Tomato Varieties

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It only seems right that March should usher in springtime weather, but this year it brought a strong cold front through Central Texas. Of course, the cold front came just in time to endanger the young tomato transplants that we passed out at a recent Tomato Lunch and Learn at the AgriLife Extension Office.

Despite the cold, I am very excited to see how the tomatoes perform. This year we are trying out two new varieties at the Demonstration Garden, Celebration and Super Sweet 100.  Two very dedicated Master Gardeners volunteered to grow more than 100 plants of these two varieties from seed.  The seeds were planted in January with a 98% germination rate, and they grew really fast with the help of a greenhouse, some grow lights, and the tender care of the Master Gardeners.

Celebration is a hybrid determinate tomato. It is an improved Celebrity variety that is crack, drought, and disease resistant.  This is a compact plant that should mature early with 8-ounce tomatoes.  If you have grown Celebrity tomatoes, you might want to give Celebration a try this year.  Or you can come check out the demonstration garden and make your decision based on how it does for the Master Gardeners.

The other variety that we are trying this year is Super Sweet 100. This is an indeterminate hybrid variety that matures in 65 days.  The plant produces small 1-inch tomatoes that are super sweet and very nutritious.  The claim to fame is that they contain more vitamin C than any other tomato.

You can find recommendations for the best varieties for Williamson County on the Aggie Horticulture website at https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/.  The vegetable variety selector allows you to choose from a wide variety of vegetables.  This is a great place to start if you are new to Williamson County or new to gardening.  We are always trying out new varieties at the Demonstration Garden at 3151 SE Inner Loop in Georgetown.  The Master Gardeners work in the garden on Tuesday and Friday mornings if you have questions about gardening or want to see what we are doing.

Hopefully the cold weather is finished, and we can start planting our tomatoes in the garden. Remember that tomatoes are susceptible to frost so you need to wait until the danger of frost is passed or cover your tomato plants to protect them.

Crape Murder

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It is almost spring in Texas, and the gardeners are getting busy! A few weeks ago, I shared information about pruning to help train plants, remove dead or diseased branches, and improve the quality of flowers and foliage.  As I drive around Williamson County, I have noticed that the crape myrtles in some landscapes are pruned a little too much.  In fact, we call this kind of pruning Crape Murder!

Crape myrtles are a beautiful flowering plant that can be grown as a shrub or shaped into a tree. Crape myrtles are low maintenance and add color to the landscape in the summer with beautiful blooms, in the fall with colorful foliage, and in the winter with interesting bark.  Unfortunately, many homeowners and landscapers have a terrible habit of severely pruning or “topping” crape myrtles.  This type of pruning is not necessary for crape myrtles to bloom.  Topping crape myrtles delays their blooms, creates weak limbs where the new growth comes out, and makes ugly knobby scars where the prune cut was made.

There are a few times when pruning a crape myrtle is appropriate. You can prune the suckers that grow from the base to help shape the crape myrtle.  Prune the suckers at ground level.  You can also prune if branches are crossed and rubbing or are touching a structure or roof.  Those are the only situations when it is necessary to prune a crape myrtle.

Sometimes, crape myrtles are topped to limit the growth because they get too tall. Stop it!  Crape myrtles come in a variety of sizes from three feet tall to 35 feet tall. If your crape myrtle is too tall for your lawn, remove it and plant a new one that will grow to the appropriate size.

Please stop the crape murder this year! Texas A&M AgriLife Extension has a great FAQ and video about how to prune a crape myrtle.  You can check it out on our Facebook page by searching for Williamson County Agriculture – Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.  For more information about caring for crape myrtles, contact Kate Whitney, Williamson County Horticulture Extension Agent, at 512-943-3300 or klwhitney@ag.tamu.edu.

Summer Weed Pre-emergent

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It’s officially winter in Texas! Warm one day and cold the next!  This time of year is challenging for gardeners because we worry about protecting plants from freezes, getting enough chill hours for our fruit trees, and trying to control winter weeds like henbit, dandelion, and wild carrot.  Unfortunately, it’s also time to think about preventing our warm season weeds like crabgrass, carpetweed, pigweed, and many others.

Mid-February is the time to put out pre-emergent weed killers if you have problems with weeds in your lawn. A pre-emergent herbicide will kill weeds before they begin actively growing.  You need to consider two important factors when you prepare to treat weeds.  What kinds of weeds do you have and when is the best time to treat them?

