Thursday, January 28, 2010

East Texas Spring Gardening Conference

If you’re reading this blog, you almost certainly have an interest in gardening, nature or the outdoors. There was a time when that was included just about everyone. Just two generations before mine, millions of Americans living outside urban areas depended on a vegetable garden to provide food. My grandmother plowed her garden with a hand plow pulled by a mule, just as her father had. She was barely over five feet, and anyone who has plowed or watched someone plow knows how brutally physical it is. My grandmother’s father, Jacob William Wesley Johnson, died before he turned 40, killed by a kick from his plow mule on a hot July day. But if you lived on a farm and didn’t have much income, you planted a garden or you went hungry, so my grandmother did what she needed to do. Aside from the plowing, she loved working in the garden. Being outdoors was preferable to her to being inside.

Now, plowing is done with a tractor or a lawnmower with attachments, or tillers. On a smaller scale, hand tools can do the trick. With some techniques, like lasagna gardening in layers, very little digging is required. Home gardening is easier than ever, not that it doesn’t still have many of the same challenges my grandmother faced, like the weather and pests and diseases. But if you want to garden, you can find a method that works for you.

If you live in the Tyler area or don’t mind the drive, you can learn more about home vegetable gardening (and growing fruit in the home landscape) at the annual East Texas Spring Landscape and Gardening Conference on Feb. 13. The AgriLife Extension offices are a great source of information, and they are the hosts of the conference in Tyler. Other topics include feral hog control, which has become a serious problem in many areas, and for the ornamental gardeners, favorite perennial plants for East Texas landscapes, controlling moles in home landscapes and floral design.

Keith Hansen, Texas AgriLife Extension Service horticultural agent for Smith County, says that national surveys and observations by folks in the Ag business show an increased interest in home food production. The value of all vegetable production in home gardens – if they were sold commercially – was $20 billion in the U.S. (in 2009), according to Dr. Joseph G. Masabni, AgriLife Extension vegetable specialist in College Station.

And if you need another indicator that vegetable gardening is once again flourishing, get this: in the spring of 2009, home and garden centers throughout the U.S. sold out of vegetable sets and seeds.

Registration for the conference is $15 (check or cash at the door) at 7:30 a.m. (Feb. 13). The fee includes a catered lunch and refreshments at breaks. Speakers begin at 8:30 a.m. and the conference wraps up at 3:20 p.m. with door prizes. For detailed programming check out or call Hansen at 903-590-2980 or email him at

Monday, January 25, 2010

Can weather changes make you sick?

First it's freezing. Then it's hot. Then it gets cold again. Next thing you know, I've got a cold. Sore throat, fatigue, swollen glands in the neck. Could there be a connection?
I'm just saying...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cara Cara oranges at Central Market!

If email is any indication, there are a lot of cara cara orange lovers out there.

The sweet, juicy oranges are not easy to find in stores, but I received an email from Central Market in Houston today with the happy news that they have them in stock - and at a good price. The sale runs out this weekend.

Check it out.

Italian Seed Co. offers Rapini, Agretti and more

The cold, rainy days of winter are the perfect time for gardeners to grab a cup of hot cocoa and spend pleasant hours searching through seed catalogs as they plan their spring garden. The biggest challenge is trying to narrow down the many choices to the best bets for your taste, skill and zone.

I ran into a friend at Rao's last week who told me I should check out an Italian Seed company catalog. I found two - and I'm not sure which one he meant. The first is Italian Seed & Tool Co. I went online and browsed through their catalog, which isn't nearly as satisfying as holding a catalog in your hands, by the way. The list of vegetables is extensive, but what is particularly interesting is the variety of veggies not usually found in many other seed catalogs. Cooks like me who love preparing Mediterranean dishes will especially enjoy it. Some examples:Bean Borlotto Lingua Di Fuoco (bush bean), rapini - broccoli raab del trasimeno, Chard Riccia da Taglio and Escarole Batavian Broad Leaved.

