Want Easy Garden Maintenance? Go Native!

There are so many “right” reasons to choose native plants: They need less water and often attract pollinators. But if you need an even better reason, one that appeals to you in your busy world, how about the fact that they’re easier to maintain?

Think about it. By nature (hmmm, native and nature), native plants grow in the open, such as in forests or plains. Away from people, the plants can survive no matter the rainfall or other weather problems. And many reseed to ensure continued survival. They can do all of this without a nice lady in a funny hat and brightly colored gloves “tending” to them.

Paperflower
This paperflower (Psilostrophe) came up in the rocks near our creeping broom for nice succession blooming.

Why native plants are easy care

Once a plant native to your region is established, which can take up to a year, it should need little to no watering. And it should never need fertilizer or other chemicals. These plants have adapted to their native conditions and are less susceptible to pests and diseases than non-native plants. As long as the plant is in the right spot in terms of sun, soil and climate, all you need as a gardener is a little patience. Don’t amend the soil or overwater your new native (although they need more water in the first year to help the roots establish). Your native might not flower prolifically in its first year, and wildflower seeds can remain dormant in the ground before suddenly popping up when conditions favor their germination and growth.

native rock rose
Rock rose (Helianthemum) is an easy-care native plant and a stunner.

Of course, just because a plant is listed as “native,” if you plop it down in completely different conditions or climate, the plant might not make it or could turn out to be as much work as a big-box store purchase. For example, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) is listed as a native plant in New Mexico. But it grows naturally at elevations of 100 to 5,000 feet. And elevation makes a big difference in the Southwest. We’re at 6,300 feet, and our nights can easily dip below the 22 degrees F listed for warmer Sunset zones that support the cholla (zones that are less than an hour away to the east or west). Likewise, planting a cholla in a bed with drip or spray irrigation could damage the plant more than cold. It prefers low water, full sun and sandy soil. No wonder it does so well in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona!

Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.
Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.

How to select native plants

So caring for native plants is easy, but since so much depends on plant choice and placement, how can you make that process easier? Here are a few ideas:

  • Notice plants you see and love in the lawns of neighbors, commercial buildings and even along roadways or on nearby hikes (but don’t steal native plants in the wild). Take photos to help with identification and note where and when you saw the plant.
native wildflowers New Mexico
Daisies, shrubby ice plant, a native gaura forming (and weeds).
  • Although I said to select plants native to your region, plants native to nearly the same conditions also do well. Several cold-hardy natives of South Africa, such as Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) and Hardy Purple or Yellow Iceplant (Delosperma) do really well in the mountainous Southwest.
shrubby ice plant
Here’s a close-up of the shrubby ice plant. Its flowers are smaller than the spreading types, but just as bright. And it’s a compact choice for rock gardens.
  • Local books and apps are the best source for identifying the plants you see near your home. Some national sites (such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) have accurate search engines, but others can confuse you if your search brings up a low-growing shrub with purple flowers that only grows in Georgia.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum.
  • Get help from professionals. Local landscape designers know native plants, and should encourage their use. Call your master gardener hotline or check with a local extension office or native plant organization to get help identifying and selecting plants for your area.
daisy native agastache
Native daisy that needs only shearing of flower stems after fading, and an agastache, which brings hummingbirds.
  • If you can’t identify a plant but have it in your garden, try not to stress. We’ve got several plants we have yet to clearly identify, but we’ve watched their natural patterns of growth and blooming and just played along. In most cases, I only shear off spent flower stalks in early spring to reinvigorate the plant.
I still haven't figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!
I still haven’t figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!

And if you have a native you really love and want to use elsewhere in your lawn, try saving seeds, propagating a cutting or dividing the plant. See the Resources page for a list of native plant lists or nurseries.

 

 

Pruning Xeric Plants

The best part of early spring is watching growth appear on plants that have been dormant all winter. And since we can’t plant vegetables until after the last frost, I need something to do in the garden on nice spring days. We had two of those this weekend, and we got busy pruning our xeric garden and front beds.

lavender-redbud-new-mexico
Pruning woody lavender requires only some shaping and removal of stalks as or after they bloom.

Pruning can be scary for new or hesitant gardeners. I’ve often hated to cut off any of the new spring growth that’s already begun. But I have to remind myself that cutting a plant back saves water. Here’s why: The plant’s roots can only provide so much water and nutrients. If gardeners leave too many branches above ground, the roots struggle to feed every branch, leaf or flower all the way to the end of the plant. It’s like filling a bowl of cereal with milk. The more cereal in the bowl, the more milk is necessary to coat or soak the cereal (sorry, but I love food analogies).

butterfly-bush-pruned-to-ground
This butterfly bush looks like mostly sticks right now, but it’s loaded with new growth at the bottom.

I’m still having to remind myself that by cutting a plant further down, I actually help it grow more vigorously than if I merely trim it a little bit. The mature plant regrows to a size that matches its established root system. We cut several plants nearly to the ground, including Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia). I have yet to kill a plant from vigorous pruning. A few times (like with forsythia), I pruned at the wrong time and it affected shape or flowering. But you can always correct shape and learn from your mistakes.

butterfly bush in summer after heaving pruning
Here’s last year’s butterfly bush (to the right and center) after a similar prune last year. It shoots up to six to eight feet tall.

Around here, Tim typically trims the trees and I handle shrubs. I start with roses as soon as any new growth appears, and your local master gardeners most likely recommend a window of time that’s best for roses and other common plants in your area.

