Watering Cacti and Succulents

Succulents are low-care starter plants for anyone easing into gardening or short on space. Best of all, they’re typically the lowest water users of the plant world. It’s often said that cacti and succulents thrive on neglect. Although that might be true when it comes to maintenance such as trimming or fertilizing, cacti and succulents do need a little attention and consistent, light watering.

barrel cacti
Rocks, heat, hills that drain water. These conditions make cacti happy. This image was taken at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.

Water Sparingly

The common characteristic of succulents is that they have adapted to surviving with little water. Cacti are tough, and about the only thing that will kill them (other than being munched or trampled  by wildlife) is overwatering. In general, about once a week is perfect. Set a date every Saturday morning, for instance, to water and check on indoor succulents. The best way to water container succulents is by making two trips – water your succulents once with a slow, steady stream. Don’t give them so much water that it runs out the bottom of the container, but give them enough to soak in past the surface. Then come back and give them a second drink, which makes for a deeper and more even watering.

agave parryi in snow
These agave survive outdoors here in zone 6B. We don’t water them, but from time to time, nature does the job.

The best watering for outdoor succulents is through a steady drip. How much depends on conditions, just like with other plants. When heat is extreme, cacti and succulents need a little more water. When it rains, you can skip watering altogether. If you bring cacti indoors for winter, they need a little more water in a hot, dry and sunny room.

Transplanting and Repotting

Have you ever seen a photo of an avocado pit in a glass with roots sprouting from the pit? Like most plants, lots of water encourages roots to grow. The same goes when placing most new plants in the ground or a new container—extra, deep watering helps roots establish. But that’s not true of succulents. They need time to heal before you water. In fact, taking a cutting from a cactus to grow a new plant (propagating) means letting the cutting rest and dry before putting in soil!

cacti in sunny window
Tim propagated many of these succulents from cuttings.

If you want a mixed arrangement indoors or out, try to make sure your cactus or succulent receives only the water it needs. In the landscape, you can mound the dirt under the plant slightly so that water drains to nearby plants with higher water needs or have a dedicated drip for the succulent that emits less water. