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The Garden Guru: Even 'Hero Plants' have their shortcomings

Posted Saturday, Aug. 25, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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I could never be a politician. I'm married to one (school board service for many years), and she has won all of her elections quite handily.

Still, no matter how good you are, there are those few who throw darts at your efforts. No mortal being, human, animal or plant, it seems, is going to please everyone. Which is why we called this meeting today.

Our main new business on the agenda is "Hero Plants," plants that are set on pedestals -- with or without merit -- and that seem to be the targets of wide-ranging opinions. I'll strive to be objective in my own comments here, but hey, I'm just a guy, and I'm probably going to let some of my own personal thoughts creep into the discussions. This is a stream-of-consciousness column. I have no notes. I have tons of thoughts. I can't wait to read this.

Crape myrtles. No woody plant that we grow gives any longer season of glorious bloom. Sizes and colors differ among varieties -- there is a crape myrtle for almost any possible need. Do they have problems? Sure. Aphids and a new scale may occasionally invade them. Honeydew exudes, and black sooty mold might grow in it. But, the insects that gave rise to the honeydew that gave rise to the mold are controllable with a systemic insecticide applied in late spring.

A woman complained recently, "I came home from vacation [mid-August], and crape myrtles in my town weren't blooming at all." I likened that to criticizing a marathoner for not running at full speed in the 25th mile of the race. By mid-August, most crape myrtles have bloomed at least two, some three times. Their marathon season is almost over. Let's be just a little more realistic.

Roses. Along a line similar to the crape myrtles, many people have said of their roses, "They're not blooming now in the summer, even though I bought the ones marked as Earth-Kind by Texas A&M. What gives?" These Earth-Kind roses really do represent the very best of the world's most popular flowers. They're varieties that have withstood years of testing. They've proved to be the lowest-maintenance roses we can grow. But, do they bloom every day from spring until frost? Not at all. They have two big peak seasons, one in April/May, and the other in September/October. That's probably more than we have a right to expect.

Native plants. Many people choose native Texas plants as major parts of their landscapes. They're saying as they make their selections, "If they can grow here, I want them."

But, where is "here"? Are they native to the soils and the climate in your neighborhood, or are they native somewhere 400 miles away? East Texas native plants bald cypress and wax myrtle certainly perform less-than-heroically in the alkaline Blackland Prairie. And the same thing goes for plants from far West Texas, where rainfall normally averages less than 10 inches. Many of them just can't handle long seasons of wet weather and waterlogged soils.

They may be superstars out in the Big Bend Country, but they're far less than that here. In many cases, they're drowned, dead and gone.

"Miracle" grasses. We don't have a perfect turfgrass. We have several that would score A-minus, and a couple of others that might not pass the first test. We don't have a summa cum laude option. St. Augustine and Bermuda are both very good, and a lot of progress is being made in the zoysias.

The big busts have been fescue and buffalograss. Fescues, in our area, simply require too much water. They pout in our heat. They're better left for the Panhandle and northwestward. Buffalograss, to the contrary, thrives in heat and drought. After all, it's native to our roadsides. But, it turns brown in the summer, and as soon as we water it, if only occasionally, to try to keep it even minimally green, Bermuda invades and takes over.

There are no remedies to get rid of the Bermuda short of hand-digging. Our dreams of a new water-saving lawngrass for Texas have been dashed by the island invader.

Ornamental grasses. They're graceful, adaptive and interesting. (That's a fact.) But we've gone off the deep end. (That's opinion.) We're using them mile-after-mile, and they're beginning to get boring. (Fact, then opinion.) Most types, after all, are deciduous, meaning that they die down to the ground with the first freeze. You can leave the big tufts of dead blades in place if you wish, but odds are that your lawngrass will also be brown, so that's brown-against-brown.

At some point, you're going to have to trim off that dead foliage, and that's a tedious task. Some of the pennisetums become overcrowded in a couple of years, and the plantings begin to thin out. (Fact after fact.) Our current use of ornamental grasses might be compared to having a phenom young pitcher and a manager who wants him to throw every inning of every game. It doesn't take long until that grand plan runs amok.

So the point in all this is to encourage you to do your homework. Ask questions. Seek facts. Choose your heroes carefully, and be prepared to shift opinions. Some of our heroes show up for the big dance with clay feet.

Neil Sperry publishes "Gardens" magazine and hosts "Texas Gardening" from 8 to 11 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.

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