Neil Sperry’s tips to preparing a raised garden bed

Q: I need help preparing my raised bed gardens’ soil. Each January when I rototill, I have to break it open with a pick, then rent a mid-size tiller to loosen it enough to mix in a purchased blend of composted topsoil, manure compost, red sand and aged sawdust. I also add a yard of my own decomposed compost. What can I do better?

A: You have gone to a lot of work to get your garden ready. It looks fabulous! I’ll try to help.

When I am preparing my own raised gardens, I will add 2 inches of sphagnum peat moss and 1 inch each of finely ground pine bark mulch, well-rotted manure and decomposed compost. You already are adding some of those, but I would certainly add in the peat moss and pine bark mulch since they decompose more slowly, giving you longer beneficial effects in your soil.

And, instead of the sand, Texas A&M University recommends expanded shale. I add 1 inch of it in tandem with the organic matter if I’m amending a clay soil (which I always am). I use a rear-tine rototiller to mix that all to a depth of 12 inches. I don’t know how practical that would be in your beds, but you might make it work by taking most of the tines off to give you better maneuverability.

Then, every time I rework my soil, I add half that amount of each of these materials. I do not add more expanded shale each time, however. It lasts for four to five years.

This broccoli took forever to form heads and then immediately bloomed. That may be because it was planted it too late. Planting dates for the recommended varieties of broccoli that mature quickly would be late August into mid-September in South Texas.

Courtesy photo

Q: Why would my broccoli, which has taken forever to form heads, go directly to blooms?

A: It may be that you planted it too late. Planting dates for the recommended varieties of broccoli that mature quickly would be late August into mid-September in South Texas. If you planted one of those varieties, it really should have been harvested and probably out of the garden by now.

Your plant looks very healthy. Perhaps try cutting these flowering heads out, then fertilizing it in early February to stimulate a second round of growth to see if you can get an early harvest this spring.

Q: Our bleeding heart vine has been a beautiful thing. We have kept it watered properly and fertilized regularly, and we have protected it from freezing weather. But now the leaves have lost most of their color. In fact, most of the leaves have actually fallen. What can we do for it?

A: Your plant is variegated Clerodendrum, a lovely tropical plant. It has either suffered actual freeze damage or it is struggling with chill injury.

Many tropicals can’t handle temperatures much below 40 or 45 degrees. Three notable examples are caladiums, aglaonemas and bougainvilleas. All start dropping leaves when temperatures fall below 45.

Other than putting the plant into a greenhouse, there isn’t much you can do at this point. You may find it easier simply to start with a fresh, vigorous plant in the spring.

This bleeding heart has either suffered actual freeze damage or it is struggling with chill injury.

This bleeding heart has either suffered actual freeze damage or it is struggling with chill injury.

Courtesy photo

Q: I was working for the Census Bureau in North Dakota in September. The day before I left, I saw milkweeds growing wild along the rural roads. I cut one and put it in a bag in my checked baggage. As you can see, it opened. Would I be able to grow these here in Texas, and would they attract the monarch butterflies?

A: I can’t tell what species of milkweed you have from the photograph, but it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to plant the seeds into one of your flowerbeds in late March. All you would have to do is scratch the surface of the soil a bit and plant the seeds just a fraction of an inch down. Water them right away and see what germinates.

You can remember how large the plants were in North Dakota, so that will give you an idea how much room to allow in your bed. And yes, if the plants grow, the monarchs will find them.

This bleeding heart has either suffered actual freeze damage or it is struggling with chill injury.

This bleeding heart has either suffered actual freeze damage or it is struggling with chill injury.

Courtesy photo

Q: Why would my tangerine tree be drooping and its leaves be turning a lighter shade of green?

A: That sounds like a plant that isn’t getting enough light. I’m assuming it’s in a pot and that you have moved it into protection from the winter cold. Move it closer to a bright window or shuttle it in and out as the weather permits.

Q: I saw your information on amaryllis several weeks ago. Three years ago I collected seeds from my amaryllis and planted them. I now have 11 plants growing in 1-gallon pots. Some have large bulbs and some have smaller ones.

Do I take the plants out and put them in sawdust in paper bags, or do I lay the pots on their sides for six weeks and let them dry out? Do I cut off some of the leaves? When should I do all of this? I would love to see them bloom.

A: I would work with the larger bulbs first. Let them grow through the summer and early fall. Sometime in mid-September up until early October, lay the pots on their sides and let the plants dry out completely for six weeks. That would simulate the dry season they have in their sub-tropical homes.

At that point trim off the dead leaves and repot the plants into fresh potting soil. Water them thoroughly and encourage new growth. Ideally the larger bulbs would be mature enough to send up flower stalks within a couple of months.

Mail questions to Neil Sperry, c/o Features Department, San Antonio Express-News, P.O. Box 2171, San Antonio, TX 78297-2171, or email him at [email protected]