Let’s Help, Not Confuse, New Gardeners

Often on this site, I talk about how to keep gardening simple, fun and useful. And although xeriscaping can be tricky and drought even tougher to endure when starting out as a gardener, there are plenty of strategies to help gardeners succeed, or at least enjoy the process.

cosmos annual
Gardening can be easy. We didn’t even plant cosmos here. They reseed from old plants. All we have to do is control them.

To help Southwest gardeners — and all people jumping into gardening — I try to follow a few important rules:

  • Emphasize the positive, how anyone can make it work and that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Use lay language while also providing scientific names for plants (which helps avoid confusion when a reader looks for a plant).
  • Educate, even by admitting mistakes we’ve made in the garden.

Here’s how I look at it: We all started out new to this hobby at some point, whether it was in childhood or following an education in horticulture. Yet we’ve had nursery people talk down to us when we ask a question, and I cringe every time I see a tweet or pin titled “You’re Doing _____ Wrong,” or “5 Mistakes to Avoid With ____.”

tomatoes cracking
Tomatoes can crack. You can learn how to water to avoid it, but it’s a little harder to control rain. All gardeners (and farmers) lose some plants or fruit.

I’ve also seen fellow master gardeners try so hard to show what they’ve learned that they are condescending when talking to new gardeners on social media or in person. That’s really the opposite of the concept; master gardeners are trained to help.

To that end, I recently wrote an article for Green Profit Magazine about how folks in the industry can talk to the level of all gardeners and potential gardeners. The article includes some helpful sources who recognize that helping gardeners succeed beats telling them what they’re doing wrong.

If someone kindly explains something to me that I already know, it wastes a little bit of my time, but I appreciate the effort. But when someone makes me feel stupid because of a question or error, I simply stop frequenting their business or acquaintance.

So, if you already garden and want to recruit a neighbor, daughter or friend into the hobby or you communicate with gardeners, help people with kindness, example, simplicity and patience.

 

10 Gardening Terms Explained

New to gardening? Or just not a horticulturist, botanist or even a master gardener? Then you likely get confused by some of the terms you see on plant tags, in nursery catalogs and even in blogs like this one. You’ll enjoy gardening much more if you can weed through the jargon (and the puns). Here are 10 terms explained in plain language to get you started:

xeriscaping defined
Xeriscaping is a misunderstood (and mispronounced) term. And it’s not just about growing cacti in gravel!

10. Xeriscaping. This one’s my favorite, of course. And as I’ve said before, it’s xeriscaping, from xeros, the Greek word for dry … not ZEROscaping. In other words, it’s planning a lawn and garden that uses the least possible water. In most cases, this means using drought-tolerant plants (see no. 1), but xeriscaping also involves using native plants adapted to your climate and conditions, along with lots of other strategies for landscape design and plant choice.

xeric plants agastache
Xeric perennials come back year after year with very little effort or water.

9. Perennial. The word means long lasting, and that’s pretty much true of perennial plants as well. A perennial grows in your yard for more than two years, often for much longer before it needs replacing. Remember that perennial varies based on where you live. For example, the well-known geranium can be a perennial in a warm climate, but I have to bring mine inside for winter. And don’t freak out if a perennial plant disappears or looks dead after frost. You’ll likely see new growth on it come spring. Planting mostly perennials in your garden usually leads to less work and less watering.

geranium container
Geraniums can’t survive our winters. But unlike most annuals, we can keep them alive all year, and often blooming, in a sunny window. I just sprayed this one off in preparation for the move back inside.

8. Biennial. A biennial plant lives for two years, or two growing seasons. Seeds start the plant’s root, stem and leaf growth in the first year, but the plant doesn’t produce flowers, fruit or seeds until the second year. After that, the plant typically dies, but can spread seeds before dying back. An example of a biennial is the foxglove (Digitalis). Another is one of my favorites, the columbine (Aquilegia), which might flower the first year, or might put all of its energy into leaf and stem growth, and then flower the following year. Some forms of poppy (Papaver) also are biennials. And unfortunately, some weeds also are biennials. They take on a tiny round leaf form, survive the winter that way and then flower and spread seeds, lots of seeds, the next year.

columbine flower
Columbines are considered biennial flowers, but they usually re-seed in the same area of the yard, garden or forest!

7. Annual. An annual lives only one year, or for one growing season. Still, some annuals re-seed, so if you’re willing to let Mother Nature design your garden layout, you can let annual flowers dry up and produce seeds. Annuals are great for small containers and adding color to a garden or patio each year. But they usually require more time, money and even water in the long run than perennial plants.

zinnias
It’s easy and inexpensive to grow annual zinnias from seed.

