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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

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 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 or contact Kate Whitney, Williamson County Horticulture Extension Agent, at

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


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.

Fall Gardening

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Fall is in the air! You might not equate fall with gardening, but this is a great time of year to be a gardener.  I often get comments and questions from non-native Texans about how hard it is to garden in Texas.  They complain about our rocky soil, heat, lack of rain (or too much!), and many other things.  Those are all valid complaints, but where else can you garden through the fall and into winter?  This native Texan is proud of our long gardening season!

Fall gardening is all about plants in the brassica family, often called cole crops. These are cool season crops that can be grown successfully in home gardens all over Texas.  Cole crops include broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, collards, mustards, kale, turnip, rutabaga, and radish.  During the fall, you can also plant lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, swiss chard, cilantro, garlic, and shallots.

Most fall crops can be planted from seed, but cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts do better from transplants. Plant your fall garden in full sunlight and find a location with good drainage.  Fall crops also do well in container gardens but be sure to find a container with good drainage.  You can incorporate compost or fertilizer into your soil as you prepare the garden bed or containers.  Apply more as the plants grow during the season.

Proper watering is an important part of gardening, even during the fall and winter. Most crops need one or two inches of water applied once a week.  Determine when to water by checking the soil.  If the soil surface is dry, scratch down to a depth of one inch to see if the soil is moist.  If it is dry at 1 inch, water thoroughly.  Drop irrigation is best because it waters directly into the soil at a slow rate so the water saturates the soil.

Lettuces, greens, spinach, cilantro are a lot of fun to harvest because you just cut off the greens and the plant continues to make more! Crops that form a head like broccoli and cauliflower are ready to harvest when the head gets firm and compact.

Last week, the Master Gardener volunteers and I planted a lettuce variety trial in our demonstration garden at the Extension Office. Be sure to watch for more information about the results from the trial.  We will let you know the best lettuces to plant in Williamson County!

This article was first published in the Williamson County Sun newspaper.


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