GROUND RULES, TOOLS FOR JULY
Texas natives on display at Victoria Educational Gardens

July 05, 2007
BY PAUL AND MARY MEREDITH - VICTORIA COUNTY MASTER GARDENERS
EDITED BY CHARLA BORCHERS LEON

The native plant area at Victoria Educational Gardens (VEG) has plants for every gardener. From beginners to more experienced gardeners, those wanting low-maintenance plants or those who just enjoy spending time working with plants, these natives include specimens of flowering trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, vines and ornamental grasses.

WHY USE NATIVES?
Using plants that grow naturally in our area will allow us to enjoy dependable, handsome results as these natives can provide a succession of seasonal interest and color throughout the year.

Moreover, there is always something new and interesting to learn. For example, the Texas bluebonnet, our state flower and maybe best-loved Texas native, is actually six flowers. A 1971 decision gave Texas five (currently six) species of bluebonnets as its state flower. Geyata Ajilvsgi shares this information in her 2002 book, "Wildflowers of Texas," a good general source of information.

Natives grown on their home turf are our best bets for success while requiring little effort. Allowing annual natives to reseed (produce seeds each year in the area where they are planted) will offer favorable results year after year. For example, VEG's bluebonnets have produced so many new plants that master gardeners were asked to dig some of the seedlings and take them home to use in their own gardens before they had to be weeded out.

Best bets for success - shrubs and flowering trees

Several "best bet" plants, Esperanza, Texas mountain laurel, coreopsis, scarlet sage, and mealy blue sage are readily available at VEG. Several others, Texas persimmon, Mexican feathergrass and switchgrass, may be easily obtained from other sources. The accompanying table includes more detail for each of these plants.

Esperanza is an easy-care shrub that in full sun and in any soil produces numerous gold bell-shaped blooms spring through fall.

The Texas mountain laurel is an easy-to-care for flowering tree that typically matures to 12 feet tall with purple bloom clusters in early spring. It grows in any well-drained soil, even with some soil salinity.

Another flowering tree native to our area is Texas persimmon with its small white fragrant blooms that appear in early spring. But the really beauty is its bark. Multi-trunked, it likes any well-drained soil except sand.

Native perennials and reseeding annuals

VEG's "best bet" native perennials - and annuals that reseed to act like perennials - include gold-blooming coreopsis. Often planted with bluebonnets and paintbrushes, it reseeds annually to bloom about the same time the other two go to seed. Which of the three is dominant varies with rainfall; coreopsis dominates in wet years. In gardens, it grows in seasonally-moist soil, and poor drainage is OK. In Victoria, it blooms in masses beginning in mid-spring until the frost comes and it produces fewer blooms.

Several varieties of sage (salvia) are found at local nurseries, including scarlet sage. It grows and blooms anywhere in the state. It's even recommended for use in dry, shady areas with poor soil where nothing else grows. You only need to water it to get it started and then only when it looks pitiful.

Trimming off half its height when it gets too tall causes it to bush. Regular mowing (on your highest mower setting) as it starts to green - until August - gets it to bloom until frost. After frost, cut back dead stalks and use to mulch.

Another salvia native to the area is mealy blue sage, which tolerates calcareous soils. A tough plant in full sun, it can grow much taller than scarlet sage but produces weak stems in wet clay soils. Two varieties are available. The variety for the southern part of the state has soft, wide green leaves.

Native ornamental grasses

Native ornamental grasses at VEG include Mexican feathergrass and switchgrass. Mexican feathergrass grows up to two feet tall in clumps and looks good year-round, going from green, then blooming, then gold, then dormant. It grows in well-drained soil, but does not do well in soil kept evenly moist by a watering system.

When not cut back, switchgrass grows 3- to 8-feet tall and looks fine year-round. Late-summer blooms are followed by rich gold color in fall and warm tan after frost. Dormant in winter, it tolerates seasonal poor drainage. It spreads by rhizomes. And the lowland variety, useful on large properties, can spread aggressively.

... and there's more

VEG offers additional natives that require little effort for success in the garden. The shrub cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens), which grows 4- to 5- feet tall, maybe taller, provides a good example of a native's assets. While planted at the VEG but outside the native plant area in full sun with only a little shade and in well-drained soil, it blooms lavender or purple, spring to fall, and keeps its green or silvery leaves except in killing winters. The table includes cultural information for this plant as well.

Growing natives can be enjoyable for both beginning and experienced gardeners. But be aware that not all information about natives is necessarily correct. Check out what you read or hear with other gardeners and with other sources.

To see all the natives discussed here, come visit VEG and see them thrive ... even in the humid summer heat.

"What's Hot" symposium

If you want to hear and see "What's Hot" this summer, plan to attend the Master Gardener Summer Symposium on Saturday, July 14, at the 4-H Activity Center. Contact the Victoria County Extension Office at 361-575-4581 for registration information.

The information given herein is for educational purposes only. Reference to commercial products or trade names is made with the understanding that no discrimination is intended and no endorsement by the Cooperative Extension Service is implied.

SUMMER VACATION PLANT CARE
July 05, 2007
Steps to improve plant survival during your summer vacation:

*Mow the grass the last day or two before you leave; don't be tempted to mow "extra close." Gone for more than a week? Set up someone to mow weekly.
*Water your plants deeply if it has not rained in a week.
*Going to be gone more than five to seven days? Enlist a neighbor to help. No neighbor? Consider setting up drip watering on a timer to run three hours each day on shrubs, vegetables and pot plants.
*Put houseplants under a shade tree or near a bright window and soak them good (overnight).
*Do not leave potted plants standing in water.
*Prune rangy plants before you go so that you will not need to when you get back.
*Pick all ripe and nearly ripe vegetables. Have a friend harvest while you are gone and use the produce.
*Fertilize lightly, if at all, just prior to leaving to slow new growth.
*Check carefully and spray for insects and disease pests if needed.
*Do weeding in the garden before to avoid excessive growth.
*Spread new mulch if possible to conserve moisture and slow weed development.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas Cooperative Extension-Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, Texas 77901; or
vcmga@vicad.com, or comment on this column at www.VictoriaAdvocate.com.