Growing Short-Season Vegetables

I want a greenhouse. But want and have are too far apart right now. And the beginning and end of our growing season are too close together. Like many gardeners, we want to produce as many edibles as we can during our growing season. And like many rural residents, we crave affordable, fresh produce.

We’re better off than some; our last freeze occurs in early to mid-May, and our first freeze in early to mid-October. But we all know how those predictions go. With cool, high-desert evenings, the ground has to warm up enough to germinate seeds. Add high winds and low humidity, and it’s pretty much trial and error from one year to the next!

Here are a few tips for growing vegetables and other edibles in short seasons from our attempts and courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Extension services:

  • Make sure your garden is prepped and ready for planting as soon as it’s warm enough to do so. I wrote about spring preparation a few weeks ago.
  • Choose the best spot for your garden or raised bed based on microclimates, such as along a south-facing wall to maximize heat, or where you have a natural wind break in your yard.
  • Speaking of raised beds – they warm more quickly than the ground soil. They also can drain better, but may dry faster. So consider all of these factors when selecting plants for raised beds and containers.
grape-tomato-in-pot
This yellow grape tomato grew in a container against a south wall on our patio last year. They were delicious!
  • Start your seeds early enough to have nice, sturdy transplants ready. Naturally, that only works for those edibles that transplant well, such as tomatoes. If they become too big for the starter pot, transplant the entire block into a larger pot of sterile potting mix until ready to go in the ground. And be sure to harden them off for a few weeks before planting.
  • Cool-season vegetables are easier to sow in colder climates. Examples are beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots and several greens. I’ve already planted spinach, arugula and several loose-leaf lettuces in containers and in our garden.
  • Warm-season crops might need a boost, and they surely need a good start. Make sure to plant beans, melons, tomatoes, squash and cucumber after the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. Covering them with a light, white landscape cloth can help protect them from cool night temperature and gives seedlings a fighting chance against flying and hopping insects.
  • Choose early bloomers. Some varieties mature earlier or have a shorter time to harvest. Tim really wants honeydew, which should be sowed directly in the ground after the 50-degree soil mark. We found a hybrid that says it can be harvested in 70 days, so we’re going to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we’re only out the cost of a seed packet, the time and most importantly, the water. Look for terms such as “cold climates,” “short season,” “early to mature” or “northern gardens.”
short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety, a must for gardeners in cooler climates. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)
  • Help your plants stay warm (or shaded) with an appropriate cover. Aside from row covers, you can use tires or hot caps to protect and warm young plants. Our neighbor is in the stucco business, and he has given us dozens of five-gallon buckets. My husband cuts out the bottom and they work great at protecting young plants from sun and wind.
protect-vegetable-seedlings
Recycled buckets from our neighbor protected young seedlings in last year’s garden.
  • Of course, here in the dry Southwest, we create troughs or wells for nearly every crop to ensure consistent, deep watering and good growth.

Finally, it’s great to get advice from local “experts.” Most are just trying to be helpful. But don’t let lore and legend trump your can-do attitude and willingness to try these tips and your own brilliant ideas!

Passive Solar in the Spring: I’ll Follow the Sun

Why use fossil fuels to heat your home if you can design it to take advantage of the fact that 75 to 80 percent of New Mexico days are sunny? We were fortunate enough to buy a passive solar home two years ago. It was professionally designed for the former owners, who told us they almost never used their furnace. Two wood-burning stoves do the trick on chilly evenings and the sun takes care of the rest. The owners warned us, however, that April would be the coolest month in the house, and September the hottest. And they were right.

passive solar NM home
Passive solar home in winter. See how many windows face south to soak up sun on a clear day?

Here’s why: A passive solar home has plenty of windows facing directly south. The windows collect warmth from the winter sun, which is lower than in the summer. With good thermal mass in the form of floor tile, bricks, concrete and other materials, the heat gets stored and then releases in the evening to help keep the house warm as temperatures drop. Other design factors, such as having few north-facing windows, keep cold air out and warm air in, as do tight seals and good insulation. Landscaping also helps; planting little but deciduous trees near the home’s foundation allows winter sun through, but provides summer shade.

 

trombe wall storing solar energy
A trombe wall soaks up and stores the heat from south-facing windows. Note how much more heat can enter when the sun is low. This illustration is from the U.S. Department of Energy.

We’ve got several trombe walls made of adobe bricks and tile floors in every room but the master bedroom. I can vouch for how well the system works; I had to open windows a few times in January on sunny, warmer days.

 

trombe wall in New Mexico home
This trombe wall warms a hallway and living area. The tiles and adobe bricks store heat efficiently.

But about March to April, the sun starts shifting its path in the sky and even though the days get longer, less sun comes in our windows. If it’s also partly cloudy or cool, the house warms up less than it does in December and January. That means we’re having fires on many spring evenings to take the chill off.

In summer, we open upper, clerestory windows as soon as the air outside cools off to circulate cool air throughout the house. Then we have to shut out the hot air come morning. We might also draw a few shades, especially on the east and west side of the house. Come September, the sun starts dipping in the sky and through our windows, warming up the house when temps outside can still be high.

Throughout the year, we’ve learned to work with the home’s design and the sun to make the most of how smart the house is at using natural energy so that we save on fuel, and especially fuel costs. In fact, I have nothing but an energy-efficient wall heater and a trombe wall in my office. I use a small space heater on cold winter mornings as needed. If it gets too warm in here, I can work outside under the shade of the apricot tree!

 

passive solar home in December
December sun striking opposite wall.

If you’re considering building a new home or a remodel, I strongly recommend passive solar as a way to warm and brighten your home and to save on annual energy costs. Learn more here.

High-desert Gardening: Harsh and Heavenly

There is desert – arid, warm, often windy, and maybe sandy. And then there is high desert, which is arid, warm during the day (in summer, anyway), often windy, and very cool at night. We sit on the border of high desert and intermountain. Because we’re a small community off the radar, I doubt there are accurate records of our true temperatures and rain averages; we have our own backyard weather station to track temperature and wind speed because none of the models really match what goes on here!

When I tell people back East that I live in New Mexico, they may make a few assumptions. I speak to mostly bright people who know that New Mexico is indeed one of these United States. But occasionally, I get an “international” reaction, especially when making online purchases; see my Fun Stuff page for more on that. Most automatically assume that I’m enduring 100-plus temperatures most of the year. And having grown up in Phoenix, I get what they mean. If I were in the low desert of much of central and southern Arizona or New Mexico, it would be plenty hot.

Generally, high desert is defined as any area that’s above about 3,500 feet in altitude and has fewer than 10 inches of rainfall a year. But to grow any decent crop, you need 20 inches of precipitation. Much of New Mexico falls into the high desert category, as do many areas of the Southwest and West. Being at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, we get a little more rainfall (purportedly closer to 21 inches annually) thanks to summer monsoons. But our nights are considerably cooler than Sunset’s definition of high desert. We easily dip close to 10 degrees a few times in the winter, and it snows here.

 

new mexico snow
February snow that capped out at 10 inches in a few days (at least on our picnic table).

So if you are a plant in the high desert/intermountain west of the United States, you have to be one tough customer. In winter, temperatures can easily range more than 40 degrees in a day, and we often have a few weeks of warm spells, much to the chagrin of local ski areas. Depending on the timing of these warm spells, fruit trees and perennials can bud out early, and then get zapped by frost. The sun shines most of the year, but when you combine it with our winds, plants that lack moisture in the soil dry more quickly. Oh, and did I mention the low rainfall?

Places like Santa Fe (at 6,995 feet elevation), and many portions of Colorado at 7,000-plus in altitude can average close to 10 to 14 inches of rain a year. Leadville is considered “America’s highest city” at 10,161 feet, and only receives 15.6 inches of rain annually.

 

northern New Mexico landscape
Country road near Mora, New Mexico, which is northeast of Santa Fe. It was pretty, but dry, in early fall a few years back.

If you want to garden in the high desert, it takes plenty of xeriscaping strategies (the term was coined in Denver!). Top on the list is use of native plants, purchased from your local nursery or a company that specializes in high-desert plants. If the plant is native to your area, it’s already toughed it out. Why bring in a new guy? Microclimates can help you try to force a zone up or down, and water conservation and water reclamation can help you grab as much natural rainfall as you can get to make it through the dry spells. Mostly, you need patience. If Mother Nature throws a hard frost at you after May 15, just shake your head and hope you have better luck next year.

