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Above: Nasturtiums, Watercress, Lavender, Fennel, and Broccoli

Gardening in North Central Texas is enough to make you throw away your trowel.  Our summers are hot enough for a blast furnace.  Our winter chill can freeze pipes and coat trees with ice.  We’re pummeled with spring storms and hail, but when we most need the rain, not a cloud is on the horizon.  Dallas’ unforgiving black clay forms clods hard as rocks and is so alkaline, its pH is off the chart.

DALLAS GARDEN BUZZ shares our journey through the triumphs and missteps of gardening in our North Texas heat, clay soil, limited water, and high alkalinity.  In the world of gardening, there is always a story to be told and sage advice to share.  As we dig, trim, harvest, and cook, we’ll give you the best information we can gather from our “hands on” work in the Earth-Kind/WaterWise Demonstration Garden at 11001 Midway Road in Dallas.

DALLAS GARDEN BUZZ is written by Dallas County Master Gardeners, volunteers trained by the AgriLife Extension Service, an agency of Texas A&M University.

Want To Try A Different Vegetable?

Now here’s a Jeopardy question that might have stumped even the best contestant:

Answer: A subtropical vine that has beautiful white fringed, lacy flowers that have a sweet perfume, leaves that when crushed smell like “hot buttered popcorn,” and edible fruit that can grow up to three feet or more long and looks like a creature.

Question: What is Snake Gourd?

Snake Gourd Growing at Hope Garden

Snake Gourd Growing at Hope Garden

Snake Gourd (genus Trichosanthes, which is Greek for “hair flower”) is an edible gourd grown throughout India, Australia and Insular and Mainland Southeast Asia. Because it loves hot, humid climates, it is a good plant to grow in our hot, humid Dallas summers. Though most snake gourds can grow to enormous lengths, there is a shorter variety, called Snake Gourd India Short which grows only to about four to six inches.


All true edible snake gourds, Trichosanthes anguina or T. cucumerina, get soft when ripe and usually disintegrate on the vine, unlike many mature gourds that form a hard shell. They are eaten when very immature, while the fruit is tender and the seeds are still soft.   The mature fruit turns bright orange when ripe and has seeds surrounded by a bright red pulp. The mature fruit often breaks open spilling the contents, which look like big clots of blood (hence the name “anguina”). The red pulp is sweet to the taste and considered a delicacy by Southeast Asian children.

Snake gourd seeds can be planted in full sun in late spring after the soil is warm. The seeds have a hard coat and need to be soaked overnight. Though the vines can sprawl on the ground, they do best when grown on a sturdy trellis. Trellised snake gourds, especially those with stones tied to the blossom end, tend to be straighter than the curved gourds that are left to grow on the ground. The fruit of the India Short variety is picked just before it turns from moist to dry feeling. The longer varieties are harvested when they are about 16-18 inches. With a taste reminiscent to cucumbers and texture similar to zuchinni squash, Snake Gourd can be fried, stuffed or boiled.   It is also good in soups and stir-fry. Snake Gourd is often used in Indian dishes and there are many recipes using it on the internet.

Finding edible snake gourd seeds is somewhat difficult. I recently tried to order on Ebay seeds of Snake Gourd India Short from a grower in India. However the seeds were confiscated at US Customs. There are however several seed companies that sell the edible long variety, so check on the internet. However, just be sure that you are ordering edible Snake Gourds, either Trichosanthes anguina or T. cucumerina. There is another ornamental, hard shelled variety that is used in crafts that is readily found in seed racks even in our big box stores. Though they would be fun to grow, they are not edible.


Butterflies at The Raincatcher’s Garden

After many months of planning and work, our hopes are being fulfilled.  Butterflies are visiting The Raincatcher’s Garden and more are sure to come!

Pipevine Swallowtail on Lantana 'Miss Huff'

Pipevine Swallowtail on Lantana ‘Miss Huff’

The Pipevine Swallowtail is identifiable by the iridescent blue color on its upper side and the band of bright orange spots on its underside. Like the Monarch, this swallowtail is poisonous to predators, since its  caterpillars feed on native species of pipevine.

Gulf Fritillary on Mexican Sunflower 'Torch'

Gulf Fritillary on Mexican Sunflower ‘Torch’

The Gulf Fritillary is easily recognized by its bright orange upper side and flashy silver markings on the underside. The caterpillars that become Gulf Fritillary butterflies feed on the Passion Vine which we have growing over our Arbor.

