It’s spring and time to think about growing food and flowers this summer. Save money when you start some seeds inside. You can find plenty of tips online for light, soil and water requirements, but I wanted to mention a few other hard-earned “secrets” from my experience and talking to others.
In general, start seeds about six weeks before your planting time for the variety. And be sure to pot up (move the smaller seedling to a larger pot) once while seedlings are inside. Here are 5 other tips:
1. Before starting vegetable or herb seeds, be sure they transplant well.
If they do better with direct sowing (placing the seed right in the ground), wait not just past your last freeze but until air (and therefore, soil) temperatures have warmed. Cucumbers are a great example. I have planted them too soon and then had to plant again when the ground warmed because the first ones just didn’t take. Many annual flower seeds and some herbs do fine with direct sowing, which is easier than starting small plants inside.
2. Not all vegetable seeds or seedlings go into the ground at the same time.
Lettuces, cilantro and carrots do better in spring or early fall than in summer heat. Tomatoes need moderate heat. Planting and harvest times vary for edibles. This also goes with my next tip:
3. Look for information specific to your region.
Seed packets can help, but in New Mexico and other Southwest states, dates for planting vary widely. This goes for last or first frost dates and for peak heat. Low desert areas, in particular, have growing seasons markedly different from the rest of the country. Check with local nurseries, extension offices or master gardeners for help knowing when to plant.
4. Thin seedlings.
This is the hardest lesson. But you should thin the seeds that sprout in your indoor start pots and those directly sown before they get too big and share roots. In the starter pot, it is best to take a small narrow pair of scissor or garden clippers and cut the spare seedlings off at the soil level. Pulling it up could damage all the seedlings in your pot. Thinning in the ground is a matter of preference for how your plants will look. But remember, crowded seedlings are not as healthy as single ones with plenty of room for their roots, and vegetable plants should not touch one another if possible. The leaves need sun and air flow.
5. Be sure to harden off seedlings.
This requires patience and some time. Your plants need to get used to their new home, just like flatlanders need to acclimate to high altitudes. Get your seed starts used to a breeze and the sun before placing them in the ground. Read more here about how to harden off your seed starts.
Finally, start just enough for a spare or two in case a few seeds fail to take or the seedlings get off to a bad start. But don’t plant 10 tomato seeds indoors if you plan to grow only one or two plants, unless you have friends and family who would love to take your other healthy plants off your hands.
My mantra is “Gardening Should be Fun.” Taking the pressure off makes it more fun. In other words, your garden doesn’t have to look like the cover of a magazine or top Pinterest pages for you to enjoy the process and the results.
So, if you are a new gardener or have a friend or relative who wants to grow plants and doesn’t know where to start, you can watch my online course with the basic terms and concepts. I developed the course for Southwest Gardening Blog, where I am one of four gardeners/authors.
The online class only is available through February 28, so be sure to sign up soon. You can watch it whenever it is convenient and as often as you like. Have fun with plants!
It’s easy to spot possible problems with a plant’s leaves, stems or flowers. Those are the parts we enjoy seeing every day in our garden. But what about the parts that lie beneath the surface of your garden or container?
We can forget all about the roots when enjoying a plant’s shape and color. But some of the toughest tricks to gardening involve root care – watering enough but not too much; soil drainage to allow roots to gather water but not sit in them; ability for roots to take up oxygen, and ability of roots to grow outward to support the plant you see above ground. How do you know your plant’s roots are healthy and why is it important?
Roots Affect Plant Health
The way roots grow, and their health, have a profound effect on the size a plant reaches, its vigor, and how it responds to watering or other care you give the plant. The main function of these leafless, underground stems is to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil around them. The roots store the plant’s food to keep it nourished and alive. Roots also help stabilize a plant in the soil or potting mix and physically support the plant’s main stem or trunk.
Types of Roots
There are various types of roots, although most root systems branch out under the soil. You might have heard of a taproot, which is a primary root that grows straight down into the soil and develops few to no root branches. Picture a carrot. The part we eat actually is a taproot. That’s the good kind, but a taproot can be a problem for gardeners. Some trees, such as pecans, grow deep taproots. This makes them much more difficult to dig up and transplant.
Some roots have lateral, or secondary, roots that branch off from an existing root. This happens with fibrous roots because their primary root eventually stops lengthening. Fibrous roots are lighter and smaller in diameter because they have less cell activity than standard roots.
One of the biggest problems with roots is restriction of their growth. This is easy to see when you lift a new plant out of its nursery pot. Some have roots circling in the shape of the container; the roots received good nutrition from the potting mix and plenty of water from garden center staff, but had nowhere to go. When planting, always dig a hole larger than the root ball – up to three times as large for trees and shrubs. And loosen the soil around the outer edges of the hole. If the ground is compacted and dense, roots will have to work harder to spread.
