Mark Wilson, Singh, Raghuwinder, Strahan, Ronald E., Stockton, Gary A., Fontenot, Kathryn, Kirk-Ballard, Heather
Get Your Soil Tested!
Never miss an issue of Horticulture Hints from the LSU AgCenter!
Visit the Horticulture Hints website at
Then click on the Subscribe button!
The Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera x buckleyi) is a very popular houseplant that has amazingly beautiful flowers with gracefully arching stems. Christmas cacti are wonderful low maintenance indoor plants that, when blooming, provide great seasonal decoration for the holidays.
When caring for a Christmas cactus, place it near a bright, sunny window and keep the soil evenly moist. Unlike other cacti the Christmas cactus and close relations do not like hot, arid environments. In fact, these epiphytic succulents are native to the rainforests of southern Brazil and thrive in warm and humid climates. It is important to remember this when caring for a Christmas cactus, so they are not treated like common cacti or succulents. They cannot tolerate the same levels of sun or dry conditions that other cacti can. It’s important to water these cacti more regularly but to also monitor that they are not overwatered.
When moved, such as when relocated from the store to a home or even from one location to another within the same home, it is common for these plants to drop flower buds. Still, many blooms and buds will hold on, providing beautiful shades of magenta, red, pink, orange, gold or white. Holiday cacti (Thanksgiving, Christmas or Easter) will reward the owner with blooms every year for many years if grown correctly.
When determining where to place this succulent in a home, remember that they should be kept by bright, indirect light. An east-facing window or bright bathroom or kitchen are ideal locations. Direct sunlight can cause bleaching and withering of the leaves. They also will thrive on a porch or patio in a semishaded position during the summer. The ideal growing temperature for these cacti is from 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) to 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). But they can handle a much wider range as long as they do not dry out.
When watering, a simple feel test is all that is needed. If the soil feels dry to the touch about 2 inches below the surface, then water. Plan to water about every two to three weeks indoors and one to three weeks outdoors depending on temperature and humidity. When the soil is sufficiently dry, soak the soil until water runs through the container’s drainage holes. Place a tray underneath the container to catch the water. After 15 to 20 minutes, discard any excess water so that the container is not sitting in water. Watering is especially important to water well while the plant is flowering.
In order to produce bountiful flowers year after year, a balanced houseplant fertilizer can be used. Depending on the type chosen it can be applied as often as every two weeks during the spring and summer and once a month in the fall and winter months. Just remember to follow the label of the fertilizer chosen. However, fertility is not the only factor to keep in mind with budding of your holiday cacti. These cacti are also triggered to bloom by long nights and chilly nighttime temperatures in the 50s. The easiest way to get a plant to bloom again if you have been growing it inside is to place it outdoors in October. Leave it outside and allow the progressively longer and cooler nights to initiate buds to form, but do not leave the plant out on a night when a freeze is predicted. Once you see little flower buds at the tips of the branches, move the plant into a bright window inside and keep the soil evenly moist.
For more information, please contact your local AgCenter parish office. https://www.lsuagcenter.com/portals/it/find-your-agent
Horticulture Area Agent
It’s that time of the year to dust off the rakes and begin cleaning up all the leaves that fall from our trees. As we drive around we’ll see people burning and bagging tons of leaves and sticks from their yards. It always makes me wonder as I watch the smoke coming from these piles if it’s actually smoke signals trying to communicate to us that we are wasting a very valuable and free resource. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to turn those leaves into nutrient-filled compost to use in our gardens and flower beds.
Compost can improve aeration of soil, root penetration and water infiltration. It can make clay soils easier to work and helps sandy soils retain more water. Plus it’s an environmentally sound practice in that it keeps the bags of leaves out of the landfill.
There are many different types of composters that can help you create this very valuable product. Of course, there are composters that can be purchased from many home and garden centers. But for the true do-it-yourself person there are those that you can create yourself. The simplest and most inexpensive thing you can do is just make a pile in your backyard. This works well enough if you don’t mind the appearance of an uncontained compost mound in your yard. Just find a good location and pile your yard waste in a mound about 3 feet tall and 3 feet square. Then cover the pile with a layer of soil. It will keep moisture for the microorganisms and soil animals working to make compost.
