When you tour botanical gardens or private gardens, do you ever look up to see what’s above your head? Most of us plan our gardens while sitting on our back patio or strolling through its paths. Often, we choose plants simply because we see them at a nursery and love their flowers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one day soon, take a look at your landscape from the point of entry, such as the gate to your backyard, and walk around, considering the overall look from ground level to tree canopy.
You might be pleasantly surprised, and you can add interest and beauty to your garden by considering what goes on over your head. I recently toured several gardens in the Denver area and noted use of arbors and other design elements to add height and 360-degree interest to landscapes. Here are a few examples.
Decks and Patios
Al you need are a few containers and some “engineering” skills to garden vertically, so to speak. Here are some of my favorite examples.
Arbors and Pergolas
Some plants are just born to trail up, down or around. With a well-placed arbor, you can add height, shapes, color and materials to your garden. Most of all, you can display some beautiful climbing plants that double as shade-makers.
Mix up Plant Heights
Finally, don’t be afraid to add tall trees or other natural elements right in the middle of your garden. I always worry I have to place the tallest plants in the back. But breaking the “rules” can be fun and a hit.
Here’s a drought-tolerant, but little-known, delight for rock gardens: Persian stonecress (Aehtionema scistosum). I fell in love with this plant; here is why:
It is easy to grow Persian stonecress in zones 4 through 8, which means it can take some cold and heat. Aside from the explosion of tiny pinkish-lavender flowers in spring, this little plant smells wonderfully fragrant. Ours grows at the edge of our patio, where we can enjoy its sweet scent. Other great features of this plant are that it is waterwise, evergreen and often re-seeds, creating a low mounded groundcover in a rock or alpine garden.
Where to Plant Persian Stonecress
For the fragrance, plant Persian stonecress where you sit or walk by and can easily bend down to enjoy its fragrance. Note that once it grows to maturity, the plant will reach nearly 10 inches high and 15 inches wide. Because Persian stonecress can naturalize or multiply, it can make a pretty spring groundcover up against rock borders.
Select a spot with full sun if possible and with soil that drains well. You can plant other groundcovers of different heights and bloom color nearby and they probably will grow to form a colorful groundcover in a few years. I love the look of ours butted up against yellow daisies.
How to Care for Persian Stonecress
Water a new plant a little more than you water other xeric plants, then water little to not at all. After the plant has finished flowering in spring, you can cut back the ends of the tiny branches to make it look neat. I leave the spent blooms on for several weeks or more. You also can trim the spent blooms off in fall; just avoid cutting into the evergreen part of the stems below.
Remove dead stems if necessary in early spring. Otherwise, wait for it to bud out as one of the first spring-blooming xeric plants. And as you clean up your garden in spring, watch for new plants that might have started nearby. Their needle-like foliage and rounded shape are easy to spot.
I am not certain yet how well Persian stonecress transplants; we moved one in spring because it was about to be covered up by a new planting area we were building (it had taken root in a rock border). The plant looked dried up, but has new growth at its base, so we hope it will be healthy and blooming in its new location next spring.
Add Persian Stonecress to Your Rock Garden
Persian stonecress is not a common plant in nurseries, but High Country Gardens, which specializes in drought-tolerant plants, carries it online and will ship it as a small potted plant. This is an easy and beautiful spring bloomer for any xeric garden.
We are wrapping up a big project in our rock garden. It involved removing some lower beds and extending the raised beds out, bordered by a gabion wall. So, that meant having to dig up and transplant several favorite plants. After all, we needed to fill a lot of new planting area, and it’s always sad to lose a plant simply because of logistics.
So, Tim started digging up some plants last fall, when we began work on the new walls. He planted them in recycled nursery containers with a combination of potting mix and soil from where the plants were growing. When it became warm enough, we replanted them, helping to save a little money on filling our new beds and keeping some of our favorite plants going.
Plants That Naturalize
Many plants we grow in the Southwest re-seed (volunteers) or have spreading habits that make them easy to divide and move. Sometimes, a plant reproduces so easily, it becomes a problem. But conditions have to be just right for that, so I love this feature in a plant. After all, you can always transplant or gift one of your plants. Here are a few low-water plants we “saved” and replanted:
Salvia plants are related to mint, and some of them sprout new plants from seeds. We have a row of midnight blue salvia plants that kept producing “pups,” so we potted some up, transplanted some directly and gave some away. We’ve never purchased the plant; these all came from one that was here more than six years ago.
