Five Low-water Plants for Winter Birds

stellar jay in garden
Stellar jay in line for raw peanuts in late fall.

As winter drags on, birds need lots of energy and shelter from the elements and predators. The best bird habitats mix shelter, water, natural seeds and nest-building material as spring approaches. Native plants offer many of these benefits, and the more varied a landscape, the more bird-friendly it is. For example, birds in our garden “stage” their visits to feeders or the ground by moving between the thorniest rose bushes and higher trees.

woodpecker and sparrow on bird feeder
Birds use low bushes as staging spots before visiting the feeder in our redbud.

Here are five plants or plant types that make birds safer and happier when temperatures drop without adding a lot to your work, or to summer watering requirements.

stellar jay on ground in rock garden
We have lots of spots in our garden where jays hide peanuts.

Native grasses

blue grama grass meadow
Blue grama and wildflower meadow. The grama seed spreads and feeds birds, who also help disperse the seed further for us.

Replacing at least some of your turf with native grasses and other native plants helps birds and uses less water. We purposefully leave our native grasses (mostly buffalo and blue grama) long as it dies back in fall to increase  shots at reseeding and filling in bare spots. The seeds also provide food for ground-hopping birds, additional food caches for jays to hide the raw peanuts we put out, and dried grass stalks for nests before the grass greens in summer.

Ornamental grasses

Karl Foerster grass
Karl Foerster grass in a new dry river bed, next to volunteer blanket flower.

Switchgrass, big bluestem and muhly grasses all provide seeds and nesting materials for birds. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”) attracts birds and is a beautiful winter plant, with tall seed stalks that blow in the breeze. There are hundreds of species of the grass, and it grows in zones 5 through 9. Its water requirements are a little higher than some native grasses, but if you plant Karl Foerster grass in a rain garden or low spot, it will get more water naturally and won’t be hurt by the damp soil.

Barberry

barberry
New barberry (upper right) not far from our bird feeder.
barberry foliage
Deep red barberry foliage on right contrasts nicely with gazanias.

Barberry (Berberus) is a hardy shrub with small thorns along its branches. Depending on the variety you choose, you’ll enjoy deep red or pinkish foliage. The shrubs grow in zones 3 through 8 and retain their leaves in winter in most conditions. Fragrant yellow flowers emerge in spring, and the prickly branches provide good cover for small birds. You can plant several barberries a few feet closer together than recommended to create an attractive, bird-friendly hedge.

Boxwood

boxwood and pyracantha near New Mexico home entry
The wedding dress only hung by the front door momentarily, but the boxwood (left) and pyracantha (right) prune into welcoming shapes. Image courtesy Jessican Inman Photography.

Boxwood (Buxus) normally isn’t considered a low-water plant, and I’ve seen countless examples of boxwood to form formal hedges and designs in other areas of the country. It is an easy plant to shape, and makes such a good hedge because its evergreen foliage is so dense.  That’s also why birds love boxwood. Although boxwood might look a little formal for a native rock garden, we use ours as a foundation plant near our front door, where we want a more landscaped effect. Since it’s also on the north side of the house, I’m sure birds hide under the bush for cover. The boxwood’s protected, mostly shady location and slow growth habit help the shrub stay healthy with less water than it might need in a sunny spot.

Pyracantha

pyracantha berries
Partially eaten berries on a pyracantha bush in fall.

Pyracantha shrubs produce berries in late fall to feed birds as temperatures drop. Also a thorny bush (sometimes called Firethorn), pyracanthas provide safe shelter for birds. What I love about the shrub is the diverse ways you can use it in a Southwest landscape. Leave it to grow naturally (maybe with some shoot trimming after rainy summers) or shape it like a hedge. We had several growing along a distant fence and Tim moved one to the front of the house. The pyracantha transplanted without a blink and just a few scratches. We leave the remaining two out in the yard in their natural state and shape the one in front of the house. I get to see the berries from my kitchen window and saw a Stellar jay eating them this past fall.

goldfinch in Apache plume
A finch waits his turn for thistle in o a native Apache plume shrub.

