It’s Time to Harvest Your Vegetables: Here Are Some Tips

Sometimes, a home-grown tomato is so pretty that I hesitate to pull it off the vine. I’d rather take photos, smile as I stroll past the plant or point out the healthy fruit to anyone willing to listen.

fall harvest
It’s easy to know when to harvest your home-grown vegetables, mostly through trial and error.

Of course, watching a vegetable you started from seed grow into a healthy plant is a reward in and of itself. But it’s even more rewarding when the plant provides fresh, delicious and healthy food for you and your family (or friends and neighbors!).

What’s more, harvesting fruit helps the plant continue producing, sending energy to develop, ripen and flavor fruit instead of continuing to feed overripe ones. Here are some tips on when and how to harvest fresh vegetables in the garden or a U-Pick site, courtesy of the Home Garden Seed Association and my experience (including plenty of mistakes).

tomatoes on vine, varying maturity
Tomatoes at various stages of maturity show the deeper red color of ripe fruit that’s ready to eat.

Tomatoes

Color helps cue gardeners on picking tomatoes, which should be a deeper red than the ones you see in the grocery aisle. But color can be a tough cue when growing some varieties, such as yellow tomatoes. We have a few Midnight Snack tomatoes courtesy of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. The delicious snack-sized tomatoes have an indigo color on top (and the fruit has extra antioxidants). You just feel the fruit and check for reddening on the bottom to make sure it’s ripe. Once a tomato feels somewhat soft when you squeeze it gently, it’s probably ready to eat. Just twist it slightly from the vine and it should give. Be sure to store tomatoes in a cool spot in your kitchen, but not in the refrigerator.

tomato how to harvest
Gently twist tomatoes of any size from the vine when the fruit is deep in color and slightly soft.

Cucumbers

Cucumber fruit seems to mature all at once, and the best way to know when to harvest is to have an idea of the fruit’s mature size from seed packets or through trial and error. We often note that the spiky part of the peel loses some of its sharpness at peak ripeness. When in doubt, though, opt for early rather than late. Cucumber seeds get large and tough and the fruit less sweet the longer the fruit stays on the vine. Use scissors or shears to cut the cucumber from the plant; avoid twisting it off. Cucumbers store best dry in the refrigerator. I keep mine wrapped in a soft towel and wash them when I’m ready to eat them.

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are better harvested a little early than late.

Carrots

Carrots can begin to lose sweetness if left in the ground too long. Gently swipe away some dirt to check if the top (shoulder) of the carrot is bigger than about half an inch. For most varieties, this is a signal it’s ready to pull. Carrots tend to vary more than other fruits at harvest, especially if they have not been thinned adequately. But the taste of any nearly mature carrot from the home garden is so much better than store-bought carrots, regardless of its appearance. Carrots also store better dry, so either leave the dirt on and pack them in a vented plastic bag or let them dry completely after snipping the leaves just above the shoulders. I’ve found that our carrots store best in the ground (up to a point) and I only harvest what I need every day or two.

carrots straight from the ground
Just cut off carrot leaves above the shoulder and store with some dirt on them or wash and dry completely.

Beans and Peas

Harvesting beans is one of my favorite activities. I like looking for the elusive pods under the leaves. It does require two hands, however. You need to hold the stem of a bean or pea as you pull off the fruit to avoid breaking the stem and pulling off immature neighbors of the mature bean. I set a basket on the ground or hang a used grocery bag on my arm to free up both hands for harvesting. Pick beans while long and slender and before lumps form in the pods. Snap peas are best when peas are just beginning to form in the pod, but are not yet mature.

harvesting beans
Use one hand to hold the vine while the other gently tugs on a mature bean or pea.

Lettuce

Most lettuces taste best when leaves are four to six inches long. I love cutting loose-leaf varieties because you can harvest them two or three times. If a loose-leaf or head lettuce looks elongated, it’s getting to be too late for optimal flavor. Cut outside leaves of loose-leaf lettuces first, and cut head lettuce at the base of the plant, just above the ground. Wash and dry lettuce immediately; spinners are great for this. Store in a plastic bag that is closed but has plenty of air inside. I also sometimes add a paper towel to absorb moisture in the bag. You’ll be amazed how much longer your fresh lettuce keeps compared with prepared bags!

spinning lettuce
Organic mesclun leaves in the salad spinner.

