The Trowel

Gardening Tips and Tricks


Late Summer Gardening

by Millie McFarland

After worrying whether or not we would get any cucumbers, since something was munching on the plants, we now have more cukes than we can eat. We may end up doing some pickles–although we probably have about 24 jars of Bread and Butter Pickles (our favorite) in backstock. We grow Suyo, a variety that produces long cukes with a clean, crisp taste, no bitterness. And they slice nicely via a food processor if you are making pickles. We peel ours before eating them raw–though some folks don’t. Right now we are eating multiple cukes every day as well as making jars of refrigerator pickles.

The tomatoes are setting on and only beginning to ripen. The small cherry varieties are ripening first with their intense flavor—perfect for salads. The larger varieties are still green, but hopefully we will be enjoying them soon.

This is our second year for growing Poblanos, those dark green, almost black, oblong semi-hot peppers, which when dried are called Ancho. We have a few dried ones from last season that we still plan to grind into powder.


We have been enjoying our cabbages. They are so beautiful and unbelievably crisp and crunchy. One problem we have after the recent rains is splitting. The ripe heads sometimes split open, which requires immediate harvesting as bugs or disease can enter. We grow a mix of early round cabbages and later-developing, pointy-headed ones. All of these cabbages have their unique flavors.

Dividing Irises: Away from the veggie garden, other chores await, including dividing Iris rhizomes. The goal is both to share favorite varieties with friends and give more breathing room to the plants, so they will not get so overcrowded that they stop blooming.

Notes from a Summer Garden

by Millie McFarland

This has been a challenging growing season for us. In addition to the heat, blazing sun, and strong winds, we have had more than our normal share of critters.
Early this spring I had to gently remove a litter of baby bunnies from last year’s carrot bed. It was a shock to find them there as the garden fence had previously done a decent job of eliminating rabbit incursions. But this was a clear sign that the fence was not doing its job—or that a super race of bunnies had developed who could leap four-foot fences.
In any case, I managed to gently remove said bunnies to a nearby Juniper where they could be shaded and a bit protected. And I did witness their mom finding them and hanging nearby.
But I did not expect one to hang around into the growing season! For several weeks I encountered a tiny bunny up in the garden early in the morning when I checked on the beds. It would freak out and run around trying to find a way out and eventually squeeze its small body through the fence openings.
Coincidentally with its visits, cabbage leaves had pieces missing. And we concluded that the bun-bun was enjoying the fruits of our labors before we had a chance to. So, I temporarily covered the beds with row cover.
I have not seen the kit recently, but there has been something chewing on the lower leaves of the cucumber plants, inhibiting growth a bit. So it could still be around.


In addition to the bunny, cabbage loopers also made their appearance – at first there were just a few holes and I should have started applying Bt (Bacillus Thuringiensis) right away – but things got a bit ahead and then I ran out and had trouble finding more powder to replace the stash I had last purchased several years ago.
Bacillus Thuringiensis is a naturally occurring microbe that “freezes” the digestive systems of certain larvae, in particular cabbageworm and the dreaded Tomato Hornworm. It can also kill the bagworm that infects the Aspen trees. It is non-toxic to people and other, beneficial insects. There are a variety of strains of this bacillus that target different insects. One strain kills mosquito larvae and another, potato worms. But is an important tool in an organic gardener’s toolkit.

On the positive side, I am growing Anasazi bush beans, with the hope of drying and shelling these tasty beans. They are speckled brown and white, cook quickly and have a luscious, full-bodied flavor. We have been buying them from one of the local growers at the Saturday Farmers’ Market in Santa Fe. But I checked around and found seeds at the Plants of the Southwest. I will let you know how this experiment goes.

One last share: we recently discovered one of our usually thriving Austrian Pines looking more dead than alive. Upon inspection, I discovered a stringy, white egg case with one larva inside. I did some research and decided that spraying a light horticultural oil would be the best approach to smothering the insects. Keep your fingers crossed.

Water: From Macro to Micro

by Milicent McFarland

Happy Summer! It is official. We are in the throes of the growing months and I am waiting, as we all are, for the monsoons to start. Our water tanks are slowly emptying and we are using more system water. We collect roof rainwater and snowmelt year round in above ground tanks that vary in size from 500 gallons to 2,500 gallons. We have a total of four above ground roof collection tanks, at the moment, plus several water barrels. It is remarkable how much water can be collected in even a small rainstorm or snowfall.

We have our garden on drip irrigation and after much fine-tuning of the emitters and run time, it seems that the plants are happy with the amount of moisture they are currently receiving. As the plants increase in size and cukes and tomatoes start setting on, run time will have to be increased to accommodate the moisture needs of the veggies.