Broadleaf weeds have netted leaf veins in a variety of leaf shapes. An example of a broadleaf weed is henbit or ragweed.  We have a wide range of herbicides that will target just broadleaf plants.  A good pre-emergent herbicide for broadleaf weeds is isoxaben, commonly found in products like Gallery or Fertilome Broadleaf Control with Gallery.  This is a granular product that should be broadcast using a spreader and watered into the lawn.

Grassy weeds have parallel veins with long, slender leaf blades. Crabgrass and sandbur stickers are common grassy weeds.  You need a separate herbicide that will target grassy weeds.  Some good options for grassy-weed pre-emergents are prodiamine found in Barricade; pendimethalin found in Scott’s Halts Crabgrass Preventer, Pre-M and many others; or dithiopyr found in Bonide Crabgrass preventer.  These are also granular products that should be made in a separate application than your broadleaf herbicide.  Just think of how many extra steps you can get in while you work!  Gardening is a great fitness program.

Be sure to put out pre-emergent herbicides by mid-February. They don’t work if the weeds have already germinated and started growing.  Timing is very important.

One final note, many people like to double up on tasks and use a “weed and feed” product to treat weeds and fertilize the lawn at the same time. This sounds like a time-saving step, but we need to treat weeds now and it is much too early to fertilize.  Any fertilizer you put out now will be used by the winter weeds that are growing or will be wasted.  Wait until mid-April to fertilize when the grass is actively growing and needs nutrients.

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Planting Trees

 

Earlier this week, the Williamson County Master Gardeners and I got to visit a third-generation nursery in De Leon, Texas, that grows and sells many of the pecan and fruit trees that are grown throughout Texas. Winter is a great time of year to plant pecan and fruit trees, so the staff at the nursery were running to fill orders.

If you are thinking about planting trees this month, you need to know some important things about properly planting your tree. You can do everything right in caring for your tree, but improper planting will set you up for heartache.

Pick a site in full sun with enough space for the tree to grow. Check to see how high your tree is expected to grow.  Will it reach nearby powerlines or buildings?  Does it have enough room for the roots to grow?  The roots can extend past the tree canopy, so find plenty of space for the tree to grow up and out.

Trees are sold in containers or as bare-root stock. Dig your hole to be twice as wide as the container or root ball, but only dig it as deep as the container.  You need to be very careful that your tree is not planted too deep or too shallow.  The point where the top-most root emerges from the trunk needs to be within two inches of the soil surface.  Roots require oxygen to grow, and they cannot get oxygen if there is too much soil over the roots.  If your tree comes in a container with soil, you might need to dig down into the pot a little to find the top roots, so you know how deep to plant.  If the roots are growing in a circle in the pot, cut the roots and spread them out.  If you don’t cut circling roots, they will continue to grow in a circle instead of spreading out into the soil.

After you put your tree into the hole, use the original soil to fill the hole back. It’s tempting to add compost, potting soil, or peat moss to give the tree a boost, but do not even think about it!  The tree roots need to expand into the soil and grow out, and they will not do that if you create a “pot” for them in the ground with compost or potting soil.  Be sure to water thoroughly to help the soil settle and remove air pockets.  Add mulch around the tree to help keep the soil moist and regulate soil temperature.

Mark your calendar for Tuesday, February 5, for a workshop on planting and pruning fruit and pecan trees. Dr. Larry Stein, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Horticulture Specialist, will give a workshop with hands-on activities.  Register online at https://williamson.agrilife.org/program-registration/.

Pruning

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If there is one time of year that gardeners should earn a rest, you might think winter would be it. Gardening does slow down in the winter, but a gardener’s task list is never completed. Pruning is a great winter task that I look forward to because it means spring growth is just around the corner!

Pruning is used to train plants, maintain plant health, improve quality of flowers, fruit or foliage, and to restrict growth. Advances in plant breeding and selection have provided a wide range of plants that require very little, if any, pruning, but there are some plants that need a good trim.

The best time to prune many plants is late winter and early spring. We want to prune at a time when there will be the least amount of damage to the plant. Plan to prune before plants put on new growth in the spring. In the spring, plants put considerable energy into developing new growth. If you wait too long and prune off that new growth, the plant has used up a lot of its resources and doesn’t have the new growth available for photosynthesis.

