GARDENER'S MAILBAG: What do you think about buffalo grass?

By Neil Sperry
Special to the Herald Democrat

Dear Neil: How well is buffalo grass suited for use as a lawn in Texas? The area where I’d like to use it is part sun/part shade. Can I get away with not watering it once it’s established?

Buffalograss in rustic landscape

Buffalo grass is quite drought-tolerant (equal to, or slightly better than common bermuda grass). However, in serious and prolonged droughts, it really ought to be watered occasionally to keep it at least modestly vigorous. Part shade will be an issue. It must have full sun to do its best. The bigger problem for many people is that bermuda frequently invades and overtakes it, especially in urban settings where bermuda is common. Even in arid parts of the state, as soon as we start watering, if bermuda is present, it will grower faster than the buffalo grass. Since there are no sprays that will kill bermuda without killing the buffalo grass as well, many of us have opted just to go with bermuda in the first place.

Dear Neil: The soil in my landscape has settled away from sprinkler heads and the walk. Does it disappear? Should I be adding more?

You must have a clay soil. Clays expand and contract when they get wet or become dry, respectively. I used to play golf, and the place that was most affordable was a community course that was never irrigated. One summer, I actually lost a golf ball that rolled into one of the cracks in the dry soil. I saw it happen. There is no call to action. You’ll notice, after rains, that the problem abates.

Dear Neil: My pecan tree had a bumper crop of pecans last year, but they were tiny as they fell. They were perfectly formed inside and out, but they were half their normal size. I applied water to soil I had roto tilled to 2 or 3 inches out around their drip lines. I was told to apply 20-0-0 fertilizer last spring. Could that have been the problem?

Your problem was the dry weather. Pecans develop their full, mature size as the summer progresses, then they fill out their kernels late in the summer. It sounds like your trees were too dry in that first phase, as the pecans were expanding. Use a drip irrigation hose. Hopefully, you’ll have better results next time around. And, that’s the correct fertilizer. Apply it at the rate of one pound per inch of trunk diameter. Apply it out around the drip line. Try not roto tilling this time around.

Dear Neil: Regarding mulching my plants, I applied cedar mulch around a few shrubs several years ago. Is it good “forever,” or should I replace it occasionally? Do I need to pull it away from the plants, to keep fungus from growing? Also, could I use leaves from my trees and shrubs as a mulch?

Newspaper mulch in garden

Mulches are good as long as they are still recognizable. Once they decay enough that you can’t identify what you started with, you need to be topdressing with more mulch. You really don’t need to rake and remove the old mulch unless it would make your landscape look a bit tidier. As for tree leaves, once they’ve been run though the mower, they’re great as a short-term mulch, for example, around shrubs, perennials and vegetables.

Dear Neil: What is the best grass for heavy shade? Is there perhaps a ground cover that could be mowed?

Sperrys heavily shaded backyard with mondo grass ground cover in lieu of turf

This is a question that appears here fairly frequently, albeit in slightly different wording each time. I try to answer it many of those times, since it’s such a common problem for Texas gardeners. St. Augustine is our most shade-tolerant turf grass, but it must have 5 to 6 hours of direct summer sunlight to survive, more if you want it to grow vigorously. No ground cover replacement can tolerate regular mowing, and none is able to withstand pedestrian traffic. I’ve converted most of my shade-ravaged turf areas into mondo grass (monkey grass). While I don’t mow it, at least it gives a nice, grass-like texture to its parts of our landscape.

Dear Neil: Several months ago, I read about using cardboard and newspapers to keep my compost and garden free of weeds. I can’t find that reference. What are your thoughts?

It’s a great theory. However, it wouldn’t be my choice. I prefer to use one of the roll-type mulches from the hardware store or garden center (easier to cut and keep in place). Actually, even more often, I apply shredded tree leaves or finely ground pine bark mulch to my garden. The compost pile should keep itself weed-free if you’re turning it often and if the pile is heating up because it’s composting actively.

Dear Neil: What is the timing for pre-emergent weed control of crabgrass and grass burs, and what products are best?

Apply one of the granular products such as Halts, Balan or Dimension a week or two before the average date of your last killing freeze in your county. Repeat the application 90 days later to get full protection through the entire growing season. It must be applied before the weed seeds begin to germinate.

Have a question you’d like Neil to consider? Mail it to him in care of this newspaper or e-mail him at mailbag@sperrygardens.com. Neil regrets that he cannot reply to questions individually.