Johnson, William            William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

YOU CAN invite butterflies into your landscape if you provide the right conditions and the right plants. If you want butterflies in your yard, there are certain things to do and certain things not to do. The process is simple. The rewards are stunning.

160615 Gardening Butterfly caterpillarObserving the various stages of a butterfly’s life cycle is a great opportunity for children to learn more about nature. PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

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 into their 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 – from the egg to the caterpillar, or larva, the chrysalis, or pupa, and the adult, or imago, butterfly.
While they might 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 larvae, appear to be heavily armed with spines, none is 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. From the American snout to the painted lady and the viceroy, 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 such as asclepias. Gulf fritillary caterpillars prefer species of passion vines such as 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 larval food plants are planted into a butterfly garden with the hope that butterflies will lay eggs on them and they will then be consumed by caterpillars. This is one of the few situations I can think of in which 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 the source of their food, 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 that they will attack and damage other types of plant in your landscape.
As for adult butterflies, they feed primarily on nectar from flowers. Many commonly grown garden flowers are attractive to them and the more kinds of flower you include in your garden the better your chances of attracting them.
Certain nectar plants seem to be especially irresistible to butterflies. Some of the best are butterfly weed, such as asclepias curassavica; coneflower, such as echinacea purpurea; wild ageratum, such as eupatorium coelestinum; butterfly bush, from the buddleia species; lantana, such as lantana camara and lantana montevidensis; pentas, such as pentas lanceolata; and the salvia species.
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.
As insects, butterflies are cold-blooded and depend on the warmth of the sun for energy to maintain proper body temperature, so locate your butterfly garden in an area that receives the morning sun and warms up early.
This is especially important in spring and fall when nights are cool and also because most larval and nectar food plants prefer to grow in a site that receives six to eight hours of direct sun a day.
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, the gardens also can contribute to the beauty of the overall landscape.
Don’t forget to include your children, grandchildren or others in your butterfly-garden activities. 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

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

METEOROLOGISTS and emergency operation center managers have three words of advice for hurricane season: prepare, prepare, prepare.
You should have a family disaster plan for what you would do in case a hurricane strikes. We all know there are lots of things we need to do well in advance of a hurricane heading in our direction, from having adequate food and water on hand to putting important papers together in case of evacuation.


But our landscapes also require some attention and thought when it comes to preparing for and dealing with the aftermath of the high winds and heavy rains that hurricanes bring.
Do not wait for a major storm to form in or enter the Gulf before you carefully check any large shade trees on your property to make sure they are structurally sound. Trees should be examined periodically for health and potential hazards.
In particular, look for any large dead branches in the trees. Such branches should be removed, especially if they pose a threat to the house.
The high winds of hurricanes can cause trees to twist and branches to flail around considerably, so also look for branches that extend over your roof. These branches can cause extensive damage to the roof and should generally be removed.
Look for abnormal or unusual growths on tree trunks or limbs. If you see fungal growths that look like mushrooms – known as conks – on a tree trunk, the trunk probably has heart rot or decay. The presence of this fungus is particularly serious if several conks are present.
To determine whether the tree is unsafe, you need to know how extensive the decay is. Contact a certified arborist immediately if you see conks growing on the trunk of a tree.
Cavities and hollows in trunks and branches are typically the result of long-term decay that has followed some type of injury that, often, will have occurred many years ago.
If a tree has a cavity or hollow, you should have the tree inspected by a certified arborist. Hollow trees are not always at risk of falling down so each situation must be carefully assessed.
A tree cavity is similar to a cavity in your tooth. Without proper treatment, the situation will only get worse.
Look at the overall condition of your trees. A tree that is sickly or low in vigor and shows significant signs of rotten or decayed areas in the trunk or termite damage should be cut down if it poses a threat to buildings.
If it’s a large tree, you should also consider how it might affect neighboring properties. It is best to have this kind of work done by professional licensed arborists.
It’s a good idea to obtain at least two estimates before you have the work done. And do make it a point to be present when the work crew is there, so you can make sure what is done is what you wanted.
Well before a hurricane threatens, if you are the organized sort, make a list of your things outside that need to be brought inside and where to put them, and make a list of the things that need to be tied down.
Buy the necessary equipment, including anchors. Estimate how long it will take to secure items. You can make these lists part of your family’s emergency plan.
Should a hurricane head our way, it’s important to secure loose objects in your landscape. Look around your grounds for container plants, hanging baskets, tools, lawn furniture, including porch swings, toys, bicycles, bird feeders, wind chimes, barbecue grills, playhouses and doghouses.
These items can become destructive missiles during high winds and should be anchored securely in place or moved indoors, inside garages or well-anchored sheds.
If you have removed the stakes from young trees planted within the past one to three years, consider re-staking them just before a hurricane to help ensure that they will not be blown over. Make sure the stakes are driven deeply and securely into the ground. Don’t wait for a tree to let you know it is sick or dangerous! Be proactive. Look over all of your trees. If you see something suspicious, call a certified arborist. A healthy tree is a safe tree!
Now is the time to take care of these tree issues; do not delay.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