Plan your cuts by following a plan. First, remove all dead, broken, diseased, or problem limbs. Cut them at the point of origin or back to a strong lateral branch or shoot. Second, you can make any training cuts that are necessary. Lateral branches are branches that originate from the main trunk. You can prune lateral branches to help train your plant to a desired shape. Be sure to know the natural growth habit of your plant so you can prune for a natural look (i.e. shrubs are not naturally square). Finally, make any corrective pruning cuts to eliminate narrow crotches, double leaders, or water sprouts. It’s helpful to take a step back and check your work.

Many people call me to ask about pruning paint or wound dressing. Research has found that wound dressing is not necessary and might slow down the healing process. The only exception to this rule is for oak trees. We have oak wilt in Williamson County, so you need to take care to paint all pruning cuts with a latex paint within 15 minutes of the cut to prevent the spread of the disease.

Texas A&M AgriLife Extension has great instructions for pruning specific types of plants at https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/earthkind/landscape/proper-pruning-techniques/.

Lettuce Variety Trial

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This fall we had an excellent crop of lettuce in the Demonstration Garden at the Extension Office!  In October, the Master Gardener Volunteers and I planted a lettuce trial to find out which varieties of lettuce grow well in Williamson County.  We chose ten varieties that are sold in local nurseries and farm stores including Black Seeded Simpson, Nevada, Buttercrunch, Prizehead, Giant Caesar, Crawford, Red Salad Bowl, Igloo, Burpee Bibb, and Limestone.

October 17, 2018

Following the recommendations for planting lettuce, we prepared our garden beds with compost worked into the soil.  Lettuce is a very small seed that needs to be planted at a depth of 1/8 to 1/4 of an inch in rows that are 12 inches apart.  We just used our fingers to lightly draw a line down the row and sprinkled in the lettuce seed.  We covered the seed with a light layer of soil and watered by hand to keep the soil moist.

October 30, 2018

Lettuce is a fun crop because it’s easy to plant and germinates quickly.  Most of our lettuce germinated within a few days.  You can thin the crop to about 8 inches between lettuce plants if you want to grow full-sized heads of lettuce.  We decided to harvest the lettuce when it was young to have “baby greens” like you often see in the stores, so it was not necessary to thin the lettuce.  Lettuce should be fertilized three weeks after planting, and nitrogen is important for lettuce to grow and produce a high-quality, dark green product.

November 19, 2018

Lettuce is harvested by cutting it at the base of the plant to get a full head of lettuce.  You can also trim the outer leaves and leave the center leaves to continue growing.  Lettuce gets bitter as it matures, so it’s best to pick it when it is young.  Lettuce keeps in the refrigerator for up to 10 days in a loose plastic bag.  Be sure to wash it well.

December 5, 2018

You can plant lettuce in the fall through early spring.  Lettuce can handle a light frost, and you can use a row cover to protect it from a harder freeze.  Lettuce does not do well when temperatures get about 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

Lettuce has some great health benefits.  It is naturally low in calories and sodium, with about seven calories per cup.  Lettuce contains Vitamin A, Vitamin C, beta-carotene, calcium, folate, fiber, and phytonutrients.  Plus, lettuce is usually eaten with other fruits and vegetables in a salad or wrap, so you get the added benefit of extra nutrients.

We had a great lettuce harvest from our trial, and we continue to harvest!  All the varieties did well, except for Nevada and Crawford.  Our trial had poor germination rates for those two varieties, but the few that did germinate were very tasty.  I am a little bit of a stubborn gardener, so we just might have to try again with those varieties!

Please stop by to see the lettuce trial at our Demonstration Garden at 3151 SE Inner Loop, Georgetown, or call Kate Whitney, Horticulture Extension Agent, for more information at 512-943-3300.  Be on the lookout for our next variety trial!

Christmas Trees and Poinsettias

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Live Christmas Trees

Live Christmas trees are my favorite part of the holiday season. I love sipping a cup of coffee by the tree with its twinkling lights in the early morning.  The hunt for the perfect tree is so much fun, and I love the fresh Christmas smell that comes with having a live tree.  If you want to try out a fresh Christmas tree this year, here are a few tips for selecting and maintaining your tree.

Selection: Christmas trees come in a variety of sizes, so be sure to measure your space where the tree will be kept.  My family let me pick out the tree one year and we could barely get it in the door because it was so tall and wide.  It was the best Christmas tree ever!

