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Dallas Morning News - December 1, 2016

Q.  Started with "new" house in Little Elm, borders the Army Corps controlled land around Lake Lewisville : bottom line was that it was terrible "gumbo" clay with the (builders minimum) smattering of sand and then sod. For beds, we striped away the sod (preserved as an easement into the corps' weed farm on the other side of the fence), set up a metal border, filled the area with various plants along with a "purple plum" tree. We did a lot "wrong" ... creating 'clay pots' in the ground that drowned a lot of plants. The worst is that in the 3 years since, the Bermuda grass infiltrated and then completely took over the bed. Question is twofold: how do we "start over"? Short of removing the topsoil that has built up from the mulch and never ending parade of replacement plants and stripping down to nothing but clay. Is there a way to preserve anything? The second question is whether or not the answer above can be done while preserving the plum tree? I have heard of "smothering" and also something a little more severe: I think covering/sealing the area with plastic sheeting and cooking it. Will either of those techniques kill the tree?  R. W. Little Elm, TX

A.  Forget the smothering or solarizing - that only works in the heat of the summer. Scrape or dig the unwanted plants out and then apply all the organic amendments over the entire area to be planted. Forget the peat moss of course and add compost, lava sand, dry molasses and whole ground cornmeal. Mix it into your existing soil - no matter how bad you think it is and plant away. The only thing about the plum tree is to be careful to avoid piling any soil on the base of the tree as you do the new work. Make sure its flare is dramatically exposed.

Q.  Heard you talking about coyotes and bird feeders on yours and Bob's show.  As a fan of Mike McGrath as well, I've been following his advice since he shares a hatred of bushy tailed tree rats (squirrels). He recommends only feeding the birds in the winter and only with suet.  Helps them survive and attracts the insect eaters and they'll make their homes near your garden.  So far I've only done it this last year but found a lot of good birds in the winter and much less the rest of the year.  Seems like it would help not attract rats as well since no mess under the feeders.  R. A. Dallas, TX
A.  Thanks for the idea but it might not help much in reducing the attraction of rats and squirrels. They are talented at climbing down wires to get to seeds or suet. They are actually more attracted to the fat in suet than bare seeds.

Q.  Thought you might appreciate this side by side photo of the side yard I share with my neighbor. You can probably guess which side had a nicely timed fall application of corn gluten meal. He's got every kind of cool season weed you can imagine and they are vigorous. I put it down in mid-September we when I saw that we were in for a week or so of cool nights. The 10-day forecast on the Weather Channel app is handy for that.  M. D. Dallas, TX
A.  Thanks for the report. This is excellent.

Q.  I am now ready to spread whole cornmeal @ 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft. Figure it's best to treat entire yard vs. the disease affected areas only? Should I water it in? Concerned about birds eating it before it breaks down. How beneficial to also spread dry molasses? When will result start to appear? Too late in the year to notice before growing season starts next spring? Advisable to treat annually or on some other recurring basis? Any other advice or suggestions for restoring yard to good health and keeping it that way? J. W. Terrell, TX
A.  I agree that treating the entire yard is the best approach if it fits your budget. Attracting birds usually isn’t a problem. Watering the cornmeal in is best if you aren't lucky enough to catch some rain. Adding molasses won't hurt and will provide some fertilizer and microbe stimulating benefits. Results will not show up until next growing season. Reapplying on regular basis is probably not going to be needed.

Q.  We are about to have all of our cedar elms, red oaks, bald cypress and live oaks pruned. The company we are talking to is recommending strongly thinning all the trees and removing many of the lowest limbs. He is saying all this pruning will make the trees healthier and grow larger. He is also saying that this work will allow more light and help the turf grow better. Are we getting some good advice? S.L. Dallas
A. Doesn't sound like it. Trees rarely need "thinning" and heavy thinning can actually be detrimental to their health. Low limbs should only be removed if they are hitting the house, cars or people walking. If you want to trim some limbs away to open up or frame important views or to change the appearance of the trees, that's fine - but that kind of pruning is for your benefit, not for the trees' benefit. Trimming trees will not help grass grow under the trees. The only thing that will help the turf is to remove some trees. Both trees and turfgrasses need direct sunlight. Trees win that battle. It sounds like you might want to interview some other tree care companies.

Q.  Are there evergreen shade trees, other than live oaks that will do well in the Dallas/Fort Worth area in our black clay soils? T.A. Richardson, TX
A.  First of all, I agree with you that live oaks, although excellent trees, have been used way too much over the past few decades. The sleeper alternative is the Mexican white oak, also sold as Monterrey oak. It is completely evergreen most winters and semi evergreen in the harshest of winters. Here is more detailed information about this wonderful tree.

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