Southwest Yard and Garden

This column comes through the Grant County Extension Service out of New Mexico State University.

by Dr. Marisa Thompson

chollaCholla infested with cochineal scale. (Photo by S. Moran)

cholla2Waxy white clumps produced by cochineal scale on cholla. (Photo by S. Moran)Question: What’s the white cottony stuff growing on my cholla cactus? And should I do anything about it?

Albuquerque resident via Bernalillo County Extension Horticulture Agent, Sara Moran

Answer: Although it looks like cotton fibers, that stuff is actually a fine wax produced by adult cochineal scale insects, and little black specks may be their nymphs. It’s common around these parts on cholla (Cylindropuntia spp.) and prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) cacti. The similar-looking white beards on other cacti, like the Peruvian old man (Espostoa lanata) and Peruvian old lady (Espostoa melanostele), are normal, healthy modified tissues, not an insect product. The white waxy coating made by cochineal scale on landscape chollas and prickly pears helps protect these true bugs from predators—and insecticides.

cottonwood color comparisonThe same vista, 20 days apart, showing the bright colors all turning dark brown down in the bosque at River Park in Los Lunas. (Photo by Marisa Thompson)Question: Why are some cottonwood trees turning brown rather than yellow this fall? Sometimes a portion of the tree (often the lower portion) turns brown while the crown does turn yellow. I think I have seen this in other years, but this fall it seems more pronounced. Is it weather related? Moisture?

Wes B., Albuquerque, NM

Answer: Explanations for why leaves change color the way they do can be related to the species or cultivar, temperature fluctuations, seasonal day length changes, and potentially the soil moisture levels too. A general rule is that while temperature tends to affect the intensity of leaf color, it’s the shorter days and longer nights that trigger overall color change.

Chlorophyll is the green pigment that starts the process of photosynthesis by helping convert sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water into sugars that travel through the plant to other branches or roots where the plant uses them as food. Normally, chlorophyll breaks down and is remade continually throughout the season, but in the fall when the days get shorter, veins that carry water and nutrients to the leaves start to close off, so less chlorophyll is made and more and more chlorophyll breaks down. As the green color fades, other pigments that were there all along, like yellow and sometimes orange, can be seen.

Southwest Yard & Garden by Dr. Marisa Thompson

swyardgarden1Tree growth is slowing as temperatures fall (photo credit M. Thompson).

Question: I’ve seen conflicting advice online on whether or not to fertilize trees now to promote healthy root growth.

Camille R., Albuquerque

Answer: Don’t fertilize anything in fall because we want growth to slow with dormancy, and the salts in fertilizer will either just sit there and be unhealthy for soil/roots or actively damage roots. When carefully selected and applied, fertilizers can help boost a plant that’s already putting on a flush of top growth, like in the spring and early summer. In our areas, applying fertilizer now may extend late-season growth, and that new tender growth is particularly susceptible to cold injury.

cherries in bloom sept 30 2018 stacia jacobi garcia 2Ranier cherry blossoms in Albuquerque at the end of September. Photo credit Stacia G.

Question: Do you know why my Ranier cherry tree is blooming now (September 30)? It doesn’t look so good, but earlier this year it produced a decent amount of cherries. - Stacia G., Albuquerque, NM

img 0033It’s too late to deadhead zinnias now and get new blooms, but cutting flowers earlier in the season can really increase flowering time and number of new blooms. Photo credit M. Thompson.

Southwest Yard & Garden by Dr. Marisa Thompson
Amendments to Soil Constitution

Question: Should I amend my soil when planting a tree?
- Common Question from Tree Lovers Across the State

Answer: The short answer is no. The less-short answer is still no, assuming you’re planting a tree that’s recommended for your area. The recommended tree species are the ones with roots that are well adapted to our native soils, so they’re more likely to live long, sustainable lives.

Before I get into the weeds on why soil amendments, including fertilizer, are not recommended when planting trees, let me first explain that this week I’m talking about landscape perennial trees, shrubs, flowers, grasses, cacti, succulents, and vines. I’m not addressing the needs for annual flowers, garden vegetables, or commercial fruit trees. Another important distinction is that non-native, non-adapted trees may benefit from modifying the planting site, but even then only in the short term.

Why not amend the soil around your tree? There are a bunch of reasons depending on the problem—or perceived problem. The number one issue we see around the state with dying trees is just plain water—where and how you apply it. Another common reason trees don’t make it is that they’re planted too deep, so amending the soil wouldn’t help with that issue. For more on how to plant a happy tree and figuring out the whole watering conundrum, visit the links on this week’s blog post: https://nmsudesertblooms.blogspot.com/2018/10/amendments.html 

We want secondary (smaller, finer) roots to grow out laterally 2–4 times the height of the mature tree. They’re the ones doing all the water and nutrient absorption work. Amending the soil in the planting hole restricts the outward growth of roots beyond the edges of the hole and encourages circling roots to form. Research on trees and soil amendments has shown that by adding organic matter to your soil backfill, the initial results are good. But that interface between the amended soil and the native soil is bad news. Water doesn’t move well across the interface, and neither do roots. With time, the roots just stay in the original hole area and spiral in there, so you end up with a potted tree with reduced growth rate, constant water and nutrient stress (because those lateral roots never fully developed), and heightened vulnerability to pests and diseases.

