It’s easy to spot possible problems with a plant’s leaves, stems or flowers. Those are the parts we enjoy seeing every day in our garden. But what about the parts that lie beneath the surface of your garden or container?
We can forget all about the roots when enjoying a plant’s shape and color. But some of the toughest tricks to gardening involve root care – watering enough but not too much; soil drainage to allow roots to gather water but not sit in them; ability for roots to take up oxygen, and ability of roots to grow outward to support the plant you see above ground. How do you know your plant’s roots are healthy and why is it important?
Roots Affect Plant Health
The way roots grow, and their health, have a profound effect on the size a plant reaches, its vigor, and how it responds to watering or other care you give the plant. The main function of these leafless, underground stems is to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil around them. The roots store the plant’s food to keep it nourished and alive. Roots also help stabilize a plant in the soil or potting mix and physically support the plant’s main stem or trunk.
Types of Roots
There are various types of roots, although most root systems branch out under the soil. You might have heard of a taproot, which is a primary root that grows straight down into the soil and develops few to no root branches. Picture a carrot. The part we eat actually is a taproot. That’s the good kind, but a taproot can be a problem for gardeners. Some trees, such as pecans, grow deep taproots. This makes them much more difficult to dig up and transplant.
Some roots have lateral, or secondary, roots that branch off from an existing root. This happens with fibrous roots because their primary root eventually stops lengthening. Fibrous roots are lighter and smaller in diameter because they have less cell activity than standard roots.
One of the biggest problems with roots is restriction of their growth. This is easy to see when you lift a new plant out of its nursery pot. Some have roots circling in the shape of the container; the roots received good nutrition from the potting mix and plenty of water from garden center staff, but had nowhere to go. When planting, always dig a hole larger than the root ball – up to three times as large for trees and shrubs. And loosen the soil around the outer edges of the hole. If the ground is compacted and dense, roots will have to work harder to spread.
A second problem is underwatering (especially a tree) or watering in brief, shallow periods instead of long, deep soaks. Short watering doesn’t penetrate very deeply, so the roots grow close to the surface. And that can bring on other problems, including damage from lawnmowers or foot traffic. But with less frequent and deeper watering, roots grow downward as they seek moisture.
Roots as Plant and People Food
For plants, the structure and quantity of roots help determine how much water and nutrition the plant takes in. That’s why it is so important to water a plant more in its first season or year of growth than it will need later. The extra water helps those roots take hold and grow so they can store food for the plant.
Aside from carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes and beets are among common roots people eat. The mature root – a tuberous root in the case of a potato or sweet potato – holds lots of nutrition.
One final tip – buying a plant that has roots wrapped around inside the pot (rootbound) can make for more challenges when you plant it. You should tease or slice the roots near the outer bottom to help stimulate new growth. But if a plant’s roots are brown or dry, move on to another plant.
I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.
First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.
Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.
This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.
Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.
Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.
Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.
A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.
Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.
Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.
Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.
We are on the verge of ending the longest period without rain in years. And we’ve been spending a lot of time watering, so the rain can’t come soon enough for us, our grass, or our well. I’ve also been busy testing several watering-related products for Gardening Products Review and that made me think about how to save time when watering.
All of this testing and watering more plants more often has made me reflect on how to make watering more efficient for us, the planet and other homeowners. Here’s part 1 of my list of favorite watering tools, starting with the least expensive, the kinds of tools available at home improvement stores.
Quick connectors. We use lots of quick connectors for switching between soaker hoses, sprayers, sprinklers or other watering tools. By screwing a male end into all your watering tools, you can quickly change out and connect several watering tools to the female end of your hose. So, for example, you can quickly switch from spraying off the patio to soaking a garden bed. And once you screw in the connectors, you don’t have to keep screwing on hoses, etc., which never seem to thread right when you’re in a hurry!
