Southwest Yard & Garden – Growing Beautiful Bulbs Can Be a Breeze

Southwest Yard & Garden – Growing Beautiful Bulbs Can Be a Breeze

Southwest Yard & Garden – Growing Beautiful Bulbs Can Be a Breeze

Bulb montage from Suzy Andrego’s beautiful garden last March. Photo credits M. Thompson.

Question: My friend recently gave me a bag of mixed bulbs to try in my yard. She assured me they’ll be easy to plant and manage, but I’m afraid of killing them before they even have a chance. What are the most important tips for growing bulbs here, and how can I know if I’m doing it right or not?

  • Suzanne S., Las Cruces

Answer: Don’t worry, I’ve simplified the steps for bulb planting in this column and included pro tips from a regionally revered gardener. You’ll know you’re doing it right when the plants sprout and blooms open. Daffodils became my new favorite flower after blooming on my birthday several years in a row in Las Cruces (February 7, if you must know). And if you do it wrong, you’ll likely never even see the bulb sprout, so they’ll be easy to forget.

Because you have a mixed bag of bulbs, we don’t know exactly where to place them, so I recommend splitting them into two groups and planting half in a sunny, warm spot and the other half in a spot that’s a little cooler and might get partial shade. If you’re not well acquainted with the microclimates in your yard, think back to the last time it snowed (or find photos of your winter wonderland yard from years past). Areas where the snow first melted are likely the warm microclimates, and spots where snow stayed for way too long are probably the coldest microclimates. I can guess at where these spots are in my new yard, but I’m planning to ask Santa for more garden thermometers so I can track the microclimates precisely this winter.

Even more important than microclimate when identifying the perfect place for your bulbs is picking a place you’ll notice. That way you’re less likely to miss the bloom time altogether and less likely to forget to water them. Don’t ask me how I came up with that last tip. I’d rather not say, but I will quote Rita Mae Brown, “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”

One rule of (green) thumb is to plant bulbs two to three times as deep as the bulb is tall. In the past, I’ve cheated a little in stubborn soil by planting daffodils with the tip barely peeking above the soil and still gotten beautiful blooms, but the general consensus is to quit with the laziness and plant them at the recommended depths. More on this from a more experienced bulb planter later.

You can excavate holes for each bulb individually with a specialized tool that’s good at irritating wrists, or dig and loosen a larger portion of soil using a regular shovel or trowel.

And here’s the best part. Avoid over-watering before flower buds emerge. Water the bulb zone after planting and maybe again in a week or so, especially in sandier or rockier soils, and then back off. This is the real reason daffodils stole my heart: incredibly low water requirements. Once blooms and foliage emerge, a little more water is necessary to ensure the plant stays green and healthy after flowering so it can successfully create and store carbohydrates for next year’s show.

As usual, mulching with a few inches of woodchips, leaves, or the like helps maintain moisture, mediate soil temperatures, and keep weeds down.

Garden club members all over the state know that Suzy Andrego is a bulb guru. Last January, I attended one of her lectures and gathered these pearls of wisdom:

  • Plant bulbs any time (except when the ground is frozen)! Get them in the ground as soon as possible because they’re better off there than on a shelf in your garage.
  • Planting depth: four times the bulb height [if you can muster the strength] for even better performance year after year. In the long run, it’ll be worth the extra effort.
  • Layer bulbs with different bloom times in a single hole for planting and watering ease.
  • Except for tulips, it’s ok to plant many bulbs upside-down, just get them in the ground!

Let us know how many blooms you get in 2020. Better yet, share photos with us on social media (@NMDesertBlooms) and then we can delve deeper into the bulb world, including their benefits and how to encourage even better results in future years.

For more gardening information, including decades of archived Southwest Yard & Garden columns, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page (http://desertblooms.nmsu.edu/), follow us on social media (@NMDesertBlooms), or contact your County Extension office (https://aces.nmsu.edu/county).

Marisa Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist for New Mexico State University and is based at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.

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Southwest Yard & Garden – Comparing Apples to Apples: The Variety Game

Southwest Yard & Garden – Comparing Apples to Apples: The Variety Game

Southwest Yard & Garden – Comparing Apples to Apples: The Variety Game

Apples of unknown origin grown and harvested in Mayhill, NM. Photo credit Amanda M.W.

Question: We need help identifying this apple variety. Our tree was here when we moved in a little over a year ago and we don’t know what they are.

  • Amanda M.W., Mayhill, NM

Answer: More than 7,500 named apple varieties are grown throughout the world today, over 2,500 of which are grown in the U.S. Even if we narrow that down to the 100 or so varieties grown commercially in the U.S., it can be very difficult to determine exactly which variety you are growing in your yard.

