Gardening in a Hostile Environment: Never Give Up

In the past week, I’ve heard several friends or family members say that they can’t grow plants, that they kill everything they try to grow, etc. I’m here to tell you that every gardener has killed a plant. And if there is anyone out there who can prove otherwise, I’ll send them a free succulent. We have plenty to spare. Just don’t tell my husband.

cactus
Even succulents can be hard to grow if they lack sun or receive too much water. But my husband Tim has a knack for growing them. This is only a small sample, with a few of my ornamentals mixed in.

The seasoned gardener will blame the deer that ate/trampled the day lilies or the bad, strange weather the past year (read nearly any of my blog posts) or grasshoppers and other insects that brought damage and dreaded disease. You know, these seasoned gardeners aren’t really lying. The truth is that all anyone can do is start with the healthiest plant possible, place it in the best possible environment and care for it according to the plant’s needs and the environment in which it lives. If it doesn’t work, we learn from it and try again, sometimes with another plant or another place. And if you get really fed up, you can always switch environments!

view of rock garden and clouds
You can’t have it all. Crazy weather seems to accompany gorgeous views, right?

We happen to love our environment, and I know there are many more hostile than ours. No matter where you live and grow, gardening is trial and error. And like any hobby or DIY project, preparation and a little upfront learning can increase your chance of success, even in a hostile setting. Here are a few problems we face in ours, along with tips to keep from giving up.

Drought and water use. When you “go with the flow,” so to speak in low-water gardening, you take what nature delivers. That means supplementing new plantings with water until they’re established, even watering xeric plants more than suggested for the first year or so. We use rainwater as much as possible, and since our established plants generally need little to no irrigation, we can use well water sparingly as needed. A bigger problem can be too much water. And I think new gardeners, or at least gardeners adjusting to growing xeric plants, tend to overwater drought-tolerant plants for the duration. It’s also instinct to assume when a plant wilts that it needs water, when the cause might be something else. Sometimes, Mother Nature overwaters and having healthy plants helps them ride out the storm.

Never Give-up Tips: Avoid the temptation to overwater.  Make sure low-water plants get a good start, especially by planting them in well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter.

gravel mulch to warm lavender
The gravel mulch near our lavender is meant to reflect heat to warm the plants and to control weeds. We’re trying to keep it away from the base of the plants, though, so it doesn’t restrict their growth or cause wet, soggy roots.

Climate. Nature also can deliver water or temperature in strange patterns. This year, we had more than a week of clouds, cool temperatures and wet days. Our plants got confused, and sometimes climate conditions that are unnatural to native plants can cause stress and disease. At other times, it keeps them blooming later than normal, which is a good thing. Using microclimates, even temporary ones, can help plants weather the goofy weather. For example, I planted my chile and bell peppers at the same time as last year, but the weather was cooler than normal right after I planted. I’ll admit that our seedlings were a little weak, too, so that’s a lesson learned. But I should have put something over or around them to warm them up a notch. A few of them never thrived.

Never Give-up Tips: Know your plants’ zones and sun requirements and follow them when planting, remembering that trees leaf out and grow! And try an edible or annual in a different spot next year or move an established perennial.

Gophers. I’ll include all underground critters, such as moles, prairie dogs and ground squirrels in this one. For us, gophers rank up there as enemy no. 1. You can’t even say they’re cute, because for one, you really never see them. They do their damage mostly at night and I have only seen one pop up as it worked to open a hole in our brand new lavender bed, after chewing up the roots of one of the brand new lavender plants, of course. Some will say they improve the soil. I say they destroy plants. Our tally in a few years includes an Echinacea, a primrose, an ornamental grass, two lavender plants and at least one dwarf apple tree. The newer and more vulnerable the plant, the more they seem to love it.

Never Give-up Tips: The only method that works for keeping gophers away from a vegetable or ornamental garden is burying metal barriers 24 inches down to surround the entire garden or using raised beds such as metal troughs. Of course, container gardening also works. As for control, that’s a post, or two, or three, of its own.

gopher damage in rock garden
We’ve had gophers come through several spots in our rock walls. The walls hold up to deer jumping on them and are nearly four feet high, but gophers…

Deer. Deer are cute and we try to work with them. Our property has only pipe fencing, which the deer and elk can jump over or wind their way through easily. Many of our ornamental plants are unattractive to deer, and we fence those that they enjoy munching on, at least until the plants are large enough to survive the meal. We’ve learned the hard way on a few plants. For example, I didn’t know that deer enjoy the flavor of a spineless prickly pear cactus until we lost an entire pad! They were nice enough to just step on the other one. Deer do draw the line at spiny prickly pear in case you’re wondering.

Never Give-up Tips: It’s easy to search online for lists of plants that deer prefer or avoid, and fencing really is the only deterrent that works. I have used soap shavings (strong-smelling ones) hanging around my unfenced tomato plants with some success, but only in summer when they have a buffet of choices.

deer in ornamental xeric garden
In winter and early spring, deer come right up near the patio, within feet of the house. They’ll eat and step on plenty of plants when food is scarce.

Insects. I don’t much care for bugs, and am learning all I can about the bad ones. We use integrated pest management, because the last thing we want to do is kill bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Our fruit-set rates were incredible for this summer’s vegetables, and I thank our pollinators. But our plants and our feet are under constant attack. Ants have taken over our orchard and we caught some carrying off fall carrot seeds the other day. This is a problem we have to work on, but also accept as part of gardening. And we will continue to do what we can to attract pollinators.

Never Give-up Tips: Hand-pick known criminals such as tomato hornworms or cucumber beetles after you’ve identified them. And spray plants with water for offenders such as aphids. Spraying pesticides, even organic ones, can kill beneficial insects that help control the bad bugs. We plan to add row-cover cloth over more seedlings this year until the plants flower to help control grasshoppers and other bugs.

io moth caterpillar
This might look similar to a monarch caterpillar, but it’s not. For one, it stings and releases a toxin. Second, it never travels alone. We have had invasions now on three different types of trees, where they party until they strip entire branches unless Tim handpicks them. That’s where he learned firsthand about the sting. We think they are io moth caterpillars.

Weeds. It’s so hard to pick a favorite problem! Or least favorite, I should say. With four acres and a couple of garden areas, we seem to spend more time dealing with weeds than growing. I’m not of the mindset that weeds are good, because I think they harbor pests and critters if left to their own devices. Many also compete for water resources. We are relaxing our rules a bit, however, having decided which invasive plants we can take out of the weed column and which to leave there. And since we know we can’t remove them from every spot, we’re eliminating weeds where we can and turning our attention to prevention.

Never Give-up Tips: Use organic practices such as thick mulch and plastic or tarps in vegetable garden prep to block sun and water from weeds and thus prevent them. Hand-pull or hoe around plants to prevent weeds such as field bindweed from choking plants or stealing their water. Just because a thistle has a pretty flower doesn’t mean you should let it go to seed if it’s invasive in your region.

wild gaura growing in gopher mound
Man, I didn’t even get into rocks. Gophers love to dig up rocks and weed seeds. Here, a wild gaura grows from a gopher mound, surrounded by several other weeds and some grass. Survival of the native!