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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Our place is big.
This is only our third summer here, and we are still trying to get the weeds and gophers under control.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Where I live in New Mexico, the soil is more alkaline than acidic. That means I might as well forget ever trying to grow blueberries, but asparagus is a great choice. We even found some old or wild stalks along our ditch bank last year.
And a soil’s pH balance is just one consideration. Soil texture and drainage are especially important to a plant’s success in a vegetable, herb or ornamental garden. If we didn’t add some organic matter to our vegetable garden each year, the soil would compact from foot traffic and lose nutrients from its work feeding plants. So each year, we work the soil with mushroom compost to keep it rich, water absorbent and well draining.
I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – rework my ornamental garden soil each year. For one, it would be nuts to dig up perennial plants! So gardeners often are advised to add a little bit of compost to the hole dug for a new tree, bush or flowering plant. The compost enriches the soil around the roots, and as long as you water as suggested in the first year or so of more rapid growth and root set, the plant should thrive. But what happens as the plant grows beyond your amendment, especially if you put in a rapidly growing shrub or tree? Eventually, the roots work their way into the soil you haven’t amended. If the soil is so poor or compacted that the roots can’t break through or thrive, the plant could be stressed at the least.
If you choose a native plant, especially for a xeric garden, it’s likely that you won’t have to amend the soil at all. A plant that is adapted to your area’s typical soil makeup will do better if you just loosen the soil around it, usually to an area at least three times larger than the root ball. No need to add anything.
If plant instructions, or one article or expert tell you to add to the soil, it helps to verify the information with another source. That’s especially true if installing a native plant in your xeric garden. And it’s even truer depending on the first source of advice. There are plenty of reputable sources, and then there are myths, many of which can be perpetuated by those who stand to profit.
It’s also good to check local sources when amending soil. For example, you might hear that adding sand improves drainage, but if you add too little sand, or add sand to clay soil, you can make matters worse, and your soil sets up like concrete. Oh, those poor plant roots…
Most organic matter is good for soil, but plenty of myths abound there as well. For example, manure needs to cook down or compost with brown materials before throwing it on your vegetables. Wood ash is often touted as an amendment, but not in New Mexico, where the soil already is alkaline. Wood ashes also are high in salt. I talked about Epsom salts in a previous post. The bottom line? Get local advice from a few good sources, and if you go with native xeric selections, you probably won’t have to amend the soil unless you have a severely compacted or poorly draining area.
It’s a trend that was a long time in coming, but edible landscaping is here to stay, and it can be a great xeric landscaping strategy. More than 80 percent of Americans say they have grown edibles, but nearly one-fourth are concerned about irrigation, so incorporating edibles into the garden landscape just makes sense!
I plan to increase some of the space in our rock garden devoted to edibles this year. We already have some great xeric herbs and I love the blooms of our Western sand cherry, which I hope will bear fruit this year. We also get a few rose hips from our native (Fendler) roses.
Use space and save money
Adding a few edibles means we use some of the space and relatively good soil that’s near our kitchen and outdoor dining spaces for a few more herbs and vegetables. I’ll supplement our fenced vegetable garden and try to select critter-proof plants or hope the area is close enough to our patio to shy them away.
Like me, you might want to grow your own edibles for freshness and cost savings. In particular, herbs are much less expensive when grown from seed or cuttings than when you buy them in a store. I’ve used fresh and dried ones from our rock garden all year long. But so many edible plants also add visual interest. I don’t have to tell you how gorgeous lavender can get. And if not cut, rosemary and sage also produce lavender-colored blooms.
Grow xeric herbs
Then, there is the scent. I can hardly walk by thyme or lavender without rubbing my fingers on the leaves. Here’s a list of low-water herbs to add to your garden landscape:
Sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender (which can be used to flavor dishes or for many aromatic uses). Basil uses a little more water, but recovers well if neglected, as long as you keep it in well-draining soil. Oregano also needs only occasional watering, and though dill can be particular about soil, it also does well with little water. Read more about low-water herbs in my March post.
Add edible shade trees
If you’re looking for a shade tree, why not plant a fruit or nut tree that is native to your region? Instead of watering for the sake of leaves and summer shade, you can water for some juicy apples or peaches.
We just ordered a few bare-root trees from the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District. We’ve already planted a pinon tree. Sure, it will be a long time until it rewards us with pine nuts, and we’ll probably always fight the wildlife for them, but it’s a fast-growing native tree in New Mexico and I’m happy to try for a few delicious nuts to add to some basil for pesto! On the way soon are a serviceberry and cherry. The serviceberry is sure to feed the birds, if not us. And our established currant is in full bloom.
Consider interspersing a few edibles into your garden landscape and start small. For example, fill containers with edible flowers. Artichokes add interest to the garden; just be sure to leave those guys plenty of room. If a few of the edibles you choose take a little more water than typical for xeric plants, consider this: Farmers use even more to irrigate their crops and you use no carbon footprint to drive to the store and buy greens when you grow your own in containers or a raised bed in your own garden. Water as much as possible from a rain barrel and feel even better about your edibles!
