Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

EVERYONE at the Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service office invites all county residents to attend our open house tomorrow, Thursday, from 11:00am to 3:00pm. 161214-gardening-lanny-and-master-gardener-interns
Come and meet our staff and volunteers, including master gardeners, master naturalists and 4-H leaders. Our office is in Carbide Park at 4102B Main Street, La Marque.
As well as myself, the office has four other county extension agents including Courtney White, who is responsible for the county 4-H program, Julie Massey, who manages our coastal and marine resources, Phoenix Rogers, responsible for agriculture and 4-H animal projects, and Jymann, Davis who manages family and consumer sciences projects. All five of us will be available during the open house.
The master-gardener volunteers will also be available to discuss readers’ gardening problems and questions and their horticulture research and demonstration garden in Carbide Park will be open for touring.
You are invited to bring samples of insect, disease and other plant pest problems for a free diagnosis. You may also bring lawn weeds for identification. If you need more information, call us at 281-309-5065 before setting out.
Be sure to include your name and address with each sample. All samples should be enclosed in a plastic or paper bag to avoid drying out.
The staff and our volunteers welcome you to come and look us over. We’re part of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, which forms a Texas-
sized partnership between a great educational institution – the Texas A&M university system – and each Texas county commissioners court.
AgriLife Extension is the educational outreach arm of the A&M system. From extension specialists with statewide responsibilities to district extension specialists and county extension agents and extension volunteers within each county, Extension Service personnel have the knowledge and research-based information it takes to successfully nurture things.
Those “things” start with food and fiber products but also include families, youth, economics, businesses, communities and leaders.
From Anderson to Zavala counties and the 252 alphabetically in between, including Galveston, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service is continuing to build upon a century-long tradition of excellence in serving adults and youth throughout the state.
So be sure to pencil in a notation on your things-to-do list to acquaint yourself with our staff and volunteers during our open house and to tour our facilities and horticulture demonstration garden.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Retired Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service forester and professor Lanny Dreesen demonstrates how to determine the age of a tree to class members in a master-gardener training course.
PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

Train to be a master gardener
TEXAS Master Gardeners Association’s members form
a corps of highly trained volunteers who help people and communities through horticultural education. They are people from the local community who have completed 80 hours of classroom instruction and provided 50 hours of volunteer service to help provide county programs on horticultural issues.
The association’s Galveston County branch has scheduled a number of volunteer training courses for next year, most of which will be taught by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service professors who are widely recognized in their areas of expertise.
The course curriculum includes botany, soils and soil fertility, ecology, pesticide safety, identification and management of insects, plant disease and weeds, vegetables, composting, turf grasses and home vegetable production.
Outdoor classroom training
is also scheduled, including a field trip to Mercer arboretum. Class participants will tour our horticulture research and demonstration gardens with certified master gardeners for a chance
to see practical applications
of their newly gained knowledge.
The master gardener volunteer experience is all about learning and you will come away from the training much more knowledgeable than when you start. The volunteer experience also emphasizes fellowship and forging friendships with other master gardeners.
To learn more about the county master-gardener program and how to become a master gardener, visit Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office at the Carbide Park address stated in this week’s main article or visit our website at to download an application and additional details.
If you join the organization, you will enjoy a learning experience that will last a lifetime. The 18-session training program begins on Wednesday, February 1 and classes will then meet on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 1:00-5:00pm at the extension-service office until April 6.
Applications will be accepted until December 21, so don’t miss this great opportunity.

