Select plants that are adaptable to our desert climate

Q: We are moving to a new house and want to plant a row of trees by the fence for privacy and security. A local nursery suggested Carolina cherry and Japanese privet, but we heard these trees will not do well in this climate. Another suggestion was the African sumac. What would you suggest? We want evergreen for privacy.

A: The best visual and noise barrier in a desert climate is a wall. Walls do not use water, they block out noise better than plants and last a long time with little maintenance. You can put plants in front of the wall, climbing the wall and trellised near the wall.

I tell people all the time that the plants they select should be as adaptable to a desert climate as possible. Plants intended outside of a desert climate require more time, energy and money to sustain. Carolina cherry, Japanese privet and African sumac, as their names suggest, are not desert plants. The most adaptable to our climate is the African sumac.

I don’t particularly like or recommend any of those plants. They are commonly recommended and sold here, and they will grow here, but you must put them in the right spot, plant them correctly, modify the soil correctly and avoid surrounding them with rock mulch.

Around year five, after planting the Carolina cherry and Japanese privet, they start to decline if they are surrounded by rock mulch around their bases. Chances are they will not do well planted near a wall. If you plant them in the wrong location, they start burning up with the summer heat the first year.

I get many complaints about Carolina cherry and Japanese privet struggling during our high temperatures and poor soil conditions when planted in the wrong location. African sumac is a little better, but it also has problems including leaf drop during summer heat and seedlings invading the landscape if you plant a female tree.

You are much better off in the long run with a decorated wall as a barrier. But when selecting plants, focus on desert-adapted or plants that originate from deserts. If your nursery doesn’t know the difference, go to a different nursery or do your homework online.

Don’t forget the State Forest Nursery near Tule Springs north of Las Vegas as a possible alternative for plants, if you qualify. Its selection is not as good as a nursery, and some of the plants it has available are not desert plants, but it is worth considering.

Q: What are the best methods to store a bumper crop of Meyer lemons?

A: Congratulations on producing so many lemons. Citrus can be a little iffy in the Las Vegas climate because of our sporadic freezing temperatures, but planted in the right location, citrus does quite well. I still don’t recommend citrus for everyone as a blanket recommendation.

Most problems in storage come from mishandling the fruit when picked or not picking properly and storing damaged fruit with undamaged fruit. Bottom line, their best storage temperature is about 55 degrees and 95 percent humidity. They store the longest when they are picked with some green color in the rind. Fully ripened lemons don’t store as long.

For home storage, the easiest place to store them is in the refrigerator, which has temperatures a little low but it’s better than storing them at room temperature. Just keep the humidity as high as possible. I usually use a crisper with some wet paper towels on the bottom to keep the humidity high or store them in plastic bags with holes punched in them so the humidity stays high but the fruit can breathe.

They should keep about a month with good quality. Remove any fruit that is softening or has signs of rotting during storage.

Another option is to leave them on the tree and harvest them when needed. They might keep that way until about early February provided air temperatures don’t dip too low. Make sure they are taken off the tree by mid-February, so they don’t interfere with the next production cycle or if freezing weather is anticipated.

When harvesting citrus fruit, clip them from the tree, close to the button, rather than pulling them off. You want that little button still attached to the fruit rather than ripping the rind which happens if you pull them off.

Allow the fruit to cure off the tree at room temperature or outside in the shade, if it isn’t freezing, for four to five days. That helps to reduce the water content in the peel and helps any wounds heal before storage.

Don’t store bruised fruit that has fallen on the ground with fruit that will be stored long-term. For long-term storage commercially, businesses dip or spray the fruit with a sanitizer that disinfects the fruit of most post-harvest diseases. You can opt out of this.

But if you wash the fruit, be careful not to damage the peel. Don’t scrub it but dip it and lightly wash the rind.

Q: Is there a good battery-powered cutting tool available for pruning? Our orchard has grown to the point where I am physically unable to squeeze a pruner or lopper enough times to keep it maintained.

A: I use a cordless reciprocating saw equipped with a pruning blade for large cuts. It works great, and I have a couple of spare batteries because the saw discharges after about 20 minutes of solid work. For big branches, ¾ inch to about 1½ inches, I also use loppers. It’s a good chest, arms and shoulder workout if you have lots of trees.

There are electric and hydraulic hand pruners for large orchards, but they are expensive. Some lesser expensive rechargeable electric pruners are sold by companies such as Ryobi for less than $100. There are also hydraulic and air hand shears available, but they are considerably more expensive.

I would stay away from no-name or off-the-wall companies that do not have a history of manufacturing good pruning equipment or tools in general.

Q: If I want to make my own compost, what can I mix with steer manure to accomplish a similar composition to compost? Let’s say I take a bag of steer manure and sprinkle some rose fertilizer or similar fertilizer in it. Will this mixture do the same thing for the soil as plain compost?

A: Steer manure is not composted. Straight steer manure is used as a source of fertilizer in agriculture, so you don’t need to add more fertilizer to it. Compost is compost. The reason it’s compost is because of the aging process or the decomposition of its ingredients.

The composting process — turning, aerating, decomposition — is missing from steer manure with other feedstocks rich in carbon. Feedstocks are the components of compost before it goes through the decomposition process.

Together, the feedstock source that contains plant nutrients is mixed with a nonfertilizer source of feedstock that is rich in carbon. Examples of low-nutrient, high-carbon types of feedstock are sawdust, shredded newspaper or cardboard and wood chips.

Compost has two characteristics valuable when added to our desert soils: a structural characteristic and a chemical characteristic. In compost, this feedstock might be from sawdust, shredded newspaper, straw, yard waste and kitchen scraps.

The steer manure itself handles the chemical characteristic. Depending on the source of the steer manure, how it was made and marketed, that might determine the quality of its chemistry. What’s lacking in this compost you’re making is not fertilizer but a structural component.

You can take steer manure and add sawdust or vegetable scraps to it and then compost it. If you did that, you might end up with a good compost. To make it compost, you should keep it moist and turn it once or twice a week.

Protect it from the environment by putting it in a compost tumbler, dig a hole and surround it with cement blocks.

The use of steer manure might add fertilizer to the soil, but it won’t improve the soil structure as much as using compost.

Bob Morris is a horticulture expert and professor emeritus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Visit his blog at Send questions to

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