The Colorful Christmas Cactus

By A. J. Senchack, Williamson County Master Gardener

Christmas cactus refers to many winter holiday plants whose common names are used interchangeably. Confusing?  Most gardeners who think they are growing a Christmas cactus are not actually growing a true Christmas cactus, Schlumbergera x buckleyi?  Ninety percent of what are sold at retail as a Christmas cactus are actually a Thanksgiving or false Christmas cactus cultivar, S. truncata var., and they are not even a cactus (an epiphytic succulent). These minor points aside (both plants look the same except for their “leaves”), we can still enjoy this month this tropical houseplant’s vibrant trumpet-shaped flowers, cascading down leaf-like stem segments. Bursting in a riot of flower colors—red, rose, white, cream, lavender, purple, peach, orange, and yellow—this “cactus” guarantees you can never have enough of them (see Figure 1).

So, what can we do to stimulate more cactus blooms next fall? The simple answer is grow it just like its wild Brazilian relatives—in a cool, shady, high humidity habitat in the crook of a tree. Not very descriptive of most homes’ indoors, is it?  Fortunately, Nature designed this succulent for containers and low maintenance. (more…)

Getting a Start on Spring Vegetables

January is the month of suspense for vegetable gardeners.  The weather is often too cold to be outside in the garden, but we all know that full planting season is around the corner.  The seed catalogs start coming in the mail, making us dream about ripe tomatoes and delicious summer squash.

We are all looking forward to spring gardening, but there are quite a few things for a vegetable gardener to do in January and early February.  January is the time to plant onions.  Many local feed stores and nurseries have onion sets in stock, and they should be planted now for a harvest in late May.  Not long after onions, it will be time to plant potatoes in mid-February.

Beyond onions and potatoes, you can also start growing some vegetable transplants from seed in late January.  Tomatoes, eggplant, and peppers are great vegetables to start from seed, and they will be ready to plant in the garden in mid-March after the last freeze. (more…)

Winter Tasks for Lawn and Garden

The New Year brought some winter weather with it!  I enjoyed the warm weather through December, but I did not enjoy getting mosquito bites while I mowed my lawn two weeks before Christmas.  The recent cold front that blew in on New Year’s Day made it feel more like winter weather, and it certainly froze back a lot of perennial plants that were still green.

To get the year started off right, here are a few winter tasks to keep your lawn and garden in top shape.

First, January is a good time to prune trees because many of our trees have lost their leaves, making it easy to see the limb structure.  Winter is a good time to do heavy pruning because the trees are not using much energy right now.  Trees use a tremendous amount of energy to put on new leaves in the spring, so removing a large percent of the new foliage can stress the tree.  January is also an excellent time to prune oak trees because the oak wilt pathogen is not being actively transmitted by the nitidulid beetle.  We do not recommend pruning oak trees from February 1 through June 30. (more…)

Happy Houseplant Hunting

The shorter days of winter are here, and I am not able to spend quite as much time out in my yard.  During the winter, I find myself really enjoying house plants to bring cheerful greenery into my home.  I have to admit to killing my share of house plants, usually bought on a whim when the bright foliage and cute succulents caught my eye at the grocery store.

I like to think that I have a green thumb for plants outside, but house plants can sometimes be a little more finicky.  Fortunately, I finally have some plants that seem to be thriving indoors.  If you share my trouble with house plants, you might ring in the new year with a resolution to try one of these low-maintenance plants. (more…)

Radishes — An easy winter vegetable

November is an interesting month for vegetable gardeners as we transition into cooler weather.  I have two cherry tomato plants in my garden that are still producing tomatoes, and I’m keeping a close eye on the forecast so I can be sure to harvest the green tomatoes before a freeze.  My herb garden is green with basil, sage, and thyme, and the bees are enjoying the last bit of pollen and nectar from the flowers on the basil.

While the tomatoes and basil are enjoying the last few days before a freeze, my broccoli plants are going strong and doing well in the cooler weather.  I recently planted arugula and cilantro, and I am looking forward to fresh salads with the peppery flavor of arugula and the zesty cilantro.

