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.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

More Frost Pics: Cauliflower

Frozen Cauliflower ©Tyler StoreySometimes the garden photos are just too interesting to pass by, even if there isn't a lot to be said about them. The top picture is a cauliflower leaf, photographed this morning just before dawn. Yes, those are ice crystals. The picture below is the same leaf, photographed about three Thawed Cauliflower ©Tyler Storeyhours later.
One wouldn't think the leaf tissue would survive, but clearly it did.

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Stop-Action Broad Bean: Episode 6 – Frost

Frozen Fava © Tyler Storey

Last night and this morning brought the first serious frost of the Winter to this part of the Desert Garden. Air temperature dipped down to around 30° here at The Ranch, but it didn't last for too many hours, and there was little damage to the Winter crops; the peppers, chiles, and eggplant, however, are on their way out after many months of good service.

Our little broad bean and his band of brothers looked pretty bad. The top picture to the left was taken just before dawn, and the plant is clearly frozen; the dark, wet-looking green to the top is a typical sign of frost, and the silvery coloration on the lower portion of the plant is ice crystal reflecting in the camera flash.

Fortunately, one of the things that makes the Fava Bean a good choice for the Winter Desert Garden is that it is fairly frost-tolerant; I would call it moderately hardy. In a light frost, as we had last night, it should recover just fine. If we were expecting a harder, longer freeze, I would give it some frost-cloth protection.

Previously Frozen Fava ©Tyler StoreyAs you can see in the lower left picture, the "frozen" Broad Bean had recovered fully by 10 this morning. Almost hard to believe it's the same plant.

Most of the cool-season vegetables that we grow in the Desert Garden have some degree of hardiness, and will take at least a moderate frost, but the stage of plant growth can make a difference. Peas, for instance, are very hardy as seedlings and plants, but the flowers and pods are fairly frost tender. If you go out some frosty morning and find that your pea pods have a wet, dark green look to them, as in the foliage of the broad bean, above, your best bet is to harvest them right then and have them for breakfast. An even better idea is to protect them the night before.

Lettuces and endive can vary greatly in their hardiness, depending on variety. If you forget to put frost protection on your leafy greens and they freeze, here's an interesting trick you can try: cover the frozen plants first thing in the morning, before the sun hits them; anything that shades the leaves from the sun will work. Then, once the air temperature has come up well above freezing, remove the cover. It seems that frozen lettuce leaves that thaw suddenly, as when the sun hits them, will wilt and die. But frozen lettuce leaves that warm up slowly, as the air warms, will often recover and be fine.


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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Back at the Ranch: Mid-Winter Vegetable Harvest

Winter Pepper Harvest © Tyler Storey

If you continue to water your Summer and Spring crops, and absent early freezes, you'll find that certain of your vegetables will continue producing into the Winter. Here at The Ranch, the eggplant, peppers, and chiles are still producing.

Don't be surprised if the vegetables you harvest at this time of year are smaller than what you saw in the warmer months; the early heat, later cold, and shortening days result in significantly smaller fruits. The photo shows red and golden bell peppers, and Poblano and Serrano chiles that came out of the garden the other afternoon; all are on the small side, but they all had excellent flavor.

If you saw these in the grocery, you'd probably pass them by, but these are home-grown bounty and there's nothing at all wrong with them.

Growing vegetables at home calls for two adjustments to how most of us have come to view food. First, we need to realize that "perfection" isn't a matter of how something looks, but rather a matter of what it is. And, second, we start deciding what's for dinner on the basis of what's ready in the garden instead of what we can drive off and pick up at the grocery. The second of these is without a doubt the bigger adjustment for the modern American eater.

So what do you do with a mid-Winter bunch of dwarf peppers and chiles?

This particular bunch went into a soup pot with some store-bought onion, garlic, chicken and kernel corn, and were seasoned with cilantro, oregano, lime, and epazote from the garden. In theory, the onion, garlic, and corn could also have come from the garden, but I didn't freeze any corn from earlier, and the onion and garlic went in late this year. Had I grown zucchini this year, some of that would have gone in also.

And if I had chickens . . . . I might have to think about that one.

As I've said before, year-round vegetables are one of the great advantages of living in the Desert Garden. And the more you garden, the more eating what you grow becomes an every-day habit, and not just for special occasions.


