dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

Archive for the category “sustainable”

Always Best to Buy (or GROW) Organic Produce?

Lately, I’m getting more requests from my landscaping clients who’ve never considered themselves gardeners to grow their own food.

And they want to do it organically.

Horror stories of tainted greens drive many to question what else they might be buying in that bag of lettuce or spinach. Restaurants, bars, and even airlines blame skyrocketing prices for dropping lime and avocado from their menus. It might tempt some folks to just grow their own food. While citrus and other heat loving plants thrive in my part of the world, what about you who don’t have the weather – or space – to grow your own? Should you move? Well, maybe.

At my house, produce may be found throughout the landscape. If I cannot grow enough, the rest is bought from local farmers whenever possible. I believe in permaculture, which is simply good stewardship of the land. But, as I said before, my options for growing food are vast because of where I live.  And I enjoy gardening.

Should you buy or try? Check this chart to see what produce you should ALWAYS buy organic.

Check this chart to see what produce you should ALWAYS buy organic. Green means little pesticides, red shows what has the most pesticides in traditionally grown produce.

If you’re confused about buying organic produce, check out this chart I made for a lecture I gave. It shows which traditionally grown produce items have the highest pesticide levels. Scary? That’s not the purpose of my talk or why I’m sharing this information. I simply want to give you guidelines on which items deserve the extra bucks to buy organic, or extra time and space to grow in your yard, if your climate allows. Although this won’t necessarily make you a better organic gardener, it could make you a better shopper when it comes to organic produce.

NOTE: if you want an easy-to-reproduce copy of this chart, just let me know. I’m happy to send you a larger JPEG or PDF of it.


Best fertilizer? Holy crap, BATMAN!

We’ve put in some new plants this spring and wondered what type of fertilizer you’d recommend.

Depends. What type of plants? What type of soil?  The best fertilizer for all plants and all soil types is rich soil. Don’t have that yet? Here’s my favorite fertility Rxs for the plantings here in my Texas garden. Here goes:

Crap happens. And when it does, let it rot and put it on your garden!

Crap happens. And when it does, let it rot and put it on your garden. Great soil is the best fertilizer for ANY plant!

ALL: Add 1-2″ composted manure over the whole landscape at least once per year. I try to do this Valentine’s Day. Why Valentine’s Day? It’s important this process occurs in cool months so plants or lawn won’t burn. The other reason for that date is I can remember it…fertility & Valentine’s go hand-in-hand…. or, well, you get the idea. For how long? I plan to stop with my annual cupid compost ceremony when I die, move, or my soil morphs into a rich loam yielding not only great produce, but also a shovel full of earthworms every time I effortlessly dig a hole. By the way, this is NOT mulch; it’s besides and underneath a spring application of mulch.

Osmaco&MedinaVEGGIES, FLOWERS, ETC. – Used as a foliar spray or poured-on soil activator, I keep a jug of Medina’s MEDINA PLUS  handy for monthly after-planting-pep-ups. This is also what I put into my compost to heat it up.

My double compost tumbler also boasts a spigot and container on bottom for an easy compost tea treat.

My double compost tumbler also boasts a spigot and container on bottom for an easy compost tea treat.

Speaking of which,  COMPOST TEA is a cheap – as in FREE – fertilizer. At my house, making compost tea is easy because of the composter I use: a double barrel tumbler with tea spout in the bottom. Never heard of compost tea? Here’s how to make it happen.

A local company (in Houston) called MICROLIFE has come up with great all-around organic fertilizers in several formulations for the different applications in the garden. They also have specialty formulations for specific plants, like azaleas and citrus, as well as for problems in the lawn, like brown patch. Their nifty online chart tells you what to use and when. I buy MicroLife by the 40 lb. bag, I’m such a fan.

When I tuck in just about any flowering/fruiting plant, I often add a dash of Osmocote for Flowers & Vegetables. This slow release, balanced (14-14-14) formula feeds the babies without burning or giving too much nitrogen (the 1st number in the 3 part formulation numbers, N-P-K), which makes it develop gorgeous green but few flowers. NEVER use lawn fertilizer in flowerbeds with blooming plants or they’ll spend all of their energy on the leaves and none on the blooms.

