Easy Rain Barrel Project: Collecting Rain from Shed Roof

For two years, I’ve watched rain pour off the roof of an old shed in our orchard and hated to see it go to waste. And our vegetable garden is only about 20 yards from the shed, so it just made sense to capture some of the water. This weekend, as storms approached, we got around to adding rain gutters to the back of the shed to catch some of the precious rain in a barrel.

old shed in New Mexico
I love this old shed. We use it for storage, but it had no rain gutters for all of the runoff.

First of all, this was a relatively easy and inexpensive project. We already had the barrel, which cost about $80, in the shed. One of the drawbacks of the barrel type is that it tends to leak along its outside seams. Tim caulked and duct taped it for safe measure. The gutter, outlet and brackets came to about another $60. We had old hoses to reuse.

shed rain barrel project
The metal gutter Tim bought matches the barrel and the shed, so it doesn’t affect the character of the shed much. We attached it to the joist beams along the back, just under the roof. See how close all that wasted water is to the garden?

Tim picked up two pieces of metal gutter, which covered most of the 24-foot roof, some slip joints to connect pieces, two end pieces and the outlet. The most time-consuming part of the project was bending the metal gutter pieces to fit together. Then we caulked them.

We used metal brackets to connect the gutter to joists on the shed. Some of the joists were beginning to rot at the top, so we connected the brackets to the strongest ones and then reinforced the gutter with screws in other spots.

attaching metal gutter to shed
Metal brackets secure the gutter on both sides every 18 inches or so.

We sat the barrel on a found, fairly flat rock for some ground clearance around the lower faucet control and plugged the other hole with PVC pipe (this barrel also had a busted faucet). I’ll only be needing the hose connection. The garden is downhill from the barrel, which makes the hose flow more easily. And we stacked a few rocks around the sides of the barrel to help with drainage and mud control from overflow.

Because the ground was so high in relation to the back of the shed, we haven’t bothered yet with a downspout; the outlet is only a few feet from the top of the barrel. We figured that if it missed, we could repurpose some old gutter we cut off the house when fitting barrels on it. But we found out that wasn’t necessary! When the rain came, it flowed right into the barrel and filled it up.

rain barrel filled
The barrel installed and filled to the brim after nearly an inch of rain later that day!

I realize this barrel won’t hold enough to water my garden all of the time, but it helps. And if it works well, we might chain another barrel to it next year. I don’t worry too much about using water from the metal roof on my vegetables. First, I water the soil, not the plant’s leaves. Second, there has been plenty of research done on safety of rain barrel water for edibles. We don’t have pollution where I live, and I’m using well water if I don’t use rain water, so it’s not like I’m choosing water from a roof over city tap water. I make sure I rinse all harvested food.

This was a fun, easy and rewarding project. With the rain we received, I haven’t had to use the stored water yet, but I’m sure I will need it by the end of the week!

Got Bees? Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The number of honey bees and other pollinating insects is declining around the United States. Colony collapse disorder and other diseases, along with increased pesticide, use are likely culprits. What’s more, monarch butterfly populations have been declining by the millions!

butterflies on ivy blooms
We were stuck with ivy around all of our walls at our last home. We pulled out any that was rooted on our side of the fence. It’s not xeric and it is invasive, but butterflies flocked to the blooms.

On May 19, President Obama announced steps aimed at improving the health of pollinating insects. And in response, the National Pollinator Garden Network issued the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. According to the network, pollinators help generate one out of three bites of food we eat each year. Planting plenty of trees and flowers that attract bees, butterflies, birds and bats can help improve pollinator health and populations.

The challenge calls on homeowners, businesses and communities to create and sustain gardens that attract pollinators. Let me just say that this is another concern I have about extreme xeriscaping, or a trend I see of replacing every bit of plant and lawn in a landscape with gravel. New Mexico, for one, is barren enough. And there are plenty of xeric plants that attract birds, bees and other insects and provide some color in the landscape.

maximilian sunflower
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native, low-water prairie flower that bees love. I love its late-season blooms.

According to the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a pollinator garden should:

  • Include plants that provide nectar and pollen sources.
  • Provide water for pollinators.
  • Be in a sunny location with some wind breaks.
  • Have large areas of pollinator-attracting plants that are native and noninvasive.
  • Include plants that bloom throughout the season.
  • If possible, eliminate pesticide use, and at least minimize pesticides.

