A very spooky Cacti-Lantern on my buddy's front porch

Here is a quick and simple Halloween tip for you.  This year, instead of heading to the grocery store to buy a pumpkin to carve, head out to the garden and harvest a few cactus pads.  You can quickly turn these unassuming cactus pads into a wide variety of very scary faces that are every bit as fun to make, and just as frightening  as their pumpkin based cousins.  Cacti-Lanterns are a cute, clever, easy and oh so spooky way to spice up your Halloween decorations.

Cacti-Lanterns are jack-o-lanterns made with the pads of the thornless prickly pear cactus.  They are much easier to make than the pumpkin based jack-o-lantern.  Simply pull a nopal (that is the actual Spanish name for the pads on the cactus) from your thornless prickly pear.  Carve your scary face into the nopal and then stick it toward the front of a one gallon pot or planter.  After you have watered it in, stick a candle in the dirt behind the nopal and light it.  That’s it! 

In my opinion, Cacti-Lanterns are superior to the regular pumpkin based type for several reasons.  Number one, they are basically free.  Who doesn’t have a cactus or two in their yard.  Second, there is very little mess associated with cactus carving.  No pumpkin “guts” to scrape out and dispose of. And finally, after you are through with your Cacti-Lantern, keep watering it and it will grow you another cactus.

Unlike pumpkins, your Cacti-Lantern can be used from year to year. Just keep watering it in the pot and it will grow into a healthy, yet "holy" cacti.

I got this idea from my botanical brother Morgan McBride.  Like so many other things, Cacti-Lanterns were born of necessity.  He forgot to bring home pumpkins for the kids to carve.  So, in order to avoid a lot of tears from his kids, he quickly figured out this very clever way to re-use what he had in a way that made him, the wife and the kids all happy. 

If you have access to a thornless prickly pear, why not give this a try.  The Cacti-Lantern is just as much fun to make as a traditional jack-o-lantern and it is just as scary.  Plus, there is no real clean up required and your Cacti-Lantern will eventually turn into another plant.  What do you have to lose?


Texas Specialty Cut Flowers

Beautiful Zinnia bunches at Texas Specialty Cut Flower's big blue barn

For quite some time I have been impressed by, and somewhat enamored with, Texas Specialty Cut Flowers outside of Blanco, Texas. Frank and Pamela Arnosky are the owners of one of the most successful field grown flower farms in the U.S. (and probably the whole world if the stats were checked). Starting with nothing but a chain saw and a dream, they built a business that now provides the absolute finest quality, locally grown, fresh cut flowers to companies like HEB, Central Market and Whole Foods. You can also buy direct, on the honor system, at their big blue barn.

Pamela working on the center pieces for the Old Blanco County Courthouse Preservation Society Gala

My wife and I got to meet Pamela last weekend. Pamela and Frank are both masters of horticulture in every sense of the word and it was truly a thrill for me to meet her. I have so much respect for the business they have built and I was very excited to get to see a bit of it in person. 

Anyone that knows Pamela will tell you that she is the hardest working person they have ever seen. Farming is a tough job and if you are going to be successful you just don’t have much idle time. Because of this, it was no surprise for us to find Pamela working when we pulled up. She was busy making arrangements for the Old Blanco County Courthouse Preservation Society Gala. Pamela donates her time and her products to this group. When we arrived she was in the process of turning old cowboy boots and her flowers into stunning center pieces for the gala tables.

The centerpieces are ready for delivery

Frank and Pamela are passionate about what they do. They rely on the science of horticulture to consistently turn out the best flowers possible. Through research, experimentation and strict adherence to some very basic horticultural principals, she and her husband have turned the thin, rocky soil of the Texas hill Country into a floral oasis that abundantly provides year after year.

Stunning red Cock's Comb straight from the field.

They are also evangelists of sorts for their industry. Even though they spend just about every waking hour working their business, they still find time to give back. In addition to their strong support of their local community, they are very active in the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. They have both served as regional directors for this organization.  They also wrote a monthly column for “Growing for Market” for almost 15 years.  Two books resulted from those articles; We’re Gonna Be Rich (out of print) and Local Color: Growing Specialty Cut Flowers for Market (click the link to buy it now).  Growing for Market is a great resource for those of us that want to learn more about growing flowers or other forms of produce for market.  The editor of “Growing for Market” is Lynn Byczynski.  Lynn is also a giant in this industry.  Her book, The Flower Farmer (published by Chelsea Green), is now in it’s second printing.

Two types of celosia and sunflowers that were used to make the center pieces.

Right now, the floral season is beginning to wind down.  However, the Arnoskys still have lots of flowers available.  They sell alot flowers for the annual Dia de los Muertos (or the Day of the Dead for all of you gringos) celebrations across our great land.  If you are in the area, drop by the big blue barn on the weekend before November 1.  They will be celebrating Dia de los Muertos with a large communal ofrenda (this is an altar that honors the ancestors during the Dia de los Muertos celebrations) and an open house.  The ofrenda is truly lovely and the celebration is something you won’t forget.

Fields of sunflowers at Texas Specialty Cut Flowers

The Arnoskys are a shining example of what I like to think of as the American dream. They started their business with almost nothing. Now, after 21 years of dedication, determination and sweat, they have built a thriving family business that provides them with a nice living, a ton of pride and the satisfaction that comes from doing something well.  Their efforrts bring joy to countless fans around the country. My hat is off to these two “Masters of Horticulture”.  May the horticultural gods continue to richly bless them!

Lone Star Gourd Festival

One of Judy Richie's stunning art gourds. Photo by the artist

This past weekend, my lovely wife and I headed out for a much need mini-vacation.  For our “romantic get away” we decided to go to the Lone Star Gourd Festival in Fredericksberg, Texas.  We picked the Gourd Festival for several reasons.  First, I love gourds.  The gourd festival is a great place to see some really incredible art being made with gourds.  Second, I just submitted an article to Texas Gardener about gourds and I wanted to meet Judy Richie.  Judy is an incredibly talented gourd artist and her art will be featured in that article. 

A classic example of the finishes and deep front cuts with weavings that Judy has pioneered

Judy has been making gourd art for over ten years.  She is a pioneer in the gourd art world and many of her pieces are featured in several galleries through out the US.  Judy is a talented artist in every skill that can possibly be used to convert an ugly brown dried gourd into something that is truly museum quality art.  She is a master carver, engraver, weaver and finisher.  She was the first to deep cut into the side of a gourd and then adorn those openings with intricate weavings.  She has also developed several of her own finishes that make her art unique and instantly recognizable.

This vibrant piece shows all of things that Judy is famous for: incredible finishes, carving, weaving and inlay. the small piece inlayed in the bear is an ancient Native American pottery shard.

I first discovered Judy’s art at the “The Copper Shade Tree” in Round Top, Texas.  Gerald Tobolo and his wife are the owners of this gallery.  Gerald is a master coppersmith and he started this gallery to highlight his work and the work of other craftsmen working in Texas.  Judy’s art is one of the centerpieces of his collections and one of his better sellers.  According to Gerald, “Judy’s work is so versitile and varied.  Some of her pieces have a distinct Western flair while others resemble art pottery.  In fact, I recently had a customer buy one of her pieces for his craftsman style home.  This customer is a stickler for accuracy in his home.  Even though, no gourd was probably ever featured in a craftsman style home, he loved the fact that the Judy’s piece would “fool” his guests by making them think it was a very fine piece of hand thrown pottery.”

Judy’s business is called “Redcloud Originals”.  Please check it out.  Her website is full of great examples of her work and it also lists the galleries that she exhibits in and her show schedule.

