Battling Armyworms

Armyworms are on the move!  Usually, we do not notice these little brown and yellow striped caterpillars crawling through the lawn. The weather conditions this year with all the rain has made for a heavy infestation of armyworms in parts of the county.  These worms march army-like in a line and can eat a whole lawn before you know what hit you!

The armyworm moths fly and mate at night, and a female can lay up to 1,000 eggs in masses on host plants, the underside of leaves, or even structures like fences and light posts.  The newly hatched larvae lower themselves to the ground with a silken thread and start to feed on turfgrass.  In the early stages, the larvae do not eat much, and they will eat the green tissue from the leaf blade leaving a transparent “windowpane.” (more…)

Watering Potted Plants

Potted plants are a fun way to add some accent color and greenery in your home and landscape.  I particularly love to grow geraniums in pots, and I have a decent track record of keeping them alive through the winter months.  I also love to hang potted ferns on my front porch.

Sometimes with potted plants it can seem like there is a fine line between too much water and not enough water.  A general rule of thumb for healthy potted plants is to use pots that have drainage holes in the bottom.  Drainage holes allow excess water to run out, which helps to avoid drowning the roots or root diseases.  Let the soil dry out between watering, and water again when the top inch of soil feels dry.  To ensure adequate watering, provide enough water until it starts to drain out of the pot.

Now for the interesting part! When many potting soils dry out, they can become hydrophobic.  Hydrophobic soils repel water and can be difficult to rewet.  Interestingly, many potting soils contain peat moss because it holds moisture, is lightweight, and decomposes slowly.  When peat moss dries out, it can be very difficult to rewet. (more…)

Stinging Caterpillars

One of the best parts of gardening is just taking time to observe the activity of nature.  The list of gardening tasks can be long: planting, weeding, watering, mowing, picking, pruning, and the list goes on.  But in between all the activity, I enjoy slowing down to observe all the life in my garden.

This week, when I slowed down to look, I noticed a big fluffy caterpillar making itself at home in my lamb’s ear.  It was tempting to run my finger along the fuzzy hairs of the caterpillar, but I have listened to my entomologist friends long enough to know that is not a smart move.  Some caterpillars can sting! (more…)

Summer Vegetables

We have been blessed with some good rain over the last couple of weeks, and gardens are blooming and producing great right now.  My biggest problem right now is making sure I beat the squirrels to my tomatoes.

June is a fun time to garden because of all the harvest coming in right now.  Tomatoes, blackberries, squash, green beans, and many more crops are ready right now.  June is also a good time to start thinking ahead to a few other crops like okra, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins.

Okra loves the hot weather of a Texas summer, so it’s not too late to get it planted. The biggest hurdle for growing okra in the summer is being willing to go out and pick it in the heat of July!  Some good varieties for Williamson County are Clemson Spineless, Hill Country Red, Burgundy, Emerald, and Stewart’s Zeebest.  Plant seed through the first week of July, and the days to harvest is 55-65 days. (more…)

Trees After the Freeze

In the early days after Winter Storm Uri, the message from horticulturists and arborists was “Be Patient.”  We wanted to see which plants were able to rebound from the freeze as they started the normal spring leaf out.  Fortunately, many of our trees, shrubs, and other ornamentals are doing great!

Nearly four months later, horticulturists and arborists are still preaching the same message about plants that don’t seem to be doing very well.  Trees are generating the most cause for concern, specifically some live oaks, Monterrey oaks, and Ash trees.

In February in Texas, trees begin the process of getting ready to do their spring leaf out.  They begin pulling nutrients up from the roots and pushing them into their branches and twigs.  The freeze was timed just right that all that energy the trees were using to prepare for spring leaf out was frozen and lost.  Now trees have to summon up more energy to try to create new buds and leaves.  That can take some time, and some trees might have enough other stressors such as disease, pests, or other environmental stressors that they just cannot recover.

Our inclination as caretakers is to help provide trees with water or nutrients or pest control to give the trees a fighting chance.  The Texas A&M Forest Service states it well, “Unfortunately, experts are saying there isn’t much you can do, and there is very little that you should do.”

