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, November 27, 2008

Stop-Action Broad Bean: Episode 3

Broad Bean SproutĀ© Tyler Storey

In this Winter's Stop-Action series, we'll follow the life and times of a Broad Bean, commonly known as the Fava Bean. You'll notice we're jumping right in with Episode 3; the first two weekly episodes consisted of fairly uninteresting photos of a blank bit of soil and mulch. All sorts of interesting stuff was going on out of view underground, but to the casual observer it still looked pretty much like a blank bit of soil and mulch, so we're jumping forward to the action shots.

In the Desert Garden, our Fall and Winter vegetable gardens consist for the most part of the "true" vegetables, those plants such as lettuces, carrots, spinach, etc., of which we eat a part of the plant itself (leaves, roots, stems). The two notable exceptions are English Peas and Broad or Fava Beans; in the case of these two "vegetables" we eat not the plant, but the fruit (peas and beans, respectively).

In Italy, the traditional date for planting Fava Beans is All Souls Day, November 2, and that date works well in the Desert Garden, though I wouldn't hesitate to try them earlier or later. The seeds take between 10 and 25 days to emerge from the soil, so the little sprout pictured above is right on schedule. At the moment it looks like nothing so much as a well-chewed wad of neon-green gum, but in the next few days, all those ridges and bumps will resolve into tidy stems and leaves. Just wait: that wad of gum is going to turn into a very pretty plant.


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Monday, November 24, 2008

Back at the Ranch: Wildflowers v. Weeds

If you've sown your desert wildflower seeds over the past month or so, and given them a bit of water, they should be germinating and sprouting about now. Take a look around the garden and you'll find all sorts of little green bits poking their heads up.

But, as the poet says, not all that glisters is gold. In the Desert Garden right now, not all that is green is good. Many of those sprouting plants are, in fact, weeds.

The conditions that favor wildflowers also favor annual weeds, and it can be difficult to distinguish between the two when they're in the seedling stage. Our goal with weeds is always to pull them while they're small, and the amount of time and effort needed to cull weeds when they're new is but a fraction of the work it takes to get them when they are established.

The only way to get rid of the weeds while keeping the wildflowers is to learn what each looks like when it's in the seedling stage. That's not as hard as it sounds; as with much of gardening, it's really just a matter of attention to detail followed by a little practice.

To get you started, I've appended some photos of several common desert wildflowers and several common weeds, each in the seedling stage. Click on any picture to view a larger version. Some of the photos are a bit blurry, but it was early in the morning and I'd consumed prodigious amounts of coffee.

Wildflower: California or Mexican Poppy. These might at first be mistaken for blades of grass, but their slight bluish gray color and distinct "2-pair" structure set them apart.

Wildflower: Toadflax. This is a whole clump of Toadflax seedlings. They tend to put up a relatively long and thin stem before forming their first true leaves.

Weed: Spurge. Not a seedling in this photo, but there's plenty of it around this time of year, so pull it when you see it.

Wildflower: Scarlet Flax.

Edible Radishes. I spilled some seeds here and they grew.

Weed: Prickly Lettuce. Don't let the name fool you: it's not edible, but it is a particularly difficult weed to get rid of once it grows.

Wildflower: Penstemon. For scale, note that the round black object below and to the left of the seedling is a Washingtonia palm seed of somewhat less than a quarter-inch diameter.

Wildflower: Desert Marigold. It's a fuzzy photo, but then it's a fuzzy plant. The first (seed) leaves are easily mistaken for a weed but the first true leaves are silvery and pubescent. Again, note the palm seed for scale.

Wildflower: Desert Marigold. These are a little further along than the one above, and quite distinctive once you learn to recognize them.

Wildflower: Desert Bluebell. Another distinctive wildflower seedling, the Desert Bluebell tends to have very small dark, almost purplish, spots on even the seed leaves. Once you spot a few of these, you won't confuse them with any other plant.

Wildflower: Desert Bluebell. Showing the first pair of true leaves.

Weed: Bur Clover. This is an unpleasant weed, forming little spiral burs, actually seed cases, covered with very sharp spines. These burs are painful to step on and the number-one most likely things to get stuck in your dog's pads. Note that the seed leaves are elongated ovals, the first true leaf is a one-leaf clover, and the second leaf is a three-leaf clover. These seed leaves are easily confused with a wildflower, so it's best to wait until you see at least one true leaf before pulling.

Wildflower and Weed: Scarlet Flax on the right, and Bur Clover on the left. Note that the seed leaves (lowest pair) on each of these plants are very similar. As noted above, wait for some true leaves before deciding to pull or keep.

Weed: Cheeseweed. Perhaps the most distinctive seed leaves of all, these are heartshaped on thin petioles. Pull these when you see them; they are a bear when they get bigger and they re-seed fast.


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Friday, November 7, 2008

From the Inbox: Managing a Compost Bin

From a Correspondent:

I have become an avid composter with a compost bin I purchased from Costco around 9 months ago. Over the summer it seemed to dry out and I added water to it every couple of days. I usually “aerate” my compost daily or every other day with a tool I have that is a metal bar with 2 wings on the end.

I have been pulling compost out of the bottom openings for my garden and winter lawn. Everything is broken down with the exception of dried grass. Some of the compost seems almost like mud – thick and dark brown – is that OK? Do you think it is because I put in water this summer? Also is it OK to use the compost if some of the grass isn't completely broken down or do I need to be more patient?
Cori Pearson

Good morning Cori,
From your description, it sounds like there are a couple of issues at play with your compost, but they are all easily fixed.

First, let's consider your composting bin. From what I know of the composters sold at Costco some while back, I am guessing that your bin is more or less a cube, slightly narrowed at the top like a truncated pyramid, about three feet tall, bottomless, and has "doors" on the lower edges of all four sides.

Composting bins of this type are often marketed with the idea that you put the stuff in the top, it works its way down as you aerate and water it, and then you take "black gold" out of any of the conveniently placed doors at the bottom. It's a nice idea, but actually results in what you're seeing: some good compost, some anaerobic goo, and some dried stuff. The good news is that your compost bin will work great, as long as you use it differently.

Before I tell you how to fix it, let's revisit the basic process of composting: in the presence of air and water, carbon- and nitrogen-bearing organic materials are broken down by aerobic (air-loving) organisms into humus. Humus is the stuff we call compost. The key in looking at that recipe is to realize that each of those four ingredients – nitrogen, carbon, air and water – must be present at every place in the pile. A corner with lots of water and no air will rot anaerobically; another corner with plenty of air and carbon but no water or nitrogen will just sit there. That's the reason that turning or mixing the pile, rather than just aerating it, is so important.

The thick and muddy brown stuff you're seeing is the result of anaerobic decomposition, a consequence of too much water and too little air. The dried grass is a result of too little water and not enough turning and mixing.

You might be thinking that your three-foot-tall compost bin with a narrow top opening is going to be very hard to reach into to turn the pile, and if that's what you're thinking, you are right.

So here's what we do instead:

Using your current compost bin, build a pile as you would normally, layering carbon-rich and nitrogen-rich materials in alternating layers and sprinkling a bit of water on each layer as you go along. Put on the lid.

Go to a hardware store and buy a spading fork; it's like a pitchfork with flat tines.

After a day or two, open the lid of the composter and one or two of the side doors; you should find the pile warm, and maybe even a bit steamy. Using your brand spanking new spading fork, start pulling material out of the side doors – from the bottom – and dumping it into the top opening (lift with your legs, not with your back). Fork out and dump no more than about a quarter of the pile, reaching into the bottom corners to be certain you get the stuff hiding in the angles.

As you turn the pile, pay attention to the moisture levels: you want the pile to be as moist as a wrung out sponge. If it's dry, water it some from the top.

Close up the doors and the lid, and repeat daily or in a couple of days; the more frequently you turn the pile, the faster the compost works. What you will be doing is turning the entire pile several times over as the compost works, mixing it thoroughly and taking the opportunity of regular turning to be certain that the pile is neither too dry nor too wet. What you will also be doing is getting a nice light leg workout on a regular basis; shapely calves are only one of the side benefits to properly managed compost.

As for the material you have right now – the dried grass and the brown gooey bits – go ahead and run them through your new composting method and they will have more value in the garden.

And last, but not least: take your aerator with the wings on the end, turn it upside down and push the metal bar firmly into a convenient patch of soil. Then use your oxyacetylene welding outfit to fashion and attach a beak, possibly an eye (or two), and, if you wish, some random feathers. That makes it art, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

I hope this helps,


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Monday, November 3, 2008

From the Inbox: Composting Bins

From a Correspondent:

Is there a particular type of composter that works better in our environment? I have an irrigated yard.
Thank you.
MJ, Phoenix, Arizona

Good morning MJ,
As you may have noticed there are a lot of different composting bins for sale, and any number of plans available for building one yourself. Rather than making recommendations from among them, it's probably more practical if I give you some standards and characteristics that you can use when deciding.

  • Your ideal compost pile is about 3' x 3' x 3', a cubic yard. Any smaller and you may not achieve the mass needed for the process; any larger and you run the risk of anaerobic activity in the middle, and you may not be able to turn it. Five feet to a side is about the largest you'll want to go.
  • Be certain your bin has holes or vents for air circulation through the pile. Simple holes rather than adjustable vents are all that's needed.
  • The bin should have a lid to hold in moisture, though you can use a tarp if a lid is lacking, and the bottom should be open to allow drainage and prevent anaerobic decay.
  • The sun is intense in the Desert Garden, so look for a sun-resistant material; if you build it yourself, wood and wire works great.
  • Your compost bin should have easy access for turning the pile frequently; if it's hard to get to or too tall to reach down into, you're less likely to turn it as much as is needed. Many cities drill holes in used municipal waste containers and offer them as free or inexpensive composting bins. They have lids and are great but can be hard to reach into with your turning fork. With these, try removing the lid, turning them narrow end up, and setting the lid back on the new top; then, when it's time to turn the pile simply lift the can up and off the pile, set it to one side, and then turn the pile contents back into the bin.
  • I recommend you avoid rotating composters, but if you just can't resist, get one that spins on the long axis rather than end over end, and has inside baffles to turn the compost. The pickle-barrel composters that flip end over end are almost impossible to turn once the material is inside, and tend to produce large clumps of gooey smelly stuff.
  • Don’t get a composting bin that is intended to make "compost tea." This is the desert and our soils need organic humus material, not weak brown fertilizer. Also, with our warm climate the potential for pathogen growth in the tea far outweighs any supposed benefits.
  • Avoid bells and whistles – compost is a very simple process that in nature occurs under a tree in the forest; there's no benefit to paying for the fancy stuff.

In short: a simple bin of about a cubic yard that admits air, holds moisture, and is easy to get into.

Because you have an irrigated yard, you’ll want to place the composter in an area where it won't be in standing water, for even the shortest time. If your compost sits in the flood plain, you will generally end up with an anaerobic mess at the bottom of the pile.

I hope this helps,


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