If your garden already meets the criteria, I encourage you to go to the challenge’s website and add your garden to the map.

And here are a few tips for meeting the challenge, or at least for making sure you have plenty of bees, butterflies and other pollinators in your garden:

  • Of course, including native, low-water plants is critical. Look for symbols in product catalogs or lists of xeric pollinators. And remember bees love herbs too. They buzz all around our thyme when it flowers, and there are roses and other flowering ornamentals pollinators love that need nothing but rainwater once established.
woods rose attracting bees
This woods rose had bees all over it the other morning. It’s a native, wild rose that’s xeric.
  • Some people avoid plants that attract bees because of possible stings, especially with children around. I have a few plants that attract seemingly hundreds, and one we walk past constantly. But if bees bother you, just place your pollinator plants where you can see them, but in a spot you seldom sit or walk by, and not where the kids’ soccer ball always ends up when they play in the back yard.
  • Providing water can be tough. Our birdbath dries up in a day or two, and I hate to refill it, knowing it will evaporate. But I can use rain water. The birds also gather on the top of our rain barrels, where the water sometimes pools. Butterflies need only a few drops in a tiny rock or plate.
  • Some native plants bloom continuously with no effort on your part. Look for those! An example is catmint (Nepeta). And create a dense grouping with a mix of colors and bloom times to attract pollinators, especially if you have limited space. A few annuals can provide blooms when perennials fade. We have cosmos that pop up late in summer and birds balance on the thin stalks, gathering seeds.
yarrow and gallardia
Moonshine yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a perfect pollinator. It blooms all season and has a flat surface for easy landing! Bees also love the annual blanket flower (Gallardia)
  • One of the great benefits of inviting pollinators with flowering plants is that they should make a side trip to your edibles. Don’t be afraid to plant some flowers near vegetables, as long as they don’t compete for sun and water or hide weeds.
  • If your roses or other plants get aphids, wash the tiny bugs off with a fine spray of water in the morning before turning to a pesticide; it’s just not necessary. Spray again in a few days if more return. And try to stick with pesticides on your edibles that are least harmful to honeybees, such as insecticidal soap.

How To Determine Watering Depth

Gardening books and plant tags often tell homeowners to “water the plant to a depth of xx inches.” That’s all well and good, but since I am not a gopher and don’t have x-ray vision, how do I know how deep water goes when I soak a tree or bush? And why is it important?

Overwatering is not just wasteful, but can harm plants. Take the tomato, or don’t take it if it has cracked from overwatering or inconsistent watering. Using a well can help ensure that you water your tomato the same depth each time, assuming the water flow is fairly slow and steady.

tomato plant with well
A tomato well holds water in place and helps me keep track of the amount I water each time. That’s important once the fruit starts growing.

Of course, there are plenty of calculations you can do, including soil tests. But there are easier ways to find out. For small ornamentals and container plants, just dig your finger in and check the soil. Most plants need water when the soil is dry down to a half-inch or so. Of course, the best way to know whether a plant needs water is to know the plant! Depth is not even an issue for xeric plants that rely on natural rainwater only, at least not once the plant is healthily established.

xeric-plants-need-no-water
These xeric plants need no water. The nighstock and gallardia came up from volunteer seeds, and an agave, prickly pear and green santolina fill in the background.

If water pours out the bottom of a container, you probably are overwatering or adding water in too quickly or forcefully. Picture the same effect in the ground. So slow down the water to give your plant time to get acquainted! When the water pours out the bottom instead of dripping, it washes important soil nutrients out with it.

For a lawn, there are plenty of tips to help conserve water, and the best strategy is to run a short cycle, wait the length of one cycle, and run another short cycle. You’ll know if your cycle is too long if you note any standing water or runoff. Running a short cycle prevents waste, and by waiting, you give the first cycle’s water time to soak down to the turf’s roots. The second application of water can push remaining moisture a little deeper, where it will be retained.

