Questions and Answers…

If you have any questions about gardening, outdoor living, greenhouse growing or anything else that I might be able to help with, please leave your question in the comments section and I will do my steady best to answer!

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Christmas Season-Holiday Celebrations and Traditions!

Thanksgiving the holiday is over for another year although life is best when we have a heart and attitude of Thanksgiving year round.  Now our attention has shifted to the Christmas Season.  Many have already engaged in Black Friday Christmas shopping, hanging and touring Christmas light displays and the start of holiday celebrations and gathering.  The weather has been so moderate that it works well for hanging wreaths, greens and Christmas lights.  We may have the best Christmas light displays across our neighborhoods in years since the weather has been so cooperative.  This is also a great time to plant the tulip and daffodil bulbs you have already purchased and that are still in your shopping bag.  Better yet, go buy some spring flowering bulbs and get them planted so you can enjoy a great flower show to announce the arrival of spring next March and April.  Buy a few pre-cooled bulbs and force some hyacinths, tulips, daffodils or paperwhites to enjoy indoors before spring arrives. This is also a great time to plant trees and shrubs to landscape your yard.  They will need some watering when we face dry stretches of time, like right now.  Trees planted now will still start to root in at their new home and will be a little better prepared for the heat of summer. 

There are many great gifts for gardeners from plants to tools, books and memberships, gift certificates and even offering to work together to create a new flowerbed or to help with pruning.  Few holidays have their own plant but Easter has the Easter lily and Christmas has the poinsettia.  The poinsettia is a relatively recent tradition as it was only introduced in the United States in the early 1830’s.  Joel Poinsett of Charleston, South Carolina had a colorful career traveling Europe, Russia, Chile and Argentina, was elected to the South Carolina State House of Representatives, then Congress.  He resigned Congress in 1825 to become our first Ambassador to the newly independent country of Mexico.  During his time in Mexico, working to assist them adopt a constitution and dealing with defining the United States – Mexico boundary he discovered the native Flor de Nochebuena or Christmas Eve Flower near Taxco de Alarcon, South of Mexico City.  Poinsett was an accomplished amateur botanist and sent starts back to his plantation in South Carolina and other plant geek friends in our young country.  By 1836 the plant was widely known as the Poinsettia, in his honor, and has grown in popularity over the decades.  It is widely grown as an outdoor bedding plant in Australia and New Zealand but in America we think of it as the Christmas flower and grow them in containers to flower from Thanksgiving past Christmas.  Poinsettias bloom with short days so their flowering can be timed based on day length.  When I was a youngster the varieties all grew several feet tall before flowering and the bracts were often only colored and pretty for a few weeks.  Growers would try to have them ready by mid December and they were showy to New Year’s Day or a little later.  As a result of breeding and selection we now have shorter varieties that work great for table centerpieces and other decorations.  The modern varieties are often colored up by Thanksgiving and with a little attention to light and watering will often stay colorful into March and April of the following year.  Adventurous gardeners can enjoy them outside on the patio or porch next spring and summer and then expose them to short days next fall to rebloom their poinsettia for another year.  The flower is actually a small yellow boat shaped flower that sits above the bracts or colored leaves that most folks think of as the poinsettia flower.  The true flowers are not very spectacular but the colored bracts can be stunning in their traditional red, the many tones of pink, orange, white or marble tones.  Get yourself in the Christmas spirit by selecting several poinsettias to decorate your home along with your Christmas tree, wreaths and greens.  There are a number of other plants that do well inside to decorate for the holidays including amaryllis, cyclamen, cineraria and calceolaria so select the flowers you enjoy to liven up your home and have a happy and blessed Christmas Season.

Thanksgiving is not only a time to celebrate a successful growing season and a bountiful harvest. 

This next week we celebrate Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays of the year.  It has been called different names over the centuries and in different cultures but in almost all civilizations and societies there has been some type of harvest festival or holiday of Thanksgiving.  Our American holiday began with the Pilgrims celebrating the fall harvest as they prepared for another long, cold winter.  In that era it was often a matter of life and death based on how much crop was produced in the growing season that you could save and store to make it through the dreary and harsh winter months when you were limited to hunting and fishing for most of your food for survival.  We are so very blessed that our American farmers are so productive and that just a few percent of our population is now required to produce the food for all of us, plus many more folks around the world.  The efficiency of the modern farmers, whether it is your local growers at the Farmers Market or several thousand acre wheat or corn farmers, frees you from the daily pressure of producing food each and every day to ensure the survival of your family.  We are blessed to have access to the world’s best selection of fresh food, canned food, frozen foods and even dried and prepared foods.  You can visit your local grocery store or farmers market and select fresh vegetables, berries, fruits, nuts, a wide selection of beef, pork, chicken, lamb and fish and more kinds of grains, cereals and prepared or processed foods than we can even sample.  The amazing progress in farm equipment, crop breeding and even types of crops has given us more food choices than at any time in history.  You can choose to eat locally grown foods, you can choose to sample foods from around the world including historical or exotic foods, you can choose to eat organically grown foods or you can eat to fit a multitude of diet options or restrictions.

