Lessons Learned in the Veggie Garden

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When the tomatoes looked good

Next week we are leaving for vacation.  For all practical purposes, that means the vegetable garden is over for the year.  We have a house-sitter coming to take care of the animals and the garden but my experience has been that no matter how reliable the house-sitter, no one takes care of the garden like the person who planted it.

That’s ok, really.  The veggies weren’t great this year.  We got a few handfuls of cherry tomatoes, some collards, and a few zucchini.  Actually, the collards grew like weeds but I discovered that I’m not a huge fan and really prefer chard.

The tomatoes looked ratty and just didn’t produce.  The squashes were lush and enormous and just didn’t produce.  The chili’s did ok, but not fabulous.  The Jerusalem Artichokes were just never happy in their place on the south side of the house in full New Mexico sun and the rhubarb couldn’t stand the heat.  The globe artichokes weren’t all that great either.

So, what happened?

  1. It was hot and my vegetable starts weren’t as heat tolerant as they should have been.  I was seduced by heirloom tomato varieties that were developed in places that don’t have temps of 100+ for weeks at a time.  Next year, I’ll be buying seed from Native Seed Search and growing my own starts.  Their plants are desert specialists and can stand up to our dry heat.
  2. Frank’s position at work changed and he started working on weekends and putting in longer hours in the evenings.  Therefore, rainwater project is taking a lot longer than we anticipated.  Rainwater harvesting is a big part of our vegetable gardening plan.  As it was, our water bill tripled this summer and it still seemed like the veggies still weren’t getting enough to drink.  By next spring, we should have our water systems finished.
  3. Which leads to our big change for next year:  wicking garden beds.  These are raised beds that have a water reservoir which irrigates the plants by capillary action.  Check out this youtube video by RobBob.
  4. I discovered the wonders of shade cloth, but far too late.  Everything got scorched in June and it was just ridiculously hot.  When I threw up a makeshift shade structure, the temperature underneath dropped by 10 degrees and you could almost hear the tomatoes give a sigh of relief.  Unfortunately, “makeshift” is another term for “flimsy” and it didn’t last terribly long.  This is where having an engineer in the household is a great thing.  Frank has developed a plan for next year’s shade structure that won’t fall down when it get’s windy.
  5. And my soil.  I need to make some serious changes for next years vegetable garden soil.  It probably had too much manure and therefore ammonia.  This caused a calcium deficiency which probably caused some blossom end rot and other problems.  Next year’s soil will be a little less harsh.  I’ll add some layers of straw and leaves to increase the carbon and other minerals.  Hopefully, that will balance it out.

It would be really easy to look at this years vegetable garden and say, like many people do, that it’s impossible to grow food in Albuquerque and throw in the trowel.  But gardening is like any other set of skills, you don’t quit because you have a few setbacks.  Growing here does take some extra thinking and the learning curve is steep but if you pay attention to what’s happening and change accordingly, the results will show.

Planting a New Peach Tree

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You know how you go to the garden center totally not to buy plants but somehow one gets into your cart anyway? Crazy, right?  That very thing happened to me last week.  There I was, minding my own business when I noticed a Desert Gold semi-dwarf peach tree at 50% off the original price.    What was I supposed to do?  Just leave it there?  Into the trunk of the Prius it went.

The Desert Gold is a great choice for the high desert.  It’s drought tolerant, doesn’t mind a hard freeze and tolerates our intense sun.  As a semi-dwarf tree, it will only grow to about 8 feet tall.  It won’t overpower the rest of the garden.  Plus… peaches!

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve done a poor job with fruit trees in the past.  I just dug a hole and plopped the poor thing into our might-as-well-be-solid-rock soil, gave it some water and called it done.  It worked out as well as you can imagine.  Death, despair, and sadness.

So, I consulted the oracles.  Not really.  I read the tree planting section of “Down to Earth”, written by a local master gardener and followed their instructions.

First, dig the hole.  Frank isn’t kidding around when he digs a hole.  Technically, it should be 1 1/2 times the size of the root ball but since we’re going to do companion planting, our hole is pretty big.

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Not exactly 1.5 times the size of the root ball.

