Earthworms and the art of grass cutting


“It’s time to mow the grass.” This was one of the most dreaded statements of my young life. Our acre-and-a-half lawn loomed, a seemingly unending expanse of a green enemy that required regular haircuts. Even with a self-powered lawn mower, the process required several hours of sweaty, unfulfilling work.

We never bagged the grass clippings. Instead they lay where they fell. In a day or two, the clippings disappeared. Wondering where those clipping went never occurred to me. I was just glad that we didn’t have to empty heavy grass catchers.

The ground beneath the lawn was full of earthworms. Just throw a pan of soapy water on the lawn, wait a few minutes, and collect enough worms to catch a mess of perch from our pond.  I didn’t make the connection between the earthworms, the lush green grass, and the disappearing grass clippings. Nor did we understand the part they played in the enormous ecosystem that lived under our very feet.

Charles Darwin, almost a century and a half ago, did understand. His book, “Earthworms”, published in 1881, was the result of years of study into these seemingly insignificant creatures.  In his manuscript he noted “It may be doubted whether there are as many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.”

It wasn’t until I read this study that I realized that earthworms were the major reason that the grass clippings were disappearing. At night, they emerge from the earth and pull the clippings down into the soil, where they eat and digest them. The bacteria in the worms’ digestive tract breaks down and inoculates the material with beneficial bacteria. This then passes into the soil.

The bacteria then join untold millions of other bacteria, protozoans, microscopic insects and fungi to convert the soil into a rich mélange, which in turn, provides nutrients to the grass (and other plants).

Had I understood this process when I was mowing the lawn, the odious chore would have turned miraculously into an interesting and fulfilling science experiment. University research now confirms that children who understand this relationship develop important skills and healthy qualities.

Involving youngsters in the relationship between healthy soils and plants, including lawns, vegetable gardens and flower gardening, instills healthy qualities.

  • Knowledge of this unseen world instills a real sense of accomplishment and responsible attitudes.
  • Delving into the way plants and soil interact increases skills such as problem solving and nurturing
  • Understanding this allows them to understand and accept delayed gratification, failure and success.
  • The attitudes it instills helps them increase their abilities in science, art, reading and social studies.
  • Involvement in these disciplines helps develop interaction between parents and children
  • It encourages the development of positive relationships.
  • It expands their understanding of a work ethic.

And, who knows. It might even encourage them to gripe less when they have to cut the grass or eat their vegetables.

 

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You can start cleaning up your gardens now…perhaps


My yard is a ragged mess. Many of my plants were damaged by the hard freeze in January.  In years past, I have waited until March to begin pruning damaged vegetation, but the pecan tree outside my window has swollen buds. According to gardening folklore, pecan trees begin to bud after the last freeze has passed and spring weather is truly here. I’m not sure about that, but I have begun pruning already.

There are a number of plants which are designated “herbaceous perennials.” This means that although the part of the plant above ground dies back, the root system is still alive. They will sprout again from the roots if the roots have survived cold weather. There are many plants falling into this category. Hibiscus is one of those. I have only the two varieties of Texas Star hibiscus, red and white, but they have already begun to sprout from the base of the previous year’s growth.

Because of mild winters here, many plants can stand moderately cold weather, and short periods below freezing. However, hard freezes like the one we had in January, froze many of these back, leaving them brown, wilted, and, for the most part, just plain ugly.

All of my salvia has died back to the ground. I’m not worried though. Salvia has a strong root system and I see some sprouts already. Same thing with Turk’s Cap, both the small varieties and the “giant” varieties.

Thus, I’m pruning – a lot. Here are some chores you can do now to clean up your flower beds and gardens, and get ready for spring beauty. If you’re not sure whether a certain plant is a perennial or not, there are lists available from Texas A&M and other universities. You might also try Texas Earthkind – a compendium of annuals and perennials. Simply conduct an internet search for Texas Earthkind.

I’m a pretty ruthless pruner. If I do see growth from the root system, I will cut the dead part back to the ground. If I’m not sure, I take a pocket knife, and gently scrape off the first layer of bark or skin of the plant, about have the size of a little finger nail. If I see green under the scrape, that part of the plant is still viable, and you shouldn’t cut it back. For larger plants you may want to make several scrapes down the stem. That’s because the top of the stem may have died, but the bottom part of the stem is alive. I am pruning some of these back, but not all the way to the green. That’s because I’m still a little cautious. If I cut these below the green, they may sprout out there – and if there is another freeze, the sprouting plants may suffer. I’ll cut some of the dead parts off, but I’ll wait until March to cut the back to the green part.

