In The Garden: Third Year’s A Charm

Apr 14, 2017

The "Terrible Twos" aren't just for toddlers.

If there is one thing that gardening can teach you, it’s patience. Crafting a beautiful garden or a productive veggie bed takes time and practice. Many failures will happen on the road to success. Often, we head to the garden center with a vision; then expect that vision to manifest overnight. Rarely is that the case and disappointment ensues. Whether you’re building your garden DIY style, or having it designed and installed by a professional, you’re going to have to give your plants some time to settle in an come in to their own.

These are images of plants hitting their third year in my garden, when they really started to put on a show (after looking fairly pathetic for the first two years). Rose ‘Pat Austin’, Clematis ‘Ramona’, Salvia ‘May Night’, white Autumn Sage.

For most small shrubs, vines, perennials and perennial bulbs, the third year in the garden is the charm. As the old garden saying goes “the first year they sleep, the second year they creep, the third year they leap!”

When newly planted, you must remember that your plants are basically still container plants with a limited root system. You’re going to have to water them more often and you can’t expect much top growth within the first year. Most of the plant’s energy needs to go towards developing a vigorous root system with which to take up water and nutrients.

By the second year, plants will begin to put on some top green growth, but don’t expect peak performance or an abundance of blooms. Roses and perennials may still seem a bit scraggly. This is the stage when you might start questioning your plant choices and think that they “should be looking better by now”.  Hold tight.

It’s typically the third year in the garden in which your plants will begin to reward your patience. This is when they’ll start to look like the specimens you see on the tag or in that glossy plant catalog. You’ll typically see a growth spurt of top growth and blooms. Now, this doesn’t mean that it takes three years for all plants to reach their mature size; while many herbaceous perennials will come into their own during the third year, it often takes much longer for larger shrubs and trees to reach their desired size.  But it is the time when  you can expect to see a significant flush of new growth on most plants.

Now, for larger trees know that it often takes much longer for them to get established. The three year rule is still works for most trees 10-gallons, or smaller, when planted. Large-caliper trees can take more than three years to really begin to put down a good root system and start putting more energy into top growth.

So before you rip out your scraggly perennials or blame your landscaper and and ask for replacement plants, remember that just like you would your toddler, you need to give your plants a chance to grow out of their terrible twos.

Daffodils Are On Their Way…

Mar 10, 2017

Daffodils are about to throw down in Dallas.

If you love daffodils like I do, then you might also be tapping your fingers on the window whilst repeating “open, open, open…”. Daffodils are just about to throw down in Dallas. You may have seen a handful pop open just before this last ice event. While it might be tough for some of those blooms to recover, there are plenty on the way that have yet to open. If you want to add daffodils to your garden this fall, now is the time to start paying attention to what’s blooming so you can pick your


Narcissus ‘Professor Einstein’ dressed smartly in orange.

Planting these easy-to-grow bulbs is one of the best things you can do to brighten up late-winter landscapes. With at least 25 different species of Narcissus spp., and more than 13,000 hybrids available, possibilities seem endless. Mail order catalogs offer the most variety when it comes to purchasing daffodil bulbs, but choosing the right ones can be like rolling the dice. While traditional yellow trumpet daffodils are the most recognized daffodils, they certainly aren’t the only choice for Texas gardens. In fact, many of of the trumpet daffodils can leave you disappointed if you were hoping to perennialize or naturalize your bulbs. Large-cupped, Small-cupped, Triandrus and Jonquil hybrids tend to perform better in our climate and soils.

Here are a few of my less traditional daffodil favorites:

‘Thalia’ (Triandrus daffodil) If you love white flowers then ‘Thalia’ should be at the top of your list. This tough and reliable perennial creates large clumps and features pure white flowers with a wonderful fragrance. Each stem produces clusters of 2 to 3 blooms. A late-bloomer, ‘Thalia’ will close out the daffodil season in April.


Narcissus ‘Thalia is stunning in white.

‘Professor Einstein’ (Large-cupped daffodil) I can’t resist a pop of bright orange in my garden, so ‘Professor Einstein’ is a must-have. The bright orange cups paired with pure white petals creates a showstopping combination.  This award-winner is a good perennializer in our climate.

‘Chromacolor’  (Large-cupped daffodil) I have a hard time resisting the peachy-pinked cupped daffodils as well…I’d have to say ‘Chromacolor’ is the best of them.  The huge flowers can reach 5-inches in diameter with an intense coral to pink cup.  One-of-a-kind and gorgeous.

Mason Bees are Powerful Pollinators

Mar 6, 2017

If you grow vegetables, berry bushes or fruit trees (or all of the above) then you already understand the importance of successful pollination. Flowers need to be pollinated in order to successfully produce a fruit. Even if you don’t grow your own produce in your backyard, your trips to the grocery store would be pretty bleak without pollinators. While there are many pollinators in the insect world, honey bees have traditionally been the workhorse pollinators of agricultural crops. But it’s not just our food crops that need pollinators.  According to published research, cross-pollination by bees supports at least 30% of the world’s food crops and 90% of wild plants. Bottom line: We need bees.


A baby blue orchard bee emerges from its cocoon in my garden. Hello!

You probably know that urbanites have taken to beekeeping with more interest in the last few years. I personally keep several honey bee hives myself. While we need more beekeepers, the reality is that beekeeping is not for everyone. It’s costly, requires hands-on education and a serious commitment to tend your hives and continue learning. If you have small children that regularly use your yard, then you may not be able to accommodate beehives on a small urban property. Here in the city, you also have to take more precautions to safely keep bees, being that we all have neighbors close by. So then what do you do if you want to increase your home garden yields and help the overall bee population, but you’re not prepared to become a beekeeper? Mason bees are the answer.

Did you know? There are thousands of bee species in North America other than the European honey bee. If you’ve ever spent time watching the blooming plants in your garden, you’ve probably seen many different types. If we can boost all of their populations, our food supply will be in much better shape. In fact, by boosting populations of other species, we can help mitigate some of the pressures on honey bees. Mason bees are a group of what I call “gentle super pollinators”. They don’t produce honey, but they don’t sting or require hive maintenance. While the females do have a stinger, they rarely if ever use it. The Blue Orchard Bee, which occurs naturally in our area, is one such mason bee.

Now is the time that baby mason bees will begin hatching out of their winter cocoons. You can pick up dormant cocoons of blue orchard bees and nesting materials right now at local garden centers (call ahead to check availability or have them order for you). Mason bees, unlike honey bees, don’t build honey comb in a hive. They simply nest in narrow holes or tubes they find in wood and hollow twigs. I’ve even seen them nesting in holes in my home’s exterior brick. You can purchase mason bee houses, which you fill with paper or reed tubes. It can take several seasons for your own little mason bee population to build up and that hinges on you providing nesting material. Other than the nesting material, all you have to do is sit back and let these powerful pollinators do their thing!

Pruning Your Fruit Trees

Jan 30, 2017

It’s just about that time to prune your fruit trees, while they’re still dormant. Fruit trees are treated a bit differently than shade trees when it comes to pruning. While we never want to over-prune or over-thin our large shade trees, smaller fruit trees are often heavily pruned each year in order to produce the best yields of fruit. Timing your fruit tree pruning can be a bit tricky, especially with our fluctuating weather here in Dallas. Your goal is always to prune as late as possible, but before any bud break occurs on your tree. Some fruit trees will start blooming by mid-February, so now’s the time you need to start pulling out your pruning gear.

Each variety of fruit will bloom at a different time. The best approach to timing your pruning is to prune the later blooming trees first, followed by the earliest bloomers. That means you’ll  start with apples and pecans (although large pecans should be pruned by a professional tree care company). Peach and plum trees will follow, as they bloom the earliest here in Dallas.

Hard pruning of fruit trees should begin the first year they are in the ground. Hard pruning to properly shape the tree continues each winter for the next several years. As trees mature, you’ll perform lighter maintenance pruning. Depending on the type of tree, you’ll either train it using the central leader method, or the open center method.

Apples, pears and plums should be pruned using the central leader method. This means you allow the tree to grow a central main trunk that is tall than all the surrounding branches. The rest of the tree is shaped into a pyramidal form.

Heavier fruiting trees, such as peaches, nectarines, apricots and almonds, perform better when pruned using the open center method. By removing the central leader branch, you’ll create more of a vase shape to the tree. This allows more sunlight to reach all of the central branches and reduces branch breakage.

You’ll also need to do some “thinning” and “heading”.  When you thin branches, that means you’ll remove them at their base. This allows more light into the interior of the tree. “Heading” involves pruning off the tip of the branch in order to encourage more fruiting lateral branches.

If you have fruit trees and have fallen behind on necessary pruning, or you’re thinking about planting new fruit trees, now’s the time to pick up a fruit tree pruning book to learn the best techniques.

Haven’t planted fruit trees yet? Now’s the perfect time. Local garden centers should have a good stock of fruit trees that are appropriate for our climate and can give you a primer on pruning.

Grow Tomatoes in Your Closet?

Dec 20, 2016

It's freezing outside. But living without fresh tomatoes? That's just not an acceptible condition. So this underused closet in my home is now a tomato growing closet!