Trees need the deepest watering of all, and Arizona’s Water Use It Wisely program has a great method for determining watering depth that we used last year when we planted a new Chinese pistache (Pistacia chinensis):

  • Water your tree as you normally would, and about an hour later, push a soil probe into the ground. Since you might not have one of these lying around, you can use a screwdriver or a piece of rebar long enough for the depth you need to measure, plus a few bonus inches to help retrieve it when you’re done.
  • Mark your homemade probe or rebar before pushing it into the ground, premeasured with the recommended depth (such as 12 inches or 30 inches).
  • If your rebar goes in easily to the recommended depth, you’ve watered long enough. If not, add some water until the soil softens.
testing watering depth
We gently hammered a piece of rebar in the well area to check watering depth. If it goes in easily, your soil is soaked through. You can also use a soil probe.
  • Note how long you left your hose or drip system on and the approximate flow (slow, medium, trickle…). That way, you won’t have to keep measuring the depth, at least not for the same plant, and you’ll know about how long to water next time.
determining watering depth for tree
We used plastic tape to premark the depth on our homemade soil probe.

Start Small on Your Xeric Landscape

If you’re not an experienced gardener or feel overwhelmed by the prospect of starting a landscape from scratch or switching your entire landscape to a xeric one, why not start small?

Time, money and inexperience should not keep gardeners from enjoying a few plants in their yard. I sometimes can’t stop bemoaning the trend in believing that xeriscaping is the same as “zeroscaping.” Again, it’s not!

Even new, young gardeners and urban dwellers can enjoy a few blooms or edibles without busting their budgets, schedules or water resources. Try these tips:

  • Start with containers. If you have little space, but crave fresh herbs, enjoy a few bright blooms next to you while you savor your morning coffee outside. Or enjoy the view of hummingbirds hovering over a flower by outfitting your patio or balcony with a few brilliant containers. You could add a long, thin box with your favorite low-water kitchen herbs and a tall, round container with a salvia for color and pollinator interest. Or try a geranium, which uses a little more water, but lasts year-round in your container if you bring it indoors to a sunny location.
mint and lettuce containers
Mint in a container — where it belongs! Friends gave us these two transplants. That’s a baby mesclun lettuce mix to the right.
  • Take it one area or bed at a time. If the idea of going completely xeric in your garden is too much to handle at once, take baby steps. Convert a small area of your lawn from grass to gravel and native plants, or from high-water grass to native grass, gravel and native plantings. Or take out grass along a sidewalk or driveway and create a path with a few ornamental grasses and perennials. An easy way to conserve water is to divert rain from a downspout that pours onto, say, a driveway so that the water instead flows to a tree already in your landscape. Find plans for dry river beds with rocks to ensure the water flows to your tree.
  • Choose one or two hardy xeric perennials a year. I’m not the best person to advise patience, but if you’re short on budget and time, choose just a few hardy xeric plants to start your garden off right. The best choices depend on where you live and your USDA zone, along with the microclimate for the location you plan for the plant. Choose a perennial, a plant that will live through your winter and bloom again for at least two years. If this is an early attempt at gardening for you, go to a local nursery, where the staff can show you a few natives for your area that are hardy and easier to grow. Then go by size, bloom color, water and sun needs, maybe overall care (like deadheading) and your general reaction to the plant. There’s nothing wrong with choosing two of the same plant if you love it. Repetition can be just as attractive in a xeric landscape as complementing textures and colors!
dianthus perennial
This Dianthus next to our bird fountain needs little care and no supplemental watering, but comes back each year. In fact, a new plant showed up in another bed about 15 feet from this one.
  • Buy seeds instead of annual plants. This early in the year, at least in most zones, you still can have plenty of success with seeds for annuals to complement your perennials. There are tons of great xeric wildflower choices that grow from seeds, saving you lots of money. Instead of buying several six-packs of petunias or marigolds, pick up a seed packet of cosmos, zinnias, poppies or a native wildflower mix. Seeds need more attention and watering at first, but the flowers usually reseed for several years. And even though seeds in packet eventually expire, we’ve had success with old flower seeds.
blue flax
I can see this stunning blue flax (Linum lewisii) from my office. The damp spot on the ground is an area of red flax seeds we sowed.

Of course, if you can go big, do it. There are plenty of professionals, books and sites dedicated to xeric landscaping.

How To Water Mature Trees

When drought strikes, it’s tempting to cut back on watering of established trees or stop watering altogether. And maybe water restrictions in your area force your hand. I hate to see it happen, because trees can offer many benefits – most notably shade for homes to cut down on energy use, and shade for other plants to keep them alive and in need of less water. Of course, you can’t beat the enjoyment of sitting under the shade of your favorite tree. I won’t even get into how depressing it is to see dying trees in front lawns…

Ideally, your lawn has only native trees, and especially xeric varieties. In that case, the trees adapt to conditions more easily. Some survive on rainwater alone, but most need a deep watering about once a month during the heat of summer.

desert willow tree xeric
The desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a perfect xeric tree for warm to hot desert climates. This one is from a Tucson, Arix., garden.

