Low-water Plants that Hummingbirds Love

As soon as hummingbirds start buzzing around the garden, many locals put out their feeders. I have tried one this year, only because I had few plants blooming when the hummers arrived. I prefer to feed the hummingbirds with natural plants because of time, mess and the fact that native plants seem healthier for the birds and way more fun for us!

hummingbird on agastache
Hummingbird on agastache in our garden in 2013. Photo by David Higgins.

There are many rules about hummingbird food safety, and I worry I will forget, be gone, etc. But there are so many plants hummingbirds love that we already have in our garden or can add to attract more birds. We especially love to watch the male hummers’ courtship dives from our back patio, and I am certain that a few male birds have claimed our rock garden, or some portion of it, as their territory each summer.

To naturally attract hummingbirds and enjoy the same plants they use as nourishment, choose plants with brightly colored and tubular flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted by color, not scent. Red is their favorite, but purple, yellow, orange and pink also bring them to plants. And in addition to tubular flowers, try plants with blooms that nod, or bend downward slightly. Of course, continuous blooming also helps.

Here are a few xeric hummingbird favorites:

Agastache (Agastache cana). This xeric rare wildflower has bright pink flowers on upright stems all summer, and some, such as Texas hummingbird mint, are aromatic as a bonus for humans. There are other many variations of agastache, also called hyssop, in varying purples, oranges, pinks and reds, that attract hummingbirds with their slender, tubular flowers.

agastache cana
Agasatache cana Sinning, also called Sunset Sonora Hyssop is a compact Agastache cana from Plant Select. Image is by Diana Reavis and from Plant Select.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia). Butterflies share this purple-flowered favorite with hummingbirds. The spiked flowers appear at the end of the branches and can be from eight to more than 12 inches long.

Autumn or cherry sage (Salvia gregii). The salvia has bright pink, raspberry-colored flowers on a low bush all summer long. The low- to medium- water plant can grow in nearly any soil.

salvia gregii
Two cherry or autumn sages in a rock garden, just coming into bloom. Hummingbirds love the bright pink flowers.

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). This is the tree I miss the most since moving to a colder zone, although I might try it here soon. The beautiful xeric tree can be trained to grow wild and bushy or more tree-like. But its charm to hummingbirds and humans is the large tubular flowers that come in light and dark pink colors.

desert willow flowers
Hummingbirds love the orchid-like flowers of the xeric Desert willow, or Chilopsis. Image by R.A. Howard © Smithsonian Institution, Richard A. Howard Photograph Collection.

Other hummingbird favorites that might grow in the mountains, high deserts and xeric landscape that attract hummingbirds are some types of columbine, some bulbs, such as Crocosmia, and every variety of penstemon. And I imagine you can’t go wrong with a plant I have never tried, but is aptly named “Hummingbird Plant” (Zauschneria Californica), a medium-water, full-sun plant that has scarlet-orange flowers. It will require extra watering for a year or two until established, but grows to more than two feet in height.

Social Media Memes: Gardening Fact or Fiction?

Call me a skeptic. It’s OK, because I am one. I always have been. And I prefer to investigate claims, especially those I see on television or social media. The more often I see a social media gardening claim, the less likely I am to believe its validity.

When I write posts for Gardening in a Drought, I use my personal experience, master gardener training and lots of other sources – books I value and credible websites. If I’m uncertain about a site’s credibility, I always try to verify the information. And most of the information I rely on comes from university extension offices. They’re the source for research-based advice for farmers and homeowners. When it comes to growing food in particular, I’ll take research over pins and “likes” any day of the week.

