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.

 

Protect Plants in Winter

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.

heavy snow in Ruidoso area
Winter can be harsh in the foothills of New Mexico’s mountains.

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:

Placement

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.

Japanese maple in container
This Japanese maple was a special gift and we kept it in perfect northeast exposure in summer, then more southern exposure in winter. But that didn’t work half a zone colder, and sadly, it succumbed to frost.

Mulch

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.

leaves as mulch day lilies
The apricot tree dropped some of these leaves right where I needed them to protect our day lilies. I raked up more and piled it on thick.

Mini-greenhouses

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.

terrarium lid for cloche
A terrarium lid makes a great cloche for a greenhouse effect on this baby agave.

Cloth

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.

basil cover homemade
This basil cover is made from old hose and rebar and draped with row cover fabric. You can make one easily for a tender plant and lift the fabric on warm days.

Water

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 for winter.
Houseplants in winter, sun lovers in summer. Even the solanum (spiny tomato) winters over inside by going dormant.

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.

buckets protecting plants in winter
You can give plants a little boost with objects you have. Just cut the bottom out of a 5-gallon bucket. They’re not attractive, but they are functional.

Check out lots more ideas on our Pinterest boards (What’s wrong with my plant? and Greenhouses)

A Microclimate Experiment

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.

cactus greenhouse atlanta
This greenhouse in an Atlanta-area garden provides extra heat and sun for the homeowner’s succulent collection and keeps rain off the 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.

lava rocks microclimate
The Desert Garden at the Huntington in San Marino, California, is a perfect microclimate for cacti. Not so perfect for humans on the day we visited. The lava rocks intensified the 100-plus temperatures.

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.

pond water lilies
Not far from the Huntington, a homeowner’s pond was filled with blooming water lilies in basically the same climate.

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.

zinnia cold damage
The healthiest zinnias froze the most, likely because of the farm area location and the fact we had pulled up several rows of faded vegetable plants, so these zinnias were open to a pocket of frost.

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.)

zinnias minor frost damage
These zinnias suffered some frost damage, but the flowers were still vibrant, thanks to their protected location near the rock wall.

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.

shade for vegetable plants
Peppers love heat, but these pepper plants in Tucson had shade over them for protection.

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.

rio Ruidoso bench
Every gardener needs a microclimate too! we placed this bench in a shaded area near the river as a spot to cool off on warm days working outside.

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.

adenium in container
This Desert Rose (Adenium) in Tucson is about 10 times the size of ours. But its location in a container means that botanical garden staff can move it if necessary for changing seasons and microclimates.

10 Gardening Terms Explained

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:

xeriscaping defined
Xeriscaping is a misunderstood (and mispronounced) term. And it’s not just about growing cacti in gravel!

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.

xeric plants agastache
Xeric perennials come back year after year with very little effort or water.

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.

geranium container
Geraniums can’t survive our winters. But unlike most annuals, we can keep them alive all year, and often blooming, in a sunny window. I just sprayed this one off in preparation for the move back inside.

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.

columbine flower
Columbines are considered biennial flowers, but they usually re-seed in the same area of the yard, garden or forest!

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.

zinnias
It’s easy and inexpensive to grow annual zinnias from seed.

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.

California poppy
Many poppies are native to New Mexico and thrive in our dry, sunny conditions.

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.

boxwood
This boxwood is a specimen plant near our front entry, while the ajuga that line the shaded beds are more of a mass planting.
boxwood hedge
While visiting Atlanta-area gardens, I noticed lots of boxwoods planted in mass as hedges.

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…

field bindweed root
Field bindweed stem and root, with my foot for scale. The roots usually break off so the plant can grow right back — in nearly any condition, including through concrete.

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.

fall vine
Deciduous trees, shrubs and vines provide the stunning fall colors that mark the season.

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.

verbena wild
This swallowtail was enjoying our verbena today; the verbena comes up on its own.

