Farm to Market Flowers

Debbie Thornton is one of a growing number of people in this country that are doing something I think is very important.  Debbie is the owner of Farm to Market Flowers (FM Flowers) and she is sustainably growing fresh cut flowers for the florists and farmer’s market in Tomball, Texas.   A lot pf people don’t know this, but at least 80% of the cut flowers sold in the US are grown somewhere else.  Each time you buy a bouquet from a grocery store (that is not Whole Foods or Central Market), you are buying products that have been sprayed with every chemical possible and shipped from places very far away.

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Debbie Thronton is a local grower of fresh cut floral products. Look her up every Saturday at the Tomball Farmer’s Market

It doesn’t have to be this way.  When asked if they had a choice between a product created or grown oversees and one grown or created in the US , 78% of respondents said they would buy American.  Unfortunately it can often be difficult to find a local alternative; especially when it comes to fresh cut flowers.  That is why farmers like Debbie, The Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers (ASCFG) and Debra Prinzing (Slow Flowers) are so important.  These people are working very hard to promote locally and sustainably grown fresh cut flowers and let consumers know that they now have a choice.

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How can you resist buying flowers from a booth this cute?

I learned about Debbie and her farm through one of the nicest and most touching comments I have ever received on my blog.  Here’s the comment:

Thank you Jay. I am growing cut flowers as a result of your article in the Texas Gardener Magazine. I did just what you said and visited the Arnosky’s and met Kim with Billabong. I am in the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers and I have been growing for our local farmers market and florists here in Tomball for two years. I was a Master Gardener for several years and heard you speak at the Bear Creek Extension office.

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A load of Debbie’s sustainably grown sunflowers is ready for Market

Luckily, the story of how Debbie became a flower farmer is becoming more common.  After gardening for years, she decided to capitalize on her knowledge and love of growing flowers.  She has now turned her hobby into a small business that provides fresh cut flowers to the Tomball, Texas local area.

It doesn’t take a lot of room to become a flower farmer.  Debbie is currently growing on one fourth of her one acre property.  However, by properly and intensively managing that quarter of an acre, she is able to supply fresh flowers to the weekly Tomball Farmer’s Market and a couple of local florists.  This quarter acre farm has become so successful that she has been able to cut back on her hours at her “real job”.

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It doesn’t take a lot of room to be a flower farmer. Debbie grows all of her flowers on 1/4 of an acre.

I asked Debbie if the hard, hard work of flower farming is worth it. Debbie said “I absolutely love it.  It is hard work, but I love the joy it brings to people. I would definitely recommend it to others. It can be scary at times, but I just try to produce quality flowers and they sell themselves.”

My hat is off to Debbie Thornton and all of the other flower farmers out there that are making a living (or a least a part of their living) providing us with a very beautiful option to the imported, chemical drenched flowers that you find in most outlets.  Debbie’s work ensures that the next time you are in the market for cut flowers, you have a choice.  If you are like me (and Michele Obama who recently decreed that American grown flowers will be used in the White House), it is worth a little effort to “go local” and buy these American grown products.

If you are a flower lover in the Tomball area, head over to the Farmer’s Market and visit with Debbie.  She loves growing these flowers and she loves telling you why they are so special.  Once you buy a bunch of her beautiful, long lasting bouquets you will be hooked.  If you live somewhere else, and would like to buy local flowers, go to the ASCFG website and find out if there is a local grower in your area.  If not, you still have a choice.  Please check out The Slow Flowers website.  This new offering from Debra Prinzing (mother of the field to vase movement and author of “The Fifty Mile Boquet”) will allow you to buy and ship locally grown flowers regardless of where you live.

Slow-Flowers-Website

Slow Flowers is your source for locally grown fresh cut floral products. Check it out!

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Vitex-TheTexas Lilac (Vitex agnus-castus)

It has now been a whole month since I finished my horticulture degree at A&M.  In that time I have had three people approach me to do landscapes for them (it is interesting to me that people think all horticulturists are landscapers).  One horseman wants me to landscape his two entry gates, my family cemetery wants me to landscape their entrance and another person wants an “LSU Garden” in their yard.  While all three of these projects are very different, all three will feature a very lovely and durable plant – Vitex (Vitex agnus-castus).

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The 12″ flower spike of the Vitex are beautiful and irresistible to butterflies and hummingbirds

Vitex is a small flowering tree that is, in my opinion, one of the best ornamental trees you can own. Its long, curvy, purple-blue flower spikes have earned the vitex the nickname of “The Texas Lilac”.    In addition to its beautiful flower spikes, this little tree can take the heat, endure the drought and is resistant to most pests.  It attracts butterflies and hummingbirds and deer do not like it.  With all it has going for it, this drought resistant tree really is a perfect choice for the Texas homeowner.

