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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.


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.

NormDec 3, 2013 | Winter Watering
After a recent rain followed by a cold snap this week, Norm Schilling digs in to figure out how much water is needed this time of year. Touch the leaves to get a feel and don't water much at all for the next few months.

AngelaNov 18, 2013 | Herb Gardens
Our desert environment may be hard to handle for many plants, but it is possible to grow your own herbal remedy. The healing properties of some herbs are still widely recognized. Even though we rarely have to rely on them to deal with our infirmities, Angela O'Callaghan says many herbs are pretty and simple to grow.

NormNov 5, 2013 | Fall Color
Our second Spring is in full bloom. Norm Schilling shares his favorite plants that are bringing color to the yard right now, including Chocolate Flower, Mexican Bush Sage, Autumn Sage and ornamental grasses.

AngelaOct 29, 2013 | Pumpkins
Halloween just wouldn't be the same without the jack-o-lantern. But there's more to the tradition of decorating squash than meets the eye. Angela O'Callaghan says pumpkins are more than decorations for a single day. They're food, and a very good food at that.

NormSep 30, 2013 | Fall Pruning and Mulching
Pruning for aesthetics and mulching for rich soil quality are on his to-do list before he gets started in earnest on fall planting. Find out where to find mulch and mulch more on this week's edition of Desert Bloom.

AngelaSep 17, 2013 | The Best Place to Garden
The Mojave Desert isn't the easiest place to cultivate a garden, but we do have a few advantages here. In fact, Angela O'Callaghan says Southern Nevada is the BEST place in the world to be a gardener, partly because dry air helps keep our plants healthy.

NormSep 3, 2013 | Sacred Datura
Sacred Datura is a native, but poisonous, desert plant that offers stunning blooms. Often seen at the side of the highway, it's found a home in Norm's yard.

AngelaAug 20, 2013 | Drought
Living in the desert means - learning to live with less water. The more thought you put into watering, the better off your plants will be.

NormAug 6, 2013 | Casualties of Summer
Ever the optimist, Norm finds something to learn from the casualties of summer.

AngelaJul 22, 2013 | White Prickly Poppy
Is a poppy by any other name just a weed?

NormJul 9, 2013 | Agave
Agave is well suited to our desert climate. Norm Schilling shares his collection.

AngelaJun 25, 2013 | Summer Vegetables
Growing your own food in triple-digit weather is challenging, but not impossible.

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