I am itching. Well, it’s spring-time in New Mexico, so allergies have made my eyes itch. But in the figurative sense, I am itching to get my vegetable garden started. There just isn’t much we can do with the short season here, but we can prep our garden.
Our fall “to-do list” included weeding and cleaning up our garden. Did we get to it? Nope. So about a month ago, we headed outside on a warm weekend with our garden hoes and set to work. We dug up and hauled off all of the grass, weeds and debris, partially leveled the garden and mixed in about 10 bags of organic topsoil/compost. Then, we covered it all with a layer of black landscape fabric hoping to “cook” the compost and kill any remaining weeds or seed. Then we bolted the fabric down any way we could to keep the wind from blowing it away.
Next up? Discussing this year’s plan. Most important is crop rotation. We want more space to move around and more space for a few of the plants. We also want to eliminate waste. So we cut back on the number of crops we’ll grow, move a few others to patio containers, and add one raised bed (in a watering trough). Crop rotation is critical for plant health and yield. We ordered seeds for the vegetables we most enjoy to reduce waste and looked for the shortest time to harvest on those that have the most trouble in our cooler climate.
The seeds are in, so the next step will be planting seedlings. We’ve got our starter pods and two heating mats. We’ll start the seeds in a few weeks, hoping they are just right for setting out after our last frost date (around May 10 to 15). Meanwhile, I’m watching for a nice, warm day so I can prepare a few containers for lettuce, arugula and spinach seeds. I’m willing to try them as soon as possible because nothing beats walking out my back door at lunch time and cutting fresh leaves for a salad!
Planning your spring garden or patio plants? You might have limited space, and certainly should consider limiting water use, so I’ve got a few tips for choosing low-water herbs for your garden, kitchen window or patio.
The good news is that like many xeric plants we grow in New Mexico gardens, many herbs have their roots in the Mediterranean. They prefer well-draining soil and low water.
Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) is the first herb that comes to mind, and is one of my favorites, both as an herb and as an ornamental. You can grow a small rosemary in a pot, keeping it trimmed (by cutting the tips and using the herb in recipes, of course) or grow a mounding or spreading form of the plant in your low-water garden. As an ornamental, rosemary has attractive foliage and blooms with light blue or pink flowers. It’s a tough herb that survives cold to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Just watch for overwatering and snow damage. If you get a heavy snow, try to knock the powder off your rosemary plant. Here’s a link to the Herb Society of America’s fact sheet on rosemary.
Thyme (Thymus) is another low-water favorite. Thymus vulgaris is the common shrubby herb, but several ornamental forms provide interest in the garden, and other flavors provide culinary variety. For example, lemon thyme is a favorite for marinades or sauces. I love to walk around our rock garden and rub my fingers on the leaves of our thyme shrub just to get a whiff of the scent, which is sort of a combination of earthy and salty. We use the dried leaves in several recipes and also enjoy the tiny, delicate lilac-colored flowers in summer. Thyme only needs water in the hottest zones and times of year.
Lavender (Lavendula) is a favorite Mediterranean herb, and we are experimenting now with several varieties. Our biggest mistake was to place the mail-ordered plants in the ground a bit early. The soil was not warm enough for the sun lovers. Lavender must have well-drained soil to prevent the roots from sitting in water. In New Mexico, French of Spanish lavender works much better than English lavender varieties. Be careful not to cut into the woody stems when trimming. Check with nurseries or catalogs for the best variety in your area and zone and for the purpose you want. I’ve used lavender in recipes, and have dried stalks of it in vases throughout my home just for scent and attractiveness. We’ll keep trying to improve our lavender-growing skills, and studying ideas for uses. Check out our Pinterest board for more on lavender.
Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) needs full sun and most varieties require no watering. Although not as attractive as the other plants I’ve mentioned, fennel is a versatile herb and easy to grow. We haven’t planted any, but it’s popped up around our garden, presumably from seeds of past plants. The fern-like leaves do have some appeal, and birds love the seeds once they turn brown. With a flavor similar to anise, fennel is a stock herb for many breads and pickling mixes. Learn more from the Herb Society of America.
