By William Johnson

People commonly take their longest vacations in summer and they generally remember to make arrangements to have someone take care of everything from their pets to the newspaper.
But many people may neglect to have someone look after their plants and home grounds during their absence. And if you go away from home for more than a week, you may return to find substantial damage has occurred to plants left unattended.
This is especially true for plants growing in containers – both indoors and outside.
The ideal solution is to ask a friend who is knowledgeable about plants to check on your plants regularly and water them when necessary. Be sure to give written instructions on the needs of each plant or group of plants, since your friend is not as familiar with them as you are. But try not to make the instructions too complicated.
If the plants are going to be on their own, move those growing indoors away from sunny, bright windows, so they use water less rapidly. This doesn’t mean putting them in a dark room since they still need bright, indirect light to stay healthy while you’re gone.
Then right before leaving on your trip, thoroughly water all of your indoor plants. Even allow some water to stand in the saucers beneath the plants’ containers – something we normally would not do.
Plants in small pots will tend to dry out the fastest. If you will be gone for more than a week, enclose these plants (pot and all) in clear plastic bags to retain moisture and reduce soil moisture loss. Plants in plastic bags should receive bright light but no direct sun, which could cause excessive heat buildup inside the plastic.
Plants outside often need to be watered almost every day during the intense heat of summer especially when accompanied with windy conditions. Place all of your outdoor container plants, including any hanging baskets, in a shady location near the northern side of a building or under the protective cover of a large shade tree or covered patio.
Group plants fairly close together because this, along with the shady location, will help slow water loss. And, of course, water thoroughly just before you leave on vacation.
If you’ll be gone for more than a few days and you can’t find someone to water for you, inexpensive water timers – available at local nurseries and hardware stores – can work very well when hooked up to an irrigation system. A battery-operated or electrical unit attaches to an outside faucet. All you do is set the timer for when you want the water to come on (based on how often you generally have to water the plants) and for how long, and it will water your plants automatically.
It’s probably easiest to use an oscillating sprinkler to water a grouping of your container plants. But if you wanted to be more sophisticated, drip systems also are available. With such a system, an emitter head, which is attached to thin, plastic tubing, is placed into each container. When the water timer comes on, the tubing carries water from a main line to each container, where the emitter allows the water to drip into the soil. Very little water is wasted, but it takes more time and money to set up this type of system.
In addition to caring for plants, you need to water your home grounds very well prior to leaving, especially if there has been little rainfall before your vacation time starts. A thorough, slow soaking will provide a lasting supply of moisture.
Make sure you mulch all flower beds, vegetable gardens, shrub plantings and newly planted trees, too. Use a 3-inch to 4-inch layer of shredded leaves, cypress mulch, pine bark mulch or other available mulch to conserve moisture and reduce germination of weed seeds.
Also water newly planted trees thoroughly by laying a hose with trickling water a few inches from the trunk and leaving it there for about 30 minutes per tree.
Flower beds and vegetable gardens are particularly vulnerable to drought while you are away. To water automatically, place either soaker hoses or sprinklers to cover various beds and areas of your landscape. Connect them to hoses attached to a timer at each faucet you use for irrigation. Set the timers to come on twice a week and stay on long enough to soak an area thoroughly. Also, set the timers so that each water timer comes on at a different hour; that way you won’t lose water pressure while irrigating. And keep in mind that morning irrigation is preferred.
Be sure to water and cut the lawn before leaving, and plan to have it mowed during your absence, if necessary. Most lawns require mowing at least every seven to 10 days. Besides becoming a telltale sign that you are away, overgrowth is unhealthy for your lawn, and the grass will be unattractive and stressed when it finally is mowed.
Finally, any sign of active insect or disease problems should be dealt with before you leave, or you may return to widespread damage and expensive replacement costs.

