Diagnose and Prevent Drought Stress in Plants

A droopy, wilting plant. It’s a gardener’s instinct to automatically assume: It needs water. And sometimes, that’s a good instinct. But low-water plants just as easily can be killed by kindness as by neglect.

gladiola
Gladiolas like an inch of water a week, but not too much water.

For example, several problems with tomato fruits are caused by too much water, or especially irregular watering. Plants, like people, need some regular hydration. You wouldn’t avoid drinking water for five days and then gulp down a liter, right? One reason drip systems are effective is the consistency (assuming you set a timer) of the amount of water they deliver, along with the slow rate of flow and the fact that they water the soil/roots and not a plant’s leaves. The delivery and slow flow help retain more moisture and nutrients around the roots.

A drip system with adjustable emitters is a great way to water our okra. And it looks like to attract ants...
A drip system with adjustable emitters is a great way to water our okra.

What’s the prognosis?

There are reasons other than drought stress that cause plants to wilt, including problems with the roots. That’s why plants you’ve just transplanted from seed or a nursery container tend to wilt for a few days or weeks. The roots suffer some damage when taken from a pot and replanted. Understand that this is part of the natural course of the plant’s life and help it through without stressing too much (meaning you, not the plant). Even though a plant is waterwise, it still needs extra water until the roots heal and begin to grow, more efficiently pulling water into the plant. If the ground is dry at root level, the roots can’t do their work. Plants that are overwatered sometimes wilt, too, further complicating the “diagnosis.”

tomato branch broke water
After our first heavy rain, I accidentally brushed against a branch of this currant tomato.It peeled off; the brown leaves are likely from that damage, not from lack of water!

Speaking of, most gardeners jump to the worst possible scenario when determining a plant problem. Although disease is a possibility, look not only for symptoms of a particular wilt or fungal disease, but also for possible causes. Do you have evidence of bugs that might have damaged leaves or carried a disease to your plant? Is the plant getting enough air circulation? Is water running off and away from the plant? Has it just been super hot for several days?

incipient wilt
Incipient wilt on a squash. Still not the best scenario and a signal to check our soil, but it’s temporary.

The best way to distinguish drought stress from other causes of wilt is by looking at and feeling the soil. Damp soil means the plant has water available; adding water at this point likely won’t help. You should feel an inch or two below the surface. One way is to stick your finger in the dirt to about the first knuckle joint.

Prevent plant stress

When a plant needs water, it’s more susceptible to damage from bugs and diseases. Pests attack the weak. You can prevent plant stress from underwatering by:

  • Checking the soil as mentioned above; see if there is water for the plant.
  • Looking for signs of underwatering. These usually include leaves turning yellow and brown, and even falling off. Typically, drought stress begins with lower leaves.
  • Thinking about the plant’s environment and how it might have changed. Is it windy and hot or muggy and cool in the evenings? Did you last water a plant in the afternoon out of necessity instead of your usual morning routine?
hot day on plant
Not much you can do about these weather conditions within a week or so of placing new plants in your landscape. Water consistently in the morning and shade plants if practical.
  • Using a meter or records when in doubt. We have an inexpensive moisture meter for our farm area. If nothing else, it helps confirm or deny my suspicions about the need to water and gives me a basis for comparing soils or drip rates around certain plants. Keeping records of watering, fertilizing and other activities can help manage and diagnose plant problems.
water meter to check moisture
Geraniums like to dry a little between watering. An inexpensive meter might not be the most accurate tool, but can help a home gardener check soil moisture.
  • It’s always better to water before a plant wilts, and not to wait until wilting occurs. Although plant roots need to seek water, they also have to find it! When no water is available in the soil around them, plants can begin reacting with wilt, slowed growth or flower and fruit production, and other signs.
xeric bush spirea
Blue mist spirea is a low-water plant. If the leaves have spots, it’s more likely getting too much water than not enough.
  • Finally, remember there is no hard and fast rule on watering. Much of the advice I see comes from areas that are more humid, cooler, less windy, and at lower altitude than our conditions here in New Mexico. Having said that, you can create conditions that help plants retain moisture, mostly by ensuring healthy soil and mulching. Containers need a little more frequent watering because they dry out faster than the ground. Water container and landscape plants slowly so the moisture drips instead of flooding down. You probably only need to add water to a container when the top few inches of soil are dry.

 

 

10 Tips to Help Plants Survive Summer Heat

Even waterwise plants get stressed when exposed to high heat, dry air and wind. Many Southwestern plants can survive hot temperatures because they’re native to the low desert. But in some areas such as the mountains and high deserts, native plants are a little more winter hardy and a little less heat tolerant.

chocolate flower blooms
Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) blooms are perkiest in early morning but tend to wilt late in the day. No need to water or worry.

Even in the hottest Southwest and West climates, plants can need extra attention when temperatures soar. Here are 10 tips for helping plants survive the heat of summer.

Tip No. 1. Use drip irrigation.

You save water because it can’t evaporate as rapidly as it can if in the air, and the water seeps slowly down to the roots of a plant. This helps cool roots as well as hydrate them.

drip irrigation and straw on cucumber seedling
Drip irrigation is the only way to go for water savings and for keeping plants hydrated on hot days.

Tip No. 2. Use mulch.

Something as simple as straw spread out on the dirt helps keep air from rapidly evaporating water, but still allows oxygen to reach soil and roots. Piling the straw or other organic mulch two to three inches high helps even more.

straw mulch container tomato
Happy new tomato fruit with straw mulch in a container.

Tip No. 3. Try to get your plants established before summer heat ramps up.

Even heat-loving plants can wilt when temperatures soar. Still, recognize that wilting from sun can be temporary. The bigger the plant’s leaves, the more quickly the plant transpirates, which is the process of water evaporation through leaves. That’s why many succulents and xeric plants have small foliage. So don’t panic, but don’t completely discount it. Increase drip time on hot and windy days.

Tip No. 4. Water in the morning if at all possible.

This is a great water-saving strategy and helps prevent heat stress to plants. If the roots already have access to water, they can begin sending the water up through stems and leaves to keep the plant nourished. For most plants, regular, but spaced, deep watering always beats out frequent light watering (which leaves moisture close to the surface and can restrict root growth).

Tip No. 5. Check on your plants.

If you can’t check them during the day, do so as soon as you get home. It’s OK to water plants lightly in late afternoon to help cool them down.

xeric garden summer heat
Walking around your garden helps you spot heat stress and pest damage.

Tip No. 6. Use one plant as a benchmark.

For example, zucchini leaves are large, and if they’re wilting, you can prevent heat or drought damage to other plants nearby with a cool drink of water or some shade.

Tip No. 7. Shade plants.

New or damaged plants might need temporary shade to build up resistance to heat. Direct sun can burn leaves just like it can burn your skin. So make sure even an established plant is in the right location for sun and summer exposure and if not, try temporary shade.

cloth shade for plants.
It’s not pretty, but it’s clever. Tim built this removable shade out of landscape fabric, PVC and conduit.

Tip No. 8. Use containers.

Containers offer you the most opportunity to shade plants on hot days. Although soil in containers warms faster, containers also can cool more quickly. Most of all, it’s easy to move all but the largest into shade temporarily. You can mulch the top of the soil in a container, too.

containers on patio
Got containers? If you see a plant might be getting too hot, move it into afternoon shade. The white bucket in one container helped shade a new cherry tomato from sun and wind.

Tip No. 9. Avoid fertilizing plants during the heat of the day.

Plants should be perky and healthy before soaking up fertilizer. And the fertilizer needs to mix with plenty of water. It’s best to do this task before mid-day heat kicks in.

Tip No. 10. Control weeds.

Ha, there’s an impossible goal around here. And I know there are people who embrace weeds. I tolerate them only because I can’t keep up. But we’re really vigilant about keeping weeds off of or out from under plants. That’s especially true in the vegetable garden. Mulching can help control weeds.

field bindweed
Bindweed wraps around the base and stems of plants, weakening them. All weeds compete with garden plants for water.

Bonus tip.

Finally, if you keep potted plants, including cacti, inside during the winter, you need to protect them as they adapt to being outside. That’s true even for sun lovers. Harden the plant off if you can. If the plant is too heavy to bring in and out all day (or you have 30 of them, like we do), at least start it outside on a cooler, cloudier day.

Cacti under shade cloth
Succulents under the shade cloth. Yes, even some cacti can get too much sun. Containers allow these to survive winter inside and summer out in the heat.

Protecting New Plants From Wacky Weather

There’s nothing worse than watching a tomato grow from seed into a healthy start and then having it die soon after planting. Of course, paying for a plant at a nursery and then having to buy another is not much fun either.

Sometimes, gardeners can’t control everything, though we hate to admit that.  The new plant you purchased might have been doomed from the start, or an unpredicted hail storm hit while you were at work, beating all of the leaves off your tender start.

double rainbow ruidoso downs nm
Less than two weeks ago, it was rainy and in the 40s. Today, it will be in the mid- to high 80s with sustained winds of at least 25 mph. How do plants adapt?