Even though Judy was the main reason I went to the festival, she was not the only artist there.  Once again, I was amazed at the variety and quality of art being created out of gourds.  Scroll down for some pics of things that caught my eye at the 2011 Lone Star Gourd Festival.

The "Traveling Gourd". This is a HUGE gourd that was sent to each chapter in the Texas Gourd Society. There, artists from each chapter added to it to make a gourd that is truly representitive of all of the great things in the Great State of Texas.


I thought this was a cute and original treatment. Great for a child's room.


My favorite creation in the competition room

Organic Weed Control Presentation for the Bear Creek Master Gardeners

Last week I had the honor of speaking to the Bear Creek Master Gardener’s group in Houston.  The group invited me to give what I like to call a “lunch and learn”.  They grilled hamburgers for the members and then everyone settled in for the talk.  There were over 150 Master Gardeners in attendance.  Now there is of course a danger of doing a talk at lunch.  You know what a comfortable room and a full tummy can do.  Luckily for my ego, I did not see too many people dozing off during my presentation. 

The cover of the Texas Gardener issue that led to my "Weed Free-Organically" presentation for the Bear Creek Master Gardeners.

The presentation was entitled “Weed Free Organically”.   It was based on an article that I did for Texas Gardener several months ago.  In my talk, I emphasize a four pronged approach (I call it the 4 P’s)to organic weed control.  The first “P” in my program is “Preparation”.    If you are going to have any luck at all controlling weeds organically, you are going to have to do proper bed preparation to remove as much plant material as possible.  Solarization and smothering are the two best methods that I have found to remove all of the vegetation from a large-sized bed.  Proper bed preparation will make the other “Ps” much more effective.

“Pre-emergent” methods are the second part of the 4P approach.  There are not a lot of pre-emergent weapons available in the organic gardener’s arsenal.  Corn Gluten Meal is one.  It has been shown to be effective in field trials at Texas A&M.  However, the most effective pre-emergent tool a gardener has is mulch.  Mulch is by far and away the best thing you can do in your garden.  It deprives young weed seeds the light they need to germinate, feeds the soil, conserves moisture, insulates roots and then turns into compost.  I cannot over emphasize the importance of mulch in the garden.  We talked about when to mulch, how to mulch and what to mulch with.  In fact, probably on third of the one hour talk was dedicated to this very important topic.

The next “P” in the 4P approach is post-emergent tools.  Ideally, you don’t want to have to use post emergent weed control methods at all.  In the ideal world, you would have no weeds that needed to be pulled or killed.  However, since we don’t live in a perfect world, we discussed the use of acetic acid as a safe and effective herbicide.  We also discussed good hand weeding techniques and new tools (the circle hoe) that speed up your weeding chores.  We also talked about burning your weeds ( a very effective favorite of mine) and boiling water (an almost useless exercise).

The final “P” in the 4P method is persistence.  Like I reiterate each time I talk about organic weed control, I use all of these methods in my garden and I still have weeds.  However, by persistently using these methods year after year I get fewer and fewer weeds each season.

A special thanks goes out to Teresa See for inviting me to this very enjoyable afternoon event.

I would like to say a great big Thank You! to Teresa See for inviting me to talk with this outstanding group of gardeners.  Teresa is the the second Vp for the group and she is also responsible for the Library and Welcome Garden.  She was so welcoming and her spirit was indicitive of the entire group.   Their hospitality and receptiveness made for one of the most enjoyable afternoons that I have had in a long time.  The Bear Creek Master Gardeners regularly feature speakers on a wide range of topics.  All of their programs are at the Bear Creek Agrilife Extension facilities.  On Oct. 18, Jeanie Dunnihoo will be presenting “Herbs” at 7:00 p.m.  Joe Masabni, from Texas A&M Agrilife Extension will present “Raised Bed Gardening” on Nov. 1.  That is the “Hamburger Tuesday” meeting.  Burgers are $3. The meal is optional so feel free to attend the lecture “sans food” if you like.  Also, all of these talks are open to the public so be sure and invite all of your non Master Gardener friends!

