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.

Favorite Easy-to-Grow Vegetable: Green Beans

I love growing green beans so much that I went a little crazy this year. I still love to grow and eat them, but please, come take some off my hands!

fresh-green-beans
These are just a few of the green beans I picked the other morning. Plenty more where those came from! And where they’re going — to friends or the freezer.

Actually, one of the reasons I love growing beans is that they are so easy to preserve. Although you can preserve them with canning, they are so darned easy to freeze that canning seems like a crazy idea unless you don’t have an extra freezer…or two.

Planting beans

This year, I planted two types of Phaseolus vulgaris: A French filet bush bean and a Blue Lake pole bean. Both are warm season plants, listing about a 58 to 60 day seed-to-maturity date. We had a really good germination rate when planting about eight days after the last frost. I planted four more beans three weeks later for a succession. Next year, I will wait a few more weeks for that second planting because all of the plants are mature right now and I have enough green beans for a small city. The alternative is fewer plants in each succession, three weeks apart. It’s just important to plant the final wave of plants so they can mature and produce before the first fall frost. I know the pole beans require room to roam, but I now prefer them to the bush plants for bean production, plant health and for gardener ergonomics.

The package recommended thinning the beans to every 4 to 6 inches. I think I will give the ones on the end a little more room next year for trellising. Beans need warm, loose, fertile soil to germinate and thrive. They have to be directly sowed, not transplanted.

Green bean care

We used an inexpensive studded metal fence post and square welded metal fencing system to support the beans. I’ve mentioned in a previous post how the mature beans, which face south, serve as shade for lettuce plants on the north side of the fence. I can still easily harvest the beans on the north side without stepping on the lettuce, at least if I am paying attention.

green beans on fence trellis
The beans run along the middle fence, with a cucumbers on the end and melons along the south fence.

Water beans regularly and early in the day from below the foliage if at all possible. Wet leaves can cause disease such as white mold. Beans are susceptible to aphids, and I’m sure I had some because I also had ants on and around mine. A fine, hard spray of water, repeated a few days later, can wash off aphids. But since you don’t want to wet the bean plant’s leaves, it’s best to spray them early in the morning on a sunny, warm day.

Harvesting and storing green beans

Harvesting green beans is one of my favorite garden activities. I think that is one reason I planted so many! I love finding a perfectly sized bean hiding under the leaves or on the other side of the fence. I have found they’re easiest to pick in early morning or late in the day when there is no sun in my eyes. It helps to look up when bending low to spot beans hiding under leaves; I hate finding one I have missed that is too mature. You can spot the mature beans by their length and the swollen, rolling shape. Pick them before they get to that point. That usually means harvesting at least twice a week; I try to pick every other day during the height of the plants’ production. I hang a bag on my arm to free up both hands so I don’t damage the stalks or smaller beans as I pull.

green beans on the stalk
These beans were hiding under a bunch of leaves, and the beans look like stalks. But when you find a handful at just the right stage, total bliss.

As I said, green beans are really easy to freeze. I rinse, then blanch and cool the beans. Most articles recommend snapping the beans before blanching and freezing, and I am sure there is a reason for this. I don’t snap before freezing, but don’t take my word for it because I am not a food safety expert. Blanching involves boiling the beans for just two minutes or so – too long makes them limp and depletes their high nutritional value. Immediately place the beans in clean ice water, then spread them out on a cookie sheet or similar tray (I line mine with paper towels). I let them sit just long enough to drain on the towels, then put them in the freezer no longer than overnight. The next day, I put them into a plastic bag and mark them with the date.

frozen green beans
Another package of beans is ready for the freezer. I like them steamed or sauteed with garlic, lemon, parmesan and pine nuts.

Apparently, frozen beans also lose some of their nutritional value after a few months in the freezer. I’ll still take the nutrition that’s left over anything I could buy in the store or yukky canned ones!

Tomato Hornworms: How to Spot and Control Them

I have to admire the tomato and tobacco hornworms, even if they give me the creeps to the point that I make unflattering girlie noises when I see them, and especially when I pick them off my tomato plants. Talk about adaptation at its finest! The tomato and tobacco hornworms (Manduca quinquemaculata and M. sexta) can grow up to four inches long, but still hide from unsuspecting gardeners as they nearly destroy a tomato plant’s foliage.

tobacco hornworm on tomato plant
This tobacco hornworm clings to the underside of a tomato plant branch, a typical hiding spot for the caterpillars. You can see the horn on its tail.

