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Becoming a "Desert Gardener"

Posted 4/29/2008

Yes, the desert is DRY and there is a lot of sand and rock out there, but with good local information, some work, a lot of organic matter and water, you too can become a decent "Desert Gardener". People who move here from other states, especially the East and MidWest, call the Cooperative Extension office with comments like "I used to be a pretty good gardener but things are different here" or "I never had this problem before". That’s why local information is critical for being a successful desert gardener.

Getting Started

The three most important steps to success are soil preparation, proper plant selection and adequate irrigation. Desert soils lack organic materials, are high in salts and are more alkaline. Many plants that like cool, moist conditions just do not do well here. Some will struggle and stay alive but never look, bloom or bare fruit like they do in a better-suited climate. Some plants that do well in southern California or Arizona, like bougainvillea, can be planted here but will freeze out or freeze down to ground level when our temperatures dip below freezing, which happens most winters. Fruit trees need exposure to cold weather in order to fruit. Many varieties of fruit trees require more winter chill hours than we have, so to be successful you need to choose a variety with low winter chill hour requirements or plant fruits like pomegranate or fig that are better adapted to our warmer climate. It is easier to be a successful gardener if you grow what does best where you are.

As Southern Nevada’s population grows, so does the demand for water. Over one-half of the water used by the average homeowner is used outdoors. As cost for water goes up, choosing a home with xeriscape may be more important. Converting traditional landscape adds cost and unless done properly, can cause permanent damage to established trees. The size and type of plant will determine the proper irrigation installation necessary for healthy growth. A common problem homeowners in the area have is that the landscape company will put in adequate drip irrigation for an immature shrub or tree, but the homeowner does not realize that the system needs maintenance and will need to be expanded as plants grow. Understanding the basics of irrigation can help you work on your own system or know what to ask a professional.

Even the term "gardening" can be a little controversial. Many think only of vegetables when they think of gardening. We use it in a broad sense to mean growing live plants. University of Nevada Cooperative Extension (UNCE) offers the free booklet Becoming a Desert Gardener (available in English and Spanish) that is an excellent reference for those new to desert gardening and has tips that all gardeners might find helpful. Becoming a Desert Gardener is an all around gardening booklet. It explains how the weather and our soil types affect gardening and has sections on compost, fertilizers, raised beds, mulch, watering, native and desert adapted plants, herbs, vegetables, annuals, perennials, bulbs, fruits/berries, turfgrass, trees, palms and pruning. University of Nevada Cooperative Extension has information on all of these topics and much more. You can call or stop by the office (702-346-7215 or 702-397-2604, 1897 N. Moapa Valley Blvd., Logandale) to pick up local information and get answers to your specific questions or access Becoming a Desert Gardener at: http://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ho/2001/sp0115.pdf .

Vegetables

There is a vegetable planting calendar in the center of Becoming a Desert Gardener that shows when to plant different vegetables. Vegetables are divided into two general categories based on when they grow best in the desert. Cool season vegetables are planted so that most of their growth is in the cool part of the year. They are the tubers, roots, bulbs, stems, leaves and pre-flower structures. Warm season vegetables are planted so that most or all of their growth is in the warm (but not the hottest) part of the year. These vegetables are usually fruits and seeds. Some cool season vegetables like asparagus, beets, carrots, swiss chard, parsley, radish, and spinach can be planted through March. Most warm season vegetables can be planted by mid-March into April and include beans, cantaloupe, corn, cucumber, eggplant, peppers, pumpkin, squash, tomato and watermelon. For those who have not tried a vegetable garden before, I encourage you to think about trying it. Some vegetables even do well in container gardens. There is nothing that compares to fresh home-grown vegetables, especially tomatoes. Gardening also gives you exercise, a sense of accomplishment and a way to enjoy nature.

Roses

The rose is the best known and most loved flower in the world and is our national flower. Roses do very well when planted in our area. They will do best if they are placed where they will get morning sun, afternoon shade and at least six hours of full sunlight each day. They will take full sun but will not flower as abundantly and will have poorer quality blooms during the hot months but then will revive and continue to bloom until the temperature drops below 30 °F, usually in November or December.

Roses can be purchased in containers or as bare root stock (plants without soil around the roots). In this area, gardeners can plant container roses anytime except during the heat of the summer. Bare root roses are planted from December to mid-February. Select only graded No. 1 roses for best results. A No. 1 rose has three or more canes that are 14-18 inches long. On bare root roses, the buds and canes must still be dormant. For best results, prepare the soil in advance and plant immediately after purchase.

When planting roses, dig a hole 2 feet deep and 2 feet square in an area free from tree and shrub roots. Check drainage by filling the hole with water. If water remains in the hole for more than six hours, there is poor drainage and you should dig deeper and try again or find a new location.

Desert Southwest soils are void of organic matter. Improve the soil by thoroughly blending equal parts of organic matter with the native soil. To this matter, add a half-cup superphosphate (0-20-0), a cup of sulfur, and 1/2 cup of blood meal or 1 cup cottonseed meal. When planting a container rose, remove from the container and examine the roots. If they are tangled, cut the root ball in half with a sharp knife. Place enough prepared soil into the hole so the crown will sit 2 inches above the soil surface after planting. Place the root ball on top of the soil and straighten out some of the roots. If you cut the root ball because of tangled roots, spread the two halves in the bottom of the hole in a butterfly fashion and add the remaining soil. After planting, add water to settle the soil. Also build a reservoir or berm around the rose for irrigation. Cover all exposed roots with at least two inches of soil and firm with foot or hand. Add a root stimulator before irrigation. After planting, prune canes back to approximately 8-12 inches. Make the final cut above an outside facing bud so new growth can develop outward.

Mulch roses to conserve moisture, lower soil temperature and control weeds. Sprinkle two tablespoons of nitrogen (21-0-0) in the mulch under each rose to replenish the nitrogen lost to microorganisms decaying the organic matter. Fertilize with an all-purpose rose fertilizer or organic fertilizers such as blood meal, fish emulsion, etc. Spread fertilizer evenly over soil starting six inches from the trunk and ending 12 inches beyond the bush’s drip line. Lightly scratch nutrients into the soil to avoid injury to shallow roots. Irrigate before and after fertilizing to prevent burning. Always follow directions on the fertilizer label. Be sure to water "deeply and less often". Light, frequent irrigations cause shallow root growth which leads to water stress during the summer windy periods. Irrigate to the bottom of the root zone (about 18-24 inches deep) with each watering.

In mid-February, fertilize roses with a balanced fertilizer. Add a cup of sulfur, 1/4 cup of magnesium sulfate (Epsom salts) and 1/2 cup of super phosphate to each established rose to stimulate new cane growth and improve bloom quality. Apply a three-inch layer of mulch after fertilizing. In March, April and May use the recommended amount of fertilizer and watch for disease problems. In June, July and August, fertilize at 1/2 the recommended rate. In June apply one-fourth cup of magnesium sulfate and again at the end of August. Return to normal fertilizer in September and October. Do not fertilize in November, December and January. For more information on rose care, diseases, and pruning ask UNCE for a copy of Growing Roses in the Desert Southwest or access it on the web at: http://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ho/2003/sp0315.pdf.

Enjoy Vegetables and Flowers at the Fair

Local gardeners who grow flowers and vegetables and those who enjoy looking at them will want to enter exhibits or come see the horticulture exhibits at the Clark County Fair and Rodeo, April 10-13, 2008 at the Clark County Fairgrounds in Logandale www.ccfair.com.

The University of Nevada Cooperative Extension is an outreach arm of the University that extends unbiased, research-based knowledge from the University of Nevada—and other land-grant universities—to local communities. Educational programs are developed based on local needs, often in partnership with other agencies and volunteers. For more information about the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, please visit the website at www.unce.unr.edu or call (702) 346-7215 or 397-2604.

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