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October/November 2023 Garden Checklist and Solutions

All Elevations

Fall is an ideal time for planting trees and shrubs. Planning includes assessing current landscape conditions and evaluating past choices such as selection, location and aesthetic value.

Sketching a map of your landscape as professional designers do provides a big-picture view and helps plan new plantings before visiting a nursery for selection. Consider how much sun or shade particular areas receive, as well as poorly draining soil or caliche that is difficult to till.

Assessing how well plants survived the past seasons will determine whether they should stay or go, and if they stay, what modifications are necessary for their care, if any. Some plants require more attention, and their cost may not offset their benefits.

Birds add color and sound to a landscape and also provide pest-management services. A variety of  feeders are available for sale or as kits for do-it-yourselfers. Their design will vary based on the type of food they hold and the species of birds you wish to attract.

Suet feeders are great for woodpeckers, while thistle-style vessels will lure goldfinches. Tube or ground feeders will appeal to the rest of the seed-feeding birds. Halved oranges staked into the ground, pierced through tree branches, or set on the deck or railing will provide an enticing snack for birds, including orioles, woodpeckers and verdins. Hummingbirds and the occasional woodpecker—not to mention bats—will flock to nectar feeders.

Remember that bird feeders need to be cleaned periodically to reduce the spread of diseases. The same goes for birdbaths if water is provided. And, of course, still water is an attractive breeding spot for mosquitoes. Replacing old water with fresh at least weekly will help, as well as Mosquito Dunks, which can be found at most hardware stores.

Illustration by Gary Hovland

Our house was treated for termites a week ago, and I noticed possible activity in two of our palm trees. I would have thought the initial inspection would have revealed these pests if they were there. Can termites show up that quickly? Do you have a suggestion as to what I should do?

Termites are an unwelcome reality of living in Arizona. These pests will not penetrate living tissue and are only after dead wood, which includes bark on the side of a tree. Pest management companies typically inspect houses and other structures, not nearby trees, so it is not surprising that trees on your property were not included in their report. They were likely present longer than a week if they were showing significant signs on the outside of the tree. They do not pose a problem and you do not need to do anything—just let nature run its course.

Low to Middle Elevations

Fall is also a prime time to start winter vegetables, either by seed or transplant. In fact, Arizona’s low-elevation winter climate is ideal for growing vegetables. Consider salad greens, such as arugula, collard greens, kale and leaf lettuce, or roasting vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, carrots, onions and turnips.

Spring wildflowers are often the result of seeds germinating in the fall. Before sowing, the ground should be raked, weeded and fertilized. Planting wildflower seeds about 1 inch deep is ideal. If the amount of winter rain is within the normal range, the seeds should germinate independently. If nature does not provide enough precipitation, supplemental irrigation will be helpful.

Insects are often at their peak population levels before cold weather arrives. Keep an eye on plants for signs of infestation or damage. Be prepared to identify bugs as harmful or beneficial and form a plan of action before things get out of hand, if necessary. 

Diagnosing plant problems related to insects or diseases is an acquired skill that begins with observation. Weekly inspection of plants allows you to identify issues as they develop. Taking notes and photos can help determine when and how quickly changes appear and grow.

A regional field guide with photos is handy, and internet searches may prove helpful if working from your own images. Location is essential, as many insect species are only found in limited regions of the country. Research your area’s most common insects to help narrow it down.

There is a yellowish, crescent-shaped fungus with brown splotches growing at the base of our palo verde tree. It looks like a small shelf, and I don’t know if I should be concerned.

What you have is a Ganoderma fungus; unfortunately, it is not a good sign. The part that you see is the fruiting body; the rest of the fungus is inside the tree, which could become a liability. If this tree is of significant size and in a location where it could harm people or property nearby if it fell, it should be inspected by a certified arborist to determine if and when it should be taken down.

California poppies, shown above, and many other flower or vegetable seeds are available at nativeseeds.org.
Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa)

Higher Elevations

Winter is not optimal for growing vegetables at higher elevations. The goal in these regions is for spring planting, but winter can be an ideal time for preparing soil and ordering seeds. Arizona soil is famously low in organic matter, so supplementing with composted manure or other organic material can help prepare for spring planting. 

Homemade compost can be as good as store-bought if appropriately prepared. The keys are a 20:1 carbon/nitrogen ratio, good aeration and adequate moisture. 

Carbon can be found in organic materials such as straw, twigs and pine needles, whereas nitrogen is found in green landscape waste and manure. Aeration comes from chunkier things buried in the pile, such as sticks. Turning compost piles with a pitchfork or shovel will also provide some aeration. Since we live in a dry habitat, a solid compost bin without holes will help keep moisture inside.

Plant spring-flowering bulbs now. There are many to choose from, such as daffodils, iris, crocus, snowdrops and allium. Gardening catalogs, local nurseries and garden centers are good sources for purchasing. Be sure to consider the amount of sun, water and fertilizer the bulbs require and how the planting site matches up.

The end of the growing season is an excellent time to clean, sharpen and rust-proof tools so they are ready to go when needed.

Monitor the water needs of trees and shrubs. Winter does not stop things from growing—it merely slows them down. Turning down irrigation frequency as the weather cools is appropriate. Supplemental water will be needed if precipitation does not materialize and plant leaves start to curl or droop unexpectedly.

I have a volunteer tree in my backyard that is a nuisance. I tried cutting it down, but it keeps growing back. It has three-part narrow leaves about 4 inches long, and it stays green all year. What kind of tree is it, and should I remove it? If so, how? 

The tree is called African sumac (Searsia lancea or Rhus lancea) and is common in Arizona. They can grow to a height and width of 30 to 40 feet, and once they become large trees, they may provide significant shade. On the plus side, these tough plants do well with little care and may be used as street trees or where little else will grow well. Unfortunately, the invasive African sumac seeds will grow wherever water is available. Persistence is required to keep them down once they start growing. Some people experience allergies to the pollen, which is another concern. While it can be hard to say no to a free tree, this one is a candidate for removal, given the problems it brings. If the tree is small enough, dig a ring around the base about 6 to 8 inches deep to sever the supporting roots. Then pull it out. If this is a larger tree that cannot be removed by hand, prune it at the base with a saw and then spray or paint the wound with glyphosate or another similar herbicide.

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