developed attributes and strategies to survive these attacks. This means you can basically forget about pesticides, fertilizers, and fungicides to allow the plants to sustain themselves as they have done for hundreds, or perhaps thousands of years.

  There are also many tried and true traditional plants that will adapt to your home landscape. The best of these typically are not your latest hybrid but instead they are found among the old heirloom varieties that our forefathers brought to the New World. Thanks largely to grandma and grandpa plus a few arboretums and historical sites; most of these old varieties still exist. Many are making a comeback at your local nursery. Still, in order to know which of these exotics will work in your particular set of conditions will take some research on your part. Trial and error planting is fun for some but frustrating to most people. In order to plant smart, you have to be well informed.

  4. Get rid of that lawn.  The American suburbanite has been led to believe that the lawn is the ultimate focal point or landscaping status symbol far too long. Although grass does make a pleasant walking surface and it does absorb the sun’s energy while exchanging carbon dioxide for oxygen, the truth is that lawn grass is the highest maintenance plant that we can possibly own. Evidence of this can easily be seen by the staggering amount of products, tools, and TV commercials aimed at lawn culture plus the number of lawn service companies seen in our neighborhoods. In addition to all this, a full 60% of our finite water resources are used outdoors and the bulk of that is used on our lawns. Even folks who don’t care much for landscaping and won’t spend time or money on as much as one single tree will have a lawn.

  Consider for a moment the fact that most of us maintain grass in areas that we seldom if ever use. If you have children, pets, or use the lawn yourself then you may justify the cost. If you are one of the many people who look at lawn culture as therapy or something you really enjoy then so be it………you know who you are. If on the other hand you are more interested in saving time and money then tear out that grass and replace it. A patio, a deck, extra parking, a garden with a pathway through it, a water feature, or a dry stream bed; in short almost anything that will cover the ground will cost less in the long run.

  Given the fact that most of us do want some lawn area, our advice would be to keep it small and invest in lawn grasses that need the least amount of care such as our native buffalo grass (if you live west of I35).

  5. High tech/Low tech It has been said that small gasoline powered engines produce 10 to 20 times the amount of pollution as a single automobile. As yet, there are no government emissions standards plus in most cases the exhaust system is nothing more than a pipe attached directly to the cylinder. Buy into better technology or, in some cases you will find that the older, simpler methods still work best.

  A good example is the leaf blower. In some parts of the country, the use of these noisy machines has been banned or at least regulated to certain times of the day when most people are not trying to sleep. Although quieter electric models do exist, when you really think about it, leaf blowers don’t do anything constructive. They move material from one place (normally asphalt and concrete) to another (normally your lawn). Rakes and brooms are much more efficient, quieter, non-polluting, and cost less to boot.

  Remember the old reel type push mower? This and a hand edger were the only lawn tools my grandparents ever owned. Their small patch of St. Augustine in front and back of their house (their property was mostly vegetable garden and flower beds) was always neat and trim. Consider the fact that all power tools cut by force. They tend to tear the leaf or stem rather than producing a nice clean cut. Want your evergreen hedge to really look nice? Use hand shears. Check out any good arborist and you will find they rely mostly on hand saws. The chain saw is used only on larger limbs and for tree removal. Clean cuts heal quicker than jagged cuts. The old push mower and other hand tools are still available at your local hardware store. They just don’t sell as many as they used to.

  Electric mowers have been around for decades but we don’t see them in use much either. In recent years there have been some rechargeable battery powered mowers that work reliably and have made the nuisance of dragging around a power cord a thing of the past. I have yet to see a riding mower that is battery powered but I think the technology does exist. In fact, there should be some wise inventor out there somewhere working on a solar powered riding lawnmower. I have seen solar golf carts.

  Solar and wind power are two forms of sustainable energy that have good uses in the landscape. Pumps, lighting, and pond aeration come to mind immediately. As these technologies improve, many more applications and devices will come to the market. Investing in alternative energy will cause this to happen much sooner.