The woody Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) “Blue Spire” is a perfect xeric plant, especially for the gardener who wants a easy but showy low-water ornamental. This is one of my favorites! First of all, even though the Russian sage has a pleasant, sage-like scent, deer leave the plant alone. Its spikes of lavender-like flowers bloom all summer with little to no water once your plant has been established. Here’s all you need to do:
Plant Russian sage in a spot where it can grow to three to five feet tall and wide, and give it well-draining soil and full sun. It looks great near yellows like Spanish broom or black-eyed Susans, or a red, such as wine cups or cherry sage. It’s also a great plant to pair with grasses and cacti in rock gardens for a pop of color.
Leave the stalks through winter, which still have an attractive shrub shape. In spring, just as you see some leaves begin to form on the lower branches, cut all of the branches back nearly to the ground. You’ll be rewarded with new, showy stalks. Bees love this plant, as do butterflies, hummingbirds, and many bird species as it seeds out.
As the Russian sage matures, you can trim it for shape and may have to cut out a few dead or crossing branches. But it looks best when full and round.
The Russian sage can put out runners (rhizomes), so keep an eye on them. I had a Russian sage at my Albuquerque home that bloomed every year for 11 years, and was there when we moved in. So it’s a long-lived perennial in the right spot, and should thrive in all zones, as long as it doesn’t get too much water!
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
Two ripe avocados
Light sour cream, maybe a quarter cup or so
Some of your favorite salsa or pico de gallo
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.
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.
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?
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:
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!
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).
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…
If you’re planning a xeric garden for spring, and especially if you’re planning to take out a grass lawn and replace it with gravel and xeric plants, try planning your garden in recommended water zones.
First, let me jump on my gravel soap box. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it every chance I get: Ripping out grass and replacing it all with gravel represents many homeowners’ idea of xeric gardening. They soon find out that it’s not the best solution when a tree left in the middle of a gravel lawn dies and their home cooling bill skyrockets.
So let’s consider zones instead.
You’ll want your most arid zone farthest from your house. Choose native plants that need the least amount of water, hopefully no supplemental watering at all. Here in New Mexico, that might include cacti, yuccas and many varieties of native flowering plants like Kniphofia uvaria (Red hot poker) or Berlandiera lyrata (Chocolate flower). It all depends on your landscape and personal preference.
Transition or Middle Zone
Your next zone can blend some lush, medium water areas with drier ones. Here’ you’ll use plants that take low and medium water. They only need water beyond nature’s supply about once a week or less. It’s a great spot for medium-water shrubs and trees, such as Spartium Junceum (Spanish broom) and various native oaks to provide summer shade, but let winter sun shine through.
If you want to keep some grass, here’s your chance. Drought-tolerant grasses like Bermuda, Blue Grama, or Buffalograss need little watering but keep your lawn green and other plant roots cool. When used in moderation, and not to cover huge areas, they’re still low- to medium-water choices for this zone. Add some annual flowers in beds or containers up close to the house. By placing lusher plants and turf that need a little more water closer to your home, you help cool your house and take advantage of water runoff from the roof and downspouts.
Of course, the drawing simplifies the concept. Landscapers who understand xeriscaping concepts know how to make your zones appealing and customized for your tastes and gardening ability. And by using microclimates, mulching, welling and other waterwise concepts we’ve discussed in other posts, you can push the limits in some of the zones. The basic concepts are to keep from overusing water and avoiding undermining the health of existing trees, along with the comfort and appearance of your home.
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.
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.
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.
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?
They’re the ultimate in low-water gardening. Succulents store water and grow slowly, making them adaptable to the dry climate of the desert Southwest.
Cacti are succulents that usually are small and round and have spines, branches or leaves. Succulents also can have the same characteristics, but the spines don’t arise from a spine cushion, or areole. You’ll only find cacti in the Western hemisphere. The picture that so often comes to mind is the saguaro surrounded by blowing dust in the dry, hot desert.
And that’s often where you find cacti, especially here in New Mexico and neighboring Arizona. My husband loves succulents and we enjoyed a trip a few years ago to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where we saw so many varieties, most of which couldn’t take the cooler temperatures we have at our higher altitude.
But who says you can’t have succulents at 6,000 feet of elevation? Several natural varieties of succulents thrive in the high desert. Hens and chicks, ice plants, several varieties of agave, and several native plants come to mind, such as prickly pear and devil’s head (also known as horse cripplers).
And you can have all kinds of fun inside your house, assuming you’ve got a good south-facing window, sunroom or greenhouse to winter over potted succulents. I think I mentioned how much my husband loves them? I have a geranium on this wall; the rest of the plants are succulents. He’s even propagating some new ones. We need a greenhouse soon!
In case you think succulents are boring, think again. Aside from the many shapes and growth patterns, many of them flower. I’ll try to get some good photos of the devil’s head flowers, but for now, enjoy the delicate blooms on this crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which blooms all year long in a sunny location. It started out as a tiny plant from a big-box store and now is about two feet tall (after a nice trim to keep it bushy). There are a few propagating on that trombeil wall, too!
I want to take a serious turn today. I saw an article on a news site a few weeks ago about a real water crisis and it gave me pause.
On this blog, I write about how you can have a beautiful garden by using less water. I do it mostly because I have to; we’re still in a serious drought in the Southwest and our property is on a well, so it’s not like we can access an unlimited supply. I also believe it’s the right thing to do. But my little efforts and musings are nothing, and I mean nothing at all, compared to the crisis faced by people around the world.
The article on CNN by Ian McKenna described the work Matt Damon does with Water.org, an organization he co-founded with Gary White in 2009. According to Damon, the nonprofit organization helps provide affordable access not only to safe water, but to sanitation, through projects like microfinance loans. It seems there’s a black market for water in some areas. And I fret when my rain barrel fills and I miss some. I just don’t have a real problem. I don’t have to walk very far to collect water from my faucets; it comes into several rooms in my home. We even have a few faucets outside. What would it be like to spend three hours a day just collecting water for your family? Or to have no sanitation in your local village?
Gardening, well, that would be the last thing on your mind. But so this doesn’t end on a downer, the CNN article talked about one small success from a microfinanced loan, and how an African woman was paying 40 rupees a day for her family’s access to a public toilet. With a loan she was able to connect to a utility and add a faucet and toilet in her home. The 40 rupees a month went to paying off the loan, which took two years. She now saves that money each month and has access to water and sanitation in her home.
Our rock garden has a few native roses. We decided to try harvesting some rose hips this fall to see what we could do with them. The rose hip is the fruit left behind after a rose has faded, and one of these bushes was perfect for harvesting the fruit. We could tell because several critters had already been around the bush doing the same.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of the bush in bloom, and it was a little unruly when we moved in, having not been pruned the previous year while the place was on the market. I gave it a little haircut, but didn’t want to do too much too late in the season. It will get a deeper prune this year!
Rose hips pack a punch of vitamin C, so we didn’t want them to go to waste. We read up on when to harvest (about a week after the first frost) and waited until a nice day. It ended up taking us a few nice days, a few buckets and a step stool. We never got them all, but as you’ll see later, we have more than we could ever use.
First up, jelly. Because it’s sweet, that’s why. We had to pick through and clean off the hips. We found a recipe online and after some trial and error, managed to get enough good liquid out of our boiled hips. They were so pretty and smelled really good while boiling.
The good news is that the jelly set and we like the taste. We’ve given a few jars away and kept the rest for us. It’s a little tart, but otherwise good. And I love the color. Somehow, I feel less guilty eating buttered toast when I spread the rose hip jelly on it.
The next attempt was tea. I thought the tea would be a healthy, caffeine-free drink for winter afternoons and evenings. I have not had as much luck with the tea, however. Most recipes say to boil berries for 15 minutes and then crush, steep and strain the contents. Or, you can crush the berries in a food processor and steep them in a tea sock (making sure not to let seeds or hairs from the hips through). But I’ve found that even after steeping for 10 minutes, the tea has little flavor. And after too much time, tea is no longer hot! I’m trying to figure out if I’m doing it wrong (so likely…) or if some of the berries were old, hanging out on the bush since last year.
I’ll keep experimenting with the tea, maybe adding more crushed berries next time. We’ve got plenty left to use, so many in fact, that when I needed a quick arrangement around the holidays…why not? I threw some of the rose hips into a hurricane vase with some decorative rocks, and it’s still out on a small table in our sun room.
With some good late winter pruning, I hope to improve the yield on both native roses and we’ll see how we do with next year’s crop. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the flowers, which appear with no supplemental watering.