The first living thing I remember trying to grow was a strawberry plant. My mom helped me put it in the soil right outside our front door. My mom had a way with plants. She molded massive berms, teeming with pink geraniums, powder-puff-like marigolds and starry daffodils. In our backyard, she nurtured plum trees and guarded heirloom tomatoes, which ballooned into ripe, deep crimson orbs the size of baseballs.
When I was around the age of 10, she let me pick out a tiny pine tree, smaller than me, and showed me how to maneuver it into the earth. She told me we’d watch it grow, and it amazed me that it would take more than a decade for it to stretch into adulthood. And that one day it would tower over us, and by then I would be an adult, too.
But before the tree came the strawberry. I was invested in a measly green tuft that produced berries no bigger than a gobstopper. I was responsible for it, and that responsibility made me feel benevolent and powerful.
Most of us have some sort of experience with gardening, be it in an elementary science class watching seeds germinate or as adults, putting a flower in a pot and hoping we don’t kill it. A few of us stuck with it, becoming avid gardeners like my mom, who could grow a daisy in Antarctica. But for many of us, the Black Thumb People, the activity is ruled by mysterious, otherworldly laws of nature.
The thing about gardening is that it is kind of mysterious. Even if you do everything right, there’s no guarantee you won’t kill that flower in the pot. But there are a lot of guidelines that can help you better your odds. If you’re thinking about joining the Green Thumb People, or if all this moody spring weather has made you want to get your trowel dirty (even if you’re not exactly sure what a trowel is), this one’s for you.
One of the most common mistakes beginning gardeners make is trying to grow plants in conditions that don’t suit them. Every plant has an ideal environment for its growth—if you can’t give it that environment, you may need to find a different plant. Your best bet is to aim your attention at plants that are native to the region where you live, and therefore the conditions you’re likely to have in your yard. Don’t despair because we live in a desert. There are still plenty of sun-loving species that will allow you to have a lush, vibrant garden.
Cheryl Rosel is an extension horticulture agent with the New Mexico State University Cooperative Extension Service for Bernalillo County. She says to keep an eye on whatever space you want to use for a day or two to estimate how much sun it gets. If sunlight beats down on it without interruption, it calls for plants that like “full sun.” Most urban plots get some shade—if it’s enough to take up a few hours of the day, it’s considered “part shade.” There’s also a chance, of course, that the only plot you have available is always shaded. And in that case, your options may be more limited, but you still have them. Just know the terminology that fits your garden so you can find plants that match it.
If you don’t have any dirt around, you probably still have a place where you can set a pot. Container gardening has some modified rules—it usually requires more frequent watering and you have to consider how large your plants will eventually become. If you’re using pots this year, set them up before you go plant shopping and see how the sun hits them, too—their varying heights may affect how much light they get in a day.
Before you get anything in the ground, you have to prep your soil. Usually all that means is weeding it and then breaking and turning it over with a shovel. If your soil is very poor, you can mix it with compost or fertilizer. If you’re not sure what kind of soil you have and want to know the specifics, Rosel says her favorite gardening tip is to get your soil tested. New Mexico State University does the testing for $26. Go to swatlab.nmsu.edu and download a form to send with two cups of soil. If you’re not sure how to analyze the results, call Rosel at the New Mexico Master Gardeners’ number, 243-1386, and she’ll help you decipher them.
If you’re using pots, you’ve got a simpler solution. Just fill them with high-quality potting soil from your local nursery.
Another option is to build a raised bed. Christianna Kistler Cappelle is the project coordinator for the GardenersGuild, a group dedicated to answering people’s gardening questions. She loves raised beds and especially recommends them for beginners. One of the benefits to raised beds is that you can put them anywhere—even on asphalt.
Here’s the GardenersGuild’s step-by-step guide to making your own raised bed on the cheap:
1) If you’re plopping one on bare dirt, keep weeds at bay by first covering the ground with 7 to 10 layers of newspaper. You can also use a layer of cardboard, but Cappelle says there’s been some debate about the chemicals used in the construction of cardboard leaching into soil. Most newspapers, however, are printed with soy ink these days (including the Alibi, also printed on 100 percent recycled paper)and should be completely safe.
2) Build your walls with cinderblock or adobe bricks. She says the cheapest cinderblocks the Guild has found are at Home Depot, where they’re about $1 a piece. There’s only one place in town where the guild has found adobe bricks for sale, and that’s New Mexico Earth Adobes, where bricks are about the same price. To make a typically sized bed—about 18 inches high, 6 feet long and 3 feet deep—you need 28 cinderblocks. Adobe should be about the same, she said, but you’ll need a few extra.
3) To fill your bed, Cappelle recommends getting your earth from Soilutions, Inc., which will mix soil tailored to your needs. One cubic yard of soil fills the bed in this example and costs about $35.
P.S. Don’t use potting soils with peat moss. Cappelle says it becomes “hydrophobic,” which means once it dries out, it’s hard to rewet. Plus, there’s a lot of debate over the sustainability of harvesting and mining peat moss, the damage done to ecosystems from which it’s taken, and its effect on global warming.
P.P.S. Cappelle warns against using railroad ties in gardening. Creosote leaches out of them to such a degree, she says, that almost nothing will grow within 6 to 10 inches of them. So definitely don’t use railroad ties to wall off your vegetable garden.