Trees do not need extra fertilizer, which would promote growth.  That seems counterintuitive, but trees need to focus all their energy on keeping a healthy defense system.  A spurt of new growth from fertilizer only redirects energy away from a defense system.  Preventative insecticide and fungicide treatments should only be done on a case-by-case basis.

One thing you might do is provide one or two supplemental waterings per month when it gets hot later in the summer.  Trees do not need the extra water right now, so wait until it gets hot and dry in July and August.

If your trees have some leaves, continue to be patient, and see how they do next spring.  If the tree is completely bare in July, you can probably count on it being dead.  The hardest thing to do is wait, but trees do pretty well in the wild without our help.

For more information about lawn and garden topics, contact Horticulture Extension Agent Kate Whitney at the Williamson County AgriLife Extension Office at 512-943-3300.


Water-Wise Lawns

The rainfall over the last couple weeks has been a blessing in Central Texas after a dry fall and winter.  According to the national drought monitor, 72.19% of Williamson County is abnormally dry right now.  In abnormally dry conditions, producers begin supplemental feeding for livestock, planting is postponed, forage germination is stunted, hay cutting is reduced, and grass fires increase.

I usually like to write about happier topics than drought, but I am concerned about the long-term forecast for a dry summer. Not everyone is a farmer and needs rain to make a crop, but we all use water in our homes and landscapes.  We can all take steps to conserve water.

During the springtime, we typically do not need to water our grass.  You can usually wait to begin watering until June when we do not have much rain and temperatures get hot.  Even then, be sure to run your irrigation system only when your lawn needs water.

The Soil and Crops Sciences Department at Texas A&M University has developed a great Water-Wise checklist for Texas home lawns and turfgrass areas.

  • Mow at the upper end of the appropriate mowing height for your grass species. Taller grass means your grass will develop a deeper root system that allows the grass to access water deeper in the soil.  You can find the mowing height for your grass species at
  • Follow the 1/3 rule. Mow frequently enough that you never remove more than 1/3 of the total grass.  Cutting off too much of the grass will stress your grass.  Stressed grass is less tolerant to heat and drought and more vulnerable to pests and diseases.
  • Water deeply and infrequently. Try to water to a depth of approximately six inches each time you water.  This means the water should penetrate six inches in the soil.  Watering deeply encourages deeper, denser root growth.
  • Wait to water until visual wilt occurs, and water late at night or early in the morning. Watering during the cool hours of early morning or late evening will reduce losses from evaporation and improve water-use efficiency.
  • Monitor your irrigation equipment. Broken heads or pipes can waste water and create dry spots in your lawn.  Replace broken heads and consider an irrigation audit by a licensed irrigator.
  • Take advantage of rain. We have been blessed with rain, so save water by turning off your irrigation system until the lawn needs to be watered again.

For more information about lawncare or water use, contact Kate Whitney, Williamson County Extension Agent for Horticulture, at 512-943-3300.


Update after the Freeze

Beautiful spring weather is here, and we are really starting to see the true extent of freeze damage from the Winter Storm in February.

In the first weeks following the freeze, the main message was to wait and see how plants responded this spring.  I have been pleasantly surprised by how well most plants are doing!  Roses are just gorgeous this year and seem to be making up for the cold weather.  Texas Mountain Laurel gave us all a scare because of the ice damage, but they are really leafing out great this spring. (more…)

Cankerworms (“Inchworms”) are here!

2021 will go down in history for some interesting events like the historic freeze.  I admit I did not expect a plague of cankerworms to be the next hot topic, but in our current times, anything seems plausible.

My phone has been ringing off the hook this week with calls about worms all over the trees and hanging from long silk threads.  The weather is beautiful, and we are all enjoying time outside, but it’s not much fun to have a cankerworm drop down your collar or land in your drink.

Spring cankerworms are caterpillars that feed on a wide range of trees in Texas in early spring.  We usually do not notice them because the numbers are low, but periodically we get a widespread outbreak.

Cankerworms are in the moth family Geometridae and range in color from light green to brown.  These cankerworms are cool to watch for a couple of reasons.  Spring cankerworms have fewer abdominal feet than normal caterpillars, only two feet instead of three to five.  This makes them have a looping walk like an inchworm.  They also produce silk from their mouths and can swing from tree to tree or drop down to the ground.  Pretty fun way to travel by foot or by air! (more…)

Lady Beetles (“Lady Bugs”)

This week the Master Gardeners found a whole herd of lady beetles in the demonstration garden.  Beetles or other insects are not always a fun find in the garden, but lady beetles are a good friend to have.

