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Gardening in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

Gardening in the Valley is different than elsewhere in the U.S. We have seasons, but their dates and what happens during that time does not correspond with the idealized seasons. Instead, we have a warm season (February-April), a hot season (May-September) and a warm/cool season (October-January). Plants may begin to grow as early as February, during the warm season. There is a second growth season in October. Most gardening takes place during the warm and warm/cool season.

Warm Season (February-April): If the weather is mild, plant and fertilize/add compost. Water and weed if needed. Get ready for the hot months by checking/adding mulch to your plantings, as needed.

Hot Season (May-September) It is hot! If you garden during the hot months in the Valley, avoid doing so in the heat of the day. The better hours for gardening are before 10 a.m. and after 6 p.m. Use your judgement.

  • No planting should be done during this time-- it is too stressful for plants; rather, use this time to plan any additions/changes you want to do in your garden later in the year!
  • Plants will get very thirsty during these coming months. In May check/add mulch to your plantings if you haven't done it yet. Consider watering them, as needed.
  • Weed if needed.
  • If Crucita, Turk's Cap, and Texas Lantana were not pruned in January/February, consider pruning in May to allow enough time to regrow and flower in time for hummingbird migration season in September.
  • By September, begin fertilizing/adding compost/check or add mulch to prepare for warm/cool season growth.
  • Also, by September, begin planting wildflower seeds to get flowers the next year in March and April.

Warm/Cool Season (October-January): This is a good time for planting. You may also continue planting wildflower seeds in October and November. Water and weed if needed.

  • Prune/thin at this time, before new growth comes out. If you are gardening for wildlife fruit, wait so that you don't cut it off; if you have nectar plants for butterflies wait after October and November, as this time of the year is butterfly season.
  • December is also a good time to transplant, if you need to. Treat it as if you were planting it the first time, that is, use correct hole size and level with respect to ground, using compost, and add mulch.
Garden Terms:

Irrigation: How long? Water new plants to keep the soil moist until established. Native plants usually require no extra watering on a regular basis, except in very hot conditions. On average, native plants are fully established to survive on rain alone after 6 months. What time of day? If you choose to irrigate, make sure it is done in the early hours of the morning (begin at 5 a.m.) so that plants have a chance of absorbing the water during the day and do not remain in wet soil for too long. Watering at night is not recommended because it increases the chance for fungal infection in the plants, since they remain with wet leaves and in wet soil for too long. What type of irrigation? Drip irrigation is best, as it conserves more water. How much water? Water thoroughly less often to encourage the growth of deep root systems, which helps plant survive better in the heat; this is preferable to watering for short times (for example, only 15 min.) several times a week.

Mulching: Mulch is a material spread around plants to enrich or insulate the soil. Mulch on your planting beds helps keep the soil moist. How mulch? Add a layer of mulch to your plant beds, about 2-3 in. deep, but not touching the trunk of the tree as it can harbor insects damaging to the bark. What type? Organic mulch helps control weeds and retain soil moisture, regulates soil temperature, and becomes part of the soil eventually; use wood chips, bark, leaves, or compost as mulch. It is preferable to rocks, as rocks get very hot in the sun, and don't bring the benefits mentioned with organic mulch.

Planting: Choosing the right plant for the right place is the first step to successful gardening. Where? It is important to find out the plant's mature size and light requirement, and space according to their mature size. How? When planting, break up the root ball and dig a hole larger than the root ball you are putting in; the level of the soil on the plant you are transferring should be either higher that the ground surrounding the plant or at least at the same level. Planting below the ground is not good for plants; water accumulates there, increasing the chance of root disease. Add compost to the hole when planting. Surround with mulch.

Pruning: Why? Pruning can be used to remove bad branches, to fix the shape of the plant, to control size, or to promote healthy growth. Is it OK to top my trees? No! Topping is NOT pruning. Topping is the indiscriminate cut the ends of tree limbs, which stresses plants (no leaves= no food for plant), promotes a type of branching that makes your tree weaker and could kill it, and destroys its natural shape (this is done a lot to Rio Grande Ash, a Valley native, and Crape Myrtles and Live Oaks, both Valley non-natives) Where? The proper place to prune a shrub or tree is to either: a) cut the base of the branch, without leaving a stump (where fungus can get into the plant) and without damaging the bark around the cut (again, fungus can get in that way); or b) cut where limbs branch out: the direction of the bud left is the direction the new growth is going to take. How much to prune? The amount of pruning depends on whether your garden is formal or informal. Formal gardens require more upkeep with pruning, and look neater. Some native shrubs, such as Manzanita, Elbow-bush, and Cenizo, can take shearing to make them into formal hedges. Informal gardens look more natural and require less pruning. If you are gardening for wildlife, your garden will probably be this type. In trees, leave 2/3 of the canopy. When? Usually, pruning takes place during the time when plants are not actively growing, after flowering and fruiting is done. This is especially true if you are gardening for wildlife. What is thinning? Thinning is the selective removal of older and taller branches or twigs at their point of origin in the plant to maintain plant size; it also allows for better air circulation within the plant and renews the plant.

Weeding: What is a weed? A weed is just a plant growing in the wrong location. When? This is an ongoing part of maintaining any garden, and may be done at any time of the year. It is easier to pull out weeds while they are small, and eventually you will recognize them at this stage.



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