When Life in the Garden Gives You Tomatoes…

The end of the growing season can get a little depressing. Ours usually comes suddenly, and this year was no exception. The weather turned cool, cloudy and damp. It was time to start garden cleanup and final harvests. A week earlier, we made homemade margherita pizza with some of our last fresh tomatoes and basil. But time was running out for fresh tomatoes (and pizza, darn it).

homemade margherita pizza
Homemade crust brushed with olive oil and crushed garlic. Top it with shredded and fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato slices and basil to make an easy and delicious margherita pizza

A couple of our tomato plants still were covered in fruit. But most of the fruit was not quite ripe. And tomatoes need temperatures of about 68 to 77 degrees to ripen. Our high the other day was lower than 68!

cloudy skies
We haven’t seen the mountains hidden in those clouds for days.

So, I grabbed my garden trug tub (a favorite gift from my daughter via Gardeners Supply) and set about gathering all the tomatoes I could before the weather turned. Most of the tomatoes left were snack-sized, between cherry and cocktail. And they were in varying states of ripeness. It really was a fun activity, and a good way to end the growing season.

tomato harvest
A tub full of tomatoes at varying ripeness.

Sort and Save

So, my next task was to sort the fruit I had gathered. Green and semi-green tomatoes went on a plate in a sunny window to finish ripening. Softer and ready-to-eat fruit went on the plate I keep on the kitchen counter all season so we can eat them soon. A few had holes or other problems; they went to trash or compost.

sorting and saving last tomato harvest
Left: tomatoes to ripen on windowsill. Right: tomatoes for immediate enjoyment Back: tomatoes ready to preserve in delicious sauce.

Finally, I collected all that were ripe, nearly ripe and even a little soft to make sauce. I then modified a recipe from my canning book, changing it to use what I had in my pantry and to more closely match the homemade sauce I make from canned tomatoes. You can do the same or turn to a site such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation or your local cooperative extension office.

fresh tomatoes in sauce
Sauce from fresh tomatoes cooking down for freezing.

A Few Tips

  • It’s essential to wash all tomatoes you preserve and check them for signs of damage, disease or pests.
  • After washing, we cut the fruit in half, removed the stem scar and scooped out the core and seeds. We didn’t bother to blanch and peel because our tomatoes were so small. This activity was a little messy but fun.
  • Preserved sauce needs a balance of sugar and vinegar (or lemon juice) to preserve the fruit and flavor. We also added chopped onions and celery, Italian spices and garlic.
  • Fresh tomatoes don’t always form the thick, pasty sort of sauce you get from recipes using canned. I cooked mine a little longer than suggested (about 45 minutes once tomatoes were added) to adjust for altitude, better loosen the peels and soak up flavor. If desired, you can add some sauce or paste when you use the sauce later, but not so much you disguise the fresh tomato flavor. I took my immersion blender and pulsed the cooked sauce. The blender also picked up some of the peels, making the sauce a bit smoother.
  • I chose to freeze my sauce. To do so, be sure to cool your sauce and place it in plastic containers (not bags). The reusable sealed containers from the store would work great. Be aware that some of the spices in a sauce lose their flavor after freezing. However, we already ate one batch of frozen sauce and it was delicious.
  • Frozen tomatoes in any form become mushy, so they’ll only be good for sauces, soups or stews. They typically keep about eight months in the freezer.

I’m so glad we took the time to use as many tomatoes from our garden as possible. And I wish we had tomatoes year-round because this is my new favorite sauce!

 

It’s Time to Harvest Your Vegetables: Here Are Some Tips

Sometimes, a home-grown tomato is so pretty that I hesitate to pull it off the vine. I’d rather take photos, smile as I stroll past the plant or point out the healthy fruit to anyone willing to listen.

fall harvest
It’s easy to know when to harvest your home-grown vegetables, mostly through trial and error.

Of course, watching a vegetable you started from seed grow into a healthy plant is a reward in and of itself. But it’s even more rewarding when the plant provides fresh, delicious and healthy food for you and your family (or friends and neighbors!).

What’s more, harvesting fruit helps the plant continue producing, sending energy to develop, ripen and flavor fruit instead of continuing to feed overripe ones. Here are some tips on when and how to harvest fresh vegetables in the garden or a U-Pick site, courtesy of the Home Garden Seed Association and my experience (including plenty of mistakes).

tomatoes on vine, varying maturity
Tomatoes at various stages of maturity show the deeper red color of ripe fruit that’s ready to eat.