Peppers

Whether growing sweet bell peppers or New Mexico chile peppers, it helps to learn the mature color for your variety. The good news is that peppers usually have a decent flavor even when immature, although the skins might be a bit tougher. So know enough about your pepper to watch for its expected mature color and pick as soon as it turns. Leaving peppers on the plant too long slows production of new fruit. All pepper types come off the plant easiest when fully ripe. Store peppers in a bag in the refrigerator crisper. With green chile, I wait until I have enough peppers to roast and then freeze them.

short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)

Squash

Ah, the giant zucchini. Big enough to feed a family of 10, but not as sweet and tender as the one harvested at about 5 to 7 inches in length. Cut all squash fruit with snippers or a knife; don’t twist it off the vine. Winter squash should be ripe when the rind loses its shine and you can scratch the rind without puncturing it. Wipe squash clean with a dry towel; don’t wash before storing. Keep both summer and winter squash in a dry, but well-ventilated spot about 50 to 68 degrees. If you place it in the refrigerator, put it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.

zucchini harvest
Most of the zucchinis in this late-season harvest are too big to have flavor. My neighbor will take them off my hands and make stuffed squash.

Kale

Harvest kale and chard much like loose-leaf lettuce. You can begin to harvest outer leaves when they are about four inches high, cutting them about one inch above the ground. Avoid cutting the center tip of the plant, which can stop growth of new leaves. Wash and spin kale and store it in one of the coolest spots in the refrigerator inside a ventilated plastic bag.

In general, seed packets and other materials give you an idea of a fruit’s maturity date, but it varies from region to region and from one year to another.

Most vegetables are better harvested in the morning when crisp, healthy and dry. Or you can pick what you want just before preparing your meal. One final note: When harvesting several different vegetables, have a few containers handy. It’s no fun picking green beans out of lettuce leaves, and squash or cucumbers can flatten a juicy tomato.

DIY Garden Path

People who love gardening know that winter and early spring can drag on and on. So it’s good to have a project in your back pocket to get outside and improve the garden during the off-season. I’ll share our experience and give a few tips on creating or replacing your own garden path.

garden path DIY
Panoramic view of the completed path in March. Now, to just get rid of the protective buckets and watch the flowers grow!

The weedy gravel walkways in our rock garden needed help. We replaced the old with new landscape fabric and crusher fine, also called decomposed granite. There were several reasons for the project, mostly the weeds I mentioned.

Weeds in gravel path
The ugly impetus. Some areas of the old path were overtaken with weeds.

We estimate that the original paths, installed by the previous owners of our property, were about 10 years old. The weeds and grasses began to poke through the thin landscape fabric and I spent nearly all of my free time bent over pulling weeds out of rocks.

torn landscape fabric under path
A look at what was left of the old landscape fabric after scraping and hauling off most of the old gravel.

We needed to get the new path in before spring planting. And we were done ahead of schedule after:

  • Spending 2 to 3 months cleaning out old rock and installing new crusher fine.
  • Moving and replacing more than 500 border rocks.
  • Laying about 10.5 rolls of 50-foot landscape fabric.
  • Adding nearly 200 new pavers.
  • Hauling and shoveling more wheelbarrow loads of old gravel and new crusher fine than we could count.
rock border for garden path
Moving and resetting all of the rocks bordering the path was tedious, but necessary. And we are never short on rocks around here.

Reasons for crusher fine

Crusher fines are just that – small particles of crushed rock. So although it might seem crazy to replace rock with rock, hear me out. The landscape gravel was made up of rocks about three-fourths inch in diameter. These let sun, air, water, and especially weed seeds filter down through the layers and held just enough blowing dirt in to feed the seeds. A thin fabric can only do so much to stop weeds from taking root, especially once any tear in the fabric occurs.

crusher fines for garden path
Pile of crusher fines ready to dump and spread over new fabric.

Crusher fines are made of tinier particles and dust, so after you level and tamp them down, the surface evens out and compacts, forming a hard layer that feels more like concrete than rock, but maintaining a rocky, natural appearance. To help prevent weeds, the layer has to be thick – we tried to keep it at two to three inches all the way around. Crusher fine also comes in landscape colors, although we had to pay plenty to have ours trucked in from 45 miles away.

first section of garden path redesign
First section, before leveling and tamping. The rotted wooden borders are toward the back. Tim replaced them with pavers. Note the required knee pads!

