Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
September, 2008
Regional Report

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Jojoba is a good shrub for low-maintenance, drought-tolerant landscapes.

Planting Season is Upon Us

Believe it or not, the low desert's premier planting season is almost upon us. Transplanting in late September/early October provides a lengthy seven-month period for root systems to establish before intense heat returns. This month, many public gardens hold plant sales, garden clubs arrange plant swaps for members, and nurseries replenish their depleted summer stock. It's a great time to be a plantaholic! With so many choices, it can be overwhelming if you don't know exactly what you're looking for. Do a little planning, then head out, armed with your plant list. You'll be less likely to make impulse buys when confronted with beautiful blossoms!

First, decide what you want from a plant. Shade, color, food, wildlife habitat, screening, security, fragrance, low maintenance, drought tolerance? Next, determine what your landscape has to offer a plant. What is the sun exposure in each potential planting site (full, partial, shade)? How much room is available, both vertically and horizontally, for a plant to grow to its mature size? Allowing sufficient space for a plant to grow naturally eliminates unnecessary pruning to keep a plant in bounds. This saves you maintenance time and expense and reduces green waste, which ends up in a landfill if not composted on-site. Just as important, excessive pruning isn't healthy for a plant long-term, and a frequently pruned plant consumes more water than a plant that doesn't require pruning.

Plant Selection
Choose plants showing fresh green growth or young shoots. Avoid those with numerous yellow leaves, signaling nutrient deficiency, ineffective watering, or other problems.

Inspect plants for insects or disease. Look closely at tops and bottoms of leaves and along stems for tiny aphids, mites, and scale insects. Watch for white, powdery residue on foliage, signaling powdery mildew. This fungal disease is difficult to eradicate once it takes hold in the garden.

A healthy root system is a good predictor of transplant success. Roots should be light-colored and spread evenly and vertically throughout the rootball. Black or mushy roots are rotten. Thickened roots that wrap horizontally around themselves indicate a "root bound" plant. If such roots are not untangled before transplant (cutting through the rootball with a knife is usually required), they will continue to grow round and round in the planting hole, stunting growth. Also, such encircling or girdling roots don't provide a strong anchor to support a tree's above-ground weight. Examination of trees that have blown over in desert windstorms shows many suffered from girdling roots.

Avoid rootbound plants with these telltale signs: roots poking out the drainage holes, roots spreading along the soil surface, soil level in the pot well below the rim, or a too-large plant in a too-small container. Many gardeners visually inspect the root system. (A bit of nursery etiquette: Handle small plants carefully and return them to their pots after a quick look so roots don't dry out. Ask nursery personnel for help with larger pots.)

If you are new to desert gardening, realize that many native and desert-adapted perennials, shrubs, and trees aren't terribly impressive in nursery pots. In fact, some may look like a stick was plunked in a pot of dirt and a label slapped on! Don't worry. Once in the ground, desert plants take off like gangbusters. Be sure to buy based on their mature size, not on the scrawny stick in the 1-gallon pot!

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