Purple Coneflower 'Bravado'

Purple Coneflower ‘Bravado’

This variety of coneflower has large and profuse blooms. It is a host plant for several butterflies and a nectar source.

Black Eyed Susan 'Goldstrum' with Little Bluestem in the Background

Black Eyed Susan ‘Goldstrum’ with Little Bluestem in the Background

Little Bluestem grass is a host for a good number of skippers.  Black eyed Susans are also nectar and host plants.


To learn more about the planning and planting of our butterfly garden, read:

Butterfly Plants: I Love You But It’s Time to Leave

Dallas Butterflies

Browse the Butterfly/Hummingbird Plant List in our sidebar for excellent reference material.


Pictures by Starla


Linda’s Pond

I found a little oasis last week even though the temperature was 97 degrees.  My friend and Master Gardener, Linda, has a beautiful little pond outside her kitchen doors.

Linda's Pond

Linda’s Pond

Funny thing, this is a garden of greens relying on shape and texture rather than the usual riotous August blooming flowers. Note: no periwinkles!

Linda's Japenese Maple at the Pone

The garden is built of Holly Fern, Japanese Maple, Liriope,  Crinum, small fig ivy and the rounded leaves of Leopard Plant. Linda’s Leopard Plant, Farfugium japonicum ‘Giganteum’, thrives next to the water.

Cookbook August 1 2015 077

Koi darted about. What originally drew me outside was seeing one of the Koi leap into the air.

Koi at Linda's

Linda told me a story of a Koi who jumped out of the pond and landed at the foot of a snail.

Linda's pond snail

Luckily she was there and scooped him up and back into the pond. My only question was why would anyone leave this little oasis?


Pictures by Ann

Other plants along Linda’s pond: Yaupon Holly and Little Gem Magnolia for background color, Star Jasmine on the fence, Hostas, and ‘White by the Gate’ Camellia in the beds and of course a few herbs: pineapple sage, lemon verbena and basil.

Compost vs Mulch, What’s the Difference?

Sometimes, as anyone learning a new language can tell you, even words that have different dictionary meanings can take on new meanings. For gardeners the terms compost and mulch are two terms that are sometimes used interchangeably.. The difference between the compost and mulch can be quite confusing, especially for the novice gardener, since their uses can overlap. Yet, for the sake of your plant’s and soil’s health, there are differences.

Technically speaking, compost is organic matter that has been decomposed, while mulch is a layer of organic or inorganic matter placed on top of the soil as a protective cover. A commenter, RobertZ6, on defined compost as a ‘What’, while mulch is a ‘Where.’

So what are some of the main functions of the two and how do they differ:

Compost: Compost is a biologically active material resulting from decomposition of organic matter. Bacteria, fungi, soil insects and others help with this decomposition. In general, there are two different methods of making compost: 1) the “fast” method consisting of the ratio of two parts brown/dry material to one part green/juicy material, plus moisture, plus aeration/turning the pile; and 2) the “slow” method where leaves, grass, vegetable refuse, etc. are allowed to build up in a pile and slowly over time decomposition takes place and compost results.

Jane and Cindy at Work Making Compost-Fast Method!

Jane and Cindy at Work Making Compost-Fast Method!

Compost is often considered to be a soil conditioner, rather than a fertilizer since the actually nutrient value of compost can be so variable. Though the fertilizing component of compost is small, says that “compost can aid plants in many ways quite independent of its nutrient content. Because it improves soil structure, adds beneficial microbes, and boosts cation exchange capacity (CEC), compost improves the mobility of air, water and nutrients in the soil, all of which make nutrients more readily available to plants.” Compost that is fully decomposed/”finished” is called humus. It is dark brown, crumbly, with no distinguishable features, and has a sweet, pleasant smell.

Mulch: Mulch can be either organic or inorganic and is spread over the top of the soil to cover it. Examples of organic mulch include leaves, straw, and wood chips. Inorganic mulches include rubber, gravel, and landscape fabric. The purposes of mulch include suppressing weeds, moderating soil temperature, conserving water, maintaining a porous surface, and helping to prevent erosion. The use of organic mulch can improve the soil structure as it gradually decomposes over time.

