Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Snow, Ice & Winter Watering

This winter is proving to be deliciously wet and wonderful. So far, melting snow has been keeping everything pretty moist. And, in theory, February should bless us with even more snow. On the other hand, this is the desert, and all that Winter Wonderland could disappear in the blink of an eye. So, how then, should we water when it seems we are frozen in for the Winter?

Water in Winter when...

  • The ground is not frozen - otherwise you are just building ice up in the top few inches of sand/soil/clay
  • The day time temperatures will be 50*F or higher for several hours during the day - this will allow time for the water to soak in deeply and drain away from the surface, again helping to prevent ice build up in the top few inches
  • The sun is well up, but not after 1 or 2 pm - this has you watering at or right before the warmest part of the day - and has you finishing enough before sunset so that water will have drained away from the surface (and so not turn into surface ice)
  • There hasn't been significant rain or snow MELT in several weeks - and the ground is NOT frozen - due to desicating winds and low humidity, plants need about an inch of water every few weeks during the winter

When watering in winter (or any other time, actually), keep water off of trunks, leaves and crowns of plants. If the water should not drain or evaporate before freezing, it can damage your plants. Roots generally extend a ways from the trunk or crown, so if you water within 6 inches of the trunk or crown, your plant should be able to take advantage of the moisture.

Also, don't forget to mulch, mulch, mulch, mulch - this will help conserve your water and your soil and help keep "heaving" to a minimum. This is particularly important for plants and trees that have been in place only a few years and who may not have as extensive or deep a root system as more established ones. And like water, keep mulch 6 inches or so from tree trunks and crowns of plants (unless the plant, like strawberries, should be completed burried in mulch).

Monday, January 28, 2008

Things To Do In January & February

While the snow flies and the wind whirls around everything, there are a number of warm, indoor things you can do in January and February. Since you are indoors in your climate controlled home, these things will be just like what Winter Bound gardeners "everywhere" will be doing... out door things are pretty standard during this time of the year, too... Basic Zone 6/7 Stuff.

Indoor activities
  • Divide & Repot house plants
  • Wash/sterilize seed starting equipment
  • Inventory seed collection & maybe test viability
  • Make those final seed catalog selections and order seeds
  • Plan and sketch new garden beds
  • Refrain from planting Tomato Seeds
  • Start seeds for an indoor herb garden of different types of basil
  • Hang out at Dave's Garden
  • Order fruit trees for Spring Planting

Outdoor activities

  • Continue to add veggie scraps to the frozen compost pile
  • If you live in a rural area, mice, skunks and all sorts will visit your compost pile for "fresh greens"
  • Spray "deer off" products on trees after a heavy "snow & melt"
  • Sprinkle about 1/4 of your yearly allotment of bone meal under your trees and thinly over beds of perennials - not enough to wake up your plants, but enough to deter little rodents
  • Deep water trees on a warm spell where day time temps will be 40*F or so for a few days in a row
  • Check mulch on garlic, strawberries, oregano and other "over wintering" plants - add more mulch where the wind has swept it away
  • Fill the bird feeder(s), especially right before & after a storm
  • Put fresh water out for the birds

High Desert Winds

Here in Northern Nevada, we are blessed with every possible way to make wind. We have convective winds in the Summer when the sun beats down on the desert sand, heating the sand which heats the air above the sand, which then feels compelled to rise is great, forceful drifts. We have winds that roll over the tops of mountains to form awesome (but dangerous, from an airplane's perspective) "standing lenticular clouds." There are winds that sweep down valleys and canyons and winds that gust across the open plains of sage and tumble weed.

Last night the wind howled and swirled icy snow, met in chorus by the coyotes yipping down by the lake. Wispy, wind-shredded clouds raced across the sky. Mother Nature dancing around in a wild ruckus of a Winter Storm. Something to behold from the warmth of one's home, for certain.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Desert Mallow

This is a wild flower that showed up in Bed #1, and I have kept her and cultivated her for 3 years now. In the sand and sage under native conditions, the Desert Mallow blooms prodigiously during the spring. It will come back year after year, whithering down to the ground during the Summer heat and springing back to life each Spring. "My" Desert Mallow will bloom most of the summer if kept watered. When she gets straggly looking, I cut her back until she is about 6 - 8 inches tall. A few weeks later she is sending up stalks of blooms again. The flowers are not particularly pleasant smelling - but they are strong and attract pollinators from all over: apparently they are not "stinky" to bees and flies. Definitely a boon to the garden as nothing besides basil blooms seem to attract such a wide variety of pollinators to my little plot.

Raised Beds & Improving Your "Soil"

What Mother Nature has given you for "soil" here in the high desert is usually actually either sand from an ancient sea bed, gravel from an old river wash, rocks where anything smaller has blown away or concrete-like clay just below the surface - none of which are particularly conducive to growing a garden - and all of which are no fun to dig in. So the first thing to do is to improve upon what Mother Nature has given you.

So, let me state right here that I am a pretty lazy person and a lazy gardener in particular. I'm also pretty short in stature and physically fairly wimpy. I don't mind getting my hands dirty, but I am opposed to sweating. So, although it was still a lot of work to set up raised beds, the alternative of creating soil directly in the sand would have been way more work. With raised beds, the precious and sometimes pricey ingredients all stay where the plants are and I don't have to worry about wasting as much of it.

My raised beds are pretty simple. Each one consists of 6 - 1 in x12 in x8 ft pressure treated boards and one 4 in x 4 in x 8 ft pressure treated fence post. Not particularly environmentally friendly and you might want to consider something less toxic for your vegetable beds, but my readings have been inconclusive on just how much of a danger it is to raise food in such a bed. The beds are 4 ft x 8 ft x 2 ft tall. They aren't exactly square in the corners, but they are "close enough" for me. Sorry, the instructions are kind of lame - my husband did the actual building, and I am trying to recall how he did them from two years ago...
  1. Cut 2 of the 1 in x12 in x8 ft boards in half (Home Depot will do the cutting for you)
  2. Cut the fence post into 4 pieces
  3. Set a long board where you want one of the sides and nail or screw two fence post pieces to each end, with one foot extending up
  4. Nail or screw a short piece of board to the fence posts
  5. Add a fence post piece to each short board
  6. Add the second long piece to close off the rectangle
  7. Fasten a second set of boards on top of that

I filled the beds up to level with the first board with a mixture of 50% native sand and 50% mix of "compost and garden soil from home depot." I was not particularly scientific about it - choosing whatever was on sale at the time. I tried to use more than one brand with the idea that they would have been made from different "base" materials, so that nutrients missing in one would be present in the other. I would have used less sand, but budgetary concerns mandated using more of what we had hanging around - we've got 5 acres of sand.

If I wanted to fill the bed up to the top of the second set of boards, I would have had to put something to keep the dirt from leaking out of the gap between the boards. As it was, the purpose of the second set of boards was to act as a wind break and to give me an area of "partial shade" for more tender plants. This has only sort of worked. As far as a wind break, it works well. However, it gives a little too much shade for most of the seedlings. For example, a cherry tomato plant that I put in the shade languished for several months before it reached enough sun - once it made it to the sun, it took off and started producing little tomatoes - about 3 weeks before the first hard frost. I think 5 actually ripened. We're going to leave the top board off of the ones we build this year and see how it goes.

Although I am moving towards more organic methods, there is such a dearth of nutrients in the sand, that I am currently using a commercial slow release fertilizer. I amend with bone meal and blood meal in the Spring (helps keep the little critters away) and apply fertilizer according to package directions. I am hoping that I will be more successful with my compost pile this year and that I will be able to start using home made & cheap compost as opposed to expensive store bought stuff. To protect that expensive dirt from the sun and the wind, I mulch.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

What is a "High Desert" anyway?

Wikipedia has an excellent description of the Great Basin High Desert. Essentially, though, it is an arid area (less than 10 inches of precipitation in a normal year) that is 4,000 feet or more above sea level. So while our area is generally a standard Zone 6/7, there are some other considerations with regard to the "desert" part.

For gardeners, the main items of note are:
  • It's arid - you must irrigate
  • Ground water is often salty and alkali (even if it is not salty enough to "taste" the salt, it is still probably salty by a plant's standard)
  • The native "soil" is probably sand, gravel and/or rock, with less than 5% organic content - you will need to find a way to provide "good, rich soil" for your garden (raised beds work well)
  • The native "soil" is also probably salty and alkali
  • There isn't enough rain or snow to "deep water" anything, so calcium particles and salts get pushed down 3 - 5 feet or so and then the minerals all bond to create a hard pan layer known as "caliche".
  • The sun is intense due to elevation - plants that are listed as "full sun" probably will benefit from some afternoon shade
  • Winds are dry and desiccating
  • Many non-desert plants will have a difficult time germinating in desert conditions without much babying.
  • Transplants need babying, too.
  • Sometimes there is no "Spring" - it goes from freezing to 90 degrees or more in the course of a few weeks - and boom! - Winter is Over.
  • Summer time temps in the high 90's to 110 are normal - if you have concrete near by, it could be much hotter
  • Summer time temperature differences can be 40 degrees or more (tomatoes hate this, as do many of the other sun-lovers)
  • In places just a little higher in elevation than we are, it could frost in June or July!
  • Mulch is your friend
  • You must water and shade your compost pile if you have one

Herbs & Vegetables for the High Desert

One would think that herbs might grow here, given that many of them are of mediteranean descent. I was pleasantly surprised to find that many standard garden vegetables also will grow here - although some do better than others.

Last year's garden consisted of 3 raised beds, 4 ft x 8 ft. Here's a list of things that I've had success with in 2007. This year I hope to expand that by 3 more beds - especially since half of Bed #1 is devoted to Bearded Irises, half of Bed #2 is in planted in strawberries, and all of Bed #3 is filled with sleeping garlic at the moment.
  • Basils
  • Lemon Balm
  • Rosemary
  • Garlic
  • Oregano
  • Sweet Marjoram


  • Tomatoes
  • Sugar Snap Peas
  • Yellow Wax Bush Beans
  • Black Eye Peas
  • Zucchini
  • Yellow Squash


  • Sunflowers
  • Bearded Irises
  • Desert Mallow

Winter Blues

Snowed last week. More snow predicted for this weekend. And probably more snow for February and maybe into March. Last year it snowed during the first week of May. What's a girl to do other than snuggle by the fire with seed catalogs and dream...

Gardening things I did this week:
  • Dumped veggie scraps on to the compost pile - you can't dig them in - it's frozen
  • Washed my seed starting stuff in hot soapy water
  • Reorganized my gardening bench
  • Organized my boxes of gardening things
  • Printed pretty box labels using photos from last year's garden
  • Checked on the garlic planted last fall
  • Checkec on the trees - made sure that their wraps were still on good and that the rabbits had not been chewing on them again
  • Filled the bird feeders with black oil sunflower seeds
  • Updated my garden journal
  • Started a blog
  • Drooled over garden catalogs