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!
It’s easy to spot possible problems with a plant’s leaves, stems or flowers. Those are the parts we enjoy seeing every day in our garden. But what about the parts that lie beneath the surface of your garden or container?
We can forget all about the roots when enjoying a plant’s shape and color. But some of the toughest tricks to gardening involve root care – watering enough but not too much; soil drainage to allow roots to gather water but not sit in them; ability for roots to take up oxygen, and ability of roots to grow outward to support the plant you see above ground. How do you know your plant’s roots are healthy and why is it important?
Roots Affect Plant Health
The way roots grow, and their health, have a profound effect on the size a plant reaches, its vigor, and how it responds to watering or other care you give the plant. The main function of these leafless, underground stems is to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil around them. The roots store the plant’s food to keep it nourished and alive. Roots also help stabilize a plant in the soil or potting mix and physically support the plant’s main stem or trunk.
Types of Roots
There are various types of roots, although most root systems branch out under the soil. You might have heard of a taproot, which is a primary root that grows straight down into the soil and develops few to no root branches. Picture a carrot. The part we eat actually is a taproot. That’s the good kind, but a taproot can be a problem for gardeners. Some trees, such as pecans, grow deep taproots. This makes them much more difficult to dig up and transplant.
Some roots have lateral, or secondary, roots that branch off from an existing root. This happens with fibrous roots because their primary root eventually stops lengthening. Fibrous roots are lighter and smaller in diameter because they have less cell activity than standard roots.
One of the biggest problems with roots is restriction of their growth. This is easy to see when you lift a new plant out of its nursery pot. Some have roots circling in the shape of the container; the roots received good nutrition from the potting mix and plenty of water from garden center staff, but had nowhere to go. When planting, always dig a hole larger than the root ball – up to three times as large for trees and shrubs. And loosen the soil around the outer edges of the hole. If the ground is compacted and dense, roots will have to work harder to spread.
A second problem is underwatering (especially a tree) or watering in brief, shallow periods instead of long, deep soaks. Short watering doesn’t penetrate very deeply, so the roots grow close to the surface. And that can bring on other problems, including damage from lawnmowers or foot traffic. But with less frequent and deeper watering, roots grow downward as they seek moisture.
Roots as Plant and People Food
For plants, the structure and quantity of roots help determine how much water and nutrition the plant takes in. That’s why it is so important to water a plant more in its first season or year of growth than it will need later. The extra water helps those roots take hold and grow so they can store food for the plant.
Aside from carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes and beets are among common roots people eat. The mature root – a tuberous root in the case of a potato or sweet potato – holds lots of nutrition.
One final tip – buying a plant that has roots wrapped around inside the pot (rootbound) can make for more challenges when you plant it. You should tease or slice the roots near the outer bottom to help stimulate new growth. But if a plant’s roots are brown or dry, move on to another plant.
Not sure what to give a loved one, friend or co-worker as a holiday gift? You can’t beat succulents. Here are five reasons why:
1. Easy care, even for brown thumbs.
Although succulents can die, they are easier to care for than most plants. You can kill them only with kindness (too much water). And even leaves of heat-loving succulents can burn in direct sun. But they make great gifts for people who want a little green but have less than green thumbs. Keep it simple with common succulents like Echevaria or Sempervivum. Both plants come in pretty rosette shapes.
2. Succulents make people smile.
Partly because they’re easy, and maybe because of their fleshy, healthy-looking leaves or pads, these plants bring a touch of natural, living matter to the dullest setting. You can find popular ways of displaying succulents as décor. And if the recipient likes to live on the edge, a nice spiny cactus is a fun gift that could be the gateway to growing more houseplants.
3. Succulents grow in lots of container types.
A few weeks ago, I posted about growing cacti in containers. Succulents are so easy to plant in natural, pretty or quirky containers. Small ones can grow in tiny holes of rocks or driftwood. Air plants are even easier to grow in unique containers, since they require no soil.
4. Adding a personal touch is easy.
So, maybe the succulent you choose for a gift isn’t so unique, but you plant it in a coffee cup with a message, or a souvenir that has sentimental value. You can use your sense of humor or a little romance when choosing how to present a small succulent – or several. Or select one based on the name (maybe String of Pearls?) You also can make your gift more personal with a small set of instructions on how to care for the plant. You can look for information online or write up how you take care of succulents.
5. They’re popular and available.
The trend in succulent plantings, arrangements and decoration on all sorts of materials might not last forever. But while it does, it is easy to find a great selection of succulents for gift-giving.
Here are some favorite small succulents:
Echevaria, several varieties
Sempervivum (such as hens and chicks)
Sedum morganianum (Burro’s tail)
Euphorbia milii (Crown of Thorns) and it is thorny!
Crassula ovata (Jade plant)
Mamillaria crinita (Pincushion cactus)
Haworthia fasciata (Zebra plant)
Zwartkop (Aenonium arboretum)
Also, Tillandsias (airplants) come in lots of types and colors.
Succulents, and especially cactus plants, usually prefer heat and drought. That’s one reason they make such perfect plants for desert gardens. But in the high deserts or mountains of New Mexico and other Southwestern states, many cacti only can live outdoors in the summer. Enter containers…
Why Plant Cacti in Containers?
The best reason for planting cacti in containers is the flexibility it offers. You can move the plant throughout the year (carefully) to bring it outdoors when summer nights warm and indoors as frost approaches. But you also can move your cacti around to control temperature or sun exposure. Even succulents can burn from intense sun, so it is good to keep an eye on the plants and rotate or move them depending on sun, including sun from a south- or west-facing windows.