Chopped Up Native Tree Trimmings and Leaves Can Be Used as Mulch

Chopped Up Native Tree Trimmings and Leaves Can Be Used as Mulch

So… where does the confusion in terms and usage for some gardeners lie? Two main questions come to mind:

1) Can compost can be used as mulch?   The answer to this question is “yes.” It is possible to add a layer of only compost to the top of the soil and use it as mulch. In fact, in the case of using organic mulch such as wood chips in a bed, the layer of wood chips closest to the soil will gradually break down into compost over time. Eventually it will be necessary to add more mulch to a bed or mulched pathway to account for this. One of the Master Gardeners says that she uses her unfinished, not completely decomposed, compost as mulch in her beds. Placing a 1-3 inch layer of this unfinished compost on top of the soil as mulch would enable the mulch to break down quicker into compost. Earthworms will gradually move the finished compost down into the soil.

Many gardeners however never have enough finished (or even unfinished) compost to use pure compost as mulch on top of the soil. Plus the cost of purchasing bags of compost to do this would be prohibitive for many. Therefore most gardeners choose to work their finished compost into the soil and top dress the soil with mulch.

2) Can mulch (for example shredded wood chips) be tilled into the soil? The answer to this is both yes and no.

No: Though it might seem as if this would “cut out the middle man” (i.e. the need to make finished compost), in general it is usually not recommended to incorporate shredded wood chips, or even un-composted leaves, into your soil.

To understand why, it is necessary to know a little about the way that decomposition of organic matter takes place and also the nutrients that plants need. To grossly over-simplify a very complex subject, plants need three primary nutrients (nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) plus thirteen secondary and micronutrients nutrients such as magnesium (Mg) and iron (Fe) to grow well. Most soils contain at least some of these nutrients. However many soils in Dallas County have a deficiency in nitrogen. A soil test can confirm whether this is true on your property.

This deficit of nitrogen in many Dallas County soils is important because in order to decompose organic material, the bacteria and fungi, which are the first organisms responsible for decomposition, also need nitrogen to feed on in order to live. When a large amount of un-decomposed material, such as wood chips, is incorporated into the soil, there is an increase in the number of bacteria and fungi needed to break it down. Since the bacteria and fungi need nitrogen as part of their diet, these microbes will start using up what is present in the soil. Since Dallas County soils are often deficit in nitrogen, sometimes not enough nitrogen is left in the soil to feed both this increase in soil microbes and the plants. This in turn can leave plants starved of nitrogen, one of their essential nutrients. Plants that are nitrogen deficient often have pale green or yellow leaves and exhibit poor growth.

              Yes: On the other hand, it is possible that the answer to the question of whether mulch can be tilled into the soil, can be answered “yes.” Though not generally recommended, one can till in mulch, even shredded wood chips or live oak leaves which do not readily decompose, into the soil if certain factors (time and/or supplemental nitrogen) are taken into consideration:

Time: If enough time is available to let a bed lie fallow/unplanted for a season or even one or two years, over time the mulch will gradually decompose into compost.  This can be compared to the “slow” method of making compost.

Supplemental nitrogen: An article in states that in an apple orchard, it was found that “a high-fiber diet of wood materials is exactly what many soils need. Rotted bits of wood persist as organic matter for a long time, enhancing the soil’s ability to retain nutrients and moisture, which results in bigger, better crops.” However a very high nitrogen source, in that case blood meal, 12-0-0, was also added at the same time as the apple trees were planted. The addition of supplemental nitrogen offset the bacteria’s and fungi’s taking it from the soil and provided nitrogen to the plants.

There is an ancient gardening technique called hugelkultur (which in German means “mound culture”) that makes use of using woody material, even logs, to make beds. According to those who use this technique, these raised beds retain moisture (supposedly needing only very infrequent watering,) improve soil fertility, and improve drainage. In this technique a mound of logs and twigs is built up, and finished compost, manure, kitchen scraps, etc. are packed into the spaces between the woody materials. A layer of top soil is placed on top of the mound and planted. There are several articles and videos on the web showing how to construct a hugelkultur bed.

A few years ago, several community gardens and individuals became interested in trying hugelkultur in the Dallas area. If you know of someone who has tried it, please share their results. We gardeners all learn from one another.

Though most of this article presents an extremely over-simplified explanation of the differences between compost and mulch and why it is important for your plant’s and soil’s health, hopefully the reasoning behind what is taking place will help you to understand the difference and help you grow the healthiest plants possible.


Pictures by Starla




School Days, Time to Schedule 2015 Field Trips!


A One-acre Garden Designed for Students to Learn about Nature

West Dallas Community School Kids Enjoying a Field Trip to The Raincatcher's Garden

West Dallas Community School Kids Enjoying a Field Trip to The Raincatcher’s Garden

In Our Garden Classroom:

Hold a Chicken

Smell an Herb

Find a Caterpillar

Plant a Seed

Taste a Vegetable Warm from the Sun

Feed a Compost Pile

Students are taught by Dallas County Master Gardeners, Gardening Experts with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension using Junior Master Gardener ® Curriculum aligned with Texas standardized testing.


Above: Field Trip and Master Gardeners and Visiting Chickens

Above: Field Trip and Master Gardeners and Visiting Chickens


Schedule a Free Field Trip by contacting or clicking on the School Field Trip Request Form.



11001 Midway Road, Dallas (between Forest & Royal Lanes)


 We’ll leave the Garden Gate Open for You

 More information about our Free School Field Trips: page one, page two

Pick a New Landscape Tree

When August does its best to scald North Texas, one is always amazed at the cooling effect of shade. Full sun can be tolerated only to quickly check the mail or move the hose, but one can actually enjoy a shady backyard with temperatures in the nineties.

Gardeners have long done the Tree Shade Two-Step, a dance performed in early morning hours. The only rule is to follow the welcome shade for work in the garden as the sun climbs higher in the sky.

In planning the Raincatcher’s Garden of Midway Hills, we were blessed with the space to plant five demonstration trees. Trees can provide shade, of course, but when correctly chosen can enhance the aesthetics of your house and increase the value your home as well. We also wanted to pick trees that showed alternatives to the monoculture of red oaks and live oaks planted in Dallas.

Dallas County Master Gardener Eric Larner and I worked in January to pick a Chinquapin Oak, Mexican or Monterrey Oak, Lacey Oak, Cedar Elm, and an ‘Autumn Gold’ Ginkgo.

January Tree Planting

January Tree Planting

Oak wilt is a lethal fungal disease that has killed hundreds of thousands of live oaks and Texas red oaks in Texas. Red oaks and live oaks, probably the most planted trees in Dallas, are highly susceptible to oak wilt. White oaks, however are more resistant to the fungus.

Three of the new trees planted this spring fall in the white oak family: the Chinquapin, Mexican or Monterrey, and Lacey oaks.

The Chinquapin oak, sometimes spelled Chinkapin, Quercus muehlenbergii is tough enough to thrive in the neglect of a nearby post office parking lot. The Chinquapin has distinctive dark-green, saw-tooth leaves. Its narrow, rounded shape and resistance to diseases and pests endears the tree to homeowners. The Chinquapin is a Texas native and designated as a Texas Superstar by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension. The tree should be planted in full sun and will grow to 50-60 feet tall and 30-50 feet wide.

Chinquapin Oak Tree

Chinquapin Oak Tree

The Mexican white oak or Monterrey oak Q. polymorpha is another tough, drought resistant tree.   The new growth is pinky-peach color, darkening to thick, leathery blue-green leaves. If cold enough, the leaves turn bronze in the fall. (In mild winters, the tree could retain some leaves.) The Texas native grows into an open spreading shape 35-45 feet tall and 25-40 feet wide in full sun.

Mexican White Oak or Monterrey Oak

Mexican White Oak or Monterrey Oak

The Lacey oak Q. laceyi is a gem in the oak family. The tree matures into a small, rounded shape 20-30 feet tall and 20 feet wide. The leaves are peach-colored when young, maturing into a dusky bluish-gray (smoky) color above and a lighter color on the underside. Another Texas native, the tree is extremely drought resistant when established and gives yellow fall color.

Lacey Oak

Lacey Oak

With the cedar elm Ulmus crassifolia, we wanted to include a tree outside of the oak family that is a reliable beauty in the landscape. Instead of a ruler straight leader, cedar elms are known to adopt a wonderful irregular shape. The Texas native is deciduous, its small leaves showing yellow fall color. It flowers in late summer to fall, unlike most spring blooming trees. Cedar elms tolerate our heavy clay soil and grow to be 40-70 feet tall and 30-50 feet wide in full sun.

