Fall Gardening Project: Dry River Bed

In the arid Southwest, most plants don’t like an abundance of rainfall. Xeric plants such as lavender or rosemary can be damaged or die from too much moisture in the crown or roots. Sometimes, the location a homeowner places a plant affects watering and alters the plant’s ability to thrive as as it should for  the zone in which the gardener lives.

dry river bed
Dry river bed in summer, with blanket flower in foreground and blue mist spirea in back right. The spirea was getting too much water before we began.

Other times, conditions change. That’s what happened in an area near the foundation of our home when we expanded our back patio. We found that excess water from the patio and rain barrel near the edge redirected water during rains. During monsoon season, a blue mist spirea (Cayopteris) and cotoneaster began to show signs of overwatering.

DIY dry river bed
A before shot with Buster waiting in our high-traffic area of grass. The spirea is left foreground and the cotoneaster behind it.
dry river bed
We enlarged our patio and added a few rain barrels. This one was flooding the ground near it when it overflowed. The swamp milkweed we added likes the water.

We needed to divert some water away from the two bushes and recognized the importance of either collecting or directing rainfall. We couldn’t afford a large rain cistern, but we had one natural resource in abundance—rocks. So we built a dry river bed, also called a dry creek bed or dry stream. The project was a way to change up the landscape and divert extra water down to our lawn.

DIY dry river bed
We moved the blue mist spirea up onto a berm built with extra dirt — from another DIY project.

Step 1: Move plants

The first step in our project was to move the plants. We divided the spirea and kept the largest portion to replant; we transplanted two smaller sections on a ditch bank back in our orchard. We ended up removing the cotoneaster, which was beginning to overgrow a path we us regularly and had large areas of rusted, dying foliage.

DIY dry river be and added a Karl Foerster grass.
Our first replacement cotoneaster did not make it. We moved a cactus and penstemon to the new hill as well.

Step 2: Design hills and valleys; test

We next built up a small hill or berm as a new spot for the blue mist spirea and a new cotoneaster bush. This would allow us to control the plants’ watering better. We dug and scraped a river-like trough to help water drain down and toward the grass. It didn’t take much depth to get water from the patio to the grassy area below. Getting the depth and flow right took some trial and error with a garden hose to simulate the rain and made a few adjustments where water backed up.

Testing the flow while we could still lift the fabric if needed.

Step 3: Add rocks

We already had a pile or two of rocks we’ve dug up. And there is no shortage around here. The first step was to cut and lay down black weed barrier, followed by large rocks along the top and side of the dry river to hold the fabric, direct water and add a decorative, but natural effect. This was followed by addition of medium and smaller rocks. We gathered the small rocks throughout fall and winter, sometimes a few at a time, to fill in.

rock river bed
Rocks are much easier to come by around here than water. We lined the sides and bottom with rocks from our property. The large piece of flagstone is a step over the water that runs from the low side of the patio.

Step 4: Plant!

All our hard work was rewarded with a new area for planting. We had the two bushes, and moved a small pine leaf penstemon to a lower part of the berm. We purchased several grasses, some perennials and a few annuals to fill in. Then we got lucky and had a volunteer blanket flower crop up in just the right spot. We stopped the rock design a foot or more from the house in most spots and used pecan mulch around those plants. Here’s why: Rocks reflect sun and heat and my office window is right above the dry river bed area.

Mondo grass
We hope these mondo grasses will grow and spread to cool the wall a little. The mulch is pecan bark. And the new cotoneaster is small but healthy.

Lessons learned:

Pulling out the large cotoneaster and adding rocks has intensified the heat in my office. I know that will ease once the plants grow to maturity. And the heat might be welcome on a cloudy January day. We also lost the first cotoneaster planted. It could have been any of a number of causes, but we likely made a common mistake: not watering enough. I was so concerned with keeping this plant from getting too much water that I failed to account for how much would drain away from its roots and the immaturity of the plant. Our second attempt is going well. It’s also easy to change the flow of water just by placing a rock or two in a certain way. So we check the flow when it rains to look for pooling of water.

