You got questions - we got answers. Here you will find a list of the most frequently asked questions here at The Great Outdoors, along with our standard answers. We also have, for your convenience, back issues of our popular newsletter, and additional gardening articles.
If you have a question that you do not see listed below, write to us and we will be sure to share the answer on our blog.
What is the difference between an annual and a perennial, evergreen, and deciduous, etc?
An annual plant is one that lives for a short period of time. Its whole mission in life is to sprout from seed, grow, flower, and produce more seed before dying. In the Austin area, we have a few different planting seasons, each with different annuals appropriate for that season.
Annuals usually produce the maximum number of flowers per plant for their given time. We also carry some tropical plants that will say "treated as an annual in our area." This is a plant that is not annual in nature, but will not live for many years here. Basically, just don't expect your annuals to be there for more than a few months.
A perennial plant is a plant will survive for many years, but usually freezes down in winter months (some perennials may go "dormant" in our hot, summer months). These plants have roots that stay alive, but the top of the plant goes away, only to return the next season. There are some "evergreen perennials" which are plants that are perennial by nature, but usually stay green all year in Austin.
An evergreen plant is a plant that is just that - green forever. Some evergreens may be barren for a very short period when the newest leaves come on in spring (such as our Live Oaks).
A deciduous plant is one that loses all its leaves over the winter, but grows back from the existing wood the next spring, as opposed to perennials that grow up from the ground.
How do I amend my soil to make a flowerbed?
When you build a house, you should always start with a strong foundation. The same is true of a flower bed. Before you just buy a bunch of plants and take them home, start by planning your beds. Where will they be? Do they get adequate sun? What do I want to grow? If you need help with these questions, stop by our nursery to see a plant professional or check out our Plant -n- Plant program.
Once you have these questions answered, you should start by prepping your area. Remove any existing grass or weeds, loosen your soil by tilling or digging, and add organic material and aggregate. Compost is available by the bag, as is Green Sand and Expanded Shale.
By starting with a strong foundation, your plants will perform better both immediately, and in the long run.
How do I plant a tree?
Planting trees is a bit different from planting flowers and small shrubs. Trees will have to be able to root into soil all through your yard. Recently, there has been a change in the procedure for tree planting. The new info is as follows:
Dig a hole only as deep as the root ball of your plant. The hole should be at least 6"- 8" larger in diameter. Fill the hole with the soil you removed, and not with a lot of compost and amendments. One of the few things we do recommend is a product called "Healthy Start Tree Saver."
This product contains three ingredients crucial to early tree growth. It has a mild organic fertilizer, a wetting agent to maintain moisture around the root ball, and mycorrhizae, a beneficial fungus that acts as a transport mechanism for moisture and nutrients. After planting, a tree of any size should be staked for about one year, especially if the tree already has leaves on it.
What does "well drained soil" mean?
Well-drained soil is simply soil that does not hold excessive amounts of water when it rains or is watered. Most plants do not enjoy having the soil stay wet for too long, as this leads to disease problems. The test for soil drainage is as follows:
Dig a small hole about one foot deep. Fill the hole with water. Observe the hole to see how long it takes for the water to drain away. It should be less than a half hour. Any longer may mean poor draining soil and may require the use of certain plants or the addition of aggregate, such as expanded shale, to improve drainage.
How often should I water my plants?
This is an almost impossible question to answer. Here is the best general rule we can give.
When you water your plants, you should make sure to water them thoroughly. A plant, potted or planted, cannot be watered too much at any one time. Overwatering is a function of watering too often. When it is time to water, soak plants very well. Indoor plants may need to be taken to the sink, tub, or even outside for a good soak. Plants in the ground need a good, slow soaking (that's why we love soaker hoses). Before a plant is watered again, the soil should be allowed to dry out a bit.
The difference in types of plants, let's say between a cactus and a fern, is how much you allow them to dry. Ferns should only be allowed to dry on the very top of the soil, whereas a cactus would like to dry completely. If you are unsure of how much water a particular plant needs, just ask one of our sales people. We'll be glad to help!
What does "full sun" mean?
To us, "full sun" means at least four hours of direct sunshine. This should be adequate to provide for best growth and flowering. Less sun may mean decent growth, but a reduced flowering. If you don't get a lot of sun, but instead receive a strong hit in the late afternoon, you may need to use full sun plants as they will tolerate this brief, but very intense, sunshine.
What does "regular watering" mean?
The term "regular watering" is used to let our customers know that the plant will need to be watered, especially during the first growing season. For more info, see the question "How often should I water my plants?" above.
How do I (or should I) fertilize my plants?
There are generally two types of fertilizers available - liquid and granular. A liquid fertilizer is generally mixed with water and watered onto the roots of your plants. For best results and least waste, water your plants well before you fertilize. The advantage of liquid fertilizers is that they act quickly - usually showing results in a few days. Generally, liquid fertilizers are used every week or two during the growing season.