Here are a few pruning tips for plants that grow in the arid high desert and intermountain regions:

  • In early spring, prune plants that flower in summer. Those that bloom in spring (like forsythia, clematis, flowering quince and dogwood) do best if pruned after they flower. They form buds in the fall, and spring pruning removes the flowers. The same goes for spring-flowering bulbs, such as iris, although they shouldn’t be pruned immediately, but when stalks and leaves begin fading or turning brown. In this case, the plant above ground gives energy back to the bulb underground.
forsythia blooms
Our forsythias are loaded with spring blooms; I pruned them last summer.
  • Nearly all trees should be trimmed in winter, while dormant.
  • Some gardeners prefer to prune in fall for a more manicured look during winter. We don’t do that for a few reasons. One is that a late warm period can cause the plants to grow again, and they need to begin storing energy for winter; a heavy late pruning can make the plant more vulnerable to cold. The other reason is that birds feed on the flower heads all fall and winter. And the spent blooms and stalks look fine in a natural, xeric design.
yarrow blooms
The bright yellow blooms of yarrow in summer.
  • Many plants only need to have their dead stalks removed. For example, yarrow and Angelita daisies have stalks that rise above the foliage. You can use trimmers or sharp shears to remove spent stalks.
yarrow after winter xeric
Here’s what the yarrow looked like a few days ago. It was ready to lose the dried flower stalks.
pruning yarrow
The pruned yarrow is now ready to put energy toward developing new flower stalks.
  • It’s best to avoid cutting into the woody, feeder branches of plants such as lavender and rosemary. Trim them for shaping only, and harvest ends of rosemary or cut lavender flower stalks for drying and other uses.
  • The more center and crossing canes or branches you can remove, the better. If you have a native rose that is seriously overgrown or pruned poorly, consider cutting it to the ground once, just to reinvigorate the plant and let it return to a more natural shape. It might take a year or two to get the plant into the shape you like.
yellow
I’m gradually cleaning up this native rose. Last year, it bloomed so pretty in mid-April. This year, I pruned it more severely, but it’s taking on new growth.
  • Some plants do better with a second cutting right after they bloom so you can enjoy another summer show of color. An example is catmint (Nepeta). Shearing off about one-third of the plant at the top gives it energy to regrow flowers. Of course, many annuals, such as California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) or blanket flowers (Gaillardia) bloom best if you deadhead them, or remove spent blooms, throughout the summer.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it's so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path's rock border.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it’s so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path’s rock border.
  • We usually give our xeric plants a good soaking right after trimming them to help them through the shock and stimulate growth. But that’s the only time we water almost all of our established xeric plants.
dogwood and catmint
Best of both seasons. The dogwood still has its winter red, but plants like catmint are blooming.

If you’d like to learn more, including where to cut shrubs for optimal growth, check out this publication from the University of Georgia extension office.

One Gardener’s Weed… or Cover Crop?

I’ve been thinking about weeds and wildflowers a lot this week, probably because I spotted my first field bindweed in a gravel path. But it’s also because I’m thinking about spring flowers, pollinators and soil.

alyssum weed wildflower
Last year’s “crop” of yellow alyssum. Pretty but a little scary.

In past posts, I’ve described the stages of “acceptance” we’ve gone through with the yellow alyssum that pretty much blankets our property. In brief: The alyssum is good because it attracts bees – hundreds of them. And it’s pretty, creating a sort of spring meadow. But it’s bad too. With a deep tap root, the weed/wildflower, (a member of the Brassica, or mustard, family) likely steals water and some nutrients from the grass or garden plants.

Following an excellent Twitter chat on nitrogen fixers (#groundchat led by @CristinaGardens; also on Facebook), I decided to check again whether alyssum helps or hurts soil. It turns out that yellow alyssum does not fix nitrogen, but has a role in recycling the nutrient. It can help smother weeds, but then is it smothering or delaying grass? Yes, it threatens native grasses, according to the Colorado State extension office. And in a xeric garden, I don’t want a plant that robs vegetables or perennials of precious water.

sweet alyssum new mexico
This alyssum against an old tree trunk looks like we planted it intentionally.

Then I found an article saying that the long tap roots on our yellow alyssum (and presumably mustard weed) help till or break up soil with their long taproots. They also bring nitrogen back up to the surface. Shouldn’t that be good for grass? Alyssum helps in some areas when planted as a cover crop following a nitrogen-rich legume.

Further, when the roots decompose, they add organic matter. So, I’m back to accepting alyssum for these bonus qualities, but mostly because we’ll never win.

green beans on vine
Green beans add a little nitrogen, but most of the nutrient goes into producing fruit. And that’s OK with me.

Let’s go back to the nitrogen fixers for a minute. Plants need nitrogen to survive. How much a given plant needs varies, but it’s safe to say that nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient. Many gardeners who use fertilizers know this; the N in formulas represents nitrogen. But why apply a synthetic fertilizer to crops or a garden when you can harvest nitrogen with plants that do the work? It’s the organic approach to soil improvement that’s really catching on with farmers. Hurrah!

red clover blossom
Bloom of a red clover. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Examples of nitrogen fixers are hairy vetch, annual wheat grass or ryegrass, and legumes, including clover. Wait, what? I’ve always considered clover invasive. And during the chat, I received an excellent link to an article about sweet clover. Looks like clover is to many gardeners and farmers what sweet alyssum is to us – good or bad, invasive or not. It all depends on your conditions. Further, conditions that favor a particular weed or wildflower can change slightly from one year to the next. Red clover is a potential nitrogen fixer in New Mexico.

sweet peas near river
Sweet pea is a legume and natural nitrogen fixer. It also can become invasive, but it’s a pretty surprise growing along the Rio Ruidoso.

And that’s why it’s all relative. I love learning from social media, and learned a lot the other day. But when choosing plants, especially for a large area such as a meadow or field, it’s always best to check with local extension agents or their publications. Otherwise, gardeners in New Mexico would never plant butterfly bush (Buddleia), which is not invasive here, and a gorgeous xeric choice. And they might go a little wild with the sweet alyssum or horehound, which are terrific additions to gardens in some areas, but can take over a New Mexico lawn.

Keeping Critters Out of the Garden

You water and nurture a delicious tomato from seed and delight each day in seeing it grow and fruit. And then a critter eats the branches, roots or leaves. It’s a little tougher to love wildlife when they destroy your plants and food.

deer grazing near garden
Deer grazed near our vegetable garden while we filled our troughs with dirt. Notice the fence post on the right.

Some critters are easy to manage, but others not so much. Here, we have gophers, deer, gophers, elk, gophers, squirrels, gophers, rabbits, gophers, skunks and more gophers. I’ve listed a few tips for managing or controlling the ones that visit our gardens most often, which are deer — and you guessed it, gophers.

Directing Deer

The deer around our place have been especially active this year, and I believe one reason is that we did not mow our grass late in the season. A warm February produced new grass to graze as they ate up the old. Having them here more often is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we get to enjoy them more often, but they have more opportunities to try out plants we’d prefer they didn’t eat.

xeric garden deer
Even after deer spent a winter munching regularly in our xeric garden, most plants did fine!

We have to fence many young trees and our vegetable garden to keep deer from destroying plants. Other tactics include trimming branches high enough to keep deer from reaching them while standing on their hind legs. We missed some low branches on our pear, and I noticed telltale signs the other day that deer had munched on the ends of several. Last summer, however, they ignored some unfenced tomatoes until well into fall.

We also have many deer-resistant plants in our ornamental garden, which avoids the expense and waste associated with choosing plants they love. Typically, only fawns graze plants such as rosemary, lavender, sage and butterfly bush. They’ve chewed a new kniphofia (red hot poker) to the ground and almost killed an oriental poppy. Bucks can also damage young trees by rubbing their antlers on the trunks, and small plants can be broken when deer step on them.

buck kitchen window
This buck spotted us through our kitchen window while he was grazing in our front yard.

We won’t exclude deer. After years, I still thrill at the sight of them, and love watching the herd grow as part of recovery following a past forest fire. So, here are a few strategies we use for protecting plants from deer:

  • Fence around vulnerable, favorite or valuable plants. And remember that a deer can go under a fence to munch just as easily as they it goes over one. Fencing can be attractive, as long as it’s also functional.
  • I have heard that fencing should be eight feet or higher, but we’ve done fine (so far) with 6-foot fencing (on 8-foot posts to allow at least a foot to 18 inches underground).
deer fence vegetable garden
The fence around our first vegetable garden area was inexpensive to build and has kept out deer.
  • Protect small individual plants with 5-gallon buckets (after sawing out the bottom). If it’s a plant favored by deer, we also strap chicken wire across the top of the bucket.
  • Although I don’t necessarily believe that repellants work, we have used Irish Spring soap in pantyhose to hang near plants with some success.
  • Don’t assume deer avoid prickly and thorny plants. They love rose bushes, though they tend to not eat much at once.
deer fencing
This fencing from old fence posts was a little high on the bottom, but only a fawn got to our sand cherries.

Gophers – the Bane of Our Existence

I do want to eradicate gophers, but we’re losing. The underground varmints can chew and claw their way through rocks, and probably titanium. We can’t even count the destruction they’ve caused, but we know they killed a dwarf apple tree, a lavender plant, and several other ornamentals. My favorite (or least favorite) example is the day we noticed that our new ornamental grass looked shorter. We blamed the deer for chewing on it, but when we got close, we noticed it had been shortened from the roots up. The stalks simply fell into the hole when we touched them.

gopher damage
Example of gopher damage near our peach tree. The tunnels collapse when deer, elk or people step on them, also making the ground a little unsteady for ankles.

The only control method that works for us is trapping. It’s a time-consuming business, but if we didn’t try to manage the numbers, the gophers would continue to multiply and take over the property. In fact, they nearly have. In one year, Tim trapped more than 80 gophers, and we still have lots of activity around the four acres. Our other method is exclusion, and the only way to exclude them is to fence underground. If you’re not sure whether you have pocket gophers, this publication from the University of California Davis has excellent photos of their mounds.

metal chicken scratch
Metal wire, or chicken scratch, from the home improvement store stucco section. We buried it about 22 to 24 inches deep and left some above ground to discourage bunnies and squirrels.

Between the deer and gophers, we’ve had to fence nearly two feet underground and six feet over. We dug a trench and purchased metal stucco wire to place into it, bending it slightly at the bottom. We also have some metal roofing material we’ll place along the side of our garden that borders our neighbor’s lawn. Here are a few more tips on gopher control:

  • An underground gopher barrier must be solid metal or metal wire with holes smaller than 3/4 inch. We used chicken scratch.
  • There are poisons for gophers, but we avoid them, because dogs and other animals might eat the pellets. Trapping seems cruel, but I think poisoning would be worse, frankly. The UC Davis site also discusses how to trap. Tim has often caught a gopher with only one trap per tunnel.
  • Gophers seem to prefer tender, young plant roots. I also am convinced that they gravitate to areas we’ve recently watered, but that’s just observation.
  • Use containers or raised beds. We use metal troughs and drill about half-inch holes, just large enough to support drainage. Surround raised beds with metal screen or solid metal, or dig down and cover the bottom of the bed with metal. Just remember that the  gopher barrier also can be a barrier to plant roots. Placing containers close to your home usually prevents deer damage.
  • Be aware of natural gopher predators. Many “safe” snakes, along with owls, cats and dogs prey on gophers. But you can’t count on it. A bull snake in our garden went after baby rabbits as well, and owls and cats don’t focus their hunting.
  • Cleaning up heavily weeded or covered areas can help control gophers. For example, we often discover mounds under low trees and bushes or in our irrigation ditch.

