Another Take on Weeds and Wildflowers

This morning’s news had a feature with a great perspective on the weeds vs. wildflower debate that rages in my mind and in the mind of anyone with acreage. Or with a garden, for that matter.

mullein-flowers-weed
This mullein looks so pretty near the trunk of this old tree, but don’t let it fool you. It can be an invasive weed, and don’t get me started on the horehound to the lower right.

CBS news correspondent Steve Hartman is turning several acres of land into a prairie wildflower meadow and taking it one day at a time. It’s a great story and one that makes you appreciate nature, wildflowers and persistence.

I’m not sure if I have the patience to do what Hartman is attempting. What’s more, annual rainfall in the Catskills is closer to 40 inches, at least double what we get here. Of course, as long as a landowner chooses native wildflower seeds, it shouldn’t matter too much. There are plenty of widlflowers that reseed in the Southwest easily, even growing along dry, graveled roadways or out of rocky mountainsides. If you purchase a native grass or wildflower mix, it should give a weed percentage. Make sure it’s as low as possible.

We have started throwing seed heads into an area we call “the pit,” a dug-out portion of our property that we believe once served as a vegetable garden. It’s our place for weed piles and wheel barrow storage now. But we thought instead of throwing out deadheaded flowers, we’d scatter them there. If that experiment works, who knows?  But I don’t think I can try what Hartman is doing until we control the weeds already growing among the wildflowers and get a better handle on deciding which are too invasive to keep and which could populate a mini-meadow.

weeds and wildflowers in sunken pit of yard
The pit, where we planted sunflowers that either didn’t make it or got eaten, but some volunteers came up. This might someday make a great sunken wildflower meadow.

For now, good for him, his purpose and his meditative state. I hope to achieve it while weeding this week.

Some People Learn the Hard Way: Too Much of a Good Thing

Gardening is fun. Planting is fun, and looking at flowers is really fun. Harvesting what you and the rain worked so hard together to grow – priceless. Trimming, thinning and getting rid of plants is far from fun.

I have learned the hard way this year, however, that I have to curb my enthusiasm. Too much of a good thing can go bad – quickly. And it’s not just because I’m busy working and trying to keep the garden up. I’m talking about some imbalances that occur in the garden when you plan and plant, and then nature takes over.

Mexican hats reseed
The Mexican hat is a prolific reseeder here in New Mexico. It’s a fun annual, but we have more than we need.

Below are a few lessons learned about having too much of a good thing that I hope will help beginners or other overenthusiasts. First, my disclaimers, caveats, poor excuses:

  1. Our place is big.
  2. This is only our third summer here, and we are still trying to get the weeds and gophers under control.
  3. Climates here are extreme, usually dry, with temperature ranges of more than 40 degrees in one day and a strange pattern this year in early summer.
  4. Did I already say that gardening is fun?

Planting too many of the same species hosts pests

First of all, I have written in previous posts about how filling in with annuals can add inexpensive color to your garden. Seeds cost little, and in our garden, they’re free! That brings me to another problem I have pondered several times – the line between weed and wildflower. We’ve got gaillardia, (blanket flowers), Ratibidia columnifera (Mexican hats) and cosmos growing as volunteers all over our garden. There are a few other annuals, but these three amigos would take over if we’d let them. And I almost did. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy a “free” plant. After all, it added color to the garden with no water. Tim drew the line on any growing in the walkway. I could accept that. But I should have done a better job of thinning the plants. The Mexican hats were hosts to hundreds of cucumber beetles. And I would go to deadhead the gaillardia (which could take valuable time away from my favorite activity – weeding) and find an entire stalk covered with flea beetles. These tiny black insects have been damaging my tomato plants.

flea beetle damage to tomato plant
I’m pretty sure this is a flea beetle and damage from it. This tomato is in a container about 15 feet from all those flowers. So far, the damage is tolerable.

Lesson learned: I can keep and love each of these annuals, but I need to thin them early on. Having a few host plants for the bugs might keep them off of young tomatoes, since the annuals come out earlier. But having 20 gaillardia plants is like putting up a billboard on the freeway advertising free flea beetle lodging. Variety is healthier and prettier.

