Written by Jackye Meinecke
As we ease into winter, the garden may require less attention, but there is so much we can do at this time to improve our spring garden. Start by considering the three W’s: wildflowers, weeds, and water.
W I L D F L O W E R S
Many wildflowers, such as California poppies, need some winter cold for the best germination. Winter rains encourage seeds to sprout. The wildflowers will stay small and form roots throughout the winter, then leap to bloom in the spring. Some of the flowers that can be planted now include: California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica), California Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia), Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera lyrata), Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata), Prairie Aster (Aster tanacetifolius), Plains Coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella), Blue Flax (Linum perenne lewisii), and Purple Prairie Verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida).
I’ve also had good luck with larkspur, bachelor buttons, corn poppies, other poppies, and hollyhocks when I’ve sown them long before spring.
To find wildflower mixes for our Southwest gardens, look at selections from Native American Seed (seedsource.co), Plants of the Southwest (plantsofthesouthwest.com), and High Country Gardens (highcountrygardens.com). They all publish catalogs filled with excellent information on planting and growing wildflowers, and they have excellent websites for information and ordering.
To encourage wildflowers—not weeds—be sure to clear the area of existing weeds and grasses. Rake the ground to loosen the surface. Mix the seeds with a bit of cornmeal before sowing the seeds on the rough surface. The cornmeal will allow you to see where you have spread seeds. Gently press the seeds against the soil by walking on the surface. Allow nature to take its course or water the seeds daily until they germinate and irrigate the area regularly to keep the seedlings thriving.
Too many commercial wildflower mixes easily available at large stores are filled with seeds that will not thrive in our desert. Seek a wildflower mix or make your own that features our native wildflowers.
W E E D S
If you didn’t find time to remove all your weeds in late summer, now would be a good time to focus on clearing them out. There are many benefits to keeping a garden clear of weeds.
Many insect pests overwinter in stands of weeds. Most gardeners would like to discourage leafhoppers that spread curly top virus to tomatoes in the garden. Weeds are fast growing and very competitive with our vegetables and flowers of choice. Weeds will steal the water and nutrients our preferred plants need to thrive. Often weeds get so tall or so thick they shade out the flowers and vegetables.
Since many weeds that pop up after the summer rains are annuals, they are quite easy to eradicate from the garden. Remove goathead and grassbur weeds so there will be fewer in the spring. Pull up or hoe Russian thistle (tumbleweed) and other weeds while they are small. When they are small, it is a simple matter to pull or cut the single taproot of these plants.
W A T E R I N G
Watering plants in the winter is crucial to their survival and growth in the spring. It is not unusual for Dona Ana County to go from October to March with little to no rain or snow. Often homeowners disconnect or turn off their irrigation systems during cold months. Many months of drought are harmful to our landscape plants, and may actually be fatal to young plants that do not have an extensive root system to seek additional water.
Be sure to give trees and shrubs a deep irrigation every four to six weeks, if we have not had measureable rain or snow. Also, soak flowerbeds with perennials or young annual seedlings every month. Grass will need to be watered occasionally as well.
Of course, there are many other opportunities to enjoy being outside in the garden during our mild Southwest winter. Use a sunny day to prune everything from rosebushes to trees. On a pleasant day, turn the soil in the vegetable garden, so pests are exposed to sunlight and cold temperatures. Dream of a golden spring as you plant daffodil, paperwhite, and other spring bulbs.
In addition, you can prepare the vegetable and flower gardens for spring sowing by adding soil amendments such as compost, alfalfa or cottonseed meal, sulfur, phosphate, molasses, manures, biosolids and other organic products to improve the soil. These amendments break down in the soil slowly, so it is best to add them to the garden beds months before planting.
Winter gardening is rewarding in many ways. We get a dose of sunshine, exercise our muscles, and prepare for a more colorful, blooming spring. Plus, it is not extremely hot or windy, so we can spend hours in the garden. There will be many days to curl up with a book or a project in front of a fire. However, there also will be many sunny days to escape being cooped up indoors.