Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

THE COOL front that arrived over the weekend was refreshing. As May will soon be arriving, we should be prepared for warming weather and longer, sunnier days – a change of seasons.
We have had a few significant rainstorms in April; the weather station in the master gardeners’ demonstration garden at Carbide Park, La Marque, recorded a rainfall of 3.9 inches a few days ago. Here’s hoping that the rainfall over the month of May occurs in installments evenly spaced over time and in amounts.
With busy days in store for the May gardener in completing spring chores and preparing for summer, the following gardening educational programs and gardening checklists will be helpful:
Garden Tool Care: a hands-on workshop: Galveston County Master Gardeners Association members Henry Harrison and Tim Jahnke will demonstrate the proper use and maintenance of garden tools. There will be a discussion on tool types followed by a hands-on demonstration on cleaning, sharpening and using the tools.
Additional discussion topics will include selection of quality tools, ergonomically designed tools, basic sharpening, rust prevention and removal, safety, restoring antique tools, fluids, oils and solvents, techniques for tool use and storage.
You can also take up to three of your garden tools to the workshop for reconditioning.
Henry and Tim will help you get your tools ready for a productive garden season and provide knowledge about keeping them in top working condition.
They will conduct the workshop on Saturday, May 6, from 9:00-11:00am in the master gardeners’ demonstration garden and it will take place rain or shine. The class size is limited to 30 students so pre-registration is required, either by e-mail at or by phone at 281-309-5065.
Home fruit growers’ tour: Three fruit orchards are on this year’s tour, which will be conducted on Saturday, May 20. Each location will be open from 9:00am to 12:00 noon.
This year’s tour sites contain a wide variety of fruit trees ranging from a peach orchard at Fruit ’N’ Such orchard at 6309 Avenue U in Dickinson, the master gardeners’ demonstration orchard in Carbide Park and a sizeable home orchard in Santa Fe.
You may download tour maps and additional details from my website, the address for which is below, by selecting its Extension Educational Programs link. Additional information will also be provided in next week’s Beautiful Gardens column.
Demonstration-garden tour and open house: The county’s master gardeners are inviting residents to tour their demonstration garden in Carbide Park on Monday, May 1, from 10:00am to 4:00pm. The garden consists of several sections, with themes including butterflies, serenity and Earth kindness, as well as dozens of raised vegetable beds and nearly 100 fruit trees.
My co-workers and I also extend an invitation to residents to attend our open-house activities at the county’s A&M AgriLife Extension Service office in Carbide Park from 10:00am to 4:00pm on Monday, May 1.
We encourage you to bring plant and insect samples for identification or, if you prefer, you are welcome to just drop by, visit with us and tour our facilities.
Lawns: Many homeowners will level out low spots in their lawns at this time of the year using sharp sand or bank sand as the only filler. While this is a common practice, it is not a good one. Use of sand to fill low areas in a lawn is very likely to cause problems later on, with unsatisfactory grass growth.
Such areas will suffer more from drought stress during the summer and will probably have problems with soil nutrient uptake. For best results, use a good-quality topsoil to fill in low areas of your lawns.
Blackberries: Look for this fruit to come into production in May. As canes that produce fruit this season finish bearing and start to die back, they should be removed at ground level. “Tip back” new canes to encourage branching; next year’s blackberries will be produced on these canes.
Vegetable fertilization: For vegetables’ best growth and yield, apply small amounts of nitrogen fertilizer – called side dressing – every couple of weeks. This will keep them growing vigorously so they reach their maximum yield potential.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

If you take care of your tools, they will return the favor. Learn how their proper care and routine maintenance make any gardening project easier, safer and more successful at a workshop on May 6.William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

