GARDENER'S MAILBAG: How far a part should I plant my Nellie R. Stevens hollies?

By Neil Sperry
Special to the Herald Democrat

Dear Neil: I’m planting Nellie R. Stevens hollies along our 6-foot privacy fence and will top it at 8 feet. How far a part should I space them, and how far should they be away from the fence 18, 24 or 36 inches?

Plant them two-thirds as far apart as you will be maintaining them. If at 8 feet, that would be 5 or 6 feet. Honestly, Needlepoint (also known as Willowleaf) hollies would be better choices at that height and spacing. They’re slightly shorter at maturity. If you wanted Nellie R. Stevens at 10 feet tall, 7 feet apart. Any 8-foot plants should be 4 feet or farther out from the fence. At 10 feet, 4-1/2 feet. You don’t want the plants smashed up against the fence, especially if they’re on the north side of the fence where they’d be in a lot of shade. They would start to get lanky almost immediately. Moving them out gets them better light. Remember to water these new plants by hand every two or three days from mid-spring through mid-fall. Sprinkler irrigation won’t be enough and you won’t be able to tell when they’re dry. Hollies don’t wilt conspicuously.

Dear Neil: My bermuda lawn actually has only a few patches that make a thick carpet-like turf. Will overseeding it help give it a better look?

You don’t overseed bermuda. The seed is too fine. Dig plugs from the thick areas and transplant them into the thin spots. That’s a job for late April or May, once the grass is growing vigorously. Make sure the thin areas get the same amount of sunlight (8 hours of full, direct sunlight in summer). That might be a reason for the difference.

Dear Neil: I’ve been following your advice on various gardening topics, including pruning my live oaks between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day. I’m concerned about the color of the attached image. I’ve noticed the dark coloring bleeding in on a couple of branches, but not on all the branches I cut. I used pruning sealant, but if there is a disease involved I want to take action sooner rather than later.

Live oak pruning

I’m having trouble getting my perspective with your photo. It looks like the cut wound is trying to heal. A roll of new bark is forming around the perimeter of the cut. That’s what we want. However, I can’t tell if this is on an extended stub or if the trunk is nearby. It appears to be a stub, and if so, that will never heal properly. Ideally you will leave only a short section (1/4-inch, perhaps slightly more) of branch collar rather than making the cut flush with the trunk or remaining branch. It drops out of focus and I just can’t tell.

Dear Neil: I’m new to Texas I had pentas, bougainvillea and lantanas at our house in South Texas. I didn’t realize the winter spell would be cold enough to get them. Now I have a lot of frazzled foliage. What is dead and what can I cut back to come back?

We’re glad you’re here! The cold at the end of December was significant. It would have killed pentas. They’re annuals. It probably got the bougainvilleas depending on how cold it got where your plants are. They’ll take light freezes, but much of the state had much colder weather than that. Lantanas are hardier. Most bush types are perennials and will come back from their roots. You can cut the tops back near the soil line.

Dear Neil: Have you ever seen okra grow to more than 14 feet tall?

Very tall okra after freeze

Personally, I have not, but I’ve certainly seen rogue plants that attained significant heights of 8 or 10 feet. Seed breeders, of course, would not use those in their production programs because no one wants to have to haul a ladder out to the garden to harvest any vegetable, plus they wouldn’t want the excessive shade such a tall crop would cast. But it makes for a fun novelty crop to have in your own backyard.

Dear Neil: I am concerned about my ajuga developing these yellowed leaves. Other than the single yellowed leaves the plants seem healthy and continue to grow. When I look online all I find for ajuga is “crown rot,” but that doesn’t seem to be a match. What could it be?

Ajuga with yellowed leaves

Looking at your photo and also at your close-ups of the leaves, it just looks like old leaves that are shutting up shop – their work is done. They will turn brown and shrivel, but they’ll be replaced with bright, new growth in just a few weeks. It also appears that you have a variegated variety that you’ve planted along the front of this bed. I’m not sure that will prove to be a good plan. The green ajuga will overtake it. It would be better to have the variegated variety in a grouping somewhere else in your landscape, also in the shade. Be sure you keep the bed moist all winter long – not wet, but certainly never dry.

Dear Neil: How can I avoid this on my tomatoes this year?

Anthracnose on Tymato fruit

It looks like anthracnose, a common disease of tomato fruit. Google “Aggie Horticulture tomato anthracnose photo” and you’ll see a photograph that is almost a match for yours. TAMU suggests that you keep the foliage and fruit dry when you’re watering them and that you use a labeled fungicide as needed.

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