The Placitas Gardener—Gardening in the land of the parched prairie
—Peter C. Benjamin
The precipitation of late has been a gift, but I fear that since we are now in our fifth year of drought conditions, it may be too little, too late for some areas of New Mexico and the Southwest, but that doesn’t have to be the case in your landscape, as there is much to do for spring—even in drought conditions—that will help you maintain the garden that you love.
Although we may be at the mercy of some elements, others can be altered and enhanced in favor of our plants. Where we can’t control the moisture-robbing sun and wind except through windbreaks and walls and shade structures, we can enhance other infrastructure important to healthy plants. I like to think of soil as the foundation to any healthy landscape or garden. Healthy soil allows for healthy root masses, which allows for healthy plants, especially in these conditions.
Soil in our area ranges from caliche and decomposed granite to sandy silt in the valley. The problem with both soil types is an acute lack of organic matter. Sterile soil contains none of the life-giving organisms that create a healthy ecosystem and healthy landscapes. Getting necessary elements into the soil is called inoculation. Effective inoculation of the soil food web includes organic acids, humic substances (humus), carbon and complex sugars, fatty acids, protein and trace minerals, not to mention beneficial microbes such as bacteria, algae, endo- and ectomycorrhizal species and enzymes. Some of these substances are available through compost; others are not.
Most of the humites that are mined are inert and must undergo a reactivity process that raises alkalinity to dangerous levels for our soil pH. Michael Melendrez of Trees That Please and Soil Secrets of Los Lunas (550-3246) has been and is on the cutting edge of soil technology worldwide. He markets a product called Earth Magic, which contains all of the above when combined with freeze-dried fish protein or corn gluten. This is the stuff that plants need as much as water to remain healthy, especially in high-stress conditions. Once you’ve got healthy soil, the rest becomes a relative cakewalk.
First, reconsider your choice of plant material. Terms like drought-tolerant and water-wise give an indication, not a guarantee. Location is also an issue. If you’ve got plants that aren’t performing well, it could be due to their location in the garden, and you might want to consider relocation to an area more conducive to the plants’ particular requirements.
Harvesting runoff is also crucial. Water-harvesting cistern systems are an option, or simply contouring land to catch precipitation will aid in this effort. If you’ve got landscape plastic down, rip it up and get rid of it, as you are starving plants of both oxygen and water, and replace it with landscape fabric. Stone top-dressings absorb a lot of heat mass and cause evaporation and heat stress; consider replacing it with mulch—where appropriate and not subject to wind removal. In fact, mulching is one of the single best things one can due to conserve moisture.
I don’t believe in antitranspirants personally, as I believe the free transfer of oxygen and gases to be crucial in healthy plant development; however, for tender new transplants prone to wind damage, a shelter can be constructed of burlap or cloth and stakes to diminish the problem.
Overcrowding can also be a problem as plants compete for available water and nutrition. The thought of selective removal should at least be visited, if not instituted, and don’t forget to rid your landscape of water-robbing weeds.
If you like to grow vegetables, there are water-wise varieties of many plants available locally in either plant or seed.
Drip systems should be periodically checked for efficiency and leaks, and if you gain nothing more from this article, gain this: running your drip often for short periods is a waste of water. Just as in soil structure, deep watering less frequently is what produces a large healthy root mass, which in turn produces–you guessed it—a healthy plant. You also want to make sure that as your trees grow, the irrigation is pushed out from the tree to hydrate the growing root mass at the drip line or beyond. If your landscape is stressed, forget fertilizing; stressed plants don’t have the capacity to take up nutrients. Instead, consider treating the soil with Earth Magic and the plants with Vita or Superthrive or both, and then fertilize after the plants come out of the stress.
There is no reason not to have a beautiful landscape, even in tough times, but it does require some effort on your part, and those efforts will be rewarded indeed. As a sidebar, my friend and columnist for the Washington Post, Joel Lerner, just finished his new book The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Landscaping (illustrated, McMillan Press), which is available through book retailers nationally. I was honored to write the forward and even got my name and a quote on the front cover. Since this may be the only opportunity I’ll have for such an honor, I’d appreciate it if everyone who enjoys landscaping would go out and buy a copy. It also makes a wonderful gift.
Garden with roses
The Sandoval County Master Gardeners invite all to hear Rick Hobson, horticulturist, speak on “Gardening with Roses” on April 7 from 7:00 to 8:30 p.m.at the Esther Bone Memorial Library, 950 Pinetree Road (next to the post office) in Rio Rancho. For more information, call 867-2582.