Then, gently remove the tree from its container and break up the root ball.  This is important because it will give the roots more space for growth.

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Fill the hole with the soil that you removed.  Be sure to avoid covering the root collar.  This is the bit of trunk just above the root.  You should be able to see the place where the trunk becomes the root.

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It’s not advised to amend the soil.  The roots are going to grow past the amendment and will have to contend with the soil it’s got.  Don’t baby it now and it will thank you later.  However, do add 2-4 inches of mulch around the tree to keep the moisture in. Firm up the soil around the root ball and give it a nice, deep water.

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All settled in.

Fingers crossed this will give our little tree a good start.  We planted Cardinal and Rocky Mountain Penstamens as well as some Silver Lupins.  If I have some time this week, I’ll transplant our asparagus to this bed as well.

 

 

 

How to Keep Mosquitos Out of Your Birdbath

mosquito-871913_1280In 2016, there were 16 cases of Zika Virus infection reported to the New Mexico Department of Public Health.  Fortunately, we haven’t had Zika or West Nile Virus so far in 2017 but we should still be cautious about mosquito borne infections.  Mosquitos also carry heartworm, which can infect our dogs and cats.

So how do we strike a balance between providing water for the birds and other non-human residents of the garden keeping these nasty, disease carriers away?  It’s not terribly difficult, really.

Mosquitos need still water to lay their eggs.  After 5 days, the larvae hatch and take another 5 days to pupate.  Two days after that they get their wings and begin annoying us and spreading disease.  This, of course, is the cliff notes version of the mosquito life cycle but you get the picture.  Here’s what you do:

1) Empty your bird bath into your garden beds every 2-3 days and wipe down the inside walls.  This disrupts the hatching and development process.  No soap or other chemicals needed.

2.  Add a solar powered bubbler or fountain to your birdbath.  Not only will the mosquitos avoid the moving water but more birds will be attracted to your garden by the splashing.  Check out this one on the Breck’s  bulbs website.

3.  Encourage biodiversity in your garden.  Damselflies, dragon flies, bats, and many species of song birds eat mosquitos.  If you put out the welcome mat with food, water, and shelter, your bug problems will be – not exactly solved – but won’t be nearly as aggravating.

Keeping the Ants Out of the Hummingbird Feeder

We have a little community of Black Chinned and Rufus Hummingbirds in our backyard.  After work, Frank and I like to sit under the shade of the elm trees and watch them fight over the feeder.  Recently, a large adult male moved into the neighborhood.  He sits on the electric cable above us, guarding the nectar against the other hummers who might try to eat there too.

When we set up the feeder at the beginning of the summer we had a huge ant problem.  Hundreds of ants would climb up the post and over the hanger and down into the feeder, where they would drown in the sugar water.  The birds turned up their beaks and refused to drink there and told their friends that we were not keeping up the sugar bar.  Then they attempted to drink from our red patio umbrella.

Frank tried spraying ant killer on the pole.  Not only did this not work, but it put pesticide on the buffalo grass we have growing there, disrupting whatever might be living down there minding its own business.

So, I checked google who recommended a water trap for ants.  A quick stop at amazon.com and a little red cup on a hook arrived a few days later.  We hung it from the hook and hung the feeder from the loop on the bottom, filled the cup with water and waited.

We were not disappointed.  The ants climbed up and over and down until they reached the water.  The ant super highway screeched to a stop.  The feeder has remained ant-free ever since.  The birds are back to fighting amongst themselves over the feeder and we get hours of entertainment.

There are several versions of ant traps for hummingbird feeders.  Some, like ours, use a cup of water as a deterrent.  There’s one that is just a copper wire but I’m not really sure how it works.  Here’s the affiliate like to the one that we have (I get a small commission from your purchase, thank you).

Hummingbirds are one of my favorite parts of summer.   Post your hummingbird pictures in the comments!

Sunday Garden Round-Up

Check out what other gardeners are doing this week.

For my friends who are agonizing over the right plants for container gardens, check out Pam Penick’s new post in Digging

The AZ Plant Lady is growing bouganvillea in containers.  Bougies in containers work great in high altitude gardens because they can come indoors in the winter.

