Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

IN GENERAL, insects have a bad reputation – the vast majority either cause no harm or are actually beneficial to mankind. However, a few cause us problems. Among those that most homeowners dread, termites certainly rank at the top. “Know thine enemy” is key to winning the war against the worthy adversary.
Termites are more likely to be seen during spring as it’s the primary season when they are likely to swarm. However, termite season is really a year-round activity. Even though they are usually out of sight during most of the year, these unwelcome guests are still carrying out their mission. Most people do not become aware of them until they pull out some wood and find either the termites or the damage they cause.
A few simple precautions will help reduce the chances of subterranean termites turning your dream home into a nightmare. When they invade a home, hundreds, even thousands, of dollars in damage can occur. They often go unnoticed because you don’t see them crawling around. They do their damage inside the wood.
There are certain conditions that might make your home conducive to termite activity:
• Prevent soil coming into contact with brick, especially weep holes, siding or any type of wood-to-ground meeting.
• Do not stack firewood next to the house or garage.
• Check for rotten or decaying wood. Whether inside or outside, what looks like rotten wood could be termite damage.
• Check for areas around plumbing leaks that stay wet. Subterranean termites require a source of moisture and are attracted to wood that stays wet.
• Be sure that mulch does not make contact with bricks, weep holes, exterior wood, etc. This is very important and I’ve seen far too many cases of excessive use of mulch in such areas.
Any of these conditions creates an inviting and easy route for termites to gain access to homes. If you have any of these conditions, they should be corrected.
Certain indicators of possible termite activity should be checked by a termite professional as soon as possible. The first is the presence of “swarmers” or male and female reproducing inside the home. They look like flying ants and often collect near windows, glass patio doors and other sources of light.
Termite swarmers are most commonly encountered in spring. A few to several dozen can occur for a short time. Sometimes you only see them once and they die quickly. They are a likely indication that there is an active colony in your home.
The second indicator is the presence of mud “shelter tubes”. These are usually small tubes that range from pencil diameter upwards and have the consistency of a dirt dobber nest. They usually ascend ffrom the ground, up the side of a foundation to an exterior wood siding or to a weep hole in the brick.
Weep holes can be found on most brick homes and serve a vital structural function. I’ve seen termites, fire ants, roaches, crickets, earwigs, wasps, millipedes and other insect pests take advantage of this “open door” to what amounts to a great nest site inside wall voids where it’s  warm, shady, moist and protected!
If you knock the termite shelter tubes down or crush them, the termites will build them back or construct other shelter tubes elsewhere. Fire ants also oftentimes construct shelter-like tubes to gain access to a home’s interior through weep holes, as shown in the photo above.
However, fire ants’ shelter tubes easily break down if poked with a stick or finger whereas termites’ tubes are hard and require more pressure to break apart. You cannot get rid of termites by destroying the tubes or by spraying an insecticide through the tubes.
If you have noticed any of these signs indicating the presence of termites, contact a termite control professional but do not panic. Termites won’t destroy your home overnight or even in a week – they work slowly.
You should, however, arrange to have your home inspected by one or more licensed pest-control companies. Most companies will inspect your home for termite infestation free of charge and provide an estimate for treatment if an infestation is confirmed. Pest-control companies are required to provide you with a disclosure statement containing the names of pesticides to be used, details of any warranties and other pertinent information.
Homeowners faced with dealing with a termite infestation will probably not be consoled when informed that termites serve a highly useful function in nature because they break down decaying wood, which returns valuable organic matter and nutrients to the soil.
In essence, these insects are recyclers of plant life. However, as long as we live in houses made of wood and its products, they will keep such dwellings on their menu list.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

As well as termites, fire ants are among the insects that take advantage of weep holes’ “open door” to a great nest site inside houses’ exterior wall voids. – Photo: Genevieve Benson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

