Some plant books cover landscape plants; others cover vegetables or herbs. Some discuss grasses, and others concentrate on natives or introduced plants. This book covers 'em all. This is a Texas plant encyclopedia. It's not for the professional horticulturist as much as for the landscape contractor, nurseryman, and homeowner. If you wonder about a plant in Texas—whether a shrub, vine, flower, grass, tree, weed, or cover crop—it's probably in this book. There are more plants in more categories explained in Plants for Texas than in any other book written for the state. I hope you like it and find it helpful. I'm sure you will!
I think you'll find the arrangement of this book to be the best—the easiest to use and the most enjoyable to read. No punches are pulled. Some gardening authors give wimpy, noncommittal advice, leaving the main decisions up to you. Not here. You need my help and my cold, hard facts about what plants to use and what plants to avoid here in Texas.
From the East Texas piney woods to the deserts of West Texas, to the hill country of Central Texas to the tropical Rio Grande and of course through my home area of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Plants for Texas is the first book and probably the last to address native and introduced plants—selection, planting instruction, and organic maintenance for the entire great state of Texas.
To have beautiful gardens in Texas that are easy to maintain, there are six essential rules:
- Stop using artificial fertilizers and pesticides.
- Increase the air in the soil.
- Increase the organic matter in the soil.
- Increase the rock minerals in the soil.
- Mulch the bare ground.
- Increase the biodiversity of plants, animals, insects, and soil life.
- Select adapted plants.
Selecting adapted plants is the most important point and what this book is about. When poorly adapted plants are used, none of the other points matter. This book is designed to help you make good selections.
There is, however, only one sensible way to garden—organically! Organiphobes will argue that point, but they're wrong. Organic gardening is no longer a fad. Actually it never was. We gardeners have in the past used the chemical rescue approach and have poisoned our environment. Some people still are. We didn't invent the chemical approach. The universities did with grants from the chemical companies. Planting and maintaining plants organically has been done by a small percentage of people for a long time. Resistant people have a hard time accepting the organic philosophy. I bought into it immediately because it just made sense. Even if it hadn't worked so well, I would have fought for it because of the environmental aspects, but I have been delighted to discover that the natural alternatives really work. In fact, they work much better than the toxic-chemical approach, which isn't saying much because that approach doesn't work at all over the long haul.
We started poisoning the world in a serious way along about World War II. That's when we invented and accelerated the use of many of the synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. It's ironic that these dangerous products don't even work. Most artificial fertilizers are very salty, feed plants with too much too fast, have no organic matter, and often contain fillers that are less than "earth friendly." Fake fertilizers not only glut and stress plants, they cause a toxic buildup of nitrates and phosphates in the soil and drinking water. These laboratory-produced products aren't balanced according to nature's pattern and usually contain no organic matter, very few trace minerals, and rarely any vitamins, hormones, or enzymes. A few farmers, politicians, and garden communicators are now aware of the problem and are teaching alternative methods and products. We home gardeners should be doing the same.
Toxic pesticides are a terrible problem in that they indiscriminately destroy beneficial as well as troublesome insects. Harsh artificial products also destroy the balance of beneficial microorganisms and other life in the soil. It's all about common sense and balance. Before selecting any fertilizer, soil amendment, or pest control product, ask one simple question and let the answer be the guide as to whether you buy and use the product or not: "If I use this product, will it hurt or benefit the earthworms?" If the product is detrimental to the earthworms, it shouldn't be used. If the earthworms like what you are doing to the soil, the plants will love it.
I wrote this book because it seems logical that gardeners need one book that contains information on all types of Texas plants. I'll give you the truth about all the plants in this book—the pros and the cons. I owe nothing to the chemical companies or the big growers—that should be obvious. If a plant is a dog, I'll tell you. If a plant is great, I'll tell you. Landscaping is a major investment, and there is no need to choose high-maintenance or short-lived plants. Although no plant or horticulture technique is perfect, I have tried to give you the best advice on how to achieve the greatest success with a new or renovated garden in Texas. The Lone Star State is a big state with several different climates and soils. I hope my book helps you no matter where you live.
Gardens are never static. They are complex living organisms consisting of many millions of other smaller living organisms. Gardens are dynamic and start changing from the moment of installation. A garden cannot be planted that never needs any adjustment. One of the great pleasures of gardening is the fine-tuning through the years by moving plants about, adding plants when needed, and removing those that are no longer useful or interesting.
Most gardens have at least two lives—the first is established when the plants are installed. The second starts when the trees mature and shade the ground. When trees are young, the majority of the shrubs, ground covers, and grasses must be the kind that thrive in the full sun. As the trees grow, mature, and shade the ground, low plants and understory trees must be shade tolerant. Change in planting is then needed. Don't be afraid to experiment. The trial-and-error method is what the pros use, so why not amateurs? As plants mature, new ideas will present themselves. If you watch and listen, the garden will show you what needs to be done. Some plants will need to be pruned, some will need to be added, and some will need to be removed. The most important design point is that the garden should be enjoyable—otherwise what's the point?
People who give you rules such as "Plant tall plants at the ends of the house to frame it and lead the eye to the front door" create limitations. Don't fall for all of these recommendations. If you want to plant the biggest plants right smack in front of the front door, have at it. It's your house, not the people's who drive by or work in the government agencies. Too few people actually enjoy their gardens. They are too worried about what other people think.
Of all the plants, trees are the first and most important consideration. Statistics show that landscaping is the only home improvement that can return up to 200 percent of the original investment. The key to that increase is the trees. In addition to providing great beauty, trees create the atmosphere or the feel of a garden. Trees provide shade and food, house wildlife, screen bad views, frame good ones, and make us feel good. Trees increase property values rapidly as they grow. Trees save energy and money by shading our houses in the summer and by letting the sun shine through for warmth in the winter.