Many native shrubs  attract birds in winter. Berries, seeds and bushy cover all support wildlife. Ask your local nursery or master gardeners for the best low-water plants in your Southwest zone.

Learn More About Southwest Gardening

source for Southwest gardening

Gardeners in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and surrounding Southwestern states face unique challenges. And though climate, zone and even drought conditions can vary from one area of each state to the next, we have some common issues:

  • Even when our regions are not officially in a state of drought, Southwest gardeners know water is a precious resource that we must protect all year.
  • Weather extremes are pretty common, especially where mountains meet foothills or plains.
  • Our states’ populations are highly rural. Although we’ve got plenty of large cities, rural gardeners live long distances from the services and products easy to come by in urban settings. So, sometimes we just have to get creative.
  • Heat is a major concern when growing throughout most of the Southwest.

But help is on the way, and I’m honored to be a part of a team offering a new source for Southwest gardening, along with Ann McCormick of Ft. Worth, Texas; Noelle Johnson of Phoenix; and Jacqueline Soule of Tucson. We want to make Southwest gardening fun and easier for our friends, neighbors and clients.

Join us as we offer information, ideas and sharing specific to gardening in the Southwest on our new blog, Southwest Gardening.

Select Plants Now for Your Xeric Garden

The new year is almost upon us, but gardeners don’t have to wait until spring to dream, plan and even shop for new plants.

xeric garden color container
Combine native xeric plants and a few container flowers for long-lasting color.

You can take some time in winter to plan your garden. Doing so usually cheers my mood and makes me feel like I’m getting something done, even if I can’t do much outside. Here are a few tips for Southwest gardeners for winter planning and shopping.

Check Out New Plant Introductions

Each year, breeders offer new plants adaptable to conditions or resistant to diseases. Many independent testing organizations and growers conduct trials to see how plants fare in harsh conditions such as heat or drought. A favorite regional source is Plant Select in Colorado. The nonprofit organization tests and creates plants for the Rocky Mountains. You can search or browse their plant selections for zone, soil type, sun exposure, water needs and other characteristics. A new 2017 selection is the Sungari redbead cotoneaster (Cotoneaster racemiflorus var. soongoricus). The shrub is a hardy plant and fall stunner in a xeriscape.

sungari redbead cotoneaster
Plant Select’s Sungari redbead cotoneaster grows to six to eight feet tall. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

All-America Selections also releases trial information on ornamental plants and vegetables each year. Although some of the plants are not suited for New Mexico gardens, AAS includes regional winners for the Mountain/Southwest region. For example, its 2018 winners include Mexican Sunrise Hungarian Pepper F1. This past summer, I sowed 2017 national winner Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink F1 seeds in a garden bed and the plant bloomed well into fall. You can find AAS winners at retailers that carry national brands such as Bonnie and Burpee plants or seeds (Johnny’s selected Seeds or Territorial Seed Company).

dianthus AAS winner
Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink from Alll America Selections.

Regional growers and local nurseries often carry new plant introductions. Typically, you can learn about new plants by subscribing to the company’s newsletter or by following them on social media. High Country Gardens (whose chief horticulturalist, David Salman, is from New Mexico) recently released a list of new plants the company offers in 2018.

Finally, the Sunset Western Garden Collection is designed specifically for Western gardeners. Sunset lists a collection of waterwise plants, but you might have to do some research to find out where to buy the plants you spot there.

Order and Review Seed Catalogs

Growing plants from seed takes a little more work, but can save you money. And some plants do better grown directly in the ground (cucumbers and squash come to mind). Even though you’ll have more success and save water by growing plants suited to your region, it’s fun to shop for rare or unusual annuals for containers or other special spots in your garden. It’s much less expensive to buy seeds for plants that probably won’t make it through the winter.

