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Desert Garden Maintenance Ideas for December

Our gardens in December, like in the heat of the summer, really only ask us to enjoy them and make sure there are no problems. While there are no major tasks to perform, we should always be looking at our gardens and assessing them. How do they look each season? Is it making me and the local wildlife happy? Are there any projects that I would like to complete while it's cooler outside? What about replacing annuals, with native perennials? Instead of floating in the pool, I'm sitting by the firepit asking myself these questions.

Topics covered: Planting, Pruning, Flowering, Vegetables, Irrigation, Pests, Weeds, and Fertilizer

Flowering

There is always something in bloom in the desert! In my garden, the Cascalote is in full glorious bloom and will continue through spring. The fragrant Sweet Acacia puffballs are beginning to pop. I'm still seeing blooms from Chuparosa, Desert Marigold, Indian Blanket, Golden Dogbane, Evening Primrose, Angelita Daisy, Datura, Milkweed, Scarlet Sage, Bladderpod and Texas Ranger. Desert Willows flowers are still hanging on. The Desert Wild Grape's leaves are starting to turn russet before they fall off in January or February. Blue Mist Flower is blooming just in time for the monarchs and queen butterflies!

The art of prolonging blooms lies in mindful deadheading. While I selectively remove spent blooms to encourage continuous flowering, I leave most to transform into seeds, providing essential sustenance for local wildlife.

To try seed collection, as soon as seedpods begin to brown or dry, gather them and store them in a paper bag. Allow them to air dry for a week or two in a cool, shady spot. Alternatively, for a more natural touch, let the seeds fall and reseed organically. 

 

October is the best month to sow wildflower seeds but you haven't completely missed your chance! Fall is the best time to sow wildflower seeds with winter and then spring next in order of preference. You can purchase a premade mix adapted to the low desert, plant individual species or make your own combinations with the seeds you have collected.

1. Prepare your area by first clearing any weeds.

2. Lightly rake the area to create a seedbed

3. Soak the seedbed to moisten the soil 1 foot deep.

4. Broadcast seeds with either a handheld sprayer or by hand. I prefer mixing the seeds with sand to get a more even distribution.

5. After seeding, rake lightly again in a criss-cross pattern. Do not cover the seeds too deeply!

6. Water with a fine mist to not wash seeds away.

7. Water seedbed regularly - usually every day until germination. Germination times can vary greatly with soil temperature and seed type.

8. Once germinated, water seedlings deeply every few days.

Pests, Weeds, and Fertilizer

1. Preventative Pest Control: Embrace drip irrigation, a method that keeps plants healthy by watering them from below, minimizing disease by avoiding wet leaves. Healthy plants are naturally more resilient, hosting fewer pests. Adjust irrigation this month as we approach the winter solstice and temperatures are cooler. Still water deeply but extend the days between watering. Overwatered, stressed plants are susceptible to pests and disease.

2. Understand Your Foes: Identifying your garden's foes is essential. Not every bug is a threat, and understanding the natural life cycles of both plants and animals in your garden helps differentiate between normal processes and actual threats.

3. Gentle Intervention: At the first signs of infestation, opt for the least invasive control methods. A powerful jet from your hose or a soapy water solution can work wonders and is gentle on your garden's ecosystem. Timing matters too; treat infestations at dusk when bees and butterflies are at rest, ensuring their safety.

4. Weed Management: Weeds are insidious foes, so regular weeding is essential to prevent their spread. As the weather cools weed growth slows but don't delay when you do see a sprout. If you pull the weeds before they flower, this proactive maintenance saves you from hours of labor later on. Flowers = seeds. Again, adjusting your irrigation and checking for leaks will decrease the amount of extra water available for weeds to germinate.

5. Fertilizing Strategy: While desert plants don't require regular fertilization, they can benefit from a generous layer of mulch (about 3-4 inches). This keeps the soil cool and reduces water evaporation while providing essential nutrients. Consider allowing your leaves to fall and collect naturally. Various sized rubble is another excellent natural looking mulch. The many-faceted sides reflect the sun's rays keeping the ground cool.

For non-native plants in need of a nutrient boost, we fertilize again in February when plants are actively growing again and there is no more chance of frost.

