Growing Texas-tough plants

In a state that's drier than the heart of a haystack, this Texan gives juicy garden advice

Black gumbo. Sandy loam. Red clay. Caliche. Silt. Scoop some of each into a jar, add water, and shake well. After the slurry settles, you're looking at the basic soil profile of Texas.

Neil Sperry, Texas' most popular home gardening expert, knows these soils well. And he knows the plants that will and won't thrive in them.

A horticulturist by profession, Mr. Sperry has been advising Texans for more than 30 years about when and what to plant, when to prune, how to amend soil, and how to combat pests, diseases, droughts, and freezes. He broadcasts on radio and is known across the state for his best-selling book, "Neil Sperry's Complete Guide to Texas Gardening" (Taylor Publishing, $36.95).

He and his staff produce an annual gardening calendar featuring his photography and timely tips. Sperry also writes a weekly gardening tabloid in the Dallas Morning News each spring. He publishes a popular regional home gardening magazine, Neil Sperry's GARDENS.

As the son of a range ecologist and a librarian, Sperry was raised in College Station, where Dr. Omer Sperry taught at Texas A&M University. Together they explored vast prairies and mountains on field trips to help west Texas ranchers, and Neil developed an early - and lifelong - passion for plants and the outdoors.

Back home, he and his dad planted vegetables and flowers. At age 14, he began his own backyard nursery business with plants grown behind the family garage.

"When I was a kid, the drive-up nursery was just beginning.... It probably started in California; they've always led the nation in horticulture."

Today, Sperry's passion for plants remains as fresh as his first memory of being in a garden - at age 4, helping plant a rose garden for his mother.

The basic advice he gives his Texas audience is sound guidance for the rest of the nation:

* Have your soil tested, and amend it as recommended. Consult your county Extension office for information on a soil test kit. Use the results to guide your plant selection.

* Plant adapted and native species that are recommended for your region. Extension offices often can provide lists of regional plant recommendations, as do local garden clubs, nurseries, and regional garden books.

* Do your homework. Before you order plants by mail or purchase them from a local nursery, find out whether your choices will thrive in your region. Then, break down the list even further by determining which side of the house offers the best microclimate for those plants, and whether they have compatible needs for sun and shade, soil, and water.

"Designing and planting a garden gives a person the fulfillment of having a dream, putting that dream into action, and watching that dream grow to maturity," Sperry says. "It's a little like raising a family."

Texans who move from one part of the state to another frequently discover that their favorite plants wither and die in a new setting. In fact, Texas has such a crazy-quilt of soil types that it is almost a microclimate of the nation. Its USDA Plant Hardiness Zones range from Zone 6 to Zone 9.

"One of the things I learned when I left Texas [temporarily, to finish a bachelor's degree and obtain a master's at The Ohio State University] was that [when you move] you have to put aside your previous knowledge [about gardening]," Sperry says.

A gardener moving from one part of the country to another must arrive with "a completely open mind, ready to be reprogrammed," he adds. "The plant palette will be different than you might expect, and the time frame will be different. You have to be ready to accept all sorts of variations; you can't have any preconceived ideas of what will work or won't work."

Sperry advises new gardeners to seek out regional gardening books, pay attention to local gardening experts, and trust their advice. It's wise to visit public gardens for design and planting inspiration, he says, "but keep in mind that they have a different level of maintenance than a home gardener may be willing to do."

Sperry notes that, as house lots become smaller, gardeners must concentrate on putting more color into less space.

Crape myrtle, an ornamental available in a range of sizes from dwarf shrubs to 25-foot trees, is adapted throughout the South and blooms profusely in late summer, when little else is in flower.

Sperry is on the board of the Crape Myrtle Trails of McKinney, a joint project with Texas A&M University and the city of McKinney, to establish "the world collection of crape myrtles." Intended as a tourism draw and living horticultural laboratory, it's also a means of beautifying this rapidly growing city 30 miles north of Dallas. The project will place the oldest-known cultivars in historic parts of town, with newer releases in newer residential developments.

Going a step further, Sperry is helping establish the Crape Myrtle Society of America.

Even though plants such as crape myrtles are Texas-tough, they're not always tough enough to withstand Texas' weather extremes. Droughts and freezes of recent years are among Sperry's most memorable "worst moments" of his career.

"In the great winter of 1982-83, we had 292 consecutive hours of freezing (the prior record was almost 100 hours short of that). It did massive damage. It happened at Christmas, and I had two months of people calling to ask if their plants were dead or alive, and I frankly didn't know. That had to be the most difficult professional 'moment' I've had....

"Another 'worst' was the summer of 1980, and then the three-year span of 1998-2000. In 1980 we had 69 consecutive days of temperatures over 100 F. It permanently damaged a lot of plants, like the winters did."

The publication of his first book in 1982 was a definite highlight of his career. The first printing sold out in eight days and put the book on The New York Times nonfiction best-seller list.

With the June wedding of son Brian just around the corner, Sperry is revamping some of the gardens on his 11-acre wooded estate. He'll replace fescue turf with groundcovers, create two or three more flower beds, and plant a new, sunny garden in a site formerly shaded by a now-removed limb of a tree. In May, when the gardens are at their peak, he'll photograph his future daughter-in-law for her bridal portraits.

As a fellow Texan, does he have any gardening advice for President George W. Bush and the White House garden?

If Bush gets to choose a tree for the White House garden, Sperry has a few ideas: "Knowing that it can get down to minus 10 F. in Washington, D.C., I'd suggest that - if there's not one already growing in the White House garden - he plant a possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) or a yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria).

"A pecan tree suited to a more northern environment could do well there, too," he muses. "And 'Laura Bush' petunia and 'Barbara Bush' pink bluebonnet (both developed by Texas A&M scientists) should do well...."

The final touch? "A nice bed of yellow roses. Yes, that would be ideal," Sperry says.

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(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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