‘Christmas tree’ choices few for the South

If you dream of having a tree like this in your yard, wake up.

We’re more likely to have snow at Christmas than to successfully grow most firs and spruces in Louisiana.

“A conical, needled evergreen is not a really common plant to survive here,” said retired LSU AgCenter horticulturist Denyse Cummins. “There’s Eastern red cedar, but who wants that prickler in their landscape?”

She’s got a point. Three gigantic cedars live in my backyard and I give them a wide berth except at Christmas, when I snip off branches with their pretty blue berries to use in holiday arrangements.

So what can you plant if you want a “Christmas tree” in your yard?

“Arborvitae and Leyland cypress make a nice holiday tree, but are a little fussy in the garden, getting twig blight if grown in less than perfect conditions,” Denyse said.

Leyland cypress is also LSU AgCenter forester Ricky Kilpatrick’s top choice because it resembles a cedar “but doesn’t stick and make you itch.”  He too warned of its disease tendencies and recommended  alternating types of fungicide so the tree doesn’t build up resistance.

Ricky also mentioned deodar cedar, which has a natural Christmas tree form when young, but flattens at the top when mature.

And both Denyse and Ricky had a couple of unusual recommendations.

“I very highly recommend Cryptomeria japonica as a living Christmas tree, but I haven’t seen it offered for sale here,” Denyse said. “I only know about it because my husband gave it as a Christmas tree to his parents 35 years ago. I’m now living in that house and it is a wonderful, unusual tree all grown up in the landscape. Pretty cinnamon bark; different foliage.”

Ricky’s pick? Savannah holly, a smaller variety of American holly. “It’s real Christmasy looking and good for planters and things like that.”

Foster Cook, a co-owner of Akin’s Nursery, offers Arizona cypresses and Blue Point junipers to customers who are looking for living Christmas trees. Both have a natural pyramid form and have done well locally, he said.

So the choices are pretty limited.

But don’t be blue. Bet gardeners with Noble firs in their yards dream of having blooming roses at Christmas.

Have you had luck growing other “Christmas trees?”









Plant hardy, cool-season herbs now

Rosemary is a perennial in Louisiana. Photo courtesy of LSU AgCenter.











By Dan Gill, LSU AgCenter horticulturist

Louisiana gardeners can successfully grow a wide variety of culinary herbs. When selecting which herbs you want to grow in your garden, consider what you commonly cook with. Look at the dried herbs are in your kitchen cabinet, and start growing them.

Now is a great time to plant many of the hardy herbs we love to cook with. These herbs establish reliably when planted during the mild weather we have this time of the year. Winter cold will not hurt hardy herbs, and they grow vigorously during mild weather. Fall-planted hardy herbs are far more productive when compared to planting them in spring.

For growing purposes in Louisiana, we can group herbs into cool-season annuals, warm-season annuals and perennials. Annuals live for one season and then die. Cool-season annuals grow from October to May, and warm-season annuals grow from April to November. Perennial herbs live for several years. This time of year, we can plant cool-season annual herbs and hardy perennial herbs.

Cool-season annuals

Cool-season annual herbs are not bothered by winter freezes and actually prefer to grow in the cool to mild days and chilly to cold nights we have here during the cool season. Transplants should be planted from October through March. Although I recommend fall planting, you can expect to get a decent harvest when cool-season annual herb transplants are put out in spring — plant the largest transplants you can find. Still, fall planting will far and away produce the largest and longest harvest.

Herbs we grow as cool-season annuals include parsley, cilantro/coriander, celery, dill, chicory, fennel, borage, arugula and chervil.

Perennial herbs

Perennial herbs are also generally not bothered by winter cold. Most of the perennial herbs are best planted from September through April using transplants available at local nurseries. Fall planting is particularly advantageous because it allows these herbs to establish during the less-stressful cool season.

Some of the perennial herbs that do well here and can be planted now are mints, lemon balm, rosemary, burnet, sorrel, catmint, garlic chives, oregano, thyme, sage, lavender, monarda, catnip, anise hyssop, mountain mint, French bay, pineapple sage and rue. A few perennial herbs that like the heat and would rather be planted in spring include Mexican tarragon, lemon verbena, lemon grass and society garlic.

