GARDENER'S MAILBAG

Rhubarb won’t withstand Texas summer heat

By Neil Sperry | Published Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Dear Neil: As the garden season starts, I thought I might try rhubarb. I saw some in the store the other day. What do I need to know to grow it? We’ve just moved to Texas.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but rhubarb is not suited to Texas summers. It can’t handle our heat. Honestly, it really should never be offered for sale here. Don’t give up on other vegetable crops, however. Almost all will do well if planted at the right time.

Dear Neil: Should I trim dead branches off an oleander that has obviously suffered freeze damage?

Don’t worry as much about how the leaves look right now as how the stems look. If they are turning drab green or brown, and if their outer surfaces are shriveled, those stems are dead and can be pruned away. However, if only the leaves have turned brown, and if the stems are still plump, you really ought to wait to see if they don’t sprout out new foliage in a few weeks.

Dear Neil: I have a bed of liriope that I would like to use for new plants so that I can start another bed elsewhere in my yard. When and how should I do that?

Start by trimming away any dead foliage left over from cold spells. That will give you a clearer vision of where the plants are. Use a sharpshooter spade to remove small clumps within the bed in a way that the remaining liriope will conceal the fact that you’ve been in the bed digging.

Your new plants’ root systems should be approximately tennis ball-sized, and you’ll want to space them on 10-inch centers in the new bed. Late January through early February is the best time to do this dividing and transplanting, before new spring growth begins. Liriope starts growing very early, so don’t wait too long.

Dear Neil: I planted ryegrass last October to cover a portion of our yard where we had taken down a building. So that it wouldn’t look odd, I just seeded the entire backyard. But the grass looks tired right now, as if it hasn’t endured the winter very well. How soon can I apply a fertilizer to it? The dogs are still able to track mud in that area.

You can fertilize it prior to any several-day warm spell. Since part of it is overseeding other turf, I would suggest putting perhaps a half-rate application on, just so you don’t push the permanent grass too much at a time when it’s not going to be able to grow.

Normally it’s best to apply a fertilizer and then water it in, but if water curtailments don’t allow that in your area, you may want to wait the whole thing out. The grass will rebound by February.

Or, if you’re able to feed just ahead of a soaking rain, that might be an option, although that’s usually not the best plan, since both organic and inorganic fertilizers are subject to nutrients being leached into runoff when rains turn out to be heavier than expected.

Dear Neil: I was given a kalanchoe plant in full bloom as a Thanksgiving gift, and it has just finished flowering all these weeks later. Is it possible to grow it and bring it back into flower another time?

Yes, although it requires some diligence. It’s a succulent plant that is fairly closely related to jade plant and the various sedums. Trim off the seed heads, cutting the stems back into normal leafy growth. Repot it into fresh potting soil, and grow it in full morning sun with perhaps a little bit of afternoon shade in mid-summer.

Of course, it won’t stand freezing weather, so this process will have to begin on a windowsill now, then move out onto the patio this spring. Your biggest challenges will be in keeping the plant vigorous and compact until it’s time to bring it back into flower. Kalanchoes, like poinsettias, produce flower buds naturally once nights become longer.

The plant you were given was carefully manipulated in a greenhouse setting. That doesn’t mean that you can’t accomplish the same thing at home once your plant has regrown nicely. It just means that you’ll have to keep it in total and uninterrupted darkness at night and full sun during the days to get it to set buds. That can be a bit cumbersome in an indoor setting.

Dear Neil: I’ve been doing some pruning on an old elm tree to remove a couple of dead branches, and I have noticed a cavity in the trunk about 15 feet off the ground. Should I try to get up there and fill it? What happens if I don’t? Will it get bigger?

Cavities usually show up where a branch or even a twig has died or broken and when the stub has been left in place. That stub blocks the growth of protective bark across the wound, and by the time the stub finally falls away, there is active decay down into the trunk. And yes, it can spread.

Often, other branches directly above or below the cavity become swallowed up in the decay. Check to see if that’s the case with your tree. If this is a very old elm, especially an American elm, there could be significant loss of internal wood due to the tree’s aging. Sometimes you can end up with just a cylinder of bark and outer tissue supporting a massive elm – just waiting for the right windstorm.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but I would certainly get a certified arborist, or at least a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional to take a look at the tree. Do not attempt to fill the cavity. That adds no strength to the trunk of the tree, and it can block normal healing.

Have a question you’d like Neil to consider? Mail it to him in care of the Wise County Messenger, P.O. Box 149, Decatur, TX 76234 or email him at mailbag@sperrygardens.com. Neil regrets that he cannot reply to questions individually.

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