Nurture Birds Instead of Flowers in Winter

Surely, one reason gardeners in cold climates get a little depressed in winter is that we can’t get outside as much. Another reason is that we aren’t growing and nurturing plants. At least I discovered that’s happening to me, because I’m kinda’ trying to grow birds instead.

bird on suet and nut feeder
This is one of my new obsessions. A Pyrrhuloxia, a cardinal-like bird who showed up just before Thanksgiving. The tuft on his head reminds me of Woody Woodpecker. He is so fun to watch! I hung this new feeder more for convenience than protection, but he checked it out the first day.

We’ve always had some birds in winter. Living in a semi-rural location bordered by a river and national forest brings some pretty interesting birds. For example, a solo sandhill crane flies east and west over the river each day, and sometimes lands behind our place. Only once have we seen two cranes.

This year, I have been spending lots of time birdwatching. OK, bird obsessing. Just switching to better bird food helped, and we saw several birds this year we’ve never seen before.A Northern Flicker decided to roost up under one of our beams. I know the bird naturally perches on the side of trees (or buildings apparently), but watching the poor thing huddle into a corner during 25-degree nights broke my heart.

northern flicker on house
I can’t get close to the skittish Northern Flicker. There are three of them on our property. This one claimed our bedroom patio.

I ordered a house specially designed for flickers from the National Wildlife Federation. Tim mounted it in the same corner. The first night, the bird perched near or on the house. By the second night, he checked in. And I check every night to make sure he returns. Just a little obsessive.

Northern flicker bird house
Here’s the Northern Flicker house from the National Wildlife Federation. It’s perfect. Tim mounted it tightly against the corner the flicker was sleeping in (and pecking at), and it took only one night until he checked it out and headed inside. He’s taken up permanent residence.
northern flicker near house
Told you I was obsessed. I spotted our buddy yesterday around lunch time again. You can see his house up to the right. Now that I have the house, I would like a telephoto lens for my Nikon, please?

Now, I’ve moved on to some new winter feeders and other ideas. And I’m having to force myself to pay attention to work during the day!

Leaving birds some shelter, food and water in winter is the right thing to do. And as I was writing this post, I found out that today is World Wildlife Conservation Day. Knowing my efforts give birds a boost in winter helps me justify the expenditure and time. Here are a few tips for keeping birds fed and watered so they can make it through cold and dry winter seasons:

  • In winter, birds need fat and energy to make it through the cold nights. Frankly, I have a feeling a few are regretting settling down in our community this year. Seriously, by going about 40 miles east or west, I imagine their nights would be 5 to 10 degrees warmer. Nuts, suet and fruit provide fat and energy, and black oil sunflower seeds are a year-round preference for many birds.
ice on bird feeder
It gets cold here! This was over Thanksgiving weekend. It took the birds a few hours to man up and hit the feeder.I’m not sure if any made their way into the birdhouse next door.
  • Quality of seed makes a difference. It’s not only better for the birds that stop by, but should bring more birds and more varieties of birds. When we have run out and had to buy seed at big-box stores, I’ve found way too many twigs among the seeds. Plus, much of the selection in inexpensive seed mixes gets cast aside and lands on the ground, making a big mess.
  • Buy the seeds with no hulls to avoid that big mess. The ladies at Wild Birds Unlimited in Albuquerque told me I’d get some different varieties by using hulled sunflower seeds instead of seeds with hulls, and they were right on! Some birds, such as dark-eyed juncos, can’t break open seed hulls. The seeds are well worth the money and actually last longer. So efficient!
bird feeder with sunflower seeds and pigeon guards
Here’s the ice-cold bird diner filled with sunflower seeds, no hulls included. Notice the pigeon guards, also from Wild Birds Unlimited, which work and were well worth the price.
  • Better-quality and no-hull seeds also help keep away nuisance birds. Sorry, but I can do without mourning doves, or as I call them – pigeons. I thought we got rid of them when we left the city. But apparently, they followed the U-Haul. One way to keep them off the feeder is with pigeon guards. With no hulls on the ground, they won’t even gather at the feeder area.
sign about doves
I knew I could taunt my husband with this some day. Unless an ornithologist corrects me, my research (and this wonderful sign from a Maui botanical garden) confirm it: Mourning doves are pigeons!
  • Winter suet attracts birds that don’t eat seed, such as jays, bluebirds, woodpeckers and nuthatches. It costs less than peanut butter, maybe even if you make your own feeders. But if you enjoy making feeders with kids or grandkids, having lots of choices and spots for birds is good for them and fun for you! Suet cakes can go in cage feeders, or more protective wooden ones. Suet also comes in logs, or if you have lots of time on your hands, you can walk out each morning and smear it on a tree.
  • I like to purchase nonmelting suet because some of our winter days get warm and spring can be whacky, with really cold days and nights that alternate with warm days.
  • Our finches tend to disappear in winter, but I left out a sock filled with niger, or thistle, seed that I had just filled before it turned cold. I’ve seen a few finches and sparrows on it.
  • Some articles suggest ground feeders, but I am too concerned about attracting critters (including my dogs) with the seeds to try that one. Next year, I would like to find a spot for a platform feeder, however. I guess some birds can eat while swinging around, but there are some that do better with nuts and fruit on a nice plate, such as cardinals and jays. I’m hoping they’ll try standing on top of my stackable feeder and pecking on some nuts and cranberries!
WIld Birds Unlimited Flying Start feeder
Our Pyrruloxia found the suet and nut feeder yesterday and tried a bite. He’s back in the garden this morning, distracting me while I try to write about him.

Finally, birds need water all year long, and it’s hard to come by anywhere that nights dip below freezing. It’s especially tough in places like New Mexico, where water is scarce as it is. Birds need drinking water and to splash around for feather maintenance (check out a bird pool party I filmed and placed on Instagram). Those feathers keep them insulated at night, and I want them to stay healthy. Our river is running full and fast, but I don’t think there are pools of water down there for small birds. Our bird bath has been a big hit, but it has frozen over every night for several weeks. I’m wasting water when I toss the frozen chunk, and I don’t like to waste water. Heated bird baths or electric or solar heaters to place in the bird bath are available now. I’ve asked for a solar heater for Christmas, so more on that later. If anybody wants to send me a free one to try, please feel free to do so. The birds and I would be so grateful!

Try This Twist on Thanksgiving Leftovers: Easy Turkey Enchiladas

If you’re like me, you cook way more turkey than you need for the number of family or guests. But turkey is a delicious leftover. I love turkey sandwiches, but in New Mexico, we’re all about growing and eating chile. So I’ve substituted turkey in my favorite chicken enchilada recipe several times. That way, we can eat up all the leftovers without feeling like we’re, well, eating leftovers!

cheese and turkey enchiladas
The key to these enchiladas is layering. And the cheese! Oh, and New Mexico green chile.

This is such an easy recipe, and it’s simple to adapt for areas of the country where you can’t grow or buy fresh green chile. Use canned chile (New Mexico grown if you can find it, of course!) and make it as hot as you like. I’ve even made a small chile-free version of it in a tiny casserole dish for my daughter when she was younger and wouldn’t eat hot, spicy foods.

Most of the ingredients laid out and ready to to make easy enchiladas after all that time in the kitchen over Thanksgiving.
Most of the ingredients laid out and ready to make easy enchiladas. It’s refreshing after all that time in the kitchen on Thanksgiving.

Typically, chicken enchiladas are layered like a casserole, at least in my experience throughout New Mexico and Arizona. If you prefer to put the tortillas in oil and then roll them with the chicken and onion inside, you can make them that way. I like mine layered, plus I believe these are a tiny bit healthier because I dip the tortillas in low-sodium chicken broth instead of frying them. At the least, I can trade those calories for more cheese!

It takes very little prep time to set up assembly of these easy enchiladas, including a shallow bowl with some chicken broth to soften and moisten tortillas instead of messy, high-calorie frying.
It takes very little prep time to set up assembly of these easy enchiladas, including a shallow bowl with some chicken broth to soften and moisten tortillas instead of messy, high-calorie frying.

