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.

Low-water Use Tips To Meet Restrictions and Good Water Sense

We spend a lot of time talking about xeric plants, and recently posted some tips on low-water use for gardeners. California has implemented emergency regulations to conserve water during their drought, and the ones related to landscaping are the sort of common sense practices that xeric-minded organizations and gardeners have always touted:

  • Avoid runoff when irrigating.
  • Don’t irrigate during or 48 hours after measurable precipitation.

This post goes into more details on the restrictions, which, along with scheduled days or times of watering, are pretty common municipal regulations in drought-stricken areas.

Avoid runoff when irrigating

Runoff obviously can come from too much water. Of course, good planning of landscape, plant selection and irrigation choices upfront can prevent runoff. Correct an existing problem by first checking the area after the system runs. If you normally water while at work, do a manual run so you can test your system on the weekend. If you have runoff, study where flow occurs. If it’s down a slope, consider terracing the lawn area or welling around the tree or shrubs that you’re watering. You can also cut watering time, of course. If you’re worried about one tree or ornamental that needs more water, cut the irrigation system watering time and supplement the tree’s water every once in a while with a hose or bucket. Don’t waste all of that water irrigating concrete or pavement, and possibly weeds, just to keep one plant healthy. For a small lawn or several plants on a drip system, you can decrease watering time and increase frequency if necessary.

terraced lawn to prevent sprinkler runoff
This Albuquerque lawn has some bermuda grass, but notice the terrace to avoid runoff. Also, note the exposed drip lines being reset in the xeric garden area on lower right.

The runoff might be from a misdirected, leaky, plugged or defective head or emitter. It’s easy to turn and redirect the head so the water goes where it should. A small leak in the system can waste hundreds of gallons of water. Plugged sprinkler heads are a common cause of pooled or misdirected water. Running a stiff wire, such as a straightened paper clip, through the emitter hole can clear some debris. If the entire head is full or dirt or grass, you can turn off your system, lift and unscrew the head, soak it and use a small wire brush to clean it. Then rinse it and screw it back on.

Avoid watering a wet lawn

This should be a no-brainer, but I already ranted in my previous post about neighbors who left their automatic sprinklers on no matter the weather. My best advice is to set automatic sprinklers to “manual” and water regularly but only as needed based on weather conditions. You can set a reminder on your smartphone or other device to jog your memory if that’s a concern. But it’s sometimes more difficult to remember to override the automatic setting on the sprinkler, especially if you’re not there to do it! Otherwise, pay attention to the weather forecast each evening and override the auto setting when rain is predicted the night before so you don’t have to add the task to your busy morning schedule. You can always water a little in early evening or the next morning if the forecast is off the mark.

Of course, if you’ve switched out some or all of your turf for a xeric landscape, at least you are using less water. It also means less need for an automatic system. Most xeric plants need such infrequent watering that you’re best served by a manual irrigation system or the totally manual system of carrying a water bucket from your rain barrel only to the plants that need a little more water — and only when they need it!

raised ornamental bed bubblers
We raised part of this bed and replaced spray heads with bubblers to conserve water.

Other water-saving tips

  • Water early in the morning, especially if you live in a hot climate. Your plants take up more water before the stressful heat of the day, and if you’re using spray irrigation, less water evaporates.
  • Use drip irrigation when possible instead of sprays and sprinklers, or at least keep the spray as low as possible. Spraying water can lead to some leaf diseases, and you want most of the water to go into the plant’s roots, not into the air.
  • Well around plants, especially new plants, any plant that needs more water than others, and anything planted on a slope to trap the water.
  • Choose xeric, low-water and native plants.
  • Use mulch as appropriate to help keep plants cool and roots damp.

    welled shrubs
    Wells around shrubs at Tucson area nonprofit

Of course, it never hurts to call in a professional landscaper or other pro to get some help with your irrigation system or to better plan your lawn and garden for low-water use. For example, avoiding steep slopes in your landscape (with terraces and other strategies) can prevent water runoff, and use of microclimates can increase plant viability while decreasing water needs.

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.