GARDENER'S MAILBAG

Tomato production, plant size vary with variety

By Neil Sperry | Published Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Dear Neil: What do the terms “determinate” and “indeterminate” mean in reference to tomato varieties? Which is better for Texas?

It has to do with the plants’ growth patterns. Determinate tomatoes are shorter varieties, generally reaching 5 to 6 feet and then stopping. Their fruit production and harvest are usually more concentrated into a specific period of time. That’s advantageous for commercial growers who need to get into a field, harvest their crop, then move on.

Indeterminate plants, by comparison, continue growing well beyond the 5- or 6-foot range. As they continue to grow, they continue to flower and set fruit. That’s so long as weather conditions and overall plant vigor are conducive to fruit set (often, they are not).

Either type can be grown in Texas. Usually it’s not the plant’s growth habit that ends its productive time in our garden, but the onset of really hot weather for the spring crop and the first frost for fall tomatoes.

Dear Neil: I am originally from Oregon. I had a moss garden there. How can I get one started here? I’m now a retired gardener basking in the Texas climate.

That Texas climate is not the ally of a moss gardener. Moss grows luxuriantly in Texas during cool winter and early spring weather. It’s especially common in the eastern half of the state where the humidity is usually high.

However, once it turns hot and dry, moss goes completely dormant and turns insipid greenish-brown. You won’t see the same kind of moss gardens in Texas that you were used to in the Pacific Northwest. That’s just a completely different kind of climate. Concentrate instead on dwarf mondograss and other ultra-low groundcovers.

Dear Neil: I would like to build a flower bed around the trunk of a fruitless mulberry. The grass has died away as the tree’s roots have gotten bigger and bigger. I would like to have the color there, plus I’d like to conceal the roots. Will it harm the trunk if I put 10 or 12 inches of soil around it?

This is a common idea, but it’s not a good one. If it’s too dark for grass, then it’s too dark for almost any type of flower. Plus, adding soil over the roots of a tree or up and around its trunk are not good practices. Soil compacts over time, and if you cover a significant portion (30 percent or more) of a tree’s root system, you run a real risk of root loss. Adding wet soil around the wood of the trunk can’t be good, either.

Your best bet in this specific situation would be to plant a groundcover beneath the tree. Choose one that can tolerate both sun and shade. Mulberries live 20 to 30 years, and you don’t want to go to a ton of trouble, then lose your groundcover when it’s eventually exposed to full sunlight. Asian jasmine and purple wintercreeper would be two excellent options.

Also, you could position round concrete stepping stones in a decorative arrangement within the groundcover bed. You could then put large pots filled with colorful annuals, or plants with textural interest in place during the growing season. In the winter the pots would go away and the stones would be neutral elements in the design.

Dear Neil: How much damage does ball moss do to live oaks? We have trees on rural property in the Hill Country, and they have moss on their branches.

Ball moss is a sister to Spanish moss. Both are epiphytic plants (they depend on other plants for support, but they are not parasitic in any way). Actually, they are in the genus Tillandsia in the bromeliad plant family. Pineapples are their cousins. Moving on from the botany class, the only harm ball moss will do is to shade the twigs and branches. Copper-based fungicides will reduce infestations, but check the Texas A&M Plant Pathology website for directions. Copper-based products can be harmful to other plants nearby. Or, contact a licensed arborist.

Dear Neil: Grape hyacinths are so pretty in the spring, then they go away for the rest of the year. Even henbit is pretty for a couple of weeks, as are other flowers I can’t even name. But, we cater to our water-consuming lawns filled with grasses that are not native and that require fertilizer. What better solutions do we have?

First of all, the assumption that grasses don’t carry their own share of the load in our landscapes is not correct. It would be a sad landscaping day if we didn’t have turf for recreational spaces, for its cooling effect, for erosion control and for simply unifying our garden designs.

And, “native” isn’t always synonymous with water-conserving. I offer cottonwoods and willows as examples. Johnsongrass is native, yet it guzzles the water.

Common bermudagrass is a great compromise: a grass that is drought-tolerant, but also one that’s good-looking and durable. I will acknowledge that we over-water and over-feed our lawns, but we shouldn’t over-correct as we strive to right our ways.

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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