And if you live in a climate that’s warm enough to grow your own chile peppers, I highly recommend it. We realized when eating the dish pictured that ours lacked a little flavor this year, but we had a cool summer and live a few zones colder than optimal for chiles as it is. I’m going to try a few tricks next year to keep the chile plants warmer.

fresh roasted New Mexico green chile
Fresh roasted green chiles go with turkey and chicken, especially in this dish.

Check out the recipe for Turkey Green Chile Enchiladas below, and note that I used chicken in the photos only because I had some leftover roasted chicken in my refrigerator. We’ll be eating plenty of turkey next week!

Easy Turkey Green Chile Enchilada Recipe

  • Servings: about 4 to 6
  • Time: 15 mins plus 35 mins cook time
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

NM turkey enchiladas
Easy turkey enchiladas served with tomatoes, lettuce, refried beans and a dollop of sour cream.

Ingredients:

2 cups cooked, boned turkey, shredded or chopped

1/2 onion, chopped

3 to 4 fresh roasted green chiles or 1 to 2 cans (4 oz each) New Mexico green chile, chopped, to taste

1 can low-sodium chicken broth

1 (10 oz) can cream of chicken soup

1/2 (10 oz) can cream of mushroom soup

1 dozen corn tortillas

2 to 3 cups shredded cheddar or jack and Colby (Mexican blend) cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Chop or shred cooked turkey into bite-sized pieces. Chop onion. Peel, rinse and seed green chiles before chopping to desired size.

Mix chopped onion and turkey together; add salt and pepper to taste. Set aside.

Mix canned soups and 1/2 cup of chicken broth. Add chopped green chile to soup mixture and stir. Pour remaining chicken broth into a shallow bowl.

Dip a corn tortilla into chicken broth and place it into the bottom of a casserole dish, preferably a 9 x 12 rectangular pan. Repeat with another tortilla and a third as necessary, tearing the third tortilla in half as needed after dipping to adequately cover the bottom of the pan.

Sprinkle chicken/onion mixture evenly over tortillas, followed by about one-third of soup/green chile mixture. Sprinkle evenly with some cheese.

Repeat the layering process two more times, being sure to reserve a small portion of soup mixture and cheese for the top layer.

Dip and place the final three tortillas on the top layer. Add remaining soup and green chile mixture and top with cheese as desired. Bake uncovered in center of oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until mixture appears bubbly toward the center of pan. Cut into squares and serve with desired toppings, such as salsa, lettuce and tomato, sour cream or guacamole.

As the enchiladas cook, the cheese browns and crisps. You can cover it with a loose layer of foil if it gets too brown or crispy.
As the enchiladas cook, the cheese browns and crisps. You can cover it with a loose layer of foil if it gets too brown or crispy.

A Pictorial Tribute to Fall in Our New Mexico Landscape

When words fail and I’m simply whining too much about missing the garden or being outside, it’s time to shut my (virtual) piehole. Today, I wandered around our place on a gorgeous fall morning. With more rain and wind on the way, and planned garden clean-up this weekend, I realized some of the scenes I took in were surely fleeting.

I had to capture the sights, if not the sounds. So long to 2015 in the garden and orchard; here’s to next year and all of the challenges, fun and splendor of living and growing in New Mexico.