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.

bee buzzing on lavender stalk
Lavender, a drought-tolerant perennial herb that’s also a pollinator plant.

 

Quit Worrying and Just Grow

Today’s rant: a preponderance in society, and especially in social media, to make gardening seem like constant landscape perfection. For starters, nurseries, botanical gardens or garden bloggers tend to avoid posting photos of diseased, dead or poorly performing plants. At times, we even enhance our photos with widely available filters.

peach on tree
Perfect peach? Sure, but what the photo fails to reveal is this is the only, and I mean only, peach the tree produced.

But that’s pretty normal, right? Consumers are more confident in nurseries with healthy plants. But some photos on social media are enhanced beyond reality, and the constant barrage of perfect plants, fruit and flowers can make millennials and other new or hesitant gardeners believe their gardens must look as rich, lush and perfect as the examples flooding their smartphones.

To exacerbate the problem, popular posts in my social media feeds often have headlines that read like this:

“10 Mistakes Every New Gardener Makes”

“Growing Tomatoes – You’re Doing It All Wrong”

“Top 5 Garden Failures”

Although some posts and authors have great intentions, other sites write headlines primarily for click-throughs. I try not to save or read these, but prefer instead to get my information from positive, researched posts and publications. Nearly everyone who gardens encourages others to try it; that’s especially true of those of us who write about gardening.

suyo long cucumbers
Some people turn up their noses at these burpless Suyo long cucumbers. But they’re delicious!

But how encouraged can new gardeners be by messages of failure? Believe me, we all experience problems and pitfalls in gardening, no matter what magazines and social media portray. Here are a few ways to overcome concerns about having the perfect looking garden, largest and prettiest fruit, and other pressures:

Learn by trial and error. This is the ultimate in “on-the-job training.” Although it’s frustrating to realize you’ve wasted some time and money on a plant that dies, you learn from your mistakes. Start small on gardening in general and with any new plant or project. If things go wrong, it’s an easier pill to swallow! At any rate, lower your expectations just enough that you do the best you can, but recognize that’s all you can do.

tomato plant problems
I showed this sad looking roma tomato plant a few weeks ago. It’s producing mature fruit, but we’ve learned it’s probably not the best variety for us to grow.

Gather information, but don’t overload yourself. There’s so much out there on gardening and DIY projects that it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed. Use plant tags and local, credible sources. For example, master gardeners train on topics like general plant and soil health, but also learn about plants specific to their town or region. Books, magazines and websites from your part of the country likely offer the most appropriate advice. There is a definite “East Coast bias” in print and online publishing, and it seems particularly clear in gardening. Those of us in the West and Southwest sometimes have to try a little harder to find pertinent help.

weeds in southwest orchar
Got weeds? We sure do, and we always will.

Grow plants you love. Select plants that make you smile but are native to or hardy in your area. The combination really helps. For example, I love orchids, but have trouble maintaining them in a house that averages way below 30 percent humidity. I know I can, but I’m not sure how much time I’m still willing to give them. On the other hand, I’ve found plants I love simply by walking or driving by them. Some were already in place in the landscapes of new homes. If you love the scent and taste of basil, grow some. And if you choose to work with a garden consultant or landscape designer to plan your lawn and garden, get enough information during the process to select colors, scents, textures and edibles that will bring you the most pleasure.

southwest landscape
Birds or nature placed this sunflower right next to our lavender. If sunflowers pop up so easily on their own in these conditions, why not grow them?

Learn from fellow gardeners. The trial and error aspects of gardening apply to all of us, and often family or neighbors have great advice because they’ve tried something that did or didn’t work. If you know that your mother or best friend had a bounty of delicious snap peas last year, ask for some help getting yours started. Master gardener training and expert advice provide great information, but I’ve learned plenty from friends and family, especially when I’m trying something I’ve never grown before.

Don’t give up. Like I said in a post earlier this month, it’s so tempting to quit when weather, insects and weeds wreak havoc on your best-laid plans. But keep plugging along, recognizing that you’ll have to put up with some weeds or limited flower or fruit production.

The quest for perfection is exacerbated in other areas of life, not just gardening. We want to look like photoshopped models, prepare meals that belong on the cover of gourmet cooking magazines and plan the perfect party or wedding. The truth is, real life involves moderation, imperfection and learning from mistakes.

So just get out there and garden. Plant a new bush in your landscape this fall or buy a succulent to adorn your desk this winter. And enjoy the process along with the results.

 

 

 

Late Summer Garden Problems? Don’t Give Up

It would be fun to see a chart of gardener enthusiasm from May through September. My guess is that it would look something like this:

summer-garden-dont-give-up (11 of 1)

After all, gardening can take time and effort, and summer vacations, heat, family time or work all interfere. It’s easy to get discouraged when bugs and weeds take over and plants don’t look their best. This morning, I had to water for the first time in weeks following a period of regular rain. It took all the effort I could muster, especially since most of our time is spent controlling insects and weeding, usually the same spots over and over again.

low-water southwest garden midsummer
Some people might see a lush low-water garden. I see weeds that need pulling, flowers that need deadheading, beds that need mulching and even a bird bath that needs water!

Then I came inside and remembered: So maybe the horn worm stripped about a fifth of the leaves from one of our tomatoes? At least we finally got control. The plant doesn’t look its best, but the tomatoes are ripening. If we don’t get as many as planned, I can live with that. I can’t just let the plant go, which wastes all of the time, attention and water put into getting it this far.

Staying positive can be tough, but here are seven tips for getting past midsummer doldrums in the garden:

Don’t consider problems as failures. Plants naturally begin to decline and leaves yellow in midsummer. Vegetables and some ornamentals are annuals, after all, and go through a seasonal life cycle. Plus, your plant is putting more energy into fruit or flower production than forming perfect green leaves. And you really can’t control the weather, but only help your plant through rough periods such as drought.

We nearly pulled this tomato up because the leaves have looked awful since an early heat wave. But we're getting some gorgeous roma tomatoes!
We nearly pulled this tomato up because the leaves have looked awful since an early heat wave. But we’re getting some gorgeous roma tomatoes!

Take some photos and share them. You might see brown leaves on a fading green bean plant, but others might see how high the plant has gotten. A close-up of the bean or bloom, along with blooms on flowering ornamentals, focuses your own attention on the beauty that you’re nourishing. Likewise, a photo of your entire garden compared to how it looked two months ago should represent the pride of the work you and nature accomplished.

These lantana blooms make me smile. I need to look past problems to this pretty container.
These lantana blooms make me smile. I need to look past problems to this pretty container.

Change your routine. Although it’s always best to water in the morning, sometimes it’s more fun to go out to breakfast first. Spending time in the garden still is important, especially as plants get crowded, which gives insects more places to hide. If it’s too much to water before work, add a timer to a drip system. Spend time pulling weeds and checking for insects in evening just before the light fades. Or make it a family activity a few days a week.

Share your harvest. Everybody gets tired of zucchini. I love harvesting fresh vegetables early in the season, but my enthusiasm tends to wane when every plant is at peak production. I’m more jazzed this year because we’re selling most of our crops at a farmers’ market. Home gardeners can share with colleagues, neighbors, family members or food pantries. Your enthusiasm is sure to rise when work friends comment on how delicious your fresh cucumbers taste.

Herbs for sale at a local farmers' market.
Herbs for sale at a local farmers’ market.

Take a tip from nature. Often, birds spend more time in the garden as flowers seed out and fade. The birds don’t care if the plant is a little leggy or faded. They still appreciate the seeds, especially if they’re migrating. Really, would you rather be trapped indoors in winter than out here tending your garden? Picture fewer weeds next spring because you got to the ones in the garden now before they seeded out. You can save yourself some time next year by keeping up now.