Vegetables

Plants might take a little bit longer to germinate or establish as temperatures cool and days become shorter but you may continue planting, especially things like spinach, lettuces, and root vegetables that like the cold.

  1. Time for Tomatoes: It is possible to still germinate from seed depending on the weather. If we get frost, those new seedlings will not survive. Consider purchasing plants this month if you have gotten a late start.

  2. Herbs in the Spotlight:  If you weren't able to germinate your herbs last month you can consider purchasing plants. Herbs are one of the plants that it is sometimes cost efficient to purchase small single plant instead of a packet of seeds. Most herbs in the low desert are perennials and produce prolifically making one plant usually sufficient.

  3. Mindful Fertilization: One key to successful gardening is understanding your plants' needs. Root vegetables, for instance, require fertilization at the beginning and midway through their growth cycle. Overfertilizing can lead to excessive foliage growth at the expense of the roots. On the other hand, fast-growing plants like those you harvest for their leaves or flowers can benefit from regular feeding every 2-4 weeks. Consider natural options like fish emulsion or sea kelp for a healthy, organic boost.

  4. Winter Herb Care: Don’t forget about your winter-growing herbs. These hardy plants also benefit from a balanced, timely fertilizer. Nourish them properly, and they will reward you with robust growth even in the colder months.

  5. Hold off on pruning or thinning citrus until after their bloom cycle in the spring

  6. Frost: We can begin to see really cold nighttime temperatures. Be prepared to protect young plants.

Planting

  1. Assess and Swap: Take a leisurely walk through your garden. Observe what plants have weathered the summer successfully and note those that struggled. Use this assessment to decide what to replace. Sometimes, a fresh start with resilient, heat-tolerant varieties can breathe new life into your garden. If you are creating a wildlife habitat, look and see what winter food sources you have. Do you have blooms even in the cold winter months? Seeds? And finally look at textures. Some of your plants are going into winter dormancy. How do the colors look together? If you don't have as many blooming plants, do you still have something to give visual interest? 

  2. Go Native: If you love annuals for bursts of color, consider replacing them with native plants. Natives not only add beauty but also support local ecosystems and wildlife. They are often better adapted to the local climate, requiring less maintenance and resources.

  3. Optimal Planting Time: Fall is the optimal time to plant. This allows the root system plenty of time to acclimate and grow before summer but we can still plant into winter. Just make sure to protect any new plants if we get winter storms or really cold nights.

Pruning

In the desert, we do major pruning in the fall, preferably in October. Any major pruning should have been completed by early November. This protects any new tender growth from being damaged by frost which is possible anytime after Thanksgiving. And as a reminder, you do not have to prune. Only do so if needed.

 

  1. Observation is Key: While the major maintenance is done for the season, you continuously want to spend time observing your plants closely. Look for branches obstructing pathways or dead limbs that need removal. By addressing these issues as they arise, you prevent them from escalating into more significant problems later.

  2. Preventative Measures: Proactive pruning can prevent future complications. By eliminating potentially problematic branches early, you reduce the risk of diseases spreading and enhance the overall appearance of your landscape.

  3. Reduced Need for Major Pruning: Addressing issues promptly reduces the likelihood of major pruning requirements later on. By keeping growth patterns in check, you minimize the chances of plants becoming overgrown or misshapen, thereby reducing the need for extensive corrective measures in the future.

  4. Most trees and shrubs do not need major pruning yearly. Over-maintenance is one of the most common ways native plants are killed. By pruning only what is needed you extend the life of the plant, lessen your maintenance, and have a healthier plant with more blooms.

Irrigation

  1. Adjust Watering Levels: Increase the time between watering to align with the cooler weather and shorter days. Winter soltice - the shortest day of the year is this month. Remember, desert natives thrive with deep, infrequent waterings, allowing the soil to dry out between sessions.

  2. Deep and Infrequent Watering: Ensure your irrigation system delivers deep watering, encouraging plants to establish deep root systems. Infrequent watering intervals promote healthier, more drought-resistant plants.

  3. Inspect Water Basins and Mulch: Regularly check the water basins around your trees and plants. Refresh any mulch that may have eroded or thinned out. Adequate mulching conserves moisture, regulates soil temperature, and minimizes weed growth, ensuring your garden remains vibrant and well-nourished.

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