We use a combination of laser line (pre-drilled 1/4 inch line with water holes every 6 inches or more), drip soaker hose, and various sizes of emitters. Since we rotate our crop families, every growing season becomes a challenge to find the best layout for most efficient delivery of water. One problem we have encountered with the drip soaker hose is that it can fill up with minerals from our alkaline water and then not drip water properly. Wiping a soaker hose with vinegar may help a bit. The key is monitoring how the plants are doing on a daily basis.

WARNING: be aware of our gnawing critter neighbors. They love to chew on the water lines and leaks can develop due to their search for water. It helps to bury lines whenever you can.

We are also working on a drip system for the back yard trees and shrubs. As hot and as windy as it is here in Eldorado, we cannot keep up with their drying effects with hand watering or hoses. Plus, having drippers right at the root zone will ensure better application and less evaporation.

As a transplant to this area from the Midwest with its relatively abundant rainfalls, I have had to adjust. New Mexico receives 10 to 28 inches of precipitation per year, depending upon your elevation. Compared to Indiana, with almost 43 inches of annual precipitation, or Illinois, with 39 inches, NM is a desert.

In addition to getting water as close to the root zone of plants as possible, enrich the soil. Adding compost and mulching help to enrich soil to increase water-holding capabilities. We love adding the horse manure from our local stables to our raised beds in the garden. It improves the tilth, or oxygen holding abilities of the soil. Consequently, the soil is looser and supportive of plant growth. I grew the best carrots last year because of the well composted horse manure I added to one bed!
Conserve water. It is a vital nutrient.


by Milicent McFarland

My irises have been amazing. Colors that I had forgotten I had planted or have not seen in a season or two have bloomed continuously. It could be all the snow that lay on them so long this past winter. I really thought the snow might suffocate them, but the opposite seems to be true.

I also have poppies coming back as well as some perennials I planted last season for the first time, including native Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa). This is a special food for the Monarchs. Last year, they never got to bloom as I direct seeded them outside in May. With any luck they will be feeding butterflies later this summer. The flower is bright orange and very showy.

Another butterfly plant is Agastache, Hummingbird Mint, or Hyssop (Agastache sp.). I have had great luck, as they seem to withstand marauding critters. They come in a variety of scents and colors and do provide food for the hummingbirds I try to draw to my yard. Their color palette ranges from pinks to purple to oranges, with names like “Bubblegum” and “Licorice Mint”. They are becoming one of my favorites.

Penstemons are another plant that I have come to love. Palmer’s Penstemon (Penstemon palmeri) is spreading all over my yard, especially in areas that may be getting a smattering of water. It is a very prolific plant and is used along many of our NM highways.

I also have a tall blue Beardtongue penstemon (Penstemon strictus), which gets chewed, to the ground every winter by rabbits only to rise up again come June. I grow it with a fiery red variety that flourishes with no care. In general, all penstemon varieties are considered xeric, preferring little additional water or fertilizer. Mine thrive with neglect.

Another surprise this spring was the resurrection of a peach tree that had supposedly died. Not only is it growing, but also it is setting fruit. I discovered it covered with aphids and white fly a week or so ago. I used Safer® Brand Insect Killing Soap, a contact insecticide that kills soft bodied insects, but should be rinsed off with water after a bit. Leaving the soap on as the day heats up may damage leaves.

Mild dish soap and water can also be used. You can also spray plain water from a hose to wash the insects off. Persistence and vigilance is the key as these can be difficult insects to completely eradicate. I avoid poisons that can hurt beneficial insects such as ladybugs and bees.

A longer-term approach to insect control is companion planting, or combining plants that seem to either promote growth or deter insects. Some examples are marigolds in the veggie patch, as their smell seems to repel bugs. Nasturtiums are “trap” plants that will draw insects to them and save your veggies. Plus, they are edible and can be used in salads.

Much luck with your plants this summer and check back for my next column in July. Please let me know if you have questions or concerns at


by Milicent McFarland

EYES EVERYWHERE! Multitasking is the mantra this month.
It seems that is there is just a lot to check on all the time–both inside with the indoor grow-lights and outside in the yard: watering, weeding, thinning, re-seeding, etc.

I love it though, because gardening lures me outdoors, where I can enjoy bird song, insect buzz, lilac perfume, iris hue and the ever-changing colors of the sky.

Some of the intriguing, unique sights I have witnessed serendipitously include:
* Seeing a Curved-bill Thrasher chase a tiny Red Racer away from its cactus nest site;
* Rescuing a tiny hummingbird from the water barrel it had fallen into;
* Watching a mama Towhee feed her baby, who was as large as she;
* Discovering that the Butterfly Weed (Asclepius Tuberosa) seeds I grew last year are coming back;
* Finding baby hollyhocks appearing unexpectedly in a spot only a bird could have planted;
* Watching over a young hawk that was curled up in our drive, recovering from some catastrophe. And he did recover as the sun warmed him and his three siblings circled and screamed to him;
* And keeping a constant eye out for signs that destructive critters—like gophers & packrats—have not infiltrated areas where they will cause damage.