About hornworms

Both hornworms are larvae of the adult sphinx moth, often called the hummingbird moth because the large insect hovers near flowers like a hummingbird, only near dawn and dusk. Both have three legs in the front and several other “prolegs” that help them climb and grab onto branches (and your gloves when you pick them!). A tiny spindle on the tail gives them their horn name, but the caterpillars don’t sting. The tomato hornworm has eight, diagonal stripes on each side that are white against its adult-sized bright green background. Tobacco hornworms have only seven stripes and a slightly curved and red horn.

tobacco hornworm on Desert willow
Here’s a shot of what appears to be a giant hornworm on a Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), which is not a member of the Solanaceae family, a family that includes tomatoes, tobacco plants and eggplants. An astute visitor (see the comment below) informed me that this is the Manduca rustica, the only Manduca that thrives on non-solanaceous plants. I found out it also prefers lower elevations, which would explain the Tucson spotting.

The chewing mouthparts are on the head, and they can do some serious damage. In fact, the name “Manduca” translates to glutton. Strike two against the hornworm. The first one I found this season had sawed through three gorgeous green tomatoes. I’m sorry I didn’t take a photo, but I was too mad and on the hunt. I never found the perpetrator, and believe that its final gluttonous act might have been at the end of the larvae’s mature stage. These were pretty large gaps in the tomatoes, about as big around as my ring finger and straight across the tomato, sort of like the hornworm rode a slip-and-slide through the fruit. Plus, we had missing leaves on a few branches. I guess hornworms stop eating right before they molt, emptying all that yummy green tomato and foliage, which is another way to spot them on your plants.

signs of hornworm on tomato
Signs of a hornworm buffet and another great reason to grow tomatoes in containers. It was easy to spot the numerous hornworm droppings on the patio.

Controlling hornworms organically

The best way to control hornworms on your tomatoes is observation. Look for branches with stripped leaves, usually toward the outer ends. The best time to find the hornworms, however, is early and late in the day, when it’s cooler and the light is low. They eat then, but move to the center of the plant when the sun is out, presumably to rest, digest and hide from you! It’s also a lot easier to spot them when it’s shady, with no sun in your eyes. I found four or five on this grape tomato plant just before sunset the other night.

hornworm damage to tomato plant
Aside from droppings on leaves or ground and patio below, hornworms typically strip entire branches.

Be ready when you pick the worm off to either drop it into a bucket of water, or a combination of soap and water. Or if you prefer, cut the worm in half with shears. I actually started to feel sorry for one that clung to my glove, and then I remembered strike two. And if I had not pulled those four off of my grape tomato plant, there would be nothing left of it today. It’s also important to consider the Manduca life cycle – every hornworm you leave on a plant wanders around the garden and buries itself into your soil to become a pupa. The pupae lay second generation eggs in your soil to restart the cycle!

Wasps can help control hornworms, and I wonder if we have more of a problem this year because we have seen fewer wasps (for some unknown reason). If a hornworm has small, white cocoons on its back, leave it alone. The braconid wasp is doing the job for you. Attracting wasps near your garden can help control hornworms.

After a season with a particularly bad hornworm problem, it’s recommended that you pull up all tomato, eggplant and pepper plants to expose possible pupae. If you have chickens that can graze the soil after turning it, even better! If the problem is really bad, organic Bacillus thuringensis can work as a biological control.

For all I will do to control hornworms, I still admire them as an example of adapted nature. They usually win – there is no way to find all of them in your garden, mostly because they are masters of disguise, looking just like a tomato branch or curled leaf. They eat well, undergo total metamorphosis and those that make it past vigilant gardeners or farmers get to live the dream so many of us have – they can fly. Over gardens, hovering by flowers. I still don’t feel bad about picking them off my tomatoes, though.

Product Review: Cate’s Garden Premium Bypass Pruning Shears

I can’t get by without a couple of good bypass pruners and loppers around my garden. So I was thrilled when Cate’s Garden offered to send me a free sample of their Premium Bypass Pruning Shears to try.

First, a word about bypass pruners. Bypass pruners are garden shears that have blades resembling scissors — when you make a cut, the blades pass one another through the stem or branch, which makes a cleaner, smoother cut than do blades that simply meet at a point in the middle. This might sound trivial, but it helps minimize damage to the soft, healthy tissue of an actively growing, fresh plant. I use bypass pruners and loppers for almost everything, except the hardest, dead branches.

