Save Water and Time in the Garden With These Inexpensive Tools

cloudy-sky-dry-grass
The clouds have come, but the moisture hasn’t. Even the monsoons are late this year.

We are on the verge of ending the longest period without rain in years. And we’ve been spending a lot of time watering, so the rain can’t come soon enough for us, our grass, or our well. I’ve also been busy testing several watering-related products for Gardening Products Review  and that made me think about how to save time when watering.

All of this testing and watering more plants more often has made me reflect on how to make watering more efficient for us, the planet and other homeowners. Here’s part 1 of my list of favorite watering tools, starting with the least expensive, the kinds of tools available at home improvement stores.

quick connector between hose and soaker
A quick connector helps to easily change between watering tools. This one is between a hose from our faucet and a soaker hose.

Quick connectors. We use lots of quick connectors for switching between soaker hoses, sprayers, sprinklers or other watering tools. By screwing a male end into all your watering tools, you can quickly change out and connect several watering tools to the female end of your hose. So, for example, you can quickly switch from spraying off the patio to soaking a garden bed. And once you screw in the connectors, you don’t have to keep screwing on hoses, etc., which never seem to thread right when you’re in a hurry!

metal hose splitter
You can put a splitter directly on the faucet or even between hoses. Both connections have controllers so you can use one and close the other.

Splitters. Look for splitters, or manifolds that split one faucet into two or more outlets, depending on your needs. Solid metal splitters hold up better than plastic ones, but most have hard plastic controls so you can turn water on or off to your drip system or garden hose. This way, you can have one open faucet at all times for filling pails or rinsing a tool and still have a garden hose connected to water your new shrub. We have one on the ground about halfway from our orchard faucet to the other end, then split two hoses off of it to water our fruit trees.

soaker-hose-turtle-garden-art
Soaker hoses work slowly, like a turtle.

Soaker hose. If used correctly, soaker hoses are stars of the inexpensive watering tool department. You can get them for less than $20 at most home improvement stores. The solid rubber hoses have multiple tiny holes so water drips out of all sides. Just be sure to keep pressure low, or you’ll waste water sending fine sprays up in the air.

soaker hose gladiola bed
Here’s a soaker hose wrapped around some plants that require more water than nature usually delivers.

Regulators. My final favorite, inexpensive watering tool is an in-hose “regulator” or shut-off valve. This might not be a necessity for people with smaller gardens or yards, but we have faucets located hundreds of feet from where we garden. I like the exercise, but I don’t like wasting water while I go all the way back to the source to lower the pressure (5 times until I get it right). With these awesome little tools, you can lower the pressure on a dripper or sprinkler near where it’s running. We place ours between the last hose and the one before it.

Even if distance is not a big issue, these come in handy between your hose and soaker hose, which can spew water like a sprinkler if the pressure is too high. And pressure can vary so much. Alternatively, invest in a water wand or similar attachment that has a flow control switch on the handle to drip water when it’s turned down.

dramm-water-wand-green
A water wand like this one from Dramm is a must-have for when you need to hand-water garden areas.

Free tip: Regularly check hoses and drippers for leaks. Hoses are expensive, and they tend to dry out in our desert sun. They also get ruined from being left outside in winter, when water can freeze in the hose, expanding it. So, the first tip is to drain and roll up hoses in winter if you don’t use them and temperatures dip below freezing. And a good hose repair kit is perfect for handy people to fix leaks instead of replacing entire hoses when that’s the best option.

PVC sprinkler connection with quick connector
My husband made a mini-sprinkler for watering new grass seed out of a neighbor’s unwanted PVC pipe and a few sprinkler heads. Notice the male quick connector on the end.

 

Plant and Repeat

One of the best features of many xeric gardens is the natural look of the landscapes. We often use rocks and boulders and tuck native plants among them. This design most closely mimics the look of the landscape around us.

rock-garden-plants-southwest
Here’s a perfect example of a Southwestern xeric design that’s natural, too. This bed at the entrance to Plants of the Southwest nursery in Albuquerque repeats some plants, but otherwise mimics nature.

