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.

Keeping Critters Out of the Garden

You water and nurture a delicious tomato from seed and delight each day in seeing it grow and fruit. And then a critter eats the branches, roots or leaves. It’s a little tougher to love wildlife when they destroy your plants and food.

deer grazing near garden
Deer grazed near our vegetable garden while we filled our troughs with dirt. Notice the fence post on the right.

Some critters are easy to manage, but others not so much. Here, we have gophers, deer, gophers, elk, gophers, squirrels, gophers, rabbits, gophers, skunks and more gophers. I’ve listed a few tips for managing or controlling the ones that visit our gardens most often, which are deer — and you guessed it, gophers.

Directing Deer

The deer around our place have been especially active this year, and I believe one reason is that we did not mow our grass late in the season. A warm February produced new grass to graze as they ate up the old. Having them here more often is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we get to enjoy them more often, but they have more opportunities to try out plants we’d prefer they didn’t eat.

xeric garden deer
Even after deer spent a winter munching regularly in our xeric garden, most plants did fine!

We have to fence many young trees and our vegetable garden to keep deer from destroying plants. Other tactics include trimming branches high enough to keep deer from reaching them while standing on their hind legs. We missed some low branches on our pear, and I noticed telltale signs the other day that deer had munched on the ends of several. Last summer, however, they ignored some unfenced tomatoes until well into fall.

We also have many deer-resistant plants in our ornamental garden, which avoids the expense and waste associated with choosing plants they love. Typically, only fawns graze plants such as rosemary, lavender, sage and butterfly bush. They’ve chewed a new kniphofia (red hot poker) to the ground and almost killed an oriental poppy. Bucks can also damage young trees by rubbing their antlers on the trunks, and small plants can be broken when deer step on them.

buck kitchen window
This buck spotted us through our kitchen window while he was grazing in our front yard.

We won’t exclude deer. After years, I still thrill at the sight of them, and love watching the herd grow as part of recovery following a past forest fire. So, here are a few strategies we use for protecting plants from deer:

  • Fence around vulnerable, favorite or valuable plants. And remember that a deer can go under a fence to munch just as easily as they it goes over one. Fencing can be attractive, as long as it’s also functional.
  • I have heard that fencing should be eight feet or higher, but we’ve done fine (so far) with 6-foot fencing (on 8-foot posts to allow at least a foot to 18 inches underground).
deer fence vegetable garden
The fence around our first vegetable garden area was inexpensive to build and has kept out deer.
  • Protect small individual plants with 5-gallon buckets (after sawing out the bottom). If it’s a plant favored by deer, we also strap chicken wire across the top of the bucket.
  • Although I don’t necessarily believe that repellants work, we have used Irish Spring soap in pantyhose to hang near plants with some success.
  • Don’t assume deer avoid prickly and thorny plants. They love rose bushes, though they tend to not eat much at once.
deer fencing
This fencing from old fence posts was a little high on the bottom, but only a fawn got to our sand cherries.

Gophers – the Bane of Our Existence

I do want to eradicate gophers, but we’re losing. The underground varmints can chew and claw their way through rocks, and probably titanium. We can’t even count the destruction they’ve caused, but we know they killed a dwarf apple tree, a lavender plant, and several other ornamentals. My favorite (or least favorite) example is the day we noticed that our new ornamental grass looked shorter. We blamed the deer for chewing on it, but when we got close, we noticed it had been shortened from the roots up. The stalks simply fell into the hole when we touched them.

gopher damage
Example of gopher damage near our peach tree. The tunnels collapse when deer, elk or people step on them, also making the ground a little unsteady for ankles.

The only control method that works for us is trapping. It’s a time-consuming business, but if we didn’t try to manage the numbers, the gophers would continue to multiply and take over the property. In fact, they nearly have. In one year, Tim trapped more than 80 gophers, and we still have lots of activity around the four acres. Our other method is exclusion, and the only way to exclude them is to fence underground. If you’re not sure whether you have pocket gophers, this publication from the University of California Davis has excellent photos of their mounds.

metal chicken scratch
Metal wire, or chicken scratch, from the home improvement store stucco section. We buried it about 22 to 24 inches deep and left some above ground to discourage bunnies and squirrels.

