Return to Gardening Columns Main Index

Questions for the Week


Strawberry production in home gardens is an interesting phenomenon. More people are happier with strawberry plants that produce less fruit than any other crop they grow. Why? If a tomato variety produced only one serving every two weeks -- which is common for the ever-bearing strawberry types -- gardeners would rapidly abandon it. Yet, I constantly encounter gardeners who criticize my renaming of the "ever-bearing" strawberry to "never-bearing strawberry." You should consider the effort of watering, insect, disease and weed control involved, and the potential yield of the "ever-bearing" strawberries before wasting valuable time and space on strawberry growing.

Yet, after all is said and done, gardeners still want to grow strawberries! Why? The strawberry is the first fruit ready to harvest in the spring and, most important, they are good to eat. Strawberries can be grown in this area if the right things are done at the right time with the right varieties.

The right time to plant strawberries is September-- NOT in the spring or after the Poteet Strawberry Festival in April. Gardeners who procrastinate until late November reduce yield potential. Poteet strawberry producers use an 8-month system -- plant in September, harvest in April and destroy the plants in June. This system differs from the conventional strawberry production system used by our northern neighbors who plant in February and enjoying the best harvest 14 months later in April or May. Again, that term "efficiency" pops up. Which is more efficient, the 8-month or the 14-month system? Especially when yields are the same.

None of the strawberry varieties which you see in mail order catalogs will perform as well as the plants which are sold in local nurseries in September. Just be sure to remove all blooms and runners that are produced in the fall until Christmas so that strong "Mother" plant growth is encouraged.

Now you know the right time and the right plants to use. The most difficult task is yet to come -- doing the right things to insure adequate yields. Gardeners will always successfully produce strawberries if they keep one basic fact in mind. Strawberry plants detest, abhor and generally don't enjoy growing in the material located in the backyard which is loosely termed "soil". Strawberries are commercially produced in sandy soil and while they will grow in our soil, that doesn't mean that it will necessarily be producing efficiently. Strawberry plants thrive in acid soils -- ours is alkaline. Strawberry plants yield more, and sweeter berries, when growing in sandy soils -- ours is clay. Strawberry plants enjoy soils high in organic matter -- ours is extremely deficient.

Sound bad? The situation may seem hopeless, but for the die-hard gardener, NOTHING is impossible. For you stubborn, do- or-die-trying gardeners, start digging! You need to excavate the bad soil and replace it with the good. "Good" strawberry soil means sandy. Washed sand or Poteet red sand can be purchased from local sand-and-gravel companies (check the yellow pages in the telephone book). Specially formulated mixtures can also be purchased from commercial formulators. If digging is not your pleasure, a raised bed filled with sand will do the trick. Be sure to locate your bed where the plants will get sun all day, or at least for 8 hours.

Plants should be spaced 12 inches apart for maximum
yields. If you already have an established strawberry bed, now is the time of year to thin plants until they are twelve inches apart to insure production of large berries next spring.

If "land-moving" does not suit your fancy either, a simple answer is to grow strawberries in containers. Whiskey barrels, hanging baskets or any well-draining container filled with potting mix -- not garden soil -- will produce an abundance of strawberries.

The difference is the yield per plant caused by optimum growing conditions. A container that drains well, filled with a potting mix, offers the ideal situation for berry production. Potting mixes are acidic in nature and drain well. This ideal growing condition may cause strawberry plants to yield as much as a pint of berries per plant. I have produced more strawberries from plants growing on one hanging basket than I have from plants growing in a 100-square foot area where there is alkaline soil!

Of course, the larger the container, the more plants can be planted and, subsequently, more berries will be produced. At this point, forget about prohibition and tee totaling, and use a whiskey barrel. One gardener told me that emptying a whiskey barrel is one aspect of gardening where he has no problem soliciting participation! Once the ceremony of barrel emptying is complete, the person who can still hold a drill steady should drill 2- inch diameter holes in the sides of the barrel. Space the holes 10 to 12 inches apart around the barrel, and make sure that holes are offset (not directly above one another) between rows. Drill smaller holes in the bottom of the barrel to insure adequate drainage.

Once the barrel is drilled, it is planting time. Barrels cut into halves are easiest to handle and get the best growing results. Whole barrels sometimes do not drain properly, and plants in lower holes die. A center core of a porous material surrounded by a well-drained potting mix will insure success. I find that a wire mesh of hardware cloth formed into a 10 to 12 inch circle, placed in the center of the barrel and filled with perlite or coarse bark will insure proper watering of lower plants.

As the potting mix is poured into the barrel and firmed, strawberry transplants are planted in the drilled side holes from the inside of the barrel.

Lack of continuous fertilization for container-grown fruits and vegetables is one mistake that most gardeners make. To insure adequate fertilization, add a cupful of Osmocote slow release fertilizer pellets to each layer of the strawberry barrel. Also, feed container plants with a soluble fertilizer (20-20-20) every 7 to 10 days. Most potting mixes contain no fertilizer elements. Regular waterings wash out nutrient elements that must be replenished if plants are expected to grow vigorously.

Four heavy-duty coasters can be attached directly to the bottom of the barrel so that it can be rotated to so that all plants will receive adequate sunlight, insuring uniform plant growth. Don't worry about protecting plants during the winter because they won't freeze!

The only insect threat that you will have to contend with are spider mites, controlled by using Kelthane or sulfur, and pill bugs (sow bugs), controlled by using bug baits, 2 bricks or a heavy foot! Foliage diseases can be controlled by using a foliar fungicide that contains daconil.

So as you see, strawberry production is simple.

Transplant strawberry plants now into a sunny location that has sandy, low pH, high organic soil. Remove all of the blooms and runners that are formed between now and Christmas, and prepare for an abundant harvest of luscious berries in April. It's as simple as criticizing your in-laws and having them enjoy it! Some of the "ole"-timers are wondering if I have gone completely bananas encouraging gardeners to go to such trouble to produce strawberries. Many have transplanted the plants in regular soil and harvested strawberries every year. That's probably true, but the real question is how many strawberries are harvested. Each, and I repeat, EACH strawberry plant should yield AT LEAST one pint of berries per season!


QUESTION: We have an American Elm (Liberty DED-resistant) planted in our backyard which develops a brown "leaf curl" and leaf drop every summer. Other branches show new growth, without any leaf anomalies,and our native American elm in the front yard shows no signs of these symptoms. Adding to the puzzle is that the Liberty elms we purchased for our city's park are doing well - and display no problems. What is going on here?

ANSWER: Elms, and yes even the Liberty Elm(!!), can develop leaf spots such as:

Black Leaf Spot (fungus -Gnomonia ulmea): Small, yellow spots appear first on the upper surface of leaves, then gradually develop a shiny black appearance. Heavy spotting causes leaf yellowing and early defoliation in wet seasons. Usually, defoliation does not occur much before normal leaf fall so control is not warranted. If trees have been seriously affected in previous seasons, apply fungicidal sprays when leaves are unfolding, when they reach full size, and again 2 weeks later. This will help prevent serious defoliation. Raking and burning fallen leaves will also reduce inoculum for future infection.

Other Leaf Spots (fungi - Gloeosporium sp., Cercospora sp., Phyllosticta sp., and others): Dark, elongated spots develop on midribs, veins and margins of leaves, or spots of various shapes and colors may develop on any portion of leaf surface. Destroy the fallen leaves and control as for black spot.

Mark Black, Extension Plant Pathologist, writes:
Is your tree more shaded than those planted in the city park? That might result in foliar diseases.

Other diseases to consider would be powdery mildew (look for white to gray to tan fungal growth on the lower leaf surface, with tiny white then yellow then tan then black (with age) fruiting bodies. In severe cases, leaves might turn brown and curl up. Some individual specimens will be much more susceptible to powdery mildew than others, so just by chance you may have selected the wrong one.

QUESTION: Two years ago I planted some good-sized Arp rosemary in the same site as another upright variety (the stronger pine-smelling rosemary). It did very well in this location up until this summer, when it has shown signs of severe stress (drying and browning). One looks dead and the other 2 are not far behind. The other variety is going gangbusters. What gives? Too much rain this spring for Arp?

ANSWER: Some say that the South Central Texas heat is too much for rosemary, but most of us think that, because of the way they die -- fast and still holding dead leaves -- they are being killed by a root rot fungus. Regardless, there is nothing that can be done except get new plants next year or this fall.

Mark Black, Extension Plant Pathologis,t adds:
Poor soil drainage and excessive rainfall are definitely enemies of rosemary. If you replant with rosemary, incorporate washed builders sand or other clean sand/fine gravel in the soil mix, building up a berm for planting. Avoid planting near the drip line of a building, or where water runoff accumulates.
Another problem is a green worm (lipidopterous larvae) that feeds near the growing point, killing individual leaves.

QUESTION: I have 3-year old dwarf Burford and a dwarf yaupon in another bed that my landscaper said to prune in February. I've done that every year and they are looking good, but need shaping. Is it OK to shape these shrubs now?

ANSWER: Pruning of evergreen shrubs should be done in early spring (February - March) so they will re-leaf faster. If you prune now, it will not hurt the plant but you will get to "enjoy" the baldness for several months until next spring.

QUESTION: I have been raising peppers (as is my usual custom). They have what seems to be leaf spot, but otherwise look healthy and prosperous, with one small exception. They are blooming vigorously but the blooms are not setting fruit and are turning brown, frequently withering, and falling off. I have been watering regularly as we have not had rain in my part of town for about one month. I've also maintained a regular fertilization plan, supplemented with foliar feedings with fish emulsion once per week. I have been using an organically based copper fungicide to control the diseases and an insecticidal soap (all applied once per week in regular rotations). This has been a problem all season, and is also affecting my eggplant and tomatillos. The only regular producer is my okra, which is going to town, and one Habanero plant (which is potted and 2 years old). Is this a disease problem, a heat related phenomenon, or simply a drought problem? Is there a treatment? Am I killing my plants with kindness?

ANSWER: I think you are seeing a condition by weather that is too hot. It was cloudy and cool in the spring, which was not conducive to setting pepper fruit. Then, it turned hot as hell!!! If the plants are healthy and disease and insect free, they should start setting when the temperatures cool this fall. NOW, I am assuming these plants are in full sun, getting 8 to 10 hours of sun every day. Too much shade will also cause peppers to drop bloom.

QUESTION: I have about an acre that I've been cultivating for 13 years. It was covered with Bermuda grass when I moved in. I have added many beds, ground covers, etc. However, the Bermuda grass continues to return and I hate Bermuda grass! It is a maintenance nightmare! It demands water and mowing, and it invades every bed relentlessly. I'd love to kill it all and replace it with buffalo and more shrubs and natives. I mulch and I weed. My life is spent pulling out Bermuda grass. What can I do?

ANSWER: LEARN TO LOVE WHAT YOU'VE GOT!!!! There are lots of folks who have prayed for Buffalo Grass and yet would trade back for that cursed Bermuda grass in a minute! Have you ever heard Garth Brook's song, "Thank God for Unanswered Prayers"?!?! Bermuda is the easiest of all grasses to control and weed. The product MSMA or DSMA will kill EVERYTHING in Bermuda, but not KILL the Bermuda. You and every golf course in the country can maintain (at any level you desire!) a pure, beautiful Bermuda putting or playing turf. Invasive Bermuda grass can now be controlled with the selective grass killer named Poast or Ortho Grass-B-Gon. They kill ONLY grasses and will kill Bermuda out of everything from flowering annuals to watermelons, and NEVER KILL ANYTHING but the Bermuda. If you want a complete kill of Bermuda and other weeds, any glyphosate herbicide such as Roundup, Kleanup and Finale will take care of that problem. If you have nutgrass (nutsedge) in Bermuda, you can use Image, which kills the nutgrass and even stunts the Bermuda so you won't have to mow as often. Believe me, if you have ANY of the above-mentioned problems with your beloved Buffalo Grass, you are just in a heap of trouble. LEARN TO LOVE IT because it IS the grass of choice for sunny, dry areas.

