Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

MOST CALLS I receive as a horticulturist concern some type of plant problem or problems including diseases, insect pests, nutrient deficiencies, etc. It’s a change of pace to get calls on why a plant is doing a very desirable and splendid thing—like bananas producing a bumper crop of exotic and edible fruit.
Many homeowners enjoy the tropical accent banana plants add to the home landscape. When growing conditions are favorable, banana plants will bear edible fruit. But first, some basics on banana culture in general.160518 Gardening photoBanana trees are a common feature in local landscapes. They are primarily grown for the tropical look they bring with their enormous leaves waving in the summer breezes. In addition to their large, attractive foliage, banana trees produce flowers in April, May or June on a long, pendulous stalk with distinctive dusky purple bracts.
PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

Bananas are very easy to grow in clay or sandy soil with good drainage. Bananas need to be planted in a spot that receives direct sun. Additionally, these are large plants that require plenty of room to spread.
You may need to irrigate during periods of prolonged drought but bananas tend to be resilient. The growth rate is generally rapid without fertilization but a light application of a nitrogen fertilizer on a monthly basis from spring though mid-summer will ensure good growth.
The banana found in the supermarkets is primarily the “Grande Naine” cultivar. It is mainly an Ecuadoran import. This latest of cultivars has replaced the “Cavendish” and “Gros Michel,” both of which held sway over the world’s banana industry for many years. The latter two cultivars are highly susceptible to Panama and sigatoka diseases and as such have been replaced by the former. The new “Grande Naine” cultivar is considerably more resistant to the traditional banana diseases but it too can succumb if grown in areas with large banana populations. There are numerous varieties of bananas that can be grown in local landscapes that will provide a striking tropical accent. For residential production, however, the cultivar “Goldfinger” is probably superior to the commercial “Grande Naine.” “Goldfinger” is an excellent eating fruit and is more resistant to common banana diseases. This garden cultivar was developed in Honduras. “Lady Finger” is another recommended cultivar which grows tall (20 to 25 feet), has excellent-quality fruit, and is tolerant of cool conditions.
Banana plants are very rapid growers and are easily established. Bananas are propagated by suckers, which are profusely produced at the base of well-developed plants. In selecting suckers for transplanting, select ones with 3-to-4 inch diameter trunks for maximum success.
Producing a banana crop is certainly a source of both pride and amazement to those unfamiliar with banana culture. While getting the plants to grow is easy, producing a banana crop is rather the exception than the rule. Should an extended hard freeze occur during the winter months, the existing top growth of unprotected bananas may freeze back to ground level.
Depending on the cultivar grown, it takes at least 14 to 16 months of favorable growing weather to produce ripe bananas. The bananas we buy at the grocery store are grown in the tropics where they have a year-round growing season.
The trick to large banana plants with ripe fruit is to begin in the spring with a plant 6 to 8 feet tall. Even though it may sound odd to discuss freeze injury to plants at this time of year, you should be aware the trunk of a banana plant must be protected from freezing back to ground level in the event of a harsh winter cold snap. The exceptional mild temperatures over 2015-16 winter season will certainly increase the probability of locally grown banana trees producing fruit this year.
While bananas may produce flowers at any time of the year, the majority of flowers are typically produced in April, May and June. The flowers are quite distinctive and are produced on a long, pendulous stalk with dusky purple bracts. The first clusters of flowers are female and they develop into the fruit. This occurs without pollination and the fruit are seedless. The clusters of fruit are called hands. A number of hands form on each stalk, and all together they are called a bunch.
Once the bunch is set, the flowering stalk will continue to bloom and lengthen, but only male flowers are produced and no more bananas will form. You may allow the flower stalk to grow or cut it off just below the bunch of developing bananas.
Bananas will generally take four to six months for fruit to reach full size after flowering, depending on temperature, variety, moisture and culture practices. There is normally a slight yellow tint to the fruit as it reaches maturity. The color change may be so slight that it is hard to see.
Once the upper layer of fruits begins to turn yellow, cut off the entire fruiting stem. You can hang the stem, with its attached fruits, in a cool, dry place to ripen. The fruits seem to develop their flavor better when removed from the plant before ripening.
Once a banana tree flowers and its fruit has been harvested, you may cut it down to the ground to make room for new, productive trees to grow up from the creeping underground stem. Each individual tree will only flower and bear fruit once.
Banana trees are as much a part of the tropical look of many local landscapes as palms. We are really fortunate to live in one of the few places in the United States where, with proper care and mild winters, these beautiful plants will also produce delicious fruit.
While you should not expect to produce a crop large enough to depress banana prices on the world market, the challenge of producing your own backyard bananas can be satisfying and tasty.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

COUNTY MASTER gardener volunteers and the AgriLife Extension Service office are co-sponsoring a fruit orchard and garden tour on Saturday, May 14, from 9:00am to noon. The program is open to the public and free of charge.

