Simple Steps for Landscape Success
By Donna Hagar, Somervell County Master Gardener
We all strive for a perfect or at least satisfactory landscape. With the issues we all get to deal with, drought, excessive rain followed by more drought, goofy freezes, etc., being able to keep a decent landscape that makes us happy can seem daunting at times, if not a futile effort. But it need not be so overwhelming.
Whether you have an existing landscape that just needs a little help, are starting from scratch in a new area, or want to completely wipe the slate clean and start over, remembering a few simple steps can make the task at hand far more manageable.
Step 1 – Proper Planning and Design
Consider these four questions before you begin. how? who? when? how much?
How will the space be used? For active family activities, attracting butterflies/wildlife,etc Who will be using the space? Kids, pets, visitors?
When will the space be used? Seasonally, daily?
How much time do you want to spend on maintenance?
Answering these questions first will give you the direction for the proper landscape for you.
Step 2 – Soil
Begin with a soil test. This will tell you what you are starting with, what types of amendments you may need and what types of plants are best suited for you.
Step 3 – Turf or lawn area
Before settling on a specific turfgrass, consider the type of traffic (kids, pets, etc.), light exposure and water needs. Be reasonable about how much turf you really need. If the only time you walk on it is when you mow it, maybe you don’t need it!
Step 4 – Plant Selection
When choosing plant material, consider what the plant will be at its full size. Don’t plant a shrub that will get 5 feet tall, where you only have space for half that. Excessive pruning increases maintenance and reduced plant vigor. Just as with turfgrass, consider light and water requirements as well as pest and disease resistance. It may be that you will determine that using mostly native and adaptive plants will work best for you.
Step 5 – Water availability
No matter your landscape plan, make sure you have enough water to handle the plants. Even native and adapted plants will need water to get established. If city or well water isn’t available, maybe you have an opportunity for a rainwater collection system. Be sure to group plantings by their water needs, too.
Step 6 – MULCH
The importance of mulch cannot be stressed enough. Mulches save on water needs, keep soil temperatures regulated, reduce weeds and add valuable nutrients back to the soil as it decomposes. Keep mulches at least 3-4 inches thick and replenish as needed, generally twice a year – fall and spring.
Step 7 – Maintenance Practices
Keep weeds down so they don’t rob moisture and nutrients from your landscape plants. Inspect irrigation system for leaks. Mow turfgrass to recommended heights and do not bag it.
Source: Go Texan Guide to Landscape Success
Guinea Update: I picked up 8 guinea keets on April 27! Tinier than chicks (see – I got 2 more chicks, too!) but seriously speedy little buggers! The keets are now 2 weeks old and will move to the brooder in the outdoor coop soon. I’m ready for them to grow up. We lost one of our older chicks to a rat snake last weekend. 🙁 I need those guineas to do their job!
Got Ticks? Get Guineas!
by Donna Hagar, Somervell County Master Gardener
Guineas Fowl that is! Yes, guinea fowl, though a bit odd looking and with a reputation of being a bit noisy, can nearly eliminate ticks from your property. With Wally Worms’ latest dissertation on ticks and the fear of Lyme disease, I thought this would be a good time to bring guineas into the realm of a possible solution.
Guineas are busy birds, continuously on the move eating not only ticks, but mosquitoes, beetles and weed seeds. And snakes! Guineas HATE snakes and will kill any they find. They may not consume them, though, so you may stumble upon some dead ones the guineas have left for you to find. Guineas are also known as the farmers watch dogs. They have a propensity to sound a rather shrill alarm any time anything unusual comes their way. This could include coyotes, hawks, or even the occasional UPS man!
I personally have wanted guineas for many years. After learning that guineas are great at keeping snakes away, that is all it took to set my sights on learning more about these birds. One of the first books I bought when we moved to our place in the country is called “Gardening with Guineas”. This book regales the wonderful virtues of raising guineas. The author, Jeanette Ferguson, began raising guineas out of a gardening necessity. She was trying to raise Flower Show quality roses but was tormented by beetles and grasshoppers. Her 14 acre farm was also infested with a large tick population. She had chickens but decided to give guineas a try to help with the pest population. And it worked! She has since won many awards for her prize flowers and is virtually tick free!
Not being entirely comfortable with some of the nuances of raising poultry of any kind, I had to spend quite a bit of time researching and planning. I decided I wanted to raise chickens and guineas together. So, I just recently completed a fairly elaborate chicken coop and now have my first chicks. I have 5 guineas on order and I will get them as day old “keets” in mid May.