Using Cate's bypass pruners to cut a fresh rose
Bypass pruners are best for trimming, deadheading and cutting fresh flowers because they do less damage to stems and branches.

Cate’s bypass shears are attractive, while also being slightly industrial looking. But that appeals to me, because I like to feel I work hard for my plants! Part of the reason they look industrial is their material. The blades are made of high carbon, and the pruners are coated in hard chrome to help minimize rusting. The other reason is the angled shape. But Cate’s Garden designed them that way for performance and ergonomics, not for appearance.

By angling the blade about 45 degrees, the designers made it easier to reach into plants and a little easier on gardeners’ wrists. Since my wrists take such a beating all day long either at the computer, in the garden or pulling weeds, I like that feature. And I tested it by reaching through my garden fence to trim a hard-to-reach tomato branches. I was able to squeeze the pruners nearly closed, open  them up, and make my cut, then squeeze them back through the tiny square. I also deadheaded my blanket flowers. If you have read any of my past posts, you know that required a lot of cuts. No pain or fatigue when using these pruners.

Cate's Garden bypass pruners
Cate’s Garden bypass pruners. The carbon blades look sleek and cut smoothly.

And that leads me to my other favorite feature — the closing, or lock, mechanism. Cate’s calls it a lever snap, and it’s made from forged aluminum. I call it brilliant. I think some tool manufacturers worry more about the look of the tool, or the color of the button that you push to lock your pruners closed. But those buttons stick with wear and a major irritant with pruners I’ve used in the past is when they lock on me when I make cuts. The lever on Cate’s Garden pruners was out of my way, and didn’t lock accidentally when I made about 100 cuts on those thin Gaillardia stems. Still, the pruners are easy to lock with one hand if your other hand is full.

Cate's premium bypass shears
Her’s a view of the pruners fully open, showing their spring, blade and locking mechanisms.

The only concern I had with the pruners when I took them out of the box was that the handle seemed to spread too far for my small hands. But once I used the pruners, I found that wasn’t a problem. They didn’t force my hand open, but were smooth enough to adjust to how I held them without resistance. And that’s a good thing, because as soon as I expressed my concern, my husband tried to claim them as his own. I don’t think so!

Read more about Cate’s bypass pruners, and the story of this small company, on their website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Easy Vegetable: Cucumber

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are easy to care for and so good to eat in salads, as snacks, or as homemade pickles.

It’s one of the easiest plants to grow, pretty much resistant to disease and a sun lover. I think what I love the most about cucumbers compared with some vegetables is that the fruit tends to mature pretty rapidly and in stages. I like that a lot better than having no fresh tomatoes 11 months out of the year, and then having such a bounty that you have to take a bag of them to work to make sure none go to waste. I’ve planted four cucumber plants in succession – two at a time several weeks apart.

tasty green burpless cucumber
This is a hybrid burpless cucumber (Tasty Green F1) from Sakata. It’s easy to grow and tastes really sweet. These two are growing outside the garden fence; the one on the left is about ready to harvest.

Planting cucumbers

Cucumbers usually grow best directly from seed. It’s possible to transplant seedlings purchased or grown indoors, but cucumbers don’t do well if their roots are disturbed. Because cucumbers need plenty of water, make sure you’ve prepped your soil with lots of organic matter before planting. That will help it retain water. I read on the package to plant seeds in a mound; that didn’t work for me. The cause might have been cool temperatures, but I think it also had to do with our low humidity. We always prefer wells to hold water in. The second planting was much more successful; I had to thin the seedlings.

Plant cucumbers where they will get full sun and where you can help them climb off the ground with a fence or trellis. If you can’t get them near a trellis, use a tomato cage or rig your own system. This help keep fruits from getting bent under heavy vines and keeps them from taking over your garden. Most importantly, growing vertically gives your plants plenty of air circulation, improving plant health and fruit production. There are a few bush varieties that grow in containers if you have no way to help cucumbers trellis upward.

cucumber growing along fencing
Keeping cucumbers vertical makes for healthier plants and more fruit. I’ve got all of ours against a fence.

Troubleshooting cucumber problems

When seedlings fail, the ground might not be warm enough. Just try again as temperatures – and soil – warm up. Other than that, you’ll have little to no trouble with cucumbers. If your plant flowers but fails to set fruit, the likely problem is lack of pollinators. You need some bees. All cucumber plants should have male flowers and female flowers. They look pretty much the same, except for the small fruit that’s located just behind the female blossom. Once the bees visit the male flower and drop pollen into the female flower, the fun begins.

female cucumber flower with fruit
Morning dew on a female cucumber flower, just closing up as the fruit behind it begins to grow.