Choosing the right tree for the exact spot is not just an aesthetic decision but an important investment decision as well. How pretty you think the tree will look growing in that particular spot is not as important as how the tree will like growing in that particular spot. If a tree likes where and how you've planted it, you will like the effect. Understanding the horticultural needs of a tree is essential. Simple but essential. Trees need to be well aerated and growing in a living, healthy, balanced soil. Remember that all trees—ornamental and food crop trees—originally grew in the forest in healthy soil with mulch on the ground. The forest floor cross-section should be reproduced and maintained under all newly planted trees. Mulch! That's the most important word. If you want healthy trees, mulch the root zone.
There are two categories of landscape trees: shade and ornamental. Shade trees are the large structural trees that form the skeleton of the planting plan and grow to be from 40 feet to over 100 feet tall. They are used to create the outdoor spaces, block undesirable views, and provide shade. This category includes the oaks, elms, pecans, and other long-lived trees. Shade trees, if properly selected and used, will do more to improve the quality and value of property than any other natural improvement.
Ornamental trees are used to add beauty, texture, color, and scale and to create focal points; they grow to be 8 feet to 30 feet tall. Trees such as Mexican plum, crabapple, hawthorn, and crape myrtle are used primarily for their spring or summer flower color. Others, such as yaupon or wax myrtle, are used for their evergreen color or berries. Some, such as Japanese maple, are used for their distinctive foliage color and interesting branching characteristics. Ornamental trees are also used as understory planting trees to help create a more natural effect.
Shrubs are secondary plants. They are used to form evergreen masses or large splashes of color, to provide food for wildlife, and to screen bad views. Some shrubs bloom in the spring or summer; others have lovely fall color. Shrubs should be selected on the basis of adaptability. Horticultural requirements should have priority over aesthetic considerations. If the plant won't live where planted, it doesn't matter what it looks like during its short life. Tall-growing varieties are used for background plantings and screens. Medium-height shrubs are used for masses, flower display, or evergreen color. Dwarf varieties are used for foundation planting, masses, and interesting bed shapes.
Ground-cover plants are used to replace turf in areas that are too shady for grass. They are used for texture change and to create interesting bed shapes. They are low-growing, vinelike or grasslike materials that are primarily used to cover large areas. Ground covers are usually the best plant choices in heavily shady areas. Often ground covers become the last phase of the permanent garden installation and are planted after the trees have matured to shade out the grass. Ground-cover planting is considerably more expensive than turf.
Vines are usually fast, vertical-growing plants that twine around, cling to, or climb on walls, fences, posts, or overhead structures. They are used for quick shade, vertical softening, and inexpensive color display. Vines are an inexpensive way to get lots of greenery and color in a hurry. They are also quite good in smaller spaces where wide-growing shrubs and trees would be a problem. Vines can be used as annual plants and will even do well in pots.
Herbs make wonderful landscape plants and should be used more in ornamental gardens even if gourmet cooking or home remedies are not in the plans. The traditional definition of a herb is a plant that is used for its food-enhancing flavor, medicinal properties, or fragrance. Others say that herbs are "plants that have specific uses." Herbs fall into several categories: trees, shrubs, ground covers, annuals, and perennials. Most herbs are easy to grow, especially with organic techniques.
Many varieties of vegetables will grow in Texas even though few are native. The harsh soil and climate here are usually a challenge. The best vegetables for use in Texas include asparagus, beans, beets, broccoli, cabbage, cantaloupe, carrots, chard, collards, corn cucumbers, eggplant, garlic, onions, kale, lettuce, mustard, okra, black-eyed peas, peppers, potatoes, pumpkins, radishes, spinach, squash, tomatoes, turnips, and watermelon. Food crops are traditionally planted in dedicated ìgardenî areas, but more and more they are being interplanted with herbs and ornamental plants to increase biodiversity, interest, and production.
Fruits, Nuts, and Berries
Fruit trees do well in Texas under organic management. The best choices include apples, pears, pecans, blackberries, figs, peaches, plums, elderberries, and strawberries. Few are native to Texas, but many introductions can be grown here in healthy soil under thick mulch or cover crops. Interplanting and biodiversity are again very important.
Everyone loves flowers. Annual and perennial flowers are an important finishing touch to any fine garden. Even a poorly designed garden with lots of flowers in bloom is impressive. Annuals are useful for that dramatic splash of single-season color, and perennials are valuable because of their faithful return to bloom year after year. Since replacing annual color each year is expensive, annuals should be concentrated to one or a few spots rather than scattered about. Perennial flowers can be used more randomly throughout the garden. Some perennials return better than others. Notice the notes in this regard under the entries for the specific plants being considered. The best location for flowering plants is an eastern exposure. Morning sun is magical, and the afternoon shade is appreciated by most annuals and perennials. Flowers, with their nectar and pollen, also provide food for beneficial insects.
Turf is a beautiful and enjoyable part of the garden but is also where the most problems lie. To eliminate some of the problems, apply a little common sense. Grasses should be selected on horticultural requirements. For example, large sunny areas that will have active use should be planted in common Bermudagrass or buffalograss. Shady, less used areas should be planted with St. Augustine. Buffalograss should be chosen for areas that will not get much water. The hybrid tifgrasses should be used in areas that need a smooth, highly refined surface. Ryegrass and other winter grasses can be used to provide winter color and to eliminate early-spring weed problems. Winter grasses used for overseeding can also help speed soil improvement.
There are good and bad weeds. If your lawn has lots of weeds, there's a reason. Weeds don't grow unless they're needed. Usually they are indicator plants that your soil is lousy. Many weeds provide trace minerals and help balance the chemistry of the soil. Some weeds exist because there is not enough air or organic matter in the soil, others because the soil is too wet or too dry. Most weeds can be gotten rid of by aeration, granite or lava sand, compost or other organic fertilizers, proper irrigation management, and some hand or mechanical work.
