Texas Azalea

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Posted by Julien Stern | Posted in Plants | Posted on 22-02-2013

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Texas azaleaAzaleas have a reputation of being quite exacting plants in their growing requirements – yet few vistas can surpass a garden or a flower bed of azaleas in full bloom. And, well, rumor may be exaggerated sometimes.

While modern horticulture has created hundreds of variations of this spectacular and delicate shrub (each with different tolerance thresholds to the various conditions that characterize a given garden), there’s this one among them that is especially fit for our Texas gardens – for the simple reason that it’s native to our area.

The name of this beautiful lady is Texas azalea, and, if taken care of properly (which is not at all difficult, as we shall see in a moment), she’ll be embellishing your outdoors – with her dainty white flowers, her lush deep green foliage, her lemonish, slightly spicy fragrance, her discreet yet powerful presence – like few other plants can. Yes, you can call me a bit prejudiced here…

So, let’s get down to exploring a few facts about Texas azalea and its optimal growing conditions:

Texas azalea (rhododendron oblongifolium)

Soil
The natural habitat of Texas azalea is the sandy, organically enriched, slightly acidic (pH 4.5-6.0) soil that can be found in pine forests, wooded stream banks, and boggy areas. This is a light soil, unlike the heavy clay that abounds in several Texas areas and can cause root rot (indicated by yellowing, wilting foliage and collapse of the plant) – but that can be amended with proper preparation of the ground.

Incorporating peat moss, bark mulch (especially pine bark), and compost rich in leaves down to a depth of 12” will increase acidity of the ground and improve aeration, so much needed by the shallow root system of Texas azaleas. Constructing raised flower beds will work fine with these plants, although it’s not a sheer necessity, if preparation is done correctly. Another way to make pH levels more suitable is to add agricultural sulphur.

Texas azaleas don’t like limy, alkaline soil either, as it can lead to iron deficiency and, subsequently, to chlorosis, characterized by yellow leaves with distinct, dark green veins. However, there’s a number of ways to treat chlorosis such as:

  • applying copperas (iron sulphate), which is a soil acidifier and will allow iron to return to an available form;
  • applying granular iron to the soil; some gardeners simply drive iron nails or iron shards into the ground, waiting for them to rust and release the substance;
  • applying a foliar spray of an iron compound – this method will have much shorter residual action, though, and it must be repeated frequently.

Sun exposure
Texas azalea’s natural habitats are very telling of the kind of sunlight it prefers: partial sun or filtered light beneath trees with high limbs. This means that azaleas do not fare well in places that receive excessive amounts of our hot Texas sun, especially during the afternoon hours. Excessive exposure to sun will initially bleach the leaves (due to the deterioration of chlorophyll) and then burn them, with brown spots and edges appearing on the foliage.
On the other hand, complete shade invariably leads to lanky growth and to insufficient blooming. Plant your Texas azaleas in a spot that receives afternoon shade – the east or north side of your home are usually the best picks. Another advantage of optimal sunlight conditions is that they will help increase the plant’s hardiness to low temperatures.

Temperature
Texas azalea is generally spread in regions included in the USDA hardiness zones 7 to 9 – in other words, areas that manifest lowest temperatures of 0-25º F. It is also tolerant of high heat. The secret to always remember is to keep the plant’s “feet” cool, and this is accomplished by adequate mulching (2″-3″ deep).

Apply mulch in spring, just after the blooms fade. This will help lock moisture in the ground, and it will also protect the roots from summer heat. On the contrary, avoid mulching in fall, as this will hold heat in the soil, thus delaying the onset of dormancy and increasing the odds for winter damage.

Texas azalea

Watering
Texas azaleas love moisture, but need a well-drained soil to develop properly. Try planting them on a slope: besides seeing your shrubs thriving, you will have the additional advantage of preventing soil erosion.