Homeowners who grow – or plan to grow – fruit or vegetables for home use will find the tour sites to be of considerable benefit.

Three fruit orchards are on this year’s tour route. Each will be open during the three-hour session. You have the option of touring all three orchards or just one or two – you choose your own combination.

This year’s sites contain a wide variety of fruit trees and range from Fruits ’N’ Such, an impressive fruit-tree orchard at 6309 Avenue U near Bogeyman Drive in Dickinson, to the master gardeners’ demonstration orchard in Carbide Park in La Marque and a home orchard in Santa Fe. Between all three, peach, plum, citrus, fig, apple and other fruit trees can be seen.

All three sites also contain a wide variety of vegetables. Vegetables are grown in dozens of raised beds at Carbide Park and in the ground at Fruits ’N’ Such. Visitors may also tour an impressive herb garden next to the Fruits ’N’ Such orchard. If you’re looking for the freshest produce to purchase, you can pick it yourself while you’re there.

If you are interested in seeing the amazing diversity of fruit trees that can be grown in a backyard, be sure to include a tour of Santa Fe master gardener Bill Verm’s home orchard.

If you have an interest in roses, be sure to visit the display beds of Earth-Kind roses while at Carbide Park. Homeowners love their magnificent blooms and fragrance.Roses have a centuries-long reputation as the most neurotic members of the plant world. Consequently, gardeners spend considerable cash buying fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides to sustain their specimens and much time pruning, deadheading and watering them to keep them blooming.

Roses that qualify for the Earth-Kind designation are very low-maintenance and perform very well under a variety of growing conditions.

To obtain a map with directions to the tour sites, visit the county’s AgriLife Extension Service office in Carbide Park at 4102B Main Street in La Marque, or call it at 281-309-5065. A printable copy of the tour map and additional details are also available online at

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

160511 Gardening Coreopsis 2Wildflower of the week  – golden wave coreopsis

I HAVE received numerous e-mails asking about the name of the plants providing the vibrant yellow displays in the cemeteries between 40th and 43rd streets on Broadway on Galveston Island.

The flowers are produced by coreopsis basalis, more commonly known as goldenmane tickseed, golden wave coreopsis or dye flower. I should point out that the inclusion of “tickseed” in one of its monikers describes the appearance of the plant’s mature seed.

The word “coreopsis”, which is the scientific name for the plant, is derived from the Greek word for “bug-like” due to the resemblance that coreopsis seeds bear to ticks.

Tickseed is the common name for coreopsis but, for practical purposes, the scientific name is also used as its common name. Perhaps this is because retailers feared consumers would shun a plant associated with bugs – even if only subconsciously.

Golden wave coreopsis is a Texas native wildflower that also brightens roadsides and fields in other areas of the county from early April into mid June. The plant is heat and drought tolerant and requires little fussing to produce lavish amounts of color in the garden.

It can also be found in other southern states and has been observed as far north as Connecticut and Illinois.

Golden wave coreopsis typically grows 12 to 18 inches tall and produces showy yellow petals botanically known as ray flowers. At the base of each petal, or ray flower, is a distinctively colored spot that can range from dark red to maroonish in color. The size of this spot is variable and in some plantings it is barely noticeable.

As golden wave coreopsis and other species of coreopsis finish their bloom cycle, the seed heads become unsightly. In small beds of coreopsis, it is best to cut them as close to the foliage as possible to prevent an untidy mass of stubble. Removing spent blossoms and stems often stimulates another cycle of flowering.

This wildflower reproduces by reseeding itself. New plants can also be started from seed, which is available from many mail-order seed sources.


Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

THE DAYS of May will bring warmer nights and longer, sunnier days – a change of seasons. While rainfall has been overly generous for the past few weeks, here’s hoping that this month’s allotment occurs in installments evenly spaced both over time and in their amounts.


If you’ve never tackled a landscape design before, you might be overwhelmed by all the choices you have to make. As with most major projects, the biggest challenge is knowing how to get started! A Plan Before You Plant Your Landscape seminar will be offered by the Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service office on Saturday, May 7, to provide guidance to homeowners in designing or renovating their gardens.
PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson
Busy days are in store for the gardener in completing spring chores and preparing for summer, so the following guides and educational programs might be helpful:
Home fruit growers’ tour on May 14: This tour will be conducted on Saturday, May 14. Three fruit orchards are on this year’s tour. Each location will be open from 9:00am to 12:00 noon.
The sites range from a peach orchard – Fruit ’N’ Such orchard at 6309 Avenue U in Texas City – to the master gardeners’ demonstration orchard in Carbide Park, La Marque, and a sizeable home orchard in Santa Fe.
You may download tour maps and additional details from my website address, shown at the end of this column; click on its Extension Educational Programs link. Additional information will also be provided in next week’s Beautiful Gardens column.
Landscape planning seminar: Galveston County master gardener Karen Lehr, who holds a master’s degree in landscape architecture, will present information about planning an attractive and functional landscape.
It begins with analyzing your property’s characteristics, strengths and problems or limitations. After that, learn to plan your layout and use of space for utility and beauty. This “plan-before-you-plant” seminar will be conducted from 9:00-11:00am on Saturday, May 7, at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office in Carbide Park, 4102B Main Street, La Marque. Pre-registration is required by e-mail at or by phone at 281-309-5065.
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 will very likely cause problems later on with unsatisfactory lawn growth.
Such areas will suffer more from drought stress during the summer and are likely to have problems with soil nutrient uptake. For best results, use a good-quality topsoil to fill in low areas of your lawn.
Blackberries: This popular fruit will be coming into production in May. As the canes that produce the fruit finish bearing and start to die back, they should be removed at ground level. “Tip back” new canes to encourage branching; they’re the canes on which next year’s blackberries will be produced.
Pruning azaleas: A common question is: “When do I prune my azaleas?” As they bloom on growth produced the previous year, you must wait until they finish blooming before pruning.
Azaleas do not need to be pruned every year but you might find it desirable to remove long shoots sticking up above the rest of the bush to keep the growth more compact. After they have finished blooming, fertilize them to stimulate new growth.
Just be careful not to fertilize too heavily and make sure you evenly distribute the fertilizer over the root zone. Azaleas’ shallow roots can be easily burned when fertilizer is applied in concentrated piles.
Fertilize vegetables: For best growth and yield of vegetables, apply small amounts of nitrogen fertilizer – called side dressing – every couple of weeks. This will keep vegetables growing vigorously so they reach their maximum yield potential.
Fruit set on squash: Don’t be concerned if the first several squash fruit fall off their plant before they reach an edible stage.
The first flowers to form in squash in early spring are the female flowers – those with the miniature fruit located right under the yellow flowers. With no male flowers present, no pollination takes place. However, within a few days, the male flowers will be formed and normal fruit set should take place.
Interestingly, it’s the reverse in summer plantings – the male flowers tend to develop first so no fruit set occurs until the female flowers develop.
Summer annuals: For instant color, select short, compact specimens that have started when purchasing annual plants. Remove faded blooms for more productive flowering. If beds are not mulched, then lightly cultivate the upper soil so as not to disturb shallow roots. Doing so improves water absorption, reduces soil compaction and aids in weed control.
Plant annuals that take the heat such as periwinkles, purslane, portulaca, lantana, etc.
Annuals for shade include impatiens, coleus, bedding begonias and caladiums – whose tubers are just about out of stock but potted plants are still available.
Caladiums will often produce a single flower stalk right after the first leaves are produced. Early removal of the stalk will encourage the plant to produce more lush leaf growth.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Johnson, William             William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

