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Composting Prickly Pear, Potatoes, Hairy Vetch, Tree Pruning

A chemical called Picloram has been recommend for killing the prickly pear cactus on several acres. Is there an organic alternative? ’– M.B., Dallas

Good for you for asking. Picloram is one of the herbicides that is so hard to break down, it is ruining compost in many areas. When sprayed on grass, cows eating the grass and then composting the manure will not neutralize it. The residual can ruin fruit production or kill plants. Even chemical users have called for its removal from the market. Several ranchers are composting cactus. They are picking it up and putting it on piles. The piles can be any size but bigger is better. If available they dump a scoop or two of manure on each pile and leave it until the pear is starting to rot, then turn the pile a few times. It may take a few months or a year to completely break down but it makes a beautiful compost - Texas Prickly Pear Compost. The only caution is don’t drop any. The smallest little piece starts a new plant anywhere it hits the soil. However, building the soil by increasing the organic matter is the long-term control. In healthy soil a fungus starts to attack the crown of it after the cochineal bugs. Start to show up on the pads. These are the insects that provide the beautiful red dye.

Q. Can I plant white potatoes and sweet potatoes together? ’– K.J., Dallas

A. No, they should be in separate beds and planted at different times. Irish potatoes can be planted now through February. Sweet potatoes need to wait until the soil is warm in the spring. For the Irish potatoes, throw whole seed potatoes down on well prepared soil and cover with a thick layer of natural mulch such as shredded cedar. Production will be great and harvest easy ’– just pull back the mulch when the foliage starts to die down in the summer.

Q. I planted hairy vetch in my raised beds and it is doing great. It’s about 10’” tall. Should I turn it under now? I was told I should not let it go to seed as it will take over my garden. ’– M.S., Dallas

A. No, let the vetch grow through the winter. In the early spring it will start to flower. The purple flowers are beautiful and attract beneficial insects like a magnet. When it’s warm enough to plant the vegetables, cut the vetch down to the ground, leave the cuttings on the ground as mulch and plant right into the roots of the mulch. Do not till and cut way back on fertilizer because little if any will be needed. You’ll have to do this work earlier for potatoes and cool season crops.

Q. Can I prune my trees now? ’– N.R., Dallas

A. Yes, major tree pruning can now be done if necessary. Don’t be fooled that trees need to be "thinned out’” each year. No flush cuts, please, and no pruning paint. Too early to prune fruit trees. Wait until just before bud break late winter.

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