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

WHEN YOU think of citrus, images of grapefruits, lemons, limes and oranges are most likely to come to mind. It’s unfortunate that the citrus you see in the supermarket represents a very small portion of the variety of such fruit that can be grown locally.   161207-gardening-victoria-harvesting-satsumas
I grew up in Virginia and my parents traditionally ordered two boxes of citrus for consumption by the family over the Christmas holiday season – one of oranges and another of grapefruits.
Fast forward to the present and my Christmas holidays in Texas still have a citrus tradition with two important exceptions.
First, I now get to experience many more types of citrus and, second, all my holiday citrus goodies are homegrown, thanks to many friends who grow such fruit and the two rather productive citrus plants in my backyard.
A greater diversity of citrus types can be grown here than is available on the commercial market. Not surprisingly, homegrown citrus is of superior quality to supermarket fruits.
Area gardeners grow a remarkably wide variety of citrus, ranging from grapefruits to kumquats, lemons and oranges.
Many types of citrus are easier to grow than many “traditional” fruit trees such as peaches. Countless residents grow citrus not only for the fruit but also for the ornamental value the trees provide to their landscape.
Now visualize one of several types of citrus tree you can grow in your yard to produce homegrown fruit to give as a distinctive and personal gift to family, neighbors and other friends.
Sounds too good to be true? Are you interested in sample-tasting an array of locally grown citrus fruit? Are you interested in learning about the basics of growing your own citrus?
Whether you are an enthusiastic citrus grower or just interested in tasting an array of locally grown citrus fruit, plan to attend the 2016 Upper Gulf Coast citrus tasting and seminar on Monday, December 12. The program will be conducted at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office in Carbide Park at 4102B Main Street, La Marque.
Citrus grown by local gardeners will be available for taste-testing starting at 6:30pm. At 7:15pm, Monte Nesbitt, a Texas A&M Extension Service specialist in the university’s horticultural sciences department at College Station, will provide an illustrated presentation entitled Growing Citrus On The Gulf Coast.
The event is free of charge but pre-registration is requested – by phone to 281-309-5065 or by e-mail to – to ensure adequate availability of fruits and seminar handouts.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

There is always something to grow and something to harvest in our Gulf Coast gardens – even during December, when even our youngest children can pick citrus fruits such as satsumas. PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

Upcoming seminars

Saturday, January 14, 9:00-11:30am,
Growing Great Tomatoes
Master gardener Ira Gervais will share his secrets of successful planting and producing great tomatoes in the second of a three-part series on growing tomatoes in the home vegetable garden.
Learn about the varieties that do well in this area, making your selections, when to transplant your seedlings and various growing techniques.
Information about soil requirements, needed nutrients and the temperature range for best fruit set will be included. With this knowledge, you can become the tomato king or queen on your street.

Saturday, January 14, 1:00-3:30pm, Successful Spring Vegetable Gardening
With the spring gardening season under way in a few weeks, master gardener Herman Auer will focus on several topics including how to plan and start a vegetable garden, where to locate it and the best vegetable varieties for Galveston County.
Also included will be pollination, mulching, the effects of full sun and shade on leafy and fruiting vegetables and garden failures and the presenter will share wisdom accumulated from more than 50 years of growing vegetables.

Both events will take place Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office in Carbide Park at 4102B Main Street, La Marque. Pre-registration is requested – by phone to 281-309-5065 or by e-mail to – to ensure adequate availability of seminar handouts.

