Neil Sperry

Don’t top your crape myrtle or grow beefsteaks — and other common gardening mistakes

I like it when somebody tells me, “You say things in a way that anyone can understand.” That sounds better than the test I took a few years ago when I was having trouble reading.

My eyes kept watering and I ended up finding out I was somewhat dyslexic. In the process the lady said, “You write at a 7th grade level.” But then, seeing my alarm, she explained that was a good thing, because everyone would be able to understand me.

So why is it that I can’t get some basic horticultural messages across? Every one of them is something I’ve been talking about for years. I probably mumble them as I doze off to sleep. But I’m going to try them again. No lavish explanations. Just the raw facts. Grab your socks and garters. Here we go.

Big Boy and Beefsteak tomatoes aren’t going to grow in Texas. Oh, the plants will grow, but they won’t set many fruit. They were bred for summers where nights were 70 degrees and days went up to the mid-80s. That’s not Texas. It’s Iowa. They should never be sold here. Why do people keep buying them? Buy small and mid-sized types instead.

St. Augustine diagnostics can be confusing. People go far afield in what they apply. Take all root rot turns lawn yellow and lethargic. It shows up only in cool spring weather. Fungicide Azoxystrobin has taken place of old peat moss treatment. By time it turns hot in summer, chinch bugs in sunniest parts of lawn will leave grass looking dry even after you water. You can find the small black insects if you look for them. Nurseries and hardware stores have insecticides labeled for chinch bug control. Gray leaf spot leaves, yep, gray lesions on leaves. Lawn looks yellowed. Do not apply nitrogen in summer. Apply fungicide as short-term control. October, November brown patch causes round yellowed, then browned patches. Blades pull loose easily. Fungicides will control it. White grub worms are generally not the problem that they once were.

Topping crape myrtles makes no sense! It’s barbaric and it ruins their shape. If it were such a great idea, why wouldn’t we want to top live oaks and Christmas trees? Quit topping crape myrtles! (Message preached by Neil since 1970.)

You must wrap the trunks of new red oaks and Chinese pistachios! If you don’t apply the paper tree wrap, the sun will scald their thin bark, cause it to split a year or two later on the south or west side, and your tree will likely die. (Message preached by Neil since he lost a pistachio in the mid-70s. Maples added in 2019.)

Ornamental grasses are not shrubs! We shouldn’t count on them to take the places of shrubs in our landscapes. Shrubs need to look good 365 days a year. Grasses do not. Most are brown five or six months. Use grasses for drama and position them with your other perennials. (Message preached by Neil since about the second year of the ornamental grass craze – probably 15 or 18 years ago.)

You can’t get grass to grow in heavy shade!!! That one gets three exclamation marks. It’s the question I’m asked most often, and people will stand there nose-to-nose arguing with me “I know I have enough sunlight. I had grass there five years ago! (huff huff)” Holding my cool, I gesture kindly at their lovely fruitless mulberry tree that now covers their lawn. If you don’t have six hours of sunlight, find a shade-tolerant groundcover. Quit wasting your money on sod. (Learned by Neil when he was 12 years old mowing lawns, and preached ever since. Oh, my. Are people unable to hear me? How do preachers keep their sanity?)

Redtip photinias and now Indian hawthorns can’t be saved when they show up with spots on their leaves. That’s Entomosporium fungal leaf spot, and we simply do not have a prevention or cure. Anyone who says otherwise needs to give you a money-back guarantee because it’s not going to work. Spend your money on good replacement plants. Your nursery professional can help you. (Lesson learned painfully by Neil over the past 30 years and preached increasingly over that time.)

Native plants are only “native” where you find them growing in nature. Why is that important? If you’re thinking that a plant deserves special consideration because it grows natively somewhere in Texas, you need to observe whether that place has the very same soil, the same amount of rain, the very same winter and summer temperatures and humidity that your area has. That is precisely why plants native to Beaumont don’t grow in El Paso and vice versa. “Adapted” is the better key word to use when you’re buying plants for your landscape. When I proposed to my wife, I didn’t care so much where she grew up. I cared more about whether we’d be happy together from that day forward.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love that I’ve been blessed by a career that finds me talking and writing about my favorite hobby. There just are those days when I feel like a dad talking to a teenager. I find myself saying, “Helloooo… Is anyone listening?”

Hope we’re still friends.

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.