Although I wish I could control the weather, I realize I can only manage a few steps to increase the chances of successful transplanting. Here are a few ideas:

  • Don’t assume the problem is water. I have been guilty of this, assuming if a plant wilts, it must need water. But that’s not always the case. The problem might be related to water, such as soil that doesn’t drain or drains too quickly. It also can be heat, changes in sun exposure, or wind. Some wilting is temporary.
geranium leaves damaged by wind and sun
These geraniums were ready to head back outside for summer, and we only want to move this pot twice a year. The wind (and likely hot sun) has damaged leaves, so as soon as it calms, I’ll trim off the damaged foliage. It needs a haircut anyway, so no need to panic!
  • Pay attention to the plant. Although overwatering can cause problems, underwatering is likely more dangerous, especially in dry climates of the Southwest. Water brings nutrients into a plant and helps it avoid or withstand weather damage or insect attacks. Walking by and touching a plant and looking for signs of insects can give you good clues about the plant’s health. Check for weeds under the plant. Field bindweed and morning glories wrap around plant stems and can damage them.
  • Harden off the start or new plant. It’s way fun to plant your new shrub as soon as you get home from the store. And planting right away can help a plant that’s rootbound in a plastic pot. Hurrah for plant rescue! However, if the new plant was in shade and sheltered from wind, give it a little time to adjust before you plop it down in a sunny, open location. Keeping the potted plant up against your house where it gets afternoon shade can help. When hardening off seedlings, choose a calm day and gradually increase the time the plants stay outside, especially in sun, for several days or weeks.
tomato and basil starts harden off
Hardening off starts on one of the few calm mornings we’ve had.
  • Choose the right location. Read the tags that accompany a new plant or the seed packet. It’s also good to double check with guides from local authors or master gardeners for more information on sun and watering. A plant can survive in mostly shade, but fail to bloom, for example. Microclimates can warm or chill plants.
yarrow and poppy
Yarrow in foreground and Oriental poppy in background. Both love heat, and the rocks help warm the poppy. BTW, the fencing around it is for protection from deer, not weather.
  • Protect the plant from weather elements. Oh, our poor tomatoes have had to endure full days of high winds for nearly a week, and today winds will be worse and humidity lower, to the point of fire weather warning. I start all tomatoes with a 5-gallon bucket around them. We simply saw out the bottom so we can set it into the ground to protect the plant, increase warmth around leaves and still have air circulation. The other day, the wind blew two of the buckets off the plants, right up by our house. Then, I got all excited on a calm day and put cages around the plants, which are growing above the top of the buckets. The wind beat them up, so I have buckets around three and a cage around the strongest tomato.
row cover and bucket protect tomato from cold
I was determined to start some tomatoes, and so far they are growing well. The container, bucket and row cover all increase warmth and the cover would have held up to small hail. It looks weird, but the plant will look gorgeous later!
  • Other ideas are to shade a plant during hot sun with permeable landscape fabric or by simply setting or tipping a woven lawn chair upside down over a small plant to block rays during peak heat. Of course, if you have wind, you will need to secure the chair with ground staples.
ground stakes
The staple on upper left is holding that poppy cage in place. These are handy garden tools!
  • Flexibility and patience help. Our weather went from too cool and damp to hot and windy. I haven’t been able to harden off the rest of my tomatoes and basil. And even though I’m anxious to get them in the ground, I have to wait until conditions are better. If you need to plant early or during a cool spell, use row cover or other methods to warm the plant, or place it in a container instead of the ground.
basil cover homemade
We used short pieces of rebar and stiff drip tubing to hold up my basil cover. I buried the cloth under dirt in the back. It waters with drip, so I only have to lift the cover to check or harvest. This helps protect the basil from cold, hail, wind, and insects.

Finally, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose. And sometimes you just don’t know what happened. But don’t give up on gardening, or even on growing a particular plant you love if it’s hardy in or native to your zone. Have fun!

Watering Container Plants

Container gardening is the mainstay of apartment and small-home gardeners. But even with four acres to play on, we plant plenty of succulents, herbs, vegetables and a few ornamentas in containers. For gardeners with more space, containers add convenience for kitchen garden edibles, and for moving plants that spend winter indoors. There are plenty of reasons to choose containers and plenty of ways to manage water use with container-grown plants.

nasturtiums rustic container
Why not repurpose an old washtub when you’ve got nasturtium seeds begging for a sunny spot?

The right plant

Annuals are great choices for container gardening, since you don’t ever have to repot the plant. And since xeric perennials need little water once established, having some annuals in containers or a small bed is a perfect splurge, especially if the annuals reseed.

It’s true that container plants need more frequent watering, so low-water herbs and other xeric plants make the best choices. But you can grow edibles and any small plant in a container. In my mind, the water for edibles produces food. And as long as I water responsibly, I’m OK with using a container and hand watering lettuce and tomatoes instead of using drip irrigation in the ground.

chile pepper in metal container
This green chile didn’t do well in such a small container, but it was fun to place on the patio. And we got a few peppers from it.

