Create shade with vertical gardeningJun 28, 2021 09:33AM ● By Paige Slaughter
Think like a forest
Our high desert sun is intense. While warm season crops like tomatoes, peppers, corn and squash can handle full sun, many of our favorites enjoy a bit of shade.
Creating more robust and diverse garden ecosystems with varying degrees of light, moisture and warmth results in a slew of benefits. You might discover your greens are more tender, certain flowers look more vibrant, or that you don’t have to water as much.
MIMIC FOREST CANOPY
In a forest, trees of varying heights reach their leaves up toward the sun. Shrubs and wildflowers are everywhere, and beneath them lie grasses, shorter flowers and ferns. They’re cool in the shade, though specks of sunlight beam down. Beneath the smallest plants, pine cones and decomposing leaves cover the forest floor, blanketing a layer of dark brown, moist soil.
No one’s tending to the forest except Mother Nature. But in this diverse ecosystem, each layer compliments the others.
As you cultivate your garden, think about its layers. Is mulch blanketing your soil to help retain moisture and provide habitat for earthworms? Are you growing tall flowers beside your bed of greens? Add vertical space to your garden to mimic the layers of a forest.
Sunflowers and corn can cast shade on shorter plants to protect them from our hot afternoon sun. A wall of trellised cucumbers or squash can act similarly. Seed buckwheat with carrots to create a shady canopy for the carrots to germinate under.
Leafy greens will turn bitter and bolt quickly in the hot summer sun, so planting them in a spot with some afternoon shade will make for more tender greens. A little bit of shade for broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower will help to slow flowering and encourage tighter heads.
If you’re not planting this month, add mulch or a layer of grass clippings. Or fill in gaps in your garden with lettuce seed. Maybe add nasturtium to your squash patch if you haven’t already.
Other vertical plants include perennial vines, trees and shrubs; annual blooms of sunflowers, love lies bleeding, cleome and cosmos; corn, pole beans and climbing cucumbers. These create shade for the herbs, vegetables and creatures below.
Lawns, like all living plants, sequester carbon from the atmosphere and pull water into underground watersheds. But they also take hefty watering.
Maintaining a lawn in the high desert requires lots of inputs, especially if you’re aiming for a golf course-style lawn: a low-cut, weed-free monoculture of green grass. It’s time to expand our perception of what a beautiful lawn looks like, and how we can tend to them more sustainably.
By incorporating or allowing other greenery into your lawn like dandelions, clover, alfalfa and mints, you’re facilitating more biodiversity and beneficial natural cycles in your space. Diversity lessens or eliminates the perceived need to usechemical herbicides, which seep into the water cycle we all rely on.
Keeping your lawn a few inches longer by cutting no more than a third of the total grass height tremendously lowers the amount of water needed to keep it green. By watering for longer periods of time and less often (only a few days a week) your lawn grows deeper, healthier roots. You can also leave clippings on the lawn to recycle nutrients back to the roots or spread a thin layer of compost on your lawn each year.
Consider expanding the border around your lawn for growing food, or drought-tolerant perennials like lavender and cacti. Or, turn it into a xeriscape or rock garden!
SUMMER GARDEN CHECKLIST
❑ Hydrocooling your greens makes them crisper and longer-lasting. Harvest lettuce in the morning and soak in cold water before putting it in the fridge.
❑ Harvest broccoli crowns while they’re still tightly in bud, before florets begin to open up and lose flavor. You can also harvest the lower leaves of broccoli and cabbage plants, slice them into strips and simmer in saltwater to enjoy as a midsummer dish.
❑ Cut basil at the main stem instead of pinching off leaves, just above a leaf pair rather than leaving a stub. Keep your basil in a small vase of water in your kitchen or set it out to dry.
❑ Check for squash bugs and their eggs regularly on the underside of squash leaves and along leaf stems.
❑ Sow your next succession of cilantro, green onions, lettuce and other greens.
❑ Thin your carrots and beets to make room for the others to grow larger.
❑ Sow root vegetables for fall harvest.
❑ Harvest garlic once the tips of
the leaves have turned yellow
and lower leaves brown. Use
a garden fork or shovel to dig up garlic from beneath, rather than pulling on the stems. Brush dirt off of the bulbs—don’t get them wet. Keep the stems on and hang your garlic to dry for 3-4 weeks in a well-ventilated room or in a dry, shady spot outside.
❑ Weeds give us insight into our gardens. Clover indicates a low level of nitrogen. Compacted soils invite grasses, whose strong central taproots and wiry stems are attempting to aerate soil. Before cursing weeds, identify them, check their roots, and see what you can learn about your little backyard ecosystem.