Another commonly used fertilizer that has no place in my garden is a “weed and feed” product. I absolutely hate these for many reasons, only one of which is how destructive it can be to plants other than lawn grasses. So if you have a grudge against me, you now know the chink in my armor!

NOTE: I am not paid, nor do I receive these products to endorse. I buy them at my local garden center just like you will.

Weeds or Woes? Choosing an Organic Method COULD Save Your Life!

Recently I heard you speak and you mentioned using RoundUp could hurt more than the weeds in my yard.

Can you explain?

New research shows WEEDS are not the only thing killed by Roundup....

New research shows WEEDS are not the only thing killed by Roundup….

Happy to expound on this one. A few weeks ago a neighborhood association asked me to look over their contract with a local lawn maintenance company. Immediately I redlined a problem: it specifically asked that RoundUp ®, a widely advertised glyphosate used in home and commercial gardening, be sprayed for weed control. I freaked, mainly because this is my HOA spraying next to my garden! I’d discovered genocide was going on in the neighborhood shortly after I moved in last fall when I drove up to a masked man, spray wand in hand in my front yard. I jerked open the car door, jumping up and down, screaming at the poor guy to get him to stop. I told him I’m an organic gardener and NEVER wanted to see his sorry spraying self in my garden again. He shrugged and moved the 4 feet over to my neighbor’s and began misting his poison again. 

So what’s the big deal? If you aren’t growing edibles – which I do throughout my entire landscape – you might not see any harm in using glyphosate as a short cut to weed eradication. Let’s face it: easy helps. Weeding is the toilet cleaning of gardening, in my opinion. And like toilets, it very seldom gets noticed… unless it does NOT get done. More and more research on what glyphosate does to our environmental systems AND our body systems should give us the heebie jeebies, even more than a nasty toilet. Just as it does with plants, glyphosate messes with our hormonal balance and cellular production. And since it’s designed to kill ALL plants, new findings show it does so IN us as well as around us, decimating the good bacteria needed for our intestinal health. And in September, the National Institutes of Health linked glyphosate to breast cancer. Here’s the article on their website. photo 1The stuff is especially dangerous to small children and pets. That means your little one playing in the lush lawn, or your pooch taking a poop where glyphosate has been applied exposes them to incredible danger, according to the National Pesticide Information Center, who offers some of the symptoms you can expect to see.

So what’s a healthy alternative? I’ll offer a few of my favorites – including cinnamon and white vinegar – in an upcoming article.

Many of the health issues we experience link unbreakably to our determination to travel easy street. The use of glyphosate is just one of the many toxic trails we find ourselves following when searching for a magic pill to perfection. I’m praying that as the public becomes more informed, getting rid of weeds the easy way won’t be as enticing to home gardeners and consumers as will good health for our loved ones and the planet we love. If we’ll insist commercial growers and maintenance companies ditch the poison completely, we might see a turn around in our generation. One neighborhood at a time.

Living with Low Spots

After it rains, our back yard takes forever to drain. It’s so discouraging to plant things and they drown. How can we get rid of the water without flooding our neighbors?

Drainage dilemmas plague many folks, either with seasonal sinkholes where water collects after a rain or a spot that’s always spongy and nothing grows well but weeds. Now we are talking shallow depression in the yard here, not hole-big-enough-to-eat-the-house-Florida-style.

raindropsLike a leaky roof, you probably don’t even think about drainage until it rains.

Landscaping professionals may disagree on HOW to solve drainage issues, but most agree the best solution financially and physically is to work with what you’ve got. Obviously if muddy waters rage through your yard like the Mississippi at flood stage – and you’re not interested in water-front property – you might need to a more comprehensive remedy. However, if your problem is periodic or simply a nuisance, here are a few inexpensive or even FREE ideas to try.