OVER THE years, I have become an ardent admirer of bulbs of all types. They are easy to plant and care for and suitable for beds or containers. It’s hard to believe that so much beauty can come from such humble origins.
The newest blooming bulb addition in my landscape is an Easter lily, the source of which is a potted specimen I received a few years ago – I was not about to discard such a beautiful plant that was at the end of its bloom cycle.
Lilium longiforum is the botanical name for the Easter lily, which does not bloom during Easter under natural growing conditions. Greenhouse growers pot up the bulbs in the fall and force them into bloom for the holiday.
Part of the challenge in producing Easter lilies for Easter is that the holiday does not fall on the same day each year. Easter occurs on the first Sunday following a full moon on or after the vernal equinox, March 21, so Easter lily production schedules are slightly different each year.
The primary method for forcing flower production is known as vernalization – a cold, moist treatment applied to the bulb for a defined period. After bulbs are subjected to this treatment, growth is forced under greenhouse growing conditions.
I receive questions at this time of year about the feasibility of planting Easter lilies in the home landscape after the holiday is over. You can plant your Easter lilies outdoors after the holiday. Pinch off flowers as they fade but don’t cut the foliage.
Indeed, after the last flower has withered away, a potted Easter lily can be planted in the landscape. Do not remove the green foliage as it is needed to help reinvigorate the bulb for next year’s flower.
Prepare a well-drained garden bed in a sunny location amended with organic matter such as compost. Good drainage is a major key for success with lilies.
To ensure adequate drainage, create a raised garden bed by moving soil to the top a few inches higher than the surrounding soil level. Plant the Easter lily bulbs six inches deep from the base of the bulb to the top of the mulched surface, assuming at least a two-inch layer of mulch.
Plant bulbs four to six inches apart. The planting hole should be wide enough that the roots can be spread out easily. Work the soil in around the roots and water it immediately after planting.
Easter lilies like “their feet in the shade and their heads in the sun”. Mulch with a two-inch layer of compost or shredded pine bark. This helps conserve moisture in between waterings, suppresses weed growth, keeps the soil cool and provides nutrients as it decays.
As the plants’ leaves and stems begin to turn brown and die back, cut them back just above a healthy leaf on the stem. New growth will soon emerge but it is unlikely that a second flowering will occur later in the summer.
Easter lilies that have been forced to flower under controlled greenhouse conditions will flower naturally from mid May to mid June in the following and subsequent years and will reach a height of three feet or more.
During the winter, maintain a generous layer of mulch. Carefully remove it in the spring to allow new shoots to come up. Apply a slow-release fertilizer during the growing season when new shoots emerge in the spring. Apply the fertilizer to the soil around each plant about two inches from the stem and water it in.
While it’s wonderful to see these beautiful flowers adorning the interiors of homes and churches at this time of the year, it is also nice to know that they can become long-lived, reliable spring-flowering bulbs for Gulf Coast landscapes.
Finally, as an Extension Service horticulture agent, I have provided a variety of presentations on many topics over the years. My early presentations utilized 35mm photographic slides and a slide projector. My, how times have changed.
I now use PowerPoint presentations and the improvements from display quality to ease of program preparation make it well worth the agony of having to learn a new process.
One of my favorite topics to present and discuss is the diversity of the beneficials that occur in our local gardening area.
Beneficials include way more than honeybees and lady beetles and I invite gardeners to attend my upcoming presentation on the subject, the details of which are shown above.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

At a Glance:

Beneficials In The Garden
William Johnson will lead a seminar from 6:30-8:00pm on Tuesday, April 25, at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office in Carbide Park. Pre-registration is requested, either by phone at 281-309-5065 or by e-mail at

Greenhouse-grown plant sale
Master gardeners will hold a greenhouse-grown plant sale from 9:00-11:30 a.m. on Thursday, April 20, at the master gardeners’ demonstration garden in Carbide Park. A variety of vegetable transplants and ornamentals will be available. Cash or check sales only – no credit cards.

Carbide Park is at 4102B Main Street, La Marque.