Using landscape fabric

The thin landscape fabrics available in big-box stores don’t cut it in most situations for weed control. We ordered ours online from Greenhouse Megastore. It’s Weed Barrier brand with a 20-year warranty.

professional grade landscape fabric for path
Heavy-duty landscape fabric in the last section. By now, we were a little sloppy with folds, but we got it under all of those rocks, and the folds were minor. The rocks in the upper center are holding down fabric temporarily before dumping the crusher fine on top.

The fabric is touted as great for xeriscaping and allows air, water, and nutrients through, but blocks light. Since we used it in a path, we didn’t care about light (and less is best for weed seeds) but we didn’t want standing water. Both the fabric and crusher fine are water permeable, so the water seeps down, eventually back into the ground.

Rock garden circle
A circle within a circle. It was difficult to lay fabric around this without making more cuts than ideal.

The fabric was heavy duty but easy to work with for the most part. Our garden is a circle, with smaller circles and curves throughout. My theory is that any crack/slit/opening in the fabric is an invitation to a hardy weed like field bindweed. But to make curves, you have to carefully slit and overlap the fabric. The fewer cuts the better.

Repurposing gravel

So, out with the old and in with the new. The worst part of the project was scraping, shoveling and hauling off the old gravel. And what do you do with several tons of rocks? Our first step was to repurpose the old gravel in a few beds (over landscape fabric and with cuts for plants) and to add depth to another path in the front yard that has the same gravel. No way we could tackle it too, and I hope that by adding to the depth, we made it a little more difficult for weeds to root. Someday, we’ll have to move that gravel again and replace it with crusher fine. But not today. Or this month or this year…

Repurposing garden gravel
Repurposed garden path gravel. Less mud now in our vegetable/microfarm area with inexpensive plastic border.

We also hauled loads of the old gravel to our vegetable garden and dumped it on strips of fabric left over to cut down on mud and weeds in the walkways. As for the rest, it’s in a pile, waiting for friends to claim it or for Craig’s List.

Here are a few tips on creating a garden path with crusher fines:

  • If you can design your own path, consider gentle curves when possible. Circles are tough. Mention this to a landscape architect if you have one, so you can be ready to replace the path when the time comes or get an estimate of the cost for a landscape company to do so.
  • Invest in professional quality landscape fabric.
  • Work in sections, leaving fabric in the longest continual length possible, which might mean leaving the roll at the end of a section. (We just turned the wheelbarrow upside down over the roll to protect it from deer damage.)
  • Overlap the fabric by several inches at cuts and intersections, and try to avoid large folds.
landscape fabric overlap
In straight areas, the roll fit fine with no piecing. But at curves and intersections, we had to overlap, like in this path.
  • Get some fabric under borders such as pavers, even if it means lifting and replacing the hardscape.
  • Place border rocks or pavers on fabric before adding crusher fine.
rock garden path decomposed granite
After several weeks, tamping and a rain, the crusher fine hardens ad creates a level walking surface. By pushing some against rocks and gaps between them, the crusher fine seeps just under the rocks, almost acting like mortar to secure them.
  • Work in sections to spread crusher fine in a thick, even layer. We used the back (straight edge) of a bow rake.
  • Invest in a tamper (ours was about $40).
tamper for crusher fine path
First and last sections completed. Our simple tamper (right) required some muscle, but did the job.
  • Spray the crusher fine with water before your last tamp. It helps bind the crusher fine mix. (And the color of the path really comes out after rain.)
  • Keep a small pile of crusher fine handy for a few weeks, or at least after a few rains. You might find low spots or phantom folds poking through. Just add a few shovels to the spot and level it with the existing crusher fine.
crusher fine garden path
The completed crusher fine path a few weeks later.

And then enjoy! It’s like a dream to walk on and has a really neat appearance.

 

 

 

 

Easy Garden Planning: Visit a Demonstration Garden

When approaching a new landscaping or planting project, it helps to gather ideas, whether you do so virtually or hopefully in person. A top benefit of being a member of the Association for Garden Communicators (GWA) is access to botanical, demonstration and private gardens.

farm hands only
Sometimes, it’s the signs, like this one at the Atlanta History Center.

If you travel, you can gather plenty of ideas from around the country. Even when I’ve visited the Northwest or Southeast, I’ve always found plant and design ideas or just enjoyed the gardens! If you want practical ideas you can apply in your own backyard, nothing beats a local botanical or extension demonstration garden.

plant sculpture, confifers
Plant sculpture is not a staple of xeric gardening, but I still enjoyed the art, along with the conifer garden, at The Oregon Garden in Silverton.