QUESTION: My name is Jo Toland Ackman, and I am the Secretary of the Gonzales County Historical Commission, P.O. Box 446, Gonzales, TX 78629. I am seeking expert advice regarding the maintenance of a historical tree. Gonzales County is the home of a Sam Houston Oak, a native Quercus virginiana that is estimated to be 200 years old. History indicates that Sam Houston sat under this tree in 1836 and gathered the Texians after the fall of the Alamo. We are in an "opinion quandary" over how to care for in and looking for more information. In 1993 this tree was listed as one of the most endangered trees in Texas. With the latest rains, it is looking much better than it has in recent times.

The tree sits out fairly alone in an area of the pasture. There are electrical lines about 100 feet from the drip line, plus other trees in the pasture. At this point, the tree has not been fertilized or watered other than what it receives naturally. We want to protect this tree as much as possible to insure its life and future history.

I am hoping you can help. If this is not your field of expertise please direct me or forward this letter. This information is needed as soon as possible.

The Gonzales County Historic Commission is going to bat for this tree, but we need expert advise to insure a safe future. Here are our questions:

1. Is it advisable to install lightening rods in this tree.

ANSWER: ABSOLUTELY. A tree with this historic value should be protected from the coincidental occurrence of lightning. Better safe than sorry!! I have a similar size oak tree in Tennessee which went for at least 100 years without a lightning strike, but last year was struck and half the tree was killed. The answer to this question is not maybe, BUT HECK YES!!!!

2. Would there be a negative response to fertilizer and watering this type of tree? Would this type of care domesticate the tree, taking away the historic significance?

ANSWER: If Sam Houston were still alive (by some miraculous means!), would we feed and water him?!?!?!?! Even though the food of our time is not exactly the same as the food he was used to enjoying, I'll bet old Sam would love a Big Mac and fries!!!!! If there is no reason to make this very old, very precious tree suffer, I would recommend food and water!!! I would install an above ground sprinkler system to be used during periods of low rainfall and I would apply one pound of a slow-release fertilizer per inch of trunk diameter EVERY spring. I can even get the fertilizer donated if you use Easy-Grow 19-5-9.

3. When is the proper time to trim out the small dead limbs?

ANSWER: The best time to trim ALL dead limbs is during its dormant season in December or January. I would hire a professional arborist who has a passion for history and is well respected.

Here is additional information from Mike Arnold, horticultural teacher at Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas. He writes::

I agree with you on all points of your reply requesting information on the Sam Houston oak (bet you don't hear that often). The only suggestion that I might reiterate is that I would not recommend the installation of an irrigation system if it would require trenching anywhere within approximately 2 times the diameter of the drip line. I think that this is what you were referring to regarding above ground irrigation system, but think it worth repeating.

QUESTION: I have several crape myrtles on my property. I have been fertilizing them with an all purpose fertilizer. Someone told me that I should use an acid fertilizer, like Miracid. Is this correct?

ANSWER: It is not really necessary, but it won't hurt anything anyway. So-called "acid" fertilizers do little if anything to acidify the soils that are buffered alkaline.

QUESTION: My plants developed a white powdery fungus that I took care of with a fungicide (such as Greenlight Systemic Fungicide with benomyl or Fungaway with bayleton). Now they are developing a sticky black coating on the leaves. What could this be?

ANSWER: It is the residue of an aphid infestation? Many aphid species secrete a sticky substance called 'honeydew' which is similar to sugar water. This energy-rich anal secretion falls on leaves and other objects below the infestation. A black-colored fungi called 'sooty mold' colonizes honeydew-covered surfaces. As a result, sunlight is unable to reach the leaf surface, restricting photosynthesis that produces plant sugars. Honeydew also attracts ants, flies and other insects. Some species are heavily dependent on ants for survival and dispersal. The honeydew-loving ants 'tend' the aphids and prey upon natural enemies of aphids and other-wise unhealthy aphids. Ants also carry aphids to the non-infested parts of plants. Some ants (Lasius spp.) even harvest and overwinter the eggs.

Aphids are important vectors of plant diseases, particularly viruses. The cotton aphid is known to transmit over 50 plant viruses and the green peach aphid, over 100.

QUESTION: This year, I decided to grow gardenias in my flower bed. Since my gardenias require acidic fertilizer, I am wondering if I should move my caladiums and salvia which are in the same bed?

ANSWER: Not only do your gardenias demand acidic soils, they will die if they do not have an acidic soil (pH 5-6 minimum) WHICH ACIDIC FERTILIZER CAN NEVER FULLY FURNISH. You have to use acidic parent material for your growing mix so as decomposition occurs, the plants will consistently have the ideal pH in which to extract minerals and nutrients from. Your soil is so buffered (highly alkaline because of a calcareous parent material) that just the addition of an acidic fertilizer will never change the soil and keep the soil pH where it should be. What you should do is excavate a volume of soil from the planting bed and replace it with a mix of 2/3 spaghum peat moss and 1/3 washed builders sand or potting mix. This mixture can also be used for growing azaleas, gardenias or hydrangeas in containers. Be sure that the planting location receives morning sun and afternoon shade to insure optimum success. You might want to add some Osmocote Slow-release fertilizer pellets (follow label instructions for amount for volume of bed) into this mix before you begin planting. Then, water with your acid-based water soluble fertilizer( such as Miracid, Miracle Grow or Peters 20-20-20) every week.

QUESTION: I have purchased some ornamental gourds and pumpkins to decorate with for Thanksgiving. What can I treat them with to prolong their beauty?

ANSWER: The attractiveness of ornamental gourds can be prolonged with proper curing. Cut them from the vine so that a short portion of stem remains on the fruit. Wipe the fruit with a cloth dipped in rubbing alcohol, or dip them into a bath of one part Chlorox and 9 parts of water. Lay the gourds so they don't touch each other. Dry for 3 to 4 weeks, inspecting and discarding any that start to spoil. When well dried, apply several coats of clear shellac to enhance their color and preserve their beauty for several months.

QUESTION: We are experiencing problems with our tomato crop. The fruit are hollow and shrunken on the inside. Can you please advise us to the possible cause and possible remedy? We are in South Africa.

ANSWER: Hollow fruit can be a function of 1) poor pollination because of high temperatures, 2) plant stress because of unfavorable environmental conditions. This condition also occurs more frequently occurs in some varieties.

QUESTION: We have plants that are infested with mealy bugs. I would like a natural way to kill the mealy bugs, if possible, and so that I do not have to resort to a harmful pesticide.

ANSWER: Please see:

which indicates that insecticidal soaps are recommended for mealy bugs:

"Researchers have not yet determined exactly how soaps work. Some soaps simply wash off the outer waxy coating of the insect cuticle, destroying its watertight nature and causing the insect to dry up and die. Other soaps have additional insecticidal properties, which may affect the nervous system. These soaps appear to have toxic activity only against plant-eating insects and thus may spare beneficial insects such as lady beetles, honeybees, lacewings and predatory mites. Although a number of soaps tested have insecticidal properties, only Safer's Insecticidal Soap is currently registered for use on edible crops. It controls such pests as spider mites, aphids, mealybugs, whiteflies, harlequin bugs, stink bugs and thrips.

QUESTION: I am interested in the folklore of mistletoe. Do you know of any stories or history on how this plant became one of our Christmas traditions? When, who, why??? Or, where should I go look to find out more?

ANSWER: Mistletoe is associated with many traditions and holidays, especially Christmas. Historians say the Druids, or ancient priests of the Celts, cut the mistletoe which grew on the sacred oak, and gave it to the people for charms. In Northern mythology, an arrow made of mistletoe killed Balder, son of the goddess Frigg. Early Europeans used mistletoe as a ceremonial plant. The custom of using mistletoe at Christmas probably comes from this practice. In many countries, a person caught standing beneath mistletoe must forfeit a kiss. Interestingly enough, the mistletoe of the U.S. is not the mistletoe of Europe. The U.S. mistletoe is represented by the genus Phoradendron, of which the species Phoradendron flavescens is used. It resembles the traditional mistletoe (Viscum album) of Europe, which for centuries has been a romantic Yule-tide symbol with vague religious or sentimental significance. It is also the State "flower" of Oklahoma. In the LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS found on PLANTanswers that mistletoe means:

Mistletoe-- Kiss Me, Affection, To Surmount Difficulties, Sacred Plant of India, Magic Plant of the Druids

QUESTION: It seems that I may have some leaf-footed stink bugs on my plants, although I cannot seem to find any. How big are they and should I use chemicals to get rid of them? Are the tomatoes that have the yellow spots safe to eat? Also, I have a lot of little black spiders on the plants and lately they seem to be making webs or nests on some of the leaves, spiders are usually good but are there any bad spiders for tomatoes?

ANSWER: Spider mites can be a problem as well as stinkbugs or leaf-footed bugs on tomatoes. Elimination of the old plants and replanting new ones is a good answer. Cover with Grow-Web by Indeco (ordering address included on PLANTanswers site:

The stinkbug (leaf-footed bug) damage does not make the tomato inedible, but makes the skin tougher ?? simply peel the fruit before eating.

QUESTION: For two years now I have had pests that suck my flowers dry. The unformed buds are made into dry hollow shells. I want to mix something into the soil that will eliminate them this fall. Flowers I plant include snapdragons, mums, carnations. Help!!

ANSWER: These are the larvae of some insect which feeds on the buds. There is nothing that can be mixed into the soil to prevent or eliminate this pest, with the exception of Disyston (Systemic Insecticide). You will have to watch closely for the first signs of damage, and then use an insecticide such as Orthene. Make three applications 7 to 10 days apart and be sure to get complete coverage.

QUESTION: Are dried, yard-long beans edible? I was away for a month and most of my beans have dried and gone to seed?

ANSWER: Absolutely, they can be eaten as you would any dried bean.

QUESTION: Don't know if it's available or even possible, but I would like some information on propagating Yucca Plants from cuttings or any other method you might know.

ANSWER: Propagation of Yucca occurs from rooting cuttings or dividing side shoots or "pups" which arise from the base of the plant. Information on rooting cuttings can be found at the PLANTanswers site:


Listen to the Garden Show live!
Saturday & Sunday from Noon-2PM
Call (210) 308-8867 or (866) 308-8867
and have your gardening questions answered
- during show hours ONLY -
Milberger's Gardening South Texas
Hosts: Dr. Calvin Finch, Dr. Jerry Parsons, and
Milton Glueck, radio personality and host
Last weekend's shows ON PODCAST
Podcast Logo
Milberger's Specials
On Sale This Week | Newsletter Signup
Local Gardening Events
Open 9 to 6 Monday-Saturday & 10 to 5 Sunday
3920 N. Loop 1604 E.  San Antonio, TX 78247
Phone: (210) 497-3760
Three exits east of 281, inside of 1604.
Next to the Valero station.
Email Us | Map & Directions
Copyright © 2015 - All Rights Reserved. PLANTanswers and are trademarks of Jerry Parsons.