The advances in American farming, refrigeration, canning & freezing have freed you up from the pressure of growing your own food so you can pursue the type of job that utilizes your best talents and abilities and gives you the most personal satisfaction.  Farmers and our amazing food distribution systems are what allow you to be an artist, a doctor, a salesman, an accountant, a teacher, a driver, a lawyer, a warehouse worker, an office worker or whatever career you are pursing.

Food production and our food choices have become so plentiful and available that they have become controversial to some folks.  I guarantee you food production techniques are not controversial when you are struggling to grow food, hunt or find enough food to feed your family each day.  It is only because of the amazing success of American farmers that we argue about breeding practices and techniques like what kind of fertilizer or herbicides are used in producing those crops instead of the base worry of having food to eat.  We are blessed to have lots of different crop production systems and they have different costs of production so you can decide if you want to pay extra for production like organically grown vegetables or meats.  An organic vegetable grower often gets about a third less harvest so they need to charge more to survive and continue their business as compared to a farmer that uses modern insecticides and fungicides to control their pest and disease problems.  Both produce good quality nutritious food so you have to decide which is right for you and your budget.

Thanksgiving is not only a time to celebrate a successful growing season and a bountiful harvest.  It is a great time to celebrate with family and count the many blessings of family, friends, and health as well as access to a warm, safe home, the kindness of neighbors, the joy of children and the wisdom of our seniors.  We hope that you will be able to spend time this next week to celebrate the harvest of food and beauty from your yard and garden and the warmth and love of your spouse, family and friends.  Have a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving.

First Light Freeze of the Fall Garden Season!

Most of the Oklahoma City area got a killing freeze last week.  It was a light freeze so it killed many of the unprotected warm season annuals and vegetables and did not bother many hardier plants.  Many of the perennials and more cold tolerant annuals survived the soft freeze and will live on until knocked back by harder freezes to come as the calendar marches towards winter.  It was a hard freeze north and west at places like Woodward and Ponca City but in the metro area we saw mostly 29 to 31 degree temperatures which would often freeze the top growth and outer canopy of foliage but the lower, bottom foliage may have survived on many plants.  Plants under a tree or shrub or larger plant or in a micro climate may have had enough protection to survive the light freeze unprotected and may continue blooming or growing through some milder Indian summer weather until hit by a harder freeze.  Surviving with just a little protection indicates the value of using frost blankets, hot kaps, old sheets, or other light frost protection to extend the fall growing season when we experience light freezes and just a few degrees makes the difference between life and death.

Folks often think outside gardening is over for the year after we experience a killing frost but there are actually many crops we can still plant at this season for immediate and future enjoyment.  For immediate color plant pansies to cheer you up most all winter.  There are literally hundreds of pansy varieties that do great in Oklahoma offering a multitude of colors and bright cheerful faces that display their personality.  Pansies are one of the real highlights of the winter garden in Oklahoma.  Pansies greet you with color and life even on the darkest and most dreary winter days or by poking up through a light cover of snow with yellow, blue, red, pink, purple and countless multicolored flower faces.  Add a little blood meal to the planting holes as you plant them to feed them for the winter.  We are at the tail end of the season to plant tall fescue grass seed if you want to have a green lawn this winter or to establish cover on open soil to prevent blowing and erosion.  These cool grasses will germinate within days and grow throughout the winter until worn down by our heat late next spring.

This is the prime season for planting spring flowering bulbs.  Shop for good firm bulbs of daffodils, crocus, tulips, hyacinths and the dozens of other unique bulb crops to plant now.  They can root in through the winter and be ready to shoot from the ground next spring with a burst of color to announce spring.  The blooming season will start with many of the smaller spring bulbs like crocus, snow drops and grape hyacinths then progresses through daffodils, hyacinths and tulips.  Some of these bulbs, like most of the daffodils, will naturalize and come back year after year while other bulb crops, like the tulips, are usually a one year flowering spectacular and need to be replanted for future years.

This is a great time to add trees to your landscape.  Container grown trees can be transplanted most any time the ground is not frozen but field grown trees transplant and handle best while dormant at this time of year.  If you plan to plant larger trees that are hand dug and balled and burlapped or spade dug trees this is a great time to move the trees with the least stress to the trees.  Spend time and money to properly prepare the planting hole, then transplant the tree or shrub.  This will give the tree a chance to get rooted in and established before they leaf out next spring.  Fall and winter transplanted trees have a chance to get established before facing our hot summers and the challenges of summer drought.

Plant pansies for immediate joy and excitement and plant bulbs to liven up spring.  Plant trees and shrubs to change your yard and create a landscape and habitat for decades and generations to come.

Enjoy All The Colors of Autumn and Fall!

It is sinking in that fall is here and all around us.  A few pretty cool nights make it clear that the first freeze for central Oklahoma could be close at hand.  Our friends at Woodward and throughout the Oklahoma Panhandle got a light freeze earlier this week so our time is coming.  It could be in the next week or it could be a month but the clock is ticking on all of our pretty annuals, the warm season vegetables and the foliage on our deciduous trees.  This is one of my favorite times of year as we enjoy the last hurrah of the warm season crops and their flower colors get more intense with the cool night temperatures.  We enjoy the fall decorations of hardy mums, pumpkins, hay bales and corn stalks.  We enjoy the colors of the fall and winter crops that can be planted now including ornamental kale, ornamental cabbage and the charming pansies, which are the leading stars of the Oklahoma winter garden.  This is the season to sow your tall fescue or ryegrass seed if you want a green winter lawn.

One of the best things about fall that complements the football games, time by the crackling fire pit and the pretty fall flower shows is the annual dance of fall color on our deciduous trees and shrubs.  This show is never the same from year to year because it depends on the temperature and weather patterns, day length and moisture in the ground.  The fall color is triggered by day length as the days get shorter and the sunlight less intense so that the deciduous trees and shrubs know that winter is coming and start to prepare for winter hibernation.  The timing and amount of color and intensity of fall color all depend on the weather patterns – how early we get cold fronts, how cold, for how long and by how much moisture is in the root zone.  Fall color will be different in a drought year than in a year with good moisture.  If we get a really hard freeze early we will jump to leaf drop and miss much of the fall color show which is best in years with good sunlight, decent soil moisture and gradually declining night temperatures which allow the symphony of leaf color change to go through their full fall song and dance.

As autumn progresses the trees start pulling extra sugars and carbohydrates down into the branches and roots to store for winter.  Three pigments are involved in autumn color.  Chlorophyll is the green color we see throughout the growing season and it is the building block that converts sunlight and water into sugars for food for our plants.  Carotenoids are pigments that produce the yellow, orange and brown tones we see in carrots, corn, bananas and daffodils and are present in all plant cells all year but are concealed or masked by chlorophyll for most of the year.  Anthocyanins produce the reds and blues we see in grapes, red apples, blueberries, cherries, plums and strawberries.  They are produced in most plant cells only in the cooler weather of fall by the excess plant sugars in the leaf cells and bright fall sunlight.  Chlorophyll production slows down and then stops as fall progresses.  As the green chlorophyll disappears from the leaf we get to see the carotenoids or anthocyanins that are still in the leaf cells and give us the yellow, orange and red colors that announce autumn to us.   Poplar trees give us bright yellow leaves before they drop and Oaks give us red leaves and brown colored leaves.  Maples give us yellow, orange – red or brilliant red depending on the species. These leaves will eventually fall where they can provide natural mulch to your yard, be collected and composted to add to your soil and help continue the circle of life.  We hope the hard freezes are delayed and we get to enjoy a long and colorful fall.

Getting Ready for Fall!

It feels like fall with moderate days, cool evenings, football, fairs, lots of color on our spring plants and time to think about hardy mums. These are pleasant days and evenings to garden and enjoy our yards and our neighborhoods. We still have to water when nature does not provide well spaced rains but we don’t face the watering pressure of the long triple digit days of summer.

There is a lot we can do with our lawns at this season. If you want to control winter weeds you should apply weed and feed or pre-emergent weed killers over the next couple of weeks to achieve the best control of henbit, chickweed and their other winter weed friends. This is also the time to apply your last nitrogen fertilizer of the growing season. It can be applied with the weed and feed product or apply a good general fertilizer by itself. This will help strengthen your lawn as it wraps up this growing season and prepares to go dormant this winter. If you plan to overseed your lawn with a winter cool season grass like tall fescue or ryegrass broadcast the seed in late September through October so you can enjoy a green winter lawn. Do not treat those areas to be seeded with a herbicide or weed and feed product as they will inhibit germination of your desired winter lawn.

We enjoyed such a mild and moist August that our spring annuals from penta, petunias and periwinkle to begonias, geraniums, zinnias, marigolds, lantana and sweet potatoes are generally doing quite well. Their flower color will intensify as we get cooler nights.
Enjoy this fall color from your spring and summer plants but start to think about adding fall color.

Hardy mums will lead the fall color show and are now available at your local nurseries and garden centers. They are widely available in one gallon, three gallon and many styles of large decorative containers. Hardy mums look great in the ground in flower beds and are perennials that will usually come back next year when planted in the ground. They look fabulous in decorative pots and will make a big color show until the first hard freeze. There are many styles of hardy mums from smaller more compact cushion mums to the larger mounds of Belgian mums. They come in many color combinations of white, yellow, orange, lavender, purple, red and burgundy to allow you to decorate your patio, porch or gardens to show your own style. Many folks will combine the mums with displays of pumpkins, gourds, hay bales and corn stalks as fall progresses to create the perfect fall ambiance. Remember that chrysanthemums or hardy mums are heavy drinkers and will require water more often than most of your established plants. They wilt fairly dramatically to advise you when you are behind on watering them but they perk up quickly after you water them well. Try not to drought stress them out too many times or it will effect or reduce your fall flower display. The hardy mums are close relatives of the pot mums you may enjoy throughout the year but these varieties are hardy perennials and although they will freeze down to the ground this winter they will usually sprout back up next spring ready for another year of action. The mums in pots are less likely to over winter as they will freeze harder and are more likely to be dry when it freezes which can dehydrate them. Mums are day length sensitive and that is why they bloom reliably each fall as the days get shorter after their growing season. Occasionally there will be mums under a street or security light that don’t re-flower well in future years because they don’t get these natural short days to initiate flowering.

Enjoy this gorgeous weather and the beautiful plants all around us as you get ready to plant new trees, shrubs and hardy mums this fall.

BREEDING PLANTS: WHERE OUR NEW & IMPROVED PLANT MATERIALS COME FROM!

We are enjoying some remarkable mild summer temperatures and have even been blessed with periodic rains.  As a result most of our plant materials are looking great and we are enjoying some nice vegetable harvests and beautiful flowers.  You can be planting for fall as you enjoy your current plantings and keep a close eye on your watering to keep your plants properly hydrated between rains.

Earlier this week I made a quick trip to Raleigh, North Carolina for CARET, the Council on Agricultural Research, Extension and Teaching.  The trip included a couple of stops that got me thinking about where our new and improved plant materials come from.  The first stop was the JC Ralston Arboretum which was started by the famous modern plant explorer who grew up in the Oklahoma panhandle and graduated from Oklahoma State University.  He had few trees and shrubs in the panhandle but loved them and longed for more.  He led plant expeditions around the world as a professor at North Carolina State University and discovered many new plants he and his students brought back to the United States where many were introduced into the American nursery trade.  There have been many other great plant explorers like Alfred Graf of Roehrs Nurseries, John Creech of the U. S. National Arboretum and many more with the United States Department of Agriculture.  We have two prominent active explorers in our state today including Steve Bieberich of Sunshine Nursery in Clinton and Steve Owens of Bustani Farms in Stillwater.  These explorers find new plant varieties and genetics from all over the world to enrich our plant choices and to expand cold hardiness, drought tolerance and other important plant traits.

The second stop was the plant breeding program at North Carolina State University.  Breeding of the most significant agronomy or field crops is done by the big seed companies and our land grant colleges.  The breeding of specialty crops is done by smaller seed companies, land grant universities and even a few amateur breeders.  This is a very important process to stay ahead of diseases, viruses, pest problems and environmental conditions. North Carolina State University has been a national leader in breeding sweet potatoes for the food market that resist wireworms, have thicker skins for digging and storage and better uniformity for harvesting and marketing.  Sweet potatoes are the seventh most important crop to deliver nutrition and calories to humans in the world and this one breeding program evaluates 65,000 new seedlings from breeding crosses each year in the quest for a better sweet potato.  Many of these selections did not prove out for food production but some have been introduced as the beautiful ornamental varieties we use in our summer landscapes that explode with new multicolor, chartreuse or burgundy foliage.  North Carolina also has important breeding programs in cucumbers, stevia for sweeteners, redbud trees, blackberries, gourds, cantaloupe, watermelon, tomatoes, azaleas, peaches and raspberries.