 

Taking a Measured Approach to Biointensive Growing

As we plan expansion of our vegetable garden/tiny farm, we’re hoping to grow healthy food by continuing to use organic methods and some principles of biointensive (biologically intensive) planting. The idea of biointensive farming is far from new, but more small and large farmers are applying biointensive principles, which complement organic methods – and for us – water savings.

vegetable garden at dusk
It’s important to grow food sustainably for best results and to avoid ruining the environment.

In biointensive horticulture, rich, healthy soil maximizes a farmer’s yield in minimal space; it also strives to continuously preserve, or even improve, the soil’s health. And that should be the goal of any vegetable gardener. Biointensive farmers loosen soil more deeply by using tools such as broadforks instead of tilling and turning the soil over. Compost is king, building and enriching the soil.

building garden bed
Building a bed in fall by adding compost and recycling healthy plant matter.

So far, so good. We already take those steps. A few more principles of biointensive gardening follow. I want to share our measured approach largely to help gardeners who have less time or experience. Any method with the word “intensive” in the name is going to freak some folks out. But nothing says that gardeners have to follow every tenet of biointensive gardening to the letter. To me, adopting any of the ideas should improve plant health and production, especially if you’ve never gardened organically. There’s no way I can adequately tackle this topic; entire books address it. And I don’t claim to be an expert, but we’re adding to our knowledge base with research, along with trial and error!

Healthy soil for healthy plants

As I said, composting and double digging of beds better prepares soil. If you can produce your own compost on site, even better. That leaves plenty of healthy organic matter on hand and saves money. Another principle is avoiding chemicals in the garden. If soil and plants are healthy, they should need less help and better resist pests and diseases. We spray aphids off with blasts of water, handpick critters like cucumber beetles and use insecticidal soap or diatomaceous earth only when nothing else works.

compost bin
We keep one compost bin right by the garden, another closer to the house, and Tim is starting vermicomposting this spring. You can tell by looking at the yard around the garden how dry the ground was in September 2015.

More yield in less space

Maximizing growing space is another premise of biointensive gardening. One reason is weed prevention and cooling of soil, or “living mulch” from mature plants. The other is efficiency and production, especially for urban gardeners with limited space. We certainly want to grow as much as we can in the space we have. But in biointensive gardening, the design and proximity of plantings is a little too, well, intense for me.

I love the idea of planting lettuces and other low greens close enough to help shade the soil and block weeds. But I’ve seen what happens when people plant tomatoes too close together. Not only do some plants shade others from valuable sun, but they don’t get enough air circulation. Plants also compete for nutrients and water. And why build an above-ground highway to make it even easier for a hornworm to travel from one plant to another? Finally, I want to be able to reach plants for easy maintenance and harvesting. We’ll experiment on the lettuce and maybe another crop or bed to see how close spacing compares.

vegetable garden spacing
Plants need some space, and spacing changes as plants mature. We learned a lot our first year of laying out this space.

Interplanting and companion planting

We’ve read Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener,” and plan to employ many of his methods for building rows. We’ve built up the soil and added compost, and measured the rows so they’re 30 inches wide, with a small walkway between each. That’s just enough room to maximize growing area and minimize plant problems or gardener aches, pains and frustration. We’ve got containers to extend our growing space. I believe we’ll also try a little more interplanting, just to help maximize space or use the shade from a tall or trellised plant to cool another. Many urban gardeners use square-foot gardening to achieve intensive planting.

mature vegetable garden
It’s hard to tell where the tomato ends and the melon begins.

We won’t, however, use interplanting as companion planting. I know there is historical basis for placing particular plants next to one another to improve each plant’s health or yield, but I’m less certain about scientific basis for the practice. Aside from use of cover crops to enrich the soil at the end of the season, I’m not sold on companion planting. Of course, I might have a jaded opinion because I’m so tired of seeing it, along with many garden myths, pushed on Pinterest. We’ll continue to build and improve the soil in our beds and rotate crops.

walk to vegetable garden
The garden is behind this abandoned irrigation ditch. We’ll plant some milkweed and a few transplants to the south side of the bank to attract more pollinators. For now, that’s as close a I’ll come to companion planting.

Whole-minded and open pollination

The biointensive principle of using open-pollinated seeds instead of GMO varieties ensures biodiversity of crops. The reason is that heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants can be saved for use the next year. Saved hybrid seeds are not reliable. Our focus this year has been on organic seeds, and I don’t believe we would try to save seeds for vegetables regardless. We have saved or redistributed seeds from wildflowers.

cosmos and other annuals
Pollinators flock to many annuals and perennials, and these wildflowers spread naturally. The more pollinators we can attract, the more we help all of our gardens.

As with permaculture, biointensive gardening focuses on the whole and how different parts of the garden, or ways of gardening, affect each other. For example, if I don’t apply chemicals to my vegetables, but use pesticides on ornamentals on my property, I still affect the tiny ecosystem. The pesticides can kill bees that might otherwise fly over to the vegetable garden and pollinate a cucumber.

fresh vegetables farm to table
Here’s a healthy yield of fresh vegetables for our kitchen!

Learn more about biointensive gardening from Fortier’s book and from this Mother Earth News article, including a great explanation of square foot gardening. And don’t stress over doing everything suggested or doing it perfectly. The first goal is to grow healthy plants and food for your family.

 

Growing Edibles: Keep it Simple for Success

As you plan for 2016 gardening and home budgets, you might be considering growing edibles on your patio, in your backyard or as part of a community garden. If you feel daunted by the prospect of first-time-gardening or expansion, keep it simple.

Locally grown food typically is better for you and more sustainable, whether you get the food from your own garden or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) or Farmers’ Market. You can turn your kids on to healthier food choices when they become involved in growing and harvesting the food.

kitchen garden food
There’s nothing fresher than food from your own yard or a local grower. We harvested all of this in one morning.