It’s best to have two piles. After the first pile is large enough, stop adding organic material and let it work. In the meantime, add your wastes to the second pile. Make sure the pile stays moist, especially if it is not covered with soil. You can turn the pile to speed composting. Compost should be ready in three to four months if a good compostable mixture of organic materials is used and the pile is turned regularly, or in about one year if you don’t turn the pile.
I realize that many of you don’t want to have just a pile of compost sitting in your backyard. You still can compost without having to go purchase the store-brought composters. Composters can easily be made with items like an old trash can, cinder blocks, wire mesh or wood.
One last thing: I’ve heard people complain that composting can have an offensive odor. Well, it can smell bad if you keep it too wet or add organic material that shouldn’t go into the pile. So, if you are interested in going “green,” try composting. Just give me a call, and I’ll be glad to head you in the right direction, whether it’s how to build your own, how to keep the pile from having an odor, or what should and shouldn’t go into the pile.
Agriculture and Natural Resources Extension Agent
Lincoln and Bienville Parishes
Winter is a great time to get outside and get things done in the garden. We are very fortunate here in the South to have good weather during the winter months for gardening, and it is an excellent time to plant trees and shrubs in the landscape.
Although deciduous trees and shrubs are in their dormancy, roots are still actively growing. Planting during December, January and February provides plants with several months to develop a strong root system before they put out a new flush of leaves and flowers in spring.
The structure of trees and shrubs in our lawns and gardens is very apparent this time of year. Dead branches, low-hanging branches and branches that cross one another are visible now and should be removed. Take this opportunity to trim your trees and shrubs. Removal will be much easier without the additional weight of leaves.
As retail nurseries begin clearing out Christmas trees and merchandise, they will be bringing in a new stock of woody trees and shrubs. Tropical plants will be available later in the warmer season when they are less likely to be damage by colder temperatures.
The National Arbor Day Foundation has started the Time for Trees initiative to highlight how “trees clean our air, protect our drinking water, create healthy communities and feed the human soul.” Founded by J. Sterling Morton in 1872 in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where an estimated 1 million trees were planted, Arbor Day is celebrated every year. In 2021 it will be celebrated in most of the country on April 30. On this day, individuals are encouraged to plant trees.
Louisiana celebrates Arbor Day on the third Friday of January. The LSU AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden will hold its annual Arbor Day event on Jan. 23 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Free and open to the public, this event will feature educational talks on native trees given by experts from the LSU AgCenter. You and your family can plant a tree while there and get GPS coordinates so you can come back and visit “your” tree and watch it grow for generations to come.
When deciding what trees and shrubs to purchase and plant, it is best to sit down and consider the year-round interest of those plants. A great design will have beauty and interest in each season. That can include evergreen plants, flowering plants and deciduous plants that have excellent fall foliage change.
Evergreen trees and shrubs provide year-round greenery and are popular in almost every landscape design. Some good, large evergreen trees include live oaks (Quercus virginiana), Southern magnolias (Magnolia grandiflora), Leyland cypress trees (Cupressus × leylandii) and American holly trees (Ilex opaca).
The Southern magnolia has fragrant white flowers in late spring to midsummer, and in winter the female American holly trees sport gorgeous red berries that attract birds and other wildlife.
Some medium-sized evergreen trees are the Southern wax myrtle (Morella cerifera), camphor tree (Cinnamomum camphora) and red bay (Persea borbonia).
You can choose from several small evergreen trees with many different functions. Some have flowers and put on a display in the late fall into early spring. These include the camellia (Camellia japonica) and camellia sasanqua (Camellia sasanqua).
Other fragrant flowering trees include loquat (Eriobotyra japonica), banana shrub (Michelia figo) and sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans). Other trees — including the Burford Chinese holly (Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’), yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria) and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) — provide ecosystem services such as wildlife food.