Too much of a good thing robs resources

It’s important to thin seedlings in a vegetable garden, and equally important to space plantings in a xeric garden. When you plant too closely together or let annuals (or perennials that have not been trimmed enough) grow too closely together, a few things happen.  First and foremost, the plants get too little air circulation. I imagine this is more of an issue in some climates than others, or plants native to humid climates can take wet leaves and roots better than plants native to places like New Mexico. But I know most of our xeric plants can’t take it. If we get rains late in the day combined with clouds and cool evening temperatures, which is typical of the high desert, the leaves don’t dry off.

If there is little air circulation, this can increase risk of bacterial and fungal diseases in plants. Powdery mildew, which is characterized by the white or gray patches on leaves that resemble talcum powder, can occur even without rain. High humidity in typically warm, dry climates can cause the disease if plants have little to no air circulation. A plant might grow so large that it shades another plant, Even worse, if plants are too close together. one plant might sneak drinks from the other, or require more water, causing your truly xeric plant near it to have poor health or die from too much water!

Lesson learned: Thin, thin, thin! And no matter how small a seedling or new plant from the nursery appears, take time to learn its mature size. Then consider that in its new surroundings, including the mature size of the plants around it. I think I am going to strap a measuring tape to my jeans next spring.

vegetables mature
Can you spot where the melon ends, the tomato begins, the cucumber ends, the pepper begins… The good news is that there is no row on one side and plenty of space on the other, so at least these plants get air from two directions. Better planning next year.

Hedging your bets can be a lot of work

I planted 11 tomato plants. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Now, I want some credit for hedging my bets, because I had to pull up a few of the tomatoes. Some were not very strong seedlings, but I gave them a try. In retrospect, I probably should have thrown out those seedlings. Weak plants attract predators, and that’s a big lesson from all of this. I feel really badly about wasting the water to try to get them going. Our spring weather likely didn’t help (see “disclaimers” above), but I also might have lost some to poor thinning of suckers or trimming of bottom branches, which provided an on-ramp for snails and bugs. Maybe it’s the nurturer in me, but it’s fun to care for the tomatoes that have made it and to give away the fruit we can’t eat. Other plants are easier to put away for winter, including basil, beans and cucumbers.

Still, I need to plan more carefully next year. Nearly all of the water has come from the sky, including what we’ve harvested. And I’ve used a drip system for much of the well water used. But I’ll approach the vegetable garden plan more carefully next year, unless I find a way to make money growing tomatoes. If I decide to do that, I’ll have to pull up most of those blanket flowers…

too many blanket flowers
Aren’t these blanket flowers pretty? Notice two different color combinations. But having this much together (and more in other areas) is a little too inviting for bad bugs, and I have lots of plant variety for bees.

Lesson learned: Take the next six months to plan, or at least to forget how much time you spent trying to get it right.

And, as always, I want to reiterate this point: There are no dumb gardeners, and I hate to see lists and posts with titles such as “Dumb Gardening Mistakes”. I have seen careless moves or gardeners, but that’s different. If you try something and fail with your best effort, at least you tried. Research, learn from your mistake and try again!

Integrated Pest Management: Preventing Bugs From Destroying Plants

Bugs on plants are more than a nuisance. They damage plants by sucking out sap, destroying leaves and transmitting diseases. I’m all for a balanced ecosystem, and I realize bugs gotta eat too, but there’s a point at which I have to choose between the bug and being able to eat the cucumbers I have spent time and precious water nurturing from seed. I might not be smarter, but I’m bigger and I have tools and creativity.