When creating arrangements, place plants with similar sun and water needs together. If you really want a centerpiece plant that uses a little more water, find a way to contain it by placing it in a plastic nursery pot (probably a few inches larger than the one it came in) inside a larger decorative one. Underplanting with flowers can disguise the trick that lets you focus a little extra water on one plant without overwatering others.

Selecting containers

I love to repurpose and use fun and funky containers when I can, but I typically use well-designed plastic or glazed containers for edibles. Plastic containers usually use the least amount of water, and glazed containers slightly more. We have lots of clay containers too, but we reserve most of those for cacti and succulents. Clay dries out quickly, so it’s best reserved for the lowest water users. And although photos always show containers filled to the edges with plants, consider mature growth even for summer annuals. For example, petunias multiply! It’s so fun to create a mini-garden scene with a big grouping of containers, especially if you have the space and money. I have a small grouping of more attractive and slightly lush containers in the front of our home, but the ones in the back are for function as much as form.

Cacti and succulents do well in clay pots and most containers.
Cacti and succulents do well in clay pots and most containers.

Prep the container

It’s important to use good soil for container plants and not extra dirt from the hole you just dug for your rose bush! Placing it in a pot just creates a big, clay petri dish for disease, insects and weeds to grow in. Soil also tends to compact more easily in a container. And the nutrients available for flower and fruit production are limited compared with the big, open ground.

Japanese maple in container
I love the combination of Japanese maple, bamboo and the container.

You can add small stones along the bottom to help with drainage and reduce watering by using a potting mix with polymer crystals that hold some moisture and then release it. Or add something more sustainable such as Growstones. Just don’t use a rich mix that retains moisture for cacti or other plants that need well-drained soil.

carrots growing in trough
It takes a lot of soil to fill a trough. Look for local compost and garden soil bulk suppliers.

When choosing organic potting mixes for edibles or just because, use some caution. Many potting mixes labeled organic are so similar to compost that they contain plenty of nutrients, but are too dense to use alone. A lighter mix helps air and water reach roots. Look for organic fillers such as coco husks. And don’t overfill the pot; you need a few inches at the top for water to sit while it drains down. If you get the soil level too high, water can run out the top of the container.

Water slowly

The key to healthy container plants and water savings is to water slowly. Flooding a container plant washes out important soil nutrients. Placing a small coffee filter over the drainage hole allows water through but stops soil and  nutrients from washing out the bottom. I try to pour slowly from my pail and then return a few minutes later for a second slow watering as I make my way from container to container. We use rain water as much as possible for container watering.

If you have a drip system with good pressure, you can have it set up to water containers, especially grouped one. You could use an olla, which is a clay bottle you bury in the container that slowly seeps water and can be refilled. To me, one of the best qualities of containers is that you can move them to meet shifting sun requirements or whims. And when a plant begins to wilt, it might not need more water – it just may need less sun.

Healthy looking native plants outside the Native Seeds/Search store in Tucson, Ariz.
Healthy looking native plants outside the Native Seeds/Search store in Tucson, Ariz.

I’m not big on fertilizing because it can lead to too much leaf and branch growth (and not enough to fruit and flowers) or burn plants if done too soon or incorrectly. I’d rather keep improving soil in beds so plants get most of their nutrition each year from natural ingredients. But container plants can need a little extra help. Compost tea or a light application of a product like Happy Frog every few weeks can support container plants.

I’m hoping to order some new containers this year locally or from Arizona Pottery. I’ll update when I can.

Pruning Xeric Plants

The best part of early spring is watching growth appear on plants that have been dormant all winter. And since we can’t plant vegetables until after the last frost, I need something to do in the garden on nice spring days. We had two of those this weekend, and we got busy pruning our xeric garden and front beds.

lavender-redbud-new-mexico
Pruning woody lavender requires only some shaping and removal of stalks as or after they bloom.

Pruning can be scary for new or hesitant gardeners. I’ve often hated to cut off any of the new spring growth that’s already begun. But I have to remind myself that cutting a plant back saves water. Here’s why: The plant’s roots can only provide so much water and nutrients. If gardeners leave too many branches above ground, the roots struggle to feed every branch, leaf or flower all the way to the end of the plant. It’s like filling a bowl of cereal with milk. The more cereal in the bowl, the more milk is necessary to coat or soak the cereal (sorry, but I love food analogies).

butterfly-bush-pruned-to-ground
This butterfly bush looks like mostly sticks right now, but it’s loaded with new growth at the bottom.

I’m still having to remind myself that by cutting a plant further down, I actually help it grow more vigorously than if I merely trim it a little bit. The mature plant regrows to a size that matches its established root system. We cut several plants nearly to the ground, including Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia). I have yet to kill a plant from vigorous pruning. A few times (like with forsythia), I pruned at the wrong time and it affected shape or flowering. But you can always correct shape and learn from your mistakes.

butterfly bush in summer after heaving pruning
Here’s last year’s butterfly bush (to the right and center) after a similar prune last year. It shoots up to six to eight feet tall.

Around here, Tim typically trims the trees and I handle shrubs. I start with roses as soon as any new growth appears, and your local master gardeners most likely recommend a window of time that’s best for roses and other common plants in your area.

Here are a few pruning tips for plants that grow in the arid high desert and intermountain regions:

  • In early spring, prune plants that flower in summer. Those that bloom in spring (like forsythia, clematis, flowering quince and dogwood) do best if pruned after they flower. They form buds in the fall, and spring pruning removes the flowers. The same goes for spring-flowering bulbs, such as iris, although they shouldn’t be pruned immediately, but when stalks and leaves begin fading or turning brown. In this case, the plant above ground gives energy back to the bulb underground.
forsythia blooms
Our forsythias are loaded with spring blooms; I pruned them last summer.
  • Nearly all trees should be trimmed in winter, while dormant.
  • Some gardeners prefer to prune in fall for a more manicured look during winter. We don’t do that for a few reasons. One is that a late warm period can cause the plants to grow again, and they need to begin storing energy for winter; a heavy late pruning can make the plant more vulnerable to cold. The other reason is that birds feed on the flower heads all fall and winter. And the spent blooms and stalks look fine in a natural, xeric design.
yarrow blooms
The bright yellow blooms of yarrow in summer.
  • Many plants only need to have their dead stalks removed. For example, yarrow and Angelita daisies have stalks that rise above the foliage. You can use trimmers or sharp shears to remove spent stalks.
yarrow after winter xeric
Here’s what the yarrow looked like a few days ago. It was ready to lose the dried flower stalks.
pruning yarrow
The pruned yarrow is now ready to put energy toward developing new flower stalks.
  • It’s best to avoid cutting into the woody, feeder branches of plants such as lavender and rosemary. Trim them for shaping only, and harvest ends of rosemary or cut lavender flower stalks for drying and other uses.
  • The more center and crossing canes or branches you can remove, the better. If you have a native rose that is seriously overgrown or pruned poorly, consider cutting it to the ground once, just to reinvigorate the plant and let it return to a more natural shape. It might take a year or two to get the plant into the shape you like.
yellow
I’m gradually cleaning up this native rose. Last year, it bloomed so pretty in mid-April. This year, I pruned it more severely, but it’s taking on new growth.
  • Some plants do better with a second cutting right after they bloom so you can enjoy another summer show of color. An example is catmint (Nepeta). Shearing off about one-third of the plant at the top gives it energy to regrow flowers. Of course, many annuals, such as California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) or blanket flowers (Gaillardia) bloom best if you deadhead them, or remove spent blooms, throughout the summer.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it's so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path's rock border.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it’s so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path’s rock border.
  • We usually give our xeric plants a good soaking right after trimming them to help them through the shock and stimulate growth. But that’s the only time we water almost all of our established xeric plants.
dogwood and catmint
Best of both seasons. The dogwood still has its winter red, but plants like catmint are blooming.

If you’d like to learn more, including where to cut shrubs for optimal growth, check out this publication from the University of Georgia extension office.

Grow This Easy Vegetable: Cherry or Grape Tomato

Growing tomatoes can be loads of fun, but a little stressful in dry climates with short growing seasons (aka: where we live). But cherry and grape tomatoes have a shorter time to maturity and harvest, and work well in nearly any zone. I believe they also are subject to fewer problems because the fruits are smaller and ripen quickly.

Late-season tomato harvest, including Burpee grape tomatoes.
Last year’s late-season tomato harvest, including lost of grape tomatoes.

The other benefit of small tomatoes is their adaptability to containers, so you can add a cherry tomato to your convenient patio or kitchen garden. The fruit is smaller than a typical tomato, and usually so is the plant. Having said that, all tomatoes grow tall and wide, and a cherry tomato can easily reach 5 or 6 feet high.

We had both red and grape tomatoes in the large container on the left. Food or decor? Both!
We had both red and grape tomatoes in the large container on the left. Food or decor? Both!

Better than Candy

I can’t think of many plants better suited for getting your family excited about growing their own food. When children can walk up to a plant on their patio or yard, pluck the fruit and pop it in their mouth, they’re bound to appreciate the flavor, freshness and fun of growing juicy tomatoes.

Grape tomatoes ripening on the vine late in summer.
Grape tomatoes ripening on the vine late in summer.