Compared to evergreen trees, deciduous tree have a much larger selection for use in Louisiana. Some large deciduous trees with good fall foliage change that are also great as shade trees for the landscape are American beech (Fagus gramdifolia), bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), basswood (Tilia americana), pecan (Carya illionensis), tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera), sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminate).
Some outstanding small, spring-flowering deciduous trees are the fringe tree (Chionanthus virginicus), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), Taiwan cherry (Prunus campanulata), saucer magnolia (Magnolia X soulangiana), parsley hawthorn (Crataegus marshallii), redbud (Cercis Canadensis) and silverbell (Halesia diptera).
Other deciduous trees with outstanding fall foliage change are the American hornbeam or ironwood (Carpinus caroliana), hop-hornbeam (Ostraya virginiana), swamp red maple (Acer rubrum Drummondii), Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum), green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica), sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua), Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis) and many oak species, such as shumard oak (Quercus shumardii), nuttall oak (Quercus nuttallii), white oak (Quercus alba) and post oak (Quercus stellata).
Planting trees is a great way to leave a lasting legacy for generations to come to enjoy. In my humble opinion, trees are the key to combating climate change by conserving energy, sequestering carbon and reducing the overall concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Consider this proverb: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”
Heather Kirk-Ballard, Ph.D.
Consumer Horticulture Specialist
Heather Kirk-Ballard, Ph.D.
Consumer Horticulture Specialist
Let’s make the most of December’s garden and start the New Year off right by following best management practices to get the most out of our fruit and veg crops.
December is the last month I think of as actual winter. January and February to me are very early spring. So, in this last month of winter here are a few to-do items to help keep the garden active!
Kathryn “Kiki” Fontenot, Ph.D.
LSU AgCenter School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences
Most lawns should be dormant or at least close to this stage by Christmas. Because lawns are not actively growing, fertilizer applications are not needed during the winter. Most lawn fertilization for growth should have stopped on home lawns by late summer (late August to very early September for St. Augustinegrass and centipedegrass).
Nitrogen fertilizer on dormant to semidormant St. Augustinegrass, centipedegrass and zoysiagrass lawns can lead to increased brown patch and winter kill. Also, nitrogen applications during this time have a greater potential for leaching or movement into nontarget areas.
I’m a big believer in soil testing. If your lawn did not perform well last growing season or you just want to get a quick check on soil pH, get the soil tested. Winter is an excellent time to collect soil samples and submit them for analysis.
Samples should be a composite of soil collected from 3 to 4 inches deep at various places around the lawn. Mix well and reduce the sample to about a pint of soil and take it to the LSU AgCenter Extension Service office in your parish or to a participating garden center. Make sure to specify the type of grass you are growing on the soil test form.
Soil samples submitted to the LSU AgCenter result in a wealth of information concerning the overall fertility of your soil. If results of the soil test indicate the soil pH is too acidic, lime will be prescribed in the soil test recommendations. Sulfur may be prescribed for soils that are too alkaline. Winter is the best time to apply lime or sulfur so that it can be activated by for the growing season next spring and summer. The correct soil pH is extremely important and has everything to do with nutrient availability and fertilizer performance.
Postpone any permanent warm-season turfgrass seeding until next spring. Soil and air temperatures will be too cold for germination and growth.
Sod, such as St. Augustinegrass and centipedegrass, can be laid during winter and established successfully during the spring. But remember to maintain good moisture to prevent the sod from dying. Establishment of sod is easiest, however, when sodding is delayed until the middle of spring, well after spring green-up.
Large patch disease can come and go throughout the winter if the weather is mild. Treatment with fungicides containing myclobutanil, propiconazole, pyraclostrobin, and triticonazole and azoxystrobin will reduce the spread of large patch. Damage from large patch will slow spring green-up, and diseased areas will remain unsightly until warmer spring weather conditions help with turfgrass recovery. These diseased areas become more prone to weed infestations.
