About Me

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As an Agriculture Extension Agent for Texas AgriLife Extension Service I have had an opportunity to be involved in just about every aspect of agriculture. From the 5,000 cow dairy to the types of trees to use in a home landscape I have had a chance to learn how the different parts of an agriculture systems work together. Seedless watermelons, drip irrigation, pecan orchard management, fruit crop development, dairy nutrient management, environmental issues confronting agriculture, producer tours, field days, research projects and more have been a part of my life for over 30 years as I lived and breathed agriculture. Since 2004 I have been actively involved in consulting internationally working in Honduras, Guatemala, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, India, and China. I have worked with missionaries and other groups dedicated to alleviating poverty among third world farmers. I lived in the Middle East in 2007-2008 working on a project for the Borlaug Institute of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University. In this project I was the Chief of Party and Team Leader for a $5.7 Million dollar effort to train Iraqi Extension agents and specialists in all aspects of agriculture.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Why Is My Garden So Bad?

I have had a lot of calls lately from frustrated gardeners. The call normally goes something like this, “I planted a garden last year and it just never produced, what am I doing wrong?” Of course most of these gardeners are blaming the soil, the plant variety, the weather but I don’t think any of them have blamed the real cause – water!
Seriously it has been a very hard summer for people and animals but when it comes to plants they can handle hot weather and keep right on going if they get enough water and when I question gardeners about their watering habits I find that they are very lax at best. I have given a number of gardening programs recently and have used this illustration. A tomato plant needs .23 inches of water every day in June. This works out to be 1.43 gallons (1 and half milk jugs) of water per plant per day to survive. Most people water their garden plants by hand with a hose and unfortunately a hose puts water out so fast that it doesn’t soak in, it runs off. Also I doubt that anyone stands by each plant long enough to get 1.43 gallons in the soil every day. Consequently we are severely under watering our vegetables. In my garden I use drip tape to deliver very small amounts of water over a long period of time. In fact most drip tapes will deliver 0.5 gallons of water per minute in 100 feet of tape. So if I have one emitter every foot of tape, that emitter would deliver about one-third of a gallon every hour. If I have two emitters per tomato plant then that is six-tenths of a gallon per hour and my system needs to run for 2.4 hours every day (1.43 gallons/0.6 gallons per hour) to water my tomato plants. So for me I run my drip irrigation system every day or at least every other day to ensure that all my garden vegetables have plenty of water.
A second major issue we have in vegetable gardens after water is the lack of fertilizer! Most of the gardeners I talk to are very conscientious about applying compost and some use a little garden fertilizer but overall they are not putting enough for two reasons. First vegetables need nutrients in a 4-1-2 ratio so if you apply a fertilizer like 10-10-10 (1-1-1) then you are not supplying enough of the first number, nitrogen, or the last number, potassium. In my travels I have seen plenty of gardens that look yellow and unthrifty because there was not enough nitrogen for the plants. The second reason is our obsession with compost. Now I love compost, it really helps our soils here in Central Texas, but is it really finished compost? What I mean is that compost must have completely composted to be a garden additive or it may be harmful to your plants. Much of the compost I have stuck my hands in is hot to the touch. This means that the microbes are still working converting organic matter to humus. This process takes a lot of nitrogen and can rob the soil of nitrogen fertilizer you intend for your vegetables. This process really is bad if the gardener has been adding lots of leaves, mulch etc and tilling it in. Those microbes will immediately go to work on the new organic matter and they won’t be through for months thereby making the garden a hard place to grow anything. So you see why I say that our desire to help our garden soils with all this great compost may, at least in the short run, be robbing our plants of needed nutrients. Water and fertilizer, two of the most basic of needs yet often overlooked!

