Gardening 101 For Arid Climates

Now, now. Before I hear the seasonal sighs and woeful mumblings of secret New England jealousy, let me offer a word of encouragement. You can do it. This is not an unattainable goal. There are no insurmountable obstacles here. Apply the power of creativity and a little resourcefulness, like any good student, and it will be easier than you think. Yes, even Texans in Dallas, Houston or the most arid spaces can grow a beautiful herb garden.

What is this I say? Impossible! But it’s true; any good gardener would swear by it. The congested cities of Dallas and Houston and the sandy deserts of southwest Texas can support a garden without constant watering and nutrient support. Just look at the plants and animals in the area. How do they survive? All living things need nutrients and water – the trick is figuring out which plants enjoy living in which climate. If we do, we’re well on our way to living a healthier, natural life. Individual health insurance can’t cover everything, after all.

The biggest mistake defeated gardeners make is fixating on certain plants. But coffee isn’t grown in Alaska and, sorry, it’s just not realistic to try for edible mushrooms in arid Texas. Texas is considered to be in hardiness zones six through nine, which means the state experiences average minimum temperatures of from -10°F to 30°F. Considering that regions of North America commonly dip below -50°F, that’s a huge plus. The perceived problem is dry climate and sandy soil in much of the state.

Contrary to popular belief, however, many plants actually prefer this environment. Cacti is the most exploited example, perhaps, but its shallow root system and ability to store water do serve as a perfect example of how plants create their own versions of individual health insurance policies: in times of emergency, simply draw from the well. This adaptation not only allows cacti to survive in dry climates, but to actually thrive. Cacti would literally drown if watered too much. Calendula, bay, eucalyptus, ginger, lemon verbana, and Madagascar periwinkle are all perfectly suited to climates throughout Texas, and make wonderful garden plants.

Soil is essentially a composition of minerals (45%), organic matter (5%), water (25%), and air (25%). Its texture is dependent on the size of mineral particles, and different soil types will feel differently when they’re at their healthiest. Damp, sandy soil, for instance, will fall through the fingers, but still stick together when pressed. Plants growing in this type of soil will have shallower roots that spread quickly, but will quickly lose water as well.

To check moisture content, gently remove the top layer of soil and survey the condition at the roots. If the soil is cool and moist, and the plant shows no signs of distress, such as wilting or discoloration, all is well. Choose a level garden site with adequate drainage, and make sure it’s not in a valley or low spot. Lowlands decrease drainage and air circulation in the soil.

Choose plants that are considered “half-hardy,” or that need a warm environment to germinate, but, once established, can survive a mild frost. Calendula, or “pot marigold” is a popular choice. Germinate inside, if possible, and transplant to the outdoor garden once a strong root system is established. Dill is considered a “hardy” plant, which is also an excellent option, and can be sown outside while spring or fall frosts still threaten.

Keep hardiness zones in mind, as well as watering and nutrient needs. Being able to provide some shade is best, but working shade-giving plants into the design could take a year or two. Check to see how much light a plant needs, and provide for it accordingly. A plant requiring full sun is able to be exposed directly from sunrise to sunset. Partial- sun plants can be directly exposed from five to six hours, but then need at least partial shade for the rest of the day. Most seed packets will provide the appropriate information, and, if there are any doubts, don’t be afraid to visit the local gardening store.

Most plants require one to two inches of water a week, and those in dry climates may require more. Overhead watering systems lose 30-50% of their content to heat on a summer’s day, so the misperception of how difficult it is to grow a garden may actually come from choosing the wrong plants and then employing inefficient watering systems. A rudimentary irrigation system, such as trickle lines, tends to be much more efficient. Simply dig a space for a trickle line—a hose with small, periodic punctures allowing water to drop or spray into the soil—next to your plant and hook it up to a nearby water source. Less water evaporates, runs off, and feeds surrounding weeds; in turn, more water reaches favored plants.

Gardens need nutrients, of course, but they may not need a constant, artificial source of them. Starting a compost is a great resource, and easy to do with organic food wastes. What may be better in climates like Texas’, however, is a quality mulch. Mulching will not only retain more soil moisture, dramatically decrease weeds, and protect against erosion, but will also insulate the ground against temperature changes. For Texans, this means mulching will keep the soil cooler in the summer and warmer in the frosts.

Excellent choices for Texas gardens are:

• Basil. Thrives in mild climates. Considered an annual plant, grows one to two feet, and is primarily used as a culinary herb.

• Bay. Thrives in Zone 8 (average annual minimal temperatures of 10-20°F). Considered an evergreen shrub or tree, grows six to twelve feet, and is primarily used as a culinary herb.

• Eucalyptus. Thrives in Zone 8. Considered an evergreen tree, grows from five to three hundred feet, and is primarily used as a medicinal herb.

• Ginger. Thrives in Zone 9 (average annual minimal temperatures of 20-30°F). Considered a perennial, grows two to four feet, and used as a culinary and medicinal herb.

• Lemon verbana. Thrives in Zone 9. Considered an evergreen shrub, grows five to ten feet, and is primarily used as a culinary herb.

• Madagascar periwinkle. Thrives in Zone 9. Considered an annual, grows an average of two feet, and is used as an ornamental.

See, it’s not so hard. Armed with proper knowledge and an appreciation for climate-suitable plants, gardening in Texas is, if not exactly easy, much less difficult than common (mis)perception would imply. A little water, a little shade, and some attentive germination will reap many rewards. Within a few months, a beautiful and functional array of plants will bloom. Yes, even Texans (resist that sigh) can have an herb garden.

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