Beautiful Gardens by William Johnson

While gardeners love flowers for the beauty they provide to the home landscape, few gardeners grow flowers for eating. That’s a shame because many flowers, in addition to being edible, bring lively flavors, colors, and textures to salads, soups, casseroles, and other dishes.
Eating flowers is not as exotic as it sounds. The use of flowers as food dates back to Roman times, and to the Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures. Edible flowers were especially popular in the Victorian era during Queen Victoria’s reign. So, just what are the guidelines for munching on flowers?
There are some basic guidelines when it comes to edible flowers. Much of this information is pure common sense, but it’s important to be mindful when venturing into new gastronomic pursuits. Many of us do not have a family connection of an experienced “elder” to tell us which flowers might be safely edible, so it’s good to review some basics.
It’s important to be cautious. If you have allergy issues or a compromised immune system, it’s best to skip these adventures with edible flowers unless you have total control over their production. Identify the flower exactly and eat only the edible parts of those flowers. Tulip flowers, for instance, can be eaten, but only the petals. If the taste of any flower is objectionable—too bitter, too sour, too spicy, or just plain weird—don’t swallow it. Flowers can vary in edibility depending on the time of year. Once you have established that a flower is safely edible, experiment with its flavor and texture at different times of the year.
Toxicity is a major concern. Some ornamental plants are distinctly poisonous though beautiful, including several adorning gardens at this time of year: bleeding hearts, lily-of-the valley and oleander. Even though a lovely daffodil may seem to be just the thing to top a birthday cake, stay away from using those. Other beauties to avoid eating include hydrangea and Texas mountain laurel.  Be sure flowers are free of pesticides. Regulations for how to use pesticides on food crops differ from regulations for ornamental crops. Be sure that the rose or pansy flower you have your eye on has not been treated with any pesticides which are illegal to be used on a food crop.
Roses, for example, are sometimes treated with a systemic insecticide that is applied to the soil. This should not be regarded as safe for human consumption due to the use of a systemic insecticide that can be present in most or all parts of a plant for several weeks after application.
When choosing flowers for edibility, look for those grown safely. Don’t pluck a flower at random from an unfamiliar location or make the assumption that flowers in florist displays are edible. In most cases, the petals are the palatable part of the flowers listed as “edible.” Remove the stamens and pistil from larger flowers such as daylilies (the stamens are covered with pollen, which may aggravate allergies). Reliably edible flowers include calendulas, dandelions, geraniums, nasturiums, pansies, roses, squash blossoms, and sweet violets. This is only a partial list of edible flowers.
One flower that is particularly abundant in many area landscapes is the daylily. While the daylily nowadays is considered a delicacy by wild food gatherers and knowledgeable chefs, it has a long history in Chinese cuisine in addition to Chinese medicine.
Daylily flowers can be used in a variety of ways. They add sweetness to soups and vegetable dishes. Flowers that are half opened or fully opened may be dipped in a light batter of flour and water and fried in a wok. You can add the petals to egg dishes and salads. Dried daylily petals, called “golden needles” by the Chinese, are an ingredient in many Chinese recipes, including hot-and-sour soup.
Some food preparers have suggested that varieties with pale yellow or orange flowers produce the sweetest, most delectable taste. However, it appears that daylily taste is related to daylily   cultivar more than flower color according to serious taste trials.
Eating flowers is not a weird or unusual gastronomic endeavor. If you like broccoli or cauliflower or artichoke, then you are already a flower connoisseur since a head of broccoli or cauliflower is composed of a few hundred unopened flowers! The general rule is that the flowers of most herbs and vegetables are safe to eat (with flowers of tomato, potato, eggplant and pepper being notable exceptions). Always check first, because as with anything in life, there will always be exceptions.
The guidelines provided here are definitely related to a common sense approach to selecting other types of flowers as food. Adding flower petals to a salad or garnishing a stack of pancakes with a small rose can be fun and effective, but it’s necessary to become informed before ingesting your floral creations.

