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December 13, 2013

DESERT BLOOM: Winter Greens



So many things make gardening in the desert southwest surprising and interesting. Everyone knows it’s not like growing plants in any other region. We have our five seasons, while most other gardeners have to be content with only one. Summer’s definitely the toughest time, but the other seasons allow us to grow almost anything!

Spring here is like spring anywhere, except that begins around February. When I lived in the great American Northeast, we didn’t dare plant anything until mid-May. I remember putting tomato plants into the ground on the 4th of July and hoping to get a few fruit before the first frost in October!

No, the Mojave is a gardener’s paradise. Honestly!

This past fall, I started my seeds for the leafy greens – mustard, spinach, lettuce - and got them planted around the end of October. Actually, they’re in a small raised bed and some 14-inch pots. I was able to start harvesting the end of November.

Our middle of winter is not the “dead of winter” as in other places. Not only is it a great time for thinking about spring and looking at catalogs, it can be yet another growing season.

Two factors make it possible to have a garden of greens during the winter. One is the way many of these plants grow. Take lettuce, for instance. The outer leaves are the oldest ones. I harvest the outside leaves and permit the inner part of the plants to continue growing. It’s not necessary to take out the entire plant! Since I don’t do a lot of food preservation, I only need to take some leaves every day. Besides, what can you do with lettuce besides eat it fresh?  

The other element for success in a winter desert garden is protection.

Floating Row CoverUltra-light fabric, called “floating row covers” can rest on the growing plants overnight, and that keeps temperatures two or three degrees warmer. Many plants will normally survive temperatures down to about 28 degrees Fahrenheit, although it does stress them, and causes considerable damage to leaves.

This row cover protection can mean the difference between freezing and thriving. It’s the winter equivalent of shade cloth, which we use to shield plants from sunburn.

In past years, when winter temperatures dropped below freezing for many nights in a row, I’ve added heavier materials to shelter crops. I bought a roll of dense clear plastic at the hardware store. I suspend the plastic on pvc pipe or rebar and it’s like a mini greenhouse. It’s not hard to work with; can be put up or taken down easily. When daytime temperatures hover in the 30s I keep it up and might even lay row cover on the plants themselves. That’s double protection, like insulation in the roof.

This year, I’m doing something different with plants that’re absolutely not winter crops. My tomato plants looked puny most of the summer, in part because I had an irrigation malfunction. Since I felt they deserved a chance to come back, I didn’t pull them out as I normally would in September. They came back. All through November, they produced fruits. More than they did throughout the whole year. Every morning I’ve been harvesting green tomatoes and putting them on the windowsill. As long as they’ve reached a certain level of maturity, they turn red and tasty! When it gets cold, I’ll have to decide whether to dig them up or cut them down and let them come back next year. Tomatoes are perennials, but rarely produce as well in subsequent years. Might be worth a shot, though.

In 2014, I’ll be offering an expanded version of my “Growing in Small Places” series. This year I’ll present a different topic every month. Call the Master Gardener help line for details.

Finally, I’d like to thank the members of the Desert Green Foundation for giving me the 2013 Bill Tomyasu Award for service to Nevada’s horticulture industry. This was a high honor, and I am so grateful. It puts me in distinguished company.

For KNPR’s Desert Bloom, This is Dr. Angela O’Callaghan of the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

See discussion rules.


NormOct 7, 2014 | Second Spring
The call it a "second spring" Norm Schilling has some plan ideas to make Fall colorful in your yard. He has a checklist of plants looking their best, because now is the time to plant in Southern Nevada.

AngelaSep 30, 2014 | Fountain Grass
A weed by any other name is still a weed even if it doesn't look like one. If only everything in our gardens thrived as well as weeds. Here is Angela O'Callaghan.

NormSep 15, 2014 | Desert Heat
Norm describes a significant casualty of the desert heat. There's going to be a big gap in Norm's Yard and a lesson on the reality of our desert landscape.

AngelaAug 12, 2014 | Organic Pesticides
Choosing a method for ridding your garden of an unwanted guest, be it bug or weed, is not always a simple choice. But the more you know, the better it goes. Here's Angela O'Callaghan

NormJul 28, 2014 | Lose that Lawn
We know, it's a desert out there including every place there's a lawn. Norm Schilling reminds us all the ways he wants you to consider losing the lawn... permanently.

AngelaJul 14, 2014 | Protect Fruit Trees from Birds
If you put a good deal of care into growing fruit trees, there are likely some birds who will take advantage of your effort. Here's Angela O'Callaghan.

NormJul 10, 2014 | Palm Care, Part 2
To keep, or not to keep. Norm Schilling ponders his palm trees, on this edition of Desert Bloom.

NormJun 10, 2014 | Palm Care
Norm Schilling has mixed feelings about how we use Palms in our yards. Full grown palm trees transplanted into the entry way of a mall is a common sight that tells Southern Nevadan's "something" is nearly open for business. He reminds us that those palms come with challenges.

AngelaJun 3, 2014 | Hot Weather Plants
As temperatures across the Valley begin to climb, you might be wondering what will survive in your garden in the months ahead and what probably won't. There are some 'sweet' options. Here's Angela O'Callaghan

NormMay 20, 2014 | Desert Color
Norm Schilling just got back from Belize and has some ideas for lush leaves in your desert yard. He reflects on some well suited plants to provide color and variety in this edition of Desert Bloom.

AngelaMay 6, 2014 | Emerald Ash Borer
Raising a healthy shade tree in the Mojave is not always easy. And if one particular insect makes its way here, it could get even harder. Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

NormApr 22, 2014 | The Right Plants
Our current warm spell gives the impression that some plants can thrive when they aren't really suited to our desert. Norm Schilling has some examples.

NormMar 24, 2014 | Spring Garden Party
Spring is here and the garden is blooming . . . so invite some friends to enjoy the rewards of gardening!

AngelaMar 10, 2014 | Lady Banks
If you love roses, but don't care for thorns, you may want to call on 'Lady Banks.' Here's Angela O'Callaghan with Desert Bloom.

NormFeb 26, 2014 | Signs of Spring
It may be February, but if you are paying attention, signs of Spring are visible. Dwarf peach and Mexican plum trees are in bloom. Vibrant Red Spraxis can be seen among the falling Almond blossom. Watch gardening expert Norm Schilling transplant an offshoot. Check out the slide show of photos taken from his backyard.

AngelaFeb 18, 2014 | Mulch is for Winter
Rewards for using mulch in your landscape can be had year-round. Mulch is about mulch more than just "good looks" according to Angela O' Callaghan. In any climate, and certainly in a desert, mulch is an ecologically sound way to conserve our limited soil moisture and to control weeds.

NormFeb 4, 2014 | Investing for Spring
Temperatures are scheduled to stay cool this week, but Norm Schilling finds his yard is ready for Spring. He reflects on techniques to keep older trees healthy even as the surrounding yard may change. Bigger, older trees may need more water.

AngelaJan 13, 2014 | Freezing Temps
If your garden looks like it's been zapped by Jack Frost, there's still a chance that all is not lost. Delicate desert plants can suffer chill damage even when the temperature stays above freezing. Well-established plants should survive.

NormDec 31, 2013 | Leave the Leaves
Just because most of the leaves have fallen from the trees, it doesn't mean you have to rake them all up. Norm Schilling says it's better to use the leaves as mulch to protect the plants and make rich soil. Some woody plants can be pruned now, while others should wait another month or two.

AngelaDec 13, 2013 | Winter Greens
It is the season to enjoy some winter gardening. In Southern Nevada, a cold-snap does not have to mean that your garden is done for. Angela O'Callaghan gives a few cold facts.

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