We have not had a big tick problem at our place, but have had our share of other pests in our vegetable gardens. Guineas are far less destructive in the garden than chickens, as they do not scratch. So I have great hopes that these interesting looking birds will find their new home suitable and will settle in easily. This will be a new experience for me to be sure and I will keep you posted as I progress in this new adventure.
It’s All a Matter of Perspective
By Shirley D. Smith, Somervell County Master Gardener
After the past few days of February it seems as if winter may indeed be on the wane. Here in our part of Texas our winters have always been fairly mild, but this last one seemed to be more so. I look out my window and see that my buffalo grass yard is turning a lovely shade of green. Yea! But, wait! As I look closer it is not the grass that is turning green it is weeds! Where did they all come from? They were not there two weeks ago! Because I did not put out pre-emergent back in the early Fall, I am now blessed with a profusion of every weed imaginable. But, wait, what is that lovely little purple flower I see out there? O my, it is henbit. That’s a weed? Well, if it is it certainly is a pretty one. And, look, there is another. It has tiny white flowers in a bunch growing from small bumpy leaves. That is bi-colored mustard. Don’t see any mustard color on it, but is beautiful. Beneath our feet lie many of these tiny flowers. We don’t see them because we are not looking for them, but they are there.
Start looking down and if you begin to count the different types of tiny flowers you will be utterly amazed at how many different varieties you see. So, is it a weed or is it a flower???? My definition of a weed is this: it is a plant (any kind) that is growing where it is not supposed to grow. Using that logic, even a rose could be called a weed. So, before you slap the name “weed” to a particular plant, look at it closely to find the beauty that lies within its leaf shape and flowers. For years now, I have been associated with a group of four folks that weekly go out and identify plants. It did not take long before my view of what is or is not a weed began to change. What I once saw as a pesky weed to be yanked out of the ground and tossed into the compost pile has now caused me to pause and consider its beauty. Even a field of the lowly dandelion when viewed from a distance is striking. To weed or not to weed, that is the question!
How to Grow Big Onions in Glen Rose
By Bob Lancaster, Somervell County Master Gardener
For those of you that missed the Somervell County Master Gardener’s Community Horticultural Educational Series last month on growing onions I thought I would discuss that topic in this article. There are several important criteria to follow to grow large onions and this article will hopefully help you master this gardening challenge.
First and foremost your garden should be located in an area that receives full sunlight for most of the day. The soil should be easily worked and weed free. If you have a heavy clay soil you might need to add some organic compost to make it more workable.
Another important criterion for growing large onions is selecting the right type of onion. Onions are classified into three categories, short day, intermediate day and long day varieties. This day length refers to the amount of daylight that is required to initiate the bulbing process in the onion. As you might imagine long day onions are developed for the northern area of the country, intermediate day onions for the middle section and the short day onions work better in the south. If a long day onion was planted in this area they would never receive enough of the long day hours (14 to 16 hours) to provide the stimulation and energy to bulb a large onion. They would have great vegetation on top but little growth on the bulb. So when you buy your onion transplants make sure they are the “short day” variety. In the past I have seen the other types sold in this area and they just won’t work if you want large onions from your garden.
After you have selected your onions you now need to determine the correct time to plant your transplants. This timing should be centered on the average date for the last killing frost in your area. For the Glen Rose area the average date for the last or spring killing frost is around March 15th to 17th. This is not an absolute date for the data varies depending upon the source and freeze dates vary from season to season. You must use your own judgment in deciding exactly when to plant your transplants. Your onion transplants should be planted 4 to 6 weeks prior to this last killing frost date to ensure adequate time for leaf growth before the bulbing process starts. For this area you would plant your onions from February 3rd to February 17th for optimum growth.
As we all know Texas spring weather is unpredictable. If we do have a severe cold snap after your planting it has been my experience that onions in the ground will survive down to 18 degrees F. for short periods.
For the best growth and yield, onions need fertilizer right from the start. Use a fertilizer with the middle number higher than the other two, such as 10-20-10. Dig a trench 4 inches deep and 4 inches wide. Sprinkle ½ cup fertilizer per 10 linear feet of row and then cover the fertilizer with 2 inches of soil.
Now plant the onions on both sides of the trench about 6 inches away from the fertilizer trench. Do not plant the onions in the trench. Plant the onions no deeper than 1 inch deep. If you want the onions to grow to maturity, space them about 4 inches apart. I enjoy harvesting green onions during the growing season so I plant mine about 2 inches apart and harvest every other one leaving the remaining ones to grow to maturity.