The Easter lily’s white trumpet-shaped flowers have become a time-honored symbol of beauty, hope and life during the Easter holiday. Potted flowering specimens can be planted in the landscape now and will produce blooms next summer. –  Photo: William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

A READER recently told one of the county’s master gardeners that one of her pine trees had been struck by lightning during a severe thunderstorm a few weeks ago. She asked if there was anything she could do to save the tree or whether it was likely to die.
Lightning striking a tree in one’s landscape is a traumatic experience for both the tree and its caretaker. After checking to see if one’s own limbs are intact, attention quickly shifts to the tree’s welfare.
In the week after an electrical storm, AgriLife Extension Service offices often field questions from concerned homeowners regarding the prognosis for beloved trees and what care might be given to help them survive or recover.
The question was asked by a neighbor of master gardener Joanne Hardgrove, who was asked about the prognosis for a pine tree that had been struck by lightning in the lady’s home landscape.
Unfortunately, and quite accurately for the concerned tree steward, the best answer to these urgent questions is often that only time will tell but the owner should not give up on the tree just yet.
A lightning strike can affect a tree in many ways. Some are immediately obvious and some are not. Sometimes, the trunk or large branches are splintered. A strike might make continuous grooves in the trunk or main branches.
In many cases, the apparent damage might appear minimal while internal injury to the vascular tissues of the trunk and roots is extensive and gradually manifests itself over a period of months or even years.
In some cases, the majority of the damage occurs to a tree’s main roots as the electrical discharge – up to 100 million volts at thousands of amperes – vaporizes the water inside the roots, creating superheated steam. People standing above such roots during a storm could be electrocuted even though they are standing a good distance from the tree’s trunk.
It is difficult to predict which trees will be struck by lightning and which are most likely to be seriously injured. In general, though, lone trees, those tallest in a group or those growing in moist soil have the highest probability of being struck.
In the considerable body of lightning lore, certain tree species are commonly listed as more lightning-attractive than others. They include maple, ash, tulip tree, sycamore, poplar, oak, elm, pine, spruce and hemlock. Some of these, like sycamores, are likely targets because they tend to tower over other species, while pines and hemlocks can be lightning-prone because of the water that collects on their needles during thunderstorms.
Homeowners typically want to take immediate action to help a damaged tree survive the aftermath of a lightning strike. In most cases, however, there is little that can be done to help a tree recover.
Should one apply any of the various wound-dressing concoctions commonly used? While most do no harm to the tree, over time many dressings develop cracks that can harbor insects or hold water, leading to decay. Applying a wound dressing may make the caretaker performing the operation feel better but it is not recommended.
If the lightning damage creates hazardous broken branches, they should be taken care of quickly. However, in most cases, it is best to wait six months before doing major – expensive – corrective work.
If, during this waiting period, the tree shows no obvious signs of decline, then it might be worth the expense of major corrective pruning. In many cases, it will become obvious at some point during the waiting period that the tree will not recover and that its removal is the best option.
My experience has been that a lightning strike does not automatically spell doom to a tree as many struck trees are able to make a remarkable recovery given adequate care and time.
Another question received recently was from a reader whose back yard has three peach trees of different varieties. All three trees have produced a good crop of leaves this spring but a sparse number of flowers and an even sparser number of fruit. What would cause this to happen?
Despite the cold front that occurred in early January, this past winter was relatively mild. Along with other non-citrus fruit and nut trees, peach trees need a specific number of chill hours each winter to regulate their growth and flowering in order to set their flowers and fruit in the spring.
If a tree doesn’t experience enough chill hours in the winter, the flower buds might open unevenly or not at all in spring.
Chill hours are usually defined as those in a range of temperatures below 45°F and above 32°F; however, some models for calculating chill hours rely on slightly different ranges. Nearly all models take into account temperatures above 60°F during the winter as they will reduce the chill-hour total.
This past winter, we exceeded the 60°F temperature mark on many, many days so air conditioners were running a lot over the season. So it’s really not surprising that peach flowering has been so sparse this year.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Lightning can inflict significant damage to a tree as it did in March to the pine tree pictured above growing in a home landscape in Clear Lake. Being struck by lightning does not automatically spell doom to a tree as many such trees are able to make a remarkable recovery over time if provided good care. Joanne Hardgrove

