Become a backyard environmentalist


by WFAA Project Green

Posted on February 5, 2010 at 3:52 PM


By BETSY SIMNACHER / The Dallas Morning News


My mother has a green thumb. She has gardened in Houston, Dallas and the rocky soil in the Texas Hill Country. Each location required a little more expertise.

Somehow, I missed the gardening gene. Most of my houseplants were punished to death by inattention. All the same, my ambition was to learn about plants. Possibly I developed this goal because it could be done in the air conditioning.

The late Bob Bersano, who edited several sections at this newspaper, gave me the chance to learn on the job as a freelance garden writer. I started out tentatively, learning from the local masters, who mostly grew native plants. I never turned down a garden tour, and, over the years, I was treated to some spectacular landscaping.

I learned the personalities of plants: Some were easy to grow, some were delicate, some succumbed to pests, and some took over the garden.

Our yard is a time capsule of writing assignments: I have lots of Turk's cap (likes shade and is really easy), lamb's ear (easy and vigorous), rosemary (easy and gets impressively big with virtually no effort). Several bulbs still pop up despite years of neglect. I have Gulf Coast penstemons because Vicki Thaxton of King's Creek nursery (now Pedal Pushers) told me: "Whenever you see a penstemon, buy it."

There have been failures. I tried exotic begonias, thanks to Don Miller of North Haven Gardens, but they died. My hostas were consumed immediately by slugs and my own sloth. (I had the book knowledge to take care of the slugs, but my laziness prevailed.) Thanks only to my husband's careful watering, the gerbera daisies from Albertson's have thrived.

I was lucky to have many fine teachers, but anyone can learn to speak horticulture with the many opportunities available in the area. The Dallas Arboretum, local nurseries, Dallas and Tarrant County master gardeners, and the Fort Worth Botanic Garden are great places to learn.

If I could preach to gardeners who are parachuting in from other parts of the country or those who are just starting, I would say:

•Water sensibly. Stacy Reese, the long-time Dallas County extension agent, spent years speaking out against overwatering. Yes, that old trick of setting out empty tuna cans to measure how much you're watering really works. And rain counts, too.

•Set your lawn mower to a reasonable height (i.e., don't scalp) and mow often to get a beautiful lawn. Even better, decrease your lawn size and plant natives in flower beds.

•Compost your grass clippings and leaves. Nothing saddens me more than garbage bags at the curb bulging with yard waste. If nothing else, leave clippings on the lawn.

•Prune trees judiciously. In the trade, cutting off crape myrtles to a virtual nub is known as "crape murder."

•Use native plants. They do better, usually take less effort and thrive on less water.

•Leave space between tree trunks and mulch. Mounding the mulch next to the trunk encourages bugs.

•Go organic. You will be rewarded by more butterflies, bees and birds. It just makes sense to cut down as much as possible on toxic materials.

Oh, and it's worthwhile to learn the names of your plants. You can reasonably expect to pick up three or four new plant IDs each time you go to the Arboretum or the nursery. Then, when you see those beautiful blue wildflowers blanketing the side of the highway in the spring, you can casually say, "I see the Lupinus texensis is out early this year."

Betsy Simnacher is content coordinator for Community Opinions and a resident of Cedar Hill. Her e-mail address is