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!

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.