Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

WHEN DID our landscapes move north? Are we not situated on the balmy Gulf Coast of Texas? Should our USDA plant-hardiness-zone map rating be changed?
Temperatures dipped low enough and for long enough to exact a toll on cold-sensitive landscape plants in the county a few days ago.
What’s a gardener to do? It’s easier said than done but do not panic at the miserable appearance of cold-sensitive plants just after a hard freeze.
Several factors influence the extent of cold injury suffered by ornamentals and even certain types of fruit, especially citrus. Such factors include variety – some might be more cold-tolerant than others – and age; recent plantings that are not well established are more susceptible to freeze injury. A very important factor is the general health of a plant.
However, you can take steps now to help reduce the occurrence of additional injuries to ornamental and fruit plants resulting from the latest cold snap.
• Keep your plants well watered. Watering is an extremely important plant-saving practice for winter. It is very important that those in containers as well as in the soil be provided adequate moisture throughout the winter season.
The wind in the winter, like the sun in the summer, will dry soil so be especially sure that it is well watered if another cold snap appears to be coming to prevent plant roots from drying out.
• Even though woody plants might appear to be in poor condition, do not do any pruning until late winter or early spring. This applies to all citrus and ornamentals, including palm trees.
Heavy pruning now can stimulate new growth, which could easily be burned back if another cold snap occurs. Also, it is easier to prune and shape ornamentals after the full extent of any damage is known.
• Proper fertilization is a key to winter hardiness for many perennial landscape plants. Our local soils are usually low in nitrogen and potassium, the elements that plants use to boost their cold protection defense during winter.
Even if it’s been a while since you fertilized your perennial landscape plants, do not start fertilizing cold-stressed plants until they have resumed active growth in the spring. The use of fertilizer now might stimulate new growth that’s very susceptible to cold injury. Also, fertilizer salts could cause further injury to stressed root systems.
• Damage to most citrus fruit occurs when temperatures fall below 28°F for at least four hours. Grapefruits are the most cold-hardy of the citrus fruits, in part because of their thick skins, followed by oranges, mandarin types, lemons and limes.
Large and thick-skinned fruits are more cold tolerant than small, thin-skinned species. When fruit freezes, it can still be used for juice if quickly harvested.
• Do not be in a hurry to prune plants such as hibiscus, pentas, lantana and plumbago. They can be cleaned up a little if they look unsightly or if your friendly neighborhood association sends a letter, but don’t cut them all the way back unless you’re willing to give up a security layer for the plant. Leave some of the damaged material intact.
Try to be patient and, where feasible, don’t remove dead leaves and twigs of bananas, umbrella plants and suchlike until at least mid March. Should yet another cold snap occur, the dead foliage can help protect the rest of the plant from cold damage and can aid the plant in a quicker recovery.
• Plants with thick, fleshy roots, like cannas, firespike, four o’clocks and gingers, can be cut all the way to the ground and they will regrow next spring. Even after severe freezes, most plants like bougainvillea and hibiscus come back from the roots, so don’t give up on them.
• Most cool-season vegetables fared well during the cold snap, with broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, mustard and onions coming through fine. The cold can make these cool-season vegetables taste even better.
However, unless they were protected, warm-season vegetables bit the dust and it’s time to remove them from the garden.
• Some plants, of course, won’t stand any freezing weather regardless of how many toughening techniques you employ. That’s one of the reasons for using only thoroughly hardy plants in the basic framework of your landscape – such as for shade trees and screening and foundation plantings. Use the less hardy, more tender plants – flowering annuals, bougainvillea, hibiscus, etc – as filler to add interest to entryways, flower beds or borders.
The full extent of injury to many plants might not become apparent until summer. It will be of utmost importance that cold-stressed plants are also provided good care throughout the coming growing season to safely achieve a full recovery.
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

