Area Gardens and Groups Swing into Spring



March is a busy month for gardeners in the Upper East Side of Texas, filled with pleasurable tasks in the yard, workshops to hone skills and learn tips, and special events.

Pick up some ideas about how to give lawns and gardens a good boost; how to choose some of the best native landscaping flowers, shrubs, and trees to plant; creating sanctuary gardens for yourself and for birds; and learn more about fledgling garden centers such as The Bartlett House in Malakoff.


Creating Sanctuary Gardens

A well-designed landscape is a pleasure to the owner, enhances a community, adds to the property’s resale value, and limits environmental impact, says the AgriLife Extension Service. It involves more than putting trees, shrubs, and other plants on the property, but deals with conscious arrangement or organization of outdoor space for the gardener’s satisfaction and enjoyment.

Well-placed, personal art – such as sculptures, benches, and more – can be an important part of the process, too.

AgriLife landscape horticulturalist William C. Welch offers advice for planning the home landscape for maximum use and pleasure, creating a visual relationship between the house and the site, reducing landscape maintenance to a practical level, helping conserve energy, and reducing environmental inputs such as water, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Americans spend tremendous amounts of money “landscaping” homes, businesses, streets, parks, schools, and more places, but waste much of that money because of lack of planning, he said.

“People cannot understand how to landscape until they know why they landscape,” William said. “There are several reasons why people landscape: some think it improves the appearance of their place; others like to grow plants; still others just want their place to look pretty.

“Too often, these landscapes dominate rather than serve. Masses of plants or other materials in the landscape may take up a large portion of the space and leave little room for people.”

To arrange space so that people will find it useful, beautiful, meaningful, functional, and environmentally sustainable, William recommends: watching and analyzing the habits of the people who will use the space, including needs, desires and how much space each of their activities requires; studying past methods; surveying available materials to solve design requirements; and analyzing the environment of the site including the view in and around the site.

He said the site’s ecology is important to the design. Note areas and situations that might contribute to significant environmental impact such as surface and groundwater runoff.

“Not all landscaping improves the appearance of a building,” William said. “The work of an insensitive designer can subdue a building, conceal important features, or contradict the architect’s intent. Good landscape design can significantly improve the building’s appearance by adding warmth, livability, and personality. It can also relate a building to its site and environment and give it the desired degree of dominance.”

Growth and change separate landscape design from other forms of art, William said.

“Most works of art such as architecture, sculpture and painting look their best when new. Landscape designs, however, are at their worst when new and improve with age. A well-designed landscape will seldom look the same any two months of the year.”


Native Landscaping

Although quite a few plants can be – and have been – imported into Northeast Texas, the ones that are most suited to the environment are native to the region.

Keith C. Hansen, AgriLife extension horticulturalist for Smith County, calls March one of the busiest – and most fickle – gardening months of the year.

“March is a great month to plant almost every kind of landscape plant,” he said. “The sooner you plant, the quicker the plant will start getting established. This is important if the plants are to do well through the hot, stressful summer. Nurseries are receiving weekly shipments of fresh nursery stock, and this is prime to buy and plant.”

Prune evergreen and summer flowering trees and shrubs in March, but prune spring flowering shrubs such as forsythia, quince, azaleas, and spirea only after they finish blooming, if needed.

After camellias and azaleas finish blooming, he said, fertilize them with two to three pounds of azalea-camellia fertilizer per 100 square feet of bed area.

It’s also a good time to start hanging baskets of petunias, begonias, impatiens, and other annuals. Hanging baskets add another dimension to the landscape, helping bring color and accents to other areas around the house.

“Dig and divide summer and fall blooming perennials this month. Fall asters, chrysanthemums, salvia and other summer/fall perennials can be invigorated and increased for expanding your beds or sharing/trading with other gardeners,” Keith said. “The mulch underneath azalea, camellia and other shrubs may have partially decomposed, adding organic matter to the soil, but leaving areas suitable for weed invasion. Add more where needed, using organic mulches such as pine needles, pine bark, or cypress bark.”