6. Get your landscape off drugs.  If you are still using chemicals, read this section twice……….then go talk to any health professional. Whether your landscape is a small postage stamp or several square miles, there is no situation or scenario where chemical use is necessary. Why risk your own health (not to mention our collective air, water, and soil) for the sake of a few weeds or insects? It seems ludicrous that we should even have to broach this subject, yet most of us today were born into a society where synthetic products are so ingrained into our daily lives that we don’t give it much thought.

  Of course we hear and read about our tainted food, polluted air, water, and the resulting health risks all the time, but we have to eat, breathe, and drink. These issues loom so large that they become bewildering. We tend to think that we as individuals have little or no impact and the big problems must be solved by the government, EPA, or some other environmental group. Wrong!! To my knowledge the EPA has managed to remove only two popular pesticides from the market in the past decade. There are over 200 similar products still out there plus new ones coming out each year. Lately research and development has moved into genetic modification, cloning, and bar code implants. Heaven help us!!!

  We can as individuals help put a stop to this by taking action. The internet in particular is a very good place to communicate your opinions. Phone calls, letters, and our strength in voting still work too, but the quickest method of changing things is by using our purchasing power. What do you suppose would happen if we all decided not to buy those popular synthetic “weed and feed” products this next year?

  We are beginning to see the effects of our recent buying habits as most of the big lawn chemical companies have either released “new” organic products or they are at least working on some. This is direct response to the fact that more and more homeowners are purchasing organic products. The big companies are well aware of this trend and eager to retain their share of the market. Where the money leads, commerce will follow.

  In a nutshell, organic products build soils and enhance life; synthetic products eventually destroy healthy soils and compromise life. We have all heard the terms “farmed out” or “fertilized to death.” Since the introduction of synthetic fertilizers and pest controls (which were a direct result of chemicals used during WWI and WWII) we have seen a steady decline in soil health plus a corresponding rise in human ailments. In short, over the past 60 years, we citizens of the United States have been unwitting subjects of an ongoing experiment at the behest of big oil/big industry. It has taken time, but we are now paying the price for our tampering. The evidence is irrefutable.

 7. Accept Nature as your partner. Traditional landscaping has always been about control. Mankind has until lately been infatuated with the idea that we can make Nature do our bidding. Indeed we have built cities with green lawns out on the desert. We can build greenhouses for exotic plants. We can poison any pest that would compromise our efforts. We can grow acre upon acre of exotic mono-crops with our machinery and chemical technology. Yet all of this comes with a price and that price just keeps getting higher.

  Nature is not all Bambi and butterflies as some would have it. Nature is not always in perfect balance. Nature needs our help to reverse the damage that we have caused. We humans with our ever growing population and consequent consumption of natural resources have become Nature’s worst enemy. Yet Nature will have her way in the long run and we will lose the battle unless we change. There was a time when ancient civilizations lived in harmony with Nature. With our current technologies and better understanding we can once again become good stewards of the Earth. This time we can do it better.

  If the current climatic changes continue, we will have to adjust accordingly. If Nature sends us floods, droughts, earthquakes, or volcanoes there is little we can do but accept it.  Mankind has survived climatic change, catastrophe, and devastating disease in the past. Doubtless we will continue to survive, but the quality of our future lives is directly dependant upon our willingness to work within Nature’s parameters. Sustainability is the watchword of the future. The future begins now. As the wise old farmer once related, “You can only grow what the land will allow.”

MICRO-MANAGING NATIVE PLANTS

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 7:23 pm

  My landscape crew recently installed a truck load of buffalo grass sod at the brand new hotel at Wildcatter Ranch in the Possum Kingdom area. The existing soil was a mix of mostly subsoil that had been highly compacted by construction equipment. I vividly remember the expressions of our general contractor and the local topsoil supplier when I told them that a layer of topsoil would not be necessary. “Buffalograss,” I explained, “Thrives in tight soils where most other grasses can’t grow.” Of course, these guys were used to providing rich soils for Bermuda and other imported lawn grasses.

  My friend Armand Hufault got a similar response when he ripped out the typical suburban lawn of his newly purchased home in Austin. The neighbors really flipped when the gravel truck showed up with 20 tons of limestone gravel which was unceremoniously dumped and spread. Armand mixed this with some local “Dillo Dirt” and proceeded to provide the type of soil conditions that the Hill Country natives preferred. Not only did this work, but Armand’s landscape soon became the showplace of the neighborhood, plus his lawn chores were reduced to pulling a few weeds.