Closer to home, the University of Arkansas features a spinach breeding program that achieved mildew resistance and that is now used on most every American spinach variety and most spinach around the world.  Dr. John Clark has led the nation for decades in breeding blackberries and his varieties are built on the thirty-three years of work by his predecessor, Dr. James Moore. Their work has led to over a dozen varieties now grown on every continent except Antarctica as these innovations have extended the harvest season and dramatically expanded the geography for blackberry production.  Arkansas has also been a leader in raspberry, blueberry, peach and strawberry breeding and plant introductions.  Here in Oklahoma our most famous plant breeding program is by the Oklahoma State University wheat team lead by Dr. Brett Carver.  Over half the wheat grown in our state the last few years are Cowboy varieties bred by Dr. Carver and his amazing wheat team which has introduced over twenty varieties well suited for production in the plains states and is now grown on over three million acres just in Oklahoma each year.

Oklahoma horticulture breeding is led by two former Oklahoma State University professors who have stayed active breeding since their college days.  Dr. Jim Motes is one of the top hot pepper breeders in the world and his varieties are grown on many acres in the Southwest including thousands of acres at the Hinton/Hydro area for use as food additives, as a safe replacement for food dye and for pepper spray personal protection and deer repellents.  Very brave people actually eat some of his hot peppers.  Dr. Carl Whitcomb has several breeding programs underway at Lacebark in Stillwater including hardy hibiscus, desert willow, lacebark elms, river birch and his many amazing varieties of crapemyrtles.  You can find many of his pink, raspberry and red crapemyrtles at nurseries and garden centers all across the southern half of the United States and his breeding fields outside Stillwater are breathtakingly beautiful at this time of year.

It is important we use and save native and heirloom plants but these plant discoveries, introductions and new plant breeding are critical to expand our plant choices, to extend flowering and fruiting seasons, to deal with wetter or drier locations and to achieve insect, virus and disease resistance.  There are lots of great stories about plant explorers and breeders available in books or magazine articles so you can learn more about the rest of the story on your favorite plants.

Oklahoma Summer Gardening & Watering!

We are definitely in the high heat of our Oklahoma summer season and watering continues to dominate our garden and landscape priority lists.  Please make certain you walk your yard regularly and soak or water thoroughly your trees, shrubs, perennials, vegetables, color plants and lawn to avoid extreme stress.  The shallower a plant is rooted in, like color plants and vegetables, they will need water more often than deep rooted plants like trees and shrubs that can pull moisture from deeper in the soil.  The soil closer to the surface gets hotter, has surface evaporation and is supporting more plant roots so it will dry out quicker and more often.  You can help cool the soil and reduce surface evaporation and drying by mulching the soil surface with two to four inches of bark mulch or hulls like cottonseed hulls, pecan hulls, cocoa hulls or pine straw.  Soaking style watering replenishes moisture deeper into the soil and is more effective and long lasting than squirting or syringing and just wetting the surface which inspires shallow roots instead of deeper roots.

Even as we enjoy the harvest and beauty of our spring and prior year plantings it is time to plant ahead for our fall vegetable gardens.  Gardening is a good metaphor for life in that we are rewarded for thinking ahead and taking action to get what we want or dream of.  This is the time to get your plants of tomatoes, tomatillo, peppers, eggplant and cucumbers planted if you want a fall harvest before our first freeze which is usually in early November. These crops need sixty to ninety days from planting to harvest so fall vegetable plants should be planted at once.  We usually say to plant from July fifteenth to August tenth.

You can plant seeds of cowpeas, bush beans, pole beans, or Lima beans to get a harvest in fifty to eighty days after seeding.  You can plant seeds of sweet corn, pumpkins, summer squash, winter squash or cilantro to get a fall harvest.  All these should be planted this weekend or next week to assure plenty of time to raise and harvest your crop before the winter freeze, that seems so distant as we deal with the triple digit temperatures of summer.

These fall garden crops are usually grown in the ground but you can grow limited amounts of most all these crops in container gardens on your patio, porch or even setting in flowerbeds.  Remember all of these young plants and seedlings will need careful attention to watering as they will have a small root system and can dehydrate quickly.  They will become more tolerant as they grow and get bigger and deeper root systems.

You can reduce your water use and get more even and efficient water to your vegetable garden and flowerbeds by using drip irrigation.  Next best is the use of soaker hoses.  If you have a automatic sprinkler system consider upgrading to smart irrigation by adding a soil sensor and rain sensor to your controller so you will not waste water by watering when we do get blessed with rain.  The soil sensors can measure moisture tension in the soil and only water when dry to conserve our precious water while still caring for your plants water needs.  You can use hose end water sprinklers or water your crops by hand as you evaluate and enjoy your garden.  It is much more pleasant to do your summer gardening activities, including watering or planting your fall garden, early in the morning or in early evening as the temperatures moderate.  Enjoy your garden meditation as you water and remember fall will be here soon.