Keep notes and plan strategies. Gladiolas deer resistant? I think not. I’ve grown some gladiolas as this year’s splurge in terms of water because they are a perfect cut flower. And yes, I should have cut some stalks and brought them inside before last night. The newest flowers and buds are gone, thanks to a deer with discriminating taste who left the fading flowers alone. I’ll have to change where I grow the bulbs next year or keep up with deterrent sprays and methods. I’m looking into doing a better job with trap crops for insect control. And we’ll choose the plants for our microfarm that do the best in our typical conditions (if there is such a thing) and that people like to purchase the most. Plan now, while problems are fresh in your memory, for fall and spring planting.

Gorgeous salmon-colored gladiola blooms in the morning dew. Gone the next morning...
Gorgeous salmon-colored gladiola blooms in the morning dew. Gone the next morning…

Scrutinize social media posts. Obviously, don’t ignore everything on social media. But anyone who posts photos of perfect plants and huge flowers isn’t including photos of the plants they had to pull up because of disease or the really weedy area of their garden. It’s especially important to ignore posts like “How to Yield 300 Tomatoes From One Plant.” First, that’s just to get you to click through. Why compare yourself, and besides, do you really need 300 tomatoes? Lastly, it’s probably not the best advice around. Look for real, solid and credible information and set realistic expectations for yourself and your plants.

Pears that need picking? Or a dreamy shady spot to sit and enjoy yard and garden labor!
Pears that aren’t ripening? Or a dreamy shady spot to sit and enjoy yard and garden labor!

Finally, enjoy reading a book in the shade after you’ve worked in the garden, maybe while munching a fresh cucumber. It will be more relaxing!

 

Diagnose and Prevent Drought Stress in Plants

A droopy, wilting plant. It’s a gardener’s instinct to automatically assume: It needs water. And sometimes, that’s a good instinct. But low-water plants just as easily can be killed by kindness as by neglect.

gladiola
Gladiolas like an inch of water a week, but not too much water.

For example, several problems with tomato fruits are caused by too much water, or especially irregular watering. Plants, like people, need some regular hydration. You wouldn’t avoid drinking water for five days and then gulp down a liter, right? One reason drip systems are effective is the consistency (assuming you set a timer) of the amount of water they deliver, along with the slow rate of flow and the fact that they water the soil/roots and not a plant’s leaves. The delivery and slow flow help retain more moisture and nutrients around the roots.

A drip system with adjustable emitters is a great way to water our okra. And it looks like to attract ants...
A drip system with adjustable emitters is a great way to water our okra.

What’s the prognosis?

There are reasons other than drought stress that cause plants to wilt, including problems with the roots. That’s why plants you’ve just transplanted from seed or a nursery container tend to wilt for a few days or weeks. The roots suffer some damage when taken from a pot and replanted. Understand that this is part of the natural course of the plant’s life and help it through without stressing too much (meaning you, not the plant). Even though a plant is waterwise, it still needs extra water until the roots heal and begin to grow, more efficiently pulling water into the plant. If the ground is dry at root level, the roots can’t do their work. Plants that are overwatered sometimes wilt, too, further complicating the “diagnosis.”

tomato branch broke water
After our first heavy rain, I accidentally brushed against a branch of this currant tomato.It peeled off; the brown leaves are likely from that damage, not from lack of water!

Speaking of, most gardeners jump to the worst possible scenario when determining a plant problem. Although disease is a possibility, look not only for symptoms of a particular wilt or fungal disease, but also for possible causes. Do you have evidence of bugs that might have damaged leaves or carried a disease to your plant? Is the plant getting enough air circulation? Is water running off and away from the plant? Has it just been super hot for several days?

incipient wilt
Incipient wilt on a squash. Still not the best scenario and a signal to check our soil, but it’s temporary.

The best way to distinguish drought stress from other causes of wilt is by looking at and feeling the soil. Damp soil means the plant has water available; adding water at this point likely won’t help. You should feel an inch or two below the surface. One way is to stick your finger in the dirt to about the first knuckle joint.

Prevent plant stress

When a plant needs water, it’s more susceptible to damage from bugs and diseases. Pests attack the weak. You can prevent plant stress from underwatering by:

  • Checking the soil as mentioned above; see if there is water for the plant.
  • Looking for signs of underwatering. These usually include leaves turning yellow and brown, and even falling off. Typically, drought stress begins with lower leaves.
  • Thinking about the plant’s environment and how it might have changed. Is it windy and hot or muggy and cool in the evenings? Did you last water a plant in the afternoon out of necessity instead of your usual morning routine?
hot day on plant
Not much you can do about these weather conditions within a week or so of placing new plants in your landscape. Water consistently in the morning and shade plants if practical.
  • Using a meter or records when in doubt. We have an inexpensive moisture meter for our farm area. If nothing else, it helps confirm or deny my suspicions about the need to water and gives me a basis for comparing soils or drip rates around certain plants. Keeping records of watering, fertilizing and other activities can help manage and diagnose plant problems.
water meter to check moisture
Geraniums like to dry a little between watering. An inexpensive meter might not be the most accurate tool, but can help a home gardener check soil moisture.
  • It’s always better to water before a plant wilts, and not to wait until wilting occurs. Although plant roots need to seek water, they also have to find it! When no water is available in the soil around them, plants can begin reacting with wilt, slowed growth or flower and fruit production, and other signs.
xeric bush spirea
Blue mist spirea is a low-water plant. If the leaves have spots, it’s more likely getting too much water than not enough.
  • Finally, remember there is no hard and fast rule on watering. Much of the advice I see comes from areas that are more humid, cooler, less windy, and at lower altitude than our conditions here in New Mexico. Having said that, you can create conditions that help plants retain moisture, mostly by ensuring healthy soil and mulching. Containers need a little more frequent watering because they dry out faster than the ground. Water container and landscape plants slowly so the moisture drips instead of flooding down. You probably only need to add water to a container when the top few inches of soil are dry.

 

 

How Heat Affects Plants

When it gets hot for a day or two, plants can wilt and require some extra attention. That’s pretty easy to understand. After all, I spend less time outside in the heat of the day because I wilt. I also drink more water. After more than a week of temperatures hovering near or above 100° F, our plants are showing other signs of heat stress that we less often consider.

jimson weed datura new mexico
Jimson weed, or datura, loves heat and drought. Then again, it does have the word “weed” in its name.

You would think that living in the Southwest and having mostly xeric plants means plants can tough it out dor a few hot, dry (windy!) days. That’s partially true. But these temperatures are way above normal, at least for an entire day/week and more. Normally, July 1 marks the beginning of monsoons, where clouds build and drop at least some rain in the afternoon, giving the plants and me a break. Not this year. And it’s causing problems for nearly every living thing in our garden. Here are some reasons why:

Heat can reduce bee populations

We noticed about midway through our current heat wave that we seem to have fewer bees in our garden. Of course, I thought I was imagining that. Nope. Bees are especially sensitive to temperature and its regulation. Temperature particularly affects young bees, which are important for keeping colonies going. They tend to keep their hives at 95° or lower, and stress when the temperatures exceed 98°. Bees also need water, and we’ve had two weeks with no measurable rain and consistently high temperatures, even for our evening lows. Here’s a great explanation from Tufts University on how honey bees keep cool (and warm). Despite the fact that we have plenty of flowering plants for bees beginning in spring, the population is lower this summer. I was pleased to see a few survivors on our lavender this weekend, but this is a brand new worry!

bee buzzing on lavender stalk
Lavender loves dry heat, and bees love lavender, so there’s that…

Lack of flowering or fruiting

Those bees! They also help pollinate our ornamental plants and especially our vegetables. So, there’s one concern in heat. But I recently was reminded how heat also affects flowering and fruiting. It turns out that pollen loses its effectiveness in high heat. Even though we’ve hit the 100° mark before, I can’t recall it lasting for days and weeks since we’ve been growing tomatoes and other edibles in New Mexico. What’s more, drought lessens the chance that pollen can stick to a female flower.

tomatoes green on plant
These tomatoes got started before the heat wave, and I think the plant is doing all it can to keep them nourished.
Another plant is failing to produce. I'm hoping there's still a viable tomato behind each dried up bloom.
Another plant is failing to produce. I’m hoping there’s still a viable tomato behind each dried up bloom.

