Houston: How Does Your Garden Grow?

Bowie stops to smell the roses.
Bowie stops to smell the roses. Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

click to enlarge Diversity is an important element in the home garden. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Diversity is an important element in the home garden.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero

The month of April is nearly over. After the devastating freeze in February, Houston has seen even more unusual weather with cooler-than-normal temperatures and a mix of wind, storms and dry spells through the past two months. However, a look around the Bayou City's neighborhoods shows the resiliency of nature as roses burst into bloom, refreshed by the dormancy that Houston weather rarely allows. We missed out on our annual azalea show but the wildflowers were happy this year. And the Sago Palms around town are coming back in phallic glory.

This past weekend was spectacular weather-wise with bountiful sunshine and low humidity. It's days like these that make Houstonians forget the sweltering months to come. And our gardens are loving the weather as well. It's tempting to sit back on a restaurant patio sipping a margarita or lounge lazily in the backyard with an iced tea but our plant pals need a little attention as the month of May begins. A few hours spent laying down some mulch and doing a little supplemental watering and fertilizing can prepare our yards for what lies ahead—-a Houston summer.

click to enlarge Intense planting keeps down the weeds. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Intense planting keeps down the weeds.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
The freeze left many gardeners distraught, gazing out over a sea of brown in their yards, an uncommon sight for our climate. Impatient homeowners dug up the dead and immediately replaced them with garden center newbies. However, for those of us who paid attention to the experts and gave our gardens time to renew themselves, we are being richly rewarded with much-loved specimens coming back, mostly from the roots.

click to enlarge Bowie stops to smell the roses. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Bowie stops to smell the roses.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
My spouse, Classic Rock Bob, is not a patient man. He bugged me every weekend to chop something down. I wisely gave him the chore of finally ridding our front flower beds of the huge swathes of Cast Iron Plants that were here when we moved in. That kept him busy for a couple of days and now, when I need some alone time, I mention that the Cast Iron Plants are coming back and out he goes, shovel in hand.

He did, however, convince me to allow him to dig up one of my blue plumbagos. I regret that now because the one that was left alone is growing quickly from the roots. And it's not the only plant that is springing back to life. The viburnum, duranta (Angel's Trumpet), clerodendrum (Blue Butterfly Bush) and brunfelsia (Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow) are not only coming back from the roots but thriving.

click to enlarge You can't keep a good Sago down. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
You can't keep a good Sago down.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Some plants are taking their time. The Star Jasmine put out some new green leaves and also a few blooms but much of it had to be cut back. Drivers along Houston freeways will see the Star Jasmine lining some of the concrete walls coming back to life but it's messy. I have a large Sago Palm (actually a cycad, not a palm) with pups all around it. It has put forth new growth, looking like something from Little Shop of Horrors. I let Classic Rock Bob go to town with the loppers on the Oleander. Much to his chagrin, it too has new growth at the roots.

Roses in Houston probably had one of their best years ever. My pink climbing rose of unknown origin bloomed prolifically and my hybrid tea roses are covered in new growth and buds. Even my poor, neglected Climbing Don Juan has battled the weeds in its forgotten corner of the yard to produce beautiful red blooms. Sometimes Mother Nature is a better parent.

click to enlarge Some plants thrive on neglect. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Some plants thrive on neglect.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
While I would normally be filling my flower beds with annuals this month, I have been more focused on my vegetable garden. Though I got a much later start this year due to the winter storm, my veggies are trucking along very well. Usually, I would have a little more fruit on my tomato plants by now but they are putting out loads of blooms and green orbs. Late May and early June should be a tomato fest for me.

