Dear Neil: I would like to replace my front lawn with some type of native plant garden. The area is about 95% shade. I would like for it to attract butterflies, but I can’t find many flowering plants that are native here and that will grow in that heavy shade. To make matters worse, I am new to gardening and I don’t know whether my lawn is fertile, well-draining, clay, loam, sandy, etc., and I don’t know how to find out. Please help.

Answer: You are biting off a challenge that even a veteran Texas gardener might have trouble handling. Those are some extreme situations. Most flowering plants need full or nearly full sun to bloom to their best potential.

Compounding the problem, it sounds like you want a variety of plants that would bloom all through the season. You’ll have trouble finding even five or six that bloom for a couple of weeks each, much less the 15 or 20 that it would take to fill up an entire growing season.

Let me back up and start with your soil. The Texas A&M soil testing laboratory can answer all of those questions for you. Go to their website and send them a sample according to the directions you’ll find at that site. Organic matter is the best thing you can add to any soil in Texas. I prefer a combination of sphagnum peat moss, finally ground pine bark mulch, well-rotted compost and well-aged manure. If I am preparing a clay soil, I will also add 1 inch of expanded shale. I use a rear-tine rototiller to blend all of this in 5 or 6 inches deep.

My landscape sounds exactly like yours. We have full and total shade. When the trees became so large that my turfgrass would no longer grow, I replaced it with a shade-tolerant groundcover (mondograss) for the simple look of continuity across my landscape. I supplemented that with shade-loving shrubs, small ornamental trees and garden art to create a landscape with interest. My goal was to keep it very simple, and not to use too many different kinds of plants. I hope that offers some amount of direction for you.

Dear Neil: What can I do to eliminate leaf cutter ants? I thought I had them under control last fall, but now they are back even in the cold weather. The fire ant remedies did not work. How can I send them packing before they strip any more vegetation?

Answer: They are quite active in winter, so that is not unusual. Texas A&M entomologists refer to them as “Texas leaf cutting ants,” and you will find two detailed fact sheets on them under that name. Their subterranean nests may be 15 or 20 feet deep, and they may contain 2 million ants. Numerous chambers interconnected by tunnels give them easy access. They cut leaf pieces and carry them hundreds of feet back to their nests. They use the leaf pieces as a substrate on which they grow a particular fungus, their sole source of food.

Control is difficult, say Texas A&M entomologists. Contact insecticides offer short-term help around the specific plants that are being attacked, but they must be repeated frequently. A special Amdro bait product for the leaf cutting ants offers good control, but it has a short shelf life and it is not labeled for use in gardens.

Dear Neil: I bought my house two years ago, but I don’t know much about lawn work. I have a couple of areas with a viny weed. It has long, narrow leaves that look like grass, but when I rake the lawn, its stems get caught in the rake much like trying to brush tangled hair. What is this vine, and how can I get rid of it?

Answer: I’m not going to be able to identify the weed without a photograph. If you are absolutely sure that it is not specifically some type of grass, then a broadleafed weedkiller (containing 2.4- D) would be your best remedy. However, you really need to take a sample to a Texas Master Certified Nursery Professional for an accurate identification. To give you an example, I’m frequently asked by northerners who are new to Texas why our grasses have runners. They are used to Kentucky bluegrass. It is a “bunch” grass, meaning that it does not produce runners. When they rake our St. Augustine or even bermudagrass, they describe the experience much like you did. So obviously, I have not helped much with my answer. You need to get a sample into a nursery.

Dear Neil: We are losing what we think are boxwood shrubs. Sections begin to get a gray color and then a wilted look. Then they turn brown and dead. It shifts to another section and repeat the process until the plant is totally dead. It has now happened to five of the shrubs. I have tried fungicides and insecticides every other day to no avail. Any suggestions?

Answer: Oh, what I would give for a photograph, if for no other reason than to identify the shrub. Two shrubs look very much alike. Boxwood leaves have smooth edges. The ends of the leaves are cupped inward like a Valentines heart. Dwarf yaupon holly leaves are scalloped around the edges. Either plant might have gotten too dry, and the symptoms you have described would fit. However, that is far more likely to have gotten dwarf yaupon hollies. I see it happening to them all the time. Obviously, spraying with a fungicide or insecticide would do nothing to help. Hopefully they would put new growth out. Boxwoods, on the other hand, could have had several other problems. It could be nematodes, or it might even be the newly reported (2011 in North Carolina) boxwood blight that has been moving across the United States from the East Coast. I’m going to refer you to a publication on boxwood blight from the university of Maryland. .

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