We transplanted some grass into the walkway and added two pieces of flagstone.

Overall, we were pleased with the look and function of the dry river bed. The native grass below it turned green earlier than normal and we stopped problems from mud and overwatering of bushes in the area. This is an easy and inexpensive garden DIY project!

 

10 Fall Chores in the Garden

As fall temperatures drop, there’s still plenty to do in the Southwest garden. In most areas of New Mexico, freeze hits by mid- to late October. But plenty of sunny days hit in fall here so gardeners can get outside and take care of these chores before winter arrives:

fall leaves
Raking up gorgeous fall leaves is just one fall chore outdoors.

1. Harvest

If you still have any vegetables ripening, better harvest them now. Tomatoes and winter squashes can finish ripening inside. If you haven’t harvested and dried herbs, now is the time to trim them back and get them ready for use in the kitchen. Some vegetables, such as kale and carrots, can stay in the ground a while. You can preserve some vegetables with help from extension office publications or other credible sources that address flavor and safety of canned or frozen foods. Finally, I like to pick flowers still blooming and place them in a vase inside, just to make me feel better about the season ending.

preserve tomatoes basil
Tomatoes finish ripening indoors in a sunny window and basil can keep for weeks in a glass of water.

2. Clean

There is some debate about what to leave in the garden and what to throw out. You definitely want to throw out any weeds or diseased plant cuttings. Compost healthy cuttings. We even laid some carrots that were too big for our taste out on tree stumps for deer and other critters to eat. It’s personal preference to leave some debris on the ground to naturally compost in place. But if the debris hides unwanted bugs or spores, it’s not a good idea. I usually clean up most plant debris and then use straw or leaves for composting.

3. Preserve Bulbs and Seeds

Check a local gardening book or online to find out how to dig up and overwinter bulbs that can’t handle cold temperatures in your area. In zone 6B in New Mexico, we leave iris, daylily and allium bulbs or corms and should dig up gladiolas and dahlias. Usually, the bulbs just need to be kept cool and dry. You also can preserve seeds from flowers and herbs such as dill or cilantro for cooking or replanting.

red gladiola flower
These gladiola flowers added color and attracted pollinators (but were safe from deer) in our vegetable garden. I’ll dig them up soon to winter them over inside.

4. Leave Some Seeds

Not all flowering plants need fall trimming of spent seed heads. Many can make it through winter and wait for summer trims. And birds love dried up seeds on sunflowers, cosmos and other flowering annuals. Plus, by leaving the seeds on, you increase the chance that some native grasses or flowers will reseed.

Apache plume and finch
Birds love the seeds on our Apache plumes and use the bushes for cover.

5. Evaluate Plant Placement

As you clean up and assess how plants look at the end of their growing season, you can evaluate plant placement. For example, some of our green beans did not fare as well as last year. I believe the spot I planted them in this year got more late summer shade from a neighbor’s tree than I anticipated based on early summer sun. Some plants might have grown too large for their spot or get too much water from runoff. Take some notes and consult local sources so you still have time to decide whether you can move them this fall. Or plan where they’ll go in spring, especially before buying new plants!

6. Mulch

In New Mexico, we mulch for two reasons: to conserve water and cool roots in summer and to warm roots during cold winter. I typically mulch as part of fall cleanup and near the time of the first freeze. Most plants that are native and appropriate for your garden can get by without mulch, but it helps protect tender plants from hard freezes in winter. Mulching needs to be a few inches thick to insulate and to cut down on weeds.

7. Protect Plants

Some of my gladiola bulbs came back and rebloomed without being dug up. But I mulched them pretty heavily with leaves. In addition to mulching, you can put buckets around plants to help keep them warm, especially in winter wind, or to keep deer from destroying them (adding a “lid” made of chicken wire or similar material that lets in sun and moisture but not curious critters). Plants in containers that are tender or annual in your area need to come inside, We move outside containers against a south-facing wall for warmth and to protect against wind.

buck in new mexico garden
This buck was lounging in our winter garden, probably after feasting on some roses. Note the plastic buckets on a few plants behind him. Some are there to protect from trampling, some from munching.

