Row Covers to the Rescue for A Changing Climate

Row covers are the desert gardener's secret weapon for growing in a harsh climate with minimal water.

A changing climate challenges every gardener to rethink the way we grow vegetable gardens.  Everywhere the extremes of the growing season are hotter, colder, wetter, drier, and nature is responding in ways we never anticipated.  Bugs don’t die and their eggs or pupae live into a second year to infest plants.  Abnormal cold late in spring or early in fall shorten the growing seasons so some crops can’t mature fully.  Drought stresses plants so much their normal resistance to heat, pests and disease is diminished.  Only one thing is for sure: unpredictability is the new normal. Organic market gardeners who can’t afford to lose their crops drove development of problem solving fabrics called row-covers.  These materials allow rain and air to pass through, but keep everything else out.  They sit upon hoops over vegetable rows to create temporary Quonset hut-shaped affordable greenhouses that both protect the plants and enhance their yields. The basic row cover set-up is about four feet wide and is of infinite length. It’s composed of support hoops made of wire, PVC plastic or metal grids sold for reinforcing concrete.  Row cover fabric is laid over the tops of the hoops, the long sides anchored to the ground with rocks or earth or a long piece of salvaged lumber.  The ends are gathered like a pony tail, tied closed and secured with a stake.  Inside this Quonset hut the plants are protected from weather and pests and cold.  When they grow older and less vulnerable or too large, row covers may be partly or completely removed to allow pollinators to reach the flowers.  The same or different covers can be replaced at any time of the season depending on the crop’s unique needs, or to solve both expected and unexpected challenges. Row cover fabrics vary in purpose and weight.  The most valuable to home gardeners is the super lightweight “floating” row covers made of spun polypropylene designed to keep seedlings protected from insect pests.  Preventing the start of these problem bugs early in the season using a row cover shelter allows plants to thrive and grow more quickly to a size better able to protect itself naturally. Row cover material increases in weight and density with each increment of frost protection.  Using row covers to plant earlier in spring reduces the amount of time you must tend small seedlings indoors.  The row cover can be removed after temperatures warm, or you can replace it with the light weight floating covers for insect protection.  During the depths of summer a row cover can provide ideal shading in very hot southern regions. Then in the fall as temperatures fall, frost-preventing row covers go back on the garden to keep plants productive long after the rest of the garden is lost.  In mild climate regions row covers can mean fresh produce throughout the winter months. Row covers also help to maintain humidity around plants and to reduce evaporation of moisture from the soil.  This is a big help for areas
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The Complete Guide to Organic Gardening Without Wasting Water

Life and Death and Agave

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              For many people, their greatest achievements come at the end of life when they have gained great wisdom and experience.  This too is so with agaves, those extraordinarily tough succulents unique to our new world deserts.  Among them is locally native Agave deserti, with its twisted rosettes of blue leaves that contain a vital source of strong, yet soft fiber harvested a century ago by Cahuilla weavers. Newcomers to desert gardening discover their beautifully blooming plant cannot be coaxed to live after flowers fade.  This is because agaves bloom but once in their lifetime in a spectacular  effort to reproduce itself both by seed, and by cloning itself vegetatively just before death. The entire life span of an agave serves just one purpose: to store enough energy to produce an enormous flower spike.  Those grown for the manufacture of tequila are harvested just before the flowers form, when sugar content is highest to enhance the fermentation process. Some species produce branching spikes with tufts of bright yellow flower clusters at the tips.  Others are a single stalk sheathed in flowers.  It’s believed the highly held flowers allow their scent to lure pollinators over long distances across a barren desert.  Another reason for agave’s very tall spikes is bats, which relish the nectar.  Eco location makes it dangerous when agaves are in a habitat filled with many other spiny or thorny plants.  But with flowers high above the spines, bats easily find and feed upon the nectar, thus ensuring pollination. Each species of agave grows for a certain time span needed to accumulate these sugars.  The average is about 25 years, but some may live far longer.  Problems arise with short lived agaves because they may not last long enough to use in outdoor landscaping. One of our most commonly used species is dark green, vase-shaped Agave desmettiana.  It is the best example of many ways agaves reproduce to sustain the species in difficult climates.  After the bloom stalk sheds its flowers, small perfect plants called bulbils form where blooms detach.  They are the back-up plan for reproduction because conditions are so dry that it’s rare for some agave to grow from seed in the wild.  These bulbils are genetic clones of the mother plant, and when they get large enough they detach in the wind and fall, littering the ground around the mother.  Here they’ll root and grow to maturity unless gathered by an intrepid gardener. This bulbil production is only found in a few species, which coincidentally include our low desert tolerant Agave vilmorniana and Agave angustifolia.  When an agave is old enough to bloom it will do so in spring. My first bulbils were found in the parking lot where they littered the pavement beneath a blooming mother plant.  I rescued as many as I could, stuffing them into my purse to take home to plant in the sand and shade of my irrigated garden.  They were tucked into natural soil
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Turn A Desert Dry Wash into A Vegetable Garden

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This year I’ve moved to a new desert home! Biggest problem is soil that’s largely sand and lacks organic matter and is not bio-active so I need a POWERFUL amendment. So I’m testing out Black Gold Soil Conditioner to see if it will turn a dry wash into a productive vegetable garden.
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Free Oak Trees from Acorns

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Within every summer acorn lives a mighty oak eager to inhabit your yard! It’s easy to grow a whole forest of them from acorns collected now into fall from locally native trees. Best of all they won’t cost you a penny. An oak tree seedling can have a huge taproot supporting just a few inches of top growth. This is why native oaks started in containers often fail because the taproot hits the bottom of the pot and becomes distorted almost immediately after germination. A straight deep taproot is vital to the tree’s drought resistance. Wildland revegetation experts have proven the best way to plant a tree is from a freshly cracked acorn, and now is the perfect time to get started on your free oak tree forest. Gather only perfect acorns that have fallen and put them in a plastic container and refrigerate. This simulates winter. In midwinter in California or early spring elsewhere, remove from storage and set outside in an empty nursery pot. There the acorns will start to crack proving it is viable as the tap root begins to grow. When the acorn has the slightest new crack, plant in the ground where you want the tree to grow.  Set the acorn on its side six inches deep. Nature will do the rest.