Did you know there are more than 450 different species of lady beetles in North America, and more than 5,000 worldwide?  They come in all sizes and color patterns.  The twice-stabbed lady beetle is black except for two red spots, and the spotted lady beetle is dark pink with large black spots.  The multicolored Asian lady beetle is a bright yellow color with black spots.  They look so cheerful and happy!

Lady beetles are very beneficial in the garden because they eat aphids, scale insects, mites, caterpillar eggs, and other soft-bodied insects.  Some vegetable growers purchase lady beetles and release them on a particularly bad infestation of aphids.  This works well until the lady beetles decide the aphids look tastier on the other side of the fence.

Lady beetles are true beetles in the Order Coleoptera because they have chewing mouth parts, go through a complete metamorphosis, and have the first pair of wings hardened to protect the body and hind wings.  Bugs, on the other hand, are in the Order Hemiptera and have sucking mouth parts, a gradual metamorphosis, and have the first pair of wings partly hard and partly transparent.

Female lady beetles lay yellow oval-shaped eggs in clusters near infestations of aphids or other pests.  Sometimes you can spot the eggs sitting on a leaf in a little cluster. Larvae hatch and go through several molts until they pupate.  The process from egg to adult takes two to three weeks.  I have to admit, lady beetles do not have cute larvae, but the adult “ladybugs” make up for it!

Enjoy the spring weather by doing a little scouting for lady beetles this spring.  It’s always fun to find a beneficial friend in the garden.  For more information about garden and landscape questions, contact Kate Whitney, Horticulture Extension Agent, at 512-943-3300.

New Planting After the Storm

Spring is in the air, and it is hard to believe that we were in a winter storm just one month ago!  I have been preaching patience this spring as our plants recover from the freeze, but I think we are safe to get to work in the landscape now.

Many of our plants seem to be recovering from the freeze as temperatures warm up with some exceptions.  Viburnum, wax myrtle, and pittosporum did not fair very well in many landscapes around Williamson County and continue to droop with brown leaves.  You might do one final scratch test on the bark to see if you can find living tissue, then pull out dead shrubs.  Sago palm is another plant that did not survive.  Check the growth point in the center to see if you can find living tissue; perhaps the microclimate of your lawn helped protect your sago palm.

As you begin to remove dead plants and plan for replacements, I have a few tips that might help in your plant selection.  If you are anything like me, spring fever takes over when I am at the plant store, and I need either a detailed list or a strong-willed friend who ensures I do not buy too many plants!  Hopefully, these tips will help you make a plan before you start shopping.

Consider the USDA cold-hardiness zone of the plant.  Williamson County is in Zone 8b, which means the average annual minimum temperature is 10 to 15 degrees Fahrenheit.  As we just experienced, it can get colder, but that gives us a good idea of where to start.  You might not want to purchase plants that are labeled for Zone 9 or higher because they will be damaged by cold weather at some point.

Try to choose plants that are native or adapted to our area.  Native or adapted plants are always a good idea because they can usually handle our high and low temperature swings, have fewer pest problems, and are accustomed to our average rainfall amounts.  You can find a copy of the Grow Green: Native and Adapted Plant Guide for Central Texas online or at local nurseries.

Pay attention to the spacing recommendations for plants.  Be sure you pick the right plant for the height and width of the space you have available.  A plant that outgrows your space will cause future headaches as you try to prune it back to size, whether it’s a tree underneath a powerline or a crape myrtle under your eaves.

The Williamson County Master Gardeners are hosting their annual Plant Sale Fund Raiser at the end of the month.  The sale opens online on March 23-26, and plant pick-up is scheduled for Friday, April 2, at the Georgetown Community Center.  This plant sale helps fund our educational events and demonstration garden throughout the year, so be sure to get your order in to support the Master Gardeners.  You can find more information on our website at

For more information about freeze damage or other lawn and garden topics, contact Kate Whitney, Horticulture Extension Agent, at the Williamson County AgriLife Extension Office at 512-943-3300.