On the other hand, many so-called weeds are beautiful and shouldn't be worried about. I encourage clover, wild violets, blue-eyed grass, native anemones, dichondra, and other wildflowers. The notorious dandelion has all kinds of uses for salads, cookies, wine, and so forth. It and the fall-blooming road aster, two of the most worrisome turf-grass weeds, are controlled by good organic soil and turf management. My favorite turf is a mix of grasses, herbs, and wildflowers.
Many poisonous plants exist, and it's not reasonable to eliminate them all from our gardens. Children need to be taught which ones can be eaten and which are dangerous. The best policy is to teach them not to eat any plants without your approval and supervision. Some of the most common poisonous plants are listed below, but many other plants have various levels of toxicity. Even many of our food crops can cause skin irritations and other toxic reactions. Oranges, lemons, grapefruit, onions, garlic, artichokes, spinach, beets, asparagus, potatoes, tomatoes, and pineapple have been known to cause dermatitis. Some common ornamental plants that cause poisoning when eaten include autumn crocus, avocado leaves, azalea, belladonna lily, black locust, boxwood, cardinal flower, Carolina jessamine, castor bean, cherry laurel, crow poison, English ivy, foxglove, fruit tree seeds, jimson weed, Kentucky coffee tree, lantana, larkspur, lily-of-the-valley, mistletoe, morning glory, narcissus, oleander, pennyroyal mint, periwinkle, pittosporum, sassafras, sweet pea, tansy, Texas mountain laurel, tomato leaves, umbrella plant, walnut (green shells), wormwood, and yew. The moral is to watch what you eat!
Creating Healthy, Balanced Soil for Texas
Creating successful landscaping, vegetable gardens, herb gardens, or any other kind of garden is not difficult if certain basic steps are taken: (1) careful selection of native and well-adapted plant types; (2) creation of healthy, balanced beds; (3) establishment of excellent drainage solutions; (4) use of organic planting techniques; and (5) use of organic maintenance procedures. Take care of the first four steps and maintenance will be easy and enjoyable.
Plants need live, healthy, balanced soil for productive growth and protection against pests. Gardens have one or a combination of soil types, including clay, silt, loam, sandy loam, sand, gravel, and rock. Clay soils have the smallest particles, compact the most, and drain the least. Sand, gravel, and broken rock have the largest particles, compact the least, and drain the best. All soils have five major components: organic material, minerals, water, air, and living organisms. The seldom-discussed living organisms are very important and consist of earthworms, insects, plants, algae, bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms.
Most Texas clay soils are deficient in two things— air and organic matter. Tightly structured clay soil is nutritious but needs to be loosened to improve drainage to allow air into the root zone in order to stimulate microbes and release tied-up nutrients. Microorganisms are a very important part of the healthy soil-building program and can only flourish if there is plenty of air and organic matter. Sandy soils are deficient in everything except sand. They might have enough air, but they rarely have enough organic matter and mineral nutrients.
Healthy soils must have a balance of mineral nutrients. A balanced soil should have approxlmately the following percentages of available nutrients: calcium—65-70 percent, magnesium—12-22 percent, potassium—4-5 percent potassium, and adequate amounts of sulfur, iron, copper, zinc, molybdenum, boron, manganese, and other trace minerals. If the mineral balance of the soil is right, the pH will be between 6.3 and 6.8. That's rarely achieved in Texas soils, but soil tests can give you a general idea of how far out of balance your soil is. One of the best soil tests is to dig out a piece of soil measuring 12 inches by 12 inches by 7 inches deep and count the earthworms. If there aren't at least ten, you need more air and more organic matter. Sound simple? It is! The structure of the soil at depths of 12 inches and 24 inches is important for drainage and the deep development of root systems, but the structure of the top 7 inches is the most important. That's where air, organic matter, microbes, earthworms, and feeder roots are concentrated.
The value of punching holes in your lawn and beds is greatly underrated. Aeration opens holes or slits in the soil and allows air to enter and contact the roots of plants. It's a little-discussed fact that a plant can get 50 percent or more of its nutrients from the air instead of from the soil.
I know you've heard that nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are the three most important fertilizer elements for plants, but that's wrong. The guy originally responsible for this error is a German scientist by the name of Justus Von Liebig who led people to believe that the elements N-P-K were the most important elements and the only elements necessary for plant growth. Unfortunately, this idea has stuck and has been a major contributor to the misapplication and overfertilization of agriculture and landscape soils. The N-P-K ratio of elements is almost irrelevant in an organic program. Elements that are much more important to the soil are H-O-C (hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon). These elements are readily available from the environment in the form of water, air, and organic matter—if the soil is healthy. Microbes and earthworms will provide proper aeration over the long haul. Mechanical aeration simply speeds up the natural process at the beginning of an organic program.
Oxygen is a critical nutrient but not the only important component of air. Carbon dioxide and nitrogen, both essential to soil and plant health, exist in large quantities in the air. Many other mineral elements such as copper, boron, iron, and sulfur exist in small quantities in the air, too. These nutrients are available to plant roots and microorganisms if there is enough pore space in the soil. Oxygen gives the most noticeable response. It stimulates microbial activity and helps make other soil nutrients available to plant roots. Good aeration gives the same greening effect as that of applying nitrogen fertilizer to the soil. Look at the tall green grass around fire ant mounds. That response is primarily due to the aeration provided by the ants in the ground.
Mechanical aeration will allow air to circulate more easily and farther down into the root zone of lawn grasses, trees, shrubs, and other plants. Aeration will invigorate plants through increased root development and provide a greening effect as if a high-nitrogen fertilizer has been applied.
If the soil conditions are right, all biological systems will work according to nature's plan. Soil that is open, well-drained, rich in organic material, and moist will be loaded with microorganisms. These microscopic plants and animals feed on organic matter and minerals to create humus, humic acid, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and other trace elements that are often locked up in the soil and not available to plant roots. The need to add high levels of traditional fertilizer nutrients is thus significantly reduced. Working with nature's systems in this manner will not only increase the health of all plantings but will save a significant amount of money in the long term. Soil will naturally become aerated by the addition of organic matter and the stimulation of microbial activity if given enough time. Just add compost and organic fertilizers and stop using harsh, synthetic products. However, most of us want the process to go faster and the answer is "punching holes" in the ground. These holes, rips, or tears can be punched with a stiff-tined turning fork or any other spiked tool. Such tools can be rented, but the most convenient method is to hire a landscape contractor to use a mechanical aerator to poke holes or cut slices all over the yard. Hand work usually has to be done in the beds.