To water your a mature tree that requires irrigation, avoid a common mistake — watering only near the trunk. Trees do not have tap roots, but instead have a root system that extends out from the tree, more or less mirroring and extending just past, the tree’s branches above. So, when you set out your hose or set up a drip or soaker system, begin near the trunk, and then work your way out to the edges of the tree’s canopy. Scroll down in this handout on caring for trees from Colorado State University for a photo of a soaker hose layout.

To water deeply, you have to water slowly. That means setting your hose or irrigation system to deliver the water at a lower rate for a longer period of time. To reach the roots, the water needs to penetrate the ground to at least 12 inches. If you’ve ever seen roots growing at ground level, they’re probably doing so because the tree is receiving too little or too shallow watering.

Don’t dig a hole around the tree to help get water to go down deeper. The hole allows air in and dries out roots!

If possible, avoid using a sprinkler to water trees. In addition to producing shallower roots, the sprinkler wastes water by dispersing it into the air, where it evaporates. And some trees are subject to leaf diseases from constant watering. The only time I ever spray a tree or bush is if it has aphids, and I give it a fine-water spray in early morning to wash the aphids off.

If you can’t reach a tree with your hose, you can drill a few holes in a 5-gallon bucket and carry it out to your tree. The water will flow more slowly through the hole than if you pour the water on the ground. Move the bucket out and around the tree’s base with each refill.

apple tree along river.
This apple tree is hard to reach with the hose, but we don’t water it because it is along the river bank and the roots take up plenty of water. This year, it had twice as many blooms and may give us some fruit. Trees can help preserve water sheds.

If you want to save tap or well water, reuse! Direct roof water to a tree using the downspout and a dry river bed. Save shower water in 5-gallon buckets (with no holes – you have to get them outside!) but only use the water that flows while the shower warms up, not any soapy flow.

If you have other clear water to dispose, such as kid or dog pools, empty the water onto tree roots instead of a random place in the yard.

Another Reason to Plant Natives: No Soil Amendment Needed

Where I live in New Mexico, the soil is more alkaline than acidic. That means I might as well forget ever trying to grow blueberries, but asparagus is a great choice. We even found some old or wild stalks along our ditch bank last year.

And a soil’s pH balance is just one consideration. Soil texture and drainage are especially important to a plant’s success in a vegetable, herb or ornamental garden. If we didn’t add some organic matter to our vegetable garden each year, the soil would compact from foot traffic and lose nutrients from its work feeding plants. So each year, we work the soil with mushroom compost to keep it rich, water absorbent and well draining.

amended soil for vegetables and herbs
This is part of our ornamental garden, amended with organic matter to grow edibles this year.

Native plants

I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – rework my ornamental garden soil each year. For one, it would be nuts to dig up perennial plants! So gardeners often are advised to add a little bit of compost to the hole dug for a new tree, bush or flowering plant. The compost enriches the soil around the roots, and as long as you water as suggested in the first year or so of more rapid growth and root set, the plant should thrive. But what happens as the plant grows beyond your amendment, especially if you put in a rapidly growing shrub or tree? Eventually, the roots work their way into the soil you haven’t amended. If the soil is so poor or compacted that the roots can’t break through or thrive, the plant could be stressed at the least.

If you choose a native plant, especially for a xeric garden, it’s likely that you won’t have to amend the soil at all. A plant that is adapted to your area’s typical soil makeup will do better if you just loosen the soil around it, usually to an area at least three times larger than the root ball. No need to add anything.

chocolate flower in New Mexico rock garden
The chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) is a native to our region. It crops up from seed around our garden and lawn. And yes, the blooms smell like chocolate! That’s a rosemary in the right foreground.

If plant instructions, or one article or expert tell you to add to the soil, it helps to verify the information with another source. That’s especially true if installing a native plant in your xeric garden. And it’s even truer depending on the first source of advice. There are plenty of reputable sources, and then there are myths, many of which can be perpetuated by those who stand to profit.

lavender in rocky soil
We placed several lavender plants in one of our beds, and maybe should have tested the soil first. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean, where the soil is rocky and alkaline. So it grows well here, but this soil had compacted more than we realized.That and some some cool, wet weather gave our plants a rocky start! Lesson learned.