You can garden any time of year. A lot of people here have cool-season vegetable gardens—filled with lettuces, spinach and carrots—in the winter. Flower bulbs like to be planted in the fall, while trees can be transplanted any time of year. But most gardening does happen in the spring or summer. And after April 15—the average last frost date in Albuquerque, according to Rosel—it’s a free-for-all.
This is the fun part—falling in love with particular plants and watching them take off. You should grow what you like. And the best way to find out what you like is to wander around your local nurseries and see what stands out to you. Check tags to make sure your selections will work in the kind of garden you have. Rosel suggests making sure the “hardiness zone” number on tags matches our climate. Albuquerque is classified as USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 7, which refers to how cold it gets here. The lower the number, the colder the climate. In Albuquerque, gardeners will have the best luck with plants tolerant of zones 7 and below. So, again, check tags.
Starter plants are usually easier to grow than seeds. But if you want to go the seed route, make sure you follow the directions on the packet for how deeply it should be placed in the soil and how far each should be spaced from other plants. You can start germinating seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost date. Also, check the date on seed packages. Make sure you’re using seeds that are labeled “for sale 2010,” since they don’t last forever. And be wary of your seed plots if you have cats, who love soft, worked-over, vacant soil and who might paw your seeds out of their hiding places.
You’re the only one who can decide what plants are right for you. But we asked Wes Brittenham, manager of Plants of the Southwest and a landscape designer, for suggestions on easy plants for beginners. Here are his recommendations.
From tallest to shortest:
Russian sage—With blue flowers all summer long, it can also spread to make little thickets.
Red yucca—It blooms at the same time as Russian sage, with 3- to 5-foot-tall red flower spikes.
Desert penstemon—Tall, brilliant, red tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds.
Moonshine yarrow—Gray, feathery leaves are topped by yellow flower clusters that spike up to 2 feet.
Catmint—This blue, ground-hugging flower complements taller plants and has been known to attract cats.
Chocolate flower—Great for kids, these little yellow daisy-like flowers open in the morning and perfume the air with the scent of chocolate. Goldfinches love it, too.
Coralberry—This pretty shrub has red berries that persist into winter.
Snowberry—A great complement to coralberry, this shrub has bright white berries that also last into the winter.
Golden columbine—Extravagant, 3-inch blooms burst from this variety.
Wild geraniums—Lavender flowers cover this pretty plant in the spring.
Sun-Loving Vegetables: Tomatoes, chile, green beans, corn, potatoes, garlic, onions
Part-Shade and Cool Season Vegetables: Spinach, lettuce, parsley, cabbage, cilantro
Sun-Loving Herbs (for containers or landscape): Rosemary, garden sage, English thyme, chives, garlic chives
Wes Brittenham especially likes strawberry pots for succulent gardens, filled with things like ice plant and sedums, but they’re also good for herb gardens. If you find your containers drying out too fast, try setting an “olla” in them—an unglazed, clay, narrow-necked pot that percolates water gradually. Grasses do well in containers, and so do vegetables like tomatoes, chile, corn, beans and squash.
Don’t dig holes too deep. They should be just deep enough so that the top of roots are right below the surface. Cheryl Rosel says this is especially important with trees, many of which die every year because they’re put too far in the ground. With trees, you can break up the soil two to three times wider than the size of the root ball to give the roots room to move, but you shouldn’t break up the soil below. A wide, shallow hole is what you’re looking for.
Once your plant’s in the ground, sprinkling on three to four inches of mulch can help retain moisture and keep roots cool. Christianna Kistler Cappelle likes the pecan shell mulch at Soilutions, Inc., but you can also use bark, shredded wood, compost, gravel or crusher fines, among a variety of other mulches.
Most native plants are fairly low-maintenance. They need more water their first season, but by their second year, they should be fairly self-sustaining. Here are some of Wes Brittenham’s rules of thumb:
Always give plants a good soak right after you put them in the ground.
Most plants should be watered every two to three days.
Container plants usually need watering every day or every other day (unless you’re using an olla).
In the fall, slowly start watering plants less often. Too much water content can break cell walls when plants freeze, so back down to every three days, then every four or five days, then to once a week by the end of October. From November to February, one good watering a month is enough. Then in spring, slowly start increasing your watering schedule.
Hand watering is the least efficient way to water plants. It’s better to get a drip system. These don’t have to be expensive. Black soaker hoses work well for vegetable gardens especially.
To know how much water is required, push an 8- to 10-inch screwdriver into the ground. If it pushes in easily, your soil’s moist enough. If it gets hard to push part way down, it needs more water. Trees need water to penetrate more deeply, down to the base of the root ball, so long sticks or metal probes can serve the same purpose.
Plants with flowers at the end of stalks will sometimes re-bloom: Prune back the stalk to its base after the flower has wilted.
Want to learn more? These materials come recommended by Rosel and Cappelle.
• Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew
• How to Grow More Vegetables (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine by John Jeavons
• New Mexico Gardener’s Guide by Judith Phillips
• Down to Earth: A Gardener’s Guide to the Albuquerque Area by area master gardeners
• greenzineABQ, a monthly publication put out by the GardenersGuild
• How To Guide to Xeriscaping, put out by the City of Albuquerque
• Xeriscape Plant Guide: 100 Water-Wise Plants for Gardens and Landscapes by Denver Water