William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

By William Johnson
Q: My tomato plants have stopped setting fruit. What’s the problem?
A: This condition is due to a blossom drop. Blossom drop is a condition suffered by tomatoes, peppers, snap beans, and some other fruiting vegetables where the plant blooms but fails to set fruit, the blooms die and fall off. Tomato plants lose their blossoms for several different reasons usually related to some type of stress. The stress may be either nutritional, environmental or some combination of the two.
During this time of the growing season the most likely factor is temperature-related. Despite the fact that the ancestors of tomatoes evolved in the tropics, the flowering and fertilization process in tomatoes is quite sensitive to temperature conditions.
When day temperatures consistently exceed 85 degrees F. and night temperatures exceed 72 degrees F., tomato blossoms will start to drop. Since our daytime and nighttime temperatures have exceeded these upper limits over the past few days, gardeners across the county should expect blossom drop to increase over the next few weeks.
It is interesting to note that although the combination of high day and night temperature causes blossom drop, high night temperatures alone can be detrimental to flowering even if day temperatures are not over 85°F. Blossom drop caused by warm temperatures is primarily a problem on large-fruited tomatoes. Heirloom tomatoes are even more sensitive to the high temperatures that occur during the latter part of our spring growing season.
To help extend the tomato growing season, I always advise gardeners to plant one or several cherry tomato transplants. Cherry tomatoes have small, cherry-sized fruits often used in salads and for immediate consumption. Plants of cherry tomatoes range from dwarf (such as Tiny Tim) to seven feet or taller plants (such as Sweet 100).
Cherry tomatoes are easy to grow and will provide bountiful yields of flavorful and juicy fruits. Cherry tomatoes are less prone to many of the problems that plague larger-fruited varieties (such as blossom end rot) and they often produce fruit early.

Q: My citrus tree has black mold-like growth on the upper surface of some of the leaves? Should I use a fungicide to treat it?
A: You most likely have sooty mold, a fungus that grows on the sweet residue (known as honeydew) produced by sucking insects such as aphids and whiteflies. So don’t use a fungicide. That will not get to the cause of the problem. You need to treat with an insecticide to control the insects. Try using one of the horticultural oil sprays such as SunSpray Ultra-Fine Spray Oil or Green Light Neem Oil. Two or more applications about 7 to 10 days apart are recommended. Be sure to also apply either product to the lower side of all the leaves. Read and follow the manufacturer’s directions for use including conditions of air temperatures.
The horticultural oil suffocates the insects and greatly reduces their population while not harming most beneficial insects that also feed on the aphids and whiteflies. The horticultural oil will also help loosen the growth of sooty mold. Then rainfall and normal weathering will gradually cause the sooty mold to disappear.

Q: How can you tell the difference between a slicing type cucumber and a pickling type cucumber?
A: All pickles are cucumbers, but not all cucumbers make good pickles. Slicing type cucumbers are generally dark green in color and are from six-to-eight inches in length when mature. Pickling cucumbers tend to be lighter in color and are short and blocky in shape. An important point to remember is that if you intend to put up pickles, then you definitely should grow a pickling type variety. Pickling cucumbers were developed to go through the brining process and will generally produce a higher quality pickling product.
 If you intend to use cucumbers mainly in salads, it is generally recommended that you use a slicing type cucumber. However, pickling varieties can also be used in salads–I rather like their crispness and flavor.

Q: The limbs on our young crape myrtle tree touch the ground after a rain. Is it safe to prune them now?
A: The weight of the old flowers and seed pods will cause the limbs to droop, especially when wet. You can safely remove the old flower and seed heads by clipping them off just below the flower bract. You can do this throughout the growing season. You can also remove any lower limbs that make it difficult to mow around.
However, I caution owners of large trees not to do any major pruning at this time of the year. Heavy pruning on crape myrtles in late summer and fall can cause winter injury to tender new growth. Postpone major pruning to provide size control until February and March of next year.