6. Native. A native plant was likely in your town before you moved in. These plants grow naturally in specific regions or conditions. They should not become invasive if they’re planted in their native region. The real benefit of native plants (aside from their beauty in the garden, forest or along roads) is that they’ve done most of the work already. They know how to survive weeks with no water or really high spring winds. Selecting native plants is one of the most effective xeriscaping strategies.

California poppy
Many poppies are native to New Mexico and thrive in our dry, sunny conditions.

5. Specimen plant. Lots of catalogs refer to a bush or flower as a “specimen plant.” This has nothing to do with strange botany experiments. All it means is that the plant can stand on its own as a focal point in a garden or landscape design. For example, petunias or begonias look much better in mass plantings, which means groups of the same or similar flowers for a dramatic look. Mass plantings might become hedges or adorn the entry to your local mall. Landscapers might plant a row of 100 marigolds and a row of 200 petunias for striking color. On the other hand, a specimen plant shines all by itself.

boxwood
This boxwood is a specimen plant near our front entry, while the ajuga that line the shaded beds are more of a mass planting.
boxwood hedge
While visiting Atlanta-area gardens, I noticed lots of boxwoods planted in mass as hedges.

4. Invasive. Typically, an invasive plant is a nuisance at the least. It can choke out other plants and grasses, climb around and choke bushes or simply compete for precious water. Invasive plants grow easily and rapidly, usually because they are not native to the area. Just remember that these terms are all relative. A plant native to a particular part of the country might be considered invasive after being introduced to a different region. When a plant becomes invasive, it probably crosses that very thin line between wildflower and weed. One of the most troubling weeds we encounter is field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis), which is considered invasive in all of the lower 48 states, Hawaii and Canada. Maybe on the moon…

field bindweed root
Field bindweed stem and root, with my foot for scale. The roots usually break off so the plant can grow right back — in nearly any condition, including through concrete.

3. Deciduous. If a tree or shed is deciduous, that simply means it loses its leaves in fall and winter. The opposite would be evergreen, trees that keep their leaves all winter. Deciduous plants shed their leaves as a protection against upcoming cold. Many turn rich, deep shades of gold and bronze before falling, which gives the yard and garden color as summer flowers fade.

fall vine
Deciduous trees, shrubs and vines provide the stunning fall colors that mark the season.

2. Pollinator. You might see list articles on blogs and social media mentioning “pollinator plants.” This means that the plant attracts bees and other insects that help promote flower and fruit production. The insects disturb and transfer tiny grains of pollen in flowers. Without bees, most fruit trees and many vegetables would produce little to no fruit. Many native plants, herbs and vegetables attract bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects to the garden. They’re essential plants to help maintain honey bee populations, which have been declining. Here’s a list of New Mexico pollinator plants. Many gardening books and catalogs place a tiny icon of a butterfly or bee in descriptions to let you know they attract pollinators.

verbena wild
This swallowtail was enjoying our verbena today; the verbena comes up on its own.

And No. 1: Drought tolerant. Back to an important xeriscaping principle. Plants that are drought tolerant can go longer periods of time without water; it means basically the same as xeric, but is a little more direct. Plants with drought tolerance and resistance have characteristics that help them survive in these conditions. And all it usually takes is a little bit of rain to make them thrive, green and flower. Just remember – if you purchase drought tolerant plants, be sure to water them regularly for the first few weeks or months and up to the first year, depending on the plant and its size. The water keeps the plant alive through the shock of transplant and helps the roots get established.

bee buzzing on lavender stalk
Lavender, a drought-tolerant perennial herb that’s also a pollinator plant.

 

Quit Worrying and Just Grow

Today’s rant: a preponderance in society, and especially in social media, to make gardening seem like constant landscape perfection. For starters, nurseries, botanical gardens or garden bloggers tend to avoid posting photos of diseased, dead or poorly performing plants. At times, we even enhance our photos with widely available filters.

peach on tree
Perfect peach? Sure, but what the photo fails to reveal is this is the only, and I mean only, peach the tree produced.

But that’s pretty normal, right? Consumers are more confident in nurseries with healthy plants. But some photos on social media are enhanced beyond reality, and the constant barrage of perfect plants, fruit and flowers can make millennials and other new or hesitant gardeners believe their gardens must look as rich, lush and perfect as the examples flooding their smartphones.

To exacerbate the problem, popular posts in my social media feeds often have headlines that read like this:

“10 Mistakes Every New Gardener Makes”

“Growing Tomatoes – You’re Doing It All Wrong”

“Top 5 Garden Failures”

Although some posts and authors have great intentions, other sites write headlines primarily for click-throughs. I try not to save or read these, but prefer instead to get my information from positive, researched posts and publications. Nearly everyone who gardens encourages others to try it; that’s especially true of those of us who write about gardening.

suyo long cucumbers
Some people turn up their noses at these burpless Suyo long cucumbers. But they’re delicious!

But how encouraged can new gardeners be by messages of failure? Believe me, we all experience problems and pitfalls in gardening, no matter what magazines and social media portray. Here are a few ways to overcome concerns about having the perfect looking garden, largest and prettiest fruit, and other pressures:

Learn by trial and error. This is the ultimate in “on-the-job training.” Although it’s frustrating to realize you’ve wasted some time and money on a plant that dies, you learn from your mistakes. Start small on gardening in general and with any new plant or project. If things go wrong, it’s an easier pill to swallow! At any rate, lower your expectations just enough that you do the best you can, but recognize that’s all you can do.

tomato plant problems
I showed this sad looking roma tomato plant a few weeks ago. It’s producing mature fruit, but we’ve learned it’s probably not the best variety for us to grow.

Gather information, but don’t overload yourself. There’s so much out there on gardening and DIY projects that it’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed. Use plant tags and local, credible sources. For example, master gardeners train on topics like general plant and soil health, but also learn about plants specific to their town or region. Books, magazines and websites from your part of the country likely offer the most appropriate advice. There is a definite “East Coast bias” in print and online publishing, and it seems particularly clear in gardening. Those of us in the West and Southwest sometimes have to try a little harder to find pertinent help.

weeds in southwest orchar
Got weeds? We sure do, and we always will.

Grow plants you love. Select plants that make you smile but are native to or hardy in your area. The combination really helps. For example, I love orchids, but have trouble maintaining them in a house that averages way below 30 percent humidity. I know I can, but I’m not sure how much time I’m still willing to give them. On the other hand, I’ve found plants I love simply by walking or driving by them. Some were already in place in the landscapes of new homes. If you love the scent and taste of basil, grow some. And if you choose to work with a garden consultant or landscape designer to plan your lawn and garden, get enough information during the process to select colors, scents, textures and edibles that will bring you the most pleasure.

southwest landscape
Birds or nature placed this sunflower right next to our lavender. If sunflowers pop up so easily on their own in these conditions, why not grow them?

Learn from fellow gardeners. The trial and error aspects of gardening apply to all of us, and often family or neighbors have great advice because they’ve tried something that did or didn’t work. If you know that your mother or best friend had a bounty of delicious snap peas last year, ask for some help getting yours started. Master gardener training and expert advice provide great information, but I’ve learned plenty from friends and family, especially when I’m trying something I’ve never grown before.

Don’t give up. Like I said in a post earlier this month, it’s so tempting to quit when weather, insects and weeds wreak havoc on your best-laid plans. But keep plugging along, recognizing that you’ll have to put up with some weeds or limited flower or fruit production.

The quest for perfection is exacerbated in other areas of life, not just gardening. We want to look like photoshopped models, prepare meals that belong on the cover of gourmet cooking magazines and plan the perfect party or wedding. The truth is, real life involves moderation, imperfection and learning from mistakes.

So just get out there and garden. Plant a new bush in your landscape this fall or buy a succulent to adorn your desk this winter. And enjoy the process along with the results.

 

 

 

Late Summer Garden Problems? Don’t Give Up

It would be fun to see a chart of gardener enthusiasm from May through September. My guess is that it would look something like this:

summer-garden-dont-give-up (11 of 1)

After all, gardening can take time and effort, and summer vacations, heat, family time or work all interfere. It’s easy to get discouraged when bugs and weeds take over and plants don’t look their best. This morning, I had to water for the first time in weeks following a period of regular rain. It took all the effort I could muster, especially since most of our time is spent controlling insects and weeding, usually the same spots over and over again.

low-water southwest garden midsummer
Some people might see a lush low-water garden. I see weeds that need pulling, flowers that need deadheading, beds that need mulching and even a bird bath that needs water!

Then I came inside and remembered: So maybe the horn worm stripped about a fifth of the leaves from one of our tomatoes? At least we finally got control. The plant doesn’t look its best, but the tomatoes are ripening. If we don’t get as many as planned, I can live with that. I can’t just let the plant go, which wastes all of the time, attention and water put into getting it this far.

Staying positive can be tough, but here are seven tips for getting past midsummer doldrums in the garden:

Don’t consider problems as failures. Plants naturally begin to decline and leaves yellow in midsummer. Vegetables and some ornamentals are annuals, after all, and go through a seasonal life cycle. Plus, your plant is putting more energy into fruit or flower production than forming perfect green leaves. And you really can’t control the weather, but only help your plant through rough periods such as drought.

We nearly pulled this tomato up because the leaves have looked awful since an early heat wave. But we're getting some gorgeous roma tomatoes!
We nearly pulled this tomato up because the leaves have looked awful since an early heat wave. But we’re getting some gorgeous roma tomatoes!

Take some photos and share them. You might see brown leaves on a fading green bean plant, but others might see how high the plant has gotten. A close-up of the bean or bloom, along with blooms on flowering ornamentals, focuses your own attention on the beauty that you’re nourishing. Likewise, a photo of your entire garden compared to how it looked two months ago should represent the pride of the work you and nature accomplished.

These lantana blooms make me smile. I need to look past problems to this pretty container.
These lantana blooms make me smile. I need to look past problems to this pretty container.

Change your routine. Although it’s always best to water in the morning, sometimes it’s more fun to go out to breakfast first. Spending time in the garden still is important, especially as plants get crowded, which gives insects more places to hide. If it’s too much to water before work, add a timer to a drip system. Spend time pulling weeds and checking for insects in evening just before the light fades. Or make it a family activity a few days a week.

Share your harvest. Everybody gets tired of zucchini. I love harvesting fresh vegetables early in the season, but my enthusiasm tends to wane when every plant is at peak production. I’m more jazzed this year because we’re selling most of our crops at a farmers’ market. Home gardeners can share with colleagues, neighbors, family members or food pantries. Your enthusiasm is sure to rise when work friends comment on how delicious your fresh cucumbers taste.

Herbs for sale at a local farmers' market.
Herbs for sale at a local farmers’ market.

Take a tip from nature. Often, birds spend more time in the garden as flowers seed out and fade. The birds don’t care if the plant is a little leggy or faded. They still appreciate the seeds, especially if they’re migrating. Really, would you rather be trapped indoors in winter than out here tending your garden? Picture fewer weeds next spring because you got to the ones in the garden now before they seeded out. You can save yourself some time next year by keeping up now.

Keep notes and plan strategies. Gladiolas deer resistant? I think not. I’ve grown some gladiolas as this year’s splurge in terms of water because they are a perfect cut flower. And yes, I should have cut some stalks and brought them inside before last night. The newest flowers and buds are gone, thanks to a deer with discriminating taste who left the fading flowers alone. I’ll have to change where I grow the bulbs next year or keep up with deterrent sprays and methods. I’m looking into doing a better job with trap crops for insect control. And we’ll choose the plants for our microfarm that do the best in our typical conditions (if there is such a thing) and that people like to purchase the most. Plan now, while problems are fresh in your memory, for fall and spring planting.

Gorgeous salmon-colored gladiola blooms in the morning dew. Gone the next morning...
Gorgeous salmon-colored gladiola blooms in the morning dew. Gone the next morning…

Scrutinize social media posts. Obviously, don’t ignore everything on social media. But anyone who posts photos of perfect plants and huge flowers isn’t including photos of the plants they had to pull up because of disease or the really weedy area of their garden. It’s especially important to ignore posts like “How to Yield 300 Tomatoes From One Plant.” First, that’s just to get you to click through. Why compare yourself, and besides, do you really need 300 tomatoes? Lastly, it’s probably not the best advice around. Look for real, solid and credible information and set realistic expectations for yourself and your plants.

Pears that need picking? Or a dreamy shady spot to sit and enjoy yard and garden labor!
Pears that aren’t ripening? Or a dreamy shady spot to sit and enjoy yard and garden labor!

Finally, enjoy reading a book in the shade after you’ve worked in the garden, maybe while munching a fresh cucumber. It will be more relaxing!

 

Protecting New Plants From Wacky Weather

There’s nothing worse than watching a tomato grow from seed into a healthy start and then having it die soon after planting. Of course, paying for a plant at a nursery and then having to buy another is not much fun either.

Sometimes, gardeners can’t control everything, though we hate to admit that.  The new plant you purchased might have been doomed from the start, or an unpredicted hail storm hit while you were at work, beating all of the leaves off your tender start.

double rainbow ruidoso downs nm
Less than two weeks ago, it was rainy and in the 40s. Today, it will be in the mid- to high 80s with sustained winds of at least 25 mph. How do plants adapt?

Although I wish I could control the weather, I realize I can only manage a few steps to increase the chances of successful transplanting. Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t assume the problem is water. I have been guilty of this, assuming if a plant wilts, it must need water. But that’s not always the case. The problem might be related to water, such as soil that doesn’t drain or drains too quickly. It also can be heat, changes in sun exposure, or wind. Some wilting is temporary.
geranium leaves damaged by wind and sun
These geraniums were ready to head back outside for summer, and we only want to move this pot twice a year. The wind (and likely hot sun) has damaged leaves, so as soon as it calms, I’ll trim off the damaged foliage. It needs a haircut anyway, so no need to panic!
  • Pay attention to the plant. Although overwatering can cause problems, underwatering is likely more dangerous, especially in dry climates of the Southwest. Water brings nutrients into a plant and helps it avoid or withstand weather damage or insect attacks. Walking by and touching a plant and looking for signs of insects can give you good clues about the plant’s health. Check for weeds under the plant. Field bindweed and morning glories wrap around plant stems and can damage them.
  • Harden off the start or new plant. It’s way fun to plant your new shrub as soon as you get home from the store. And planting right away can help a plant that’s rootbound in a plastic pot. Hurrah for plant rescue! However, if the new plant was in shade and sheltered from wind, give it a little time to adjust before you plop it down in a sunny, open location. Keeping the potted plant up against your house where it gets afternoon shade can help. When hardening off seedlings, choose a calm day and gradually increase the time the plants stay outside, especially in sun, for several days or weeks.
tomato and basil starts harden off
Hardening off starts on one of the few calm mornings we’ve had.
  • Choose the right location. Read the tags that accompany a new plant or the seed packet. It’s also good to double check with guides from local authors or master gardeners for more information on sun and watering. A plant can survive in mostly shade, but fail to bloom, for example. Microclimates can warm or chill plants.
yarrow and poppy
Yarrow in foreground and Oriental poppy in background. Both love heat, and the rocks help warm the poppy. BTW, the fencing around it is for protection from deer, not weather.
  • Protect the plant from weather elements. Oh, our poor tomatoes have had to endure full days of high winds for nearly a week, and today winds will be worse and humidity lower, to the point of fire weather warning. I start all tomatoes with a 5-gallon bucket around them. We simply saw out the bottom so we can set it into the ground to protect the plant, increase warmth around leaves and still have air circulation. The other day, the wind blew two of the buckets off the plants, right up by our house. Then, I got all excited on a calm day and put cages around the plants, which are growing above the top of the buckets. The wind beat them up, so I have buckets around three and a cage around the strongest tomato.
row cover and bucket protect tomato from cold
I was determined to start some tomatoes, and so far they are growing well. The container, bucket and row cover all increase warmth and the cover would have held up to small hail. It looks weird, but the plant will look gorgeous later!
  • Other ideas are to shade a plant during hot sun with permeable landscape fabric or by simply setting or tipping a woven lawn chair upside down over a small plant to block rays during peak heat. Of course, if you have wind, you will need to secure the chair with ground staples.
ground stakes
The staple on upper left is holding that poppy cage in place. These are handy garden tools!
  • Flexibility and patience help. Our weather went from too cool and damp to hot and windy. I haven’t been able to harden off the rest of my tomatoes and basil. And even though I’m anxious to get them in the ground, I have to wait until conditions are better. If you need to plant early or during a cool spell, use row cover or other methods to warm the plant, or place it in a container instead of the ground.
basil cover homemade
We used short pieces of rebar and stiff drip tubing to hold up my basil cover. I buried the cloth under dirt in the back. It waters with drip, so I only have to lift the cover to check or harvest. This helps protect the basil from cold, hail, wind, and insects.

Finally, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. And sometimes you just don’t know what happened. But don’t give up on gardening, or even on growing a particular plant you love if it’s hardy in or native to your zone. Have fun!

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.

Growing Edibles: Keep it Simple for Success

As you plan for 2016 gardening and home budgets, you might be considering growing edibles on your patio, in your backyard or as part of a community garden. If you feel daunted by the prospect of first-time-gardening or expansion, keep it simple.

Locally grown food typically is better for you and more sustainable, whether you get the food from your own garden or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) or Farmers’ Market. You can turn your kids on to healthier food choices when they become involved in growing and harvesting the food.

kitchen garden food
There’s nothing fresher than food from your own yard or a local grower. We harvested all of this in one morning.

Grocery store produce travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to store shelf. I don’t see how it could possible be fresher, more nutritious or more sustainable than produce that travels 10 yards from your garden to your kitchen. It’s easy to grow your own food; here are five ways to keep your edible garden simple, fun and effective.

Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.
Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.

Be selective. If you’re a seasoned gardener or a foodie, it’s tempting to grow nearly every herb or vegetable that you typically buy. But unless you’re expanding last year’s garden or have lots of help and land, grow a few selected plants, at least the first year. The best way to decide which food to grow? Start with favorites for your family; you can even let every family member choose one vegetable he or she loves the most. That helps ease waste and makes it more fun. Other considerations are climate and growing season, and what’s available (or in our case, unavailable), fresh and affordable at local stores. Leave it to local farmers to supplement your stash by learning what’s typically available at stands and Farmers’ Markets.

You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.
You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.

Start seeds or buy plants. Starting seeds is less expensive, or at least the seeds themselves cost less than plants. But if this is your first foray into a kitchen garden, be sure to consider the costs of raising healthy seedlings. You’ll need containers, potting material, and possibly heat mats and grow lights. Of course, you can start some plants directly in the ground or container once it warms up, so practice on one that’s easy to grow or fits well into your growing season length. Maybe it’s easier to buy starter plants (and support local nurseries) instead of growing indoor seedlings. Expand into seed starting next year once you learn and have success.

grow lights on seedlings
Seeds need warmth and light to grow. You can repurpose or recycle containers, but you’ll likely need grow lights and heat mats. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Check production to avoid waste. Although yields from plants can vary according to variety, zone and how the weather cooperates each year, you can estimate how many tomatoes you’ll likely harvest, for instance. Cautious people like me tend to overplant, worrying that one of the seedlings won’t make it and I’ll have too few of a selection. Be realistic and thin seedlings to control the yield. Seed catalogs are excellent sources of average yield, and this checklist from Bonnie Plants is a terrific start. And a caution: zucchini is easy to grow, and 7 to 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of zucchini. But it is.

Were trying yellow summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com
Were trying summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com

Keep sustainability in mind. Choosing the food you and your family like the best and keeping quantity down avoids waste of water, time and other resources. By growing only what you need, you supplement what’s commercially available and waste little. Using organic practices and spending as much time with your plants as possible can keep the plants healthy. This means preparing containers and gardens with plenty of organic matter and watering regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and insects. But if a plant has problems, don’t blame yourself or throw in the towel. You only have so much control as a gardener. Get help from a friend, local master gardeners or extension agents.

Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success with growing them in this trough.
Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success growing them in this trough.

Share your bounty. Once you begin to harvest, if you have too much of any food, try not to waste it. Each discarded zucchini tosses up to gallons of water used to grow the plant, as well as your time and effort. One choice is to preserve extra produce if you have time and materials to do so. The only way kitchen gardening and local farming can remain sustainable is if gardeners can avoid waste. Have a plan in place to share with an eager friend or neighbor or donate extra produce to a local food pantry. Then adjust your plan for next year if you had excessive yields.

When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!
When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!

Finally, start small if you’ve never gardened. Choose one herb and vegetable that you can grow in a container or in an empty spot in your landscape. And spend some time volunteering at a coop farm or with a friend who has more experience so you can learn more about growing your own food.

Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!
Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience. There are no perfect gardeners or perfect gardens. Everyone learns by trial and error. The joy comes when you bite into the rewards of your efforts!

Starting Seeds for the 2016 Garden: Patience Required

After a crazy, colder winter from El Nino that’s morphed into 60-plus degree weather this week, I’ve been so tempted to spend a few days outside on gardening tasks I know it’s too early to tackle. It doesn’t help that lots of folks on social media already are starting their seeds, or gardeners on other continents are growing vegetables and flowers!

red bud blooms
The red bud, pear tree (white in background) , and alyssum won’t even bloom for nearly seven more weeks.

Here’s the thing – those gardeners who are starting seeds now either live in a warmer zone than us or can seriously extend their seasons with greenhouses or geodesic domes. I wish they would send me one.

We’re in zone 6B, which means a last frost date around Mother’s Day (in Albuquerque, only about one zone warmer, the last date is closer to April 15). The ground often needs to warm up to successfully germinate seeds. So even though we might safely pass the frost date, a cold week or two prior to that means the ground isn’t ready.

My impatience has caused problems in past years. We received our shipment of lavender plants earlier than we thought, and just because it seemed warmer outside, I decided to get them out of their nursery containers and into the ground. The ground was too cold. And then we got a cold rain. The roots were wet on top of the cold. Although most of the lavender made it, several plants never really got established.

seedlings can get leggy with too little light
Hardening off last year’s leggy basil and tomato seedlings, along with a sage transplant.

I’ve also sowed or started seeds too early, ending up with leggy seedlings, or seeds that didn’t take in the ground. Seeds don’t cost much, but I watered some cucumber seeds for nearly two weeks before realizing it just wasn’t warm enough yet. I don’t like to waste water or time! When sowing seeds indoors, it’s typical to count back about six weeks from when you can plant, depending on how quickly the seed germinates. Poor lighting also can make seedlings leggy.

Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!
Our second wave of cucumbers really took off and produced!

This year, I’m trying a few strategies to keep myself busy “gardening” without moving too soon on seeding, planting and even trimming perennials. If my strategies don’t help, I might have to ask my hubby to hide some tools and seed packets. I hope these ideas will help other gardeners who are impatient for spring:

Order seeds ahead of time. Some of the suppliers are swamped with orders right now; processing and shipping will take longer.

Once the seeds come, put them away in a dark, cool spot. Keep your seeds fresher by storing them out of the heat and sun. That’s after you’ve kissed and read the packet and planned your start date.

store and sort seeds
We store seeds on this cool, dark closet shelf. And we’re using a Seedkeeper Home Farmer kit to sort this year’s edible seeds.

Sort your seeds and plan your vegetable, herb and ornamental garden layouts or new plantings. Count backward from planting time to account for average germination time, and include a week or two to harden seedlings off before planting.

If starting seeds inside, find a warm, light place to place your trays. If possible, purchase both a heat mat and a quality set of grow lights. The warmth helps seeds germinate and is especially important for New Mexico gardeners; chile pepper seedlings need warmth as much as light. And have a plan to pot up seedlings such as tomatoes.

potting up vegetable seeds
Potting up with larger containers or soil blocks gives seedling roots more room to grow and become healthy.

Plant a few cool-temp crops. I’m planning when I can start some cool-season seedlings or crops. At least counting backward from late spring and having an earlier planting for some vegetables gives me a closer date to which I can count down. For example, you can usually plant root crops such as beets, carrots and potatoes, and many greens, as soon as the ground is workable. Just check the seed package and local master gardener or county extension materials for more detail.

arugula seedlings rock rose
Arugula seedlings in a patio container in April last year, about the time this purple rock rose bloomed.

Prep the garden. Make sure you’ve added some organic matter to soil in your vegetable garden and find a good source for compost. Fill and lay out beds if possible. Add mulches or do other hardscaping chores on warm winter days until you can begin trimming perennials.

Extend your season, or plan to do so next year. I’ll use a combination of buckets and row cover cloth to make sure some of our seeds and seedlings have plenty of warmth after they’re planted. And that’s just a preventive measure in case temps drop substantially after our last frost. Planting early crops in containers also helps; container soil warms faster than does the ground. Low tunnels and hoop houses for season extension cost less than greenhouses to build.

buckets to protect vegetable seedlings
Free five-gallon buckets with the bottoms cut out make great mini-hothouses and protect fragile seedlings from wind.

Keep plants healthy. Our south-facing windows begin to get less light as the sun moves higher in the sky in spring. Sometimes, we have to move houseplants around or give theme artificial light to keep them warm and happy. If you haven’t gotten to trimming trees that need it this year, choose a warm day to finish the task before the trees begin to bud out.

houseplants in sunny window winter
Less sun will enter these south-facing windows as spring and summer approach.

Trim roses if you have them. Roses need to be cut back closer to late winter and early spring. We have a forsythia bush, and when it blooms, I know it’s time to trim roses. Nature is the best garden timer. Gardeners like me just have to work with her…

How To Identify Monarch Butterflies

I’m as excited as anyone about supporting Monarch butterfly conservation efforts. We plan to buy several swamp milkweed plants to add to the existing trees, shrubs and flowering plants around our property.

A monarch rests on asters. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.
A monarch rests on asters. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

I got to see the Monarchs many years ago while on a visit to Pacific Grove, Calif. I’m not sure, however, that I’ve ever spotted a Monarch in New Mexico, and a map I checked had a giant question mark for much of New Mexico and Arizona, even though our states border Mexico. Although singularly striking, Monarchs look similar to a few other butterflies. What’s more, the critical aspect of saving them requires providing habitats for the butterflies’ larvae. Enter milkweed.

A flowering milkweed plant in the pollination gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside Tucson, Ariz.
A flowering milkweed plant in the pollination gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum outside Tucson, Ariz.

Monarch life cycle

Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed plants, which also attract other pollinators. The Monarchs find milkweed even when it has finished flowering for the season. The eggs are tiny (about the size of the head of a pin), but as they take on adult form, the larvae, or caterpillars, emerge and grow rapidly.

Monarch butterfly lifescyle. Courtesy of the U.S.D.A. http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/biology/index.shtml
Monarch butterfly life cycle. Courtesy of the U.S.D.A. http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/Monarch_Butterfly/ biology/index.shtml

Like many gardeners, I freak out a little when I see a big caterpillar on a plant. I can’t abide tomato hornworms and the damage they inflict, and we also have had branches of several small trees stripped by the io moth caterpillar. This bad boy stings and releases a poisonous substance that can irritate the skin or cause severe reactions in some people. Last summer, we found a similar greenish-yellow caterpillar on fennel plants, or what was left of them. I think I’ve identified them now with some research.

The io caterpillar is similar in color, but has a fuzzy, fluorescent look. And it stings!
The io moth caterpillar is similar in color, but has a fuzzy, fluorescent look. And it stings! Check out the stripped branches in every direction.

So, I wanted to be sure that I can easily recognize the Monarch caterpillar before trying to attract them to my yard. In fact, all gardeners who want to help the Monarchs should be able to recognize the insect in all forms. I would hate to hand-pick a Monarch caterpillar and end its life cycle! Strangely, finding quality resources to help me identify the caterpillars, and especially to share photos, did not come easy. I finally tracked down some information.

Monarch or Queen?

Although I don’t want to hurt the chances of any butterfly, I was relieved to discover that the caterpillars on the fennel were most likely Queen butterflies, not Monarchs. Queen butterfly caterpillars also feed on milkweed, and can share plants with Monarchs. The butterflies look really similar, but have a few distinctive differences.

Here's a Queen butterfly enjoying milkweed in fall at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.
Here’s a Queen butterfly enjoying milkweed in fall at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. Notice the white dots that extend toward the body.
Monarch wings look like stained glass designs. Image courtesy of National Park Service.
Monarch wings look like stained glass designs, and the color varies slightly throughout. Image courtesy of National Park Service.