Between the deer and gophers, we’ve had to fence nearly two feet underground and six feet over. We dug a trench and purchased metal stucco wire to place into it, bending it slightly at the bottom. We also have some metal roofing material we’ll place along the side of our garden that borders our neighbor’s lawn. Here are a few more tips on gopher control:

  • An underground gopher barrier must be solid metal or metal wire with holes smaller than 3/4 inch. We used chicken scratch.
  • There are poisons for gophers, but we avoid them, because dogs and other animals might eat the pellets. Trapping seems cruel, but I think poisoning would be worse, frankly. The UC Davis site also discusses how to trap. Tim has often caught a gopher with only one trap per tunnel.
  • Gophers seem to prefer tender, young plant roots. I also am convinced that they gravitate to areas we’ve recently watered, but that’s just observation.
  • Use containers or raised beds. We use metal troughs and drill about half-inch holes, just large enough to support drainage. Surround raised beds with metal screen or solid metal, or dig down and cover the bottom of the bed with metal. Just remember that the  gopher barrier also can be a barrier to plant roots. Placing containers close to your home usually prevents deer damage.
  • Be aware of natural gopher predators. Many “safe” snakes, along with owls, cats and dogs prey on gophers. But you can’t count on it. A bull snake in our garden went after baby rabbits as well, and owls and cats don’t focus their hunting.
  • Cleaning up heavily weeded or covered areas can help control gophers. For example, we often discover mounds under low trees and bushes or in our irrigation ditch.

 

Taking a Measured Approach to Biointensive Growing

As we plan expansion of our vegetable garden/tiny farm, we’re hoping to grow healthy food by continuing to use organic methods and some principles of biointensive (biologically intensive) planting. The idea of biointensive farming is far from new, but more small and large farmers are applying biointensive principles, which complement organic methods – and for us – water savings.

vegetable garden at dusk
It’s important to grow food sustainably for best results and to avoid ruining the environment.

In biointensive horticulture, rich, healthy soil maximizes a farmer’s yield in minimal space; it also strives to continuously preserve, or even improve, the soil’s health. And that should be the goal of any vegetable gardener. Biointensive farmers loosen soil more deeply by using tools such as broadforks instead of tilling and turning the soil over. Compost is king, building and enriching the soil.

building garden bed
Building a bed in fall by adding compost and recycling healthy plant matter.

So far, so good. We already take those steps. A few more principles of biointensive gardening follow. I want to share our measured approach largely to help gardeners who have less time or experience. Any method with the word “intensive” in the name is going to freak some folks out. But nothing says that gardeners have to follow every tenet of biointensive gardening to the letter. To me, adopting any of the ideas should improve plant health and production, especially if you’ve never gardened organically. There’s no way I can adequately tackle this topic; entire books address it. And I don’t claim to be an expert, but we’re adding to our knowledge base with research, along with trial and error!

Healthy soil for healthy plants

As I said, composting and double digging of beds better prepares soil. If you can produce your own compost on site, even better. That leaves plenty of healthy organic matter on hand and saves money. Another principle is avoiding chemicals in the garden. If soil and plants are healthy, they should need less help and better resist pests and diseases. We spray aphids off with blasts of water, handpick critters like cucumber beetles and use insecticidal soap or diatomaceous earth only when nothing else works.

compost bin
We keep one compost bin right by the garden, another closer to the house, and Tim is starting vermicomposting this spring. You can tell by looking at the yard around the garden how dry the ground was in September 2015.

More yield in less space

Maximizing growing space is another premise of biointensive gardening. One reason is weed prevention and cooling of soil, or “living mulch” from mature plants. The other is efficiency and production, especially for urban gardeners with limited space. We certainly want to grow as much as we can in the space we have. But in biointensive gardening, the design and proximity of plantings is a little too, well, intense for me.

