Tips for New El Lago Gardeners

By: Donna J. Ward, Certified Texas Master Gardener

You may find gardening in this climate to be different from what you have been accustomed to in the past. With that in mind, we offer a few tips to help you be a successful El Lago gardener.

After you have unpacked the boxes, hung pictures, and rearranged the furniture once or twice, you can finally take the time to assess your newly acquired landscape.

If you're lucky, the previous owner did a great job, and you won't want to change a thing. On the other hand - you may have definite ideas as to what you want in your landscape - plantings that conform to your taste and lifestyle.

If you previously lived somewhere with a different climate and soil structure, here are a few things that you need to know about gardening in our area:

Soil
The first time you dig a hole for a new planting you will notice that the soil tends to be heavy - very much like clay. Not exactly a great structure in which to grow the plants you desire. But this condition can be vastly improved with the addition of organic matter - preferably compost. This can be purchased in bags from any nursery or home improvement center's gardening department. But the best and least expensive source is the compost pile you create in your own backyard.

You may also want to check the soil's fertility and pH. Soil pH measures the degree of acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Most garden plants do best with a soil pH of 5.5 to 7.0. A soil test will also give you an idea as to the nutrient level in the soil. You can pick up a test kit at any Texas AgriLife Extension Office.

Drainage
Our water table is high, so good drainage is essential for any type of planting. Raised beds accomplish this quite effectively. Make use of bricks, landscape timbers, rocks, or low growing border plants to retain 6 or 8 inches of organic matter. If you decide on a solid border, be sure to leave small gaps for water to drain from the bed rather than overflowing.

Lawns 
Forget the fescue or thick Zoysia carpet you may have previously called a lawn. St. Augustine grass is without a doubt the best grass for our soil and climate.

St. Augustine spreads by stolons or runners. Set your lawn mower to 'high' - thereby allowing the blades of the grass to provide shade to the stolons. This prevents the sun from burning the stolons, resulting in a scorched brown lawn. This shading also helps to conserve moisture in the soil, which in turn promotes a deeper root system.

Watering
Watering your lawn early in the morning is the most beneficial and economical time to do so. There is less evaporation and more absorption when the temperatures are still relatively cool. Watering in the late evening encourages fungal diseases.

If you are fortunate enough to have an irrigation system, be sure your sprinkler heads are delivering water droplets - not mist. If they are emitting a mist, you're wasting water and money. Mist evaporates before it can be absorbed down into the soil, and a light breeze can carry it to your neighbor's lawn.

Fertilizing
Don't fertilize your St. Augustine lawn until after it has had its second spring mowing. Any fertilizing prior to that time will only benefit cool weather weeds. Never use a fertilizer that promises to feed your lawn and kill weeds simultaneously regardless of what is printed on the package. These fertilizers are combined with broad leaf herbicides that cannot differentiate between broad leaf weeds and your landscape trees. Many newly planted, and even older established trees are poisoned each year by "weed and feed" formulations. If you keep your St. Augustine lawn in a healthy state, it will eventually crowd out unwelcome weeds.

When you do fertilize your St. Augustine, keep in mind that less is more. Fertilizers, pest control chemicals applied to our lawns and oil from our driveways are the source of 50% of all pollutants which flow into our sewers. Many of our neighborhood sewers drain into Galveston Bay.

Grass Clippings
Consider not bagging your grass clippings. If left on the ground, they become an excellent source of fertilizer. Annually, clippings can supply nutrients equal to 1 or 2 applications of fertilizer. This method is much less expensive than chemical applications, and much friendlier to our environment. Inexpensive mulching blades (available for many brand-name lawn mowers) provide a smart option for homeowners who want to reduce yard waste, not to mention dependence on lawn chemicals.

Trees
The highest order of plants and an important part of our landscape, trees increase the value of your property and are a visual asset to the neighborhood.

Shading your home from the summer sun, trees help to lessen your air conditioning expenses. Deciduous trees (those that drop their leaves in the fall), planted on the south or west side of a dwelling can reduce your air conditioning expenses by as much as 20-25% during the hottest months of summer. Not to mention - it’s more pleasant to sip lemonade on a shaded patio or deck than a sunny one. Toward the end of the year when leaves begin to fall, the winter sun’s rays will warm your home.

