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'Plants are responsive beings': Answering winter gardening questions

Angela O’Callaghan and Norm Schilling at Nevada Public Radio with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann on Dec. 6, 2022.
Angela O’Callaghan and Norm Schilling at Nevada Public Radio with State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann on Dec. 6, 2022.

We're sure you’ve felt it, the chill of winter in the air. Although Dec. 21 marks the first official day of the cold season, our winters are mild enough in Southern Nevada that gardening is never far from our minds. In fact, you can plant some garden vegetables and herbs in the winter.

So, now’s the time to dust off your green thumbs and start working on your winter gardens.

If you’ve got questions about fruits, veggies, trees, flowers and more, we’ve got answers with our experts, Angela O’Callaghan and Norm Schilling, both horticulturists, and hosts of KNPR’s Desert Bloom program. They joined State of Nevada host Joe Schoenmann for more.

On plants feeling the cold

Schilling: Well, we look at plants and we think that they're very static. You look at your tree, and you watch it for a few minutes, and it doesn't move. Plants are actually very responsive beings to their environment, including all of the different factors including cold, so they will respond by shutting down; you'll see that change of leaf color that you see is a stress response. They drop their leaves, some plants will even go into bloom in colder weather, depending on what species and what the conditions are. So yeah, they're just responding to the weather like we are and they slow down their metabolism as well.

On why your cactus may be yellow

O'Callaghan: Many, many possible reasons. One can be that –and I was talking with this woman before– the fact is that a cactus is native to places that have really infertile soils, and not a whole heck of a lot of water. So if you give it a lot of water, she said that her cactus had grown really fast. Well, a cactus that grows really fast is growing in a completely unnatural way because cactus don't necessarily grow fast. So at this point, because of the cold weather … if you give it a lot of water, and you give it a lot of fertilizer, it's growing faster than it [should] … if it's growing healthy, then you're going to see some yellow, you're definitely going to see yellowing.

Schilling: If it doesn't rain for a couple of months, give it a little drink. You know, maybe you don't even need to do that though. They’re so drought tolerant, it's not necessary; like once a month for the seven or eight hot months of the year is usually enough.

On the beauty of cactus

Schilling: The reason I love cactus and succulents is they bring in color, texture and form. Right? It was just those three words. So he's talking about color and a garden. Most of the time when people talk about color, they're talking about flowers. To me color is color foliage. So if you have a leafy green ground covering that is not soft, and horizontal and you put –okay, it's technically not a cactus, but like a blue agave in the middle of it. Or you could plant a cactus in the middle of it. That contrast of texture, color of foliage, and form makes each more beautiful by contrast, and as a standalone issue, the blues and silvers and purple of cactus is amazing. You also say you don't like to touch them. And you know, and you should be careful, but there are cacti that are musical to the touch if you just run your finger … there's some species –the colander cactus– if you run your fingers along the spine. So when you think of a spine on a cactus, if you go directly at it, it's going to enter you, but if you move perpendicular to that spine, and you just run your finger down the cactus, it sounds like a rain stick. It's a really beautiful sound.

On keeping trees alive

O'Callaghan: One of the things that we try to tell people when you're working with almost any kind of tree is you water infrequently but deeply. Because what you're trying to do is get those roots to spread out into the soil, so that they can actually pull up water and nutrients from the soil. If you only have a little bit of water as Norm is saying, if you just have two emitters, and they're giving two gallons an hour and you're letting it run for 10-15 minutes, then those trees are getting a tiny little bit, … flowering and fruiting are the times when the plants really do need the most water after, when it's just the foliage. But that's not the biggest issue. But when the plant is flowering or the plant is starting to produce fruit, then it needs water to maintain its life … because it's such an energy-intensive process.

Guests: Norm Schilling, owner, Schilling Horticulture; Angela O'Callaghan, social horticulture specialist, University of Nevada Extension

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Zachary Green is the Coordinating Producer and a Reporter for KNPR's State of Nevada Program. He reports on Clark County, minority affairs, health, real estate, business, and gardening. You'll occasionally hear Zachary Green reporting and fill-in hosting on the State of Nevada program.
Kristen DeSilva (she/her) is the audience engagement specialist for Nevada Public Radio. She curates and creates content for, our weekly newsletter and social media for Nevada Public Radio and Desert Companion.