  Most American homeowners have become so used to soil improvement, fertilizing, and providing extra water that they sometimes have trouble adjusting to using local native plant material. We are constantly reminding folks that our local natives have been doing just fine on normal rainfall and whatever soil is found locally. However, that is not to say that one can simply “go native” by purchasing a few plants, tossing them into the ground and proceeding to do nothing. Bear in mind that Armand did change the character of his suburban lawn. His methods were just a bit different. Likewise, my guys placed our buffalo sod on compacted soil, but when we constructed our beds for native shrubs and flowering perennials we used local sandy loam mixed with stone gathered from the ranch. What I’m working up to here is that knowing the preferred habitat is key to successful planting.

 When you consider microclimate and soil type you will start to recognize preferred habitat. For example, the bluebonnets may thrive on the sloped shoulders along our highways but will not be seen in the borrow ditch where water stands after a rain. This clues us in that bluebonnets prefer well drained soil and will likely perish in boggy places. You will immediately extrapolate from this that all plants have a preferred habitat. Therefore the more you study soil type, microclimate, subsoil, even rock strata, the better you will be at matching these conditions in your landscape.

  The misconception about native plants is that they are care free simply because they exist in the wild. The person who steps out the back door and haphazardly throws a package of wildflower seeds envisions a beautiful meadow. If this dreamer is lucky, he or she may be rewarded with a few of the more vigorous species. More often than not, what happens is nothing at all. Sooner or later you must realize that all plants are (or at least were) natives to somewhere. Success or failure in gardening depends largely on our knowledge of the plants we attempt to grow and their particular needs.

  The one thing your local natives all have in common is your climate. Even so, there are places that are sunny, places in the shade, high and dry hilltops, or low places that collect runoff. These are called micro-climates. We can expect survival during extremes of temperature and sporadic rainfall. We can expect resistance to local insects or disease. But we should not expect that woodland fern, that native hibiscus from the marshy area, and that Blackfoot daisy from the rocky hillside to all be happy in the same location in our home landscape. It just doesn’t work that way. Although there are a good number of plants that actually do survive in a wide range of conditions, it is important to note that the tree or shrub found growing on the most exposed and barren sites is often twisted or stunted while the same plant in better soil and location will be more robust.

  I am afraid that those of us in the industry who extol the virtues of native plants tend to overstate our case in an effort to get John Q. Public interested in trying a new approach. Yes natives do require less water and can reduce chemical use or other external inputs to near zero, but they are still plants. To look acceptable they still need assistance from the gardener from time to time. Unfortunately, too many amateurs will go to a seminar, read an article, or take the nursery sales person too seriously and surmise that natives are absolutely bulletproof. Well…………………….almost!!

  Native plants, when used correctly can greatly reduce your maintenance while providing year round color and interest. If your gardening preference is neat and tidy then you can keep your natives just as neat and tidy as any domesticated greenhouse beauty. On the other hand if you prefer a more relaxed style or you want habitat for birds, butterflies, or wildlife in general then you definitely need to know your natives. Again, the trick is to understand the preferred habitat of individual species.

  Like most of you, my landscape beds used to be slightly raised with some type of formal border. I filled these beds with rich compost thinking that this was best for most plants. As long as I was using traditional “well adapted” landscape plants this worked real well. When I started using more natives I noticed that some responded by becoming overgrown to the point of flopping over. Others just got lush and much bigger than I expected. It was then that I considered that some of these natives just weren’t meant for richer soils. What kept them looking good in Nature was apparently linked to their struggle to survive in meager soils and adverse conditions. “Tough love,” if you will, is just what these plants have evolved with and apparently require. As you become familiar with your local natives please notice just how many of the showiest flowering shrubs and perennials grow in some of the worst places. Here they have found their niche where competition from other plants is less due to the meager environment.