LATE LAST week, I received several calls regarding the identification of a shrub-like plant that is growing along Seawall Boulevard on Galveston Island. The impetus for so many calls was not surprising.
When a shrub produces an abundance of eye-catching flowers, it’s likely to catch the eye of inquisitive gardeners. When the shrub can produce an attractive floral display along the Gulf shore, it is even more amazing, as the salt spray from the Gulf can be a hostile growing environment for most “ordinary” landscape plants.
The shrub in question is commonly known as natal plum, or carissa macrocarpa. Despite its common name, natal plum is not closely related to the plums that we purchase in the grocery store or grow in our home orchards. As its name suggests, it is native to the coastal region of Natal in South Africa.
While natal plum may produce flowers and fruits throughout the year, its peak period for flowering and fruiting is from May to September. Flowering is a bit earlier than normal this year, probably due to this year’s unusually mild winter.
The edible fruit is an attractive plum-shaped red berry, about two inches long, and tastes like sweet cranberries.
Natal plum is an outstanding plant for areas near the shoreline. It’s little wonder that it is often a major component of commercial landscapes along the seawall, including hotel and restaurant landscapes.
Its leaves are densely spaced, an attractive dark-green color and glossy. It’s a low-maintenance shrub once it becomes well established.
Natal plum does have one drawback – its branches are armed with stout and double-tipped thorns that grow one to two inches long.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Gardeners’ Q & A

QUESTION: Is it necessary to remove the soil from around my onion bulbs in spring in order to make large bulbs?
ANSWER: It would not be necessary to do so. Bulbing of onions is controlled by variety, temperature and length of day. When all the required conditions are met, the onion will bulb.
Removing the soil from around the base of the plant will not increase bulbing, although it appears to do so because it makes the bulbs more visible. This procedure might do more damage than good, especially if white varieties of onions are grown. Removing the soil from around white onions can result in “sunburning”, which causes the top of the bulbs to become green.

QUESTION: Our pampas grass has gotten out of hand. It stands almost 10 feet tall and blocks our view of the road. It has never been pruned. What can we do with it?
ANSWER: I really like the texture and form that pampas grass can provide to a landscape, especially when it produces its seed heads later in the summer. However, I always provide a cautionary note to homeowners about planting this grass.
Pampas grass can easily become a problem due to its size. Older plants are almost impossible to dig up by hand. It often takes a tractor or backhoe to get them up.
However, you can manage the growth by cutting the tops back during late winter before new growth is initiated. Cut the top growth back close to the ground in mid-January before new leaves start to emerge. Try to prune back to at least one foot from the ground.
This will require heavy-duty electric clippers or even use of a chainsaw – pampas grass is one tough plant. Wear gloves to avoid cutting yourself from the sharp-edged leaves. Make this an annual project starting next January and your pampas grass will stay manageable.

QUESTION: I have a beautiful crop of onions. Should I break over the tops of the onion plants to get a larger bulb?
ANSWER: This question comes up quite often among gardeners who are interested in growing large onions. Breaking over the tops of onion plants will not increase bulb size and might, in fact, prevent bulb enlargement. The onion bulb increases in size as sugars manufactured in the top are transferred to the bulb. If the tops are broken over, this process stops, preventing further bulb enlargement.

Free master classes

GALVESTON County Master Gardeners Association has several May programs that are free to the public. All take place at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office in Carbide Park, at 4102 Main Street, La Marque.
All except the May 14 program require advance reservation by calling 281-534-3413, extension 1, option 2, or e-mailing For further information, go online to

Review of chemicals for the home and garden
Tuesday, May 3,
Presented by master gardener Rod Mize, the program will include how and when to use chemicals safely. He will share some of his experiences in working in the field with agricultural chemicals, including mishaps and how to prevent them.

Plan before you plant
Saturday, May 7, 9:00-11:00am
Master gardener Karen Lehr, who has master’s degree in landscape architecture, will present information about planning an attractive and functional landscape. It begins with analyzing your property’s characteristics, strengths and problems or limitations. Learn to plan your layout and use of space for utility and beauty.

Home fruit growers’ tour
Saturday, May 14, 9:00am-Noon
Included in the tour this year are three orchards, each with a vegetable garden, ranging from a peach orchard in Dickinson, the Master Gardener demonstration orchard in La Marque and a sizeable home orchard in Santa Fe.
They contain a wide variety of fruit trees and each site will be open and the public may visit them in any order without pre-registration.
The orchards are at 5202 Highland Road, Santa Fe, 4102 Main Street, La Marque, and Wilson and Renee Hillman’s Fruits ’n’ Such orchard, 6309 Ave U, Dickinson, off Bowerman Road and FM 517.

