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Desert Gardening: Preparing the Garden for Spring

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Spring-cleaning in your garden isn’t hard. Doing these easy chores will ramp up your home’s curb appeal and keep your plants happy.

agave dwarf iris desert
'Flamingo’ muhly in fall bloom

By Scott Calhoun

Here in the desert Southwest, when tiny leaves start appearing along the branches of our pomegranates, I know it’s time to get out the pruners, ready the brush and bulky bags, and start preparing the garden for spring.

 

‘Flamingo’ muhly in its winter appearance

The photos show how my ‘Flamingo’ muhly grass looked last fall when it was blooming—a full pink haze; then how it looks after winter; then how it looks cut back. I purposely left the seed heads on the plant through winter for visual interest and bird forage, but now, come early March it is time for the “big chop.” That is I cut back the grass hard (to about 6–10 in high) so new green growth will emerge cleanly. You can use this method on any clumping ornamental grass species: blue grama, ‘Regal Mist’ muhly, deer grass and others.

Cutting back grass with bypass pruners

Pruning:

  • shapes the plant and helps us guide the growth;
  • removes dead or decaying branches and reduces the risk of spreading decay; and
  • makes light available to the living interior branches.

 

‘Flamingo’ muhly post pruning

Spring also is a good time to add new mulch around plantings. Most native desert plants and cactus prefer inorganic mulch such as gravel. The mulch around the cactus planting in the photo uses a desert-brown-colored gravel screened to a 3/8th inch size.

Mulching:

  • helps keep roots cool as temperatures begin to rise;
  • conserves water around a plant’s root zone; and
  • keeps weeds from coming back (when mulched to a depth of at least 3 in).

While you are pruning your plants, look for newly emerged small weeds. As you finish up, rake away debris and dead plant material.

Gravel mulch surrounds a snowball cactus

Spring weeding:

  • eliminates weeds before they flower, reducing reseeding; and
  • is easier when soil is still damp and plants aren’t fully rooted in.

Raking/removing debris:

  • helps reduce spread of fungal diseases and certain insect infestations.

What do you do in your garden in spring that helps tidy up?