Splitters. Look for splitters, or manifolds that split one faucet into two or more outlets, depending on your needs. Solid metal splitters hold up better than plastic ones, but most have hard plastic controls so you can turn water on or off to your drip system or garden hose. This way, you can have one open faucet at all times for filling pails or rinsing a tool and still have a garden hose connected to water your new shrub. We have one on the ground about halfway from our orchard faucet to the other end, then split two hoses off of it to water our fruit trees.
Soaker hose. If used correctly, soaker hoses are stars of the inexpensive watering tool department. You can get them for less than $20 at most home improvement stores. The solid rubber hoses have multiple tiny holes so water drips out of all sides. Just be sure to keep pressure low, or you’ll waste water sending fine sprays up in the air.
Regulators. My final favorite, inexpensive watering tool is an in-hose “regulator” or shut-off valve. This might not be a necessity for people with smaller gardens or yards, but we have faucets located hundreds of feet from where we garden. I like the exercise, but I don’t like wasting water while I go all the way back to the source to lower the pressure (5 times until I get it right). With these awesome little tools, you can lower the pressure on a dripper or sprinkler near where it’s running. We place ours between the last hose and the one before it.
Even if distance is not a big issue, these come in handy between your hose and soaker hose, which can spew water like a sprinkler if the pressure is too high. And pressure can vary so much. Alternatively, invest in a water wand or similar attachment that has a flow control switch on the handle to drip water when it’s turned down.
Free tip: Regularly check hoses and drippers for leaks. Hoses are expensive, and they tend to dry out in our desert sun. They also get ruined from being left outside in winter, when water can freeze in the hose, expanding it. So, the first tip is to drain and roll up hoses in winter if you don’t use them and temperatures dip below freezing. And a good hose repair kit is perfect for handy people to fix leaks instead of replacing entire hoses when that’s the best option.
In this dry year, I feel like our plants are under a triple threat from drought, strong winds and unusual heat for this early in summer. I’ve decided the drought and lack of plant growth on our land and the forest near us has caused insects and larger critters to eat more (and different) plants than usual because they’re hungry or thirsty.
At any rate, we’re spending way more time watering, covering or doing damage control than we’ve ever had to do in previous years. Here are a few plant attackers and some ideas for fighting them:
Drought. The first protection is to choose native drought-tolerant plants. A few of ours, namely the santolinas and Datura (jimson weed) have thrived despite no supplemental watering. For the first time in five years, we’re having to water other plants in our rock garden typically immune to short periods of drought. And the rain barrel is running low.
As with ornamental plants, water edibles like tomatoes early in the day and in consistent amounts. They shouldn’t remain wet, but a little moisture in the soil helps them fight dry, windy and hot conditions. Mulching around as many plants as you can (save a few that don’t like wet roots, such as lavender and rosemary) can help them stay damp longer. Finally, remember plants recently moved or planted after purchasing from a nursery need extra water during dry, hot conditions their first year or so.
Heat. Mulching also cools the ground above a plant’s roots, helping the plant get through blazing heat. Sometimes watering is all you can do to protect a plant in record heat. But if the plant is in a container, scoot it into an area that’s slightly shadier or has shade during the time of day when your heat typically peaks. We have been covering our tomato plants with shade cloth this year soon after temperatures soar above 90 degrees. In the past, we’ve had problems with blossoms and fruit set when temperatures soared. Prevention also helps for heat. It’s wise to plant as close as possible to the recommended date for your area. This year, we were traveling and planted later than normal, so our plants had less time to toughen up before heat struck and we paid for that.
Insects. Some plants are just more susceptible to insects than others. And when it’s this hot and dry, all plants are more vulnerable to bugs and the diseases they can transmit. Keeping an eye on your plants, even with a stroll through your yard or garden after dinner, can help you spot problems. Keeping plants watered and free of as much stress as possible also helps.
Others, like basil, are favorites of lots of insects. Since the leaves the insects attack are the part of the plant we eat, I keep my basil covered with a light row cover cloth that lets in air, sunlight and some water, but keeps out as many leaf eaters as possible.
