Plant Problems: Don’t Blame Yourself

I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.

papaver-poppy bloom pink
Beautiful poppy from wildflower mix. I have posted lots of photos of these on Instagram. But I didn’t mention it took more than five tries to get this wildflower mix to finally take!

First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.

pouring rain in new mexico garden
When it finally rained, it poured, flooding our garden paths. Note the lack of blooms on the rose bushes in front left of this photo.

Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.

This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.

hybrid and wild roses in xeric garden
Here are the same roses in early September of the same year. Rain does what our watering can’t, and these are loaded with blooms at the time they usually begin to fade.

Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.

basil leaf with brown spots
We depend on basil leaves to be pretty and look edible. This one had some sort of sucking pest on it. I have to cover all my basil all year long.

Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.

red and green foliage on Chinese pistachio tree
A beautiful Chinese pistache in full fall color. It’s supposed to be deer proof. Maybe the leaves, but…

Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.

chines pistache tree after deer damage
Here is the same tree as above. Unfortunately, we added the fence after the deer damage. They killed the trunk by rubbing their antlers on it, and only suckers grow below the damage.

A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.

Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.

violet start and violet flowers pink
An overhead view of a new African violet transpant (Frosted Denim) with wick watering. When my Rhapsodie Nancy’s blooms fade, I will repot it to have a wick as well.

Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.

chewed up lettuce starts
With all else equal in this raised bed, I can only guess the squirrels liked one type of lettuce better than others.

Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.

Save Water and Time in the Garden With These Inexpensive Tools

cloudy-sky-dry-grass
The clouds have come, but the moisture hasn’t. Even the monsoons are late this year.

We are on the verge of ending the longest period without rain in years. And we’ve been spending a lot of time watering, so the rain can’t come soon enough for us, our grass, or our well. I’ve also been busy testing several watering-related products for Gardening Products Review  and that made me think about how to save time when watering.

All of this testing and watering more plants more often has made me reflect on how to make watering more efficient for us, the planet and other homeowners. Here’s part 1 of my list of favorite watering tools, starting with the least expensive, the kinds of tools available at home improvement stores.

quick connector between hose and soaker
A quick connector helps to easily change between watering tools. This one is between a hose from our faucet and a soaker hose.

Quick connectors. We use lots of quick connectors for switching between soaker hoses, sprayers, sprinklers or other watering tools. By screwing a male end into all your watering tools, you can quickly change out and connect several watering tools to the female end of your hose. So, for example, you can quickly switch from spraying off the patio to soaking a garden bed. And once you screw in the connectors, you don’t have to keep screwing on hoses, etc., which never seem to thread right when you’re in a hurry!

metal hose splitter
You can put a splitter directly on the faucet or even between hoses. Both connections have controllers so you can use one and close the other.

Splitters. Look for splitters, or manifolds that split one faucet into two or more outlets, depending on your needs. Solid metal splitters hold up better than plastic ones, but most have hard plastic controls so you can turn water on or off to your drip system or garden hose. This way, you can have one open faucet at all times for filling pails or rinsing a tool and still have a garden hose connected to water your new shrub. We have one on the ground about halfway from our orchard faucet to the other end, then split two hoses off of it to water our fruit trees.

soaker-hose-turtle-garden-art
Soaker hoses work slowly, like a turtle.

Soaker hose. If used correctly, soaker hoses are stars of the inexpensive watering tool department. You can get them for less than $20 at most home improvement stores. The solid rubber hoses have multiple tiny holes so water drips out of all sides. Just be sure to keep pressure low, or you’ll waste water sending fine sprays up in the air.

soaker hose gladiola bed
Here’s a soaker hose wrapped around some plants that require more water than nature usually delivers.

Regulators. My final favorite, inexpensive watering tool is an in-hose “regulator” or shut-off valve. This might not be a necessity for people with smaller gardens or yards, but we have faucets located hundreds of feet from where we garden. I like the exercise, but I don’t like wasting water while I go all the way back to the source to lower the pressure (5 times until I get it right). With these awesome little tools, you can lower the pressure on a dripper or sprinkler near where it’s running. We place ours between the last hose and the one before it.

Even if distance is not a big issue, these come in handy between your hose and soaker hose, which can spew water like a sprinkler if the pressure is too high. And pressure can vary so much. Alternatively, invest in a water wand or similar attachment that has a flow control switch on the handle to drip water when it’s turned down.

dramm-water-wand-green
A water wand like this one from Dramm is a must-have for when you need to hand-water garden areas.

Free tip: Regularly check hoses and drippers for leaks. Hoses are expensive, and they tend to dry out in our desert sun. They also get ruined from being left outside in winter, when water can freeze in the hose, expanding it. So, the first tip is to drain and roll up hoses in winter if you don’t use them and temperatures dip below freezing. And a good hose repair kit is perfect for handy people to fix leaks instead of replacing entire hoses when that’s the best option.

PVC sprinkler connection with quick connector
My husband made a mini-sprinkler for watering new grass seed out of a neighbor’s unwanted PVC pipe and a few sprinkler heads. Notice the male quick connector on the end.

 

Are You Overwatering?

rain barrel xeric plants
Many xeric plants need little or no water once established.

One of your houseplants or outdoor plants looks funky and you think something might be wrong with it. Your automatic response? Add water. Sometimes, that’s the best solution, and sometimes it’s just a waste of water, and maybe of your plant.

Wilt is a classic example of the dilemma gardeners face; wilting can be caused by both underwatering and overwatering. What’s more, factors other than water can cause leaves to wilt, even though the roots have plenty of moisture.

Here’s the thing: If too much water surrounds your roots, or they never have a chance to dry a little, the roots don’t get enough oxygen, which also is crucial for plant health. Further, some plants are susceptible to root rot. Let’s look at a few reasons to add water to help a plant, along with a few tips on when not to water.

irrigation-drip-seedling-grden
Young seedlings need consistent water, and nothing beats a drip system!

How to Avoid Overwatering

Regularly check and maintain all sprinkler, bubbler and drip systems. Redirect flow amount or direction for any that appear to be getting too much water, and repair leaks.

drip tape with water drip
The drips seep into the ground slowly, lasting longer and requiring less attention.

The problem might not be how much water, but how you water. Many plants take poorly to regular watering of their foliage. Water that sprays evaporates faster (which is more wasteful) or can sit on foliage too long, leading to diseases. Spray irrigation also waters too much ground around a plant, helping weeds more than your shrub. On a sunny day, most of the water evaporates, but if you water late in the afternoon, on a cool, cloudy day or onto a thick or crowded plant, the water sits overnight on leaves. The best times to water overhead are to wash off dust that builds up on leaves (affecting photosynthesis) or to wash off aphids. But reserve these actions for sunny mornings whenever possible.

ground-moisture sensor-geranium
Inexpensive water meters might not be totally accurate, but they can give you a sense of the moisture around a plant several inches down.

The soil is your best test for whether a plant needs water, not the plant. Check the soil around a houseplant or outdoor plant to see if it still is damp one to two inches below the surface. You can use your finger, a small trowel to gently push soil aside so you can see or feel it, or small tools like chopsticks of pencils pushed in and then removed to see if soil or moisture have stuck to the wood. There also are commercial soil monitoring tools available.

straw-around-seedling-dripper
Mulch helps retain water by lessening loss to evaporation. You can feel an inch or so down to check moisture with your fingertip.

Mind the season. When plants go dormant in winter, they need much less water. You should adjust your schedule accordingly and try to avoid watering too soon in spring or too late in fall.