I love the idea of planting lettuces and other low greens close enough to help shade the soil and block weeds. But I’ve seen what happens when people plant tomatoes too close together. Not only do some plants shade others from valuable sun, but they don’t get enough air circulation. Plants also compete for nutrients and water. And why build an above-ground highway to make it even easier for a hornworm to travel from one plant to another? Finally, I want to be able to reach plants for easy maintenance and harvesting. We’ll experiment on the lettuce and maybe another crop or bed to see how close spacing compares.

vegetable garden spacing
Plants need some space, and spacing changes as plants mature. We learned a lot our first year of laying out this space.

Interplanting and companion planting

We’ve read Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener,” and plan to employ many of his methods for building rows. We’ve built up the soil and added compost, and measured the rows so they’re 30 inches wide, with a small walkway between each. That’s just enough room to maximize growing area and minimize plant problems or gardener aches, pains and frustration. We’ve got containers to extend our growing space. I believe we’ll also try a little more interplanting, just to help maximize space or use the shade from a tall or trellised plant to cool another. Many urban gardeners use square-foot gardening to achieve intensive planting.

mature vegetable garden
It’s hard to tell where the tomato ends and the melon begins.

We won’t, however, use interplanting as companion planting. I know there is historical basis for placing particular plants next to one another to improve each plant’s health or yield, but I’m less certain about scientific basis for the practice. Aside from use of cover crops to enrich the soil at the end of the season, I’m not sold on companion planting. Of course, I might have a jaded opinion because I’m so tired of seeing it, along with many garden myths, pushed on Pinterest. We’ll continue to build and improve the soil in our beds and rotate crops.

walk to vegetable garden
The garden is behind this abandoned irrigation ditch. We’ll plant some milkweed and a few transplants to the south side of the bank to attract more pollinators. For now, that’s as close a I’ll come to companion planting.

Whole-minded and open pollination

The biointensive principle of using open-pollinated seeds instead of GMO varieties ensures biodiversity of crops. The reason is that heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants can be saved for use the next year. Saved hybrid seeds are not reliable. Our focus this year has been on organic seeds, and I don’t believe we would try to save seeds for vegetables regardless. We have saved or redistributed seeds from wildflowers.

cosmos and other annuals
Pollinators flock to many annuals and perennials, and these wildflowers spread naturally. The more pollinators we can attract, the more we help all of our gardens.

As with permaculture, biointensive gardening focuses on the whole and how different parts of the garden, or ways of gardening, affect each other. For example, if I don’t apply chemicals to my vegetables, but use pesticides on ornamentals on my property, I still affect the tiny ecosystem. The pesticides can kill bees that might otherwise fly over to the vegetable garden and pollinate a cucumber.

fresh vegetables farm to table
Here’s a healthy yield of fresh vegetables for our kitchen!

Learn more about biointensive gardening from Fortier’s book and from this Mother Earth News article, including a great explanation of square foot gardening. And don’t stress over doing everything suggested or doing it perfectly. The first goal is to grow healthy plants and food for your family.

 

Starting Seeds for the 2016 Garden: Patience Required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dirt on Saving Water in the Garden: Good Soil

Gardeners can take many steps to save water, such as saving rain water and using drip irrigation. But one of the most crucial steps lies beneath our feet, in the soil that protects and nourishes roots and controls water drainage and aeration.

black sand beach Maui
Black sand in Maui along Hana Highway. The black sand is made from lava rock.

What you can’t see: soil microbes

Tiny microbes feed soil and plants, relying largely on humus, the rich organic matter that results from decay of natural materials. When conditions are right, insects, earthworms and microorganisms in healthy soil create humus. Organic matter in the soil ensures that microbes thrive and the soil drains as it should. And when a plant is otherwise healthy, it’s less vulnerable to diseases and can likely survive with less water. In Master Gardener training, I learned that New Mexico soils have organic matter of 20 percent or lower on average. At our place, rocks take up 90 percent of the soil (slight exaggeration). We located our vegetable garden in an area that used to be part of an apple orchard and that’s near the river. The soil is much better than near the house, likely because of organic matter working its way into the soil over the years.

xeric rock garden
Got rocks? We’re certain the rock garden walls and borders were made with rocks excavated on our land! Many of the native and xeric plants have adapted to soil conditions.

Xeric plants and soil drainage

The thing is, many xeric plants are more affected by soil that remains wet than by lack of water. Lavender comes to mind; wet feet can cause root rot. Add a sudden drop in temperature to the dampness and lavender plants are at risk of dying. I’m seriously worried about ours after 18 inches of snow. Plant care instructions for nearly all xeric plants read “place in well-draining soil” because too much water in the soil suffocates a plant’s roots. Sand dries too quickly, but clay and compacted soils fail to drain.

Lavender does better with well-draining soil and less water.
Lavender does better with well-draining soil and less water.

Plants use valuable energy to pull moisture from soil. When they have to work harder to access water in soil, plants become stressed and wilt. If your soil drains quickly, you have to water more often and less deeply. Loam is the name used for balanced soil that has a fairly even mix of sand, clay and silt. As mentioned, clay soils hold too much water. Amending either extreme (sand or clay) with organic matter helps plants access the appropriate amount of water needed with less stress. Instead of adding sand or clay to balance soil, gardeners should use organic matter to gradually improve soil health and function.

This soil at the entrance to our vegetable garden is compacted foot traffic. Notice how water from snow melt stands in the soil.
This soil at the entrance to our vegetable garden is compacted from foot traffic. Notice how water from snow melt stands in the soil.
Only a few feet away is this raised bed with organic matter added. No standing water under the same conditions; the water is working its way down through the soil.
Only a few feet away is this raised bed with organic matter added. No standing water under the same conditions; the water is working its way down through the soil (and rocks).

Here are a few tips for ensuring your plants’ soil is healthy, providing nutrients, water drainage and oxygen to roots:

Add organic matter. The type of matter you add is more specific to your soil’s pH and other factors. But most natural organic amendments, such as manure or green manure, can help.  Also called cover crops, green manure is the purposeful planting in fall and winter of crops that restore soil nitrogen and organic matter used up by summer plants. When using animal manure, add it to compost or make sure it’s cooked completely; don’t add fresh manure to growing plants.

You can see the difference in the color and texture of the mushroom compost that sits on top of the summer vegetable bed. The soil needs some help.
You can see the difference in the color and texture of the mushroom compost that sits on top of the summer vegetable bed. The soil needs organic matter from the compost and some broken-up plant residue.

Properly handle plant residue. Although some schools of thought are in favor of letting spent plant material stay on the ground to decay and provide organic matter, gardeners should use caution. Insects overwinter in plant residue on the ground (good if you want monarchs, but you can’t really go around selecting which insects get to take up residence). And it’s never a good idea to use diseased plant material. We kept some healthy plant material, but anything that looks funky goes into compost bins or garbage. We don’t mess with “wilder” areas around the property.

An unripe pear and leaf material remain under a large, old pear tree. They'll compost and improve soil, but also attract ants and other insects.
An unripe pear and leaf material remain under a large, old pear tree. They’ll compost and improve soil, but also attract ants and other insects.

Use organic mulches. Adding mulch around (but not against) the base of the plant helps slow water evaporation from the soil. Organic mulches eventually break down, improving soil make-up.

Here at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, landscapers have added mulch around many beds, including blue fescue.
At the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, landscapers have added mulch around around many plants, including blue fescue.
Cacti at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. need no mulch!
Cacti at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz. need no mulch!

Rotate crops and use cover crops. In vegetable and herb gardening, move annual crops around so that the soil nutrients get a break. Families of plants differ in how they use soil nutrients.

Stop tilling. Rototilling, the traditional farm method, burns off carbon and adds to weed emergence. It also breaks soil up into smaller particles, which makes it less permeable for air and water. Repeated tilling leads to loose top soil. Heard about the Dust Bowl? Work added organic matter into the top few inches only, or let it sit on top of soil.

When in doubt, test your soil to determine how much of it is sand, clay or loam. You can perform your own home test pretty easily using a mason jar, as described on page 11 of this publication from the San Diego County Water Authority.

 

Our Garden is Hard at Work This Winter

Winter is tough for gardeners who live in zones with shorter growing seasons. In New Mexico, we can typically get outside in winter to work on between-season chores because we usually have dry, sunny conditions. Not so much this year. We’ve had unusual cold, wind and now about 18 to 20 inches of snow.

Our latest snow covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.
Winter storm Goliath dumped at least 18 inches of snow that covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.

Even with snow and cold, there are a few things gardeners can do in winter to satisfy their outdoor cravings and grow a bit of their own food. And our gardens certainly don’t rest all winter; with a little help, the soil rebuilds to nourish next year’s plants. Dormant or dried plants feed wildlife while their food is scarce.

Extend the season with row cover

Like I said, most winters are relatively mild in New Mexico. Although nights in the high desert cool considerably, the days can warm up to at least 50 degrees F. I covered an existing carrot trough to keep the carrots from freezing; they keep much better in the ground than anywhere I can store them once harvested. If you live in zone 8 or warmer, you can grow carrots in winter. We’re trying a new crop and storage/preservation of an established crop in our trough planter.

These carrots were planted in late summer and we're still harvesting after Christmas.
These carrots were planted in late summer and we’re still harvesting after Christmas.

We constructed a small hoop house with row cover cloth to extend the season for early spring or late fall. We spread our carrot, lettuce and spinach seeds inside the hoop tunnel in fall and had a really good germination rate. The carrots are growing slowly, however, and I hope to plant them a little earlier next year. Then again, I also hope for a warmer winter.

We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny's Seeds. I've harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny’s Seeds. I’ve harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.

Prepare the vegetable garden for spring

Before the snow came, we got outside a few times to at least prep our vegetable and herb gardens for next spring. We didn’t have a chance to plant cover crops, and that’s on our list as a strategy for next year in part of the garden. But we want our gardens to rebuild important soil nutrients, so we pulled up some of the frost-bitten plants. Any that looked unhealthy went into a weed pile, but we added much of the material to our compost bin, and left some in the garden. We chopped up the healthy plant material left in garden rows to help it break down faster.

A friend introduced us to mushroom compost, and it's our favorite choice for amending soil and fertilizing grass.
Although we would prefer to buy fresh compost in bulk, there are no certified compost sources nearby. We have to buy these bags in Albuquerque and transport them down. Mushroom compost is our organic matter of choice for building beds and fertilizing grass.

Although we compost, we don’t generate enough to cover our entire vegetable garden, so we purchased mushroom compost, our favorite organic matter. We busted up compacted dirt and built the beds up so they’re slightly raised. Next, we used a small cultivator to work the compost into the top few inches. It’s not the same as tilling, which turns up deeper soil and weed seeds. We’d love to cover the beds with leaves or other mulch, but the wind rules that out. So we used plastic or black fabric cloth on hand. The purpose is mostly to keep weed seeds from blowing onto our clean beds and taking root. In spring, we’ll add a little more compost and mix the soil lightly a few weeks before planting.

Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We'll see how they compare in the spring.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We’ll see how they compare in the spring.

Leave some plant material for wildlife

Schools of thought about fall garden clean-up differ. On the one hand, the more leaves and other plant material you leave on the ground, the higher your chance of insects and weeds using your garden as their winter home. And I agree in many ways with that school of thought. We didn’t want the mess of dried annuals everywhere, and I wouldn’t want a giant pile of leaves up against areas of the garden or house.

Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!
Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!

Leaving leaves on grass as mulch for the winter is a great idea, but only if you have a way to break the leaves up with a mower or other method. If you don’t, they’re not likely to compost down before spring. Not cutting back any ornamentals can leave your winter garden looking sad and messy. Plant debris can build up and leave you with more work than you bargained for in spring, when you’d rather spend your time planting than cleaning.

We take a middle-of-the-road approach. We pulled up many, but not all, annuals to keep the garden from being a messy jungle and home to critters we don’t want. We left some for birds to land on or feed from. They take shelter in and eat from roses and other bushes left unpruned until early spring. And we don’t mow our grass late in the season; that’s proven to attract and feed wild turkeys, deer and elk.

Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard.
Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard right outside the kitchen window (which explains the mysterious reflection of my coffee cup planter).

In some areas, we cleaned up fallen leaves and used them to mulch tender perennials. But we didn’t try to rake leaves down by the river. That might help butterfly and other larvae through the winter, and if it also helps insects we don’t want, at least it’s far from the gardens.

What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. El Nino ...
What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. How about a break, El Nino?

The bottom line is that even if you can’t do much in your garden in winter, your garden and soil are doing lots for you and other living creatures. I try not to stress over whether I’m handling it perfectly, but choose and alter our approach based on what works best and what makes me feel best as I stare out the window at a blanket of white, itching to get back outside.

Five Reasons To Plan Now for Next Year’s Farm-to-Table Garden

As the first frost threatens, I know it’s time to plan next year’s vegetable and herb garden. And I’ve got five reasons for new or seasoned gardeners to do the same. I might be a little late for some of these ideas; that’s what happens sometimes! But I’ll hold onto them for next year and share some I’ve learned – like use of cover crops (no. 4), something I want to learn more about for waterwise gardening.

fresh tomato and basil from home garden
Mourning the end of the gardening season is easier with some planning, and while enjoying home-grown tomatoes and basil on some fresh mozzarella as a snack or side. Add salt, pepper, olive oil and balsamic and you have a yummy and easy Caprese salad!

1.Extend Your Season

First, can you extend the edible growing season with some fall or winter crops? If your zone allows, and it’s not too late already, then get started! We’ve planted some spinach, head lettuce and more carrots under a small hoop house with row cover fabric. Aside from many greens, favorite cool-season vegetables of gardeners are cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and several forms of broccoli. Several types of onion and garlic also grow in winter or are perennials in many zones. For example, chives are hardy to zone 3.

mini-hoop-house
Our simple mini-hoop house uses Hoop Loops, twine, row cover fabric and inexpensive brick pavers. We’ll see how long we can grow a few cool-season crops.

2. Add New Herbs

Speaking of perennials, maybe you want a perennial herb to thrive next year, and if you live in a zone that offers time to establish the plant before your fall freeze, head out and get it now! Low-water perennial herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary survive down to at least zone 4 or 5. Or consider a window herb garden if you can’t let go of your favorite herb as the season ends, or want to try a few out for next summer! Here’s a great article on growing herbs indoors from Grow a Good Life.

close-up of thyme leaves
Thyme is an attractive herb even before it blooms. It can spread nicely in a low-water garden.

3. Prep Soil and Plan

Clean up and prep soil; make a winter to-do list. Your soil is even more tired than you are after a season of growing food for you and your family. If you’re using the same space or turning part of your lawn into a new edible growing space, you’ll likely need to prep and enrich your soil. Pull up spent plants (or whatever takes up the space now) and be sure to discard any diseased plant materials. Add compost and let it cook. Here’s what we did early last spring (did I say I’m often late?), and an article from Mother Earth Living in 2012 that has some great ideas. This is also the time to make a to-do list of fall and winter projects, such as repairs to fences and drip lines or adding raised beds. Or, let’s say you want to expand because you’re nuts like us.

Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.
Our early spring garden preparation last year to kill any remaining grass and enrich the soil with organic matter.

4. Plant a Cover Crop

If it’s still warm enough to sow cover crop seeds, this is one of the best strategies for enriching your soil, depending on your zone. Field peas, hairy vetch, many clovers, oats, rye and buckwheat are popular nutrient-restoring crops that can grow in winter in your edible garden. Plant cover crops with a few caveats, however: First, in drought-stricken and normally arid areas such as New Mexico, it only makes sense to plant cover crops that can grow in our typically dry climate. I’d like to investigate more about using water for something I will mow down and mulch into the ground after a few months vs. the benefits such as erosion control and soil improvement. And I hinted at another important caution: keep cover crops mowed or otherwise under control so they don’t go to seed, and be sure to cut them down in late winter to mulch into your garden. Otherwise, they can seed and spread, becoming invasive.

5. Note Ups and Downs

Finally, if you’re like me, you want to take notes about this year’s successes and “issues” now, because it was so hard to keep up with that during the peak of the working summer and harvest season. If you didn’t create a map or somehow record where you planted each crop, make a quick inventory before cleaning up so you can easily rotate next year’s planting. Think about how to improve your garden. I need to plant a few of my crops further apart (the reason for the expansion, or perhaps more accurately, the justification for the expansion!), and I need to time my succession planting a little further apart, just tweaking it enough to spread out the harvest, but still allow seeds to sow and fruit to grow within our normally short season. Something tells me that we won’t be so lucky with our frost date next year. We also want to invest in a better seed starting setup. I can’t wait!

confused tomato
No wonder I’m up and down. I’ve got confused tomatoes. New blossoms are appearing in mid-October, but the fruit isn’t ripening and the leaves on the apricot tree in the background are turning and falling.

Personal/bonus reason: Planning now might help overcome the impending sense of loss. Maybe it’s just me, but the unseasonably warm mid-October here that has me still harvesting a few tomatoes and cucumbers is dragging out the inevitable. When the hard freeze finally hits and I wander out to the garden the next morning to see what resembles a scene from a horror movie, I know I’ll be devastated and in need of a project. If planning while enjoying my last tomato with some fresh mozzarella cheese and basil gets me through, then so be it.

I'll miss the fresh salad ingredients!
I’ll miss the fresh salad ingredients, too!

Favorite New Garden Tool: Oscillating Hoe

I fell in love with a new garden helper this weekend, but my husband knows! The sun came out after a week of clouds and rain, which is so unusual for New Mexico. We headed straight outside and I tried out my new oscillating hoe.

There are so many different types of hoes, and I credit a neighbor who hosts a community garden with first showing me this type of hoe. It’s also called the stirrup hoe because of its shape, rounded on the top and sides, with a flat, rectangular bottom blade that’s sharp on both sides. And I’m so happy to add this workhorse to our stable of garden tools.

oscillating hoe in garden bed
The head of the oscillating hoe under a perennial in need of help.

The rain encouraged growth of several grasses in our rock garden beds. Naturally, much of the growth occurred in beds we’ve hand-weeded at least once this year. I have little time or patience to weed entire beds by hand, and try to save the most manual of work for times when it makes most sense: while I’m watering vegetables and have to stay put, in rocky borders and gravel pathways or down inside plants.

The oscillating hoe required no patience. In fact, it thrilled me with its efficiency! First, I’ll describe a few types of common hoes so I can explain why I love this one so much.

Common types of garden hoes

I’m actually amazed at how many different types of hoes are available to gardeners, and I think selection usually is a matter of personal choice and garden task at hand. Here are just a few:

three types of garden hoes
On the left is our old, worn traditional hoe. My grubbing hoe, with a slightly lighter weight, is in center. The new oscillating hoe is on the right. It’s already dirty, a good sign.
  • Traditional hoe. Also called a nursery hoe or American hoe, it typically has a square to rectangular welded steel blade at 90 degrees to the end of a wooden handle. This is the classic, old-fashioned garden hoe that’s designed to move soil and remove weeds. I have trouble wielding our old one because it feels like it will break if I chop with it. But it works well for forming wells, and Tim is particularly good at moving, forming and mounding soil with both sides of the blade. The newer nursery hoes are a little stronger than our old one and might be sufficient if you can only have one garden hoe.
  • Grubbing hoe. Grubbing hoes are heavy-duty tools for digging deeper and chopping off weeds with tap roots or other big jobs, such as digging up or chopping roots of elm trees that crop up along fence lines (and just about everywhere else). Most have shorter handles than other hoes so you can swing them sort of like a pickax or even over your head. Many, such as the Mattock hoe that we have, include a sharp blade like a pickax for prying up rocks or getting into tight corners. We’ve also used the sharp edge to dig shallow trenches for trellis fence lines.
  • Oscillating and stirrup hoe. The oscillating hoe is not as heavy as a grubbing hoe and more versatile than a standard American hoe. With the double sharpened edge on a blade that rotates slightly at the bottom of the handle, the oscillating hoe works best when you push and pull it, sort of like using a paint roller on a floor or mopping in front of you. A circle hoe is similar, but the oscillating hoe has the stirrup shape, plus a movable blade, which gives you that effective back-and-forth motion. Check out the action on my short video on Twitter (@TeresaOdle) or on Instagram (tntodle).
  • Other types of hoes vary based in blade shape or purpose. For example, there are hoes made mostly for pushing. And a collinear hoe, which might be the only one I still covet, has a thin blade about 7 inches long, and you can stand up straight and draw it between crops to quickly pull out small weeds.

Weeds and cultivates

The oscillating hoe I got from Corona really does such a great job that I believe I can hold off on the collinear hoe, however. Mine has a 6-inch blade, and the height, or profile, of the hoe is such that I was able to work around or under several prized perennials without worrying about damaging the plants. Plus, the stirrup assembly that holds the blade is rounded, well, like a stirrup, so it won’t cut from above. Best of all, these hoes work quickly to remove small weeds and grasses, which are the worst weeds of all to pull by hand. And I’m all about efficiency!

before photos of grass in rock bed
Before photo: I had used the hoe to remove small weeds. And that’s the best time. Now I would try it on longer, thicker grass to try to uncover that hidden Pawnee buttes sand cherry.

I also soon noticed that my oscillating hoe was cultivating the top layer of soil as I weeded. So instead of pulling up large clumps of important soil with grass roots when I dig, grub hoe or hand weed, I was able to keep soil in the beds and also loosen it. Compacted soil doesn’t let water access the plant’s roots as it should, so I was helping the plants at the same time. Granted, some of the soil that was badly compacted needs more organic matter. That’s next, and it’s another reason why I loved using the tool to quickly remove those small weeds. Mulching several of these plants or beds, or adding organic matter to soil are projects on our fall and winter gardening to-do list; I want the beds as clear of weeds as possible before the next step.

bed after use of oscillating hoe
After photo: It took little time to remove the grass with the oscillating hoe. And I loosened the compacted soil. Next step is to mulch the bed and save the gopher-attacked sand cherry.

Improves ergonomics

Saving time is one thing for busy gardeners like me. We have several garden areas and a few acres to manage, so I’m beyond thrilled to learn how much more quickly I can clean up some of our worst ornamental beds, and especially how much time the tool will save in the vegetable garden. But the other part I loved about Corona’s oscillating hoe was its ergonomic value.

Corona-oscillating-hoe
The 6-inch blade covers a lot of ground, but the aluminum pole and rubber handle make this a lightweight and comfortable garden tool.

I can swing a grub hoe, but my middle-aged back can’t take it for long. And bending or squatting for long periods of time to weed by hand is not much fun either. An oscillating hoe takes a lot of the backbreaking aspect out of gardening, but still gives me a little bit of a workout, so it’s perfect. The Corona hoe we selected is made of lightweight aluminum, so it’s plenty easy to carry, push, pull and even raise up for some serious whacking when needed!

Disclosure: We won a drawing for the choice of some free tools from Corona after visiting their booth at the Garden Writers Association meeting in Pasadena last month. And although we truly appreciate our luck and Corona’s ongoing support of the organization, winning did not compel me to write about the company’s products. Nor did Corona ask me to do so. I really love this tool!