In addition to vegetable seeds, the company offers flower seeds, herbs, sprouting kits, tools and supplies. You can find them at

The other is Seeds of Italy, which I think is the one he was talking about. It has seeds listed by the region of Italy in which they are grown and collected, which is appealing.

A qoute from the catalog helps explain the importance of location: "Every region of Italy has its own varieties, which like its recipes have been handed down from generation to generation. They are not globally available varieties which are found worldwide but instead are regional with a unique heritage. Go to an Italian market and you can buy tomato seeds, tomato plants, tomatoes and everything made with the tomatoes. There is no separation between gardening and food – there’s just food, and the tomato will vary in shape, size and flavour depending on the region, along with all the other vegetables."

You can download a pdf of their catalog at

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Don't forget to feed the birds

Winter might drive us indoors, but our feathered friends still have to fend for themselves out in the elements. A bird's food supply is lower in winter - and they need more fuel than usual. Both are good reasons to venture outdoors and fill the feeders.

Place food at several levels. Mourning doves, sparrows, towhees and juncos are ground feeders; cardinals, finches, and jays like table feeding while titmice, goldfinches and chickadees prefer hanging feeders. Feed woodpeckers, nuthatches and wrens on tree trunks.

Put out sunflower seed, white proso millet, thistle, suet, peanut butter and dried fruit to attract a variety of birds.

Don't forget fresh water.

Photo from Droll Yankees Bird Feeders

Wildflowers in Southeast Texas

The City of Beaumont, Jefferson County, Greater Beaumont Chamber of Commerce, Texas Department of Transportation and some generous private landowners have joined together in a wildflower project for Southeast Texas, according to an article in the Beaumont Business Journal. The city and county prepared the area and the city planted a mix of 12 wildflower seeds.

The plantings are along Interstate 10 west into Beaumont. Past attempts have been spotty, since weeds tend to take over. The scalp cutting the crews did should help with that this time around.

This photo is of wildflowers in Western Jefferson County, planted by Jan and Travis McCall of Hamshire in a huge community project a couple of years ago. If you want to read more about Jan's project, check an earlier blog I posted.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Pruning frost-damaged ginger

One of the features of blogging is the ability to see what search phrases readers are using to find answers to questions. Lately, a lot of readers have been asking what to do about pruning back frost-damaged ginger plants. There are many types of ginger, like standard, variegated and dwarf gingers. Dwarf ginger does not bloom, but produces beautiful, full clumps of green leaves that provide impact. Mine (shown in the lower left corner of this photo) has grown so rapidly that it has filled in one whole end of a bed, circling around a tree that was damaged by the hurricane and needs a lot of help now. Each winter, at least some of the plants - those on the outermost edges - are damaged by frost and turn brown. In early spring, I trim those back mercilessly. If a leaf shows any damage, I cut it at the stem. By summer, the clumps are lush and green again. The key is to resist cutting the ugly damage back now. WAIT. If any more frost comes, the dead leaves will provide protection to the more tender inner and lower leaves.

The same is true of standard, blooming ginger. Many varieties are easily damaged by the cold, though some varieties are relatively cold-tolerant. Like dwarf ginger, most standard gingers (like the popular shell ginger) will come back the next warm season. So be patient, wait until the danger of frost is past, then trim back and wait for a renewal.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Garden of Evil

This gardening blog celebrates the joy of the earth and its bounty - but Mother Nature can be as cruel as she is generous. For the people of Haiti, there is little to feel joyous about after the earth shook beneath their feet and their homes, workplaces, grocery stores, hospitals and public places collapsed. The numbers are almost impossible to comprehend - possibly more than 100,000 people dead, many more thousands injured and in need of treatment, and millions homeless. The grief and despair are palpable in the photos of parents holding a dead child or kneeling inconsolably in the rubble where their loved ones lie buried. How hard it must be to find hope in the midst of such pain.