damp fall morning in New Mexico orchard
Missy and Buster wander the orchard with me as we first take in the crisp, damp fall morning and long shadows. Buster is a speck in the center distance. He likes to push the boundaries.
rain on pear in NM orchard
And it is damp after a long day and night of clouds and what amounts to substantial rain for us, nearly a quarter of an inch.
Rio Ruidoso running in Ruidoso Downs, NM
The late summer and fall rains have helped fill the river and our water table, so we’re pleased. Last summer, the Rio Ruidoso was completely dry behind our house.
rio ruidoso
Here’s another shot, with plenty of fallen leaves from trees along the north side of the river.
path to Rio Ruidoso
Here’s the muddy path to the river. Suddenly, we can see through all of the old, broken branches.
red leaves
I love red the best of all fall leaf colors. The pears and apricots are just starting to turn.
Apricot tree changing colors in fall
One of the apricot trees is really looking nice. I love that the grass is still mostly green though.
apricot leaves turning
Here are leaves on that tree up close, with the shed and darkening sky. On the lower right, another apricot next to the house is just beginning to turn.
Pyracantha berries
Nothing compares to the bright red of pyracantha fruit, and the birds seem to be enjoying them already.
yellow box elder leaves
Yellow is nice too, especially with the wet, dark branches.
cosmos and green grape tomato
Back in the rock garden near the house, this cosmos flower supports a green grape tomato. The fruit won’t ripen, but I love how these look together!
white fire burn scar
Storm clouds are gathering to the north, over the White Fire burn scar.
green tomato with rain drops
And in the vegetable garden, this tomato looks as healthy as in summer up close. If only…
grass seed heads fall
Here’s to winter and enjoying grass seed heads that hopefully outcompete the weeds!
Cree Meadows snow and fall leaves
And winter is nearly here. This shot is not from our place, but overlooks Cree Meadows Golf Course in Ruidoso. I took it just a few minutes ago. Fall leaves and snow on the mountain; that’s Ruidoso!

Roast Green Chiles on Your Grill

Several events signal fall in New Mexico: the State Fair, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and the smell of roasting green chile in the air. I can’t do justice to describing the scent except to say that it’s earthy, unique and mouth watering.

New Mexico green chile
Green chile from our garden freshly picked and roasted right on the grill.

If you’re from New Mexico or have traveled here in the fall, you’ve seen vendors roasting green chile in special baskets over sparkling fires. You can purchase chile by the pound or bushel, take it home and freeze enough for the year. Aside from cool evenings and changing leaf colors, there’s no better reason to love New Mexico autumns!

Alternatively, of course, you can grow your own green chile. I wrote about New Mexico chile in March if you’d like to know more about growing the plant. Today, I roasted about eight chiles, all picked from a single hardy plant in our vegetable garden.

I say hardy not because chile is difficult to grow. On the contrary, this particular plant survived a gopher attack near its roots that caused water to just drain down a hole until we plugged it and used drip irrigation only. The gophers invited ants to take up residence a few inches away. And when the weather was unseasonably damp in July, black appeared on the stems and I thought we would lose the plant to a fungal disease.

This pepper plant still has fruit and blooms in late September. Pretty amazing considering the cool nights and the conditions it has endured.
This pepper plant still has fruit and blooms in late September. Pretty amazing considering the cool nights and the conditions it has endured.

Instead, we’ve been fortunate enough to harvest at least 15 peppers off one plant, and we’ve roasted our harvest on the grill a few times.

The reason green chiles are roasted is to blister the skin of the pepper so that you can peel it easily when ready to cook the chile. If you purchase green chile instead of growing it, you’ll get the best flavor and easiest peeling by having the seller roast the green chile for you; they use high heat and toss the chiles for more even blistering. But it’s also simple to roast green chiles from your garden on the grill, especially if you’ve already got the grill on to cook (maybe a patty for a green chile cheeseburger!)

chiles roasting on grill
I blistered these green chiles on our gas grill, which might not roast as evenly, but does the job well enough for freezing.

Simply wash the green chiles and pat them dry. Then place them on the grill about five to six inches above the coals. Turn or roll the chiles to coat them evenly. Patience helps, so that you roast them fairly slowly. You should hear some popping sounds and smell the chile cooking slightly. Using long-handled tongs, carefully remove each chile to a plate, and quickly place them in a plastic bag or other covered container to steam the peel slightly. Whole green chiles are much easier to peel after freezing. I just remove as much air as I can and place my bag in the freezer while the chiles are still slightly warm.

green chile ready to freeze
Seal the chiles while still fairly hot to steam the peels. Then freeze for up to a year or 18 months.

Check out more chile roasting methods from the Hatch Chile Store.

Recommended Reading: Growing the Southwest Garden

A few months ago, I mentioned how many garden books we have on our shelves. I just added a new resource from our favorite local expert and fellow member of the Garden Writers Association, Judith Phillips.

Judith’s newest release, titled “Growing the Southwest Garden,” (Timber Press Inc., 2015) is a go-to guide for native and xeric plants for New Mexico, Arizona, and our neighboring states’ high deserts. It’s also a beautifully written discourse on the climate extremes faced by the gardeners who live there, and especially by the plants they care for.

Growing the Southwest Garden.
A good garden book serves as a resource and as inspiration. This one does both, and more.

Judith, a landscape designer, author and part-time professor, describes how and why climate affects plant selection and health and why it’s so important to base landscape design and plant choice on region. She explains the scientific basis of heat, drought, wind and other stresses on plants and how native plants have adapted to the extremes the Southwest deserts and mountains offer. In addition, Judith offers plenty of ideas and strategies for successful gardening in the various regions of the Southwest.

The book includes examples of landscape designs, an excellent list of Southwest plants and more than 300 color photos. The information is both practical, with tips on seasonal pests, for example, and thought provoking. As one of our top proponents of preserving water and ecosystems, Judith reminds us all how to tend our gardens, create practical but beautiful landscapes, and protect plants and other living beings.

book judith phillips
Growing the Southwest Garden has regional information and photos on plants for Arizona, New Mexico, and surrounding states.

What I love most about this book is that I will read it again and again, not just as a brief reference to look up a plant, but when I start to lose faith. Sometimes, gardening in climate extremes can be frustrating, and it helps to be armed with knowledge and tools. As a near-native of the Southwest, who grew up in the scorching heat of Phoenix and since lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico and the high desert of southeastern New Mexico, this book reminds me to embrace all that I love about the Southwest, its terrain and native plants.

I have found Growing the Southwest Garden available from Timber Press, on Amazon and at the independent bookstore, BookWorks, in Albuquerque, N.M.

What Is a Native Plant?

Throughout this blog and in many gardening books and websites, you’ll see references to native plants. It’s fairly easy to decipher the meaning of native, but let’s delve into what native means in gardening and why it’s increasingly important to choose native plants, especially where saving water is a concern.

Although the concept should be simple, you might find conflicting information about whether a particular plant you like is considered native. So I’d like to first briefly define the term. A native plant grows naturally in a particular region or location. Easy enough, but you can move a plant to a region at some point in time, and wait for it to adapt. Once it does, it’s still no more native to the region than I am to New Mexico, even though I have lived here more years than I plan to reveal.

Creeping Oregon grape native to New Mexico
The creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) is actually a member of the Barberry family. Ours doesn’t spread much, but does need occasional shaping. We have never needed to water it.

For a plant to be native, humans have not intervened in its setting down roots. So a plant native to New Mexico has been here long before any gardener thought it might look great against a rock. And along the East coast, native plants were in place before the Europeans arrived on ships and began settling and farming. People also have not intervened or altered the plants; the plants have evolved to local conditions on their own over many plant generations. So the two main qualifiers are no people involvement and geography.

Why Aren’t All Plants Native?

Maybe to understand why you don’t walk down the sidewalk and see blocks of native plants, you have to grasp the concept and history of introduced and invasive plants. Introduced, or non-native, plants are brought by people to a location other than their native one. Not all non-native plants cause problems and become invasive, but they might be harder to grow, require more water, etc. And they can be introduced accidentally or brought intentionally. For example, I’ve tried to grow a plant native to Phoenix in Albuquerque just because I loved it and had delusions of grandeur or wanted to waste my money. No harm done to anyone or anything but my time.

yellow potentilla native
Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), is known by many names, including potentilla. It’s a native to New Mexico and is an excellent low-water choice for erosion control and home garden color all summer. But cinquefoils can be invasive in Washington state.

An invasive plant, on the other hand, is a non-native brought to a new area that spreads and establishes itself rapidly and soon disrupts local ecosystems. An example in New Mexico is salt cedar. The salt cedar tree was introduced here and is sucking up water along streams and river banks, damaging important native trees such as cottonwoods. Most of the worst weeds we deal with in the Southwest first came here as ornamental plants.

Why Are Native Plants Important?

As opposed to invasive plants, native plants are balanced with and support local ecosystems. They don’t take all of the water that other plants and animals need to survive. They offer cover and food for animals and have adapted to typical climate and soil environments. If you think about it, a plant that survives at 9,000 feet and 120 miles from the nearest population center needs no help from people to make it through the cold winter or the hot summer. Hmmm, that plant should need little help from a gardener who lives nearby and in the same zone.

Mexican poppies in rock garden
Mexican poppies (Eschscholzia californica), also called California poppies, need no help re-seeding. And they love heat and poor dirt. Perfect for New Mexico.

It’s important to preserve native plants and important to include them in garden plans. When you select plants native to your area, you support the birds and critters that also roam your neighborhood or nearby wilderness areas, use less water and make gardening easier on yourself. Your plants will stay healthier because they already know what to expect! Look for help selecting native plants from local master gardener groups, native plant societies, coop extension services and local nurseries.

Xeriscaping Strategy: Garden Art

A month ago, I talked about how strategic use of rocks and other natural hardscaping could add interest to your xeric garden. Another strategy, and a fun activity, is careful placement of art in the xeric garden.

sundial as garden art
This sundial, a gift from family, has a prominent spot in our rock garden.

With small objects of art, you can treat your garden like a canvas to add focal points of interest for times when plants are not blooming, to bring the eye up or down as a complement to plant height, to add pops of color or movement, or just to add some fun and whimsy.

metal object sin garden
The snail is an offering, but hasn’t convinced the real crawlers to move on! The wind spinner adds movement, sometimes lots of it!

Although many of the objects in our garden have been gifts from family members, we also have enjoyed picking up a few pieces of art when traveling. That way, we have a souvenir from our trip, and we get to see it nearly every day in one of our favorite places.

Of course, there is some magnificent art you can purchase, such as fountains carved from natural stone. And you will see excellent specimens in your favorite home design and fine gardening magazines. If you have a tighter budget and like to collect your own small objects, it’s really a matter of personal taste when deciding what goes into your garden. And although I am not a landscape designer, here are a few tips:

  • For xeric gardens, art made from natural materials typically fits in better. Objects made from metal, wood or stone and with earthy finishes usually fit into the flow better. However, a few bursts of color can really add to the garden’s palette. For example, there is a piece of garden sculpture at one of our favorite shops in nearby Cloudcroft, N.M., called Off the Beaten Path, that I’m coveting. It’s an army helmet made into a bright red ladybug. And one of these days, it will have a place of honor among the green of our garden. Unless they sell them all before I can get one!
birdhouses in xeric garden
These birdhouses, both gifts painted by family members, add pops of color around our redbud that we can see from a distance.
  • With color or garden art in general, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. In other words, I have seen it overdone. Still, if you get joy from collecting or making garden art, then go for it. After all, this is your garden, your sanctuary.
  • When placing art, consider plants’ growth. If you have a large object that you can’t easily move, be sure not to place it so close to a small shrub that the art eventually disappears. I’ve pulled up plenty of annuals and weeds because they choked out a favorite little sculpture.
garden art hidden by plants
Our little stone and metal ant is being overrun by annuals that popped up around him. I need to move him or clean up so he can be seen.
  • Combine form and function. Decorative rain gauges, bird houses, bird baths, bird feeders, butterfly water trays, wind spinners or weather vanes all can serve a purpose in your garden and provide visual interest.
mini-chiminea in garden
We won’t burn anything in this mini-chiminea, but I do want to try growing a shade-loving plant in it.
  • Really, the sky’s the limit, especially if you are into repurposing old items. A larger garden can hold a recycled gate or window with your own idea for a stained glass design added by a local artist, or you can create a small bottle tree.

With strategically placed garden art, you can add year-round interest to your xeric garden without the need to add more or larger plantings.

Help Plants Beat the Summer Heat

It’s hot here. I thought I would never say that. And sure, it’s not as hot as Phoenix, but even mountain communities in the Southwest can warm up in summer months. When the temperatures hit the 90s, the humidity stays below 25 percent, and the winds never subside, vegetables and ornamental plants get stressed.

columbine northeastern exposure
In May, this columbine was blooming and healthy! It’s a little stressed now. Columbines grow naturally under the shade of trees, and they need deep water as temperatures rise into the 70s and higher. We mulched around the plant and put it in a northeast-facing location to help it survive summer.

Often, our first reaction is to throw more water on a plant. Sometimes, that’s what they need. Wind, sun and heat dry plants more quickly. Native xeric plants are adapted to take some of the parching sun and wind, and sometimes a gardener can overwater a plant. Here are a few tips to keep xeric plants cool, healthy and happy during the heat of summer:

  • Start with the right plant for the right spot. That means not only a native selection, but choosing sun vs. shade or the right drainage. Most xeric plants can take plenty of sun, but some need partial shade. And most don’t take kindly to wet feet, or roots that fail to dry between watering. Wet feet can happen with overwatering or if you place lavender in poorly draining soil at the bottom of a hill, or hide it under a bush that grows quickly and shades it within a year. You also can plan ahead to take advantage of shade. It’s getting too hot for my lettuce, but we’ll plant some more north of the fence holding the pole beans as soon as they get a little taller.
garden plan for shade
The sun is so bright, it’s reflecting off the spot where we hope to get some shade for lettuce and spinach. You can see the bean seedlings on the other side of the foreground fence shadow.
  • Follow the sun. When you plant in spring, the sun and shade patterns are different than they will be in mid-July and August. So keep in mind the sun’s direction and any plants or structures that might help shade a plant late in the day, when the sun’s rays are their hottest. Remember that deciduous trees might be nearly bare when you plant, but loaded by mid-June.
  • When helping a new plant get established, the typical care instructions might not apply. The plant goes into a sort of shock, much like when you recover from illness or injury. All plants need a little more water, as well as extra sun and wind protection until established. We’ve often used portable lawn chairs to provide filtered shade over new plantings in the afternoon. Old sheets or landscape fabric also work.
  • Use containers. If you have a plant that’s more susceptible to heat stress, place it in a container. You can move it around throughout the summer based on the sun’s path. Of course, if you really love the plant and have lots of time on your hands (and wheels under a larger container), you can move it around during the day, giving it morning sun and afternoon shade.

    tomato in container
    The tomato seedlings I planted in containers are doing better than many in the ground. The patio and house warmed them up during cool nights, but provide shade now on hot afternoons.
  • Water in the morning. It’s tough to find time before work, but watering early in the day loads your plant up, preparing it for the heat. And try to keep soil evenly moist. If you have a slow drip system, the irrigation can run while you get ready for work. Cover the drip hose with a nice, thick layer of mulch and the mulch will slow the water’s evaporation and help keep the ground cool. And as I’ve said before, it’s good to keep an eye on tomatoes and other vegetables and to have someone care for them if you leave town. Once the fruit sets, you can’t drown the tomato to make up for a few days of heat and underwatering. They’ll punish you.

Finally, drink some iced tea, flavored with a small bit of fresh mint. Oh, wait, that’s for me…

Another Reason to Plant Natives: No Soil Amendment Needed

Where I live in New Mexico, the soil is more alkaline than acidic. That means I might as well forget ever trying to grow blueberries, but asparagus is a great choice. We even found some old or wild stalks along our ditch bank last year.

And a soil’s pH balance is just one consideration. Soil texture and drainage are especially important to a plant’s success in a vegetable, herb or ornamental garden. If we didn’t add some organic matter to our vegetable garden each year, the soil would compact from foot traffic and lose nutrients from its work feeding plants. So each year, we work the soil with mushroom compost to keep it rich, water absorbent and well draining.

amended soil for vegetables and herbs
This is part of our ornamental garden, amended with organic matter to grow edibles this year.

Native plants

I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – rework my ornamental garden soil each year. For one, it would be nuts to dig up perennial plants! So gardeners often are advised to add a little bit of compost to the hole dug for a new tree, bush or flowering plant. The compost enriches the soil around the roots, and as long as you water as suggested in the first year or so of more rapid growth and root set, the plant should thrive. But what happens as the plant grows beyond your amendment, especially if you put in a rapidly growing shrub or tree? Eventually, the roots work their way into the soil you haven’t amended. If the soil is so poor or compacted that the roots can’t break through or thrive, the plant could be stressed at the least.