Mechanical aerators are available in all shapes and sizes and with various features. Some just punch small holes, others cut slits, others remove cores, some inject water while punching holes. Some can even punch holes 12 inches deep. All these machines work. The deeper and closer together the holes, the better. Just choose a machine that fits your budget, because the cost varies greatly. I have personally used machines made by Bluebird, Torro, Ryan, Air-Way, and even some homemade machines, and they all do the job. The object is getting as much air into the soil as possible. When that happens, microbe populations increase, natural nitrogen cycles function properly, and nature's wonderful systems are all set in motion. It's not necessary to understand these systems in great detail—just to respect their presence and let them work for you.
Texas soils need some very basic amendments besides air. Here are some of the most important.
Sulfur is a needed amendment if your soil is too high in calcium, as most North Texas soils are. If calcium is too high, magnesium will usually be too low and most of the trace minerals will be tied up and unavailable to plants. Granulated, elemental sulfur is available and easy to apply. For a more complete sulfur fertilizer, a natural material called Sul-Po-Mag or K-Mag can be used. It contains sulfur, potassium, and magnesium.
Short of air, organic matter is the most important soil amendment. It helps balance the chemical and physical nature of the soil. The best organic matter for bed preparation is compost. Compost can be made from anything that was once alive. Everything that's alive is going to die, and everything that dies is going to rot. Organic matter provides humus and aids in the loosening of the soil by adding particles larger than the soil particles and by providing food for microorganisms. About 85 percent of a plant's roots are found in the first 7 inches of soil. Deeper roots are mainly in search of water and trace minerals. Therefore, there's no need to work organic material into the soil very deeply. My least favorite organic matter for bed preparation is peat moss. It doesn't last long, has little nutrient value, is the most expensive organic material, and must be purchased from sources that are several hundred miles outside Texas and shipped across the United States. Use of peat moss also poses an environmental problem related to digging out the bogs or wetlands in Canada.
Rock powders such as greensand, glacial rock powder, granite sand, lava sand, zeolite, and soft rock phosphate provide the soil with a natural source of major elements and trace minerals. Rock powders from volcanic sources are the best because they increase the exchange capacity and energy in the soil. Lava sand is usually the most effective volcanic material.
Organic fertilizers have low levels of the elements we hear about most often. Nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium are by far the most commonly recommended nutrients. For thirty years or more, the recommended analysis for fertilizers used in Texas has been a 3-1-2 ratio, such as 15-5-10. Those numbers represent 15 percent nitrogen, 5 percent phosphorous, and 10 percent potash. That's supposedly changing now to a 1-0-0 ratio, which is a move in the right direction. The theory of the new fertilizer recommendation is that potassium and phosphorus are supposedly not needed since our soils already have so much of these elements. A great problem with this theory is that although a soil test might show high levels of phosphorus and potassium, these nutrients may not be available to plants because of insufficient amounts of soil air, humus, and rock minerals.
Organiphobes say that plants can't tell the difference between nitrogen from an organic source and nitrogen from a synthetic source. In the final entry into plant use, that may be true, but there are other considerations. Plants need more than nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash. They probably need all the ninety-two natural mineral elements. Why? Because if we analyze healthy plant tissue, we can find traces of most or all of these elements. Guess what? Most natural organic fertilizers contain most or all the ninety-two elements. That's because these plant foods come from plants. Even if the fertilizer is animal manure, the cow first ate grass or the chicken ate the grain. The famous elements N-P-K are important, but so are carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulfur, magnesium, copper, cobalt, sodium, boron, molybdenum, zinc, and so on. Most of these minerals are present in composted manure fertilizers. A balance of all the necessary mineral nutrients is also present in meals such as alfalfa, cottonseed, soybean, or fish.
To show how unimportant high N-P-K numbers are, look at earthworm castings. Possibly nature's most perfectly balanced and most effective fertilizer, they have an analysis of less than 1-1-1. Some organic contractors use nothing but earthworm castings, and their gardens are always green and beautiful and the flowers are showy. Compost, nature's own fertilizer, usually has an analysis of around 1-1-1. Keep this a secret for now, but plant roots can absorb more than basic elements. They can absorb large complex molecules and even chunks of organic matter. To answer the fools who say this is impossible, remind them that herbicides have very large complex molecules. Ask them how the plant can absorb those chunks. Expect a pregnant pause.
What's wrong with synthetic fertilizers? Most contain little or no carbon, no organic matter, and few if any trace minerals. They do have high levels of salts, including nitrates, which can inhibit or destroy beneficial soil microorganisms. High-nitrogen, water-soluble fertilizers usually work too fast and glut plants with excessive amounts of nutrients. Nitrogen glut leads to thin cell walls and great susceptibility to insect and disease attack, as these unhealthy plants aren't able to withstand drought, cold stress, and salt effects. Eating too much white bread and processed sugar creates the same kind of nutrient imbalance in the human body. To metabolize raw sugar, minerals and vitamins must be borrowed from the body. When the balance is compromised, people are more susceptible to colds, flu, and more serious diseases. Just a little side note, but it's all related. Health is health in plants and animals.
Plants can get enough nitrogen easily. Nitrogen is plentiful in a properly functioning natural system. Air is almost 80 percent nitrogen. Many of the microbes in the soil can grab nitrogen right out of the air in the soil and make it available to plants. That's why aeration is so important. Nitrogen is also released in the soil by the feeding of microorganisms on organic matter. That's why compost is so important.