Cosmos in xeric garden
Cosmos are a perfect annual to grow from seed in a xeric garden. Too much water makes them leggy. And they feed bees in bloom and birds when seeding out.

Most seed companies ship catalogs for free to anyone who requests them and I’ve been receiving mine since before the holidays. In addition, you can find online versions of most seed catalogs. Flipping through catalogs can give you great ideas about new or unusual plants or even inspire where to plant them or ideas for companion plants for a particular flower or shrub.

vegetable starts in sun
Vegetable starts sunning in a south-facing window last spring.

Read and Research

Catalogs are one source of plant ideas, but local and regional gardening books and blogs should be your go-to sources. Combining information on plants featured in your favorite gardening books with catalogs and new introductions can help you begin planning and shopping.

scrub jay in xeric garden
This scrub jay uses low-growing xeric plants for stashing peanuts.

In your research, look for ideas such as drought-tolerant plants for easy care, plants for birds and pollinators, or colors and textures you long to add to your garden. Think about herbs and vegetables your family loves and see if you can grow a variety within your space or time constraints. And always read books and websites with a critical eye for credible information and plants most likely to grow in your zone, soil type, sun exposure or water availability.

If you don’t have a good gardening book specific to your state or zone, find out if your local master gardeners have published a plant or gardening guide. And check out my Resources page for books and links on gardening in New Mexico, xeric gardening and other topics.

hummingbird on hyssop
High Country Gardens and other regional companies offer low-water and native plants that attract hummingbirds and add color to your garden.

Shop Locally and Online

Some gardeners prefer to touch and see plants in person, at least to decide on colors or shapes they like. Just beware that some chain stores offer plants each year that aren’t suited to your region or at least offer fewer plants tested for Southwest and xeric gardens. For example, no retailers in New Mexico offer Plant Select products, but High Country Gardens sells Plant Select through its catalog and online store. Shopping, or at least researching, online also can save time. Many online catalogs have search filters. You might be able to search by plant name, bloom color, bloom time or average temperatures and rainfall.

Many online nurseries let you order now and then ship your plants at the best possible time in spring for your zone. So, there’s really no reason you can’t get a head start. Happy plant shopping!

 

5 Winter Pick-Me-Ups for Glum Gardeners

Winter has come late to New Mexico this year, and that’s OK with me. The problem is even when it’s sunny in winter, we have fewer projects we can do so we feel productive and in touch with the soil and plants. So I thought about a few ideas to lighten my winter doldrums and decided to share them.

new mexico snow
It’s time to think about strategies to get through winter before the snow hits.

One: Take a drive or hike, or some combination.

As soon as fall hit and gardening slowed down, we began to visit spots we seldom get to see during the growing season. We drove up nearby mountains and about an hour away to a walk among stunning petroglyphs. My mood improves from endorphins and simply being outside. And we always see a few native plants we’d like to identify, even if they’re at the end of their growing season.

three rivers petroglyph
Petroglyphs, native plants and endless sky all improve the winter gardener’s mood. This was taken at BLM’s Three Rivers Petroglyph Site near Tularosa, N.M.

Two: Grow a winter-blooming indoor plant.

Aside from the pretty holiday mascot, the poinsettia, you can grow a Christmas cactus or amaryllis. I received a beautiful gift of paperwhites (Narcissus) in a clear glass bowl one year. One of these days, I’ll try to force my own. And if you have a warm, sunny window, why not bring in a few of your potted plants? Geraniums can continue flowering in the right conditions, and we brought a shade-loving container with coleus and begonias inside. They might get leggy before the winter’s up, but they make me feel more in touch with summer.

Christmas cactus
Our Christmas cactus started blooming before Thanksgiving, coloring our sunny hallway.

Three. Feed birds and other critters.

Leaving the garden a little messy might seem like a bad idea, and it is tough to watch the demise of your favorite stalks and flowers. But birds continue to feed off the seeds of many plants or seeds spread in fall and early winter winds. Once the seeds fade, birds need a little extra help to get through cold winter nights. We hang suet and a sunflower seed feeder and set out raw peanuts for the jays. I want to keep the birds coming so I have something fun to look at from my window when the sky is gray and the garden mostly brown.