Don’t get me wrong – I love social media platforms! But I use social media to generate ideas and avenues I want to explore. I don’t consider a post or pin originated by a virtual stranger to be the expert word, the final say. And even posts and pins from more credible sources can be problematic. For example, an article might tout the “Best perennials for shade,” but have its origin in a Georgia newspaper. The rainfall and soil in Georgia differ markedly from here in New Mexico. I need a list a little more specific to my conditions. And that’s just one of the problems I have with some of the social media memes and myths. Here are a few examples:

Epsom salt

This is the biggest meme of all. When my husband and I discussed that the entire Epsom salt craze must have been started by savvy Epsom salt marketers, I felt ashamed, as if my jaded skepticism had reached a new low. And then I just felt vindicated (so much sweeter). First, I found a pin touting the miracle “salt,” which is really a mix of mostly magnesium and sulphur for soaking feet, as a way to make “all of your blooms more vibrant, healthier, greener, thicker, etc…” Can I just add an editor’s aside here? There is hyperbole, and then there are errors in use of adjectives. Well, I guess it is an error only if you have a bloom color other than green. And right now, I cannot think of a plant with green blooms…

OK, sorry. The pin to which I referred linked to … you guessed it … a company that sells Epsom salt. And the product now lines the walls of the local Walmart when you walk inside. What a racket! I have decided to begin touting the benefits of yellow alyssum seeds “to make tomatoes juicier, redder, rounder and larger.” I could make them greener too, I guess.

bag of Epsom salt
Tim bought a bag of the salts to try to help get rid of some tree stumps. It didn’t really help, and I kept thinking: How could something that kills tree stumps be good for tomatoes?

Anyway, the truth is this: Epsom salts really do nothing for any plant or soil in your garden (link to my Resources page for a few sources). If you have super-acidic soil, which is uncommon anyway, it would be better to amend the soil with dolomitic lime than with Epsom salt. And it certainly is not the way to go in New Mexico, where soil tends to be alkaline. In fact, Epsom salt can do more harm than good.

Household vinegar kills weeds

I’m guilty of picking up on the household vinegar meme. And even household vinegar can weaken weeds to some extent. But the truth is, for vinegar to be truly effective on weeds, it needs to be 20 percent acetic acid. This is not your typical household white or apple cider vinegar.

What you need to really achieve control is the higher concentration acetic acid vinegar solution that is approved for use as an herbicide. It is available commercially in some formulas and from certain local or state agencies. We filled about 10 gallon-jugs at the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District office a few weeks ago and used their formula to mix it with water and dish soap.

For the most part, the acetic acid weakened, or at least stopped the growth of, many weeds. It’s not selective, however, so if you target a dandelion in the grass, you get dead, brown grass around it if in the spray. In addition, vinegar isn’t a systemic herbicide; in other words, it kills leaves but doesn’t work down to the roots. But I think the acetic acid solution can work well in gravel walkways and along rock walls or paver edges, the areas where grass and weeds poke through. Spray on a warm, sunny day and repeat again as needed. If you want to try the household vinegar on small weeds, you might have some success, but it’s probably better mixed with baking soda as a cleanser!

weed killed by acetic acid
The acetic acid formula really did destroy or weaken some weeds, but notice the bindweed peeking into the frame. Of course, I am not sure if anything can kill bindweed.

Use of corn meal to stop weeds from geminating is another myth based on a similar, but commercial product. The bottom line? Take social media advice with a grain of, well, salt. And always check to see if it’s accurate and pertinent for your garden soil and climate. Your best sources are local master gardeners and extension offices, or the best gardeners on your block!

Favorite Xeric Plant: Ornamental Grass

When xeriscaping, you can add plenty of interest with varied textures and heights by including a few ornamental grasses in your landscape. We’re always tempted to think first about flower color, but less about interesting foliage. Placing a few ornamental grasses in a xeric landscape or container can add nearly as much impact as a pop of purple with less watering and maintenance.

Choose an ornamental grass that is native to your area, or a similar climate or condition, in place of a shrub or perennial flower. One of my favorite features of grasses is that they can grow tall and move in the wind. In containers, they often add height or contrast to draping and flowering annuals. Warm-season grasses seed out and provide winter interest, even if the foliage browns. They need shearing once a year in spring, a little water to jumpstart growth, and they’re off. If you choose one that’s not native to your area, such as the big-box store selection I found for my containers, make sure it can at least survive with less water or other conditions that differ. You might not get flowers or as much growth, but the grass will survive at least for the summer.

rush grass in container
I like to place ornamental grasses in container arrangements to add height and texture. This juncus is all I need to add interest to a petunia mix and continuity between the pots.