Last year, we grew red and yellow grape tomatoes (Solid Gold yellow grape tomatoes from Sakata) and Tim ate them like candy. Maybe that’s why some of the varieties we’ll try this year have “candy” in their name. One is a tricolor tomato from Renee’s Garden. Each individual plant yields either yellow, red or orange cherry tomatoes, and I need to find a way to try all three. The seeds come color-coded to give you and your family a choice.

We can’t wait to try Tomato Candyland Red from Pan American Seed. Candyland was a winner of the culinary delights All-America Selections for 2016. It’s called a currant tomato and the fruit is even smaller than a cherry tomato. I love it — no cutting necessary. According to AAS, the fruit forms along the outside of the plant, making it easier to harvest.  And you can expect up to 100 or more tiny tomatoes from each plant. If you sow the seeds indoors and transplant Candyland Red, you should have fruit in less than 60 days.

AAS 2016 winner tomato red candyland
All-America Selections Candyland Red Tomato (Currant)
Image courtesy of AAS.

Although we’re trying out these fun and delicious selections, we’re keeping our main vegetable garden strictly organic. We’ll add Matt’s Wild Cherry tomato from High Mowing Seeds, which also has fruit smaller than most cherry tomatoes and matures in 55 days. The seeds are certified organic. These are perfect for containers, since the mature plant only reaches a height of about four feet.

Tips for Growing Cherry Tomatoes

These really are easy plants for beginning gardeners or busy families. They’re sort of like the gateway vegetable to bigger tomatoes, beans, cucumbers… and certainly a plant and food you’ll get hooked on. Here are a few tips for growing tomatoes:

  • Check the final width and height of the plant you choose when selecting a container. As far as I’m concerned, the bigger the container, the better. I’ve underplanted marigolds and basil with mine. The basil was not as pretty as the garden herb, but it produced and fewer insects went after it.
  • As for insects and other pests – they still can attack cherry and grape tomato plants, but a container sometimes provides an extra layer of protection. I caught a few snails making their way up the container, but none made it to the plant. The deer left all of mine alone until late in the season when they munched on a few in one of our gardens. Having tomatoes in a container close to the house can help. We did get tomato hornworms on our container grape tomato, so if you see stripped leaves, start looking.
hornworm droppings
Telltale signs of hornworm activity were easy to spot on the patio.
  • Plastic containers work better than clay ones, which dry out too quickly. Glazed containers also work well and turn an edible into an ornamental.
  • Cherry and grape tomatoes still need some help with cages or some sort of trellis they can climb on to make sure the plant has air circulation and support branches as fruit develops. You can put cages into containers or place the plant along a fence or trellis. Just make sure it gets plenty of air if against a solid structure.
cosmos and tomato
Why not support a tomato plant with wildflowers? This plant grew over a short wall and rested on the cosmos.
  • One of the best ways to ensure healthy tomatoes is with consistent watering. In other words, try to give the plants the same amount of water applied slowly or by drip each time you water, unless of course it rains.
  • Tomatoes need at least six hours of sun a day, so plant them in a south-facing location unless you’re in a really hot zone. We moved our containers to follow the sun. At first, we gave the plants a little extra shade while they finished hardening off. Once hardy, they got more sun. And if they looked stressed in the heat of summer, we moved them a few feet to improve afternoon shade.
candyland red seedlings
Our Candyland Red seedlings look gorgeous and healthy.
  • Seeds are easy to start inside with light and moisture. But be sure to pot up your seedlings to strengthen them before planting.
perfect grape tomato
P stands for “Perfect,” right? I have no idea how the perfectly formed letter appeared on this grape tomato, but it tasted delicious!

Cherry and grape tomatoes are perfect for snacking and salads. If you really want a tomato that you can slice into and need to grow in a container or have a short season, aim for a cocktail size. We had excellent luck growing a short-season variety last year called “Fourth of July” (from Burpee) in a container.

 

Favorite Succulent: Crown of Thorns

It’s spiny, really spiny. But the Euphorbia milii is a succulent, not a cactus. The plant, which is native to Madagascar and can grow up to six feet tall in the right conditions, is an excellent houseplant choice. When growing the crown of thorns, however, be sure to place it out of high-traffic areas. Like many euphorbias, the crown of thorns produces a milk-like sap that can irritate the skin. Mature plants can spread to a width of several feet, depending on pruning. And those thorns – they are about one-half-inch long and located all along the woody stems.

flowers crown of thorns
The pretty, salmon-pink flowers of the Euphorbia millii

A Madagascar Native

This interesting succulent goes by many names. It used to be called Euphorbia splendens, and splendid seems more appropriate for this plant. But millii is in honor of Baron Milius, who introduced the plant to France in 1821. It’s also sometimes called the Christplant. The crown of thorns was introduced to the United States through Florida.

The crown of thorns is among succulents most often mistaken for a cactus. The spines don’t rise from a single areole, however, which helps differentiate spiny euphorbias from true cacti. And as a houseplant, it’s not likely to reach six feet, although we had one that grew to more than two feet before Tim trimmed it back and propagated new plants from the cuttings.

roadrunner and succulents
Roadrunners like to take cover in thorny plants. I think this guy wanted to get to our crown of thorns, bottom right.

Year-round Blooms

This euphorbia is only hardy as a perennial in zone 10 and higher, where it makes a fine shrub choice. It requires little watering or care, and only some warmth and sunshine to bloom almost continuously. By placing our crown of thorns in a sunny, south-facing window and giving it a summer vacation outside once temperatures warm, we’ve enjoyed blooms all year long.

crown of thorns pot outside
This small transplant from our larger plant enjoys a warm summer day.

The crown of thorns is a relative of the poinsettia, and original plants had deeper red flowers than those available today. New cultivars of the Euphorbia millii have smaller thorns, but what sort of a challenge is that? Most crown of thorn plants available for growing in containers are smaller than those placed in tropical landscapes, and flowers on the houseplants are only about one-half inch in diameter. But it doesn’t seem to matter; for one, the flowers appear in groupings. And I love the effect of the tiny, subtle blooms on such a thorny plant.

euphoria millii
Euphorbia millii, or crown of thorns, is a fascinating blend of delicate and spiny.

The crown of thorns is vulnerable to mites, mealy bugs and whiteflies. The only other problem that can occur with the easy-care succulent is overwatering. Place Euphorbia millii plants and cuttings in well-draining soil.

 

Starting Seeds for the 2016 Garden: Patience Required

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Fun Annuals for the Low-water Garden

It’s more waterwise – and less expensive – to grow perennials. When a plant’s getting started, it needs a little more water. So once a xeric perennial plant has become established, the gardener should not have to add much, or any, water.

cosmos in rock garden
Low-water gardens can combine lots of perennials with bits of annuals. Cosmos re-seed easily from year to year in our zone 6B low-water garden.

By nature annuals last only one year; you’ll have to water seeds or transplants a little more than you will an established perennial. Having mostly perennials in your garden is a waterwise and cost-effective strategy, but most gardeners want to add a little color or variety to their gardens. Enter the annual flower.

You can save money by purchasing annuals as seeds or by selecting native varieties that will likely re-seed in your garden next year. And save water by mulching annual beds after seedlings are large enough. Plastic cups or leftover nursery pots make great “protectors” while laying mulch. Just place cups large enough to avoid bending or breaking the plants upside down on each seedling in the bed, or a portion of the bed, before carefully pouring in your mulch. Then lift the cups and adjust mulch around the plants.

Native annuals also should use less water than “splurge” plants, but you won’t do a ton of damage to your water-wise efforts with a small container of your favorite annual.

Here are some of my favorite annuals, particularly for low-water gardening in zones 6 and 7.

zinnias annuals
A bunch of zinnias adds easy and vivid color to any annual bed.

Zinnias. Without a doubt, zinnias are a favorite annual. They’re simple to grow from seed; in fact, zinnias don’t transplant well, although it can be done if you start seedlings in peat pots. This way, you can transplant the peat pot with the seedling when the weather warms. The hardy flower requires sunshine and soil that drains well. Add a little organic matter to the container or bed to ensure drainage. Deadheading spent blooms keeps flowers coming and helps keep the plant from getting tall and leggy. Besides, the bright orange, red or coral flowers are terrific for arrangements. Check your seed package for flower type, size and plant height when selecting zinnias for annual containers or beds.

California poppy. The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a perennial in warm climates and a frequent re-seeder in moderate zones. The wispy, fern-like foliage has a silvery-gray color, and thin stalks support orange and yellow blooms that resemble a flatter, simpler poppy. Deadheading the flowers is a little bit of work, but well worth the effort. The California poppy technically is an herb, but the plant is poisonous if eaten. It’s a terrific pollinator.

california poppies
These poppies love sun and heat. Spent blooms are easy to spot for deadheading; the petals drop and leave a long seedhead.

Cosmos. A relative of the aster, the cosmos is a varied and versatile flower with nearly 20 species. Just give the flowers lots of sun and avoid overwatering or overfertilizing; too much shade and water can make them lanky. I love cosmos at the back of a bed, but they come in various heights. The flowers easily re-seed, so be sure you like them before planting. Birds land on cosmos plants left in our garden and peck at the seeds all winter.

Cosmos plants can look a little wild, but the flowers normally form a perfect shape. Our grape tomatoes grew into the wild cosmos.
Cosmos plants can look a little wild, but the flowers normally form a perfect shape. Our grape tomatoes grew into the wild cosmos.