LAST SATURDAY, I was able to tour some sites on this year’s Azalea Trail sponsored by River Oaks Garden Club. Even though the prime flowering period for most of the azaleas had passed, the remaining flowers provided ample glints of colors to lighten up the drab and cloudy day. Azaleas really are spring showoffs!
With the introduction and more common use of varieties that bloom in other seasons, such as the increasingly popular Encore variety, it’s not unusual to see azaleas blooming during the late summer, fall and winter.
When they are in full bloom, few shrubs in the landscape can rival them for flower power. Although the floral display might be relatively short-lived for many of our traditional azaleas, such as Indica, it ensures the continued popularity of this time-honored southern shrub.
Surprisingly, azaleas will grow and bloom in many different light intensities all the way from filtered shade to bright sunny exposures. However, they will not bloom in deep shade.
There is no secret formula to growing them except for giving them proper care. That means being careful in your preparation of the planting bed, proper fertilization, pruning and special attention to water requirements.
Certainly, azaleas can be planted in spring. This is the time of year when garden centers have the best selection and gardeners can see potted plants in bloom. Be aware, though, that spring-planted azaleas might take a little longer to become established than those planted in the fall or winter.
The fall and winter months would be the best time to plant. Fall and winter planting encourages root growth before spring bloom and shoot growth commence.
Summer planting really should be avoided, although you can be successful planting at that time by providing extra care, primarily in watering.
Before purchasing azaleas, make sure you ask the mature size of the plants you intend to buy. Depending on the cultivar, azaleas can mature at less than two feet tall up to 10 or more feet.
Don’t purchase a type of azalea that will grow too large for the spot where it will be planted. When mature, large varieties like the Indica require from four to eight feet of space between each plant; you may plant smaller varieties two feet apart.
Azaleas require good drainage but also need an even supply of moisture. Uniformity in soil moisture is important for good growth and establishment in the landscape.
If you find that a plant’s outer roots are matted together when you take it out of its container, be sure to cut through the matted root layer with a sharp knife. This is a very important step to promote development of a vigorous root system after transplanting into the soil.
It is also very important to never plant azaleas too deep! Set them into their planting holes so that the top of the root ball is at the same level or slightly higher than the soil line of the planting bed.
After planting, water thoroughly and place three to four inches of mulch – shredded pine bark or pine needles – around the plant. Mulching serves several purposes. In addition to conditioning the soil, it also helps retain moisture and stifles the growth of weeds and grasses.
The first two years that the azalea is in the garden are the most critical for its survival. The young plant requires consistent soil moisture during this time when the feeder roots are developing and spreading. During dry spells, keep it well watered but not soaking wet.
Azaleas should be fertilized with a specialty fertilizer made for them. There are many excellent commercially prepared brands on the market. Fertilize once soon after blooming has stopped in spring and repeat four to six weeks later. No other feeding should be done after May.
Azaleas do best in soil that has a slightly acid pH. Acidifying the soil periodically might be required if their leaves turn yellow.
Pruning can be done any time up until the flower buds start to form in midsummer. Pruning after bud formation commences will reduce flower production in the following spring. Plants can be safely pruned up to one third or more of their height at one trimming. Azaleas should be kept trimmed to avoid legginess and to promote lush green foliage.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

At a Glance:
Upcoming programs
Basics For Home Composting 1:00-2:30pm, Saturday, March 11
Tomato Stress Management 9:00-11:00am, Saturday, March 18
The Culture And Care Of Palms 1:00-3:00pm, Saturday, March 18
All programs conducted at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s Carbide Park office at 4102B Main Street, La Marque. No fee is required but pre-registration is requested by phone at 281-309-5065 or e-mail at

When they are in full bloom, few shrubs in the landscape can rival azaleas for eye-catching flower power. Linda Steber