GRADE: Lawn grass responds best to a minimum 1/4″ drop vertically for every foot horizontal distance. That grade should point AWAY from your house, meaning soil at your home’s foundation should be the highest point. (Unless you live on a mountain, but that’s another post for another day.) Why? Constantly soggy soil means constantly soggy grass which means a lawn in constant distress. Expect diseases, especially fungal infection, and the pests that follow to become the dominant feature of your landscape if the slope’s too slight.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

While pleasant to view, moss on a walk-way spells D-A-N-G-E-R! Raise the walk a couple inches and backfill with sand.

DRAINS: A “dry river” can be installed to quickly wick water away from your low spot.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones, if used in a dry river, must be large enough that they won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A bit of river rock, making sure it’s headed DOWNHILL, is an easy fix. But if the stones block instead of remove water, might as well invite the neighborhood over for a  pool party next time a black cloud hovers. Water gushing  down your river?  A large boulder or clump of ornamental grass strategically located slows the flow. If the runoff is more than a dry river can handle alone, or if the area is not conducive to such a feature, consider a French drain instead of or besides. There are plenty of how-to’s online for French drains. If you hire drainage done, you might take the advice of a landscaper friend of mine when interviewing installers: “If you call in somebody to help with drainage and they don’t have a level in their truck, run ’em off!”

PLANTS: If the area is wet for a short time and not a nuisance, consider planting natives that thrive with wet feet, soaking up the extra moisture. Or how about creating a wildlife or bog garden, or even a water feature to take advantage of your problem? Check your local native plant society for a list of appropriate ones for your area.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

One of my favorite plants for low spots is our native river birch, Betula nigra with its gorgeous peely bark.

Duel purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

Dual purpose, this container also holds rainwater runoff to irrigate the nearby veggie garden.

RAIN BARREL: At my house, rain barrels are going in at the gutter downspouts. When I build my new porch, I’m planning the roof based on collection of rainwater so my garden is self-sustaining when irrigation limitations come back, as they surely will.

Before you head for the big guns, be sure your plumbing or irrigation isn’t leaking and you’re watering properly.  Then next time it rains, look for your low spots. Choose a remedy that will turn your problem on its head, making the area the HIGHlight of your landscape. Not so discouraging after all, is it? cc:



River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won't wash away in a down-pour.

River stones make a long-lasting mulch that won’t wash away in a down-pour.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.

A clean slate. Or a muddy one, anyway.






This week I’ve been working with my friend Cindy Huey on the area in my front yard near the entrance. When we moved to this house a few months ago, there were two huge sago palms (which are highly toxic, by the way) and 20 shrubs in an area barely large enough to support one of the sagos. The planting was original to the house and, as usual, the builders weren’t thinking past selling the house. That’s reasonable for them, but awful for the buyers. Or for the NEXT buyers, 12 years later. Although the previous owners did a great job on maintenance, everything was planted only inches from the sidewalk. Keeping the dwarf bottlebrush and boxwoods from attacking visitors must have been a constant chore and certainly a battle I chose NOT to fight. I transplanted the bottlebrush to the side yard and gave away the boxwoods, which are not a good plant choice for our area anyway.

Since I’m a professional landscape designer, you might wonder why I might need another landscape professional to help me at my house. It’s more fun and more productive to have an outsider’s view: more fun because Cindy’s enthusiasm over plants makes working with her a blast; more productive because it’s hard to make decisions when it’s YOUR STUFF. As a plant freak myself, I know how many options I have, so how can I possibly choose just a few? Thought some of you might have this dilemma, too, so I’ll share criteria for picking just the right plants for my entry garden.

1) Does it fit? Choose plants that will not overwhelm and overtake the space when full-grown. Yes, a one-gallon shrub looks Lilliputian next to a house, but it will grow. It’s pretty important that visitors can physically enter the entry.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

Native to my area, Gulf muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) creates interest all year.

2) Does it fit? No, I’m not repeating myself. Well, I am, but I’m talking about a different kind of fit here. While the sago palms went well with the stucco of my home if I wanted a Gulf Coast vibe, my style is more California Spanish. I’ve also replaced water guzzlers for water savers, planting native and well-adapted succulents, perennials, and soft grasses and installing a Mexican beach pebble mulch. This allowed me to cap some of the irrigation. If we experience a repeat of the last 3 years’ water rationing, we’ll be ready with plants that love the heat and humidity, but don’t mind drying out periodically.