A second problem is underwatering (especially a tree) or watering in brief, shallow periods instead of long, deep soaks. Short watering doesn’t penetrate very deeply, so the roots grow close to the surface. And that can bring on other problems, including damage from lawnmowers or foot traffic. But with less frequent and deeper watering, roots grow downward as they seek moisture.
Roots as Plant and People Food
For plants, the structure and quantity of roots help determine how much water and nutrition the plant takes in. That’s why it is so important to water a plant more in its first season or year of growth than it will need later. The extra water helps those roots take hold and grow so they can store food for the plant.
Aside from carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes and beets are among common roots people eat. The mature root – a tuberous root in the case of a potato or sweet potato – holds lots of nutrition.
One final tip – buying a plant that has roots wrapped around inside the pot (rootbound) can make for more challenges when you plant it. You should tease or slice the roots near the outer bottom to help stimulate new growth. But if a plant’s roots are brown or dry, move on to another plant.
Cosmos are the annual gifts that keep on giving. And that’s good, because they’re one of the easiest flowers to grow and they come in a huge range of colors, bloom types and varieties.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) plants are part of the Aster family, and native to Mexico and some areas of the desert Southwest. Between this classic cosmos and the related sulphur cosmos (C. sulphureus), the flowers can grow in nearly a full range of growing zones – from zone 1 through zone 11.
Of course, in nearly all but the hottest of these zones, cosmos grows as an annual and dies back with frost. But if you think that is a good reason to avoid growing the plant, I’d like to convince you otherwise. Cosmos is a prolific re-seeder in even the poorest of garden soils.
Add Color and Wildlife
Cosmos flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds, along with other insects. They will bloom from mid-summer through early or mid-fall, depending on your first frost date. You can cut flowers for indoor arrangements, which also can lead to more blooms. I also leave plenty of dying flowers on the stems because they feed finches. I love watching a finch land on the small, swinging branches to peck away at the seeds. In a world in which so many flowers are yellow, it’s so great to enjoy the white, pink and red tones of cosmos in my xeric garden.
Plant from Seeds
You can plant cosmos from seeds or nursery transplants. I have had mixed luck growing cosmos from seed until this year. I know the flower seeds like loose soils, but with our dry and windy conditions, I found it better to cover the seeds lightly with some compost and water with a soaker hose to prevent washing away.
As for planting again next year, unless you severely disturb the soil where (and near where) you had cosmos last year, you should get plenty of volunteers as soon as summer rains start, and see the seedlings with their fine leaves growing taller as monsoon rains continue. You can help Mother Nature by gently spraying the area where you want the flowers to appear if early-summer rains have been light.
Most cosmos varieties grow tall, maturing at up to four-feet high, so they often work best at the back of a garden. If you have a bed or meadow filled with cosmos, they tend to support each other and seldom flop over as some plants can when they get tall. Cosmos loves full sun or part shade.
Sit back and enjoy
Once they become seedlings, cosmos do best with nothing but rain water. Overwatering the plants actually can lead to fewer blooms.
There are some areas of the United States that consider cosmos invasive, including a few spots in western New Mexico. And I admit one of the best characteristics of the plant – easy re-seeding – also can mean it pops up where we don’t want it. For example, if I didn’t pull seedlings out of our steps, we would not be able to walk down to the garden. But I leave a few off to the side for compromise. I pull those that block other plants and let the rest grow as they may. They’re crowded, but I love the effect.
You can grow cosmos and enjoy cutting the flowers for indoor arrangements. And have even more fun watching for new flowers to begin popping up the next summer!
I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.
First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.
Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.
This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.
Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.
Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.
Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.
A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.
Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.
Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.
Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.
We are on the verge of ending the longest period without rain in years. And we’ve been spending a lot of time watering, so the rain can’t come soon enough for us, our grass, or our well. I’ve also been busy testing several watering-related products for Gardening Products Review and that made me think about how to save time when watering.
All of this testing and watering more plants more often has made me reflect on how to make watering more efficient for us, the planet and other homeowners. Here’s part 1 of my list of favorite watering tools, starting with the least expensive, the kinds of tools available at home improvement stores.
Quick connectors. We use lots of quick connectors for switching between soaker hoses, sprayers, sprinklers or other watering tools. By screwing a male end into all your watering tools, you can quickly change out and connect several watering tools to the female end of your hose. So, for example, you can quickly switch from spraying off the patio to soaking a garden bed. And once you screw in the connectors, you don’t have to keep screwing on hoses, etc., which never seem to thread right when you’re in a hurry!
Splitters. Look for splitters, or manifolds that split one faucet into two or more outlets, depending on your needs. Solid metal splitters hold up better than plastic ones, but most have hard plastic controls so you can turn water on or off to your drip system or garden hose. This way, you can have one open faucet at all times for filling pails or rinsing a tool and still have a garden hose connected to water your new shrub. We have one on the ground about halfway from our orchard faucet to the other end, then split two hoses off of it to water our fruit trees.
