Planting a Vegetable Garden and Trying to Protect it From Rabbits

I realize it has been awhile since I have posted. In that time, I have been busy working on my vegetable garden. It is more than just simply digging up the soil and plunking seeds in the ground. My growing season is too short to allow many of my summer vegetable to ripen before the first killing frost in the fall. Additionally I had to devise a strategy for protecting my plants from the rabbits that have never been in my yard before and consider what to do to reduce the need for irrigating my vegetable garden.

To solve the short growing season problem I always start my seeds germinating about three to four weeks ahead of the last killing spring frost. I find a warm spot in my house to place my seedling trays. A temperature of around 68°F is ideal. Soon after the coteledons have popped out of the ground, I move them into the greenhouse where they will get more natural light. If I don’t move them soon enough the stems become etiolated or over elongated and weak.

In my area, we can usually figure on a very dry growing season. Almost all of our 4″ average annual precipitation falls in the winter in the form of snow. This winter we had no snow and only a small amount of rain. I spent some time checking my soil just to see how dry and noticed that where there was leaves and debris on the ground there was a little bit of moisture in the underlying soil. I’ve decided instead of tilling my garden soil, I will simply dig only enough soil around each plant I transplant and then push leaves and other plant debris back around the transplant. Each plant will still receive water from an emitter in my drip system.  I’m hoping this way to conserve water and still keep my vegetable garden from being stressed for water. There is the real danger in my area for domestic wells to dry up in this drought since the agricultural land around it will receive no irrigation after the end of June. It could be a very long hot dry summer and crops will likely die.

Another consequence of this drought is that wildlife is concentrating around our homes and in town. On my property, I have rabbits I’ve never seen before and more deer than usual. I decided I needed a way to protect my plants so I am constructing cages to put around each plant. A larger enclosure might not be as effective in protecting plants since rabbits can burrow. I’m hoping that individual cages around each plant will reduce the problem. Maybe they will instead find my neighbors vegetable garden easier to devour.

Pepper Starts in a cage

These pepper starts have a cage around them because my vegetable garden is infested with rabbits.

Snap Bean Starts in a Cage

Here are some snap bean starts that I have just transplanted to my vegetable garden.

Vegetable cages to keep rabbits out.

I’ve constructed these little cages to put around my vegetable plants in order to protect them from the rabbits

Again My Fruit Trees are Blooming too Soon

Officially, spring arrived March 20 but here in northern Nevada we can still get some

This apricot blossom is lovely now but a heavy freeze is forecast for tonight and will likely freeze this blossom.

This apricot blossom is lovely now but a heavy freeze is forecast for tonight and will likely freeze this blossom.

wintry weather. So far, it has stayed spring like since spring started. It even reached 79 degrees yesterday here in Fallon.

During yesterday’s inspection of my garden, I especially wanted to see how the fruit tree blossoms were doing. I’d noticed they had been opening for the last couple of weeks. I consider this to be too early but not uncommon in my high desert climate. We almost never get fruit. If we are lucky, we might get a few apples. So far based on my inspection we haven’t lost any fruit yet. Notice I say yet. We can still get a hard frost between now and the middle of May on the average. Also, notice I say average.  That means we could get a killing frost after mid May as well.

So far, the apricots and peaches are in full bloom with the apples blossoms barely starting to open. I suspect I will lose the apricots and peaches totally and about a third to half of the potential apple crop with the blooms opening this early. So much for fruit production this year from these trees since it is highly probably they will freeze before fruit can set and mature. Instead, they are landscape trees that add some nice greenery during the growing season. In fall, they usually have nice color as well.

Why are my fruit trees blooming too soon? What can I do about it? The answer to the first

These apple blooms are almost open. Unfortunately they may never fully open because a heavy freeze is predicted for the next morning. They will like freeze and fall of the plant.

These apple blooms are almost open. Unfortunately they may never fully open because a heavy freeze is predicted for the next morning. They will like freeze and fall of the plant.

is that spring temperatures arrived before March 20 warming the soil up. Since our ground has no snow or other insulation to slow the warming of the soil sap starts flowing in the vascular tissue of the trees and shrub early. An additional reason in my given situation for this early bloom is I’m located in a relative low spot where cold air sinks every night. Without breezes to stir up the air allowing cold settle in and freeze the newly forming plant tissues in the floral buds. If fruit has already set, it too will freeze.

There are a couple of practices such as turning sprinklers on in the very early morning before temperatures dip below freezing or setting out smudge pots can protect blossoms and newly forming fruit but they are only effective to a couple of degrees below freezing for a very brief time. Even setting up a very large fan to keep air circulating could help. All of the measures have their limited effectiveness. That is they are only good to a couple of degrees below freezing for a very brief time. A little more effective would be to place a thick layer of mulch over the soil near the trees in the fall. This mulch helps to both hold moisture in the soil and to moderate temperature swing between freezing and thawing throughout the dormant period. Mulch doesn’t need to go right up to the trunk of the trees and shrubs to have it effect on soil moisture and temperature moderation. In fact, it is best not to put mulch right up to the trunk because it can harbor some pests that like to enter a plant from it trunk. The reason it can still effectively moderate the temperature around the roots is that tree and shrub roots extend quite some distance from the base of the tree and the actually growing points of the roots are at the tips which are located at the furthest distance from the trunk. These tips are also, where the greatest water absorption into the root system occurs. You can expect the roots to extend as far as the perimeter of the canopy sometimes referred to as the “drip line”.

One more way to increase the chance of producing fruit in the high deserts of the American West is to choose fruit tree varieties that are later bearing. This usually means it takes more degrees of heat to initiate blossoms. That has the potential to delay blooming as much as a couple of weeks and that reduces but doesn’t not eliminate the likelihood that blooms will freeze. Depending on where you live, greatly increase your chances of get a nice crop of fruit.

Back to Mulch. Mulch has an added benefit. If applied heavy enough it will keep spring weeds down.

Preparing my Garden for the Growing Season Ahead

My garden has many ornamental grasses that I’ve planted over the years. Most of these grasses are species native to the western United States. They have done quite well in my garden and added interest in the heat of the summer when many flowers that bloom don’t last long in the hot dry heat typical of the desert I live in. One of my favorites is Giant Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii).

Giant Sacaton is native to the American Southwest. It is usually found growing in heavy

Giant Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) during the growing season

Giant Sacaton (Sporobolus wrightii) during the growing season

soils in the relatively low lying areas or periodic wetlands. These soils are usually quite alkaline or saline because they are areas where water collects and evaporative leaving behind salts. Because my garden is a mixture of clay and sand with a pH of about 8.0 and high in salts left behind by the now dried up inland sea, Giant Sacaton does quite well in my garden. It is my substitute for Pampas Grass. In some regions of the United States, Pampas Grass is a noxious weed.

Just like Pampas Grass, Giant Sacaton gets quite tall and large over a growing season. Its growth habit is that of a clumping grass that can grow to a height of 6′-8′ and a diameter of several feet at its base.  The inflorescence differs from Pampas Grass in that it is more open and the florets are much smaller.

I use my Giant Sacaton as a screen from a major highway that borders my property. I’m quite pleased with its appearance. I think I will keep it.

Maintenance

Ornamental grasses require very little maintenance since you don’t want to mow or you

I'm starting to clip my ornamental grasses. Here I've clipped one of my Giant Sacatons (Sporobolus wrightii)

I’m starting to clip my ornamental grasses. Here I’ve clipped one of my Giant Sacatons (Sporobolus wrightii)

lose the most ornamental part of the grass which is the inflorescence. If you plant the grasses that are adapted or native to your climate, then very little water should be required to keep them nice looking.

Still, each late winter or early spring I must clip my ornamental grasses back so that new growth can be fully displayed and to extend the life of my grasses. I clip Giant Sacaton back to about 6″ to 8″ height. I clip my other grasses back to a height of 2″-3″ depending on the mature size of each species.

I don’t clip my grasses until late winter or early spring since they have an ornamental value through the winter and some beneficial insects such as lady beetles over winter among the blades.

When I clip my grasses, I’ve started just laying the clippings around the base to help hold moisture in the soil and keep weeds down. I’m also hoping to build up some organic matter in my soil has very little organic matter naturally.

Getting Started With My Garden Renovation Project

Assessing What Renovating Needs to Be Done

As spring arrives, the weather has warmed up enough that it is comfortable enough to walk and crawl around in my garden. I crawl around to check the drippers and prepare to water what is worth saving in my garden. All winter I did some spot watering but not with my drip system. I had to do this spot watering to keep plants dying due to lack of soil moisture. In a good year, I don’t water at all but this past winter and the winter before have been exceptionally dry.

I only watered plants that were not native and that I wanted to save. Most of those were my roses. The desert plants I didn’t worry about because they are adapted to low water conditions and can survive an occasion dry winter if they have received water otherwise at other times such as when I watered them during the summer through the drip system.

I don’t use the drip system during the winter because we do get freezing temperature that can freeze the water in the drip system and damage; not to mention render it plugged up with ice when you try to use it a second time after it has frozen solid.

It is this dry winter and the realization that it might be less burdensome if my non-desert adapted plants were fewer and closer to the house.

Weeds! Weeds! Everywhere!

This is one of three species of winter annual weeds that is dominating my garden right now. It is an annual mustard.

This is one of three species of winter annual weeds that is dominating my garden right now. It is an annual mustard.

As I walk my garden, I notice the winter annual weeds have thrived despite the very dry conditions. My first garden task is going to have to be clearing these weeds out before they can go to seed. If I don’t get them out they will mature and dry to become a serious fire hazard. Additionally, if can get them out before they go to seed they won’t contribute to the already infinite seed bank that has built up in the soil from previous years of neglect.

As I focus on my garden at ground level inspecting the drip system I can't help but notice all the weeds. This one is Cheatgrass and it is doing quite well despite a very dry winter.

As I focus on my garden at ground level inspecting the drip system I can’t help but notice all the weeds. This one is Cheatgrass and it is doing quite well despite a very dry winter.

Starting a Garden Diary

Purpose of this Blog

For now, I’m going to turn this website into a diary of my gardening in the desert. In doing so, I might be able to become more dedicated to both my garden and my writing. Additionally I’ll be able to get in a little photography. All three are my passions but in the past, it seems I neglected one or more them at the expense of paying attention to another.

This past year I neglected my garden but I took some wonderful pictures on my various trips. Now my garden looks sad.

A Little Bit about my Garden

My approximately two acre garden is part of an 18 acre farm located in the Nevada desert.

This picture is deceiving. The foreground is an irrigated alfalfa field. My garden has desert soil and a desert climate that required lots of supplemental water unless I plant desert adapted plants.

This picture is deceiving. The foreground is an irrigated alfalfa field. My garden has desert soil and a desert climate that required lots of supplemental water unless I plant desert adapted plants.

From the picture one may be deceived into believing it isn’t located in desert but that greenery you see is an alfalfa field that must be irrigated every couple of weeks to keep it green and producing hay throughout the growing season. Our average annual precipitation is only 4″. This past year I doubt we had 2″. We are in a prolonged drought that started about four years ago.

My garden’s soils are of about pH 7.0 to 8.0 and very low in organic matter. In some patches of my garden, the soil has a white crust of salt at the surface. At one time in ancient history my garden and the surrounding community were at the bottom of a very large inland sea.

I’m not entitled to water my garden with the superior quality irrigation water from the Newland’s Irrigation Project which delivers surface waters from the Carson River and Truckee River combined. Instead, I must use well water, which is higher in salt content. Fortunately, it is of acceptable quality with a pH of only 7.6.

Right now, my garden is a disheveled, eclectic mix of desert adapted native plants and non-native plants you might find at garden center. It’s also full of weeds. Particularly some escaped noxious weeds from the alfalfa field that I don’t have total management control of.

I’m working on a plan to renovate my garden to something that is more manageable and more water thrifty.

It May be Spring on the Calendar but Still Winter in the Garden

If you live in the higher desert regions of the western United States, spring weather

Seed catalogs have been arriving since December but a little bit of spring weather can temp gardeners in the desert climates of the Intermountain West to plant vegetable gardens too soon

Seed catalogs have been arriving since December but a little bit of spring weather can temp gardeners in the desert climates of the Intermountain West to plant vegetable gardens too soon

does not dependably arrive on March 20. These high desert regions are sometimes referred to as the Intermountain West. Where I live in northern Nevada, it is best to wait until at least mid-May to put tender vegetables out in the garden. By then it is usually too late to plant cool season vegetables because they tend to bolt by the time our hot dry summer arrives. Waiting this long to plant a vegetable garden can limit the yield in your garden if you have an early frost in the fall. There are a couple of solutions to this problem. One is to use season extenders and the other is to select shorter season varieties.

March is not too early to order seed for gardens in the Intermountain West but instead of planting these seeds directly outside you may want to plant them indoors for later transplanting outdoors.  Tomatoes, eggplants and peppers do better transplanted as seedlings rather than seeded directly into garden soil and cool season vegetable may need to be grown entirely under protective cover.  However, it is still too early to start planting a vegetable garden in much of the Intermountain West.

Pictured are the materials needed to start seed indoors. Peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes do better when transplanted into the garden as seedling rather than direct seeded.

Pictured are the materials needed to start seed indoors. Peppers, eggplant, and tomatoes do better when transplanted into the garden as seedling rather than direct seeded.

These high desert regions tend to go from cold to hot in only a matter of days making the raising of cool season vegetable without use of hoop houses and row covers

Cool season vegetables can be raised under protective row covers like the one pictured here.

Cool season vegetables can be raised under protective row covers like the one pictured here.

impossible.  If you have a hoop house or use rowcovers, cool season vegetables can be planted in March and sometimes earlier.

Warm season vegetables seem to produce better in the hot dry climate of the Intermountain West.  Though summers in these high dry deserts can be ideal for raising warm season vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, squash, cucumbers, eggplant, okra, and melons, they still may need some early protection or the need to select varieties that mature sooner.

Even though warm season vegetables do well here, disappointing production can occur will longer season varieties.  Try to select tomato and pepper varieties that are supposed to produce fruit in 75 days or less (preferably less).  For melons, 100 days or less should produce melons before the first frost in the fall. However, don’t expect melons before August.

Besides the length of growing required to produce an edible vegetable, it’s also a good idea to select varieties with disease resistance.  Most regions of the Intermountain West still have to be concerned about curly top virus, Fusarium wilt, and Verticillium wilt.  All vegetables are susceptible to these diseases; although some varieties are less susceptible than others.  Many tomato and pepper varieties on the market now have resistances to these diseases.  Most heirloom varieties however do not have resistance to these diseases and require special attention to cultural practices such weeding and crop rotation reduce the chance plants will falling victim to these diseases.

It’s a good idea to know how large of a garden you want before you order seeds.  Some vegetables take a lot of space.  Melons and cucumbers tend to spread and take up a lot of space.  Check the catalogs, some varieties of cucumbers don’t spread as much.  You can also train cucumbers up a trellis.

Small gardens may be too small for sweet corn unless you only want to raise sweet corn.  In order to fill ears, sweet corn requires a minimum of four rows and must have exposure to the wind for pollination. Otherwise, mature ears of corn will not fill and the mature kernels will be sparse.

If you plan on planting peas or beans pay close attention to the description.  Some varieties still require structures to climb on.  There are many varieties now called bush types that don’t require these structures and are much easier to grow. If the peas or beans are not bush types then they much be trained up a trellis.

Gardens in Dry Regions May Require Winter Watering

Winter is a time when we think we can abandon the garden and turn to other activities

This Arizona Cypress had been a young vigorous plant the summer before this picture was taken. The winter this young tree died was a very dry winter with significantly less than average precipatation.

This Arizona Cypress had been a young vigorous plant the summer before this picture was taken. The winter this young tree died was a very dry winter with significantly less than average precipatation.

because it is too cold outside and plants in our gardens are dormant. Although plants do not need much water during the winter that doesn’t mean they don’t need any. During a normal winter, even the majority of locations in the arid western United States receive adequate moisture to keep plants alive over the winter. The problem is when we don’t receive normal moisture plants may die due to lack of adequate water.

Just because the leaves are gone and the lawn has turned a golden shade, doesn’t mean trees and shrubs aren’t consuming water. The roots of dormant plants are still actively metabolizing stored carbohydrate from the previous season’s growth and these metabolic processes require water to continue. Fortunately, plants don’t need as much water during the winter so you won’t have to water as frequently while plants are dormant. The frequency of winter watering will depends on the weather.

Lack of water is one reason for winterkill of plants that would normally be hardy in your area.  With the recent drought in the western United States, it is becoming a more common phenomenon. If you will just check your soil moisture regularly in the winter months, the plants don’t have to die.  All this involves is watching the weather patterns in your area and going outside with a sharp implement such as a screwdriver and probing the top 6″ of soil to see if it is still moist. With the screwdriver, probe the top 6″ of the soil in a number of areas of the yard. Just checking one spot will not give you an accurate assessment of the soil moisture in your yard because not all areas of the yard dry equally fast.

If the soil in these areas is dried out it’s time to water but before you think about turning the water on to your drip system or activating a permanently installed sprinkler system consider the fact that the next morning’s temperatures are likely to be freezing and water in these irrigation systems could freeze and break them. Winter watering requires methods allows you drain the water from your means of conveying water to the plants store it in a frost-free location are necessary for winter watering. Items that meet these requirements are hoses, soaker hoses, portable sprinklers, and buckets.

Winter watering may seem like a lot of work but that can be reduced dividing your yard into zones and checking it by zones. As mentioned earlier not all areas of the yard dry out at the same rate. Delineate these zones by exposure to the sun and soil type. Western and southern exposures in your yard, if there is nothing to block the intense sunlight or wind, will dry out faster than eastern and northern exposures.  Soil texture can also affect how often you will need to water during the winter if you don’t get any precipitation. Sandy soils dry out faster than clay or loam. To reduce the loss of soil moisture over the winter months and moderate temperatures it a good idea to place a leaf or grass mulch over the surface of the garden except on lawns.

We can always hope for a wet winter but if you want your landscape to survive the winter you need to be prepared, observant, and vigilant.

Think Before You Prune

In many locations in the arid western United States, the weather starts to warm up

This is an example of hat racking. It creates a hazardous tree that will require extra maintenance in the years to come.

This is an example of hat racking. It creates a hazardous tree that will require extra maintenance in the years to come.

in February and gardeners start getting anxious to start doing yard work. Go slow though since many times this is only a false spring. One gardening task that you can start in February is pruning of fruit trees, trees, and summer blooming shrubs. Before you do, read up on how to do pruning properly. I’ve seen too many bad pruning jobs can increase maintenance tasks later and even leave a more hazardous plant that could become a liability; not to mention lower the value of your property.

Before starting on any pruning, make sure your implements are sharp and sterilized with a 10% solution of Chlorox.  For chainsaws and any thing that can’t be dipped in a solution of Chlorox there are sterilizing sprays that can be used.  Better yet, save the chainsaw for total tree removal!   Chainsaws are hard to sterilize and harder to control.  So unless you want to remove the tree they really aren’t very useful.

A good set of pruning tools consists of hand pruners, lopping shears, curved tree saw, and a bow saw.  Extended handle pruning tools can be included but they are awkward to use and don’t always make a clean cut.

Now that you have a clean set of pruning tools it might be time to prune but before doing so I recommend checking the Internet for some good information on what to prune and how to prune.  Most land grant universities have very good online publications with good illustrations.  More detailed and extensive information on pruning can be found in some very good pruning books that can be purchased at local nurseries or bookstores.

Most trees, except for fruit trees need very little pruning.  Removing branches that rub other branches or diseased branches is really all that is needed.  Also branches that block walkways or rub against the house should be removed.

Fruit trees do benefit from thinning the branches so that more of their energy goes into making fruit but shade trees usually do not need this thinning.  If you do thin the branches remember that it’s best not to reduce the crown more than 25% and never top the tree.

Though fruit may benefit from heavier pruning, don’t forget to think about which wood may produce fruit.  Some fruit trees only produce fruit on two-year-old wood.  If you prune too aggressively you may prune away all of your fruit.  Many years this is a mute point if you live in a high desert valley because the frost will freeze the blossoms before pollination. Still, if you prune too aggressively, even good years will not bear fruit.

Do not prune spring flowering shrubs such as Forsythia and lilacs until after they bloom in the spring.  Pruning before they bloom will only reduce if not eliminate their showy blooms in the spring.

Roses are one flowering shrub pruned in spring before leaves appear but save pruning them until after you are finished pruning all the other woody plants that you want to prune. This is because you may still have some cold weather and more wood could die or you may have piled up some mulch around the base to protect them from dying below the graft. If you live in an area where winter can hang on until early or even mid spring you may still need that mulch which could get in the way of pruning. Additional, you could find you have pruned the wrong canes and will have no live canes left.

It would take a book to get all the information you need to do a good job proper job of pruning your trees and shrubs and more than anyone wants to read in a blog post so check out your local Cooperative Extension publications and check book stores for pruning books.  Many Extension publications are online. Don’t worry if the Extension publication you find is not from your state; most of the information on pruning works no matter where you live.  The publications I’ve found online have very good drawings of just how a cut should be made and what should be cut.  So before you prune, do some reading and please don’t top the trees.