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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.