Tomatoes

Color helps cue gardeners on picking tomatoes, which should be a deeper red than the ones you see in the grocery aisle. But color can be a tough cue when growing some varieties, such as yellow tomatoes. We have a few Midnight Snack tomatoes courtesy of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. The delicious snack-sized tomatoes have an indigo color on top (and the fruit has extra antioxidants). You just feel the fruit and check for reddening on the bottom to make sure it’s ripe. Once a tomato feels somewhat soft when you squeeze it gently, it’s probably ready to eat. Just twist it slightly from the vine and it should give. Be sure to store tomatoes in a cool spot in your kitchen, but not in the refrigerator.

tomato how to harvest
Gently twist tomatoes of any size from the vine when the fruit is deep in color and slightly soft.

Cucumbers

Cucumber fruit seems to mature all at once, and the best way to know when to harvest is to have an idea of the fruit’s mature size from seed packets or through trial and error. We often note that the spiky part of the peel loses some of its sharpness at peak ripeness. When in doubt, though, opt for early rather than late. Cucumber seeds get large and tough and the fruit less sweet the longer the fruit stays on the vine. Use scissors or shears to cut the cucumber from the plant; avoid twisting it off. Cucumbers store best dry in the refrigerator. I keep mine wrapped in a soft towel and wash them when I’m ready to eat them.

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are better harvested a little early than late.

Carrots

Carrots can begin to lose sweetness if left in the ground too long. Gently swipe away some dirt to check if the top (shoulder) of the carrot is bigger than about half an inch. For most varieties, this is a signal it’s ready to pull. Carrots tend to vary more than other fruits at harvest, especially if they have not been thinned adequately. But the taste of any nearly mature carrot from the home garden is so much better than store-bought carrots, regardless of its appearance. Carrots also store better dry, so either leave the dirt on and pack them in a vented plastic bag or let them dry completely after snipping the leaves just above the shoulders. I’ve found that our carrots store best in the ground (up to a point) and I only harvest what I need every day or two.

carrots straight from the ground
Just cut off carrot leaves above the shoulder and store with some dirt on them or wash and dry completely.

Beans and Peas

Harvesting beans is one of my favorite activities. I like looking for the elusive pods under the leaves. It does require two hands, however. You need to hold the stem of a bean or pea as you pull off the fruit to avoid breaking the stem and pulling off immature neighbors of the mature bean. I set a basket on the ground or hang a used grocery bag on my arm to free up both hands for harvesting. Pick beans while long and slender and before lumps form in the pods. Snap peas are best when peas are just beginning to form in the pod, but are not yet mature.

harvesting beans
Use one hand to hold the vine while the other gently tugs on a mature bean or pea.

Lettuce

Most lettuces taste best when leaves are four to six inches long. I love cutting loose-leaf varieties because you can harvest them two or three times. If a loose-leaf or head lettuce looks elongated, it’s getting to be too late for optimal flavor. Cut outside leaves of loose-leaf lettuces first, and cut head lettuce at the base of the plant, just above the ground. Wash and dry lettuce immediately; spinners are great for this. Store in a plastic bag that is closed but has plenty of air inside. I also sometimes add a paper towel to absorb moisture in the bag. You’ll be amazed how much longer your fresh lettuce keeps compared with prepared bags!

spinning lettuce
Organic mesclun leaves in the salad spinner.

Peppers

Whether growing sweet bell peppers or New Mexico chile peppers, it helps to learn the mature color for your variety. The good news is that peppers usually have a decent flavor even when immature, although the skins might be a bit tougher. So know enough about your pepper to watch for its expected mature color and pick as soon as it turns. Leaving peppers on the plant too long slows production of new fruit. All pepper types come off the plant easiest when fully ripe. Store peppers in a bag in the refrigerator crisper. With green chile, I wait until I have enough peppers to roast and then freeze them.

short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)

Squash

Ah, the giant zucchini. Big enough to feed a family of 10, but not as sweet and tender as the one harvested at about 5 to 7 inches in length. Cut all squash fruit with snippers or a knife; don’t twist it off the vine. Winter squash should be ripe when the rind loses its shine and you can scratch the rind without puncturing it. Wipe squash clean with a dry towel; don’t wash before storing. Keep both summer and winter squash in a dry, but well-ventilated spot about 50 to 68 degrees. If you place it in the refrigerator, put it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.

zucchini harvest
Most of the zucchinis in this late-season harvest are too big to have flavor. My neighbor will take them off my hands and make stuffed squash.

Kale

Harvest kale and chard much like loose-leaf lettuce. You can begin to harvest outer leaves when they are about four inches high, cutting them about one inch above the ground. Avoid cutting the center tip of the plant, which can stop growth of new leaves. Wash and spin kale and store it in one of the coolest spots in the refrigerator inside a ventilated plastic bag.