One vegetable plant that does well in Central Texas throughout the fall, winter and into spring is radish.  Radishes are good litmus test for anyone who thinks they have a black thumb.  Radishes are easy to grow, and they grow quickly.  If you can’t grow a radish, well, keep coming to our gardening classes. (more…)

Fall is for Planting Trees

The first Friday of November is the official Texas State Arbor Day.  Fall is the best time to plant new trees because the cooler weather and rain in the winter promote root growth during the dormant season.  Trees use a lot of energy to put on leaves in the spring and survive the stress of the warm summer months, so they benefit a lot from the extra time to establish a root system in the winter.

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.  Look up the mature height of your selected tree variety to see how big it will get eventually.  Do you have enough space in your lawn?   Are there powerlines or buildings nearby that will eventually cause problems for the tree?   (more…)

KR Bluestem Weeds

Mowing my lawn is a chore that I do not usually mind doing.  I get some exercise pushing my mower around the lawn, and I enjoy the time outside with just the hum of my mower and my own thoughts.  And mowing produces the immediate and satisfying result of a nice-looking lawn.  At least it looks nice for a few days, and then the KR Bluestem grassy weed sends up a tall seed head.  Of course, the KR Bluestem is at the front of my yard where it just waves to all the neighbors.

KR Bluestem is a perennial grass that starts as a bunch-type grass and spreads by rhizomes and/or stolons.  Texas is home to at least 27 species of bluestem grasses, and 21 of the species are native to Texas.  You might have seen big bluestem, little bluestem, or broomsedge bluestem along the roadsides or in native prairie areas.  Grasses like these are beautiful in the fall because their inflorescence, or flowering structure, really stands out.  King Ranch Bluestem is one of the six non-native species in Texas.

KR Bluestem originated in China and was brought to California as early as 1917.  It was introduced in Texas in 1924 at the Angleton Agricultural Research Service Station.  The grass was first introduced to the King Ranch to be used in rangelands and pastures to provide forage for cattle and control erosion.  During the years of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, ranchers struggled to maintain pastures that were devastated by drought and overgrazing.  KR Bluestem, along with the similar Kleberg Bluestem, were found to be drought tolerant and provided forage for cattle. (more…)

Herbs for the Fall Season

The recent rains have brought new life to my garden, and my plants have rebounded after the heat and dry weather of August and September.  Fall time in Texas always seems to bring a new burst of energy to our landscapes, and I really enjoy the burst of color before winter.

Fall is a great time to plant and enjoy herbs in your landscape.  Herbs add great color and texture, and they can also be used for cooking, adding scents to your home and garden, and attracting pollinators.  Herbs have a great role to play in the kitchen because they can pack a flavor punch to your dishes and allow you to reduce sodium or sugar.  Additionally, herbs have antioxidants with great health benefits.

Cilantro and parsley are cool season herbs that can be planted now by seed or by transplant, and they add a fresh taste to salads and other dishes.  I have several varieties of sage and thyme in my kitchen garden, and they add beautiful color.  Purple sage is one of my favorites; the combination of purple and silvery green leaves is so pretty. (more…)

Thinning and Dividing Irises

The month of September has rolled by quickly, and I am somewhat behind on my monthly garden task list.  September is a great time to divide and re-plant irises.  I have some beautiful white irises that need a little more room, and I will be moving some of them to a new spot in my yard.

Iris beds do well if you thin them every two or three years.  Irises are rhizomes, which means they have a stem that grows horizontally just under the surface of the soil.  This creeping, underground stem will sprout stems and leaves upward and roots downward.  Thinning helps to promote new growth and blooms.

If you need to divide your irises this year, select a sunny, well-drained area in your yard.  I have grown irises in part shade before, but they do like to have well-drained soil.  Too much water will cause the rhizomes to rot.  If your yard does not drain water well, consider planting your irises in a raised bed. (more…)

Crape Myrtle Bark Scale

Last week, I was out for a walk and came to a quick stop when I noticed a crape myrtle with black leaves and trunks.  At closer inspection, I found hundreds of scaly, white things all along the trunks and branches.  These scale insects are Crape Myrtle Bark Scale.

Late summer seems to be the time that damage from CMBS really stands out.  They have had all spring and summer to reproduce and feed on the host plants, and now the honeydew and sooty mold are evident from a distance.

CMBS is a small, white, sap-feeding insect that lives on the bark of crape myrtle trees.  The adult females look like tiny pieces of popcorn attached near pruning wounds or in the branch crotches.  They are usually 2mm in length.  If you squish the scale, it has bright pink insides.  CMBS does not kill the tree, but it can cause reduced flowering and the scale secretes a honeydew that causes sooty mold. (more…)