Watering the azaleas is finding a delicate balance between keeping the ground moist, but not soggy, without letting it get too dry either. When the plant is new, check the soil around it every day to ensure it is slightly damp. Mature plants need about 1″ of water per week during cool seasons, and more during hot summer spells, as azaleas have shallow root systems that dry out quickly. Curling, twisting, or drooping leaves are a certain sign of water deficiency.

Prefer watering deeply and infrequently rather than in regular small amounts. Apply mulch to prevent evaporation, and amend your soil with compost to improve texture and water holding or draining capacity. Avoid drip irrigation, as it will benefit only a very restricted area of the widely spread roots.

Texas azaleas also absorb water through the foliage, which means that you can water both roots and leaves. In this case, prefer to water early in the morning in order to avoid leaving moisture on the leaves, thus preventing the onset of fungal diseases.

Pruning
The best season for pruning Texas azaleas is during the first two to three weeks after flowering is finished, and definitely before budding begins around late July. Any pruning that takes place after that point must be done with major attention, as it will affect the overall shape of the plant and the flowers of the following blooming season.

Don’t be afraid of performing minor shaping of your plants throughout the growing season; this will help the shrub maintain its fullness and compact shape. Just pay close attention and be very selective with your cuts after budding, as they will significantly impact the display of flowers for the following season.

Texas azaleas are deciduous shrubs, meaning that during winter (and until March) they are dormant and leafless; this makes it also a good time to prune – always keeping in mind the above cutting restrictions.

Fertilization
The best time to fertilize Texas azalea is in spring, right after the blooms fade and the shrub is pruned. Use a slow-release, acidic fertilizer such as cottonseed meal or commercial azalea-camellia-gardenia dry fertilizer, applying it evenly around the roots. Fertilizing in a concentrated area will most probably cause fertilizer burn. At any rate, avoid lawn fertilizers; they are too high in nitrogen and they may burn or even kill the shrub.

Never fertilize late in the growing season, like after budding (July) or in the fall, as this can cause tender new growth to develop right before winter — with its chances of severe frost — sets in.

Texas azalea flowers


Other Considerations

A Texas azalea in full growth can reach up to 6 ft in height and 3 ft in width. Be sure to provide 36” to 48” spacing when planting your azaleas, thus leaving adequate room for the shrub to develop.

As mentioned above, Texas azalea has a shallow root system —the roots tend to spread horizontally near the surface rather than drive deep into the ground. When planting Texas azaleas, perform 2-3 vertical cuts in the root ball, so as to help the roots spread apart. In the opposite case, the plant won’t be able to hold fast on the ground, and the plant will be severely under-achieving in growth and appearance.

The family of Rhododendrons, to which Texas azalea belongs, has leaves and flowers containing poisonous substances that are dangerous when ingested by humans and animals. What’s more, honey made from these flowers may also be toxic.

Native plants are generally pest and disease free, or they wouldn’t have survived and propagated in the regions where we see them thriving today. It’s a law of nature, and it’s called adaptation. This doesn’t mean that these plants are plastic and invulnerable to natural enemies, pests, and diseases – and Texas azalea has its own share of this type of problems. One thing’s for sure, though: given the proper environmental and growing conditions, your native azalea shrubs will fare much better than rumor has it.

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Photo credits:
– Clarence A. Rechenthin @ USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database
– treegrow in Flickr

 

Herbs and Plants for Biological Pest Control

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Posted by Julien Stern | Posted in Plants | Posted on 16-01-2013

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Insects, fungi, and the rest of a garden’s unwanted fauna and flora are capable of ruining whole months of carefully designed work. Gnawed leaves and fruits, shriveled stalks, ugly yellow and black spots where deep, lush, healthy green color should delight our eyes — all the above may well be prevented, simply by employing the means provided by nature itself.

 

Once your landscaping plans have come to realization and the basic structure of your garden is finally laid under your feet, then comes the time for the selection of the appropriate plants, the ones becoming your personal taste and fit for the local environmental conditions.