I recommend cutting cucumbers when they are relatively small for better flavor. Let them get too large and they have big seeds and slightly bitter flavor. Plus, leaving them on the vine sends a signal to the plant that its work is done, and the plant begins to wind down the production process. As I said, planting a few cucumber plants several weeks apart gives you a steady supply all year. Unlike zucchini, cucumber tends to give you a more steady, manageable supply of fruit. In most zones, you can sow seeds as late as July.

cucumber blossom
Fully open cucumber blossom. I think it’s an attractive plant, too.

Integrated Pest Management: Preventing Bugs From Destroying Plants

Bugs on plants are more than a nuisance. They damage plants by sucking out sap, destroying leaves and transmitting diseases. I’m all for a balanced ecosystem, and I realize bugs gotta eat too, but there’s a point at which I have to choose between the bug and being able to eat the cucumbers I have spent time and precious water nurturing from seed. I might not be smarter, but I’m bigger and I have tools and creativity.

For many years in the past, home gardeners like us relied on chemicals to kill a bug at the first sign of trouble, and I’m so glad that the concept of integrated pest management, or IPM, has replaced that approach for so many people who care about the food they eat, the environment and preserving beneficial insects.

cucumber beetle
Cucumber beetles like any yellow flower, including the ones on this honeydew melon. This is the last known photo of this particular beetle…

Let’s break down a rather fancy term into the basics: start with the least harmful control. It’s really the same as prevention in medicine. Ward off a disease as your first choice instead of having to go through treatment. Here are the basic steps:

1. Start with healthy plants and good cultural management. This is the most important step to try to prevent insects in any yard or garden. First and foremost, plant native plants. I’ll never stop repeating this mantra. When you include plants adapted to your environment, they’re less likely to get stressed. There’s lots of research on the plant stress hypothesis because I guess some people disagree with it. But prevailing thought seems to be that plants stressed by drought or other conditions are more vulnerable to bug infestations and damage. It makes sense, and it’s still better to keep plants healthy anyway for flower or fruit production. Be sure to rotate crops, plant a variety of plants, and place plants in the right conditions based on shade or sun requirements, for example.

healthy tomato in container
This grape tomato plant is healthy and happy. It’s in a container with rich soil. I think it’s a little easier to control pests with containers.

2. Keep bugs away by weeding as much as possible and cleaning up debris to prevent hiding places. And cover seedlings with tunnels and row covers (with no holes) to keep bugs off while the plants are young and more vulnerable. Make sure plants are not too close together so they have airflow and can dry out as needed. Use mulch to cool roots and hold in water and compost to enrich soil. If one plant gets a disease, remove it from your garden and throw it out. Don’t lay it near the garden or compost it.

Covered seedlings
These lettuce seedlings have green beans for shade and cloth to keep bugs out until they get a little larger.

3. Hand pick bugs that appear if you can. This is not always easy, but if I can touch bugs, anyone can. Home gardeners who visit their garden regularly to water, deadhead flowers and check or harvest vegetables should inspect for bugs, especially in the morning. A major advantage of handpicking is that you can pick just the bad insects, causing no harm to beneficial bugs on your plants, who are there helping in your cause. See my Resources page for a few links to articles or photos that help identify beneficial insects. And here’s what I do when I pick off the little bug – throw it in a container of dish soap and water. I like to reuse a plastic container with a flip lid each year for easy, one-handed entry. Last year, it was an empty sanitary wipe jar. This year, I had used nearly all of my taco spice mix from Costco. I put the rest in a plastic zipped bag and had an instant bug bath. A blister bug infestation at our community garden one year had Tim and I doing a “swipe and boot stomp” method because those monsters bite and because of pure numbers. Our neighbor finally had to vacuum the potato plants.

dish soap and water for handpicking bugs in the garden
The little beetle featured in the photo above got a spicy ending courtesy of my handmade holding cell. All that’s inside is environmentally friendly dish soap (because that’s what I had), some water, and taco seasoning residue. The top snaps open.