  Lately my landscapes are beginning to look more like my friend Armand’s. I am constructing rock and gravel berms. I have begun to plant beds that have no discernable borders when I am not plagued with invasive lawn grasses like Bermuda. In fact, we invited our buffalo grass to come on in the beds to mingle with our native shrubs and flowering perennials at the new Wildcatter Hotel. My beds will have contour as opposed to being flat or level. This gives us high spots for the plants that prefer drainage plus low places to collect runoff for those that need more water. The result of these combinations is more interesting for the viewer plus more natural in appearance. In addition, this type of landscape is SO MUCH MORE FUN to design. Using natural elements combined with local plants gives us a true regional identity which is just what my friends at Wildcatter Ranch want.

  I have learned this from observing Nature and attempting to replicate her handiwork. Now when I see an interesting plant in the wild I look closely at the habitat. Is it found in rocky soil where the grasses are sparse? Is it under a tree? Are there better specimens in sunnier locales or in richer soils? Is this plant found mainly on southern exposures or cooler northern slopes? Microclimate is the key. We can manage this by constructing similar habitat in our home landscape.

  Although native plants really are better suited to our climate and soil, they are still going to perform best if given suitable habitat. In order to get really good at selecting the right plant for the right location you must have an understanding of preferred habitat even if that means providing compacted gravel for soil. To be sure, success with natives is no different than growing healthy roses or being good at vegetable gardening. They are all plants that respond (or not) to the conditions we provide. The more you know the easier it will be to grow.

MARCHING ON

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 6:54 pm

  Although spring does not begin officially until March 20, 2010, for many of us it has already begun. Depending on how far south you live, you may see the first signs of spring in February. No matter where you live in Texas, March is surely high time to get busy. Those who wait are often as not too late.

  For those of us who live up along the Red River, we can usually expect several more freezes. Our average last frost date for Wichita Falls actually is pretty close to the first day (officially) of spring. Of course, being an average, what that really means is that in warmer years we may have our last freeze in late February, but in other years it may decide to freeze as late as the third week of April. In fact, our neighbors up in the Panhandle and the higher elevations of West Texas can (and do) still see frost sometimes as late as May.

  Even so, those of us that live in North Texas should have planted our trees, shrubs, and perennials already. In addition, we should have planted our taters, onions, and all other cool season crops (cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, etc.). We should be doing succession plantings of lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, and other leafy greens. If not, then it may behoove you to get in gear. Time is marching on.

  All veteran Texas gardeners know that all too often spring can be short and sometimes not so sweet. The spring of 2009 was dry, following one of the driest Fall/Winter seasons we’ve seen in many years. Many Texans were praying for drought relief that finally did come in September and October. This year will likely be different and will present different challenges. We can count on that, if nothing else.

  I often remind folks that here in Wichita Falls we have seen record highs in the “hundred and teens” by the third week of May. Even in so called “normal” years we begin the serious “nineties” by the first of June. So if you have just moved to Texas from Vermont, take heed. Don’t wait until May to start vegetable gardening like you would back home. You just “May” be in for a huge disappointment. Start now and be prepared to cover tender plants if need be. Time marches on.

  After experiencing a few of our typical Texas Summers even newcomers will concede that it is the summer, as opposed to winter, that is the real killer of new plantings. Fortunately we are blessed with a good number of colorful native plants that come on strong during the dead heat. In the vegetable garden there is always okra, hot peppers, and a few others that will continue to produce through the hot months. Still, our sales at the nursery will peak during April and May. I have always faulted the advertising of the big mass merchandisers who want to cash in on the spring rush. They see gardening as a seasonal promotion, but if you ask any professional or lifetime Texas gardener, they will all say quite the opposite. The best time to plant most things is actually the fall and winter months (September through March). This will give that new plant some time to get established before the killer dry heat of summer plus the plant will receive the full benefit of what spring rains do fall.