Doing Rye Grass Right

The drought has really done a number on my yard.  In order to have something more than mud and dry weeds in the yard this fall and winter, I have decided to seed rye grass.  Now I have never put out rye grass before.  So, I decided to consult an expert before I went out and spent a whole lot of money and then wasted it by doing the job wrong.  My buddy, Morgan McBride, has worked in the green industry his entire life.  For over twenty years, he has designed, installed and maintained landscapes all over the DFW Metroplex.  Since he is an expert in turf management (and he would talk to me for free) I decided to ask him the proper way to seed rye grass.

Lovely rye grass sod. Photo from the website of

The Basics- Rye grass (genus Lolium), is a cool season annual grass commonly used for lawns, livestock food, green cropping and erosion.  There are also perennial species out there but the term “perennial” is a little misleading.  In Texas, the perennial species will only come back in areas of medium to heavy shade.


Morgan recommends using a perennial rye blend. It costs a little more but it will generally give you a more even coverage.  Photo by Morgan McBride

When seeding your lawn you need to be aware of which type of rye you are going to use.  The cheapest rye grass seed are the single variety annual types.  This type of seed is sold in your nursery or big box for around $20 per 50 lb bag.  The annual type works fine but it does not germinate as well as the perennial types.  Because of this you will need to seed at a higher rate.  Also, the varieties most commonly sold in our part of the world are VERY fast growers.  So, if you don’t mind mowing every three or four days, then the single variety annual type will be fine.


Rye grass (genus Lolium), is a cool season annual grass commonly used for lawns, livestock food, green cropping and erosion control. Photo by Morgan McBride

If you want to get the best coverage possible, you will probably be better served by purchasing a perennial blend.  These blends typically contain three varieties of perennial rye.  While the price is usually around $60 per 50 lb bag, you can seed at a lower rate.  Also, with three varieties, you greatly increase your chances of getting an even germination over the entire lawn.  With three verities you will get one that will do well in sun and one that will do well in the shade.

When to apply – When Morgan was doing turf management he always had September 15 circled as the date to start spreading rye.  However, climate change has taken away the certainty of that Sept. 15 date.  For your rye grass to prosper, it needs the days and nights to be at least 20 degrees different in temperature.  This year, it is now almost the middle of October and we are still barely getting that 20 degree spread.  Also, while the rye will germinate when the day/night temperature spread is 20 degrees, it will not really “take off” until that temperature spread is 30 degrees.  Using this knowledge you can select a date that is best in your area to spread your seeds.


For your rye grass to prosper, it needs the days and nights to be at least 20 degrees different in temperature. Photos by Morgan McBride

Preparation – Before spreading your rye grass you need to do two things.  First, rye needs to come in contact with the soil.  To increase your seeds’ chances of survival you will need to mow your grass very close to the ground.  If you have a thick St Augustine lawn you will need to scalp it.  Also, germinating rye grass cannot tolerate drought of any kind.  To increase your germination rate your soil needs to be thoroughly moist.  Since the drought has been so bad this year, Morgan recommends watering deeply for one to two weeks before spreading your seed.

Application – Once you have purchased your seed, get out your spreader.  If you buy the perennial blend you are going to want to set it to apply about 10 lbs per 1000 sq ‘.  So, your 50 lb bag will cover about 5000 sq’.  For best coverage, Morgan recommends setting the spreader to put out about half the recommended rate and seeding twice in different directions.  The Heritage Ranch Turf News Blog has a great post about this including pictures.  Please check it out as well.

When using the single variety you will need to seed at a higher rate.  Set your spreader to put out about 15 to 20 lbs per 1000 sq’.  This higher rate is used to offset the generally lower germination rates of the single variety types.