Granular fertilizers are mixed into soil at planting or sprinkled on top of plants that are already planted. They do take a bit longer to act, needing as much as a week or two to begin breaking down and feeding. Their advantage is that they feed for longer periods, anywhere from a month to three months.
Both types of fertilizer are available in organic or inorganic forms. Generally, we recommend organic fertilizers, as they make healthier plants, but sometimes an inorganic may be a better choice (i.e. using organic fertilizers on houseplants may lead to a slightly foul smell in the house). Any of our salespeople will be glad to advise you on what type of fertilizer is best for your plant(s).
I have a sick plant, should I fertilize it to help it out?
NO! Fertilizer should be used to enhance the natural growth of a plant, not force it to grow. The plant should be made healthy first, then fertilized once all signs of disease or pests are gone.
Plant Pests and Diseases
What can I do to keep bugs off my plants?
This is a common question with a simple answer. Keep your plants healthy! Healthy plants are much more resistant to attacks from bugs and disease. The best ways to keep plants healthy are as follows:
- Feed plants on a regular (but not excessive) basis during the growing season.
- Water plants properly, ensuring they are not too wet or too dry.
- Prune plants as needed to avoid overgrowth, bad limbs, etc.
- And finally, Uncle Merr's little secret-apply liquid seaweed and/or compost tea to your plants on a regular basis during the growing season.
One great way to avoid pest problems is the use of beneficial insects such as ladybugs and mantids. These insects will devour literally hundreds of plant pests in short order. We carry both ladybugs and mantids in season, as well as other beneficial bugs you can send away for.
There are products on the market that get lots of advertising dollars which will keep bugs off your plants for long periods of time. They do this by making the entire plant poisonous. We do not recommend or sell these kinds of products for numerous reasons. It's kind of like giving your plants chemotherapy all the time BEFORE they have a health problem.
Even healthy plants may get a bug or disease from time to time. Proper identification and quick response is the best way to avoid excessive chemical use and undue expenses. Some pests, such as aphids, can be easily dealt with by a strong blast of water to remove them from the plant. Again, ask one of our salespeople for a solution and we'll be glad to give the easiest, least toxic method to deal with your problem. If you are unsure of the problem, just bring us a sample and we'll do everything we can to diagnose your situation.
I have (insert bug here) on my plant(s), how can I get rid of them?
At The Great Outdoors, we carry a number of different, organic solutions to pest problems. With a simple call or when you stop by, we can usually steer you towards the best solution to our problem. Proper identification is key to writing the best prescription. If you can, bring an infected piece of your plant in a small bag and we'll do our best.
What can I do about the mosquitoes in my yard?
During a large part of our year, mosquitoes are a nearly constant problem for Austin homeowners. There are two fronts on which they must be attacked for proper control.
First, there are the adults that are biting and buzzing you and your family. We carry a number of products designed to repel adult mosquitoes from you living area. These products use natural oils and extracts to repel the pests with no effect on people or pets. They include sprays, granules, and even incense.
Second, and probably most important, there are products designed to kill the larvae around your home. If you have standing water that you cannot get rid of, Mosquito Bits and Dunks contain a bacteria that is harmless to people and pets, but kills the larvae. I've even heard of people throwing these over their fence into a neighbor's yard! We also have a product called Spinosad. This natural solution is sprayed into areas that remain cool, moist, and dark, where mosquitoes may be breeding without full standing water.
When should I fertilize my lawn?
In Austin, optimal fertilization times are early April and late September.
What should I fertilize with?
The Great Outdoors "Austin Blend" is a great slow release, all natural, lawn fertilizer designed by the Travis County Extension agent. It's the cities' #1 recommended fertilizer.
Why shouldn't I use "Weed & Feed" products?
Weed & Feed fertilizers have a couple of serious downsides. First, they are not properly timed for use in Austin. We need to be using the "weed" part in February, but not the "feed" part until April. Second, the "weed" chemical used, Atrizine, has been found in several samples of Austin springs, creeks, and lakes. The chemical is very "mobile" and easily washes into the watershed.
How can I deal with a weed problem in a more environmentally friendly way?
Corn Gluten is a natural weed inhibitor that is used twice a year, in February and September. Existing weeds can be spot-treated with Horticultural Vinegar or other organic weed products. Other effective control methods include regular mowing, bagging lawn clippings in areas with heavy weed populations, and maintaining healthy grass to choke out weeds.
What do I do about bugs in my lawn?
There are many organic ways to treat lawn pests. The best defense is to keep a healthy lawn, one that is not mowed too short, not over or under watered, and fed regularly. Another good preventative is the application of beneficial nematodes. These little microscopic worms help control grubs, fire ants, fleas, and lots of other soil born pests.
How do I know if I have a pest problem or a disease in my lawn?
Answering this question is paramount to proper treatment. The link below goes to the website of Austin's Grow Green program and is a great flowchart for diagnosis. If you can't seem to get your answer there, try stopping by the nursery for one of our staff to help you.