  In reality Texas has two growing seasons (Spring and Fall) and two dormant seasons (Summer and Winter) but also, there is no season when everything is truly shut down so we cannot do some gardening. I know that last sentence seems contradictory but in truth it bears out. For instance and again using my hometown as an example, in 2006 and 2008 we experienced our highest rainfall (and subsequent flooding) in July and August, respectively. Normally those two months are hot and dry for us. So you can see that in Texas, any time you plant, you are literally rolling the dice. Another of my famous sayings (locally known as “Dowlearnisms”) is that “One must have a sense of humor to garden in Texas.”  We do expect some rain and cooler weather in spring and fall plus a long hot summer with some serious cold fronts in winter but there are no guarantees. Atypical weather is typical in Texas. Expect it……….      

  Seasoned gardeners and landscape enthusiasts will get out on those nice warm winter days and do some planting or prep work. During the summer we venture out in the early morning or cool of the evening. However, if you happen to wake up some nice June (or January) morning and just feel like planting a rose or something, I say go for it. Just bear in mind you may have to give it TLC through the rest of summer.  We are truly blessed that here the South we can plant in all seasons with a reasonable expectation of success. Rather January than June on the rose bush to stack better odds in your favor though. Time marches on.

  So I do hope you have your woody plants, perennials, and cool season veggies in the ground. I hope you will spend this spring enjoying the blossoms and harvesting fresh green onions instead of rushing frantically to get in line at the local Megamart. I hope you will disregard the carefully worded ads that affirm this sense of urgency. I hope instead you will visit your local family owned nurseries. If you don’t have one in the area then maybe it is time to seek out the closest available and make the drive. You will find the expert advice given plus the appreciation of your patronage to be worth the extra effort. “You can bet those folks didn’t drive a hundred miles to visit our Megamart……They already have one close to where they live.” (another Dowlearnism)

  On the other hand, I am always saddened by the knowledge that some people who live in my local neighborhood drive right by our place of business on their way to the Megamart. They actually believe the ads in the mass media. They think they are saving money. To be sure, there are some true bargains at the big lumber yards and Super Stores, but in the garden center you’d best know what to buy and what to ignore. Just for funsies you might try asking the sales person to go even lower on that “twenty percent off sales price,” or better still, see if you can persuade that person to drop by your house and advise you on your landscape. That’s likely not going to happen.

  Don’t wait for the TV ads to wake you up and get you off the couch. Winter may not be officially over but after all this is Texas………..and it is March…..and time March(es) on.

June 23, 2010

Spring

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 8:47 pm

   Something happens in spring. It begins with a few warm days, the first thunderstorms, and the appearance of the first early spring bulbs and wildflowers. Then the flowering trees bloom, birds migrate, fish start biting, and all manner of creatures begin to pair off to mate. One day you’ll step out into the warm sun, catch a whiff of fresh air after a rain; heavy with the scent of blossoms, and it will hit you. Suddenly you realize that life is good. People smile at you; you smile back or exchange a pleasant greeting. You experience a glimmer of hope that somehow everything is going to work out. The world is a better place just because you are alive and well.

  You will be compelled to visit your local nursery even if you aren’t much on gardening. You will buy seeds, flowers, a tree, ……………anything………..everything!! You must commune with Nature. You must share in this renewal of life by expanding your small piece of the universe. You will attempt to grow something. Maybe start a new garden. You can’t help yourself. We all do it. It is a human condition; a perfectly normal reaction to Mother Nature’s miracle. ……..Spring!

  The day you decide to show up at the nursery will naturally be the very same day that everyone else does. You may get the mistaken impression that nursery owners must be fabulously wealthy and particularly endowed with the ability to multi-task. You finally find a wagon and proceed to buy all sorts of plants (mostly because they look pretty today; not because you intended to), a bench, some yard art (you couldn’t resist that either), some soil amendments or fertilizers (both) then wait patiently to check out. At the check out counter you become convinced that nursery owners are making a killing because you have to resort to pulling a credit card since you already know that your checking account won’t cover the bill.

  After several hours of power shopping and high blood pressure traffic you arrive back home only to find that someone forgot to load your jug of aerated compost tea (that has to be used today to be effective), plus you forgot just how big the nursery guy said the “butterfly bush” was going to get. Oh well…………At least you scored on a lot of really neat stuff!! Now the problem becomes………Where are you going to put it all?………Right??