A few perennial herbs are especially sensitive to heat, so they’re always best planted in fall. Thyme, sage, catnip and lavender fall into this category. Although they generally thrive in the garden during the cool season from October to early May, they struggle during our hot, humid summers. By planting in fall, these herbs will be better established and more likely to make it through the summer than when they are planted in spring.

Because they are prone to root rot when weather is hot, thyme, sage, catnip and lavender require excellent drainage to survive the summer. They may be more successful when grown in containers and placed in a location that gets some shade in the summer afternoon.

Several perennial herbs almost never survive our summers and are best grown here as cool-season annuals. Transplants are planted in fall, grow vigorously over winter and produce harvests into spring. As the weather gets hot, they typically lose vigor and die in early to midsummer. Perennial herbs in this category include French tarragon, feverfew and chamomile.

Most herbs require direct sun at least four to six hours a day and excellent drainage. Raised beds are a good idea for many herbs because of our abundant yearly rainfall. Herbs should be fertilized moderately to avoid stimulating lush growth that will be less flavorful. Generally, fertilize herbs with the same products you use for your other plants but at about half the amount.

Locate your culinary herb-growing area as close to the kitchen as possible so they are convenient to use while you are cooking. If you have to walk all the way across the yard to harvest them, they’ll likely be underused, and the plants will become overgrown and wasted.

Herbs grow very well in containers. As an alternative to an in-ground garden near your kitchen, you can locate pots of herbs on a back porch, deck or patio to be convenient. And because you don’t generally need more than one to a few plants of each type of herb, a nice container herb garden does not have to include a huge number of pots.

Although you can grow herbs as ornamentals for their beauty and appearance, and some people seem to just collect and grow herbs for the sake of growing them, it’s important to remember that above all, these are meant to be useful plants. The culinary herbs are intended to be harvested regularly to flavor and enrich your home cooking. You won’t hurt them by harvesting — that’s what they are there for.

Don’t wait for spring to start a new herb garden or add to an existing one. Plant hardy herbs now. When fellow gardeners are purchasing and planting herbs next spring, you will be enjoying bountiful harvests from well-established, vigorously growing plants.

Sweet peas are fragrant beauties

Sweet peas come in lovely colors and smell fantastic. Photo courtesy of Alicia Cunningham

I adore sweet peas.

They smell delicious and the colors are unbelievable.

How unbelievable? When I bring bouquets into the house, my husband says the flowers  must be fake because colors like that don’t exist in nature.

And I tell him he’s wrong. Again!

Sweet peas are another of those flowers that look like they would be hard to grow, but really aren’t. Shhh. That’s our secret so we can impress family and friends.

There are really only two tricks you need to know:  The seeds must be nicked or soaked before planting and the seedlings should be pinched to encourage the plant to branch.

A while back, I asked Master Gardener Alicia Cunningham, who’s been starting plants from seeds, including sweet peas, for years, for step-by-step instructions:

  • Sweet pea seeds have hard coats so use sandpaper or nail clippers to nick the brown shell. That will allow them to a absorb water more quickly and speed up germination. Or you could soak the seeds in water overnight. Or do both.
  • Plant them about a half-inch deep in a well-prepared bed that’s been amended with organic material, such as compost. Bagged, store-bought compost is fine.
  • Provide something for the plants to climb on at planting time so you won’t stab developing roots later on. Keep in mind they climb by tendrils so whatever you use should be thin enough for them to cling to. Got a chain link fence? They were made for each other: the fence is perfect for tendrils to grab and the sweet peas will transform a boring boundary into a thing of beauty.
  • Water well and keep the soil moist, but not soggy.
  • Thin the seedlings to about 6 inches apart.
  • Pinch the top out  of seedlings when they are about 4 inches tall. Alicia knows you won’t want to do this because you think you will hurt your babies. Get over it. “It’s extra important to pinch the top. Instead of one spindly stem, it will branch.” More branches mean more flowers. Just do it.
  • Cut bouquets. “The more you cut, the more they’ll bloom,”  Alicia said.

You could do that, couldn’t you? Why not give  it a try this year.

Alicia recalled the advice given to her by Dave Creech, a horticulturist at Stephen F.  Austin University.

“Go for it. If they don’t come up, don’t give up. Keep trying.”

And if you  succeed?

“It’s a little miracle,” Alicia said.

Keep garden sweet with fragrant plants

Frostproof gardenia is a Louisiana Super Plant. Photo courtesy of LSU AgCenter.

