Most of us have gardened in places where the soil is rich, its pH perfectly balanced, and the climate is blessed with consistent rainfall, gentle sun, and plant coddling humidity. Mountain soil and climate present the opposite of such ideal gardening conditions.
My words are limited here, but they’re enough that I can sketch out the big picture of mountain gardening. The local USDA garden zone is 6b with a definite influence from zone 7. This defines our area as mild, but with a definite winter and possible subzero temperatures.
Low winter temperatures provide the chilling necessary to grow all the deciduous fruits and perennials that thrive in the coldest climates. The list includes apples, peaches, cherries, grapes, and berries. This climate also is conducive to blooming deciduous shrubs such as lilac, forsythia, hardy camellia, rose of Sharon, butterfly bush, and Russian sage. Some of the nicest roses in the country thrive here without the tedious demands of constant tending. That’s because, thanks to the low humidity and mild winters, mountain roses experience few problems with bugs, mildew, and virtually no black spot.
The climate is so mild that we garden and design landscapes 12 months of the year. The average last frost date in spring is Mother’s Day. However, spring is so mild our cool season gardens can be planted as early as March 1. These can include lettuce, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, onions, radishes, and more.
The first light frost happens on or about Halloween, depending on a garden’s specific elevation, but gardens look great through Thanksgiving. This makes the average frost-free growing season in the area approximately 150 days long.
Never, but never, underestimate the Arizona sun, wind, and dry air. They are major influences in determining which plants do well in our landscapes, and which ones won’t. Local soils are typically heavy clay with very little organic material. Therefore, soil preparation for planting is of extreme importance. It demands the addition of organic mulch to garden soil to either hold in the moisture for granite soils, or to keep clay soils from compacting. Our soil is alkaline and usually doesn’t need the addition of either lime or wood ashes, which would increase its already high pH.
When selecting plants for mountain landscapes look for those with thick, leathery leaves; they allow plants to retain extra moisture and to be less prone to tear in the area’s fierce windstorms. This is where it pays to talk to a gardening expert with some experience in local landscapes. It can save you a whole lot of time, energy, and expense in creating your landscape.
The area is surrounded by National Forest lands so mammals can be an issue. Javalina, deer, antelope, rabbits, squirrels, and gophers all have the potential to devour portions of a carefully planned landscape. It is essential to be very selective of the plants used in the landscape; this is another case where professional advice can save you a lot of headaches and costly errors. Physical fencing is highly effective. I use a low voltage electric wire to keep rabbits and javalinas from tearing up my gardens. With the wire on an electric timer so it only cycles in the middle of the night when marauding creatures are active, I never need to worry about shocking effects on two-legged or four-legged family members.
Bitter tasting or highly fragrant animal repellents can be applied to plants’ new foliage with successful results. To continue their effectiveness, these bitter tasting or highly fragrant sprays need to be reapplied as spring plants flush new growth. Here again, it is best to ask for help from local gardeners. Garden here for more than a season and you quickly will find locals that either have given up because of the critters or have found ways to garden along side them. I have several printed handouts that tell which plants critters won’t eat. Ask for them the next time you visit the garden center.
For more in-depth local gardening information visit my web site, www.wattersonline.com. Sign up for ‘My Personal Gardener’ and receive weekly garden tips that are timed precisely to the higher elevations of Arizona.
Until next week, I’ll see you at the garden center.