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.

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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.

 

 

Will your water bill go up when it stops raining?


It’s August and hot, dry days may be coming our way. At least that’s what happened last year. With all the rain we haven’t had to use our irrigation systems for a while. We’ve had our systems turned off (hopefully) during the monsoons. Some  of us are anxious to see those sprinklers throwing water on our lawns again.

Be cautious, though. Last summer when the rains ended, residential usage went from 500 million gallons to over a billion gallons. When water bills went out of sight, some outraged residents blamed leaks or misread meters for the spike.

However, the meters were correct. After checking over 1000 meters, The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency  found only a 1 percent discrepancy. The other 99% of the readings were accurate.

That left only one conclusion: some residents (but not most) heavily increased  irrigation when the rains ended – generally to the detriment of their lawns (and pocketbooks).

Now that same pattern may occur this year, with water use rising significantly, and cost of water escalating in relation to use.

However, if you do think your water meter has been misread, you can double check the meter reading yourself. As soon as you receive your water bill, turn off all running water inside and outside your home and read your water meter. For a step-by-step guide, go  the Waterworks NewsBlog at The Woodlands Joint Powers Agency. An in-depth article on how to read your water meter is posted there.

Fungus, insects, disease

St. Augustine, Zoysia and Bermuda grasses, already saturated by unprecedented rain, are now highly susceptible to fungal diseases and insect damage. Too much water at this time makes these problems worse, not better.

Doubling water use during August is not a solution to maintaining healthy lawns. Instead, moderate watering (if it hasn’t rained),  following  two day-per-week Defined Irrigation Schedule that covers most of The Woodlands, monitoring rain events and turning off sprinklers during that time, and caring for your lawn in other recommended ways (irrigating no more than an inch of water a week, sharpened blades on your mower, not crew-cutting the lawn but mowing a third of the length of the grass blade, aerating, adding organic material, and following best practices) lead to a healthier lawn and much less costly water bill.

 

 

 

Why have the squirrels eaten my green tomatoes?


 

The other day, I found one of my large tomatoes, still green, sitting half-eaten on my back deck. The next day, another. A few days later, my daughter caught a fat little rascal munching down on another green tomato.  He (or she…I haven’t learned to tell them apart) dropped it and ran for the  large oak in the back yard.

Now, I don’t mind the squirrels eating some of my tomatoes. After all, they have to eat too, and The Woodlands has an ordinance against using firearms. A BB gun did come to mind, but after thinking it through, I decided that sitting in my back yard in the mid-day heat, waiting for one of them to approach my vegetable garden, wasn’t that appealing either.  Besides, growing up, I hunted squirrels often in the piney woods of south Louisiana. That took some skill and the squirrel had a chance of surviving –especially if one was a poor shot. Shooting backyard squirrels is like shooting fish in a barrel.

I have found out that squirrels are pretty opportunistic eaters. In fact, there’s not much they won’t eat – they’re not picky by any means.

Native fruits (ever wonder why your passion vine rarely has fruit), flowers , nuts, trees, insects, berries,  and mushrooms. (I do not know how they can tell the difference between edible or poisonous mushrooms, but from the way they act sometimes, I think they may sometimes consume psilocybin fungi). And, of course, they also consume TOMATOES!

While the kids are trying to avoid eating their vegetables, the squirrels will go after just about anything you have planted in your garden. They’re fond of  radishes, corn, squash, beans, greens, okra, eggplant, Brussel sprouts, carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, cabbage, and leeks, to name a few.

Speaking of kids, squirrels also love children’s breakfast cereals:  shredded wheat, corn flakes, grape nuts, and  any cereal with extra sugar. The little monsters (the squirrels… not the kids…although that could be true as well in some cases) also like pizza, cheese of any kind and crackers.

Squirrels don’t restrict their diet to vegetation and human food. They will also eat lizards, snakes, worms, birds (babies and eggs mostly).

As the world gets more and more populated, the squirrel population has expanded as well, sharing our space, and also sharing our eating habits. Now, squirrels will eat discarded food in parks (or anywhere else). This includes half-eaten sandwiches…hamburgers, hot dogs,  bologna, egg salad. They consume dog food with as much relish as your family pet, your cat’s treats, and just about anything else you leave out.

They even ate the  mealworms we put out for the bluebirds. We tried putting hot pepper on the worms, but that didn’t deter them, although the hot pepper suet did keep them away from the bird feeder.

I have to admit, I do like to see them scrambling through their little highways in the trees, barking as they twisted and turned through the meandering branches.

I realize that squirrels, like everything else, don’t live forever.  They are a part of our new suburban ecosystem though, and have adapted to survive, just as we humans have. And they have natural predators…feral (and domestic) cats, hawks and eagles, and snakes all predate on the furry creatures.

Several years ago, as I was sitting in my backyard reading Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac, a squirrel   apparently disturbed by my blocking its way to greener pastures, was scolding me from the oak tree. Something whooshed above my head. As I looked up, I saw a very large red-shouldered hawk flying away with the very fat little squirrel in its talons.

Every living thing has two moments of pure truth: when we are born and when we die. The squirrel met his moment of truth naturally. I suppose we need more hawks.