Monday, June 29, 2009

Choosing the right tomato

Now that tomato production has passed its peak, are you taking note of which varieties did best for you? Were some tastier than others, more meaty and less mealy?

The Jefferson County Master Gardeners and the Agri-Life people planted 19 varieties at the test gardens this year. Then, members conducted a taste test. Their choices for the best tasting three varieties were Wild Tomato, Celebrity and Better Boy. That's Celebrity pictured here.

Which tomatoes do you favor?

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Gardening failures

If you're new to gardening, it might save you at least a little bit of grief to know this: with every success in a garden comes a failure Even seasoned gardeners know how it feels to carefully tend a plant only to have it fail to thrive. Some just throw up their little branches in surrender and commit planticide. Under the harshest conditions, like the heat wave and lack of rain we've had lately, even formerly healthy plants can give up the ghost if not handled perfectly. Look at the two pentas above. They are the exact same plant, pre- and post-heat stress. It's my fault - I didn't harden them off enough before I put them out to get sun to continue producing blooms - and I left town for two days and they got too dry. I also didn't mulch the pots, which left them more vulnerable to the heavy prevailing winds that blow through our back yard, especially since a neighbor recently cut down trees along the fence line that once softened the wind. It makes gardening more challenging, but the good news is there's more breeze when you're sitting outside!
Another tip: when a plant label says full sun, always think of that followed by (except in Southeast Texas). Our sun is too much for most plants, especially in the afternoon.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Doing the Rain Dance

Every evening, I scan the weather forecast on The Enterprise's website and look for that lovely symbol with diagonal lines that symbolizes rain. Every morning, I do it again, hoping that conditions changed and rain clouds are forming on the horizon.
Our yard and the flower beds that have the least shelter from the sun are parched. The hydrangeas that were lush and beautiful weeks ago now are wilted and browning. We water them faithfully, but the sun and wind overpower our efforts. Forecast today? 20% chance of thunderstorms. Of course, a June thunderstorm these days is about 5 minutes of scattered sprinkle. I'll take it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fruit & Vegetable Show winners

Enjoying the harvest of a home garden is perhaps the top reason why so many people do it (right after the digging-in-the-soil-is-good-for-the-soul part). Second on the list is sharing the bounty with others. feels pretty good when someone compliments your homegrown tomatoes or peppers. Saturday, local gardeners got a lot of praise at the 37th Annual Jefferson County Fruit, Herb and Vegetable Show over at Central Mall in Port Arthur. It's hosted by Central Mall Merchants' Association, Jefferson County Horticulture Committee, area nurserymen, Jefferson County Master Gardener's Association and the Jefferson County office of Texas AgriLife Extension Service.

The five categories drew 120 entries. Winners were:
- Best vegetable: Bonnie Childers of Lumberton for his tomatoes;
- Best fruit: Maxie Harris of Nederland for his Peaches;
-Best processed food: Pat Tolbert of Vidor for Blackberry Jam.
-Best herb: Hazel Gones of Port Neches for Rosemary.
-Youth Category: Mid County Home Schoolers club for their potatoes
-Best of Show: Maxie Harris for his peaches.
- Biggest tomato: Bill Comeaux of Groves with his “Carnival” tomato.
Congratulations to all.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Toad Dance

I have a new friend.

Early each workday morning, when I walk down the brick sidewalk my husband laid that runs between two flower beds and to the carport, I've been met with a toad. He's a common toad, I guess, not being a toad expert, but he's uncommonly friendly. When he sees me coming, instead of hopping for cover, he watches me go by. If I stop, he just stares at me with mild curiosity.

I'm happy to see him, because toads play an important role in a garden. They eat many insect pests that harm plants. They also add a little charm. Our McToad even posed for photos, as you can see.

If you don't see toads around your house, chances are you either don't have the right environment or are a heavy user of pesticides and chemicals. Toads breathe and drink through their skin (thus the need for moist environments) and are sensitive to toxins. If you have toads, congratulations on having an environment that attracts these bumpy little amphibians.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Great Armadillo War

In my youth, I was an idealist who thought being a pacifist had its merits. Part of that meant believing that killing anything without a good reason was wrong. I'm the kind of person who catches spiders and puts them outside, or at least, I was until I became the grandmother of a child terrified of them. Now, if he's around, nothing will do but that I dispatch it with vigor.

Living in a small community, we've done our share of feeding baby possums and adult raccoons, skunks and armadillos. Live and let live was my motto.

And then I became a serious gardener and began to invest a significant amount of money and energy in plants. Last year, I'd wake up and go outside to enjoy the morning air while I looked at all the flowers. I began to notice plugs of soil missing. Then I noticed plants dug up and left with bare roots exposed.

