Monday, June 22, 2009

Shrimp in the Desert?!

Did you know there is a type of shrimp that has adapted to the harsh desert environment? Amazing, yet true, a fairy shrimp may survive as a cyst in dry sediment for years waiting for sufficient rainfall. Once rainfall does come, diminutive pools form in micro-depressions in the desert landscape. When these temporary pools form, a fairy shrimp will instantly reactivate itself, feeding and reproducing rapidly. As long as the temporary pool persists for approximately three weeks, the fairy shrimp will have sufficient time to complete its life cycle (image downloaded from

Similar to fairy shrimp, countless other organisms have adapted to the desert environment. In fact, desert plant communities are actually more diverse than most people believe. This creates an excellent opportunity to use various desert-adapted plants in our urban, constructed landscapes that will inherently use less water and still look great.

For example, a wide variety of plants use various mechanisms to survive with very little and/or intermittent moisture. Xerophytes, or plants adapted to extremely dry environments, have adapted by becoming one of the following: drought evaders, drought tolerators, or drought avoiders. These general categories of xerophytes allow for greater diversity in the desert because plants’ life cycles/characteristics are different. For example, some plants here in the Great Basin begin blooming early in the spring while snow is still on the ground and moisture is plentiful. They may even die back to the ground before summer arrives. Other desert plants can be found blooming at different times of the year, even well into fall. There are many plants we could potentially use in our landscape and still make it beautiful year-round.

It is also true that not all the plants in our desert environments are adapted to minimal moisture. Some are actually used to increased moisture due to reasons such as proximity to small creeks and oases, or even disparate rainfall amounts due to location and/or elevation.

What does all this mean for our urban, constructed landscapes? Essentially, it means that urban landscapes can be comprised of many different types of plants, both native and non-native, capable of thriving in our harsh environment. Further, these landscapes--if designed properly--can be beautiful and interesting throughout the entire year. Even more important, by properly using these types of plants, we can all conserve water. The key is to place plants in proper locations (i.e. locations that are similar to their natural environments) and irrigate them efficiently. Landscaping in this manner will result in plants that are less likely to develop diseases or other problems—which means less time ‘babysitting’ and/or replacing them.

We at the Conservation Garden Park can help guide you through the discovery of the beautiful plants that will grow well in your landscape.

Creature Feature

Who's Spitting in the Garden?!!

Growing up, my brothers and I were constantly intrigued by the pests that inhabited are yard and garden. We knew all of them and how to find, catch and ultimately destroy them. Grasshoppers were easy often the victims of our bug hunts and we learned the best ways to track and sneak up on cicadas. However, no bug was quite as interesting, for boys, as the spittle bug.

Spittle bugs, sometimes called froghoppers (members of the family Cercopidae) are relatives of the leaf hopper whose nymphs create a bubbly froth of plant juice as protection and a hiding place. Tucked safely away in this mass of spit, the nymph is hidden from the view of predators and provides a moist, insulating protective coating that maintains optimum growing conditions for the young spittle bug.

The eggs of the spittle bug are laid in summer and overwinter on plants and in landscape debris. The young hatch in early spring and begin their developmental stages in the safety of their spit. Fully grown adults emerge in late-spring and begin working on the next generation. On an interesting side note, the adult spittle bug is among the world's greatest jumpers. They can catapult themselves up to 28 inches, a great distance for something of its diminuitive size.
All stages of the spittle bug feed on plant juices. Although these bugs may be harmful in great numbers, they are rarely found in numbers large enough to cause damage severe enough to warrant chemical control. If control is necessary, a short burst of water will effectively wash away the insect. However, if you have boys in the family, why not leave them and let the boys investigate. After all, there is no tactic that is more boyish than to cover yourself in spit to ward off unwanted guests.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Turf Tips: June

Due to recent conversations I have had with multiple local residents—both via telephone and at events—I have opted to briefly discuss why we should only give our turf what it needs. In other words, avoid excessive irrigation and fertilization. To help demonstrate this, I will use examples from a large turf area in my neighborhood which, last year, was over irrigated to the point that a few puddles resulted and remained for hours after the lawn was irrigated. I do not know how often the lawn was fertilized, however.

I just realized a few days ago that this lawn was showing signs of stress (i.e. there are currently large brown spots throughout the entire site). A closer look revealed the presence of some common grass weeds such as orchard grass. An even closer look revealed another problem. This lawn has excessive thatch (simply put, thatch is comprised of accumulated dead material near the base of the grass plant).