I THINK it’s about time I schedule another appointment with my therapist. I have experienced numerous episodes of denial in the past few days and I am in need of psychological counseling.
While I was writing last week’s column, it was a balmy 77 degrees. Fast forward to the day I am writing this column and it’s another balmy 75°. gardening-ira-gervais-planting-tomato-170111
Somewhere between the preparations of last week’s Beautiful Gardens column and this week’s, the thermometer took a deep dive to the south. Temperatures were down to 27° on Friday night and 31° on Saturday night.
I would argue that the human body and mind are not conditioned to withstand such bipolar extremes – especially when the human body and soul love gardening. So I looked up descriptions for the word “denial”.
The most apropos description  – with doses of personal commentary – for my type of denial reads: “Denial consists of the refusal to accept a past or present reality [it cannot be freezing here] and is most commonly employed to protect a person from the repeated memories of the negative actions [it will require work to move heavyweight plants into the garage]. Denial is a self-defense mechanism employed by aspects of the subconscious mind to protect emotional and psychological wellbeing [it was cold outside so physical wellbeing should be added as well].”
Despite forecasts portending such low temperatures, I was not accepting. That reflected my self-defense for I knew it would mean moving cold-sensitive container plants from my landscape into the garage. Last winter’s very mild, non-freezing weather conditions had spoiled me as well as a lot of other gardeners.
I first moved the plumeria into the garage as they are the most cold-sensitive of my plants. The outside temperature then continued to drop. Next to be taken in was a crown of thorns plant that I have grown from a cutting and was still flowering.
It was around 9:00pm on Friday and temperatures were continuing to drop. Next in was a pony tail plant that I have had for many years. Temperatures were still dropping, so next was my aloe vera plant – I had to protect that one as it’s my medical plant of choice for treating the occasional cut incurred during gardening chores.
At that point, I declared that would mark the end to moving plants inside.
My banana plants have grown into small trees so there would be no moving them. They are very likely to sprout new growth when spring weather returns in a few weeks.
My loquat tree is about 25 feet tall and has a heavy crop load. Well-established loquat trees can handle temperatures as low as 12° but their flowers, buds and fruit can be killed when temperatures drop to 26°. As much as I like loquat fruit for fresh consumption, there would be no moving and no protecting the specimen tree.
My meiwa kumquat citrus tree produced a bumper crop this winter and most of the fruit remains on the plant. Among the edible types of sweet citrus, the satsuma and kumquats have the greatest degree of cold hardiness. Properly hardened bearing trees will withstand temperatures as low as 20° degrees without appreciable wood damage.
The lesson to learn here is to utilize cold-hardy plants to provide the foundation of your landscape. Growing cold-sensitive plants is still worth the effort to add more color to the landscape but you must be willing to accept the occasional risk of freezing weather.
I suspect that is what my therapist will tell me, so I might as well cancel my appointment with her and move on to relocating my container plants back outdoors.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Grow great fruit and vegetables at home
IT’S ALMOST mid-January and I’ve just finished discussing last week’s surprise cold snap. Yet daytime temperatures have been quite pleasant and such days tend to fuel gardening fever. Experienced gardeners know that, in just a few weeks, the spring gardening season will be under way so now is the time to make preparations for a successful home vegetable season.
Experienced gardeners try to put plants
in the ground as quickly as possible after the last expected frost. They also know that, as summer approaches, some heat-sensitive plants such as tomatoes and beans will stop blooming or setting blossoms at temperatures above 90°.
An important key to successful spring gardening is achieving maximum production before the summer heat sets in.
So you’re aware of the health benefits
of eating fresh vegetables and you have the space for a small garden but just don’t know where to start? Look no further.
Plan now to attend two upcoming programs on fruit-and-vegetable production on Saturday, January 14. The first, titled Growing Great Tomatoes In The Home Garden, will be conducted from 9:00-11:30am and the second, Successful Spring Vegetable Gardening, from 1:00-3:30pm.
Both programs will be conducted
at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s Carbide Park office at 4102 Main Street in La Marque.
There’s no fee but pre-registration is required, either by phone at 281-309-5065
or by e-mail at

Master gardener Ira Gervais, above, locally known for his expertise on growing tomatoes, will demonstrate how best to grow the fruit at home on Saturday, January 14. – William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

