Confessions of a Serial Killer

 

I consider every plant hardy until I have killed it myself.

  • J.C. Raulston, paraphrasing Sir Peter Smithers –

We all have our fantasy gardens, fragrant and lush.  We are sometimes so overcome with plant lust that otherwise prudent and wise gardeners temporarily lose their minds. Impulse purchases of completely unsuitable plants happen to all of us, even when we know better.  There are errors in judgment like putting a delicate plant on the south side of the the house when it prefers partial shade or just straight up not watering the poor thing. And then there are the utter horticultural mysteries.  Things that should be perfect for our soil, our climate, and our watering schedule but shrivel up and die anyway, the greatest botanical betrayal of all.

I’ve killed dozens of plants this year alone and it’s only July.  I fully expect to kill again.  Here is the body count so far.

Lavender:  I love lavender.  I love the clean, resinous fragrance and the airy mound of pale purple blossoms buzzing with bees.  So far this year, I’ve killed 6.  They were in full sun, partial shade, fairly dry, slightly moist, luscious black garden soil and sandier soil.  In other words, they have had every possible combination of conditions that I could offer and they still died.  My heart breaks but I go on.

Peppermint:  WTF?   Who kills peppermint?  It’s the tribble of the plant world!

Western Sand Cherry (x4):  Supposedly good for arid environments. I tried it in 4 inch containers and I tried a bigger, 1 gallon size.  I tried full sun and partial shade in order to give it some protection.  Nope.

American Wild Plum:  It was planted 3 days before the hellish heat wave we had at the beginning of July and didn’t survive the week.

Showy Milkweed:  Totally in the wrong location.  It needs better soil and more moisture.

Wisteria:  more weeping.  Fortunately, it was a bareroot plant that I picked up for $5, so I didn’t lose much.

Clematis, both clematis jackmanii (which grows extravagantly in my brother’s garden, utterly neglected) and a native clematis, which hung on for a few weeks before dropping all of it’s leaves and giving up the ghost.

Peonies:  What was I thinking.

Red Sorrel:  It just couldn’t stand up to the heat, no matter how much I watered.

Missouri Evening Primrose: The right soil, the right light, the right water.  Died anyway.

Canna lilies: never even came up.

This isn’t a complete list of everything that has died under my care this year but it’s all I can bear to talk about without a stiff drink.  There’s a great episode of Let’s Argue About Plants by the editors of Fine Gardening magazine in which they discuss their many plant murders.  Even the experts fail sometimes.  The trick is not to quit but to learn your lessons, do your research and try again.  Persistence is always rewarded… eventually.

What have you killed in your garden this year?

What’s Happening This Week

It’s still crazy hot right now,  97 degrees to be exact.  I tried to walk around the front garden barefoot for about 3 seconds before I scurried into the house to find my flip-flops!  Even with the high temps, we have some blooms and some veggies.

The Desert Willow has been putting out gorgeous blooms for weeks now.  There are always little goldfinches hanging out, eating the seeds.

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Desert Willow (Chilopsis linearis); the center piece of the front garden.

Underneath the Desert Willow is a cute little Gazania.  It doesn’t necessarily need to be in the shade but it likes a little more water than the rest of the garden.  Since it’s pretty shaded and heavily mulched, it seems to be happy here.

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Gazania, part of the aster family

The Dahlia’s have been the big surprise.  I really didn’t know if they’d do well but they don’t mind the drier soil and full sun, so YAY!  There will be more of these next summer for sure.

These delicate little things are called Fame Flowers.  They are out in the hellstrip, that area between the sidewalk and the street.  It’s hot and I only irrigate that section once a month.  The Flame Flowers are totally happy there and I’m going to add a lot more next year.  In the background, there is a sad little desert marigold, a baby Banana Yucca, and some Wine Cups that haven’t bloomed since we had that heat wave a few weeks ago.

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Fameflower (Phemeranthus calycinus) will only grow 10 ” wide by 6 inches high. I’m so happy it’s a perennial!

 

In the same bed the Prickly Poppy’s are sending out a bloom every once in a while.  I think they’d be happier with a little more water.  They are natives of Colorado and Wyoming and are used to just a bit more precipitation.  We’ll see if they make it to next year.

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Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora)

 

The pink ice plant is also pretty happy.  Frank picked these out because the shiny, hot pink blooms look like plastic and he thought that was hilarious.  They’re low maintenance and don’t seem to mind the low water schedule.

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Pink Ice Plant (Delosperma ashtonii): Drought hardy and cold tolerant. Yes, please.