Likewise, we have a purple penstemon (Rocky Mountain penstemon, or Penstemon strictus) that Tim dug up from one that spread in some grounds he used to care for. We planted in at our last home and it spread a little more, so we brought a part of it here. We had to transplant it to build our new bed, and now have at least six plants from the one he dug up about eight years ago.
Blanket flower (Gaillardia) is a wonderful magnet for bees and a great xeric perennial flower. It can spread from seed; we also saved and moved a few to our new beds. They have perked up and are doing well.
Of course, iris reproduce like rabbits and they’re easy to transplant. We also moved some daylilies and split up a Kniphofia (red hot poker) to help fill our new beds. The jury still is out on when the lilies and red hot pokers will bloom, since we moved them when we had to, not necessarily at the best time for the plants.
This native plant is one of several that starts volunteer seedlings around our garden. Although some might see this as a drawback, we welcome the seedlings. If we can’t move them, we always can pull them up if in the way of another plant.
Herbal thyme is one of my favorite plants. The low-water herb does triple duty: it looks and smells great in the garden, it has delicate flowers that bees love, and it tastes great! We have let some plants spread and transplanted others.
Threadgrass is my new favorite low-water plant. It is easy to care for, and produces lots of little seedlings that are easy to spot and tell from other grasses or weeds. Just dig it up and move it to another spot.
A Few Tips for Replanting
Some of our success with volunteers certainly comes from letting plants go to seed. That can be a bad idea if they become invasive and crowd out other plants or if your front garden looks too unkempt through fall and winter. But re-seeders can feed birds in fall and give you new plants to enjoy in spring.
Remember, if you are planting or dividing a plant, even a xeric one, it will need extra water for at least a few weeks while it gets used to its new home. And it needs a little extra water and care in its first year of life.
Check your favorite local and regional books or with local independent nursery staff to find out plants that re-seed in your area without taking over.
Of course, you also can keep an eye out for plants that re-seed. Nature often puts them in the perfect place, which also gives your xeric garden a more natural look.
Finally, we are guilty of planting one of each plant we like. I’ve since seen enough gardens in which repetition of plants actually looks more natural and striking than stuffing in as many different plants as we can. So, don’t be afraid to plant three or more of the same plant!
Each year, Pantone, which is the universal standard for color in printing and graphic design, selects a Pantone Color of the Year. The 2019 color is Living Coral. The color (Pantone 16-1546) is named for the coral that thrives beneath the surface of the sea and the warm pinkish-peach tone represents the natural warmth and comfort of a coral reef. One of the reasons for its selection is a trend noted by Pantone researchers of companies and designers using the color in branding efforts.
Living Coral in Nature
Often, garden writers plant sellers highlight bright purples, reds and yellows. They make for stunning photos or turning heads when driving by a landscape. But I’ve always loved this more subtle color. It’s not as common in native plants as are many other bloom colors. But the hint of pink, peach and oranges with golden tones beneath makes for some attractive combinations in the garden.
With undertones of peach, coral complements blues in the garden and the pinker tones look amazing with green. Softer hues of coral stand out with bright yellows. Aside from living coral in the sea, which most of us never will see in person, you can find the color in natural items like peach blooms and peels or fresh salmon. It’s also a captivating color in the flowers of the plants below (click any thumbnail to scroll the gallery).
Photo Gallery: Living Coral in the Garden
If your garden, houseplants or a favorite container lack coral color, think about adding some in its honorary year!
If you’re like me, you often choose a container based on how much you like it or its color. Those are good reasons; after all, you want to enjoy your purchase when it’s in your home or on your patio. And the color might be important to curb appeal or your entryway statement. But it helps to keep in mind a few other tips for container choices based on:
Some plants need a container large enough to support a plant’s growth. For example, even patio tomatoes need a pot about 12 inches in diameter. The diameter is not always listed. A 10-inch container equates to about 3 gallons, and a 14-inch container to nearly 7 gallons, but it depends on the depth. As a general rule, go for about 5 gallons for container-grown tomatoes.