If you’ve moved to New Mexico and other Southwestern states from areas of the East and Southeast, you might be more used to a cottage garden look, where shrubs like boxwoods form hedges and foundation plantings repeat the same flower.

grasses-rows-garden
This Austin garden early on our tour inspired the idea to look for repetition. Rows of grasses have order, but look natural and likely help with erosion control.

On a recent trip to Austin, I noticed a perfect blend of both features. Many of the gardens I toured with fellow garden bloggers struck me with how well they used repetition in their designs. But these Texas gardens also had a natural look. Here’s a photo essay from Austin, along with a few New Mexico shots.

repeat-grass-variegated-path
This garden area feels more lush and woodlike than most I’m used to, but had plenty of natural repetition, along with texture contrast.
three-metal-containers-plants
Pam Penick has the concept down! I love these three lined-up metal containers with a complementary mix of plants.
grasses-granite
Repetition can be random and even look natural, like these grasses.
terracotta-pots-row-
Natural terracotta pots with pops of color line an entryway to Lucinda Hutson’s garden.
grasses-line-street-median
Colleen Jamison’s habitat garden extended into her street’s median, where grasses line the curb.

So, Why Repeat Plants or Containers?

I realized we tend to favor single plantings in our gardens, typically choosing a plant based on how it will look in a location or complement a nearby plant. And when you love plants, it’s tough to resist adding any you like to any garden you own. But after seeing the use of repetition, I decided we need to add more repetitive elements. Here are a few reasons why:

lavender-plants-row
One area of repetition in our rock garden is the lavender. This is the top row.

Continuity. A garden is a sort of composition, and repeating an element gives it a sense of balance without making it look too symmetrical or monotonous.

repeated-potted-plants-patio-table
This patio table at Tanglewild Gardens uses repetition in its centerpieces, but repeats natural elements.

Easier maintenance. We all have a plant we’ve tried that survived despite strange weather or a little neglect. Others require little to no pruning or deadheading. Why not scatter a few more of these easy-care plants around your home?

container-plants-three-iron-heart
Pam Penick’s awesome front garden included this container with three of the same plants and a beautiful piece of garden art. The plants have the same watering and exposure requirements.

Color. Although many xeric plants are colorful, some really stand out in the garden. Using the same purple in a row of plants or throughout a garden gives a color focal point.

succulents-containers-color
Lucinda Hutson’s garden was packed with color. Here, she used the same three succulents in colorful matching containers.

Saving money. Sure, you still have to buy the plants, but it is less expensive to buy four of the same perennial once than to fill in an empty space in the garden each year.

b-jane-gardens-repeated-plants
This garden, built and designed by B. Jane Gardens, repeats these plants in a shady raised bed, but the effect is visually appealing and far from formal.

Finally, I would say that repeating plants is a fine example of xeriscaping principles. When you plant 5 native grasses in a grouping, they all have the same water and sun exposure needs. You don’t have to come in and add water for a plant that needs more than the grasses or take the chance of overwatering and killing a nearby plant. And when you use repetitious art or hardscape elements, you add to the design without adding plants — and that requires no water at all!

green-gold-turquoise-containers
Another example of Lucinda Hutson’s use of color and repetition in these outdoor containers.

 

 

 

 

 

How To Harvest and Store Fresh Vegetables

Our tomatoes, cucumbers, herbs and other plants are finally producing and we’ll be adding gradually to the selections we offer at the Alamogordo Downtown Farmers’ Market. One of the biggest challenges for us is to keep food fresh for our buyers. And we want to help customers enjoy their fresh produce for as long as possible.

farmers market table
Our first harvest for a Farmers’ Market this year in Alamogordo, NM.

When I’ve researched information, I’ve often found long-term storage tips, which can differ from just keeping food fresh for your family all week. The storage tips below also apply to fresh produce from a stand or grocery store. The harvesting tips help you know when to pluck that yummy fruit and how to make sure it stays fresh.

farmers market in New Mexico
The Alamogordo Downtown Farmer’s Market has plenty of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.

Seed packets, plants and extension publications have great information on when to harvest vegetables, but days to maturity can vary by region and even seasonal weather, so rely on solid information and your gut if you’ve grown and harvested an edible in the past. When I say not to wash a vegetable, I mean before storage. It’s always a good idea to wash produce you grow or buy before eating, especially if the produce is not grown organically and comes from the grocery store.

Beets: You can harvest beets anytime, depending on whether you want to work with small roots. The optimal size is slightly over 1 inch to about 2 inches in diameter. They taste best picked before summer heat kicks in, or in fall if you plant them in summer. Cut the greens off down to about one inch above the shoulder of the root and brush the root dry (if you wash it before storing, let it dry completely). You can also store fresh beet greens in the refrigerator for about 3 days wrapped in plastic.

Beets for sale at the farmers market
These multicolored beets were a hit this year.

Carrots: Brush aside a little dirt and see if the carrot’s top, or shoulder, is at least 1/2 inch in diameter. If the top is emerging from the soil, you can bet it’s probably time to harvest. After pulling up the roots (so fun!), cut the leaves about 1/2 inch above the shoulder. Either leave the soil or brush off with a clean cotton towel, or wash and dry completely before storing carrots in an unsealed plastic bag.

Cucumbers: Harvest in early morning but not while the plant is wet. Cut the fruit from the stem, leaving up to 1/2 inch of stem. Cucumbers store best at 50° but absent a perfect spot, keep them in the refrigerator crisper drawer, unwashed and wrapped in a few layers of cotton towels. Check them every few days for moisture and dry off. They’ll keep up to 10 days.

cucumber ready to harvest
This yummy cucumber is ready to harvest. You can tell by the flowers that we’ll have lots more soon.

Green beans: Harvest when they seem firm and long and snap from the vine. The best time is morning if it’s dry. If the beans are lumpy and long, they won’t taste as well (but can be frozen and used in soups). Don’t wash beans before storing. Keep in a plastic bag in your crisper drawer for up to one week. Snap peas follow similar methods, but let the peas form inside sugar snap peas and keep up to 3 days in storage.

Lettuce: Harvest before the plant bolts, or explodes in growth, for freshest flavor. Cut leaf lettuces such as Mesclun mix from the outside first, leaving some stem for the plant to grow and produce a second time. Cut head lettuces just above soil level. Wash and dry lettuce immediately. We triple-wash our lettuce, spinning after each rinse. Store lettuce in a closed plastic bag in the refrigerator. Either puff the bag up with air by blowing into it (we don’t use that method for lettuce we sell…) or add a paper towel inside the bag to soak up moisture.

Mesclun lettuce is as pretty as it is tasty. Harvest from the sides first and the leaves will grow again.
Mesclun lettuce is as pretty as it is tasty. Harvest from the sides first and the leaves will grow again.

Okra: Harvest when 2 to 3 inches long. Store in a plastic bag in the refrigerator up to one week.

Summer squash: Harvest with a knife or sharp cutters when 4 to 7 inches long. Cut the stem carefully, leaving no more than an inch on the fruit. Wipe clean; don’t wash before storing. They do best in a dark room at about 59°, but can be kept in the crisper drawer in a plastic bag.

yellow summer squash
Summer squash ready for Saturday’s market.

Tomatoes: Pick while the fruit is at the peak of color; the green has disappeared but the red or yellow is rich. If you wait too long, tomatoes can crack. Wash and dry before storing. Tomatoes are so easy to store right on a kitchen counter. Of course, a cooler room might be better, but they do not need refrigeration. Store tomatoes with the stem scar pointed up to avoid spoiling around the scar.

harvesting-and-storage-tips-farmers-market-vegetables (4 of 7)
The top yellow cherry tomato is ready to harvest. The ones below are a little green and should be ready in a few days!

Here’s a fruit bonus: Harvest watermelon when the vine’s tendrils begin turning brown or when the ground spot on the fruit turns from white to yellow. You should keep them in a cool area (about 60° to 70°) and it’s best to only refrigerate watermelon after cutting the fruit open.

5 Ways to Protect Edibles from Critters

I don’t mind feeding birds and deer in the winter when they really need our grass, flower seeds and insects! But once we plant herbs and vegetables, it’s time for the critters to move on, or at least be selective.

Getting wildlife to move on is not so easy. If only we could post “Keep Off the Grass” or “Do Not Touch Our Tomatoes” signs. Instead, we have to deter them as best we can. Here is more info about our latest attempts, and an update on our repurposed post fence.

deer fencing
This fencing is made from old ranch posts. We hope to replace many of our metal poles with these supports.