Scrub jay with peanut
Scrub and stellar jays fight for peanuts in our garden.

Four. Start a project, like a bee house or raised bed.

Last winter, we replaced the door on our shed, completely revamped a large garden path, created a dry river bed, and took on lots of other fun projects. In fact, we took on so many that we have to come up with some new ones this year. But vegetable gardens might need new or improved fencing or other design and maintenance. Putting in a new paver path or dry river bed are projects that come to mind. You can build a raised bed or make a bee house or butterfly waterer (puddling pool). Or you can repot some of those succulents and other houseplants you tend to neglect in summer.

Hypertufa succulent container
Tim made this hypertufa container and then filled it with succulents last winter.

Five. Make and give garden-related gifts.

Some winter projects turn into gifts for family, friends or co-workers. I don’t have a perfect crafting style, but I know people appreciate gifts from the heart, time and garden. We’ve made lavender sachets, pressed flower arrangements and outdoor lights. You can even pot up some plants in homemade containers.

pressing cosmos in book
I enjoyed pressing fall flowers last year in old text books. Such a pretty and natural gift from a garden.

And on a snowy, cold and dark winter day, spend a little time by the fire drinking an herbal tea and reading a gardening book, magazine or catalog. You can relax, plan and dream!

Fall Gardening Project: Dry River Bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Move plants

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

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

Step 2: Design hills and valleys; test

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

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

Step 3: Add rocks

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

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

Step 4: Plant!

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

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

Lessons learned:

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

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

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

 

10 Fall Chores in the Garden

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

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

1. Harvest

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

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

2. Clean

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

3. Preserve Bulbs and Seeds

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

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

4. Leave Some Seeds

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

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

5. Evaluate Plant Placement

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

6. Mulch

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

7. Protect Plants

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

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

8. Empty Containers

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

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

9. Amend Soil

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

10. Enjoy Time Outside!

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

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

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

It’s Time to Harvest Your Vegetables: Here Are Some Tips

Sometimes, a home-grown tomato is so pretty that I hesitate to pull it off the vine. I’d rather take photos, smile as I stroll past the plant or point out the healthy fruit to anyone willing to listen.

fall harvest
It’s easy to know when to harvest your home-grown vegetables, mostly through trial and error.

Of course, watching a vegetable you started from seed grow into a healthy plant is a reward in and of itself. But it’s even more rewarding when the plant provides fresh, delicious and healthy food for you and your family (or friends and neighbors!).

What’s more, harvesting fruit helps the plant continue producing, sending energy to develop, ripen and flavor fruit instead of continuing to feed overripe ones. Here are some tips on when and how to harvest fresh vegetables in the garden or a U-Pick site, courtesy of the Home Garden Seed Association and my experience (including plenty of mistakes).

tomatoes on vine, varying maturity
Tomatoes at various stages of maturity show the deeper red color of ripe fruit that’s ready to eat.

Tomatoes

Color helps cue gardeners on picking tomatoes, which should be a deeper red than the ones you see in the grocery aisle. But color can be a tough cue when growing some varieties, such as yellow tomatoes. We have a few Midnight Snack tomatoes courtesy of All-America Selections and the National Garden Bureau. The delicious snack-sized tomatoes have an indigo color on top (and the fruit has extra antioxidants). You just feel the fruit and check for reddening on the bottom to make sure it’s ripe. Once a tomato feels somewhat soft when you squeeze it gently, it’s probably ready to eat. Just twist it slightly from the vine and it should give. Be sure to store tomatoes in a cool spot in your kitchen, but not in the refrigerator.

tomato how to harvest
Gently twist tomatoes of any size from the vine when the fruit is deep in color and slightly soft.