Choosing Trees
After you have established the planting location and the variety of tree(s) suited to that location, visit a reputable local nursery. Avoid the mail-order catalogs from distant states with dissimilar climates, as their offerings are not suitable to our locale.

Drive around the neighborhood and see what types of trees are doing well for your neighbors. This is a good indication as to what you should be considering for your own landscape. You may have your heart set on a particular variety, but if you don't see any of them growing in your neighborhood - they probably won't work.

Container-grown trees are the easiest to plant. Their roots are quite often coiled around one another in the container, so you will need to split the lower half of the root system and spread the roots horizontally to encourage new root growth.

How to Plant a Tree
Dig the hole twice as wide as the container diameter, but no deeper than the soil level in the container. Place the top of the soil ball at a slightly higher level than the surrounding soil. The finished planting depth (after the soil settles) should be such that the plant is exactly the same depth or slightly higher after planting than it was when grown in the container.

Our soil tends to be very clay-like, and if it was damp when you dug the hole, you will notice that the wall of the hole is glazed and almost impermeable. Roots will have a difficult time penetrating the wall unless you rough it up a bit with a spading fork, hoe or hand-held cultivator.

Once you have positioned the root-ball in the prepared hole, backfill with the soil taken from the hole. Do not add organic matter. By backfilling with native soil, the plant is immediately forced to establish new roots in the backfilled soil and beyond. Do not fertilize at the time of planting, as delicate root hairs are easily burned by fertilizer. A root stimulator would be beneficial when planting, but hold off on any fertilizer until the tree's 2nd growing season, and then only feed lightly.

Watering
After planting, water deeply. It is essential that the soil settle around the tree roots and eliminate air pockets. Consistent moisture is critical, especially during your tree's 1st growing season. Each leaf on your tree has its own personal root hair below the ground level. If this root hair is allowed to become dry, its corresponding leaf withers and dies. If your landscape trees begin to lose leaves in mid-summer, get out the hose - quick.

Fall is the ideal time to plant trees. Our mild winters allow them to spend those months establishing a healthy root system before spring makes any demands for top growth. Moisture is essential to accomplish this, so don't put away the garden hose just because it's winter.

Vegetable Gardens
Have you ever been lucky enough to live in an area where you could plant 2 vegetable gardens a year? We have the ability to produce both spring and fall vegetable gardens. Visit your Texas AgriLife Extension Office for a list of vegetable varieties suitable for your area and the dates on which to plant them.

Fruit & Nut Trees / Berries
Perhaps you would like to plant a fruit tree or 2, and maybe some berry vines. You can forget the Jonathan apples, hickory nuts and raspberries, but many types of fruit trees, nut trees, and berry vines can be successfully grown in your back yard.

Chilling Hours
A major factor that has to be considered is ‘chilling hours.’ Many fruit crops have built-in mechanisms for measuring the length of a winter. These mechanisms monitor the number of hours that the temperature is between 32-45 degrees Fahrenheit. These temperatures are cumulative – not consecutive. When the required number of chilling hours has been met for a specific variety, the next warm spell will bring forth blooms.

For our locale, look for fruit trees requiring low chilling hours of 200 or less. It takes approximately 3 years for a newly planted fruit tree to begin producing, so be sure you have planted a proper variety, otherwise you have wasted 3 years!

Bulbs
If you formerly resided above the Mason-Dixon Line, you fondly remember crocus poking through the snow heralding the end of winter, and tulips reappearing each spring along with the robins. It won’t happen here. It doesn’t get cold enough for those bulbs to achieve dormancy during our mild winters, so they will not give you a repeat performance. You will need to replant each year. Here is a list of common bulbs you may wish to plant and dates on which to do so. Those marked with an asterisk (*) need to be pre-chilled in your refrigerator for 6 to 8 weeks before planting.
  • Christmas through New Year’s Day
    • Tulips *
  • Easter
    • Caladiums
  • Halloween
    • Anemones
    • Crocus *
    • Dutch Iris
    • Freesia
    • Ranunculus
  • Thanksgiving
    • Daffodils
    • Hyacinths *
Azaleas, Camellias, Magnolias & Gardenias
Our soil is alkaline, but we manage to grow some beautiful flowering shrubbery. Nothing surpasses the spring-time display of our flowering azaleas, or the camellias so flush with blooms that the branches touch the ground. And what perfume is superior to the lemony fragrance of a southern magnolia or the scent of a gardenia blossom? These shrubs thrive in an acid soil.