My favorite answer to most horticulture questions is asking more questions. What are you trying to achieve by amending your soil? What type of soil exists in the tree’s native habitat? What kind of soil do you have? What is the soil history in the planting spot? How will you be watering the tree? What’s wrong with your soil, again?

Let’s take an example of a Texas red oak tree (Quercus buckleyi) in a 15-gallon container that was donated by the Los Lunas El Jardin Encanto Garden Club and planted this week here at the NMSU Agricultural Science Center at Los Lunas. This tree is native to sandy soil areas of West Texas and the Pecos River Valley. The USDA Web Soil Survey of the planting site shows that the soil at our planting site is a Glendale clay loam (check the blog, address above, for a little video I made on how to use the Web Soil Survey tool to know your soil better). Sure enough, on NMSU Extension Horticulture Agent Jeff Anderson’s suggestion, I filled the hole with water a few days before planting to get an idea of the water-holding capacity, and it was still mucky at the bottom today. This will become a problem if the tree is overwatered, and trying to increase organic matter by amending the soil might make it worse. A major reason for adding organic matter when planting is that it increases the water-holding capacity of soil. That’s why it is recommended for veggies and annual flower plantings in sandy soils where the water drains too quickly.

Slow and steady wins the tree race. Trees that grow too fast are more likely to develop structural problems and have other issues. Fertilizers are not recommended at the time of planting perennial plants because we want the plant’s energy to go into root establishment at a healthy rate to support the aboveground growth. Hold off on fertilizing for at least a few years while your tree is setting down roots. Even then the best practice is “Test, don’t guess.” Having your soil tested can help you decide which nutrients are deficient, if any. Furthermore, a nutrient deficiency isn’t necessarily remedied by adding more. For example, calcium in tomatoes can be deficient in the fruit, causing blossom end rot, but calcium levels in our soils are usually adequate to extreme, so adding calcium won’t help—water is the key in that case. NMSU Extension Guide A-114, “Test Your Garden Soil” http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_a/A114/welcome.html , has more info on soil testing.

Nutrient toxicity is a potential issue to consider too. Soil amendments are not regulated, so fertilizers can be extremely high in salts. According to a helpful Colorado State University Extension publication on soil amendments for vegetable gardening http://extension.colostate.edu/docs/pubs/garden/07235.pdf , “Plant-based composts are low in salt. These may be applied at higher application rates, more effectively improving the soil. Plant-based composts are typically higher in price.” By “plant-based composts,” they’re talking about compost made from kitchen scraps. Contact your local city government or county Extension office (http://aces.nmsu.edu/county/) to find out about compost options for your community. Also, ask about composting workshops. The Bernalillo County Extension Master Composters volunteer program is another helpful resource and fun group to work with. Or check out NMSU Extension Guide H-110, “Backyard Composting” http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/H110/welcome.html , to learn how to make your own compost.

As Community Forester for the City of Las Cruces Jimmy Zabriskie said when I asked if he ever recommends using soil amendments when planting a tree, “Save the money for mulch.”

Stay tuned for more on the goodness of mulch in future columns.

Send gardening questions to Southwest Yard and Garden - Attn: Dr. Marisa Thompson at desertblooms@nmsu.edu Please copy your County Extension Agent http://aces.nmsu.edu/county/  and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!

For more gardening information, visit the NMSU Extension Horticulture page at Desert Blooms http://desertblooms.nmsu.edu/  and the NMSU Horticulture Publications page at http://aces.nmsu.edu/pubs/_h/ .

Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, office: 505- 865-7340, ext. 113.

Southwest Yard & Garden by Dr. Marisa Thompson

NuMexTwilight. This ornamental 'NuMex Twilight' chile plant produces colorful fruit all season long (photo credit The Chile Pepper Institute).

Question: What’s the difference between different colors on peppers? I’m getting red fruit and purple fruit on the same plant.

Mary S., Santa Fe, NM

blue grama grass rsFigure 1. Blue grama (Bouteloua gracilis), the state grass of New Mexico, photographed in November 2017 near Carson National Forest (photo credit M. Thompson).Question: Do you have recommendations for native grass species for residential landscapes and how to care for them?

- Otero County Extension Master Gardeners

Answer: Bigger ornamental grasses provide beautiful backdrops, hedgerows, and screens in our landscapes. Smaller species help fill in between broadleaf plants and make great garden borders. Both big and small grasses provide texture, contrast, and grace, all with minimal maintenance and zero fertilizer. In winter, when many of our ornamental plants have shed their leaves, grasses can be delightful, even though they're dormant and brown.