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

I HAVE griped too much about the reluctance of the fall season to make a sustained presence. Well, a few days ago fall weather finally arrived in the Texas Upper Gulf Coast growing area. It’s about time as the winter season will officially start in about 3 weeks!
Although the winter season starts on Wednesday, December 21, at 4:44 a.m., some home gardeners are already harvesting broccoli and a variety of greens.  161130-gardening-46-11-30-16-dscn8879-tomatoes-grown-by-master-gardeners-copy
Weather conditions over the last month of the year will likely provide something for everyone to like – be it pleasantly warm days or crisply cool days. Typical gardening activities taper off at this time of year.
The month of December ushers in a state of dormancy for many landscape trees and shrubs. What is good for plants is oftentimes good for the gardener. The month of December offers something for every gardener to do and even enjoy. Review the following gardening checklist for December for gardening reminders and educational programs:
Master Gardener Newsletter Online: The Galveston County Master Gardener newsletter is crammed full of useful information on Gulf Coast gardening ranging from commonly found insect pests in the garden to Master Gardeners listing their favorite landscape and vegetable plants. The November/December newsletter issue is available online (
Master Gardener Horticulture Demonstration Garden Tour: The Master Gardeners will conduct a “Garden with the Masters” program on Thursday, December 1. If you would like to see a flourishing array of cool season vegetables, then be sure to attend the tour. This has been a banner year for broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, spinach and other leafy greens. A guided tour of vegetable beds as well as the fruit orchard and serenity garden will start at 9:00 a.m. Visitors are also welcome to causally tour the gardens and orchard from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m.
Applications Accepted for Master Gardener Course: Interested in becoming a Master Gardener? Applications are being accepted for the 2017 Galveston County Master Gardener Training Course which will start in February. Applications and other information are available online ( Applications must be received by the AgriLife Extension Office by Monday, December 21.
Growing Tomato Transplants from Seed: Seminar on Saturday, December 3, from 9:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m. at the Galveston County AgriLife Extension Office in Carbide Park (4102-B Main St., La Marque). Many serious tomato growers prefer to grow their own transplants from seeds as they have a wider selection of varieties to choose from and can have transplants ready earlier than those available at nurseries. Master Gardener Ira Gervais is our tomato whisperer and will share his tips for growing tomatoes from seeds.
Topics include how to pick the best varieties including heirlooms, where to obtain seeds, planting and growing techniques, and insect and disease control. A limited selection of seeds from several heirloom tomato varieties will be available free-of-charge. No fee but pre-registration required (phone 281-309-5065 or e-mail
Till Garden Beds: Unlike our gardening friends above the Mason-Dixon Line, our soils don’t freeze solid so we can work the garden soil and prepare beds for next spring’s planting activities. When working garden soil, whether for planting flowers and shrubs or a vegetable garden, never till or work the soil when it is wet, especially soil with high clay content. Tilling wet soil tends to degrade soil structure, forming large clods that may take a long time to break down. Soil works up best when it is slightly moist, yet crumbles readily after being hand-pressed into a ball.
CONTROL OF COOL SEASON WEEDS: Yes, weeds do continue to grow during the winter season. Do not let these unwanted bullies take over your flower beds. A 3-to-4 inch layer of mulch will prevent most cool season weed seeds from sprouting. It is more effective to keep weeds under control with regular efforts than to try to correct a situation that has gotten out of control due to inattention.
POINSETTIAS: Christmas poinsettias are widely available now. Keep the potting soil evenly moist, never let the soil dry out or become soggy for long periods.
Poinsettias are often purchased with decorative foil wraps that do not allow water drainage. Be sure to take your poinsettia out of these types of decorative pots before watering. Water your poinsettia whenever the surface of the soil appears dry and the plant feels light when you lift it.
The best way to water a poinsettia is to place it in a sink and add water until it begins to drip out of the bottom of the pot. Keep the plant in the sink until all excess water has drained out of the pot and then place it back into its ornamental container.
If your poinsettia is sitting in a container with a saucer underneath, pour out any extra water the saucer captures after watering.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Tomatoes are the most widely grown vegetable in the home garden and many growers prefer to grow their own from seeds. Ira Gervais will provide a presentation on “Growing Tomato Transplants from Seeds” on December 3 at the Galveston County AgriLife Extension Office in Carbide Park – William Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