The Moonbeam Yarrow is having a second bloom.  I just pruned back the spent flowers, which I should have done 2 weeks ago.  Hopefully that will kick it into gear again.

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Yarrow (Achillea moonshine)

In the veggie garden, we’ve got cherry tomatoes.  Those never make it into the house because we eat them like candy.

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Cherry tomatoes, I planted 3 of these and am guarding vigilantly against Tomato Worms!

 

There is this mysterious volunteer squash.  I have no idea what it is, maybe a kobucha?  We’ll have to wait and see.

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Here’s a little sunflower among the chilis.  Sunflowers just seem to pop up everywhere.  I didn’t plant any but I think the birds probably scatter seeds from the feeders all over.

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Flamingo photo bomb

What’s going on at your place?  I’d love to see your pictures in the comments!

 

 

 

 

 

The Great White Menace

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Every spring, little white butterflies flutter in the garden visiting all the spring flower.  They look so pretty and unassuming, so lovely among the lilacs.

Then the kale comes up, beautiful dark green and lush.  Dreams of sausage and kale soup settle in your brain.  You head to the garden with a bowl and scissors, whistling a happy song.  Then you notice the holes.  Your beautiful kale has been chewed to a skeleton.  Little light green caterpillars are hiding under the leaves, trying to look like they didn’t steal your food.

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Your garden has been invaded by Cabbage Moths.  An adult female lives for 3 weeks and during that short time can lay 300-600 eggs.  You’ll find tightly packed bunches of yellow eggs on the underside of the leaves.  They hatch in about a week and then set about to devouring your kohlrabi and broccoli for the next two weeks unless you catch the little buggers and do away with them.  If that wasn’t enough bad news for one paragraph, there can be up to 10 generations of moths in a single growing season.

The best control for these greedy things is to set up a healthy habitat in your garden with plenty of birds and beneficial insects like Green Lacewings, parasitic wasps and yellow jackets.  Trichogramma wasps are especially fond of nice plump larvae for laying their own eggs.

Floating row covers can keep the moths away from your veggies in the first place.  If they can’t get on your chard, they can’t lay eggs.

Tansy is a natural repellant for cabbage moths as well as a medicinal herb.  Plant it in between your brassicas to keep them at bay or spray tansy tea on the leaves.  Make sure to get the tops and bottoms.

Inspect the plants and pick off the larvae by hand.  Drop them in a bucket of soapy water.

Use a biological spray to keep the moths away.  There are several commercial varieties or you can whip up a batch of chili-garlic sauce that these insects hate.  My husband swears by simple salt water.

If you’ve got poultry, they love a little cabbage moth larvae buffet.  Don’t let them hang out too long though or they start dining on your cabbage too.

Some gardeners recommend clearing all the debris from around your veggie beds to deprive cabbage moths from their cozy winter lodging.  However, removing all the leaves and stems from the beds means that the soil loses all the nutrients from rotting vegetation.  Your call on that one.  For me, composting in place has a better ROI.

DIY Olla

I’m experimenting with different types of ollas.  For those of you who didn’t read part one of this article, you can read about it here Ollas and 3 Reasons to Put Them in Your Garden

Here are instructions for a quick and inexpensive set of ollas

Supply list:

6” terra cotta pot

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The corgi tries to hide behind the flower pot to no avail.

6” terra cotta saucer

silicone caulk or other plumbing caulkIMG_0835

Tin Caps for roofing ($3.50 for 1000 – that’s a lot of ollas)IMG_0836

Instructions:

  1. Remove any burrs or rough edges with sandpaper from around the hole in the bottom of the pot to make sure the tin caps will lie flat.
  2. Give it a quick wipe with a rag to make sure there’s no dust or dirt.
  3. Apply a ring of silicone caulk around the holeIMG_0837
  4. Press the tin cap into the siliconeIMG_0838
  5. Apply a ring of silicone around the edge of the tin Ccap.  This will make certain the seal is tight and that the pot won’t leak.
  6. Let the silicone harden for a minimum of 30 minutes
  7. Bury the pot up to the rim and fill with waterIMG_0843
  8. Top the pot with the saucer to keep out the dirt and prevent mosquitos from breeding in them.IMG_0842

It’s best to set up your ollas in the spring when your plants are still small but if your late getting started like we were, don’t hesitate to put them in.  Just be careful not to damage the roots.

Rainwater Harvesting Part 1

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Rosemary threatening to consume rainbarrel

This weekend we’re beginning the process of setting up our rainwater harvesting system.  We’re upgrading from our two little 50 gallon decorative barrels to four 320 gallon IBC totes.

