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!

Collect and Store Vegetable and Herb Seeds

Last week, I wrote about how to gather and save wildflower seeds to disperse right away or save for the spring. It’s also possible to save seeds from some favorite vegetables in your garden. Fall is the perfect time to gather seeds from vegetables and herbs as plants mature, slow or cease producing fruits and begin to flower.

home garden harvest
Plants begin to mature soon after the big fall harvest. Letting some fruit or seed heads dry aids seed collection.

Before getting started, take a look at the seed packet or tag for the plant you want to use as your seed source. If it’s already a hybrid, your chances of reproducing the exact size and quality of plant and fruit next year could be limited; you don’t know which characteristics you’ll get from which parent plants. You’ll have better luck if you start with fruit from an heirloom or standard source plant. Another potential problem for some crops, such as corn, melons, squash and cucumbers, is cross-pollination. It depends on how closely two different varieties are planted together and whether they flower at the same time. Here’s more information on cross-pollination from Seed Savers Exchange.

Try Gathering Seeds from These Vegetables First

A few vegetables are easier than others for harvesting and saving seeds. Among these are beans, peas, peppers and tomatoes. The easiest of these is peppers. When you slice into a bell pepper or core out a green chile, you access plenty of seeds! To gather good seeds for next year, leave the pepper on the plant until it ripens fully (most likely turning red), even wrinkling. Cut the pepper open and remove the seeds, then spread them out on a plate or cookie sheet to dry completely.

Bean and pea pods should be left on the plant until they turn brown; this can take up to about four weeks past the stage when you normally would harvest the pod for eating. If the weather forecast calls for frost and the pods are not yet brown, harvest any remaining beans for eating, then pull up the plant with the brown pods and hang them in a cool, dry spot until the pods are finished browning. Then open the pods and shell the seeds.

Harvesting tomato seeds requires a little more work. Once the fruit ripens, scoop out its seeds and the gel around seeds. Put the seeds, gel and some water in a glass jar and cover it loosely. Put the jar in a warm spot in your kitchen and stop to stir or shake the mixture every day, allowing it to ferment. You will see a layer of fungus on top, but this attacks the gel and protects the seeds. Eventually, the seeds settle to the bottom. You can pour off the liquid and remove the seeds. Rinse the seeds, then let them dry. For more information on harvesting tomato seeds, see this page from the Victory Seed Company.

bell pepper and tomato seeds
Bell pepper and tomato seeds from packets don’t look that different from those still in ripened fruit. This tomato is ready for seed collection; the bell pepper is ready for eating. To gather pepper seeds, leave it on the plant longer.

Harvest Dill Seeds

One of the easiest herbs to dry is dill. You can use the dill weed in your kitchen until the plant flowers. In fact, the leaves are at peak flavor just before flowering. When the flowers emerge, let the seed heads dry on the plant, then cut the full seed head off after seeds turn brown. Hang the seed heads upside down with a paper bag loosely secured around or just under them to catch seeds as they dry and fall off.

Since the quantity of seeds you’ll gather from your own garden is small, you can use envelopes or small jars for storage. Other than that, follow the same advice as for other seeds – keep them in a cool, dry place during the winter.

dried corn herb seeds
Some seeds are easier to buy, especially lettuce. And some are just pretty!

As with flowers, I believe most vegetables and herbs are simply easier to grow from purchased seeds, especially if you have a trusted supplier. Seeds cost little, and I enjoy trying new varieties, especially to find plants suited to our shorter season. If I find an heirloom or nonhybrid that works great in our garden, however, we might be inclined to gather and save the seeds!

Use Harvest Time to Grab Kids’ Interest in Gardening – and Eating Right

One of my favorite memories with my husband and daughter was a trip to Salman Raspberry Ranch near Mora, N.M. , to pick our own raspberries. Despite the heat and bees, we all had a great time! And she enjoyed helping me preserve the fruit and find recipes for enjoying our bushels of fresh raspberries, which were so much fresher than any we could ever purchase in the store.

u-pick raspberries
Bucket of fresh raspberries picked at Salman Ranch near Mora. N.M. How could a kid resist?