My sweet olive is in its third cycle of bloom so that means I’m spending a lot of time practicing deep breathing exercises on the back deck. And feeling sorry for my husband because, even if he puts his nose right up against the flowers, he can’t smell them. Now that’s sad.

It’s sad, too, to limit yourself to just one fragrant plant. Here’s a list, from retired LSU AgCenter horticulturist Denyse Cummins, of other trees and shrubs that will have you spending lots of time outside:

  • Sweet olive: An evergreen that can be grown as a large shrub or small tree. It produces several cycles of bloom from fall through spring. Although the flowers are inconspicuous, the fragrance it wonderful, soft and subtle.
  • Sweet bay magnolia. Photo courtesy of LSU AgCenter

    Sweet bay magnolia:  A native evergreen tree, this one needs some space. It grows to about 50 feet tall by 30 feet wide. Fragrant, creamy white flowers — Denyse says they smell like roses — are borne in spring and intermittently during summer. It was named a Louisiana Super Plant for 2012 by the AgCenter.

  •  Sasanqua: These evergreens flower in the fall and winter in shades of white, pink, rose and red. Not all varieties give off perfume, so you might want to do the sniff test before purchasing.  Give them filtered sun and acid soil for best results.
  • Wisteria: Who doesn’t love the fragrance given off by the clouds of purple flowers produced by wisteria each spring? Just be sure you’re prepared to love — or at least cope with — its rampant growth. Turn your back for a minute and it will eat your house.
  • Citrus: Both beautiful and sweetly fragrant, it’s easy to see why orange blossoms have been a traditional wedding bouquet flower. Citrus isn’t reliably hardy in North Louisiana so be prepared to protect them from extreme temperatures. Satsumas and kumquats are the most cold-hardy, with mature specimens able to withstand temperatures in the low 20s without too much damage.
  • Brugmansia: One of several plants commonly called angel’s trumpet, brugmansia flowers emit a soft, lemony fragrance that drifts in the evening breeze.

More fragrant trees and shrubs:

  • Banana shrub:  If you love the scent of banana bread, you’ll adore banana shrub. This evergreen prefers well-drained, acid soil.
  • Gardenia: Few scents are as intoxicating as gardenia and few plants are as finicky about growing conditions. In fertile, well-drained acid soil, they’ll flourish and produce glossy, dark green leaves and loads of creamy white flowers. Gardenias planted in poorly drained or alkaline soil will struggle and are susceptible to insect problems. Make sure you have the right conditions to avoid heartache. Frostproof is a variety named a Louisiana Super Plant by the AgCenter.
  • Mock orange: Sometimes called English dogwood, this huge arching shrub produces masses of white flowers in spring — but not all of them are fragrant. Sniff test required. Bonus: It’s as easy to grow as gardenia is difficult.
  • Sweet shrub: For about a month in spring, this one produces small red flowers  that have been described as smelling like strawberries — or Juicy Fruit gum. Sweet!

What’s missing?

NWLAMG bulb sale is Saturday

Photo by Kathie Rowell.

It’s here!

The Northwest Louisiana Master Gardeners’ annual Fall Bulb Sale is Saturday, October 22, 2016, at the Randle T. Moore Center on Fairfield Avenue at Kings Highway in Shreveport. 

Featured are hard-to-find heirloom bulbs to beautify your flower garden,. Many of the bulbs come from Master Gardener’s gardens, and have been dug up from old home sites. More than 5,000 five thousand heirloom bulbs (50-plus varieties) that thrive in the South will be available.

Featured bulbs this year include jumbo amaryllis, 16 varieties of narcissus, anemones, Oriental lilies, and spider lilies, including yellow and red. There will also be a variety of naturalized tulips that rebloom in the south.

For best selection, get there early!

Info: Master Gardener Hotline, 318-698-0010.

Easy or hard way, composting is worth it

Don’t take your fall leaves to the curb. Compost them. Photo by Kathie Rowell

You can do it the easy way.

You can do it the hard way.

But either way, you really should build a compost pile.

It probably won’t surprise you that I choose the easy way. That means I just pile leaves  in a couple of bins and wait. Compost happens whether you help it along or not. It just happens very slowly.

Those who choose to do it the hard way get finished compost much quicker, and they can include weeds or diseased plants into their piles without fear of disastrous results. A well-managed pile generates enough heat to kill weed seeds and disease organisms.