In general, seed packets and other materials give you an idea of a fruit’s maturity date, but it varies from region to region and from one year to another.

Most vegetables are better harvested in the morning when crisp, healthy and dry. Or you can pick what you want just before preparing your meal. One final note: When harvesting several different vegetables, have a few containers handy. It’s no fun picking green beans out of lettuce leaves, and squash or cucumbers can flatten a juicy tomato.

Scenes From a Backyard Wedding in Ruidoso Downs, New Mexico

We’ve been busy prepping our lawn and gardens for a wedding. Our daughter, Rebecca, married the love of her life, Dave Higgins, last weekend here in Ruidoso Downs. I had to post some photos, most of which are courtesy of family and our outstanding professional photographer and friend, Jessica Inman. See links to photo credits and local services at the end.

The happy couple settles in by the river. Photo courtesy of Jessica Inman Photography.
native grass for wedding setting
About a week before the event, we had plenty of rain, which greened up the native grasses.
outdoor wedding tent
The tent was situated near our xeric garden. We had to rent the tent from Albuquerque, about 3 hours away.
backyard wedding DIY repurpose
Repurposing saves money! In the background is our potting bench-turned-bar. And an old door served as a Polaroid guest book frame.
succulent centerpieces
Rebecca wanted succulents as part of her theme and color scheme. We used existing plants as centerpieces.
succulent centerpiece grandmother keepsakes
Here’s a closeup (courtesy of Jessica Inman) of the wooden base Dave brought and one of our succulents potted in a hollowed out fence post. The bride added keepsakes from her grandmothers to the bouquet.
succulent wedding favor
Guests received a succulent favor. We repotted these rosettes from the Succulent Source in California. Rebecca made the tags. Photo courtesy of Kyra Ducan, Small Town Chick.
cake with succulents
Live succulents decorated the beautiful (and delicious) cake from Laura Shirley at Le Chantilly in Albuquerque. Photo courtesy of Kyra Duncan.
succulent and topper groom cake Le Chantilly
And for a bit of whimsy — the groom’s cake, also from Le Chantilly. Photo courtesy of Kyra Duncan.
ruidoso downs outdoor wedding
The weather in Ruidoso Downs was perfect the day of the wedding. Photo courtesy of Kyra Duncan.
bridal aisle two fathers grass
Both dads walked Rebecca down the grass-lined aisle. What a fun day of modern family unity. Photo courtesy of Shelby Von Norton.
succulents hair outdoor wedding
The ceremony, officiated by Randy Logan. Hair by Robin Shackelford and flowers by Lou McLeod. Photo courtesy of Jessica Inman.
succulent bouteniere
The perfect succulent boutenniere from Lou Mcleod of Ruidoso.
outdoor wedding ruidoso downs new mexico
The first kiss as a married couple. Tuxedos from Mr. Tux in Albuquerque, Rebecca’s makeup by Jazmine, Blue Lotus Day Spa and Yoga in Ruidoso. Photo courtesy of Kyra Duncan.
Take a seat escort card sign from barnwood
Time for the reception. Dave and Tim made the escort card sign from old ranch barnwood. Photo courtesy of Kyra Duncan.
native grass meadow
Signs made of barnwood and wooden stakes pointed to the ceremony. And we left some areas unmowed, like this small meadow near an old irrigation pump.
wedding Ruidoso downs
The morning after. Everybody had a fun time, thanks to great food from Can’t Stop Smokin BBQ and entertainment from DJ Pete.

Many thanks to all family and friends who helped us out, especially Jenny Ruiz, Kathy and Dave Toupal and Jeri Baker.

The following Ruidoso and Albuquerque businesses helped make the Higgins Ruidoso Downs wedding possible:

Flowers by Lou Mcleod of Alto. Lou also is a top wedding event planner for Ruidoso.

Hair by Robin Shackelford from  Bella Vita Salon in Ruidoso.

Bride’s makeup by Jazmine at Blue Lotus Day Spa and Yoga in Ruidoso.

Outstanding entertainment and ceremony sound from DJ Pete (Pete Davis) of Ruidoso.

Catering by Can’t Stop Smokin BBQ of Ruidoso.

Cake from Laura Shirley, owner of Le Chantilly Fine Pastries and Wedding Cakes in Albuquerque.

Local beer kegs from Rio Grande Grill and Tap Room in Ruidoso.

Tent, tables and chairs from AA Tents and Events in Albuquerque.

Professional photography by Jessica Inman Photography.

Additional photos courtesy of my sister-in-law, Kyra Duncan and her daughter Shelby Von Norton, both of Tatum, N.M.