4. When all else fails and you must use a pesticide, there are several organic choices. It’s also important to know that although an insecticide is organic, it still can be harmful, especially to bees and other beneficial insects. The three we keep on hand are insecticidal soap, Neem oil and Diatomaceous earth. Still, it’s recommended only to use these products once you have identified the pest or really have to do so. For example, I can spray a plant with water first to stop aphids before resorting to soap. I encourage reading labels carefully for time from use to harvest for any edibles, for specific pests they destroy and for any cautions about other insects, pets or warnings.

diatomaceous earth on ant hill in garden
This poor pepper has been attacked already by a gopher (and poor watering because it all floods down the hole the critter left behind). Now the stressed plant has an ant hill below. I am trying diatomaceous earth to stop them from doing more damage.
natural pesticide choices
Diatomaceous earth stops crawlers, and soap and oil can stop flying insects.

Further, you can’t be perfect at IPM cultural practices, as hard as you try. For example, I’m pretty sure tomatoes are not native to my region. But I want a vegetable garden. I have to work harder to keep tomatoes healthy than I do the ornamentals (and weeds!) native to New Mexico. I also can’t control the weather. I’m certain many of our bug (and snail!) trouble occurred during frequent night rains and cool, cloudy days. Our plants aren’t adapted to that. Finally, we spend most of our time on weeds – mowing, pulling and preventing. But we can’t control all of the weeds, nor can we control what our neighbors do with weeds or chemicals.

Thinning Might Hurt You, But it Helps Your Crops

Your garden is prepped and you plant a row of carrot seeds or several cucumber seeds, just to be safe.You’re thrilled when you get a nearly 100 percent germination rate. Wow, you must be good! Or in my case, lucky. As I beam with pride, I know that the next step is to thin the seedlings. But sometimes, I fail to heed my own advice or that of horticulturalists. This year, I am trying to do a better job of thinning some of my vegetables. Baby steps…

romaine lettuce thinned
This head lettuce is lined up nicely, but it’s still a little closer together than recommended. Of course, I can cut and enjoy it anytime — before the plants get too close.

First, let’s look at the reasons why thinning helps your crops and yield, and even improves the health of flowers you start as seeds in your garden:

  • A plant can only provide so much energy to the leaves, stems and fruit. If your aim is to get as many health, juicy tomatoes as possible, then most expert gardeners recommend pruning suckers from indeterminate, or vining, tomatoes. We often trim a few lower branches too, especially if they’re touching the ground.
  • The same goes for some fruit trees, though I’ve seen some advice that says not to bother too much with thinning unless it’s obvious that a small branch can’t handle the number of budding apples or pears. And clearly, a home gardener is probably safer letting nature and birds take care of thinning out fruit from upper branches! We chose not to thin our cherry tree and it handled the fruit just fine. The birds helped out more than I would have liked, but there were several bunches of six or more cherries on one spur and most of the tree’s fruit ripened fine.
sour cherries on tree
These cherries were nearly ready to pick and growing fine in a large bunch.
  • With vegetables planted in groups or rows, such as carrots or lettuce, thinning is more to avoid overcrowding. The plants’ roots need space to grow underground – especially true of root vegetables. If crowded, the roots might not support full, healthy growth. And above ground, the leaves need air circulation and sun. Crowded plants hide bugs and hold water on their leaves. It’s like being squashed up in bleachers at a baseball game. Aren’t you more comfortable sitting out on the grass (or in one of those chairs with a cupholder), with the wind blowing through your hair?
carrots in container
I had to do a second thinning on the carrots in this container. They are way too crowded.
Thinning carrots in container
OK, still closer than the recommended two inches in a few spots, but closer. I’ll add a few of the tiny ones pulled up to my next salad.
  • I’ll add another reason to thin that I can more easily relate to. If I feel like pulling up seedlings that made it is wasteful, I have to look at continually watering seedlings I eventually have to thin out – or even worse, plants that grow to nearly mature height and then need pulling up because of a disease or just provide a low yield – as wasting water. It’s not right to let that plant continue soaking up water that could be put to better use.
green bean seedlings
These green bean seedlings are just about right. They can be four to six inches apart, since most of the growth — and the beans — vine up above the plant.

So, what can you do with seedlings so that you don’t feel like you’re wasting a viable plant, small as it may be? The little survivor, that broke through the soil and bore leaves? If the flower or vegetable is one that transplants well, you can move it to another spot, or try it in a container. Lettuce seedlings and carrot seedlings from a second thinning are often large enough to eat, even if they’re mostly garnish on your salad.

Of course, you can also compost the plants you thin and leaves or suckers you prune. When thinning, take care not to pull up the root of an adjacent plant. It helps to thin when the soil is damp and to avoid procrastinating until plants are large and closer together.