Morgan spread rye grass on this bare spot in his backyard. Two weeks later the rye grass has covered the spot. Photo by Morgan McBride

Getting it established – Once you have spread your seed you will need to be very diligent in your watering routine for a couple of weeks.  Rye grass needs an even moisture level for the most successful germination rates.  If you have a sprinkler system this should be much easier for you.  Set your sprinkler to do a short cycle in the morning, noon and afternoon.  If you do not have a sprinkler system, and you cannot be home during the day, go to your local nursery or big box and buy a battery operated hose timer.  This will be the best $20 you can spend for your rye.

When rye germinates it sends out a small, curved single root spike.  This spike is called a hook.  The hook must remain moist and in contact with the soil if it is going to have any chance of turning into grass.  That is why frequent watering is required for the first two or three weeks.

Fertilization – Rye grass is often used as a cover crop for vegetable gardens because it is so high in nitrogen.  Since rye is such a good sink for nitrogen it is a very good idea to feed your rye regularly with a high nitrogen fertilizer.  While not as easy to find as it used to be, something like a 12-0-0 is a good choice.  If you cannot find a pure nitrogen fertilizer, buy the one that has the highest N value you can find.  Broadcast your fertilizer at the same rate as you applied the seed at least once a month; the more the better.  The more nitrogen you put out the more attractive your grass will be.  Highly fertilized rye will turn a deep blue green that is just as lovely as Kentucky Bluegrass.


Two weeks after planting the rye grass is firmly established. Over the next few the grass will begin to form clumps that will form a soft and solid green carpet. Photo by Morgan McBride

Mowing – If there is drawback to rye, it is the fact that you will have to mow your lawn all winter.  However, if you don’t mind doing this there is a good chance that your winter lawn will look better than your summer lawn.  Set your mower high and mow frequently.  This will turn your lawn into a deep, soft carpet that is joy to both look at and run barefoot through.

Most of Central Texas got some much needed rain this past weekend.  The temperatures are also expected to start dropping.  So, according to Morgan, this week is the perfect time to spread your rye grass in central Texas.  If you want a lush, green lawn this winter (and you are not under watering restrictions) head out to your favorite lawn supplier and get that rye now.

Great Deal on Daylilies

As I mentioned in an earlier post, my friend Chris Von Kohn is a daylily breeder extrodinaire.  This past weekend he sold several of his creations at the Ft. Worth Botanic Gardens Fall Sale.  Chris is selling these beautiful and reliable flowers to finance his Masters of Horticulture degree at Texas A&M.  He has several plants left and he is selling them for the ridiculously low price of $7 per double fan.  If you are planning on adding some daylilies to your beds, why not contact him (his info is below). 

After the weekend rains, this is the perfect time to plant daylilies.  Please give Chris a call.  You will get some unique and beautiful plants that no one else has and he will get to go to grad school.  Everyone wins!

If you are in Arlington you can go by and pick them up.  If you are not in that area, he will be happy to ship them to you.  Chris’s cell is 817-269-7474 and his email address is

Here are few pictures of some of the daylilies he has breed:

Tree Town USA

Have you ever wondered what $100K worth of trees looked like? These trees are in 670 gallon containers and have been container grown their entire life.

Last week, I got to spend two very enjoyable days at a 1200 acre tree farm south of Houston.  This farm is owned and operated by Tree Town USA.  Tree Town USA is the largest tree farm in the US.  They have several farms and sales offices all over the country.  This one is located just south of Wharton in beautiful Glen Flora, Texas (Click on the link and you can see the farm from the air, pretty amazing).

A shipment of high quality oak trees leaving Tree Town USA

I was the guest of one of their salesmen named Morgan McBride.  Morgan and I have been friends for most of our lives.  He and I share a great sense of humor and a deep love of all things horticultural.  Morgan has worked in the green industry his entire life.  He is a Texas Certified Nursery Professional and a true master of horticulture.  Since I had never visited a tree farm of this magnitude, he thought I might enjoy getting up close and personal with the inner workings.  He was right.