Cucumbers

Cucumber fruit seems to mature all at once, and the best way to know when to harvest is to have an idea of the fruit’s mature size from seed packets or through trial and error. We often note that the spiky part of the peel loses some of its sharpness at peak ripeness. When in doubt, though, opt for early rather than late. Cucumber seeds get large and tough and the fruit less sweet the longer the fruit stays on the vine. Use scissors or shears to cut the cucumber from the plant; avoid twisting it off. Cucumbers store best dry in the refrigerator. I keep mine wrapped in a soft towel and wash them when I’m ready to eat them.

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are better harvested a little early than late.

Carrots

Carrots can begin to lose sweetness if left in the ground too long. Gently swipe away some dirt to check if the top (shoulder) of the carrot is bigger than about half an inch. For most varieties, this is a signal it’s ready to pull. Carrots tend to vary more than other fruits at harvest, especially if they have not been thinned adequately. But the taste of any nearly mature carrot from the home garden is so much better than store-bought carrots, regardless of its appearance. Carrots also store better dry, so either leave the dirt on and pack them in a vented plastic bag or let them dry completely after snipping the leaves just above the shoulders. I’ve found that our carrots store best in the ground (up to a point) and I only harvest what I need every day or two.

carrots straight from the ground
Just cut off carrot leaves above the shoulder and store with some dirt on them or wash and dry completely.

Beans and Peas

Harvesting beans is one of my favorite activities. I like looking for the elusive pods under the leaves. It does require two hands, however. You need to hold the stem of a bean or pea as you pull off the fruit to avoid breaking the stem and pulling off immature neighbors of the mature bean. I set a basket on the ground or hang a used grocery bag on my arm to free up both hands for harvesting. Pick beans while long and slender and before lumps form in the pods. Snap peas are best when peas are just beginning to form in the pod, but are not yet mature.

harvesting beans
Use one hand to hold the vine while the other gently tugs on a mature bean or pea.

Lettuce

Most lettuces taste best when leaves are four to six inches long. I love cutting loose-leaf varieties because you can harvest them two or three times. If a loose-leaf or head lettuce looks elongated, it’s getting to be too late for optimal flavor. Cut outside leaves of loose-leaf lettuces first, and cut head lettuce at the base of the plant, just above the ground. Wash and dry lettuce immediately; spinners are great for this. Store in a plastic bag that is closed but has plenty of air inside. I also sometimes add a paper towel to absorb moisture in the bag. You’ll be amazed how much longer your fresh lettuce keeps compared with prepared bags!

spinning lettuce
Organic mesclun leaves in the salad spinner.

Peppers

Whether growing sweet bell peppers or New Mexico chile peppers, it helps to learn the mature color for your variety. The good news is that peppers usually have a decent flavor even when immature, although the skins might be a bit tougher. So know enough about your pepper to watch for its expected mature color and pick as soon as it turns. Leaving peppers on the plant too long slows production of new fruit. All pepper types come off the plant easiest when fully ripe. Store peppers in a bag in the refrigerator crisper. With green chile, I wait until I have enough peppers to roast and then freeze them.

short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)

Squash

Ah, the giant zucchini. Big enough to feed a family of 10, but not as sweet and tender as the one harvested at about 5 to 7 inches in length. Cut all squash fruit with snippers or a knife; don’t twist it off the vine. Winter squash should be ripe when the rind loses its shine and you can scratch the rind without puncturing it. Wipe squash clean with a dry towel; don’t wash before storing. Keep both summer and winter squash in a dry, but well-ventilated spot about 50 to 68 degrees. If you place it in the refrigerator, put it in a plastic bag in the crisper drawer.

zucchini harvest
Most of the zucchinis in this late-season harvest are too big to have flavor. My neighbor will take them off my hands and make stuffed squash.

Kale

Harvest kale and chard much like loose-leaf lettuce. You can begin to harvest outer leaves when they are about four inches high, cutting them about one inch above the ground. Avoid cutting the center tip of the plant, which can stop growth of new leaves. Wash and spin kale and store it in one of the coolest spots in the refrigerator inside a ventilated plastic bag.

