Gardening in the desert

Say the word desert and what comes to mind is an area of little rainfall, extreme temperatures and sparse vegetation. Sounds a lot like Las Vegas, doesn’t it? Well, it should as the city is in the middle of the 22,000-square-mile Mojave Desert. Yet this desert is home to more than 1,800 species of plants.

Cindy Dixon is an educational specialist at the Springs Preserve and just might know every one of those plants. She does know summer desert gardening and the best ways to care for the plants and vegetables in your yard.

“The most asked question is always about water,” she said. “I always suggest that people go outside and look at their plants. The plants will let you know if they need water. But keep in mind that watering varies on what you’re growing and what kind of soil you have.

“During our hot summer months, it’s best to water in the early morning. If you wait until midday or even early afternoon, most of the water will likely evaporate before it travels to the plants’ roots. If you can’t water in the morning, early evening is another good time. I like to hand water my plants because it’s relaxing for me. But the best is drip irrigation as water goes deep. But also know that what works for one person in their garden will not necessarily work for someone else.”

Dixon said another way to protect flowers and plants is to weed regularly. Pesky weeds that infest the garden can soak up water, leaving little for the plants. Weed once a week for the best results or twice a month at the bare minimum.

According to Dixon, gardening is a process and it starts with the soil. She tells the story of a master gardener who told her that if you have $100 to invest in your garden, spend $90 on soil as good soil holds moisture and is more alive.

Angela O’Callaghan, an associate professor and social horticulture specialist for the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, said local soil has low fertility. Therefore, adding compost to the soil is vital to getting nitrogen and other nutrients to the plants and flowers to help them grow.

“To improve fertility, work the compost into the soil,” she said. “Then cover it with mulch to keep it cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Wood mulch will shade soil from the sun and eventually break down over time adding compost to the soil. Add additional organic matter as the more activity in the soil, the better it is for your plants.

“Right now, I’m growing tomatoes and because it’s so hot, I’ll pull them as soon as they turn a bit orange and bring them into the kitchen and let them finish on the window sill. Otherwise, if I leave them out too long, they will scold from the sun.”

O’Callaghan advises gardeners to visit www.unce.unr.edu/publications to discover a host of free online publications directly related to growing and tending to desert gardens and yards. One of the books is “Becoming a Desert Gardener,” written by O’Callaghan.

Dixon suggests investing in a moisture meter.

“Soil may look dry on top, but in reality, it’s moist down below and you don’t want to overwater,” she said. “A moisture meter will let you know if your garden needs more water.

But even a chopstick works. Push the chopstick in the ground and if it comes out with soil crumbs, it’s moist. This is no different than placing a toothpick in a cake to see if it’s done.”

Because plants work in a synergistic way, Dixon enjoys relating the story of the Three Sisters, the three main agricultural crops of various Native American groups in North America: winter squash, corn and climbing beans. (It originated with the Haudenosaunee/Iroquois tribe.) When properly planted, they work together, and each plant thrives off one another and also protects the soil.

“A great deal has been written about the Three Sisters garden, and the moral is to study your backyard and learn what might grow best in your location,” she said. “We’re going to have natural garden classes in September at Springs Preserve. The classes will review your garden site, while also discussing sun exposure, wind and the best design for that particular location.”

All the classes and supporting activities can be found at www.springspreserve.org.

While many are concerned with flowers and gardens during triple-digit temperatures, attention should also be paid to lawns. The best advice is to avoid cutting the grass too short. Keep it at about 3 to 4 inches in height as taller grass develops a deeper root system and protects the soil.

Taller grass also keeps the ground cooler because of its height and shade. Grass cut too short will burn and in spite of how much the grass may grow in a week, only cut it back about a half-inch.

Most homes have water sprinkler systems, so it is recommended to water the lawn for 10 minutes and make sure there is no runoff. If there is runoff, reduce the time and water again in one hour. For plants and shrubs, one 35-minute daily watering should suffice.

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