Q&A – Ask Neil: February 29, 2024

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Question: Can you recommend an evergreen privacy hedge? Terry B., Parker, Collin County.

Answer: If you want something 8 to 10 ft. tall, Willowleaf holly or Oakland holly spaced 6 or 7 ft. apart. If you need something 10 to 16 ft. tall Nellie R. Stevens holly spaced 8 to 12 ft. apart. If you want something 25 to 35 ft. tall eastern redcedar spaced 20 ft. apart. Little Gem southern magnolias are beautiful if you want a more massive (30-35 ft. tall) evergreen tree but allow its lower branches to remain.

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Question: I have bermudagrass. How can I find the best pre-emergent weedkiller? What is the best brand of fertilizer? How do I know that I’m getting “slow-release” nitrogen? What do the numbers on the bag mean? Camille N., Fort Worth.

Answer: I spent a month covering those topics (and others) relating to lawn care in my book advertised here in e-gardens. I’ll try to sum my answers up in fewer than 40 pages!

Please see my story this issue on pre-emergent herbicides. All three, Halts, Dimension, and Balan, will work about as well as one another in preventing crabgrass and grassburs provided you apply one of them in the next two weeks in the Metroplex. Repeat the treatment 90 days from now. Those two weeds have not germinated yet. They are not the grasses you are seeing at this time.

I have sponsors who have their own specific brands of fertilizer, but you would suspect me of plugging my advertisers unfairly if I only mentioned their products. I’ve always made it my policy to keep my answers separate from my advertisers. You need to look for a product that has all nitrogen (first number of the three numbers in the analysis. It promotes leaf and stem growth in all plants. Phosphorus is the middle number of the analysis, and it promotes roots, flowers, and fruit. One would think that it would be equally important in many cases, but the truth is that it dissolves very slowly. Therefore, phosphorus can accumulate to harmful levels if we keep adding it to our landscapes, lawns, and gardens. Hence, the recommendation for “all-nitrogen foods.” (Potassium, the third number, is important for summer and winter durability. Most of our soils have adequate amounts of potassium already, so no additional K is needed.)

As for the “slow-release” nitrogen, you’ll want to look for words like “encapsulated” or “coated” referring to the nitrogen. Those tell you that that component of the total mix will be slow release. Ideally you would want 30 to 50 percent of the nitrogen to be slow release.

Ask your Texas Certified Nursery Professional to show you the contents in the fine print on the bag. He or she can explain it line by line.

Question: I am very fond of Otto Luyken cherry laurels from growing them in Zone 8a in North Carolina. How well would they do in the Metroplex? Do you have any other suggestions? Lisa B., Dallas.

Answer: Cherry laurels of any type are better suited to the acidic soils of East Texas (and North Carolina) than they are to the highly alkaline soils (and alkaline irrigation water) of DFW. I’ve lived in the same area as you live in now for 54 years and I’ve watched their popularity shrink steadily. This is a handsome dwarf selection, and perhaps you could coax it along if you gave it heroic soil preparation like you would give azaleas or loropetalums, but I really think in the long run you would be happier with one of the dwarf types of hollies, nandinas, or even abelias. Without blinking an eye, I would choose dwarf Chinese holly or dwarf yaupon holly. If I had afternoon shade, I might consider Carissa holly, but they don’t handle hot sun very well. I’m a big fan of Italian jasmine if you can find it. It’s a very dark green arching shrub that grows to 4 ft. tall and 5 ft. wide, so it would fit your spacings well. I’ve grown it for all the years that we’ve lived in North Texas and I’ve been very satisfied. I will, however, say that it did suffer from dieback like so many other species in the extreme cold of February 2021.

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Question: I’m going to be re-sodding my lawn around April 1. Would you suggest Raleigh or Palmetto St. Augustine? The area is shaded until 11, then full sun the balance of the day. Tom H., Rowlett.

Answer: Just to keep a clear conscience, I always challenge people by asking why they have bare ground in need of sod. I guess I can understand if chinch bugs or drought caused them to lose big areas of turf, but for every person who has that belief there are dozens who actually don’t have enough sunlight. Be sure that your time (“11 a.m. on in full sunlight”) is accurate.

