Well I guess I need therapy or something as I’m still having trouble moving on without my dog Rosie.  It doesn’t help that I love listening to old twangy country music where every other song is a heart wrenching tear jerker about lost love.  Of course it does help to have other loves to distract the feeble brain and heart.  One of mine is pine trees of all things.  I didn’t grow up loving pines.  In East Texas they teach you at an early age to grumble about them.  The needles have to be raked, the cones get in the way, the sap sticks like glue, the pollen turns our world yellow in the spring, and limbs break out during ice storms.  All of that comes from those my cousin Celia would call “half empty” folks.  Instead of looking on the good side of the situation, they have to focus on the dark side.

Although most pines in East Texas are destined for the saw mill for pulp or lumber after about 25 years or less, it turns out I need and want them forever.  I didn’t realize this until I moved away to school in College Station, and then Dallas, and then San Antonio.  Something was missing in my life.  It turns out that it was the pine trees.  I loved and missed the way they smelled, I loved their pine straw mulch, and I loved the way they jingled like dainty wind chimes after the ice storms.  I even loved the pine cones that we used to fashion into Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas trees in kindergarten.

Pine trees are a part of East Texas (and the rest of the southeastern U.S.) and belong here.  Mostly what you see today are loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) but historically we had three native pines in East Texas.  Short leaf pines (Pinus echinata) grew on the dry clay hills in northeast Texas, loblolly pines grew in the wetter areas of southeast Texas, and the regal longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) grew in the sandy lands of Deep East Texas.  Unfortunately the long lasting wood and slow growth of short leaf and longleaf doomed them as they were cut and not replanted.  All upland pines grow in a “pyric” fire prone environment and like grasses and perennials are “fire resistant”.  Many pines used to grow in large, open, park like expanses known as pine savannas.  Out of the 90 million acres that used to exist in the South only about 3 million remain today, mostly in the southeastern U.S.  I’m actually trying to fashion my own in the back yard however.

About 20 years ago I planted six thousand loblolly pines out back for a timber project that I hoped I could sell and use the proceeds in restoring my old house.  But along the way, my pine love affair grew along with the pines themselves and I vowed to leave them forever.  They make a great green curtain behind my house and each night before I fall asleep I take a peaceful imaginary walk through them.

Classic pine savannas featured pines spaced far apart and native grasses below that burned on a regular basis.  The burning discouraged hardwoods while stimulating the grasses and pines.  A number of species evolved to only live in pine savannas including pine warblers, brown headed nuthatches, red cockaded woodpeckers, gopher tortoises, and Louisiana pine snakes.  The regular fires also eliminate the buildup of excessive amounts of fuel preventing massive tree killing wildfires like they had in Bastrop last summer.  The bare dirt after the fires makes an excellent seed bed for wildflowers and native grasses.  In addition to serving as a herbicide, the fire also acts as a fertilizer, fungicide, and insecticide.  Although it only needs it every few years, I conduct a prescribed fire or “control burn” every year on my eight acres out back.  Although many natural fires occurred from lightening strikes during dry summers, I conduct a cool, safe, spring break fire each year inside a wide fire lane of course.

Despite five years of ongoing thinning, my pines are still way too thick for a savanna.  I’m working on it however.  In the last five years pine warblers and brown headed nuthatches (my latest favorite bird) have showed up to cheer me on.  I now leave all of the dead trees standing to attract our eight native species of woodpeckers which will in turn provide nesting cavities for our many secondary cavity dwellers. Last year was the first year that bluebirds nested in one of my abandoned woodpecker cavities, the way nature intended.  I love my pines and have just as much fun “playing in them” now as I did growing up as a child.

Of course March was much too busy to just play in the pines.  I spoke again to the library club at Huntington High School on the importance of trees.  I also attended the open day of the Nelton Adams Memorial Daffodil field in Dodson, Louisiana.  Then after ten years of failed negotiations and failed mediation, I participated in a land partition hearing to divide up some land next to me that I own fifty percent interest in.  I’m trying to save my beloved and rare Trillium recurvatum patch next to me.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.  Then along came spring break where I not only burned my fledgling pine savanna but my 8 acre tall grass prairie project as well.  Native grasses love fire even more than pines.  Next I spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in Lufkin on designing landscapes with native plants.  Then I took a whirlwind tour of North Louisiana and Arkansas with Cousin Celia, her husband Steve Templin, friend Thera Lou Adams, my mom, and her best friend Mary Beth Hagood.  I got to see many wonderful gardens, including the late Arkansas icon, Carl Amason’s old place, along with my very first daffodil show in Conway.  At the tail end of the month I gave a tour of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center to a visiting group from Mercer Arboretum and wrapped it up with a visit to the Ivy Payne Wildlife Refuge in Elkhart.

My brand new Growing Fruits and Vegetables in Texas (Cool Springs Press) just came out and is available from Amazon.com, texasgardener.com, King’s Nursery, and of course The Arbor Gate.  I love growing (and eating) fruits and vegetables!  I also published an article on the SFA Ruby M. Mize Azalea Gardens in Neil Sperry’s Gardens and one on my first grade teacher, Miss Mozelle, in Texas Gardener.

April will have me speaking on heirloom plants and my new plant introductions at The Arbor Gate with mentor Bill Welch on Saturday April 14, on home veggie gardening in Nacogdoches at our SFA Spring Garden Gala Plant Sale and Earth Day Celebration on Saturday April 21, and attending the annual Briarwood Picnic at the Caroline Dormon Nature Preserve in Saline, Louisiana on Saturday April 28.

We hold our grand opening of our new Gayla Mize Garden at SFA on Tuesday April 17.  It’s just across the street from the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden and will feature many showy deciduous azaleas as well as the usual assortment of Dr. Creech rarities.  And don’t miss my big buddy, Steve Chamblee from Chandor Gardens in Weatherford, speaking at our SFA Gardens Theresa and Les Reeves Lecture Series on Thursday, April 19 at 7:00.  He’ll enchant us with Garden Harmony 101 as only he can.  Until next month, grow old and be happy.  -Greg