Other critters. The tender leaves and ground-level placement of seedlings are also more vulnerable to attack. I’ve seen the leaves of new cucumbers or flowers decimated by grasshoppers and more often, by snails. The slimy acrobats even climb up into containers and eat plants as soon as they come up. We use egg shells as the best deterrent we can find, but there also are snail baits for bad infestations.
Below-ground fencing can deter gophers and other underground tunnelers, but that requires fencing a few feet underground around all plants. We reserve that fun task for our vegetable garden only. Then, despite those efforts, a squirrel has come through the fence and made giant holes in our garden. He has not damaged any plants yet, but I have a feeling it’s coming. We have had some luck spraying Animal Stopper small animal repellent around some plants to deter squirrels.
Our deer are grazing much longer into summer this year and have destroyed all the bloom stalks on our native and hybrid roses. You have to be pretty desperate to eat something that thorny on a regular basis. We’ve had some luck with Animal Stopper deer spray, but the only way to ensure deer stay off plants is to fence them out.
Look to your neighbors, master gardeners and landscapers for more local strategies to help you keep plants alive during rough patches. And practice patience.
One of your houseplants or outdoor plants looks funky and you think something might be wrong with it. Your automatic response? Add water. Sometimes, that’s the best solution, and sometimes it’s just a waste of water, and maybe of your plant.
Wilt is a classic example of the dilemma gardeners face; wilting can be caused by both underwatering and overwatering. What’s more, factors other than water can cause leaves to wilt, even though the roots have plenty of moisture.
Here’s the thing: If too much water surrounds your roots, or they never have a chance to dry a little, the roots don’t get enough oxygen, which also is crucial for plant health. Further, some plants are susceptible to root rot. Let’s look at a few reasons to add water to help a plant, along with a few tips on when not to water.
How to Avoid Overwatering
Regularly check and maintain all sprinkler, bubbler and drip systems. Redirect flow amount or direction for any that appear to be getting too much water, and repair leaks.
The problem might not be how much water, but how you water. Many plants take poorly to regular watering of their foliage. Water that sprays evaporates faster (which is more wasteful) or can sit on foliage too long, leading to diseases. Spray irrigation also waters too much ground around a plant, helping weeds more than your shrub. On a sunny day, most of the water evaporates, but if you water late in the afternoon, on a cool, cloudy day or onto a thick or crowded plant, the water sits overnight on leaves. The best times to water overhead are to wash off dust that builds up on leaves (affecting photosynthesis) or to wash off aphids. But reserve these actions for sunny mornings whenever possible.
The soil is your best test for whether a plant needs water, not the plant. Check the soil around a houseplant or outdoor plant to see if it still is damp one to two inches below the surface. You can use your finger, a small trowel to gently push soil aside so you can see or feel it, or small tools like chopsticks of pencils pushed in and then removed to see if soil or moisture have stuck to the wood. There also are commercial soil monitoring tools available.
Mind the season. When plants go dormant in winter, they need much less water. You should adjust your schedule accordingly and try to avoid watering too soon in spring or too late in fall.
Have a way to stop automatic watering when it rains. Weather sensors are available for irrigation and rain-harvesting systems, and others have smartphone software. This helps you pause a watering schedule from work on a rainy day, for example. Although these systems are designed mostly to conserve water, they also prevent oversoaking plants. You can even get solar-powered sensors for watering with rain barrels. I reviewed one last year.
Water slowly, which is another drip irrigation advantage. The more slowly the water falls to the ground, the more gradually it penetrates. This is especially important for containers; fast, hard flows of water can wash potting soil nutrients right out the container’s drain.
When to Water
Always water new plants, seeds or transplants more often in the first year or so. Even though they are labeled xeric or low-water use, the roots need help growing in their new environment and the plant is more vulnerable.