Have a way to stop automatic watering when it rains. Weather sensors are available for irrigation and rain-harvesting systems, and others have smartphone software. This helps you pause a watering schedule from work on a rainy day, for example. Although these systems are designed mostly to conserve water, they also prevent oversoaking plants. You can even get solar-powered sensors for watering with rain barrels. I reviewed one last year.

rain-barrel-solar-control
Last year, I tested this solar-powered rain barrel water system (to the right of the mutt) that only watered when sunny.

Water slowly, which is another drip irrigation advantage. The more slowly the water falls to the ground, the more gradually it penetrates. This is especially important for containers; fast, hard flows of water can wash potting soil nutrients right out the container’s drain.

When to Water

succulent in container
Few things can destroy succulents, but overwatering can. Always water slowly for any container plant.

Always water new plants, seeds or transplants more often in the first year or so. Even though they are labeled xeric or low-water use, the roots need help growing in their new environment and the plant is more vulnerable.

On hot, sunny days. If you haven’t watered in a while and it’s peak summer heat, give plants with mostly dry soil, especially those most vulnerable to heat, a drink in the morning to help them get through the day.

cracked cherry tomatoes
Too much water or time on the vine can split tomatoes.

Consistently for vegetables and edibles. It helps a tomato to nearly dry out some between waterings, but not to completely dry. Watering the same amount each time keeps the plant growing at a healthier rate and prevents fruit problems such as splitting.

Fall Gardening Project: Dry River Bed

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1: Move plants

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

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

Step 2: Design hills and valleys; test

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

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

Step 3: Add rocks

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

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

Step 4: Plant!

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

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

Lessons learned:

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

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

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

 

Reviewing Garden Watering Systems

No matter where the current drought monitor stands, New Mexicans and other Southwest gardeners know that water is precious. Luckily, plenty of native plants have adapted to the dry conditions of desert and intermountain regions of the Southwest.

 

xeric garden color
Native plants and volunteer annuals add color to a xeric garden.

Still, gardening responsibly anywhere demands attention to water use and waste. And people who want to grow food in their yards or on their patios can save water and money with sensible, waterwise strategies.

The good news is that the home and garden market keeps pumping out new tools to help gardeners conserve water but enjoy their landscapes. I’ve recently reviewed two products for Gardening Products Review. One of the products combines solar technology with rain or faucet water to support slow drip systems in areas of the garden.

rain barrel watering system
Combining a solar-powered pump with a rain barrel is a brilliant idea.

The other product from a small startup company helps you water deeply near the roots of plants using a simple garden hose.  Up next: I’m testing a cloud-based system to control watering from your faucet.

watering system with hose
Adding some color from annuals, especially these snapdragons we grew from seed, is more water efficient and cost effective with drip watering. Adding some mulch would help retain the water and hide the hose.

Check out these watering product reviews, along with lots of other reviews from fellow garden writers at Gardening Products Review’s website. And plan now for next spring’s waterwise plantings.

5 Ways Organic Growing Methods Save Water

Growing with organic methods is smart for lots of reasons, both personal and environmental. Although there are plenty of strategies gardeners and homeowners can use to save water with ornamentals, such as planting native and xeric plants, it’s a little tougher with vegetable gardening.

Tomatoes and water
These yellow cherry tomatoes soaked up a summer rain from their container filled with organic soil and compost.

Tomatoes, for example, need consistent watering! But growing tomatoes organically can conserve water. Here are five ways how:

  1. Organic soil retains water better. Anyone can improve their soil’s water retention by up to 5 percent by adding organic matter. It also helps to avoid use of chemicals and pesticides. Using pesticides and chemical fertilizers in gardens can throw off the natural balance of the soil, making it less able to retain moisture around plant roots and making fewer nutrients available for plants. On the contrary, planting cover crops in the fall and use of compost or other organic matter help restore valuable soil nutrients. Organic matter also helps soil structure for water infiltration and retention. Healthy soil can respond better to drought conditions.

