Protect Plants in Winter

Winter has come late this year, and that’s alright with me. But we’re sure to face a hard freeze soon and it’s time to protect some plants.

heavy snow in Ruidoso area
Winter can be harsh in the foothills of New Mexico’s mountains.

The first line of defense, of course, is to choose plants that are hardy down to your average low winter temperature. These plants might look dead in winter, but they come back as spring warms the air and ground. We can’t control the weather, however, so when exceptions to your typical low hit or you really want a plant on the border for your temperatures, you can help that prized plant make it through the winter. Here are a few tips:

Placement

Planning ahead helps. When placing a new plant in your landscape, be sure to consider its winter hardiness when you plant. Placing it in a warm microclimate, such as against a south-facing wall or fence, can keep the plant a few degrees warmer when temperatures dive on winter nights.

Japanese maple in container
This Japanese maple was a special gift and we kept it in perfect northeast exposure in summer, then more southern exposure in winter. But that didn’t work half a zone colder, and sadly, it succumbed to frost.

Mulch

Mulching over bulbs or around the roots of perennials and even trees can help the ground retain heat. I use raked-up leaves and sometimes straw. In addition, I use rock mulch around xeric plants. The rocks absorb and reflect heat.

leaves as mulch day lilies
The apricot tree dropped some of these leaves right where I needed them to protect our day lilies. I raked up more and piled it on thick.

Mini-greenhouses

Sadly, we can’t all afford or find space for an actual greenhouse. You can buy or create mini-greenhouses around a few plants. Ours only need a small boost, so we often use 5-gallon buckets with the bottom cut out. We sometimes top them with wire for deer protection or cloth for extra warmth. Glass adds even more warmth and a cloche, French for “bell,” is a glass jar that can cover individual plants. There are lots of ideas online for constructing mini-greenhouses out of plastic and wood or PVC pipe, but you’ll need to remove anything that airtight as soon as the temperature warms back up following a freeze. Otherwise, condensation forms inside; the water drops refreeze and actually can damage your tender plant.

terrarium lid for cloche
A terrarium lid makes a great cloche for a greenhouse effect on this baby agave.

Cloth

A sheet or blanket wrapped around an entire plant helps protect it from freeze on the occasional cold night. Again, this is a temporary fix. If you have an entire section of plants that need protection, it’s better to rig a system with hoops or sticks and fabric row cover. If leaving the cloth on the entire winter, be sure to use a landscape fabric that allows sun and water through. I like to open these on warm, sunny days.

basil cover homemade
This basil cover is made from old hose and rebar and draped with row cover fabric. You can make one easily for a tender plant and lift the fabric on warm days.

Water

Plants need to head into winter in a healthy state. That includes keeping them watered (at a reduced rate) if you haven’t received precipitation recently. Cold, windy air dries plants out and stresses them. There is no need to prune most perennials before winter. It’s best to let them die off naturally, feeding birds with seeds. You’ll trim trees while they’re dormant in winter. When freeze threatens, you can water the mulch around the plant, but avoid hitting the leaves and branches. The water in the mulch helps hold heat in. I’ve also seen suggestions of placing used plastic bottles filled with warm water around the mulch to conduct some heat during a freeze.

Bring plants inside for winter.
Houseplants in winter, sun lovers in summer. Even the solanum (spiny tomato) winters over inside by going dormant.

Bring plants inside

No greenhouse? How about the house? My largest geranium loves the sun from our bathroom window, and the humidity likely helps as well. We have so many plants to bring inside that some have to live in the garage, where it can get chilly but hasn’t gotten below freezing. If you want to invest some money, you can buy grow lights for plants that need more sun than available in your home or garage space. Spray the plants off and let them dry a bit before carrying them inside. This helps reduce the chance that bugs tag along for the ride.

buckets protecting plants in winter
You can give plants a little boost with objects you have. Just cut the bottom out of a 5-gallon bucket. They’re not attractive, but they are functional.

Check out lots more ideas on our Pinterest boards (What’s wrong with my plant? and Greenhouses)

For Fall Garden Planning: Mix Hardscaping and Plants

Hardscaping is use of anything other than plants, really, in the garden. So it includes rocks, fences, walls, walls made of rocks, pavers, stepping stones, lighting, gravel (made from rocks) and found or repurposed objects. Did I mention rocks?

rocks for garden art
We have lots of rocks. They line the wall of our xeric garden and we place them in beds to help feature plants. This new poppy also has some “garden art” that’s courtesy of a buck who wandered through.

Here’s the problem: When people think of xeriscaping or converting high-water lawns and landscapes to more waterwise plans, they often turn to landscape gravel, rock borders and concrete to fill their landscape. Done! But the best xeric landscapes mix functional and attractive hardscaping with plants for full effect.

landscape hardscape Atlanta
This Atlanta-area home combined natural boulders, stunning sculptures and lots of perennial plants.

Pros of Hardscaping

I find that after touring a public or private garden, my photos often include fences, garden art and other hardscaping features. I guess I’m drawn to them. Any plant can shine when placed before a solid wall or large boulder, but those with tiny flowers and foliage really pop with a backdrop. And you don’t have to use large, expensive artwork or structures. Sometimes, all you need is a well-placed rock or container.

agave in container
An agave in the Southeast? Why not — especially featured in a large container in the middle of the landscape.

Aside from aesthetics, hardscaping features provide function in the landscape. Pathways lead the gardener, visitor and the eye in the best direction, or help a homeowner get from one point to another more easily. Fences and walls improve privacy and arbors and pergolas add to shade in sunny garden spots.

arbor with plants
A white picket fence and arbor surround a rock patio in the middle of this private garden in the Atlanta area.
hardscaping support plants
In this Pasadena garden, an attractive fence also serves as a way to separate and support the homeowner’s vines and edible plants.

Finally, homeowners often put in hardscaping to minimize watering and plant care. Most nonplant items in the garden require little to no care and last for years.

path in Atlanta lawn
This path prevents wear and tear on the grass and requires no mowing. I love the mix of stone size and texture.
courtyard fountain
The path above leads to this mini-oasis in a home’s courtyard. It’s near Atlanta, and more lush than most xeric landscapes. But what a fun and relaxing place to enjoy being outside.

Cons of Hardscaping

Replacing lawn and plant materials with hardscaping can lower maintenance, but can create too much heat in the lawn and garden. A concrete patio or gravel-covered yard is way hotter than turf and plants. That being said, a mix of both helps lower water use and costs. If done right, homeowners can enjoy their gardens and save water.

patch of grass
I love this shaped patch of lawn in a Pasadena landscape. I might not have put trees in the gravel, but otherwise this back yard has some great plant and hardscape combinations.

Only plant materials provide important food and pollen for animals and insects; bushes and trees also provide better shelter than the eaves of your home. Adding birdhouses and beehouses near plants can help nature’s garden visitors. Too much concrete and gravel also makes a garden seem unfriendly to people. You probably want privacy and a place to sit or walk, but don’t you also want flowering or edible plants nearby? If a big patio is necessary for entertaining, add container plants on the ground, walls or even the furniture.

xeric garden with hardscape and plants
You can have adequate hardscape and also have plants. Our garden features gravel walkways (soon to be replaced), a rock wall and plenty of perennial plants and wildflowers.
steppables in path
Steppable plants can grow between hard surfaces, cooling off and adding color to concrete or flagstone walkways.

Finally, be sure to consider existing trees and other plants you plan to keep when converting lawns to gravel. Trees need deep watering, and the roots stretch out at least to the tree’s canopy, which is how far out branches and leaves extend. So providing a pretty little circle of mulch around the trunk likely isn’t enough.

Atlanta private home breezeway
This Atlanta-area home has a driveway and breezeway. But why not plant around and over both?
Arizona Sonora desert museum
At the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, rocks and boulders look natural in the dry desert landscape.

Some of my favorite xeric landscapes combine a few featured plants such as a shade tree or colorful bush with low-growing annuals or groundcovers that cascade over steps or rocks. Combining hardscape and plant features is a smart xeriscaping strategy and a way to enjoy your lawn for years to come.

 

Garden Rest Stops

Gardening can be hard work, and there’s no shame in taking a break now and then. Besides, why pour plenty of time and love into your garden if you aren’t spending time in it, whether reading, visiting with friends and family or simply enjoying the view.

garden bench
These homeowners knew how to make the most of their garden, with plenty of seating areas; the sign on the bench sums it up.