 

purple penstemon
One of many types and colors of penstemon native to New Mexico.

Check out my Resources page for more information, including a link to a favorite catalog source.

Easy No-Measure Guacamole

If only we could grow avocados in the high desert. Aside from their water needs, we just have too cold a climate. But the good news is that unlike many fruits, avocados are pretty good whether they’re not quite ripe or going soft. You just have to be flexible and force the issue with them a little.

About the Avocado
So nutritious, so delicious! Avocados are fatty, but it’s the good fat. And the avocado has no sodium or cholesterol. I recently learned that I should pop mine in the fridge so they don’t ripen too fast, especially on our warmer summer days. And I can keep them there until ready to make my favorite avocado dish – guacamole.

This Gringa’s Guacamole
There are lots of variations on guacamole, but I keep mine simple (skip to a short and printable version below, but miss my amusing musings). I make it to taste and with no raw onions that add that smacky aftertaste. I want the full effect of the fruit to shine through on my palate on my plate!

easy guacamole ingredients
I start with simple ingredients, including a few ripe avocados.

Start with an avocado that’s a little soft and not too green. If the peel is starting to wrinkle, it’s probably too ripe. I usually make my guac a few hours before we plan to eat it. Too soon and it might turn a little.

Removing pit from avocado
Stab the avoacado pit and twist or slide it out. Save the seed.

Slice it in half, and here’s a tip for speeding things up: Take your knife (not a giant one, but one with some stabbing power) and pop the seed in the middle with the long blade. This usually grabs the seed so you can easily twist it out of the half, leaving the seed whole. Hang on to that seed!

Scooping flesh out of avocado
Scoop avocado flesh out with a spoon. No peeling needed!

Then use a spoon to scoop out the flesh. If you’ve got the right amount of ripe, it works great. After scooping the flesh from a few medium avocados in a bowl, use a fork (or a potato masher) to mush it up – to the consistency you like. One of my fruits today was a little hard, so I cut it with a knife (or you can use the two-knife method, like cutting pastry dough) until I got the pieces small enough to mash.

mashed avocado
Mash the avocado flesh with the back of a fork, as soft or chunky as you like.

Add a Few Ingredients
Like I said, I keep it simple. I add some light sour cream, which makes your dip go further and gives it a creamy texture and a pretty light green color. Next, I drop in some salsa or pico de gallo to spice it up and give it a little bit of onion flavor without adding raw onions. Personally, I think they ruin a good guacamole, but if you like them, throw them in. If I’m coming over to your house, please refrain. Or make me my own serving. I’m not a princess; I just don’t like raw onions.

Next, I sprinkle in some garlic salt. Use powder if you prefer, but the salt brings out the flavor. Or use real garlic. I’m all about easy and retaining the avocado flavor, so I like the salt.

Finally – you have to put in some lime juice, or lemon if you prefer or only have it. I love fresh lime juice, but often use lemon juice from a jar, and it works fine. Squeeze just a little, probably a teaspoon or less, for your taste. The juice adds some tartness, but also helps prevent browning of the avocado. Stir it up.

 

avocado pits in guacamole
Avocado seeds and chilling keep the fruit from turning before you serve.

Now, remember those seeds you stabbed? Place them back into your stirred dip, cover it, and pop it back into the fridge until serving time. The oil on the seeds helps keep your guac from browning. You can take them out before serving, but don’t set the dip out until right before you’re ready to enjoy!

guacamole and chips
Guacamole looks and tastes like summer in New Mexico.

Easy No-Measure Guacamole

  • Servings: about 2-3
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients:

Two ripe avocados
Light sour cream, maybe a quarter cup or so
Some of your favorite salsa or pico de gallo
Garlic salt
Lime (or lemon) juice – a half fruit ought to do it

Cut avocados in half. Retain the seeds. Spoon flesh into mixing bowl. Cut and mash flesh to desired consistency. Add sour cream, salsa, garlic salt and lime juice to taste and stir. Add ingredients as needed after tasting on a chip. Or having a friend or family member taste on a chip. Try it again on a chip. Try not to eat it all before you put it in the refrigerator, placing retained seeds gently into dip and covering. Remove seeds just before serving. May be kept in refrigerator overnight with seeds back in dip and light spray of cooking spray over top, but best served within a few hours of making.