    soil organic
    Before: compacted, poor soil in a newly designated garden area.
  2. Organic growing protects water supplies. By avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers, gardeners also protect the water supply. Pesticide chemicals can remain in the soil for years; some are more toxic than others and break down in the soil more slowly. The chemicals from these products can run off into bodies of water, such as rivers. And eventually, they can seep into groundwater. That might seem a distant concern to some urban gardeners, but those of us using wells live right above available water. The more chemicals that run into water supplies, the less safe drinking water is available.

    organic matter on garden bed
    AFTER: Organic matter added to the vegetable garden raised row.
  3. Use of mulch reduces evaporation. A layer of appropriate mulch above the ground around a plant helps reduce ground-to-air evaporation, making the soil take longer to dry out. The mulch also helps cools plant roots. Using organic mulches such as bark, nut shells, compost and others adds organic matter to the soil slowly over time for an added bonus.

    mulching organic pecan
    Rock mulch helps lavender stay hot and dry, and on the lower left, pecan bark mulch surrounds a plant that needs more water.
  4. Organic methods can minimize erosion. Traditional gardening and farming uses rototilling and deep plowing to turn the soil before each growing season. Plowing deeply and turning the soil over can disrupt soil microorganisms, harm soil health, and place looser soils on top, where they’re subject to erosion from water and wind (think Dust Bowl). No-till methods help control erosion and build soil structure. The soils, in turn, better retain water. This can be a problem if the soil drains poorly, but a definite help in low-water regions. Not tilling involves building up beds with organic matter, much like nature does as plants drop leaves that decompose. If you want to work organic matter in, it’s best to grab a shovel. A broadfork is the best tool for breaking up compacted soil.

    watermelon organic
    Healthy babydoll watermelon plant in organic soil.
  5. Growing organically creates healthier plants. Healthy soil is the foundation needed to grow healthy food. When soil has good nutrients and structure, it supports root growth and uptake of nutrients, improving plant health.  Plants that are not healthy are more vulnerable to insect and disease damage. The plant might not use water as it should when it’s stressed, and the gardener certainly guesses that if a plant looks bad, it needs water. So, keeping plants healthy saves the extra water the plant needs or gardener applies in times of stress. And healthy plants keep on going, so you don’t waste water on establishing a plant that later dies from poor conditions.

Earth Day 2016: Five Green Gardening Tips

It’s Earth Day 2016! It’s hard to believe this movement started in 1970. Earth Day says “let’s get big stuff done for the planet.” I love that idea! But it’s also overwhelming. I mean, I have enough trouble taking care of myself while juggling work, family, and getting anything done to care for our four acres. But the only way to take big steps for the planet is if everyone takes a few small steps. Here are five tips for greener gardening today and all year long.

panorama of New Mexico xeric garden
If only I had a 360 camera. Mountains, sky, low-water plants, and passive solar living.

Have an empty spot to fill? Use what you have.

Sometimes a plant dies even with our best efforts, leaving an empty spot. Or maybe you’ve been studying an area of your yard all winter knowing it just needs something. Instead of buying a new plant, divide or move an existing one. Plenty of plants that spread divide and transplant easily. For example, Russian sage sends up runners that you can sometimes transplant. Our purple salvia created about five offshoots over winter, one below the garden in the grass. Tim dug up several and potted them; we even gave one to a friend. We also moved several plants. This is a great money saver (and sometimes plant saver) when areas of the garden become overgrown or one plant no longer gets the sun it should. We moved one of the three Apache plumes in our xeric garden to an area that helps screen off a little bit of our vegetable garden. Close enough to attract bees.

New Mexico rain barrel, reuse plant
Just behind the rain barrel (hint, hint) is a blue mist spirea. It did well there until we diverted some water when extending the patio (and added the barrel, which can overflow). It got too much water! So we split it up and moved it.
yarrow before moving
Yarrow is an herb, easy drought-tolerant plant and pollinator magnet.

Help beneficial insects.