Benefits of Demonstration and Botanical Gardens

Many botanical and demonstration gardens are designed primarily to educate. Extension master gardeners typically have demonstration gardens featuring native and zone-appropriate plants for their area. The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, has a xeriscape garden to demonstrate how local residents can save outdoor water use but have attractive lawns. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, Botanic Garden includes a demonstration farm that re-creates a 1930s farmstead to show how people can grow or raise their own food. And I love the Pollination Gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

pollination garden
The pollination garden at the Sonora Desert Living Museum in Tucson.

The Tucson pollination garden teaches visitors about planting for pollinators, including Monarch butterflies. Most demonstration gardens help visitors  learn about plants and especially how to grow them locally. But if you really pay attention, you also can learn a lot about design, containers and especially which plants or collections get you excited about gardening. Most gardens also offer classes or guided tours to add to the learning experience.

Silver dollar plant Pasadena
Labels on plants in demonstration and botanical gardens help you identify plants you own — or would like to own!

Finally, taking children to demonstration gardens can spark the gardening bug, especially for growing food. In fact, a study of demonstration gardens started by North Carolina county extension staff showed that between 2006 and 2010, the number of gardens made up of edible plants outpaced those with ornamental plants only or a mix of edible and ornamental plants to teach families about growing food.

native corn
The Tucson Botanical Garden native corn demonstration.

Types

Many demonstration gardens are run by extension offices of universities and the state extension’s master gardeners. Often, universities, cities and counties have gardens that serve dual purposes of beautifying office or park landscapes and teaching residents about gardening or local issues such as conserving water, saving pollinators, container gardening, producing food or gardening more sustainably. Hospitals can have meditation gardens on their grounds or demonstration kitchen gardens to help patients and families learn about growing healthy vegetables.

succulent garden
Succulent and xeric demonstration gardens give water-saving gardeners plant and design inspiration.

Others might be organized by private entities, and if touring an entire botanical garden seems overwhelming to the beginning gardener, or the gardener’s toddler, botanical gardens offer demonstration gardens within their exhibits. Visitors can make their way to the gardens on the map that interest them most. Remember, many demonstration and botanical gardens rely heavily on volunteers and fundraising to maintain their plantings.

pergola benedictine monastery
The Benedictine Sisters Monastery in Tucson, AZ., has several demonstration gardens.

Virtual Demonstration Gardens

Major botanical gardens might offer virtual tours, a nice tool if you can’t visit them in person and are researching local native or adapted plants for your own garden. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you also can follow favorite demonstration or botanical gardens and see photos or live videos. Or you can join an online community such as Plants Map to connect with other gardeners, organizations or resources that interest you. Organizations such as botanical gardens also set up collections on Plants Map.

Virtual tours can take you to far-away demonstration gardens for learning or pleasure. We can’t grow the same plants as the Maui Nui Botanical Garden, but we still enjoyed looking.

Finally, check out this list of Arizona’s xeriscaping demonstration gardens, including links.

 

5 Drought-resistant Groundcovers

Groundcovers might not be as sexy or exciting to plant as some ornamentals, but the low-growing plants are useful and can really add to a xeric garden’s look and function.

Prairie zinnia
Prairie zinnia covers ground and rocks. Anything that grows in rocks gets by with little water!

Here are a few reasons and ways to use groundcovers:

Water savings: erosion control. On garden slopes, a low-growing groundcover slows the flow of water. Use one that’s relatively drought tolerant and the plant absorbs enough water from the flow to get by. An added bonus – slopes can be difficult to mow, and a low-growing groundcover needs less maintenance.

Water savings: mulch effect. Groundcovers cool the soil below and retain some moisture, which can work as a sort of living mulch under a tree or other plant that needs cooler roots.

Turf alternative: Groundcovers typically are less invasive and easier to control than grass, especially between flagstone or other steps.

groundcover between stones
I believe this is ajuga between flagstones in a private Atlanta garden. It creates a sort of woodland look.

Weed control. Once a groundcover blankets an area, weeds have a harder time growing in the same spot. It might not entirely eliminate them, but eventually weed seeds have a harder time getting into covered soil and receive less light.

Design element. Groundcovers can add color, year-round interest and an area of low growth in the foreground of a design or near paths. Check out this gorgeous example of creeping thyme as an alternative lawn in a xeric design.