Vitex are typically grown as a multi trunked tree.  The multi-trunk look is achieved through pruning.  When grown as a tree they  grow to about 15 feet.  However, some varieties can get as tall as 35 feet.   If left alone from seed, the Vitex will grow into a lovely shrub that makes a stunning hedge that can, with regular deadheading, produce those long, lovely flower spikes throughout the summer.

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My Hyperion daylilies pair nicely with a Vitex I have left in a shrub form

You can find Vitex with pink flowers, mauve flowers and white flowers.  However, most of the Vitex sold in the trade have a purple-blue colored flower that is often called lilac.  The three most common varieties sold here in Texas include Shoal Creek, Montrose and Le Compte.  My friends at Tree Town USA are about to release a new, and as of yet unnamed, dark blue flowering variety.  Look for them this fall at all of the major nurseries or your local big box.

If you want to grow your own Vitex, plant it in the fall.  Like most trees, the cooler weather of fall will allow the plant to establish itself with much less water.  You can also plant it in the winter when it is dormant.  If you miss both of those opportunities you can still plant it in early spring.  Just remember though, the longer you wait, the more effort and water it will take to fully root.

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Since all of these lovely little flowers produce seeds, Vitex can be a bit invasive

While I do love this tree, it does have a couple of small problems.  First, each of those little flowers on those 12” flower stalks will produce a little seed.  Because of this it can be a bit invasive.  This is not a huge problem for the homeowner.  The weed eater and mower can easily control all of the volunteers that sprout in the yard.  However, if planted near a creek or tank, the plant can easily escape and create enough of a problem that it is currently listed as an invasive species on the Texas Invasives website (http://www.texasinvasives.org/plant_database/detail.php?symbol=VIAG).  You can control the spread of this plant by diligently deadheading each spent flower spike before the seeds develop.   The other little problem is allergies.  If you have a sensitivity to tree pollen you may want to avoid this tree.  All of those flowers produce pollen and many people claim to be allergic to it.

vitex-flowers-4As I drive around I notice more and more Vitex in yards, commercial landscapes and along the roads and highways of our great state.  I think this is great.  Vitex is a beautiful and versatile plant that blooms throughout the summer and thrives on average annual rainfall.  It is no wonder that the Texas Highway Department has added them to their list of preferred plants.  If this plant thrives along the hot and dry roadsides and medians of our great state, imagine how well it will perform for you in your yard!

Posted in Flowers, Trees | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Five Tips for Fabulous Homemade Bouquets

Those of you that read on a regular basis know that I love growing flowers just as much as I enjoy growing vegetables.  In fact, I don’t really separate the two in my mind.  Each year my gardens contain both edibles and ornamentals.  While I love watching my flowers grow and bloom, the thing that really excites me is cutting those flowers and turning them into homemade bouquets that I can share with my family and friends.

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This lovely arrangement is comprised of roses, yarrow, dill, mint and salvia — all from my garden

Now I will be the first to admit that I am NOT a talented floral designer.  However, my youngest daughter Whitney is and she loves sharing her tips for creating beautiful homemade floral arrangements with me.  Below are what I believe are her best tips to date.

Tip 1 – Floral arrangements don’t have to be made up of just flowers.  In fact, some of her favorite arrangements have no flowers in them at all in them.  Whitney loves to make homemade bouquets that incorporate branches, grasses and even vegetables.  She also loves using herbs as fillers.  Things like rosemary, thyme and basil add structure and scent to your arrangements.  Plus they last forever in the vase.  In fact, if you leave these herbs in the water long enough many of them will root!  In season, don’t forget to incorporate things from the garden like honeysuckle and fresh fruits and vegetables.

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This late season arrangement uses zinnias, love lies bleeding, wax myrtle foliage and a tatume’ squash!

Tip 2 – Forget the rules.  Don’t worry if the height of your arrangement is not one and a half times as tall as your vase.  In fact, you don’t even have to use a vase.  Don’t worry too much about color either.  While complimentary color schemes are nice, they are not necessary.  Just look around nature, you will see that just about every color is used and they all look fabulous together.  Also, do not be afraid to use just a single variety and color of flower in your arrangements.  Also, vases don’t have to be vases.  A cute container like an old tin can, teacup or sugar bowl can make a good arrangement great.  Whitney also likes to cut the top out of gourds, squash and pumpkins in season.

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I threw this together last month. Notice the weeds? The purple globes are thistle heads from our wildflower meadow.