Queen, Monarch and Viceroy butterflies have similar colors and patterns. Monarchs are a deeper orange, and the hue changes slightly throughout the wings. The best way to tell the adults apart is the location of white spots on the wings. The Queen butterfly has dots that extend into the orange areas of the wings. But Monarchs have a distinctive stained glass appearance and no dots outside the black edges of the wings. Viceroys are smaller than Monarchs and have triangular white dots under their wings.

Just to confuse matters: Here's a Viceroy adult. Courtesy of the NPS.
Just to confuse matters: Here’s a Viceroy adult. Courtesy of the NPS.

You can distinguish the Monarch caterpillar from other caterpillars by the antennae. The Queen butterfly has three sets of antennae and filaments, and the Monarch has only two – one antenna pair on the front end and a filament pair on the back end. The Queen caterpillar spots an extra set about one-third of the way down from the front. Viceroy caterpillars do not look like Monarch larvae; the Viceroy caterpillar has a brown, rough appearance.

Close-up of a Monarch caterpillar. Note two sets of protrusions, while the Queen has three.
Close-up of a Monarch caterpillar. Note two sets of protrusions, while the Queen has three. Image courtesy of NPS Photo/Alicia Lafever.

The Monarch young larva is nearly clear until it begins to eat milkweed and grow. The larval portion of the life cycle lasts about 10 to 16 days. They can become plump just before pupating, having eaten plenty of milkweed. The caterpillars move away from milkweed as they prepare to evolve to pupae.

Queen butterflies are pretty as well. This one enjoys a butterfly weed flower in Northeastern New Mexico.
Queen butterflies are pretty as well. This one enjoys a butterfly weed flower in Northeastern New Mexico.

Check the Resources page for excellent pages and videos on identifying and protecting Monarchs. Happy hunting and pollinating!

Book Review: The Market Gardener

I can’t remember now where I saw the post or news story that led me to Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener” (New Society Publishers, 2014). But I recall that the timing was perfect for us. We’re considering expanding our garden and using a small portion of our acreage to launch some small-scale organic farming to provide local fresh food.

book review of The Market Gardener
This is a great book to encourage people to try small farming or just help them find resources.

Fortier’s book is an excellent guide for anyone considering a small-scale organic farming operation. Even though his location and the circumstances surrounding Les Jardins de la Grelinette in Quebec are quite different from ours, there are some things all start-up operations must consider, and certainly challenges all gardeners and growers face!

What I found most helpful about the book is that the author was willing to share so much practical detail. He provides as much useful information about his biointensive approach as he does about timing of crops and layout of the farm. Even more helpful for us, Fortier offers tips for saving money, resources for buying tools and how he keeps records. He also reveals which crops have been most profitable for the farm and has a brief section covering specifics about the crops La Grelinette grows.

The book is full of charts and illustrations; the author basically shares the farm's records with readers.
The book is full of charts and illustrations; the author shares the farm’s records with readers.

For those looking to buy land and set up a new small farm operation, Fortier even discusses how to look for the best small acreage and how to lay out gardens and buildings. And he shares European techniques for weeding, as well as how he and his wife use green manure, cover crops and organic matter to replenish soil nutrients.

There are few drawbacks to this book for anyone like us exploring the idea of small organic farming. One is that I would have enjoyed seeing some actual photos of the farm and techniques. Having said that, the book has some excellent illustrations. In addition, I didn’t receive the book, which I ordered directly from themarketgardener.com, after a few weeks. I think the sellers were overwhelmed by publicity back in August when we ordered the book. But the reason I didn’t receive my copy was that my order was flagged – and this is a common problem with our address (and a long story). I heard back from someone within 24 hours of sending an e-mail inquiry. They not only responded, but more than made it right by providing me with a free, immediate electronic version of the book!

I like having both a hard copy and electronic version of the book.
I like having both a hard copy and electronic version of the book.

As with any garden or farm book, you have to weigh the information against your own zone or climate, soil and other factors that differ from those of the author.  But when an author gives so freely of practical, hard-earned advice, it’s so much easier. After both my husband and I have read the entire book, our copy already is dog-eared and marked up. I’m glad I have the electronic version now, so I can go back and search words to find advice we’ve discussed but might not have marked.

If you have an aspiring microfarmer on your gift list, I'm just sayin'...
If you have an aspiring microfarmer on your gift list, I’m just sayin’…

I highly recommend Fortier’s “The Market Gardener” as a practical guide for small local farmers, or anyone wanting to learn more about organic and microfarming.

Note: Neither Fortier nor the publisher asked me to write a review, nor did they provide the book for free (other than the complimentary PDF to make up for the late mailing). I wrote the review on my own.