And then comes Pat Robertson, who dares to use the pulpit to spread a message as far from the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as evil is from good. Robertson's vile statement that the Haitians are being punished for transgression is inexcusable. For a person who professes to be a man of God, Robertson is as empty of grace and compassion for those he deems unworthy as Jesus was full. We live in a natural world, a complex planet full of volatile materials and surrounded by forces of nature that are unpredictable. God didn't "send" this earthquake.
People like Robertson who call themselves Christians and then preach a message of hate and exclusion - which is not what Jesus preached - hurt all people of faith and give ammunition to those who are distrustful of Christians because of what they read or hear said in the faith's name. The Christians I know are nothing like Robertson, just as the Muslims I know are nothing like Osama bin Laden. I hope all people of faith will join in praying for the people of Haiti, and offer help to all who suffer. While we cultivate a garden of food for those who are hungry, we also need to cultivate a spiritual Garden of Good, not Evil.

I wonder if when Robertson comes face to face with his God, he will receive far more compassion than he was willing to give.

May God comfort the people of Haiti and hold them in His hands.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Prune frost-damaged plants now - or later?

The frigid temperatures are gone now, but they left behind a lot of damaged plants. While it might be tempting to get the pruners out and cut off all that sad-looking, brown plant material, you'd do better to wait until late winter or very early spring.

Don't prune until the last danger of frost has passed and you can get a better idea what is damaged and what is healthy. You can check by making a small incision in the bark of the plant. The layer just below the outer bark is the cambium. Dead tissue will be dark. Healthy tissue will be green or a lighter color than the dead material. By early spring, some new buds might appear, which will show healthy tissue. Remove all dead tissue at this point.

Don't forget to keep watering regularly until then. It's not true that you don't have to worry about water during cold temperatures.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Will club soda kill fire ants?

An email making the rounds right now offers hope to those plagued by fire ant mounds. Opening a bottle of club soda and pouring it down the mound will kill the entire colony, it says. How? The carbon dioxide is heavier than oxygen and depletes the mound of air, asphyxiating the ants.

Oh, that it were true. According to the Aggies over at Prairie View A&M, the chance of killing the ants by drenching the mound with club soda is "slim to none." It is founded on a fact, however; club soda (in large quantities) can kill lots of organisms. But fire ants build mounds 12-15 feet underground and even further horizontally. It would take more club soda than the local bar dispenses to reach that far. There is one bit of good news, though. A club soda drench very well might make the ant colony move, since they don't like to be disturbed. Hey, if they want to pack up and move down the road, I'll happily supply the luggage. - but I'm keeping the Campari.

You can find an explanation of the theory and its debunking at the blog Insects in the City, under "Club soda for your ants, Sir?"

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Did the Farmer's Almanac predict the freeze?

My grandmother was a firm believer in planting by the moon - and her favorites source of weather-related gardening information was the Old Farmer's Almanac. There are two farmers almanac, by the way. The first is the Old Farmer's Almanac, which is the original, dating back to 1792, and 26 years older than The Farmers' Almanac.

Both the almanacs predicted a colder-than-normal winter. In fact, they say this will be the case for the next decade. They attribute the extended cold winters to a low-activity solar period. Both almanacs use solar activity, the position of the planets and tidal information as part of their weather predicting. Regardless of the formula, the almanac was accurate enough for my grandmother to place her faith in its gardening advice. She always kept it nearby during the planting season and followed it faithfully. Since she was one of the gardeners who could stick anything in the ground and it would grow, you won't hear me question their value.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Thyme for Herbs Society

The Thyme for Herbs Society will host its January meeting at 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 17, at the garden center of Beaumont Botanical Gardens in Tyrrell Park.

Ann Wheeler of Arbor Gate nursery in Tomball will present a program on landscaping with herbs.

The program is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Janis Prestridge, 866-2503.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Learn how to keep bees

If you've ever wondered what it takes to become a beekeeper, you can get all the basic information at an Introduction To Beekeeping seminar on Saturday, January 23 from 9:30 am until noon at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service, 1225 Pearl Street, Suite 200, (corner of Franklin and Pearl) in downtown Beaumont.