In general, seed packets and other materials give you an idea of a fruit’s maturity date, but it varies from region to region and from one year to another.

Most vegetables are better harvested in the morning when crisp, healthy and dry. Or you can pick what you want just before preparing your meal. One final note: When harvesting several different vegetables, have a few containers handy. It’s no fun picking green beans out of lettuce leaves, and squash or cucumbers can flatten a juicy tomato.

Let’s Help, Not Confuse, New Gardeners

Often on this site, I talk about how to keep gardening simple, fun and useful. And although xeriscaping can be tricky and drought even tougher to endure when starting out as a gardener, there are plenty of strategies to help gardeners succeed, or at least enjoy the process.

cosmos annual
Gardening can be easy. We didn’t even plant cosmos here. They reseed from old plants. All we have to do is control them.

To help Southwest gardeners — and all people jumping into gardening — I try to follow a few important rules:

  • Emphasize the positive, how anyone can make it work and that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Use lay language while also providing scientific names for plants (which helps avoid confusion when a reader looks for a plant).
  • Educate, even by admitting mistakes we’ve made in the garden.

Here’s how I look at it: We all started out new to this hobby at some point, whether it was in childhood or following an education in horticulture. Yet we’ve had nursery people talk down to us when we ask a question, and I cringe every time I see a tweet or pin titled “You’re Doing _____ Wrong,” or “5 Mistakes to Avoid With ____.”

tomatoes cracking
Tomatoes can crack. You can learn how to water to avoid it, but it’s a little harder to control rain. All gardeners (and farmers) lose some plants or fruit.

I’ve also seen fellow master gardeners try so hard to show what they’ve learned that they are condescending when talking to new gardeners on social media or in person. That’s really the opposite of the concept; master gardeners are trained to help.

To that end, I recently wrote an article for Green Profit Magazine about how folks in the industry can talk to the level of all gardeners and potential gardeners. The article includes some helpful sources who recognize that helping gardeners succeed beats telling them what they’re doing wrong.

If someone kindly explains something to me that I already know, it wastes a little bit of my time, but I appreciate the effort. But when someone makes me feel stupid because of a question or error, I simply stop frequenting their business or acquaintance.

So, if you already garden and want to recruit a neighbor, daughter or friend into the hobby or you communicate with gardeners, help people with kindness, example, simplicity and patience.

 

Five Easy Foods to Grow at Home

It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.

easy grow vegetables
Three easy vegetables to grow at home: cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans.

1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape
Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches).
Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are  pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.

yellow cherry tomatoes container
Yellow cherry tomatoes growing on the vine.

Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.

2. Cucumbers
Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals.
Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).

cucumber in container
Cucumbers can grow on patios if given a place to climb.

Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.

3. Green beans
Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones.
Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.

Green bean plant
Green beans have delicate white flowers and are fun to harvest.

Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.

4. Snap peas
Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage.
Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.

snap pea seeds
Sugar snap pea seeds go right in the ground in spring.

Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.

5. Carrots
Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots.
Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.

carrots easy vegetable
Delicious, home-grown carrots.

Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.

Helping Birds and Wildlife Get Through Winter

I tend to hibernate in winter, and emerge only on days that are sunny (common), not windy (rare) and warmer than normal for this time of year (sporadic). I get why animals do the same, and I love the thought that I’m helping them get through winter in some small way.

pine siskin snow
This little bird looks for grass seed under a light layer of snow. Photo by David Higgins, Albuquerque, N.M.

Here are a few ideas for helping area birds and wildlife with your landscape:

Deer have their own diet, thank you

Animal lovers feel empathy for wildlife when severe weather hits, leading to cold and scarcity of plants the animals browse. Unfortunately, tourists in mountain communities appear to be more interested in taking selfies with wildlife. We live near a resort town, where small herds of deer and elk (and bears) live in or enter populated areas. I’ve seen tourists pull over and feed deer. I don’t even want to know what they are feeding the animals. It’s also likely that some people in wildlife areas put out feeders to attract deer. But I don’t agree with that for several reasons.