Even though apples are as American as apple pie and the crabapple is native to North America, true apples are native to central Asia and were introduced by the pilgrims in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Although I use the terms cultivar and variety pretty much interchangeably, they are distinct in the botanical and horticultural realms. Variety is a formal evolutionary classification (aka taxon) between subspecies and cultivar.

Flowering time and harvest time are traits commonly used to narrow down the possible varieties. Day-to-day weather variability and microclimate affect bloom times, but in relative terms, apples can be grouped into “late-blooming” or “early blooming” categories—similarly with ripeness. The University of Minnesota lists their apple cultivar releases as being ripe either early season (August), mid-season (September), or late-season (October). Flowering time is a more critical trait for New Mexico growers—as all too many apricot tree owners know—early flowering apple blossoms can be susceptible to late frosts, so the later blooming the better in our area. If your tree in Otero County produces reliably year after year, we can assume it’s a late bloomer, and that will help with variety designation.

In order to “stay true” to variety, apple trees are propagated by either grafting or budding, so the rootstock variety is different than the scion or top variety. To learn more about apple and other fruit tree cultivars recommended for New Mexico growers, check out NMSU Extension Guides H-307 “Rootstocks for Size Control in Apple Trees” (https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H307/welcome.html) and H-310 “Fruits and Nuts for New Mexico Orchards” https://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H310/welcome.html.

Clicking around, I found a potentially helpful website that asks very specific questions about all sorts of apple characteristics with the goal of narrowing the list of possible varieties: http://www.applename.com/id.aspx. (Please note, I am normally reluctant to recommend “.com” links, but this particular resource lists several nonprofits as founders, doesn’t appear to be selling anything, and looks like a fun method. I’m curious to see what you find out.) This particular key starts out easy enough by asking about apple skin color, whether or not stripes are present, and, if so, what color. But then the questions get more detailed with about 20 more questions on blush, dots, etc. These are followed by questions about the stem and stem cavity that made me feel like I’ve never actually looked at an apple before. Still another 15 questions about the shape, contours, and colors of the underside or “basin” are listed before getting into the subtleties of juiciness, sweetness, seed size and count, and more.

If it’s really important to you and you can afford it, you can send samples off for DNA fingerprinting analyses at several hundred dollars a pop. I asked landscape designer Michal Glines of Tucson for her thoughts on deciphering apple varieties, and she suggested that if your tree produces well and you like the flavor, call it whatever you like and enjoy! If you’d like me to try the applename.com approach, send your apples to me at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, c/o “NMDesertBlooms,” 1036 Miller Road, Los Lunas, NM 87031. This “service” is free, but there are no guarantees.

For more gardening information, including decades of archived Southwest Yard & Garden columns, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page (http://desertblooms.nmsu.edu/), follow us on social media (@NMDesertBlooms), or contact your County Extension office (https://aces.nmsu.edu/county).

Marisa Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist for New Mexico State University and is based at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.

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Southwest Yard & Garden – How Frost Affects Plants: The Champs vs. The Wimps

Southwest Yard & Garden – How Frost Affects Plants: The Champs vs. The Wimps

Southwest Yard & Garden – How Frost Affects Plants: The Champs vs. The Wimps

We harvested and weighed over 1,100 lb of unripe tomatoes from frost-bitten plants last week at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. Photo credit M. Thompson.

Question: Why did some plants in my garden handle the first freeze just fine, and others died back completely?

  • Jane P., Albuquerque

Answer: I was in Las Cruces last week when we got our first two freezes in Los Lunas. Luckily, my poor houseplants on the patio didn’t freeze hard enough—or for long enough—to cause permanent damage. I believe my grandmother would understand and even chuckle if she knew my spider plant that was propagated from hers 20 years ago by my aunt was one of those worried houseplants on my patio. But I shouldn’t have risked it. On those same cold nights at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas, less than three miles away, over 100 plants in our tomato study were practically wiped out. By the time I got to them on Saturday, the droopy leaves looked as though they’d been baked and burned, and the tomatoes, mostly green, looked shocked and exposed.

Facebook gardening pages from all over northern New Mexico were full of posts in recent weeks from unlucky gardeners with photos of their frost-bitten vegetable plants full of almost-ripe fruit. Those who could harvested in a rush or covered their plants with protective frost cloth. One person commented that everything in their garden turned black after a frost, except for the oregano and parsley. That got me thinking too about how some plants are able to tolerate sub-freezing temperatures, and others are definitely not.

Much like the liquid in a can of soda I tried to chill quickly in the freezer, and then promptly forgot, water trapped in rigid plant cells expands when frozen and bursts the cell wall, killing it in the process. That’s why the leaves and stems turn color and go limp. But solutes, like sugars and salts, build up in the cells of some plants, and that dramatically decreases the freezing point of liquid in the cells. In addition, some plants are able to create proteins that act as a type of antifreeze. It seems likely that some particularly flavorful herbs (I’m thinking of you, parsley and oregano) have what it takes to make it through those cold nights. One source online states that some types of parsley are hardy all the way down to 10°F! I suppose the can that exploded in my freezer would have done so sooner if it had less sugar content. Let’s test this theory in someone else’s kitchen.

Of course, it depends a lot on how long the plant tissues are exposed to freezing temperatures, and also whether the plants have been preconditioned and had time to build up those helpful cell solutes. However, cucurbits (e.g., melons, squash, and cukes), corn, and nightshades (e.g., tomatoes, chile, and eggplants) are killed when temperatures drop to 31–33°F. Many brassicas (e.g., broccoli and cabbage) might have frost burn on leaves, but not all die at temperatures down to around 26°F. Carrots, beets, spinach, and other brassicas like kale and Brussels sprouts are hardy to 20°F and even below.

Gardens in Las Cruces haven’t seen freezing temperatures yet, and the forecast looks like they won’t in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, plants in Taos and surrounding areas have already been exposed to the single digits! The National Weather Service records, as reported in Judith Phillips’ “New Mexico Gardener’s Guide,” indicate that, on average, Ruidoso wins the prize for most nights with temps below freezing with a whopping 275 nights per year, and Chama is close behind with 224. Carlsbad is listed as having only 81 of these freezing nights, Hobbs with 85, and Truth or Consequences with 88. The variability across the state, as well as in microclimates within or own yards, continues to amaze me.

In the end, we still harvested and weighed 163 lb of red and 1,187 lb of green tomatoes after those freezes at the Agricultural Science Center, many of which had mushy spots that had been frozen, but were still worth saving.

For more gardening information, including decades of archived Southwest Yard & Garden columns, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page (http://desertblooms.nmsu.edu/), follow us on social media (@NMDesertBlooms), or contact your County Extension office (https://aces.nmsu.edu/county).

Marisa Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist for New Mexico State University and is based at the Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas.

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Landscapes Need Irrigation in Winter

Landscapes Need Irrigation in Winter

Landscapes Need Irrigation in Winter

From Southwest Yard and Garden, November 5, 2005
by Dr. Curtis Smith, PhD, NMSU Extension Horticulture Specialist (retired)

Water once a month, on a day when the temperature is above freezing.

Most outdoor plants aren’t visibly growing in the winter; however they aren’t dead and still need water. Their root  systems may continue to grow even after the top is dormant, but we can’t see the roots grow. Water is needed  for root growth.

Plants need much less water in the winter because water loss from the plants is greatly reduced, not totally  stopped. Evergreen trees and shrubs still have leaves and continue to use water (at a reduced rate). Deciduous trees and shrubs have lost their leaves but their twigs contain water, which is slowly lost to our dry New Mexico air. This water must be replaced. Grass leaves are often brown and dry, but the crowns of the plants are still living and need water. Some gardeners overseed their summer lawns with winter grasses that remain green, and they certainly need water. Even the perennials we can’t see (bulbs below ground and other plants that die to the ground each winter) need water to live and resume growth in the spring. Even though plants aren’t actively growing, they need water to remain alive.

The plants described above are using water at different rates. Most can be maintained in adequate health if they are watered once a month, except the green winter grass that will need to be watered more often. This means applying enough water to moisten the root zones of the plants. The root zones of trees and shrubs occupy a fairly large volume of soil and require soil moisture to a depth of at least two-to-three feet. Dormant perennials have smaller root systems and often require soil moisture to only a depth of one foot. If there has been sufficient natural precipitation in the form of rain or snow, additional irrigation will not be needed; however, if it has been dry for a month or if the natural precipitation has not been sufficient to moisten the soil deeply enough, supplemental irrigation will be needed.

When the ground is frozen, the water in the soil has frozen. It is not possible to irrigate through this layer of ice, so supplemental irrigation must be supplied before the ground is frozen or after it thaws. Frozen ground does indicate moisture in the soil, but perhaps not enough for the plant to survive the winter. Deep watering before the ground freezes is the best way to assure adequate water when the ground will freeze for long periods. In regions where the ground freezes only briefly, irrigation once a month during the winter is the best practice.

Additional Note from Dudley Vines, SCMG: If you’re using drip irrigation (and I hope you are), you will have run it for an hour or two, because it is slow (typically ½ to 1 gallon per hour). Check to make sure water is flowing, because you may have ice in the distribution tubing if the recent weather has been below freezing. Freezing doesn’t hurt drip tubing, but you’ll have to wait for frozen tubes to thaw before you can irrigate. Be sure to drain garden hoses before putting them away if you water by hand.

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Gardening in the Desert – The key is managing evaporation!

Gardening in the Desert – The key is managing evaporation!

Gardening in the Desert – The key is managing evaporation!

By John Zarola, with Dudley Vines

Evaporation occurs due to intense sunshine, high winds, low humidity, and high temperatures—all of which we have in abundance. Methods we can employ to minimize evaporation include

  • Amending the soil with compost to improve water retention;
  • Avoiding bare soil by mulching, shading, and cover cropping
  • Putting the right plant in the right place
  • Incorporating efficient irrigation options

AMENDING THE SOIL
Compost is decomposed organic material. Amending soil with compost improves
water infiltration and retention. Because compost decomposes (adding nutrients to the soil), it should be replenished every Spring and Fall. Compost can be used as a topical application or mixed into the soil.

MULCHING & SHADING
Garden Mulches are protective soil covers of various materials placed around
plants. Mulch reduces evaporation and overall water use, moderates soil temperature fluctuations, reduces weed growth, softens the effect of rainfall and
protects from wind, reduces soil erosion and compaction, and gives finish and
style to a garden. In addition, organic mulches decompose, improving soil
fertility. When mulching, leave a 4” – 6” gap from base of the plant. And, importantly, irrigation water should reach the soil under any type of mulch.
Water is most efficiently applied directly to the soil.

THE RIGHT PLANT IN THE RIGHT PLACE
What are the “right plants”? To get the most from the water you use, plant
abundant producers like tomatoes, squash, peppers, and egg plant. Plant
drought tolerant vegetables such as black-eye peas, mustard greens,
pole/snap beans, New Zealand spinach, chili peppers, garbanzo bean, tepary
bean, amaranth, chard, and some varieties of tomatoes. Plant only what you
can reasonably care for in the time you have available. Landscape with low water use plants suitable for our climate zone. Plant perennials(trees and shrubs) in the Fall – less heat means less stress on the plant while the root system is being established.

What about the right place? Here are some things to think about:

  • Group plants with similar water requirements together
  • Consider prevailing winds
  • Consider microclimates – masonry walls
  • Consider the use of movable pots and planters
  • North side: Winter cold; Summer heat
  • South side: midday and afternoon sun
  • East side: morning to midday sun
  • West side: intense afternoon heat in summer
  • Provide shade using row covers, structures, arbors, lattice, companion
    planting, or dense planting

EFFICIENT IRRIGATION
Water management options include rainwater harvesting, clay pot irrigation
(ollas), self watering planters (pots), jug drip technique, drip irrigation, soaker
hose, and recycling household gray water. Water early in the morning (before
sunrise) to prevent evaporation, water infrequently but slowly and deeply, and
water at the dripline, where the absorptive roots of the plant are.

Lastly, too much water wastes money, and too little can kill the plant. How do
you know if you’re watering correctly? You can check the soil moisture by feel,
and you should most definitely watch your plants for evidence of irrigation problems.

Signs of Underwatering

  • Soil is bone dry
  • Older leaves turn yellow or brown and drop off
  • Leaves are wilted
  • Leaves curl and become brittle
  • Stunted growth
  • Plant is dead

Signs of Overwatering

  • Soil is constantly saturated
  • Leaves turn a lighter shade of green, or turn yellow
  • Young shoots are wilted
  • Leaves are green yet brittle
  • Algae and mushrooms are present
  • Excessive growth
  • Plant is dead

 

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Cold Frames for a Longer Season

Cold Frames for a Longer Season

Cold Frames for a Longer Season

Roy Archibald, SCMG

A cold frame is a valuable tool for getting an early start in the garden and extending the season in the fall. We can begin planting at least a month earlier using one. In the fall adding a hoop cover can extend harvest for another month. The use of these adds an additional 60 days to our short gardening season. An easily constructed cold frame will provide protection from frost, temperature extremes, and drying winds.

A cold frame in its simplest form is an open bottomed box placed over the growing area with a clear cover. Some commonly used materials for the frame are lumber, cement blocks, or straw bales. When building your frame make sure the frame is tall enough to accommodate the mature plants. The clear cover needs to allow plenty of light. For safety reasons, the cover material should not pose a danger if it is broken. Creativity and imagination will make building your cold frame
an enjoyable experience.

Using a cold frame is as easy as building it. Place your frame over the growing area and put the clear cover on to allow the area to warm up. After the area is warm, water it first if you are planting small seeds such as lettuce or carrots. Next lightly cover the seeds with soil. Larger seeds can be planted first and then carefully watered. Place the clear cover on and leave it in place until the seeds germinate. Once the seeds begin to come up, open the cover on nice days and close it at night. On extremely cold nights the frame can be covered with blankets to retain heat or a light can be added for heat. Remove the cover when the regular growing season starts and garden as usual. In the fall add hoops and clear plastic early enough to protect plants from frost.

Simplicity of construction, ease of use, and versatility make the cold frame a valuable addition to your garden. Use it in your garden to enjoy a longer gardening season and a larger harvest.

Mr. Archibald is a Sandoval County Master Gardener who lives and works in Cibola county.

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