William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service.
Visit his website at

Beautiful Gardens by Williams H. Johnson

June signals the start of the summer season. The latter days of May provided some exceptionally cool weather conditions. Even though our summers tend to be on the warm side, productive home gardeners still can gather colorful bouquets from the landscape and fresh vegetables from the garden. The productive landscape and garden will call for early summer care, and important and timely gardening chores.
June’s gardening calendar
includes the following:

PEACH TREE PRUNING: Two major challenges of successful home peach production are 1.) thinning the overabundance of fruits at the right time and in the right amount, and 2.) the seemingly unmerciful act of summer pruning of branches that look so healthy. Due to last winter’s exceptionally mild temperatures, most peach trees set a light crop of peaches this year. Even so, pruning must be done to help ensure a good fruit set next spring.
The annual summer pruning of peach trees is a critical management practice for producing easily harvested, heavy crops of high quality peaches. If left unpruned, peach trees will become too tall and tangled to comfortably and safely harvest, and yields will start to decline.
Summer pruning should be carried out soon after all fruits have been harvested. That time is fast approaching for most varieties. As crucial as this practice is, home peach growers are often unaware of the importance of summer pruning and how to perform this task.Whether you are a novice or wish to enhance your current skills on summer pruning of peach trees, take steps now to reserve a space to participate in a hands-on training on pruning peach trees. The training will be conducted at the Master Gardener Discovery Garden located in Carbide Park (4102 Main, La Marque) on Thursday, June 1, at 9:00 a.m.

VEGETABLE HARVEST: Harvest vegetables frequently to insure continual production. When not harvested on a frequent enough basis, many vegetables will reduce production of flowers and channel their energy into seed production in the maturing fruit already on plants.

BLACKBERRIES: Once blackberry plants have completed their current crop, they should be fertilized. The “stalks” (called fruticanes) that produced this year’s crop will soon die back and should be removed to reduced disease problems. A new set of green “stalks” (called primicanes) should be present and these will produce next year’s crop of blackberries.

SUMMER ANNUALS: It is not too late to plant colorful summer annuals during June and early summer, especially if transplants are used. Plant dependable summer annuals such as vinca, impatiens, salvia, and portulaca.

ONIONS: Onions will be ready to harvest after their necks soften and the leaves fall over. Stop watering when that happens. Pull the bulbs, and let them dry in a shady, airy location. Once the tops have dried, clip the roots and tops, leaving about 1 inch above the bulb. Onions which put up a flower stalk will have a hollow center and will not keep very long, so eat them first.

DISCOVERY GARDEN TOUR: The Master Gardeners will conduct a “Garden with the Masters” program on Thursday, June 1. A guided tour of vegetable beds, fruit orchard and Asian garden will start at 9:00 a.m.; gardeners are also welcome to causally tour the garden and orchard thereafter until 11:00 a.m.

Plumeria Seminar: Master Gardener Loretta Osteen will provide a presentation on Growing Plumeria in Gulf Coast Gardens. Her presentation will be held on Saturday, June 3, 2017, from 1:00 – 3:00 p.m. Discussion topics will include proper care of plumeria over the summer and winter seasons in addition to different flower shapes, fragrances and colors of the different varieties of plumeria successfully grown in our growing area. Methods of propagation and ways to use the flowers will be discussed. A limited number of potted plumeria plants will also be available for seminar participants to take home. The seminar will be conducted at the Galveston County AgriLife Extension Office located in Carbide Park (4102-B Main St. in La Marque). Pre-register by e-mail ( or phone (281-309-5065).
GARDENIAS: Most gardenias have completed their flowering display by mid-June. Next year’s flower buds will be formed on this year’s new growth. Therefore, if you need to prune gardenia bushes for minor shaping, do so now to avoid reducing next spring’s flower display.
MASTER GARDENER NEWSLETTER ONLINE: The Galveston County Master Gardener newsletter is crammed full of useful information on Gulf Coast gardening ranging from commonly found insect pests in the garden to Master Gardeners listing their favorite landscape and vegetable plants.
After reading a hard copy of the Master Gardener newsletter, local gardeners typically inquire if it is available online. I am now pleased to report that the newsletter is available online and is accessible through the website address provided under my byline at the end of this column.