Another benefit of ornamental grasses is that they can serve practical purposes in a garden. Use them for erosion control by placing a small grouping at the bottom of a slope or terrace – and go for a medium-water selection such as Feather reed grass “Karl Foerster” (Calamagrostis arundinacea) here, since the rain or irrigation run-off from above supplies the extra water the plant requires.

feather reed grass
Karl Foerster feather reed grass that was planted a few weeks ago in our rock garden . It already looks great, but will add feathery blooms in summer. It should survive our winter (zones 5 and 6).

Other great locations for grasses are along steps, pathways or corners, in front of dark walls or fences, and anywhere they will catch sunlight and breezes.

Sedges, rushes and some hardy bamboos also fall into the ornamental grass category when landscaping. Just be sure to check the zone, native location of the plant, and especially the sun and water requirements before planting the grass. Some actually do better in marshes – not a good choice for xeriscaping!

Easy care

Grasses are among the easiest xeric plants you can have in your garden. They’re mostly free of pests and diseases. And although I love ornamental grasses, I have seen some gardens with only grasses and gravel. I think you need one or two other xeric plants to break up the look, but I’m not a professional landscaper. To my eye, just gravel and grass in a garden screams “dry!” It’ so easy to complement a low-water grass with a salvia, penstemon or gayfeather.

Some cool-season grasses bolt in the heat, but trimming off their seedheads can rejuvenate the plant, much like clipping off flowers of herbs to force growth back into leaves. Most ornamental grasses are warm-season selections, best planted in the spring. They need a little more water, up to once a week for xeric choices, for the first month or two. After that, water deeply only every few weeks or once a month in the hottest summer weeks. Some will spread, and it’s best to try to divide or dig up unwanted volunteers before they clump too tightly. Other than that, just cut back as directed. Allowing several grasses to overseed in winter could add to your fire hazard, so keep that in mind if you have them near your home or a commercial building.

big bluestem grass before strawbale wall
Newly constructed strawbale wall with xeric plantings. The big bluestem grass on the right foreground got much taller and flowered (see below).

A few xeric grasses

Silky threadgrass (Stipa tennuifolia). This hardy grass grows in all types of soil, uses little water, and loves full sun. That’s a bonus, since the silky seedheads reflect sunlight as they sway in the breeze. One caution for silky threadgrass is its high potential to reseed. That’s a plus in an untamed garden, but not in a more formal xeric landscape.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  This is one of our personal favorites. It can reach heights of four to five feet in summer, when it also rewards you with purplish flower spikes that emerge between the beautiful greenish-blue leaves. Some selections require more water than others, so check with the nursery or on the tag for details. Some are highly drought tolerant and thrive down to zone 4.

big bluestem flower heads
The flower stalks of big bluestem grass are purplish, contrasting well with the greenish-blue leaves.

Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisteum alopecuroides). Purple fountain grass (P. setaceum) is a particular favorite of these dwarf varieties, but only makes it as an annual in our zones (5 through 7). Others fare better, although an unusually cold winter could kill them. Most have bright green foliage with bottlebrush flowers. Examples are “Hamelin,” a compact, mounding variety with ivory and gold flowers and “Moudry,” which has brownish-black flowers. One caution: You might have to protect dwarf fountain grasses from rabbits if they visit your xeric garden.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Penstemon

The hummingbirds are swooping around the garden, and soon they will enjoy feeding off several water-wise Penstemon species. The penstemon, also called beardtongue, is a versatile low-water native plant in New Mexico and the Southwest.

In fact, penstemon does best with no added water at all. And the plants can thrive in full sun or light shade. Penstemon comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and bloom colors. But they have in common a slender trumpet-shaped flower that hummingbirds love.

purple penstemon
Hummingbirds love penstemon flowers, but can you also spot the bees in this photo?