Yesterday, I visited some gorgeous private gardens in the Atlanta area where the owners get it; I kept spotting cozy and elegant sitting areas. We’re adding a few spots with chairs and benches around our property, so maybe I was more alert to these features of the gardens I toured. Or maybe the areas for relaxation were just too good to pass up.

And although Atlanta’s landscape differs markedly from ours in the Southwest, we all can take a few ideas from these pleasant garden rest stops. Enjoy the pictorial tour!

garden bistro table and chairs
It was raining, so this umbrella held special appeal. But the red chairs also drew me in.
garden bench atlanta
A garden bench, a pergola, and a view that’s likely as pretty sitting on the bench as looking toward it!
blue chairs and bistro table
Here’s another bistro-type seating area, with a plant on the table, of course!
chaise lounge garden
A spot of blue right in the middle of an open area, where you’re likely to get a perfect mix of sun and shade.
garden chair birdhouse
We saw lots of unique bird houses, including this themed adirondack chair. So cute!
garden furniture with plants
A touch of whimsy or a gardener who can’t stop growing? I loved this “covered” table with chairs.
garden furniture atlanta
Want some privacy to read a book? Tuck yourself away under some tall trees.
iron garden chairs
It looked a little damp in this sitting area, but the chairs are as much garden art as they are a place to rest your feet.
garden bench
When just a bench will do. This one flows naturally into the landscape and hardscape.
So, maybe even fairies need a place to rest? This garden had fairy-sized seating areas in containers.
So, maybe even fairies need a place to rest? This garden had fairy-sized seating areas in containers.
outdoor patio fireplace
A formal sitting and dining area near the house doubles as a place to rest and warm up, and a place to entertain.
metal furniture native landscape
It’s also nice to have an informal area to warm up and enjoy the view of a native landscape.
dog window garden
Of course, there are always the front steps. Or the carpet inside if you’re a dog wanting to keep an eye on its owner!

Xeric Plants: Too Much Rain?

You know, I hate to sound ungrateful. We always need rain in New Mexico, if not to water all of the grass, trees and native plants, then to replace our valuable water tables. But in a climate of extremes, especially this summer, we’ve had several weeks of too much water and cool temperatures.

xeric garden after rain
I’m not bemoaning natural moisture. August rains brought greener native grasses and lot of blooming annuals. But it’s good to know what happens when too much rain hits a xeric garden.

Typically, New Mexico and many Southwestern states receive monsoon rain in the summer, and it accounts for at least half of the rain we receive in New Mexico and Arizona. Monsoons can start around mid-June and end late in September. Ours typically begin around the 4th of July. Monsoons consist of short but strong bursts of rain, usually in the afternoon. They’re fueled by the sun’s warming of Southwest land and nearby oceans at different rates. Water evaporation creates humidity over land, forming the clouds that then depend on temperature, atmospheric pressure, winds and mountain slopes to turn into storms.

ravens in dead tree
The clouds seem to bring birds out for active eating before they take cover from summer storms. These ravens love perching in a dead tree.

Typical is key here, however. This year, we had few to no monsoon storms. Instead, we had unseasonably hot and dry, followed by weeks of unseasonably cool and wet. The first rains did wonders at greening up our native grasses and plants. But then in August, the rain and clouds just kept coming. We just had a break, but now Hurricane Newton has struck Mexico and its remnant moisture is headed for southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Rio Ruidoso
Rain replenishes the river and ground water, but excessive moisture can topple old trees.

If arid areas need rain, why is so much rain bad? Flash flooding is a big problem in desert and mountain areas. But how does heavy rain affect xeric lawns and gardens?

First, plant roots need more than water to survive and thrive; they also need air. When you place a new plant in the ground, for example, you should press the soil around it lightly and avoid compacting it to the point that air can’t reach the roots. When excessive rain falls, the water replaces air in spaces around soil particles. As the water drains through the soil, air can again enter the spaces. But if the water keeps flowing from the surface, or especially pools, the spaces fail to open. Eventually, roots can be damaged and fail to even take up the water that surrounds them.

amended soil for vegetables and herbs
Adding organic matter eventually helps compacted soils drain better.

