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.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

From the Inbox: Of Rabbits and Worms

Hornworm on newly purchased tomato plant, with tell-tale poop © Tyler Storey From a Correspondent:

So, my friend is now zero for four on tomato plants. Two got eaten down to the nubs in the garden. She bought two more. One got eaten by a hornworm while sitting on her counter overnight and one that she planted has just two leaves. Do rabbits or birds eat the actual plants? I never had problems growing tomatoes - just the fruit was eaten. She doesn't see how rabbits could get in.
Monica, Phoenix, Ariz.

Dear Monica,
I am struck by the image of a caterpillar sitting on your friend's counter, spending the night-time hours casually munching away at tomato plants. It brings to mind John Tenniel's illustration in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." But, it sounds like your friend has a serious problem, so let us set aside juvenile interests such as children's illustrated literature and move on to serious garden writing.

Which brings us to Beatrix Potter's "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" is often mistaken for children's literature, but it is nothing of the sort. It's a precautionary tale, a warning, a dark fable, a gardener's dystopia, if you will.

While a casual reading of the tale tends to invoke our sympathies on behalf of the poor trapped rabbit, unjustly persecuted by the horrible Mr. McGregor, from the gardener's perspective it's clear: Mr. McGregor is the wronged party. Peter, as cute and cuddly as he may have been in his blue coat with large brass buttons, was clearly the aggressor. Mr. McGregor was simply defending the fruits (and vegetables) of his labor, and it is with him that our sympathies may properly rest.

The lesson we must take from "The Tale of Peter Rabbit" is that nothing will stop a rabbit once it has determined to ravage a garden. Rabbits will eat nearly any kind of vegetable garden greenery and, in the world of rabbit depredations, two tomatoes are but small potatoes (so to speak). In an area with rabbits, the only solution is to adequately fence the garden, including running the fencing down into the ground, or out along the ground for a foot or so on one side or the other to avoid tunneling.

As to the hornworm, it is sound practice to always inspect newly purchased tomato plants for hitchhiking hornworms; they are commonly found on purchased plants and can make short work of them.

There is a silver lining to the destruction wrought on your friend's tomato plants: now, at the end of October, is far too late to be setting out tomato plants, and, had they lived, they would have been setting fruit just about the time they got whacked by the first hard frosts. The rabbits and worms have saved your friend that particular trauma. Tomato plants in the Desert Garden are best set out in late February and March and again in late July and August, to give them adequate time to form and ripen their fruit.

I hope this helps,


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Sunday, October 12, 2008

From the Inbox: Autumn Vegetable Gardening

From a Correspondent:

My friend wants to plant a small vegetable garden in Surprise, Arizona. She has kids she hopes will enjoy the experience. What can she plant right now that will produce produce (now that's funny!) before it gets too cold? She has no gardening experience so nothing too picky or exotic.

Generally when I get a note claiming a question is being offered on behalf of a "friend," I'm a little suspicious. But since living in Surprise and having children are both perfectly respectable activities, we'll have to take "Monica" at her word.

Good morning Monica,

"Picky" is on the plate of the beholder, especially when it comes to kids, but one of the great advantages of gardening with children is that they will almost always eat what they've grown themselves – even if it's something they wouldn't touch coming out of the grocery. In truth, some of us never grow out of that habit: I feel much the same way about eggplant.

The Desert Garden vegetable calendar has roughly two primary growing seasons: Autumn and Spring; each has a different list of crops. When in doubt, remember this: Autumn through Winter is the season for roots and leaves, and Spring into Summer is our season for fruits.

In practice what that means is this time of year we plant those vegetables whose edible parts are the roots and leaves: carrots, radishes, lettuce, and spinach, for example. The exception to that rule is peas; we eat their fruit but they're an Autumn and Winter crop.

Whatever the season, the key to vegetable gardening is the soil; a little extra effort up front will yield greatly improved results. First, find an area of yard that will get at least 6 to 8 hours of sun a day, clear it of weeds and any grass, then use a spading fork to turn the soil 8 to 12 inches deep; if you find the soil is too hard for turning, water it slowly and deeply, then wait two days and turn it then. Never dig in really wet soil. Next, spread a layer of compost about six inches deep on the top and spade that into your loosened soil, breaking up any large dirt clods as you go (clod-breaking is a good kid activity). Mix it well.

Note: you can use manure instead of compost, but take these precautions if you do. First, use only well-rotted steer manure, never fresh. Next, water it in well after digging it in and then let it "mellow" a few days before planting, to avoid damaging your new seeds or plants. And don't use manure for those areas where you'll be planting root crops, or you can end up with all greenery and no root. I have done this; don't let it happen to you.

You'll find that you now have a bit of a raised bed; this is good. Use a rake and pull some of the soil to each of the sides of the bed to form a raised edge or lip that's higher than the planting area. You'll plant within the watering basin you just created, and the lip will help to hold the water in.

The following vegetables are among the best for planting now in the middle of October:

From seed:

  • Beets
  • Bok Choy
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Collards
  • Endive
  • Kale
  • Lettuces of all kinds
  • Onions (green)
  • Peas
  • Radishes
  • Spinach
  • Turnips

From plants or sets:

  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Cauliflower
  • Garlic (from cloves)
  • Lettuces
  • Onions (bulb and green, from sets)

I hope this helps,

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