Tip 3 – Add more flowers.  Your arrangements should be pleasing to the eye.  According to Whitney, most DIYers use too few flowers and not enough fillers in their arrangements.  As you build your arrangement step back several steps and look at it from every angle.  If you see spots that need a little something, add it!  Since you grew the flowers and fillers at home they are free – use them with abandon!

homemade-arrangement-5Tip 4 – If you want your fresh cut floral products to last as long as possible, cut them early in the morning and get them into cool, clean water ASAP.  When you cut, use sharp clippers and cut the stems on an angle and then drop them into a plastic or glass container.  Metal containers and fresh cut flowers do not play well together.  Also, change the water in your vase daily.

Tip 5 – Probably the best tip Whitney ever gave me was “If you can’t create –copy!”  Like I said, I am just not a talented designer.  However, I am a pretty good copier.  Pinterest and Google give us access to thousands of pictures of beautiful floral arrangements every day.  Look at these pictures.  Find things you like and then copy them!

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Cut flowers early in the morning to extend their vase life. Also change your water daily once they are arranged

I hope these tips give you the encouragement you need to get busy cutting and arranging your homegrown flowers!  Even though I don’t feel like I have a gift in this area I have learned that when using beautiful things it is hard to create something unattractive!

Posted in Flowers | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Whitney and Ryan Jump the Broom!

Fathers of sons will never get to experience the feelings of shock, pride, amazement, joy and deep, pure love that overtakes them when they turn around and see their daughter in her wedding gown.  A few weeks ago, my youngest daughter Whitney gave me this incredible gift.   She was beautiful –and I cried.  As I walked her down the aisle, I cried.  When I toasted them, I cried.  As we danced, I cried.  When I hugged her and her new husband Ryan as they were leaving for their honeymoon –well you get it, I cried!

14_0426_whitney_ryan_WED_00578When I was not crying like a little girl, Sally and I had a fabulous time celebrating Whitney and Ryan’s nuptials with all of our (and their) friends and family.  Whitney and Ryan were married in a beautiful afternoon ceremony in Seattle’s Martha Washington Park.  While lovely, it was a bold move.  As our dear friend Debra Prinzing said to us “only a Texan would plan an outdoor wedding in Seattle in April!”  Luckily, their gamble paid off.  Whitney and Ryan were truly blessed to be able to celebrate their love for each other in a beautiful place, on a perfect, rainless day in the Pacific Northwest.

14_0426_whitney_ryan_WED_00419As a man, I may never fully understand why weddings are such big deals to women.  However, after being a part of four weddings in the past four years, I have learned one thing about them.  Weddings are BIG EVENTS and they cannot happen without the help of a whole lot of people that care a whole lot for the bride and groom.  This wedding was no exception.  We could not have done it without the help of many, many caring and generous people.

14_0426_whitney_ryan_WED_02067As a budding (pun intended) floral entrepreneur, Whitney is friends with many talented people.  Several of those friends chipped in to make sure this wedding celebration was beautifully adorned and beautifully documented.  Many thanks to Adam and Alicia Rico of “Bows and Arrows” and Erica Knowles of “Botany 101”.  They used locally sourced, sustainably grown seasonal flowers from the Seattle Wholesale Growers Market to create stunning arrangements that, despite the grandeur of the setting,  pulled the guests in and made them feel a part of the small, intimate event.   Robert Kitayama of KB Farms donated the gardenias that comprised the simple, yet elegant bridal bouquet.  Also, huge thanks go out to Angela and Evan Carlyle of Angela& Evan Photography.  All of the photos in this post were taken by them.  As you can see, their photography is amazing.  They are also incredibly professional and amazingly fun to work with.

14_0426_whitney_ryan_WED_00614Finally, I want to say a very special thank you to Debra Prinzing.  Debra has been so kind and generous to Whitney over the past year and half.  She is the mother of the “Slow Flower” movement in the US and a big part of the reason my daughter moved to Seattle.  To call her a friend greatly understates how entirely wonderful she has been to Whitney and our entire family.  In typical Debra fashion she opened her home to the entire bridal party for the entire day!  She started by hosting the loveliest of bridal luncheons (with help from Cynthia Alexander of Quarry Flower Farm) for all of the women that were there to celebrate with Whitney.  Then, once the luncheon ended, she allowed the wedding party to stay and have hair and makeup done, make floral head pieces for the ceremony and dress.   She even delivered Whitney to the ceremony!

There are many kinds of wedding gifts.  While matching silverware is nice, the giving of your time and talents to make a special day for the people you love is the best gift of all.   Whitney and Ryan, you are blessed to have so many people in your lives that care so deeply for you.  And all of us are blessed to have you in ours!

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Posted in Field Trips, Flowers | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Organic Aphid Control

If you have spent much time in the garden, you are familiar with aphids.  These tiny little pests are quite common and quite annoying.  In fact, they are so annoying; lots of people call them plant lice.  Aphids do more damage to agricultural and horticultural plants than any other species of insect.  In fact, one species of aphid almost entirely destroyed the French wine industry in the 1870’s.  They also contributed to the spread of the “Late Blight” fungus that caused the Irish potato famine.