It doesn't matter whether you are about to plant annuals, perennials, herbs, flowers, or vegetables' the formula is the same. The planting bed should be a mixture of compost, native soil, and rock minerals. To prepare beds properly, simply mix 4 to 8 inches of compost into the existing soil and create a raised bed. Use 4 inches of compost for ground cover, 6 inches for shrubs, and 8 inches for roses and other perennials. Native plants can use less. That's all you have to do, but there are some additions that can speed up the establishment of your new plants. It's okay to add 10 to 20 pounds of cottonseed meal or other organic fertilizers. Be careful because you can easily overdo it if you aren't careful. Too much fertilizer, even organic fertilizer, can kill plants. Too much of anything is a bad idea. Add lava or granite sand at the rate of 40 to 80 pounds per thousand square feet for additional help.
After the plants have been installed, finish the project by recreating the forest floor. Mulch it. Spread a thick layer of organic mulch over the soil. Bare soil should not be visible around the new planting. Coarse-textured, shredded hardwood bark or shredded native tree trimmings are the best choices, but any rough-textured organic mulch will work. Pine bark and peat moss are the only two choices I don't recommend because they are easily washed or blown away. My favorites are coarse-shredded mulch for annuals and perennials and partially completed compost for roses and vegetables. Other available mulches include grain straw, pine needles, decomposed sawdust, cottonseed hulls, pecan hulls, cedar flakes, and wood chips. Organic mulch keeps the soil cool during the hot summer months, prevents weed growth, and slows the evaporation of moisture from the soil. The most important function of mulch is keeping the microbes and earthworms alive and active at the surface of the soil. I don't like plastics, fabrics, or gravel as mulch. They destroy the natural interface between the mulch and soil surface where the microbes and earthworms stir things together to create a perfect soil.
A gardener once told me she was mostly organic but still had to spray chemicals for spider mites. After trying to fool me for a while that she was doing everything organic and still had the mite pests, she admitted that her garden soil was bare—not covered with mulch. Tilling organic matter into the soil is not mulching. Covering the surface with a blanket of coarse-textured organic matter is mulching. This is not an option. Bare soil must be covered with a permanent layer of natural mulch. The only exception is when planting seeds. In that case, pull the mulch back, plant the seed, then push the mulch back up around the plants as they grow. To sum up: install new material in native soil enriched with lots of compost, mulch all bare soil, and use organic fertilizers as often as the soil needs help. This is the basic organic program. It's that simple.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that landscape installation should be done in the spring. That is the worst time. Contractors and nurseries are busier in the spring and early summer than at any other time of the year.
Landscape installation is best done in the fall and winter. If plants are installed in the fall, they will develop root growth through the winter and be more vigorous in the spring.
Trees should be transplanted in the fall or winter. For best results, new trees should be planted then, too. Trees planted in the spring, and certainly in the summer, will just sit there and wait for the next season to really start to grow. Container-grown trees can be planted with good results year round.
There is, of course, some danger of freeze damage to small shrubs, ground covers, and grasses when planted in fall and winter. You may prefer to install these small plants in the spring. Trees and large shrubs are not usually susceptible to freeze damage. Planting in the fall or winter offers roots a chance to start growing before the foliage emerges in the spring. It's usually worth the risk.
Most plants can be planted any month of the year if several precautions are taken. When transporting plants in an open vehicle in the hot part of summer, cover them to protect them from the sun and wind and to keep the root ball moist. Always dampen the planting beds prior to planting. During freezing weather don't leave plants out of the ground without protecting the roots from possible freeze damage. Store plants in shady areas prior to planting. Always keep the plants moist and mulched during freezing weather. Once in the ground, well-adapted plants will normally survive a freeze. In mild spring or fall weather it's easy to forget to keep containers or newly planted material moist, so check them often but don't overwater.
Trees are by far the most important landscape element. There's only one catch. If the trees aren't healthy and don't grow, they won't do you any good at all. To grow properly, trees must be planted properly. Since many tree-planting procedures are horticulturally incorrect, they are a substantial waste of money. My recommendations for tree planting have developed over years of carefully studying many planting techniques and trying to understand what works and what doesn't. Nature has been my teacher and as usual shows the right way.
It was 1976 when I first saw trees planted correctly. I'm sure they had been planted right before—I just hadn't seen it done. I had been commissioned to design the landscaping for a corporation's facility in Addison, Texas. The budget was tight and the site was large and uninteresting. Using the excess soil from the building excavation, we created free-flowing berms to add interest and provide sites for trees to be planted above the native white limestone, not realizing at the time the importance of the built-in drainage system the berms provided. An old friend, Cody Carter, planted all the trees on that job. Since that time, I've watched those trees, and I've watched trees on other projects planted with all kinds of techniques. Here's what I learned.
- Dig an Ugly Hole. Tree holes should be dug exactly the same depth or slightly less than the height of the ball. Don't guess—measure the height of the ball. Dig a rough-sided hole instead of a slick-sided or glazed hole such as those made by a tree spade or auger. Slick-walled tree holes greatly restrict root penetration into the surrounding soil and limit proper root growth. A saucer-shaped hole that is narrow at the bottom but at least three times wider than the root ball at the soil surface is the best.
- Run a Perk Test. If time allows, fill the hole with water and wait until the next day. If the water doesn't drain away overnight, the soil doesn't drain well enough. If that's the case, move the tree to another location or improve the drainage by installing a drain line full of gravel running from the tree to a lower point on the site. Another draining method that sometimes works is to dig a pier hole down from the bottom of the hole into a different soil type and fill the hole with gravel. A sump from the top of the ball down to the bottom of the ball does little if any good. Positive drainage is critical, so don't take shortcuts here.
- Backfill with Existing Soil. Place the tree in the center of the hole so that thd top of the ball is perfectly flush or slightly higher than the surrounding grade. Backfill with the soil that came from the hole—nothing else. This is a critical point. Don't add sand, foreign soil, organic matter, or fertilizer into the backfill. Adding amendments to the backfill like peat moss, sand, or foreign soils will not only waste money but hurt the establishment and growth of the tree. Roots need to start growing in the native soil from the beginning. When the hole is dug in solid rock, topsoil from the same area should be used. Some native rock mixed into the backfill is beneficial. Compost worked into the top 7 inches (but no deeper) of backfill is beneficial.
Settle the backfill with water. Don't ever do something dopey like tamping or stomping on the backfill. Settle the soil naturally with water. Water the backfill very carefully, making sure to get rid of all air pockets. By the way, putting gravel in the bottom of the hole is a total waste of money.
When planting balled and burlapped plants, leave the burlap on the sides of the ball but loosen the burlap at the trunk and remove the burlap from the top of the ball. Remove any nylon or plastic covering or string. Artificial materials won't decompose and can girdle the truck and the roots as the plant grows. Wire mesh should be removed to avoid root girdling because wire does not break down very fast in our alkaline soils. When planting from plastic containers, carefully remove plants and tear the outside roots if they have become root bound and are adhering to the container. Never leave plants in containers. Bare-rooted, balled and burlapped, and container plant materials should all be planted the same way. When planting bare-rooted plants, it is critical to keep the roots moist during the transportation and planting process.
- Do Not Wrap or Stake. Trunks of newly planted trees should not be wrapped. It wastes money, looks unattractive, harbors insects, and leaves the bark weak when removed. Tree wrapping is similar to leaving a bandage on your finger too long. It leaves softened, weakened bark. If you're worried about the unlikely possibility of sunburn, it's much better to paint the trunk with a diluted white latex paint. Use a whitewash just like Tom Sawyer did and let the tree slowly and naturally grow it off. If the tree is weak or has damage to the trunk, spray the wound with hydrogen peroxide and leave it exposed to air.
In general, staking newly planted trees is goofy. This antiquated procedure is almost always unnecessary if the tree has been planted properly and has an earth ball of the proper size: at least 9 inches for each inch of trunk diameter. Staking most trees is a waste of money and detrimental to proper trunk development. In rare circumstances (sandy soil, tall evergreen trees, roof gardens, etc.) where the tree needs to be staked for a while, connect the guy wires as low on the trunk as possible and remove the stakes as soon as possible. Never leave them on more than one growing season. Temporary staking should be done with strong wire and metal eyebolts screwed into the trunk. Staking should be a last resort—it is unsightly and expensive, adds to maintenance costs, and restricts the tree's ability to move with the wind and develop tensile strength in the trunk. It can also cause damage to the delicate cambium layer. Always remove all tags that the nurseries attached.
- Do Not Overprune. Limb pruning is not necessary to compensate for the loss of roots during transplanting or planting. Most trees fare much better if all the limbs and foliage are left intact. The more foliage, the more food produced to build the root system. The health of the root system is the key to the overall health of the tree. The only trees that seem to respond positively to thinning at the time of transplanting are field-collected live oak and yaupon holly. Container-grown trees definitely need no pruning and deciduous trees never need to be thinned.
- Mulch the Top of the Ball. After planting, create the "forest floor" over the planting hole. Mulch the top of the ball with 1 inch of compost and then 3 inches of mulch. This step is important in lawns and beds. Don't plant grass around the base of the tree until the tree is established. Water rings, which are soil dikes sometimes used to hold water on the tree ball, are unnecessary and can even become a problem to get rid of after the tree is established.
Shrub, Ground Cover, and Vine Planting
Good soil preparation is necessary when planting all shrubs, ground covers, and vines. Soils in Texas have some common deficiencies. Clay soils have a lack of organic matter and a lack of air, causing drainage problems, as well as a lack of oxygen in the root zone. Sandy soils usually have plenty of air but are severely deficient in organic matter and mineral nutrients. Both are deficient in living organisms. The following soil preparation steps will overcome these limitations:
- Scrape away all weeds and grass, including underground stems called rhizomes. A cut 2 inches deep will usually remove all the reproductive parts of the existing vegetation, even Bermudagrass. No excavation should be done in bare soil areas. Do not rototill prior to removing grass from the planting area. Tilling will drive the reproductive pieces down into the ground where they will become a weed problem forever.
- If needed to establish the proper grade, add topsoil to all beds to within 2 inches of the adjacent finished grade. Use native topsoil, similar to that which is on the site. I do not recommend using herbicides to kill grass and weeds prior to excavation—ever!
- Cover areas to be planted with a 4- to 6-inch blanket of compost; then apply lava sand at the rate of 40 to 80 pounds per thousand square feet and a 100 percent organic fertilizer at the rate of 10 to 20 pounds per thousand square feet. If cotton but compost is used, cut the fertilizer rate in half.
- Till the amendments and the existing topsoil together to a depth of 6 to 8 inches—a little deeper is okay but never deeper than 10 inches. Driving organic matter below that level can cause improper breakdown and root damage.
- After thoroughly tilling all beds, rake smooth to eliminate undulations. Put a flat top on the bed and slope the edges down to slightly lower than the adjacent grade, forming a little ditch to aid drainage.
- Moisten beds before planting, especially in hot weather. Do not plant in dry soil!
- Plants should be watered by sticking the hose down beside the ball and soaking thoroughly. Always soak root balls before planting. Plant wet root balls into moist soil. Transplant shock and death from dry roots will be eliminated if you do this.
Azalea, Dogwood, Camellia, and Rhododendron Planting
These are acid-loving plants and most of our Texas soils certainly aren't that. Here's what to do if you insist on trying to grow these high-maintenance plants:
- Excavate and remove existing soil to a depth of 4 to 6 inches. Or better still, pile the bed mix on top of the existing soil. The bed should be at least 30 inches wide for each row of plants.