Our vegetable garden/microfarm needs protection from hooved, underground and above-ground munchers. Here, that means deer, elk, gophers, skunks, squirrels and cottontail rabbits. It takes some work to fence out all of the pests and wildlife, but we’ve been pretty successful. My opinion is that wildlife should be able to roam freely on our place and it is up to me as the farmer/gardener to either protect plants or install plants that they don’t eat. Gophers are exceptions. They are not wildlife to me, but destructive underground rodents. If we don’t use control and deterrents, we will not have a lawn or any living plant left.

gopher mound
Example of gopher damage. Multiply it by 1,000!

Here Are Five Ways to Keep Critters Off Your Food

1. First, we surrounded our entire vegetable garden area with cattle fencing. We only went to six feet in height, but if we ever make the space larger, we realize we might have to go higher. We’ve had no attempts so far by deer (or elk) to jump the fence, although I’m sure they can. I don’t really believe in products that use sounds or scents, although I am open to ideas supported by evidence!

jack russels
Domestic critters. In some cases, you have to protect them from critters. But sometimes, they are the pests that can destroy plants.

 

dog kennel for garden fence
This kennel keeps dogs safe and confined until we let them out to run. A kit like this can work well in a garden. The gate is nice and wide and the holes small enough to keep out most critters.

2. Before we could put up the new high fence to discourage deer and elk, we had to protect roots underground. I don’t know how those little rodents dig through our soil and rock so easily, because it was not fun. We used grub hoes and a digging bar to create a trench at least 20 inches deep. We placed metal lath into the trench, and carefully overlapped each piece to leave no holes for gophers. Believe me, they will find the holes.

Metal lath runs nearly two feet below and a few inches above ground inside of the deer fence.
Metal lath runs nearly two feet below and a few inches above ground inside of the deer fence.

We also bent about three inches of the lath 90 degrees all the way along the bottom. This should help prevent going just under the metal and back up, but it remains to be seen. Along one fence, we used metal roofing material, which costs more but is solid. This was mostly to keep gophers out, but also to shore up sawdust, sand and fresh manure from our neighbor’s horse pen just next to our garden. Horse manure is a great fertilizer, but only after several months of composting. I don’t want it near our vegetables!

This is what the horse thinks of our fence. It might not look like much, but it works.
This is what the horse thinks of our fence. It might not look like much, but it works.

3. We left several inches of lath above the ground as an extra barrier. It’s possible a bunny, or especially a squirrel, could get through the holes in the cattle fence, or that a gopher would venture above ground to get around the lath. We placed the cattle fencing against the lath.

Cattle fence also works well around fruit trees. We set it no more than about a foot high, and cut, then bend, pieces in the fence for easy opening and closing.
Cattle fencing also works well around fruit trees. We set it no more than about a foot high, and cut, then bend, pieces in the fence for easy opening and closing.

4.Raised beds can provide another layer of protection. We added three new horse troughs to our garden this year, and plan to add more troughs or raised beds next year. They’re extra protection from gophers in particular, help warm soil for our short season, grow fewer weeds, and help save my old back. See how we prepped our first carrot trough here. Containers can work, as can placing metal screen or lath at the bottom or the bed.

garden fence and troughs
The fence surrounds our vegetable garden. Four cattle troughs are pegged for root crops this year to reduce temptation from underground critters.

Row covers discourage insects and little critters. I’m pretty convinced that birds gather some of our garden seeds and we definitely have evidence of snail, grasshopper and other insect damage to seedlings each year. So I’ll use hoops, rocks, buckets, PVC, whatever I can find to secure row covers around seedlings, even those that already have their double fencing layer of protection.

attractive fence and trellis
Fences can be attractive and functional, if you have the money. We loved this fence/trellis/arbor we saw in a Pasadena back yard last fall.

If you put buckets around vegetables, be sure to remove them as soon as the weather warms and the plant seems sturdy, especially if the bucket seems to be restricting stem growth at all. Remove row covers as soon as plants flower so the good guys can do their job pollinating. When putting up deer fencing, be sure to think about how high they can reach from their hind legs and how high off the ground to start your fence. We have had several fawns get into our ranch post fence this winter, but it seems to have kept out adult deer.