A little research led me to the conclusion that armadillos had turned our yard into a grubstake. Literally. Armadillos are mad for grubs, and will dig wherever they can find them - which includes well-moistened flower beds. They are so blind and hard-of-hearing that it's easy to sneak up on them. I started doing just that, throwing a big, heavy clay pot over them, then sliding a board under it and taking them for a little ride in the back of the pickup. That way, my conscious was clear and the armadillo was gone. At least for a while. They probably used 'dillo radar and headed straight back home. Have you ever seen an armadillo run? Those suckers are fast.

The humane way proved futile. My husband said, let me take care of it. I knew that meant a bullet was involved. No way, I said.
This weekend, I walked out back to our pretty little garden to find some annuals that had made it through three years without dying lying wilted on the ground, their roots like little skeletons, burned to a crisp. I went inside and told Joel, "The peace treaty is off. You have my permission to kill the little bastards!"

Of course, we haven't - and won't. But I'm seriously thinking about investing in some humane traps. Of course, then we'll have to do something with the hapless critters. Anyone want to go into armadillo farming?

Thursday, June 18, 2009

How to clean clay pots

E’s problem with fungus on a pot brings up the topic of reusing clay or terracotta pots. If you reuse your clay pots — and I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t — a simple once a year cleaning can help keep any mold, fungus or mildew spores from spreading.

First, know that a fungus is different from the minerals that leech out of the water and leave a white-ish coat or moss that leaves a lovely green coat. Many people don’t want to wash their clay pots and remove the aged look it takes time to acquire. It’s kind of like brand new tennis shoes that are stark white.

But if you want to clean your pots, here’s how:
To remove white salts/mineral deposits, coat with a baking powder and water paste, scrub with a brush and then rinse with plain water.

To clean and disinfect, scrub the inside with a brush to remove built-up soil, then soak for 30 minutes to an hour in a tub of water filled with 1 part chlorine bleach to 9 parts water. Do not add soap, just bleach. If needed, scrub the outside of the pot down. Transfer the clean pots to another tub filled with clean water. Let the pots soak for 30 minutes to help dilute the bleach that remains in the clay, which could harm sensitive plants. Place upside down to air dry.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Help! Q&A

E. from Beaumont emailed in a question:

Q: “Everything seemed to be going well with a new African violet until a couple of days ago, when I noticed that its pot was molding or mildewing or something. It had gray "fur" -- the same look that improperly dried-out shoes might have -- spotted around the pot itself. Another pot, also in a north-facing bay window doesn't have the problem, but it is not planted in the same batch of soil. The pot does not sit in water and the light it gets is filtered through white Roman shades. The air conditioning stays at about 76, rain or shine. What gives – and should I be worried about the plant?”

A: Bottom line? If it’s fuzzy, it’s fungus. So how did it get there when the other plant is doing fine? There are four pieces to this puzzle: clay pot, potting soil, Roman shades and sunlight.
To have fungus, you have to have spores. Since the clay pot was new, it likely came from either the original container you bought the young violet in, or the soil. Both of these are possibilities, since the healthy plant is one you grew and the fuzzy pot contains a plant you bought. Since you didn’t use the same soil in the affected pot as you did in the clean pot, it’s suspect.

Adding to the right conditions for fungus growth are the light conditions (the sick pot is in the same window as the healthy one, but on the side that gets less sun). The heavy filtering from the Roman shade might help your electric bill, but it’s not helping the violet. Also, the clay pot allows water to seep through, adding the moisture the fungus needs to grow.

What to do? Sponge the outside of the pot down with a 10% bleach solution. It should kill the fungus. Place the pot where it will get more light. If after that, you still have a problem, you can try re-potting it in clean soil, but you likely won’t get rid of all the spores. In that case, hard as it is, ditch it and start over. Be sure to toss it in a plastic bag and seal it before tossing it out. Don’t spread the spores in a compost pile. If the pot looks clean but the plant starts looking diseased, toss it.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sharing a garden's bounty

I love June. Even if I never looked at a calendar (something impossible in my line of work) I'd know it had arrived when one of my editors started hauling in bags of fresh vegetables every week.

Sheila and her husband, Roger, who own a nursery and grow a huge garden at their home in Vidor, always share the bounty when it comes in. Like most gardeners, they want others to enjoy the pleasure of fresh, homegrown vegetables.

So she brings in bags of cherry tomatoes, cukes, squash and more. It's like our own little farmer's market at The Enterprise.

Here's a shot of my favorite from this week: cherry tomatoes. I put them in a bowl, add fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil, white balsamic vinegar and sea salt and have a healthy lunch.

Bob Whitman

As promised, here are links to previous Enterprise stories on Bob.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Bob Whitman

Beaumont Botanical Gardens lost one of its strongest supporters last week.

As a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise, I interviewed Bob Whitman many times through the years. He was a fascinating man, and I learned about his many interests, from breeding rabbits to restoring his old home on Broadway to collecting netsuke and pursuing rare bromeliads. He was a published author and internationally known.

Bob grew up in rural Texas, but his intellect and passion for knowledge took him all across the globe. He collected bromeliads and bromeliad art, many of which are rare, valuable works. Walk through the Warren Loose Conservatory at the Beaumont Botanical Garden, where Bob was executive director, and you'll benefit from that passion.

Few people outside those who devote much of their lives to making the conservatory and BBG the beautiful, peaceful place it is know just how much Bob did. He was the conservatory, one BBG gardening friend told me, and many people are going to be surprised to find that out as they try to go on with him. They say no one is irreplaceable. Bob comes close.

Tomorrow, I'll try to gather some links that will let you read more about a man whose legacy will continue to touch literally hundreds of thousands of people who visit the gardens.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Birds who read

Even the birds who hang around The Enterprise are inquisitive, resourceful and well-read. At least, that seems a reasonable conclusion judging by their choice of building materials.

Look closely at the photo of the two bird nests posted here. No, I did not rob a tree for them; both fell in the Enterprise parking lot after strong windstorms. Although it's probably hard to make out from a picture, the nests are laced throughout with the trappings of a newspaper.

In addition to leaves, grass clippings and twigs, the nests have twine, webbing and - my personal favorite - ear protectors (note the ear bud). The long yellow and white strips are packing straps that we use to hold bundles of newspapers together. They are strong but flexible, a perfect choice to hold more fragile materials intact.

One nest, which still remains in a tree in the parking lot, has a plastic sleeve carriers use dangling from it.
Who said birds have, well, bird brains?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Texas Superstars

If you're looking for plants that practically raise themselves, look no further than Texas Superstars. The Texas Agri-Life folks give the designation to plants that pass rigorous field testing. The plants are disease-resistant, drought-tolerant, and need no chemical pesticides.

You can find the plants at most area nurseries. Interestingly, Lowe's has brokered a deal with the Aggies to donate a portion of sales of Superstars to go toward continuing research. While I'm not promoting Lowe's, I think it's a great PR move. Maybe other nurseries will follow.

For a list of Superstar plants, like this Texas Gold columbine - visit

Monday, June 8, 2009

Do electric lawnmowers work?

After doing my homework and reading about a thousand blog posts, I decided to leap into the future and buy an electric lawnmower. Thanks to all of you who sent suggestions and comments on your experiences.

I went with a corded mower, primarily because I'm not as strong as I used to be and the battery-type mowers are much heavier. The one I bought is quiet, super lightweight, easy to maneuver and could not be simpler to operate. You plug it in and go. No pull-starting an engine, no running to the store for gasoline that smells up the car - and no changing the spark plugs.

I love it. The extension cord doesn't bother me at all. It's easy to mow one strip, then toss the cord into the already-mowed area and just keep moving over. I was a little concerned about thick grass, but it ate right right through my lawn like a hungry sheep.

We have a John Deere for the rest of the two acres, so we use this for a small side yard that is inaccessible because of all the plants, sidewalk, fence, etc.

Would I recommend an electric? You bet. Of course, it's new, and it will take a while to see how well it holds up, but so far, I'm very pleased.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Becoming a Master Gardener

For years, I've wanted to take the Master Gardener short course, but never could manage to meet the schedule. This year is the year!

The course - the first step in becoming a Master Gardener - is offered only once a year. For 2009, that's July 20-31. The all-day classes - 9 am-4 pm - will be presented at the Texas AgriLife Extension Office (across from the courthouse) at 1225 Pearl Street, Suite 200.

It costs $150, and that includes all the classes and a 500-page manual. You'll get that back in knowledge alone that will help you avoid making costly mistakes.

Study topics include soils, plant growth, landscape design, herbs, perennials, pesticide safety, fruit production, butterfly gardening, budding and grafting and other aspects of horticulture. Texas A & M professors and local experts will teach the classes. After you take the course, to get your Master Gardener certification, you'll need to volunteer a certain number of hours in gardening-related activities in the community.

Want to be a Master Gardener? There's still time to sign up. Call Texas AgriLife Extension at (409) 835-8461. Space is limited.