Wilt

This is the heat issue we best recognize – leaves wilting on a hot day. Plants “sweat” to cool themselves like we do. With transpiration, water travels up from the roots and to the leaves, where it evaporates through tiny pores under the leaves. So on a hot, dry day, the soil, roots, and entire plant dry out more quickly. Add some wind just for fun, and a plant can wilt or stress. Plants can take more water, but only up to a certain point. Some plants have plenty of moisture and experience what’s called “incipient wilt” during peak heat each day. If they recover by morning, the plant probably is getting plenty of water.

yellow squash leaves wilting in heat
The big leaves on our yellow squash tend to wilt each day, but the plant looks healthy when it cools.

Sunburn and sun scald

Plants can get sunburned. The sun can scorch leaves of plants that typically need a little more shade or lower temperatures. And many plants can burn on super-hot days. The sunburn often leads to brown spots or browning and dying of entire leaves. Sunburn of a few leaves shouldn’t be a problem, but a sign to shade or move a plant if possible. Sunscald is similar damage to bark in high temperatures.

When weeds and wildflowers wilt, it's just too hot and dry. We have some that also look burned up. Woohoo!
When weeds and wildflowers wilt, it’s just too hot and dry. We have some that also look burned up. Woohoo!

Entirely new or different insects

Aphids, which can be controlled organically, tend to love cool, moist weather. Every type of insect is different, but they’re cold-blooded creatures. Insects can’t internally regulate their temperatures, so they rely on what’s happening in their environment. I’m certain that both weeds and insects change each year depending on weather. Cabbage loopers and leaf miners like heat. Ants? Don’t get me started. And dreaded grasshoppers thrive in drought. When a plant already is stressed by heat or drought, it’s more vulnerable to insect damage or insect-borne diseases.

grasshopper in patio chair
Sure, grasshopper, pull up a chair. In fact, take the shady spot. I’d rather see you resting than eating on our plants.

Some plants adapt better to heat than others. However, young plants still might need more frequent watering in high heat. That’s the part that’s getting to me most. We have some new plants we put in the ground not long before the heat wave hit, and they’re struggling. We’ve even had to water a few xeric and waterwise plants that typically thrive with no water at all. It’s all part of the fun of gardening in the Southwest, I guess. See my previous post for tips on helping plants survive extreme heat.

Six Money-saving Tips for Home Gardeners

Getting started gardening requires some upfront investment, but you can have a nice garden or lawn and stay on budget with a few simple tips. Here are some ideas we use to save money:

Gardening might cost a little to get started, but not if you reuse and repurpose. Perennial plants last, and some re-seed year after year.
Gardening might cost a little to get started, but not if you reuse and repurpose. Perennial plants last, and some re-seed year after year.

Repurpose containers. Sure, I partly mean to re-use the same pots year after year. But I also mean to look for found objects and turn them into containers. Buckets and pails make great containers, for example. Just drill one or more holes in the bottom for drainage. Old metal baskets also look really cool for hanging plants. But they will need lining with moss or cocoa fibers to help control water. Choose your material based on how much water you want to remain in the basket.

This old milk can makes a great container for an aloe plant.
This old milk can makes a great container for an aloe plant.

When re-using pots from previous years, be sure to empty dirt out in the fall and wash the container then and/or before planting again in the spring.

