It’s literally freezing outside, but I took some moments to do a little bird watching. Since my office borders the waterway, I see a great many waterfowl around.
Last year, I saw an eagle catch a fish, land about 100 yards away and proceed to feed. Awesome sight. Today, despite the freezing temperature – or perhaps because of it – water birds are congregating.
Herons, both great blues and whites, mallards, black-bellied whistling ducks, cormorants, a few terns and a gull all depending on the water for a meal.
Mallards are migratory, but some live here all year long. Along the waterway, there are four drakes, one of which is an albino, who have masterfully kept all other drakes out of the area. I have seen fewer hens, although twice mallard hens have built nests in our parking lot and hatched eggs…waddling to the water with the ducklings in tow. Once, a duckling was left in the nest. One of the caring souls here took it home and added it to their small flock of domestic ducks. The little fellow grew to adulthood, only to be eaten by a hungry fox.
While cormorants and black-bellied whistling ducks tend to be around all year, there are more of them flying around in the winter. Both species are migratory.
Cormorants tend to spend their winters along the southern coastal states, but also winter in Oklahoma, Arkansas add eastern Tennessee. They spend summers in their breeding grounds of the northern states (Idaho, Montana, The Dakotas, and Canada – although they might extend east into Minnesota and Michigan.) However, some cormorants live along the Gulf Coast all year as well. People often see them on the edges of waterways with their wings outstretched. Because they are diving birds, their feathers tend to become waterlogged. They stretch their wings to dry the feathers. Cormorants can dive up to 25 feet.
Black-bellied whistling ducks are native to the valley and to Mexico, but they do like to overwinter here. As with all the migratory birds however, some live here all year long. These birds nest in mesquite, hackberry, willow, live oak and other trees. They especially like cavity nests in dead trees. They actually do whistle, and look more like geese than ducks. Ornithologists are recording that they are expanding the northern part of their range.
Great blue herons. These large birds feed on just about anything they can catch and swallow. While their favorite food is fish, they will eat ducklings, rats, mice, and other small mammals, frogs, and other birds. Although some are migratory, many of them do not migrate. Last year, a great blue with a broken wing wandered into as parking lot near here. The animal was almost as tall as me. A park ranger and myself finally cornered him, and with the help of a cast net, finally capture it. I took it to animal rehab where they repaired its wing and released it back into the wild. Great blues are a federally protected bird.
Great white heron. Also federally protected, the great white, unlike its more sedately colored cousin, tend to not migrate, although, even if they do, their range is limited. Those along the Gulf Coast are generally permanent residents.
There are several elegant common terns in the lake as well. They spend their summers mostly in Central Canada, but their winter migratory regions encompass most of the coastal United States and Mexico.. Terns will fly over water, hover there, and them plunge to catch prey. Sometimes they will also pursue insects on the fly.
Q. What’s the proper height to set your mower? A. Different types of turf require different heights of mowing.
- From April through September, St. Augustine should be mowed at the height of 3-4 inches.
- Bermuda grass – 2 inches.
- Coarse-bladed Zoysia (japonica) – 1.5 – 2 inches.
- Fine-Bladed Zoysia (matrella) 1-2.5 inches.
Remember not to let the grass too tall (50% above the recommended cutting height). Too much off the top can stress the turf.
Q. I have trees in my yard, and the grass doesn’t want to grow well under them. What can I do? A. Remember that grass is a plant too, and requires sunlight to convert energy to food. Of all the turf grasses that are adaptable to southeast Texas and south Louisiana, St. Augustine grows best in shaded areas. However, if it can’t get any sunlight at all, it will cease to grow under your trees. If your grass is getting thin in under-tree areas, you might think of hiring an arborist to do some minor pruning on your trees to allow more sunlight in.
Q. Is now the right time to use a “weed and feed” product? A. NO time is the right time to use weed and feed products. The proper time to apply the pre-emergence herbicide used in this product is before the weeds begin to grow…late February to early March. The proper time to fertilize or “feed” turf is mid-April. Applying them both at the same time is a waste of time and money. Applying “weed and feed” too early, and the fertilizer is dissipated or leached out of the soil by the time the grass needs it. Applying it too late, and the “weed” part has no purpose, because the weeds have already emerged and seeded.
Q.Why is the soil under my lawn rock hard? A.Too much water, too many salt-based fertilizers and pesticides, too little organic matter in the soil are primary causes of hard soil. It has become compacted, making it harder for grass roots to penetrate. Pull up a handful of grass, roots and all. If the roots are shorter than three inches, your soil is too hard for the roots. Good St. Augustine, for instance, can grow roots as deep as at least six feet.
Q.What can I do to fix this? A. Aerate your yard. Then add a half-inch of organic material (compost) across the top of your lawn. The compost will enter the soil and the aeration will help water and air to penetrate it (roots need air and water too).
Q. When is the best time to sod my lawn? A.Springtime (April and May) or early fall (October) are the best times to lay sod. So, now’s a good time to resod. Remember to add organic material when you do resod.