Broadleaf weeds, such as clover and lawn burweed (sticker weed) and annual bluegrass infesting St. Augustinegrass, centipedegrass and zoysiagrass and dormant bermudagrass, can be suppressed with a late fall followed by a winter application of atrazine herbicide. The window for these atrazine applications is from October to early March. Herbicides containing a three-way mixture of 2,4-D plus dicamba plus mecoprop (trimec-type herbicides) can be used for winter broadleaf control on the same lawns that were sprayed with atrazine. MSM (metsulfuron) works well on lawn burweed and is highly effective on clovers and false garlic. Weed-and-feed products can be substituted as your first application of fertilizer during the early spring.
When it comes to managing lawn burweed specifically, don’t wait until the stickers show up in April to treat. It’s too late then. Spray burweed in early November with products mentioned previously. Repeat these applications in February and March.
Lawns may show signs of green-up in southern Louisiana in late February. Do not push turfgrass growth with fertilizer at that time! Fertilizer applied too early will feed winter weeds and will result in lush turfgrass growth that is more susceptible to injury from late frosts and increased levels of large patch disease. Lawns may be fertilized in the New Orleans area by late March, but delay fertilizing central Louisiana lawns until April. Consider fertilizing lawns in north Louisiana around mid-April.
Ron Strahan, Ph.D.
Turfgrass and Weed Science
Sooty molds are a result of nonplant pathogenic fungi that grow superficially as a thin black layer on leaves, fruit, twigs and stems of various crop plants or trees. The fungi grow on the honeydew produced by insects with piercing-sucking mouthparts. The insects, including aphids, leafhoppers, mealy bugs, psyllids, scale insects and whiteflies, pierce the plant tissue with their stylets and feed on plant sap. While continuously feeding, these insects ingest a large volume of sap fluid into their bodies, which is not entirely digested. After extracting nutrients from the sap, these insects excrete excess water and sugars from their bodies in the form of a sticky, sugary substance called honeydew. Most of the time, these insects feed on young, tender new growth and the honeydew drops below on all plant parts, including leaves, fruit, twigs and stems. Additionally, the honeydew covers understory vegetation, concrete surfaces, sidewalks, furniture, parking lots, etc., under host plants infested by sap-sucking insects.
Sooty molds are saprophytic fungi with dark, powderlike spores that break down honeydew. Abundance of sooty molds lead to formation of a thin, black layer. There are several species of sooty molds, but the most common ones are Capnodium spp. and Fumago spp. Sooty molds do not directly affect the host plant on which they reside but can inhibit the photosynthetic ability of the plant by covering leaves, twigs, fruit and stems. Under extreme conditions plants entirely covered with sooty mold may lose vigor and be predisposed to other plant pathogens. Plant growth may also be retarded, and yields can be significantly reduced. The aesthetic value of the plants covered with sooty mold is greatly reduced.
All plant species that are hosts for sap-sucking insects with the piercing and sucking type of feeding are affected with sooty molds. Some of the common landscape plants heavily affected by sooty mold are azaleas, camellias, citrus, crape myrtles, magnolias, oleander, pears, pine, roses, sago palms and viburnum. Hedges, small bushes or other plants, such as boxwoods, Indian hawthorn and ground covers, get sooty mold if the trees under which they are planted are infested with these insects. This happens when the honeydew from insects high in the canopy of trees drops on the vegetation underneath.
Managing sooty molds is very simple. Keep insects, such as aphids, mealy bugs, scale insects and whiteflies, in check. Once the insect problem is solved there will be no new sooty mold occurrence. The existing sooty mold infestation dries out after some time and easily sloughs off the infested areas.
Pressurized water can be used to wash off the sooty molds. Care should be taken while using pressurized water because it may damage the plant parts.
Insect infestations are generally controlled with insecticides, insecticidal soaps or horticultural oils. Before applying any kind of chemical pesticide, it is very important to identify the insect properly. Samples of plants infested with insect pests may be taken to your extension agent for identification. Consult with your local extension agent on the use of chemicals for managing insects. The LSU AgCenter Plant Diagnostic Center is also available to diagnose your plant health problems.
Raghuwinder (Raj) Singh, Ph.D.
Horticulture Pathology Extension Specialist