Growing Potatoes in Your Garden

Potatoes originated in the higher elevations of Chile and were first grown as a food crop in Peru in South America. It wasn’t until the Spanish came to South America and brought back potatoes to Europe that the many uses of potatoes started to become popular. The potato eventually got to Ireland where the Irish quickly saw their value and by 1693 it was Ireland’s most important food crop.
Growing the right variety is important and the best in red-skinned varieties are LaSoda and Pontiac and for the white-skinned its Kennebec although it is hard to beat the Yukon Gold. The only problem with specific varieties is that often they are only sold at Minnesota Blues or Nebraska Reds so when faced with this problem be sure to buy the blue certificate seed potatoes. Remember that seed potatoes are only for planting and table-stock potatoes are for eating. Seed potatoes have fungicides to prevent diseases and many table-stock potatoes are treated with sprout inhibitors to keep them from sprouting in the store.
When to plant is always controversial. The books generally recommend that you plant potatoes 4 weeks before the last killing frost. Our last frost can be anytime in February or March but generally if you will plant your potatoes around the middle of February you will do okay. Potatoes grow and do best when temperatures are 60⁰-75⁰ in the day and 45⁰ - 55⁰ at night. Potatoes must set and size their crop before soil temperatures reach 85⁰ the temperature at which potato initiation ceases.
Potatoes are heavy feeders and require high fertility to produce the yield and quality of tubers that you expect. Unlike most vegetables you should work all the fertilizer into the soil before planting. Side-dressing with fertilizer after the plants are up has little effect and may grow more top than tubers. Generally you need 3 pounds of 10-20-10 per 35 foot of row.
When you go to buy seed potatoes it is recommended that you avoid buying seed pieces and only buy whole seed potatoes. Cut the potatoes into 2 to 3 ounce pieces with 2 to 3 eyes per piece. Purchase and cut up your seed potatoes 5 - 7 days before you want to plant. After cutting treat the pieces with sulphur to help prevent soil-borne disease problems. Allow the cut pieces to cure at approximately 65̊ for the 5-7 days at a high humidity. To do this put them in a box in the garage with wet burlap covering the pieces. At planting time you will notice the pieces are a bit shriveled, have a healed cut surface and slightly enlarged eyes.
Plant the pieces either flat or in a bed 2 ½ to 3 inches deep and spaced 8 to 12 inches in the row. It doesn’t matter how you put the pieces in the furrow they will grow. If you plant more than one row make the rows at least 30 inches apart.
Potatoes will start growing by putting up a main stem which grows upward emerging from the soil to become the plant foliage. Along the underground portion of the main stem, stolons will grow which are like underground stems not roots. These grow laterally for short distances and then begin to enlarge to form the tuber. Since all underground stolons are going to initiate between the seed piece and the soil surface the deeper the seed piece (within reason) the more stolons produced. It is very important to begin to “dirt in” your potatoes when they reach 5 to 6 inches in height with 3 to 4 inches of soil. The ultimate goal is to eventually bury the seed piece 8 inches underground and so have lots of room for stolons and finally potatoes. Why don’t we just plant the seed pieces that deep to begin with? Well sometimes it works fine but if it is cold and wet, soil-borne diseases will get your plants every time simply because it’s too hard for the small plant to push through that much dirt.
Enjoy your red potatoes and fresh green beans, there aint much better eatin’!