Five Easy Foods to Grow at Home

It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.

easy grow vegetables
Three easy vegetables to grow at home: cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans.

1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape
Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches).
Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are  pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.

yellow cherry tomatoes container
Yellow cherry tomatoes growing on the vine.

Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.

2. Cucumbers
Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals.
Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).

cucumber in container
Cucumbers can grow on patios if given a place to climb.

Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.

3. Green beans
Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones.
Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.

Green bean plant
Green beans have delicate white flowers and are fun to harvest.

Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.

4. Snap peas
Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage.
Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.

snap pea seeds
Sugar snap pea seeds go right in the ground in spring.

Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.

5. Carrots
Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots.
Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.

carrots easy vegetable
Delicious, home-grown carrots.

Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.

A Microclimate Experiment

Microclimates can be a farmer’s or gardener’s best friend. A few years ago, I wrote about how use of microclimates, or pockets of a garden that have varying temperatures and exposures to weather elements, can expand your choice of xeric plants.

cactus greenhouse atlanta
This greenhouse in an Atlanta-area garden provides extra heat and sun for the homeowner’s succulent collection and keeps rain off the plants!

The easiest example of a microclimate is a greenhouse. Windows let sun in and walls, a roof and other strategies help maintain the warmth. Add a heating source (and enough space) and you can grow nearly any plant any time of year.

lava rocks microclimate
The Desert Garden at the Huntington in San Marino, California, is a perfect microclimate for cacti. Not so perfect for humans on the day we visited. The lava rocks intensified the 100-plus temperatures.

Subtle microclimates exist all around your yard and gardens. Structures and hardscaping absorb heat during warm hours and release it gradually, helping to protect plants from cold; they also can protect plants from wind. Partial shade shields plants from heat, and slopes or other topography alter how the overall climate affects a given plant.

pond water lilies
Not far from the Huntington, a homeowner’s pond was filled with blooming water lilies in basically the same climate.

The Zinnia Experiment

I would like to say that we planted zinnia seeds in three different places simply to later show how microclimates affected their growth and hardiness. But I’d be pushing the truth. I did plant them in several different spots to see how well they grow here and how quickly they bloom, so I can use them as an easy annual filler to add color and even more pollinators to our gardens.

So, we put seeds in open space in our vegetable farm rows, mostly for the pollinators. We also planted some on a fairly exposed raised bed in our xeric garden. Finally, we planted seeds in the lower part of the xeric garden, close to the rock wall. All of the flowers did fairly well, although the ones in the farm area had better soil and more consistent drip watering. They were the tallest and healthiest. The ones in the raised bed took longer to come up, likely because of poorer soil and an inconvenient hand-watering location. The flowers planted in the lower bed did almost as well as the ones in the farm area.

zinnia cold damage
The healthiest zinnias froze the most, likely because of the farm area location and the fact we had pulled up several rows of faded vegetable plants, so these zinnias were open to a pocket of frost.

Then the frost came and the healthiest plants burned the worst. They more or less bit it overnight.

The zinnias in the raised bed were nearly as bad, but at least the flowers kept their color (I planned to take photos of them, but hard-working hubby cleaned up the bed before I had a chance.)

zinnias minor frost damage
These zinnias suffered some frost damage, but the flowers were still vibrant, thanks to their protected location near the rock wall.

The zinnias in the lower bed fared the best. I doubt they will grow or flower more, but they don’t look like they belong in a horror movie.

How to Use Microclimates

The experiment helped me get a sense of microclimates on our land. We’ve always assumed that our farming area is cooler because it is in a sort of mini-valley jut above the river. The dead zinnias demonstrated we were right, especially since those plants were the most robust before the freeze hit. The flowers in the raised bed are more open to cool air; there were no other plants nearby or much hardscape to absorb heat either.

The hardiness of the zinnias in a more protected and “solarized” spot near the rocks was telling. It’s always important to think about sun and shade exposure, but sometimes we fail to consider how placing a few large rocks behind a cold-sensitive plant can help it survive winter. In vegetable gardening, for example, using fabric to cover plants creates a micro-greenhouse effect. And when growing a plant that needs a little less sun or heat, shade cloth or plant placement can lengthen growing seasons.

shade for vegetable plants
Peppers love heat, but these pepper plants in Tucson had shade over them for protection.

Microclimates, like the general climate, can vary. For example, a tree that drops its leaves provides no shade until it fills in late spring. As trees mature, they can begin shading a plant that once received full sun; it might be time to transplant a shaded shrub. Windbreaks help slow the flow of cold air streaming up a slope.

rio Ruidoso bench
Every gardener needs a microclimate too! we placed this bench in a shaded area near the river as a spot to cool off on warm days working outside.

