dishin' the DIRT on hit and myth landscaping

Archive for the tag “Texas A&M”

Ants-in-the-Pants Not a Fun Game

Yesterday while removing spring/summer blooming plants in a raised bed, I found a little more than dying plants. Recent rains encouraged fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) to look for higher ground. Raised bed = water-free home. Think of a beach house on stilts. Part of the mound fell from the root ball of a plant onto the leg of my jeans. Passersbyers witnessed moves that haven’t come from my body in quite some time when  I was
stung several times. I still can’t figure out how those demons got skin contact. Soon after the fiery sensation (thus, the common name),  itchy red bumps emerged, morphing overnight into nasty looking bumps that made my right leg look more like a 14-year-old boy’s face.

These boogers have been a southern gardener – and nature lover – problem for several decades now, hitching a ride into the U.S. on ships or even plants imported from their native South America. This invasion does have its upside, though. “Fire ants voraciously consume populations of fleas, ticks, termites, cockroaches, chinch bugs, mosquito eggs and larva, scorpions, etc.” says Galveston County Master Gardener Trish McDaniel in a publication called “Beneficials In the Landscape” from Texas A&M University. “(The) culinary creed for fire ants could be: if it will stay still for a bit, then it’s dinner!”

As far as full-grown humans and livestock, this appetite fire ants have for the things we hate most is good news. Not so much for little ones, though. A fawn born near a fire ant mound can spell disaster if momma doe doesn’t get her baby away quickly enough. So too with a calf or kitten.


Organic pest control is always best to use near children or pets.

There are a number of organic methods for ridding yourself, albeit temporarily, of fire ants. (A great website for this information is from Urban Harvest.) One free way is to pour boiling water on the mound’s freeway. Do this several times over a two-hour period for the best results, as some of the ants could be too far down in the earth to be killed with the 1st pour. As they BRING OUT THEIR DEAD (you Monte Python fans know the line), hit the mound again.

When I found the mound – or they found me – yesterday, I took a little different approach. With a school nearby and me nearby (I’m a clutz and can’t blame McDonald’s if I get scalded), I sprinkled a bit of instant grits around the area.


For a cheap & easy fire ant bait, you can KISS MY GRITS!

The ants will take it down deep into the mound where it will absorb liquid and they’ll blow up like they’re on steroids and eventually implode. Or explode. The point is, they’ll no longer bite.

So sorry to disappoint, but I’ll not be doing the ants-in-the-pants dance for a bit. Unless DANCING WITH THE STARS calls. Then could I borrow a mound from you? That’s basically the only way to get my groove on these days, I’m afraid.


Tree Trimming for Dummies

MYTH: tis the season for tree trimming....

The Christmas season has everyone talking about trimming trees.  Oh.  Not that kind?  What if you have trees than need pruning, though?  Can that be done NOW?  HOW?

Since Edward Scissorhands wasn’t available (his blades were full), here are my quick tips on pruning trees and shrubs.

WHEN? There are several reasons to trim woody plants and a corresponding season to do it.  My memory sucks, so I’ve come up with ways to remember based on those seasons.

Fall’s for the fallen.  Spring’s sprung anew.

If you have dead branches, autumn is a great time to get them off the plant so it doesn’t have to carry that dead weight into winter.  Literally.  Cold weather means most insects that would harm exposed cuts are gone, too.  Take this opportunity to trim away any obviously lifeless limbs.  (If you don’t know how to tell what’s good wood and what’s not, check out my previous post on trees.)  Wait until spring before pruning trees for shape or size.  Cutting can send a signal to the tree that causes new growth, which is not a good thing going into winter since tender new shoots are susceptible to injury in freezing temps.  The addendum to this rule regards blooming trees and shrubs.  They should usually be trimmed just after they finish blooming so you don’t miss out on seeing the flowers.

HOW? The go-to guy for prunology is plant pathologist Dr. Alex Shigo.  Texas A&M’s website goes into big-time detail for you anal type, but for me, a picture is worth a thousand words so here’s his diagram for where to trim branches depending on whether they’re living or deceased.

figure 6, Shigo's method of pruning

HIT: trim your trees for the right reasons in the right seasons by watching a how-to video from The Garden Girl @

So while the ladder is still out, channel your inner Edward and whack away those dead branches.  It’s a  gift to your trees that will come full circle by giving you a healthier landscape.

Lawn laments

What do you do when ‘take all patch’ keeps attacking your St. Augustine even after you have diligently applied fungus control, fertilizer, appropriate water, etc?   Skip

“WHAT IS WRONG WITH MY______?” begins most conversations pointed in my direction anyway, but  this year folks seem particularly desperate to find a prescription for landscaping woes.  While turf is not my real expertise (as soon as I move into a new house, I start working on ways to get rid of all lawn before the boxes are even opened!), hopefully I can point you in the right direction.  But 1st, let’s make sure the diagnosis is correct.  

Take-all patch in St.Augustine ( )Several grass ailments resemble one another.  Texas A&M University is my go-to place and their “Diagnostics Flow Chart” is a great place to begin the search.  (Many other universities throughout the U.S. have resources as well, but I’m an Aggie, so that’s where I usually start. I receive no compensation from Texas A&M.  In fact, our honor-grad daughter – a 3rd generation Aggie – did not even receive scholarships from them! However, I’ve found universities’ research programs to be cutting edge, although I check to see if specific companies are sponsoring the research…..)  

Go next to Aggie Turf’s Answers4You/diseases page to see the broad range of things that CAN go wrong (which is why I opt out of turf in principle).   