3) Does it look good? All the TIME? I enjoy putting out annuals for seasonal color. Since we don’t have a lot of big seasonal changes in South-east Texas, annual color lets me fake-it-till-it-makes-it. While we have tons of great warm season perennials and some plants that will bloom year-round in years we have no freezing weather, I enjoy my mums in fall, johnny-jump-ups in winter, daffodils for spring. Yes, all of these will probably make it all year, but I don’t want to let them go into the off-season on my time, making brown yuk the highlight of my landscape. Color pots are the answer for my front entry. By putting evergreens as the base planting, I can pop a pot into the scene and WHOLLA! seasonal interest! It also allows me to shift the pot of gross looking but still living plants to a side area and bring out the new seasonal container. (See how I do it HERE.)

Follow these 3 rules for the entry and your plant pallet dwindles down to a manageable decision. Now the backyard is a different subject all together, ’cause RULES? We don’t need no stinkin’ RULES! We’ll head to the backyard soon, so stay tuned.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

Instead of filling a tall pot with soil, elevate a smaller one inside with bricks.

Figs gone wild: YOU CAN GROW THAT!

home-made fig preserves recipe

A few months ago my doctor put me on a LOW-FODMAP diet.  The bottom line is I can’t eat lots of things I love anymore. Including figs. That might not be a big deal to you, but it is to me. Making fig preserves each autumn is a tradition for my dad and me to do together.

So is EATING fig preserves. (I’ll give you the recipe in a bit.)

When my youngest daughter got excited about having a fig tree at her house, I got excited, too.  Like most young couples, she’s limited in her landscaping budget. Fortunately, figs are forgiving….. and giving…. and giving again.  Know someone who has a fig tree with low, pliable branches?  You’ve got a FIG donor!

Got a low FIG branch? You have a baby tree waiting to sprout! This easy propagation method is called “layering.”

Here’s how you do it.

Bend a branch so it can be put into soil.  It will need to be pliable enough to bend without breaking and also have leaves or small branches on it.  Remove those to create an “injury” and bury that spot in a bit of soil. I put a heavy rock on the site to weight it down and keep it from moving around.

roots mean it’s ripe for planting

Wait a few months.  Lift the branch to make sure it has developed some nice healthy roots.

Now cut it away from the rest of the plant and put your new roots in their new home.  Wherever that might be.

FOSTER FAMILY FIGS: 3 c. unpeeled ripe figs, 3 c. sugar (or 2 c. sugar/Splenda blend), juice of 1 lemon, opt. box of pectin – Combine all ingredients and let set for a 1/2 hour.  (We play a couple hands of cards at this juncture.) Cook on medium heat in a large saucepan till thick.  Put into sterilized jars and seal with heated rubber lids to allow seals to set properly. Spoon onto toast or pour over cream cheese.

HIT: making your own fig preserves out of your own figs!


Don't let taters-gone-native go to waste!

I can be lazy.

While that statement sounds very much like I AM lazy, the distinction is an important one.  For most of my life, it’s been difficult for me to even sit still, much less completely veg out.  Those days are over. Has my personality morphed, choleric gone phlegmatic?  Probably not.  When it comes to continuous, never-ending chores – such as house or yard work – my conscience has simply relaxed at the expense of years.  It seems my friend Brenda Beust Smith, the self-proclaimed LAZY GARDENER, must have arrived at the prescribed age of ease-allowance before I did, robbing me of the title.

Combine my newfound laissez-faire chore blinders, an obnoxious obsession for recycling (stemming more from being cheap AND creative than any environmental crusade), and a desire to buck time-tested gardening rules and what do you get?

The sum is often disaster. Last week’s discovery, however, will be dinner tomorrow night: plenty of yummy new potatoes.

Suppertime spuds? DIG IT!

HIT: sprouted potatoes beg to be planted!