Soaker hose. If used correctly, soaker hoses are stars of the inexpensive watering tool department. You can get them for less than $20 at most home improvement stores. The solid rubber hoses have multiple tiny holes so water drips out of all sides. Just be sure to keep pressure low, or you’ll waste water sending fine sprays up in the air.
Regulators. My final favorite, inexpensive watering tool is an in-hose “regulator” or shut-off valve. This might not be a necessity for people with smaller gardens or yards, but we have faucets located hundreds of feet from where we garden. I like the exercise, but I don’t like wasting water while I go all the way back to the source to lower the pressure (5 times until I get it right). With these awesome little tools, you can lower the pressure on a dripper or sprinkler near where it’s running. We place ours between the last hose and the one before it.
Even if distance is not a big issue, these come in handy between your hose and soaker hose, which can spew water like a sprinkler if the pressure is too high. And pressure can vary so much. Alternatively, invest in a water wand or similar attachment that has a flow control switch on the handle to drip water when it’s turned down.
Free tip: Regularly check hoses and drippers for leaks. Hoses are expensive, and they tend to dry out in our desert sun. They also get ruined from being left outside in winter, when water can freeze in the hose, expanding it. So, the first tip is to drain and roll up hoses in winter if you don’t use them and temperatures dip below freezing. And a good hose repair kit is perfect for handy people to fix leaks instead of replacing entire hoses when that’s the best option.
In this dry year, I feel like our plants are under a triple threat from drought, strong winds and unusual heat for this early in summer. I’ve decided the drought and lack of plant growth on our land and the forest near us has caused insects and larger critters to eat more (and different) plants than usual because they’re hungry or thirsty.
At any rate, we’re spending way more time watering, covering or doing damage control than we’ve ever had to do in previous years. Here are a few plant attackers and some ideas for fighting them:
Drought. The first protection is to choose native drought-tolerant plants. A few of ours, namely the santolinas and Datura (jimson weed) have thrived despite no supplemental watering. For the first time in five years, we’re having to water other plants in our rock garden typically immune to short periods of drought. And the rain barrel is running low.
As with ornamental plants, water edibles like tomatoes early in the day and in consistent amounts. They shouldn’t remain wet, but a little moisture in the soil helps them fight dry, windy and hot conditions. Mulching around as many plants as you can (save a few that don’t like wet roots, such as lavender and rosemary) can help them stay damp longer. Finally, remember plants recently moved or planted after purchasing from a nursery need extra water during dry, hot conditions their first year or so.
Heat. Mulching also cools the ground above a plant’s roots, helping the plant get through blazing heat. Sometimes watering is all you can do to protect a plant in record heat. But if the plant is in a container, scoot it into an area that’s slightly shadier or has shade during the time of day when your heat typically peaks. We have been covering our tomato plants with shade cloth this year soon after temperatures soar above 90 degrees. In the past, we’ve had problems with blossoms and fruit set when temperatures soared. Prevention also helps for heat. It’s wise to plant as close as possible to the recommended date for your area. This year, we were traveling and planted later than normal, so our plants had less time to toughen up before heat struck and we paid for that.
Insects. Some plants are just more susceptible to insects than others. And when it’s this hot and dry, all plants are more vulnerable to bugs and the diseases they can transmit. Keeping an eye on your plants, even with a stroll through your yard or garden after dinner, can help you spot problems. Keeping plants watered and free of as much stress as possible also helps.
Others, like basil, are favorites of lots of insects. Since the leaves the insects attack are the part of the plant we eat, I keep my basil covered with a light row cover cloth that lets in air, sunlight and some water, but keeps out as many leaf eaters as possible.
Other critters. The tender leaves and ground-level placement of seedlings are also more vulnerable to attack. I’ve seen the leaves of new cucumbers or flowers decimated by grasshoppers and more often, by snails. The slimy acrobats even climb up into containers and eat plants as soon as they come up. We use egg shells as the best deterrent we can find, but there also are snail baits for bad infestations.
Below-ground fencing can deter gophers and other underground tunnelers, but that requires fencing a few feet underground around all plants. We reserve that fun task for our vegetable garden only. Then, despite those efforts, a squirrel has come through the fence and made giant holes in our garden. He has not damaged any plants yet, but I have a feeling it’s coming. We have had some luck spraying Animal Stopper small animal repellent around some plants to deter squirrels.
Our deer are grazing much longer into summer this year and have destroyed all the bloom stalks on our native and hybrid roses. You have to be pretty desperate to eat something that thorny on a regular basis. We’ve had some luck with Animal Stopper deer spray, but the only way to ensure deer stay off plants is to fence them out.