On hot, sunny days. If you haven’t watered in a while and it’s peak summer heat, give plants with mostly dry soil, especially those most vulnerable to heat, a drink in the morning to help them get through the day.
Consistently for vegetables and edibles. It helps a tomato to nearly dry out some between waterings, but not to completely dry. Watering the same amount each time keeps the plant growing at a healthier rate and prevents fruit problems such as splitting.
Last fall, I listed and defined 10 gardening terms that you’ll see often in books and blogs about gardening. I’ve got 10 more to cover just before gardeners start buying new seeds and plants and planning their 2018 gardens.
A zone is the climate-related gardening region in which you live. The most common designation that likely appears on your plant tags or care information is the USDA hardiness zone. It’s based mainly on how cold your lowest lows fall in winter. A zone in the Southwest can match one on the East coast, but other conditions such as temperature extremes in the day, soil makeup, wind or humidity also can affect how well a plant grows. New Mexico has 10 variations of the USDA zones, from the mountains’ 4b (slightly warmer than 4a) to 9a along the southern Rio Grande valley. Learn more about USDA and Sunset zones here.
Plants for sale or that you’ve placed in a container can become root-bound. This means the roots couldn’t spread outward as the plant grew, so they began circling the container borders and might be poking out of drainage holes on the bottom. Most plants grow poorly and can even die when this happens, but see this article about house plants that like crowded root conditions. If a root-bound plant for sale looks otherwise healthy, you can take a chance on it. Break up the roots with your fingers and spread the roots out when you plant in the ground or in a larger container. Be sure to check for signs of circling roots on indoor and outdoor container plants.
When we sell tomatoes at market, we get plenty of requests for heirloom varieties. These grow from older, more pure seed lines handed down for generations. They’re often some of the tastiest and most nutritious vegetables you can find. Ambitious gardeners prefer heirlooms so they can save their own seeds for planting the next year. However, they might not resist disease as well as a tomato variety bred to do so, and heirloom varieties like Brandywine don’t do well in shorter growing seasons like ours. Still, every gardener should try an heirloom flower or vegetable at some point to enjoy the benefits of the carefully selected qualities bred into the plants.
When breeders create hybrids of any plant, they control the results by selecting favored qualities of both plants and cross-pollinate them to produce a new plant with the best of each. The careful controlling of the process by breeders can take years of care. Hybrids give us vegetables resistant to diseases, with richer colors or flavors or that produce in shorter growing seasons. Hybrids are not the same as GMOs; genetically modified plants are developed by altering DNA in a lab.
This is the part of any plant where the roots and stem join. See this demonstration for placing the crown at the right depth from Fox Hill Gardens. This is important because the crown should be just about soil level when planting most plants. Be sure to check instructions that come with individual plants, especially roses and trees, about depth of planting and whether to mulch to help protect the crown.
5. Seed start
A seed start is the small plant, or seedling, you grow from a seed. New gardeners can be confused about whether they can plant a seed directly in the ground (direct sow, below) or whether the plant will do better started indoors under grow lights and then transplanted into the garden at the appropriate time. You can save money starting seeds, and basil and zinnias are two easy annual plants to start from seed. Others, such as cucumbers, don’t transplant well. This article from Gardener’s Supply Company has great advice on starting seeds, which can help save money on new plants each spring.
4. Direct sow
This means to place seeds directly into the ground in the garden or in a container. Carrots, lettuce and green beans are easy vegetables to grow from direct sowing. Just follow the directions on the packet about seeding time, planting depth and spacing. You might have to thin your seedlings later. One positive: if you plant too soon or too deeply, seeds cost so little you can often try again!
The tomato terms determinate and indeterminate have caused me plenty of confusion in years past. I don’t know why I have such a hard time remembering them. Determinate varieties grow to a set mature size and produce most of the fruit within a few weeks. Then it’s done. Determinates also are called bush varieties.