Even though it’s doubtful I’ll change my slothful ways, I learned how to do it the “right” way at a composting talk a few years ago by now-retired LSU AgCenter horticulturist Denyse Cummins. .

Denyse defined composting as the controlled decomposition of plant materials and described herself as a fanatic about keeping what grows in her yard and turning it into garden gold instead of sending it to the dump.

“I don’t ever have to buy anything in a bag from a nursery because I make it myself,” she said. “I’m cheap and I like the idea of using everything.”

So what can be composted?

Anything that was ever alive, Denyse said. That includes leaves, grass clippings and vegetable scraps, but also things like fish heads, crawfish remains and egg shells. Just be aware that adding materials with the potential to smell can attract animals — and really steam the neighbors.

“Anything alive is going back to dust and composting is just controlling it,” she said.

Here are some of Denyse’s tips:

  • Choose a site near a water source and away from trees because their roots will invade the nice, rich soil.
  • Gather your material and plan to use a formula of 4 parts brown stuff to 1 part green stuff. Browns  which supply carbon, can be leaves, twigs, ground bark, shredded paper. Greens, which supplies nitrogen, can be grass clippings, vegetable peelings, weeds, hay or alfalfa pellets.
  • Shred everything to make it easier for the microorganisms that transform the waste to digest it.
  • Build the pile a little at a time. For instance, layer  a lot of brown with a little green, water and then mix together. Keep adding and mixing layers until all material is used.
  • Create a big pile — about 4 feet high. Denyse said the number one reason for failure is the pile is too small. Lacking leaves? Drive around the neighborhood on trash day and grab your neighbors’ castoffs.
  • Create a dent in the top of the pile to divert rain into it.
  • A properly built compost pile should heat up immediately and can reach 130 to 140 degrees in the center, even in winter. After two weeks, stick a piece of metal about one-third of the way into the pile. If it’s hot when you pull it out, the microorganisms are still  happily chowing down. If  the metal comes out cold, knock down the pile, turn the material and rebuild it because the microorganisms have used up the nitrogen and oxygen near them  If it doesn’t heat back up, it could be lack of water (knock it down, wet it and rebuild), lack of nitrogen (knock it down and add more grass clippings or alfalfa pellets) or too much water (just let it drain).

Compost is ready when the large pieces have decomposed and what’s left is dark, crumbly and has an earthy smell. You can use the compost as it makes, or wait until the entire pile is ready. Adding it to your garden beds will add nutrients and improve the structure of your soil.

And it’s free.

So, what will it be? The easy way or the hard way. Either way, your garden wins.

Sweet olives pack powerful fragrance

Plant a sweet olive and your nose will thank you. Photo by Kathie Rowell

My sweet olive is blooming!

Excuse me while I go outside.

I’m convinced that if sweet olive flowers were as beautiful as their fragrance, no yard in the South would be without one. And no yard should be, even if the clusters of tiny flowers are so insignificant you’ll never notice them.

Unlike gardenias, another iconic fragrant Southern plant, sweet olive scent is always soft and elusive, never overpowering. If you’re unfamiliar with the plant, you can stand right beside it and not know the source of the unbelievable smell. It’s been described as similar to ripe peaches, apricots and orange blossoms. I just think it smells like sweet olive.

Osmanthus fragrans, known as sweet olive, tea olive and fragrant olive, is a large evergreen shrub that can be trained into a tree form as it matures. It reaches about 20 feet tall by 10 feet wide so don’t be fooled by its appearance in a pot. I knew how big it would get and still planted it too close to the house so it would be right by the back door and I would never miss a whiff.

It likes sun to part shade and well-drained, slightly acidic soil. Few pests bother it, so there’s simply no reason not to plant one this fall. And you won’t even have to endure that whole delayed gratification thing that usually comes with planting flowering trees. Sweet olive cycles in and out of bloom several times from fall through spring so there will be plenty of chances to go outside and take a deep, sweet breath. Your nose will thank you.

What’s your favorite fragrant plant?


Learn about pollinator gardens Saturday

Pollinators are in peril.

A Time magazine story in March cited a Center for Biological Diversity report that indicated more than 700 North American bee species are declining. A United Nations group reported in 2015 that populations are declining for 37 percent of bee species, with 9 percent of butterfly and bee populations facing extinction. Threats include habitat loss, pesticides, climate change and competition/diseases from non-native species.