SOME FACTORS were rather unusual as we entered the winter gardening season. Five consecutive days of 80-degree weather after Christmas will “confuse” winter vegetables like spinach and radishes. Such weather also confuses humans. It was amazing to have to turn on my home’s air conditioner and then its heating unit on the same day.170104-gardening-camellia-flowers
One circumstance that remains reliably predictable is that, for the next several months, the days will be getting slightly longer until the summer solstice on June 20. It would appear that is where predictabilities would end for the weather seems not to know that the winter season is at hand.
It’s a new gardening year and hopefully all your efforts outside your home will
be fruitful and enjoyable. Most gardeners find this a more relaxed time of year but there are still tasks to be undertaken so here’s a checklist of activities for the month of January.
• To start the year, the county’s master gardeners have planned several educational programs for area gardeners, as you can see right. For readers new to our area, Texas master gardeners are volunteers who have completed an intensive training on a variety of horticultural topics and provide valuable assistance to A&M AgriLife Extension Service’s county office.
• Many gardeners have inquired about the status of our annual fruit-tree sale, which will be held on Saturday, February 18 in the rodeo arena at the county fairgrounds in Jack Brooks Park on SH-6 in Hitchcock from 9:00am-1:00pm.
Peaches, apples, avocados, citrus and other fruit trees will be offered in addition to a variety of vegetable transplants for the spring garden. Additional information about the sale will be provided in later columns.
• Few shrubs or trees are best purchased and planted while they are in bloom but the camellia is one exception. This notable shrub is in glorious bloom right now and this is the time to plant it into your landscape.
Better yet, now also is a great time to purchase and plant camellias in containers. As beautiful as they are in the ground, they adapt happily to life in containers and are particularly impressive when grown that way.
• Keep your lawn free of heavy leaf buildup to prevent smothering the grass. A few leaves won’t harm the lawn but they should not be allowed to completely cover it, especially if they become heavily packed and stay wet for long periods.
• Continue to select and plant ornamental trees and shrubs to fill landscape needs. Always plan ahead before planting. Remember that, like little puppies, ornamental trees and shrubs grow up. Some trees can grow large, so be prudent about what you plant below electrical and telephone lines. The tree – and the homeowner – will ultimately lose in such standoffs.
• Select and order gladiolus corms for February and March planting. Planting at two-week intervals will prolong their flowering period. Choose some of the newer varieties for a vivid color display.
• We should expect that, at some point, it is likely to grow cold enough this winter that tropical plants in our landscapes will need protection. Plan for it now by deciding what tender plants you will choose to protect and what plants will be left to fend for themselves.
Make sure you have enough materials on hand to protect the plants you intend to cover.
Suitable materials include plastic, fabric sheets, blankets, tarps and cardboard boxes, to name a few. Each plant to be protected needs to have a covering large enough to extend to the ground.
It also helps to have stakes available to drive into the ground around plants to help support the coverings and bricks to weigh down the bottom edges of the covering.
• Last but not least, don’t forget to plant any bulbs that you have put in your refrigerator to provide for a chill treatment. They won’t flower in the fridge!
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Upcoming Programs

Collecting peach and plum graftwood – 9:00-10:00am, Thursday, January 5
Wedge grafting fruit trees or ornamental plants – 9:00-11:00am, Saturday, January 7
Propagation of plants by cuttings – 1:00-2:30pm, Saturday, January 7
Growing great tomatoes in the home garden – 9:00-11:30am, Saturday, January 14
Successful spring vegetable gardening – 1:00-3:30pm, Saturday, January 14
Gardening by the square foot – 6:30-8:30pm, Tuesday, January 17
Fig tree pruning and propagation – 9:00-10:00am, Thursday, January 19
Growing peaches in Galveston County – 9:00-11:00am, Saturday, January 28
Kitchen gardening – 1:00-3:00pm, Saturday, January 28
Anyone can grow roses – 6:30-8:30pm, Tuesday, January 31
All programs will be conducted at the Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s Carbide Park office at 4102B Main Street, La Marque. There is no fee but pre-registration is required because of class size limitations for some programs. To register, call 281-534-3413 and select options 1 and 2, or e-mail

Camellias are evergreen shrubs that flower during the dull days of winter. Camellias perform best in partially shaded areas and are available in a remarkable range of colors, forms, and sizes. William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