8. Empty Containers

It’s time to empty all those containers with edibles and annuals that are dying back. You’ll need fresh potting soil next year and it’s better to store containers empty. We empty soil from our containers (unless the plant had a disease) into garden beds and large stock tank containers that need soil. You can also save potting mix in plastic sealed containers, but it should be mixed with fresh potting soil and compost when replanted in the spring.

plants on wall
Potted geraniums and succulents come back inside for winter. We’re lucky to have plenty of sunlight through our windows.

9. Amend Soil

If you have new garden beds or some that need better soil, fall is a good time to improve soil health. Adding some compost gives it a chance to break down, as does covering beds with leaves that fall from trees. And it makes the spring preparation easier. There are many ways to amend bad soil, such as planting cover crops before frost or having a soil test so you know how to better balance pH in your growing beds. But gardeners learn to tell when soil is compacted. It’s hard to go wrong adding a little organic matter in fall.

10. Enjoy Time Outside!

Fall is a favorite season for a reason. Cool nights and warm days make it hard to stay inside, even when there are few chores to do. And enjoying even the final flower blooms before frost arrives is part of the reason you work hard to make your lawn and garden look nice.

rudbeckia bloom
Some flowers bloom late in summer and into fall. The blooms on this rudbeckia are hanging in there.

Soak it all in and dream about spring, when you will feel renewed energy and enthusiasm for garden chores.

DIY Garden Path

People who love gardening know that winter and early spring can drag on and on. So it’s good to have a project in your back pocket to get outside and improve the garden during the off-season. I’ll share our experience and give a few tips on creating or replacing your own garden path.

garden path DIY
Panoramic view of the completed path in March. Now, to just get rid of the protective buckets and watch the flowers grow!

The weedy gravel walkways in our rock garden needed help. We replaced the old with new landscape fabric and crusher fine, also called decomposed granite. There were several reasons for the project, mostly the weeds I mentioned.

Weeds in gravel path
The ugly impetus. Some areas of the old path were overtaken with weeds.

We estimate that the original paths, installed by the previous owners of our property, were about 10 years old. The weeds and grasses began to poke through the thin landscape fabric and I spent nearly all of my free time bent over pulling weeds out of rocks.

torn landscape fabric under path
A look at what was left of the old landscape fabric after scraping and hauling off most of the old gravel.

We needed to get the new path in before spring planting. And we were done ahead of schedule after:

  • Spending 2 to 3 months cleaning out old rock and installing new crusher fine.
  • Moving and replacing more than 500 border rocks.
  • Laying about 10.5 rolls of 50-foot landscape fabric.
  • Adding nearly 200 new pavers.
  • Hauling and shoveling more wheelbarrow loads of old gravel and new crusher fine than we could count.
rock border for garden path
Moving and resetting all of the rocks bordering the path was tedious, but necessary. And we are never short on rocks around here.

Reasons for crusher fine

Crusher fines are just that – small particles of crushed rock. So although it might seem crazy to replace rock with rock, hear me out. The landscape gravel was made up of rocks about three-fourths inch in diameter. These let sun, air, water, and especially weed seeds filter down through the layers and held just enough blowing dirt in to feed the seeds. A thin fabric can only do so much to stop weeds from taking root, especially once any tear in the fabric occurs.

crusher fines for garden path
Pile of crusher fines ready to dump and spread over new fabric.

Crusher fines are made of tinier particles and dust, so after you level and tamp them down, the surface evens out and compacts, forming a hard layer that feels more like concrete than rock, but maintaining a rocky, natural appearance. To help prevent weeds, the layer has to be thick – we tried to keep it at two to three inches all the way around. Crusher fine also comes in landscape colors, although we had to pay plenty to have ours trucked in from 45 miles away.

first section of garden path redesign
First section, before leveling and tamping. The rotted wooden borders are toward the back. Tim replaced them with pavers. Note the required knee pads!

Using landscape fabric

The thin landscape fabrics available in big-box stores don’t cut it in most situations for weed control. We ordered ours online from Greenhouse Megastore. It’s Weed Barrier brand with a 20-year warranty.

professional grade landscape fabric for path
Heavy-duty landscape fabric in the last section. By now, we were a little sloppy with folds, but we got it under all of those rocks, and the folds were minor. The rocks in the upper center are holding down fabric temporarily before dumping the crusher fine on top.

The fabric is touted as great for xeriscaping and allows air, water, and nutrients through, but blocks light. Since we used it in a path, we didn’t care about light (and less is best for weed seeds) but we didn’t want standing water. Both the fabric and crusher fine are water permeable, so the water seeps down, eventually back into the ground.

Rock garden circle
A circle within a circle. It was difficult to lay fabric around this without making more cuts than ideal.

The fabric was heavy duty but easy to work with for the most part. Our garden is a circle, with smaller circles and curves throughout. My theory is that any crack/slit/opening in the fabric is an invitation to a hardy weed like field bindweed. But to make curves, you have to carefully slit and overlap the fabric. The fewer cuts the better.

Repurposing gravel

So, out with the old and in with the new. The worst part of the project was scraping, shoveling and hauling off the old gravel. And what do you do with several tons of rocks? Our first step was to repurpose the old gravel in a few beds (over landscape fabric and with cuts for plants) and to add depth to another path in the front yard that has the same gravel. No way we could tackle it too, and I hope that by adding to the depth, we made it a little more difficult for weeds to root. Someday, we’ll have to move that gravel again and replace it with crusher fine. But not today. Or this month or this year…

Repurposing garden gravel
Repurposed garden path gravel. Less mud now in our vegetable/microfarm area with inexpensive plastic border.

We also hauled loads of the old gravel to our vegetable garden and dumped it on strips of fabric left over to cut down on mud and weeds in the walkways. As for the rest, it’s in a pile, waiting for friends to claim it or for Craig’s List.

Here are a few tips on creating a garden path with crusher fines:

  • If you can design your own path, consider gentle curves when possible. Circles are tough. Mention this to a landscape architect if you have one, so you can be ready to replace the path when the time comes or get an estimate of the cost for a landscape company to do so.
  • Invest in professional quality landscape fabric.
  • Work in sections, leaving fabric in the longest continual length possible, which might mean leaving the roll at the end of a section. (We just turned the wheelbarrow upside down over the roll to protect it from deer damage.)
  • Overlap the fabric by several inches at cuts and intersections, and try to avoid large folds.
landscape fabric overlap
In straight areas, the roll fit fine with no piecing. But at curves and intersections, we had to overlap, like in this path.
  • Get some fabric under borders such as pavers, even if it means lifting and replacing the hardscape.
  • Place border rocks or pavers on fabric before adding crusher fine.
rock garden path decomposed granite
After several weeks, tamping and a rain, the crusher fine hardens ad creates a level walking surface. By pushing some against rocks and gaps between them, the crusher fine seeps just under the rocks, almost acting like mortar to secure them.
  • Work in sections to spread crusher fine in a thick, even layer. We used the back (straight edge) of a bow rake.
  • Invest in a tamper (ours was about $40).
tamper for crusher fine path
First and last sections completed. Our simple tamper (right) required some muscle, but did the job.
  • Spray the crusher fine with water before your last tamp. It helps bind the crusher fine mix. (And the color of the path really comes out after rain.)
  • Keep a small pile of crusher fine handy for a few weeks, or at least after a few rains. You might find low spots or phantom folds poking through. Just add a few shovels to the spot and level it with the existing crusher fine.
crusher fine garden path
The completed crusher fine path a few weeks later.

And then enjoy! It’s like a dream to walk on and has a really neat appearance.

 

 

 

 

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.