December is filled with shopping and even stressing over ideas for gifts. But I’ve got a few ideas and links to some great gifts courtesy of me and my partners at Southwest Gardening Blog. If you have co-workers, friends, or family members who love plants, we’ve got some great ideas, many of them based on gifts we’ve received or wished for, or products we’ve tested.
Some of my favorite gifts have included cactus-themed containers or office supplies, Olla watering pots and gardening gloves. For links to some of these and other gift ideas, head over to our 2020 Holiday Gift Guide (which also has a link to last year’s guide) for more ideas. You should be able to link directly from our gift ideas to online purchases.
Speaking as a plant geek, I can tell you that anyone who loves houseplants or outdoor gardening also loves plant-related gifts. My daughter has given me so many thoughtful gifts with a plant theme, some of which are included in the Holiday Gift Guide.
Still unsure? We also have a great gift for anyone who either loves gardening or just has to maintain their Southwest yard. Our 2020 Southwest Gardening calendar has photos from throughout the Southwest and gardening tips or tasks by month.
Since New Mexico and nearby states vary so much in climate and conditions, we’ve divided these tips by region: low and middle desert, high desert and mountain regions, and Texas. It’s a practical and pretty gift full of great Southwest gardening information.
If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum), no matter what neighboring states might say. You might not know that paprika and cayenne come from chile products. Paprika is made from low-heat red chile, and cayenne from a more pungent, higher heat pepper. But nothing beats fresh green chile.
Leaving green chile on the plant until it is red and nearly dry makes the red chile pods that are used for chile ristras, and especially for delicious red chile sauce. People who live in New Mexico love to eat chile, and the only real debate is whether red or green chiles are better. The best way to solve any dispute and please the taste buds is to order both (a choice called “Christmas” in our local restaurants). Take my poll below if you have a strong opinion!
According to New Mexico chile growers, the industry is in trouble because of low-cost foreign competition. But chile crops require warm weather, arid conditions and warm soil. Southern New Mexico in particular boasts the perfect chile-growing conditions. And since weather can affect not only harvest but flavor and heat of the fruit, why would anyone buy from less than the best?
If you want to grow a few plants in your own garden, the chile plants thrive best when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees. Even a light frost can kill a chile pepper plant. Direct-seeding is preferred, but you need a long, warm growing season to start chile from seeds. Otherwise, you can transplant chile plants that are about six to eight inches high and space them about 10 inches apart. Make sure they’re getting full sun and are in well-drained soil. They need consistent watering, but adjust based on rainfall. They won’t like wet feet.
Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fill with the smell of roasted green chile. Both red and green chiles are loaded with vitamins A and C and tons of flavor. If you’ve never tried them before, start with mild or medium heat and work your way up.
If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Try the search page for NM chile sellers from the NM Chile Association.
Growing in containers gives you flexibility; you can move plants around based on shade and sun exposure or bring some inside for winter. There are plenty of reasons to have lots of fun or decorative containers (or an entire row of them!) Here are 5 great low-water choices and a few tips for growing succulents and other xeric plants in containers.
Pot these upright succulents when you have limited space or your winter low prohibits growing them in the ground. Some agaves become quite large, but probably will grow a little slower in a pot. Try those smaller than about a foot in diameter (basketball-sized at maturity) such as black-spined, artichoke and Queen Victoria for great container-scale plants. The rosette shape of most agaves makes them perfect as the only plant in a container. Line the top of the soil with decorative rocks or glass and your container design is done! Agaves withstand heat and drought, and some can take cold (such as A. parryi). Most, however, can only handle light freezes.
My favorite versatile herb can grow well in containers. Depending on the look you want, select an upright (bush) type to add height to a mix of xeric container plants or choose a trailing rosemary to drape over the side. Either one should bloom at some point during the growing season. You can move your container rosemary inside to a sunny window or leave outside against a warm south-facing wall for year-round access to the tasty herb. Some varieties can survive winters down to zone 5 or 6, but most do best in warmer climates. And remember, that container cools off faster than the ground.
Portulaca plants are idea for containers, especially for adding texture, draping shape and outstanding color. I love filling containers with portulaca, but also love placing them beneath a tall plant in a container to add interest. They grow best in dry, well-draining soil in full sun. Portulaca plants are annuals, but always available in Southwest nurseries. They spread so quickly and bloom so heavily that they are well worth the money. Choose from bloom colors in reds, oranges, yellows, whites and pink. They often drop tiny seeds that will show up as volunteers the next year, which can be fun. Or you can easily pull up the shallow roots.
These gorgeous plants make great low-growing borders, hedges or potted plants, depending on your climate. Potted lantanas drape over the side, adding shape and dimensions to container arrangements. I love the salmon-pink and lemon-yellow bloom arrangements. Some varieties grow large, but look for dwarf varieties such as Pinkie or Patriot. In the low desert (zones 9 through 11), lantana plants can be outside all year. In high deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, we have to grow them as annuals or bring them inside when temperatures dip to about 55 degrees.
Containers dry out faster than the ground, making xeric plants, and especially succulents, the perfect container plants. Succulents need well-draining soil, so look for mixes that don’t retain too much water. Once you get the right soil mix, you should be able to water your succulents lightly once a week and have plenty of success. Most also grow slowly, so they don’t require frequent repotting. Some of my favorites are jade, echeveria, sempervivum, haworthia and crown of thorns.
A few tips for growing xeric plants in containers:
Make sure you have well-draining soil so the roots do not stay too wet.
Likewise, provide drainage at the bottom of the container.
Water slowly and lightly when possible to avoid washing out soil and nutrients.
Most xeric container plants need lots of sun, but keep an eye out for too much sun, especially when moving a plant back outdoors for the summer or placing it inside too close to a window.
Try to keep xeric plants together in arrangements, since they have similar watering needs. Or if mixing, find a way to separate low-water plants by potting within the larger pot or ensuring water drains away from them.
Overwatering leads to the demise of more xeric plants, especially container succulents, than other issues.
If you want a shrub that bursts with mid- to late spring color and thrills butterflies and bees, you can grow Caryopteris (C. x clandonensis). Also called bluebeard, blue mist, and blue mist spirea, caryopteris plants actually are part of the mint (Laminaceae) family, a recent change from their former placement in the verbena family. Regardless, they are nothing like a spirea, but the name has stuck.
Caryopteris is a drought-tolerant shrub that has pretty, sage-like pale green leaves. The leaves have a nice, light scent. They drop in winter (it is deciduous) but begin emerging in late spring or early summer. I leave the brown seed heads on for some winter interest; blue mist still will maintain its shrub shape with dry, light brown stems.
The plant comes from Asia, so it is not native to North America. That does not seem to bother my pollinators and I have not seen the plant spread invasively, unlike its mint relatives. Still, you can prevent it from self-sowing (dropping seeds to create new plants) by pruning it in fall as soon as all the flowers fade.
Where to Plant Caryopteris
This pretty and easy-care shrub can grow and bloom in either full sun or part sun in zone 5 through 8 Southwest gardens. Some cultivars are hardy down to zone 4. The plant can reach 3 feet wide and 4 feet high, but can grow a little taller in the right conditions. It is easy to shape and control. Blue mist can make a nice low hedge if planted close together or serve as a featured plant in a sunny area.
Blue mist does not like to sit in soggy soil, especially in cooler weather, so choose a spot with soil that drains well. We had one near our house that seemed to be getting too much water from patio runoff. When we built a dry river bed to handle drainage, we created a low berm for the caryopteris. It still gathers water from the flowing rain runoff but does not stay too wet.
Caring for Caryopteris
In the first year, water caryopteris regularly, letting it dry a little between waterings. When temperatures stay above about 90 degrees, water blue mist every two weeks if you are not getting rain. To avoid root rot, cut back on watering when nights cool and for plants getting some shade.