  1. Creeping thyme (Thymus ‘Pink Chintz’). This is an excellent choice for filling in around flagstone steps or any area that takes foot traffic (see link above). In fact, several thyme varieties are considered steppable. Creeping thyme does fine with low water once it’s established, but if it receives more water, it grows more rapidly, which might help to fill in an area.

    Alan's Apricot ice plant
    Alan’s Apricot ice plant boasts larger, color-changing blooms. Courtesy of Plant Select and Alan Tower.
  2. Ice plant (Delosperma). The flowers of ice plants are delicate and bright, coming in yellow, bright pink or salmon and rust colors. Although some varieties of ice plant need a little more water than others, most can get by in xeric rock gardens. Ice plant is a rapid spreader and easy to maintain. If it grows outside the area you intend, just clip it off. Or pull up a stalk and its roots and move it to another spot in your garden.

    purple ice plant
    Purple iceplant in a bed on the north side of our home.
  3. Perky Sue (Tetraneuris scaposa). Although Perky Sue might not technically be a groundcover, it can spread enough to add floral color and evergreen foliage. I’ve seen this or a nearly identical plant called plenty of other names, including Hymenoxys scaposa, bitterweed, and narrow four-leaf nerve daisy. It’s also similar to the Angelita daisy (T. acaulis).

    Perky Sue
    Perky sue has silver-like foliage and yellow daisy flowers.
  4. Prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora). Also called desert zinnia, this is a favorite rock garden groundcover of mine. It has tiny, thread-like leaves and bright yellow flowers. Most of all, it spreads from the previous year’s plant; you simply remove the spent foliage as the weather warms and you see new green beneath the old. It can spread up to 6 or 10 feet.

    zinnia grandiflora shadow
    Delicate, spreading and xeric. The prairie or desert zinnia.
  5. Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides). The best part of plumbago is its fall color. The purple flowers typically bloom in early fall and then the leaves redden. Plumbago also does best in shade or part (afternoon) shade in warmer areas.
groundcovers rock gardens
Veronica is another low-spreading groundcover for rock gardens. A Perky Sue bloom is peeking out on the left — in March!

All of these groundcovers are perennial and hardy to zone 6 or cooler. Groundcovers can require some patience or money. For carpet-like coverage, you either have to plant many of them fairly close together, or ideally space new plants according to planting instructions and wait for them to fill in. Some also have minds of their own. To me, the haphazard growth is more natural looking in a rock or xeric garden. But if you’re going for a formal look, choose one that’s easier to control, such as thyme.

Photo Essay: A Little Spring Green for St. Patrick’s Day

Spring has come early to New Mexico this year. We’re been breaking records for high temperatures. That’s been so nice and has really improved my mood. I’ll even consider it lucky, since we have lots to accomplish before summer.

Of course, our average last frost is around May 10, and April 15 in Albuquerque. So I fear all of the pretty flowers on the fruit trees will freeze at the worst possible time. Or that my impatience with cleaning up and lightly pruning xeric perennials will backfire. I choose to remain optimistic.

Enjoy these green (and a few other colors) early spring finds. Just click on any thumbnail to start the slide show.

5 Ways Organic Growing Methods Save Water

Growing with organic methods is smart for lots of reasons, both personal and environmental. Although there are plenty of strategies gardeners and homeowners can use to save water with ornamentals, such as planting native and xeric plants, it’s a little tougher with vegetable gardening.

Tomatoes and water
These yellow cherry tomatoes soaked up a summer rain from their container filled with organic soil and compost.

Tomatoes, for example, need consistent watering! But growing tomatoes organically can conserve water. Here are five ways how:

  1. Organic soil retains water better. Anyone can improve their soil’s water retention by up to 5 percent by adding organic matter. It also helps to avoid use of chemicals and pesticides. Using pesticides and chemical fertilizers in gardens can throw off the natural balance of the soil, making it less able to retain moisture around plant roots and making fewer nutrients available for plants. On the contrary, planting cover crops in the fall and use of compost or other organic matter help restore valuable soil nutrients. Organic matter also helps soil structure for water infiltration and retention. Healthy soil can respond better to drought conditions.

    soil organic
    Before: compacted, poor soil in a newly designated garden area.
  2. Organic growing protects water supplies. By avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers, gardeners also protect the water supply. Pesticide chemicals can remain in the soil for years; some are more toxic than others and break down in the soil more slowly. The chemicals from these products can run off into bodies of water, such as rivers. And eventually, they can seep into groundwater. That might seem a distant concern to some urban gardeners, but those of us using wells live right above available water. The more chemicals that run into water supplies, the less safe drinking water is available.

