Do’s and don’ts of getting your green thumb in Northern Nevada
Special to The Record-Courier
To grow, or not to grow?
Use the following gardening guide for vegetable planting this spring and summer across Northern Nevada, as published by the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Visit www.growyourownnevada.com" target="_blank">Bold">www.growyourownnevada.com for more tips, to sign up for classes and much more.
Plant after May 15 (frost-tender vegetables)
Celery — plants
Green beans — succession plantings through June
New Zealand spinach
Sweet corn — plants or seeds, succession plantings through mid-June
Plant 1 to 2 weeks after May 15 to June 15 (cold-sensitive vegetables)
Super sweet corn — plants or seeds
Cucumber — plants or seeds
Eggplant — plants
Melons — plants
Pepper — plants
Sweet potato — plants
Tomato — plants
Plant Mid-July to Sept. 1
Chinese cabbage (late July to mid-August)
Peas (July 1 to mid-July
Turnip (early July)
Plant in October for next summer harvest
Garlic — cloves
Onions — bulbs (spring planting best)
Gardening is growing increasingly popular everywhere as people are trying to eat healthier and become more self-reliant with food sources, and getting your hands dirty is good for the mind, body and soul.
However, Northern Nevada’s high desert extreme climates and soils can prove to be challenging for even a seasoned gardener. So, with green thumbs and good vibes in mind, here are some tips from local experts who have made it work:
What trees, shrubs and perennials are most popular?
Trees, shrubs and flowers can accentuate your property and add shade on those hot summer days, but it’s important to know that different trees and plants excel in different environments.
In business for 43 years, Greenhouse Garden Center and Gifts in Carson City carries a wide range of plants for any type of gardening or landscaping needs — all chosen for their ability to withstand and excel in the Reno, Lake Tahoe and Carson Valley environments.
The Center tends to carry deciduous plants and trees because they retain more moisture and are less likely to burn in a fire, unlike junipers and spruces.
“We carry lots of types of trees, but some of our favorites are big shade trees like the Autumn Blaze Maple and the Pacific Sunset Maple help people with cooling their homes,” says Greenhouse Garden Center Owner David Ruf.
“Hackberry does well on really tough sites that take a lot of wind,” he adds, as well as Autumn Purple Ash, which succeeds in places like Lake Tahoe where there is more moisture.
Ruf says a number of birch trees in the valley areas are borer-resistant, and they accentuate a home, such as the Heritage Birch that is long-standing and has peeling bark. The Heritage Birch is one of Greenhouse’s most popular trees because it’s wispy, white and beautiful.
Some of people’s favorite shrubs for the area include the Burning Bush, which turns a fiery red in the fall, or the Forsythia, which blooms a bright yellow in the spring. Meanwhile, the Butterfly Bush blooms all summer long, and many viburnums are rabbit-resistant.
Ninebark and Barberry shrubs offer contrasting colors against the shades of green and gray Nevada landscapes that help to liven up a property, and Russian Sage and Spirea are smaller, colorful autumn bloomers.
Perennials offer a whole different selection of color that bloom throughout the season. A popular one for this region is the Red Hot Poker (also referred to as the “Traffic Lights” perennial, due to its greenish bottom, yellow middle and red hot top).
Agastache and Hyssops are also gaining in popularity; even though they’ve been around for a long time, they are relatively new to a lot of people in this region as local horticulturists are figuring out how to propagate it.
Want to grow berries in Northern Nevada?
As owner of the biggest berry farm in Northern Nevada, Jacobs Family Berry Farm, Jack Jacobs accepted the challenge 15 years ago of trying to grow in the region’s challenging microclimates.
The Lampe family originally owned the Gardnerville property since the 1880s. Back in the 19th century, they produced alfalfa, grains, milk, butter and eggs, which they would haul to places like Bodie and Virginia City.
However, when Jacobs purchased the land in 2002, he wasn’t much into alfalfa farming because of its low production value. He also realized no one else was really growing berries, and he soon turned the alfalfa field into a berry farm — despite everyone saying he couldn’t grow berries in Gardnerville.
“The climate is very different — we have a shorter, dependable growing season,” says Jacobs.
He talked to people and researched to determine some of the best varieties of berries he could grow at the farm, and subsequently planted 1,000 bushes of blackberries, raspberries and even three different varieties of black raspberries that still exist. He keeps 16 different varieties in total.
“A lot of people have no idea there are so many varieties of berries,” Jacobs says.
Although he recently finished pruning and tying the berries for this summer’s harvest, he says the work doesn’t stop there.
“People have no idea how much labor is involved,” Jacobs says of producing the berries and selling them off.
Berries only have a shelf life of a couple of days, and some days five plants will produce berries, whereas other days he’ll get fruit off of 200 plants. One of the biggest challenges of berry farming is moving them in peak production.
“The wonderful part of growing berries is that it takes an entrepreneur approach, and is a constant learning process,” he says.