When amending

It’s also good to check local sources when amending soil. For example, you might hear that adding sand improves drainage, but if you add too little sand, or add sand to clay soil, you can make matters worse, and your soil sets up like concrete. Oh, those poor plant roots…

Most organic matter is good for soil, but plenty of myths abound there as well. For example, manure needs to cook down or compost with brown materials before throwing it on your vegetables. Wood ash is often touted as an amendment, but not in New Mexico, where the soil already is alkaline. Wood ashes also are high in salt. I talked about Epsom salts in a previous post. The bottom line? Get local advice from a few good sources, and if you go with native xeric selections, you probably won’t have to amend the soil unless you have a severely compacted or poorly draining area.

 

A Trip to Hondo Iris Farm

It’s hard to imagine that an ornamental with such a strong, tall stalk and such large, gorgeous and multicolored blooms could be a low- to medium-water plant. But once established, the iris can get by and bloom with little care and water.

bearded iris
A lavender-colored bearded iris with morning dew.

When we visited Portland several years ago, we stopped by a magnificent iris farm and I couldn’t stop taking photos or making a wish list of colors and cultivars. But I couldn’t have known then that I would soon live about 15 to 20 minutes from a pretty magnificent iris garden, even though I’d be in the drier, cooler climate of southeastern New Mexico.

I visited the Hondo Iris Farm for the second time last week, this time with friends from Ruidoso. The flowers were in full bloom, and it was a beautiful spring day. The farm is stocked with impressive rows of more than 400 iris varieties. I found myself once again snapping photo after photo and wishing I had more space and water for flowers in my yard!

rows of iris
A few of the rows of iris at the Hondo Iris Farm, which hit full bloom around Mother’s Day each year.

What also impressed me about this visit was the fact that the Hondo Iris Farm grows plenty of low-water plants native to the Hondo Valley and nearby Ruidoso. I spotted several trees and ornamentals familiar to me, along with displays of several succulents. The farm sells several plants from a small greenhouse on the property that will thrive locally.

agave at iris garden
Agave garden at Hondo Iris farm. A red hot poker (Kniphofia uvaria) adds color in the background, as do several iris!

If it’s iris you’re after, you can place your order from a catalog in the farm’s gift shop or by viewing it online. You might not be able to buy the very iris you drool after on your visit; they limit their catalog to about 50 or 60 cultivars each year. Still, it’s a great selection and price. I ordered a few for July delivery. Later this summer, I’ll divide my iris to move some to the back yard and make room for my new bulbs!

Hondo Iris Farm garden sculpture
We enjoyed the Hondo Iris Farm for the iris, native plants and general layout and beauty.

The Hondo Iris Farm is on Hwy 70 in southeastern New Mexico at mile marker 284. It’s just west of the small town of Hondo and the intersection of highways 70 and 380, about 20 minutes from Ruidoso and less than 40 minutes from Roswell. Admission is free to the garden, which is open Tuesday through Saturday from 8 am to 5 pm.

Growing Edibles in Containers

Growing an edible garden makes great sense – you use water to produce food, and it’s food that can’t get any fresher or more local! Growing food in pots and other containers can be even more rewarding, especially for gardeners who have limited space, problems with critters or who want their herbs and vegetables close at hand.

lettuce and tomatillo plants in containers
Lettuce is a great container plant. The one in the foreground had tomatillos, just for fun, not so much for yield.

Rosemary, basil, lettuce and cherry or grape tomatoes are my favorite edibles to have right near my kitchen door. But I’ve been known to push the boundaries a little, once growing an okra plant in a small container (admittedly mostly for the flower) and a large pot of carrots last year. We’re upping the ante with an even bigger carrot crop, but more on that in a future post…

carrots
Here’s our dancing carrot, or rather two carrots, grown in crowded container conditions last year.

Here’s the thing – containers can take a little more water during hot summer months, but you also can confine your crop, so to speak. I believe that container-grown edibles are less susceptible to some bugs and soil-borne problems. And I love that I can move the containers to control sun exposure as the conditions change. Most of all, you just can’t beat the convenience of herbs and vegetables just outside your kitchen door at meal times.