Salvia, phlox, lantana, butterfly bush, Copper Canyon daisy, coneflower, Brugmansia, yarrow, tansy, gaura, Turk’s Cap, I generally cut back mercilessly to the ground. While I’m at it, the rock roses, Carolina jessamine, esperanza, and many other plants are going to get a good haircut.

Interestingly, my crinums were the first to go under the knife. If you’ve raised crinums, you know that they are pretty indestructible, but the tips of the blades will freeze, and the damaged ends will stick to the tips of adjoining leaves and then blacken. These I cut just below the blackened area, and it’s okay to do that now. Some gardeners cut them all the way back to the bulb, but I like to keep as much foliage as I can. I also pulled out dead blades which had fallen to the ground.

Some of my native irises suffered a bit of freeze damage. I just trimmed these back below the dead leaves. I did the same with daylilies.

 

 

Are you connected to Earth’s Natural Internet?


Are you connected to Earth’s Natural Internet?

By Bob Dailey

There is a fungus which grows in the soil on and around plant roots that is absolutely essential for plant health. In fact, this fungus is so important that some plant species cannot exist without it. Named mycorrhiza, which literally means “root fungus,” this organism creates a symbiotic relationship with plants. The amazing properties of this root fungus has prompted scientists to call it “Earth’s natural internet.”

If one digs into leaf mold, or into really good soil, tiny white filaments resembling spider webs can be seen spreading through the soil or leaves. This is mycorrhiza. Though deceptively small, a teaspoon of good soil can have eight or nine feet of the tiny strings.

Mycorrhizal fungi create a symbiotic relationship with plant roots, taking in minerals from the soil and delivering it to the plant, in exchange for sugars produced by the plant. Plant biologists have estimated that 95 percent of the plants investigated are either partially or completely dependent on these fungi- a testament to their importance. Orchids, for instance, are so dependent on mycorrhiza that even their seeds cannot germinate without it.

Once attached to plant roots, this fungus sends out tiny threads which extend out much further than the roots can extend.  Though they look like plant roots, these white filaments are what absorb nutrients. Since they have a great deal more range than the plant roots themselves and have significantly more surface area, they are able to find and take in significantly more water and nutrients than the plant roots can. Scientists have also discovered that mycorrhiza can store up nitrogen when it is plentiful, and then release it to the plant when there is a lack of nitrogen in the soil.  These fungi can also store water, which it releases to the plant in times of drought.

Plants that are not aided by these fungi may not be able to take up important nutrients such as phosphate or iron – which can lead to iron chlorosis or other plant deficiencies. Mycorrhiza can also play a protective role for plants in soils with high heavy metal concentrations, such as acidic or contaminated soils. These fungi are also suited for colonization of barren soils.

Soil-borne diseases (such as take-all patch and brown patch) are also serious problems for plants. Unfortunately, many residents are quick to apply fungicides at first signs of take-all or brown patch. While these fungicides will kill the bad fungi, it will also kill the mycorrhiza. A better method may be to inoculate the lawn with organic material that has high concentrations of mycorrhiza.

Studies are showing that plants colonized by mycorrhizal fungi are much more resistant to these and other diseases.  Scientists have also now determined that mycorrhizal fungi can also transport nutrients and water from plant to plant through extensive underground networks.

Operations like tilling can also kill mycorrhiza, although aeration prior to adding organic matter will do relatively little damage to it.  For floral or vegetable gardeners, many experts are recommending “no-till” methods.

Ultimate garden gloves


 

I told you about my socks, but I didn’t tell you about my new gardening gloves…by far the coolest present I received this year.

They’re called Honey Badger gloves, and I absolutely love them.

First, I love digging in the dirt. A gardening friend of mine will remind me that there is a difference between “soil” and “dirt.” And she’s right, or course. But digging in the dirt has a greater connotation for me that digging in the soil.

I’ve planted seedlings often by digging holes in my garden with my bare hands instead of using a trowel. And my family can tell you that I often resemble the Peanut’s character Pigpen when I come in from the garden or from sifting compost.

There’s something about feeling the tilth of the soil, the warmth stored in it from the sun’s rays, dirt under my fingernails, and smudges on my face that not only bring back memories of my misspent youth, but also create new memories every day.

Before I wax too poetic, I need to tell you that I think these gloves are brilliant. I’ll still be digging in the dirt with my bare hands, but I’m also looking forward to using these gloves to do the same thing.

If I get tired of digging with them, I can always use them to frighten neighborhood children.

Sock it to me!


 

Christmas is always interesting at my house. My family has an…er…rather unique sense of humor. For some reason, it’s usually directed at me. To those of you who know me, you probably know that, in many things, I often lack circumspection (yes I know what circumspection means – look it up) and foresight.

Several weeks prior to Christmas, on the little chalk boards above the mantle, where we write down our Christmas “wants,” I naively wrote “Socks.” I thought it was a good idea, since my current ones were getting a little threadbare. It would also be an easy, inexpensive gift, and, since I would probably be paying for it anyway, it seemed a thrifty thing to do.

Christmas morning. I’m sitting in the living room, groggily drinking my morning coffee, when my daughter plops a very large, bulging stocking on my lap. I reached in and pulled out – yep, you guessed it, a pair of socks. But not just any old pair of socks, and certainly not the socks I am accustomed to wearing (black, conservative). These socks looked like something that a Dr. Suess character would have worn. (see photo).

But wait, that’s not all of the story. As I withdrew the socks from the stocking, a ribbon tied to the first pair pulled out a second pair. Then a third, then a fourth. All told – 24 pairs of the most outrageous socks I can imagine. (Again see photo for example – and that pair is one of the tamer ones.) I figure now I have enough socks to last several years…which is good, because I’m not going to ever ask for socks again – EVER!

It’s a good thing I wear boots most of the time.

 

 

Spring vegetable varieties that do well in The Woodlands


 

As reported in the last blog, it’s not too early to begin planning for your spring vegetable garden, if you’re so inclined.

My winter cabbages are well on the way, lettuce is up and broccoli is looking good. Raccoons got into my onions and wreaked havoc. None of them have sprouted yet, so I’m doubtful I’ll have a good crop. I’ll probably need to plant again.

I’m already planning for my spring garden.

Tomatoes

Everyone loves tomatoes.  Some of my friends start them from seed. However, starting tomatoes from seed is not for the faint-hearted, or the impatient, or the forgetful…I fall into at least two of those categories, which is why I prefer to buy my seedlings, come warm weather.

Tomatoes from seed need to be started in January INSIDE. Why? Because it takes about six weeks for tomato seeds to sprout and grow into seedlings large and healthy enough to transplant into the ground. And, since spring weather here comes around the middle to the end of February, tomato seeds need to be planted early. Since it’s a little involved, I’m going to spare you the details. However, if you’re really interested in experimenting, here’s an excellent how to video: Growing Tomatoes From Seed To Harvest. Remember to order seeds soon.

If you’d rather do as I do and purchase seedlings, remember that it gets hot here quick, and tomato plants quit producing when the ambient temperature at night is 90 degrees or hotter. If your seedlings are not in the ground by mid-March, you’ve probably waited too long.

Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service has put together a list of tomato varieties that do well in Montgomery County. The list actually includes all vegetable varieties that are proven producers in the area.  Recommended Vegetable Varieties for Montgomery County. The list includes vegetables all the way from green beans to watermelon, and also indicates “days to harvest. Another valuable tool is the Vegetable Garden Planting Chart, available on the Montgomery County Master Gardeners website.

In my last article, I have provided a list of good seed companies. Order the catalogues now, or access the websites from that post.

 

 

Spring ain’t here yet, but it’s not too far off


Spring always arrives early in The Woodlands…at least earlier than it does in most of the rest of the country. And when spring arrives, gardeners begin to get itchy fingers.

Worldwide, spring officially begins on March 20, the date of the spring equinox. The spring equinox is the date when the sun shines directly on the equator, and the length of day and night is almost equal.

But to gardeners, farmers, and horticulturalists, spring arrives the day after the last frost.

When we lived in Santa Fe, NM, the last frost generally didn’t arrive until mid-April. The same is true for Chicago and New York. Milwaukee and most of the Upper Midwest and the West don’t see the last frost until May.

But, here in The Woodlands, spring usually arrives in mid- to late-February … a surprise for newly arrived Midwesterners and East Coasters. To complicate matters, this information is based on the AVERAGES of last frost dates from 1980.  In actuality, predicting exactly when that last frost is going to occur is an inexact science. Who knows when that last norther will zip down from the Arctic and freeze everything.

That happened to me three years ago. February 27 came along. The temperature had been in the high 60’s for a week. According to weather reports, no more cold fronts were expected. We put in tender baby tomato plants on that day. That night, from out of nowhere, a freeze freight-trained down through the Plains, devastating the tomatoes.

For me, it was disappointing, but not the end of the world. But it did make me understand how the vicissitudes of weather affect farmers who rely on crops for their livelihood.

