By Anna Lear
As I write this, winter-like weather is bearing down on Magdalena and will surely finish off any unprotected tender plants that have weathered our light frosts. Even so, you have a few more weeks to winterize your garden and even add some new plantings. Autumn is a great time to plant perennials, shrubs, and trees; cool weather and low sun actually help roots grow strong before spring winds and summer sun test your plants’ mettle.
Last October I planted some small Austrian pines, sumacs, butterfly bushes (Buddleia), and Apache plumes that doubled or tripled in size this year and weathered last February’s historic deep-freeze and this past summer’s extreme drought. I attribute this to fall planting as well as some key preparations that are quite simple and cost little or nothing if you tap our plentiful natural resources.
First, choose your plants wisely: consider drought tolerance, your watering preferences, minimum and maximum temperatures, and current and eventual landscape desires. For example, Austrian pines are both drought- and cold-tolerant, a must for Magdalena and the surrounding high country; Afghan pines are rangier but also more drought-tolerant. If you’re planting seedlings or very young plants (such as those available in bulk from the NM State Forestry Division; see https://www.emnrd.state.nm.us/FD/treepublic/default.htm), an NMSU publication (http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_circulars/circ526.pdf) details how to prep the plants and the ground and set plants properly. I skipped the “Chemical site preparation” section but have found the rest of this circular valuable for all plantings of native or adapted species.
Second, new plantings always need deep watering (easy: let the hose trickle in the planting area for an hour or two), and both new and established plantings benefit from weekly or biweekly deep watering until the ground freezes. Mulch all plantings heavily to protect them from severe winter cold (which kills new or even established roots) and unseasonably warm weather (which causes premature growth that depletes the plant).
I use whatever combination I can find of wood and bark chips, leaves and other woodland “litter,” and straw or hay; local farmers, ranchers, or feed stores may have some moldy bales they’ll sell at a discount or give away for free, and the mold won’t hurt the plants because winter cold kills it off. If your soil is very poor, lay down a bit of compost or aged manure before mulching; as it slowly breaks down it feeds roots and the microbes that keep your soil and plants alive.
On a different note, if you just can’t live without fresh vegetables, you can plant several kinds that will survive our cold weather with a bit of protection. Kale is a cold-weather champion and grows sweeter with frost; I do protect it with straw bales and old windows during the coldest spells, but it is quite frost-tolerant and adds wonderful color, texture, and flavor to soups, stews, stir-fries, and other winter dishes.
I’ve also had great luck with chard, both with new plantings (sow seeds directly or in trays now through November, and offer nighttime protection) and by jump-starting older plantings with a good trim, some compost and mulch, and enough protection to keep hard freezes from killing the roots. Herbs, greens, and other edibles need more consistent protection, but if you have a sunny window you can plant and enjoy them all winter. Since a greenhouse is not an option for me this year I may try setting a container-sized cherry tomato plant or two in the southern living-room window. If you’ve had any luck with indoor winter gardening, I’d love to hear your tips and will gladly share them in next month’s column. Until then, happy growing!