Apaches and Agave Plants Before Tequila

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Aguamiel translated from the precolumbian Nahuatl language is honey water, describing a sweet liquid secreted at the heart of the agave. It was collected and fermented into an alcoholic drink known to the Aztecs as pulque. Pulque consumption was strictly regulated. If you were under the age of 52 you could drink two cups a day. If over 52 you could enjoy three. And if you were a priest and practiced human sacrifice for the pulque goddess Mayahuel, you could down five cups. Yet anyone found drunk on pulque was put to death. Fortunately the “civilized” Spanish conquerors made it ok to get sauced on pulque no matter what age you are. Further north many agave species were known generally as mescal, used so extensively by certain Apaches they became known as Mescalero Apaches. They also utilized the fibers that run the length of agave leaves, a factor that distinguishes this genus of plants from the similar looking but fleshy aloes. Known as maguey (maw-gay) in central Mexico, these are considered the earliest fibers ever used in North America. Some believe they are among the first plants ever cultivated in these regions. With so much history, agaves belong in every ethnobotanical garden. They also make first class landscape plants that are architecturally dramatic and tough as nails. But agave does not flower every year like the aloes, yuccas and gasterias. The cycle of the agave begins with an individual “mother” plant. This produces adventurous roots that spread out in all directions and produce “pups” or new shoots all around the base of the mother. Eventually the mother will bloom with an extraordinary tall bloom spike that in some species may reach twenty feet. Sadly, she will die soon after the flowers mature and set seed. But worry not because the pups will quickly fill in the gap where she once stood. Pups make it very easy to obtain an agave by cutting them away with some root from the mother plant. In today’s garden just a few agaves are widely available and reasonably well adapted where winters are mild. The most common in the United States is Agave americana, or the century plant, a large blue fleshed species with wicked thorns hardy to 15°F.. Erroneously named because they bloom once in a century, these plants actually flower at ten to thirty years of age depending on the climate.The variegated form of this species is far more dramatic in the landscape. Its long leaves can be more irregular and striped gold. Another, variegated form with creamy white accent is sold as Agave americana media picta. It makes a superior single specimen so its color and form are appreciated in isolation. Perhaps the most widely planted agave in moist frost-free coastal regions is Agave attenuata. Its soft tipped , succulent sea green rosettes blend nicely into more traditional landscapes. They make an outstanding container plant. When this species blooms it produces a huge pendulous spike quite similar to an elephant trunk. The
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Reconcile Your Garden To Climate Change

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Some say we are forever going into or coming out of an ice age.  So whether climate change is just further exit from the last ice age or something else, it means rethinking the way we use water resources.  With population rising we see water availability growing more stressed in areas never before seen as drought stricken.  And if this is the beginning of a nationwide trend, it’s about time we take a more critical look at our home water use.   One source of water waste is trying to force plants to grow where there’s insufficient rainfall to support them naturally.  Another problem is the way we grow plants, such as lawns, which are an unnatural, water and chemical intensive monoculture.   American cities are surrounded by natural wildlands rich in beautiful plants that grow all by themselves.  If we created landscapes from these species rather than needy exotics, we’d have our own little self-sustaining ecosystem.  Better yet, there’d be far fewer weekends spend mowing and manicuring.   To reconcile our homesites to what’s going on in the environment, the first step is to take a look at locally adapted plants.  These include trees, shrubs, vines, perennials, grasses and wildflowers that grow all by themselves within your local climate zone.  When you plant them in your yard they become automatically super-adapted, resisting drought, disease and pests the way nature intended.    Some of the most profound examples of these are the fabulous rhododendrons and azaleas of the Carolina mountains or maple trees of New England.  Coneflowers shine on the Midwestern prairies while iris bloom in the swamps of the deep south.  Blue spruce cloak the Rocky Mountains, silver lupine hugs the slopes of California foothills and saguaro cactus towers over the Arizona desert.    Botanists and horticulturists believe this is the future of the American landscape.  They have banded together to create native plant societies to promote climate conscious landscaping.  The groups are often associated with universities, botanical gardens and arboretums in your community where locally native plants are grown for demonstration, studied and propagated.  These societies also have links to small independent growers who specialize in native plants.  Some are dedicated to particular groups or genera they handle better than anyone else.  In fact, because some of the most spectacular natives never make it into garden centers, these are the only place you’ll find them.   At native plant society web sites you’ll find references to the best books on local natives for their individual states.  That illustrates the real issue here, that native plants are so regionally specific that national books hardly apply at all.  Plus, field guides don’t offer much because they’re designed to tell you how to identify natives in habitat.  The best books to choose direct you to the native plants proven garden worthy.  They won’t be over finicky and adapt to more varied conditions.    Thanks to the New England Wild Flower Society, we have an excellent database of state native plant societies. 
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