During the growing season it is important to keep the weeds removed and to provide adequate moisture to ensure you have a bountiful harvest. The onions should be watered thoroughly after planting and regularly thereafter. Onions have shallow roots, so don’t let the soil at the base of the plants become dry and cracked. Over watering can be a problem too causing the leaves to have a yellow tinge. As the onions mature they have a greater need for water to grow the larger bulbs. However when the tops of the onions start falling over, stop watering and let the soils dry out before harvesting.
As the onions grow their nutritional needs change. Every two to three weeks after planting, fertilize with ammonium sulfate (21-0-0) in alkaline soils, or calcium nitrate (15.5-0-0) in acidic soils. Sprinkle it on top of the original fertilizer strip at the rate of ½ cup per 10 feet of row. Lightly work the fertilizer into the soil and water the plants after each application. Once the onions start bulbing (ground cracking around the plant) discontinue the fertilizer.
When the tops of the onions turn brown or yellow and fall over, it is time to harvest. Pull or dig the onions early in the morning on a sunny day. Place them in a dry sunny area for about two days. I lay my onions on a hardware cloth screen ensuring good air circulation.
How long your onions will keep depends upon how you treat them after harvest. They should be dried properly to prevent rot. After two or three days of drying the entire neck of the onion should be dry and you can now clip the roots and cut back the tops to one inch. Leaving the one inch of top will help prevent organisms that cause rot to enter the onion during storage. At this time I also remove the majority of the dirt from the onions by rubbing each one with my hands. The onions are now ready for the kitchen.
I store my onions in stackable plastic vegetable containers that provide lots of ventilation. I place the onions so they do not touch each other and place the containers in a shady area of my garage. You can also leave the tops on and hang them in the air or you can place each onion in a nylon stocking and tie a knot after each onion to provide separation. These bundles of onions can be hung in the barn or garage for storage. Periodically check for any soft onions and remove them to avoid contaminating the others.
As you can see growing big onions is not complicated, if the weather behaves and you follow a few important guidelines. I encourage you to try growing your own big onions this year and see how you do. It can be fun and the onions you grow may last you until the fall.
Sources: Dr. Sam Cotner’s “Vegatable Book” and the website of Dixondale Farms, www.dixondalefarms.com
Start Tomato Seeds Soon
by Donna Hagar, Somervell County Master Gardener
Tomatoes. Nothing is better fresh from the garden! And of course, once you have eaten homegrown tomatoes, you’ll never want grocery store tomatoes again! There are many varieties of tomatoes that will do well in our part of Texas. Many people prefer to buy their tomato starts from local nurseries or home garden centers. But for those gardeners who want to try specialty tomatoes or want a favorite heirloom variety, planting from seeds may be the only option. Following a few simple steps will ensure you can have more tomato plants so you can even share some seedlings with friends.
The best time to start tomatoes from seed is generally 6 weeks before last frost—March 15th for Somervell County. That would make around February 1st the appropriate start date. This gardener prefers an extra couple of weeks start, just to make sure the tomato transplants have a good strong start.
For the most variety selection, seed catalogs are your best resource. Most of the sources have online websites for ordering as well. See Wally’s article for some favorites!
To start your seeds, use 2 inch plastic pots and your favorite seed starting mix. Purchased, sterile, seed starting mix is best. Do not use native garden soil to avoid potential soil borne diseases from compromising your starts. Moisten the soil to the point of a wet but not dripping sponge.
Place 2 seeds per pot but BE PREPARED to snip the weaker of the two if both happen to germinate. Yes, this can be very traumatic – killing the very thing you are trying to grow. But survival of the fittest is your best bet for ensuring a strong tomato plant. If you just can’t bear to part with your “babies”, you can carefully remove one seedling and transplant it to another pot and attempt to double your seedling production.
Place the pots in a 70 degree room under artificial light for 14 hours per day. Keep the light source (fluorescent grow lights work best) just a few inches above the seedlings as possible and raise the light as the seedlings grow. To promote shorter, stockier growth, subject the seedlings to a gentle breeze regularly. Or simply give them a gentle petting every day.
When the seedlings are 6” tall, transplant them to larger pots. 4-6” should do. Plant the transplants outside, one to two weeks after last average frost day, or by the end of March for us. Be sure to harden them off by letting the plants spend a few hours a day outside a week prior to transplanting. You may still need to protect them from those pesky late freezes that regularly plague our area. This protection can be accomplished by placing old nursery pots or cardboard boxes over the tomatoes when temperatures threaten below freezing.
Resource-Willhite Seed News