Garden surprise

Fringed sage (Artemisia frigida) feeling the drought in my front yard “unlawn.”

I feel like I should begin with a public confession:

My name is Susan.

I am a neglectful gardener.

The Southwest is in a several-year-long drought. Last year brought just over two-thirds of “normal” precipitation here, a dismal 6.7 inches of moisture. In the first two months of this year, we’ve dropped to less than half of normal, receiving a whopping one-third of an inch so far.

South-central Colorado, where I live, is officially in “severe” drought. (Other parts of the state are in extreme or exceptional drought. In this case, being exceptional is really, really not good.)

Normally in dry winters I give my native grassland yard and kitchen garden a good soak in one of our periodic mild spells. Not this winter. I’ve been so absorbed with finishing the house that I’ve completely neglected the yard and garden.

Mule deer tracks

Native plants are tough. They can survive droughts. But I want the wildflowers to really pop and the kitchen garden to look its delectable best this spring when I’m showing the house to potential buyers.

Now it’s so dry that the deer have cut dusty trails through the bunchgrass grassland, and the organic mulch topping the raised beds in the kitchen garden has weathered gray.

On warm weekend days, I think about watering. And instead head for the shop to rip, sand, and paint trim, and then haul it inside and fire up the air compressor and pneumatic nailer.

My handsome, talented–and flexible–honey caulking the sill of a sliding glass door a few months before he died. Not bad for a guy with terminal brain cancer.

I’m not complaining, mind you. This particular trim carpentry project is very satisfying since I’m completing the house Richard helped build. Now that I’m close to finishing the interior door and window trim, I’m pretty eager to just. get. it. done.

So feeling guilty is as far as I’ve gotten with watering. Until today, when I figured that if I ate my lunch at my desk while I wrote, I could take my half-hour of lunch break to water the kitchen garden.

It was 53 degrees F and breezy out, considerably warmer than the dawn temperature of six above. I grabbed the watering wand, and turned on the hose faucet for the first time since, oh, early November.

Bags of organic cotton boll compost headed for the kitchen garden in fall.

I poked a finger through the mulch in the bed where I normally grow broccoli, beets, and sugar-snap peas, and was surprised to find that an inch down below the powder-dry surface, the soil was barely moist. Definitely an argument for mulching the garden in winter. (I use an organic cotton boll compost; it’s acidified to counteract the alkaline tendencies of my garden soil.)

The big surprise though came when I pulled back the double-layer of row cover on the greens bed. It’s a summer squash bed in the warm months; after the first hard frost, I yank the dead plants and seed in spinach, lettuce and mesclun mixes. They sprout before winter comes, and then (I hope) stay alive through December and January’s sub-zero nights to get a jump-start on spring.

Monet’s Garden Mesclun flourishing (under a row cover) despite nights as low as -16 F.

Under the protection of the row cover, not only was the soil moist and dark, it was dotted with green: tiny spinach plants, mache (also called corn salad) with its succulent, round leaves, and the ruffled red and green leaves of Monet’s Garden Mesclun!

A big thank-you to Renee Shepherd and Renee’s Garden for finding and growing seed varieties that are not only delicious and beautiful, but tough too.

According to my garden journal, I planted these greens October 14th, watered them a time or two over the next four weeks, and then clamped the row cover securely–and neglected the planting until now. They not only survived an extra-cold, extra-dry winter, they’re ready to thin and eat. Wow.

Lunch tomorrow will feature my first home-grown salad of the year. Thanks, Renee!