Seed potatoes should be bought and then planted early in spring, according to the rules here in my part of Texas. My version?  Smelled something funny in the pantry after returning from vacation in October, my nose leading me to a bag of organic new potatoes pushed behind a cereal box. They weren’t so new anymore.  Already sprouted, I tucked them – untreated and uncut – into my garden after yanking my frost-bitten tomatoes out.  So here it is, 1st week of March, and my potatoes are faster food than a crowded drive-through at dinner-time.  Just pop them into a few cups of boiling water in my pressure cooker, top with a bit of olive oil, sea salt and rosemary sprigs and serve.  Sounds even lazier than a trip under the golden arches, huh?  Just sit and wait for the timer to go off!

Rake Those Leaves, or Leaf It Alone?

It’s beginning to look a lot like…..well, like AUTUMN here in South Texas.  But, I don’t dread leaves on the ground anymore.

lacebark elm (Ulmus parvifolia) leaves quickly decompose because of their diminutive size

HIT: leave the leaves for a more nutritious meal!

Winter officially begins today, December 21st, even if my sister in Denver begs to differ.  Storms here sent leaves scurrying, as per schedule this week.  So, what should be done about that?  (The leaves, I mean.  Only way to deal with cold is LEAF yourself.)  Many communities follow a Don’t Bag It! program in response to a GROWING problem:  landscape waste in landfills.  Some estimates say 20-30% of trash headed to landfills is yard debris and of that, 40-50% is leaves.  While we can say, “leaves break down anyway,” the costs hauling them to a landfill are astronomical.  Then the resulting decomposed black gold – compost full of nutrients for which our lawns beg anyway – is left to fertilize trash.  In fact, leaves contain up to 80% of gathered nutrients from the growing season, according to Texas A&M University. Seeing a vicious cycle here?  Fertilize the plants, gather the waste, cart it off, fertilize the plants, gather the waste, cart it off…..

WHY do people still rake, then?  And what happens to the grass if you refrain from de-leafing?  My theory is the yard guys need something to do after mowing season, or maybe the pressure is on when our neighbors do it, making us look like lazy bums with a messy yard if we don’t.  It’s great exercise to rake leaves and tons of fun to play in them.  And don’t leaves left in beds blow everywhere?  Won’t they smother the lawn?  The answer is yes, and no.

MYTH: leaves leave you looking like a bum!

Flower/shrub beds benefit greatly from a warm blanket of leaves in winter. If you don’t want your natural mulch to go airborne with a strong wind, run a mower over leaves on the lawn, putting the shredded leaves on top of the whole ones that have fallen in the bed.  The new leaves will mat together.  Lawngrass prefers chopped salad over large bites anyway.  Smaller pieces add nutrients back into the soil, where they need to go, with a bonus of fewer bare spots for winter weeds to take hold.

Still expect the stigma of bum-on-the-block if you leave the leaves where they lie?  Then gather them up and put them into a compost bin or barrel instead of a trashbag.  They’ll rot into fertilizer in no time.  Here’s a video from my friend P. Allen Smith showing exactly how to compost the leaves from your yard.

So, let your landscape have its mulch and eat it, too.  Might make you look forward to watching the leaves rain down next year.

Is My Tree Dead, or Just Playin’ Possum?

Several months ago a friend asked if she should cut down her dead tree or wait to see if the leaves come back out in the spring……  When I repeated her question, as any good therapist would do, she recognized what she’d said was not what she’d really meant.  Her real question: IS MY TREE DEAD, or is it just playin’ possum?

While viewing the change in season is enjoyable, seeing a change in LIFE of a favorite shade tree can be devastating.  The most severe drought our area of Texas has possibly ever experienced has pushed plants to their limit with many dead, dying, or distressed.  Record flooding in other areas of the country can be just as detrimental.  So how do you know if a tree is dead?  Can it be resurrected if it’s had a near-death experience?  Here are a few things to look for if you suspect your tree is on its last…um….trunk and the steps to take if you want to keep it from becoming firewood.

green is good! (photo from blog by April Demes at

TEST IT:  Arborists are trained to help keep your tree alive.  But if it is already dead, no reason to pay them to give you the bad news.  Where the problems appear can tell you a lot.  When there’s thinning on top like a middle-aged guy, the problem could be severe.  However, if just a few lower branches show distress, your patient might still make it.  Try to break one or two twigs off.  When the twig gives way easily with a “crack,” it is dead.  You might do this in several spots in the crown, breaking twigs progressing up to branches until you find a live one.  If you don’t have luck after a number of tries, use a sharp implement to scrape away an area on the trunk.  Don’t cut deep, but gouge till you see greenish tissue.  Brown or tan dry pulp, no matter how far you stab, means the tree’s most likely a goner.