Also, be sure to consider where you place your edibles. Spinach and lettuce have shallow roots and need cooler, shadier conditions. But avoid adding a crop of edibles under the canopy of a tree, where they’ll compete with the tree’s roots for water. I plan to use an area of our rock garden area to grow more peppers this year, and our southern-facing rock wall serves as a perfect microclimate to add some extra warmth for tomatoes and peppers.
I want a greenhouse. But want and have are too far apart right now. And the beginning and end of our growing season are too close together. Like many gardeners, we want to produce as many edibles as we can during our growing season. And like many rural residents, we crave affordable, fresh produce.
We’re better off than some; our last freeze occurs in early to mid-May, and our first freeze in early to mid-October. But we all know how those predictions go. With cool, high-desert evenings, the ground has to warm up enough to germinate seeds. Add high winds and low humidity, and it’s pretty much trial and error from one year to the next!
Here are a few tips for growing vegetables and other edibles in short seasons from our attempts and courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Extension services:
Make sure your garden is prepped and ready for planting as soon as it’s warm enough to do so. I wrote about spring preparation a few weeks ago.
Choose the best spot for your garden or raised bed based on microclimates, such as along a south-facing wall to maximize heat, or where you have a natural wind break in your yard.
Speaking of raised beds – they warm more quickly than the ground soil. They also can drain better, but may dry faster. So consider all of these factors when selecting plants for raised beds and containers.
Start your seeds early enough to have nice, sturdy transplants ready. Naturally, that only works for those edibles that transplant well, such as tomatoes. If they become too big for the starter pot, transplant the entire block into a larger pot of sterile potting mix until ready to go in the ground. And be sure to harden them off for a few weeks before planting.
Cool-season vegetables are easier to sow in colder climates. Examples are beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots and several greens. I’ve already planted spinach, arugula and several loose-leaf lettuces in containers and in our garden.
Warm-season crops might need a boost, and they surely need a good start. Make sure to plant beans, melons, tomatoes, squash and cucumber after the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. Covering them with a light, white landscape cloth can help protect them from cool night temperature and gives seedlings a fighting chance against flying and hopping insects.
Choose early bloomers. Some varieties mature earlier or have a shorter time to harvest. Tim really wants honeydew, which should be sowed directly in the ground after the 50-degree soil mark. We found a hybrid that says it can be harvested in 70 days, so we’re going to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we’re only out the cost of a seed packet, the time and most importantly, the water. Look for terms such as “cold climates,” “short season,” “early to mature” or “northern gardens.”
Help your plants stay warm (or shaded) with an appropriate cover. Aside from row covers, you can use tires or hot caps to protect and warm young plants. Our neighbor is in the stucco business, and he has given us dozens of five-gallon buckets. My husband cuts out the bottom and they work great at protecting young plants from sun and wind.
Of course, here in the dry Southwest, we create troughs or wells for nearly every crop to ensure consistent, deep watering and good growth.
Finally, it’s great to get advice from local “experts.” Most are just trying to be helpful. But don’t let lore and legend trump your can-do attitude and willingness to try these tips and your own brilliant ideas!
I am itching. Well, it’s spring-time in New Mexico, so allergies have made my eyes itch. But in the figurative sense, I am itching to get my vegetable garden started. There just isn’t much we can do with the short season here, but we can prep our garden.
Our fall “to-do list” included weeding and cleaning up our garden. Did we get to it? Nope. So about a month ago, we headed outside on a warm weekend with our garden hoes and set to work. We dug up and hauled off all of the grass, weeds and debris, partially leveled the garden and mixed in about 10 bags of organic topsoil/compost. Then, we covered it all with a layer of black landscape fabric hoping to “cook” the compost and kill any remaining weeds or seed. Then we bolted the fabric down any way we could to keep the wind from blowing it away.
Next up? Discussing this year’s plan. Most important is crop rotation. We want more space to move around and more space for a few of the plants. We also want to eliminate waste. So we cut back on the number of crops we’ll grow, move a few others to patio containers, and add one raised bed (in a watering trough). Crop rotation is critical for plant health and yield. We ordered seeds for the vegetables we most enjoy to reduce waste and looked for the shortest time to harvest on those that have the most trouble in our cooler climate.
The seeds are in, so the next step will be planting seedlings. We’ve got our starter pods and two heating mats. We’ll start the seeds in a few weeks, hoping they are just right for setting out after our last frost date (around May 10 to 15). Meanwhile, I’m watching for a nice, warm day so I can prepare a few containers for lettuce, arugula and spinach seeds. I’m willing to try them as soon as possible because nothing beats walking out my back door at lunch time and cutting fresh leaves for a salad!