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Corgi approved

The city gives a rebate for water saving measures like installing rain barrels and low water landscapes.  When I bought the house, I immediately ran out and bought a couple of little rain barrels, stuck them under the downspouts and waited for the next rain.  It’s Albuquerque so we had to wait a little while. But when it finally did rain both barrels overflowed.  Which was cool but didn’t really help catch all that precious, free water.

How much water can you really catch in the desert?

Brad Lancaster, the Water Guru at Tuscon’s Desert Harvesters , shared this formula for rain harvesting yields in his book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond :

Ft2 of roof x inches of rain x 0.62

Average precipitation in Albuquerque is about 9 inches per year.  Our roof is about 1000 square feet, so we can collect 5580 gallons a year.  It’s definitely not enough to meet our household needs but is enough to manage the garden.  Tucson gets about 15 inches of rain per year, so Brad Lancaster gets about 9300.

We live in a smallish house in the high desert.  A bigger house in a place with more precipitation will collect even more FREE water!  When we were living in MA, it was a dry year and there was not a rain barrel or cistern to be seen.  Can you imagine how much rainwater could be collected in damper climates?

IBC totes are BPA-free plastic cubes wrapped in a metal cage.  We found ours on Craigslist and had them delivered.  Always check to be sure the totes that you buy were used for food. Ours held enzymes.  Companies that used these for storage used to give them away but now they are starting to recognize a potential market and it’s harder find freebies.

Installing these babies is going to be a little more complex to set them up than just sticking barrels under the downspout.  Fortunately we’re still a few weeks out from the start of our monsoon season which is when we get the majority of our precipitation for the year.  We’ve got plenty of time to get it all set up.19620539_10211898743416714_8212150166863831068_o

This weekend we’ll start with the gutters. Our current gutters are vinyl and have not held up to the strong UV radiation that we get at this altitude.  They were installed about 3 years ago and are already sagging.  They’re also angled in the wrong direction.IMG_0877

Frank, who is an engineer by training, has been watching youtube videos for months on the best ways to set up our collection system.  While it’s frustratingly slow for me (the name of this blog was almost going to be “The Impatient Gardener”), everything he does is well-conceived and meticulous.

For more details on harvesting rainwater for your home, check out Brad Lancaster’s book.  This is a link to my Amazon Affiliates account and I will receive a commission if you decide to purchase it.

July To-Do

July To-Do List

There really isn’t much to do in July.  Here in zone 7, the tomatoes, squash and peppers are starting to come in.  It’s really too hot to do much planting outdoors and pruning is too stressful on the plants. However, beans, corn and fast maturing squash can still go in the ground.  July is really about observing, maintaining and thinking about fall.

  1. Start thinking about cool weather veggies like kale, lettuce, and other greens as well as carrots and some root vegetables.  Make a wish list of what you’d like to eat fresh in the winter months and keep it on your fridge.cabbage
  2. It’s a good time to order seed potatoes.
  3. Plant fast maturing squash, melons, beans and corn if you live in zones 7 and plus.
  4. The bulb catalogs are coming out and some of them are give pretty steep discounts.  None of us want to think about February and March while we’re lounging under the shade tree with a cold beverage but you’ll be glad you did when those first spring flowers come poking up out of the ground.  Get your daffodils and tulips ordered now.  Breck’s is my bulb company of choice right now, though I’m always looking around for other eye candy.
  5. Keep an eye on your plants for caterpillars and other bugs that might do serious damage to your garden and remove what you can.
  6. Read a new gardening book.  I’m waiting on a book on landscaping with native plants by Judith Phillips.  She’s a local garden designer and expert on using plants that are appropriate for the Southwest.
  7. Try new recipes for your fresh veggies.  Really.  You need to figure out what to do with all that zucchini.
  8. Sit in your garden and watch.  Keep a little diary of what’s working and what needs to change for next year.
  9. Even though it’s hot, don’t overwater your trees and perennials.  Once every 10 days is still fine.  They’ll be forced to develop a sturdier root system.
  10. Put a bird bath or small fountain in your garden.  Having a water source nearby will keep the birds from devouring your fruits and juicy tomatoes.  Its also fun to watch them splash around and stay cool.

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    Our birdbath
  11. If you haven’t already done it, mulch!  We have bark everywhere we have plants right now but are going to be removing the bark around the veggies and replacing it with straw.  Mulch will keep the roots cooler and slow down evaporation so that water stays where it needs to be.http___www.lifeofpix.com_wp-content_uploads_2017_06_bolet-pinassa-444

Hi!

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Prickly Pear after the rain

Hey, I forgot to tell you all why I’m here!

Are you interested in growing your own food and flowers?  Do you have a particularly difficult gardening situation?  Are you interested in learning more about plants, bugs, and how to take care of what you’ve got with the resources at hand?

Me too!

Gardening in the high desert is not for the faint of heart.  We have 30 degree temperature swings daily, rock hard, alkaline soil, and often go long stretches without rain.  On the bright side, we get 280 days of sunshine per year and have a blissful 6 months between frosts.

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Hedgehog Cactus

We have a lot of the same problems here that gardeners around the world deal with: how to choose plants that are right for your garden, how to take care of plants once they are started, and what to do with all the beautiful produce when it’s ready to pick and how to deal with pests.  We’re learning something all the time about the best way to use water in our garden, how to prune our apple trees, and what to do about squash bugs (I think the answer to that is bourbon. It doesn’t kill the squash bugs but it can ease the pain of watching all your pampered squash and cucumbers withering away).

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mmm… cherry tomatoes

I also love to see what is going on in other people’s gardens including botanical gardens and public spaces.  The trend towards using native plants in landscapes rather than European imports in a climate that just won’t support them gives us a sense of place.  We can have our romantic cottage garden but need to use plants that will survive in our unique biome.

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Albuquerque Botanic Garden

I hope we can make our journey together.  If you live in the arid west or in a similar climate, I think you’ll find plenty of useful information.  If you live elsewhere, not everything will apply to your situation but I think you’ll still find some pearls to take to your garden.

Thanks for coming!

Ollas and 3 Reasons to Put Them in Your Garden

cropped-dscn0668.jpgAlbuquerque gets about 9 inches of rain per year.  That’s less than Tucson, Arizona.  City ordinances restrict the watering of lawns and gardens to 3 days per week in the summer months.  That is not nearly enough to keep tomatoes and cucumbers happy and producing.  Consequently, we’re always looking for ways to get water to our plants cheaply and efficiently.

When I bought our house it had sprinklers and an attempt at drip irrigation which promptly fell apart during the first spring irrigation.  We’ve been watering by hand every legal day during the long growing season.  Thick layers of mulch keep the moisture from evaporating in our dry heat but during high temps we need a little extra help to keep our veggies happy.

Last winter I read a book called Gardening With Less Water  by David Bainbridge and was introduced to the miracle of ollas (oi-yas).  Ollas are unglazed clay jars which are buried in the ground and filled with water.  Since the clay is porous, the water gradually seeps out into the soil irrigating plants directly at the roots.  This style of irrigation has been used all over the world from China to Mexico for thousands of years to allow increased farm yields during dry years.

So far, we have 16 ollas in our garden.  I bought a fancy one (read $$$) at Plants of the Southwest and made three in my pottery class.  I made a few more on the potters wheel but they are waiting patiently to be fired.  Since we had a week of 100+ degree heat, I decide that our poor little garden couldn’t wait for a full kiln load to get water to their roots.  We purchased a bunch of 6 and 8 inch terra cotta pots at the big box store along with some silicone caulk and tin caps that used for roofing.  I put them together in about an hour and buried them in the garden this morning.IMG_0752

For the first couple of weeks after the ollas are installed, we still need to hand water with the hose.  This gives the roots time to find their new, on demand water sourceIMG_0833.jpg

We’re in USDA zone 7b which means we’ll have the occasional freeze, with lows averaging 5-10 degrees in the winter.  We will need to dig up our ollas in the winter so that they aren’t damaged.  If you live somewhere like Phoenix or Southern New Mexico where you don’t really get a hard freeze, then the ollas can live in your garden year round.

Why should you bury clay pots in your garden?

  1. It is 50-75% more effective than surface watering, even drip irrigation, since the water is going directly to the roots of the plants..

2.  After the plants are established around the ollas the soil surface isn’t getting wet.              Therefore, the weed seeds – and in my case, the millions of elm seeds that end up everywhere – won’t germinate.  Your days of bending over to pull the weeds is over.

3. You can’t overwater!  The water moves out of the pot by means of capillary action, so if the soil is damp the water stays inside the olla. When the soil is dry, the water moves through the walls of the olla into the soil, only giving your plants what they need.

Instead of hand watering 3 days a week, we check our established ollas once or twice a week and top off the water.IMG_0843