Check your tree for freshness. The needles should be fresh and flexible and should not come off in your hand.  The branches should also be pliable.  The tree is too dry if the needles and branches are brittle.

Maintenance: A live Christmas tree is very easy to keep fresh for several weeks. The most important rule is to supply plenty of water.

A traditional reservoir type tree stand is the best way to display your tree and maintain freshness. Be sure it will hold plenty of water.  As a rule, stands should provide one quart of water per inch of stem diameter.  Check the water level daily.

Use a stand that fits your tree and avoid whittling down the sides or drilling holes in the trunk. When you bring your tree home, cut a half inch disc off the bottom of the trunk and place it in water as soon as possible.

Keep your tree away from major sources of heat such as fireplaces and heat vents. Lowering the temperature of the room and using lights that produce low heat will slow the drying process.

Always inspect your lights before you place them on the tree and be careful not to overload the electrical circuits. Turn off the lights when you leave the house or go to bed.

Poinsettias

Poinsettias are a colorful addition to your Christmas décor, and I love having indoor flowering plants during the winter months. Poinsettia is a native plant of Mexico that was first introduced to the United States in 1825 by Joel Robert Poinsett.  Poinsett served as the first US Ambassador to Mexico, and he discovered the plants growing in Taxco, Mexico.  Poinsett was also a botanist, and he sent plants to his greenhouses in Greenville, South Carolina.  Now, poinsettias are one of the most important floriculture crops in Texas.

Selection: To find the best poinsettia, look for plants with dense, plentiful foliage all the way down to the stem.  Poinsettias come in a variety of colors from the traditional red to white, pink, peach, yellow, or marbled.  Look for plants with mature and fully colored bracts (the colorful part of the poinsettia).

Choose a plant with stiff stems and good bract and leaves. Avoid signs of wilting, breaking, or drooping.  A poinsettia needs its space, so be careful about buying one that has been in a paper or plastic sleeve for long.

Maintenance: Poinsettias thrive in at least six hours of indirect light daily and temperatures between 60-70 degrees Fahrenheit.  Avoid placing the plants near drafts or heat sources.

Poinsettias require moderately moist soil. Water the plant when the soil surface is dry to the touch.  Remove the plant from a decorative pot or cover and water enough to saturate the soil. Do not let the poinsettia sit in water.  Poinsettias are susceptible to root rot when they are overwatered.

Poinsettias can be kept after the holidays. Keep them in indirect light and water regularly.  You can move your plants outdoors once the nighttime temperatures average 55 degrees Fahrenheit.  The bracts will age and lose their appeal in the spring, but just cut them back to about eight inches.  Continue to water and use a complete fertilizer.  You might need to transplant the poinsettia into a bigger pot.  Prune to keep the plants bushy and compact, but do not prune after September 1.  The poinsettia will set buds in the fall as the nights lengthen, and the plants should bloom in November or December.

Chill Hours

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A Benefit to the Winter Blues: Chill Hours

Cold temperatures arrived in Williamson County in a hurry this year! I hope were able to cover your plants to protect them from the freezing temperatures.  I have to admit that I am a summer lover and I really do not like the short daylight hours and cold temperatures of winter.  There is one bright side to the cold: a winter with enough cold hours makes for a good summer crop of peaches!

Many of our favorite summer fruits like peaches, plums, and nectarines require a certain number of hours of cold weather, called chill hours. Chill hours are temperatures between 32◦ and 45◦F. In the late fall and early winter, fruit trees go into dormancy and hormones within the plant suppress the bud until temperatures warm up and the days lengthen in the spring.  The hormone that causes the plant to go into dormancy breaks down in the temperature range of chill hours.  In an ideal winter, the hormone has enough child hours to completely break down by the time spring comes around and the tree needs to begin blooming.  What a cool process!

In Texas, you might have noticed that the weather is unpredictable. In some winters we do not get enough chill hours for our fruit trees.  This can cause delayed foliation and the tree does not set much fruit.  Some winters we get a late freeze after the trees have bloomed and the blooms do not set fruit.  It’s a challenge, but well worth it when we get a good crop!