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Aphids do more damage to agricultural and horticultural crops than any other insect. Photo by Bruce Leander

Aphids have modified mouth parts that allow them to drill directly into the phloem and extract all of the rich carbohydrates and sugars that it needs from your plants.  Aphid damage on plants can lead to decreased growth rates, curled leaves, brown spots, low yields and even death.  To make matters worse, aphids are known to spread many different plant viruses.  For example, the green peach aphid is known to spread 110 different viruses.

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This rose bud is covered with aphids in all stages of their development. The white things in the pictures are the skins they shed as they go from one phase to another. Photo by Sally White

Aphid also excrete a substance called “honeydew” that is also harmful to plants.  Aphids feed on plants the same way a mosquito feeds on you.  Once they “tap a vein” there is so much food available, and it us under so much pressure, that the unused sap passes through their bodies and onto the plant’s foliage.  This forms a sticky, sweet covering on stems and leaves that is a perfect host for mold and fungus.

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Close up of aphids in various stages of development. Photo by Bruce Leander.

While there are lots of insecticides that you can spray to control aphids, organic control is usually just as effective.  Believe it or not, the most effective tool you can use against the aphid is water.  Aphids are soft bodied pests.  A good hard blast of water can actually cause the aphid to burst open.  Even if it doesn’t burst the aphid, it will knock them to the ground.  The ground is a very bad place for an aphid.  There are lots of things down there that will eat it.  Also, since most cannot fly or crawl very fast, they will often die from exposure before they make it back to your plant.

Effective control with water in not a “one and done” job.  If you want to keep aphids in check you are going to need to spray every three or four days.  Also, since aphids hide under leaves at night and during the hot part of the day, you need to spray upwards from the bottom of the plant.  This is very difficult to accomplish with a water hose.   Luckily there are tools out there that can make this job easier and more effective.

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As you can see, my roses are infested with aphids again this year. Photo by Sally White.

The best tool I have found is made right here in Texas.  It is called the MiteyFine sprayer.  The MiteyFine sprayer is essentially a metal tube with a special nozzle that is designed to apply the right amount of pressure (and use the least amount of water) needed to kill aphids.  MiteyFine comes in 46” and 58” lengths.  The light weight shaft makes it easy to handle and the design ensures that the water finds the aphids that hide in those really hard to get to places.

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The MiteyFine sprayer is the most effective tool I have found for organic control of aphids. Photo by Bruce Leander.

I have met several people that are skeptical that water alone can control aphids.  In fact, just yesterday I was telling a friend that runs a landscape business about the MiteyFine sprayer.  He asked “How do you mix the orange oil in with the water?”  No matter how much I swore that water alone was enough, he just didn’t believe me.  If you are like my friend, and you feel like you have to spray something on bugs, then you are in luck.  Orange oil, neem oil and lantana oil are organic insecticides that can all be sprayed on active infestations with great result.  These natural oils kill by clogging the pores that the insects use to breath.  However, just like water, you need to spray every few days and you need to spray under the leaves.  Be aware that there are some predatory bugs that eat aphids that will also be killed by any oil application.

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Lady bugs and their babies are voracious aphid predators. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Lady bugs are another organic aphid control measure that I hear a lot about.  While it is true that lady bugs eat a lot of aphids, you would need a whole lot more of them than you can afford to control a good infestation.  I have lots of lady bugs in my gardens.  However, I still have lots of aphids all over my plants.  I am not saying you should not buy and release lady bugs in your garden.  Just be aware that they are not the panacea they are made out to be.

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Ladybug larvae are often called “aphid lions” because they eat so many of the pests. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Even though aphids are a nuisance, there is no reason to let them ruin all of those beautiful plants that you have worked so hard to grow.  With a little observation and a little perseverance, you can control your aphid problems with some very effective organic tools.

Ladybugs lay their eggs close to an aphid infestation.  The larvae begin to feed on the slow moving aphids immediately.  Photo by Bruce Leander.

Ladybugs lay their eggs close to an aphid infestation. The larvae begin to feed on the slow moving aphids immediately. Photo by Bruce Leander.

Posted in Animals, Organic Pest Control, Pest Control | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Graduation

When I started this blog I was just beginning graduate school at Texas A&M.  I was having so much fun, and learning so much, that I wanted to share all of the amazing horticultural things I was learning with my fellow gardeners.  For the past four years, Grad school and the blog have been a huge part of my life.  This past Saturday night, the grad school part finally came to an end.   At 7:30 PM I walked across the stage at Reed Arena (and away from graduate school) and into the waiting arms of the Association of FORMER Students.  Whoop!

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I am a little embarassed to admit how excited I was to finally get that aggie ring!