While a lot of people believe that thatch is caused by allowing grass clippings to remain on your lawn after mowing, this is simply not true. Using a mulching mower that distributes the clippings on your lawn can be beneficial. This is because you are returning nutrients (more specifically, nitrogen) to your lawn. The clippings break down so fast that they do not contribute to thatch. Excessive irrigation and fertilization are actually primary contributors to thatch.

Why do we not want thatch—at least excessive thatch—in our lawns? Excess thatch can contribute to multiple problems, two of which are listed below:

  • Increased disease susceptibility
  • Decreased water penetration (thatch can actually create a hydrophobic layer (i.e. a layer through which water will not penetrate) ) causing the turf to dry out

I will not discuss thatch removal methods in this post; instead, I simply want to reiterate the importance of only giving our turf what it needs. Just as we are told regarding our own bodies, too much food or water (even healthy foods) can be detrimental to our health. It is the same for turf (and other plants as well). Only give your turf what it needs. Your turf will be healthier, better able to withstand drought conditions, etc. Remember, if you desire an on-site consultation, free water checks ( are currently available. Simply call 1-877-728-3420. Also feel free to come to the Conservation Garden Park for additional tips.

Future posts will include recommended fertilization schedules…


Monday, June 1, 2009

Creature Feature

No Glory in the Morning!

One of the questions we get asked most is, "How do I get rid of my morning glory?" This particular query makes my want to curl up in a corner and go to sleep and simultaneously run widly around the garden waving my arms frantically. The real problem is that there is no really good solution to the problem of morning glory, aka field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis). When people ask that infamous question they always look at me like I have some secret potion that I am holding out on - I wish.

Aside from having a really cool botanical name (if you want to be smart try it out on your neighbors), it also has somewhat attractive white, bell-shaped flowers with shades of pink at its base. Gray-green arrow-shaped leaves grow on long tendrils that closely hug the ground or any plant in its way. Were it not for its unwarranted aggressiveness it would be a great groundcover for almost any situation.

Field bindweed's secret to success is threefold. It's vines cling onto any nearby plants allowing it to reach the sun. It has root systems that grow deeply and, when pulled, separate easily leaving the largest portion still in the soil. In fact, field bindweed roots have been found as deep as 30 feet in certain soils. This extensive root system allows it to travel freely through landscapes and makes it very drought tolerant. With large stores of carbohydrates in the roots, they are able to last in the soil long after they should be dead and gone. Finally, it produces large numbers of seeds that are purported to last up to 50 years in the soil. If this isn't a recipe for an indestructible plant I don't know what is.

Now that you have the bad news, here is the hope for a bindweed free future. As persistent as bindweed is, people can be more persistent and will need to be to control this plant. Short term solutions for control do not exist, but long term control programs will make a difference and should include cultivation and careful applications of herbicides. In my own landscape, I alternate between pulling and spraying with Roundup or 2,4-D. Efforts at control should be aimed to kill the weed before seed production. When you see flowers, that is a good sign that you better take some action. Some people have discouraged others from pulling field bindweed because it might spread more quickly. However, consistent pulling will help to wear the plant down and could elimate seedlings or new, vulnerable stands. When you apply herbicides, don't expect instant results. Several applications separated by two weeks will be necessary to provide control.

In the end, it is consistency that will help to get rid of this weed. Keeping it under control and growing healthy plants that will compete with it will help it to not get a strong foothold in your landscape. Also, just a quick note, I prefer the name field bindweed over morning glory because it sounds worse. It also helps to differentiate it from the annual morning glories that are not actually weeds.

Next time, on to a much more interesting critter . . . spittle bugs!

June Plant of the Month: Kent Beauty Oregano

This month we highlight Kent Beauty Oregano (Origanum x 'Kent Beauty'), a favorite perennial of mine. This little oregano specimen is not grown for culinary use, but is a great ornamental addition to any raised area in your landscape. Planting it in a raised area will best showcase its lantern-shaped blossoms, which hang from the top of its stems. You're sure to receive lots of comments about this pretty little plant.
The Kent Beauty begins blooming in June and continues into early fall. It is a low grower, only reaching a height of 8 to 10 inches, and it spreads to a foot or less. Plant it in well drained soil and full sun. For maintenance, cut the plants to the ground in late fall.