Every year is different. Last year at this time we had tomatoes and pepper plants several inches tall and on their way to be hardened off. This year we have started our indoor seedlings much later, but I am confident everything will catch up in the four or more weeks we have left.

We never plant warm weather crops, like tomatoes and peppers, outside until the end of May or later. We have experienced too many late freezes since moving here to Eldorado. One mid-May we had an 18° morning that killed a rose and a flowering tree. Last year we lost a dozen mid-size tomatoes plants we had put out in the cold-frame to harden off. An unexpected late April freeze did them in. So maybe starting later this year is not such a bad thing?

Thinning plants: I tend to thickly plant my greens and lettuce when I seed them, in order to eat the thinnings. You can thin by actually pulling plants up or by cutting the plants off at the base. I thin the bigger plants, like Mustard greens, Collards and Kale, by pulling the entire plant out. They need to be thinned to a foot apart.

This is my first year growing collards and this particular variety will get three feet tall. I started all of these greens March 8 and have kept them under row cover, which helps with moisture and heat retention as well as discouraging pest incursion.

I also thinned my tomato plantings inside, to reduce the numbers to only two tomato seedlings per cell. In a few weeks, those two will need to each be re-planted into their own separate pots.

On a side note, the the coir filled 72 x 2 (2 trays of 72 cells each). So the coir was very economical.

Anon. Happy gardening!

Los de Mora Growers Cooperative

Los de Mora Local Growers’ Cooperative farmers all practice natural and organic practices from recycling rain water, using heirloom seeds, bee keeping, using vermiposting and microbes to increase soil quality without the use of synthetic fertilizers and continued education on best sustainable agricultural practices. With the structured oversight of the Co-op, we are able to offer the highest quality produce, to include a variety of vegetables, eggs, meats, soaps and other value added products by requiring that producers are certified and/or licensed for the products they offer.

Working through the Cooperative enables individual family farm members to secure larger market opportunities. By aggregating the supply of pastured eggs, the Cooperative is able fulfill larger accounts, such as Russell’s Discount Foods in Mora, Cid’s Food Market in Taos, Dixon Cooperative Market, Espanola Market, and Travelers Café, Plaza Hotel, Plaza Café, El Fidel Hotel Restaurant in Las Vegas and having AWA certification (Animal Welfare Approved has the most rigorous standards for farm animal welfare currently in use by any United States organization) helped the Cooperative to finalize these agreements.


Los de Mora Growers’ Cooperative Annual Meeting and Community Farm Training May 12 – 7:30 am – 7:00 pm at American Legion Pavilion for training.


by Milicent McFarland

Laying out the garden plan

It is a frigid March morning with bitter winds but I am out looking at our garden beds to remind myself of the general layout. We added three small beds last year to give us additional planting space. Most of our raised beds run about 4 x 8 feet, but these were 2 x 3 feet–still big enough to house some tomatoes and a tomatillo. One small bed grew squash until nasty bugs set in that I couldn’t control and I decided to just dig up the entire bed. Those were the first squash bugs I had ever seen gardening here in NM.

When designing your bed, remember to tailor it to your arm length. Ideally, you want to be able to sit near the bed and be able to reach to the other side to plant or weed. Also consider height. We are building new beds that are close to waist high at planting level, to accommodate our advancing age and creaky knees.

I look at the sheaf of garden layouts, dating from 2011, to help me rotate plant families. I try not to plant a family member (ie. Nightshades, which include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants) more often than every three years in the same bed. So, for instance, I plan on planting cukes in a bed that has not seen them since 2012. This is to try and avoid disease and pest carry-over.

Starting seeds indoors

We have tried a variety of planting soils over the years and have decided on Coir, which is shredded coconut shell, as the medium in which to plant seeds. It produces the strongest seedlings. It is a sterile medium and holds moisture well. And it is compact. You can buy a small “brick” and add it to water to yield 8 quarts of plant material.

When transplanting later though, make sure to have a medium that includes fertilizer for the seedlings to feed on. We created a mix last year using vermiculite and peat moss, which was light and absorbent, but our plants faltered because there was no food for them. This year we will experiment with transplant mediums to find the best one. I will report on our experience in a month or so.

Composting with worms

Bravo to my wriggling red worms, busy breaking down kitchen waste into “black gold”. Our most successful compost bed is one that has been dug several feet into the ground and framed with wood. This allows the wormies to survive freezing temps by heading below the surface.