Other than that, all you have to do is prune this stunning purple plant once a year. I prune mine in spring as new growth begins to appear near the ground, but you can prune in early fall after the plant fades if you are worried about self-sowing. You can trim the branches down to about 12 to 15 inches from the ground for a pretty shrub effect. We also had some planted together in one area of the garden that my husband shaped so they would frame the nearby Apache plume.
If you do get volunteer plants or your caryopteris outgrows its spot in your garden, it is an easy shrub to transplant. Carefully dig deeply around your small volunteers soon after their lower leaves green up in spring. We also divided the one we put back on the berm, and both plants have retained a nice round shape.
It’s drought tolerant, a pollinator magnet and easy care. You can grow caryopteris!
Feeding and attracting hummingbirds each season is a favorite gardener and birder activity. I use a combination of native plants and a hummingbird feeder. I used to find refilling the feeder a tedious and messy task. Now, a New Mexico entrepreneur, Arnold Klein, has patented a one-step system for mixing hummingbird and oriole nectar that is easy and clean.
Before I go further, I want to emphasize why you should mix your own nectar. First, it costs less than purchasing a mix. Second, it is fresh. And finally, you should not add red food coloring like commercial nectars do. Hummers will find the feeder, since all have some degree of red on them. And the dyes can be harmful.
Klein’s product, Nectar Aid, makes it easy to mix two simple ingredients—sugar and water—by providing all the tools and steps you need for making nectar in your kitchen. The Nectar Aid comes with a handled plastic pitcher, a lid, and a divider for separating sugar and water while measuring (that doubles as a stirring paddle). The pitcher is microwave safe in case you want to warm or boil your water.
How Nectar Aid Works
The product comes with easy instructions. Place the mixing paddle/divider into one of the grooved slots – one is for oriole nectar, and the other for hummingbird nectar. Fill it with water. I only make two batches at a time, so after several uses, I have learned to fill mine about one-fourth up or less. But if you have several feeders or go through lots of nectar, fill it as full as necessary. You can boil the water right in the pitcher. Or you can use warm tap water – warmed water dissolves the sugar faster.
The top time-saving feature of Nectar Aid for me is that you need no formula. I always forget ratios and recipes and have to go look them up again. The Nectar Aid pitcher already has that figured out.
As soon as you have put in both sugar and water to the same level, lift the separating spoon out and use it to stir your mix. It easily scrapes sugar out of corners and drags the bottom of the pitcher. Then, place the lid on and you are ready pour your nectar, assuming it has cooled enough to avoid burning you and especially your hummers.
Easy Pouring and Storage
I also love that the Nectar Aid makes pouring the sticky water easier. I have spilled nectar in the past and had ants all over where it landed. This makes it super easy to fill nearly any size or shape of feeder without a funnel.
The pitcher stores well in the fridge with the lid on, so all you have to do when you refill your feeder (which you should do every few days after a quick clean) is pour it in; your batch is ready and safe. It will keep for 7 to 10 days in the refrigerator, so only make what you usually need for a week. You won’t mind mixing more if you run out, because Nectar Aid makes it so easy.
Notes on Use
Another great feature of the Nectar Aid is the paddle holder on the side of the pitcher’s lid. That makes it easy to store your Nectar Aid without misplacing just the lid or stirring paddle. I have found I prefer to put sugar in first, just because the water sometimes runs under the paddle and into the sugar side. But it doesn’t affect the mix unless you stop in the middle of filling.
Overall, this is a clever and useful product. I have had mine for a year and use it regularly each summer. It stores easily in winter in a pantry along with other pitchers.
Where to Buy Nectar Aid
Buy Nectar Aid from Hummingbird Guide and even view a video on how it works. It costs $19.99 plus shipping. I know hummingbird season is winding down in some areas of the country, but you can be ready next spring with a Nectar Aid or give it as a gift this holiday season to a bird lover.
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.