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 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!

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.

Starting Baby Cacti From Cuttings

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.

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.

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.

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.

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
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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.

Flamingo photo bomb

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






Rainwater Harvesting Part 1

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.

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.


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.

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).

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.

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!