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Spread the word, and the fertilizer too

Early February is the perfect time for the first major fertilization of the year.

You may hear others say that it's too early and that you should wait until April. If you use soluble high-nitrogen fertilizers, that's good advice because chemical fertilizers leach through the soil and into the runoff before plants start to grow in the spring.

That's why I strongly recommend avoiding synthetic plant foods. Organic fertilizers are better in every way. They feed the soil naturally rather than force-feeding the plants. They don't have to be used as often, and they don't encourage insects and diseases as chemical fertilizers do.

There are many alternatives to chemicals. In feed stores and garden centers, you will find dozens of organic fertilizers. Some have a few ingredients, some have many ingredients, and a few have only one ingredient.

The most popular choice with only one ingredient is corn gluten meal. It is the protein portion of cornmeal and has an analysis of 9-0-0 to 10-1-1. It also contains a good supply of trace minerals, but its most unusual feature is that it has pre-emergent herbicide value if it is applied just before the germination of weed seeds. It's also a powerful fertilizer, so if you apply it after crabgrass and grass burs germinate, you'll have the largest, healthiest weeds on the block. No big deal: Just mow 'em.

Corn gluten meal and other organic fertilizers should be applied at a rate of 20 pounds per 1,000 square feet of garden area, unless you have been using an organic program for several years. In that case, the rate can be cut in half without affecting plant growth.

Other one-ingredient fertilizers include alfalfa meal, blood meal, fish meal, soy meal and, the most interesting, dry molasses. I have recommended for years that liquid molasses be included in sprays of compost tea, fish and seaweed mixes, Garrett Juice and other blends. But dry molasses has an added benefit: In most cases, fire ants disappear from the area where it is applied.

Make your first major organic fertilizer application now unless you want the herbicidal value of the corn gluten meal. For that, wait until Feb. 15 or later.

Question: I've heard that some farmers have had success in controlling gophers with cracked corn. I'd like more information about this, as gophers are rampant on my father's property in Washington state.

K.R., Austin

Answer: All I have are reports saying that cracked corn and whole ground cornmeal repel these little beasts. Some people have applied the material with a seed drill, others have broadcast the material. Rates on the broadcast have ranged from 200 to 300 pounds per acre.

I have no idea how it works. All I can say is that the corn will be good for the soil and will help control fire ants. So why not give it a shot?

Question: I am building a home in Mansfield. The lot has a mixture of red and black clay soil. A couple of catalogs I have say that a blue spruce will grow in Zone 7. Why have I not seen any near or around here? Will they grow here?

I grew up with several of these trees, and I love them.

M.M., Mansfield

Answer: Blue spruce should grow fairly well in your soil. Use my natural planting techniques and organic products.

There are two conifers that I would recommend much more strongly than blue

spruce: Italian stone pine and native Eastern red cedar. They require little maintenance and should do very well for you. Pictures and more details are in my books and on my Web site,, in the "Dirt Doctor Library" section.

Question: Five years ago, I planted two live oaks (required by our neighborhood restrictions). These trees have a 2-inch trunk caliper.

I used your "big ugly hole" technique to plant the trees, but they haven't grown much, if any. They were container-grown trees when I bought them, and I am afraid that they are planted too deep. I worked to expose the root flare, but I am still afraid they are too deep.

If I dig much deeper, these trees will be about 4 inches below the grade of the yard.

M.B., Dallas

Answer: No matter how deep your trees are, the root flares need to be exposed. After the soil is removed from the root flare and trunk, the plant will look greener, grow better and have fewer pest problems. If this doesn't happen, you don't owe me anything.

Question: One of our large crape myrtles was damaged when a small tractor rolled into it. It is a four-trunk tree. The accident knocked three of the trunks from their vertical positions. One of the trunks was badly split.

If the trunk is split through the heart of the wood, will it live?

T.S., Coppell

Answer: Badly split trunks should be removed.

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