Our lawn and garden attracts bees from late winter until the insects cluster tucked away in winter. The garden also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Moving the Apache plume, along with an offshoot yarrow and two divisions from our blue mist spirea, we just added a new hangout, inviting them to gather closer to our tomatoes and cucumbers!  We’ll add milkweed this year for the monarchs, and I can’t wait to see how that goes. We’re growing ladybugs, unintentionally. And I’m counting on them to keep aphids off the milkweed.

bee on blanketfower bloom
Annual Gaillardia plants reseed all over the garden. Bees and butterflies love them.

Avoid chemicals whenever possible.

Speaking of ladybugs and bees: insecticides kill these helpful insects along with the bad. There also is no need for chemical-laden herbicides in most cases. And I’m saying that knowing full well that half of our orchard is almost entirely covered by horehound. This member of the mint family does best in drought. I know that because if we try to hoe it up, we usually hit rock. I can’t win against a plant that grows from rocks and prefers dry conditions, especially around here. My Earth Day gift: Anyone who wants to make candy or cough syrup can come here and harvest all the horehound they want! As for care of vegetables and other plants you actually want in your landscape, paying attention to their sun exposure and watering needs helps prevent future problems. Enriching soil with compost is a slow, natural way to add nutrients. Compost tea is a gentle fertilizer.

horehound spreading
We mow and hoe, but the horehound thrives in dry conditions.

Grow food for your family or wildlife.

Growing food in the garden saves water. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. I can control (within the limits of nature and horehound) the health of my edibles. And keeping them healthy can save water. Sure, they are not native to our area and require more water in the heat of summer than we could ever responsibly pour to an ornamental plant. But every tomato in the grocery store was watered, probably a with a lot more than I use. Even though water availability is regional, it also can vary. And it’s a shared, finite resource. A shrub with berries feeds birds. Fruit trees are a great example of planting a tree for shade or spring blooms with the added benefit of food. Those who don’t like the mess can choose dwarf fruit trees appropriate for their area. And no matter what anyone says, I think green bean, melon and cucumber plants are as pretty as most flowers!

cucumber blossom
Fully open cucumber blossom. I think it’s an attractive plant, too.
old pear tree trunk
This old pear tree is a stunner when it blooms. The trunk looks like it could talk.

Water responsibly, no matter where you live.

Back to water, because that is always a concern on our place and in most of the Southwest. As I said, it’s a shared and finite resource. If I use too much from our well (or from city supply), I affect the water table, the saturated, upper part of groundwater where rain has soaked through soil. Groundwater provides nearly 40 percent of water for cities and counties, and drinking water for most rural people. It’s everybody’s job to do their part in the home and garden, no matter where they live. Use of drip irrigation, watching and caring for plants sustainably, watering early in the day and using automatic timers to control sprinklers or smartphone timers to remember to turn off the hose are small but important steps every gardener can take.

snorkeling in clear water
And this is why Earth Day matters most. For my daughter, her fiance and all future generations. Photo by Dave Higgins.

Happy Earth Day!

Calculate How Much Rainwater You Can Collect

Harvesting rainwater makes perfect sense, and we learned more about the process at a terrific workshop we attended at the NM Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque last week. From neighboring Texas, Billy Kniffen is the water resource specialist for Texas A&M University.

Kniffen explained that catching and using rainwater is not a new concept; early settlers in the West captured water. Interest is increasing today, at least among homeowners and gardeners who live in states that allow rain harvesting. We’ve used one or more rain barrels to capture roof water for years, and hope to someday acquire a large cistern. As Kniffen said, “the first rain barrel is the ‘gateway drug’ to rainwater harvesting.”

rain barrel shed
This was actually our third rain barrel, located near our vegetable garden. I couldn’t stand to watch the water pour off that shed roof without catching at least some of it.