Cedar Elm Planted at The Raincatcher's Garden

Cedar Elm Planted at The Raincatcher’s Garden

Few trees are as stunning as a ginkgo Ginkgo biloba in the fall. It shimmers with brilliant yellow leaves, then drops them all at once. We planted the aptly named ‘Autumn Gold.’ The gingko is by far the most unusual of our tree quintuplet. Its fan- shaped leaves were part of the prehistoric landscape 200 million years ago, and the tree is often referred to as a living fossil. The gingko is found only in two small areas of China, and seeds are considered a delicacy in Japan and China. Plant only male trees grown from cuttings or grafted; female trees have an offensive smell! (Named varieties are male trees.) A gingko will slowly grow into an oval shape 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide. The trees have no pest problems.

Ginkgo Tree 'Autumn Gold'

Ginkgo Tree ‘Autumn Gold’

 Come see our new trees at the Raincatcher’s Garden and pick a new favorite for your yard.


Pictures by Starla

Monterrey Oak and Lacey Oak pictures by

A Texas Connection

Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum

Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum

Most people know of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) as the main author of the Declaration of Independence and that he was the third president of the United States.   However we gardeners know that he was also an avid gardener who collected and grew as many as 300 cultivars, representing 99 species of vegetables and herbs, during his 15 year retirement at Monticello. However, did you know that one of the experimental vegetables that he grew has a Texas connection?

Around 1812, Capt. Samuel Brown, who was stationed in San Antonio, sent Jefferson seeds of a bird pepper, Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum. According to the seed packet from Monticello, Capt. Brown said that the dried peppers were as “essential to my health as salt itself.” He went on to say “The Spaniards use it in fine Powder & seldom eat anything without it. The Americans…make a pickle of the green Pods with Salt & Vinegar which they use with Lettuce, Rice, Fish, etc.”

Jefferson planted what he called “Capsicum Techas” in pots at Monticello and hoped it would be a hardy variety of pepper at his home. He also sent the seeds to a Philadelphia nurseryman, Bernard McMahon, who sold it as an ornamental pepper in Pennsylvania. Food historian William Woys Weaver said that “Old Philadelphians used the potted peppers as a winter table ornament or as window sill plants. The peppers themselves were used to make pepper vinegar, pepper sauce, or pickles.”

Though Jefferson called the pepper “Capsicum Techas,” like many plants it has several common names. One of the common names for the pepper is McMahon’s Texas Bird Pepper, but it also goes under the names of Pequin, Tepin, Petin, Chiltepin, Bird’s Eye Pepper, and Turkey Pepper. The Aztecs called it “chilli” and many people know it by another common name, Chili pequin.

Texas Bird Pepper is the only pepper native to North America. In fact, it is considered to be the official wild pepper of Texas. It gets its name “bird pepper” from the fact that birds, who are not sensitive to the extremely hot taste of capsaicin, love to eat the fruits, which are high in Vitamins A and C. The birds then distribute the seeds through their droppings.

Chili Pequin or Texas Bird Pepper, Common Names

Chili Pequin or Texas Bird Pepper, Common Names

The plant itself is about 12 inches tall and has a compact shape with bright green pointed leaves. The tiny (about ¼”), sparkling round or bullet-shaped red fruits were described by Jefferson as “minutissimum.” But don’t let their miniscule size fool you. They are hot! Very hot! Often 7-8 times hotter on the Scoville Scale than jalapenos’ 30,000-60,000 units.

Though the peppers originated in Central America and are considered reliably perennial in plant hardiness zones 9 through 11, here in Dallas they will often freeze to the ground but come back from the roots once the temperature warms. Because of their ornamental look, they also make a good container plants and can be protected in a greenhouse during the winter. Unlike many peppers that require full sun, Texas Bird Peppers also do well in part shade, though they do get a little leggy. They have few diseases, are drought tolerant, and need little fertility.

They can be used in any recipe requiring hot peppers—but remember to add just one or two little peppers, as their heat can go a long way. One of the most popular uses for the peppers is to make pepper vinegar. The commercial hot sauce brand Cholula lists bird peppers as one of its ingredients. Recipes for pepper vinegar can be easily found on the internet.

So, if you are looking for a very pretty plant with an interesting history, remember the Texas Bird Pepper. Just don’t forget: they are hot!


Pictures Courtesy of

Chili Pequin is beckoning butterflies at The Raincatcher’s Garden. We have two!


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