Q. How often should I water my lawn in late spring and summer? A. St. Augustine needs only one inch of water weekly, and even less if it rains. However, that doesn’t mean you NEED to water twice a week. For 2017, experts and empirical data have indicated that, because of rain and high humidity, we needed to irrigate lawns only 12 weeks out of the entire year. And about half of that time, we didn’t need to irrigate more than one time during the week. The best way to gauge how much to irrigate is to have a rain sensor installed (they’re very inexpensive – about $20.) or install a Smart controller.
Every year about this time, residents began calling to report their grass is dying. Their beautiful, green, lush St. Augustine has turned a sickly brownish yellow. They worry that it’s not getting enough water, so they water profusely. They think that some disease or insects may be attacking their lawn, so they pile on pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers.
The fact is that St. Augustine grass is supposed to look brown and dead in the winter. However, St Augustine is a warm season grass. When the soil temperature drops below 55 degrees, the grass goes dormant.
Homeowners shouldn’t panic, nor should they use the myriad of panaceas offered on the market.
Watering during the winter
This is not a recommended practice. Fungal infections are particularly damaging to turf grass. And what causes fungal infections? We don’t see too many fungal infections in the desert. It’s humidity and wetness that fungi like. Watering lawns during the winter is the major cause of fungal infections. The damage is done when the grass is dormant, so the infections are not visible then. Come spring and early summer though, and the presence of fungi is evident from the great yellowing patches of turf. By then, the damage has already been done. Instead of spending bucks on fungicides, just stop watering. We get enough rain in the winter to provide what little water St. Augustine might require.
Planning for Spring
Now is the time to get ready for springtime. A soil test might be a good idea. Both Texas A&M and LSU offer a great soil test for about $15. Use your computer search engine to browse for Texas A&M Soil Testing or LSU Soil Testing. There are explicit instructions on how to take a soil sample, how to fill out an application and how to send the whole package. St. Augustine turf does best in soil with a pH of around 6.5. The test will provide good, empirical data which will help in maintaining a healthy and green lawn in spring, summer and fall.
Places you can obtain a soil testing kit
Start your own seeds indoors?At one time, I thought that plant propagation meant simply sticking a seed in the ground and watching it grow. That might be okay for vegetables like beans, cucumbers, melons and squash, or some ornamentals. However, some vegetable and flower seeds need some tenderness to urge them to germinate.
Tomatoes seeds, for instance, need to be planted about six weeks before the last frost. Those tomato plants we buy in early spring were started in a nursery greenhouse many weeks before. That’s not to say you can’t just plant tomato seeds directly in the garden. However, to germinate, tomato seeds need a soil temperature between 70 and 80F. The cooler the soil, the longer it takes for them to germinate. The chances of all the tiny seedlings planted directly in the garden surviving being pummeled by wind and rain, insects and infections are very high. Tomatoes and many other plants need to be between six and 10 inches tall before they are placed in the garden. This insures that they are healthy, and strong enough to withstand the vicissitudes of nature.
It’s not difficult to start plants from seed inside. You need a warm, sunny spot (like a kitchen window) small pots (see the photo above, a good growing medium and some patience.
However, if you want to grow a lot of plants from seed, you may need some additional help. And you might want to keep a record of your progress.
The photo above includes most of the items I use to propagate plants from seed and for plants from cuttings.
I keep a garden journal, which includes observations, musings, insights and just about whatever seeps out of my brain when I’m propagating, as well as planting in my yard and garden. I scrounged some small sturdy boxes to store stuff in as well.
I am experimenting with different types of seed starting pots. I like the idea of coir (pronounced coy-er) pots, because they are made from coconut fiber, which is a renewable resource. However, I have also found that they dry out quicker than peat moss pots. Peat moss is not a renewable resource, though. The cow waste pots seem to be working well, but they’re expensive, and, because of that, I won’t be using them in the future.
In the upper left of the photo, you see a binder. In it I keep records of plantings, germination, transplanting, and harvesting, as well as expenses, specific information about plants, and chores I need to do. Since I am a very messy OCD individual (an accomplishment, don’t you think?), there are generally notes everywhere, so I need some structure to remember what I’m doing.
The gloves in the photo, I wear in the winter, mostly outside, when I am taking cuttings. I use my bare hands when I’m sowing indoors, though.
I learned very early that when I’m starting 50 or so plants from seed, that I will not remember which is which and since many seedlings look just alike, I use plant labels. Any type of label will do. Popsicle sticks, wooden coffee stirrers, just about anything you can write on can make a good plant label.
I also use a seed sower…that green thing in the foreground that resembles a magnifying glass. Most seeds are tiny, and I certainly don’t have surgeon’s hands, so I use this seed sower. It’s got many different sized distribution holes to accommodate different sizes of seeds.
The pencil and the chopstick in the photo I use as dibbles, for making holes in the growing medium. The scissors are for snipping out weaker seedlings.
You may also notice my laptop resting under my journal in the left. I use this to research care and propagation of different plants. Also, in the background are seed catalogues. Seed catalogues contain a plethora of information about plant propagation. Many of them also carry some of the materials in the photo.