TRIM IT:  Trees don’t do comb-overs.  Never seen a man who can sport one effectively either, for that matter…. If you’ve found signs of life somewhere on your tree, prune away the dead weight.  Branches that are not actively helping are hurting the plant, so relieving your stressed tree will allow it to concentrate on getting well.  Insects should not be a problem if the temperatures stay cool, thus pruning paint is unnecessary.

TREAT IT:  Winter is when tree roots are active, not top growth.  Use this time to pamper the roots so they can better support the rest of the tree when the leaves return in spring.  A good drink in autumn – whether from a soaking rain or a soaker hose – is advised if your gauge or weatherman says you’re still behind in rainfall.   As tempting as it might be, do NOT fertilize unless you are using something for the roots only.  That means anything that puts nitrogen (the 1st number in the 3 digit ratio on the bag) into the soil will put additional stress on the tree.  The best thing we can do for a declining plant is give it a warm blanket.  A mulch blanket, that is.

HIT: blanket your tree with love, and nothing shows love like a blanket of mulch for the winter!

MYTH: trees don't need a human touch.

Trees, like mothers, give us benefits we often do not realize until they are gone.  A little TLC to return the favor is not too much to ask, is it?  Take the time to get your trees healthy and generations to come will thank you for your generosity.


Tomorrow’s Garden TODAY!

This summer I had the opportunity to meet a fellow I’ve followed for some time.  Not literally, of course.  They put people in jail for that nowadays, I hear.  But Stephen Orr cropped up on my radar several years ago when he was garden editor at HOUSE AND GARDEN magazine and at the cool Conde’ Nast magazine DOMINO, of whose demise I’m still lamenting.  He moved over to guide the gardening department at Martha Stewart Living Magazine a few months ago and quickly put his stamp on it, bumping the style up to a new level, one that seemingly could not get any better.

Martha Stewart Living's garden editor Stephen Orr giving the keynote address for Garden Writers Association.

(Then I saw the digital version on my iPad and I thanked the techno-gods!  Glossy magazines cannot touch the incredible interactivity of the digital version.  Having the chance to flip back and forth between videos, audios and how-to’s make it a perfect format for many genres, but enhance the gardening experience unbelievably.)

Tommorow's Garden: Design and Inspiration for a New Age of Sustainable Gardening, photos and text by Stephen Orr (Rodale Books)

When I heard Stephen had a new book out, I knew his ability to find beauty in the everyday would mean a gorgeous book.  I was right.

One of the things I like least about gardening books (and magazines) that come to us via New York is that most of the content seems to be limited to that area as well.  That’s fine if you are in New England, but doesn’t do the rest of us much good.  However, Stephen hails from West Texas – and went to the OTHER university in the Lone Star State – so he was conscientious about giving equal billing to every end of our nation.  In fact, he’s created a panorama of place to show how the environment should be considered in landscaping.  A novel idea, huh?

HIT: sustainable gardens that respect our roots

From plants to hardscape materials to furnishings, Stephen shows the importance of selecting things that are a good fit for where you are and who you are. He shows recycled spaces with personality and purpose in a whole new light.  His yummy photos display gardens that run the gamut of styles, but all point out how we can be better stewards of what we have.

Artist Loela Barry, Stephen Orr, me, and Central Texas Gardener producer Linda Lehmusvirta.(PHOTO BY CINDY HUEY)

Thank you, Stephen, for your insight into where we’ve been and helping pull out ideas for where we can go in landscaping our homes with respect to nature and her resources.  While they might be limited, creativity is not and you’ve shown that to us in TOMORROW’S GARDEN.  And I have to say, I’m glad your Texas boots are still showing!

MYTH: limited resources=limited choices in gardening

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