Portulaca. The portulaca family includes purslane, which can be an invasive, water-sucking weed. Still, some people enjoy the edible qualities of purslane. I prefer Portulaca grandiflora, also known as moss rose. The tiny flowers’ foliage resembles rosemary leaves, and the flowers make an excellent groundcover, spreading throughout the summer. They also work well in containers. Space them out, and they’ll quickly fill the container and drape over the edge. Instead of cutting spent flowers, you simply need to pinch off the dried-up bloom to encourage more color. One caution: portulaca seeds are tiny, and can spread or hide easily in soil. Plant something else in the same container next year, and you’re likely to have a pretty little portulaca pop up.

portulaca moss rose
Tiny portulaca flowers pack a lot of character.

Sunflowers. Who can resist a stunning photo of a field of sunflowers? The Helianthus annus takes a little more water, but can tolerate brief periods of drought. Between their water needs and propensity to get munched by deer, they’re not the perfect annual for our garden. Having said that, we always try to get a few sunflowers going, especially the crimson-colored varieties. Many of our thriving sunflowers come up as volunteers, likely thanks to area birds. Sunflowers make perfect pollinators; bees can’t get enough of them. And those that survive deer provide seed for birds in fall. Maybe it’s because I’m so tired of winter, but I can’t wait to see these signs of summer springing up around our property!

sunflower
Sunflowers signal summer, sun and warmth. I can’t wait!

Use These Tips to Overwinter Rosemary Outside

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) is the perfect low-water herb, and for that matter a perfect xeric ornamental. This year, we have two we keep as ornamentals and allow to bloom, and two for culinary use in containers, because I have a hoarder-like fear of running out of rosemary.

rosemary bloom
It’s so pretty to look at, smells wonderful, tastes delicious, and thrives in dry climates. Why not have rosemary all year long?

I understand that rosemary (and lavender, my other favorite low-water herb) can be somewhat difficult to grow in wetter climates. Well, let us desert dwellers have something, OK? We can’t in all good consciousness, or with much success, have tropical bloomers. And even having more than one hybrid rose seems wrong in areas with so little annual rainfall.

rosemary in container
This year’s back-up rosemary plant, placed into a container, is now outside on our south-facing patio. It’s doing well after several nights below freezing.

That’s exactly why rosemary does so well here. Once established, the plant thrives with less water. Depending on the variety, rosemary is hardy in zones 8 through 10. A variety called R. officinalis ‘Arp” is hardy to zone 6, however, and to zone 5 with some effort from the home gardener.

And I mean just a little effort. It’s generally easier to overwinter rosemary outside than indoors. Here are a few ways to push the zone a bit on rosemary, and my tip for keeping rosemary (and lavender) healthy through winter.

  • Plant your rosemary in full sun if possible, especially considering the sun’s winter path.
  • Use rocks or a wall to reflect heat in winter and help keep your rosemary warm as temperatures drop. You can also add some gravel mulch, as long as it doesn’t enclose the plant and retain water.
  • Use a container for rosemary and move the container to a protected, warm location (even though it’s still outdoors). I have one container on the southwest side of my patio for easy access and another against a southern wall that gets full sun all day in the winter.
  • Harvest! Harvest some rosemary for culinary use well before the first frost so that the plant is healthy and not blooming. Or if your plant is ornamental, a few blooms are fine, as long as you avoid pruning, and especially cutting into woody stems, anytime from four weeks before the first frost until early spring.
  • Water sparingly all year, but especially in winter when the plant dries more slowly. Wet feet cause root rot on rosemary and lavender plants.
Trailing rosemary
This is one, not two, trailing rosemary plants. The big gap in the center is where Tim had to trim out dead, black branches ruined by a heavy snow in Albuquerque one winter. We had to save this plant because it was so pretty and attracted loads of bees, and we learned our lesson about brushing snow off of rosemary.

And here’s my best tip for keeping rosemary happy and healthy in the winter! You know when you can’t wait to get outside and play after a snowfall? You take the kids, the dogs, the camera, your companion of choice…outside to enjoy the snow. Stop for a second and head straight for your rosemary in the garden or container. Carefully brush as much snow off of the plant as you can, especially over the center, main branches. We nearly lost a beautiful trailing rosemary bush several years ago before I knew how important it was to do this. The slow melting of snow amounts to setting your drip hose to run on the rosemary for days. It can destroy part or all of the plant.

This week, I used my bare hand (until I couldn’t feel my fingers) and then a soft broom to brush off all of my rosemary and lavender plants while the snow was still flaky. And yes, I pulled out my camera…

snow on rosemary plant in New Mexico
This is not a ton of snow, but is enough that the slow dripping from melting could damage some of the branches or roots of this rosemary plant.