Kids enjoy independence and being a part of “grown-up” activities, at age-appropriate levels, of course. If I love hunting for green beans and the thrill of finding one I passed over five minutes earlier, imagine how much fun it is for kids. I think the best way to get them interested in growing, and especially eating, fresh fruits and vegetables is to get them involved in harvesting first.

For one, any child who picks a fresh tomato and gets to eat it on a turkey BLT a few hours later will probably like tomatoes better. A child who pulls a carrot from the ground to find out that not only is it way bigger than watery baby carrots in a plastic bag, but tastes 10 times better, might want to add carrots to your garden plan and grocery list.

farm fresh produce
Kids are sure to find a few farm-fresh vegetables they like if given the chance, and especially if they help grow them in their back yard.

The National Gardening Association is trying to get more kids interested in growing food and in gardening in general. To that end, they’re supporting youth grant programs and have set up a website and online shop to support youth gardening for schools and families at KidsGardening.org. The NGA has research showing how school gardens improve kids’ knowledge about nutrition and help them know what vegetables they like. Participating in gardens helps change their attitudes toward eating fresh fruit and vegetable snacks. School gardens also support kids’ science scores and instill a better appreciation for nature and the environment.

kids in vegetable garden
Gardening at school and at home promotes an appreciation for eating better, for gardening and for the environment. Image courtesy of the National Gardening Bureau, Inc.

Yet more research reports that time is second only to “insect and disease control” as challenges to edible gardening cited by a 2014 survey of households from the Garden Writers Association Foundation. Busy parents can incorporate at least a small edible garden into next year’s plan by starting now. By selecting a site for a family garden and beginning preparation, you and your kids have all fall and winter to research, plot and plan your garden. And if weather allows, you can even prep it with activities such as building raised beds or weeding and adding organic matter. When spring comes and with it sports and other activities, you’ll need less time – and your kids are less likely to get bored with the details. You can jump right into final preparation and planting!

If you have edibles in your garden, even a few herbs, try to get your kids interested now, because picking the finished product is the fun part; the waiting is hardest! If you don’t have edibles, see if a neighbor wants some help harvesting, or look for a nearby U-Pick farm. And check out KidsGardening.org for more ways to involve your kids in family gardening activities.

You Can Have Grass in a Xeric Landscape

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Gardening Know How.

In New Mexico, drought is more a way of life than an occasional phenomenon. With only 10 inches of annual rainfall in much of the state and a high of 20 inches in the mountains, xeriscaping is the responsible landscaping strategy.

But here’s the problem – unaware homeowners and real estate “flippers” often come in and rip out every blade of grass, replacing the cool turf with what amounts to hot lava. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but too much landscape gravel can be harsh. And the gravel often lies over a layer of black plastic. If they leave a tree in place, they can kiss it goodbye in five or 10 years. And they might say hello to higher energy costs.

Replace high-water grass

So, let’s say that you want to save water by eliminating your current turf lawn, which uses way too much water. If you plan to rip it out anyway and were thinking of replacing it with gravel and hardscaping, then consider ripping out the high-water grass and replacing a small portion of it with a low-water native grass. Ideally, you’d plant some turf close to your home for the cooling and barefoot effect, especially around the southwest side of the house. And if you have a tree you want to preserve, especially one that shades your home, consider low-water grass near the outside canopy of the tree and wood or other organic mulch surrounding the tree’s trunk.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain. We get no more than 19 inches a year.

Low-water native grass

Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass is a favorite of area ranchers for its protein content and because it comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm up. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. That’s right, the less you do, the more healthy the grass. Now, you can’t beat that for saving water and time.

blue grama grass seed
A stand of blue grama grass that was left to go to seed.

When I first heard about using native grasses for lawns, I assumed they would not look like regular turf, but like separate bunches of tall grass swaying in the breeze. I could not have been more wrong. It might take longer to fill in than do some grasses designed for turf, and certainly longer than laying sod, but blue grama bunches spread and meet, forming a sod lawn. However, if you want to let the grass go to seed – especially to promote its spread – you’ll delight in the appearance of its 12-inch high stalks with blue-green seedheads. You can even have a mix of both. Mow it in a small patch where you walk and let a few stalks go to seed near the perimeter.

The main point is that with a low-water grass native to your area, you can keep a lawn for kids to play on, dogs to run in, or just for the look of green grass in summer. Yet you use no more water after the first year than you would if you put gravel around your entire house. In fact, most warmer areas of New Mexico have evaporative cooling, which mixes water with forced air to cool homes. When heat reflects off of gravel right next to the house, it takes more water and electricity to cool a house down.

And a few cautions

I have a few cautions with blue grama, however. The first is that it needs some supplemental water the first summer, much like any new lawn. The grass typically comes in seed or plugs, and native sod rolls are now available in Colorado. The seeds should be available from companies that sell native and drought-tolerant plants. The seeds germinate quickly when temperatures are high. The second caution is patience. Blue grama greens a little later in spring than typical grasses made for lawns, especially those that use lots of water. So hang in there. You can water a little in summer when rain is scarce to keep the grass from going dormant, but part of the beauty is letting nature take its course.

Since it’s late in the year now in most zones to successfully seed blue grama, you can at least plan for next year. Check out this excellent handout from High Country Gardens on how to prep your lawn for native grass plugs.

Blue grama seed
Blue grama seed germinates quickly. We had good luck filling in some patches of dirt made by gophers.

Finally, native grasses are just that; they’re not hybrids designed for perfectly manicured lawns that look like golf greens. You might have some imperfections and will certainly have to wait until each area fills in. But when given a choice between gravel and green, I’ll take at least a patch of green – and without using a drop of water.

A Better Use for Pantyhose and a Few Other Items — in the Garden

As summer winds down, I count my lucky stars for many reasons. Among these is that I work at home and no longer have to wear pantyhose on a regular basis.

That means I have plenty of discarded pairs of hosiery (and who doesn’t, because they run if you look at them cross-eyed). I didn’t think of this brilliant idea, but I’m so glad that someone did. Pantyhose is a lot more flexible on a tomato plant than it is on my thighs. And I don’t think that’s from eating too many fresh tomatoes. Maybe from too many BLTs, but back to gardening.

use pantyhose and other household items in garden
Pantyhose can support melons or tomatoes. Notice the clamps on the trough in the background.

We’ve used hose this year to support some tomato branches and to help train melon plants up the fence. I’m saving the toes from the hose we cut up, because I have seen people use them as halters or hammocks for melons to help support them on a trellis or fence. You can just slip the fruit into the hose and then tie the open end to your support structure; the hose flexes while the melon finishes growing. And heck, you don’t eat the rind anyway, so who cares that it was in the old, run foot section of my work hose?

Speaking of hose, we hang on to some old sections of soaker or garden hoses for a few purposes. One is to help support trees. I am not in favor of tying trees, but if a young or damaged tree needs support for a year or so, we would rather have the rubber hose against a branch or trunk than a piece of rough rope. The hose also flexes some with the wind and has a smoother surface.

rubber hose to support tree
I don’t like to tie anything to a tree, but at least the rubber hose rubs less than a rope. This one needed help after gopher damage around the roots.

Here are a few other household or repurposed items you can use in your garden:

  • Old PVC or other pipe. Along with hose, you might be able to use it to build small hoops for covering plants.
  • Clamps and clips. They help secure cloth to fencing or pipe. We got a bag of assorted plastic ones (no rusting) at a discount store.
rock clamp and cloth on lettuce
The trifecta of household items: PVC pipe, a clamp holding the cloth to the fence, and a rock to keep it from blowing. It’s not pretty, but it is inexpensive, helps shade lettuce to keep it moist and cool, and keeps some of the bugs off.
  • Cable ties and barbed wire. I like clamps better, because a garden grows and I want items to be flexible. But sometimes a plastic cable tie or a piece of barbed wire hold things in place more securely.
  • Discarded fencing. I’ve made temporary trellises or cages out of fencing we’ve removed from small trees, just to give a cucumber some extra support or a place to climb.
  • Lawn chairs. Seriously, Tim has used folding, webbed lawn chairs plenty of times to set gently over a new plant for temporary shade, while maintaining warmth and air circulation. Just be sure the wind is calm on the day you do it. And if you get tired and hot, you have a place to sit!
  • Old 5-gallon plastic buckets. Sure, it’s good to have pretty garden tools and bags, but you can’t beat 5-gallon buckets for discarding weeds, carrying items for projects and cutting out the bottom to keep seedlings warm as you start your garden.
  • Rocks. You just can’t have enough rocks handy to hold down covers, balance items, even bury as a stepping stone. Lucky for us.
pantyhose on stakes to keep deer away from tomatoes
I just work with what I’ve got. I know this looks weird, but after deer chomped on my tomatoes near the house, I tried some Irish Spring soap in pantyhose. The “stakes” are from an unused cold frame. I don’t know if the soap works, but there’s been no more munching. Maybe the deer are just turned off by the appearance of it.

Some People Learn the Hard Way: Too Much of a Good Thing

Gardening is fun. Planting is fun, and looking at flowers is really fun. Harvesting what you and the rain worked so hard together to grow – priceless. Trimming, thinning and getting rid of plants is far from fun.

I have learned the hard way this year, however, that I have to curb my enthusiasm. Too much of a good thing can go bad – quickly. And it’s not just because I’m busy working and trying to keep the garden up. I’m talking about some imbalances that occur in the garden when you plan and plant, and then nature takes over.

Mexican hats reseed
The Mexican hat is a prolific reseeder here in New Mexico. It’s a fun annual, but we have more than we need.

Below are a few lessons learned about having too much of a good thing that I hope will help beginners or other overenthusiasts. First, my disclaimers, caveats, poor excuses:

  1. Our place is big.
  2. This is only our third summer here, and we are still trying to get the weeds and gophers under control.
  3. Climates here are extreme, usually dry, with temperature ranges of more than 40 degrees in one day and a strange pattern this year in early summer.
  4. Did I already say that gardening is fun?

Planting too many of the same species hosts pests

First of all, I have written in previous posts about how filling in with annuals can add inexpensive color to your garden. Seeds cost little, and in our garden, they’re free! That brings me to another problem I have pondered several times – the line between weed and wildflower. We’ve got gaillardia, (blanket flowers), Ratibidia columnifera (Mexican hats) and cosmos growing as volunteers all over our garden. There are a few other annuals, but these three amigos would take over if we’d let them. And I almost did. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy a “free” plant. After all, it added color to the garden with no water. Tim drew the line on any growing in the walkway. I could accept that. But I should have done a better job of thinning the plants. The Mexican hats were hosts to hundreds of cucumber beetles. And I would go to deadhead the gaillardia (which could take valuable time away from my favorite activity – weeding) and find an entire stalk covered with flea beetles. These tiny black insects have been damaging my tomato plants.

flea beetle damage to tomato plant
I’m pretty sure this is a flea beetle and damage from it. This tomato is in a container about 15 feet from all those flowers. So far, the damage is tolerable.

Lesson learned: I can keep and love each of these annuals, but I need to thin them early on. Having a few host plants for the bugs might keep them off of young tomatoes, since the annuals come out earlier. But having 20 gaillardia plants is like putting up a billboard on the freeway advertising free flea beetle lodging. Variety is healthier and prettier.

Too much of a good thing robs resources

It’s important to thin seedlings in a vegetable garden, and equally important to space plantings in a xeric garden. When you plant too closely together or let annuals (or perennials that have not been trimmed enough) grow too closely together, a few things happen.  First and foremost, the plants get too little air circulation. I imagine this is more of an issue in some climates than others, or plants native to humid climates can take wet leaves and roots better than plants native to places like New Mexico. But I know most of our xeric plants can’t take it. If we get rains late in the day combined with clouds and cool evening temperatures, which is typical of the high desert, the leaves don’t dry off.

If there is little air circulation, this can increase risk of bacterial and fungal diseases in plants. Powdery mildew, which is characterized by the white or gray patches on leaves that resemble talcum powder, can occur even without rain. High humidity in typically warm, dry climates can cause the disease if plants have little to no air circulation. A plant might grow so large that it shades another plant, Even worse, if plants are too close together. one plant might sneak drinks from the other, or require more water, causing your truly xeric plant near it to have poor health or die from too much water!

Lesson learned: Thin, thin, thin! And no matter how small a seedling or new plant from the nursery appears, take time to learn its mature size. Then consider that in its new surroundings, including the mature size of the plants around it. I think I am going to strap a measuring tape to my jeans next spring.

vegetables mature
Can you spot where the melon ends, the tomato begins, the cucumber ends, the pepper begins… The good news is that there is no row on one side and plenty of space on the other, so at least these plants get air from two directions. Better planning next year.

Hedging your bets can be a lot of work

I planted 11 tomato plants. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Now, I want some credit for hedging my bets, because I had to pull up a few of the tomatoes. Some were not very strong seedlings, but I gave them a try. In retrospect, I probably should have thrown out those seedlings. Weak plants attract predators, and that’s a big lesson from all of this. I feel really badly about wasting the water to try to get them going. Our spring weather likely didn’t help (see “disclaimers” above), but I also might have lost some to poor thinning of suckers or trimming of bottom branches, which provided an on-ramp for snails and bugs. Maybe it’s the nurturer in me, but it’s fun to care for the tomatoes that have made it and to give away the fruit we can’t eat. Other plants are easier to put away for winter, including basil, beans and cucumbers.

Still, I need to plan more carefully next year. Nearly all of the water has come from the sky, including what we’ve harvested. And I’ve used a drip system for much of the well water used. But I’ll approach the vegetable garden plan more carefully next year, unless I find a way to make money growing tomatoes. If I decide to do that, I’ll have to pull up most of those blanket flowers…

too many blanket flowers
Aren’t these blanket flowers pretty? Notice two different color combinations. But having this much together (and more in other areas) is a little too inviting for bad bugs, and I have lots of plant variety for bees.

Lesson learned: Take the next six months to plan, or at least to forget how much time you spent trying to get it right.

And, as always, I want to reiterate this point: There are no dumb gardeners, and I hate to see lists and posts with titles such as “Dumb Gardening Mistakes”. I have seen careless moves or gardeners, but that’s different. If you try something and fail with your best effort, at least you tried. Research, learn from your mistake and try again!

Recommended Reading: Growing the Southwest Garden

A few months ago, I mentioned how many garden books we have on our shelves. I just added a new resource from our favorite local expert and fellow member of the Garden Writers Association, Judith Phillips.

Judith’s newest release, titled “Growing the Southwest Garden,” (Timber Press Inc., 2015) is a go-to guide for native and xeric plants for New Mexico, Arizona, and our neighboring states’ high deserts. It’s also a beautifully written discourse on the climate extremes faced by the gardeners who live there, and especially by the plants they care for.

Growing the Southwest Garden.
A good garden book serves as a resource and as inspiration. This one does both, and more.

Judith, a landscape designer, author and part-time professor, describes how and why climate affects plant selection and health and why it’s so important to base landscape design and plant choice on region. She explains the scientific basis of heat, drought, wind and other stresses on plants and how native plants have adapted to the extremes the Southwest deserts and mountains offer. In addition, Judith offers plenty of ideas and strategies for successful gardening in the various regions of the Southwest.

The book includes examples of landscape designs, an excellent list of Southwest plants and more than 300 color photos. The information is both practical, with tips on seasonal pests, for example, and thought provoking. As one of our top proponents of preserving water and ecosystems, Judith reminds us all how to tend our gardens, create practical but beautiful landscapes, and protect plants and other living beings.

book judith phillips
Growing the Southwest Garden has regional information and photos on plants for Arizona, New Mexico, and surrounding states.

What I love most about this book is that I will read it again and again, not just as a brief reference to look up a plant, but when I start to lose faith. Sometimes, gardening in climate extremes can be frustrating, and it helps to be armed with knowledge and tools. As a near-native of the Southwest, who grew up in the scorching heat of Phoenix and since lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico and the high desert of southeastern New Mexico, this book reminds me to embrace all that I love about the Southwest, its terrain and native plants.

I have found Growing the Southwest Garden available from Timber Press, on Amazon and at the independent bookstore, BookWorks, in Albuquerque, N.M.

Easy Gardening Project: Carrot Trough

carrot harvest
Fresh carrots from your garden taste much sweeter than any from a store. We grew these in a galvanized livestock trough.

I love gardening with raised beds, and when we closed our garden last year, Tim and I discussed the idea of slowly adding some raised beds to our vegetable garden. We’ve got some really good reasons:

  • Warmer soil temperatures for our short season.
  • Flexibility in design and crop rotation.
  • Ability to control and amend soil for better weed management.
  • Shorter distance to bend over for our aging backs.
  • And tops on the list, as always – critters, especially gophers.

Ultimately, improved soil management and weed control can lead to water conservation, though sometimes containers dry out more quickly. We’ve seen livestock troughs used as beds before, and decided to start with a 2 x 4 trough from Tractor Supply Co. for our first attempt this year. We wanted more carrots and for a longer season. Considering that carrots are root vegetables, with the “fruit” growing down into the ground rather than above, this seemed like the perfect choice for a container with a metal barrier between the crop and the critter with the giant fangs.

Prepping the Trough

Carrots also prefer stone-free soil. That pretty much rules out any area of our property, so filling a trough with compost and soil mix made much more sense. But first, we had to prep the trough. It really was so much easier than building a raised bed – and I doubt the cost was much more, especially for the 2-foot height the troughs give you. Drainage is essential, so I drilled about a dozen holes in the bottom using a one-half inch metal drill bit. Yes, without harming myself. That was an easy step!

holes drilled in bottom of livestock trough
Every container needs a method for drainage, even a large one. It was easy to drill holes in the trough, but leave it mostly intact.

It takes a lot more soil than you would think to fill a container that large, and I didn’t want to use stone-filled soil near the crop. So we started with recycled plastic bottles on the bottom. They’ll allow water to drain down. We also laid some gravel under the trough to promote drainage and help level it before filling. Next, we used some of the soil from our place. But in the top one-third to one-half, we added organic potting soil and compost to create a really rich and well-draining environment for the carrots. It took at least six big bags.

gravel under raised bed trough
We had some extra driveway gravel to throw under the trough for drainage and leveling.
carrot trough soil organic
I used a rich organic soil mix for the carrots.

Big Enough for Succession Planting

To have carrots throughout the season, I started rows in succession. I didn’t have a very high germination rate at first, but I believe that was low temperatures. Plus, carrots notoriously germinate inconsistently, not necessarily in neat rows (we found one from last year outside our garden fence this spring). Still, I covered the trough with a layer of white row cloth and a few clamps, just to make sure the birds were not to blame (I didn’t count on flying critters).

We now have several rows of carrots growing at various stages, and they are delicious! Carrots can take light frost, so I plan to add more seeds before the soil cools and get them going, then cover the trough with a warmer fabric.

carrots growing in trough
The center row is ready to harvest and we have carrots in varying degrees of growth.

We’re happy with the trough. The only potential advantage we might be wrong about is mobility. Even with plastic filling the bottom, it’s pretty darn heavy. But we’ll see what happens during fall clean-up. I don’t mind the look at all for our place, which has an agricultural feel; the garden backs up to a neighbor’s horse pen. But I’ve seen the troughs painted and placed in front yards as raised flower beds.

When I was giving zucchini and carrots to our neighbor the other day, she said not to buy more, because they have several old troughs we can clean up and use. That would be perfect; then we can place them throughout the garden and rotate crops between them each year.