Q: I have a vine growing in my landscape that produced a crop of weird, Irish potato-like fruit with warts! One vine has grown to the top of a tall cypress tree. What is this vine called and is the fruit edible?
A: Your vine is known as Air Potato Vine but it’s also known as Tater Vine in other parts of the South. Air Potato Vine is believed to have been introduced in Florida during the early 1900’s as an ornamental. By the early 1970s it was already recognized as an invasive pest plant throughout that state. Some Florida residents have reckoned it to be worse than Kudzu.161123-gardening-47-11-23-16-dsc02345-air-potato-vine-leaves-and-tuber
Air Potato Vine has spread westward over the Gulf states and is now in Texas. However, this is not the first reporting of this vigorous-growing vine. It has been many, many years since I’ve received a phone inquiry on Air Potato Vine so it was a bit surprising to receive two inquires over the past week.
It does not appear that Air Potato Vine is invasive in our Texas Gulf Coast growing area. In fact, both residents that inquired about the vine also noted while it grows vigorously (60-to-70 feet in length), it has not been difficult to manage.
Air Potato Vine has a winter dormant period and the stems die back to the ground. Air Potato Vine produces large numbers of potato-like, aerial tubers along its stems. These air potatoes are grayish, somewhat irregular in shape with distinctive bands of wart-like growths. The tubers drop from vines and grow into new plants over the next growing season.
Now to the question of “Are the tubers edible?” Some reports indicate that the tubers are edible while others report that tubers are poisonous. One gardener noted that even the possums just sniffed and passed on the tubers produced in his rural acreage! I always err on the side of caution when it comes to the consumption of novel foods but if possums past up on a food item, it becomes a no-brainer.
Q: Should I cut back my Miscanthus and other ornamental grasses after they have dried?
A: I was asked this question on several occasions during our recent Ornament and Perennial Plant Sale. More than ever before, gardeners are realizing the fine accent and architectural effect ornamental grasses can contribute to just about any landscape.
There are several approaches to cutting back ornamental grasses. I recommend cutting back ornamental grasses in the spring before new growth emerges. This ensures that their attractiveness in the landscape is utilized throughout all four growing seasons.
I confess that I did not cut back the clumps of purple fountain grass growing aside the water garden near our office. They looked rather tattered for a while as the dry stalks began to fall over near the end of the winter season as new growth emerged in the spring. But by waiting until spring (as the original plan went) visitors could enjoy the striking bloom heads and feathery waves as the wind blew over the winter season.
Since I have made such a public proclamation-of-intent, I will certainly make time to cut back the dried stems and leaves of the purple fountain grasses near the office next spring. I will also be sure to follow my recommendation to cut the clumps back to only 7-to-8 inches from the ground. In case we have a late cold snap, leaving some dried vegetation will help insulate the live vegetation below and avoid die-back of the clump. The old growth will quickly be hidden by the new growth.
Q.: I was surprised to see that my ornamental sweet potato vines produced a bumper crop of what look like real sweet potatoes. Are they edible?
A: Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine (Ipomoea batatas), is a true sweet potato complete with underground tubers, but it has bolder, more colorful foliage than its vegetable sibling. Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine will produce sweet potatoes like those we commonly see in the grocery store.
Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine was bred for its ornamental value not taste or crop yields. Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine has been gaining in popularity with local gardeners. The most commonly used variety in this area is Marguerite. Marguerite produces a maze of eye-catching, chartreuse green, heart-shaped leaves. It’s fairly drought tolerant and blends nicely in mixed containers.
One of my gardening friends on Jamaica Beach has been so pleased with this vine that she utilizes it as groundcover in three very large beds that have performed very well this year despite less than desirable soil conditions. She also reports that this vine also keeps weeds problems down given its dense, shading foliage and rather vigorous growth habit.
So back to your question: the large tubers are edible but most have a poor flavor or even a bitter taste. I recommend growing the regular sweet potato if your main objective is to put sweet potatoes on the dinner table.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Air Potato Vine is a non-native, introduced vine that can quickly grow 60-to-70 feet in length. It is covered with large, glossy, heart-shaped leaves and produces large numbers of potato-like, aerial tubers along its stems. – PHOTO CREDIT: William M. Johnson

Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

EACH FALL, a glorious spectrum of colors blankets the hardwood forests in many areas of the United States. I grew up on a family farm in south central Virginia and I looked forward to the fall season. Each fall, the area would be covered in a quilt of colors so vibrant that even a teenager would be likely to take notice.161116-gardening-texas-ash-in-fall
In Colorado, it’s the gold of aspen trees that catches the eye. In New England, it’s the brilliant oranges and yellows of the sugar maples. And in the south, it’s the deep scarlet of the red oaks, the reddish-orange of sumac and the multi-colors of sweet gum.
Despite appearances, Mother Nature doesn’t paint with broad brush strokes. Paint by numbers would be a better analogy because each tree has its own fall color bound up in the chemical composition of its sap, which provides the “instructions” on what color to turn.
Tree leaves change colors according to complex chemical formulas. Depending on how much iron, magnesium, phosphorus or sodium is present in the leaves and the acidity of their tree sap, they might turn amber, gold, red or orange or just fade from green to brown.
Scarlet oaks, red maples and sumacs, for instance, have a slightly acidic sap that causes the leaves to turn bright red. The leaves of some varieties of ash, growing in areas where limestone is present, will turn a regal purplish-blue.
What prompts the change? Although many people believe that a mischievous Jack Frost is responsible for the color change, the weather is just one factor at play. As the days grow shorter and the nights longer, a chemical clock inside the trees starts up, releasing a hormone that restricts the flow of sap to each leaf.
As the autumn season progresses, the sap flows more slowly and chlorophyll, which gives most leaves their basic green color over the spring and summer seasons, starts to disappear. The residual sap becomes more concentrated as it dries, creating the colors of fall.
In other words, the colors are always there but, as the predominant green fades, other colors become enhanced and begin to show through. Sunlight, nutrients and moisture enhance the process and cool weather seems to slow things down to bring out the full effect.
A long, cool, sunny and moderately moist fall seems to provide the best color show in a given year. Well, this year, we’ve certainly missed out on the cool part during the time needed for ideal color as the fall season has been a bit warm at times.
Obviously, this area is not a hot spot for fall color along the roadways as we don’t have the aspens of Colorado or the sugar maples of New England. Along the highways in Galveston County — well, it’s basically the orange, yellow and red hues of the maligned Chinese tallow tree.
Even though fall color in our urban trees has been a bit muted this fall for our area, I am pleasantly surprised to see one tree species providing an unexpected burst of fall color. Last week, while walking back to my office from the horticulture demonstration garden in Carbide Park in La Marque, I noticed a colorful layer of fallen leaves below the canopy of a Texas ash (fraxinus texensis).
The leaves from the tree were a striking yellow-gold but Texas ash leaf colors in the fall also range from gold to orange and purple depending on local conditions.
Yes, it’s true that fall colors in our urban forests along the Texas Gulf Coast do not hold a candle to those in many other areas of the nation. However, it seems that life is often about trade-offs – in this case, I find ample solace and much happiness in living in an area with very mild and pleasant winters.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

Seminar on tool care
A QUALITY garden starts with quality care – and that doesn’t just mean keeping up with your weeding. Maintaining your garden tools will ensure that any chore you complete is done with the highest potential for accuracy and precision.
Not only do tools need to be sharp; they also need to be clean and oftentimes sanitized, so they don’t accidentally spread diseases or weeds across your garden beds. And, of course, they must be stored in a dry location, not just left in the grass for tomorrow’s chores!
County master gardeners Henry Harrison and Tim Jahnke will cover information about the care of your garden tools in a presentation titled Tool Care For Home Gardeners on Tuesday, November 29.
They will show what to look for when buying tools while keeping safety in mind, how to make them easier to work with and “user friendly” and how to prolong their usability.
The program will run from 6:30-8:00pm at Galveston County AgriLife Extension Service’s office in Carbide Park, 4102B Main Street in La Marque.
Pre-registration is required, either by phone at 281-309-5065 or e-mail at to ensure the availability of handouts.

Fall colors in our Gulf Coast urban forests have been a bit muted this year because of unusually warm weather. However, a few tree species, such as Texas ash, are providing some residents with eye-catching displays. – PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson