Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The sun: both an ally and an enemy, especially here in the Desert Southwest. 

We've been talking about the importance of afternoon shade and morning sun quite a bit on this blog. That's because here in the Desert Southwest (and everywhere that has very low humidity, high temperatures and salty soils and water), sunlight has a profound impact on plant health.  Not enough sunlight is a problem everywhere and only a short list of commonly grown plants tolerate low light levels on a daily basis.  But here, excessive sunlight is an even bigger problem.  Our humidity (usually below 20% unless it is trying to rain somewhere nearby) makes the negative effects of the sun, especially drying things out and damaging plant tissue (people aren't the only things that can sunburn) even more intense.

We've recently moved to a new place. this apartment was carefully chosen with the sun in mind.  We chose an apartment that doesn't have an outside wall that faces the West and that has its South facing wall shaded by large trees and other buildings.  Here, it is the long hot afternoons in the summer that make growing so many plants a real challenge.  We managed to find one that had its patio facing the North and with shade from overhead sun thanks to the patio above it.  The only direct sunlight it receives is in the morning from the East. 

Here it is at 7 AM in the middle of May. The sliding glass door opens into the master bedroom.  It's just big enough for a couple of folding lawn chairs and a few potted plants.

You can see in the photo that the sun shines very nicely into the patio in the morning from the East, but from the West, the design of the building makes it so we have full shade in the afternoon from the West and South.

This is the current layout for the left corner of the patio.  The great thing about using crates and carts is that we can move things around easily if we find this set up no longer works as the alignment between the sun and earth changes over time. In this position, each of these pots gets bathed in direct morning light for about 2 hours each morning and has diffuse light all day.  The metal cart has holes in the shelves so that excess water can drip out of the pots and eventually to the ground.  The plastic crates double as both plant stands and storage for gardening supplies. 

Currently in the garden, we have from left to right: garlic, a mix of annual shade loving wildflowers, a pot that is half radishes and half carrots, oregano (still sprouting). On the cart on the top shelf we have: aloe vera, cilantro and on the bottom: chives which are looking a bit poorly because they sort of survived being outside over the winter.  Most of the chives have already been harvested from the pot, but I am leaving some of them in there to see if they'll snap out of it and maybe bloom for me later on. 

Then, in the middle of the patio, we have this lovely young asparagus fern.  I didn't grow this one from seed, but I carefully chose it for its healthy vigor and signs that it is ready to start spreading.  It came in a tiny little pot that was too small for it, so I transplanted it to this larger terracotta pot.  Someday, I'll transplant it again to a pot about twice this size in diameter. The pot that the radishes are in might be the type I'll use. It's the first time I've used a pot of that type and I really like how wide, yet short it is, giving more room for the plants while being less top heavy than most pots I've used are.  I just love asparagus ferns! They look so delicate, yet they are quite hardy and can handle our weather very well. Most plants in my current potted garden are practical being either edible or useful in herbal remedies, but this one is purely ornamental. One might say that it is still beneficial though as having its bright cheery shade of light green year round has a pleasant effect on one's mood.  Mental health is just as important as physical health as one affects the other.

The wildflower mix has Siberian wallflower (Cherianthus allonii) a biennial that will be just leaves this year and will bloom next year; Shasta daisy (Chrysanthemum maxium) one of my favorites; Garland flower (Clarkia elegans) a native flower discovered by Lewis and Clark on their famous expidition across the then, mostly unsettled Louisiana Purchase; Lanceleaf ticksseed (Coreopsis lanceloata) one of the most beautiful and delicate looking yet toughest desert flowers I've seen, grows wild all over the Mojave Desert; Larkspur (Delphinum consolida); Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus) a perennial that will attract bees and hummingbirds; Echinacea purpurea the plant famous for being a natural antibiotic; Baby's Breath (Gypsophila elegans) a must for floral bouquets; Candytuft (Iberis umbellata) a member of the mustard family that I've seen growing among tickseed plants in the desert; Perennial flax (Linum perenne) which will hopefully persist for me; Forget-me-not (Myosotis aplestris); Baby blueeyes (Nemophila maculata) which will work with the Forget-me-nots to add a splash of blue to the mix; and Common poppy (Papaver rhoeas) another deceptively delicate desert flower.   I look forward to seeing which of these grow well in my patio.  I may need to transplant them to a bigger pot or a group of small pots if all of these species sprout. ;)

I transplanted this aloe to a larger pot after the wide shot picture was taken as I noticed that it was already starting to get too big for that little pot. I love aloe but it can be tricky to avoid overwatering it without having it dry out with our low humidity.  Hopefully, the soil mix which is high in perlite will help it drain enough to prevent waterlogging.

I'll keep you posted on how this experiment in taking the concept of morning sun and afternoon shade to this extreme turns out.  It's going well so far, but as in all gardening, time will tell. 

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