Grocery store produce travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to store shelf. I don’t see how it could possible be fresher, more nutritious or more sustainable than produce that travels 10 yards from your garden to your kitchen. It’s easy to grow your own food; here are five ways to keep your edible garden simple, fun and effective.

Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.
Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.

Be selective. If you’re a seasoned gardener or a foodie, it’s tempting to grow nearly every herb or vegetable that you typically buy. But unless you’re expanding last year’s garden or have lots of help and land, grow a few selected plants, at least the first year. The best way to decide which food to grow? Start with favorites for your family; you can even let every family member choose one vegetable he or she loves the most. That helps ease waste and makes it more fun. Other considerations are climate and growing season, and what’s available (or in our case, unavailable), fresh and affordable at local stores. Leave it to local farmers to supplement your stash by learning what’s typically available at stands and Farmers’ Markets.

You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.
You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.

Start seeds or buy plants. Starting seeds is less expensive, or at least the seeds themselves cost less than plants. But if this is your first foray into a kitchen garden, be sure to consider the costs of raising healthy seedlings. You’ll need containers, potting material, and possibly heat mats and grow lights. Of course, you can start some plants directly in the ground or container once it warms up, so practice on one that’s easy to grow or fits well into your growing season length. Maybe it’s easier to buy starter plants (and support local nurseries) instead of growing indoor seedlings. Expand into seed starting next year once you learn and have success.

grow lights on seedlings
Seeds need warmth and light to grow. You can repurpose or recycle containers, but you’ll likely need grow lights and heat mats. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Check production to avoid waste. Although yields from plants can vary according to variety, zone and how the weather cooperates each year, you can estimate how many tomatoes you’ll likely harvest, for instance. Cautious people like me tend to overplant, worrying that one of the seedlings won’t make it and I’ll have too few of a selection. Be realistic and thin seedlings to control the yield. Seed catalogs are excellent sources of average yield, and this checklist from Bonnie Plants is a terrific start. And a caution: zucchini is easy to grow, and 7 to 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of zucchini. But it is.

Were trying yellow summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com
Were trying summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com

Keep sustainability in mind. Choosing the food you and your family like the best and keeping quantity down avoids waste of water, time and other resources. By growing only what you need, you supplement what’s commercially available and waste little. Using organic practices and spending as much time with your plants as possible can keep the plants healthy. This means preparing containers and gardens with plenty of organic matter and watering regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and insects. But if a plant has problems, don’t blame yourself or throw in the towel. You only have so much control as a gardener. Get help from a friend, local master gardeners or extension agents.

Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success with growing them in this trough.
Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success growing them in this trough.

Share your bounty. Once you begin to harvest, if you have too much of any food, try not to waste it. Each discarded zucchini tosses up to gallons of water used to grow the plant, as well as your time and effort. One choice is to preserve extra produce if you have time and materials to do so. The only way kitchen gardening and local farming can remain sustainable is if gardeners can avoid waste. Have a plan in place to share with an eager friend or neighbor or donate extra produce to a local food pantry. Then adjust your plan for next year if you had excessive yields.

When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!
When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!

Finally, start small if you’ve never gardened. Choose one herb and vegetable that you can grow in a container or in an empty spot in your landscape. And spend some time volunteering at a coop farm or with a friend who has more experience so you can learn more about growing your own food.

Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!
Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience. There are no perfect gardeners or perfect gardens. Everyone learns by trial and error. The joy comes when you bite into the rewards of your efforts!

Starting Seeds for the 2016 Garden: Patience Required

After a crazy, colder winter from El Nino that’s morphed into 60-plus degree weather this week, I’ve been so tempted to spend a few days outside on gardening tasks I know it’s too early to tackle. It doesn’t help that lots of folks on social media already are starting their seeds, or gardeners on other continents are growing vegetables and flowers!

red bud blooms
The red bud, pear tree (white in background) , and alyssum won’t even bloom for nearly seven more weeks.

Here’s the thing – those gardeners who are starting seeds now either live in a warmer zone than us or can seriously extend their seasons with greenhouses or geodesic domes. I wish they would send me one.

We’re in zone 6B, which means a last frost date around Mother’s Day (in Albuquerque, only about one zone warmer, the last date is closer to April 15). The ground often needs to warm up to successfully germinate seeds. So even though we might safely pass the frost date, a cold week or two prior to that means the ground isn’t ready.

My impatience has caused problems in past years. We received our shipment of lavender plants earlier than we thought, and just because it seemed warmer outside, I decided to get them out of their nursery containers and into the ground. The ground was too cold. And then we got a cold rain. The roots were wet on top of the cold. Although most of the lavender made it, several plants never really got established.

seedlings can get leggy with too little light
Hardening off last year’s leggy basil and tomato seedlings, along with a sage transplant.

I’ve also sowed or started seeds too early, ending up with leggy seedlings, or seeds that didn’t take in the ground. Seeds don’t cost much, but I watered some cucumber seeds for nearly two weeks before realizing it just wasn’t warm enough yet. I don’t like to waste water or time! When sowing seeds indoors, it’s typical to count back about six weeks from when you can plant, depending on how quickly the seed germinates. Poor lighting also can make seedlings leggy.

Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!
Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!

This year, I’m trying a few strategies to keep myself busy “gardening” without moving too soon on seeding, planting and even trimming perennials. If my strategies don’t help, I might have to ask my hubby to hide some tools and seed packets. I hope these ideas will help other gardeners who are impatient for spring:

Order seeds ahead of time. Some of the suppliers are swamped with orders right now; processing and shipping will take longer.

Once the seeds come, put them away in a dark, cool spot. Keep your seeds fresher by storing them out of the heat and sun. That’s after you’ve kissed and read the packet and planned your start date.

store and sort seeds
We store seeds on this cool, dark closet shelf. And we’re using a Seedkeeper Home Farmer kit to sort this year’s edible seeds.

