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Change: the Only Thing Constant in the Queen of Houston Gardening’s Landscape


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Retired Houston Chronicle garden editor Kathy Huber and her Jack Russell terrier, Spike.

Kathy Huber shares her wisdom gained over 30 years

By Cherie Foster Colburn

When Georgia native Kathy Huber drove into Houston in the late 1970s, she never dreamed she would spend the next three decades as one of the gurus of Texas gardening. After all, she’d earned her degree in English literature with a plan to teach, not write. Truly, she HAS taught, though. Thousands have been instructed as to when and where to plant what from this former Houston Chronicle garden editor. In her weekly column and feature articles, Kathy learned alongside her readers, honest and open about what it takes to be a gardener in these parts. But, when Kathy relinquished her throne in February and stepped down as garden editor, she not only shifted to a new season in her life, but also in her landscape. We had the opportunity to ask Kathy about her years spent advising folks what to plant, prune, pick and purge in their yards and what she’ll be doing at her Houston home now that more days are her own.

 

Q: How did a Georgia girl who studied English literature in North Carolina end up as the garden editor of a major Texas newspaper?

A: Many plants that grow in Georgia grow in Texas, but how they’re grown here is another thing. I had to scramble when a serious hobby became my job as the Houston Chronicle’s first full-time garden editor. Fear was a great motivator. I had passion and curiosity, but no horticulture credentials. So, I became a student. Although I’d been gardening for years, I had to approach the job as any beat reporter does: find the experts — fast. Thank goodness the area is full of teachers who generously shared their knowledge so I could absorb and pass it on. I took the Master Gardener class; I read and researched. I, like any gardener, have learned through trial and error in a climate that dishes out deluge and drought. I’ve really enjoyed studying soil types, disease, insects and their relationships not only with plants but each other, organics and our dependence on plants. (Kathy’s now thinking of training to become a Texas Master Naturalist.)

 

Q: You’ve said you got into gardening because your mom and grandmother gardened. Has your son shown any interest?

A: Our son was so involved in sports that he didn’t have time for plants. He traveled quite a bit. However, he’s always commented when the garden is in decent shape, so perhaps that seed of appreciation might develop once he and his wife own a home.

 

Q: Speaking of family, your husband, John Everett, is a photographer. Does he enjoy gardening or prefer to stay behind the camera?

A: John is the family composter. And he’s a whiz at bundling limbs and other plant debris unsuitable for his large bin to be picked up by the recycling truck. He helped me spread 50 bales of pine straw this spring. Otherwise, I’m the main gardener.

 

Q: Do you still have your Jack Russell terriers? What are some dos and don’ts about mixing dogs and landscapes?

A: We still have one (Spike), and I’m beginning to consider a puppy. A 16-pound Jack Russell is kinder to flower beds than a thundering 80-pound lab, so take a dog’s size into consideration when planting. (See sidebar for tips about dogs in the garden.)

 

Q: You’ve called your landscape an ongoing experiment. What are some results that were not what you expected?       

A: I’ve always been one to try new plants, plus each spring growers from across the country would send me many large boxes of the latest cultivars to test their suitability for our area. ‘Kaleidoscope’ abelia, ‘Blue Chip’ buddleia, ‘Cuban Gold’ duranta, ‘Lady in Red’ hydrangea, Endless Summer hydrangea, ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia, leucothoe, cephalotaxus and cryptomeria (shrubs) have performed beyond expectations in my non-scientific home trials.

Native or well-adapted ornamental tree winners include two-wing silver bell, Mexican clethra, Mexican plum and Mexican bauhinia. I think everyone has fallen in love with Chinese fringe trees. ‘Rising Sun’ redbud, a beauty I discovered at a garden writers convention a few years ago, is not always a great bloomer in our mild winters, but the foliage is stunning, changing from peach to lime-green to a darker green.

I’m a big fan of bulbs — for all seasons. We’re fortunate to have great naturalizing narcissus. ‘Erlicheer’ is my favorite. Leucojum also is a delight. I can’t believe how many irises tolerate Houston’s extremes. I’ve found crested iris and walking iris are great ground covers in shade; giant walking iris needs some sun. You can’t get any easier than rainlilies, Byzantine glads, numerous gingers and oxblood lilies.

I can’t get agastache or Russian sage high and dry enough to keep them going. Coral bells are beautiful perennials with colorful foliage and dainty blooms, but I’ve had to keep them in pots to better control drainage and light. Only a handful of the blizzard of newer coneflower cultivars have been worthwhile in my garden. Keepers include ‘Sunset,’ ‘Pow Wow Wildberry,’ and a tall white called ‘Fragrant Angel.’

 

Q: Your yard is shady in the back and sunny in the front. Which is your favorite?

A: There have been considerable shade/sun changes in our garden over the years. Our back shade garden was my favorite as I’ve always loved the comforting feeling of living beneath big trees and being surrounded by lush foliage. I find woodlands a magical place to explore. Besides, it’s so stinking hot here. But, we lost large trees during Hurricane Ike, and therefore the full shade in our backyard. This was upsetting at first, because I had to quickly move shade-lovers such as crested iris, giant ligularia and peacock ginger. And of course, without the canopy, our AC bill went up. However, I soon realized it was a great opportunity to introduce more old roses (one of Kathy’s treasures is the ‘Peggy Martin’ rose which she received from the namesake) and new trees such as Mexican clethera, Chinese fringe tree, Mexican plum, Mexican bauhinia and purple-leaf vitex. The increased light also gave me the chance to experiment with new buddleias and cultivars of perennial coneflowers, agastache and verbena.

 

Q: What are the top three issues Houston area gardeners face?

A: Water: gardening successfully with too much rain or none at all; stressing or even killing plants by over- or under-watering; waste/conservation of water. Although it’s been a soggy spring, I’ll never forget when it didn’t rain in 2011.

Soil: improving poorly draining soil and making nutrients available to plants.

Pesticides: when are they necessary; what’s safest for the overall environment.

Today’s gardeners are much better educated than when I began my job. I still get ‘why won’t my bougainvillea bloom’ and ‘how do I prune my crape myrtle’ questions. But thanks to the expertise of numerous plant societies and other educational organizations, we are better equipped.

 

Q: Which season is easiest for new veggie gardeners in the Houston area? What do you prefer to buy and grow?

A: I think late winter/early spring is the easiest time to start growing food. The fall garden can be quite productive, but starting time is late July/August, and it’s so hot it takes more effort to keep seed­lings/transplants going until high temps ease. I gave up growing most vegetables as I didn’t have the time, but continue to grow eggplant (Kathy says ‘Patio Baby’ proved be the most incredibly productive eggplant), lettuce during the cool months, and several herbs. However, I hope to get back to growing tomatoes, beans and okra, which are so easy and heat-tolerant. Meanwhile, I’m lucky to have Master Gardener friends who feed me well. Fortunately, we have farmers’ markets around town that offer locally grown.

 

Q: Now that you have more time to travel, what tips can you share about making Houston area gardens vacation-proof?

A: For years, I paid someone to water and keep an eye on things while vacationing in summer. Now, I’m streamlining and simplifying so the garden can hold its own and/or make it easier on anyone who I may ask to water. I tend to go overboard with pots, so I’m planting fewer but larger containers. If necessary, I move them to the shade to slow moisture evaporation while gone. I resist buying new plants and I don’t fertilize before leaving town. I do water trees and beds slowly and deeply, if hasn’t rained. And I’m a mulch queen. (Kathy prefers pine straw mulch on top of husband John’s compost because it’s less likely to wash away.)

Although Kathy’s only self-appointed claim to royalty is mulch queen, Houston area gardeners expanded her kingdom to all of gardening. While she’ll miss many aspects of working at the Houston Chronicle, she’s excited to finally have more daylight hours for playing in her own yard — finishing projects begun years ago, adding more layers of plants to existing beds, and staying focused on one area at a time. Ever the student/teacher, she’ll continue sharing her hard-won landscaping lessons with us. The one thing that will probably never change is Kathy Huber’s reign as the queen of gardening.

Huber’s backyard looking toward deck.

Huber’s backyard looking toward deck.

Alpinia zerumbet, or commonly known ast shell ginger.

Alpinia zerumbet, or commonly known ast shell ginger.

Terri’s pink hibiscus.

Terri’s pink hibiscus.

 A view of Huber’s backyard.

A view of Huber’s backyard.

Endless Summer Hydrangeas and other flowering plants beautify the landscape.

Endless Summer Hydrangeas and other flowering plants beautify the landscape.

Phlox paniculata, also referred to as Fall phlox, Garden phlox or Perennial phlox.

Phlox paniculata, also referred to as Fall phlox, Garden phlox or Perennial phlox.

 

More Tips from Kathy Huber

Some of Kathy’s favorite summer plants:

SUN: summer phlox, angelonia, ‘Terri’s Pink’ hibiscus, lance-leaf rudbeckia, Zahara zinnias, ‘Violet Ice’ verbena and cleome

A knock-out summer sun combo is ruby grass, Gulf Coast muhly grass, Mexican feather grass and rosemary.

SHADE: torenia, crested iris, fall-flowering toadlilies, giant ligularia (Farfugium), pigeonberry, peacock ginger, ‘Soft Caress’ and Chinese mahonia, cephalotaxus, cryptomeria. Combine any of these for a rich, layered look in the shade. And you can’t beat pentas for sun or bright/dappled shade spots. Butterflies love them!

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While Kathy Huber has retired from her role as garden editor of the Houston Chronicle, she remains involved in the area gardening scene as a speaker and by keeping up the Chronicle’s garden events calendar. Here’s her list of must-see events / places in the area related to landscaping:

  • Mercer Botanic Gardens & March Mart
  • Houston Arboretum & Nature Center
  • Armand Bayou
  • Bayou Bend Gardens
  • Buffalo Bayou Park
  • McGovern Centennial Gardens in Hermann Park
  • Cockrell Butterfly Garden at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
  • Peckerwood Garden near Hempstead
  • Demonstration gardens at Texas AgriLife Extension Service Centers
  • Plant sales offered by Master Gardener organizations, Urban Harvest, plant societies and garden clubs
  • River Oaks Garden Club’s Azalea Trail

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A dog romping in the landscape doesn’t have to mean disaster for either. Some recommendations from Houston area gardeners when it relates to pups are:

1) Give a dog a safe place to run and play.

2) Skip the pesticides.

3) Know about each plant’s toxicity.

4) Discourage nibbling.

5) Sago palms can kill if you don’t get your pet to the vet quickly after ingestion. Keep an eye on your dog if he/she is outdoors when you’re fertilizing, too. Some dogs love to snack on chicken poop and other organic pellets.


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