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Expert Advice: 10 Things You Need to Know to Survive in the Desert


Expert Advice: 10 Things You Need to Know to Survive in the Desert

June 28, 2013

I’m spoiled in Northern California: even though I’m a novice gardener, every experience I’ve had with a container, a raised bed, or a small plot has been relatively easy. Since I recently finished reading Play It As It Lays, the desert landscape has been on my mind, and I keep thinking: what is it like to live in the desert? In the summer heat and in the winter’s dry months. What is it like to garden in the desert?

Recently we wrote about JM Dry Goods owners Michelle Teague and Jon Davidson’s garden shop, Hijo, and landscape designer Mark Word‘s nursery, Jardineros. Today we’re turning to these same experts for tips on how to survive in the desert, Southwest style.

Photography by Michael A. Muller for Gardenista.

GD: What should a Southwest gardener know about first starting a plot in the region?

Jardineros: In the beginning stages of establishing a garden, make sure you can identify and commit to the removal of bermuda grass and nutsedge. Also, soil should be amended with water-holding compost before planting. Many sites will be full of weed seeds just waiting for you to add water–try to be patient and consistent about weeding. It could take several seasons before your new beds are truly free and clear.

GD: How do you protect yourself from the elements?

Michelle Teague: I’m never without a hat! I love my old Persol sunglasses and I also have been addicted to Kiehl’s Super Fluid SPF 50+ since I’ve been at the nursery out in the sun. It’s very lightweight, perfect for the Texas heat. And you’ll always find us at Jardineros under the Hijo porch shade sipping Topo Chicos.

(N.B.: Kiehl’s Super Fluid SPF 50+ is $38 from Kiehl’s.)

GD: From local pests and desert animals?

Michelle Teague: I just discovered JAO Patio Oil, a botanical plant-based bug repellant–highly effective in Texas where mosquitoes are pretty serious. And it smells insane.

(N.B.: A spray bottle of JAO Patio Oil is $32 from Steven Alan.)

GD: How and when do you water your garden in Texas?

Jardineros: It’s best to choose your plants carefully and water them only as needed. In the summer, a bit of late afternoon wilting is normal but if plants don’t perk up after sundown, it’s a sure sign they need a drink. Here in Austin and other parts of Texas, we’ve experienced record temperatures and severe drought several years running. To protect the water supply, our city and others have implemented irrigation restrictions. We find that the best way to water less is to do it more efficiently, such as by installing more drip irrigation systems and avoiding spray heads. Always water in the early morning or evening to reduce water loss by evaporation.

GD: What’s your everyday gardening uniform?

Michelle Teague: My Oaxacan straw hat, white chucks and cutoffs, and my “Marfa uniform shirt” (meaning long sleeves–I’ve learned in Texas to stay covered!).

Above: Jon Davidson of Hijo Shed reads up on native Southwest gardening.

GD: Favorite hardy, drought-resistant plant?

Jardineros: We like Mexican Olive, as well as a variety of tall grasses including Blue GramaAlkali Sacaton and Blonde Ambition.

(N.B.: Blonde Ambition Blue Grama Grass is $7.50 apiece from High Country Gardens; available seasonally.)

GD: What’s your take on container gardening versus planting directly into soil?

Jardineros: In most cases, it’s better to plant directly into the soil; the temperatures can be extreme and containers can dry out or freeze quickly.

GD: Favorite garden tool of the moment?

Michelle Teague: Right now it’s the mini Flower And Herb Shears By Burgon & Ball ($23 from Garden Tool Company).

GD: What native plants of the area are you most drawn to?

Jardineros: To name a few: Mexican Sycamore (Plantanus mexicana, actually native to the Northeastern New Mexico but works well in our region), Dwarf Palmetto (Sabal minor), Stemodia (Stemodia Ianata), Wooly mullein (Verbascum thapsus). These dependable plants can handle the extreme heat and yearly temperature changes as well as heavy soil and all have great foliage and texture.

(N.B.: Verbascum Thapsus seeds are $1.68 for a packet of 1,350 from Seedaholic.)

Did you miss yesterday’s post? Have a look: Hijo in Austin: A Garden Shop in a Shed at Jardineros Nursery.

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