HERE’S HOPING you’re among the households whose Christmas decor is graced by a beautiful holiday plant, or even several. Let’s take a look at some of the more popular Christmas flowers and how to care for them to prolong their beauty.161228-gardening-cyclamen
Christmas cactus is an old favorite. It is common for it to drop a few flower buds when you get it home.
Christmas cacti resent being moved at all while blooming, much less being packaged, shipped, unwrapped, displayed, purchased and taken home. But they will retain the majority of their flower buds and their great beauty in shades of magenta, red, pink, orange, gold or white makes their purchase worth it.
When they finish blooming, these plants should not be discarded. They will reward you with blooms every year for many years if grown correctly. After all their flowers have dropped, they should be given one-month rest from active growth.
Keep your Christmas cactus in a well-lit window, water it sparingly and stop fertilizing it until new growth begins in late winter or early spring. An east or west window will provide plenty of light.
The cacti also will thrive on a porch or patio in a semi-shaded position during the summer.
Poinsettia outranks all other Christmas plants combined in popularity. It is well adapted to indoor temperatures as long as it’s not allowed to sit in hot or cold drafts.
Place poinsettias near a bright window and aim at keeping their soil evenly moist but never soggy wet or overly dry.
Earlier varieties used to be quite sensitive to changes from a greenhouse environment to that of a home, with leaf and flower drop being a common problem. With the newer varieties available today, however, you can expect your poinsettias to be looking nice on Valentine’s Day.
Kalanchoe should be kept in a sunny window. It flowers when daylight hours are short so, consequently, it is difficult to re-flower in the home if carried over for another year.
Lights used in the home provide long days and kalanchoes will not set flower buds under such conditions. They do make excellent foliage plants once the flowers have faded, however. Just remove the flower stalks to use as a foliage plant.
Cyclamen is also called Shooting Stars as its large showy flowers really do resemble falling stars. While its flowers come in striking red, pink, salmon or white colors, they fade and fall fast, so they have a short “shelf life” as flowering plants inside the home, due primarily to temperature conditions.
Cyclamen needs to be kept cool. A cool home interior will benefit it as it’s happy with temperatures around 66-68°F in daytime and about 65°F at night. Keeping such temperatures at present will be harder on the pocketbook given the 80°F temperatures over Christmas weekend and air conditioners being given a winter workout.
Christmas pepper is becoming more popular each year as a gift plant. Its colorful red, yellow, orange and green peppers make it a distinctive plant to give or receive.
Ornamental pepper plants will thrive inside the home for several weeks and will make an interesting potted or container plant for the patio or porch. However, do not subject Christmas pepper to temperatures below 35°F.
Amaryllis requires bright light, cool conditions and moist soils like other flowering plants. Its bulbs bloom four to six weeks after planting. Individual flowers last three to four days but a plant might have two flower stalks with three to four flowers per stalk.
To re-bloom an amaryllis, let its leaves grow normally in a well-lit warm location. Put the plant outside in spring and summer. Fertilize and water as needed.
Once the plant’s leaves begin to die back, slowly reduce watering and eventually stop. Store the bulb in a cool, dry place for four to eight weeks before beginning growth again by watering.
Moth orchid, also known as the phalaenopsis orchid, is the most commonly available member of the orchidaceae family. Like other orchids, place it in bright, indirect light, away from direct sun and drafts.
Orchids prefer warm rooms with high humidity. Water sparingly and avoid pooling water where the leaves attach to the crown of the plant. Flowers are produced on a long slender stalk and will open one at a time.
The blossoms will last several weeks before dropping off the stem. Allow the stalk to yellow and wither before cutting it off at the plant’s base.
Fertilize the orchid once a month with a dilute fertilizer solution such as 10-10-10 or an orchid specialty fertilizer. When a new stem and flower buds appear, stop fertilizing and enjoy the delicate blossoms again.
Flowering pot plants carried over from the holiday season extend the Christmas spirit. With a little care, they will also continue to brighten any home decor into the new year. A happy 2017, everyone!
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Flowering pot plants including cyclamen extend the holiday spirit when carried over from the holiday season. With a little care, they will also continue to brighten the home decor into the new year. – William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