Sort your seeds and plan your vegetable, herb and ornamental garden layouts or new plantings. Count backward from planting time to account for average germination time, and include a week or two to harden seedlings off before planting.

If starting seeds inside, find a warm, light place to place your trays. If possible, purchase both a heat mat and a quality set of grow lights. The warmth helps seeds germinate and is especially important for New Mexico gardeners; chile pepper seedlings need warmth as much as light. And have a plan to pot up seedlings such as tomatoes.

potting up vegetable seeds
Potting up with larger containers or soil blocks gives seedling roots more room to grow and become healthy.

Plant a few cool-temp crops. I’m planning when I can start some cool-season seedlings or crops. At least counting backward from late spring and having an earlier planting for some vegetables gives me a closer date to which I can count down. For example, you can usually plant root crops such as beets, carrots and potatoes, and many greens, as soon as the ground is workable. Just check the seed package and local master gardener or county extension materials for more detail.

arugula seedlings rock rose
Arugula seedlings in a patio container in April last year, about the time this purple rock rose bloomed.

Prep the garden. Make sure you’ve added some organic matter to soil in your vegetable garden and find a good source for compost. Fill and lay out beds if possible. Add mulches or do other hardscaping chores on warm winter days until you can begin trimming perennials.

Extend your season, or plan to do so next year. I’ll use a combination of buckets and row cover cloth to make sure some of our seeds and seedlings have plenty of warmth after they’re planted. And that’s just a preventive measure in case temps drop substantially after our last frost. Planting early crops in containers also helps; container soil warms faster than does the ground. Low tunnels and hoop houses for season extension cost less than greenhouses to build.

buckets to protect vegetable seedlings
Free five-gallon buckets with the bottoms cut out make great mini-hothouses and protect fragile seedlings from wind.

Keep plants healthy. Our south-facing windows begin to get less light as the sun moves higher in the sky in spring. Sometimes, we have to move houseplants around or give theme artificial light to keep them warm and happy. If you haven’t gotten to trimming trees that need it this year, choose a warm day to finish the task before the trees begin to bud out.

houseplants in sunny window winter
Less sun will enter these south-facing windows as spring and summer approach.

Trim roses if you have them. Roses need to be cut back closer to late winter and early spring. We have a forsythia bush, and when it blooms, I know it’s time to trim roses. Nature is the best garden timer. Gardeners like me just have to work with her…

New Mexico — One of the 50

As I long for spring to return so we can get back to our gardens, I begin to fantasize about living in Maui or Tucson, Ariz., or anyplace warmer. But today, I’m reflecting on the beautiful state in which we live. And I thought it was time to dispel a few myths about New Mexico, especially for people who live far from the state and have not (yet) visited.

angel fire ski resort
From the top of a ski run at Angel Fire Ski Resort in northern New Mexico, you can see all the way to Eagle Next Lake and the peaks near Taos.

First of all, New Mexico Is a State!

Nearly everyone in our state who travels, stays active in social media or makes online purchases has encountered the phenomenon. I’ve had questions about shipments being international, and New Mexico Magazine runs a terrific column featuring some of the stories from N.M. residents about this confusion.

I know we don’t have a large population, but it hurts to see a map with Arizona and Texas labeled and the empty space between (or the AZ label on our bootheel-shaped state). New Mexico became a state in January 1912. We were the 47th state to join the Union. According to the N.M. Genealogical Society, achieving statehood took some time “in part, by a general ignorance about the territory and suspicions toward its people.”

We still have cowboys here, but New Mexico offers much more.
We still have cowboys here, but New Mexico offers much more.

Some things haven’t changed, I guess. It is true that our state was once part of the Mexican Republic, but that only lasted about 25 years during the 1800s. Our state boasts more than “cowboys and Indians” for our history. Ancient history includes Folsom Man, Clovis Man and the Anasazi.

jemez
Gilman tunnels in the Jemez mountains were blasted out of rock in the 1920s to make way for a railroad used by logging companies.

It Snows in New Mexico

Maybe because of our close proximity to warm and sunny Mexico and the low deserts of Arizona, the perception of New Mexico as a hot, dry desert prevails. It’s partially correct – our climate is extremely dry, and it gets hot in many areas of the state in summer. Climate and gardening zone are affected by more than latitude. New Mexico is on the U.S. southern border, but the Rocky Mountains run through our state, as does the Continental Divide.

The Sacramento mountains from the top of Apache Ski Area in early summer.
The Sacramento mountains from the top of Apache Ski Area in early summer.

Albuquerque, our largest city, is at the same altitude as Denver. Our place, which I consider as intermountain or high desert, stands at 6,300 feet in altitude, and we’re surrounded by Lincoln National Forest. The Sacramento range is just southwest of us. Sierra Blanca, the peak that hosts Ruidoso’s Apache Ski Area is at just over 12,000 feet high.

This year, we got 18 inches of snow just from Winter Storm Goliath, and areas of the state measured their snow in feet. In northern New Mexico, the average annual snowfall has averaged more than 150 inches in Red River.  Even Albuquerque receives 9 to 10 inches of snow a year. Having said that, some southern areas of the state easily average more than 100 degrees in summer and have palm trees lining many streets.

The sun usually comes out and melts our snow quickly. It took longer to melt the snow from Goliath.
The sun usually comes out and melts our snow quickly. It took longer to melt the snow from Goliath.

Gardeners Grow More than Cacti

The desert assumption includes our native and garden plants. A major purpose of this blog is to show gardeners in Southwestern and Western states that native and xeric gardens can be gorgeous and save water, and that gardeners can grow other than succulents.

Our rain typically comes as monsoons beginning in early July.
Our rain typically comes as monsoons beginning in early July.