In 2004, standards were released to help ensure more consistent labeling from nurseries. For example, a 1-gallon potted plant is about 152 to 251 cubic inches, taking into account diameter and depth. Be sure to consider the mature size of plants when arranging containers. For single plants, purchase a container at least a size larger than the one a plant comes in. There are exceptions, however.
Some plants prefer crowded roots. Many succulents will fail to grow and flower if placed in a container that is too large. When in too large a pot, all the plant’s energy goes to the easiest activity – growing more roots. This means less energy can go into producing growth above the soil line. So, try not to go more than 10% larger than the size of the succulent. And keep in mind some succulents have tap roots and need enough depth for those roots to grow and seek water.
The same goes for a totally unrelated plant: the African violet. Violets do best with crowded roots and need good drainage, just like succulents. Place an African violet in a container smaller than the diameter of the leaves (those who grow the plants for shows generally choose containers one-third the diameter of the foliage). And repot plants like African violets every so often, gradually increasing container size as needed. Don’t take a violet (or succulent) in a 3-inch pot up to 10 inches in one repotting.
Look at the container depth as well as its diameter. I love the look of shallow terracotta containers, but they only work with annuals and shallow-rooted plants. Those violets and many rosette-shaped succulents also can take shallower shapes. But your tomato needs good depth to form large, healthy roots. I’ve pulled up cherry tomato roots that were at least 15 inches long. And if your cactus has a tap root, make sure the pot’s height can allow for growth.
Container shape also affects plant placement and the overall appeal of the container. A tall container looks best with at least one tall plant element and maybe a trailing one.
Clay or terracotta pots are excellent for indoor or outdoor succulents. They dry out quickly because the sides are porous. These pots usually are your best bet for drought-tolerant plants, but not for vegetables or many ornamental flowers. And African violets in clay pots often dry out too quickly. Plastic and fabric pots are less expensive and lighter. The material’s weight is a consideration for any plant you know you might have to move to change sun or shade exposure, or bring indoors in winter.
All containers need good drainage, even those you use for succulents. Few plants do well sitting in wet soil for long. If you repurpose a container, be sure to drill some holes in the bottom. And try not to let the container (especially a shallow one) sit in a full saucer if you use one to catch drainage. If your container appears to drain too quickly, change how you water – a little at a time repeated once or twice. Always add water to a container at a slow rate instead of a heavy pour. Drenching the container makes soil nutrients run right out with the water.
I have decided to go more colorful with container choices from now on. It’s tempting to “match” an entry or house color, or to have a container blend in on your patio. Sometimes, though, you can make a really bold statement by choosing a container that is bright, colorful (like Talavera pottery) or a nice contrast to plants inside and around it.
Finally, if you find a container that will look perfect in a spot because of its color, shape or pattern, but maybe the wrong material or size for your plant, try slipping another pot inside it. I even did that once several years ago when I wanted to add an “old man cactus” (Cephalocereus senilis) to some annuals in a decorative entry-way container. I knew its watering needs were different, so I set the cactus pot into the soil of the larger pot and never really watered above it. The plant received plenty of moisture from the soil around its container. Then, I pulled the old man out in fall and we potted him inside for winter. He still is thriving, now in a terracotta pot with other cacti.
No, I’m not kidding. There is a flower that grows well in the Southwest that smells like chocolate. It’s like my two favorite things in one pretty package! Chocolate flower (Berlanderia lyrata) casts its rich scent throughout your garden. Be sure to plant it where you can bend over and take a whiff on those occasional days with no breeze. It’s an easy plant to grow and care for.
Native to Dry Areas
No wonder chocolate flower is easy to grow in New Mexico; it is native to dry plains and hills of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Texas and Kansas. It grows best in elevations of 4,000 to 7,000 feet, so Berlanderia thrives in high deserts and intermountain areas like mine.
Because it’s native, and probably because it looks and smells so great, chocolate flower attracts butterflies, bees and birds. And deer leave it alone! Need more reasons to grow chocolate flower? It reseeds naturally, but not aggressively, so one plant can turn into a few or more, depending on lots of conditions and where you plant the first one. Another great feature of this native is that it will reseed more naturally if planted near rocks or gravel mulch. The rocks “trap” the seeds when they blow in the wind.