If you are unable to determine if the issue is fungal or an insect, you might want to send in a sample to get the proper diagnosis from a turfgrass lab such as the one at Texas A&M.  My friend SKIP RICHTER shows you how to do this

HIT: diagnosing turf grass ailments is easier than ever

Assuming you have determined take-all root rot (TARR) is your grass’ ailment, let me warn you: this fungal disease can be a nightmare to eliminate.  Effecting most warm season grasses, the only way your lawn can be “taken” is if there is already a problem.  In my case, this year’s drought highlighted the lack of water delivered to a part of my lawn from the automatic sprinkler system.  (I’m saving up my $$$ for a pool, so YES, I still have a sliver of turfgrass.)  As an organic gardener, I’ll not use prescribed fungicides.  They’ve not proven terribly effective in any case for take-all.  

MYTH: big problems require BIGGER drugs!

New research out shows a simple pH remedy on the area of infection one of the best solutions.  Peat moss.  Yep.  In another YouTube video from SKIP RICHTER, you  see step-by-step exactly how to manage your patient and the dosage of peat moss needed to encourage your turf back to good health.  I’ll be following the doctor’s orders today and will let you know how it works at my house.  Love to hear other folks results, too.  

Trees Need Extra Love in a Drought

We just bought a new house and it was empty for some time.  I use my irrigation system a couple of times a week, but should I water my mature trees more than that this summer? (pecans, oaks)  We haven’t had much rain for the last 6 months.   Anthony S.

Most of the nation seems to be in feast (flood) or famine (drought) mode, doesn’t it?  While hard on people, too little or too much water is devastating for plants that cannot escape their environment.

If you have a rain gauge – which I STRONGLY RECOMMEND – you’ll know exactly how much natural rainfall has occurred and whether or not supplemental water is warranted.  Depending on the tree’s age/size and variety,  you might need to apply more water several times during the growing season to keep it healthy.  If the drought continues, consider a regular schedule for watering your trees.  Texas A&M University offers insight into tree care through their EARTHKIND® website, giving a number of tools to both prevent and curtail damage to your landscape due to lack of rain.  Here are some of their suggestions, along with some of my own.

  1. Look to your trees to tell you they are thirsty.  Premature foliage yellowing and/or leaf loss over the whole tree, leaf margin (outside edge) burns and curling, and eventually loss of canopy beginning with the inner, lower branches.  How do you save a dead tree?  You don’t, so watch for early cries for help.
    Drought-stressed elm tree (from Austin American Statesman)
  2. Remove grass and weeds under trees –  which compete for available water – and replace with mulch.
  3. Do NOT use fertilizer on drought stressed plants.  Encouraging new growth is the last thing they need.  And NEVER use weed ‘n’ feed products near trees.  (I suggest there is no reason to use these products at all!)
  4. Know what kind of trees you have and then treat them according to their needs.  (The Smithsonian released a NEW APP for that – LEAFSNAP. Don’t depend on it, though.  It is still a work in progress….) Just as with people, each variety of tree has specific requirements.  Your mature pecan will require a significant amount of water, but certain oak trees (like bur oak) need less than others (like water oaks).
    HIT: 10 gallons of water per inch of trunk diameter for each watering. Measure trunk diameter at knee height. General formula: Tree Diameter x 5 minutes = Total Watering Time. from City of Boulder, CO
  5. A soaker hose set out under the ENTIRE canopy of the your mature trees is the most efficient way to water deeply.  Watering only at the trunk not only doesn’t help, it could HURT your tree, encouraging a fungal infection where the water sits.  (I’d add you might want to see exactly how much water is coming out of the hose. Put a tuna can under a section … long does it take to get an inch of water standing in the can?  For you engineer types, here is a WEBSITE that helps you convert the inches to gallons, the most common measurement.)
    6.  If you are planting a new tree in your landscape, GO NATIVE!  You will save precious resources – including water and YOUR TIME – if you install a variety that already will feel at home at yours.
    Whether a plethora of patio plants in pots, an oversized orchard or a standard suburban site, know what plants you have and what their preferences are in order to help them THRIVE in any weather.  Plants are integral to OUR health, but they depend on YOU to keep them healthy!

    MYTH: SOAK YOUR TREE’S TRUNK – against the trunk only, a soaker hose can cause more harm than good!


Periwinkle problems solved?

Gena asks me:


infected periwinkle (photo from, Dr. Jerry Parsons)

Annual periwinkles or vincas (Cathaaranthus roseus) are susceptible to a fungal disease.  A great deer-resistant annual color plant for sun or partial shade, periwinkles have been plagued by this fungus for several years, although it effects only the periwinkles and not other plants.  But once it gets in your soil, anytime you plant periwinkles in that spot, water mixes with the soil and it splashes back up onto the new plant, it will be re-infected.  There have been steps suggested to reduce the chance of re-infection, but in my experience periwinkles simply aren’t worth it, rotting before your very eyes as you watch all your money go down the drain.


The Texas A&M University horticultural team rides in once again to save the day.  My friend Dr. Brent Pemberton has found a solution while doing a trial of a specific variety of periwinkle seed –  ‘Nirvana’ –  from Goldsmith Seeds, Inc.

“The results were UNBELIEVABLE!!!! During the fourth wettest spring and early summer in San Antonio weather-keeping history!!, not a one of these plants died of the disease. These plants were planted in the contaminated beds rather than *clean* beds. The deer walked all around the flowers and did not touch a one!”  (from


You no longer have to give up on annual periwinkles in your garden, even if you lost them in years past.  Look for varieties that are resistant to the Aerial Phytophthora fungus, like ‘Nirvana.’  But don’t be afraid to try other great annuals like white dwarf zinnias or even our American native perennial, desert zinnia (Zinnia acerosa).   Now you can have your flowers and deer won’t eat them, too!

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