These tomatoes continue growing until hit by frost, and sometimes are called vining tomatoes. They produce fruit steadily through the growing season, depending on weather conditions, etc. They can grow out of control if not staked. I’m planning to remember the difference by noting that indeterminate implies the plant does what it wants. But I wish someone would invent a better set of words!
Basically, a plant’s habit refers to the direction it grows, such as upright, mounded or prostrate (spreading low along the ground). It also refers to terms such as shrub vs tree. A shrub, for example, grows to only about 15 feet high and has multiple stems in the ground, whereas a tree usually has a single trunk and greater height. This handout from the University of Colorado shows growth habit shapes and definitions.
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.
To help Southwest gardeners — and all people jumping into gardening — I try to follow a few important rules:
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 ____.”
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.
Winter has come late this year, and that’s alright with me. But we’re sure to face a hard freeze soon and it’s time to protect some plants.
The first line of defense, of course, is to choose plants that are hardy down to your average low winter temperature. These plants might look dead in winter, but they come back as spring warms the air and ground. We can’t control the weather, however, so when exceptions to your typical low hit or you really want a plant on the border for your temperatures, you can help that prized plant make it through the winter. Here are a few tips:
Planning ahead helps. When placing a new plant in your landscape, be sure to consider its winter hardiness when you plant. Placing it in a warm microclimate, such as against a south-facing wall or fence, can keep the plant a few degrees warmer when temperatures dive on winter nights.
Mulching over bulbs or around the roots of perennials and even trees can help the ground retain heat. I use raked-up leaves and sometimes straw. In addition, I use rock mulch around xeric plants. The rocks absorb and reflect heat.
Sadly, we can’t all afford or find space for an actual greenhouse. You can buy or create mini-greenhouses around a few plants. Ours only need a small boost, so we often use 5-gallon buckets with the bottom cut out. We sometimes top them with wire for deer protection or cloth for extra warmth. Glass adds even more warmth and a cloche, French for “bell,” is a glass jar that can cover individual plants. There are lots of ideas online for constructing mini-greenhouses out of plastic and wood or PVC pipe, but you’ll need to remove anything that airtight as soon as the temperature warms back up following a freeze. Otherwise, condensation forms inside; the water drops refreeze and actually can damage your tender plant.
A sheet or blanket wrapped around an entire plant helps protect it from freeze on the occasional cold night. Again, this is a temporary fix. If you have an entire section of plants that need protection, it’s better to rig a system with hoops or sticks and fabric row cover. If leaving the cloth on the entire winter, be sure to use a landscape fabric that allows sun and water through. I like to open these on warm, sunny days.
Plants need to head into winter in a healthy state. That includes keeping them watered (at a reduced rate) if you haven’t received precipitation recently. Cold, windy air dries plants out and stresses them. There is no need to prune most perennials before winter. It’s best to let them die off naturally, feeding birds with seeds. You’ll trim trees while they’re dormant in winter. When freeze threatens, you can water the mulch around the plant, but avoid hitting the leaves and branches. The water in the mulch helps hold heat in. I’ve also seen suggestions of placing used plastic bottles filled with warm water around the mulch to conduct some heat during a freeze.
Bring plants inside
No greenhouse? How about the house? My largest geranium loves the sun from our bathroom window, and the humidity likely helps as well. We have so many plants to bring inside that some have to live in the garage, where it can get chilly but hasn’t gotten below freezing. If you want to invest some money, you can buy grow lights for plants that need more sun than available in your home or garage space. Spray the plants off and let them dry a bit before carrying them inside. This helps reduce the chance that bugs tag along for the ride.
Check out lots more ideas on our Pinterest boards (What’s wrong with my plant? and Greenhouses)
Microclimates can be a farmer’s or gardener’s best friend. A few years ago, I wrote about how use of microclimates, or pockets of a garden that have varying temperatures and exposures to weather elements, can expand your choice of xeric plants.