JUNE SIGNALS the start of the summer season. Even though our summers tend to be on the warm side, productive home gardeners still can gather colorful bouquets and fresh vegetables. The productive landscape and garden will call for early summer care and important and timely gardening chores.

June’s gardening calendar includes:

Peach tree pruning
Two major challenges of successful home peach production are, first, thinning the overabundance of fruits at the right time and in the right amount and, second, the seemingly unmerciful act of summer pruning of branches that look so healthy.160605 Herman Auer summer pruning peach tree
The annual summer pruning of peach trees is a critical management practice for producing easily harvested heavy crops of high-quality fruit. If left unpruned, peach trees will become too tall and tangled to comfortably and safely harvest and their yields will start to decline.
Summer pruning should be carried out soon after all the fruit has 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 the 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 session on the subject. Depending on rain, the training will be conducted at the county master gardeners’ demonstration orchard in Carbide Park, 4102 Main Street, La Marque, on Thursday, June 9.
The first session will be held at 9:00am and a second at 10:00am. Because this is a hands-on event, participation is limited to 22 individuals on a first-come-first-accepted basis. Call 281-534-3413 to check whether the session will take place and to secure your place if it does.

Vegetable harvest
Harvest your vegetables frequently to ensure 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 the plants.

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 reduce disease problems. A new set of green “stalks” – called primicanes – should be present and these will produce next year’s crop of berries.

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

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


At a Glance:

TITLE: Drip Irrigation … Easy & Efficient

DATE: Tuesday, June 7

TIME: 6:30-8:00pm

SPEAKER: County master gardener Susan Roth will teach you how to design, install and maintain a drip irrigation system. Drip irrigation is not only highly efficient but is also inexpensive and an easy project for do-it-yourself individuals.

TITLE: T-Bud Grafting (a hands-on demonstration)

DATE: Saturday, June 11

TIME: 9:00-11:30am

SPEAKER: Master gardener Sue Jeffco will provide a presentation and hands-on demonstration to discuss the when, how, why and step-by-step procedure for T-bud grafting on citrus, peach, plum and other fruit trees. Grafting specialists will be on hand to provide one-on-one assistance. Class size limited to 24 participants. Preregistration required.

TITLE: Planning For Your Successful Fruit Tree Orchard

DATE: Saturday, June 11

TIME: 1:00-3:00pm

SPEAKER: County master gardener Herman Auer will discuss how to plan a productive fruit orchard in a small back yard. This is an opportunity to learn how to save money and produce a successful home orchard in a moderate-size home landscape.

TITLE: Design Principles For Landscapes

DATE: Saturday, June 18

TIME: 9:00-11:00 a.m.

SPEAKER: County master gardener Karen Lehr, who holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture, will present information about basic landscape-design principles and how to apply those principles to create a beautiful landscape.