If you choose a native plant, especially for a xeric garden, it’s likely that you won’t have to amend the soil at all. A plant that is adapted to your area’s typical soil makeup will do better if you just loosen the soil around it, usually to an area at least three times larger than the root ball. No need to add anything.

chocolate flower in New Mexico rock garden
The chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) is a native to our region. It crops up from seed around our garden and lawn. And yes, the blooms smell like chocolate! That’s a rosemary in the right foreground.

If plant instructions, or one article or expert tell you to add to the soil, it helps to verify the information with another source. That’s especially true if installing a native plant in your xeric garden. And it’s even truer depending on the first source of advice. There are plenty of reputable sources, and then there are myths, many of which can be perpetuated by those who stand to profit.

lavender in rocky soil
We placed several lavender plants in one of our beds, and maybe should have tested the soil first. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean, where the soil is rocky and alkaline. So it grows well here, but this soil had compacted more than we realized.That and some some cool, wet weather gave our plants a rocky start! Lesson learned.

When amending

It’s also good to check local sources when amending soil. For example, you might hear that adding sand improves drainage, but if you add too little sand, or add sand to clay soil, you can make matters worse, and your soil sets up like concrete. Oh, those poor plant roots…

Most organic matter is good for soil, but plenty of myths abound there as well. For example, manure needs to cook down or compost with brown materials before throwing it on your vegetables. Wood ash is often touted as an amendment, but not in New Mexico, where the soil already is alkaline. Wood ashes also are high in salt. I talked about Epsom salts in a previous post. The bottom line? Get local advice from a few good sources, and if you go with native xeric selections, you probably won’t have to amend the soil unless you have a severely compacted or poorly draining area.

 

A Trip to Hondo Iris Farm

It’s hard to imagine that an ornamental with such a strong, tall stalk and such large, gorgeous and multicolored blooms could be a low- to medium-water plant. But once established, the iris can get by and bloom with little care and water.

bearded iris
A lavender-colored bearded iris with morning dew.

When we visited Portland several years ago, we stopped by a magnificent iris farm and I couldn’t stop taking photos or making a wish list of colors and cultivars. But I couldn’t have known then that I would soon live about 15 to 20 minutes from a pretty magnificent iris garden, even though I’d be in the drier, cooler climate of southeastern New Mexico.

I visited the Hondo Iris Farm for the second time last week, this time with friends from Ruidoso. The flowers were in full bloom, and it was a beautiful spring day. The farm is stocked with impressive rows of more than 400 iris varieties. I found myself once again snapping photo after photo and wishing I had more space and water for flowers in my yard!

rows of iris
A few of the rows of iris at the Hondo Iris Farm, which hit full bloom around Mother’s Day each year.

What also impressed me about this visit was the fact that the Hondo Iris Farm grows plenty of low-water plants native to the Hondo Valley and nearby Ruidoso. I spotted several trees and ornamentals familiar to me, along with displays of several succulents. The farm sells several plants from a small greenhouse on the property that will thrive locally.

agave at iris garden
Agave garden at Hondo Iris farm. A red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria) adds color in the background, as do several iris!

If it’s iris you’re after, you can place your order from a catalog in the farm’s gift shop or by viewing it online. You might not be able to buy the very iris you drool after on your visit; they limit their catalog to about 50 or 60 cultivars each year. Still, it’s a great selection and price. I ordered a few for July delivery. Later this summer, I’ll divide my iris to move some to the back yard and make room for my new bulbs!

Hondo Iris Farm garden sculpture
We enjoyed the Hondo Iris Farm for the iris, native plants and general layout and beauty.

The Hondo Iris Farm is on Hwy 70 in southeastern New Mexico at mile marker 284. It’s just west of the small town of Hondo and the intersection of highways 70 and 380, about 20 minutes from Ruidoso and less than 40 minutes from Roswell. Admission is free to the garden, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 am to 5 pm.