Houston Gardening: After the Rain Has Gone

Some days, the harvest is worth the work.
Some days, the harvest is worth the work. Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Houston has had a tough year weather-wise. Though we didn't have a major flood or hurricane in 2020, we had an unprecedented hard freeze in mid-February 2021 that damaged a lot of our landscaping and numerous citrus trees.

But our gardens bounced back and some plants actually flourished, renewed with vigor and giving Houstonians more blooms and more produce than ever before. Our Sago palms returned, our roses looked like photos of English cottage gardens and numerous plants came back from the roots. Sadly, most citrus trees did not do too well and the new growth we spied was from the graft, meaning the new growth would not be true to the original plant. Some of us, however, will wait and see what the trees become while others will have less patience and replace them with improved varieties.

click to enlarge Sago palms return with a vengeance. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Sago palms return with a vengeance.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
After a year of constant pandemic news and bizarre weather, we soldiered on. We planted our vegetable gardens a little later than usual and raided nurseries for whatever new plants were left. Black Friday sales were nothing compared to a sunny Saturday at Home Depot or Lowe's following winter storm Uri.

Unfortunately, for the past couple of weeks, we have had almost unrelenting rain. It drizzled, it stormed, it even  sprinkled when the sun was shining. And sometimes it came down in buckets, prompting the ever constant flash flood warnings from local meteorologists. The result has been waterlogged plants, puddled yards and little chance for gardening. However, it has been a party for mosquitoes and weeds, both of which are making summer gardening in Houston nearly unbearable.

click to enlarge It's not much fun admiring the garden from behind a screen. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
It's not much fun admiring the garden from behind a screen.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The mosquitoes seem more vicious and numerous this season than I can ever remember. A walk to the mailbox can be a torturous experience let alone trying to pull weeds or pick string beans. Even the use of numerous containers of DEET repellent has offered little protection. And fire ants have become another dangerous pest. How many of us have reached into a flower bed to grab a weed only to be bitten by the tiny terrors? For fire ants, there are few remedies other than a granular poison. I have tried boiling water and even grits with limited success. There are organic remedies for sale online but fire ants are badass bugs and hard to defeat for long. And mosquitoes are year-round pests in the Bayou City. Empty any standing water in your yard to at least limit their reproduction.

Outdoor gardening in the Houston summer is not for wimps. Some may say it's for fools and masochists. Still, the little successes of pretty flowers and homegrown tomatoes are what keeps us battling the elements and insects year after year. Now that we are having a week of less precipitation, it's time to gear up with insect repellent, long pants, gloves and plenty of hydration to get our gardens prepared for the next battle: HEAT.

click to enlarge Rain and bugs take their toll on the vegetable garden. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Rain and bugs take their toll on the vegetable garden.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
My vegetable garden was looking pretty as a picture when the long stretch of rain began. As the rain drenched my yard, I stared sadly at my tomato plants beginning to yellow at the bottom and the weeds overtaking nearly everything. During brief intervals, I would run out and harvest what vegetables I could while the mosquitoes harvested my blood. Though my tomatoes were plentiful, they seemed to lack much flavor due to all the rain. That can happen when tomatoes get too much water. Surprisingly, they didn't split as I had expected but bland tomatoes are almost as disappointing as cracked ones.

Once the rain finally stopped for a day, I set to work pulling weeds. This is the time to do it no matter how unbearable the humidity and bugs make the job. It's only going to get hotter and more buggy. Remove any diseased leaves and discard. Do not put diseased foliage into the compost.

click to enlarge Little successes keep us growing. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Little successes keep us growing.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

Most tomato plants in Houston are about  to shut down their fruit production. Once it hits 90 degrees regularly, the blossoms tend to drop and eventually the plant stops blooming altogether. For many heirloom varieties, the season is already over. However, some cherry tomatoes can keep producing if the heat is not too bad. Most of my tomato plants are beginning to have fungal issues from the rain but I still have a dozen slicers and a couple pints worth of cherry tomatoes that will ripen in the next couple of weeks. It can be depressing to watch tomato plants die but they are seasonal. I saw a travel program last week featuring a farmer in San Marzano, Italy, a town known for its famous tomatoes. It was the end of the season and the plants were brown and withered but beautiful red fruit still hung from them. It made me feel a bit better about my scraggly tomato plants.