For a $10 fee, you will hear talks on: Why keep bees, skills and equipment needed to get started, bee biology/lifecycle, and the basics of handling bees. If the weather permits, you can join in on a field trip to a local beekeeping operation. The speakers are Gretchen Horn of Southern Gold Honey Company and a Jefferson County Master Gardener, and Jeff McMullan of the Ft. Bend Beekeepers Assn.

Even if you don't think you want to become a beekeeper, I think it would be interesting to learn about bees just for the general knowledge - and $10 is a bargain. This is another excellent example of the numerous educational programs our local Agri-Life folks provide.

About the wonderful photo: this is a stamp collecting sheet from 2001 in the Ukraine, where beekeeping is an ancient tradition. According to, one in 1,000 persons in the Ukraine keeps bees. The six stamps show a bee collecting pollen, Apiculture, the study of beekeeping, a worker bee, a queen bee, a beehive and a drone bee.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

It's cold!

Right now, it's 28 degrees outside. Tonight is supposed to be worst - as in lowest - temperature of the four days of cold that threaten plants and pipes.

We did what we could for our plants, taking some inside the game room and covering others. We also did what we could for the pipes, but when you live in an old wood-frame farmhouse on piers, you face the almost certainty of frozen pipes.

So tonight we'll be up several times running water through the sinks and bathtubs to try to keep them as open as possible. The next few days will be a challenge, for sure, but as long as we don't lose electricity, Joel, me, Ellie and Barley should be comfortable.

I hope your family is as well.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

How to protect plants from freezing

If you haven't yet covered your plants, this morning is the time to do it. The coldest weather yet is headed our way - and the danger to plants come from the length of time we're expecting the hard freeze to last. Just 3 hours at 28 degrees can damage plants - and we're expecting weather in the teens to low 20s for 3 days.

The most important thing to remember about covering plants is to use a breathable material - NOT plastic or vinyl. The damage comes when cold temperatures freeze the moisture in the plant's leaves and buds. A covering like an old bed sheet or a burlap bag will let the moisture evaporate while keeping freezing air from making direct contact with the moisture in the plant. When windy conditions are predicted, as they are for Southeast Texas this week, anchor the sheets down with bricks, rocks or other anchors. Try to keep the fabric off new growth; support it with sticks or plants stakes. We use the metal shepherd's hooks we keep for hanging lanterns and bird feeders.

If plastic is all you have available, use it, but take it off first thing in the morning when the sun comes out. For smaller plants, covering them with clay pots work well. Commercial blankets also are available, like the one pictured here from Megagrow.

The second thing to do is add extra mulch, especially around the trunk of small trees and shrubs. Don't be stingy; pile it up.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

January Birth Flower - Carnation

The spicy, clove-like fragrance of the carnation is distinctive, as is ithe multi-petal blossom. The carnation is the birth flower for those born in January.

Botanical name:
Dainthus caryophyllus
Herbaceous perennial
Full sun
Pink/purple, red, white and others
Spring through summer
Soil Requirements:
Rich, well-drained

Christian legend says the first carnations appeared where Mary’s tears fell along the path Jesus walked to the cross. In 1907, Ann Jarvis chose the pink carnation as the emblem of Mother's Day. The flower expresses love (light red carnations represent admiration; dark red shows deep love and affection; white shows pure love and good luck).

Friday, January 1, 2010

Blessings for Gardeners

A Gardener's Blessing

May God grant thee
Enough sun to warm the earth,
Enough rain to make things grow,
A good strong back,
A wide brimmed hat,
And a good sharp goose-neck hoe,
Strength for a day of toil
And some quiet evening hours,
With a sip of tea
And a gentle breeze,
And may all your weeds be wildflowers.

Ralph Emerson Purkhiser

Happy New Year from Dig-It!