- Build the bed with a mixture of 50 percent compost, 50 percent shredded hardwood bark, copperas (one pound per cubic yard), Epsom salts (one pound per cubic yard), and granulated sulfur (one pound per cubic yard). Place the mixture in the bed area to a depth of 16 inches. Be sure to thoroughly saturate this mixture in a tub or wheelbarrow prior to placing it in the bed. Peat moss can be added to the mixture, but it isn't necessary. Adding a small amount of native soil to the mixture is helpful to introduce microorganisms.
- Mound the beds so that the finished grade is at least 18 inches above the adjacent grade.
- Tear or cut the potbound roots before planting. This is very important. Without this step, the roots will never break away from the ball and the plant often dies.
- Soak each plant in a washtub or bucket filled with a 1 percent solution of liquid seaweed or natural apple cider vinegar. (Natural apple cider vinegar is made from apples. Apple cider "flavored" vinegar is distilled vinegar that has been artificially colored and flavored.)
Note: If you live in an acid-soil area, simply add 8 inches of quality compost and alfalfa meal at a rate of 30 pounds per thousand square feet and plant away. In both cases, remember to add 2 to 3 inches of organic matter to the beds every year in late winter to replace that which has decayed. If this is done, the beds probably won't have to be rebuilt more often than every seven years.
Annual, Perennial, Herb, and Vegetable Planting
Flower beds should be built the same as those for shrubs and ground covers with the addition of a little more organic material. Use at least 6 inches of compost. These beds should also be mounded or raised more than other plant beds if possible. Raised flower beds are critical for proper drainage. Flowers are often planted in the same beds as the shrubs and ground covers. Some annuals and perennials can tolerate this, but gardeners would have greater success if they would do one simple thing—raise or mound the flower beds to give the root zone more air. Flower beds can simply be mounded 6 to 9 inches by adding compost. Mixing at least some of the existing soil into the concoction is a good idea. Bulbs should always be planted in prepared beds and will do better with a tablespoon of bone meal, earthworm castings, or colloidal phosphate tossed into the bottom of the hole. Plants will be larger, longer lasting, and more showy if soaked in a 1 percent solution of Agrispon, Medina, or other biostimulants such as seaweed prior to planting. A small handful of Epsom salts tossed in the planting hole can also help flower and fruit production because most soils in Texas are deficient in magnesium and sulfur.
Established plants should be transplanted only during the dormant season. Fall is the best time, and winter is the second-best time. Large plants are harder to transplant than small ones. Smaller plants that have not developed an extensive root system can be moved during the growing season if wateredin immediately. Relocated plants should be installed with the same techniques as those used for new plants, as explained previously.
All bare soil around newly planted plants should be covered with a layer of mulch. Nature doesn't allow bare soil and neither should gardeners. Mulching should be done immediately after planting is completed. Acceptable mulches are shredded tree trimmings, shredded hardwood bark, pine needles, coarse compost, hay, cocoa shells, pecan shells, or shredded cypress bark. Mulch should usually be at least 2 inches deep, but if plants are large enough, 3 to 4 inches is better. Mulching helps hold moisture in the beds, controls weeds, and keeps the soil temperature at the proper temperature—around 84 degrees. I don't use or recommend plastic sheets as mulch. The plant's root systems will cook from the heat buildup. Neither do I recommend weed fabrics or gravel as mulches. Nothing compares with a thick layer of good organic material placed in direct contact with the soil. Add about 1 inch of compost and 3 inches of mulch to all planting beds every year. Most soil structure and nutrition problems can be solved with good organic matter, specifically compost. Grass clippings left on the turf will provide the organic matter for lawn areas.
In the past, most wildflowers were planted by scattering the seed over bare ground and crossing your fingers. As a result, few gardeners were having success with wildflowers. Here are some methods that should improve your chances.
Plant wildflowers on bare ground or in heavily scalped and aerated grassy areas. Areas with buffalograss are the best. Remove all weeds and grass tops by scalping and loosen any heavily compacted areas by mechanical aeration—no need to remove rock. A light rototilling (an inch deep) is the best bed preparation in many cases. Shallow tilling removes the top growth but leaves the roots in place, providing a long-lasting diet of organic matter. Soil amendments and fertilizers are not needed other than an optional light application of a 100 percent organic fertilizer at the rate of 5 pounds per thousand square feet.
Treat the seed prior to planting with a 1 percent solution of Agrispon, Bioform, Medina, or other biostimulant such as seaweed or apple cider vinegar. Small seeds can be spread on newspaper and misted with the solution; larger seeds can be soaked in the liquid. The seeds should then be allowed to dry to make them easier to handle. Apply the seed at the recommended rate, making sure to get good soil-seed contact by lightly raking the seed into the soil. Spring-blooming wildflowers should be planted from late summer to early fall the previous year in order to take advantage of the fall rains and to copy nature's techniques.
Apply supplemental irrigation in the fall and in the spring if the weather is unseasonably dry. If rains are normal, no watering is needed.
Grass-planting techniques can be quite simple or very complicated and a huge waste of money. If you follow these simple techniques, your lawn establishment will be enjoyable and affordable.
Preparation should include the removal of weed tops, debris, and rocks over 2 inches in diameter from the surface of the soil. Rocks within the soil are no problem because they help drainage. Till to a depth of 1 inch and rake topsoil into a smooth grade. Deep rototilling is unnecessary and a waste of money unless the soil is heavily compacted. When planting grass seed, the addition of organic material is beneficial, but strong fertilizer is unnecessary and can even hurt germination. Only on solid rock areas is the addition of native topsoil needed. Imported foreign topsoil is a waste of money and can cause a perched (trapped) water table, the introduction of weeds, and other lawn problems. Mild organic fertilizers and amendments such as earthworm castings (10 pounds per thousand square feet) and lava sand (40 pounds per thousand square feet) can be helpful at planting time. Erosion protection material, such as jute mesh, should be placed on the soil in sloped areas prior to planting. Follow the manufacturer ës recommendations for installation by overlapping, tucking it into the soil at the edges, and pinning it down carefully. Some people recommend and use herbicides to kill weeds prior to planting. I don't. These chemicals can be hazardous and damage the soil biology.