    organic matter on garden bed
    AFTER: Organic matter added to the vegetable garden raised row.
  3. Use of mulch reduces evaporation. A layer of appropriate mulch above the ground around a plant helps reduce ground-to-air evaporation, making the soil take longer to dry out. The mulch also helps cools plant roots. Using organic mulches such as bark, nut shells, compost and others adds organic matter to the soil slowly over time for an added bonus.

    mulching organic pecan
    Rock mulch helps lavender stay hot and dry, and on the lower left, pecan bark mulch surrounds a plant that needs more water.
  4. Organic methods can minimize erosion. Traditional gardening and farming uses rototilling and deep plowing to turn the soil before each growing season. Plowing deeply and turning the soil over can disrupt soil microorganisms, harm soil health, and place looser soils on top, where they’re subject to erosion from water and wind (think Dust Bowl). No-till methods help control erosion and build soil structure. The soils, in turn, better retain water. This can be a problem if the soil drains poorly, but a definite help in low-water regions. Not tilling involves building up beds with organic matter, much like nature does as plants drop leaves that decompose. If you want to work organic matter in, it’s best to grab a shovel. A broadfork is the best tool for breaking up compacted soil.

    watermelon organic
    Healthy babydoll watermelon plant in organic soil.
  5. Growing organically creates healthier plants. Healthy soil is the foundation needed to grow healthy food. When soil has good nutrients and structure, it supports root growth and uptake of nutrients, improving plant health.  Plants that are not healthy are more vulnerable to insect and disease damage. The plant might not use water as it should when it’s stressed, and the gardener certainly guesses that if a plant looks bad, it needs water. So, keeping plants healthy saves the extra water the plant needs or gardener applies in times of stress. And healthy plants keep on going, so you don’t waste water on establishing a plant that later dies from poor conditions.

Use These Resources for Native Plants and Seeds

Native plants should be the mantra of every xeric gardener. Let’s first review what makes a plant native and why native plants are so beneficial.

native plants southwest
Native and xeric plants blooming in early fall in New Mexico.

What is a Native Plant?

A native plant grows naturally in a particular region or location. To be termed “native,” a plant must have had no human intervention when it first set down roots. That doesn’t mean you can’t plant natives, just that the original plants were, well, original to a region and not introduced. The benefits of choosing native plants are many, including:

Water savings. Plants native to a region and climate should need less water from gardeners in prairies and mountains, relying mostly on Mother Nature alone. Even in areas where drought is less of a concern, native plants should get by on typical rainfall with little supplemental watering after the first year or so.

Convenience. Less watering means less time, in addition to the natural and financial resource savings! Native plants should be easier to maintain as well.

native verbena butterfly
This native verbena grows voluntarily in our garden and grassy areas. That’s OK with the butterflies!

Helping pollinators. As natural areas such as forests and prairies disappear, usually because of development, bees and butterflies have fewer plants they can rely on for the energy they need. Planting natives helps them find nearby food sources. Attracting pollinators always is a good thing – they help tomatoes and other vegetable plants fruit, and your garden improves their habitat. Regardless of the many “right” reasons, you and your family can enjoy watching bees, butterflies and birds as the pollinators enjoy the buffet.

Butterfly bush with butterfly
Buddleia (butterfly bush) is both native and introduced in the Southwest.

Better chance for success. Native plants are adaptable, so if you plant the right plant in the right location and follow care instructions, watering a little more than recommended in the first season or so, your job is easy after that.

Native Plant Resources

Now that I’ve convinced you to go native, where do you find native and pollinator plants for your region? Here are six resources:

  1. Your local nursery, as in locally owned. You’ll find more knowledgeable staff on average here than at big box stores (such as Walmart or Home Depot). Local nurseries tend to grow and sell plants native to your area, and usually can answer your questions, even with some specifics on microclimates in your region. Catalogs that sell to your region or zone also can be helpful, especially in identifying pollinators (typically with an icon of a bee, butterfly or hummingbird).
  2. Apps, especially from local sources. There are some great plant apps or mobile-friendly sites, including GrowIt! And Plants Map. For example, GrowIt! has a search feature for plants within a set radius of your location. As long as there are other members near you, it can be a big help. Plants Map includes communities, resources and individuals in its collections. A search could bring up your nearby botanical garden or private collections. Local apps from trusted sources such as extension offices are great for spotting natives. I use Southwest Plant Selector app, listed on my Resources page. In the future, watch for Leafsnap, a collective effort to offer visual recognition software to help you identify plants, much like a printed field guide.

