Horticultural News – When the Garden is Under Attack

This growing season promises to be filled with adventure…and not necessarily of a good kind. On the Gulf Coast, we had a cold winter, at least by our standards, and plants that usually cruise through the winter suffered freeze damage that weakened them, making them more susceptible to insects and disease. Now we are enjoying a warm and very wet spring, creating conditions for lush growth of plants and insects alike. West Texas didn’t have much of a winter at all, and that will lead to legions of insects that overwintered and are ready to get a jump start on eating cherished plants. Wherever you garden in our region, sometimes there will be a virtual plague of, say, white flies or aphids attacking everything in the garden. Is it time to pull out the poison sprays?  Please don’t.

Here is my position on all commercial chemicals in the garden: I don’t like them, and I don’t like to use them. I worry about long-term effects on the soil, about probable runoff getting into the water of our rivers, lakes and oceans, and about the damage to the fauna in my garden. When you spray with poisons, you can end up killing beneficial beetles that live under the bushes, bees that are buzzing around, caterpillars – who knows what all. I know this from firsthand experience: several years ago we had a serious flea infestation thanks to an opossum that had taken up residence under our deck, and we hired a pest control company to treat for fleas. It did rid the yard of fleas, but wound up killing most of our native anole lizards. It was awful; the poor little things lay in the poisoned grass gasping until they succumbed. If the poison was strong enough to kill lizards, it certainly killed plenty of beneficial insects, too. Our ecosystem needs our lizards, and we need insects, for pollinating flowers, aerating the soil, and feeding the birds and other creatures that share our gardens with us.

Plants, especially native plants, have natural defenses to pests and disease, and if you keep your plants healthy, there will be less need to resort to poisonous treatments. If you work on improving the soil in the garden, chances are good that you won’t need to call in the heavy artillery. By working in compost and sand you can condition the soil, improving its texture and drainage, lessen compaction, and promote beneficial microorganisms and earthworms.

All that being said, there are times when it seems like Mother Nature just has it in for us, and an army of insect marauders comes in wave after wave, eating plants and otherwise causing devastation in the garden. When an insect infestation hits, try to get rid of it by using the least damaging approach first. Heavy sprays of water from a hose end nozzle can knock bugs off the plant, and frequent repetition of this tactic can interrupt the life cycle of the insect and end the problem. Next step up would be spraying with insecticidal soap, and if this is repeated once a week, the insects will usually be subdued. Nurseries and hardware stores sell soap sprays, but they are simple to make with this recipe:

HORTICULTURAL OIL SPRAY: 1 Tablespoon vegetable oil, I teaspoon liquid soap, and 2 cups water in a spray bottle. Shake well and spray directly onto the troubled plant. (Use ordinary dish detergent or hand soap, but get the kind without antibacterial agents or hand softeners.) The most poisonous ingredient in this concoction is plain soap, so you can feel very safe using it around your pets and plants.

Spray the tops and undersides of leaves, and try to avoid getting drips on you. It isn’t poison but soap in the eye is never pleasant. To reduce leaf burn, spray in the late afternoon or when the plant is in the shade. Remember that excessive spraying, even with something as benign as soap, can harm beneficial garden creatures like earthworms and bees.

If soap spray didn’t do the job in a couple of applications, and there is still damage being done, try organic remedies, such as citrus oil. Orange oil can be purchased or you can make your own.

Citrus Oil Spray: Chop the peel of one orange (or two lemons) and boil it up with 4 cups of water. Let it steep overnight, then strain out the peels. Use the resulting liquid in a spray bottle to attack pests on your plants. Don’t get it in your eyes because it stings like fury, and since some plants may be sensitive to the citrus oil, test a leaf first. If there is no evidence of damage after a couple of hours, go ahead and treat the plant. It smells great, and is safe enough to drink. You can also add a teaspoon of soap to the bottle to help the oil stick to soft-bodied insects, but then drinking would not be advised. Again, protect your eyes because citrus oil will cause you pain, nothing permanent but very uncomfortable.

This spray proved to be effective when we were hit by a plague of spider mites one summer. Any time the garden suffers from dry conditions, red spider seems to appear. Actually, they are always around, but the effect of their dirty work is more apparent when plants are already stressed. Before I became a rabid convert to native plants, we had an angel trumpet tree in the back garden for about ten years, and that summer it had spider mites so bad that the leaves were limp and grayish. I tried the old wash-‘em- off with water trick, and the only improvement was that I had a CLEAN sickly tree. I moved up to a commercial soap spray and drenched that tree using a hose-end sprayer. In the process of insuring that every square inch of that tree was treated, I thoroughly doused myself – being meticulous about treating the undersides of the leaves left me no alternative but to get up under the tree branches and spray upward. Still, the spider mites persisted, and that’s when I went online and found the citrus spray recipe on a website called www.yougrowgirl.com. There I found several recipes for “insecticides safe enough to eat (if you must)”. It was not my intention to make a snack of it, but considering my experience with the soap spray and the soaking that I got, I knew I would probably wind up wearing it, so sticking with safe products was a good bet. The good news is that the citrus spray knocked the spider mites way back, and an inch of rain soon after the citrus treatment made the cure complete.

