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The call went out to the lads of Silver City: This means war!

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Black-tailed prairie dogs once numbered in the billions

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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   July 2010

Gardening When It's Sweltering

Watering, mulching and vegetable strategies for hot times. Plus the great tarragon taste test.

Summer's intense heat takes a serious toll on traditional ornamental plants when they are deprived of water. Leaves turn brown, then shrivel and wilt. Chlorophyll (essential to photosynthesis) and other nutrients are lost as dehydration occurs.

Native plants, of course, are adapted to cope with heat, while xeric plantings require less water once they are established.

A tightly packed plot of corn, beans and squash grows at the Community Garden on Hudson Street in Silver City. Master gardener Shelby Cox, coordinator of the program, shows his 8-month-old daughter Ahvy how the vegetables shade themselves --a sensible technique for hot climates. (Photo by Vivian Savitt)

As part of your gardener's arsenal against the heat, keep the following tips in mind to get through summer with your garden intact:

Water in the morning or the evening when the sun is less intense. The risk of scorching a plant increases if you irrigate when it is hotter. Windy conditions call for increased watering as well.

Drip irrigation offers slow, direct soil penetration to large areas of the garden. This method is effective and economical, as both evaporation and run-off (negative aspects of sprinkler systems) are reduced. Water contact with leaves, stems and fruit is minimized so there is less probability of plant diseases.

Soaker hoses provide effective irrigation to areas where plantings grow closer together — as in a typical ornamental bed. These porous hoses are less beneficial where plantings are spaced far apart, as you would be unnecessarily watering the areas in-between plants.

Mulching protects plants, benefits the soil, reduces compaction and serves as habitat for desirable soil creatures who eat insect pests. In our area a two-to-three-inch layer of mulch is appropriate. (See box for a special caution about cypress mulch.)

Vegetables for Summer's Swelter

As a certified New Mexico Master Gardener and Community Gardens Coordinator for Silver City's four plots, Shelby Cox can tell you a thing or two about vegetable gardening in extreme heat. He is especially keen on utilizing taller vegetables as shade-makers for smaller ones. Cabbage, for example, can protect lettuce; the cascading leaves of squash and the tall greenery on corn can shelter beans and beets.

Shelby uses straw mulch because it's cheap and effective. In the desert, he believes that staking tomato plants is unnecessary. Instead, Shelby lets them grow on the ground under a three-inch layer of straw mulch. Eventually the tomato leaves will also shade themselves. The only time he uses shade screen is to prevent beds of lettuce from turning bitter.

Tarragon That Can Take the Heat

The physical resemblance between French tarragon (Artemesia dracunculus) — the only edible artemesia — and Mexican marigold mint or Texas tarragon (Tagetes lucida) is uncanny. Both plants display similar lance-shaped leaves, height and width, and grow to become lovely, fluffy-looking mid-green plants.

A Mexican marigold mint plant or Texas tarragon growing at Ditch Cottage in mid-June. The perennial herb grows well in the southwest and blooms golden yellow flowers in early autumn. (Photo by Max Carmichael)

Recently, I oversaw a taste test of both herbs using a batch of Julia Child's recipe for "Salade la Argenson," which Regina Vinson of Silver Heights Nursery introduced me to. (See last month's column on the Vinson garden).

Silver City restaurateurs Jake Politte of 1zero6 and Rob Connoley of The Curious Kumquat (assisted by his staffer, Marsh) agreed to see if they could distinguish between the two herbs. All three tasters enjoyed the delicious beet-and-potato salad, but they preferred the flavor of the batch made with French tarragon — finding it milder. This is interesting since estragon — French for tarragon — means "little dragon," as does the botanical name dracunculus.

I find the Tagetes or marigold mint a suitable substitute for tarragon and grow it at Ditch Cottage. Indeed the marigold mint has an anise flavor more pronounced than French tarragon, but it grows easily in southwestern gardens, blooms perky gold flowers (Tagetes being a marigold) in early autumn, and is a perennial that reseeds and is also easily grown from cuttings. Mexican marigold mint has various names in Spanish including yerbanis and pericon.



The Poaching of Cypress Trees

Be aware that the cypress forests in Louisiana and Florida have been greatly diminished due to cypress poaching. These trees that offer habitat protection from hurricanes and help filter pollutants take 75 to 100 years to reach maturity.

At this crucial time in trying to restore the Gulf Coast, responsible gardeners should make a point of using the numerous other types of available mulches and defer from ever purchasing cypress mulch.



An old acquaintance, cookbook writer Lucinda Hutson, introduced me to Mexican marigold mint years ago in Austin, Texas. Author of The Herb Garden Cookbook, Lucinda uses the edible flowers as a garnish for her Thanksgiving turkey platter. She also adds the leaves in their fresh form to fruit punches and sangria, "crunchy carrots sauted in butter," pickled beets and numerous other dishes.

Lucinda comments, "Although French chefs would scoff at Mexican marigold mint replacing their beloved tarragon, I find it the best available substitute." Other chefs, she continues, "prefer it in its dried form, as its taste is more mellow."

In either case, be aware that both French and Texas tarragon are available in season at local nurseries. If you decide to prepare the Salade la d'Argenson, be sure to add shallots (Julia's preference) or green onion to the mixture. I neglected to mention that crucial ingredient in last month's column.

Columnist Vivian Savitt gardens at Ditch Cottage in Silver City.

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