Now that it is over I can honestly say that graduate school has been the best gift I ever gave myself.  Over the past four years I have learned so much and made so many wonderful friends.  The instructors, staff and Horticultural Extension agents that I have worked with are truly some of the most gifted, knowledgeable and caring people I have ever had the pleasure knowing.  “Thanks” is just not enough to express all they have meant to me.  All of these people welcomed me into their family and I will be forever grateful for that.

Aggie-Ring-HistoryWhile many, many people have worked to help me achieve this milestone, there are two that deserve a very special “Thank You”.   The first is my wife.    The afternoon that she looked at me and said “You love horticulture.  Since we are moving 40 miles away from A&M you should go talk to them and see if you can get a master’s in it” changed us both forever.  Her idea has now turned into a life changer for both us.  Before her suggestion I thought I would work at MD Anderson until I was 65.  Now, because of her support and encouragement I have the degree and the skills that will allow me to retire at 57 and be “The Master of Horticulture” full time.  Thanks honey!

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Thanks honey!

Before coming to A&M the thing I was most proud of was the time I spent serving my country in the U.S. Air Force.  The unofficial motto of the Air Force is “Flexibility is the key to air power”.  My graduate advisor, Dr. Charlie Hall, is a perfect example of that motto in practice.  My full time work schedule often made it difficult for me to fulfill the requirements of this degree.  Whenever things looked bleak, he would smile at me say “Don’t worry about it good buddy, we’ll figure something out”.  And we always did.  Thank you Charlie!  I am so glad that you took a chance on me.  You are a true man of character and you have been a great role model, mentor, instructor and friend.  As Elphaba said to Glinda in “Wicked”, “Because I knew you … I have been changed for good”.

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Dr. Hall, I couldn’t have done this without you! Thanks so much good buddy!

Now it is going to be just me, you and the blog.  Thanks to all who continue to read.  In the future, look for new features.  I will begin interviewing home gardeners across the state and high lighting what they are doing well in their vegetable gardens, yards and flower beds.  I will also begin to feature articles about water capture, reuse and living a more water wise life.  Thanks again for your continued support and never hesitate to send me your questions and suggestions.  Whoop!!!

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It’s a family affair. Comparing rings with my Brother-in-law Buddy Hemann and my niece and nephew Julie and Daniel Liu.

Posted in Gardening Basics, Masters of Horticulture | Tagged , , , | 22 Comments

Myth # 50 Use Epsom Salt on… By C.L. Fornari

Today’s post marks a huge milestone for the Masters of Horticulture—200 posts!  To celebrate this accomplishment I am sharing a guest post from noted horticulturist and radio personality C. L. Fornari. (http://www.gardenlady.com).  C. L.  has a new book coming out on May 16 called “Coffee for Roses” (http://amzn.to/1mhXAGq).  In it, she uses her witty writing style and in depth horticultural knowledge to dispel many common horticultural myths that often show up as “fact” in conversation and on Pinterest and FaceBook.  In her excerpt below, she explains when and why you should use epsom salts in your garden (if at all).

Myth # 50 Use Epsom Salt on…

coffee4roses2When researching the use of Epsom salt in the garden I was reminded of an old Saturday Night Live sketch about “New Shimmer.” “It’s a floor wax!” the wife, played by Gilda Radner, insists. The husband, Dan Aykroyd, claims, “It’s a dessert topping!” Naturally, the product was both.

Although I haven’t seen Epsom salt recommended as either a floor wax or a dessert topping, it’s been suggested for just about everything else. Through the years, advice columns, books, and now Internet sites have advocated using Epsom salt for tile cleaning, splinter removal, bath soaks, foot treatments, as a hair curling agent, laxative, facial hair remover, curtain stiffening, insecticide, fertilizer, headache cure, sunburn relief, treatment for insect bites, and for creating fake frost on windows.

More about that frost recipe later, but if the same product is recommended for curling hair and removing it, shouldn’t that give a thinking person pause?

coffee4roses3Epsom salt was named for a town in Surrey, England, where it was once produced by boiling down mineral-rich spring water. Although the crystalline structure looks rather like table salt, Epsom salt is actually magnesium sulfate and contains 10% magnesium and 6% sulfur.

When I’m asked if Epsom salt should be applied on lawns, around roses, in the vegetable garden, or on houseplants, my reply is always the same. “Is your soil deficient in magnesium?” Most people don’t know; they’ve heard that they can put Epsom salt on plants but they don’t understand what it is or why they might use it.

Let’s get down and dirty about this. Connecting back to the fictional New Shimmer dessert topping for a moment, we might think of soil as we would a recipe for sweets. The ingredients for a tasty dessert need to be in the right proportions to make something delicious. Add too much cinnamon, baking soda or salt and the results would be inedible.