If you feel you want to try your luck at plant propagation, Virginia Tech has a great site with propagation information. This is part of a series of articles I will be writing on plant propagation.
Photo: Clockwise from far left: 1. Garden journal; 2. Salvaged boxes for storing seed supplies; 3. Seed starting pots mad of coir; 4. Seed starting pots made from biodegradable farm waste; 5. Peat pots; 6. Garden record book; 7. Gloves; 8. Plant labels (both wooden and plastic); 8. Seed sower; 9. Pencil used as a dibble to make small holes to plant seeds; 10. Scissors; 11. Chopstick dibble.
Every spring as I go through my gardens, I find tiny oak seedlings sprouting from the ground…not just a few, but enough to create a forest if I were to let them grow. Some of these are surely caused by acorns falling to the ground and germinating.
Most, especially those growing far enough away from oaks to assure that they weren’t there by chance (unless acorns can walk), were brought there and buried intentionally…by squirrels, of course. The squirrels, having eaten their fill in the fall, begin burying acorns for winter supplies (literally squirreling them away). These bushy-tailed creatures, having short memories, forget where they buried the acorns. The acorns then germinate and sprout.
Houston holly, otherwise known as yaupon, or its Latin moniker Ilex vomitoria, is spread ubiquitously throughout the area by cedar waxwings, who eat the berries of the female plants. The pulp of the berries is digested, and the seeds pass through the bird and then onto the ground, where some sprout.
In interesting and complex symbiosis, plants and animals help each other. Plants provide food, and many animals help spread the plants’ seeds. We humans do too. How many times have we pruned a plant (or removed one completely) and the next spring, many new seedlings appear around the spot? Seeds have shaken loose and dropped to the ground as we were removing parts of the plant. Of course, I’m belaboring the obvious.
I often reseed my natives by stripping some of the ripe seed heads in the fall. Some I spread on soil in the yard, and some I save in old medicine pill bottles for future use. I also start some collected seeds in starter pots for transplanting into the garden after they sprout.
I have many gardener friends who save vegetable seeds from the previous crop. For some plants (like tomatoes) it’s a little tedious. I have other friends, though, who buy seeds for all their vegetables and start them in their little garage growing areas. And one can start just about any plant from seed.
In a series of articles, I’m going to provide some guidelines for growing your own plants from seed, cuttings, and various other methods to propagate plants.
The temptation to get out my Felco pruners and my lopper and going to work on all my plants that have been damaged from the freeze. The soggy mushy crinums. The drooping brugmansia, the unattractive plumbago, even the perennial butterfly weed, its dry stems and brown rustling leaves that I think are very attractive, but at the same time, I’m longing for the green to sprout.
Only a couple of things hold me back. One, if I cut off the damaged limbs and various appendages of my plants, it will be difficult for me to tell where the damaged part ends and the live part begins. If I cut into the green that might cause the plant to sprout during some warm days. That would be okay if there are no more cold snaps, but with our recent weather (it’s snowed twice this year) that would be hard to predict. If I do prune, the plants do sprout again and another cold period arrives, the sprouts will also be frozen and the entire plant may not recover. I don’t know if we’re going to have another cold storm. We’re in mid-January. Spring generally starts here on the upper Gulf Coast in very late February or early March. But with this kind of weather, who knows what might happen. Additionally, the dead material will help insulate the plant until spring actually arrives.
In my vegetable garden, I covered my Brassicae (cabbages, brocolli, cauliflower, Brussel sprouts) with frost cloth and a tarp, but I could just as well have covered them with ice cubes. When I checked on them Tuesday afternoon, they were stiff as a board and as brittle as thin glass.
What a surprise when on Thursday afternoon, after the worst had passed, they were not only thawed, but what I thought would be mush instead were tall and sturdy leaved, green and thriving plants. And they are all close to harvest.
The reason that Brassicas and other cold -tolerant plants can withstand lower temperatures is because of their sugar content. Cold-weather crops have more sugar in their cells. Sugar water has a lower freezing temperature than plain water. Plants that are not cold-hardy have much less sugar in their cells, so have a higher freezing temperature. When the water freezes and then thaws, it causes the cell walls to burst. Plants with higher than average sugar content have a much greater advantage surviving freezing temperatures. If you notice, many cold-weather plants taste sweeter after a freeze or frost.
Our roses didn’t seem to be very affected at all. Most of them are natives from the Great Plains, and are, I’m sure, used to cold weather. Even the Duchess de Brabant bloomed throughout the weather and looks totally unscathed. But the crinums, angel trumpets, Turk’s cap, and a host of other plants are going to have a struggle – if they survive at all.
I do plan to take my own advice (if I have the stamina, patience and intestinal fortitude) and wait until early spring to prune everything. But when I look at my once-beautiful plants, I feel like Dr. Strangelove, my hand uncontrollably drawn to my left-handed pruners instead of the “button.” I have been spending cold evenings in my garage, polishing, cleaning, oiling and sharpening them. Maybe it’s just the cold weather and a slight case of cabin fever – not me becoming a serial planticidal maniac.