The easiest example of a microclimate is a greenhouse. Windows let sun in and walls, a roof and other strategies help maintain the warmth. Add a heating source (and enough space) and you can grow nearly any plant any time of year.
Subtle microclimates exist all around your yard and gardens. Structures and hardscaping absorb heat during warm hours and release it gradually, helping to protect plants from cold; they also can protect plants from wind. Partial shade shields plants from heat, and slopes or other topography alter how the overall climate affects a given plant.
The Zinnia Experiment
I would like to say that we planted zinnia seeds in three different places simply to later show how microclimates affected their growth and hardiness. But I’d be pushing the truth. I did plant them in several different spots to see how well they grow here and how quickly they bloom, so I can use them as an easy annual filler to add color and even more pollinators to our gardens.
So, we put seeds in open space in our vegetable farm rows, mostly for the pollinators. We also planted some on a fairly exposed raised bed in our xeric garden. Finally, we planted seeds in the lower part of the xeric garden, close to the rock wall. All of the flowers did fairly well, although the ones in the farm area had better soil and more consistent drip watering. They were the tallest and healthiest. The ones in the raised bed took longer to come up, likely because of poorer soil and an inconvenient hand-watering location. The flowers planted in the lower bed did almost as well as the ones in the farm area.
Then the frost came and the healthiest plants burned the worst. They more or less bit it overnight.
The zinnias in the raised bed were nearly as bad, but at least the flowers kept their color (I planned to take photos of them, but hard-working hubby cleaned up the bed before I had a chance.)
The zinnias in the lower bed fared the best. I doubt they will grow or flower more, but they don’t look like they belong in a horror movie.
How to Use Microclimates
The experiment helped me get a sense of microclimates on our land. We’ve always assumed that our farming area is cooler because it is in a sort of mini-valley jut above the river. The dead zinnias demonstrated we were right, especially since those plants were the most robust before the freeze hit. The flowers in the raised bed are more open to cool air; there were no other plants nearby or much hardscape to absorb heat either.
The hardiness of the zinnias in a more protected and “solarized” spot near the rocks was telling. It’s always important to think about sun and shade exposure, but sometimes we fail to consider how placing a few large rocks behind a cold-sensitive plant can help it survive winter. In vegetable gardening, for example, using fabric to cover plants creates a micro-greenhouse effect. And when growing a plant that needs a little less sun or heat, shade cloth or plant placement can lengthen growing seasons.
Microclimates, like the general climate, can vary. For example, a tree that drops its leaves provides no shade until it fills in late spring. As trees mature, they can begin shading a plant that once received full sun; it might be time to transplant a shaded shrub. Windbreaks help slow the flow of cold air streaming up a slope.
Containers offer excellent microclimates, not only because they warm up quickly, but because you can move them to solve sun and wind exposure issues, and all the way inside before the first frost.
New to gardening? Or just not a horticulturist, botanist or even a master gardener? Then you likely get confused by some of the terms you see on plant tags, in nursery catalogs and even in blogs like this one. You’ll enjoy gardening much more if you can weed through the jargon (and the puns). Here are 10 terms explained in plain language to get you started:
10. Xeriscaping. This one’s my favorite, of course. And as I’ve said before, it’s xeriscaping, from xeros, the Greek word for dry … not ZEROscaping. In other words, it’s planning a lawn and garden that uses the least possible water. In most cases, this means using drought-tolerant plants (see no. 1), but xeriscaping also involves using native plants adapted to your climate and conditions, along with lots of other strategies for landscape design and plant choice.
9. Perennial. The word means long lasting, and that’s pretty much true of perennial plants as well. A perennial grows in your yard for more than two years, often for much longer before it needs replacing. Remember that perennial varies based on where you live. For example, the well-known geranium can be a perennial in a warm climate, but I have to bring mine inside for winter. And don’t freak out if a perennial plant disappears or looks dead after frost. You’ll likely see new growth on it come spring. Planting mostly perennials in your garden usually leads to less work and less watering.
