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Garden Lullaby

Putting your garden to bed for the winter requires tender, loving care — and a bit of expertise.

By Vivian Savitt


I am inconsolably glum. After six months of working hand in hand with Mother Nature to create a healthy and stunning landscape, I now must face its inevitable passage to dormancy. Ahead loom cold, ruffian winds crumpling and littering my little paradise, denuding trees, transforming green plantings to brown ones, and forcing my feathery garden residents southward to Club Med for Birds.

Restaurateur Jake Politte takes a break from the stove to enjoy his winter garden located behind Spaghetti Western. He expects that 85 percent of the garden should stay green all winter. Customers frequently bring him plants.

Cherished routines and rituals will also end with winter's onslaught.

No more early morning strolls — tea cup in hand (a wine glass at sunset) — where I revel in drifts of new blooms, the voluptuous cascade of a rose branch, the surprise appearance of a long-forgotten vine. How will I cope without my curative garden fix of puttering among weeds? Or the scent of honeysuckle melded with agastache and lavender — homegrown aroma therapy?

My social life will suffer as well. No more treks to friends' plots to applaud their feats of flora and design, or to admire a garden ornament unearthed from a junk yard. Exchanges between fellow garden custodians with their generous offerings of cutting and seeds, gardening tips and charming banter will cease, suspended until the Whiteflower Farm catalog arrives.

Most of what grows in my garden above ground will soon retrench to an underworld nurtured by compost, fertilizer, water and mulch. This will enable root systems to strengthen and grow. I guess if I were a plant, I'd welcome such a cozy recess.

Whether or not you identify with my seasonal angst, there is work to be done before the garden lullaby begins. Your checklist should include:

Horticulturist John White, Dona Ana County Extension Agent for the US Department of Agriculture, also emphasizes the importance of watering this time of year. "Remember that perennial and woody plants are still alive and require irrigation, particularly during a dry winter," he advises. "Dig into the soil to check moisture to the depth of the roots. For trees, use a probe. If the instrument goes in easily, there's moisture; if there's resistance, the soil is dry.

"When you're cleaning up," White continues, "look for insects like earthworms, garden centipedes and roaches. Along with white strands of fungus, they are part of the big picture for good organic breakdown.


Landscape designers Regina and Steve Vinson are Les Jardiniers in Silver City, 956-3159.

Dunn's Nursery and Garden Center, 2115 Pinos Altos Rd., Silver City, 388-2883.

Horticulturist John White, agricultural extension agent for Dona Ana County, can answer garden related questions at 525-6649.

Spaghetti Western and Mercato deli Italiani, 106 N. Texas St., Silver City, serves lunch and dinner. Call 534-4999 for winter hours.

"When you mulch, keep in mind that fertilizer and moisture must get through to the soil. Also keep heavy applications of mulch away from plant stems and tree trunks."

White describes the frequent use of rock mulch in Las Cruces as a "Catch-22 deal." Although rocks provide some plant protection, he says, "they also create heat that can warm up the city. "

Regina Vinson, former owner with her husband Steve of Silver Heights Nursery in Silver City, gardened as a child in Iowa. Foremost on her garden-bedtime checklist is using a high-phosphorous fertilizer after the first frost to enhance root growth. "With the addition of bone meal or soft rock phosphate, you can just sit back next spring and watch it all happen," she says.

Agent White believes that a soil test will confirm if the addition of phosphorous is required.

Currently the on-site manager of Silver City's Farmers Market, Vinson started her fall vegetable garden in early September. She and Steve are already enjoying the radishes from that planting. Their harvest of greens, spinach, beets and carrots is around the corner.

"Pick a warm day in January," advises Vinson, "to spray Dormant Oil on fruit trees, roses or any other shrub prone to insect problems."

Many gardeners, including the Vinsons, prune trees and summer flowering shrubs in January. They let dahlias, lilies and other summer flowering bulbs die back on their own. Iris foliage, however, may be cut back for a more tidy appearance.

As far as winter doldrums go, Regina Vinson emphasizes that "there's a lot going on in your garden whether you're out there or not. Gardeners are optimistic and believe there's going to be a tomorrow."


Garden advice is also available from Shawn Erikson, on-site master gardener at Dunn's Nursery and Garden Center in Silver City. He reports a growing regional interest in pond plants that are easy to winterize.

At home in Pinos Altos, Erikson has created both an in-ground pond and several containerized water gardens that punctuate his landscape. A northeasterner who attended Ohio State University, the lanky, blond nurseryman appreciates the contrast of a pond feature among the bountiful rocks found in most southwestern landscapes.

"It's a feng shui thing," Erikson reflects, "the way water balances rocks. Ponds can be Zen or totally active depending on who's creating the pond."

For gardeners pursuing this aesthetic, Erikson recommends The Water Garden Encyclopedia by Philip Swindell, which is stocked at Dunn's Nursery along with a variety of pond species.

For basic winter care of water lilies, Erikson recommends using food tablets. "Floaters like water lettuce and hyacinth," he adds, "need to come indoors in bowls or buckets. Placed in a sunny window, these plants will continue to create the algae that they require for food."


Regarding food, in the backyard of Spaghetti Western, Jake Politte, a Silver City restaurateur of unrivaled opinions and exacting tastes, has created a verdant patch of garden "to take the edge off standing at the stove all day."

The multitalented chef has resolved the dilemma of perking up gray days that can feel "as bleak as a New Jersey, nuclear winter." Cactus, succulents, a vitex tree and the plant that he proclaims his "pride and joy" — a potted Tuscan blue rosemary — star in this winter garden. Politte impishly admits to rubbing himself with rosemary, then "cruising the dining room."

The imposingly tattooed resident of Hurley goes on, "Italians garden instinctively and love cactus and succulents." Pointing to two Virgins of Guadalupe nestled among the restaurant plantings — the larger Virgin a plasticized eminence purchased at Wal-Mart — Politte invokes an Italian bent toward garden statuary.

He is also a conscientious winter waterer and diligent composter whose garden is almost effortlessly maintained. Sparrows, ravens and migrating birds dine on leftovers swept out the back door. Discarded garlic cloves thrown into the compost pile will show up exuberantly in the spring.

Mama Mia! What a sweet song.


Writer Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City. She has been privileged to visit some of the world's greatest gardens. While working in the Washington Bureau of CBS News, Vivian found solace at the National Arboretum. If you like her new Southwest Gardener column, let us know at editor@desertexposure.com, and Savitt will return in the spring.



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