Our local nurseries carry several types of organic and chemical acidifiers. If you have a pine tree or 2, the fallen needles make great mulch for these plants with the added benefit of providing some acid to the soil.

There are very specific rules regarding the planting of azaleas, so check with your nursery or Texas Cooperative Extension Office before you begin.

Mulch

Other than moisture, mulch is a plant's best friend. Mulch conserves moisture and controls temperatures both hot and cold, thereby protecting tender roots near the surface. Mulch discourages weeds and keeps the soil from packing, thus eliminating the need to cultivate.

As previously stated, pine needles are an excellent mulch, especially when used in conjunction with oak leaves, which have been at least partially broken down in a compost pile. Both are acid forming and help to maintain the acidity of the soil.

Never allow mulch to touch the trunk/bark of a tree or shrub. Mulch retains moisture which attracts insects and diseases. When mulch is banked up against the trunk of a tree the bark stays damp and can eventually rot - the tree or shrub will die.

Compost
Leaves, grass clippings, spent garden plants, kitchen scraps (no meat products), small twigs, weeds, etc., is the basis for a cost effective and practical method of converting green matter into a nutrient-rich soil amendment. You can construct a confined situation out of landscape timbers, concrete blocks, or wire fencing, but a loose pile works just as well.

Toss on a handful of fertilizer, a sprinkle of garden soil, keep evenly damp, and turn it with a spading fork occasionally to incorporate oxygen. The more you turn it, the faster the decomposition. If you turn it every 3 or 4 days, you can have a finished product ready for use in about 6 to 8 weeks. Remember that shredded leaves decompose more readily.

Fertilizer
Every granular or liquid fertilizer that you purchase has 3 numbers printed on the label.

The 1st number represents nitrogen. This is a stimulant, and promotes green, lush growth. If your plants have yellowish leaves, they most likely are suffering from a lack of nitrogen. Natural sources of nitrogen are cottonseed meal, rotted manure and blood meal. A chemical source of nitrogen is ammonium sulfate. But be careful, an excess of nitrogen produces rank growth at the expense of flower and fruit production.

The 2nd number represents phosphorus. Phosphorus stimulates root growth, promotes maturity, and encourages fruit production and flowering. Weak plants, weak stems, and few flowers or fruit indicate a lack of phosphorus. A natural source of phosphorus is bone meal; a chemical source is super phosphate.

The 3rd number represents potassium or potash. Potassium promotes a plant’s general well being. It helps plants resist diseases and insects, increases root systems and strengthens stems. It also increases the development of flowers and fruits. A natural source of potassium is wood ashes; a chemical source is potassium chloride (muriate of potash). Potassium deficiency causes weak stems, insufficient root systems, and plants become more prone to diseases.

Amount to Use
Always use the minimum amount of fertilizer necessary to do the job. Excess fertilizer actually encourages certain insects and diseases. While a little fertilizer is good - too much is actually detrimental not only to your landscape, but also to Galveston Bay. Many drains in our locale empty into the bay, and excess fertilizer runoff pollutes not only the bay, but ultimately the Gulf of Mexico.

Pests & Diseases
We have our share – maybe more. They can’t be eliminated entirely, but they can be controlled.

Brown patch and chinch bugs may appear in your lawn, cabbage loopers may chomp away at your broccoli, white fly may infest your citrus trees, and powdery mildew will probably appear on your crape myrtles - but don't be discouraged. Your 1st defense is to identify the problem.

Invest in a gardening book written especially for our locale and make friends with your nurseryman and your Texas AgriLife Extension Office. These are the people with the answers to your questions. Although officially in Harris County, we are located just north of the Galveston County line and our growing conditions more closely replicate those of Galveston County. If you wish to speak with a Master Gardener at the Galveston County Texas AgriLife Extension Office, call 281-534-3413, ext. 1.

We hope the preceding information makes it easier to establish the landscape that is right for you.