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Desert Garden Maintenance Ideas for February

We are finally coming out of the dark days of winter with the days becoming noticeably longer and the temperature generally mild.

 

Wildflowers are starting to bloom and plants are coming out of dormancy. Now through March, you will see a significant difference in your garden. If you are going to do any planting or pruning projects, now is the time so the plants can acclimatize and recover before the summer.

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

Vegetables

March is when we plant our warm-season crops here in the low desert so take some time now to plan your spring/summer garden.
This is the last major cool season planting for root vegetables, loose leaf lettuces, greens, Bok Choy, Peas, Spinach, Artichoke, Brassicas, Green Onion, Onion slips, Potato slips, Herbs: chives, basil, oregano, sage, cilantro, cumin, dill, parsley as well as Citrus and Stone Fruit trees

Now is when you prune some fruit trees like stone fruit.

Pruning

In the desert, we used to plan for our major pruning in October and  February. As we learn we've realized that it is best to not do major jobs in the spring. Spring is when our wildlife is most active and nesting. By pruning our trees and shrubs we are removing their nesting sites and shelter.

You always want to be looking at your plants though and only trimming problem areas. Is there a branch in your pathway or do you have a dead branch that needs to be taken out? At this time of year, you want to look for frost-damaged branches, check for leggy growth that needs pruning back, and determine if the plant is overgrown. This keeps you from having to do as much in the fall and corrects issues before they become major problems. If you are having to regularly prune your plants you should look at why. Trees should not need to be pruned yearly. Shrubs left in their natural shape only need an occasional snip here or there. Are you watering too much? Is the plant in the wrong place? And most importantly, you want to always check for nesting animals before you prune!

Most importantly, if you can tell it's been pruned, it was done incorrectly! Your job is to help the plant maintain its natural shape, not force it to be the shape you want it.

If the plant is actively flowering, wait until October. If I need to "clean up" an area I don't trim all the flowering plants in that section. I will make sure to leave blooms for the animals.

If you have non-native, what we commonly call drought-tolerant or water-efficient plants, some of those do like to be pruned this month. With the longer days and temperatures warming they will grow back quickly. The Mexican Bird of Paradise will have denser, more lush growth if cut back to 18 inches. If you trim bougainvillea now, you can allow it to freely grow (trimming errant branches of course) until October. This allows the plant to stay green and not lose bracts/flowers to trimming, giving you a much prettier plant.

Grasses like Deer Grass are typically cut back now as well. I am not a fan of this practice. When you cut the grass back you are risking it not coming back or not all of it recovering resulting in a misshapen plant. I hate seeing what should be beautiful mounds of grass with graceful plumes being reduced to dead looking brown lumps. A better solution is to "comb" your grass with a rake. This removes the loose dead material keeping it greener.

If the plant is one of our native summer growers, like a Mesquite or Palo Verde, I recommend waiting until after its summer growth spurt to prune. 

Be prepared to protect any new growth if the temperatures are going to stay cold for a significant amount of time.

Irrigation

Our rainy season is from December through February. This is when our local native plants are expecting to receive their water for the entire year.

We irrigate our plants year-round so they don't have to depend solely on the winter rains, but if we have not had much rain during the wet season, this is the time to give your plants a really good deep watering, preparing for rapid spring growth.

  1. Adjust Watering Levels: Days are getting longer. Plants are beginning to actively grow again.  If the days are warm and we have not had much rain, you should adjust your irrigation accordingly. But winter storms and rain are normal in February. Winter is when we get most of our rain. It may still be possible to discontinue all supplemental irrigation or at least, reduce it considerably. Check the soil around your plants. You do not need to irrigate if it’s damp a foot or two below the surface. Remember, desert natives thrive with deep, infrequent waterings, allowing the soil to dry out between sessions. If there is any doubt about watering, do not. It is better to underwater than over water, especially in cold weather. 

  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.

  4. This is our "rainy" season. Always turn off your irrigation system for at least 48 hours after the rain. If you don’t have a “smart” timer or rain gauge, now is the time to check with your local water district for rebates.

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. 

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.

Aphids are most common this time of year and are very plant-specific. Certain aphids only like certain plants and won't bother others. Before you decide what to do about them, decide if they are actually causing a problem.

Example: on our milkweed, aphids are a natural part of their ecosystem along with milkweed bugs. They aren't good or bad, They just are. They attract beneficial insects like ladybugs to the garden which is a good thing.

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.

When I find the aphids are causing a problem on, say, a young plant that can't handle it, I will spray them off with a strong stream of water.

You can also put on gloves and run your hand up the plant basically squishing them. Some people use q-tips with alcohol or alone. Most times if you really watch your garden and have planted appropriate plants, pests will work themselves out.

4. Weed Management: Weeds are insidious foes, so regular weeding is essential to prevent their spread. As the weather warms and days get longer, weed growth speeds up so be vigilant. 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, now is the time to fertilize when plants are actively growing. If using granular fertilizer water thoroughly. 

Flowering

This is when the desert comes alive and starts blooming! If we've been lucky with our rain we will start seeing some wildflowers. Popcorn Flowers, Desert Dandelions, Sand Verbena, and Desert Sunflowers are pretty reliable. Desert Marigold, Gaillardia, Penstemon, Globemallow, Chuparosa, Cascalote, Sweet Acacia, Angelita Daisy, and Emu Bush are a few that are blooming in our landscapes.

Planting

Fall is the optimal time to plant with now being the second best. In February our days are noticeably longer and overall the temperatures are mild. This gives everything some time to acclimate to what we've done to it before the extreme heat of summer sets in. Freezing temperatures are possible this month though so if you have something you absolutely do not want to lose then be prepared to protect it. Especially young and newly planted plants. And you should wait another month to plant any frost-tender plants.

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