Another reason to plant cacti in containers is to isolate watering. When planted outside, especially near drip or other watering systems, cacti can get too much water. With containers, you can control cactus watering based on season and when the plant goes dormant. If you love the look of a cactus in your desert landscape, nothing says it has to be in the ground! If the water or temperature conditions are not ideal, place your cactus outside in a colorful container. Just remember – the outdoor container should have good drainage and can cool off more at night, so don’t leave a container cactus outdoors in winter unless it is hardy to at least 10 degrees cooler than your lowest low.
Finally, most cacti are slow growers, so you don’t’ have to repot them often. Other cacti spread out of control in the garden. You’ve probably seen a xeric yard in your neighborhood with prickly pear growing like a sprawling hedge, maybe onto the sidewalk. It is easier to control cacti when in the confines of a container.
Container Cactus Mix
Planting and caring for cacti in containers is easy, but the soil mix is crucial to success. If you plant a cactus in standard container potting mix, which is designed to help retain water, your cactus roots will get soggy and rot. You can buy special cactus mixes or make your own. Ask friends or local experts for ideas. Examples include adding 1 part coarse sand and 5 parts perlite (for airflow and drainage) to 4 parts of potting mix. Vermiculite also improves aeration but holds too much water. You also can add a little bit of rock dust or pumice to your mix.
Handle your cactus carefully while transplanting. You can use an old sock or towel to wrap around the plant near the base and lift it out of the pot. Or turn the pot with the cactus on its side, resting the plant on an old pillow (that you won’t use again) to cushion the plant while you pull the container off the root ball.
Old long-handled barbecue tongs are great tools for holding a cactus while you place it in its new container; or use regular tongs for smaller plants. The eraser side of a pencil works great for gently pressing soil down around smaller cacti.
Some Favorite Container Cacti
Some of these cacti are spinier than others, so you might want to be careful where you place them. Many will flower, especially in spring or early summer. And some can tolerate pretty cold temperatures, but still would be fun winter houseplants.
Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). The golden barrel and other barrel cacti are such great landscape plants, giving a pretty round shape to landscape designs. I especially love them on hills. But they’re only hardy to 15 to 17 degrees, so we keep ours in a container.
Pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). Pencil cholla are pretty scary looking, with spines up to one inch long sticking out from tall, thin branches. They are hardy to -20 degrees and love heat, but spread easily in the yard.
Bishops cap (Astrophytum myriostigma). This is an attractive and slow-growing cactus perfect for a container, especially since it only can handle cold down to 20 degrees. I love the sort of grainy white and green look of the plant. See the second photo above. That is a bishops cap in the middle.
Hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus). It’s native to the U.S. and Engelmanns hedgehog is most common throughout the Southwest. It’s spiny, but should produce bright pink flowers more than two inches across. The plant only reaches about 10 inches in height.
Fence post (Pachycereus maginatus). This is a columnar, almost regal cactus. The columns have ridges with small spines and when planted in a row, they form an excellent wall. Columnar cacti are great choices for planting in containers of homes with high ceilings or to simply provide height behind a grouping of houseplants. They just need plenty of filtered sun.
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). It’s hard to imagine this sprawling cactus in a container, but it can be done. It will need summer heat and can survive temperatures down to 20 below freezing. So, the garden can work, but you can control ocotillo growth in a container and enjoy it as a rising backdrop to other cacti or succulents.
Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). This is by far one of my favorite cacti. But it needs to stay in temperatures above 46 degrees, despite its shaggy layer of “hair.” This is another slow grower, and often a conversation starter in a home!
Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia canacapa). For the look of a gorgeous green and juicy cactus pad and no spines, go with this pretty plant. It still will grow new pads, but you can cut them off or plant them elsewhere. Both regular and hardy prickly pears can survive temperatures down to zero.
Holiday flowers like paperwhites and amaryllis are fun and beautiful, but in the Southwest, we love succulents, and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a fall and winter favorite in our homes.
The Christmas cactus loads up with delicate flowers each winter, assuming you take a few steps to force the blooms. That might sound intimidating, but it really is simple. The blooms appear on small, flat “leaves,” which are really stem segments. Closely related plants – all with a holiday “theme” – are the Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncates) and the Easter cactus (Schlumbergeragaertneri). You can guess the approximate times each should bloom. There are some differences in the stem shapes, but overall care is similar.
Schlumbergera plants were discovered in Brazil’s rain forests, where they grow as epiphytes on trees or other plants without stealing their nutrients. That makes them less parasitic than another holiday favorite, mistletoe.
The flowers have a long, tubular shape and truly are remarkable, especially considering they appear on an indoor succulent! Between all schlumbergera varieties, you can find red, salmon, white and orange blooms, as well as some bicolor flowers.
Here’s how to get your Christmas cactus to bloom: Place it in a dark closet in fall, usually around late September or early October. Once buds begin to form on the ends of the stem sections, after about a month or two of darkness, bring the plant out into natural light, but not to an extreme temperature or direct sunlight.
Christmas cactus thrives best in indoor temperatures (about 55 to 70 degrees F). Even though these are cacti, they come from a naturally humid setting. Mist the leaves from time to time and let the soil barely dry out between watering so it is consistently and lightly moist, but don’t overwater or let the plant sit in water.
Once your Christmas cactus blooms, the flowers last about a week, assuming they get some sun and appropriate water. The chain of blooming should last about a month. Some say the plant is unattractive when not blooming, but I disagree. I find the cascading form of the stems and their thick, succulent appearance attractive all year.
This plant is easy to grow, and you often get blooms without following any of the advice about dark periods. We’ve had blooms at various times of the year, and I’m okay with that. I just enjoy the plant, no matter when it rewards us with those fabulous flowers. You can find Christmas cactus in nurseries and just about anywhere this time of year. The plant makes a great gift.