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Mountain gardeners don’t always have rich, perfect soil. But, there’s still hope!
Many have gardened in places where the soil is rich, its pH perfectly balanced and the climate blessed with consistent rainfall, gentle sun, and plant coddling humidity. If you have dug a hole in the ground, you know mountain gardening presents the opposite of such ideal 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 7 with a definite influence from zone 8. This defines our area as mild but with a solid winter and possible subzero temperatures.
Never, but never underestimate the Arizona sun, wind, and dry air. They are significant 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 organic mulch to your soil to either hold in the moisture for granite soils or keeps clay soil 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 look for those with thick, leathery leaves; they allow plants to retain extra moisture and be less prone to tear in the area's fierce windstorms. This is where it pays to talk to garden experts with some experience with local plants. It can save you a whole lot of time, energy, and expense in planting your gardens. Visit Top10Plants.com
Mild winter temperatures provide the chilling necessary to grow all the deciduous fruits and perennials that thrive in the region. The list includes apples, peaches, cherries, grapes, and berries. Get a free copy of my new Fruit Tree Book for more. This climate also is conducive to blooming deciduous shrubs such as lilac, forsythia, hardy camellia, rose of Sharon, butterfly bush, and Russian sage. The most exciting roses in the country thrive without the tedious demands of constant tending. Thanks to the low humidity and mild winters, mountain roses experience few bugs, mildew, and virtually no black spot.
The climate is so mild 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 first. These can include lettuce, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, onions, radishes, and more.
The first light frost happens on or about Halloween, depending on your 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.
The area is surrounded by National Forest, so mammals can be an issue. Javelina, deer, antelope, rabbits, squirrels, and gophers all have the potential to devour portions of a carefully planned garden. It is essential to be very selective of the plants used in the landscape; this is another case where professional advice can save you many headaches and costly errors. Physical fencing is highly effective. I use a low voltage electric wire to keep rabbits and javelina from tearing up my gardens. Put your electric fence on time to cycle in the middle of the night when marauding creatures are active. By only coming on at night, the shocking effects to your two and four-legged family members are eliminated.
Bitter tasting or highly fragrant animal repellents can be applied to plants' new foliage with successful results. This bitter-tasting, highly fragrant spray needs to be reapplied to continue its effectiveness as 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 find locals that either have given up because of the critters or have found ways to garden alongside them. I have several printed handouts that tell which plants animals won't eat. Ask for one the next time you visit the Watters Garden Center.
Until next issue, I'll be helping new mountain gardeners here at Watters Garden Center.