  This all too familiar scenario can be avoided or at least downsized somewhat if you have a plan and the fortitude to realize you are in the grip of spring impulse buying. It is really helpful if you have an idea of what your ultimate goals are before you turn the key on your automobile. Consider the size of the area you have to work with. Make a crude sketch with measurements. Think about exposure to sun or shade, drainage, soil conditions, plus relationships to other objects like doorways, windows, roof overhang, sidewalks, and so forth. I think we all have committed the sin of putting that nice tidy little spring transplant into an area where it fits nicely only to discover the thing wants to be 16 feet tall and equally as wide.

  Do some research on plants that you intend to buy. Don’t expect that nice young person down at the nursery to know everything. Remember that there really is no such thing as an expert; just older, more experienced gardeners. The new help at the nursery always have good intentions. They really do want to impress you (and the boss) with their knowledge and ability. There are plenty of exceptionally bright young people, however most of the time we hire them to help with loading and not to hand out advice. If you want to talk to the owner(s) in spring you will have to be willing to wait or pick a bad weather day.

  Speaking of which, it is a dead cinch that the nursery will be crowded on a nice spring day. Nursery owners generally aren’t gazillionaires simply because spring only happens once a year. Most nursery owners lament the fact that the better part of their income will happen during the spring. There are many days when it’s just too cold, too hot, too wet, too windy, and we find ourselves sitting alone hoping that the phone will ring or that someone will decide to drop by to shoot the breeze. Of course this doesn’t really have to be this way either. It’s not like we don’t take every opportunity to educate the general public. Gardening truly is a year round business.

 The following is some general information regarding the seasons and optimum planting times in North Texas.

    Winter- Plant trees, shrubs, bulbs, and perennial flowers.

     Late winter, Early Spring- Plant cool season vegetables. Continue planting trees, shrubs, and perennials.

     Spring- Plant warm season vegetables and annual flowers.

     Late spring, Early Summer- Plant warm season grasses and heat loving annuals.

     Summer- Continue planting warm season grasses. Begin second round of warm season vegetables for fall harvest.

     Early Fall- Plant cool season vegetables, wildflowers, cool season grasses, cool season annuals, perennials, trees, and shrubs.

     Fall- Continue planting cool season vegetables and annuals. Plant trees, shrubs, and flowering perennials.

  You’ll notice right off that the fall season has more items listed than does the spring season. Fall is in fact the best time to plant most longer living plants as research has shown that maximum root growth occurs during Fall, Winter, and into early Spring. After bud break in spring, plants expend most of their energy making leaves, flowers, fruit, and seed. Everyone in the nursery and landscape business wishes that more Texans would realize this. In reality, any landscape professional will quickly relate the fact that we do install landscapes in every month of the year. We generally see our highest losses during summer as opposed to winter. So there really isn’t the urgency that most people perceive.

………It’ just a spring thing…….that should be a fall thing. Sadly, our numbers continue to reflect that our most lucrative month is May instead of October.

  One of the main reasons for this is that the big box stores who have the benefit of huge advertising budgets will launch a big campaign in April and May. This reinforces our natural spring urge and has no doubt been studied extensively by the advertising and marketing people who work for those companies. By the time our fall season rolls around these same Megamarts are done with landscaping and are now reminding us of the approaching holidays. While this strategy may work well for them it really doesn’t do us Texas gardeners much good. In response to this I tell folks that when the spring ads begin running hot and heavy, those of us who live in the south should already be done with most of our planting.

  One of my mentors in the business once told me that; “Anyone can sell plants in the spring.” Very true. I know that you will have to satisfy the rites of spring (as will I). There are plenty of things that are best planted after Jack Frost has gone away. A little impulse buying is also good for the soul. We nursery owners are primed and ready. We so look forward to seeing all our gardening friends. We also are looking forward to making new friends and especially helping newcomers get acquainted with gardening successfully in our great state. But do try and temper your urges with common sense. It just isn’t necessary for everyone to plant everything on the 15th of April. Don’t forget that we’d also like to see you in summer, and certainly in the fall. And we especially appreciate those who stop by on those cold winter days………even if it’s just to talk. Nursery owners get lonesome too, Y’know??

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