For many years in the past, home gardeners like us relied on chemicals to kill a bug at the first sign of trouble, and I’m so glad that the concept of integrated pest management, or IPM, has replaced that approach for so many people who care about the food they eat, the environment and preserving beneficial insects.

cucumber beetle
Cucumber beetles like any yellow flower, including the ones on this honeydew melon. This is the last known photo of this particular beetle…

Let’s break down a rather fancy term into the basics: start with the least harmful control. It’s really the same as prevention in medicine. Ward off a disease as your first choice instead of having to go through treatment. Here are the basic steps:

1. Start with healthy plants and good cultural management. This is the most important step to try to prevent insects in any yard or garden. First and foremost, plant native plants. I’ll never stop repeating this mantra. When you include plants adapted to your environment, they’re less likely to get stressed. There’s lots of research on the plant stress hypothesis because I guess some people disagree with it. But prevailing thought seems to be that plants stressed by drought or other conditions are more vulnerable to bug infestations and damage. It makes sense, and it’s still better to keep plants healthy anyway for flower or fruit production. Be sure to rotate crops, plant a variety of plants, and place plants in the right conditions based on shade or sun requirements, for example.

healthy tomato in container
This grape tomato plant is healthy and happy. It’s in a container with rich soil. I think it’s a little easier to control pests with containers.

2. Keep bugs away by weeding as much as possible and cleaning up debris to prevent hiding places. And cover seedlings with tunnels and row covers (with no holes) to keep bugs off while the plants are young and more vulnerable. Make sure plants are not too close together so they have airflow and can dry out as needed. Use mulch to cool roots and hold in water and compost to enrich soil. If one plant gets a disease, remove it from your garden and throw it out. Don’t lay it near the garden or compost it.

Covered seedlings
These lettuce seedlings have green beans for shade and cloth to keep bugs out until they get a little larger.

3. Hand pick bugs that appear if you can. This is not always easy, but if I can touch bugs, anyone can. Home gardeners who visit their garden regularly to water, deadhead flowers and check or harvest vegetables should inspect for bugs, especially in the morning. A major advantage of handpicking is that you can pick just the bad insects, causing no harm to beneficial bugs on your plants, who are there helping in your cause. See my Resources page for a few links to articles or photos that help identify beneficial insects. And here’s what I do when I pick off the little bug – throw it in a container of dish soap and water. I like to reuse a plastic container with a flip lid each year for easy, one-handed entry. Last year, it was an empty sanitary wipe jar. This year, I had used nearly all of my taco spice mix from Costco. I put the rest in a plastic zipped bag and had an instant bug bath. A blister bug infestation at our community garden one year had Tim and I doing a “swipe and boot stomp” method because those monsters bite and because of pure numbers. Our neighbor finally had to vacuum the potato plants.

dish soap and water for handpicking bugs in the garden
The little beetle featured in the photo above got a spicy ending courtesy of my handmade holding cell. All that’s inside is environmentally friendly dish soap (because that’s what I had), some water, and taco seasoning residue. The top snaps open.

4. When all else fails and you must use a pesticide, there are several organic choices. It’s also important to know that although an insecticide is organic, it still can be harmful, especially to bees and other beneficial insects. The three we keep on hand are insecticidal soap, Neem oil and Diatomaceous earth. Still, it’s recommended only to use these products once you have identified the pest or really have to do so. For example, I can spray a plant with water first to stop aphids before resorting to soap. I encourage reading labels carefully for time from use to harvest for any edibles, for specific pests they destroy and for any cautions about other insects, pets or warnings.

diatomaceous earth on ant hill in garden
This poor pepper has been attacked already by a gopher (and poor watering because it all floods down the hole the critter left behind). Now the stressed plant has an ant hill below. I am trying diatomaceous earth to stop them from doing more damage.
natural pesticide choices
Diatomaceous earth stops crawlers, and soap and oil can stop flying insects.

Further, you can’t be perfect at IPM cultural practices, as hard as you try. For example, I’m pretty sure tomatoes are not native to my region. But I want a vegetable garden. I have to work harder to keep tomatoes healthy than I do the ornamentals (and weeds!) native to New Mexico. I also can’t control the weather. I’m certain many of our bug (and snail!) trouble occurred during frequent night rains and cool, cloudy days. Our plants aren’t adapted to that. Finally, we spend most of our time on weeds – mowing, pulling and preventing. But we can’t control all of the weeds, nor can we control what our neighbors do with weeds or chemicals.

