GARDENER'S MAILBAG: Is my 60-70 year old yaupon holly OK?

By Neil Sperry
Special to the Herald Democrat

Dear Neil: You will see in the photo I have attached that the end yaupon holly in the row looks like it’s dead. I soaked it thoroughly, but that did not help. What is going on with the bush? This planting is 60 to 70 years old.

Yaupon Holly Hedge End Plant Dying

I’m afraid you were soaking a plant that already had died. Whether it had gotten too dry or whether there was some kind of injury are things that I can’t see from the photograph. But it does not appear that the plant is going to recover. I would remove it and get the dead stubble out of the way so that the second plant can grow vigorously and fill in the void. Be very mindful of the water needs of all of the plants. If you have a sprinkler system, make sure that the head that serves that end of the planting is functioning properly.

Dear Neil: Are there varieties of full-size gardenias that are better suited to alkaline soil conditions?

Gardenia Bloom

Not that I’m aware of. You’ll see claims about plants that would make miraculous improvements seem possible, but when we try those plants, they seldom pan out. That’s been my experience with lilacs in Texas, for example. It isn’t that difficult to prepare a planting bed for one or two gardenia bushes. They need about a cubic yard of pure organic matter per plant. I use a mix of half sphagnum peat moss and half finely ground pine bark mulch. I dig a hole 10 or 12 inches deep, and I also pile the mix 8 to 10 inches above the surrounding grade. As the mix settles, I add 1 or 2 inches of fresh mix annually as a top-dress. If I had a water barrel, I would use that water to irrigate, since city water supplies are often highly alkaline in areas with alkaline soils. And, add iron with a sulfur soil-acidifier a couple of times each summer. Keep iron products off masonry and painted surfaces that could be stained.

Dear Neil: What are the little worms that are crawling all over my walls, floors ­– all over the inside of my house? I find them dead, and then there are more. What can I do?

Without a photo it’s hard to know for sure, but we encountered a siege of millipedes two years ago, and my description would have been exactly the same as what you wrote. My good friend Dr. Mike Merchant of Texas A&M’s AgriLife Extension put together a piece to cover the many calls he was getting. If you do have millipedes, this information will be of help to you.

Dear Neil: I have a large mulberry tree that produces multitudes of mulberry fruit each spring. Will they harm my lawn if they fall on it? Is there anything I can do to make this fruiting tree fruitless?

Mulberry fruit

The fruit will not harm your lawn unless they pack tightly and form a mass over the grass. However, they will germinate in abundance, and you will have hundreds of mulberry trees coming up everywhere. I am not aware of any spray you can use to make the conversion you requested. Fruitless mulberries are a different type of mulberry entirely. They have to be propagated asexually. I wish I had better news for you.

Dear Neil: I have a 30-year-old Chinese tallow tree that was started by my brother’s wife. My brother died early, and I’ve named this tree for him. It’s near the Red River, but it has survived other severe winters in the past. This year, however, it doesn’t seem to be leafing out even yet. I value this tree greatly. Is there anything I can do at this point?

Look up and down the trunk closely to see if there are any new buds being produced. People with less compelling stories are sending me photos of their Chinese tallow trees sending out new growth. I have not been especially encouraging to those people because they could get other trees much more easily than waiting on the regrowth from these injured trees. But your case is very different. Look for those buds and leave the tree in place for the rest of the summer. Hopefully you will get some new sprouts so that you will have at least some part of the tree for your memories. Good luck!

Dear Neil: I have two oak trees in my front yard that lost all of their leaves after the February freeze. No leaves have returned, although other oak trees in my front yard have produced new leaves and look healthy. Should I wait for a while, or should I have the trees removed?

Many of us (Texas A&M’s Forest Service, nursery leaders, award-winning arborists and random garden folks who write) are encouraging that oaks be left in place for the remainder of this year. I have been watching several thousand live oaks and Shumard red oaks that are behaving exactly the same way, and one by one they are leafing out. Have patience.

Dear Neil: If a large bottlebrush tree that froze to the ground at 9F in Houston in February is now sending out sprouts from the roots, will the tree grow back to normal size, or is it permanently damaged?


It will regrow to normal size if you have the patience. In fact, the cold probably did nothing to damage the roots, so you have a plant with a massive root system and very little top growth to support. It’s going to be pushing a lot of nutrition and water up into the new growth. It may regrow very rapidly.

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