Caring for penstemon

Penstemons usually prefer somewhat sandy or clay soil, and don’t need added compost. Most species of penstemon are perennial in our zone (6 to 7), but some are annuals. They’ll bloom from summer to frost. Species such as Arabesque Red bloom from summer through first frost with deadheading. However, if you leave some blooms on the plant, the seedheads ripen and break, which causes the plants to reseed. We’ve had several volunteers come up in our rock garden. And birds love the seeds!

red penstemon AAS regional winner
Arabesque Red was the regional winner (including the Mountain and Southwest regions) fof the All-America Selections in 2014. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, Inc.

The only way to really harm penstemon is to overwater or overnourish this easy-care plant. Use fine gravel for mulch. Occasionally, aphids gather on the stems, but you can use a fine mist of water to spray them off in the morning and check a few days later.

Penstemon can work well in containers, especially if you select a lower-growing variety. Select low-water companion plants, so that the penstemon does not receive too much water. If it does, it can become leggy. You might find that a penstemon in a clay pot needs occasional watering compared with one in your landscape.

In a xeric landscape

Penstemons are great plants for xeric landscapes. Low growers such as Desert beardtongue (P. pseudospectabilis) spread to about 15 inches wide and 30 inches high, with purple-maroon flowers on stalks above the blue-green foliage. The pineleaf penstemon (P. pinifolius) is a native wildflower with tiny needle-like leaves and bright orange-scarlet flowers. I love watching the hummingbirds maneuver effortlessly into the flowers.

pineleaf penstemon
Our pineleaf penstemon hasn’t flowered yet, but it’s still attractive, with the pine-like foliage and its low spreading nature.

A taller, lankier type such as Rocky Mountain beardtongue (P. strictus) looks gorgeous against a fence, wall or tall rock. Its purple flowers contrast nicely with yellow or white bloomers in the foreground. The bushier pineleaf or Desert beardtongues are perfect to tuck in a corner, or along a step or walkway.

desert beardtongue penstemon
The Desert Beardtongue is a 2015 Plant Select winner. Photo by Bill Adams and courtesy of Plant Select.

No matter which variety of penstemon you choose, you’ll be rewarded by hummingbird guests and the beautiful blooms that appear with very little care on your part!

Harden Off Houseplants for Their Summer Vacation

When warm days—and especially warmer evenings—finally arrive, our houseplants are more than ready to move outside. It’s easy to tell. They look a little leggy and droopy. And although I said they are ready for a summer vacation, in reality, they’re taking an eight or nine month winter vacation inside. Because plants grow naturally outdoors, of course!

Geranium hardening off outside.
Geraniums are annuals in our climate, but I love how they bloom indoors in sunny windows all winter.

I really only have geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) right now, along with one canna that I keep in a huge container. It’s my ode to the tropics, and although it hasn’t bloomed again, I love it purely for the leaves. This year, I plan to cut it back and divide it, giving a few bulbs to family members who live in a warmer climate. Maybe dividing and cutting it back will force energy into blooming. We’ll see!

tropicanna canna
This Tropicanna canna is from Tessalaar Plants, and would have trouble making it here, plus uses too much water. But I have kept it alive in a container purely for the leaves. The flower is bright orange and gorgeous!

One reason I have few house plants is time, another is water savings, and most of all, it is lack of space and containers. My succulent-collecting husband has taken up most of the sunny space with propagation, and used lots of the containers. But I enjoy his cactus habit!

The main point to remember when bringing all of your houseplants out for the first time after their “winter vacation” is to introduce them slowly to the outdoor climate again. For most houseplants, that means bringing them into a shady, protected area first or leaving them out on a relatively calm but cloudy day. And bring them back in the first few nights if there is any chance that temperatures will approach frost.

aloe vera plants
Aloe vera plants harden off on a partly sunny day in preparation for the summer outside.