I’m not saying that N.M. gardeners avoid cacti and succulents when choosing plants for their garden or home, but so much more grows here. Depending on the region, gardeners hybrid and native roses, aspen trees, herbs and plenty of flowering perennial bushes and annual flowers. No area of our state escapes drought regularly and our average annual precipitation is lower than much of the country. So we just have to garden selectively and responsibly. Many species claimed as invasive in other areas don’t spread so rampantly here, and vice versa.

ajuga and columbine
Shade-loving ajuga and a columbine thrive on the north side of our home in zone 6B.

I’ve grown so accustomed to xeric and rock gardens that I’m a little turned off by lush, formal looks. Xeric gardening is most effective and pleasing when gardeners work with the natural terrain and climate. Use of native plants, rocks and succulents can combine for a perfect palette.

Southwest Gardening Can Be Challenging

Our gardens and natural areas look amazing throughout the year, but gardeners who transplant from warmer, and especially wetter, climates find themselves going through an adjustment period. It’s more likely many of our native and xeric plants will die from too much water than not enough. Once gardeners learn how to ensure the soil is prepped and that they water a little extra only until a plant gets established, they’re likely to have more success than failure in the garden.

Yarrow winters over here, and the hardy blanket flower (Gaillardia) spreads by seed.
Yarrow winters over here, and the wildflower Gaillardia (blanket flower) spreads by seed.

One of the reasons it’s particularly difficult to garden in parts of New Mexico is the weather extremes. In the high desert, days can become warm, and the sun intense. But at night, the desert cools considerably. Daily temperature extremes of 40-plus degrees from dawn to evening are not uncommon here. Add gusty dry winds to the mix and any plant but a native to the area might struggle a little. The state’s geographic diversity also means that conditions vary considerably around the state. USDA zones range from 4 to 8 around the state. Colorado’s zones are cooler than ours, and Arizona and West Texas are warmer on average.

Ranch land in southeastern N.M., about 30 miles from the Texas border. The landscape is flatter, but you can see forever.
Ranch land in southeastern N.M., about 30 miles from the Texas border. The landscape is flatter, but you can see forever.

New Mexico Is Enchanting

New Mexico’s state nickname is “Land of Enchantment” and it fits the bill. With mountains and plains, we have gorgeous views in most of the state. Sandia Crest in Albuquerque is so named because of the beautiful watermelon color the mountains take on at sunset. We have forests and rivers, along with dry river beds. It can green up here in summer, but if you’re used to all-green landscapes, you’ll either be disappointed or truly amazed.

Rio Ruidoso banks at the Hurd Ranch property in San Patricio, N.M.
Rio Ruidoso banks at the Hurd Ranch property in San Patricio, N.M.

Diversity of people and wildlife also make New Mexico an enchanting state. Every quadrant of the state has Native American reservations and history. More than 2 million residents were counted in the 2014 census, and nearly half are Hispanic or Latino.

Our mountains are home to black bears, deer and elk. And our plains are home to antelope and roadrunners. We’ve got ranches, oil fields and farms. Nut production is high here for some varieties. Dormant volcanoes, lava flows and white sands dot the landscape.

It's tough to beat our enchanting, colorful sunsets and sunrises.
It’s tough to beat our enchanting, colorful sunsets and sunrises.

New Mexico is far from perfect socioeconomically, but well worth the visit. You’re sure to be enchanted. See more about New Mexico on my Fun Stuff page, including a link to our Pinterest account, which includes boards about New Mexico and Ruidoso. And learn more about gardening here by searching posts or checking out the Resources page.

How To Identify Monarch Butterflies

I’m as excited as anyone about supporting Monarch butterfly conservation efforts. We plan to buy several swamp milkweed plants to add to the existing trees, shrubs and flowering plants around our property.

A monarch rests on asters. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.
A monarch rests on asters. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

I got to see the Monarchs many years ago while on a visit to Pacific Grove, Calif. I’m not sure, however, that I’ve ever spotted a Monarch in New Mexico, and a map I checked had a giant question mark for much of New Mexico and Arizona, even though our states border Mexico. Although singularly striking, Monarchs look similar to a few other butterflies. What’s more, the critical aspect of saving them requires providing habitats for the butterflies’ larvae. Enter milkweed.

A flowering milkweed plant in the pollination gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside Tucson, Ariz.
A flowering milkweed plant in the pollination gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside Tucson, Ariz.

Monarch life cycle

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which also attract other pollinators. The Monarchs find milkweed even when it has finished flowering for the season. The eggs are tiny (about the size of the head of a pin), but as they take on adult form, the larvae, or caterpillars, emerge and grow rapidly.

Monarch butterfly lifescyle. Courtesy of the U.S.D.A. http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/biology/index.shtml
Monarch butterfly life cycle. Courtesy of the U.S.D.A. http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/ biology/index.shtml

Like many gardeners, I freak out a little when I see a big caterpillar on a plant. I can’t abide tomato hornworms and the damage they inflict, and we also have had branches of several small trees stripped by the io moth caterpillar. This bad boy stings and releases a poisonous substance that can irritate the skin or cause severe reactions in some people. Last summer, we found a similar greenish-yellow caterpillar on fennel plants, or what was left of them. I think I’ve identified them now with some research.

The io caterpillar is similar in color, but has a fuzzy, fluorescent look. And it stings!
The io moth caterpillar is similar in color, but has a fuzzy, fluorescent look. And it stings! Check out the stripped branches in every direction.

So, I wanted to be sure that I can easily recognize the Monarch caterpillar before trying to attract them to my yard. In fact, all gardeners who want to help the Monarchs should be able to recognize the insect in all forms. I would hate to hand-pick a Monarch caterpillar and end its life cycle! Strangely, finding quality resources to help me identify the caterpillars, and especially to share photos, did not come easy. I finally tracked down some information.

