Growing the Desert Garden

Welcome to the Desert Garden, with garden coach Tyler Storey, where we talk about everything having to do with gardening and landscaping in the Desert Southwest. From composting to Cercidium and agaves to arugula — we'll cover everything you want to know to grow your own beautiful Desert Garden.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Spring is Here

Two pupating Lady Beetles ©2010 Tyler V. StoreyTwo pupating Lady Beetles, side view ©2010 Tyler V. StoreyTwo Lady Beetle larvae at different stages of pupation, together on a single pine needle of the Italian Stone Pine here at The Ranch. The upper larva is still recognizable as a mature larva, and has just recently attached to the needle, probably within the last day. The lower one is nearly done pupating and clearly looks like an adult Lady Beetle. These appear to be Ashy Gray Lady Beetles, noted for their voracious appetite for consuming other insects, and appearing in very high numbers on the Stone Pine this Spring. Interestingly, the upper larva has attached itself head-downwards; perhaps finding its progress blocked, it just settled in where time and circumstance dictated.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

From the Inbox: More Navel Orange Drop

From a Correspondent:

I have a sole Navel orange tree. The fruit suddenly began to turn color from green toward orange in the past two weeks. Any fruit that achieves all-over light orange drops from the tree. They taste bitter as they have not sweetened yet. In addition, those that drop have thin skins.

The rest of the fruit seems healthy but is galloping toward ripeness. Since the tree only has about 35-40 oranges on it, better than last year's urban crop, we hope to preserve the rest. A friend told me to be sure to deep water the tree as it may have been caused by our warm fall and lack of deep watering. I did so last week but it might be too little, too late.

Is my entire crop in trouble? Is there anything I can do now?

Hopeful in Chandler
Dear Hopeful, The best thing you can do right now is follow your friend's advice: water the tree deeply, down three feet into the soil, and at least as wide as the drip-line. If you did this last week, wait another week before doing it again; every two weeks is as frequent as you want to water right now. If last week's watering wasn't a full three feet down, go ahead and do that now.

I addressed the problem with Navel Orange fruit drop in a previous post earlier this year. What you're seeing now is much the same problem, exacerbated by an extremely stressful Summer. As you know, your July was the hottest on record, the monsoons rains were AWOL, and you have yet to have any Winter rains. All of that has been hard on your tree, and it's responding by shedding fruit.

The early coloring of the fruit, usually a hopeful sign of impending harvest, is in this instance a signal that the tree is giving up on the given fruit, and letting go. As much as I hate to say it, the deep watering is the only thing you can try, and it may not be enough to save this year's crop; Navel Oranges are temperamental in the Phoenix area in the best of circumstances, and these are not the best of circumstances.

For future years, take a look at the approach outlined in the earlier post, and be certain to supply the tree with deep but infrequent irrigation during the worst Summer months. If it's any comfort at all, know that you are not alone in getting whacked this year. With any luck, next year will be back to normal, or we will at least be prepared if it's not.

I hope this helps,

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From the Inbox: Pruning New Citrus

From a Correspondent:

I just had two Minneola Tangelo trees planted as part of our landscaping at our new house. The trees are about 4' tall and have several un-ripened tangelos on the limbs. Since this is September, it seems that these tangelos are "left over" from last year’s growth and should be removed. Perhaps a bit of prudent limb trimming would be in order, too?
Wickenburg, Arizona
Stop, put down the pruners, and slowly step away from the trees. No. Further away; I want to see more daylight.


First, let me say: I understand. It's a guy thing – not entirely, but mostly. We get a clunking clothes dryer, and we must open that panel labeled "do not open." We get a new jigsaw, and suddenly the world must be cut into fancy curves. We get a new grill, and every meal must be barbecued. We get a new tree, and it must be pruned.

I understand. I sympathize. I hear that faint pleading in your final question. I too have used that same tone of hopeful inquiry while gripping a shiny new reciprocating saw and asking, "Perhaps a larger front door would be in order?"

The unripened fruit on your tangelo trees are left over from this Spring, and if allowed to grow they will ripen and be ready to pick this coming Winter. In other words, they are the current crop. The only reason you would remove them is if you thought they would be a stressor on the newly planted trees.