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Monday, December 22, 2008


In the spirit of experimentation, I've decided to try out a very limited number of small advertisements on The Desert Garden blog. My primary concern was that the blog would suddenly contain ads for stuff and companies that weren't in keeping with the kind of information I try to convey with this blog. Sure enough: within two seconds of adding the advertising code, I had an ad from the one nursery in the Phoenix area that I tell my clients to avoid. I think I've fixed the problem with a filter, but we'll see.

I welcome your feedback about having advertising on the blog, what ads appear, or any other thoughts you might have on the subject.

Thanks much,


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Sunday, December 21, 2008

From the Inbox: Fruit Flies in the Compost Bin

From a Correspondent:

I recently attended a composting class you taught at the library, and started composting about 6 weeks ago. It’s going well, but there are a ton of fruit flies. I stopped putting in banana peels and I started adding more brown yard waste, but they are still a pain. I would appreciate any advice. Thank you so much.
Gilbert, Arizona

Good morning Dianne,
Aren't those little fruit flies annoying? First, do know that fruit flies are completely harmless; that doesn't make it any more pleasurable to have them zip around and fly up your nose, but at least that's the worst of it. The other good news is that fruit flies thrive in exactly the same conditions as a healthy compost pile so, um, congratulations!

Now, on to business.

With any pest, our best course of control starts with understanding their interaction with the environment in which we find them. That give us the information we need to then alter the environment in such a way as to diminish or eliminate the pest. It might sound touchy-feely to say you have to understand things from the fruit fly's point of view, but it's really rather hard-nosed and practical.

You are correct in fingering the banana peels as being complicit in the fruit-fly issue. Fruit flies love banana peels, and are most commonly introduced into our homes and into our compost piles as larvae that arrive on bananas. From there, they hatch and begin hovering around the ripening bananas and other fruit that may be sitting in the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter, or around the fruit peels that we put in the compost pile. Ripening and fermenting fruit is their source of food, and even though they most frequently arrive on bananas, any fruit will give them an ongoing source of nourishment. Even wine (fermented grape juice, of course) is a great fruit fly attractor, and although the flies are harmless and carry no diseases, there is nonetheless something faintly disturbing about finding fruit flies riding the bubbles up and down in your glass of champagne.

Eliminate the attractors and food sources, and we eliminate the fruit flies.

Increasing the "brown yard waste" or carbon-rich materials in your compost pile is a great first step. This should speed up the decomposition of the fruit wastes in your pile, and also dilute the percentage of fruit-fly attractors in the pile. You have two choices for the next step; you might need to try one and then the other to see what works for you.

First, try withholding all fruit waste, not just banana peels, from your compost pile, and turning the pile daily, or every other day, for the next little while. That should eliminate existing food sources and dry up the fruit-fly population. Plus, it's good practice: any time we have a pest in the compost pile, our first step is to turn the pile more frequently.

The other approach is to continue to add fruit waste, including banana peels, but bury it deeply in the pile out of reach of the fruit flies. Turn your pile before you add new fruit waste, then open a hole at least a foot deep in the center. Place the fruit wastes in the bottom of the hole, and cover it deeply with other material from the bin; this will both exclude it from fruit-fly access and speed up its decomposition, as it will be in the warm and active center of the pile. I tend to favor this approach, as it allows you to keep using your kitchen wastes.

Just so you know, you can also try to trap the little critters. Poke some small holes in a plastic container, place a banana peel in the container, then set the container near the fruit fly swarm. In a day or so, most of the fruit flies will be in the container, and you can dispose of them. This seems like a lot of trouble to me, but if neither of the first options work, give it a try.

For the record, the one thing we can never do for pest control in a compost pile is use any kind of insecticide. There are a number of good reasons why we don't, but, above all, using pesticides indicates a certain lack of creativity.

Do let me know which method you try and how it works for you.

I hope this helps,

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Stop-Action Broad Bean: Episode 5

Broad Bean © Tyler Storey

Our little Broad Bean is still alive and kicking, and here it is, to the left. Not really much of a change between last week and today, but I have high hopes. This particular plant appears to be the runt of the bean litter and is lagging behind its fellow bean plants. I had considered switching to another, more vigorous and photogenic bean, but that would violate the spirit of the endeavour, so we'll stick with what we have.

You may notice our bean looks a bit wet from the first of the Winter rains, and that may pop its growth a bit. Winter rains are one of the great advantages to gardening in the Sonoran Desert. Of the four main deserts in North America – the Great Basin, Mojave, Sonoran, and Chihuahuan – only the Sonoran has reliable and significant two-season rains.

