Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

IT’S THE middle of February and the master gardeners’ annual spring plant seminar and sale is just three days away. It takes place on Saturday in the rodeo arena at the county fairgrounds alongside SH-6 in Hitchcock.
A pre-sale seminar will begin at 8:00am to discuss the plants that will be offered in the sale yard, which will be open from 9:00am to 1:00pm.
There will be an impressive range of vegetable transplants for the spring garden, including tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, lettuce, squash, zucchini and more. Several types of herbs will also be available at the sale. The county’s master gardeners have been growing many of the herbs and tomatoes in their greenhouse at their demonstration garden in Carbide Park.
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 will stop blooming or setting blossoms at temperatures above 90°F.
An important key to successful spring gardening is obtaining maximum production before the summer heat sets in.
“When should I start my spring garden?” “Which varieties of vegetables should I plant?” These are two of the questions most commonly asked by home vegetable gardeners as the spring gardening season nears.
The answer to the first question is fairly straightforward – it depends primarily on the specific vegetable in question and the area of the county in which you garden. I posed the question to master gardener Ira Gervais who recently presented a seminar titled Growing Great Tomatoes. His answer was: “I’ll be planting tomatoes in my home garden the week after the plant sale”.
Ira, who lives in northwest Friendswood, noted that gardeners on Galveston Island can get an earlier start with tomatoes.
The answer to the second question is not as simple – it depends on several factors.
Variety selection sometimes depends upon the intended use of the crop. For example, some of the newly released tomato varieties that produce a crop within a relatively short time are ideal for canning. Varieties of tomatoes that mature over an extended period are better suited for the dinner table. Small-fruited tomatoes are best used in salads, while the larger ones are better for slicing.
Numerous new vegetable varieties are released every year and many offer improvements such as increased yields, disease resistance and uniformity. Seed catalogs offer hundreds of selections, each with an appealing description and attractive photograph to make decisions even more difficult.
Quite often, the new varieties are highly desirable, but sometimes the old standards prove to be more reliable – and even better – in their performance over many growing seasons.
The home gardener can best answer the question of which vegetable varieties to plant. The best approach is to start with varieties that are recommended for the county based on several years of proven performance here. However, no single variety, new or old, will be totally suitable for every home garden, given different growing conditions and gardeners’ personal preferences.
Both old and new varieties should be tried and compared for yield and performance. Give new, unproven varieties a chance if space is not limiting but remember that they might perform well in one year but be quite disappointing in others.
That’s why you should plant most of your garden with tried and recommended varieties that have proven to be reliable over several years under different growing conditions. A total of 35 varieties of tomato transplant will be offered at the plant sale.
A diverse selection of other plants will also be offered, including 30 varieties of pepper ranging from sweet bell peppers such as California Wonder to peppers on the hottest end of the heat scale, including Trinidad Scorpion.
The master gardeners have also grown several types of herb for the sale, ranging from basil, cilantro and dill to marjoram, oregano and rosemary and more.
Ten-inch hanging baskets of bougainvillea will be available, with each basket containing three plants and each plant producing a different color. Hanging baskets of begonias such as Miss Mummy, Frosty and Sophia will be available in rather unusual colors. Geraniums in an array of flower colors and even an unusual plant known as the toothache plant – acmella oleracea – will also be available.
An army of master-gardener volunteers in red vests and aprons will be on hand to answer questions and assist customers during the sale, the proceeds of which will support operation of the demonstration garden and help sponsor educational programs for home gardeners.
Visit our website,, for more information on the types and variety of vegetables, herbs and other plants that will be offered at the sale and for directions to the county fairgrounds.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

For several weeks, the county’s master gardeners have grown several types of herbs and vegetable transplants for sale at their annual spring plant sale on Saturday. – William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