The Lazy Gardener talks Tarantula Wasps

And Sacred Datura at the Santa Fe Garden blog (though I never irrigate my datura, just sayin.)

What’s Up With My Zucchini?

When I was a kid my father, who was never one for moderation, would plant a 20 foot garden row of zucchini.  While the garden was meant to keep a family of 5 in vegetables for a year, this was over the top.  We ate zucchini in one form or another nearly every day during the summer and two entire freezer shelves were dedicated to squash that had been either sliced or grated.  This does not even to begin to count the zucchini we gave away to – well – anyone who wasn’t quick enough to flee.

This is why, along with the humiliation of other people’s Instagram posts of giant, fecund zucchini, it is so aggravating to me that my plants are failing.

It’s not squash bugs.  So far, I’ve been spared the rape and pillage of my curcubits by the mongols of the insect world by some unknown sorcery.   But there is some other dark magic afoot.

So here’s the situation:  the  leaves are big and lush and I am getting both male and female blossoms and they are setting fruit.  The fruit gets to be about 2 inches long, then turns yellow and falls off.

There are two possible reasons that my squash are rotting:

  1.  It’s been hot and even though I’ve been pretty diligent about watering, the heat stress will definitely cause vegetables to fail.  However, my cherry tomatoes are fine.
  2. Calcium deficiency:  Last fall I bought 2 loads of composted horse manure and sawdust and sort of half-assed a lasagna garden (a layer of manure, layer of cardboard, layer of leaves, repeat) and used that for the growing medium in the vegetable beds. Even though the composted manure sat over the winter, I think it may still have been a little high in ammonia.  Elevated ammonia levels can cause a calcium deficiency.  However, I added some bone meal to the garden beds during the first week in July and nothing changed.

So, I’m not sure what is the problem – heat stress or calcium deficiency.  It would be great to get a few more  zucchini this year, but I’m not holding my breath.  We’re planning on an entirely different set up for next years garden, to include wicking beds (more on that later) and a shade structure that doesn’t fall down the first time  the wind blows.  Maybe as the temps drop through late summer and fall, the plants will be happier.

If any of you have an answer, I’d love to hear it!   Post it in the comments.

 

4 Great Shrubs for the High Desert Garden

I’ve put a few new plants into the Hellstrip this week.  I’d like to say I showed some restraint but that would be lying to all of you.  What can I say?  Plants of the Southwest had a sale and it would have been foolish to let such an opportunity pass me by.

But my purchases weren’t entirely frivolous.  I picked up 4 shrubs that fit well into our plan.  They are either edible or medicinal, require very little water and fill in a part of the wildlife habitat that we are developing.  Our plants are still pretty small compared to what they will be in a few years.

  1. Creosote Bush:  One of the oldest living organisms on the planet is an 11,000-year-old Creosote Bush in the Mojave desert.  It can live for up to 2 years without water but when it does rain, the resins in the leaves give off the fragrance of the desert during monsoon season.  The creosote bush is antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal and its constituents are being studied as a treatment for cancer.  The roots secrete a substance that keeps its own seeds from germinating but it’s an important “nurse plant” for other native species.20626145_469784536724136_6038609878967296277_o
  2. Ephedra viridis:  A beautiful, nearly leafless shrub that is a native to the Southwest, it is traditionally used for bronchitis, as a stimulant tea, and for discomfort due to a bladder infection (BTW: this is not meant to be medical advice).  It loves sandy soil that’s not too rich and prefers to stay on the dry side.  The flowers and cones aren’t flashy but the birds like them.20729132_469784543390802_2621974716829113112_o
  3. Four Winged Salt Bush:  I was a bit ambivalent about adding this to the garden.  It gets messy looking, doesn’t have nice flowers or a lot of obvious advantages other than being extremely drought tolerant.  But it turns out that this rangy looking shrub is incredibly valuable.  The seeds, which are high in niacin, can be boiled up like oatmeal and the leaves can be used to season soups and meats.  The dried leaves are also used by the Zuni people as a soap.20643528_469784540057469_3326413689700785772_o
  4. Fernbush:  Also known as Desert Sweet and loaded down with creamy white flowers in the summer, this shrub is hugely popular with pollinators.  It’s also a great refuge for birds and other small animals.  The leaves can be made into a tea to relieve an upset stomach.20645499_469784510057472_7791826574679091434_o

These are fairly slow growing plants but when mature, will take up quite a lot of real estate, so I’ll have to be conscious of that as I consider what to plant next.  They will eventually give us a lot of privacy from the street traffic while also providing food, medicine, shelter and beauty for us and the other living things in the neighborhood.