Caring for Chocolate Flower
You can plant chocolate flower in nearly any type of soil, but it probably will do best if the soil drains well. Be sure to place it where it will receive plenty of sun – up to all day – and where its mature height (about a foot to 15 inches tall, and up to two feet wide) will work without overcrowding. Give it a little more water the first year, and then chocolate flower should grow and bloom with mostly rain only. Each spring, trim off dead flower stalks and some of the foliage if necessary to keep the plant base about three inches high.
Chocolate flower is a perennial in zones 4 through 11, although ask for the variety best for your area. For example, High Country Gardens has introduced a new Mora County mix of B. lyrata that is particularly cold hardy (Mora County is a mountain and high plain area just northeast of Santa Fe). Deadheading, or removing spent blooms, keeps Berlanderia blooming.
Enjoy Growing Chocolate Flower
Chocolate flower is in the daisy family, a relative of the sunflower and others, so it makes a nice cutting flower as part of an arrangement. You can bring that soft chocolate scent inside! I love the color of the flower buds – they look like a sage green paper flower. Its growth habit is bright and colorful but just wild enough to fit in a natural looking, xeric landscape. Leave some of the drying flower heads on your chocolate flower at the end of the season if you want it to reseed in your garden. Then watch in spring. If conditions are right, you might see a few new crowns of chocolate flower with the distinctive leaf pattern.
It’s a good thing chocolate flower can spread, because you can’t move it. The plant has a tap root (which helps its drought tolerance) that doesn’t survive division or transplanting. Otherwise, chocolate flower is a perfect, sunny perennial for a xeric garden.
It’s spring and time to think about growing food and flowers this summer. Save money when you start some seeds inside. You can find plenty of tips online for light, soil and water requirements, but I wanted to mention a few other hard-earned “secrets” from my experience and talking to others.
In general, start seeds about six weeks before your planting time for the variety. And be sure to pot up (move the smaller seedling to a larger pot) once while seedlings are inside. Here are 5 other tips:
1. Before starting vegetable or herb seeds, be sure they transplant well.
If they do better with direct sowing (placing the seed right in the ground), wait not just past your last freeze but until air (and therefore, soil) temperatures have warmed. Cucumbers are a great example. I have planted them too soon and then had to plant again when the ground warmed because the first ones just didn’t take. Many annual flower seeds and some herbs do fine with direct sowing, which is easier than starting small plants inside.
2. Not all vegetable seeds or seedlings go into the ground at the same time.
Lettuces, cilantro and carrots do better in spring or early fall than in summer heat. Tomatoes need moderate heat. Planting and harvest times vary for edibles. This also goes with my next tip:
3. Look for information specific to your region.
Seed packets can help, but in New Mexico and other Southwest states, dates for planting vary widely. This goes for last or first frost dates and for peak heat. Low desert areas, in particular, have growing seasons markedly different from the rest of the country. Check with local nurseries, extension offices or master gardeners for help knowing when to plant.
4. Thin seedlings.
This is the hardest lesson. But you should thin the seeds that sprout in your indoor start pots and those directly sown before they get too big and share roots. In the starter pot, it is best to take a small narrow pair of scissor or garden clippers and cut the spare seedlings off at the soil level. Pulling it up could damage all the seedlings in your pot. Thinning in the ground is a matter of preference for how your plants will look. But remember, crowded seedlings are not as healthy as single ones with plenty of room for their roots, and vegetable plants should not touch one another if possible. The leaves need sun and air flow.
5. Be sure to harden off seedlings.
This requires patience and some time. Your plants need to get used to their new home, just like flatlanders need to acclimate to high altitudes. Get your seed starts used to a breeze and the sun before placing them in the ground. Read more here about how to harden off your seed starts.
Finally, start just enough for a spare or two in case a few seeds fail to take or the seedlings get off to a bad start. But don’t plant 10 tomato seeds indoors if you plan to grow only one or two plants, unless you have friends and family who would love to take your other healthy plants off your hands.
It sounds too good to be true: an ornamental grass that loves heat and looks beautiful all year gently swaying in the wind. But threadgrass (Nasella tennuissima) fits the bill — and is waterwise. This pretty low-water plant also is called silky thread grass or Mexican feather grass.