Saving Those Old Poinsettia Plants

I have a special friend who loves to save old plants and one of the plants she saves is old poinsettia plants. She is sure she can coax them into blooming again next year and she is right. Just about everyone still has a poinsettia plant left over from Christmas and for many the plant really looks good. The real question is how to keep it looking good until it blooms again next year. The following is a list of things to do to help coax your poinsettia to grow and bloom again next year.
1. At New Year’s or in January apply an all purpose house plant fertilizer. Continue light, water and fertilizer. Plant will remain colorful for many weeks.
2. Valentine’s Day do nothing unless your plant has become long and leggy. If it has, prune to 5 inches from the soil.
3. St. Patrick’s Day. Remove faded and dried parts of the plant. Add more soil, a potting soil mix that is light.
4. May. Poinsettia should be around 3 feet tall. Trim off 2-3 inches from ends of branches to promote side branching. Re-pot to larger container and move the plant outside, first in indirect light and then to direct sunlight. They like lots of sun but be careful the pot will dry out quickly since the soil mix is so light.
5. July 4, trim plant again. Make sure it has full sunlight and slightly increase the amount of fertilizer. Remember this plant will now grow like a weed so be prepared for a much bigger plant.
6. September the poinsettia should be 5 to 6 feet tall and depending on the weather it may be time to move indoors or at least protect it from cold nights. It still needs at least 6 hours of direct sun and now you can reduce the fertilizer.
7. September 21 move the plant to a place where you can give it 13 hours of continuous darkness like in a closet with 11 hours of bright light. It is very important to keep the night temperatures in the mid 60's so a garage may be your best bet. Continue to water and fertilize.
8. Thanksgiving you can stop the “dark treatment” and put the plant in a sunny location in the house and reduce water and fertilizer.
9. Christmas enjoy your large blooming poinsettia. It might even double as a Christmas tree.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Landscaping Ideas for Every Home

The really nice weather during the holidays and rolling over into a new year makes me anxious to do some landscaping. My favorite book of landscaping is “Landscaping Your Home,” by Wm. R. Nelson Jr. and it is a book that I refer to all the time because he covers everything from starting with your needs to taking care of your plants. Let’s cover some simple landscape concepts.
Basically there are three areas we are concerned with in planning a home landscape. The first and generally the hardest to plan is the public area which is the front, second is the living area which may include some side yard but is generally known to be the backyard and the third is the service area where we try to hide things that we don’t want everyone to see when they come to visit.
In the public area there four elements we are concerned with: 1.) walks to the front door, the driveway and any parking areas 2.) tree plantings 3.) shrub plantings 4.) lawn areas. The most important consideration for the public area is the front door. This is the focal point of the whole design in the public area and it is the one spot that we want to make more attractive. If you want to show off the outside of your home start with the front door especially focus on it with color. Because the front door is the focus then your walks and driveway become the first area we concentrate on. Where you have a walk greatly affects the appearance of the public area. An uninterrupted front lawn area gives the illusion of depth and width. If your walk is perpendicular to the house and leads straight to the front door then you have effectively divided the house in half with the walk. The best location for a walk is parallel with the house connecting with the porch or door. This is why we like to go from the driveway to the door with a curved, meandering walk that won’t split your lawn in half.
Trees make up the second most important design element. Trees in the front yard serve to frame the front view of the house, provide shade and can even mask undesirable features in your home or landscape. The most effective placement of trees to obtain this framing effect is to place them at 30 to 45 degree angles off your house corners. This would allow the trees to grow up and shade the house without covering or hiding the house and since they are off the corners they serve as a picture frame with your house being the picture. The worst thing you can do is plant a tree right in the middle of the front yard and so effectively divide the house in half.
The third element we consider in the public area are shrub plantings. Typically in our area we call them foundation plantings mainly because they used to hide the tall foundations we had on older homes. Now they can be much smaller and fortunately we can do small because of the wide selection of dwarf cultivars. The problem is that we buy shrubs in one gallon containers and they just don’t stay small. We plant them too close to the house and each other and almost always we put a six foot shrub under a window that is 4 foot tall. It is very important to know the mature height and width of a plant and then plant them based on those dimensions. Another rule of thumb is to plant on the rule of 3's, 5's and 7's. When you plant in multiples do it based on odd numbers and one doesn’t count!
Lastly the lawn is our fourth most important element in planning the public area. It is the connecting link in all the previous elements. It ties them all together and then makes the home look bigger. A lawn should be unbroken by plantings, walks, or special features. Special features are the round planters around a tree or the special bird bath or feeder or even the island flower bed you’re so fond of. These things can be used in the landscape but they go in the living area not the public area. Remember this space is dedicated to your most important feature - your house and then its most important feature - the front door!