Update on Learning the Hard Way With a Smart Pot

zucchini-smart-pot-recovering
It was 91 degrees and sunny when I took this photo. Look at that healthy blossom!

Lots of people read and responded to my post about lessons learned with breaking the roots off my zucchini plant in the Smart Pot. Just wanted to let you know that the plant is recovering. I took a photo yesterday morning in the heat. We left the shade cloth up most of the past week, lifting it when cloudy, and watered the plant well. I removed a few of the battered leaves or branches, figuring they would just zap energy from the plant as it continues to recover from the beating it took. But it seems fine; I’ve harvested a few nice fruits from the plant.

So I dodged that bullet!

Some People Learn the Hard Way, Even With a “Smart Pot”

The best gardeners learn by trial and error. If you think about it, medical and scientific discoveries occur because of experimentation. So a gardener who gets it right every time is either extremely experienced, experienced and the holder of a horticultural degree, or a liar.

And that’s why you should never give up on gardening because of a mistake or two, or several. You just learn from them and move on. Sure, some mistakes are more costly or frustrating. And some are avoidable in hindsight. Especially if you are impatient. Even more so if you are impatient and stubborn.

Here’s my latest: I have a couple of Smart Pots, which are soft, fabric containers that are lighter than pots and can be folded up for storage. I decided to grow a zucchini in my larger one, even though I knew I might be pushing the limits of the flexible pot’s size, and more importantly, the plant. Experimentation is good. Stubbornness can have negative consequences.

zucchini in Smart Pot
I’ve since thinned these three seedlings to one plant. See, who would have thought such a tiny seed would eventually grow into such large a large plant? Oh, I know! Any fool who has ever grown squash before.

One of the other excellent qualities of Smart Pots is that they provide aeration for plants. In a typical hard, clay container, the roots might grow out to the side or bottom and then begin circling, looking for a place to go. This can harm the growth and health of the plant. When the roots come up against the Smart Pot edge, they can penetrate it or the pot “air prunes” the roots, helping them to form lateral branches.

One reason I placed the zucchini in the pot was so the plant would be lifted off the ground and I could reach the fruit better. I always itch reaching in to harvest or look for weeds and bugs. I’ve had no weeds with it in a container, and it’s easier to harvest the fruit. The other reason was that I could easily shift the plant’s position in my garden should I alter the plan.

I decided the zucchini was too crowded between two tomato plants and needed moving. Feeling quite brilliant for using a lightweight, mobile container, I decided I could move it myself! But I failed to take into account or simply forgot that the plant had grown large enough that the roots might have penetrated the bottom of the Smart Pot. And being impatient, mostly because it was stinking hot, I drug the pot to a new spot in the garden. I felt pretty smart myself.

wilting zucchini plant from disturbed roots
In this case, the pot outsmarted the gardener. That’s because the gardener disturbed the plant’s nice, healthy roots by moving the pot without thinking.

Later than day, I made my noon visit to the garden. Immediately, I noticed that the zucchini plant’s leaves looked like they’d been beaten. It was wilting miserably. It didn’t take us long (OK, I have to give Tim credit for thinking of it first) to figure out that when I moved the pot, I broke off a few roots. Not very many had grown through, or I would have felt resistance when I moved the pot. I’m not blaming the Smart Pot; I’m blaming the impatient, absent-minded gardener who should have left well enough alone. All of those plants were doing fine until I messed with one of them, although the zucchini is way large at the top of the pot. We carried the plant into the shade of the shed (at least that was easy) and gave it a good drink of water.

bringing zucchini plant back to health
The shed in the background provided overnight shelter. We have a makeshift shade cloth over the south side of the plant until further notice.

We left the plant in the shed overnight – it got airflow, but was protected from the elements and hungry critters. Then, we returned it to the garden the next day and rigged a shade cloth of sorts to help protect it from the heat until it can (hopefully) recover from my interference. So far, it’s looking better.

Lessons learned: Don’t overgarden; be patient. The plants may have grown too close together eventually, but they hadn’t yet. And read product directions, then remember them!