Here are a few tips for making your container edibles fun and productive:

  • First, it can be tempting to fill your containers with soil from your garden. Resist the temptation and spend the money on some good commercial potting mix. I use organic composts and potting mixes. The reason? Ground soil compacts when confined to a pot. This makes it harder for water to drain and for roots to grow.
  • Choose your container to fit the plant’s mature size. It might look less attractive at first, but the reward of juicy tomatoes is worth your patience!
grape tomato in container
This yellow grape tomato was great for snacking right on the patio all summer.
  • If the container is particularly large, you can line the bottom with pebbles or plastic bottles to encourage drainage and use some yard or garden soil for fill. But keep it to a minimum, and make sure the soil that the plant’s roots touch is the best possible mix.
  • A few herbs are grown better in containers for their own special reasons. I like to have a small basil or rosemary on my patio table throughout the summer for the appearance, scent and convenience. And then there is mint – which should only grow in containers unless you really love it and want to replace everything else in your lawn, your neighbor’s lawn, your town… with mint. And it comes in lemon, orange or chocolate varieties to enjoy on the patio or balcony.
  • Many container-grown plants require fertilizer because the soil doesn’t have the same natural nutrients as garden soil. But use it judiciously and according to the individual plant. For example, chile peppers typically need no fertilizer. If you start with healthy soil, you need less, and if you use it too often or at the wrong time, you’ll force more growth into the foliage and get a plant that outgrows your container and gets too lanky to support its fruit.
  • Usually, you have to water container-grown plants more often, but not always. Don’t assume that when a plant wilts, lack of water is the cause. And that’s the beauty of containers – try moving the plant to the shade on hot days, or move all of them there if you have to be away for the weekend. They’ll survive better on your pre-departure watering until you return.
  • Remember that you can add mulch to containers, just as you do in flower beds. Decorative mulch can offset the look of an edible in a container, such as crushed seashells under chard. Mulch also serves a practical purpose. Those white seashells or pebbles can reflect sun back up to your potted lavender or bark chips can hold moisture in to conserve water and keep plants cool.

And if you love being creative and repurposing, go ahead and push the limits. You might end up with lower productivity from your edible, or need more total containers, but it’s fun to place edibles in a few fun or funky containers. If I want more yield, I duplicate the seeds or transplant in the ground or a larger container. That way, I get the aesthetic pleasure and practical returns.

spinach in metal container
We found this old metal bucket at my in-laws’ ranch and planted some spinach in it.

Use Plant Finders and Identifiers to Plan Your Xeric Garden

So you want to plan a xeric garden, or begin converting your garden to a low-water design. It can seem overwhelming at first. You can call in a xeric landscaping professional, especially for a big job. But to make small changes, you mostly need help finding good replacements. For example, what’s a low-water plant with red blooms that enjoys a mix of sun and shade?

Enter a plant finder. Most let you select any number of fields or filters, and many also provide searches in both common and botanical names.

deep red iris bloom
OK, so we all know this is an iris. That’s all I know so far, because it bloomed for the first time a week ago. I just had to include a photo of it in some post.

Plant identification tools also help, but I find they work best if they have several photos – at least one close-up shot of foliage and flowers, and another full shot of the plant. You’ll use identification often if you pay attention to plants as you drive around your town or neighborhood, or spot a great specimen in a friend’s lawn. Your friend may have no idea of the plant’s name. Here is a short list of plant ID and plant finder sources:

Identify Plants Online

One of my favorite Southwest sources for xeric and high-desert selections just added a plant finder. Plant Select provides a dozen fields, including water needs and deer resistance, important considerations for me.

plant Select plant finder
Screen shot of the Plant Select plant finder. It’s got plenty of filters to help you plan your xeric garden.

The National Gardening Association also includes an extensive plant finder on its site, which lets you select USDA zone.

Finally, for a more scientific approach, go to the USDA site. I’ve had more luck there with the scientific name, but that’s pretty easy to find with a good online search of a plant’s common name.

Plant Identification Apps

I love plant ID apps, because I always have my phone with me in the garden. The problem is tracking down good one with Southwest plants. So far, the only one I’ve found that’s free, dedicated to xeriscaping and accurate for my area is SW Plants. It’s from New Mexico State University. If anyone out there knows of a better one for xeriscaping, I welcome input!

SW plants plant finder
SW Plants app on my phone. The search works well for the 750 xeric plants included.

 

SW plants app zinnia photo
The photos in the SW Plants app are pretty nice, but small on my phone.

In addition, Audubon has apps for wildflowers and trees. Otherwise, as in most cases, content comes from and focuses on the northeastern and southeastern portions of the country…

Remember Books?