Containers offer excellent microclimates, not only because they warm up quickly, but because you can move them to solve sun and wind exposure issues, and all the way inside before the first frost.

adenium in container
This Desert Rose (Adenium) in Tucson is about 10 times the size of ours. But its location in a container means that botanical garden staff can move it if necessary for changing seasons and microclimates.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Lavender

It smells fantastic, looks gorgeous, attracts bees and butterflies and needs little water or care. And on top of that, it’s a useful herb. Truly, I can find no drawback to growing lavender in the arid Southwest. Still, I’ve talked to several people while selling at farmers’ markets who say they had trouble establishing or maintaining lavender. So, here are a few tips, because I wouldn’t mind seeing lavender on every corner of every town.

A customer's gorgeous farmers' market basket thanks to lavender!
A customer’s gorgeous farmers’ market basket thanks to lavender!

Where to plant lavender

It’s tempting to plant lavender everywhere in the landscape! But the plant does best in full sun and with plenty of air circulation. So, if you plant lavender on the north side of your house, especially up against the house, it might not do well. You can also plant lavender in containers, but might have to amend soil around the plant after a year or two. Be sure to place the container in full sun and give the container plant a little more water than it would need in the ground — but not too much!

Lavender hedges are a summer stunner. But if you want to plant a row of lavender, be sure to leave plenty of spacing between the plants, and between the lavender and other plants or structures in your garden. It won’t look as full the first year. But by year two, you’ll love how the flower stems nearly touch but the plants have plenty of room. And foremost, plant lavender where you can enjoy the scent and pollinators the plant attracts. And check nurseries soon for a new variety from Sunset called “Meerlo,” which has variegated leaves!

lavender sunflower
Lavender and sunflowers in the sunny xeric garden.

When to plant lavender

Whatever date you think is right for lavender, push it back a week. Seriously, the only real problem we had with some lavender plants occurred when a group of new plants were shipped to us too far ahead of our last frost date. Fearing the plants were becoming rootbound in their small nursery pots, I planted as soon as the frost passed. But the ground and air were still a little too cool, plus the dirt did not drain as well as other spots in our garden. So that meant the new plants would stay wet after rain or watering. The only problem that really affects lavender is root rot. So be sure the ground and temperature have warmed up enough before planting.

lavender in rock garden
Lavender looks and smells pretty close up or from a distance, especially in a breeze.

How to plant lavender

First, make sure the variety of lavender you’re ordered or chosen at a nursery is a perennial in your area. Years ago, I assumed that French lavender (which really is from Spain) would do better in our climate than English lavender. It’s so cool and damp there! But French lavender is not as cold hardy. Most varieties of English lavender, however, can survive U.S. winters. Just check the zone when you buy.

Here’s the trick to success with lavender: Plant it on a small mound. This is a departure from typical attempts to save water by welling around plants. A well can hold water in longer, but lavender wants to take a drink and then dry out. Also, by gathering up a mound of dirt, you give the young roots some nice loose soil.

new lavender plant
This new lavender plant is becoming well established. It’s on a small mound to keep water or snow from pooling around the roots. The next step is to add pebble mulch.

My second tip is to surround your lavender not with organic mulches, but with tiny white pebbles or decomposed granite. Doing so still allows water to penetrate, but gives the plants reflected sun and passive solar heat gain. If you use rocks and have as many weeds as we have, you’ll need to try and get the mulch layer at least three inches high. But leave a border several inches around the new plant on every side so the rocks don’t crowd the lavender base and constrict growth. Water more often than the plant tag says for a few weeks or more, until the plants look settled in their new home. But let new lavender plants dry out a little between watering or rain.

lavender with butterfly
Lavender is the perfect xeric plant. It also attracts bees and butterflies, and adds scent and color to the garden.

How to care for lavender

So, you have your lavender established. The hard part’s done! All you have to do how is harvest the gorgeous flower stems as the flowers begin to open in summer. In warmer climates, you often get a second bloom. We’ve found that our second bloom in zone 6B is pretty sporadic, even lousy. So it’s really a matter of choice – you can harvest early and enjoy the scent inside your home, or leave the stems on the plant to enjoy its color and share its fragrance with pollinators.

Just be sure to trim the stems off – right at the top of the leaves – at the end of summer or in early fall. Don’t worry if your plant turns a little gray in winter; it should begin to green up along with other perennial plants in spring. As new leaves begin to emerge in spring, trim your plant for shape and health. That means avoiding cutting down into the woody stems. I give mine a nice round shape. So simple.

lavender bunches farmers' market
Our lavender wands and sachets have been popular this year.