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

THE COUNTY’S master gardeners will conduct a final clearance plant sale from 9:00-11:30am tomorrow, Thursday, at their horticulture demonstration garden in Carbide Park in La Marque. Included in the sale will be 11 avocado trees and 64 citrus trees, as well as some vegetable transplants.
For directions and additional details, visit the master gardeners’ website,, or contact the county extension office by e-mail at or by phone at 281-309-5065.
People attending the spring plant sales that have already taken place asked a variety of questions on growing vegetables and citrus and other fruit trees, as well as raising a variety of non-fruit-tree issues. I answered several on February 22. Here is another:
Q: What exactly is an heirloom tomato?
A: I think shoppers at the spring plant sale were amazed at the number of heirloom tomato varieties that were offered. Many gardeners have heard the term but don’t really know what it means. Happily, it’s an easy definition: an heirloom tomato variety is one that has been passed down from gardener to gardener. Unlike modern hybrid varieties, heirloom tomatoes come true from seed, making them easy to share.
The main reason to choose heirloom tomato varieties is their flavor. There’s no one taste; you’ll find a wide range of flavors. But many varieties are prized for having an old-time taste – they are a far cry from tomatoes at the grocery store, or even from many modern hybrids like Better Boy or Early Girl.
One disadvantage of heirloom tomatoes is their lack of disease resistance. Even so, I strongly recommend trying one or more varieties but do rely on hybrid varieties to provide the major portion of your harvest.

At a Glance:

Upcoming programs
Basics For Home Composting 1:00-2:30pm, Saturday, March 11
Tomato Stress Management 9:00-11:00am, Saturday, March 18
The Culture And Care Of Palms 1:00-3:00pm, Saturday, March 18
All programs conducted at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s Carbide Park office at 4102B Main Street, La Marque. No fee is required but pre-registration is requested by phone at 281-309-5065 or e-mail at

Home composting is a valuable means of recycling lawn clippings, leaves and other green waste from the garden and landscape. Galveston County Master Gardeners Association will sponsor a seminar titled Basics For Home Composting on Saturday, March 11. – Photo by William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

THE FIRST day of spring will soon be here. According to the astronomical definition, the season starts on March 20 at 5:28am. From a gardening perspective, however, the exact timing of “spring” is less precise.
This has been an unusually mild winter. That’s not necessarily a hard-science meteorological assessment – just my horticultural opinion.
Arizona ash trees serve as my harbinger for spring. I’ve observed over many years that they start setting out new leaves around February 20, give or take a few days. But during an evening walk on January 21, I noticed that several had already started new growth. Even azaleas are a bit ahead of schedule in being in full flower.
We should remember that the arrival of spring along the Texas Gulf Coast tends to be subject to a bumpy landing. Mother Nature has been known to deliver a surprise cold snap at this time of year.
With that in mind, here’s my gardening checklist for things to do as spring arrives.
Herbs: The Friends Of Moody Gardens will host the fifth annual Gulf Coast Herb Festival on Wednesday, March 1, from 2:00pm in the atrium of the Moody Gardens visitor center at One Hope Boulevard in Galveston.
A variety of vendors will be on hand showcasing their herbs, books, food items and gifts and the herb fair will also feature cooking demonstrations. The county’s master gardeners will also be available to answer questions on growing and using herbs.
Tickets for a lunch at noon can be purchased at the fair. Proceeds from the event will help fund a visit by third graders in Galveston schools to Moody Gardens’ aquarium pyramid and one by fifth graders to its rainforest pyramid.
Annuals: Copper plants, ageratum and ornamental amaranth and other annuals can be set out as spring approaches.
Trees and shrubs: March is an excellent time to fertilize established landscape trees and shrubs as they come out of their winter dormancy and put out new growth. It is not necessary to punch holes in the ground or to use fertilizer spikes to fertilize them. Surface application of a granular fertilizer is quite satisfactory and an even better practice.
Vegetables: Usually during March, many types of vegetable can be established in the garden, including transplants of tomatoes and peppers, as well as direct-seeding of corn, cucumbers, southern peas and many other vegetables.
Be prepared to provide cold-weather protection if needed. It is still too early to plant okra as it does not tolerate cool spells. Wait until mid April before planting your okra seeds.
Lawns: Yes, most area St Augustine lawns are dull brown in color because of our on-and-off periods of cool weather. However, do not fertilize yours now in the hope of making it green up faster.
St Augustine lawns should not be fertilized until after the grass starts to actively grow; if you fertilize now you, will be benefiting winter weeds and some of the nitrogen will be lost before your lawn growth starts.
Hanging baskets: Late March is an ideal time to set out hanging baskets. The variety of plants that can be used in them is limited only by your imagination. Among a host of suitable choices are portulaca, ivy, geraniums, airplane plant, bougainvillea, English ivy and begonias.
Houseplants:  This is an excellent time to repot your houseplants. Gently knock each one out of its pot and inspect its root system. If its roots are crowded and matted on the exterior portion of the root ball, put the plant into a larger pot.
Camellias and azaleas: As camellia and azalea plants finish blooming, fertilize them with an azalea-camellia fertilizer according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Weed killers and trees: Many landscape trees and shrubs are damaged or killed each year by the careless application of weed killers to lawns, including those found in mixes of weed killers and fertilizers, commonly called “weed and feed”.
Always read and follow all weed-killer label directions very carefully, including application near the drip line of landscape trees and shrubs.
Pansies: If these pretty flowers look unthrifty, apply a light application of fertilizer. Use one pound of 13-13-13 or similar fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed area and repeat the application every four to six weeks.
Three to four pounds of dried blood meal and cottonseed meal per 100 square feet of bed are also excellent types of slow-release fertilizer for pansies.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Paperwhites, which are commonly seen growing in vacant lots, have been producing bountiful displays of scented flowers outside Dickinson’s public library since mid January. William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