These are a special type of worm that thrives on kitchen waste (Eisenia Foetida), and are different from an earthworm. Red Wrigglers can be purchased at the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market. Keep in mind that vermicomposting is a cool temperature process, below 80°F. You can’t add worms to one of those black, high heat composting bins and expect them to live. These are two different composting processes.


by Milicent McFarland

It is a warm 55 ° and the garden is calling to me.
I cannot resist. Every year I plan on doing less and buying more at the farmer’s market or enrolling in a CSA—and every year the soil beckons.

Gardening is not for the weak of heart here in the arid Southwest where rainfall totals less than 12 inches a year, drying winds are the norm in several seasons and shockingly cold temps (18°) can happen in mid-May, after warmth has spurred leafing out.

And then there are the critters: packrat, gophers, mice, rabbits—all ready to make a meal or at least suck the moisture out of the plants you have so carefully cultivated.
So why continue? Because of successes like this morning when I was able to harvest greens from the raised bed I have kept covered for the last several months with two layers of floating row cover. Seeds were planted originally last fall in mid-September. I hand watered the bed periodically and also sprinkled gopher repellant pellets monthly and watered them in to discourage depredation. I have trapped gophers successfully, on occasion, but the repellant pellets seem to be keeping the critters at bay and they are cleaner to deal with.

So where to plant what? —That requires pondering the previous year’s plantings in order to rotate crops. The goal is to discourage overwintering soil borne diseases or bugs that like to prey on members of the same Family (e.g. Nightshade, which includes tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and eggplants.).
And I am stymied. All I want to do right now is to get some early cool weather crops started: Swiss chard, spinach, kale, and lettuces. But I have to keep the entire future garden in mind—so I need to tentatively at least pencil in proposed planting areas.

In order to do that, I need to review the “rules” of rotating which include focus on not just plant families, but alternating heavy feeding plants, like cabbage, with lighter feeders, like lettuce. Also include nitrogen-fixing plants, like beans and peas.

That requires more thought as three of my favorite crops have been Nightshades—tomatoes, peppers and potatoes—that can be prone to fungal diseases, which can last in the soil for up to four years. All three are subject to bugs. And tomatoes and peppers are heavy feeders.

And so I decide to plant early spring peas, which will be harvested and out of the garden by the time I want to plant zucchini and other squash, or pumpkin, in this same bed. Check on the seed package or with a local nursery for the best planting times for your area.

I have discovered through much trial and error that it pays to wait until the end of May to plant any cukes or squash, to avoid the squash bug and cucumber beetle both difficult insects to eradicate.
So, I end the day having gotten one bed planted, watered and covered. Tomorrow…the future potato bed?


by Milicent McFarland

“A—rriv—e-der—ci Roma”, it’s time for us to part…”

—I sing to my tomatoes as I de-stem, wash and dice them, sliding them all into a pot to cook down to paste. The robust, pear shaped Romas are perfect for slicing and sauces, low in seeds and high in sweet flesh. They also dry well.

It has been a long journey for them: from the seeds we planted in pots back in March, to a newly built tomato bed in our backyard this June, to being picked green in October and ripening over several weeks in a spare room. Their verdant aroma fills the house—somewhat green and over sweet, even a bit cloying.

Timing is unusual, as most sauce making is done in the summer and fall. Much like the harvest we had a few years back: we had such a monstrous crop of tomatoes that we pulled the plants up from the base and hung them in the official dining room from wooden frames. We had heard of others doing the same, often in their garages. That year we ate lovely tomatoes, from pear-shaped, to round heritage, to cherries of all sizes, well into the New Year.
Tomatoes are not the only vegetables hanging on—literally. We have Poblano and other hot peppers drying in the hallway near the kitchen, attached by strings to the three-tier wire hanging fruit basket. The Poblanos were new to us this year, our goal to dry and grind them into the dried powder that is called Ancho Chili. (same pepper, two names.) For more information, see What are Poblano Peppers? from

So far, the originally deep blue-green, freshly picked peppers have ripened to a deep burgundy with a leathery texture. We will see if they blacken and desiccate enough to be ground into powder.

One challenge is to see if the peppers survive our cat—who sees them as marvelous twirling toys to be chewed on and hockey-pucked. It was the same way with the ripening tomatoes. If we left containers of them out on the counter, we would awaken to find tomatoes on the kitchen floor and, if lucky, pick them up before we crushed them under a sleepy foot into juice and seeds.

The 2016 garden catalogs have already started to arrive, along with Christmas cards from friends and relatives. “The Tomato Growers” is my favorite, replete with gorgeous photos of vine-ripened tomatoes bursting with juice and colorful peppers of all Scoville heat units.

The June catalog is more diverse in its seed varieties, including an entire menagerie from radishes to rutabagas to spaghetti squash, as well as tools, fertilizers and insecticides. And there will be more catalogs, as well as the usual reminders in our e-mail from other growers.

As a veteran gardener, I am inspired to start planning for next year, even while shoveling snow and putting away holiday decorations.
Adieu 2015.  And  Bienvenido 2016!!