LOCATION: All programs conducted at the Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service office in Carbide Park, 4102-B Main Street, La Marque. Pre-registration required by e-mail at or by phone at 281-534-3413, ext 12.

The annual summer pruning of peach trees after the harvest season is a critical management practice for producing easily harvested and heavy crops of quality fruit. PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

Monday’s public holiday postponed publication of this week’s edition of Beautiful Gardens until Sunday so, in the meantime, we’re keeping our flora fans happy by reprinting one of our columnist’s most popular articles, which we first published on June 17 last year.

IT PROBABLY would not be a surprise to learn that many of my friends are gardeners. Visits to the homes of gardening friends sometimes take on the appearance of a “house call”, when I am asked about disease and insect pest problems and even the identification of a mystery plant.

Angel trumpets -lostworldpair.comWhen brugmansias, or angel trumpets, right, come into bloom, the effect is breathtaking.  A plant in full bloom is covered with a multitude of dramatic, funnel-shaped flowers hanging down from the branches, as if trumpets were directed at Earth from Heaven above.
Photo courtesy

During a late evening on a recent visit, I was delighted to catch a whiff of an amazing fragrance hanging in the air. Like most other gardeners faced with a similar situation, I set off to track the origin of the scent and it didn’t take long. It is hard to overlook a plant that brings such a dramatic presence to the garden.
The plant producing this distinctive fragrance is known as angel trumpet, which is classed within the solanaceae family, along with tomatoes, potatoes and petunias,
Angel trumpet is also known as brugmansia, which in turn is also the name of its genus. Brugmansias are tropical plants native to northwestern South America. They are easily grown in a moist, fertile, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. There are several species and hybrids of brugmansia that grow as well here.
The brugmansias are large-growing, tree-like plants reaching heights of 10-15 feet in Galveston County if our winters are mild. Heights generally will be shorter in parts of the state where the plants freeze back during winter.
When brugmansias come into bloom, the effect is breathtaking. The trumpet-shaped flowers are large, about nine inches long flaring to about six inches across, and can be white, pink, peach or yellow and very showy.
A tree in full bloom is covered with these dramatic funnel-shaped flowers hanging down from its branches as if trumpets were directed at Earth from Heaven above. At dusk, the white-flowered types glow, and, if you light the plant at night, the effect is awesome – use a spotlight directed upward from below the plant.
The fragrance of the flowers is most noticeable in the evening when the wind is calm—the soft, seductive scent floats in the air like expensive perfume with light lemony overtones. To stick your nose right into a flower and take a whiff is almost intoxicating.
Brugmansias can begin to bloom as early as April or May after a very mild winter, as this past winter was. They continue to produce their flowers in flushes or waves throughout the summer and into the fall, often continuing well into December if the weather stays mild.
Some cultivars produce flowers that start off-white then turn a delicious salmon pink. Others produce white, yellow, pale orange, peach or pink flowers. There are even double forms available and some with variegated leaves.
Brugmansias belong to that wonderful group of plants that is easily propagated and passed from gardener to gardener. It is easy to root a six- to eight-inch cutting taken from the end of a branch during the summer. Remove leaves from the lower two thirds of the cutting and any flowers or flower buds. Using a rooting hormone is optional but can speed rooting.
Stick your cuttings half their length deep in a container of potting mix and sharp sand or a half-and-half mix of perlite and vermiculite. Keep them in a shady area and make sure the rooting mix stays moist. Rooting generally takes place in six to eight weeks.
Nurseries occasionally have brugmansias for sale and several online mail-order companies offer a good selection of colors. Early to mid summer is a great time to plant them so they will have a longer time to grow and become established before they have to go through their first winter.
During the winter, plants growing in the ground will need some protection should near-freezing weather occur. They are reliably root-hardy, however, and mulched plants usually will re-sprout from the ground in April.
Whether you know them as brugmansia or just angel trumpet, these remarkable plants can add a tropical accent to your garden and delight the olfactory senses. Be aware, however, that all parts of brugmansia plants are poisonous, so watch toddlers or young children when they are around them.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

Q: I have the same ugly blob in my mulched flower beds at home that is growing on the surface of the mulch in the vegetable bed in the picture above right. What is it and is it harmful?

