Q: Don’t shoot me, but I have used nonorganic fertilizer in my yard. I have about 6,000 square feet of grass, and I have been looking at a product called Milorganite for the lawn. It is cheap at Wal-Mart. I use a drop spreader. Is that a good organic, bagged fertilizer or is there another one that you would suggest? S.E., Sherman
A: Milorganite is better than synthetic fertilizers, but I am not a fan of sewer sludge-based products. Its manufacturer apparently does a good job of removing the heavy metals and pathogens from the base ingredient, but the concern about pharmaceutical residues still exists. Factory-farm production of chicken, beef, pork and other meat animals incorporates various drugs regularly and at high levels. That’s one of the main reasons I advocate organic, natural and grass-finished meats. The safest organic fertilizers at this time are sugar-based products, such as dry molasses, and plant residue products with ingredients such as alfalfa, soy, corn and cotton seed. These are not perfect, but they beat the high-nitrogen, synthetic salt fertilizers that dominate the market and wreak havoc on soil health with every application. No matter which fertilizer you choose, you’ll have an easier time with application and get better coverage with a broadcast spreader, also called a cyclone or rotary spreader.
Q: A local organic exterminator said he uses pyrethrum on fire ants. Is pyrethrum organic and is it really made from chrysanthemums? S.C., Denton
A: Pyrethrum in any form — natural or synthetic (permethrin) — can be toxic. Manufacturers promote it as safe but, in my opinion, it is not. Natural pyrethrum is from the genus Chrysanthemum, but the crop of flowers may be sprayed with DDT or other insecticides, depending on the country where the crop is grown. The insecticide may leave a toxic residue, and the base product itself, from the plant, can cause allergic skin reactions or affect people with asthma. If you want to read an Environmental Protection Agency paper including references to multiple published studies about the effects of pyrethroid insecticides, go to www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/reevaluation/pyrethrins-pyrethroids-asthma-allergy-9-18-09.pd
Q: We just dug old boxwoods out of our front yard. Is now a good time for planting shrubs? What you would recommend for a north-facing house. S.E., Azle
A: The cold dormant season is the perfect time to plant shrubs and other plants. My choice for that situation is dwarf yaupon holly. It can be trimmed into a square hedge, like boxwood, or it can be left to grow into a soft, natural form that reaches 3 to 4 feet tall.
Q: Will Shumard red oaks grow well in East Texas and its acidic red clay? I have a large volume of small volunteer oaks in my flower beds here and was thinking about transplanting them. S.F., Fort Worth
A: Shumard oaks will do very well in East Texas. Plants that tolerate our lousy alkaline soils will love the sandy acid soils, and that includes your Shumard red oaks.