There are many factors that come into play when you get to that final decision about the plants that will embellish agreeable family or solitary hours in nature: appearance, blooming time, the plants’ needs in water and nutrients are the most basic of those. They are also the ones most extensively covered with tips and suggestions – a brief search on the ‘net will provide you with a number of quality resources. Nevertheless, when it comes to the sustainable health of your garden, it is important to also take into account the synergic effect of co-cultivation.

The essence of this technique, which can be applied in a home garden or in a producing farm with the same success, is to use the beneficial action of wild and domesticated plants for the purpose of enhancing the soil, providing needed nutrients, and repelling pests and diseases. Just like men living in a community work together in their respective trades in order for the collective social body to function in a regular manner, plants also tend to benefit from each other’s particularities and strengths.

Plants are made to fight all by themselves the various diseases and harmful visitors that threaten their life and health. If this wasn’t the case, the natural world would have ceased to exist billions of years ago.

Herbs and Plants for Biological Pest Control

There are many flowers and herbs whose essential oils or root secretions are helpful to their neighbors, this is why pest control is so important. Here is a list of the most common among them, with brief information about which enemies of your garden they help eliminate in a natural manner:

Tansy (Tanacetum vulgare, or Cow bitter)
A herbaceous perennial, cultivated since ancient times for medicinal purposes. In the 16th century, it was considered as being “necessary for a garden” in Britain.
Tansy acts as a potent insect repellent, benefiting all garden and fruit-bearing plants. It drives away mites, ants, lice, greenflies, larvae, cabbage whites (pieris brassicae), apple cydia, potato beetles.

Cow Parsley (Anthriscus Sylvestris, or Queen Anne’s lace)
An herbaceous biennial, considered to be edible, although with a quite sharp taste. Be careful! It can be easily mistaken for several similar-looking poisonous plants, such as poison hemlock and fool’s parsley.
Cow parsley will drive snails away from your garden – so fast that you won’t believe it!

 

Caper Spurge (Euphorbia lathyris)
This is an erect (may grow up to four or five feet tall) biennial, and occasionally annual plant, which produces latex. Although toxic to the skin (may cause skin irritations), if planted in the perimeter of your garden, it will keep away mice.

Other plants that repel mice:

  • Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
  • Dog’s tongue (Cynoglossum officinalis)
  • Garlic* (Allium sativum)

* Other beneficial effects of garlic:

  • Protects plants from fungi
  • Enhances the plants’ aroma
  • Enhances soil health
  • Repels snails and mildew

Mugwort (Artemisia vulgaris, or Common wormwood)
A tall (up to six feet, rarely more) herbaceous perennial plant which is cultivated for both medicinal and culinary purposes. Also, there’s a number of Lepidoptera that feed on Artemisia, either exclusively or as part of their diet.
Mugwort is beneficial to all of your vegetables, as it repels cabbage white.

Pot Marigold (Calendula officinalis)
Pot marigold is among the easiest and versatile flowers to cultivate in a garden. It generally requires mild climates, where it grows as a perennial; in cold and hot climates it does not survive more than a year.

Planted in the perimeter of your garden or flower beds you need to protect, pot marigold repels roundworms (nematodes). It benefits all plants, especially tomatoes, potatoes, and rose bushes. It is also edible, most often used to add color to salads.
Mexican marigold (Tagetes erecta) can be used with the exact same properties.

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
A strongly aromatic, evergreen shrub perfectly able to survive with very low water consumption and tolerant of low temperatures. It is used in perfumery, as a culinary herb, in massage therapy, and also as a prevention against clothing moths.
In the garden, where it is especially beneficial to trees and rose bushes, lavender repels greenflies and ants.

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica, Urtica urens)
After garlic, stinging nettle is the plant for a healthy and good-looking garden. It enhances the general health of plants while increasing production of crops, and it is very often used as liquid manure.

This is only a short selection among the numerous plants that act as biological pest control agents. The essential thing to retain is that a garden is no less than a mini-ecosystem with delicate balances to be observed during its life time. You, as masters of your private paradise, can follow nature’s infinite wisdom and relieve yourselves from many growing headaches — demonstrating, at the same time, your sensitivity and responsibility towards our much-afflicted environment.

