(Apologies for the second long wait. We are preparing for my father to leave the rehab center where he’s been since his stroke. It’s kept me very busy. But I did want to try and get something out. Once he’s home, I’ll try to get back on a regular schedule. On to the topic of the day…)
Most gardeners have heard of microclimates – those sections of your yard or garden that are a little bit colder or a little bit warmer than the rest of your land, creating a little nook where a not-quite-in-zone plant can grow. Against a sunny brick wall, for example, where the residual warmth of the brick keeps a plant a little warmer than your zone would normally allow.
I have microclimates in my yard, of course. But I’m finding the difficulty of growing such a wide variety of plants not from my area is that they also have widely variable needs. I’ve discovered that I have to create what I’m calling ‘nanoclimates.’
The neem tree, for example, is a desert plant. It not only doesn’t like ‘wet feet’, it wants its feet downright dry. It needs water, of course, but once it has taken a nice drink, it wants that water gone. My neem is in a fabric pot, which helps drain the water very nicely, but where I had it sitting on the ground with the other trees, it still was showing signs of ‘drowning’ with yellowing leaves, lots of leaf drop, and no new growth. So I took the fabric pot and, instead of leaving the pot on the ground, I shifted it up to stand on top of an over-turned 5-gallon bucket. Now, instead of sitting on a damp ground, still wicking up moisture, the dirt in the neem pot dries completely out in between waterings – honestly, far past a point where I would have thought the tree would start drooping at the very least. But the neem seems to love it. A couple weeks ago, I thought I might lose it…and now it’s sending out a half dozen new green shoots.
Citrus, on the other hand, likes it dry – but not too dry. Citrus uses a lot of water, but it doesn’t like to sit in it. It does not, however, mind having a little bit of constant moisture available as long as there is plenty of air around the roots also. (All gardeners know land plants need their roots to breathe some air, right? Right? Sure you do. If not…you do now.) So my citrus, like the neem, I also have in fabric pots. (Confession: I have all of my trees in fabric pots. They obviously drain water extremely well, but they can wick up water also and are lighter and easier to move around than plastic or other pots…while also being surprisingly durable.) But the citrus pots, I leave on the bare ground. When I water them, the water drains away, but because they are sitting on the damp ground, a little water can wick up and help keep the soil from becoming bone-dry in between waterings.
Then we have the avocados and the coconut palm. They are one small step away from being fully aquatic plants. They don’t tolerate soggy soil, but they prefer it wet, wet, wet. In other words, it shouldn’t hold water to the point there are no air pockets to keep the roots breathing, but they’d prefer to not ever run out of some dampness. So to make the water-loving plants happy, I answered a craigslist add where someone was selling ‘dog crate pans’ (the ‘trays’ that fit inside of dog crates to hold the sleeping pad, etc). I bought all he had. By sitting the water-lovers in the trays, I can fill the tray with water and the tree can have a constant supply to pull from. Because the pots are all much taller than the trays, the trees still have the majority of their roots above the water – allowing for that air-breathing – but the soil in the pot can also wick up the constant supply of water needed to keep the aquaphiles happy. I lucked out on the crate trays. You could do the same with any sort of catchment tray under your pots, if you don’t have a handy seller of dog crate pans available.
Water is only one variable, of course. I have also taken the plastic cover off of my tiny little temporary greenhouse and covered the frame with a 30% shade cloth, turning it into a shade-house for the summer. Some of my plants like deep shade, so they sit in the middle of the shade-house. Others like bright shade, and they sit at the edges, catching morning or evening sun, but shaded during midday. Some of those in the shade like it wet, some dry, so I have the same water-management tricks in play for the shade plants as I do for those in the sun.
Soil needs are different as well – the neem and coconut palm in sandy soil, the the avocados like rich loam, and the miracle berry insists on a ridiculously acidic mix that I’m still trying to perfect.
And fertilizer, of course – palm fertilizer for the coconut and dates, citrus fertilizer for the citrus, and various levels of blood-and-bone meal for the rest. The miracle berry bush – cantankerous thing that it is – even gets its own special foliar feedings of Miracid mixed with chelated iron.
The bottom line is, never shy away from growing any plant you desire to grow. You can grow it, I promise. But you have to be very aware of the needs and preferences of the plant so that you can accommodate them. As much as I might wish I could place my neem on the ground with the other trees, that climate just didn’t work for it. So adjustments had to be made. You can’t fight nature, so you have to work with it. Give the plants what they want and they will give you the healthy green leaves and wonderful fruits that you want in return.
Until next time, happy homesteading!