But there’s more at stake than just losing some of nature’s most fascinating creatures. The monetary value of honey bees alone as commercial pollinators in the United States is estimated at about $15 billion annually with them doing almost 80 percent of all crop pollination.  

The good news is you can easily help – and find out exactly how this weekend at the Gardens of the American Rose Center’s last Green Thumb series of the year.

“Planting and Growing a Pollinator Garden” is the topic for the seminar from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 30, at the center’s Klima Rose Hall, 8877 Jefferson Paige Road, Shreveport.

Topics/speakers include:

  • “Isn’t Beauty Enough? What’s the Big Deal about Butterflies?” – Mike Livingston, NWLA Master Gardener.
  • “Setting Up a Beehive in Your Garden” – Loice Kendrick Lacey, Mastere Gardener, author and founder of the Haynesville Butterfly Festival.
  • “Monarchs and Milkweed – If You Plant It, They Will Come” – Malcolm Vidrine, biologist, educator, author of the Cajun Prairie Restoration Project.

Admission is free and refreshments will be provided. For more information, call the rose center at 318-938-5402.

Don’t miss this chance to be a friend to the bees and butterflies!

Punch up the garden with fall perennials

Firecracker plant is a fall bloomer that hummingbirds love. Photo by Kathie Rowell.

Firecracker bush is a fall bloomer that hummingbirds love. Photo by Kathie Rowell.

Most of us plant for spring and summer blooms. What about fall? There are wonderful fall-blooming perennials that could help our gardens mark the transition of seasons if we would just plan for it.

Here are recommendations for Louisiana’s Best fall-blooming perennials from retired LSU AgCenter horticulturists Denyse Cummins and Joe White:

  • Hamelia: Also known as firecracker bush, this one will survive mild winters. “It really brings in the hummingbirds while they are trying to stock up for their winter flight home,” Denyse said.
  • Salvia madrensis. Photo courtesy of Denyse Cummins.

    Salvia madrensis. Photo courtesy of Denyse Cummins.

    Salvias: Some salvias, like S. guaranitica varieties ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Argentine Skies,’ start flowering in summer and save their best bloom for fall. But the best are fall bloomers, Denyse said. “Really outrageous salvias that ONLY bloom in fall are rosebud sage (S. involucrata) and forsythia sage (S. madrensis). They are monstrous big, 5-7 feet, and look best in the back of a planting of large plants.  Forsythia sage blooms can be 10-12 inches long. They can all take half day shade and bloom well.”

  • Agastache: Also known as hyssop, these plants are magnets for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. “There have been many new agastaches introduced in the last few years,” Denyse said.  “I love the large ones, A. aurantiaca ‘Desert Sunrise’ and ‘Apricot Sunrise.’  They start blooming in the heat of summer and just keep going until frost.  They are big and blowsy like Russian sage but give that soft orange color.  I would not overwater them, since they are a Southwestern plant.”
  • Sedum Autumn Joy. Photo by Kathie Rowell.

    Sedum Autumn Joy. Photo by Kathie Rowell.

    Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’:  Succulent leaves and stems are topped with clusters of tiny rosy flowers that mature to copper and brown, perfect for fall.  “We usually get two blooms out of it (early summer and fall) and it will grow in an irrigated bed just fine.  It needs full sun,” Denyse said.

  • Chrysanthemums: Mums were on the list of both Denyse and Dr. White. But if you expect them to come back, make sure you buy the right kind. “Potted florist’s mums, the ones that show up in the stores now, don’t usually perennialize,” Denyse said. “The mums that do are the Korean mums like Ryan’s Pink and Country Girl.  The difference is that the potted mums have a fuzzy leaf that traps moisture and causes them to die of fungal diseases.  The smooth Korean mum’s leaves don’t have that problem and once you’ve got them you’ve got them forever. They are good spreaders and some have to be pulled up when they overtake their allotted space. They can get 2 ½-to-3 feet tall and fall over but I like them best when they are ruthlessly pinched. I do find hand-pinching them in early summer, when the weather is still good, a pleasant Zen activity, but you can also take a weed whacker to them in early and mid-summer and just rake or blow the tops out of the bed.”
  • Hardy asters: Asters cover themselves with hundreds of small, daisy-like flowers that attract butterflies.