THE WEATHER was ideal for the master gardeners’ spring plant seminar and sale on Saturday. However, our bar for ideal weather for the sale is quite low – no freezing, no heavy fog, no heavy rain and no hail on the day.
Even though there was a heavy rainstorm the day before the sale, several hundred gardeners made the trip to see what they could buy and many of them commented on the quality of the fruit trees on hand, as well as the quantity.
The sale is conducted each year to raise funds for operating the master gardeners’ demonstration garden in Carbide Park in La Marque and to educate area residents on gardening techniques.
This year, home growers were able to select from a wide array of tomato varieties – a total of 39 – as well as different types such as heirlooms, hybrids, determinate, indeterminate and bush types.
If you were not able to attend the sale, you will be afforded a second opportunity to purchase citrus and fruit trees, as well as spring vegetables, at the horticulture demonstration garden in Carbide Park from 9:00-11:30am tomorrow, Thursday.
For information, go online to the master gardeners’ website at or contact the county’s Agrilife Extension Service office by e-mail at or by phone at 281-309-5065.
People attending Saturday’s event had a variety of questions on growing vegetables and citrus and other fruit trees, as well as a variety of non-fruit-tree questions. Below is a sampling of the questions asked.
Along with the sale’s master gardener volunteers, I did enjoy meeting and interacting with the customers at the sale. Here’s to next year’s!