Monarch or Queen?

Although I don’t want to hurt the chances of any butterfly, I was relieved to discover that the caterpillars on the fennel were most likely Queen butterflies, not Monarchs. Queen butterfly caterpillars also feed on milkweed, and can share plants with Monarchs. The butterflies look really similar, but have a few distinctive differences.

Here's a Queen butterfly enjoying milkweed in fall at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Here’s a Queen butterfly enjoying milkweed in fall at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Notice the white dots that extend toward the body.
Monarch wings look like stained glass designs. Image courtesy of National Park Service.
Monarch wings look like stained glass designs, and the color varies slightly throughout. Image courtesy of National Park Service.

Queen, Monarch and Viceroy butterflies have similar colors and patterns. Monarchs are a deeper orange, and the hue changes slightly throughout the wings. The best way to tell the adults apart is the location of white spots on the wings. The Queen butterfly has dots that extend into the orange areas of the wings. But Monarchs have a distinctive stained glass appearance and no dots outside the black edges of the wings. Viceroys are smaller than Monarchs and have triangular white dots under their wings.

Just to confuse matters: Here's a Viceroy adult. Courtesy of the NPS.
Just to confuse matters: Here’s a Viceroy adult. Courtesy of the NPS.

You can distinguish the Monarch caterpillar from other caterpillars by the antennae. The Queen butterfly has three sets of antennae and filaments, and the Monarch has only two – one antenna pair on the front end and a filament pair on the back end. The Queen caterpillar spots an extra set about one-third of the way down from the front. Viceroy caterpillars do not look like Monarch larvae; the Viceroy caterpillar has a brown, rough appearance.

Close-up of a Monarch caterpillar. Note two sets of protrusions, while the Queen has three.
Close-up of a Monarch caterpillar. Note two sets of protrusions, while the Queen has three. Image courtesy of NPS Photo/Alicia Lafever.

The Monarch young larva is nearly clear until it begins to eat milkweed and grow. The larval portion of the life cycle lasts about 10 to 16 days. They can become plump just before pupating, having eaten plenty of milkweed. The caterpillars move away from milkweed as they prepare to evolve to pupae.

Queen butterflies are pretty as well. This one enjoys a butterfly weed flower in Northeastern New Mexico.
Queen butterflies are pretty as well. This one enjoys a butterfly weed flower in Northeastern New Mexico.

Check the Resources page for excellent pages and videos on identifying and protecting Monarchs. Happy hunting and pollinating!

Use These Tips to Overwinter Rosemary Outside

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is the perfect low-water herb, and for that matter a perfect xeric ornamental. This year, we have two we keep as ornamentals and allow to bloom, and two for culinary use in containers, because I have a hoarder-like fear of running out of rosemary.

rosemary bloom
It’s so pretty to look at, smells wonderful, tastes delicious, and thrives in dry climates. Why not have rosemary all year long?

I understand that rosemary (and lavender, my other favorite low-water herb) can be somewhat difficult to grow in wetter climates. Well, let us desert dwellers have something, OK? We can’t in all good consciousness, or with much success, have tropical bloomers. And even having more than one hybrid rose seems wrong in areas with so little annual rainfall.

rosemary in container
This year’s back-up rosemary plant, placed into a container, is now outside on our south-facing patio. It’s doing well after several nights below freezing.

That’s exactly why rosemary does so well here. Once established, the plant thrives with less water. Depending on the variety, rosemary is hardy in zones 8 through 10. A variety called R. officinalis ‘Arp” is hardy to zone 6, however, and to zone 5 with some effort from the home gardener.

And I mean just a little effort. It’s generally easier to overwinter rosemary outside than indoors. Here are a few ways to push the zone a bit on rosemary, and my tip for keeping rosemary (and lavender) healthy through winter.

  • Plant your rosemary in full sun if possible, especially considering the sun’s winter path.
  • Use rocks or a wall to reflect heat in winter and help keep your rosemary warm as temperatures drop. You can also add some gravel mulch, as long as it doesn’t enclose the plant and retain water.
  • Use a container for rosemary and move the container to a protected, warm location (even though it’s still outdoors). I have one container on the southwest side of my patio for easy access and another against a southern wall that gets full sun all day in the winter.
  • Harvest! Harvest some rosemary for culinary use well before the first frost so that the plant is healthy and not blooming. Or if your plant is ornamental, a few blooms are fine, as long as you avoid pruning, and especially cutting into woody stems, anytime from four weeks before the first frost until early spring.
  • Water sparingly all year, but especially in winter when the plant dries more slowly. Wet feet cause root rot on rosemary and lavender plants.
Trailing rosemary
This is one, not two, trailing rosemary plants. The big gap in the center is where Tim had to trim out dead, black branches ruined by a heavy snow in Albuquerque one winter. We had to save this plant because it was so pretty and attracted loads of bees, and we learned our lesson about brushing snow off of rosemary.

And here’s my best tip for keeping rosemary happy and healthy in the winter! You know when you can’t wait to get outside and play after a snowfall? You take the kids, the dogs, the camera, your companion of choice…outside to enjoy the snow. Stop for a second and head straight for your rosemary in the garden or container. Carefully brush as much snow off of the plant as you can, especially over the center, main branches. We nearly lost a beautiful trailing rosemary bush several years ago before I knew how important it was to do this. The slow melting of snow amounts to setting your drip hose to run on the rosemary for days. It can destroy part or all of the plant.

This week, I used my bare hand (until I couldn’t feel my fingers) and then a soft broom to brush off all of my rosemary and lavender plants while the snow was still flaky. And yes, I pulled out my camera…

snow on rosemary plant in New Mexico
This is not a ton of snow, but is enough that the slow dripping from melting could damage some of the branches or roots of this rosemary plant.