    native wildflowers New Mexico
    In early spring, before the grass filled in, we had native wildflowers coming up in open areas.
  3. USDA Plant Database. The Department of Agriculture has a database from which visitors can search plants by scientific or common name, and filter by state. It also has a state plants checklist (that looks like HTML code, unfortunately). This site is not sexy, but the best part about it is that once you find a plant you’re considering, a map comes up that indicates whether a plant is native to your state (green fill). It includes a lot of scientific information, but most plants have several photos to help verify identification and if you click on “legal status,” you can learn whether the plant is considered endangered or classified as a noxious weed in your state.
  4. Native plant societies. The North American Native Plant Society has lots of information on natives, including a database searchable by type of habitat and this list of state plant societies. Those state groups with websites or newsletters can be excellent sources, and most offer inexpensive membership.
  5. Friends, family and neighbors. If you see a plant you like, one full or butterflies, or remember a favorite from childhood, ask around. Even if a plant is not native, but seems to do well in your neighborhood, you can ask the homeowner or a local landscape designer about ease of care and hardiness.
Sunflowers from seed
Sunflower seeds are easy to collect. Birds likely dropped these near our house.

Native Seed Resources

Growing natives and pollinator plants from seeds is less expensive, but can require a little more time and water initially. Here are a few sources for information on gathering or buying native seeds:

Xerces Society- In addition to pollinator plant lists for the United States (that unfortunately appear to exclude New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and some other Western states), the society has a seed mix calculator to help with restoration efforts of prairies, etc., with native pollinator plants.

The North American Native Plant Society also has a seed exchange for members and information on collecting seeds from native plants.

Native Seeds/SEARCH is the top source for Southwestern native seeds. Their vault contains native crop seeds for low desert and high desert regions, along with wildflower seeds. It’s a wonderful combination of conservation and native seed resources.

seeds in storage bank
Native seeds in cold storage room at Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson.

Check out the Resources page for more information on buying seeds and plants native to your region.

Let’s Help, Not Confuse, New Gardeners

Often on this site, I talk about how to keep gardening simple, fun and useful. And although xeriscaping can be tricky and drought even tougher to endure when starting out as a gardener, there are plenty of strategies to help gardeners succeed, or at least enjoy the process.

cosmos annual
Gardening can be easy. We didn’t even plant cosmos here. They reseed from old plants. All we have to do is control them.

To help Southwest gardeners — and all people jumping into gardening — I try to follow a few important rules:

  • Emphasize the positive, how anyone can make it work and that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Use lay language while also providing scientific names for plants (which helps avoid confusion when a reader looks for a plant).
  • Educate, even by admitting mistakes we’ve made in the garden.

Here’s how I look at it: We all started out new to this hobby at some point, whether it was in childhood or following an education in horticulture. Yet we’ve had nursery people talk down to us when we ask a question, and I cringe every time I see a tweet or pin titled “You’re Doing _____ Wrong,” or “5 Mistakes to Avoid With ____.”

tomatoes cracking
Tomatoes can crack. You can learn how to water to avoid it, but it’s a little harder to control rain. All gardeners (and farmers) lose some plants or fruit.

I’ve also seen fellow master gardeners try so hard to show what they’ve learned that they are condescending when talking to new gardeners on social media or in person. That’s really the opposite of the concept; master gardeners are trained to help.

To that end, I recently wrote an article for Green Profit Magazine about how folks in the industry can talk to the level of all gardeners and potential gardeners. The article includes some helpful sources who recognize that helping gardeners succeed beats telling them what they’re doing wrong.

If someone kindly explains something to me that I already know, it wastes a little bit of my time, but I appreciate the effort. But when someone makes me feel stupid because of a question or error, I simply stop frequenting their business or acquaintance.

So, if you already garden and want to recruit a neighbor, daughter or friend into the hobby or you communicate with gardeners, help people with kindness, example, simplicity and patience.

 

Five Easy Foods to Grow at Home

It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.

easy grow vegetables
Three easy vegetables to grow at home: cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans.

1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape
Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches).
Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are  pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.

yellow cherry tomatoes container
Yellow cherry tomatoes growing on the vine.

Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.

2. Cucumbers
Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals.
Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).

cucumber in container
Cucumbers can grow on patios if given a place to climb.

Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.

3. Green beans
Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones.
Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.