Soil also needs to be kept in balance. It’s a complex community made of minerals, organic matter, fungi, bacteria, other microorganisms, air and water. Too much of any one of those elements can throw everything off so that plants don’t grow as well. Most plants need the magnesium and sulfur that’s in Epsom salt, but unless you’ve tested the dirt you don’t know if your soil already has these elements or not.

So why not just give a plant Epsom salts and see what happens? In response, I think of two popular sayings. The first is Barry Commoner’s second law of ecology: “Everything must go somewhere.” It’s important to remember that products we put in our yards and gardens don’t just vanish. When we put anything into our environment it ultimately ends up somewhere, and that’s often downstream. So, better not to use something in the garden unless we know it’s really needed.

The second phrase that comes to mind is, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” If the plants are growing well, chances are they are happy with the current conditions. Should you see that your plants aren’t doing well, identify the problem first, and then consider all possible solutions. If you suspect the difficulty starts at ground level, have a compete soil test done before taking action.

When you’re unsure if your soils are lacking in any one element, use a complete, organic fertilizer. A balanced fertilizer with all the essentials that plants require is less likely to throw Mother Nature’s recipe off kilter.

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Click here to get your copy of “Coffee for Roses”

Epsom Salts Window Frost

Because of Epsom salt’s crystalline nature, it will form frost-like patterns on windows or mirrors when dissolved in liquid and painted on glass. This can be fun for holiday decorating or creating winter scenes.

You’ll see many recipes for Epsom salt frost calling for beer as the liquid, but there seems to be no reason for this; perhaps someone was looking for a way to use up flat beer. The recipe works well with water so your house doesn’t have to smell like a brewery.

½  cup water

½ cup Epsom salt

3 or 4 drops dishwashing detergent (this helps the “frost” stick on the glass)

Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan. Remove from the heat and add the Epsom salt, stirring until it is completely dissolved. Add the drops of detergent and stir again. Let this mixture cool down before using or it will drip excessively, but apply before it starts to crystalize in the pan. Paint or daub it on your glass surface using a paintbrush, cotton ball, micro-fiber cloth, or even your finger.

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Posted in Gardening Basics, Masters of Horticulture | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Climbing Pinkie

Right now my yard is the prettiest it will be all year.  While many of my plants are beginning to grow and bloom, it’s the roses that are stealing the show.  I have a dozen different varieties of “named roses” on my property (and couple that I really have no idea about).  Some are pink, some are red and some are pink and red at the same time.  I also have white ones and apricot colored ones.  About the only color I don’t currently have is yellow.

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Climbing Pinkie’s almost thornless canes makes it the perfect choice for fences, arbors and trellises.

While I love all of my roses, each year one of them does something to make me notice it all over again.  This year the rose that I has most impressed me is Climbing Pinkie.  My first Climbing Pinkie was a gift from Martin Anderson at A&M. He took cuttings from his bush and shared them with several of us.  I planted my “pass along” rose in front of one of my picket fences three years ago.  Then, two years ago I won another one at our church picnic.  I planted it beside the first one.  While they did ok, I would not say that I was overly impressed with them.

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Climbing Pinkie has a mild, sweet smell and beautiful yellow stamens

This year, Climbing Pinkie has made up for its slow start.  Both of my bushes have sent out many, many long canes that have created cascades of beautiful pink roses that drape over my fences.  When I built the picket fence three years ago I had visions of it covered in running roses.  I can honestly say this is the first time they have looked the way I hoped they would when I built them, and I have Climbing Pinkie to thank for it.

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Climbing Pinkie is the perfect compliment to my white picket fences.

Climbing Pinkie is a garden favorite that was introduced in 1952.  Since then its nearly thornless canes and ever blooming sprays of rose pink flowers has made it a favorite of gardeners around the world.  Climbing Pinkie is mostly known for its 12 foot canes that are very easy to train over your arbors or pergolas.  However, it is much more than a mere climber.  This beautiful rose can be planted to make a beautiful bush.  It can also be planted along a ledge to create beautiful falling cascades.  In fact, it is so versatile that you can plant several of them together to create a beautiful, almost ever blooming hedge.

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Climbing Pinkie a a polyantha rose. Polyanthas bloom in clusters from spring through first frost.

If you want to grow this rose, plant it in full sun in soil that has been well worked with organic material.  While the compost will provide all of the nutrients the plant needs, it will also allow it to be grown in areas that have high salinity in their water supplies.  Climbing Pinkie, and most other polyanthas, grow new canes from the base of the plant.  To ensure the best blooms possible, remove old canes after the spring bloom is complete.

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The long cascading canes of Climbing Pinkie even make my propane tank look good.