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All images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Prettiest Trees for Your Winter Garden

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Posted by Julien Stern | Posted in Plants | Posted on 14-01-2013

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This is a guest post by some Jersey guys! See the bottom of this post for more about them.

I really liked the idea of this post because it shows you that winter need not be a dead time for your garden.

Just because it’s a winter wonderland outside doesn’t mean that you can’t have bright and beautiful colors in your garden.

If your garden is heavily biased toward spring and summer blooms, it may look empty and sad during the cold months.

Why not keep the winter blues away with an eye-catching landscape that’ll have you feeling happy and eager to get outdoors?

Rather than spending all of your time indoors and watching Christmas holiday specials on television, you’ll be able to sit at the window and soak in the view of your own private winter wonderland. Winter trees will also attract and provide sustenance for birds and wildlife that will add visual interest to an otherwise lonely landscape.

You can also cut branches and gather leaves to create striking natural holiday displays for your home interiors.

With a gorgeous winter garden, you might even feel compelled to leave off the holidays lights next year and let the plants show off on their own merits. More often than not, artificial lights can’t match the loveliness of natural lipstick-red winter berries.

Just don’t get too carried away: make sure to mix and match these trees with spring- and summer-blooming plants to keep your garden beautiful 365 days a year.

If you would rather have just one arboreal centerpiece for the winter, consider using large, uncut stones in your landscapes. In the winter, the foliage will fall away and reveal rock formations that mimic wild mountain ranges and lend a romantic atmosphere to your garden.

In the warm months, they can be easily hidden and let the flowers steal the show.

No matter what you finally decide to do, here are a few suggested arboreal additions whose bold colors will make your garden a feast for the eyes year-round.

Flame Willow
Perfect for smaller spaces, the Salix “Flame” variety of willow tree look incredible in the winter.

Their orange-red branches will light your winter landscape on fire.

In the warmer months, the branches become covered with light green foliage.

They spend those months looking deceptively plain, but once winter rolls around, these accent trees show their true colors. At maturity, they can grow up to 20 feet tall if they’re pruned and maintained well. Of all the trees on this list, the Flame Willow is the most labor-intensive; however, the payoff is huge.

Colorado Blue Spruce
An old faithful, this evergreen variety is the classic Christmas tree.

Its sharp needles range in color from blue-green to silvery blue, and it produces slender, reddish cones.

In addition to being the ideal coniferous tree, the blue spruce emits a very pleasantly sweet scent.

Stewart’s Silver Crown American Holly

This variety of evergreen holly develops a dense, pyramidal canopy that retains its variegated coloring throughout the winter. It’s more interesting than traditional holly, but has all of the trademark features of the species.

In addition to its gorgeous, spiny leaves, the tree bears the typical red holly berries. The fruit is very showy and attracts many bird species over the winter. This hardy tree does very well in tough conditions with poor drainage, air pollution, and compacted soil.

Paper Birch

The birch tree’s iconic black-and-white bark patterns have appeared in countless paintings and works of literature for centuries.

In the fall, its leaves turn gold and red-orange. As the bark peels down in vertical strips, the tree’s red-orange inner bark is revealed. You can use the peeled bark for decoration both inside and outside of your home.

Hawthorne
Despite its relatively small size (growing to a maximum of 30 feet tall), the hawthorn tree brings a whole lot of drama.

Its diminutive proportions make it exceedingly easy to prune, so it does well near pathways and in tight spaces.

In the fall, it produces clusters of tiny red berries that remain on the branches throughout the winter.

Since the berries are edible, you can use them in home cooking or leave them to attract birds to your yard.

Snowdrift Crabapple

These petite trees are lovely all year long, with spectacular white blossoms in the springtime and luscious red fruits in the fall and winter. Snowdrift crab is hardy and thrives in a variety of conditions. Wild birds will pay you a visit every day to get their fill of these tasty fruits, keeping you company as their migrations take them through your region.

Image Credits: mmwm, mandj98, jamm2