Check out the links below for more information on these amazing plants:

The ethonoherbalist talks about creosote bush and Four Winged Salt Bush

New Mexico State University talks about ephedra

The Awkward Botanist talks about fernbush/

What useful plants have you considered putting into your difficult locations?  Let me know in the comments.

5 Reasons To Create a Certified Wildlife Habitat in Your Garden

We live in downtown Albuquerque, not far from the Rio Grande Bosque State Park.  In about 15 minutes I can walk to a beautiful riparian habitat filled with egrets, herons, song birds, porcupines, beavers and muskrats.  While we can’t get the fabulous water birds in our yard, we can create a wildlife habitat at home that brings in songbirds, lizards and other wild things.

I can practically see your eyebrows raising as you read this.  Why on earth would we want to do that?  Doesn’t wildlife = cat eating coyotes and smelly skunks?  How does this benefit a city dweller?  We’ll start with the five most obvious ways

  1. Year Round Beauty:  a backyard wildlife habitat has a wide range color and texture that changes throughout the year.

2.    Low Maintenance:  If you choose native plants or non-natives that are appropriate to your location, you’ll spend less time watering, mowing, and taking care of it in general

3.  Natural Pest Control: A healthy eco-system isn’t over run by bugs bent on ravaging     your veggies.  The whole circle of life is happening right there in the garden without any interference on your part

4.  Free entertainment:  Watching the hummingbirds battle it out over the feeder like tiny fighter jets is way better than any war movie

5. Helps Protect Our Native Birds and Other Wildlife:  Urban development is happening at ever increasing speed, often with little thought of its effects on the non-human world.  We can help to mitigate some of the damage we cause by using native plants and taking care of our winged and wild neighbors.

To create this little urban oasis, you need 4 things:

Food: put out a bird feeder or plant sunflowers.

Cover: anyplace where critters can hide from predators is good.  We have a butterfly bush, and a huge rosemary where sparrows like to hide.

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Butterfly Bush

Water:  a bird bath or a fountain. Bees and lizards will appreciate it too.  You might also be visited by thirsty mammals.

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Our birdbath under the Desert Willow. The rocks are there so that the bees have a place to land and get a drink.

Places to raise young:  trees or shrubs for nesting, bat boxes, bird houses etc.  Often, the cover and food source will also serve as the place to raise babies.

It doesn’t take much by way of effort or resources.  You may already be doing these things in your garden without any special recognition.  If you really love this process and want to tell the world what you are doing, you can register your backyard habitat with the National Wildlife Federation for $25 and they’ll send you a sign to put in your yard.  This donation will help them in their work to protect wildlife and habitat, advocate for the environment and confront climate change and make you look super-green to your neighbors.

Starting Baby Cacti From Cuttings

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Don’t judge my mini-forest too harshly, we’ve just started!

One of my ongoing projects is landscaping our Hellstrip aka parkway aka that strip of dirt between the sidewalk and the street that gets full sun and zero water.  When we bought the house there was nothing in it but dirt and goat-heads, the bane of bike riders and barefoot folks throughout the southwest.  Before we left the country, my husband had weed barrier fabric and crusher fine gravel put down.  There was no real curb appeal but it was easy to maintain.

After doing some reading on urban permaculture, I decided to create a dry climate food forest in that part of the yard.  So I started out with 3 mesquite trees and 3 banana yuccas.  The mesquites have edible seed pods that can be ground up to make a flour and the yuccas will have edible fruit, flowers and roots.

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Banana Yucca (Yucca Baccata) and Opuntia Ficus-Indica (Indian Fig Prickly Pear)

I’ve also added Prickly Pear and Cholla (cho-ya) cacti to my baby “forest”.  The fruits and flowers of both these cacti are edible and the pad of the prickly pear is absolutely delicious and is a staple of both New Mexican and Latin American cuisine.

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This Indian Fig Prickly Pear was transplanted last fall and already has fruit and a new pad.

So far, I’ve got 3 varieties of prickly pear and one variety of Cholla – the pencil joint cholla and have developed a bit of an obsession with the prickly pears.  Just in the southwest, there are 20+ varieties of Opuntias, from bright purple to dark green, spineless to covered in 2 inch-long daggers.  All of them are edible but the most common is the Indian Fig variety, which can be found in dry climates around the world, even in Greece and Morocco.

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Cow’s Tongue Prickly Pear

Although you can pick these plants up at big box stores, native plant stores, and online you can certainly get them for free.  All the cactus in my garden are grown from cuttings ( I found a few of them just laying on the sidewalk) and it’s ridiculously simple to get them started.  You’ll need a pair of leather gloves, your trowel and a cactus pad or stem.  They don’t like nice, rich, loamy soil and if you give them too much to drink they’ll rot and you’ll be sad.

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Don’t forget the gloves! Pencil Joint Cholla (Opuntia Leptocaulis)
  1. Find the hottest driest place in your yard with the worst possible soil
  2. Bury your cactus cutting about 1/3 deep
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In the background: Golden Barrel Cactus and Pink Plains Penstemon (Penstemon Ambiguus)
  1. Dig out any tiny invisible spines that got through your gloves
  2. Ignore your cactus

In a couple of years, we’ll have all the tacos nopales we can eat – along with mesquite flour tortillas!  Now if I can just talk Frank into getting goats – we’ll have fresh cheese to go with them.

Have you tried starting cactus cuttings?  Tell me how it went in the comments.

Book Review – High and Dry: Gardening with Cold Hardy Dryland Plants by Robert Nold

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If you are gardening in the high desert, I have three words for you:  Buy.  This. Book.  Robert Nold is a Denver based gardener and columnist for the “Colorado Gardener” and North American Rock Garden Society who, after many years of fighting his high desert  conditions of crazy weather and poor soil, had an epiphany about native plants.  Instead of trying to coax rhododendrons out of rock hard, alkaline soil, low humidity, and high city water bills, he started looking at penstemons, purshias, and piñon pines.

Mr. Nold gives his garden no supplemental water and relies solely on the 15 inches of precipitation that Denver receives annually.  He admits that this gives his garden a slightly neglected look but he has blooms from the last frost to the first.

The first chapter of the book covers his journey from conventional, midwestern/east coast gardening to Dry Garden guru including his battle with caliche soil, plants that inexplicably died, and his neighbors’ confusion about the “weeds” growing in his front yard.

The rest of the book is divided into flowers, rock gardens, bulbs, cacti and shrubs which are best for irrigation free landscaping.  Each group is further divided into plant families and have some nice color photos of specimens.  His descriptions are honest and often humorous.

Besides the books of Judith Phillips, the New Mexico native plant expert, this is the first book I have read that specifically addresses the issues facing gardeners living at altitudes over 3000 ft:  hot, dry summers, freezing winters, high winds that desiccate delicate annuals, and our monsoon rains.

While he scoffs at formal garden design, he does give some practical advice for setting up a space.  Put in the pathways first, though these will probably change over time, and don’t put cactus next to pathways.  This is more for safety’s sake than aesthetics.

After reading High and Dry, I felt like my options completely opened up to a whole new world of colors and plant shapes that I had never explored.  This week, I planted 4 varieties of penstemon and some chocolate flowers.  When these little plants mature in a year or two, I’ll have flowers in reds, blues, and yellows that will attract all types of pollinators, from moths to hummingbirds.  While these plants will  need to be watered while they get established this summer, they should be pretty carefree next year.

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I don’t know how these got in my car.

I picked up my copy on Amazon.com.  It was a little pricey for a used book but totally worth it.  Robert Nold has also written books on Penstemons and Columbines. His articles can be found in “American Gardening” and “Horticulture” magazines. Below is my affiliate link to Amazon (I get a commission on the sale of the book).

 

What are your favorite gardening books?  Post them in the comments, please!