That second year, your plant should need little to no watering. I typically give lavender plants some water right after trimming in spring and then only water if we have severe drought.

The stems are easy to dry and place in a vase or use harvested buds to make sachets or potpourri. Lavender is great in homemade gifts and even as an edible.

For more about lavender, see our Pinterest board (Lovin Lavender).

Grow Food on Your Patio, Deck or Balcony

 

I’m on a quest to encourage more people to enjoy and even grow fresh vegetables and herbs. We’ve started selling some of our edibles from Rio Ruidoso Farms at the Alamogordo Downtown Farmers’ Market. We also make sure to nab plenty of tomatoes, cucumbers and other food for our own meals and snacks.

cucumbers grown on patio
An old screen door makes an excellent trellis for patio cucumbers.

Lots of gardeners worry about making mistakes, solving problems or maintaining a full mini-farm or kitchen garden. But I’m here to tell you that growing food in your landscape, and especially right on your patio, can be easy and way more fun than the time you spend watering or maintaining your plants.

Why Container Edibles on the Patio Are Easier

One of the best ways to keep plants healthy is to frequently “visit” your garden. We love to sit on our balconies, decks or patios this time of year during cool mornings and evenings. Sometimes, you only spot hornworm damage or drought stress in a plant when you’re not looking for problems. Spending more time near the plants helps monitor their health and gives you the satisfaction of seeing the first fruit ripen. It’s easier to fill up a container with excellent potting soil and compost than it is to try to amend and weed bad soil in the yard.

Patio tomato plants
We had to stake these tomato plants because they’re thriving in the warm environment of a south-facing patio.

Containers also grow healthier plants in many instances, although some plants are too large or unruly. It’s a little harder, though not impossible, for snails and bugs to attack plants in pots. You’ll usually need a large container – at least 12 inches wide for even a cherry tomato – but you can clean it out and reuse it for years. Most patios are warmer (or shadier, depending on exposure and the plant you want to grow) than the ground. This can cause problems because of extremes – containers warm up more rapidly and release warmth faster to cool down at night. But in many cases, this is a bonus, especially for starting a plant such as tomatoes earlier in the season. If you think your container is getting too much heat, move it to a shadier area. Or keep containers near walls for added heat. Don’t place them too close to walls and windows, however. Leaves can burn and plants need air circulation.

Gorgeous cherry tomatoes after the rain.
Gorgeous cherry tomatoes after the rain.

In the long run, containers generally use less water than plants in the ground. But be sure to be consistent and regular with watering to avoid stressing edibles. Containers dry out faster than the ground.

Vegetables Can Be Pretty

The movement toward growing food near the house and even as part of a front lawn is a wonderful and sustainable trend. I know some plants can grow a little wild in containers, but that can be a pretty look, too. Most vegetable and herb foliage is attractive, and a spot of yellow or red as fruits flower and ripen adds to the lush look of a patio. Mix in a few potted ornamentals, and you have an outdoor space worthy of any of the best botanical gardens.

I get as much joy looking at the tomatoes in this patio arrangement as I do the flowering geraniums in the background.
I get as much joy looking at the tomatoes in this patio arrangement as I do the flowering roses in the background.

Growing on Decks and Patios Is Convenient

With deer and other animals roaming a yard, home gardeners might need fencing to protect yummy tomatoes and lettuces. If you lack time, money or space for a fenced-in garden, the deck or patio can be a perfect alternative. I might jinx my plants, but I have never had a patio plant munched on, even though deer or rabbits have enjoyed dining on other edibles just a few feet away in the garden.

Cucumbers for lunch or dinner just steps away from the kitchen door. How can that be anything but beautiful?
Cucumbers for lunch or dinner just steps away from the kitchen door. How can that be anything but beautiful?

It’s easier to water plants right outside your door, and often near a faucet or rain barrel, than it is to water in the back corner of the yard. You’re more likely to harvest and eat patio-grown edibles simply because they are right outside your door. Be sure to choose the ones for this location that you eat most often. You won’t find fresher food anywhere.

How To Harvest and Store Fresh Garden Herbs

I love the herbs in our ornamental garden, many of which are low-water plants. Letting an herb such as sage flower can add color and lots of bees to your landscape or patio.

fresh herbs from waterwise garden
Fall harvest of herbs from our xeric garden.

Herbs typically begin to lose flavor as they flower, however, so if you want to eat herbs from your kitchen garden, it’s best to harvest often and enjoy the fresh flavors from plants you grow on your own. Harvesting herbs usually invigorates the plant, much like pruning or deadheading ornamentals. The best of both worlds? Having space to let one sage or thyme go to flower while you harvest from another sage or thyme in the same season.

