If you read the last post I wrote extolling the virtues of planting in the fall, it may seem that October is the only time to do any gardening, but the truth is, it’s not quite as simple as that. There are a few trees and shrubs that would prefer spring planting in Las Vegas, and as varied as they are, they do have one distinctive characteristic in common.
Basically, these are all plants that don’t really love the cold. Some can take it better than others, and all of them will definitely take it better once they’re established. But putting them in the ground just a few weeks before we start to get cold isn’t the best way to get them off on the right foot.
Lantana and Desert Birds-of-Paradise
I know. Lantana are one of those plants that you think nobody could kill, and yet there are people out there doing it like they’re being paid to. The thing is, you could plant lantana on the sun and they’d just give you more flowers for it, so they can certainly take all the heat that our sweet little Mojave Desert has to offer, but these little powerhouse plants can be damaged by the cold, particularly in their first season. The Desert Birds-of-Paradise are much the same exact way. That’s why planting either of them in the springtime is perfectly acceptable and, in fact, advisable.
Now, that being said, I do want to throw in here that planting them in the fall is perfectly fine, as well. In all likelihood, they’ll come back gangbusters in the late spring and give you tons of color all summer long. That is, of course, assuming that you don’t make the same mistakes that all those professional Lantana Killers keep making over and over again.
First, don’t cut them back in the fall or winter. For reasons that I can’t quite work out, landscapers love to cut these plants back to a few inches from the ground in the fall or late winter, sometimes while they’re still flowering. Homeowners follow suit, probably working under the assumption that the landscapers know what they’re doing. The problem is, cold damage happens to the plant from the outside in, so those dead-looking sticks that are left behind after the first frost are actually serving as protection for the shrub.
If you cut them back hard while there’s still a chance of frost, it allows cold damage to come closer to the roots and makes it harder for the plant to recover once it starts to warm up. It won’t matter as much if the plant’s been in the ground for a couple of years, but for a newly planted cold-tender plant, you can seriously decrease the odds of it coming back in the spring.
Next, water your plants for a long time, infrequently, in order to develop deep roots that aren’t as susceptible to the cold. You should be doing this with all of your plants all the time anyway, but most people don’t, frankly. Drippers should run for about an hour, one time a day, in the morning only. They should go one day a week in the wintertime, two days a week in the spring and fall, and three days a week in the summertime. Trust me. I swear I’m right about this. I swear.
Lastly, don’t yank the plants out too soon in the spring. People bring in uprooted lantana and desert birds every April, claiming that “the cold got ‘em and they still haven’t come back.”
These plants are simply not going to wake up from their winter nap while the temperatures are still dropping into the 60’s at night. The ground’s just not warm enough for them. For those first couple of years, your plants may not come back until May or even early June, depending on the weather. Be patient. When they do start back, it’ll be from the base and it’ll look really puny, but as soon as the high heat comes, those plants will explode for you.
Palms in general will also take about as much sun as you can arrange for them, but the cold can be their kryptonite. Most will be just fine if you do need to put them in during the fall, but there are two in particular with an especially intense aversion to frost, both of which you couldn’t pay me enough to plant in Vegas. The first, queen palms, should have burlap wrapped around their heart (the part where the new growth comes out) during the winter months. Not too bad when they’re younger, but this task becomes a major league pain in the ass when they get bigger. If you’re bound and determined to put in a queen palm, the best place for it is next to a wall that faces south. That way, it’ll get sun all day during the winter and the wall will act as a break against cold north winds.
The other one, the pygmy date palm, is just flipping adorable. But it also tends to fry in our sun and needs to be wrapped up in the wintertime as well. The bad part, though, is that even if you do your due diligence to protect them and it gets really cold, you could still very well lose these delicate palms. Pygmies make nice houseplants, if that gives you any indication of their ability to withstand our elements.
Citrus trees can do very well in Vegas, given they’re planted in the right spot. They don’t like a full blast of sun all day and theyalso need protection from the cold, in the form of burlap over their canopies when the temperature goes below freezing. Fortunately, if you protect them and keep them healthy, citrus trees will typically recover from cold damage, though they might not produce fruit the next season. For this reason it’s better to put your trees in after the last chance of frost, which is in mid-March in Vegas, and to site them in a place where they’ll get some afternoon shade. That way, they’ll be less likely to cook when the next summer comes and on top of that, they’re better established when the cold comes next winter. Makes sense, right?
Sagos are often referred to as palms, but they aren’t even related. They’re another plant that prefers shade in the afternoon and protection from the cold, but sagos can take the heat far better than they can handle a hard frost. Normally, these plants will acclimate to both heat and cold once they’ve been in for a few years, but they’ll definitely need to be protected from the cold for at least a couple of years. Putting them in during the spring will give them time to settle in before the cold.
See, now, that wasn’t terribly confusing, was it? Simply understanding what your plants want really is half the battle when it comes to gardening in Las Vegas. The other half is pretty much sheer will.