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

APRIL IS a wonderful time to enjoy the outdoor garden. Many citrus trees are in full bloom and azaleas are nearing the end of their spring bloom season. Trees are putting out new foliage that is such a delicate green.
I hope you have already planted the trees and shrubs that you want to plant for the year and are ready to concentrate on annuals, perennials, vegetables and lawns. Here’s a checklist for keeping up with the chores while enjoying the pleasures of the first full month of spring.
Azaleas: As flowering finishes, evaluate your azaleas for their pruning needs. April and May are good months in which to trim your bushes but only do it if it is necessary. Generally, a little shaping is all that is required.
Controlling size is a common reason for pruning, especially if large-growing cultivars were planted where smaller ones should have been used.
You should begin to manage the size of your azaleas when they reach the maximum desirable size. Unless you are trying to create a formal clipped hedge, avoid shearing them with hedge clippers because it destroys their attractive natural shape.
It is better to use hand pruners to remove or shorten selected branches to achieve the desired shape and size.
First, identify the tallest or widest shoots or branches on a bush that are too large, then prune the branch back a few inches inside the interior of shrub growth. When the shortened branch sprouts, the new growth will be inside the shrub, creating a thicker, fuller plant.
The new growth will not immediately stick out above the rest of the bush – something that commonly happens if pruning cuts are made just back to the edge of the bush or when azaleas are sheared.
Keep pruning back the tallest and widest shoots until the shrub is the proper size. You may continue to prune occasionally as needed using this technique until late June, or early July at the very latest.
After that, the chances increase that you will remove flower buds when you prune. Alternate-season-blooming azaleas, such as the Encores, have a shorter window of opportunity and pruning them should be done as soon as the major spring blooming period has ended.
Lawns: Mid March to mid April is the recommended time for fertilizing lawns. A good way to determine when to fertilize is to wait until you have mowed the predominant lawn grass twice.
If you fertilize too early, you will be fertilizing the winter weeds! This allows time for the grass to green up naturally without pushing it into growth. Use a fertilizer with a 3-1-2 ratio such as 15-5-10 and distribute it with a broadcast – cyclone – spreader. Uniform distribution is essential to prevent light and dark streaks in the lawn.
Leftover seed: Many flower and vegetable seeds left over after planting the garden can be saved for the next season by closing their packets with tape or paper clips and storing them in a tightly sealed glass jar in your refrigerator until needed.
Adding one or two tablespoons of powdered milk in a cloth bag to reduce the humidity within the jar can also be very beneficial to maintaining the seeds’ long-term viability.
Summer annuals: One tendency shoppers have is to buy transplants of summer annuals only with open flowers. But it might be sparter to purchase young transplants with few or no flowers as they will grow larger before flowering. The result will be a more impressive floral display in your home garden.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at


WHAT: Pecan grafting demonstrations
WHEN: 2:00-3:00pm, Thursday, April 13
INFO: Master gardeners will demonstrate how to properly perform inlay bark and four-flap grafts on small pecan trees. A small number of pecan scions will be available after the demonstrations.
LOCATION: 15102 Williams Street, Santa Fe
PHONE: Call 409-925-2718 or 409-771-8425 for assistance

WHAT: Beneficials In The Garden
WHEN: 6:30-8:00pm, Tuesday, April 25
INFO: Galveston County horticulture extension agent William Johnson will provide a PowerPoint program on the diversity of beneficial insects and other types of beneficial commonly found in local home landscapes and gardens. Knowing your garden friends can remove the anxiety of “Do I need to spray an insecticide?”
LOCATION: Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s Carbide Park office, 4102B Main Street, La Marque. Pre-registration required by phone at 281-309-5065 or e-mail at

Master gardener Sue Jeffco demonstrates grafting on a pecan tree. Photo Herman Auer