The cacti may be able to sit in full sun from the start; in fact, they probably need it. But if it gets blazing hot, bring them in before day’s end, and don’t subject them to cool desert evenings until they’ve at least been outside through dinner hour. If you don’t want to make the indoor/outdoor trek every night, you can cover your most sensitive plants with landscape fabric until they harden off and the nights warm up. The fabric also can help shade them during the hottest part of the day if temperatures shift while your plants are acclimating.

Make sure your plants are healthy and ready for the move outdoors. I cut my geraniums back quite a bit and usually add a little bit of soil or compost to the pot. If they’re in really bad shape, I will repot them. But they tend to bloom better if slightly root bound. Then I give them a good drink and put them in dappled or partial shade the first few days, gradually giving them a little more sun.

geraniums cut back for hardening off
I cut these geraniums back severely and added some compost, because they did not fare as well as my others. They need repotting next year. Note the requisite gardening gloves and phone…

Altitude and Wind Affect a Plant’s Water Needs

If you’ve ever gone skiing or hiking in the mountains of the Southwest, you’ve heard the warnings (or ignored them and learned the hard way). Drink lots of water, more water than you normally drink. You also might have noticed that you became breathless a little more quickly. All those warnings aren’t just designed to impress flat-landers or to make up for exertion. There’s science behind high-altitude dehydration of people and plants.

Low Pressure Causes Evaporation

Air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, and that means that moisture evaporates more quickly. It evaporates from lungs and from the soil and roots around plants. Add the fact that most high-desert and mountain climates also are low in humidity, and you’ve got to adapt to a new environment or nearly pass out. The same goes for your landscape, which is another reason to stick with native plants. These guys have toughed it out; they’re not just here for a weekend getaway! If you do choose non-native cultivars, plant them sparingly, and try to use them in protected areas, which leads to my next point.

 

snow on southwestern mountains
My daughter took this photo of snow on the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border one December. A holiday snow does not mean a humid climate.

Why Not Add Some Wind to the Mix?

Luckily, winds are worse in New Mexico on the plains than in the mountains. But how about in the high desert? Because of the wide temperature variations – warmer days and cool evenings, desert air can be a little unstable. Anyone driving through rural Arizona and New Mexico is likely to see a few wind farms, a smart renewable energy choice for our state.

Windy air contributes to evaporation. As wind speed increases, plants react by upping their rate of transpiration, which is the plant’s loss of water as it’s absorbed through the roots, up to the leaves, and out the leaves as it evaporates. More than 90 percent of the water a plant absorbs is lost by transpiration. It’s inevitable with photosynthesis.

wind spinner in New Mexico garden
This wind spinner is calm today, but we had to permanently shorten the stake to stabilize it because it almost took off in flight or bent in half a few times this spring.

It’s easy to imagine that wind makes plants drier, as anyone who lives in a windy, arid climate knows when they constantly apply lotion to their skin. Science also explains the effect of wind on evaporation. First, it’s helpful to recognize that plant evaporation increases humidity to an extent. If you’ve ever been in a greenhouse or a tropical plant exhibit, you can feel the humidity as you walk inside.

When the water that travels through a plant reaches a plant’s leaves, it seeps through tiny pores on the underside of the leaves. By hanging out there, the vapor adds to the relative humidity of the air close to the leaf. Kick up the wind, and the leaf moves around, so that it spends time in drier air. Of course, if the air outside is humid that day, the wind won’t have as much effect. But how often is it humid around here? Anyway, high wind, combined with low overall humidity and full sun, can rapidly dry out your vegetables or ornamentals before you know it!

xeric wild rose
No wonder so many xeric plants have smaller leaves. Less transpiration occurs and more energy can go into the plant’s health and blooms. I love this Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii)., also called a wild rose or Fendler’s rose.

Native Plants Adapt

Native plants adapt to soil and climate. So what about succulents? I won’t get into a long biological discussion, mostly because I am not a biologist or botanist. But one reason that succulents often have small leaves and large stems is to reduce transpiration so they can survive in dry, hot deserts. Others, like the aloes, have a different type of epidermal layer that doesn’t allow for rapid transpiration. It’s amazing how well plants adapt to their environments; if only I could adapt to winter…

Aloe leaves
These aloes have larger leaves, but they lose less water to evaporation than do typical plants.

If you have a non-native that takes slightly more water, remember what I said earlier about protection. Place the higher water user where it’s more protected from wind. If it can take some shade, at least in the hottest afternoon sun of summer, that will help too. Check out past posts for more water-saving tips. And these tips apply to growing vegetables and other edibles in wind and high altitude. The good news for us is that our winds calm slightly by summer.

Favorite Low-water Container Herb: Rosemary

I love rosemary in a container for several reasons. First, I can keep it in a sunny location all year and leave it relatively close to my kitchen to snip stems for cooking. I don’t have to traipse out to the garden to get to it quickly. By leaving the pot close to a south-facing wall in winter, the plant, which is hardy to zones 6 through 8, receives some extra warmth.

rosemary-in-container
Established rosemary in pot that wintered over. I took a few cuttings, but it still has outgrown this narrow container and needs transplanting.

Cutting some rosemary stems for culinary use helps keep the plant compact enough for container living. Otherwise, it might begin to flower and outgrow the pot. When rosemary blooms, it’s an attractive, evergreen Mediterranean plant, and bees love the tiny bluish-lavender flowers. So I usually have at least one rosemary in the landscape, and one or two in containers purely for edible reasons.

Easy-Care Herb

Rosemary is best grown from a nursery transplant or cutting, not from seed. When preparing your container, be sure it has a hole for drainage and mix well-draining soil that’s slightly alkaline and not too fertile. You won’t need to fertilize your rosemary, either, but adding an organic fertilizer when transplanting or once a season shouldn’t harm the plant. Just keep it as warm as you can in winter if you live on the cooler side of the zones, and if you bring the container inside, place it in a sunny location.

rosemary in container
New rosemary plant in a container, ready to head outside for full sun exposure.

Rosemary is drought tolerant and one of the few problems you’ll encounter with rosemary is caused by wet roots when temperatures drop. Rosemary thrives in full sun, and in summer, container plants need some supplemental watering every few days in the heat. Transplant the rosemary to a new container when the plant becomes too large.

Benefits of Rosemary

The aromatic and flavorful leaves of rosemary have many uses. I love the scent of rosemary and lavender in those rice-filled neck warmers! The oil from rosemary leaves is said to help with heartburn and other digestive problems. The oil may also help soothe skin irritated by eczema. Of course, it’s widely used in perfumes, sachets and lotions.

rosemary stems and leaves
The only thing better than looking at a rosemary plant is running your finger over the stems, or cutting some for use in your kitchen!

Culinary Uses

Although rosemary smells great in patio containers and in the home, I love it even more with chicken. You can cut entire stems of fresh rosemary and place them inside a baking chicken or use them in kebobs along with chicken or steak. I love fresh or dried rosemary on potatoes, baked with olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.

It doesn’t take much rosemary to achieve a lot of flavor, and I haven’t met anyone yet who dislikes the scent or taste of the herb. I often have add rosemary to garlic bread. That’s an easy way to get a little of the flavor of focaccia bread without having to bake!

Use Mulch To Conserve Water In Your Garden

When you put away a gallon of paint or the leftovers from dinner, you always cover the container. By sealing the paint can or plastic storage container, you lock in moisture. It keeps your paint from drying out. Same goes for your spaghetti with pesto (not to mention sealing in the “aroma”…).

Your plant roots can benefit from their own covers, and that’s where mulch enters the picture. Much like the top layer of paint in a can, air dries out the soil at ground level. Add wind and heat, and water can evaporate quickly from desert gardens in particular. Mulch helps insulate the soil to keep it cool and minimize evaporation. The layer of mulch also protects the area around the plant’s roots from the forces of nature. In other words, when the rain comes, it won’t pound the ground, eroding dirt away. Instead, it hits the layer of mulch, then trickles down to the ground. Use an organic mulch and each time it rains or you irrigate, the water carries some nutrients for the roots to take into the plant as well. Need more reasons? Mulching cuts down on weeds, and weeds compete with your plants for water. Plus, they are such a pain.

shredded bark mulch
Mulch cools and moistens barberry, photinia and ice plants in Albuquerque, N.M., bed.

To truly insulate and cool plants takes about three to four inches of mulch material. It depends on the type of material you want to use. If the mulch is fine, such as bark cut to smaller than an inch in size, go only about an inch or two deep. The same goes for grass clippings. Your roots also need some air to thrive! So be sure to avoid use of landscape plastic under your mulch in any areas where you will plant. The plastic is great in walkways, but not in your beds or under trees.

When piling mulch around plant or tree roots, cover the entire area to which the roots extend. For trees, you need to go out about as far as the tree’s canopy. And don’t place the mulch all the way up against the trunk of the tree or stem of the plant. Leave a small opening close to the plant.

mulch around tree
Water is less of a concern in this Northeastern garden/iris farm. But I would worry about how closely the mulch comes to this tree trunk.

Mulches also can look attractive and add to landscape design. Be careful about mulches you choose and social media posts with ideas for repurposing materials as mulches. Some are harmful if applied directly to vegetables and other plants or introduce weeds to your garden. And if your helpful neighbor offers fresh chicken or horse manure, remember that you shouldn’t apply it hot. Add it to your compost, and eventually to the vegetable garden.

gravel around yucca
In the desert of Tucson, the rock around this xeric yucca is probably more for looks, erosion control and night-time heat retention.

We’ll break down some types of mulch in a future post, but if in doubt, check with your local extension office or master gardeners.

Harden Off Seedlings Before Planting

When you head out to your garden on a chilly morning, it takes you some time to acclimate to the weather. After you’ve done some digging or weeding for 15 minutes or so, you might peel off a layer of clothing as your body warms up. The outside temperature probably didn’t change much in 15 minutes, but your body adapted to your surroundings and even toughened up to take them as your blood pumped into muscles and your heart rate rose.

tomato seedling
Short-season tomato seedling growing in starter soil.

Your tomato and other vegetable and herb seedlings need the same sort of acclimation before you take them from under your grow light, from a greenhouse, or from the comfort of their commercial nursery home. Give them a little bit of time to adapt to their new outside location. It’s called “hardening off,” and here are a few tips:

  • Take a minimum of a few days when you can, and ideally up to a week, to harden off seedlings. Count backward from your planting date – usually your average last day of frost – and start hardening off seedlings about eight days before that date.
  • Ease your plants into their new environment. That means it’s not a good idea to take them from a greenhouse from dawn to dusk the first day. Start with a few hours of outdoor time and gradually increase it each day. Cut the time short if the wind really picks up.
  • Speaking of wind – and sun – keep your plants in a fairly protected location. Start by putting them out mostly shade the first day and moving them every few days to gradually increase their sun exposure. You may need to protect them from critters, too, so consider local bunnies or other munchers if they often visit the area where you set out the seedlings and place them up on a table.
Seedlings and cuttings hardening off
Tomato seedlings and sage cutting hardening off under the shade of a glass patio table. The table offers some shade and wind protection.
  • Gradually increase time spent out late in the day as well. Your plants need to learn to spend the night outside, but don’t leave them out the first few nights. And be sure to bring them inside if there is any chance of freeze. On the first night out, try to put them in a well-protected location where they won’t get too much wind and receive a little warmth from your home or a south-facing wall.

Finally, cut back on watering as you begin hardening off the plants. They also need to learn to toughen up before transplanting. Of course, once you plant them, water a little extra until established, then water consistently per the plant’s needs.

bell pepper seedling
Bell pepper seedlings need to harden off and toughen up before the soil and daytime temperatures are hot enough for us to plant them.

Smart Xeric Strategy: Grow Edible Plants

It’s a trend that was a long time in coming, but edible landscaping is here to stay, and it can be a great xeric landscaping strategy. More than 80 percent of Americans say they have grown edibles, but nearly one-fourth are concerned about irrigation, so incorporating edibles into the garden landscape just makes sense!

I plan to increase some of the space in our rock garden devoted to edibles this year. We already have some great xeric herbs and I love the blooms of our Western sand cherry, which I hope will bear fruit this year. We also get a few rose hips from our native (Fendler) roses.

Apple tree and red bud in full bloom
The red bud looks edible, but only at the bird feeder! The rose bush on the left leaves hips in the late fall. And if that apple tree by the river makes as many apples as it has blooms, we’ll be heading to the farmers’ market!

Use space and save money

Adding a few edibles means we use some of the space and relatively good soil that’s near our kitchen and outdoor dining spaces for a few more herbs and vegetables. I’ll supplement our fenced vegetable garden and try to select critter-proof plants or hope the area is close enough to our patio to shy them away.

Like me, you might want to grow your own edibles for freshness and cost savings. In particular, herbs are much less expensive when grown from seed or cuttings than when you buy them in a store. I’ve used fresh and dried ones from our rock garden all year long. But so many edible plants also add visual interest. I don’t have to tell you how gorgeous lavender can get. And if not cut, rosemary and sage also produce lavender-colored blooms.

Grow xeric herbs

Then, there is the scent. I can hardly walk by thyme or lavender without rubbing my fingers on the leaves. Here’s a list of low-water herbs to add to your garden landscape:

Sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender (which can be used to flavor dishes or for many aromatic uses). Basil uses a little more water, but recovers well if neglected, as long as you keep it in well-draining soil. Oregano also needs only occasional watering, and though dill can be particular about soil, it also does well with little water. Read more about low-water herbs in my March post.

Add edible shade trees

If you’re looking for a shade tree, why not plant a fruit or nut tree that is native to your region? Instead of watering for the sake of leaves and summer shade, you can water for some juicy apples or peaches.

Chinese apricot tree for edible shade
No shade needed on this spring day, but in summer, we rest from outdoor chores under this established Chinese apricot tree. It was loaded with fruit about three years ago.

We just ordered a few bare-root trees from the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District. We’ve already planted a pinon tree. Sure, it will be a long time until it rewards us with pine nuts, and we’ll probably always fight the wildlife for them, but it’s a fast-growing native tree in New Mexico and I’m happy to try for a few delicious nuts to add to some basil for pesto! On the way soon are a serviceberry and cherry. The serviceberry is sure to feed the birds, if not us. And our established currant is in full bloom.

currant bush
This low-water currant provides year-round color and edible berries for wildlife and humans.

Consider interspersing a few edibles into your garden landscape and start small. For example, fill containers with edible flowers. Artichokes add interest to the garden;  just be sure to leave those guys plenty of room. If a few of the edibles you choose take a little more water than typical for xeric plants, consider this: Farmers use even more to irrigate their crops and you use no carbon footprint to drive to the store and buy greens when you grow your own in containers or a raised bed in your own garden. Water as much as possible from a rain barrel and feel even better about your edibles!

nasturtium in old washer
Why not fill an empty container (even a salvaged washer) with edible flowers? Nasturtium look pretty in the landscape and on salads.

Also, be sure to consider where you place your edibles. Spinach and lettuce have shallow roots and need cooler, shadier conditions. But avoid adding a crop of edibles under the canopy of a tree, where they’ll compete with the tree’s roots for water. I plan to use an area of our rock garden area to grow more peppers this year, and our southern-facing rock wall serves as a perfect microclimate to add some extra warmth for tomatoes and peppers.

planting edibles in xeric gardens
We recently weeded, turned the dirt, and added mushroom compost to the rock garden soil to prep it for some edibles as soon as frost danger passes.