Neil Sperry

Neil Sperry: Sentences I’ve never heard about gardening

I’ve been elbow-to-elbow with North Texas gardeners for almost five decades, and it recently dawned on me that there are some sentences I have never heard from any of them. Here are a few examples.


“I really don’t want to cut corners when it comes to preparing the soil for my plants.”

Soil work done in preparation for planting is about as exciting as rolling socks. There are many of us who are content just to take our socks out of the basket. Some just dig a hole and stick in the plant.

While that might work in Tyler, it won’t work in Tarrant County. Good bed preparation is as important to a garden as a good foundation is to a house. That means rototilling, incorporating several inches of different types of organic matter — usually 1 inch of expanded shale — and rototilling again.

Small plants merit extra work. Larger plants (trees and large shrubs) should be able to thrive in the soil that’s native to your area.


“I follow the middle-of-the-road approach to using organics and inorganics in my gardening.”

I decided a long time ago that America is a land of extremists. Look at our fad diets and fad supplements. Fad, fad, fad. And so it is with gardening.

I grew up in a time when people wanted to spray everything. Best proof? A product that was labeled as “General Spray.” It was intended for use on just about any type of plant you were growing, and for just about any type of problem the plant might be encountering.

Fortunately, we now have targeted products that are far more efficient. We can spot-treat only the trouble areas, and we can choose the most effective, efficient product from a wide range of organics and, when needed, inorganics. I call it common-sense gardening.


“Fast growth really isn’t important to me when I’m choosing shade trees.”

Yeah. I have absolutely never heard those words arranged into that sentence. The question is almost always, “Neil! I’m not going to live 500 years. What’s the best fast-growing shade tree?”

That’s when I ask them to list all the features they want in their new shade tree. Their list almost always includes good looks, durability, pest resistance and adaptability to local conditions — and fast growth. Then I ask them if they could only have four of the five, which four they would choose. Invariably, “fast growth” drops off the list. Think about it. I believe you’ll agree.


“All I really care about when I’m choosing my plants and products is quality. I’m not hunting for bargains.”

This one is a bit complicated. Subconsciously, everyone does want quality. Consciously, they also want a fair price. And we all hunt for bargains. So our goals are there.

It’s our follow-through that falls through. We find some mass merchant who’s just brought in a truckload of second-rate plants and put them on sale at a very low price. One-gallon boxwoods for $4.98, while they’re $3 more down the street.

People too often fail to notice that the cheaper plants are half the size, poorly shaped and look like they’ve been potted up just last week. The larger, more attractive plants at just slightly more money are clearly the better value.


“I don’t really care where a plant is native. All I really want is a plant that is adapted.”

Oh, wait a minute here! I have heard that sentence. I said it! Those are my words. They stemmed from my boiling frustration that just being a native plant from somewhere in Texas would raise a tree or shrub to something superior to the scores of fine plants from the rest of the world.

I’m a native Texan, and I don’t mean to disparage my fellow countrymen with this next comment, but not all great people come from Texas, nor do all great plants. What we really should want for our gardens would be plants that will thrive and shine in our lives.


“I’m pretty sure I always do each of my gardening tasks at precisely the right time.”

To be successful as a North Texas gardener, half will depend on your doing the right things (including using the right plants), and the other half will depend on your doing them at the right time.

I published an annual Texas gardening calendar for 30 years (back when people actually used wall calendars), and people told me it was the most useful thing that I did. That’s why I created an entire chapter for that same information in my most recent book.

Texas seasons change very rapidly. You have a series of tiny windows of time during which you can get each particular task done.

As one current example, you must apply pre-emergent weedkillers within the next several days. If you don’t, you’ll be enjoying crabgrass and grass burs the rest of this season. They are ready to sprout and start growing.

Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP/820 AM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227. Online: