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.


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.

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.