The second danger of too much water is disease. Any fungal organisms in the soil can more easily attack wet plant roots and cause root rot. Xeric plants are not used to so much water on their leaves and roots. Even leaves are affected by too much water falling and sitting on them, especially without sun and heat to dry them again. Plants are more susceptible to leaf diseases such as leaf spot or blight and have less chlorophyll, which affects appearance and photosynthesis. Eventually, poor leaf health can lead to the breakdown of most of the processes that keep a plant healthy and send energy to fruit and flowers.

mushrooms on tree stump
This old apple tree stump started a mini-mushroom farm after extended rain and clouds. What other fungi lurk in our soil now?

Many xeric plants also like sun and a little heat. Native plants have adapted to the Southwest monsoon patterns that usually rule their growing season: A gradual, sunny warm-up in the morning, followed by scattered building clouds. They get a nice drink in the heat of the afternoon, and then the sun comes back out and the air and ground warm up again. This pattern helps dry the plant and soil, and gives the plant plenty of heat and sun. Although nights can be cool in many areas of the high desert and intermountain regions, mornings warm up again after sunrise. Extended periods of cloudy, cool weather lead to too little sun for plants, along with too little heat than they need to thrive and flower.

cracked cherry tomatoes
Tomatoes need some heat and sun, along with consistent watering. These cherry tomatoes cracked before we could harvest them. It’s likely a combination of remaining on the vine too long and a surge of water from heavy storms.

Even edibles can have problems from too much water. They’re susceptible to root rot, depending on lots of other factors such as soil quality. Leafy vegetables and herbs flower early. Tomato fruit tastes better with moderate water. Too much water, especially inconsistent amounts, can cause fruit to crack.

Keeping Xeric Plants Alive During High Rain Periods

Make sure all plants, and especially those susceptible to root rot, are in soil that drains well. Raised beds, mounds or berms, and suitable containers can help drain soil around plants much better than compacted soil. If you’re not sure how well your soil drains, you can typically tell when it pools or soaks in hours after heavy rains. Or you can try the test in this handout from TreePeople that times water drainage.

okra plants
My husband is much better at spacing plants than I am. These okra didn’t get enough heat to produce much, but spacing helped the fruit get more sun and air.

Provide air circulation. We all have a tendency to place new plants and seedlings too close together. You might as well get as many cucumbers as possible in the limited space you have, right? But lack of air circulation in crowded plants hides bugs, causes the leaves to maintain moisture, and even can shade ground around roots. Wet conditions harbor new problems that native plants in particular can’t take.

California poppy
Flower from a poppy (Mexican gold or California Eschscholzia californica) thrives in drought, but can bloom more in heavy rain. As for the “garden art” it borders, that’s something personal between Tim and a steer.

Another problem with extended periods of rain is weed control. Although mostly native, the darn weeds seem to love excess moisture. And before you know it, they crowd and wrap around important garden plants or shading grasses. It’s hard to control them if the ground is too wet to mow or you can’t even get outside.

Build raised beds or transplant susceptible plants to higher ground. We’ve had some drainage problems near our patio and are working on a dry river bed to divert water away from the house foundation and down into a grassy area, where it can soak grass and eventually add to groundwater. One step we took was to divide a blue mist spirea (Caryopteris clandonensis) and move the portion near the patio onto a small burm. The xeric plant is so much happier now.

blue mist spirea berm
The dry bed is a work in progress, but just moving this blue mist spirea to higher ground saved the plant.

Whatever you do, don’t water! Turn off drip or sprinkler systems during and after periods of rain; it’s just the responsible thing to do. And don’t assume that yellowing leaves indicate the need to water. With too much water, the leaves look sort of floppy, but too little water usually causes dry, brittle foliage.

Finally, don’t stress. You can’t control weather, so simply keeping your plants as healthy as possible within time and weather constraints is all a gardener can do!

How to Ensure a Dog-Friendly Landscape

Our loyal, furry family members love being outside, and it’s important to keep them safe from dangers that lurk in back yards. It’s especially important on larger properties and in rural areas. Here are a few tips on making your landscape more dog friendly.

Dave HIggins Jack russell
Buster gotta’ play. Dogs need to be safe and have some space to run. Photo by Dave Higgins.

Poisonous plants. Lots of gorgeous and native plants can poison dogs who ingest leaves, fruit or seeds from the plant. The Humane Society has a list of plants poisonous to pets so you can check it against your garden. For example, the pods of a bird of paradise bush can poison dogs, as can daffodil bulbs and entire iris plants. Larkspur, oleander and Sago palms also have poisonous elements. Jimson weed, a common xeric weed/wildflower, also is poisonous.

Jimson weed poisonous dogs
Jimson weed (Datura) is poisonous, but the worst offender is its large seedheads.

The best way to protect dogs from poisonous plants is to avoid planting them. However, some grow naturally or are favorites. If the seeds are the dangerous part of the plant, gardeners who own dogs and want a particular plant in their garden must be vigilant about removing seedheads as they appear. It also helps to place plants with noxious leaves or flowers in the back of a raised bed or a fenced-off garden area. The level of protection depends on whether your dog spends time outside unattended and often, the dog’s age and curiosity level.

Chemicals. Controlling weeds and bugs in the garden sometimes means pulling out herbicides and pesticides. Even some organic control methods can pose dangers for your canines. For example, organic compounds such as nicotine or pennyroyal are toxic to dogs. Our dogs also love (for some reason) to eat soil after we use fish emulsion and similar organic fertilizers. Some of these can be toxic if enough is ingested. The other danger is that they attract dogs to potentially toxic plant materials or pesticides; for that reason, don’t mix fertilizers with pesticides.

dogs in chair jack russels
And some spoiled dogs get to sit in a patio chair. They can see better, but we also can keep an eye on them.

Animal droppings. As I said, our dogs have refined tastes. And a virtual four-acre buffet of animal droppings. Sometimes, droppings contain diseases, and horse manure can contain de-wormers that are toxic to dogs if ingested in large quantities. The other problem is dental health. Naturally, munching on other animals’ manure causes dental problems from bacteria. And their breath… enough said. I wish I had a solution. In smaller lawns, it’s important to clean up droppings from cats or other visitors. We can only correct or distract our dogs when we catch them in these behaviors.

jack russells
Yep, they’re a team, and that includes getting into things they shouldn’t when outside.

Weeds. Some weeds can cause allergies in or hurt the paws of our four-legged friends. Out West, one of the biggest culprits is the foxtail. The seed from the weed/grass has barbs that latch onto a dog’s face, feet or tail. The seeds migrate and can burrow into the dog’s ears or internal organs, causing serious infection. Ragweeds and other plants might cause severe itching or reactions. And the weed of the month here is the goathead. It’s also called puncturevine, and I can attest to the pain from the sharp points on the seed heads. They really hurt dog paws, and are especially problematic for running dogs. We’re trying to hoe them up (thousands!) before they get large and go to seed, but I know we’ll miss some.

goat head weed
Goatheads. Thousands of goatheads with awful puncturing seedheads. It’s best to hoe or pull them while small and before they flower.

Critters. Dogs are curious about more than poop and fertilizer. And that means they need to be protected from critters, especially at night, dusk and dawn. We’ve had stray dogs, skunks, squirrels, feral cats, deer, elk, wild turkeys, eagles, roosters, rabbits, bull snakes, cows and even a peacock in our yard. There are plenty others I imagine I never see. Although most people around here allow their dogs to roam, we choose to protect our little mutts. It’s not cost-effective to fence our entire property (not to mention that doing so keeps out deer and turkeys), so our solution is a small kennel. When we’re gone and the dogs need relief or a reason to bark, they can head out a small dog door and into a 10 x 8 kennel. It might seem cruel to give dogs so little space, but not if they also get regular exercise and attention. There are few days when ours fail to get outside at least twice and explore under our supervision. It’s true that critters can enter dog doors, but the high fence adds an additional layer of protection.

dog door and kennel
This pet door in my office window lets the mutts out into a small kennel; we placed steps on both sides.

Of course, there is so much more involved in keeping dogs safe and happy outside, such as ensuring they have shade in summer or warmth in winter and water all of the time. And dogs and kids need a little turf for playing, even in drought-stricken areas. The best way to keep dogs safe from poisons, critters and other injuries is to fence them. Absent that, monitor their activity. Sure, they sometimes take off when excited by a deer or rabbit. But a little training and use of the right word and tone can usually stop them in their tracks. Besides, why have a big yard if you can’t enjoy it with your pets? And if you have a small yard, check out this article on a new trend for some pet shelters – dog enrichment gardens.

dogs need shade
Missy stays close at all times. She’s enjoying some lazy shade time while we prune plants in the xeric garden.