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

HOW DO I decide on a topic or topics to discuss in my weekly garden columns? Typically, I do not have a firm concept until the weekend when I reflect on gardening issues presented to me during the preceding week. Not so this week.
One homeowner indicated that, after reading last week’s column about termites and improper mulching along a home foundation, he immediately went outside and removed mulch that had been applied over the first layer of brick at his home.
He indicated that a yard-maintenance crew had applied the mulch. He also indicated that his first thought was to call the crew and demand that they remove the excess mulch but then he had second thoughts about the matter as he had paid for the mulch and its application.
Then another reader e-mailed me the link to a local newspaper’s online article entitled Volcano Mulching Kills Trees that was authored by Robert Komarowski of League City and published on March 14.
Mr Komarowski was intrigued about the concept of volcano mulching and concluded his article with the query: “Perhaps Dr Johnson could provide us with his opinion regarding mulch volcanoes”.
Voila! The topic for this week’s column had been presented to me – and I finally got to use my high-school French course. As if that circumstance was not a sufficient matter of serendipity, I then came across another action that yelled: “Write about me”.
While on an evening walk around my neighborhood on Friday, I walked past a home that had been recently mulched. Even the landscape beds around my homeowners association are improperly mulched. Now I’m thinking it’s payback time – I should send my HOA one of those dreaded cease-and-desist letters.
I do not routinely carry a camera on my walks so I had to lug a camera along on my next evening walk to capture the photo accompanying this column. Not only had the tree in the picture been mulched volcano-style but the front landscape beds along the concrete foundation had been mulched above the house’s first layer of brick.
The benefits of mulch
Although mulch is not particularly glamorous, it can be your best friend. It can be used in a variety of locations to help with weed control and to help save water.
Research conducted through Texas A&M University shows that two thirds of the water applied by irrigation is lost through evaporation. That means the water evaporates from the soil surface without ever being absorbed by the plant it seeks to nourish.
When mulch is applied, evaporation is limited, leaving more water for plants to use and thereby reducing the need for water application.
Not only does mulch conserve water; it also moderates the soil temperature during our hot Gulf Coast summers. In winter, it helps to keep the soil warmer and promotes early root and shoot growth in spring.
Disease control is another benefit of mulch. Many soil-borne diseases in the vegetable garden can be reduced or prevented by eliminating “splash up” from the soil from water droplets. Mulch creates a barrier between the soil and the plant that keeps disease-causing pathogens such as fungal spores from splashing on to plant leaves.
Mulch should be applied to a three-to-four-inch depth to provide maximum benefit. This depth is thick enough to reduce the soil’s moisture loss from evaporation but will allow water that is applied by rain or irrigation to filter down and promote the development of a strong root system.
Properly applied mulch around the trunk of a tree has the added benefit of providing a physical barrier to help reduce damage from line trimmers.
Mounds of mulch that are 10, 12, 18 or more inches thick, piled up around the base of tree trunks have earned the name “mulch volcano”. Harmful to trees, this ill-advised yet well-intentioned practice is becoming more commonplace.
Mulch applied too thick on top of tree roots results in suffocation of the uppermost roots. In a struggle to survive, the tree then grows new roots into the mulch volcano.
Trees growing under this stressful condition can actually appear healthy for a while. Eventually, though, the aboveground roots can encircle the tree and strangle it to death as the trunk increases in diameter.
The root zone of an established tree extends far beyond its drip line, so mounding the mulch against the trunk does little for the roots. The mulch volcano can hold the water that was intended for the roots. Also, moisture trapped by the mulch can soften the tree’s bark, opening the door to insect pests and disease problems.
Now is a great time to get out there and mulch new beds or replenish mulch to existing beds. If you’ve never used mulch in your landscape, this is a great time to give it a try. You will be amazed at the fresh appearance it gives your yard right now and the water savings you’ll see in the future. Just be sure to say “no” to volcano mulching.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

The ill-advised yet well-intentioned practice of piling up mounds of mulch around the base of tree trunks is harmful to the trees.William Johnson