For example, Jacobs employs a beekeeper who keeps hives to help pollinate bushes and keep berries from flowering. Each berry has around 100 drupelets (tiny seeds) that would not produce fruit without the bees.
However, with trial and error, he learned that you can’t water the bushes too much — otherwise it will dilute the nectar and not attract the bees.
Many times berry plants can get viruses from too much water, so being close (but not too close) to the Carson River and using a drip water system along with the dry climate accentuates a better berry growing season.
There aren’t really bugs that affect Jacobs’ berries (except for the occasional bird or grasshopper stepping on them — which don’t hurt the berries anyways), so he doesn’t have to use any pesticides or spray chemicals. However, deer, bunnies and the occasional bear may pose a problem.
With it being a family farm, his kids and grandchildren all help plant the bushes, and the berries are all handpicked. Jacobs and staff graze through all the plants daily, and they keep a Farmer’s Almanac of data on how his berry varieties produce each season.
“We often get people who come to the farm who try to grow berries, and it doesn’t work because they don’t have the time to dedicate to it,” Jacobs says. “I try to get them to understand that there are a lot of different varieties, and the berry bushes need a lot of attention.
“You have to have the time to commit to it. I think it’s even more complicated than tending a rosebush.”
How to plant a vegetable garden that produces
There is definitely a difference between what vegetables grow best in Northern Nevada and what people want to grow in this climate, says Wendy Hanson Mazet, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension (UNCE) Horticulture Coordinator.
In her years of gardening experience and teaching others how to plant gardens, Mazet finds that onions and garlic do amazingly well in the spring and fall, while squash thrives in the summer.
Peas and beans are also popular Northern Nevada crops, but Mazet says you should grow the plants you are most likely to eat. Tomatoes are favorites, but tend to give gardeners the most headaches because of their short growing season — and, if the weather gets too hot, tomato plants will grow but not set fruit.
“You may get it in the ground in the spring, but then 70 days later, we’re in July at 90-degree weather and the tomatoes don’t ripen,” Mazet says.
She recommends experimenting with leafy crops like kale, chard and lettuce, as well as carrots, and plant them in February or March. By May or June, gardeners will have missed their window because when the weather warms, the veggies bolt (flower) or die.
However, you may be able to get away with planting direct-seed beans, squash, melons, cucumbers or corn in June, as well as putting out your transplants of peppers, eggplants, tomatoes and okra.
“The big thing is to know what you like and plant at the right time,” Mazet adds.
Another thing to understand is much space you have with which to work.
“A lot of people like to grow pumpkins, and they may have space for small ones, but it all comes down to what people like to eat and how often they eat it,” she says.
Mazet noted that what makes Northern Nevada more challenging to grow is the wide variety of microclimates in regard to air temperature.
Plus, Nevada soils also range in alkalinity, and each area (even different parts of a neighborhood) can host a range of soil textures. Mazet has seen rock and clay mixtures in Southwest Reno and off of the Mt. Rose Highway, whereas an intense rocky and slimy clay texture exists off of Robb Drive.
Another area of the North Valleys has sandy soil that drains well but contains issues in keeping it moist, while Donner Springs has “a beautiful sandy loam soil,” says Mazet.
Carson City soils may be porous and sandy in some areas or offer fine granite mixes to grow in, while at Lake Tahoe, the soil is nice for planting but you should be more concerned about how to protect your plants from the weather (like putting hoops over garden beds to guard them from snow).
At end of day, weather and location reign supreme
Since plants hate frost and freezes, Tahoe-Truckee gardeners should consider growing short season plants and especially stay away from squash and cucumbers if one expects a cold snap to come.
“One guy recently rented a plot in a community garden and was so excited to plant it,” Mazet says. “We were concerned that he planted too early, and unfortunately when he got his vegetable bed in, one night it froze.
“The next day, there were holes everywhere that his tomato plants used to be.”
Mazet also suggests that if you’re moving into a new area, pay attention to what your neighbors are growing and what type of tools they’re using to get their desired outcome.
Personally, Mazet keeps three medium-sized gardens on her Washoe Valley property, but admits that her horses and trees take the priority on space.
Her gardens contain 20-30 different tomato plants, squashes and zucchini. She says she doesn’t have the room for melons, but will sometimes grow small watermelons.
“I grow a lot of broccoli, kale for the chickens, peppers, carrots, onions, eggplant and cucumbers,” she says, adding that what her family doesn’t eat will be donated to local food kitchens.
For someone wanting to plant a garden at his or her new home, Mazet’s main piece of advice is to wait.
“If you haven’t lived in your home through a growing season and there’s not an established garden already planted, then wait,” she says. “Put things in containers inside and monitor the weather for a year. Talk to your neighbors and see if they’ve experienced any late freezes.
“Always pay attention to the weatherman and take into consideration what is happening at your house.”
If you decide to plant early, be willing to jump out there to protect your plants when the weather changes and be OK with starting over if you lose your garden — it’s all a learning process.