This 3 x 3 closet is now fitted with reflective film, to maximize light delivery, as well as a Sun System dual watt digital ballas light fixture, which operates both High Pressure SodiHium (HPS) lamps and Metal Halide (MH) lamps. The 250 watt HPS lamp currently in the fixture provides the light spectrum necessary for good fruiting. The young vegetative seedlings, however, are grown under a "cooler" spectrum of light using high output flourescent lamps.

What are you Modern Homesteaders growing in your closet?

Indoor lettuce

Dec 18, 2016

Salad greens are one of the easiest crops you can grow both indoors and out. While lettuces are a cool season crop for those of us in southern parts of the country (hot summers, mild winters but with freezes), and you can start lettuce outdoors in the fall to grow through winter. But by the time December rools around, temperatures can get too cold for good lettuce seed germination. So seeding lettuce indoors during winter is a great way to keep your harvest growing.

To speed up germination, use a humidity dome and a seedling heat mat to get things moving. Then set your lettuce seedlings under grow lights once they germinate. High Outpot T5 flourescent lamps are great for growing lettuce and other vegetative crops.

It's important to know that lettuce seeds need light to germinate, so don't bury them under the soil when you sow them.

You can sow lettuce seeds into seed plugs or 4" pots. Always drop 2-3 seeds in just in case one or two don't germinate. Thin out extra seedlings after germination.

One of my favorite varieties? 'Black Seeded Simpson'.

Worms on the Ferns!

Sep 16, 2016

Growing plants indoors, be they low-light houseplants, or flowering and fruiting plants you're growing under plant lights, doesn't mean you're going to be free of the kinds of pests and diseases you have to deal with in the outdoor garden. In fact, it's often the assumption of new indoor gardeners that they won't have to deal with any pests, and they're often surprised when pests become one of their first challenges.


Can you see that dark colored caterpillar munching on my little ferns? Drat!!

The reality is that most plants you bring into your home probably bring a few hitchhikers along with them. A seemlingly healthy and attractive plant you purchase and bring home may all of a sudden appear less than healthy. There may also be "evidence" of the critters doing damage.


See all those little "balls"? That's frass; a nice word for pest poop!

Recently, I added some small fern plugs to my Ambienta plant grow lamps. Shortly thereafter, they didn't seem to be looking their best, and I noticed frass (poop -those little pellets you see in the photo) collecting around the bottom of the plants. Yep, they've got worms! Most likely the eggs, or even tiny caterpillars, were hitchiking on the plants, and got to work munching away and growing after I planted the ferns. Caterpillers that chew on plants tend to munch either during the night or day, then retreat back under the soil, or to the center of the plant - making it hard for you to spot them right away. So, you have to look for the frass.

Picking off the caterpillars is the first step to controlling them, as that will help remove most of the critters doing most of the immediate damage. Then, I'll spray these little ferns with a solution of Thuricide (Bt), an organic larvacide that will kill the up and coming caterpillars as they munch on the foliage.

Stunning & Stylish Iceland Poppies

Sep 14, 2016

Once you get addicted to gardening, you’ll also find yourself addicted to certain plants. One such addiction of mine is the Iceland poppy. They never get boring, are always in style and I’d plant them year-round if they’d only cooperate.

Iceland poppies are technically a perennial, but behave as such only in the northernmost parts of the United States and into Canada. In our climate, Iceland poppies should be treated as a cool-season annual, or biennial, if you will. In Texas, it’s best to plant Iceland poppies in the fall, along with your pansies and violas. This allows them to put on a larger root system and thus produce a bigger spring show of blooms. Plants will bloom in the fall and until the first hard frost. Often, they will continue putting on blooms through the winter. Hard frosts will nip the blooms, but won’t hurt the plants. In spring, you’ll be rewarded with a burst of blooms in late February or early March, to accompany your tulips and daffodils. Plants will continue to flower until temperatures heat up in mid- to late May. Iceland poppies don’t like the heat and will die off with the onset of summer.


Iceland poppies make a loving spring companion to Mexican feather grass.

Every part of the poppy plant, from the silvery foliage to the unique furry flower buds, offers a bounty of interest. They are the perfect companion for other cool-season plantings such as parsley, kale, pansies and violas. In its natural state, Papaver nudicaule is usually found in shades of white and yellow.  The recessive colors of orange, pink and red are brought out through selection, and all colors are generally offered as a mix in the garden center.

You can also plant Iceland poppies in the spring, but you’ll get a much better show from them if you plant them October through November.


Back to top

Tips in your inbox

E-Newsletter

Sign up for the E-Newsletter for industry info, gardening trends & tips.