The choices for herb gardens are endless, and it makes most sense to choose the plants you like based on your zone/growing location and favorite flavors or most useful purposes (such as medicinal). I grow mine for the color, scent and flavor and to sell at the farmers’ market. That presents its own set of challenges, mostly transporting herbs and keeping them fresh when it’s hot. Way too hot.

lavender for sale
Lavender bunches and sachets for sale at the farmers’ market, along with other fresh herbs.

With nearly all herbs, you’re better off harvesting in the morning and using a sharp pair of scissors or trimmers. It’s also best not to wash herbs before short-term storage, but instead wait until just before preparing them. Here’s a list of simple harvesting and storage tips for several herbs you can grow year-round or as annuals, along with a link at the end for a previous post on drying herbs.

Basil. Pesto anyone? Basil is easy to grow, but a little tricky to keep fresh after cutting. You would think that rinsing the leaves and keeping them chilled in the refrigerator would keep them fresh for days. But you would be mistaken. First, harvest basil in early morning. I’ve written in the past about how to cut basil, along with an easy pesto recipe in the same post. Of course, you can always harvest a few leaves only and use them right away. If you want to keep basil leaves fresh, the best approach is to avoid washing the basil after harvesting and placing stems (no leaves) immediately into a jar of cool water. They do best stored at 50° F, but who keeps their house or refrigerator at that temperature? If you have a spot, great. If not, keep the glass in a cool, lightly sunny spot and change the water often.  It can keep for weeks in the right circumstances.

Storing basil
We’ve got lots of basil. It stores so well in a mason jar on a cool window sill.

Cilantro. Cut off no more than one-third of your cilantro plant leaves after the plant reaches at least 6 inches tall. The best way to store cilantro leaves is to place the stems only in some fresh water and put the entire jar in your refrigerator. You also might want to loosely cover the aromatic leaves with a plastic bag.

Dill. Dill leaves, or weed, also are best stored with the stems only in water. Alternatively, you can wrap the entire stem with the leaves in a damp paper towel and place the herb in a warmer spot of the refrigerator, which usually means the door. Don’t be surprised if the herb’s quality goes down soon after storing. The freshest dill is harvested as cooks need it. Dill tastes best when harvested just as the plant’s flowers begin to open. If you want to preserve dill seed, wait for the flowers to turn into seed heads and dry up on the plant. Remove the seed head when it turns pale brown.

dill flowers
Dill is pretty when it blooms. I harvested some leaves from this plant and then let it go.

Lavender. More people likely grow lavender for its beauty and as a pollinator than for eating. There are varieties of lavender that are more suitable to culinary use (see a recipe here or check out our Lovin’ Lavender Pinterest board. If harvesting lavender for a recipe, it’s best to cut desired stems early in the day after they dry from morning dew. Even when fresh, you can harvest buds easily by rubbing the flowers between your hands or fingers. This is even easier to do when the herb has dried somewhat. When cutting branches for arrangements, cut all the way down to the main plant, being sure not to cut into the woody branches. Depending on where you live, weather conditions for the year and when you harvest, it’s often possible to get a second bloom from lavender each summer.

Lavender plants in xeric garden.
In a vase or left in the garden, lavender is a striking herb.

Rosemary. Harvest rosemary any time of day or during its growth. We’ve harvested fresh rosemary in fall and even winter. As with lavender, avoid cutting into the woody branches of rosemary when trimming or harvesting. Select a few sprigs and either use the leaves right away or store unwashed, loosely wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator drawer.

rosemary loosely packaged for market
Rosemary keeps best when loosely wrapped in plastic and stored in the door of your refrigerator.

Sage. Fewer people use fresh sage leaves in the kitchen; many recipes require ground or rubbed versions of the herb. But there is plenty of value in the herb’s leaves, including medicinal uses and smudge sticks. I love to place fresh or dried leaves into the cavity or under the skin of chicken. For short-term storage, sage can be wrapped lightly in plastic and placed in a refrigerator door. It’s best bundled for drying, however. Just in time for fall dishes!

purple leaf sage
Purple leaf culinary sage is almost too pretty to harvest.

Thyme. Thyme also should not be washed until used and harvested before flowering (for culinary use) when possible. Keeping thyme trimmed and enjoying flowers on other forms of thyme, including ground covers, gives you flowers and flavor. If planning to dry the herb, you can wash it gently and let the leaves dry before bundling to hang a bunch. I’ve picked a bunch and placed it in a decorative bowl near the dining area, just so I can get a whiff of the herb while inside. Thyme retains flavor quite well after drying.

thyme bunches for sale
Some small bunches of time nestled between sage and sprouts.