HAVE YOU ever been to an expensive high-end restaurant where the chefs garnished your duck with an exotic red blood orange or served your salad sprinkled with pomegranate seeds?
When you’re pushing your cart through the produce section of a gourmet specialty market, have you ever noticed the price of Meyer lemons and those little kumquats? Meyer lemons, kumquats, pomegranates and blood oranges are all top gourmet fare but can be grown easily and inexpensively in any back yard in Galveston County.
A wide assortment of fabulous and hard-to-find citrus trees, along with plums, peaches, persimmons, pomegranates, figs, apples and pears will be featured at the upcoming Galveston County Master Gardeners Association spring plant sale.
This year’s sale will take place from 9:00am to 1:00pm on Saturday, February 18, in the rodeo arena at the Galveston County Fairgrounds alongside SH-6 in Hitchcock.
At 8:00am that day, a free pre-sale seminar will be presented by master gardener John Jons in the nearby Ed Pickett hall to discuss the plants that will be offered in the sale yard. No pre-registration is required to attend.
As you can surmise, there will be citrus and other fruit trees. One of the satisfactions that nearly all area homeowners can have is to be able to harvest citrus, peaches, figs and other types of fruit from their own trees.
In the past several years, I have gradually transformed my home landscape from a traditional one appealing primarily to the visual senses to one that now includes appealing to the palate. My gardening friends know well that the peach is my favorite fruit tree to grow.
Just about any variety of peach that is homegrown will probably far exceed any peach purchased from a grocery store in taste, texture and juiciness.
When folks ask what my favorite variety is, I have to first admit I have a bias. There are three that I recommend. There is Tropic Snow and then Tropic Snow and, as you might guess, Tropic Snow. This white-fleshed peach is delightfully sweet when picked fresh from a tree.
Figs have been a part of Texas homesteads since the state’s early development. They grow extremely well along the Texas coast. The Celeste variety has an excellent fresh dessert quality with a rich sweet flavor.
My Celeste fig tree has already started putting on new leaves and I am looking forward to harvesting a bumper crop around mid June.
Kumquats are small evergreen citrus trees native to the southeastern areas of mountainous China. Today, they are grown for their delicious fruit and as ornamental flora in many parts of the world, including the USA. In my backyard, I have a four-year-old Meiwa kumquat tree that is full of brightly colored, golf-ball-size fruits.
A mature kumquat tree bears several hundred brilliant-orange-colored fruits in the winter. The interior of the fruit resembles miniature juicy orange-like segments firmly adhering to each other and to the peel. Kumquats are distinguished from other types of citrus in that they can be eaten whole including the peel.
I am nearing the end of my Meiwa’s harvest season and I collected and consumed a handful of the kumquats while writing this column.
Four avocado tree varieties will be offered at the plant sale. Avocados are adapted to most soil types found in our growing region, provided the soil has good drainage.
Avocado trees generally grow to a height of 20-25 feet in our area, and no training is required. The fruit should be harvested before it’s too soft and allowed to further soften indoors.
New trees will produce a few fruit two years after establishment. Mature trees can produce two to three or more bushels of avocados with good management, depending upon variety.
To learn more about growing avocados, be sure to attend Saturday’s presentation Growing Avocado And Papaya by Jerry Hurlbert, who has more than 35 years of experience with growing avocados.
The program will run from 9:00-11:30am at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office in Carbide Park, at 4102B Main Street, La Marque. Pre-registration is required, either by e-mail at or by phone at 281-309-5065.
Be sure to put a note on your to-do gardening calendar to attend the master gardeners’ spring plant seminar and sale. Map directions to the sale and a listing of the citrus trees, fruit trees, vegetables and herbs that will be available can be downloaded at
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Avocado trees are grown in the horticulture demonstration garden in Carbide Park in La Marque, where the
county’s master gardeners will be selling a range of fruit trees during their spring sale on February 18.
– Herman Auer