Weed or Wildflower?

Water-wise gardening in the Southwest means accepting the spread of native wildflowers and using them to fill and brighten a landscape or garden. There’s a fine line between weed and wildflower, however.

Some native species spread so easily under the right conditions that they take over a garden. Others might not be native, but were introduced to an area and thrive when Mother Nature cooperates. That’s why we had a “yellow spring.” Last fall, we noticed pretty little spiral seedlings appearing in the dying grass. We wondered what they were, but left them. In the spring, yellow popped up everywhere.

 

yellow alyssum in New Mexico lawn
Is it weed or wildflower that spread like crazy in early spring? It got yellower and was pretty, but weird.

Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. But I spent hours trying to identify the weed. I knew it probably was related to mustard, but it didn’t match any of the typical mustard weeds I could find in my searches. And I searched, and searched, for wildflowers and weeds. Here’s a close-up of it in the garden. And guess what it is?

yellow-alyssum
Alyssum is usually a lovely annual in flower beds. Here is yellow alyssum in our rock garden, where it also grew like crazy.

It’s yellow alyssum, or Alyssum alyssoides,  a member of the mustard family, imported from Europe. And it has both good and bad qualities. I’ve purchased sweet alyssum before as a bedding plant. And in some searches, it’s listed as a great choice to bring beneficial insects. I can vouch for that, because as I walked across our property on a sunny day, there was a low buzz – bees everywhere. I loved it, but it was a little freaky. And I saw one doe get stung on the face.

Alyssum also is listed as a weed in many Western states. It’s got a taproot about a mile long (slight exaggeration) and really only comes up completely if you moisten the soil and pull. I’ve seen conflicting information on whether it threatens native grasses. We’ll know more as spring progresses.

In the photo above is another weed/wildflower: a native verbena (species Glandularia). I’ve bought plenty of verbenas for rock gardens in lovely colors. And these are beautiful too, especially coming up between the yellow alyssum out in open grassy areas. They are more leggy and leafy than the hybrid or garden-variety verbenas, however, and will come up just about anywhere:

verbena-weed-new-mexico-xeric-rock-garden
Wild verbena looks pretty against rocks, not so much all over a gravel path.

Now, I have wildflowers I love that spread like weeds, usually by self-sowing. We usually leave them in place. Some are great for color and flower, some for scent. And the beauty is that they adapt so well to the dry conditions that they fill the garden without us having to purchase, plant, and most of all, water new plants.

An early spring favorite is night-scented stock, also called night stock (Matthiola longipetala). Believe it or not, it’s also a member of the Brassicaceae, or mustard family. The scent in early evening is so pleasant, and we love that these come up near the patio. They’re also reseeding in the grass around the garden!

night-scented-stock
Night stock has a delicate and pleasant scent that comes out with its blooms in early evening.

The blanket flower (Gallardia) has always been a favorite and the previous owners made sure we have plenty in our garden. They thrive in drought and have such vibrant colors, as do Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera).

mexican-hat-prairie-coneflower
Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers, pop up everywhere in our garden. These look terrific next to perennial yarrow.

We even admit to leaving a few alyssums intentionally where they complement another plant or look pretty up against a rock or piece of dried wood. We’ll never be able to pull them all or stop the reseeding, and I’m not sure we should. They do attract bees and offer early spring color. But it’s hard enough to get grass to grow in a drought and through various weeds. If alyssum adds to the competition too much, we’ll probably need help finding a control method.

Update in March 2015: The alyssum didn’t choke out the grass last year. It might have delayed grass taking root in a few spots, but we had a beautiful lawn. And yep, it’s already back. I’ve come to accept it, and just want to keep it from spreading across an irrigation ditch to our orchard area. Tim is trying to pull it out of the rock garden beds. I don’t have the energy to fight it. But it’s fun to watch…

 

No Moisture and High Temps

It looks like New Mexico is facing its worst drought since the 1880s. It’s possible that in those days, legends like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid rode near here, headed to the Rio Ruidoso in hope of watering their horses. I’m certain that at some point, our few acres served as a farm, judging by the rolling terrace and the mystery shed. At some point, there was an orchard by the river, evidenced by a dozen or so old stumps.

apple tree in small orchard
Small orchard in late fall. Notice an old stump off to the right, behind the fence stake. Tim is building up the wells around the trees and we’re reinforcing the fences to keep munching deer out.