Green bean plant
Green beans have delicate white flowers and are fun to harvest.

Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.

4. Snap peas
Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage.
Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.

snap pea seeds
Sugar snap pea seeds go right in the ground in spring.

Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.

5. Carrots
Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots.
Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.

carrots easy vegetable
Delicious, home-grown carrots.

Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.

Plant Select’s Top High Plains and Intermountain Plants

Each year various societies present plant awards, but those of us who garden in the West and Southwest await the group of Plant Select top performers. Plant Select, which is a nonprofit joint effort of Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, the Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturalists, lists five top performers at various elevations.

blonde ambition grama
Blonde Ambition ornamental grama grass tops the 2016 Plant Select list. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

First, a word about why the work of Plant Select and other regional groups is so important. As I said, there are plenty of awards and lots of information in the gardening world. But, for the most part, plants emphasized by magazines and bloggers are great for East Coast and Southeastern region gardeners. It’s different in the high plains and intermountain areas of the country, where altitude, wind, and heat and cold extremes (in a single day and by season) affect plant health. And let’s not forget the water issue.

Plant Select evaluates plant performance in 53 locations throughout five Western states. Here are some of the 2016 Top Performers. See the entire list at Plant Select.

Grand Winner: Blonde Ambition Grama Grass

Blonde Ambition grama (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ PP22,048) was introduced by New Mexico’s David Salman of High Country Gardens (American Meadows). Blue grama is a perfect low-water native grass grazed on by cattle on our Southwest ranches. Salman introduced the blonde ornamental variety in 2011, and this is the second year it has been Plant Select’s grand winner. Beginning in July, chartreuse blooms (seedheads) appear on upright stems, turning to the blonde color as they age. Watching those seedheads wave in winter winds provides xeric gardeners some year-round interest in their landscapes. Although Blonde Ambition can spread by seed, the seedlings are easily pulled up. The grass is hardy in zones 4 through 9 and deer resistant.

Blonde ambition seedheads
Blonde Ambition looks great in groups or as a single plant in the xeric garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 3,000 to 5,500 Feet Elevation

Blonde Ambition also tops the list of lower elevation garden performers in the region. Number 2 on the list is a tree I’ve never grown, but want to learn more about since it also topped the list for gardens at my altitude (6,300 feet). The Hot Wings Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum ‘Gar ann’PP15,023) has bright red samaras, or fruit made of paper tissue, that bloom all summer. It’s also known for its reddish-purple fall color. The Tartarian maple is a relatively small tree, maturing to nearly 18 feet high and wide, and gets by with full sun and moderate to dry water needs. The only drawback for me is that it is not deer resistant, but I could see this gorgeous tree in any suburban garden from 3,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation and in zones 4 through 10. We still might try it, but we’ll have to fence the tree until it reaches a mature height and keep lower limbs pruned.

top performer hot wings tartarian maple
The Hot Wings Tartarian maple has a gorgeous canopy, but I also love the trunk. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 5,501 to 7,000 Feet elevation

Although the Hot Wings maple topped the list of performers at this elevation, I would like to give a nod to No. 2 on the list – Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis). Veronica is an excellent low-water groundcover. Veronica is evergreen, so it covers portions of our rock garden all year long. In summer, the groundcover blooms. Turkish veronica has cobalt blue flowers above waxy leaves. It only reaches about 2 inches in height, but can spread to 18 inches wide. Although veronica is a xeric plant, its leaves look better with a little extra water in the heat of summer. Turkish veronica is hardy in zones 3 through 10 and deer resistant. The top 5 Plant Select performers at this elevation also include Blonde Ambition, Apache plume and a catmint called Little Trudy (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ PP18,904).

turkish veronica plant select
Gardeners can prune Turkish veronica around rocks and paths. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer in Gardens Higher than 7,000 Feet

Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) topped the list for higher elevations. The Western native shrub is xeric once established and grows more upright with less water. It can look more formal with rounded pruning in early winter. Deadheading spent flowers also makes the plant look neater, and should be pleasant considering that the foliage has a honey-like scent. The sweet scent also deters deer. Fernbush can grow to nearly 5 feet high and wide; less water keeps it more compact. The plant thrives in full or partial sun in zones 4B through 8.

fernbush plant select
This fernbush provides year-round interest in a high-altitude garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

These are only a few of the top performers in the Plant Select list. Check out their site for more on current and past top performers, new plant introductions for the region and where to buy plants for High Plains and Intermountain gardens.