GARDENER'S MAILBAG: How do I clear this garden before spring planting?

By Neil Sperry
Special to the Herald Democrat

Dear Neil: I’ve recently moved into a house where there was a garden in prior years, but it looks like they didn’t take very good care of it. I’d like to have a garden there as well, but the plot is filled with weeds that have grown and developed over the past months. What is my best way to eliminate them before this spring’s plantings?

Mow them, or use a line trimmer to cut them, then use a rear-tine rototiller to pulverize the soil thoroughly. Rake out the weeds’ roots and other debris, then incorporate several inches of new organic matter (sphagnum peat moss, rotted manure, compost, pine bark mulch, etc.) by rototilling again. For this crop of weeds, herbicides won’t be of value – it’s too late into the winter.

Dear Neil: Due to this year’s weather, my grass is more weeds than actual turfgrass. I’m going to be starting a new lawn next spring. What is the best grass, and how should I plant it? I have seen new sod planted over old grass, even weeds. Will that work?

Oh, no! Please don’t waste new sod that way. If you’re going to be planting new grass, you need to give it the best possible chance, especially when weather times are tough. It’s a mid-April or May task, and it begins by spraying a glyphosate-only herbicide (no other active ingredients mixed in) to kill all existing vegetation without contaminating the soil in the process. Give it 10 days to do its work, then rototill to 3 or 4 inches and rake to remove debris and to establish a smooth grade. Then you’ll be ready to plant your sod or sow your seed. Anything less than that total ground preparation will leave you with poor results. It’s a fair amount of work, but don’t compromise. Common bermudagrass is the most popular option, and it can be sodded, seeded, plugged or hydromulched. In all honesty, you probably already have a good bit of common bermuda in the lawn currently, and you might be able to have a full and lovely lawn faster by giving it the best possible care and mowing it low, compared to trying to start all over again. It would be a lot less work.

Dear Neil: I grew up in northern Louisiana, and I’m considering planting a chinquapin tree. My dad used to find the prickly nuts. He would crack them open and feed them to us. I’d like to try one, but what are its soil requirements?

Chinquapin trees (Castanea pumila) require neutral or acidic soils, so they’re only suited to the eastern 20 percent (Piney Woods) of Texas. They mustn’t be confused with the similar-looking chinquapin oaks (Quercus muhlenbergii). The oaks are well-adapted to all of Texas, regardless of acidic or alkaline soils, but of course, their acorns are not edible.

Dear Neil: Two years ago, on a whim, I bought a “Z” plant. About five months ago, two of the stalks looked as if they had been broken off the mother plant. I used them in a floral design, and they remained green long after the flowers had dried. Then, I noticed they have formed roots. Should I pot them into potting soil? I hate throwing away healthy plants if they might succeed.

Zz Plant

The botanical name of that lovely plant is Zamioculcas zamiifolia, which explains why it’s commonly called “ZZ plant.” I haven’t propagated it myself, although I have grown it. It’s really a handsome plant. I found a good bit of information on its propagation online, including the fact that it is commonly started from leaf cuttings, just as you described. Go for it – pot them up and get them growing.

Dear Neil: My buffalograss lawn was damaged by grubs last fall. Compounding the issue, armadillos came in and tore up the lawn in their pursuit of the grubs. I spread some manure compost over the lawn in the hopes that it would help repair the damage. Instead, it brought me buckets of weeds. What kind of weedkiller can I use on buffalograss? Is there anything else I should do to promote the regrowth of the buffalograss?

Broadleafed Weeds

You can use a broadleafed weedkiller (containing 2,4-D) on buffalograss. It will eliminate all non-grassy weeds that are present at the time of your spraying. That list would include dandelions, clover, henbit, chickweed and many others. Read and follow label directions on the product you buy, making sure to stay within the temperature range in which it is effective (higher than 65-70 degrees in the daytime). If you have cool-season weed grasses in the turf, you would need to apply a pre-emergent herbicide in early September to keep them from sprouting next time around. There is no control for them once they are up and growing. Apply a high-quality, all-nitrogen fertilizer (half or more of the nitrogen in slow-release form) in May.

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.