Bamboo uses in the landscape
Tuesday, May 31, 6:30-8:00pm
Presented by master gardener Tish Reustle, the program will include suggestions for using, growing and propagating bamboo and she will also “uncover the truth” about growing it at home.

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

IS IT REALLY possible to grow a pineapple from the top portion of a fresh pineapple purchased from the grocery store? That’s a question I am sometimes asked.
The answer is that pineapples are easy and fun to grow at home. All you need is a warm environment, a sunny window and a fresh pineapple.

160420 Gardening - evening primroseMost of the dense patches of pink petals alongside our roads at this time of year are pink evening primroses. PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

The first thing you do is enjoy the pleasure of eating the “fruit” end of the pineapple. Then begin the process of growing your own pineapple plant by rooting the green vegetative top by placing it in a container of potting soil that provides good drainage.
Set the potted plant in a location that receives at least six hours of bright light each day. The pineapple is a tropical plant and frost or freezing temperatures will kill it.
By next spring, the plant should be well rooted and actively growing. Active growth can be encouraged with frequent light applications of a liquid houseplant fertilizer.
Pineapple plants are interesting foliage specimens, well worth growing for the leaves alone. But, if you’d like to go a step further, you can easily grow your own miniature pineapples.
Once the plant has covered itself with a complete set of robust new leaves, which generally takes six to nine months, it will be ready to “think” about flowering.
Oddly enough, a small slice of apple placed down in the central growing point of the new leaves has the ability to initiate flowering. As the apple decomposes, it produces ethylene gas, which brings about this physiological changeover.
As gases are involved, you’ll obviously need to cover the plant, preferably with an airtight bag of clear polyethylene film, such as a dry cleaner’s bag. Tie the bag securely around the pot and be careful not to punch holes through the thin film. Place the covered plant in a well-lit area that does not receive direct sunlight.
Replace the apple slice with a freshly cut slice every seven to 10 days. After a month or six weeks, you can remove the plastic, when Mother Nature will usually surprise you with a flower and small fruit. While it’s far less work and effort to purchase pineapples from a grocery store, the novelty of growing your own provides satisfaction in knowing that you’ve grown it yourself – plus it’s a great project to start with the kids!
Another question I was asked recently is what I would suggest in dealing with suckers or seedlings that emerge under oak trees. Could using a herbicide be harmful to the tree?
My answer is that you will have to tolerate the suckers because the more you cut them the more they multiply. Some homeowners keep them trimmed at a certain height and interplant Asiatic jasmine as a ground cover to help conceal oak sprouts as the foliage is similar.
Do not apply a herbicide to sprouts as they are probably connected directly to the mother tree and it could cause damage. The herbicide will do little more than defoliate the sprouts and could harm the tree to which they are attached.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

A roadside wildflower
that’s pretty in pink

THE BLUEBONNET definitely ranks as Texas’ most popular wildflower. However, the state is also home to more than 1,000 varieties of wildflower. Whether driving or strolling along, travelers canaenjoy lots of colorful wildflowers throughout the growing season.
One roadside flower is the pink evening primrose. At least that’s one of its common names. Others include showy evening primrose, white evening primrose and pink lady. While several different species grow in Texas, the species found most often in our particular area is oenothera speciosa.
The pink evening primrose is a familiar roadside wildflower at this time of year. Most of the dense patches of pink petals that travelers see alongside our roads are pink evening primroses. The pink evening primrose is a prolific bloomer from spring to mid summer and, depending on weather, again in the fall.
Despite their common name, some pink evening primroses produce near-white flowers that display pink or red veins and yellow centers. It is common to see a large patch of pink evening primroses with white petals growing next to a large patch with pink flowers.
The bowl-shaped flowers face skyward and are tissue-like, two to three inches wide, with prominent yellow stamens and pistils. They often contain a reddish tinge to their veins, which resemble a fine network of blood vessels.
Pink evening primroses are easy to grow from seed. However, they can become invasive in ornamental beds and even lawns. They send their roots far and wide during the winter, when no top growth is visible, then pop up everywhere in the spring.