The northernmost desert, the Great Basin, covers most of the state of Nevada and small portions of Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and California. Much of its precipitation falls as snow, mostly in late Winter and early Spring.

The Mojave desert, directly to the South of the Great Basin, is the driest of our American deserts and also home to Death Valley, location of the highest temperature ever recorded in North America. It gets some of the Great Basin Winter rains, and some of the Summer rains from the Sonoran Desert, but more or less the leavings of each.

The Chihuahuan Desert, to the South and East of the Sonoran Desert, covers small portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, but lies predominantly in Mexico. It tends towards higher elevations, and get most of its rainfall in the Summer months.

The Sonoran Desert covers a good portion of Southern Arizona, over into Southern California, then South along either side of the Gulf of California, and is a more subtropical desert, with significant rainfall both from the Summer Monsoon season and the Winter rains; we get the best of both worlds and can easily grow plants native to almost any of the world's desert regions.

As you plan, plant, and care for your own slice of the Desert Garden, it's worth paying attention both to the rain characteristics of where you garden, and to the rain characteristics of where your individual plants come from. Knowing what the weather is like where your plant comes from is one of the best clues to caring for it in its new location.


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Monday, December 15, 2008

Plant to Ponder: Italian Stone Pine

Comus and the Christmas Tree © Tyler Storey

Many of the plants we look for in our local nurseries are only seasonally available, but one of the best trees for the Desert Garden is available only one time of year, and that's right now, just before Christmas. More than that, it's almost only ever available in one size: very small.

The Italian Stone Pine (Pinus pinea) is widely sold in nurseries and all kinds of other stores as a table-top live Christmas tree. What many of us don't realize is that once its Yuletide duties are complete, it can be successfully planted out in the landscape and will become a stunning, large, and eventually edible addition to the Desert Garden.

Pinus pinea is the typical pine tree seen in Italian and Portuguese travel brochures and postcards, and is perhaps the finest of the pine trees for the Desert Garden, though not as frequently planted as the Aleppo and Eldarica Pines. In shape, the Italian Stone Pine is rounded to slightly excurrent in youth, maturing to a broadly flat-topped or umbrella shape, and growing at a moderate to fast rate to 40 to 60 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide. It's hardy to about 10°F, takes low to moderate water once established, and will thrive in full to reflected sun.

If you're going to plant out your table-top tree, be certain to keep the soil damp, but not soaking while it's indoors (use a saucer to water the tree, but then empty the saucer after 10 minutes or so), and keep it away from direct heat sources. Plant it out in the landscape when Christmas is over, in a hole no deeper than the rootball in the container, and two to three times as wide.

Remember that this will eventually become a large tree, so plant it away from the house or overhead power lines, and not too close to pavement. Water it in well, and don't let the soil dry completely for several weeks. As the tree grows, be certain that you are watering in a circle as wide as the expanding tree canopy, and to a depth of three feet each time. This will encourage strong and wide rooting.

Gradual removal of lower branches will encourage high growth but clear no more than 6 to 8" of trunk per year or the tree will be spindly and awkward looking forever - when in doubt, leave it alone. The tree pictured above was planted out here at The Ranch shortly after the photograph was taken, about 6 years ago; it is now several feet above the roof line, and about 12 to 15 feet wide.

Eventually, your Pinus pinea will produce pine cones, and these are the source of the pignoli nuts you use in cooking; each cone takes about three years to reach maturity. Plant some basil and some garlic, and you give a whole new meaning to home-made pesto.


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Saturday, December 13, 2008

Subscription Thingy

As a number of you have requested, I have finally added a subscription thingy to the Desert Garden blog. At least I think it's a thingy. It might be a doohickey, but I'm not sure how to tell the difference. In any event, you'll find it part way down the column on the right. While I'm always happy to hold forth on landscaping and plants, I have no idea how the subscription thingy (or doohickey) is supposed to work, so I'm afraid you're on your own. As always, I welcome your questions, thoughts, feedback, and suggestions, so don't hesitate to let me know how it works.


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From the Inbox: Properly Pruning Pepper Trees

From a Correspondent:

As a newcomer to a townhouse complex in Palm Springs, I am struck by the gardening crew's penchant for squaring and rounding bushes and, where our pepper trees are concerned, nearly whacking them to death – all with the blessing of the boss, who claims to be an arborist. Dunno about that. Have yet to see his diploma. Particularly with regard to the pepper trees, I've been assured that they will come back "when the temp hits 90 again" but I'd like your considered opinion on how they should be trimmed. My sense is, as with guns, guys with whackers and saws never see a limb they would not pull the trigger on.
G. Holt

Dear G.,
Where to begin? Hmmmmm.

  1. Fortunately for the world, gun owners are on the whole far more responsible with their tools than are tree trimmers. I favor finger-printing, licensing and extended waiting periods for pruning implements, but I'm not holding my breath.
  2. Welcome to the world of landscaping-by-homeowners-association. Having had the opportunity to consult with many wonderful HOAs, allow me to offer you the voice of experience: as you prepare to take on the landscaping be aware that one of two things will happen: you will find yourself making a positive and enduring contribution to your new community of neighbors, or you will drive yourself and your new neighbors completely bananas and form deep and bitter grudges that will last as long as you own your townhouse. The choice is yours. Good luck.
  3. "They will come back when the temp hits 90 again" is like saying "if I shave my eyebrows off, they'll grow back again." True in both cases, but just because something will recover from the damage we inflict on it, it in no way justifies inflicting the damage in the first place. Time may heal all wounds, but that doesn't lessen the stupidity of the initial action.

Pepper Trees (Schinus molle) should be trimmed exactly like any other tree: remove dead, broken, diseased, and crossing limbs; remove any limbs that touch buildings, or impede vehicular or pedestrian traffic; call the power company if the tree is interfering with power lines.

Now stop, put down your tools, step away from the tree.

In very rare instances, we may thin the interior of a tree's canopy to reduce the chance of wind-throw, bearing in mind that wind-throw is far more a function of improper watering than it is of thick canopies. In no instance do we top, stub, or lion-tail a tree, nor do we ever remove more than 25-percent of a tree's canopy in a given year.

We always select trees because we are looking for the specific qualities they add to the landscape. That is particularly true in the case of Schinus molle. The Pepper Tree adds a very graceful and distinctive weeping green form to the Desert Garden; if we prune it into an odd shape, we lose any reason for having it in the landscape. If the Pepper Trees in your landscape are the wrong shape, or the wrong size, or planted in the wrong place, then they should be removed and some suitable trees planted in their stead. If they are the right tree for the space, then they should be left alone.

One other thing to keep in mind about incorrect pruning: if the Pepper Tree has a draw-back, it is a tendency towards producing brittle and weak growth. Improperly pruning your trees will encourage more vigorous growth, resulting in more fragile and poorly attached limbs. In the future, these may break and fall, potentially resulting in property or personal damage, and a potential liability for your association. For good or ill, California is on the leading edge in the development of case law around liability for incorrectly managed trees.

And last, but by no means least: whether an individual homeowner or an HOA, it is our responsibility to set clear standards and expectations for landscape maintenance people, in detail and in writing. When we don't do that, then we can't much complain about what we get.

I hope this helps,


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Friday, December 12, 2008

When Bad Things Happen to Good Trees: Christmas Lights

Christmas Light Damaged Tree © Tyler Storey

In this Advent season, with Christmas nearly upon us, we might be forgiven for thinking the object pictured to the left is a large candy cane.

It isn't.

But 'tis the season for taking a look at what it is.

The object pictured is the trunk of a Palo Verde tree after its Christmas lights were removed. What's worse is that this photo is of only one trunk of a multi-trunked tree: altogether, three multi-trunked trees in this landscape suffered the same damage. The lights were expertly installed, wrapped snugly against the trunk, and when they were lighted they looked spectacular.

The lights were on the tree for only two months, but the ugly brown stripes spiralling up the trunk will be there for the life of the tree.

It is strangely easy for us to forget the two most basic qualities of trees: they are alive, and they grow. Most of the errors we make in the placement, planting, staking, pruning and care of trees are a result of forgetting those two facts. We have a certain tendency to treat trees not as trees but as wood: infinitely malleable and able to be shaped, altered, decorated and re-formed at will. Despite our best efforts, the trees do not agree (Suggesting that trees have the capacity to "agree" or "disagree" is an example of anthropomorphism, or treating trees not as trees but as humans, which is also incorrect but completely off-subject, and doesn't actually damage the trees.).

I've included the picture of the Palo Verde because the damage is visually obvious, but the mesquite in this landscape may have suffered the most. Evey time the lights were turned on, the mesquite tree oozed thick, curved, gobs of sap from directly below each light; it was very odd. Since the lights were removed, the tree has large brown patches spreading over the trunk. I'm keeping an eye on it for the client, but it's not looking good.

The best and only permanent way to light your trees is with landscape lighting, which is always a beautiful addition to the desert landscape. Send me an e-mail and I'll set you up with an expert, and very reasonable, landscape lighting installer. If you must use Christmas lights in your landscape trees, limit yourself to one of two methods: drape strings of lights very loosely around the branches, or buy the light "nets" that can be draped over the entire tree canopy. Both methods have drawbacks, but neither will cause anywhere near the damage of wrapped lights.

Remember: Christmas lights really belong only on Christmas trees, and should be lighted while standing around singing "Angels We Have Heard on High." I never remember the words to the second and third verses, so I just hum along and then make up for it by really belting out the chorus.


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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Stop-Action Broad Bean: Episode 4

Broad Bean Seedling © Tyler Storey

When last we visited our Broad Bean, it was barely poking its head out of the mulch and looked pretty much like a wad of chewing gum. As you can see, it's come a long way in the past week.

If you look closely at the photo, you'll notice a blurry cross-hatching in the foreground. That's the bird netting with which the planting bed is covered.

Whenever we plant seeds directly in the planting bed, it's worth assuming that the birds will be after them as soon as they sprout. A number of different birds will go after and eat the seedlings; from a bird perspective, this makes sense: as human aficionados of sprouts will tell you, seed sprouts are packed full of nutrition; the birds will gobble them right down.

There are some seedlings that don't seem to appeal to avian tastes, but that doesn't stop the birds from trying them out. Kind of like a person who goes through a box of chocolates, tasting and rejecting each one, the birds will go right down the row, pulling out each seedling and casting the unpalatable ones to the side. Some birds, such as the Curved-Bill Thrasher seem less interested in the seedlings themselves,and more interested in digging around each of them in search of insects; the result, however, is the same.

In this particular bed, the Broad Bean plants are probably now large enough that the netting could be removed without fear of avian predation, but since this same bed also has sprouting carrots, beets and cilantro, I'll leave the netting on for awhile yet.

Interestingly, the bird behavior isn't the same every year. Depending on the weather, availability of other food sources, migration patterns, and other factors, there may be years when you can leave a seed bed uncovered and have not the slightest damage. But since that's unpredictable, make it a habit to net your seed beds as a matter of course.


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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Plant to Ponder: Saffron Crocus

Saffron Crocus © Tyler Storey Some plants we put in the landscape just because they're beautiful, others because they're edible, or functional, or have an interesting story. Some, like Crocus sativus, the Saffron Crocus, are all of the above.

Crocus sativus, as you can tell by the botanical name, is part of the familiar Crocus family. The species epithet, sativus, comes from the Latin word meaning "cultivated," a good descriptor, as we have evidence of saffron being cultivated as far back as the Minoans and beyond. Saffron has been a painting pigment, a fabric dye, a sacrifice to pagan gods, and, most famously, a spice for food.

Saffron is the key ingredient in paella, and here at The Ranch it regularly appears in Morrocan lamb and lentil harira and in a Risotto Milanese with morels (you wouldn't think that a combination of saprophytic fungi, animal bones, fermented sheep's milk, and crocus parts would taste so good, but such is the miracle of cooking).

The edible portion of the plant, the part called Saffron in the spice trade, is the stigma, three per flower. In the picture above, the stigmas are the brilliant orange thread-like structures. Harvest these with tweezers a couple of days after the bloom is fully open, and dry carefully before storing them away in a spice jar. Yes, they're tiny, but if you purchase them at the market they go for around $1000 a pound, so don't sneeze.

Overall, the Saffron Crocus is tiny, reaching only a few inches in height and is easily overlooked in the garden. It is widely grown in Mediterranean climates, and thus does well in those areas of the Desert Garden where we re-create more Mediterranean conditions, as in your existing herb garden. Hot and dry, with occasional irrigation, well-drained soil and full to perhaps very slightly filtered sunlight suit it well. Dig up and divide the bulbs every couple of years to keep the plants vigorous; wait until the foliage dies down in late Winter or very early Spring.

The Autumn Crocus, Colchicum autumnale is superficially similar in form and habit to the Saffron Crocus, differing most notably in being deadly poison – always an important consideration when cooking. The Autumn Crocus also lacks the deep orange stigmas, so as long as that's the only part you're harvesting from crocus in your garden, then no problem.


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