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.

Watering Container Plants

Container gardening is the mainstay of apartment and small-home gardeners. But even with four acres to play on, we plant plenty of succulents, herbs, vegetables and a few ornamentas in containers. For gardeners with more space, containers add convenience for kitchen garden edibles, and for moving plants that spend winter indoors. There are plenty of reasons to choose containers and plenty of ways to manage water use with container-grown plants.

nasturtiums rustic container
Why not repurpose an old washtub when you’ve got nasturtium seeds begging for a sunny spot?

The right plant

Annuals are great choices for container gardening, since you don’t ever have to repot the plant. And since xeric perennials need little water once established, having some annuals in containers or a small bed is a perfect splurge, especially if the annuals reseed.

It’s true that container plants need more frequent watering, so low-water herbs and other xeric plants make the best choices. But you can grow edibles and any small plant in a container. In my mind, the water for edibles produces food. And as long as I water responsibly, I’m OK with using a container and hand watering lettuce and tomatoes instead of using drip irrigation in the ground.

chile pepper in metal container
This green chile didn’t do well in such a small container, but it was fun to place on the patio. And we got a few peppers from it.

When creating arrangements, place plants with similar sun and water needs together. If you really want a centerpiece plant that uses a little more water, find a way to contain it by placing it in a plastic nursery pot (probably a few inches larger than the one it came in) inside a larger decorative one. Underplanting with flowers can disguise the trick that lets you focus a little extra water on one plant without overwatering others.

Selecting containers

I love to repurpose and use fun and funky containers when I can, but I typically use well-designed plastic or glazed containers for edibles. Plastic containers usually use the least amount of water, and glazed containers slightly more. We have lots of clay containers too, but we reserve most of those for cacti and succulents. Clay dries out quickly, so it’s best reserved for the lowest water users. And although photos always show containers filled to the edges with plants, consider mature growth even for summer annuals. For example, petunias multiply! It’s so fun to create a mini-garden scene with a big grouping of containers, especially if you have the space and money. I have a small grouping of more attractive and slightly lush containers in the front of our home, but the ones in the back are for function as much as form.

Cacti and succulents do well in clay pots and most containers.
Cacti and succulents do well in clay pots and most containers.

Prep the container

It’s important to use good soil for container plants and not extra dirt from the hole you just dug for your rose bush! Placing it in a pot just creates a big, clay petri dish for disease, insects and weeds to grow in. Soil also tends to compact more easily in a container. And the nutrients available for flower and fruit production are limited compared with the big, open ground.

Japanese maple in container
I love the combination of Japanese maple, bamboo and the container.

You can add small stones along the bottom to help with drainage and reduce watering by using a potting mix with polymer crystals that hold some moisture and then release it. Or add something more sustainable such as Growstones. Just don’t use a rich mix that retains moisture for cacti or other plants that need well-drained soil.

carrots growing in trough
It takes a lot of soil to fill a trough. Look for local compost and garden soil bulk suppliers.

When choosing organic potting mixes for edibles or just because, use some caution. Many potting mixes labeled organic are so similar to compost that they contain plenty of nutrients, but are too dense to use alone. A lighter mix helps air and water reach roots. Look for organic fillers such as coco husks. And don’t overfill the pot; you need a few inches at the top for water to sit while it drains down. If you get the soil level too high, water can run out the top of the container.

Water slowly

The key to healthy container plants and water savings is to water slowly. Flooding a container plant washes out important soil nutrients. Placing a small coffee filter over the drainage hole allows water through but stops soil and  nutrients from washing out the bottom. I try to pour slowly from my pail and then return a few minutes later for a second slow watering as I make my way from container to container. We use rain water as much as possible for container watering.

If you have a drip system with good pressure, you can have it set up to water containers, especially grouped one. You could use an olla, which is a clay bottle you bury in the container that slowly seeps water and can be refilled. To me, one of the best qualities of containers is that you can move them to meet shifting sun requirements or whims. And when a plant begins to wilt, it might not need more water – it just may need less sun.

Healthy looking native plants outside the Native Seeds/Search store in Tucson, Ariz.
Healthy looking native plants outside the Native Seeds/Search store in Tucson, Ariz.

I’m not big on fertilizing because it can lead to too much leaf and branch growth (and not enough to fruit and flowers) or burn plants if done too soon or incorrectly. I’d rather keep improving soil in beds so plants get most of their nutrition each year from natural ingredients. But container plants can need a little extra help. Compost tea or a light application of a product like Happy Frog every few weeks can support container plants.

I’m hoping to order some new containers this year locally or from Arizona Pottery. I’ll update when I can.

One Gardener’s Weed… or Cover Crop?

I’ve been thinking about weeds and wildflowers a lot this week, probably because I spotted my first field bindweed in a gravel path. But it’s also because I’m thinking about spring flowers, pollinators and soil.

alyssum weed wildflower
Last year’s “crop” of yellow alyssum. Pretty but a little scary.

In past posts, I’ve described the stages of “acceptance” we’ve gone through with the yellow alyssum that pretty much blankets our property. In brief: The alyssum is good because it attracts bees – hundreds of them. And it’s pretty, creating a sort of spring meadow. But it’s bad too. With a deep tap root, the weed/wildflower, (a member of the Brassica, or mustard, family) likely steals water and some nutrients from the grass or garden plants.

Following an excellent Twitter chat on nitrogen fixers (#groundchat led by @CristinaGardens; also on Facebook), I decided to check again whether alyssum helps or hurts soil. It turns out that yellow alyssum does not fix nitrogen, but has a role in recycling the nutrient. It can help smother weeds, but then is it smothering or delaying grass? Yes, it threatens native grasses, according to the Colorado State extension office. And in a xeric garden, I don’t want a plant that robs vegetables or perennials of precious water.

sweet alyssum new mexico
This alyssum against an old tree trunk looks like we planted it intentionally.

Then I found an article saying that the long tap roots on our yellow alyssum (and presumably mustard weed) help till or break up soil with their long taproots. They also bring nitrogen back up to the surface. Shouldn’t that be good for grass? Alyssum helps in some areas when planted as a cover crop following a nitrogen-rich legume.

Further, when the roots decompose, they add organic matter. So, I’m back to accepting alyssum for these bonus qualities, but mostly because we’ll never win.

green beans on vine
Green beans add a little nitrogen, but most of the nutrient goes into producing fruit. And that’s OK with me.

Let’s go back to the nitrogen fixers for a minute. Plants need nitrogen to survive. How much a given plant needs varies, but it’s safe to say that nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient. Many gardeners who use fertilizers know this; the N in formulas represents nitrogen. But why apply a synthetic fertilizer to crops or a garden when you can harvest nitrogen with plants that do the work? It’s the organic approach to soil improvement that’s really catching on with farmers. Hurrah!

red clover blossom
Bloom of a red clover. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Examples of nitrogen fixers are hairy vetch, annual wheat grass or ryegrass, and legumes, including clover. Wait, what? I’ve always considered clover invasive. And during the chat, I received an excellent link to an article about sweet clover. Looks like clover is to many gardeners and farmers what sweet alyssum is to us – good or bad, invasive or not. It all depends on your conditions. Further, conditions that favor a particular weed or wildflower can change slightly from one year to the next. Red clover is a potential nitrogen fixer in New Mexico.

sweet peas near river
Sweet pea is a legume and natural nitrogen fixer. It also can become invasive, but it’s a pretty surprise growing along the Rio Ruidoso.

And that’s why it’s all relative. I love learning from social media, and learned a lot the other day. But when choosing plants, especially for a large area such as a meadow or field, it’s always best to check with local extension agents or their publications. Otherwise, gardeners in New Mexico would never plant butterfly bush (Buddleia), which is not invasive here, and a gorgeous xeric choice. And they might go a little wild with the sweet alyssum or horehound, which are terrific additions to gardens in some areas, but can take over a New Mexico lawn.

Get to Know Your Climate Zones Before Plant Shopping

When you shop for your lawn and garden, all nursery plants should have tags that include information about sun and water needs, and about the plant’s hardiness zone. The official zones for the United States are the USDA Plant Hardiness zones. Canada uses the Agriculture Canada Plant Hardiness Zones Map.