Texture and movement can add to a garden’s design nearly as much as shape and color. Threadgrass has a delicate, windswept form that serves as an attractive backdrop to low-growing flowering plants like sedums or verbena. In summer, the grass is a nice green with feathery ends. In winter, the airy flower heads take on a golden, wheat-like appearance. Threadgrass is deer resistant, has no known diseases or pests, and is a native plant that grows in zones 5 through 10.
Plant threadgrass in spring, summer or fall. Because it likes heat, you might be able to fill in a summer bare spot with threadgrass after weather is too hot for most garden plants. If you want a swaying meadow effect, you’ll need to plant a few, and then wait for them to reseed. If you want immediate effect, plant several. Just keep in mind the plant grows to about 12 inches wide.
Your threadgrass plants should reach about 18 to 24 inches high when fully grown, sometimes higher when blooming. Plant it in full sun and in most any kind of soil. When you first plant or transplant your threadgrass, give it a little extra water, especially in high heat.
Caring for Threadgrass
Once threadgrass is established, it should need nothing but rain water to grow and set seed. The plant is a short-lived perennial and should come back several years in a row, assuming typical low temperatures for the lower zones. It also reseeds (see below), creating new plants nearby. You can leave these to eventually replace the established ones, or dig them up and transplant them to another spot in your garden. They are easy to recognize.
Each spring, as you begin pruning other plants in your garden, gently comb the grass blades with a fine rake and trim them for shape.
Caution for Some Gardeners
The fact that threadgrass replaces itself by sprouting tiny plants from seed is a bonus to me. We get just enough seedlings to move around our garden, without them being a problem. But in some areas, threadgrass can be invasive, reseeding in places where it interferes with other plants. In fact, the plant is prohibited in California because it is so invasive there and can crowd out grasses native to coastal areas. It also can crowd out pasture grasses. We have had no problems with that, however, and have only seen the plants pop up near mature ones.
My mantra is “Gardening Should be Fun.” Taking the pressure off makes it more fun. In other words, your garden doesn’t have to look like the cover of a magazine or top Pinterest pages for you to enjoy the process and the results.
So, if you are a new gardener or have a friend or relative who wants to grow plants and doesn’t know where to start, you can watch my online course with the basic terms and concepts. I developed the course for Southwest Gardening Blog, where I am one of four gardeners/authors.
The online class only is available through February 28, so be sure to sign up soon. You can watch it whenever it is convenient and as often as you like. Have fun with plants!
Roses are red for Valentine’s Day, but there are other plants, including houseplants, bulbs and a few xeric plants that make great Valentine’s Day gifts with their deep red blooms.
Here are my favorites:
This xeric salvia (Salvia gregii) is a garden stunner. Add one to your rock garden for all-season color in most regions of the Southwest (zones 6 through 10). Hot lips sage is a perfect plant for lovers with bright red and white blooms.
Red or Iceland poppies are perfect flowers for pressing and can last a bit as a cut flower. Papaver rhoeas (Red or Shirley Poppy) is a gorgeous complement to other flowers in the garden or planted in a bunch for a bright red meadow.
Geraniums come with deep maroon red, fire engine red or pink flowers. Plant a red geranium and a white geranium in a container for your Valentine. These plants can stay outside in spring or summer in most areas of the Southwest will continue to bloom inside in winter if left in a sunny window. I like to cut the bloom stalk near where the flowers begin and float it in a clear glass container filled with water.
If the symmetrical rosettes of leaves topped by pretty flowers are not enough (and they should be) to brighten any home or heart, the plant names might do the trick. There are thousands of varieties of African violets hybridized by pros and amateurs with fun registered names. Hybridizers name the violets after loved ones, hobbies and the plant characteristics. There are plenty of varieties with pink and reddish flowers (not just purple ones) .
Many varieties of the winter-blooming bulb come in solid red or white with red or coral streaks. Although most are raised to bloom around the holidays, they can bloom later if dormant and dark for a while, or have a second bloom. I have one that bloomed like crazy in December but has another bud coming up that likely will open just after Valentine’s Day.
Although cut flowers are nice, a plant that can grow on in your garden or home makes a perfect gift for your Valentine. Tulips open outdoors in early spring, and even Claret cup cacti have gorgeous red blooms. My all-time favorite cutting flower is the gladiola and a nice guilty pleasure in an otherwise low-water garden (and protected from munching deer). Or try giving your loved one an anthurium, the tropical plant with a red heart-shaped flower!