Circling the wagons and other queries

THESE questions were among those asked by enthusiastic gardeners during Saturday’s spring plant sale:
Q: How can I persuade my moth orchids to re-flower?
A: This question was asked when customers were told that the moth – or phalaenopsis – orchids on display had been grown from plants that had been discarded because they had flowered once and had not flowered again.
I think most folks buy moth orchids for their elegant and exotic flowers produced on long, graceful and arching flower spikes that somewhat resemble a flight of pale moths in moonlight – hence their common name.
The master gardeners were able to stimulate the discarded plants, which, at the time, were not flowering but were otherwise healthy, to flower because of the expertise of Clyde Holt, a master gardener who excels at growing orchids of all types.
Extracting the most value from moth orchids — four to eight weeks of bloom and repeat flowering in a few months — is not impossible but does demand a methodical approach.
Clyde’s remedy to stimulating them to repeat their flowering is straightforward. He notes that they should be exposed to bright sunlight but not direct sun exposure. He says the single biggest reason that moth orchids crash or “refuse” to repeat-flower is improper watering – usually under-watering but sometimes over-watering, or a combination of the two.
He waters his moth orchids at home twice a week and fertilizes them at least once a month using a diluted – half-strength – soluble fertilizer and says fertilizing twice a month with a quarter-strength soluble fertilizer would be worthwhile also.
The proof is in the pudding in this regard as the master gardeners practiced Clyde’s recommendations and grew the stunning moth orchids with new flower buds that amazed visitors at the plant sale. Needless to say, the moth orchids quickly sold out.
Q: What kind of planting hole do I need to prepare to plant my peach tree?
A: When a gentleman asked me this question, I thought about Mrs White, my high-school English teacher, as I responded. I asked: “How much did you pay for that peach tree?” – Mrs White thought it to be rather rude for anyone to answer a question with a question, even if it is an indication that one is listening and paying attention.
I explained to the buyer that he should put a $20 tree into a $20 planting hole. A $20 planting hole is not a time-consuming activity. It should be no deeper than the root ball of the tree but at least twice as wide as its diameter.
Save the excavated soil because it needs to be placed back into the planting hole. Do not try to improve it with amendments such as a commercial garden-soil mix or even compost. Roots have a tendency to not “venture out” from the fluffy amended soil and the tree can become root-bound.
This is particularly true for heavy gumbo clay soils. Water tends to pool in a planting hole amended with a garden soil-mix or compost. If its root system becomes waterlogged, the fruit tree will die.
As it is moved back to fill the planting hole, be sure to lightly tamp the soil to settle and firm it as well as to avoid creating large air spaces in the backfill. Don’t use your foot to hard-pack the soil as doing so is likely to result in excessive compaction around the roots.
Q: Will my citrus trees do well if grown in containers?
A: That would be a definite “Yes”. Many types of citrus tree will do well in containers if adequate care is provided and if you have a sufficiently big container. However, do not expect as big a tree as one grown in the ground.
Also, it is most important to purchase citrus trees grafted onto Flying Dragon rootstock as it dwarfs the tree but still produces full-size fruit. Citrus grafted onto Flying Dragon rootstock also has a few extra degrees of cold hardiness.
It is important that a large enough container is used – at least a 15-gallon container should be used for most dwarf-type trees while up to 30-gallon containers should be used for larger specimens. Many gardeners use half-whiskey-barrel planters, which are available at many gardening outlets, to grow citrus plants.
Be aware that fruit and citrus trees grown in containers must be watered often and throughout the year including winter.
Q: What is the difference between “clingstone” and “freestone” peaches?
A: Almost all fresh peaches sold in grocery stores and at roadside fruit markets are freestone. They are generally softer and juicier and, because their pits pull away from the flesh so easily, they can be cut nicely into uniform pieces for tarts or pies.
Clingstone peaches are used mostly for canned fruit and work best in recipes calling for diced or pureed peaches.
One note of importance is that a clingstone peach’s fruit contains more pectin than the fruit of a freestone, so clingstone peaches are the best type to use when making jelly. I find both types of peaches to be flavorful when left to mature on a tree and picked fresh.
Q: Will you sell this wagon?
A: The pros and cons of American capitalism have been debated time and time again. I hear this question at each of our plant sales. Some customers are ready and very willing to pay an unfair cash-on-the-spot price based on the market demand for our wagons after we open the sale yard, but I always respectfully decline the offers as our wagons are already in short supply.
Q: Does the cost of a fruit tree include planting it in my landscape?
A: Several such questions, and variations of them, were asked at this year’s sale.
Two customers were aware that I consider chocolate to be one of the major food groups and pledged that ample chocolate could be provided to seal the bargain. President Donald Trump would probably consider them to be savvy dealmakers.
I have not yet read his book but my answer to the offer was still “no”.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Linda Garren-McKillip, left, and Cindy Croft groom plants grown by master gardeners for last Saturday’spring plant sale. The master gardeners are offering a second opportunity for the public to purchase plants at their horticulture demonstration garden in Carbide Park, La Marque, tomorrow. William Johnson