Raised Beds: A Smart Gardening Choice

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More people than ever are choosing to grow some herbs and vegetables at home. Some don’t have the space or tools to prepare a plot for a kitchen garden. Planting edibles (and even flowers) in raised garden beds is a smart decision for so many reasons. Consider these:

  • If your soil is not ideal, you can fill a raised bed with amended soil for less work and money.
  • Like containers, raised beds tend to warm faster than the ground, which can extend your growing season.
  • It is easier to clearly mark growing areas with raised beds – where the vegetable plot begins and the flowers end, for example.
  • Having sides on garden beds, even a foot or two off the ground, can help stop soil from washing off in heavy rains.
  • A nice, even raised bed makes square-foot gardening or row planting a little easier.
  • Finally, it is easier on gardeners’ backs and knees to bend and reach at raised bed level than at ground level, even if you only raise the bed a foot or two. Raising beds to about kitchen counter height is an ergonomic choice, especially for older gardeners.
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Our vegetable garden has stock tanks, a DIY raised wood bed and an easy raised bed kit.

Raised Bed Types and Materials

There are plenty of types, shapes and sizes to raised beds. Few “rules” govern the material you choose, other than making sure it will hold up to water and weather and is nontoxic. The type you choose depends on space, your DIY skills, budget and purpose.

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These wooden raised beds are in a community garden in Colorado.

DIY Bed from Wood

Probably the most popular is the DIY raised bed made with wood. See this excellent article on how to determine size, the tools you need and other tips from the National Garden Bureau. It’s better not to use pressure-treated wood because of possible chemical leaching; learn more on this article in Fine Gardening. Redwood, cypress or cedar make good choices for edible garden beds. Composite lumber can last longer than natural wood, but it should be rated for ground contact. Wood usually is the least expensive option.

cement-blocks-stacked-planted succulents
Raised beds from cement blocks work well for small edibles or fun collections, like these succulents in Pam Penick’s Austin backyard.

DIY With Other Materials

Here, we have lots of rocks. We used them to form a gabion wall in our backyard garden. You also can stack rocks, bricks or purchased pavers to form raised beds, especially against an existing fence or wall. Just be sure the wall of your bed is sturdy with some sort of nontoxic adhesive.

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Pavers, bricks and rocks can hold up a raised bed for ornamentals, separating it from grass or gravel yards.

Plastic is an option, but will crack and break in dry climates of the Southwest and might warp as well. Special hollow vinyl planks are a little tougher than just any plastic and are lighter than wood, but they eventually will get brittle and crack. Metals can rust, but using galvanized steel (roof panels are easy to find and cut to size) helps. Although galvanized metal can eventually rust, it takes a longer time to corrode. Finally, strawbale gardening is a real thing that cuts down on the need for good soil and the amount of weeding required. Just get advice on how to set it up.

gabion wall fence raised bed
We built raised beds around our circular rock garden and filled the baskets with rocks, of course.
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Here is the same bed from the other side. It’s a great level for deadheading flowers.

Repurpose Materials

We have purchased or repurposed several metal stock tanks (water troughs) for raised beds in our gardens. Some were gifted from a neighbor; we used one to hold ice and beer for a wedding, and it’s been repurposed into a lettuce bed. I love the height of the stock tanks we use; shorter ones are cheaper. Here is a past post on how we prepped our stock tanks for garden use. I’ve seen use of tires (stacked to the desired height), pallets, old furniture, and other materials. Just make sure the material you use will hold up to water and weather, has no toxic materials that can leach into your vegetables and that add drainage holes if the container has a solid bottom.

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I have onions growing now in one stock tank. My clever husband ran the drip system into the tank for easy watering.

Purchase a Kit

If you’ve got the funds, lack DIY skills, or want your raised bed to look nice for front yard curb appeal, there are plenty of creative choices out there. Here is one page of choices from Gardeners Supply Company.  I reviewed a kit that I still use (and love) that took minutes to set up and came with its own watering system. Read the review on the Garden in Minutes kit here.

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Both our DIY raised bed and bed from a kit (top) are holding up well.
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Get creative with raised bed gardening.

 

The Much-Maligned Buddleia

I am here to ask that people stop bashing Buddleia. Commonly known as butterfly bush, Buddleia (Buddleja) varieties are attractive, low-water and easy-care plants for Southwest gardens. Unfortunately, because they are invasive in some populous areas of the country, misinformation abounds on growing this plant in the plains and Southwest. So, I want to set the record straight for those of who garden in dry climates. Here is the good and the bad of Buddleia:

Why Does Everyone Hate Butterfly Bush?

First, most Buddleias are not native to North America. I agree that we need to favor native plants over non-native ones. However, one of the best reasons for choosing natives is ability to adapt to conditions, such as low water use. Well, guess what? Butterfly bush is drought tolerant after it is established and actually does poorly in soggy conditions.