We have some gardening books. In fact, a shelf of our sitting room is lined with them. And I often can identify a plant by consulting several of them. Sure, sometimes a Google search is quicker, but it’s too hard to rely on images posted by people using common names to identify a plant. So it might be a good place to start, but books local to your area are best. My favorites for this area are the Sunset Western Garden Book (keeping in mind that Sunset assigns its own zones) and Judith Philips’ New Mexico Gardener’s Guide. Any book on native plants and wildflowers for your state or region is priceless as well.

shelf of gardening books
Got gardening books? Many books have older, dull photos or illustrations, so check out photos before buying.

Keep Current Catalogs

Catalogs are excellent resources, especially for planning your garden each year! We save a few of the most recent from our favorite suppliers, and often can either identify a plant we already have or see somewhere nearby, or plan our garden each spring with the catalog’s help. They have the best photos, if you’re willing to spend time leafing through pages. It’s one of our favorite activities with coffee on spring mornings!

I recently helped a friend identify a gorgeous wildflower she spotted on a hike in Los Alamos, using a combination of our catalog from Plants of the Southwest and an online search. Our other favorite catalog arrives regularly from High Country Gardens.

Another Reason to Weed Your Garden: Water Savings

If you’re like me, you hate the sight of weeds in your ornamental or vegetable garden, and you have permanently discolored cuticles from April through September.

Weeds are more than unsightly, however. Ask any farmer, who knows that weeds can reduce their crop yields by at least 50 percent by simply robbing crops of water. Although weeds can seemingly grow out of rocks, parched dirt or sand, they still compete with surrounding plants for water. Weeds also host bugs and diseases and can block sun or air circulation to important plants. For example, if a tall weed shades your bell pepper plant, the plant is less able to compete for water and nutrients and less likely to produce as many peppers. Some weeds even introduce chemicals that are toxic to certain plants, animals and people.

Weed growing in middle of sage
This culinary sage has a weed growing up through the middle of it. The weed’s tap root likely steals rain water from the sage.

Are you hating weeds as much as I do yet? There are those who tout their benefits. A few weeds provide nectar for bees or help supply organic matter to soil. And as I’ve mentioned before, there is a fine line between weeds and wildflowers. Our widespread alyssum invasion each spring adds early color and brings hundreds of bees to our land.

Further, several weeds are edible. Examples that come to mind are dandelions and purslane. But I really prefer carrots and cucumbers.

According to Robert Parker, Ph.D., of Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension Center, it’s more important to control weeds during drought than during typical years. And some common weeds consume more water than typical crops. An example is Russian thistle, which Parker said removed nearly 18 gallons of water per plant while competing with a spring wheat crop. The thistle is just one of the weeds we are trying to attack here on our property and a priority throughout Lincoln County, N.M.

thistle weed
This thistle (to the upper left of Buster) is growing in our ditch, along with a horehound and numerous other weeds. I need to grub it before it goes to seed.

Parker says that crops are most affected by weeds during early growth. So home gardeners are best served by prepping their gardens carefully to start out with a clean slate and to handpick weeds until their backs give out. Seriously, it’s always best to keep weeds under control without chemicals if possible. That’s especially true during a drought, because most herbicides require water to work effectively.

In fact, weeds are the ultimate native plant! They adapt to drought by developing ways to retain moisture in their tap roots or waxy layers on leaves. When drought affects grass growth on rangelands, more weeds move in and establish squatters’ rights. That’s what seems to have happened to us. We now have a proliferation of several weeds, and especially horehound (Marrubium vulgare).  Horehound grows best in dry soil, and I’ve seen it growing in the worst places possible.

horehound
Horehound, which is considered a good plant or an awful weed.

From what I can tell, horehound spreads by seed, but also has runner-type roots and maybe spreads just by magic. It’s in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Need I say more about its invasive qualities? And although a noxious weed in some areas, horehound also is considered one of those “good” weeds, having both medicinal properties and use as an edible for tea or candy. But I point to the “vulgare” portion of its name. If it continues to take over our grass, I might give in and learn how to make the vulgar weed into candy, which apparently tastes like licorice.

horehound spreading
Horehound mowed down to prevent seeding, like that will help. It is taking over this grassy area.

Most likely, we are going to require herbicide at some point. By the way, the horehound noxious weed spread began when it was introduced to ornamental gardens. I’m all for growing edibles, but why not mint in a container?