Getting Started Is Easy

I believe more people would harvest rainwater if they realized it’s not as complex a process as it seems. For simple gardening use, a few rain barrels or a cistern with pressure can irrigate ornamental plants. If you want to water edible plants, you have to take a few more steps; it’s recommended that you add features such as first flush equipment (which directs the first flush from your gutters away from the barrel to prevent nasty debri from entering the container) and filters. A prefilter also keeps leaves and debris out; you just have to clean it from time to time. You also can disinfect your rain water with chlorine or ultraviolet light.

filter lid on rain barrel
Inexpensive, smaller barrels have crude filters to stop debris. A larger system needs a more sophisticated filter.

Calculating Collection

A house that has a roof of 1,000 square feet can yield 600 gallons of water from just one inch of rainfall. For me, watching the small barrels fill and then overflow feels like a waste. In our case, water that runs from the house eventually refills our water table – and therefore our well. But in urban areas, water runoff fills streets and gutters, and often is wasted. Texas A&M Extension has made it easier to calculate the amount of rain you can collect from your home or shed roof.

rain collection system model
Here’s the demo system Kniffen brought to our workshop. It’s simpler than it looks!

Here’s a simple calculator for catchment area courtesy of the college. There’s also a link here to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (under Resources) with the formulas already included. HarvestingRainWater.com also has a simple calculator. Texas residents, or those who can easily compare their annual rainfall to one of the included Texas towns, can input the information and receive monthly flow rates and required cistern sizes to catch as much rain as possible. Finally, the school also publishes a manual all about rainwater harvesting.

gutter on shed
We had to add a gutter to the shed roof to collect the water. It was simple and worth it.

Kniffen and his wife run their home solely off collected rainwater from their home and a shed. I don’t believe we have the money to collect all water and make it potable, but it’s always on the wish list. Any attempts to save and use rainwater can help preserve water for future years. I hope these tools make it a little easier for anyone considering rain harvesting to get started.

Taking a Measured Approach to Biointensive Growing

As we plan expansion of our vegetable garden/tiny farm, we’re hoping to grow healthy food by continuing to use organic methods and some principles of biointensive (biologically intensive) planting. The idea of biointensive farming is far from new, but more small and large farmers are applying biointensive principles, which complement organic methods – and for us – water savings.

vegetable garden at dusk
It’s important to grow food sustainably for best results and to avoid ruining the environment.

In biointensive horticulture, rich, healthy soil maximizes a farmer’s yield in minimal space; it also strives to continuously preserve, or even improve, the soil’s health. And that should be the goal of any vegetable gardener. Biointensive farmers loosen soil more deeply by using tools such as broadforks instead of tilling and turning the soil over. Compost is king, building and enriching the soil.

building garden bed
Building a bed in fall by adding compost and recycling healthy plant matter.

So far, so good. We already take those steps. A few more principles of biointensive gardening follow. I want to share our measured approach largely to help gardeners who have less time or experience. Any method with the word “intensive” in the name is going to freak some folks out. But nothing says that gardeners have to follow every tenet of biointensive gardening to the letter. To me, adopting any of the ideas should improve plant health and production, especially if you’ve never gardened organically. There’s no way I can adequately tackle this topic; entire books address it. And I don’t claim to be an expert, but we’re adding to our knowledge base with research, along with trial and error!

Healthy soil for healthy plants

As I said, composting and double digging of beds better prepares soil. If you can produce your own compost on site, even better. That leaves plenty of healthy organic matter on hand and saves money. Another principle is avoiding chemicals in the garden. If soil and plants are healthy, they should need less help and better resist pests and diseases. We spray aphids off with blasts of water, handpick critters like cucumber beetles and use insecticidal soap or diatomaceous earth only when nothing else works.

compost bin
We keep one compost bin right by the garden, another closer to the house, and Tim is starting vermicomposting this spring. You can tell by looking at the yard around the garden how dry the ground was in September 2015.