Planting grass by hydromulching (a water, paper, seed, and fertilizer mix) should be done so that the seed is placed in direct contact with the soil. The seed should be broadcast on the bare soil first and the hydromulch, if used, blown on top of the seed. One of the worst mistakes I see in grass planting is mixing the seed in the hydromulch slurry of paper and fertilizer. This causes the seed to germinate in the mulch, which is suspended above the soil, so many of the seeds are lost from dehydration.
Night temperatures must be 65-70 degrees for Bermudagrass or buffalograss to germinate and no lower than 40 degrees in the fall and winter for fescue, rye, and other cool-season grasses. After spreading the seed, thoroughly soak the ground and lightly water the seeded area enough to keep it moist until germination is complete. Fertilize with a 100 percent organic fertilizer sometime before the first mowing. As the seed germinates, watch for bare spots. Reseed these bare areas immediately. Continue the light watering until the grass has solidly covered the area. At this time, begin the regular watering and maintenance program.
Spot sodding is done by countersinking 4- by 4-inch squares into the ground flush with the existing grade 12 to 14 inches apart after grading, then smoothing and leveling the soil. Organic fertilizer should be applied after planting at a rate of 20 pounds per thousand square feet. Regular maintenance and watering should be started at this time. This is not a planting procedure I highly recommend because it is slow to cover and often results in an uneven weedy lawn.
To solid squares of sod should be laid joint to joint after first fertilizing the ground with a 100 percent organic fertilizer at a rate of 20 pounds per thousand square feet. Grading, leveling, and smoothing prior to planting is very important. The joints between the blocks of sod can be filled with compost to give an even more finished look.
Tif grasses (TexTurf 10, Tifway 419, Tif green 328, and Tifdwarf) are dwarf forms of common Bermudagrass. They should be planted by solid sodding or hydromulching sprigs with the same procedures as used for planting Bermudagrass seed. Tifgrasses are sterile hybrids and expensive to maintain. I don't recommend these grasses for homeowners.
Cool-season grasses such as fescue, ryegrass, bentgrass, and bluegrass should be planted for best results in late September or October, although they can be planted anytime during the winter when the temperature is above 40 degrees. In all cases, the newly applied lawn seed should be watered regularly until the grass has grown to the point of covering the ground.
Here are some of the worst installation mistakes I see on both residential and commercial projects:
- Planting trees improperly by digging small, smooth-sided holes, backfilling with soft foreign materials, setting trees too low, and staking and wrapping trees.
- Planting too many plants of the same type. Biodiversity is essential, but many gardeners plant large masses and straight lines of plants. Using many different kinds of plants encourages many different kinds of beneficial insects and other helpful critters.
- Planting plants too deep in the soil. This also causes a smothering of the root system and sometimes rots the plant stem or trunk.
- Failing to cover all bare soil with mulch.
- Failing to provide proper drainage.
- Contaminating the soil with toxic insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides.
- Wasting money on unnecessary bed preparation ingredients like peat moss, concrete sand, and artificial amendments.
Cercis canadensis (SER-sis kan-ah-DEN-sis).
COMMON NAME: EASTERN REDBUD.
TYPE: Deciduous tree.
LOCATION: Sun or shade.
HEIGHT: 20'-30'. SPREAD: 20'-30'. SPACING: 15'-20'.
BLOOM/FRUIT: Rose, pinkish purple, or white flowers on bare branches in early spring. Fruit is a thin bean with several dark, hard seeds.
PROPAGATION: Seed or cuttings.
HABITS/CULTURE: Wide-spreading ornamental, purple or white spring color, yellow fall color. Easy to grow in any soil, drought tolerant.
USES: Ornamental garden tree, understory spring color.
PROBLEMS: Borers, leaf rollers.
TIPS/NOTES: White variety seems healthier than the purple native. Crinkled-leaf Mexican variety is the most drought tolerant. "Oklahoma" has dark green, glossy foliage; "Forest Pansy" has red-purple foliage in summer. Flowers of all varieties are edible and delicious in salads or as a garnish.
Lupinus texensis (loo-PYE-nus tex-IN-sis).
COMMON NAME: BLUEBONNET.
TYPE: Annual perennial.
HEIGHT: 9"-12". SPREAD: 12"-15". SPACING: 35 lbs. of seed per acre.
BLOOM/FRUIT: Blue 2"-4" spikes of fragrant flowers in spring.
PROPAGATION: Plant seeds in late summer or early fall.
HABITS/CULTURE: Upright to sprawling spring wildflower. Germinates from seed in fall. Leaves and stems are hairy. Flowers have wonderful fragrance. Sometimes hard to start. Once established, reliable in returning each year.
PROBLEMS: Seed is sometimes hard to germinate, may germinate the second or third year.
TIPS/NOTES: Do not fertilize this or other wildflowers. Nurseries are now selling 2 1/4" pots for planting small garden areas in the spring. Many people recommend scarified seed, which germinates the first year. But it's more natural to plant untreated seed and have some sprouting for several years. Native to Texas and our state flower.
Sapium sebiferum (SAY-pee-urn seb-eh-FARE-um).
COMMON NAME: CHINESE TALLOW.
TYPE: Deciduous tree.
HEIGHT: 30'. SPREAD: 30'. SPACING: Do not plant!
BLOOM/FRUIT: Tiny yellow flowers in spikes at branch tips. Distinctive clusters of hard white seeds remain attached after foliage has fallen.
HABITS/CULTURE: Fast-growing, short-lived, poor-quality shade tree. Yellow to red fall color and white berries in winter. Easy to grow anywhere. Branch tips freeze back every winter.
USES: Temporary tree.
PROBLEMS: Freeze damage, borers, cotton root rot, short-lived.
TIPS/NOTES: I used to recommend this tree, but it is not a good choice. Native to China and Japan. Seeds are poisonous.