Regardless of that, it’s important to get your spring garden in as quickly as you can. Spring comes early here, but so does summer.

For instance, tomatoes are a warm-season annual that grow best when the soil temperature is at least 55°F and the air temperature ranges between 65° and 90°F. Over 90°F, production decreases rapidly. At 95°F, production generally ceases. There are, of course, ways to extend the growing season for tomatoes and other warm weather crops, but I’ll save that for another time.

Early spring is also a great time to put in fall blooming plants like Barbados Cherry, Turk’s Cap, Carolina Jessamine, Rock Rose, Plumbago, Passionflowers, and a list of other plants. Getting them in the ground in early spring allows them to create root systems before the dog days of summer arrive. For a list of fall plants that do well in The Woodlands, search the Texas A&M Earthkind Plant Selector here.

February comes fast, so it’s probably a good idea to start planning your spring garden now, with seed catalogues (great for rainy winter days) and great gardening websites.

Here are some sites that you might be interested in:

 

Wildseed Farms

Johnny’s Select Seeds

Burpee’s Seeds

Gurney’s Seeds

Park Seeds

Mother Earth’s List of Best Seed Catalogues

Rodale’s Organic Life Seed Catalogue List

You can order seed catalogues from the above. If you’d prefer to save a tree, you can search their websites.

These two sites below are great sites for local information or more specific information about plants. The Lazy Gardener, Brenda Buest Smith is a local (and knowledgeable) gardening blogger who gives invaluable advice on growing locally. Dave’s Garden has tons of information on plants, has reqional chat rooms for gardeners to exchange information, and also has a seed exchange operation.

The Lazy Gardener

Dave’s Garden

Plant early, but be careful of the weather. Landscape perennials tend to be more forgiving than tender vegetables. And enjoy all those wonderful color photos of bountiful vegetables and gorgeous plants.

 

 

More lawn information


 

I’m not an enemy of lawns, but I do think there are better, more aesthetic, and responsible landscaping methods that many of us haven’t thought out.

Texas was once part of America’s breadbasket. Farms reflected the epitome of rural life in this nation. But things have changed. And not necessarily for the better.

Here in Texas, lawns far surpass any other crop. There are approximately 3,260,000 acres of lawns here. Running a far second is cotton, which has 1,230,000 acres under cultivation. Corn acreage is estimated at 749,000 acres while sorghum is around 708,000 acres. Lawn acreage exceeds wheat by almost 7 times.

Texas isn’t the only area where lawns exceed food and textile crops.

Based on a study conducted by ScienceLine, a division of New York University, more than 40.5 million acres of green grass carpets in the U.S., far outpacing corn, which stands at about 10 million acres, alfalfa at 6.2 million acres, soybeans at 5.32 million acres and orchards, vineyards and nut trees at 4.1 million acres.

And where we have plants, we need water. Americans use about 59.6 million acre-feet of water every year on our lawns. That’s almost 2 trillion gallons of water. In comparison, water used for all major crops in the U.S. totals 42 million acre feet, or about 134 billion gallons.

In The Woodlands, during peak summer usage, residents can use about 150 million gallons a month, just for lawn irrigation.

There is progress though. Woodlands residents have significantly reduced their overall usage by about 30%. While there are still some recalcitrant homeowners (and businesses), most have heeded the call for water conservation.

To put things in perspective, the average cable television bill in The Woodlands is north of $100, as is the average electric bill. We can live without cable tv (although I have the service), and we could live without electricity (although that would be extremely uncomfortable and inconvenient). However, none of us can live more than two or three days without water. At less than one cent per gallon, it’s still the best bargain in town.

 

Statistics about Lawn Care in The Woodlands


  • The typical homeowner in The Woodlands uses 10,000 gallons of water a month. This includes bathing, showering, brushing teeth, shaving, washing clothes, washing dishes, drinking, cooking and lawn irrigation. During the summer months, lawn irrigation accounts for 50 to 80% of water used. Unfortunately some homes here use three or four times that amount per month and a number of those homes use more than 10 times that amount.
  • The average lawn size is about 1/5 of an acre in The Woodlands. Although there are larger lawn sizes, there are also smaller lot sizes.
  • There are about 20,000 acres of lawns in The Woodlands.
  • An average of 18,000 pounds of pesticides and 70,000 pounds of chemical fertilizers are applied to our lawns each year.
  • The typical homeowner in The Woodlands spends about $363 per year on their lawn and gardens. That amounts to about $12,000,000 per year – a sizeable sum. The amount spent on lawns in the U.S. exceeds $50 billion.
  • The average homeowner in The Woodlands spends about 208 hours a year caring for their lawn.
  • Grass plants are 75 to 80% water
  • Up to 90% of the weight of a healthy grass plant is in its roots.
  • Grass clippings contain nitrogen and other nutrients which, when left on the ground, will help nourish the plant, reducing, or in some cases, eliminating the need for extra fertilizer.
  • A healthy lawn absorbs rainfall six times more effectively than a wheat field and four times better than a hay field. Healthy lawns also prevent runoff.
  • A single grass plant can have up to 390 miles of roots.