That said, if you ask five turf experts to choose between the two grasses you’re likely to get four answers. (I’m not even sure how that could be possible.) I’ve had Raleigh for 44 years and it has served me fairly well (scale of 1 to 10, I’d give it a 6 or 7 in my own yard. It froze badly in 1984 and again in 2021. And take all root rot and gray leaf spot have become frequent visitors that have presented more than minimal challenges. Palmetto is touted by many landscapers, growers, and a couple of universities as having greener color, finer texture, better cold resistance, and reportedly fewer pest problems. However, I have not grown them side by side and I didn’t see any university tests showing that kind of comparison online. If I were starting from scratch, I’d certainly be giving Palmetto a try.

Question: My son in Austin has much shade in his front yard. A local independent nursery there recommended seeding with a “shade-friendly grass mix” containing prairie wildrye, Virginia wildrye, sideoats gramma, inland sea oats, and little bluestem. What do you think? James C., Garland.

Answer: (Note that I am answering, as instructed, for Austin, not for Garland.) You ask what I think? In my opinion, that’s not a lawn. That’s a tallgrass meadow. Those grasses grow 1 to 5 ft. tall. But you didn’t ask specifically for a lawn. Austin has different ways of looking at landscaping, so I’m not going to pass judgment on his neighborhood, HOA, city regulations, etc. That may be the look that they seek, but I don’t think I would be comfortable having that around my house. We have too much risk of fire and too many snakes.

I did a Web search using the same terms you gave me, and here is an example of how it would look. It’s very pretty if this is the look that he’s seeking. https://seedsource.com/shade-friendly-grass-mix/

Also, it’s been my experience with mixtures of grass seeds that one or two of the species usually end up predominating. I don’t know that it would be inland sea oats out of this mix, but when I used them as an ornamental grass in my landscape, they spread everywhere. I’m still trying to remove the seedlings 50 to 75 feet away from the original planting, and it’s been 15 years since I took them out.

Question: Where can I buy Hellebores (Lenten roses)? I have two in our shade garden, and I really enjoy them. However, it’s rare to find them in nurseries. Would mailorder be a good option? Susie P., Tarrant County.

Answer: You’re most likely to find these charming winter- and early-spring-flowering perennials in independent retail garden centers in January and February. They’ve just hit the big time over the past 20 years, and growers are having difficulties keeping up with demands. Ask the owner or manager of your favorite nursery if they have them or will be getting them. Ask to be notified but stop back a couple of times weekly over the next 2 or 3 weeks. Their season will run out pretty quickly.

Yes, there are many lovely cultivars available from online nurseries. While I would always hope to see you buying from a local independent retail garden center, online sources may have a much larger selection. Plant Delights, a long-respected source of unusual perennials from North Carolina, offers 38 different cultivars in all types of colors. They also have a very good video on the same webpage.

Question: I love flowers and have planted annuals and perennials in the past. Now, however, I need to look for more economical ways to fill my flowerbeds with beautiful color. Where can I buy seeds? Jeannette D., McKinney.

Answer: Proceed cautiously, my friend. Quality seeds aren’t inexpensive. Nor are the pots, potting soil, Grow Lights and other things you’ll need to succeed. I would suggest that you plant types that are colorful for the longest time. Don’t get wrapped up in having to choose seed-grown types, and don’t require that every plant be a perennial (since most perennials are colorful for only 2-3 weeks).

I know my answer is going to sound like I’m ignoring your question, but I just fear that you’ll be disappointed if you buy packets of seeds and have them fail indoors with such a late start or get eaten by insects and birds or washed away by heavy rains if you plant directly into beds outdoors. I want you to win.

Off the tips of my fingertips I’m going to punch in some of my favorite sources of color that I would include if I were planting your garden. I know I’ll forget some, but this list will get you started. They’ll be in rough general order of their colorful season.

Violas, Ice Follies and Carlton daffodils, garden pinks, reseeding larkspurs, bearded iris, St. Joseph’s lilies, Dragon Wing and wax begonias, sun-tolerant and cutting-grown coleus, hybrid purslane and moss rose, firebush, Gold Star Esperanza, lantana, daylilies, purple coneflower, Goldsturm gloriosa daisies, hardy hibiscus, oxblood lilies, fall aster. Include Petite series crape myrtles and some dwarf Burford hollies for their winter fruit color and you can have quite a show for not too much dough.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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