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

NIGHTTIME temperatures into the upper twenties, requiring our heating units to operate? Check! Daytime temperatures into the upper eighties, requiring our AC units to operate? Check! Heavy rainfall? Check! Wind gusts to near 40mph? Check! Beautiful sunny days on occasion? Check!
Overall, the winter so far has been a bit weird, especially when air conditioning is required on a given day and heating is then needed that night. Nevertheless, I still enjoy our winter – and spring and fall – seasons.
Over the next few weeks, landscapes will be blanketed with new leaves in varying shades of green and an array of colorful flowers to lift our spirits.
The new gardening year goes into full swing in February, with many activities and options for growing and learning.
Pansies: While the cold snap in early January inflicted considerable damage to many landscapes, those featuring pansies still displayed glimmers of color.
Pansies are very cold-tolerant plants and will easily handle temperatures down to the mid-twenties and continue blooming.
Pruning: The ideal time to prune most landscape trees is during the winter, when trees are dormant. Major pruning of landscape trees should be completed by mid February.
Sweet corn: You can plant sweet corn in mid February to produce an early harvest of tasty corn-on-the-cob. If you’re a sweet-corn connoisseur, plant at weekly internals from then until mid June to extend your harvest season.
Potatoes: Irish potatoes are not grown from seed like most other vegetables. Instead, pieces from the potato itself are used to start new plants. Home gardeners should purchase good seed potatoes that are free of disease and chemicals. Do not buy potatoes from a grocery store for planting.
Seed potatoes contain buds or “eyes” that sprout and grow into plants. Some will be on sale at the master gardeners’ spring plant sale at the county fairgrounds in Hitchcock on February 18.
Whether you purchase seed potatoes at the plant sale or elsewhere, this is a reminder to get them in the ground by mid February. Red Pontiac is a recommended red-skinned variety and it will be available at the sale.
New trees and shrubs: When buying plants, the biggest is not always the best, especially when dealing with bare-root species. Small to medium trees – four to six feet tall – are usually faster to become established and more effective in the landscape than the large sizes. Don’t fertilize newly set-out trees or shrubs until after they have started to grow – and then only very lightly in their first year.
Vegetables: The recommended time to set out transplants of broccoli and cabbage is from February 1 to March 15. Given the mild weather this winter, I recommend setting these vegetables out as soon as possible. Beets, carrots, collards, Swiss chard, lettuce, kale, kohlrabi, mustard, English peas, radish, spinach and turnips can be planted throughout February.
Gladiolus: One of my brothers, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, is an avid gardener and we rarely miss having a word or two about our favorite pastime during our telephone conversations. Last weekend, he asked about growing gladioli.
We both agreed to purchase some gladiolus corms, bulb-like structures that are widely available at most gardening centers including “big box” stores. Their wide range of vibrant colors, sizes and flower types make gladiolus flowers particularly useful for flower arrangements.
I plan to divide the number of bulbs purchased into about eight equal lots. I hope to plant each lot on a weekly basis starting this weekend and each subsequent weekend for the following seven weeks.
Because gladioli dependably produce spectacular flowers for floral arrangements, I should be able to stay out of the doghouse for most of the spring season. Perhaps I will buy a few extra corms for insurance.
Fruit trees: Peaches and plums have already started to display their beautiful flowers and the promise of spring can be seen.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

WHAT: Lecture, Growing Citrus In Your Backyard
WHEN: 9:00-11:30am, Saturday, February 4
WHERE: AgriLife Extension Service, 4102B Main Street, La Marque
WHAT: Lecture, Growing Blueberries
WHEN: 1:00-2:30pm, Saturday, February 4
WHERE: AgriLife Extension Service, 4102B Main Street, La Marque
WHAT: Master gardeners’ plant sale and seminar
WHEN: 8:00am-1:00pm, Saturday, February 18
WHERE: County fairgrounds, Hitchcock

Pansies dependably provide color in our winter landscapes and did not suffer freeze injury from the cold snap in early January. – William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

IT WAS Friday, January 6. Nighttime temperatures dropped to 27°F for a few hours. On that night, I set out a single 16oz Solo cup that I had filled to the brim with tap water. To no surprise, the water in the plastic cup had frozen by the morning.
Nighttime temperatures for the following night were forecast to drop below freezing again so I had time to construct a better-designed experiment.
I spared no expense conducting this one – I used four 16oz Solo cups and added to my water bill filling all four cups!
The first cup was placed out in an open area on the patio. The second was a few inches from a brick wall on the patio. The third cup was placed under the canopy of a 15-foot-tall loquat tree growing near a wooden fence. The fourth was under the dense canopy of a blue plumbago shrub that was still flowering.
While I have no delusions about submitting the findings of my rather rudimentary experiment to a revered scientific journal for publication, the findings nevertheless can provide some insights to home gardeners on what happens when a cold snap rapidly arrives after winter’s weather conditions have been fairly warm and balmy.
So what were my findings on Sunday morning? The water in the cup placed in an open area of the patio was frozen to a depth of nearly three quarters of an inch by the morning. The water in the cup near the brick wall had only formed a paper-thin layer of ice on the surface. The ice was easily broken with a gentle push of my finger.
None of the water in the cup under the evergreen loquat tree was frozen. The same held true for the water in the cup under the shrub canopy.
What are the implications of this study? There can be subtle microclimates in a given area. Microclimates are the little weather variations in neighboring areas – from one side of a hill to another, from one street to the next and even within different parts of the same yard.
The presence or absence of shade, wind exposure, a water garden – or the Gulf Of Mexico – and even a nearby brick wall or the canopy of a tree or shrub can produce a microclimate. South-facing brick walls warm up earlier, reach higher temperatures and have greater variations in temperature than north-facing brick walls because of their greater exposure to the sun’s rays.
Last week, I described my agony with moving my cold-sensitive plants indoors before the arrival of the year’s first cold snap. The first to be moved inside were my plumeria plants as they are very sensitive to the cold. Of course, my Aggie Maroon plumeria was the first to be moved, followed by other varieties.
By the time I had moved the fourth plant, I was debating the merits of moving yet another large shrub. The fifth and remaining plumeria was almost six feet tall, so I decided to leave it outside against a nearby brick wall. Remarkably, it sustained only minor damage to two growing tips.
The occasional cold snap makes many gardeners scramble to protect their cold-sensitive plants. Tropical and subtropical plants can be used effectively in the landscape but they must be protected or replaced when necessary. The best idea is to plant a good balance of tropical and winter-hardy plants so that your landscape is not totally devastated in the event of extremely cold weather.

Frost flowers make an ice show

THE COLD SNAP in early January provided an additional and quite rare spectacle known as frost flowers. They are also known as ice castles, ice blossoms or ice ribbons and, until then, I had only read about them.
Frost flowers aren’t real flowers at all. They are natural ice formations that are so named because they often form into exquisite patterns that curl into “petals” that resemble flowers.
They are formed when thin layers of ice are extruded from long-stemmed plants under certain cool conditions and some people describe them as looking like spun glass or cotton candy.
Their formation is dependent on freezing weather occurring when the ground is not already frozen. When that happens, plants can still draw water from their roots up into their stems, where it quickly freezes because of the cold air around the stem.
Because the outer wall, or epidermis, of plant stems is thin, ice crystals that form inside the stem will then push their way out through its walls.
Depending upon the structure of the plant’s stem, the ice crystals might form as thin strands like a ribbon or as thin curling sheets. When these ribbons and sheets join together, they can create a shape like a flower petal.
Although frost flowers are stunningly beautiful, they’re also incredibly delicate. As the sun rose that first frosty morning and the temperature started to rise, my frost flowers melted away and vanished in an instant —but not before I could grab my camera and take some photos.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

This month’s cold snap produced a quite rare spectacle known as frost flowers, a natural ice formation that can take the form of petals on a plant stem. William Johnson

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