As much as it pains me to say it, at times these gentle approaches will not be sufficient to solve the problem of a pest infestation, and the only answer seems to be chemical warfare. If you have a particularly prized specimen in your garden that you absolutely cannot live without, then, of course, you are going to do what you have to do to save it from an insect attack. In that case, please look for an organic pesticide that promises to do as little harm as possible to the environment. I won’t recommend any brands here because I simply don’t use them, but if you do use them, be sparing in the application. You may have noticed that the recipes provided above are in small batches for application in a hand sprayer, not for treating wide swathes of the garden all at once. The best approach, in my opinion, is to treat specific problem areas rather than bombing the whole garden. This will limit the amount of harm done to susceptible fauna. As gardeners, we owe it to future generations to preserve this planet the best way we know how, and limiting the amount of chemicals we spread around is surely a step in the right direction.

Horticultural News – Late Winter Gardening Tips for Oklahoma

Pat Neasbitt
Master Gardener


Late winter gardening tips for Oklahoma

Will Rogers said, “If you don’t like the weather in Oklahoma, wait a minute”. Nothing could be truer these past few weeks for sure!

One of the most rewarding things to do now to get ready for the spring garden season is to plan. Think about what worked in last year’s garden, and more importantly, what didn’t work. Spring means a chance to start over, so dream big and plan big. Walk around inside where it’s warm and cozy and look out your windows. Do you need to remove a shrub that is overgrown and blocking a nice view or limb it up so you can see under it? Do you need to plant something to block a not-so-nice view such as your neighbor’s storage building? Try an Oklahoma Native or Oklahoma Proven plant for long lasting beauty.

Keep food and unfrozen water out for the birds. The best all around foods for birds are black oil sunflower seeds and suet feeders.

Prune spring-flowering shrubs such as forsythia immediately after blooming. You are going for a natural, arching shape, not a geometric or lollipop-shaped object that belongs in Disney World or The Wizard of Oz. The way to maintain the natural beauty is to remove one-third of the older, larger branches down to ground level each year. This will keep the natural, beautiful shape of the shrub with lots of flowers each spring.

Spring planting times are pretty forgiving in southern Oklahoma. You can plant onion plants as soon as the weather permits, the ground is workable, and the plants are available. Seeds of cool season crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, swiss chard, lettuce, beets, and turnips can be started inside or in a greenhouse eight weeks before the last frost date. Warm season crops such as peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes can be started six weeks before the last frost date.

The last average frost date for southern Oklahoma is April 15th. Of course, that’s an average of all the last frost dates the past 100 years, and sometimes it comes in February, and sometimes it comes in April. The best thing to do is watch the weather. Go ahead and take a chance and plant things a little early. You can always cover things if a late frost is predicted. Even if you lose a planting to a late freeze, you still have time to replant. Unfortunately, the seasons here often go from winter straight to summer with very little spring. If we do have spring, it may be so wet we can’t work the soil, or so windy the blossoms dry up and blow off. That kind of puts a damper on those big plans and dreams, but gardeners are optimistic. It has been said that gardeners stay young because they always have something to look forward to and have faith in the new gardening season. Gardening is also good exercise. It gets you outside in the fresh air and sun; and working in your yard is good, free therapy. There’s nothing better than pulling weeds to relieve stress.

Thou Shalt NOT Commit Crepe Murder! It’s happening all over the south right now – landscape companies are sending out people with chainsaws to neighborhoods and commercial locations to have people actually pay them to mutilate and destroy their beautiful Crepe Myrtle trees. Never EVER whack off a Crepe Myrtle tree. You wouldn’t do that to any of your other trees in the landscape. Research has proven that drastic pruning of Crepe Myrtles does NOT make them bloom more. Crepe Myrtles bloom way more if they aren’t pruned at all than if they are butchered, hatracked, or otherwise mutilated. The only training Crepe Myrtles need is to remove the 4 D’s: dead, diseased, damaged, and dinky branches. Remove branches growing inward to let air circulate through the center of the tree; and remove branches that touch in order to prevent wounds that allow insect and disease damage. Keep the sprouts pinched off at ground level, and remove seedheads after blooming if you can safely reach them to promote quicker reblooming. That’s all you need to do in order to have one of the south’s most beautiful trees. The number one thing you need to remember when purchasing a Crepe Myrtle is to get the right size plant for the right location. There are sizes available to fit any landscaping need.

It’s a perfect time to top off your beds with compost. Compost will do more to improve your landscape and to lessen your work than any other thing you can do in your garden. It will feed the soil and the plants, improve your soil tilth – no matter what you have, keep the soil temperature cooler in summer and warmer in winter, keep most weeds from sprouting, keep moisture from evaporating when the hot temperatures and drying winds come so you will need to water less, and make everything look neat and tidy. It’s called ‘Gardeners’ Gold for a reason.