To say I was amazed is an understatement.  Until you see a working 1200 acre tree farm you just cannot grasp the amount and the scale of the work that it encompasses.  To support this much intensive agricultural production, Tree Town USA employs a huge amount of infrastructure.  The watering system was truly an engineering marvel.

The water for all of the trees comes from a 1600' well. The well is that deep so that the water contains no salts or other minerals. The water is pumped into retaining tanks where it settles and then leaves through a 10" main. That main is then tapped by 4" irrigation tubes. Drip systems are then attached to the 4" lines.

Morgan and the other sales people regularly visit the farm to pick the best inventory for their top customers.  On this trip, He needed to pull several small quantities of oaks and then 120 30 gallon yaupons.  Helping him was going to be a very pleasant way to spend a Friday away from the office.  I arrived late Thursday afternoon.  He had just finished a lot of his work so he took me on a tour of the place.  I thoroughly enjoyed learning the ins and outs of the tree business.  This farm employs between 200 and 250 workers.  It takes all of their efforts, seven days a week, to keep an operation of this size moving.

Since it takes so long to grow a tree, tree farms are much different than a traditional nursery.  Their quickest crops typically take three years to develop.  Some of their larger trees have been grown for 3, 5 and even ten years before it is ready for sale.  I cannot even begin to imagine the management required to keep a plant alive for 3 to 10 years in a pot in the wildly variable Texas climate.

45 gallon Nellie R. Stevens hollies before the storm

This past month, Morgan was the top salesman in the company.  While I was happy for him I was a little confused.  I asked how he could sell so many trees in the middle of the worst drought in history.  Many of his biggest customers are landscape architects.  In order to get paid for a large commercial project, everything has to be complete.  That includes the landscape.  So, even though this has been the hottest AND driest year on record, these firms still have to install trees, shrubs, ground cover and turf.  Since there is a lot of building going on in the DFW metroplex, Morgan has been selling a lot of trees and shrubs.  He did tell me that the cities of Austin and San Antonio have been making some concessions to the builders because of the drought.  Trees and shrubs still have to be planted, but they are amending the contracts to allow the firms to come back later and plant the water sucking ground cover and turf.

These crepe myrtles are typical of how the winds affected much of the stock

Another very interesting thing happened on my trip.  Around 6:30 pm on Thursday night, a MASSIVE thunderstorm blew in.  This storm brought some much needed rain.  However, it was accompanied by 60 mph winds.  High winds are not the friend of a tree farm.  These high winds blew over an INCREDIBLE amount of stock.  Even though they were all well anchored, the wind pulled the anchors up.  Friday morning was a very sad day on the tree farm.  All 200 employees had to stop what they were doing and walk the property and stand up and re-anchor the stock.  The blow down was so massive that at the end of the day, 200 people did not finish standing everything back up.

The blow down caused problems for Morgan and I as well.  We still had 120 30 gallon yaupons to find and tag.  What was supposed to be a very enjoyable learning experience for me turned into an awful lot of work.  These yaupons were all six to eight feet tall and had a spread of six to eight feet as well.  Before we could find the best ones, we had to stand up a whole bunch of very heavy shrubs.  I do not know how many 30 gallon yaupons are on a two acre pad, but it is a bunch!

My friend Morgan tagging yaupons for his customer

Despite the hard work, this was truly the most enjoyable “field trip” that I have ever been on.  Thanks a ton to my buddy Morgan and to Tree Town USA for allowing me to visit.  Tree Town USA only sells to the trade.  So, while I wish I could make a product placement plug for them, you can’t buy from them directly.  However, you can request Tree Town USA trees from your local Home Depot or your independently owned nursery.  Since I have had this experience, I can tell you that if you buy Tree Town trees you will be getting a very high quality product that was grown with the best science possible by a whole lot of people who truly love trees!

Very interesting berry arrangement on one the yaupons we tagged