More yield in less space

Maximizing growing space is another premise of biointensive gardening. One reason is weed prevention and cooling of soil, or “living mulch” from mature plants. The other is efficiency and production, especially for urban gardeners with limited space. We certainly want to grow as much as we can in the space we have. But in biointensive gardening, the design and proximity of plantings is a little too, well, intense for me.

I love the idea of planting lettuces and other low greens close enough to help shade the soil and block weeds. But I’ve seen what happens when people plant tomatoes too close together. Not only do some plants shade others from valuable sun, but they don’t get enough air circulation. Plants also compete for nutrients and water. And why build an above-ground highway to make it even easier for a hornworm to travel from one plant to another? Finally, I want to be able to reach plants for easy maintenance and harvesting. We’ll experiment on the lettuce and maybe another crop or bed to see how close spacing compares.

vegetable garden spacing
Plants need some space, and spacing changes as plants mature. We learned a lot our first year of laying out this space.

Interplanting and companion planting

We’ve read Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener,” and plan to employ many of his methods for building rows. We’ve built up the soil and added compost, and measured the rows so they’re 30 inches wide, with a small walkway between each. That’s just enough room to maximize growing area and minimize plant problems or gardener aches, pains and frustration. We’ve got containers to extend our growing space. I believe we’ll also try a little more interplanting, just to help maximize space or use the shade from a tall or trellised plant to cool another. Many urban gardeners use square-foot gardening to achieve intensive planting.

mature vegetable garden
It’s hard to tell where the tomato ends and the melon begins.

We won’t, however, use interplanting as companion planting. I know there is historical basis for placing particular plants next to one another to improve each plant’s health or yield, but I’m less certain about scientific basis for the practice. Aside from use of cover crops to enrich the soil at the end of the season, I’m not sold on companion planting. Of course, I might have a jaded opinion because I’m so tired of seeing it, along with many garden myths, pushed on Pinterest. We’ll continue to build and improve the soil in our beds and rotate crops.

walk to vegetable garden
The garden is behind this abandoned irrigation ditch. We’ll plant some milkweed and a few transplants to the south side of the bank to attract more pollinators. For now, that’s as close a I’ll come to companion planting.

Whole-minded and open pollination

The biointensive principle of using open-pollinated seeds instead of GMO varieties ensures biodiversity of crops. The reason is that heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants can be saved for use the next year. Saved hybrid seeds are not reliable. Our focus this year has been on organic seeds, and I don’t believe we would try to save seeds for vegetables regardless. We have saved or redistributed seeds from wildflowers.

cosmos and other annuals
Pollinators flock to many annuals and perennials, and these wildflowers spread naturally. The more pollinators we can attract, the more we help all of our gardens.

As with permaculture, biointensive gardening focuses on the whole and how different parts of the garden, or ways of gardening, affect each other. For example, if I don’t apply chemicals to my vegetables, but use pesticides on ornamentals on my property, I still affect the tiny ecosystem. The pesticides can kill bees that might otherwise fly over to the vegetable garden and pollinate a cucumber.

fresh vegetables farm to table
Here’s a healthy yield of fresh vegetables for our kitchen!

Learn more about biointensive gardening from Fortier’s book and from this Mother Earth News article, including a great explanation of square foot gardening. And don’t stress over doing everything suggested or doing it perfectly. The first goal is to grow healthy plants and food for your family.

 

Growing Edibles: Keep it Simple for Success

As you plan for 2016 gardening and home budgets, you might be considering growing edibles on your patio, in your backyard or as part of a community garden. If you feel daunted by the prospect of first-time-gardening or expansion, keep it simple.

Locally grown food typically is better for you and more sustainable, whether you get the food from your own garden or a local community-supported agriculture (CSA) or Farmers’ Market. You can turn your kids on to healthier food choices when they become involved in growing and harvesting the food.

kitchen garden food
There’s nothing fresher than food from your own yard or a local grower. We harvested all of this in one morning.

