Favorite Xeric Plant: Salvia

The salvias, or sages, include a huge and versatile group of shrubs, ornamentals and herbs. But I want to focus on a few of the xeric ornamentals. Last week, I wrote about a new royal red cultivar from Plant Select. My favorite salvias have deep, red or purple flower spikes and survive in the chilly nights and dry heat of the high desert and intermountain zones.

Most salvias attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Several varieties are perennial in cooler zones, but others work only as annuals.

Purple salvia

Purple salvia cultivars (Salvia X sylvestris) include the popular “May night” meadow sage, which has been popular since 1956. I believe that’s the type of salvia that comes up in our garden each year. Other varieties such as a new sylvestris called “Little Night” are compact bloomers with the same striking indigo blue or violet color. They usually begin blooming in spring. Cutting the flower spikes close the ground as they begin to fade can stimulate a second round of blooms. Another purple salvia called West Texas cobalt sage (Salvia reptans) grows in zone 5 through 10 and is a native of the mountains of west Texas. Its foliage is different from many salvias, resembling grass more than leaves. By early fall, spikes of deep cobalt blue flowers open and attract hummingbirds. The plant has deep roots, making it a great choice for xeric gardens.

purple salvia in xeric garden

Salvia sylvestris, with deep purple blooms all summer, is a showy xeric plant.

Cherry sage

The cherry sage or autumn sage (Salvia gregii) is a popular small shrub in Texas and New Mexico. Although labeled semi-evergreen, most of the leaves drop off during winter in zones 6 and 7. It’s drought tolerant, but produces more flowers and a bushier leaf pattern with some moderate water. Keep this bush in filtered sun for best results, and prune dead flowers throughout its growing season to enjoy more cherry-red or pink- to coral-colored blooms. Planting several together can give you an attractive two-to-three foot hedge.

cherry red sage
Cherry or autumn sage makes a great low shrub in a low-water garden.

New white-blooming salvia

Finally, here’s another reason to love salvias! It’s a new compact salvia called Summer Jewel White (Salvia coccinea) with white blooms all summer that begin earlier than most white salvias. The plant is an All-America Selections 2015 winner based on its attraction of pollinators. I love contrasting white flowers with deep reds and purples. Summer Jewel White is an annual, but it’s low enough (about 10 to 24 inches high) to plant near a May night salvia or cherry sage without blocking the other plant’s blooms.

summer jewel white salvia
Salvia Summer Jewel White is a new annual. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, Inc.

Another great feature of most perennial salvias is that you can easily propagate more by separating mature plants and replanting them. We’ve had a few volunteers crop up near our mature plant that we plan to move to another area of the garden.

Don’t Be Afraid To Prune Perennials

One of my favorite spring chores is pruning ornamental bushes and shrubs to get them ready for vigorous spring growth. I’ll throw in the caveat that pruning wild rose bushes is not a favorite chore. Even with special gloves made for rose pruning, I manage to stab myself around my upper arm, legs and shoulders. These are some pretty big bushes!

My husband and I have different philosophies on how to prune. He tends to cut a lot of the plant, but does a great job of shaping trees. I tend to underprune and some of the bushes look leggy, with too little growth on the lower portions of the branches. So we try to temper each others’ approaches.

spring blooms in xeric garden
Spring means the apple tree along the river (background) blooms big. It also means time to prune. The green plant in the left foreground was almost as tall as the red bud to the right only a few weeks before.

The best approach, especially in xeric gardens, is to follow the plant’s natural growth pattern. This means avoiding the “haircut” prune, or cutting a plant straight across the top. It’s like topping trees; it makes me crazy. A haircut prune on a bush forces new growth only along the top of the plant.

For deciduous shrubs (those that lose leaves in winter and come back in spring), pruning should include thinning to make sure sun reaches bottom branches and to prevent crossing or rubbing of branches. Gradual renewal pruning involves removing dead and old branches just above ground level each year. You also can trim to shape long branches.

Rejuvenate old plants by cutting up to one-third of the oldest and tallest branches just at or above ground level before new growth starts. Here’s the thing, though: Although experts generally warn against pruning an entire plant all the way to the ground, I have done that for several established woody plants that get long and leggy and have few flowers. I’ll even do it annually with great success.

For example, I trim Russian sages (Perovskia atriplicifolia) to just a few inches above the ground, or just above new growth, each spring and they love it. We had a hibiscus (I’m not sure of the variety, but see below) that we pruned to the ground each fall to help it winter over in Albuquerque. It came back in the spring, with huge, maroon-colored blooms that would cause people to stop on their walks and comment.

hibiscus-pruned-nm-landscape
We trimmed this hibiscus, the plant with the large, deep read blooms, to the ground in the fall to protect it from frost and to produce foliage and blooms.
hibiscus-flower
The hibiscus blooms were beautiful and continuous from mid-summer to early fall.

 

Finally, I trimmed an old and overgrown butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii) to just above the ground last year, and by the end of summer, it was more than six feet tall and full of deep purple blooms, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Butterfly bush trimmed back
Butterfly bush (the woody plant in the back of the first bed) cut back last year nearly to the gtound.

 

Butterfly bush after hard pruning
Here’s the same bush in September from the other side. It’s happy, and so are the hummingbirds and butterflies.

Every plant differs in just how much to prune and when to prune it. For example, most of our xeric plants enjoy a cut in early spring. I wait until I see a little new growth appearing and then bring out my pruning shears. But we have a few forsythia bushes, which bloom early, but should be pruned after they bloom. And most evergreen shrubs need only some thinning.

Be sure to use clean bypass pruners and loppers on your plants, and clean after each use, especially if you cut any diseased branches.

The High Desert Just Got…Higher

side view2
View of house from the northwest side shows apricot tree, garden and view toward river.

 

We live in New Mexico, and spent the past year preparing our house with its nice lawn, beds and straw bale wall to look nice for potential buyers. It sold in the spring and in April, we were fortunate enough to move from Albuquerque to an area just outside Ruidoso, NM.
Still dry? You bet! Still short on water? Of course! We have two acres of water rights with our 4 acres of property and a river that runs through about 180 feet of the back acreage. About three weeks after moving in, it was a dry river bed. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that xeric gardening still rules for the most part, and it’s made a little more fun by hard well water and no sprinkler or drip system.
Did I mention that we also changed zones? At about 6,300 feet in altitude, we’re close to USDA Zone 6, just below some gorgeous mountains but in a canyon with strong, dry winds, along with daily and seasonal temperature extremes.
These are all minor challenges, though, and the good news far outweighs any of the water and climate issues. We’ll take the views, the river, a passive solar home, and an awesome xeric garden already laid out by the talented former owners. I’ll talk about some of our solutions and document the seasons as we go. We’ve even got some ideas for more new plantings.
Yes, life is good even when it’s high and dry.