by Ken Lain, the mountain gardener
High altitude gardening is different from gardening at lower elevations. Combine our altitude with Arizona’s dry climate, bright air, and ever-present mountain winds, and you pretty much can forget what you learned from gardening in other parts of the country! The high country of Arizona is unique, from its water to the soil, or lack thereof. If you’ve moved from the deserts or low country of Southern California, you really, REALLY need to read on to learn how to be a successful gardener in these conditions.
> Our local USDA garden zone is 6b with a definite influence from zones 7 and 8. This defines our area as mild, but we experience a distinct winter with nightly freezing temperatures. The secret when buying plants is to look for those that grow in zones 7 and lower. Stay away from growing desert plants meant for zones 10 and 11.
> Low winter temperatures provide the chilling necessary to grow all the deciduous fruits and perennials that thrive in colder climates. The list includes apples, peaches, cherries, grapes, and berries. This climate also is conducive to blooming deciduous shrubs such as lilacs, forsythias, hardy camellias, rose of Sharons, butterfly bushes, and Russian sages.
> Our cool season is so mild that we can garden and design landscapes 12 months of the year. Broccoli, spinach, lettuces, cabbages, and Brussels sprouts are available at local garden centers and should be planted now for harvests at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Few places in the country allow this type of two-season harvests. Local Vegetable Planting Calendar.
> A mild cool season also is a boon for gardeners who grow for color. A splash of flowers blooming through the snow is an oasis of cheer during our winters. Our best winter-blooming flowers include pansies, snapdragons, violas, dusty millers, Johnny-jump-ups, and ornamental kales. All are available at garden centers now and should be planted ASAP so they are entirely rooted before our cold weather makes its debut. I fully expect my garden to provide brilliant color for each of our family’s holiday parties and on through the rest of the winter.
> Never underestimate the Arizona sun, wind, and dry air at this elevation. They are major influences in determining which plants do well in our landscapes, and which ones don’t. Informed selectivity is essential when choosing plants for an Arizona mountain landscape. This region does best with plants that have thick, leathery leaves because they allow plants to retain extra moisture and to be less prone to tearing during the area’s fierce windstorms. This is when it pays to talk to a gardening expert with experience dealing with local landscapes; it can save you a whole lot of time, energy, and expense in creating your landscape.
> Mountain soils change from home to home, even on the same street. In many landscapes, the soil in the front yard is different from that in the backyard! You need to learn how plants react in each new garden location. Local soils typically are either sandy or heavy clay with very little organic material. Therefore, soil preparation for planting is of extreme importance. It demands the addition of organic mulch to your soil to either hold in the moisture for granite soils, or to keep clay soils from compacting. Our soil is alkaline, so don’t add either lime or wood ashes as they increase its already high pH. Instead, local gardens benefit from additives that lower the soil’s pH.
> National Forest lands surround us, so mammals can be an issue for local gardeners. Javelinas, deer, antelope, rabbits, squirrels, and gophers all have the potential to devour portions of a carefully planned landscape. Garden here for more than a season, and you quickly find local gardeners that either gave up because of the critters or have found ways to garden with them. Local Deer and Rabbit Resistant Plant List.
This week’s monsoon rains presented the perfect time to plant new trees and shrubs. Not only is the extra moisture a balm for new plantings, but also planting holes are easier to dig after a wet cycle. I took advantage of the weather to plant four new aspens and an additional lilac in my landscape.
The rains prompted this week’s ‘Plant of the Week’ idea because it is such a good time to plant large specimens. The Blue Alberta Spruce is a rich silvery blue, slow-growing, 6-foot tall conifer. Its dense branches, with a pyramidal base spread of 3 feet, form a magnificent living Christmas tree that delivers winter-long enhancement to any landscape. Excellent in front yards with limited landscape possibilities, an Alberta Spruce is a good choice to fill up bare corners or provide mass in gardens with other low maintenance plants. Dense and durable, Alberta’s work well as windbreaks, shelter belts, privacy screens, and sound barriers. For the money, these are perfect specimen trees.
Free Gardening Classes are offered at 9:30 every Saturday morning. If you really want the inside scoop on local gardening come to one of Watters’ gardening classes. They are free, fun, interactive, with lively questions coming from local gardeners. Join us to learn more:)
Until next week, I’ll be helping new gardeners here at Watters Garden Center.