 

Potted (as in plants)


Connection with gardens, even small ones, even potted plants, can become windows to the inner life. The simple act of stopping and looking at the beauty around us can be prayer.                              -Patricia R. Barrett

We have a number of potted plants in and around our home. In the front yard, a lei plant (plumaria) sits outside the front entrance. Two rosemary plants pose like sentinels, each ensconced in large glazed pottery. Another very large glazed urn outside the kitchen window holds irises and crinums.

The back yard is filled with potted plants. Some are in nicely aged terra cotta, others in glazed urns and still others in black plastic nursery pots. The plants in nursery pots are those I have started from seed, cuttings or tubers. They include ginger (the kind you eat), milkweed (for the monarchs), mint, night-blooming jasmine, angel trumpets, and more, and are waiting until I can get them into the ground or in permanent pots. Many seeds I’ve collected will go into pots in the fall.

But you don’t need a yard to have container plants                                                                         Our inside plants include a small herb garden, some African violets my wife cares for and various other plants that need more tender care – all sitting on the kitchen windowsill. We’ve got pothos (you know that ivy thing that you see in just about every doctor’s office) in many rooms in our home.

Pothos, by the way, is the Greek word for “longing,” which was considered a divine power. In mythology, Pothos (the god of longing), his brothers Eros (love) and Himeros (desire) were the sons of Zephyr, the westerly wind.

Pothos (the plant, not the god) has a great reputation for scrubbing the air. Along with the peace lily, spider plant (also called airplane plant), and several other indoor plants,  , it can remove formaldehyde, benzene, trichloroethylene, toluene, xylene, ammonia, and carbon monoxide from the air.

What to use for pots                                                                                                                                   I get ill when I have to use euphemisms all the time. “Plant container” is a high sounding word for “pot,” which comes from  the Old English word “pott,” which means, unbelievably, “pot.” There are a lot of different types. Clay (terracotta), hypertufa, metal, molded plastic, glazed or unglazed pottery, stone, and simple recycled materials (old shoes, washtubs, wheel barrels, wagons, carts and toys are possible receptacles.   Imagination can work wonders. For pros and cons of different container types, see here.

Put the soil in the coconut                                                                                                                 Soil in planters tends to dry out and compact very fast, even indoors. Never, never, never use regular topsoil or even soil from the yard for your potted plants. Instead, mix a batch of good soil yourself. Mix  a third compost, a third perlite, and a third coconut coir into a wheelbarrow or tub. I used to recommend peat instead of coir, but peat moss is not a renewable resource. Coir, made from coconut fiber, is. Add some solid, slow-release organic fertilizer perhaps about a quart for a cubic foot of mixture.

Clean pots make good neighbors                                                                                                           Wash your pots, especially if they’ve been used before. Plant diseases, insect eggs and pathogens may exist in the pots. Use soap, warm water and a scrub brush. Rinse and let them dry – except for terra cotta. Terra cotta needs to be soaked throughout before planting anything it.

Ready to plant?                                                                                                                                           Fill the pot halfway with your new mixture. You may want to add a tablespoon of organic fertilizer to the top of the soil at this time. If you’re using a nursery-bought plant, remove it from its nursery pot. With a sharp knife, slice through the root ball from the top to bottom on four sides of the plant. This stimulates the roots to grow.

Put the plant into the pot, and fill in the spaces around it with your prepared mixture, until the soil reaches the base of the plant. Now, add more in, because when you water it, the moisture will compress to soil down.

Place your plant in a sunny window, water it well, and let it do its work.

Watering                                                                                                                                                 Your plant is going to need water. There are two ways to check that: a moisture meter, or the finger meter. Stick the moisture meter (available at any garden store) into the soil around the plant, and wait for the meter to register. I use the finger meter, which works like this: stick your finger into the soil. If it comes out dry, it’s time to water your plant. If not, it doesn’t need water yet.

Add a teaspoon of fertilizer about once a month. Scratch it into the surface of the potting soil, and water.

 

If you have any questions about potting plants, please address them to the address on this website.