Williamson County usually receives between 450-750 chill hours each year. You can do a few things at your home to help ensure that you get some fruit every year.  Purchase varieties of fruit trees that need the recommended number of chill hours for our area.  In peaches, you can get Flordaking, Rio Grande, and Texstar varieties which need 450 hours.  La Feliciana, Junegold and Texroyal need 550-600 chill hours.  Another trick is to purchase several varieties with varying chill hours so you have a better chance that one variety will get the right number.

If you are mourning the loss of your tomato and basil plants after the recent freeze, take heart, the peaches are coming! For more information about growing fruit trees and chill hours, visit the Aggie Horticulture website at https://aggie-horticulture.tamu.edu/ or contact Kate Whitney, Williamson County Horticulture Extension Agent, at klwhitney@ag.tamu.edu.

Meet You Under the Mistletoe

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Mistletoe is a fun holiday tradition, especially for those looking for some extra Christmas kisses. The mistletoe plant is not quite as romantic as our holiday tradition would have you believe.

Mistletoe (Phoradendron tomentosum) is a parasitic plant that lives on hardwood trees like oaks, pecans, elms, and hackberries.  It is an evergreen plant, but we probably notice it more this time of year because the bright green shows up more after the trees drop their leaves.

The female mistletoe plants produce a small, white flower and a seed that is encased in a sticky pulp. The seeds are commonly distributed by birds when they stick to their feet or beaks or pass through their digestive system.  If a seed manages to land on small branches and gets enough moisture, it will germinate and form a root-like structure that penetrates the bark of the tree.  Mistletoe steals water and nutrients from the tree, but it uses its own chlorophyll from the leaves to make food through photosynthesis.

Mistletoe grows only about one-half inch the first year, but it can grow up to three feet in six to eight years! Mistletoe can to live as long as the tree does.  The leaves and stems that you see in the tree might only survive eight years, and it’s easily broken off in storms.  Breaking the mistletoe stimulates regrowth of dormant buds, and it just multiplies on its host.

The thought of hosting a parasitic plant sounds terrible, but mistletoe does not do much damage to a tree unless the tree is severely stressed by other conditions like drought. Mistletoe can get out of control in a tree and become unsightly.

Controlling mistletoe in your trees can be difficult! The most effective control method is to prune out the branch where the mistletoe is growing.  Be sure to cut at least 12 inches from the growth point to be sure the mistletoe root structure is removed.  Before you start pruning multiple branches, consider the aesthetics of your pruning cuts.  If you need cut out a lot, it might be better to remove the tree. Chemical control is not recommended because it can easily damage the host tree.  One final option is to harvest your mistletoe and share with your sweetheart.  The reward might be worth it!

For more information about mistletoe or other horticulture questions, contact Kate Whitney, Horticulture Extension Agent, at 512-943-3300 or klwhitney@ag.tamu.edu.

 

Twig Girdler

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Twig Girdler

One interesting aspect of my job as a horticultural extension agent is the bug questions and samples I get to see. Just last week, a client brought in a photo of a Tramea onusta, a red saddlebags dragonfly.  Another client sent a photo of a tomato hornworm.  Some of the photos have beautiful and interesting bugs, but usually the questions focus on insects that are causing problems.

Over the last few weeks, I have received several phone calls from homeowners who have small tree limbs that look like they’ve been cut off. The clients describe a blunt cut that might be made with pruning shears or a small saw on limbs the size of pencils or a finger.  This is not the work of pranksters!  The trees have been visited by the twig girdler beetle!

Twig girdler beetles in our area are the pecan twig girdler, Oncideres pustulatas LeConte, which attack citrus, elm, hackberry, hickory, huisache, mimosa, pecan, persimmon, red oak, retama, Texas ebony, walnut, and various fruit trees.  They are ½ to ¾ inch long, light to dark brown with a wide gray band across the wing covers, pink, orange, or yellow spots, and long antennae.

During the fall, usually September through November, the twig girdler reaches adulthood and mates. The female twig girdler will lay her eggs on a small branch, then she chews around the branch forming a notch, much like a beaver would.  The twig usually breaks free and falls to the ground or it might hang loosely.  The eggs hatch in about three weeks and feed on the cut branch.  Twig girdlers have one generation per year and the adults usually live six to ten weeks.

The twig girdler beetle does not do serious harm to the tree; they are mostly a nuisance. Chemical control is not recommended in a home lawn.  The branches that fall from a twig girdler’s work should be collected and destroyed because the eggs are living inside the branch.  The beetles are not commonly found on trees.