Now may be a good time to feed many plants with an organic fertilizer. I am giving most of my potted plants and the vegetable garden a little boost of organic fertilizer this week to make up for the over abundance of water and the strain of the high heat to come. It's best to look for specific feeding times for individual plants because some do not need or want to be fed right now. The internet is a great resource but it's also helpful to check with local entities like Urban Harvest or Texas A & M Agrilife Extension for help with specific conditions and needs in our region. Urban Harvest's website has a helpful Ask a Gardening Question link as well.

click to enlarge Just a few months after the freeze, the Angel's Trumpet is ready to bloom again. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Just a few months after the freeze, the Angel's Trumpet is ready to bloom again.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For some Houston gardeners, mid-June is the time to harvest what is left in the vegetable garden and give it a break. The prospect of digging soil in 98 degree weather is too much. And that's okay. It can be enough work just to keep our lawns and flower beds alive through the summer. And the chance of drought is ever-present as well. We live in a climate of extremes.

As summer rolls on, we are running out of vegetables to sow or transplant. For folks who love fresh okra and Southern peas, there's still time to sow seeds for a late summer harvest. Personally, neither one of those appeal to me but I might take an hour to plant some sweet potato slips and a cantaloupe or two. There is still time to plant watermelon transplants but I have never had success with them myself. And, even though it's not recommended, I might try another sowing of green beans simply because I have the space and the seeds.

click to enlarge Thornless blackberries are easy to grow in Houston. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Thornless blackberries are easy to grow in Houston.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Planting shrubs or trees in the summer is not ideal but I purchased a couple of Arapaho blackberries this week along with a Niagara grape vine and a couple of blueberry plants. My established Natchez blackberry is giving me pints of big, glossy berries right now so I am hoping to extend the harvest with the Arapaho which ripens a couple of weeks later. It will be several years before they are established and produce much but gardening is a waiting game sometimes. I haven't had a lot of luck with blueberries before and the grape vine is most likely a pipe dream but gardeners are eternal optimists and oftentimes a bit foolhardy.

We also tend to be frugal. As summer wears on, nurseries and big box stores begin to slash prices on much of their inventory. Some of those bargain plants can go in the ground now or be nursed along until fall. A little work can produce great, well, produce. I bought a sad looking five-dollar LSU Purple fig tree a few years ago and have kept it in a large pot. Every year, I get a few more figs from it. Right now, I have several dozen little fruit that should ripen in July. Considering the cost of figs at the grocery store, I definitely got my money's worth.

click to enlarge Patient gardeners can harvest their own sunflower seeds. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Patient gardeners can harvest their own sunflower seeds.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For bird watching gardeners, this is also the time to make sure the feeders and baths are cleaned regularly. This year, after noticing a number of sunflower seedlings coming up under the birdfeeders from dropped seed, I asked Classic Rock Bob not to mow under the old jungle gym where the feeders hang. We have been rewarded with quite a few sunflowers. I let them go to seed then cut off the heads and pull out the seeds. They are edible but not very tasty so I am giving them back to the birds. It might seem a waste of time but there's something therapeutic about it.

I also let the lantana go crazy in my butterfly garden. After it finishes blooming, I will cut it back severely ( pinching my nose the whole time because the leaves smell terrible). The butterflies, hummingbirds, mockingbirds and bees love it. And I love butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. Mockingbirds, not so much.

click to enlarge Lantana is a pretty, invasive, smelly plant adored by butterflies. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Lantana is a pretty, invasive, smelly plant adored by butterflies.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
For those who planted basil seeds months ago, the summer months will produce a bounty of leaves for pesto. June and July are also when eggplants and peppers come into their own so the summer heat does have some advantages. Some flowering plants will take a break during the heat but the nurseries have portulacas (moss rose) in stock right now and they are reliable bloomers when many other plants have petered out. I have some large ones still left over from last year. I brought them in during the freeze and placed them back outside afterwards. They haven't stopped blooming for nearly a year. We gardeners love plants that are workhorses in the landscape.

Houston gardeners have to make hay while the sun shines because there's always a pop-up thunderstorm on the horizon. Hopefully, there won't be a hurricane or a freak hailstorm this summer to destroy our revived gardens and hard work

When you garden in Houston, you're livin' on the edge. 
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Lorretta Ruggiero is a Houston Press freelance writer based in Cypress, Texas. She loves entertaining her family and friends with her food and sparkling wit. She is married to Classic Rock Bob and they have two exceptionally smart-aleck children.