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The butterfly bush in the right center is the perfect height to balance a natural garden and close enough to see butterflies.

Second, non-native plants can become invasive. There are two reasons why this should not concern most growers in the Southwest. Buddleia davidii plants have been declared invasive in most of the Pacific Northwest, areas along the California coast and on the eastern seaboard. They need a little more water than some varieties. Southwestern states have completely different growing conditions, and the plant is not invasive in any drier climates I’ve visited. Further, I leave all branches and flowers on my plant all winter. I have never spotted a new butterfly bush cropping up.

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Here is that butterfly bush in winter. It still gives height to the garden and a place for birds to land.

Finally, there are several Buddleia varieties that are native to North America (see below).  And you can bet that as soon as plant breeders saw all the fuss about banning butterfly bushes, they got busy. So, there are plenty of sterile varieties available. That means they will not set seeds and make new plants that clutter and invade your landscape.

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In case you need evidence, here is a Monarch butterfly on my butterfly bush a few years ago.

Why Do I Love Butterfly Bush?

This is one of my favorite plants in the landscape. The one we have is front and center in our garden. It was planted at least 8 years ago by the previous owners of our home. And it still looks great every summer.

Here are some of my favorite features of Buddleia:

  • Butterflies flock to the aptly named plant (although it is not considered a “host”  plant, butterflies enjoy the flowers’ nectar). So do hummingbirds. I wouldn’t rely on a buddleia as a sole source for helping butterflies, but it can be part of a pollinator landscape.
  • Butterfly bushes bloom all summer, can take heat and need no deadheading (if in a dry climate or growing a sterile or noninvasive variety).
  • Larger buddleias have winter interest and serve as a landing spot for winter birds.
  • Talk about easy: We water deeply once each spring after pruning. We only water other times in periods extreme heat and drought.
  • You can prune butterfly bush to a foot or less above ground in early spring as new growth appears along the lower branches. Also remove dead branches. That’s all it needs to grow and bloom each summer.
  • The bush is deer resistant, a big plus for mountain and high desert gardens.
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It’s a flower full of little flowers that attract butterflies and hummingbirds.

Safe Buddleia Varieties

As I said, there are some butterfly bushes native to the Southwest and new hybrids with sterile flowers. Here are a few examples:

  • B. alternifolia Fountain. Grows to about 12 feet tall in a fountain shape with purple flowers.
  • B. marrubifolia, also known as Orange Wooly Butterfly Bush,  is native to the Chihuahuan desert, with whitish foliage and orange flowers.
  • B. utahensis, or Utah Butterfly Bush, is native to Utah, Arizona, California, and Nevada.
  • Dwarf varieties such as B. davidii var. annhoensis.

See more choices and photos in this article from Garden Design Magazine. I have been testing a new variety called B. alternifolia ‘Unique’ that I brought back from a meeting in Atlanta several years ago, in my suitcase. We kept it alive in a sunny spot all winter and  planted it the next spring. It’s a dwarf variety with pinkish-lavender flowers that is perfect for butterfly containers.

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B. alternifolia ‘Unique’ is a dwarf butterfly bush.

You can find butterfly bush varieties in white, lavender, deep purple, magenta, and others. So, don’t be afraid to plant Buddleia in your low-water garden. Check at the nursery or online seller to make sure the variety you choose is either native or bred to be sterile. And when looking for gardening information, check more than one source, one of which is local or regional!

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Close-up of the B. alternifolia ‘Unique’ branches. Pretty foliage and pinkish purple blooms!

Gifts for New Mexico Gardeners

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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.

Link below to a holiday gift guide for Southwest gardeners, complete with links for immediate purchase.

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.

pin-light-african-violets-humidifier
LED grow lights, African violets, and a USB humidifier are great gifts for houseplant growers.

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.

haworthia-foliage
Harowthia is such a fun succulent, and it can send up a stem with yellow flowers.

And if you are in the holiday spirit, read my past posts on New Mexico traditions, succulents as gifts, review of a product for bird lovers, and a recipe for yummy cookies.

Happy shopping!

Caryopteris: You Can Grow That!

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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.

 

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The mint-like leaves have a nice scent and color. The purple blooms burst with color in mid- to late summer.

About Caryopteris

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.

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Butterflies love the bright blossoms of caryopteris. Each time I walk past a plant, I feel like I am in a butterfly pavilion.

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.

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This caryopteris receives some afternoon shade but still blooms fully next to an Apache plume.

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.

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Here is the caryopteris we lifted out, divided and replanted in nearly the same spot, just a little further from and above patio runoff.

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.

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Bees also love caryopteris and co-exist with us and the butterflies.

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!

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Looking Up in the Garden

 

trees-and-skyWhen 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.

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We all love a few containers on the deck or patio, but floor space is limited, right? Jim Borland, co-host of Ask the Garden Pros on Denver radio station EZ 1430, has “looking up” down to a science.
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Here’s a totally different style of plant for a different style of home. These giant fuchsias hang from baskets on the front porch of Kirsten and Scott Hamling’s home in Denver.
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I love the ingenious ways Denver-area homeowners have for hanging baskets. This fun collection hangs from overhead at the home of Dan Johnson and Tony Miles of Englewood, CO.
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And a little whimsy always helps. Jim Borland has a container with grass hanging on his back patio. I am not sure how he mows it…
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The prize for most containers in a yard, not just in Denver, but maybe anywhere, goes to Rob Proctor and David Macke. They have more than 600 containers — filled with healthy plants. Rob is a garden expert, author, lecturer and TV personality in Denver. I love these pink petunias up the steps.

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.

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Such a pretty structure that draws your eye up and shows off bright pink roses. This was one of many highlights in Carol and Randy Shinn’s garden in Fort Collins, CO.
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This wooden structure in Jan and Richard Devore’s Fort Collins garden is natural and unobtrusive, helping your eye see the climbing branches and foliage.
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Even more natural are these twisting, shady treetops, also in the Devores’ large backyard.
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Another great thing about looking up: Southwest skies. This arbor at the Denver Botanic Garden provided shade, plant support and a peek at the gorgeous clouds.
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This beautiful arbor at the Johnson-Miles garden looks great from the bottom up.

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.

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The Shinns had a gorgeous mix of dry river beds, native plants, roses and other ornamentals in their front yard … and a giant tree as a focal point for the 360-degree view.

 

Grow Your Xeric Garden With Plants that Naturalize

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.

kniphofia plant and blooms before wall
Kniphofia, or red hot poker, multiplies and needs dividing every so often.

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:

purple salvia in xeric garden
Salvia sylvestris keeps growing little “pups” near the first plant.

Salvia

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.

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This native penstemon has created new plants for years.

Penstemon

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.

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Bee on gaillardia. We have a native version growing in our yard as well.

Blanket Flower

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.

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Here is the Kniphofia pictured above. We broke it up and pulled out about six healthy looking ones to transplant.

Bulbs

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.

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It is easy to spot volunteers of Apache plume. It might take a year or two for the small plant to begin blooming, but it is free and beautiful!

Apache Plume

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.

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Thyme plants re-seed, grow pretty little flowers, attract bees and taste delicious!

Thyme

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.

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We had at least seven or eight volunteer threadgrass plants this year we could relocate.

Threadgrass

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.

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Repetition can look natural and orderly at the same time. Don’t be afraid to use several of the same plant in your Southwest garden.

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.

xeric-garden-bed-mulch-volunteer-plants
This new bed is a little sparse now, but will fill in. It has a euphorbia, several salvias, cannas, a blanket flower and a yarrow we moved from other areas of the garden or from volunteer plants.

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!

 

 

 

Color of the Year: Living Coral

hyssop flowers coral color

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.

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The coral of this gladiola is the perfect complement to a bright yellow sunflower.

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!

Chocolate Flower: You Can Grow That!

chocolate flower plant, yellow blooms ad blanket flower
The daisy-like flowers of chocolate flower have a chocolate scent!

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.

two yellow and green, brown blooms against rocks
The daisy-like blooms of chocolate flower.

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.

chocolate flower open and unopended blooms
Even the unopened buds on chocolate flower are pretty and delicate. Photo Courtesy of Plant Select.

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.

unopened and spent blooms of chocolate flower plant
I first had trouble telling spent blooms from new ones for deadheading. Unopened blossoms have a pretty green and papery look. The circled one is a spent, dyring up bloom for deadheading or seed collection.

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.

chocolate flower above yellow desert zinnias in rock garden
I love the shape, color and scent of chocolate flower. When it and desert zinnia bloom at the same time, it’s a color explosion.

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.

chocolate flower and blanketflower in rock garden
See how this chocolate flower grows up against the rocks. You will learn to recognize the leaf shape.

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.

You can grow chocolate flower!

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5-Plus Secrets for Starting Seeds

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.

garden-vegetables-flowers

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:

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It’s fun to start seeds inside, but only start plants that transplant well.

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.

carrots-in-ground
Carrots like cooler weather than some crops.

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.

tomatoes in wall of water
These water towers warm the ground in my cooler region and help tomatoes adjust to the outdoors.

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.

green-beans-pole-fence
Green beans need room to spread, so remember their full size when sowing and thinning seeds.

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.

seed starts-in-tray-sun
This tray of seed starts got indoor sun, then gradual outdoor sun and breeze.

Plus:

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.

wildflowers-from-seed
These wildlfowers could have used more thinning, but I love the effect. You can’t plant tomatoes this close together, though.

Gardening Basics

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!