The younger fruit trees in our current orchard didn’t produce fruit last year because of a late freeze and I foresee the same problem this year. It’s so warm right now, and will be for close to 2 weeks, that the trees think it’s time to bud out. Since our last freeze date is around Mother’s Day, it’s likely that freeze will again destroy any hope for fruit and my canning jars will sit empty on the shelf.

This all amounts to a bummer for us; we don’t face anything near the hardship of the people who endured drought during the 1880s. We can buy fruit and all the jelly we need at grocery stores in town. It would cost much less to make our own, but at least we do not depend on the land.

spanish-broom-in-rock-garden
The ornamentals also are confused. See the dry, nearly dead grass in the background? But the warm temps against the rocks fooled this Spanish broom into blooming in February!
spanish-broom-flowers
It’s nice to see these pretty yellow flowers from my office window.

The real problem with the record high temps and low humidity is the fire danger. In April 2011, the White Fire swept through Ruidoso Downs and within a few hundred yards of our home. We still see the damage from our front yard and it humbles us. The wildlife population still is lower than normal, though we have had steady visits from a herd of about 15 deer and the occasional elk.

white-fire-damage-deer_web
The mountains on the left show remaining damage from the 2011 White Fire in Ruidoso Downs, N.M., as deer graze on grass. On the right is a red-twig dogwood, a favorite plant for winter color.

My hope is for rain or snow, but continued warm temperatures. That would ensure that the fruit survives the season (and gets some natural watering) and that the fire danger remains low. It also means delicious apricot jelly for a year?

Raindrops Kept Fallin’…

There’s always some irony in gardening. I’m writing about drought-tolerant plants several hundred yards from an area struck by fire no more than five years ago and under severe water use and fire restrictions all spring. We prefer many xeric plants and inherited a huge and well-planned xeric garden when we moved here in April. Most of the plants survived with no care or water, outside a little rain from Mother Nature, while the property sat on the market for a year. So we were ready to look for more drought-tolerant choices for a slightly cooler zone and purchase rain barrels in case the skies ever opened up.

early rain
Early summer rain. See how brown the grass is? What grass, you say?

People who live in rural areas know their weather. One reason is that they tend to pay attention to the skies, the land, the views. Another is that many grow lawns, crops, or feed for livestock. And one of the best reasons is that no television station, web site or app gets rural weather right. Our “local” weather is mixed in with several other communities in our county, some of which are 20 miles north of us or about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Considering that the temperature can vary about six degrees between our place and a neighbor who lives the equivalent of a block away but a little lower and closer the river, I figure the people in Atlanta or even Albuquerque really don’t get it.

But when various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day,” they were spot on: We had a hard freeze the Saturday before, and no other until October. When they said that the rains would start “on the Fourth of July,” they were close again. It started raining July 1 and pretty much kept raining for nearly six weeks. I have not asked about the need to tie weather events to well-known holidays, but if it works…

rain on patio
So then it really rained. Maybe because we were trying to pour a patio.

So, what do you do when your xeric garden gets rain, LOTS of rain? Well, most of the plants adapted just fine. They grew well and plenty of lovely annuals popped up from volunteer seeds. But guess what else happened? We got weeds. Every kind of weed known to man. Everywhere a weed could grow and some places I thought they couldn’t. In all of the gravel walkways, between rocks and pavers, inside cacti (those weeds are smart!). And pretty much all over the entire 4 acres.

These city folk did not yet have a riding mower; we had a lot of moving expenses and no grass worth mowing before July 1. Then the grass was too wet to cut most days. So by the time we got a mower to the back orchard, the weeds were up to my knees. We eventually conquered the mowing, but lost the battle in much of the garden. My thinking is that the yard and weeds had a year’s head start on us, and it will take us a little time to catch up.

weeds take over
Still raining Aug. 10. See the weeds in that front bed and all along the ditch bank in the background?

I also have been meaning to ask a neighbor what sort of event to expect on Thanksgiving. Maybe our first snow, though I think it might hit sooner. I just hope the snow doesn’t last for six weeks.