Look to your neighbors, master gardeners and landscapers for more local strategies to help you keep plants alive during rough patches. And practice patience.
When water is as scarce as it always seems to be in New Mexico, especially this year, I appreciate all of the native and drought-tolerant plants that hang in there until rains finally arrive. After all, it’s the smart and right thing to do here in the Southwest: grow plants that need little to no watering from our wells and taps.
And we follow those principles, doing what we can to save water. Still, I love some plants too much to give them up completely, and I imagine that’s true of many people who move to our dry state. I would hate for any gardener to feel badly for having a few guilty pleasures from the plant world. Here are some strategies for finding the middle ground between gardening sustainably and growing plants you love.
Plant high-water users only as occasional fillers and in moderation. By high-water plant, I mean not xeric, or needing some supplemental watering. If a plant doesn’t meet the soil, sun exposure and watering requirements, you’re unlikely to have much success and will have to resort to photographs from botanical gardens!
Fill in color with a few annuals. I fill a few patio containers each year with an annual or two or pop a few annuals between xeric plants that flower for only part of the season.
Grow a few houseplants you love. Geraniums are a favorite of mine, and I don’t have to give them much water in the winter while they survive inside near a sunny window. My new guilty pleasure is violets, although they stay inside all year. Growing orchids, violets and other houseplants more suited to tropical climates can be a guilty pleasure without adding much to water usage. Of course, that’s assuming you stick to a few plants only … if you can.
Create conditions that help the plant survive with less water. Use mulch, shading or other exposure strategies and careful timing with monsoon rain to help a nonxeric plant make it through hot, dry periods. And accept that your plant might not bloom as much as it would in a wetter climate by enjoying the blooms you get.
Choose plants you love that are useful to “waste” less water. If you’re growing food for your family (and not wasting lots of harvest), you’re replacing some of the water that might have been used to grow the same food on a large farm, and doing so locally. Plus, the benefits outweigh a little bump in water use and cost. Or grow some cut flowers you love instead of buying them in a store for your home or family and friends. Finally, some flowering plants that require a little more water provide food for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Although natives are better, adding a few flowering plants not native to your area can help pollinators.
And finally — use rain barrels to water your lovelies during dry weeks.
One of the best features of many xeric gardens is the natural look of the landscapes. We often use rocks and boulders and tuck native plants among them. This design most closely mimics the look of the landscape around us.
If you’ve moved to New Mexico and other Southwestern states from areas of the East and Southeast, you might be more used to a cottage garden look, where shrubs like boxwoods form hedges and foundation plantings repeat the same flower.
On a recent trip to Austin, I noticed a perfect blend of both features. Many of the gardens I toured with fellow garden bloggers struck me with how well they used repetition in their designs. But these Texas gardens also had a natural look. Here’s a photo essay from Austin, along with a few New Mexico shots.
So, Why Repeat Plants or Containers?
I realized we tend to favor single plantings in our gardens, typically choosing a plant based on how it will look in a location or complement a nearby plant. And when you love plants, it’s tough to resist adding any you like to any garden you own. But after seeing the use of repetition, I decided we need to add more repetitive elements. Here are a few reasons why:
Continuity. A garden is a sort of composition, and repeating an element gives it a sense of balance without making it look too symmetrical or monotonous.
Easier maintenance. We all have a plant we’ve tried that survived despite strange weather or a little neglect. Others require little to no pruning or deadheading. Why not scatter a few more of these easy-care plants around your home?
Color. Although many xeric plants are colorful, some really stand out in the garden. Using the same purple in a row of plants or throughout a garden gives a color focal point.
Saving money. Sure, you still have to buy the plants, but it is less expensive to buy four of the same perennial once than to fill in an empty space in the garden each year.
Finally, I would say that repeating plants is a fine example of xeriscaping principles. When you plant 5 native grasses in a grouping, they all have the same water and sun exposure needs. You don’t have to come in and add water for a plant that needs more than the grasses or take the chance of overwatering and killing a nearby plant. And when you use repetitious art or hardscape elements, you add to the design without adding plants — and that requires no water at all!
There really is no true blue in garden leaves or flowers, but many blooms come close. Iris, blue cornflower and blue flax come to mind. And there are plenty of violet flowers that have a similar “cool” effect and contrast so nicely with oranges and yellows.
But you don’t need blue flowers to add touches of calm blue to your garden design. I saw this firsthand on my recent tours of Austin gardens with the Garden Bloggers Fling. Here are some of my favorites:
Plus, garden art requires no watering or maintenance. Paint is especially inexpensive. It just couldn’t be simpler to add pops of color to your patio, deck or garden.
Special thanks to the wonderful garden bloggers and gardeners of Austin for your hospitality. What a great time!