I grew some lettuce in this container in spring, and switched to flowers when it got too hot. The pencil cactus in the second container comes from my daughter's yard.
I grew some lettuce in this container in spring, and switched to flowers when it got too hot. The pencil cactus in the second container comes from my daughter’s yard.

Grow food. Save money and even water by incorporating food into your landscape. Fruit trees double as shade trees as they mature, which can lower energy costs. Growing just one or two vegetables that you purchase regularly at the grocery store can save money on your food bill with the minimal investment of a plant and soil.

Tim found this old screen door and for now, I'm using it as a decorative trellis for a few small cucumbers.
Tim found this old screen door and for now, I’m using it as a decorative trellis for a few small cucumbers.

Use household or found items. Whether for garden art and interest, staking a plant or shading a new transplant, don’t be afraid to get creative with items you already have. A garden should be a retreat for you and your family and reflect your taste and comfort. I’m not suggesting you place eyesores in your front lawn, but household and kitchen items can be really useful in the garden. We re-use buckets and pieces of fencing to warm plants or keep deer off. Lots of kitchen items are touted for garden uses. Eggshells might not stop snails altogether, but the crunchy shells might cause them to detour at least. Coffee grounds have some use, but see this handout for a scientific look at their effectiveness.  At the very least, add them to your compost.

These new plants wilted from the heat yesterday, so we got out the lawn chairs. I know it looks funny, but it's in the back yard and temporary. The chairs give filtered shade, but allow air to circulate. And I put a few yard staples in them to keep the wind from blowing them away (or onto the plants).
These new plants wilted from the heat yesterday, so we got out the lawn chairs. I know it looks funny, but it’s in the back yard and temporary. The chairs give filtered shade, but allow air to circulate. And I put a few yard staples in them to keep the wind from blowing them away (or onto the plants).

Compost. Worms really love coffee grounds, and if you decide to start creating vermicompost (worm castings), hold on to the coffee grounds and newspapers! Making your own garden compost (without housing worms) is another easy and inexpensive garden improvement. Check online for plenty of plans and ideas for homemade compost bins or buckets. Just be sure to also research what can and can’t go into the pile (I keep a cheat sheet near the sink) and how to keep the compost fresh, damp and turned.

deer fence vegetable garden
This compost bin is right by the garden, and we have a wooden one closer to the kitchen.

Save seeds or divide plants. Saving seeds from spent flowers is a great money saver for next year. You can keep seeds in simple zipped plastic bags, as long as you store them in a cool, dark spot. If saving seeds for vegetables, you’ll have better luck if you only save seeds from heirloom varieties, or purchase a new packet every few years. Seeds do not cost much at all. We divide or move plants to fill empty spots in our garden, and you can likely find a friend, neighbor or coworker willing to trade your iris bulbs for his daylilies.

Choose perennials. Perennial plants come back year after year; their life span depends on the plant and conditions (such as a really hard freeze). Perennials cost a little more from a nursery, but since they return, you save money the following year. That’s assuming that you water the plant a little more heavily than its instructions say until it seems well established in your garden and place it in the right conditions (zone, sun, etc.). Just ask for a little help from local nursery staff or experienced gardeners; they love telling you about their favorite plants.

You can fill a few bare spots with annuals, especially from seed, and including annual herbs for your kitchen or flowers you can cut and use for arrangements. All it takes is a little planning and ingenuity to grow what you love and on a budget.

Protecting New Plants From Wacky Weather

There’s nothing worse than watching a tomato grow from seed into a healthy start and then having it die soon after planting. Of course, paying for a plant at a nursery and then having to buy another is not much fun either.

Sometimes, gardeners can’t control everything, though we hate to admit that.  The new plant you purchased might have been doomed from the start, or an unpredicted hail storm hit while you were at work, beating all of the leaves off your tender start.

double rainbow ruidoso downs nm
Less than two weeks ago, it was rainy and in the 40s. Today, it will be in the mid- to high 80s with sustained winds of at least 25 mph. How do plants adapt?