William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Beautiful Gardens with Walt Johnson

During mid-morning last Saturday, I was sitting on a bench in the herb garden located within Fruits n Such Orchard’s pick-your-own operation in Dickinson. Fruits n Such Orchard was one of the sites featured on the Home Orchard and Garden Tour conducted last weekend.
Renee Hillman, co-owner of Fruits n Such Orchard, took me on a tour of her herb garden. I was delighted to see so many butterflies visiting the array of flowers in her herb garden. There were swallowtails and Gulf fritillaries. A female monarch butterfly with faded wings landed on a butterfly weed and proceeded to deposit eggs on the leaves to start the next generation of monarchs.
Butterflies are the fluttering jewels in our landscapes. Gardeners and their children and grandchildren take delight when butterflies stop over to partake of nectar provided by flowers in their garden.
Renee happily educated the other visitors in the herb garden that they can invite butterflies to their gardens if they include flowering plants that attract butterflies.
The process is simple. The rewards are stunning.
Go ahead—imagine a garden full of beautiful flowers. Now, add the fluttering movement and brilliant color of butterflies and you have one of nature’s most enchanting combinations.
Not satisfied with the occasional, chance appearance of butterflies, many gardeners are creating butterfly gardens with plants specially chosen to invite these creatures to the landscape.
To plant a butterfly garden properly, you need to have a general understanding of the life cycle of butterflies. They pass through four distinct stages: egg, caterpillar (larvae), chrysalis (pupae) and butterfly (adult).
While they may look very different at each stage, it is important to understand that a caterpillar is not a different creature—it is simply a baby (or teenage) butterfly.
Although some of the butterfly caterpillars, such as Gulf fritillary larva, appear to be heavily armed with spines, none are able to sting. On the other hand, moths are closely related to butterflies and also have a caterpillar stage, but some moth caterpillars do sting.
Butterfly caterpillars feed voraciously on the leaves of plants. Each type of butterfly caterpillar will feed specifically only on certain plants, and the adult female butterfly will lay her eggs only on those plants that will properly nourish her offspring.
For example, Monarch butterfly caterpillars will feed only on milkweed plants (Asclepias). Gulf fritillary caterpillars prefer species of passion vines (Passiflora). The parsley worm, which grows up to be the Eastern black swallowtail, feeds on parsley, dill and fennel. Sulfur butterflies lay their eggs on cassias, and the preferred food of long-tailed skipper larvae is bean leaves (as in lima, snap and other beans grown in the vegetable garden). The orange dog caterpillar, which feeds on citrus trees and disguises itself to look like bird droppings, grows up to be the spectacular giant swallowtail butterfly.
These plants, called larval food plants, are planted into a butterfly garden with the hope that butterflies will lay eggs on them and they will be consumed by caterpillars. This is one of the few situations I can think of where a gardener actually hopes a plant will be eaten by caterpillars.
Needless to say, the use of insecticides should be limited in areas dedicated to butterfly gardens.
But remember that the caterpillars are picky about what plants they will feed on, so they generally will feed only on the larval food plants you provide for them. That means you really do not need to be concerned they will attack and damage other types of plants in your landscape.
As for adult butterflies, they feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Many commonly grown garden flowers are attractive to butterflies, and the more kinds of flowers you include in your garden the better your chances of attracting butterflies.
Don’t be disappointed if at first you don’t see butterflies flocking to your yard in droves. Remember, a butterfly garden is an invitation, not a command performance.
The more plants you put in, and the longer you stick with it, the more likely you are to see butterflies. After a while, spotting a butterfly will be more common. And the first time you find caterpillars on your milkweed, parsley or passion vine, you’ll find the excitement makes it all worthwhile.
Butterfly gardens strive to attract, welcome and nurture these fascinating and lovely insects that add so much to the pleasures of gardening. With their abundance of bright, colorful flowers, these gardens also can contribute to the beauty of the overall landscape.
Don’t forget to include your children, grandchildren or others in the process. Kids are delighted by the changing stages in a butterfly’s life cycle, and it is a great way for them to learn more about nature.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at