Neil Sperry

Forgetting to water and other gardening pitfalls to avoid

I answer gardening questions on the radio. I’ve done it for 42 years. So problem-solving is the name of my game. And, while I want all gardeners to have roaring successes with everything that they plant, I know that that’s not always going to happen. Here are some ways I see wheels coming off. Maybe if you scan through these you can avoid some of the pitfalls.

Poor bed preparation before planting

The symptoms of this are all too recognizable. Annual flower and vegetable plants are stunted and anemic. The soil forms a crust, and chunks of bark or small scraps of wood are on top of the ground. That means that a poor form of compost was used to prepare the soil prior to planting. The organic matter in it was either in chunks too large to decay or in other cases, it decayed so rapidly that it actually tied up the nitrogen, resulting in yellowed leaves and stunted growth.

The solution here is to do a better job of buying your products and prepping the soil the next time around. Incorporate 1 to 2 inches of sphagnum peat moss and 1 inch each of rotted manure, finely ground bark mulch and well-rotted compost. If you’re amending a clay soil, include 1 inch of expanded shale at the same time, and rototill to a depth of 8 to 10 inches.

Forgetting to water

We haven’t had to do a lot of irrigating so far in 2019. Spring rains have supplied most of our needs. But as it turns hot and the rains tail off, we’re going to need to water our plants.

Most plants wilt to give us a clue when they’re getting too dry. But some thick-leafed types like magnolias, hollies, waxleaf ligustrums and Asian jasmine turn an insipid olive-drab green when they’re dry. You have to learn what that subtle color change looks like, because it’s a matter of life and death for those plants. I’ve seen glorious, mature Nellie R. Stevens hollies lost simply because someone didn’t remember to water them. Even during droughts and resulting curtailments, you want to do your best to water plants like that first. They cost too much to replace.

New plantings need special attention. They were originally growing in pots filled with loose, highly organic potting mix. It was chosen primarily because it’s easy to handle costs less to ship, but once those plants are set into the ground, they dry out much more quickly than the established plants that surround them. It’s absolutely imperative that you water them by hand for their first couple of years. That means you drag a water hose with a water wand and a breaker or bubbler on the end to soak them deeply every two days during the heat.

Plants are in the wrong kind of setting

Summer can be really stressful – on plants as well as the gardeners who tend them. Sometimes we choose shade-loving plants and without knowing that preference, we set them out into full sun. That’s why wax begonias and impatiens collapse by early afternoon when they’re planted in sun. My favorite coleus is an old variety called Pineapple, and a local city has planted it in big beds in the sun. It’s not going to hold up well through the summer. And Loropetalums (fringeflowers), Japanese maples and oakleaf hydrangeas burn up in the afternoon sun as well, but I see them planted there anyway.

I’ve seen a lot of Texas sage (ceniza) plants struggle in North Texas over the past 20 years. It’s become a mainstay plant in our landscapes as the trend toward more water-conscious plants has gained steam. But Texas sage is native to Southwest Texas and not to DFW for a couple of good reasons. First, it’s not hardy to the cold winter temperatures we often see in the Metroplex. And our rains in this area are double what they receive on the other side of the state. Add in our very heavy clay soils that retain that water, and the plants just can’t cope.

Because we’ve had fairly mild winters over the past 10 or 15 years, we’ve loaded ourselves up with a lot of plants that are really better suited for South and Southeast Texas. Plants like loquats, gardenias, oleanders, pittosporums, star jasmine and false Japanese yews are all borderline hardy in North Central Texas. Plant them if you wish, but know that you could lose them if we have a really cold winter.

We don’t anticipate pest outbreaks

If you choose your plants wisely you’ll avoid types that are prone to serious insect and disease problems. There’s no point in bringing a plant home if it’s just going to have to be sprayed several times every year – not if you can choose something that’s relatively pest-free instead.

Examples abound: Use Nellie R. Stevens or Oakland hollies as tall screens instead of the highly disease-prone redtip photinias. Opt for dwarf Burford holly or compact nandina instead of extremely pest-prone (and doomed) Goldspot or Golden euonymus.

Stay away from fast-growing shade trees. All are susceptible to one or more life-threatening flaws. Average life expectancy of these speedy trees is 15 to 30 years. Compare that to oaks, pecans, magnolias, cedar elms and Chinese pistachios, all of which can be expected to live to be 100 years old or older and with very few problems.

You can hear Neil Sperry on KLIF 570AM on Saturday afternoons 1-3 pm and on WBAP 820AM Sunday mornings 8-10 am. Join him at and follow him on Facebook.