Although I wish I could control the weather, I realize I can only manage a few steps to increase the chances of successful transplanting. Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t assume the problem is water. I have been guilty of this, assuming if a plant wilts, it must need water. But that’s not always the case. The problem might be related to water, such as soil that doesn’t drain or drains too quickly. It also can be heat, changes in sun exposure, or wind. Some wilting is temporary.
geranium leaves damaged by wind and sun
These geraniums were ready to head back outside for summer, and we only want to move this pot twice a year. The wind (and likely hot sun) has damaged leaves, so as soon as it calms, I’ll trim off the damaged foliage. It needs a haircut anyway, so no need to panic!
  • Pay attention to the plant. Although overwatering can cause problems, underwatering is likely more dangerous, especially in dry climates of the Southwest. Water brings nutrients into a plant and helps it avoid or withstand weather damage or insect attacks. Walking by and touching a plant and looking for signs of insects can give you good clues about the plant’s health. Check for weeds under the plant. Field bindweed and morning glories wrap around plant stems and can damage them.
  • Harden off the start or new plant. It’s way fun to plant your new shrub as soon as you get home from the store. And planting right away can help a plant that’s rootbound in a plastic pot. Hurrah for plant rescue! However, if the new plant was in shade and sheltered from wind, give it a little time to adjust before you plop it down in a sunny, open location. Keeping the potted plant up against your house where it gets afternoon shade can help. When hardening off seedlings, choose a calm day and gradually increase the time the plants stay outside, especially in sun, for several days or weeks.
tomato and basil starts harden off
Hardening off starts on one of the few calm mornings we’ve had.
  • Choose the right location. Read the tags that accompany a new plant or the seed packet. It’s also good to double check with guides from local authors or master gardeners for more information on sun and watering. A plant can survive in mostly shade, but fail to bloom, for example. Microclimates can warm or chill plants.
yarrow and poppy
Yarrow in foreground and Oriental poppy in background. Both love heat, and the rocks help warm the poppy. BTW, the fencing around it is for protection from deer, not weather.
  • Protect the plant from weather elements. Oh, our poor tomatoes have had to endure full days of high winds for nearly a week, and today winds will be worse and humidity lower, to the point of fire weather warning. I start all tomatoes with a 5-gallon bucket around them. We simply saw out the bottom so we can set it into the ground to protect the plant, increase warmth around leaves and still have air circulation. The other day, the wind blew two of the buckets off the plants, right up by our house. Then, I got all excited on a calm day and put cages around the plants, which are growing above the top of the buckets. The wind beat them up, so I have buckets around three and a cage around the strongest tomato.
row cover and bucket protect tomato from cold
I was determined to start some tomatoes, and so far they are growing well. The container, bucket and row cover all increase warmth and the cover would have held up to small hail. It looks weird, but the plant will look gorgeous later!
  • Other ideas are to shade a plant during hot sun with permeable landscape fabric or by simply setting or tipping a woven lawn chair upside down over a small plant to block rays during peak heat. Of course, if you have wind, you will need to secure the chair with ground staples.
ground stakes
The staple on upper left is holding that poppy cage in place. These are handy garden tools!
  • Flexibility and patience help. Our weather went from too cool and damp to hot and windy. I haven’t been able to harden off the rest of my tomatoes and basil. And even though I’m anxious to get them in the ground, I have to wait until conditions are better. If you need to plant early or during a cool spell, use row cover or other methods to warm the plant, or place it in a container instead of the ground.
basil cover homemade
We used short pieces of rebar and stiff drip tubing to hold up my basil cover. I buried the cloth under dirt in the back. It waters with drip, so I only have to lift the cover to check or harvest. This helps protect the basil from cold, hail, wind, and insects.

Finally, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. And sometimes you just don’t know what happened. But don’t give up on gardening, or even on growing a particular plant you love if it’s hardy in or native to your zone. Have fun!