Spring is a good time to plant new shrubs and trees. You can order them online as bare root plants or buy container grown. Many area nurseries, feed stores, and home improvement stores will be getting shipments in soon. Try to get them before they sit in a parking lot for weeks drying out from wind and lack of water. It is hard for a six-foot tree in a two-gallon container to take up enough water to keep the leaves healthy even if it is watered several times a day, which it usually isn’t.

Plant things for winter interest and for the birds. If you’ve looked out your windows lately, and your yard looked bland and boring, this is a good time to make it more interesting. There are many plants that grow well in our area, provide food and shelter for over-wintering birds, and bring beauty to winter landscapes. Things you want to look for in plants to provide winter interest are colorful berries, attractive or unusual bark, evergreen foliage, or an interesting branching pattern. One of the best plants for winter is Holly. Holly has year-round beauty, is evergreen in the winter, has beautiful red berries, and provides food and shelter for the birds. Ornamental grasses provide beauty and movement to the winter landscape. Many have plumes that last all winter and provide seeds for the birds. Cut down in late February to keep new growth coming each spring. Deciduous hollies such as Winterberry lose their leaves in winter but are covered with brilliant red berries for beauty and the birds. Red chokeberry shrubs are loaded with red berries in winter, and are good for wildlife. The 2010 Oklahoma Proven Shrub is a red chokeberry called “Brilliantissima”. River Birch trees, Lacebark Elms, and Crepe Myrtles have beautiful, exfoliating bark that provides winter interest. Burning Bush shrubs turn electric red in the fall and have a branch structure that is interesting as well as thick enough to provide shelter for birds. Nandinas turn beautiful colors in the fall and have red berries for the birds, also. Happy Gardening! Pat


Horticultural News – Learning to Garden and Grow Old in South Central Texas

Learning to Garden and Grow Old in South Central Texas

by Sandra Hall, Hondo Garden Club


I grew up and spent most of my adult life in the midwest (Indiana and Ohio) where seasons and climate were very different. The gardens of my childhood and early adult life were large and mainly geared toward raising fresh produce for summer consumption and for canned and frozen vegetables for the rest of the year. The most important flowers in the yard were early spring bulbs, for they were the harbingers of spring.


When I retired from teaching at age fifty-eight, I expanded my interest in gardening because I had more time. It took a long time to stop feeling guilty about being outside in the early spring at ten o’clock in the morning enjoying the fresh air. I honed my planting skills so that I knew when to plant to avoid a killing frost but have the earliest possible harvest.

Then, at age sixty-two, my daughter’s family invited me to move closer to them in Hondo, Texas. Since I had no family left in Ohio, I took advantage of the empty lot next door to them and built a house. I got to plan my gardening space from scratch. The land had been used for growing cotton, and the soil was in pretty poor condition.

I decided to put in four 4’ x 8’ raised beds using old railroad ties filling them with good compost. The beds were finished in early June, so I promptly filled them with everything from lettuce to tomatoes using my Ohio knowledge. That was my first lesson in dealing with summer heat. Disaster!! Over the years, I have come to realize that here in Hondo you treat June, July, and August like midwesterners treat December, January, and February ……. stay inside and climatize your own space.

I have learned that when summer heat begins to abate, that is the beginning of the most delightful time in the garden. I love fall and winter gardening. That is the time for the most amazing salad greens and soup ingredients. The herbs that grow perennially are always available. In September-October, I begin thinking about lettuce, spinach, beets, kale, swiss chard, cabbage and Brussels sprouts. Once these get started there is something fresh for supper every night. If the weather cooperates with only very light freezes, these things carry through to spring. If not, I start again in January and February replanting those plus onions and pea pods. Later in March come the tomatoes and cucumbers. Only the peppers and okra like to wait for the warm.

My yard and garden are a certified wildlife habitat. I welcome all native critters. I grow enough for all of us. However, being in town, I don’t have to deal with the deer, armadillos, and others that some of you have to contend with that take more than their share. I do go after the fire ants, for they are invaders. I am an organic gardener. It is interesting to watch the “good guys” go after the “bad guys”.

Over the years the railroad ties decayed enough that they needed to be replaced. I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis over thirty years ago when I was forty-nine, and my body is showing more decrepitude as each year passes. It is harder and harder to get close to the ground. Over the past five years, I have redesigned my raised beds to varying heights (9”, 12”, 15”, 20”, 24”) so that I can sit on a low stool and deal with plants of varying heights. In each bed of vegetable plants I also intersperse different annual flower plants to attract different pollinators and bad bug predators. I am always in the company of bees, wasps and lizards. They know I am the one that fills the birdbath with water, so we are friends.

My constant companion in the garden is my service dog, Margie. She likes my company and is always there to pull me up off of the stool. I plan to be gardening well into the next decade.