Like most of the heirloom roses, Climbing Pinkie is resistant to most of the pests that plague hybrid roses.  While resistant to things like blackspot, it is not immune to it.  For this reason you should always water it (and all roses) from below.  Roses can also be bothered by aphids and spider mites.  You can control these by applying a hard spray of water to the underside of their leaves every two or three days.  If you need to spray for these pests, do it in the morning so the foliage has time to dry out during the day.

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Grow Better Bell Peppers (Capsicum annuum)

Have you seen the picture on Pinterest and Facebook that says bell peppers with three lobes are “male” peppers and those with four lobes are “female”?  Well, it is very popular right now and very, very false.  This is one of those times where you can’t believe everything you read.  All peppers (and all of their family members-tomatoes, potatoes and egg plants) come from plants that produce flowers that have both male and female parts.  These flowers are called “perfect” flowers in the botanical world.  Because of this, there is absolutely no need for “male” or “female” fruits.  Each little flower has all it needs to produce a fruit full of seeds that will in turn grow into plants that produce more “perfect” flowers.  While there are plants out there that do produce only male or only female plants, bell peppers are not one of them.

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I don’t know who originally posted this, but it is 100% incorrect.

This is just one of many false “horticultural facts” that I see on the internet.  I could literally do an entire post on them.  However, I am going to move away from this and tell you some real, verifiable facts about bell peppers.  First, bell peppers are the most commonly grown pepper in the United States.  According to the National Nursery survey, 46% of gardeners grow them every year.  Second, according to the same survey, bell peppers are the third most popular vegetable grown in American gardens.  Third, the bell pepper is the most consumed pepper in America.  According to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center, Americans eat 9.8 pounds of them per year.  And finally, bell peppers are the only peppers in the genus that do not produce capsaicin.  Capsaicin is the compound that makes most members of the genus Capsicum hot.  In my opinion, it is this missing capsaicin that makes these peppers appeal to so many Americans.

Bell Peppers are relatively easy to grow and they are relatively pest free.  They have the longest growing season of any of the annual vegetables that you will plant.  Transplant them as soon as the threat of freeze has passed and you will be able to harvest fruit until the first killing frost.

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Big Bertha did great in last year’s garden!

In my opinion, the hardest part of growing bell peppers is finding the right variety for your area.  Through the years I have grown many different varieties.  Some have been much more successful than others.  Some of the better ones for my Zone 9 garden have been “Big Bertha”, “Blushing Beauty” and “California Wonder”.

This year, I am growing a variety called the Better Belle Hybrid.  I ordered my seeds from Tomato Growers Supply (http://www.tomatogrowers.com/) in January and grew my own transplants.  I ordered “Better Belle Hybrid” because (according to their website) it is a thicker walled and earlier producer than the original Better Belle.  It is a vigorous, long season producer of green fruit that will turn red on the vine.  Basically, I ordered it because it claims to have everything going for it that I look for in a bell pepper.

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Bell pepper foliage can be brittle. Because of this I never “pull” the peppers off of the vine.

Growing -  Bell peppers require full sun so place them in the sunniest part of your garden.  They also need at least an inch of water per week.  When it gets really hot, I up that to about an inch every four days.  Bell peppers love rich, loose, well-draining soil that has been thoroughly worked with compost.  If you want to ensure the biggest, firmest and most thick walled bell peppers consider adding dolomite (rock dust that is high in calcium and magnesium) to the soil before planting.   If the soil, sun and water are right, you can expect to start harvesting your first peppers 45 to 60 days after transplant.  Bell peppers are always the first pepper to produce in my garden.  Peppers will produce well until temperatures go  above 90F, then their production will fall.  However, if you add more organic material at this time and continue to water, your peppers will continue producing right up to the first freeze.  In fact, my plants generally produce more in the fall than they did in the spring.

Last year I planted my bell peppers on April 13.  These three bells were my first harvest on June 2.  That is just 50 days from transplanting to harvest.

Last year I planted my bell peppers on April 13. These three bells were my first harvest on June 2. That is just 50 days from transplanting to harvest.

Harvesting-Bell peppers can be harvested anytime they look like a bell pepper. However, they are immature at this point.  That is no problem unless you want red, yellow or orange peppers (depending on variety).  To get these beautifully colored peppers you will have leave them on the bush until they change colors.  Just be aware that the longer you leave the pepper on the bush, the more pests it will attract.

A ripe bell pepper will snap right off into your hand when it is ready to be picked.  However, the limbs of pepper plants are brittle.  If you try and pull a pepper before it is ready you can get a lot of foliage along with your pepper.  For this reason I always use a sharp pair of shears or scissors to harvest my peppers.