COOL WEATHER and a Christmas tree in the home are part of many people’s holiday season. Winter officially starts today, Wednesday, at 4:44pm. However, weather forecasters are playing the role of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas, telling us temperatures are likely to be in the mid-seventies over the holiday weekend.
Whether cutting your own Christmas tree or buying one at a local outlet, the experience reflects modern family habits. For many, the holiday season begins by decorating a tree. The aroma, beauty and special adventure of having a tree are sensed by all in the home.161221-gardening-christmas-tree
Of the many traditions involving plants associated with Christmas, the Christmas tree is probably the most beloved. Wide-eyed children gazing at their first Christmas tree are far removed from ancient Romans shouting incantations to a tree decorated with small pieces
of metal. Yet, it is from that culture that the Christmas-tree custom originated.
While most people probably believe the Christmas-tree tradition has always been with us in the United States, a historical overview of how Christmas trees rose to such prominence is quite interesting and not always precise:
• An evergreen, known
as the Paradise tree, was decorated with apples as a symbol of the feast of Adam and Eve held on December 25 during the Middle Ages.
• Sixteenth-century folklore credited German monk Martin Luther for being the first to decorate an indoor tree. After a walk through a forest of evergreens with shining stars overhead, Luther tried
to describe the experience to his family and showed them
by taking a tree into their home and decorating it with candles. However, some historians say the first evidence of a lighted tree appeared more than a century after Luther’s death in 1546.
• The oldest known record of a decorated Christmas tree is in a 1605 diary found in Strasburg, France. Its tree was decorated with paper roses, apples and candies.
• In Austria and Germany during the 17th and 18th centuries, the top of an evergreen was cut off, hung upside down in a living-room corner and decorated with apples, nuts and strips of red paper.
• The first record of Christmas trees in America was for children in the German Moravian Church’s settlement in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during Christmas in 1747. Actual trees were not decorated; instead, wooden pyramids covered with evergreen branches were decorated with candles.
• The custom of the Christmas tree was introduced in the United States by Hessian troops during the war of independence. An early account tells of a Christmas tree set up by American soldiers at Fort Dearborn, Illinois, in 1804. Most other early accounts in the United States were about German settlers
in eastern Pennsylvania.
• Charles Minnegrode introduced the custom of decorating trees in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1842.
• By 1850, the Christmas tree had become fashionable in the eastern states. Until then, it had been considered a quaint foreign custom.
• The Christmas-tree market was born in 1851 when Catskill farmer Mark Carr hauled two ox sleds of evergreens into New York and sold them all. By 1900, one in every five American families had a Christmas tree and, 20 years later, the custom was nearly universal.
• Christmas-tree farms sprang up during the depression. Nurserymen couldn’t sell their evergreens for landscaping, so they harvested them for Christmas trees. Cultivated trees were preferred because they have a more symmetrical shape than wild ones.
• Franklin Pierce was the president who introduced the Christmas tree to the White House, doing so in 1856 for
a group of Washington Sunday-school children. The first national Christmas tree was lighted in the year 1923 on the White House lawn by president Calvin Coolidge.
• The first appearance of a Christmas tree in a church seems to have been in 1851 by pastor Henry Schwan in Cleveland, Ohio. At first, his parishioners objected. Some members of the congregation even threatened him with harm. But the minister convinced his flock that Christmas trees were a Christian rite and opposition soon stopped.
New customs, even those as fine as the decorating of Christmas trees, often receive strong resistance when introduced. The tradition of the Christmas tree is no exception – hot tempers cool, enthusiasm grows and new practices become old traditions.
Take a moment to truly look at your Christmas tree this year and appreciate the history it holds. For most people, holiday trees represent psychological comfort across
time, generations and a changing world. During the holidays, Christmas trees play an important part in our social and family traditions.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

A Christmas tree is part of many people’s holiday season. To many, the beginning of the holiday season is signaled by decorating the Christmas tree. The aroma, beauty, and special adventure of having a tree is sensed by all in the home. Photo courtesy Barbara Hankins