With the cool fronts of the past month, the lettuce is also hanging in there. Some of the older plants are starting to bolt but I just let them do their thing because they are so pretty in the garden. I have newer seedlings that I will be able to harvest soon. I highly recommend planting a mix packet of lettuce seeds in early spring and early fall. It's nice to be able to grab some leaves for a sandwich or make a salad but the different colors of a mixed packet also make for eye candy in the vegetable garden as does a mixed packet of basil. There's still time to sow some basil seeds for a bounty in August when it's one of the few things that thrives in the Texas summer.

click to enlarge Squirrels and birds are no match for the dynamic doggie duo. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Squirrels and birds are no match for the dynamic doggie duo.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Early May allows for a last sowing of beans. Even for gardeners who have very little space or time, green beans can produce in less than two months. I sowed some seeds in March that are already producing and should be ready to harvest within a week. Even planting five or six seeds in a flower bed or a pot can give enough beans for several meals. There's also time to plant melon transplants, cucumbers, summer squash, peppers and eggplant. Okra and Southern Peas are also garden goodies to plant now. And if you want to grow your own Jack O' Lantern, pumpkins need to be sown soon for a fall harvest. There's a great planting chart at that gives a month to month planting guide for vegetables.

click to enlarge El Jefe jalapeno is the boss pepper in the garden. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
El Jefe jalapeno is the boss pepper in the garden.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Now is also the time to fertilize many plants. This year, I have used an organic granular fertilizer to pretty good effect. Plants have different needs for fertilizers and it can be very confusing. I kind of wing it by trying to keep my soil as healthy as possible. I have not used chemical fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides in years. That means more weeding by hand and accepting blackspot on the roses but it also means a healthier environment for plants, animals and human beings. It's also a yearly struggle to keep Classic Rock Bob away from the lawn chemicals at the hardware store.

click to enlarge Does anyone know how to prune a Thompson Seedless? - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Does anyone know how to prune a Thompson Seedless?
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
My garden philosophy is like myself; all over the place. Some days I am following all the rules, other times I am just letting my garden dictate to me what it wants. Self-sown cilantro and parsley are perhaps taking up more space than I would like but my vegetable garden is small and intensely planted, which helps with weeds. I am no scientist but I believe diversity in the garden also creates a better environment for preventing disease and pests. I may be jinxing myself, but the garden now seems healthier than previous years. Perhaps the freeze helped. I know it won't last. Houston's climate is heaven for bugs and fungal diseases. We must enjoy the spring days while we can.

click to enlarge Natchez blackberries are early producers. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Natchez blackberries are early producers.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
And that is exactly what I am doing. In the morning, I pick mulberries from a tree that came up in my backyard six or seven years ago. Usually, the birds and squirrels beat me to most of them. This year, there are so many that there's enough to satisfy us all. And my trusty canine companions, Bowie and Lina,  have been extra vigilant this year in chasing away the berry thieves. Hopefully, they'll be able to do the same when the Natchez blackberries ripen. For blackberry lovers, there are quite a few thornless options that love Houston's climate. The Natchez in my yard is already covered with blooms and berries. I am thinking of adding a Ouachita or Navaho variety this year because they produce a little later in the season. That means more berries over an extended time period. And more cobbler.

click to enlarge Hoja Santa is a traditional Mexican herb. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Hoja Santa is a traditional Mexican herb.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
I am also trying to be more creative with the edibles in my garden. The Easter Egg radishes from the fall have bolted and the pretty, edible flowers are a nice garnish for soups and salads. Radish seed pods are also edible and Linda Ly at Garden Betty has a pickle recipe for them. My yard is full of Hoja Santa, or Mexican Pepper Leaf, from the previous owners. It's invasive and I'm always battling it. This year I plan to use it as a wrap for fish and meat rather than just nibbling on its root beer-tasting leaves. It's also used to make different Oaxacan moles. And I've discovered online sites with recipes for other leaves in my yard like fig and grape. It's always important, though, to make sure a plant is edible before consuming it.

click to enlarge Radish flowers have a slight spiciness. - PHOTO BY LORRETTA RUGGIERO
Radish flowers have a slight spiciness.
Photo by Lorretta Ruggiero
Gardening is a continual learning experience with plenty of successes and failures. Too often, the failures lead new gardeners to give up. No one has a brown thumb. It just takes some research and time. Even the most experienced gardener loses plants to diseases and bugs. Sometimes, a plant dies for no apparent reason. Don't lose heart. Just like there is someone for everyone, there are plants for everyone, too. The fun lies in finding what works for your lifestyle and your yard.

So, Houston, how does your garden grow? Let us know in the comments. We'd love to hear about your gardens. And if you know an organic remedy for thrips, I'm all ears. 
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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.