Question and Answer – June 2009

Question: My back yard fence was leaning in quite severely, 2 to 3 feet in certain sections. In addition, hackberry trees in a neighbor’s yard were encroaching. I’ve recently had the fence repaired and the trees removed. Now, you can easily see the effects the fence had on my hollies, crape myrtles and other plants. What can be done to straighten the plants? P.S., Dallas.

Answer: You asked for an opinion, and mine would be to remove most of the crape myrtles, then replant the few that remain farther away from the fence. Even though you’ve reclaimed the couple of feet behind them, there still isn’t any direct sunlight back there, so there’s no real way to get them to fill in or straighten. Design a new outline with a gentle curve that would allow the bed to come out farther from the fence, and replant the crape myrtles (or some other type of small tree) into focal points, for example, at corners of the fence. Taller shrubs and small trees like crape myrtles need to be 5 to 8 feet out from wood fences. Smaller shrubs should be 3 or 4 feet away. If you need something green to soften the lines of the fence, a vine like Carolina jessamine would be ideal – nice greenery, but without any loss of space in the yard.

Question: We have a 419 bermuda lawn that is really struggling. It looked good a year ago when we moved into this house. I fertilized it, as well as applying weedkillers when needed. For the majority of the summer, the lawn was great, and I mowed at the highest setting to enjoy this green, soft grass. By October, however, the grass was browning prematurely, and I ended up cutting it much lower than I normally would to remove the brown layers. I watered 2 or 3 times per week, 10 to 15 minutes per station. Did the grass just play out from being cut so high? I applied your 24-0-0 fertilizer in late March (one week later there was frost). Should I apply it again? B.B., no city given.

Answer: My old saying is that "tall grass becomes weak grass." Your goal is to keep it low and spreading, so that it will form a pincushion of runners and leaves. If we mow turf taller than its recommended height, it will gradually thin and die out. My guess is that that’s totally what happened with your lawn, and the best thing you can do would be drop the mower blade to one of its lower settings in order to remove all the dead stubble. Follow that with an application of the all-nitrogen plant food and a thorough watering. If you’d like to be sure diseases are not involved, send plant samples to the Plant Disease Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M. Your county AgriLife Extension office has the supplies and instructions.

Question: What might be affecting my tomato plants? This is the third one to have this, and there don’t seem to be any insects. P.T., McKinney.

Answer: This is damage done by tomato fruitworms before they moved on. They’re fairly common on tomatoes, peppers and related crops. They tunnel through the outer layers of the fruit. Damaged tissues deteriorate quickly. Eventually the affected fruit will turn red prematurely and will be ruined due to the insect damage. You can control them with Bacillus thuringiensis or with one of the spinosad products. As a side note, this is the very same pest that we know as cotton bollworm, also corn earworm. Not a friend of agriculture!

Question: Each May, I get these gross-looking fungal growths. I know they are probably harmless, but I would love to discourage their annual appearance. Is there anything I can apply in March or April that would prevent their May arrival? C.H., no city given.

Answer: That is ugly! This is another of the saprophytic funguses that we see on decaying organic matter. Mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs and bracket funguses are other examples. Your best bet would be to run a rake through the mulch two or three times every spring to keep it loose and well-aerated. Funguses like this require moisture to develop. You could also apply dusting sulfur to the ground every couple of weeks. You’re right – unless it engulfs low-growing plants, it’s not of much concern.

Question: Attached is a photo of a section of our St. Augustine. Can you tell me what it is, and how do I treat it? D.M., no city given.

Answer: These are the spores of slime mold. The name is a lot worse than the actual effect of the fungus. In truth, it’s of no concern at all. You’ll see it on grass blades, even on hard surfaces. Rinse it off with the garden hose, or just trim it away the next time you mow the lawn.

Question: I think I may have ruined my own tree. It’s a Little Gem magnolia, and it was professionally planted in my back yard in February 2008. Its trunk is about 2-1/2 inches in diameter. When it was planted, it was covered fully in glossy, dark green leaves. Then, in April last year, it burst into a spectacular profusion of gorgeous white blooms. A few days later, almost all the leaves fell off, seemingly overnight. They never came back, nor did it bloom again, and the tree continues to look as pictured a year later. Was my failure to fertilize it last June the cause? What can I do now? I don’t mind replacing it if I have to, as I’ve always wanted one. How long should I wait before I make that move? C., Plano.

Answer: Leaf drop is a normal late spring occurrence with all southern magnolias, although not to the extent that you have seen. Given good care this season, your tree may begin to fill in. However, most of the new growth will be at the tips of the branches and at the top of the tree. The bottom branches that are so bare right now probably won’t look a lot better. Fall is a great time to plant new trees, so that they can establish new roots over the late fall, winter and spring. Why don’t you leave it in place over the summer, then reevaluate at that time.

Question: My house faces east, and I love the shade that the red oak trees provide all day long. However, my problem is that the center of my yard has been resodded twice now. Each time, I have added organic material and thought I did everything right. I even had my soil tested – it is slightly alkaline. My back yard, which also has large trees, has beautiful grass. How do I get it to grow in the middle of the yard. K.C., no city given.

Answer: I can’t really tell from the photo, but if the affected area gets less than four hours of direct sunlight each day, no grass, St. Augustine or otherwise, is going to grow well. It may be that the grass in your back yard has ever so slightly more sunlight. The pattern, when we add new sod to an area that is heavily shaded, is that it looks good for several weeks, but as we mow and maintain it, we gradually see more and more of the soil that came with it. Eventually, we’re down to just a few runners here and there. Our options at that point are either to remove one or two low-hanging branches so that more sunlight can get in early or late in the day, or to replace the turf area with an attractive bed of mondograss, Asian jasmine, purple wintercreeper or some other shade-tolerant groundcover. If it’s any consolation, from my personal standpoint, this is gardeners’ all-time most-asked question. You’re certainly not alone.

Question: I grew this Eve’s necklace from a seed several years ago. It’s been planted in the ground for the past two years. It is starting to droop quite a lot, and I’m wondering if it will ever straighten itself out? G.M., no city given.

Answer: Trees that bend very rarely straighten out without help, and certainly not when they’re this far out of plumb. I can’t tell exactly what I’m looking at in the photo. It appears to be a very supple, tall trunk arching off to the right. But, there also appears to be a significant amount of growth coming up from the bottom of the tree. If that’s the case, your best chance at a straight, attractive trunk may come from those basal sprouts. You could remove all but a few now, to give them a chance to grow and prove themselves before winter. In the meantime, you could stake and guy the tall trunk to keep it upright. It might even help if you removed some of the top growth to lighten the load put on the trunk. Then, come winter, you could choose between the reshaped top growth or one of the new trunks that has arisen from the bottom. Hope that makes sense. Pruning is never an easy thing to explain strictly with words.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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