Citrus can be somewhat variable in their season, but generally speaking the fruit that is pollinated in the Spring will grow throughout the Summer months and ripen in the Winter. Unlike deciduous fruits, citrus take a long time to ripen, and if you were to remove un-ripe fruit every September you would never have any fruit.

As to the prudent limb pruning, skip that also. Newly planted trees are stressed, and the best remedy for stressed trees is to allow them to keep all their leaves. Right now, those leaves are shading the trunks and branches, cooling the immediate area around the tree, and providing the trees with the sugars and starches they need to establish new root systems and new top growth. As we go into the cool season, your citrus will need their energy reserves to survive and thrive. And you want them to establish well now so that they will be prepared to flower next Spring and then have the strength to make it through their first Arizona Summer.

Keep in mind also that Wickenburg might be considered a marginal area for citrus, depending on your immediate micro-climate. Minneola Tangelos are an excellent choice for the cooler-Winter citrus areas, but you will still want to leave as much dense foliage as possible, to help insulate the trees against Winter freezes.

In short, I'm ruining all your fun. I know, and I'm sorry. Here's what you do instead: buy a new set of pipe wrenches, crack open a few walls, and take a good hard look at your plumbing. That sounds like more fun anyway.

I hope this helps,

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Thursday, August 27, 2009

From the Inbox: Watering a Vegetable Garden

From a Correspondent:

I need some help. I live in the Phoenix area, and need some advice on watering my garden. Specifically, EXACTLY how to water when planting vegetable seeds.
I've already dug in compost, and I'm ready to plant. I'm pretty sure that my only marginal success in the past is due to watering issues. I've read everything I can find, but it's just not specific enough for me. Things like "keep the soil moist until the seedlings are established" just isn't that much help.
If you were planting vegetable seeds tomorrow, and only had a garden hose to water with, how would you water, when would you water, how much? Does the soil really need to be constantly moist? Would I water daily? Twice a day? When do I change the watering schedule?
My future vegetables and I thank you in advance.
CM, somewhere in the Phoenix area.
Dear CM:
You are not going to like my answer. Just wanted you to know that in advance.

If I were planting seeds tomorrow and only had a garden hose, I would keep the soil moist until the seedlings are established. I know, the same old advice. Problem is, it's good and sufficient advice. Let me explain why.

We have, in much of our lives, grown accustomed to a certain precise relationship between inputs and outcomes. We open up a cardboard box, place the contents in the microwave for the specified period of time, and a perfectly cooked meal arrives. We open up another cardboard box, push Tab A into Slot B, and we have a perfectly balanced and functional piece of furniture. We open up another box, this one plastic, type in a specific combination of letters and symbols, and a perfectly functional Web site appears before our eyes.

It's all rather comfortably predictable and precise.

But the created world – the true created world, not our version of it – doesn't work that way. Deo gratias.

The true world is full of mysteries and relationships. The true world – and that is the realm within which gardening lies – offers us an invitation, and it is an invitation to participation. We are free to accept or reject that invitation, but if we reject it, we reject its fruits (and vegetables), and if we accept it, we accept the continuing call to participation which it entails.

What does this mean for your vegetable seedlings? Because we live in the desert, inadequate watering is, as you noted, frequently the proximal cause for mediocre results in the vegetable garden. But the ultimate cause is very often our belief that we can calculate our inputs, leave them to run, and expect good results.

There have been many times when I have walked into a client's garden and had a version of the following conversation:

  • Gardener: Why do my plants look so bad?
  • Me: The soil is completely dry and they need water.
  • Gardener: But they're scheduled to be watered two days from now.
  • Me: They need water today or they will die.
  • Gardener: But they're scheduled to be watered two days from now.
  • Me: They'll be dead by then.
  • Gardener: But I always water them on Saturday.

The watering needs in your garden are determined not by the clock or the calendar, but by the complex relationship between sun, soil, humidity, weather and the type of plant you select. Your garden is unique to you; no other is precisely like it. It simply isn't possible for me to give you an exact schedule with precise amounts.

That means you're going to have to water your seeds when you plant them and then every morning and evening go out there and see how things are going. Get down and stick a finger in the soil to make certain it's moist, and water if it's getting dry. Water gently, so you don't wash the soil away. Spread a layer of mulch around the seedlings once they sprout, to help conserve moisture in the soil.

As they grow, water more deeply, to a depth of six inches or more, and then you can begin watering less frequently. How will you know when to water less frequently?

You'll have to learn by watching and participating.

If the days are hot and dry, you may water every day. If cool and rainy, maybe not for a week. You're going to learn to watch your plants: If they start to wilt after four days with no water, then perhaps you need to water on the third day instead.

All plants need deep, but infrequent water. Learning what that means in practice takes, well . . . practice. I told you you weren't going to like my answer.

If you have more questions as your garden grows, let me know.

I hope this helps,

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Vegetable Gardens: Starting Simply

Mark Twain famously advised, "Buy land, they're not making it anymore."

If you'll forgive my mangling Mr. Clemens' aphorism, allow me to alter that advice: "Don't buy soil, there's no need to make any more." Or something to that effect.

That doesn't quite work, does it? Never mind.

On to business:

One of the most common themes I hear when talking to people about starting a vegetable garden is the need to "buy soil." I'm frequently asked what kind of soil is best to buy, or what kind of soil is best to buy for a raised garden, or, most distressingly: "I've dug all the soil out of my garden area and thrown it away; what should I buy to replace it with?"

Frequently, the upshot of the assumption that soil is a commodity is the decision that one can't possibly plant a garden until one can "afford" soil, or until one's husband finishes building the raised beds, or until the nursery re-stocks a particular brand of vermiculite, or until one finds a better "soil recipe" than the one used last season. This is nonsense. With a very few exceptions, if you have a plot of land, you have all the soil you need.

What you need, because this is the desert, is to improve the soil you already have, and that is very simple indeed. Select your garden spot and clear it of grass and weeds. Layer on top of your existing native soil a good 5 to 6 inches of organic amendment such as compost, or a combination of compost and manure. Using your spading fork, turn that layer into your existing soil to a depth of 10 to 12 inches. Rake it out, break up the large clods, and you're ready to go.

Do you now have perfect garden soil? No.

Good garden soil is not something you can buy, nor is it something you can achieve instantly. Good garden soil develops over time and there are no shortcuts.

Each season, as you prepare for the next planting, repeat the process: layer, dig, rake, plant. In the Desert Garden, with our multiple growing seasons, you can amend your soil three times a year.

Start now, and by this time next year, you'll have very good garden soil; by this time the following year, you can modestly call it "almost perfect."

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

From the Inbox: Where Does Your Garden Grow?

From a Correspondent:

We are about to purchase a house in Gilbert, Arizona that has an East-West exposure with the backyard on the East side of the house. My question is where should we position the vegetable garden that we are so eager to plant? We want to start out with one raised bed and see how it goes from there. . . . . . . . I'm sorry I don't have pictures to supply, we haven't moved in yet but I hope my descriptions get the idea across!
Thanks so much!
Soon to be from Gilbert, Arizona

Good morning Kelsey, and thank you for the detailed description; you did indeed get the idea across. I omitted some of the details you sent, because the answer is fairly straightforward and applies in every gardening situation.

Whenever we prepare and plant a vegetable garden, we want to place it in a location where it will receive a minimum of six to eight hours of sun each day during the season in which the vegetables are growing. I could just say "put it where it gets 6 to 8 hours of sun," but in the Desert Garden our multiple growing seasons mean we need to think it through just a little further.

In more northerly, and colder, climates, the main growing season is late Spring through Summer, and we simply put the garden in the area that gets 6 to 8 hours of sun from late Spring through Summer; sun patterns change throughout the year, but our gardening is limited to one period, so no worries. In the Desert Garden, however, we are growing vegetables year-round and a location that may be in full Sun in May is not going to be in full sun in October or January, so we need to plan accordingly.

So how does that work out?

For your Fall and Winter garden, you'll generally need to find a location with a southerly orientation with no trees, walls, etc., to block the low-lying winter Sun. For your Spring to Summer garden, you have more flexibility and can generally plant to the North or to the South; an East-facing exposure may not get sufficient sun throughout the day, and a West exposure can be too hot for all but the very toughest of plants.

As you're in Gilbert, I am guessing that you have a Home-Owners' Association and will not be able to plant the front yard to a vegetable garden. So find the spot in the backyard with the best South exposure, free of heavy tree-shade, and place your garden there.

And don't be afraid to place it smack-dab in the middle of the yard; there's nothing at all ugly or unattractive about a vegetable garden!

I hope this helps,

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Sunday, May 24, 2009

From the Inbox: Navel Orange Fruit Drop

From a Correspondent:

I have a navel orange tree that flowered like crazy, produced a ton of fruit but 99% of the fruit fell off. I have one orange as of now and the same thing happened to my dad's tree as well. Do you know why that is happening? He has lemons and limes that are doing great.
Henderson, Nevada
Good morning Karri,
Isn't that annoying? Flowers everywhere, and then suddenly all seems for naught.

All citrus trees experience a certain amount of fruit-drop, but Navel Oranges in particular "shed unusually freely," which is the academic way of saying: hey, all the fruit fell off! Citrus fruit drop is often called "June drop" because it happens in May.

May and June are typically the most stressful season for plants in the Desert Garden. The Spring rains are past, the temperatures are rising markedly, and the atmospheric humidity of the monsoon season is still in the future. In response to these stressors, citrus trees "balance the load" by dropping excess fruit. It's essentially a physiological response to conditions that helps to ensure that the tree has no more fruit than it can support.

Remember, with all fruits, while our goal is food, the tree's "goal" is reproduction. So from a tree's perspective, if it had one, which it doesn't, because it's a plant, but let's not quibble, a very few healthy fruits (with their seeds) is a better situation than tons of struggling fruit. That gives us a clue as to why Navel Oranges are more prone to "shed unusually freely."

Navel Oranges are mutant sports of another orange tree, and they don't produce fruit sexually; they produce fruit parthenocarpically, meaning without cross-fertilization. The term itself is from the Greek, parthenos meaning virgin, and carpos meaning fruit. And that fruit is seedless, so, while from our perspective a Navel Orange tree may be productively loaded with wonderful fruit, technically the tree is sterile.

Bear with me, I am going somewhere with this.

When June drop occurs and a citrus tree begins to shed excess fruit, priority is given to fertilized fruit. You noted that your dad's lemons and limes are doing fine; I would bet a donut that they also lost fruit, but since most of their fruit is fertilized, they kept much more on the tree than did the Navel. The Navel fruit is sterile, so of lower priority in the grand scheme of reproduction.

What do you do about it? The key is to remember that it's the stressors that trigger June drop, so the solution for future years is to minimize the effects of the stressors. As the weather heats up and dries up in late Spring, be certain that your Navel tree has been watered deeply and is thoroughly hydrated. We tend to not worry about upping the irrigation until full Summer, but it's late Spring that nails the tree. You can't go by the calendar. This year, for instance, the Desert Garden stayed pretty cool fairly late, and then heated up fast in early May. Each year is different.

As always, the goal is deep but infrequent irrigation. Try to get the root zone, out to the canopy of the tree, watered to depth of three feet into the ground. This gives the tree moisture reserves to draw on, and encourages deep rooting. Don't let the tree stand in wet soil, though; this can also be a stressor.

Along with your deep irrigation, be careful about how you fertilize your tree. Always give the first dose of fertilizer at or before full bloom, water it in thoroughly, and use lower amounts than listed on the fertilizer label. Three small doses of fertilizer spread over time is a much better method than one big dose all at once. I recommend not fertilizing again until the fruits are at least the size of a golf ball and June drop is past. We typically over-fertilize our home citrus, so err on the side of restraint.

And now for the good news: little green citrus fruit are adept at hiding among the leaves until sometime much later in the year when they suddenly turn bright orange and surprise you. You may still have more fruit this year than you think.

I hope this helps,

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