Buck in garden
Sure, the bucks can trample a few plants in our garden, but I don’t mind that this one feels comfortable and warm here.

Ups and downs of feeders

First, deer take time to adjust to new foods,  many of which are not easily digested by wild animals. The kitchen scraps or Doritos from a car window can do more harm than good. Even if a homeowner sets out a feeder with pellets designed for the deer diet, doing so changes browsing and movement patterns and makes it easier for predators to find and prey on herds. The deer also can depend on humans or compete more for concentrated food sources, which means the weak ones lose out at a feeder. In open areas with natural food sources, the fawns and young bucks can find nearby sources when kicked off the favored spots.

Natural food

We live in a residential area with large lots and our deer are not as used to people as those a few miles up the road. I like it that way, and instead of feeding them, we leave our grass longer in fall to help with their browsing (and we believe it helps improve native grass coverage the next spring). We also do our best not to bother the herd by walking slowly and away from them if possible when sharing space outdoors. That also means teaching our dogs to ignore them.

New Mexico snow with grackles
A light blanket of snow with a big flock of grackles. We seldom see deer with even this light of a layer.

I have wondered and worried why deer don’t come around when we have a blanket of snow on the ground, but I thought it might be too difficult to get to the food below. That is true, and deer know to fatten up and live off reserves, staying close to their trees up higher for shelter. Coming down to graze through a layer or snow would take more energy than the payoff. Other wildlife shelter ideas are piles of dead tree limbs away from the house and in protected areas, along with fencing that is easy for deer and elk to enter.

Birds need food and shelter at various heights in winter.
Sparrows and finches stage in a high tree before taking turns diving to our feeders.

Feeding birds in winter

We do supplement birds’ diets in winter, and although I will continue doing so, I see some evidence of the same problems that can occur at deer feeders. First, hawks and kestrels come right into the garden, hunting near the feeders. They would help me and themselves more by finding some yummy mice to eat instead. Second, we see some feeder competition at times, but we have several different feeders/types of food, and for the most part, the birds all play well together. Placing feeders at different spots and filling them with different energy sources can support more types of birds, especially during migration.

cooper's hawk at feeder
A hawk hangs out right next to a feeder in a redbud.

Natural food and shelter

Of course, natural food sources are great for birds too. But by late winter, the stores of berries, nuts, and seeds on flowers, trees and bushes has dwindled. As I wrote about this time last year, birds need extra food in winter to gather energy to fight cold. And many, such as juncos, must replenish that energy daily in cold weather.

Plants also provide shelter, and placing both shelter and food sources at various heights and spots in your garden offers some protection. Here are some bird-friendly plants:

Sunflower from birds
One of the best natural bird feeders, the sunflower.
  • Flowers for seeds, including sunflowers, Echinacea (coneflower), coreopsis, salvias, and many native grasses and annuals. Milkweed (Asclepias) not only helps Monarch butterflies, but attracts plenty of insects that birds eat.
  • Fruiting vines and shrubs such as Virginia creeper (Pathenocissus quinqefolia), wild grapes, elderberry (Sambucus) and serviceberry (Amalanchier utahensis Koehne, or Utah serviceberry),
  • Native trees for fruits, nuts and shelter. Birds need a high place to land when escaping or looking for predators. Evergreens such as arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and all spruces offer dense shelter from the elements for landing or nesting.
Rose shrubs provider shelter and food for birds.
This wild rose needs some serious trimming in a few months, but it is a favorite shelter for birds, including a pair of desert cardinals (pyrrhuloxia).

These plants also can provide winter interest for homeowners’ gardens and can feed birds through fall and early winter in some cases.

I’ll admit that part of my willingness to also spend the money on bird seed is selfish. It’s nice to watch the bird show from our window when the plants are dormant and I’m stuck inside. But I also like to think that the shelter and food our place provides help ease the burden for these and other creatures.