Grocery store produce travels an average of 1,300 miles from farm to store shelf. I don’t see how it could possible be fresher, more nutritious or more sustainable than produce that travels 10 yards from your garden to your kitchen. It’s easy to grow your own food; here are five ways to keep your edible garden simple, fun and effective.

Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.
Our green beans have much more flavor and snap than grocery store beans.

Be selective. If you’re a seasoned gardener or a foodie, it’s tempting to grow nearly every herb or vegetable that you typically buy. But unless you’re expanding last year’s garden or have lots of help and land, grow a few selected plants, at least the first year. The best way to decide which food to grow? Start with favorites for your family; you can even let every family member choose one vegetable he or she loves the most. That helps ease waste and makes it more fun. Other considerations are climate and growing season, and what’s available (or in our case, unavailable), fresh and affordable at local stores. Leave it to local farmers to supplement your stash by learning what’s typically available at stands and Farmers’ Markets.

You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.
You can grow one or two tomato plants in large containers on your patio. This pot includes some marigold and basil. It provided excellent cocktail tomatoes.

Start seeds or buy plants. Starting seeds is less expensive, or at least the seeds themselves cost less than plants. But if this is your first foray into a kitchen garden, be sure to consider the costs of raising healthy seedlings. You’ll need containers, potting material, and possibly heat mats and grow lights. Of course, you can start some plants directly in the ground or container once it warms up, so practice on one that’s easy to grow or fits well into your growing season length. Maybe it’s easier to buy starter plants (and support local nurseries) instead of growing indoor seedlings. Expand into seed starting next year once you learn and have success.

grow lights on seedlings
Seeds need warmth and light to grow. You can repurpose or recycle containers, but you’ll likely need grow lights and heat mats. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Check production to avoid waste. Although yields from plants can vary according to variety, zone and how the weather cooperates each year, you can estimate how many tomatoes you’ll likely harvest, for instance. Cautious people like me tend to overplant, worrying that one of the seedlings won’t make it and I’ll have too few of a selection. Be realistic and thin seedlings to control the yield. Seed catalogs are excellent sources of average yield, and this checklist from Bonnie Plants is a terrific start. And a caution: zucchini is easy to grow, and 7 to 10 pounds doesn’t sound like a lot of zucchini. But it is.

Were trying yellow summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com
Were trying summer squash this year instead of zucchini. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer.com

Keep sustainability in mind. Choosing the food you and your family like the best and keeping quantity down avoids waste of water, time and other resources. By growing only what you need, you supplement what’s commercially available and waste little. Using organic practices and spending as much time with your plants as possible can keep the plants healthy. This means preparing containers and gardens with plenty of organic matter and watering regularly and deeply. Healthy plants are less susceptible to disease and insects. But if a plant has problems, don’t blame yourself or throw in the towel. You only have so much control as a gardener. Get help from a friend, local master gardeners or extension agents.

Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success with growing them in this trough.
Carrots need organic matter to help provide nutrition and drainage. We had great success growing them in this trough.

Share your bounty. Once you begin to harvest, if you have too much of any food, try not to waste it. Each discarded zucchini tosses up to gallons of water used to grow the plant, as well as your time and effort. One choice is to preserve extra produce if you have time and materials to do so. The only way kitchen gardening and local farming can remain sustainable is if gardeners can avoid waste. Have a plan in place to share with an eager friend or neighbor or donate extra produce to a local food pantry. Then adjust your plan for next year if you had excessive yields.

When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!
When life gives you cucumbers, make pickles!

Finally, start small if you’ve never gardened. Choose one herb and vegetable that you can grow in a container or in an empty spot in your landscape. And spend some time volunteering at a coop farm or with a friend who has more experience so you can learn more about growing your own food.

Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!
Grape tomatoes grow among cosmos, or the other way around. And notice the bee!

Most of all, have fun and enjoy the experience. There are no perfect gardeners or perfect gardens. Everyone learns by trial and error. The joy comes when you bite into the rewards of your efforts!