Keith also said to begin fertilizing roses every four to six weeks from now until September, and to begin a spray program for controlling blackspot on roses.

In April, he said. gardening blooms to a fever pitch and nurseries are fully stocked with all kinds of plants and products.

Keith also shares a list of landscape plants that are proven performers in Northeast Texas – hardy, reliable, lacking major problems, and available in our area. It’s not an exclusive list, but it’s a good starting point.

Some of the favorites include asiatic jasmine, a variety of ivies, juniper, mondograss (also known as monkeygrass), coral honeysuckle, autumn sage, azaleas, camellia, hydrangea, althea (also known as rose of sharon), cherry laurel, southern wax myrtle, crepe myrtle, dogwood, magnolia, Mexican Plum, cedar elm, crabapple, a variety of maples and oaks, bald cypress, ginkgo biloba, pecan, tulip poplar, and more.


An Outdoor Kitchen

One home addition – it could be done at a business, too – that might catch on during warm or even cool weather in the Upper East Side of Texas is an outdoor kitchen.

The prototype is at Blue Moon Gardens near Edom, and was built by James Wilhite of Wilhite Landscape & Lawn Care in Tyler. (There’s a family connection; James and Blue Moon Gardens partner Mary Wilhite are husband and wife.)

“You can be outside here for such an extended time, at least six months a year,” James said. “A lot of people enjoy spending family time outdoors, enjoying that space instead of being inside. During the past six or eight years people have been migrating toward an outdoor room, expanding their homes to room that just happens to be outside even if it’s covered and walled with windows.”

A kitchen is a nice extension that goes beyond simply sitting on a patio. The one at Blue Moon – which has a fireplace for cooler weather – is 24 by 24 feet and includes a hearth, a gas-fired domed oven that can also be wood-fired, a sink, a food preparation area, a charcoal grill, and other features.

“I’ve seen them with big-screen TVs, recessed lighting, and ceiling fans,” he said. “There’s no reason it can’t be treated like any other room even though it doesn’t typically have walls.”

James and Mary have thought about building an outdoor kitchen for several years. At Blue Moon the outdoor kitchen is used for a variety of cooking classes.

“I find people are simply drawn to it and enjoy the space. They meander over and then go back to shopping,” James said.


Welcoming Birds

Birds are almost always welcome in healthy yards for their beauty, their songs, and their freedom, and inviting them in is simple: provide plenty of fresh water and feed seed, being sure to keep an eye on the seed so that there’s not too much – which could let it go stale or, if it gets wet, create a mold. Put out a little at a time, see how fast the birds eat it, and replace as necessary with bigger amounts until a balance is reached.

Okay, that’s an over-simplification, but that’s basically it.

To survive, birds need habitat. Exactly what type and how much depends on each species’ food preferences, foraging strategies, and nest site requirements, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Texas Partners in Flight Program.

The right kinds of habitats are crucial.

Guidelines for backyard habitat conservation include growing native plants that provide fruits or trees; leaving as much dead plant material – fallen limbs, leaves, and more – on the land as possible provides harbor for insects that migratory birds thrive on; using biological controls rather than chemical pesticides for unwanted insects and vegetation; reducing the risk of bird predation by keeping pet cats indoors; and refraining from putting out table scraps, which will attract predators such as raccoons.

What kinds of birds generally live in the area?

Try the book “Birds of Northeast Texas,” written by Matt White and published by Texas A&M University Press. An annotated guide for both novice and experienced birders, it includes 390 species of birds that have been reliably recorded in 22 Northeast Texas counties plus tips on finding the best birdwatching spots.

An interesting educational source, too, is the Franklin County Historical Association’s Fire Station museum in Mount Vernon. The exhibit showcases more than 150 bird eggs that include one from the extinct Carolina parakeet, and one from the extinct passenger pigeon. Many of the eggs in the museum were collected in the late 1800s by a taxidermist in Ohio, and eventually found their way to a Texas collector named A.W. Nations and the museum’s second floor.

Gardening Education

Gardening seminars begin in earnest in the region in March and several areas are also hosting driving tours to see early blooms unfolding.  Check out the County Line Magazine events calendar for details on the tours and on the seminars.

Nacogdoches Azaleas

Seven hundred feet of purple spider azaleas planted along University Road frame one edge of The Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden. As a graduate student at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches resident Barbara Stump conducted the garden’s site analysis, planned its design and coordinated the effort to break ground on the ongoing project. Composed of a broad variety of plant specimens, including Japanese maples, hydrangeas, camellias and more than 6,500 azaleas, The Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden is Texas’ largest azalea garden.

Paved paths, lined with benches for rest and observation, weave visitors throughout the garden. The free attraction offers parking accommodations for bus tours and disabled visitors.

Barbara designed the azalea garden with color, curb appeal and variety in mind.

“I love color and when people drive by they need to see something,” she said. “The function is to show people there are all kinds of interesting plants.”

Barbara completed a Master of Science degree in Horticulture in 2001. Today, in addition to teaching Advanced Landscape Design at SFA,she is assigned half time to SFA’s Mast Arboretum and Pineywoods Native Plant Center development and public relations. She personally tries to give every bus tour through the garden and says she is “happy to add to our collections.”

Barbara is an active member of the Azalea Society of America. She served as the editor of the group’s quarterly journal “The Azalean” for eight years and helped organize the 2007 national convention in Nacogdoches.

“The Azalea Society of America has been a terrific support for The Ruby M. Mize Azalea Garden,” Barbara said. “One quarter of our garden is from its members.”

Nacogdoches — the oldest town in Texas— is home to Texas’ largest azalea garden, more than 25 miles of azalea trails, historic attractions and museums, festivals, nature trails, antique shops and art galleries. The annual Nacogdoches Azalea Trail takes place March 10 through April 7. See or call 1.888.OLDESTTOWN.


Tough Roses

Roses seem to be, in a way, the holy grail of flowering plants in Northeast Texas with the Tyler area – and beyond – noted for its longtime commercial production. Properly cared for, roses add beauty and fragrance to any yard, but for people with limited confidence in tackling a rose garden two quick options come to mind: one is the Earth-Kind variety; the other is knockout roses.

There are so many varieties of roses that it’s hard to keep up with them. One of the growers’ names that comes up most often in online searches is Chamblee’s Roses, which offers more than 300 varieties of roses at its Tyler headquarters and online.

One of the most famous growers in the world is David Austin Roses, which has its main offices in England but has international operations including a Tyler operation that opened in 1999 and is said to offer more than 800 varieties.

With so many to choose from, experienced gardeners have many options. Beginning and casual home gardeners are turning to Earth-Kind and knockout because they are heat tolerant, pest and disease resistant, and easy to grow – perhaps easier “entry plants” into the greater world of roses.

Knock Out roses were developed by Bill Radler from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and have become the most widely sold rose in North America.

Introduced in 2000, they are said to be the most disease resistant rose on the market and produce flowers every five or six weeks until the first hard frost. If unpruned, they can grow to be more than three to four feet wide and tall.

Earth-Kind was developed in Texas as part of the Texas AgriLife Extension Service of Texas A&M University’s larger Earth-Kind landscaping program. It is based on the results of extensive research and field trials and is awarded only to those roses demonstrating superior pest tolerance, combined with outstanding landscape performance.

Once established, they have excellent heat and drought tolerance with limited use of fertilizers, pesticides, and water.

The objective of Earth-Kind Landscaping – which goes beyond roses – is to combine the best of organic and traditional gardening and landscaping principles to create a horticultural system based on real world effectiveness and environmental responsibility. The practice includes water conservation, reduced fertilizer and pesticide use, landscaping for energy conservation, and reduction of landscape wastes entering landfill.

The Bartlett House

The historical Bartlett House in Malakoff was so overgrown that many people didn’t even know there was a house behind the brush; of those who did, many were kids who hid out on the grounds and inside and sprayed graffiti on the walls.

The Greater Malakoff Area Garden Club bought the place in 2009 and challenged itself to bring the “magnificent ruin” back to life.

Lyn Dunsavage Young, the garden club’s president, said the house is important for many reasons. Historically, Tom Bartlett, founder of the Malakoff Brick Company, began building it in 1929 at the start of the Great Depression, partially for himself and his family and partially as an optimistic symbol for the community. He kept building it during the Depression because he wanted people to have confidence in the recovery.

“Mrs. Bartlett was the consummate gardener. She had two people who did nothing but garden: fountains, crepe myrtles that still exist, thousands of bulbs of paper whites and jonquils, a huge variety of plants from the 1920s and 1930s,” Lyn said of the four-acre estate. “The house is renowned for the gardens.”

The garden club’s goal is to restore the garden – and eventually the house – to teach people the value of planting indigenous plants.

“Native plants are really important with the climate changes,” she said. “We’re a little club. We don’t have any money, but it became imperative that we do something rapidly with this property to establish it as place to come to in Malakoff and appreciate the history of the house and the gardens.”

Plans for 2012 include securing the property, power washing the house and an out building, and to put about 600 plants into the ground amidst the large, surviving crepe myrtles and the hardy jonquils.

“We don’t know yet if they are going to survive last summer’s drought,” Lyn said. “We have put in water systems, cleared the property, and made a huge impact in that regard.”

The garden club plans to re-imagine the three-car garage as a visitor center and to work with the Acme Brick Plant – which succeeded the Malakoff Brick Company – for a parking lot and more.

“There are a huge number of people who really care about this property because it’s been a part of their lives,” Lyn said. “It would be a huge loss to the community to lose this property. We want to restore in phases. The gardens are the first phase and garage is the next thing we can do. We have come up with at least a strategy to save the house. Our imperative is time. We have to do things rapidly to accomplish the goals of the people who have given so much to it, which is everybody in the club.

“I think the house can transform the community because the town offers so much for visitors to come and stop and see. A lot of people compare this to the little garden club that rescued the hotel in downtown Jefferson. They said nobody could do it, but they did. You can do a lot when you have a vision and are tenacious like the little engine that could.”

Home Garden Tips


March is a busy time for home gardeners – both flowers and vegetable gardens – and Blue Moon Gardens near Edom offers these tips for the month:

• Prune shrubs before the big spring growth spurt.

• Fertilize lawns and gardens. One popular option is manure-based fertilizers that are easy to apply and do not burn.

• Don’t remove winter mulch too early even if the weather is warm. It will help protect the plants from late freezes.

• Plant perennials, herbs, and shrubs.

For vegetable growers, availability increases toward the end of the month.

“I was never fond of a giant rowed vegetable garden. The weeds always took it over and I would abandon it quickly,” said Sharon Lee Smith of Blue Moon Gardens. “Instead, I am using the raised bed method of vegetable gardening and it is working perfectly. I have eleven 4x4 boxes – that’s just what fit my space – with one of them devoted to asparagus. In the other 10 I plant tomatoes, peppers, squash, eggplant, okra, onions, potatoes, lettuce, broccoli, carrots, and beets depending on the season.

“The nice thing about gardening in the boxes is that with close plantings the weeds hardly grow. While it does not produce enough produce to can and preserve it is enough to have fresh food to eat each week. I include plenty of herbs like basil, parsley, oregano and thyme in the boxes and surround the garden with flowers to attract beneficial insects. It has been a most rewarding gardening endeavor.”

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