Notes from an unusually wet cool-season


It’s been a lovely winter. Perhaps you have heard the chatter about the “super bloom”. Having ended the fall with some nicely timed precipitation, the cool-season rains have arrived and have steadily provided the desert with much needed moisture. When the rains are timed in this way, even the driest parts of our region, like the dunes to the west, become carpeted with life and wildflowers!

If you have the right sort of friends on Instagram, your page is probably full of pictures of those dunes, covered in sand verbena (Abronia villosa), Ajo lily (Hesperocallis undulata), and the like. California and Mexican poppies (Eschscholzia californica and E. mexicana) are coming up all over the state as are a whole host of annuals that get started in the cool-season, and bloom throughout the spring until the summer heat arrives and the plants put all their energy into seed production, wither, and die.

This has some ramifications for your landscape in Southern Arizona. Here are some things to be on the lookout for, and some things to take care of.

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Old Man Frost is still lurking.

This winter hasn’t been too bad for frosts. But we still could get some cold snaps. Keep your eye on those low temps and continue cover any frost tender plants during those cold spells. You may hold back from cutting back any of those frost-damaged and dormant plants. The old/damaged tops protect the live part below. Avoid feeding frost tender plants for another few weeks. If you are using organic plant food (and we always suggest you do), it’s safe to start feeding in the next few weeks. Organic plant food doesn’t stimulate new growth right away, as it needs to break down in the soil first.


Do your ornamental grasses need a haircut?

We’ve sold a lot of native grasses this year. And we hope to get you to plant more. Some grasses go entirely dormant each winter. Others stay green. Yet others may partially have some brown here and there. At our home we generally don’t cut them back unless they are the sort to go entirely dormant. But sometimes, after a number of years, those that stay green or greenish in the winter could use a little refreshing. NOW IS THE TIME TO CUT BACK GRASSES (but only if they need it).

If you do cut them, do it now, and leave a few inches above the ground. Please, please if you put it off until the warm season, resist cutting them back another year. There is nothing worse-looking in the landscape than gorgeous native grasses that were cut back while they were growing. They usually take an entire season to recover. We see this all the time in landscapes, even those managed by professionals. So cut back your grass now if you are going to do it, and if you procrastinate too long, then just wait until next year.


Is this a good time to plant?

This question we get all year long. The answer is always yes, with caveats. Every time of year has its benefits and considerations. Right now is a wonderful time of year to put a new plant in the ground. You still have time to get roots established before that summer heat hits. But if a frost comes upon us, many plants may suffer some damage, even plants that are not particularly frost-tender. Young plants are more prone to frost damage, especially if they have a lot of new growth on them. So protect them from the cold snaps.

It’s a great time to plant wildflowers. And yes, you still have time to plant seed as well as plants. Most people, when planting our a wildflower bed, get it started in the fall. And this is a great time to get started. But often people fail to understand that you can actually plant more successions of wildflowers up until about April. And when you do that, your blooming cycles are spread out, instead of being one flush. You will also have flowers that will last longer into the season. Seeds germinated closer to the warm season may be more diminutive, but they will be pretty nonetheless.

We happen to have plants available as well, while supplies last. We’ll try to keep providing those plants for the next month or so.


Who is waking up?

When you have all those lush green annuals and flowers emerging, you get more than just the plants. Tortoises wake up to snack. Native bees and butterflies are also starting to rise in number. And the birds will be going crazy—listen for the hummingbirds in the mornings, doing their dramatic courtship dives. I sleep with the window open this time of year and put on a few extra blankets so I can be woken up to the Anna’s hummingbirds that reside on our property. Lots of birds are nesting and tending to babies: Anna’s and Costa’s hummingbirds, verdins, curve-billed thrashers, gila woodpeckers, and northern mockingbirds. Owls are beginning to mate.

Look out for them carpenter bees! They are hungry and will be buzzing around for nectar and pollen. Also the sara orange-tip and the Pima orange-tip butterflies will be active (butterflies are more active in the warmest part of the day). As things warm up, more and more butterflies will be present.


The sudden change

It seems like every year I get surprised with the sudden increase in watering needs. One can get quite used to the forgiving cool-season. At the nursery we especially feel this because we have so many plants in containers. And they are the first to remind you that the summer is coming. As the days warm up, and those spring winds begin to whip around, plants dry out faster. Be prepared to increase your watering frequency to accommodate these changes. This is especially true for those container plants.

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Go out there and get inspired

It’s beautiful out there. Especially this year. You should spend as much time hiking as possible, especially in the low desert, which will be too hot for many people to hike in just a few months. It is from nature that we get our best design ideas. Eschew those gardening magazines in the grocery store checkout lines and hit the trails. Come to know your own region so well that when you plant, it comes out in your planting patterns. We live in a beautiful place and your home landscape should reflect the region in which you live, and supply the wildlife with habitat.

Katherine Gierlach