8. Biennial. A biennial plant lives for two years, or two growing seasons. Seeds start the plant’s root, stem and leaf growth in the first year, but the plant doesn’t produce flowers, fruit or seeds until the second year. After that, the plant typically dies, but can spread seeds before dying back. An example of a biennial is the foxglove (Digitalis). Another is one of my favorites, the columbine (Aquilegia), which might flower the first year, or might put all of its energy into leaf and stem growth, and then flower the following year. Some forms of poppy (Papaver) also are biennials. And unfortunately, some weeds also are biennials. They take on a tiny round leaf form, survive the winter that way and then flower and spread seeds, lots of seeds, the next year.
7. Annual. An annual lives only one year, or for one growing season. Still, some annuals re-seed, so if you’re willing to let Mother Nature design your garden layout, you can let annual flowers dry up and produce seeds. Annuals are great for small containers and adding color to a garden or patio each year. But they usually require more time, money and even water in the long run than perennial plants.
6. Native. A native plant was likely in your town before you moved in. These plants grow naturally in specific regions or conditions. They should not become invasive if they’re planted in their native region. The real benefit of native plants (aside from their beauty in the garden, forest or along roads) is that they’ve done most of the work already. They know how to survive weeks with no water or really high spring winds. Selecting native plants is one of the most effective xeriscaping strategies.
5. Specimen plant. Lots of catalogs refer to a bush or flower as a “specimen plant.” This has nothing to do with strange botany experiments. All it means is that the plant can stand on its own as a focal point in a garden or landscape design. For example, petunias or begonias look much better in mass plantings, which means groups of the same or similar flowers for a dramatic look. Mass plantings might become hedges or adorn the entry to your local mall. Landscapers might plant a row of 100 marigolds and a row of 200 petunias for striking color. On the other hand, a specimen plant shines all by itself.
4. Invasive. Typically, an invasive plant is a nuisance at the least. It can choke out other plants and grasses, climb around and choke bushes or simply compete for precious water. Invasive plants grow easily and rapidly, usually because they are not native to the area. Just remember that these terms are all relative. A plant native to a particular part of the country might be considered invasive after being introduced to a different region. When a plant becomes invasive, it probably crosses that very thin line between wildflower and weed. One of the most troubling weeds we encounter is field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis), which is considered invasive in all of the lower 48 states, Hawaii and Canada. Maybe on the moon…
3. Deciduous. If a tree or shed is deciduous, that simply means it loses its leaves in fall and winter. The opposite would be evergreen, trees that keep their leaves all winter. Deciduous plants shed their leaves as a protection against upcoming cold. Many turn rich, deep shades of gold and bronze before falling, which gives the yard and garden color as summer flowers fade.
2. Pollinator. You might see list articles on blogs and social media mentioning “pollinator plants.” This means that the plant attracts bees and other insects that help promote flower and fruit production. The insects disturb and transfer tiny grains of pollen in flowers. Without bees, most fruit trees and many vegetables would produce little to no fruit. Many native plants, herbs and vegetables attract bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects to the garden. They’re essential plants to help maintain honey bee populations, which have been declining. Here’s a list of New Mexico pollinator plants. Many gardening books and catalogs place a tiny icon of a butterfly or bee in descriptions to let you know they attract pollinators.
And No. 1: Drought tolerant. Back to an important xeriscaping principle. Plants that are drought tolerant can go longer periods of time without water; it means basically the same as xeric, but is a little more direct. Plants with drought tolerance and resistance have characteristics that help them survive in these conditions. And all it usually takes is a little bit of rain to make them thrive, green and flower. Just remember – if you purchase drought tolerant plants, be sure to water them regularly for the first few weeks or months and up to the first year, depending on the plant and its size. The water keeps the plant alive through the shock of transplant and helps the roots get established.