USDA zones consider cold hardiness, to help gardeners know what to grow on a mountain or in its foothills
This photo, taken in Ruidoso, N.M., shows a a few different climates and zones in one view
sunset zones
A ranch sunset in the eastern plains of New Mexico, less than 30 miles from the Texas border, and just over two hours from Ruidoso.

Improvements in Hardiness Zones

For the most part, the USDA system is based on the lowest average winter temperature. A few years ago, the USDA updated its zone map because of warming temperatures. The former map relied on data through 1986, and this one is more current. The USDA web site also has added an interactive map for users. You can enter your ZIP code and get the zone instead of guessing whether your town is light yellow or nearly light yellow on the map. So it’s now GIS-based and pretty precise; the USDA map ranges from zones 1 through 13, with 13 as the warmest zone.

USDA hardiness zones
The USDA hardiness zones, which you can search by ZIP code.

Canada’s map is based on climate data and information about plants in the area. The formula to determine zones include mean frost period length, snow depth, high temperatures and wind data, among other information. The zones range from 0 to 9, with zone 0 as the coldest. Canada’s site also features a terrific search that gives zone-specific information for plants.

Sunset Zones a Bonus for Western States

It’s important to know whether a tree, shrub or other perennial will survive your zone’s winter before you plan or purchase; the USDA map helps with gardeners’ decisions. Sunset (Sunset Western Garden Guides) takes the information a few steps further – by telling gardeners about a plant’s chances all year long. For example, we’re in USDA zone 6B, but so are parts of Virginia and other Atlantic areas, as well as parts of Washington and Oregon. Although El Nino has disrupted normal patters, it’s safe to say that plants get lots more rain in Washington and Virginia.

lily pond in Pasadena garden
Pasadena garden, complete with lily pond.

Sunset looks at distance from the equator to help calculate length and severity of winters. The zone map also separates areas with similar temperature ranges according to coastal location or elevation. At more than a mile high, the elevation matters. Our days might warm as much as a comparable location at 2,000 feet altitude, but our nights cool considerably more. Most of all, Sunset knows the western part of the country. Sunset has 24 zones for the American West, divided by geography and climate. Our small town isn’t notated on the map, so it’s a little tough to determine our exact zone. But Sunset places us in the high desert/intermountain region, and the information still is helpful.

Contrast the Pasadena landscape with this shot in Tucson, Ariz. They're less than eight hours, or 487 miles, apart.
Contrast the Pasadena landscape with this shot in Tucson, Ariz. They’re less than eight hours, or 487 miles, apart.

Interestingly, Sunset also provides zone information for the rest of the country. It would be well worth it for gardeners east of the Rocky Mountains to review the Sunset zones for information such as wind and climate extremes.

Gardeners can avoid confusion about zones in plant purchasing and care information by knowing both USDA and Sunset numbers for their locale. Typically, all plants except Sunset’s own will use the USDA zone on the tag.

zones help know what grows well.
Our tart cherry tree exploded with fruit last year, which required enough cool evenings in winter and no damage from a late frost.

Use Zone Data with Microclimates

If you’re still uncertain about zone, you can check with local Master Gardeners. Another reason to ask a seasoned gardener about climate and zone is microclimates. In many Western states, zone varies within a metropolitan area. Think of the areas above and below southern California’s thermal belts. The ocean has little to do with the climate in those distinct areas. In Albuquerque, temperature and wind can vary markedly from the foothills of the Sandia Mountains to the valley floors.

Knowing particulars for your area of a town or region helps, but you can take it a step further if you want to push the edges of a plant’s hardiness zone or care needs. If you’re half a zone colder than the plant’s care information recommends, plant it against a south-facing wall. Plants that need protection from heat can go on the northeast side of your home, where the house shades them on blazing afternoons.

Prickly pear cactus and penstemon before a strawbale wall in Albuquerque, N.M. Plenty warm!
Prickly pear cactus and penstemon before a strawbale wall in Albuquerque, N.M. Plenty warm!

And since we’re all about the water out here, microclimates help with water use as well. For example, I might be able to place a shrub that needs a little more water at the bottom of a hill, welling on the downside to catch some of the rainwater.

So remember to pay attention to zone, sun and water needs when buying plants, especially in chain stores, which might stock plants too far out of your zone to keep alive all year. Your plants will be healthier and you’ll save money and time.