160525 Gardening Slime moldAlthough yukky in appearance, slime molds are beneficial in gardens and do not present a danger to humans or pets. PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

A: I address some gardening questions by e-mail, some by phone and some on-site. This question was asked by a gardener attending this month’s home fruit growers tour. The inquiring gardener was amazed – and a bit relieved – to come across blobs in the mulched vegetable beds at one of the tour sites. They looked just like the blobs growing on top of the layer of mulch in her flowers beds back home.
The growth is produced by organisms known as slime molds. The brightly colored blobs usually spread across mulched beds when weather conditions are favorable – high rainfall, high humidity and raised temperatures. Needless to say, the weather conditions over the past few weeks have provided an ideal growing environment to stimulate their growth. Fuligo septica is the species of slime mold most common in our area; this species is typically brightly colored – ranging from yellow and pink to red, depending on the stage of growth. Its growths can expand to the size of a medium-size pizza before hardening. As they begin to dry out, the bright colors fade to brown and tan.  Breaking up the dried blob will reveal a dark brown to black inner core that contains the mold’s spores.
In their early stage of development on mulch, slime molds produce structures that look eerily like a creature in the starring role of a science-fiction movie about blobs.
Slime molds do not present a danger to humans or pets. They help break down plant matter, which aids the microorganisms essential to recycling plant nutrients and supporting healthy plant growth. Like several other critters that creep homeowners out, slime molds are actually good for the garden.
Q: What’s the difference between a tree and a shrub?
A: This is an interesting question that would seem to have a one-size-fits-all answer. If we look at only the most obvious examples, there would be no debate over the difference between trees and shrubs.
Nobody would look at mature oak trees and call them “shrubs”. Nor would anyone mistake Indian hawthorn shrubs for trees. But we’re dealing with Mother Nature here and the distinction is not always clear-cut.
We are challenged when we try to categorize everything under neat black-and-white headings that make humans feel most comfortable. The generally acknowledged definition of a tree is a “woody plant having one erect trunk at least three inches in diameter at a point four feet six inches above the ground, a definitely formed canopy or crown of foliage and a mature height of at least 13 feet”.
In contrast, a shrub is characterized as a “woody plant with several perennial stems that might be erect or lie close to the ground, usually with a height less than 13 feet and stems no more than about three inches in diameter”.
The above descriptions provide sufficient distinctions to categorize most trees and shrubs. As is true with most things in life, there are exceptions. Some trees might have several trunks – crape myrtles being a prime example.
Some shrubs can be shaped into a small tree by training one trunk. One of my master-gardener volunteers has shaped his Texas red tip photinia to grow as a small tree with a height of 16 feet and a trunk diameter of five inches.
And where do banana trees fit? While we call them banana trees, they do not produce any woody growth. They are among the world’s largest plants without woody stems.
The banana is closely related to ginger and ornamental plants such as birds of paradise, amaranths and canna lilies. The banana is not a tree but the world’s largest perennial herb.
Q: I have a pecan tree in my back yard that I planted several years ago. It has leafed out every spring except this year. May is nearly over and the tree has not produced any new leaves. Is there a chance that the tree might produce new leaves?
A: I know to never say never on things horticulture-related. However, given your description and, as June is only a few days away, I think it is very, very unlikely that your pecan tree will put on any new growth this year.
Pecan trees are deciduous – a term meaning “falling off at maturity” and typically used in reference to trees or shrubs that lose their leaves seasonally, most commonly during autumn for pecans.
While they are typically among the last trees to establish new leaves in the spring, they should have put on some new growth by now. The really bad news is that, if a pecan fails to grow new leaves during a growing season, it will not survive.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at