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Hornworms ca n decimate peppers, tomatoes, potatoes and egg plants

Pests-Aphids, cutworms and hornworms can all be a problem for peppers.  Aphids can be controlled by regularly applying a good shot of water to the underside of the leaves.  Cutworms can be controlled by “wrapping” the stems of the young plants in cardboard.  Simply cut a toilet paper or paper towel roll into three inch sections.  Split these up the sides.  Loosely wrap this around the base of your plants after transplant.  Stick an inch or so of the tube into the ground and leave an inch or so above ground.  Hornworms are always a double problem for me.  I know they can wipe out my tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.  However, they are the immature form of the hummingbird moths that I love to watch feed on my datura.  Regardless of my fondness for hummingbird moths, I pull all hornworms that I find and quickly squish them.  If you have a bad infestation you can apply BT but is only effective if applied when the caterpillars are small.

One of our favorite bell pepper uses.  Slice thick, saute, and drop in egg.  Top with cheese and more sauteed peppers

One of our favorite bell pepper uses. Slice thick, saute, and drop in egg. Top with cheese and more sauteed peppers

Posted in Gardening Basics, Vegetables | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Amazing Aloe Vera Collection at Hilltop Gardens

When I was young, my mother (and all the other mothers on our block) kept a pot of aloe vera on the back porch.  Every time I got a sun burn, my mom would go outside and snap a couple of leaves off of her plant and use the cool, viscous fluid that oozed out of the leaves to sooth the burn.  I think that since she used aloe vera as a medicine, I never really learned to think of it as an ornamental.

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Water droplets on one of the over 200 aloes at Hilltop Gardens

This past Spring Break, I discovered (in a very big way) that aloe vera is as pretty as it is “useful”.  Sally and I spent her time off exploring Hilltop Gardens in Lyford, Texas.  Hilltop Gardens is the only Botanical Garden in the Texas Valley.  It is also home to the largest public collection of species aloes in the U.S.  Hilltop Gardens sits on the oldest commercial aloe vera farm in the U.S.  The company that owns the farm is the market leader in aloe production.  Because of their success growing and transforming the aloe vera plant into a variety of health and beauty products, they wanted to build a beautiful place to showcase the beauty and variety of the plant family that has been so good to them.

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The farm and botanical garden at Hilltop Gardens is a certified organic operation.

The garden is under the direction of Paul Thornton.  In addition to maintaining this beautiful space, Paul also had a hand in designing it.  According to Paul, Hilltop Gardens has become “his dream job”.  Paul was an excellent host and tour guide and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay.  He is a walking encyclopedia of aloe knowledge.  One of the most interesting things that he shared with us was the fact that aloe vera is mentioned several times in the Bible. He also said that there are carvings of aloe in the Egyptian pyramids.  According to Paul, “Aloe’s health benefits have been known and used for thousands of years.  The ancient Egyptians called it “the immortal plant” and they offered it as a gift to their deceased pharaohs over 6000 years ago”.  Another thing that I found interesting was the fact that even though humans have been growing it and using it for 6000 years, there are no known wild populations of the plant.   What we all know as aloe vera only lives in cultivation.

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Paul Thornton is the head horticulturist at Hilltop Gardens. He is a great host and posses an incredible knowledge of the aloe family.

Aloe vera is a succulent.  Because of this it thrives in environments like ours (Zones 8-11) that have limited or unpredictable water supplies.  Aloe vera is a very tough plant that can adapt to a lot of soil types (as long as they are well draining).  It is also fairly resistant to most pests.  Aphids can attack it but that usually only happens when the plants are grown too close together.  If grown properly, aloe vera will produce beautiful, tall flower spikes.

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I was amazed at the variety of shapes, forms , and flower types of their 200+ aloe plants

When growing succulents in pots, you should allow the soil to dry out between each watering.  This makes aloe an easy choice for those of us that live in places where high summer temperatures make it almost impossible to keep the soil in our outdoor pots moist.  Aloe reproduces readily.  This is another great reason to try some this year.  Aloe vera will quickly produce lots of “pups” or off-shoots.  These pups can be used to make more potted plants or you can transplant them directly into your flower beds.  They will quickly grow into a large, showy, upright mass of thick, spikey leaves.

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This lovely gate welcomes you into the “healing garden”.  The healing garden recently received an Award of Merit from the Texas Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects.

If you are looking for something to do that is a little out of the ordinary, go to their website and plan a visit.  As part of the gardens, Hilltop offers onsite bed and breakfast accommodations in a Spanish style mansion.  Sally and I stayed there and we were very impressed with the lovely décor, the heated pool and the excellent service.  If you have ever thought of spending a few days exploring the Texas/Mexico border, then Hilltop Gardens is the perfect place to settle while you enjoy all of the vibrant cultural offerings of the Rio Grande valley.

The heated pool is one of many features that you will enjoy if you stay ion the bed and breakfast accommodations at Hilltop Gardens

The heated pool is one of many features that you will enjoy if you stay in the bed and breakfast accommodations at Hilltop Gardens

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