For drying thyme and other fresh herbs, see this previous post.

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.

How To Grow Your Own Cooking Herbs

Herbs are delicious additions to so many dishes, and several popular herbs are easy to grow at home. You can save money and time flavoring foods by growing one or two of your favorite herbs in containers or flower beds near your home. Try the herbs listed below for the joy of cutting just enough fresh leaves for your recipe and the pride in growing the plants yourself.

fresh cut herbs from home garden
From left to right: sage, thyme, oregano and basil.

First, here’s a list of herbs that grow well in dry climates; in most parts of New Mexico and the desert Southwest, these herbs can be perennial plants in your landscape, coming back from year to year:

  • Rosemary. This aromatic herb is my favorite for growing and cooking. The drier, the better, once it’s established. And you can grow rosemary for its woody habit and tiny purple flowers.
rosemary in waterwise garden
This rosemary is an ornamental, but I have harvested from it. Note the santolina that fills most of the frame. It’s considered an herb as well. I love the yellow flowers it produces in summer.
  • Sage. We grow sage more as an ornamental, but I dried leaves last year for use in poultry dishes. Bees love sage flowers.
  • Lavender. Sure, you can cook with lavender (check out our Pinterest board for some recipes). And it’s the perfect plant – herbal or ornamental – for a xeric garden.
lavender plants in New Mexico
In addition to more than a dozen lavender plants for cutting and their gorgeous shape, we have one in a container just for culinary use.
  • Oregano. Culinary oregano is easy to grow and is hardy down to zone 5. Capture its best flavor by harvesting just before the plant blooms.

Annual herbs you can plant each year or rotate:

  • Basil. We grow from seed, but you can always find great basil plants in stores.
  • Dill. The tall aromatic plant is great for rock gardens. You can harvest seeds or leaves.
Dill is a versatile herb.
Dill is a versatile herb.
  • Parsley. The plant is an annual in most regions, unable to take a hard freeze. It’s the most popular herb used around the world.
  • Cilantro. This is a must-have herb for Southwestern dishes and it takes a big bunch for most recipes. Cilantro loves sun and often re-seeds. The leaves are delicious and the seeds (coriander) are popular in many recipes.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
  • Fennel. Tim loves the smell of fresh fennel, which resembles that of licorice. Although it prefers sun, new plants come up at the base of larger bushes in our garden. Fennel can become a weed in the right (wrong?) conditions.

Tips for herb growing and harvesting

Most annual herbs are easy to direct sow, or grow from seed right in your garden or container. Many perennial herbs, especially rosemary and lavender, grow best from cuttings or transplants. Be sure to choose a large enough container for your herb and choose a location that gives the plant enough sun or shade, depending on its needs. If this information isn’t on the tag or seed packet, check with a local or regional source such as master gardeners or your state and local cooperative extension service.

Protect tender herbs from pests. I keep basil covered all year with row cover cloth because every bug seems to love it as much as I do. And I just found out that some critter visiting our yard loves dill, as did the swallowtail caterpillars I found on it the other day (and moved to the fennel; sorry, Tim). If you can grow inside a fence, great, but we’ve incorporated herbs into our rock garden. Either choose those that your local pests don’t prefer (for us, that’s rosemary, lavender and thyme) or find a way to cover them.

I saved new dill plants from caterpillars only to find them nearly decimated this morning. I'm not sure of the culprit yet.
I saved new dill plants from swallowtail caterpillars only to find the plants nearly decimated this morning. I’m not sure of the culprit yet.

Harvest most herbs all season. Once a plant is sturdy and bushy, you can begin harvesting. Once an herb flowers, it can bolt in growth and lose or change flavor. But I’ve harvested rosemary from a plant already flowering, and then trimmed it back lightly in spring. I’ve been letting older thyme plants flower and try to keep younger ones managed for harvesting. In general, harvesting invigorates herb plants. So it’s best to use the leaves! Here are tips on cutting basil, along with a pesto recipe.

These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking.
These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking. That’s a white larkspur that happened to self-sow in the center.

Drying herbs is easy. I hung most in bunches from rafters in our shed, then stripped the dried flowers or leaves. You can also find plenty of products and ideas to help if you like. Here are tips on drying herbs from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.
Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.

Winter over or move indoors. If you’re not inclined to dry herbs at the end of the season, try wintering the plants over. Perennial herbs for your zone might need protection, but should make it in all but the coldest, snowiest winters. An advantage of container growing is that you can move the container indoors or to a warmer winter spot. Even if your indoor herb fails to last the entire winter, you extended the time during which you could clip just enough herbs for a favorite family meal, right inside your own home!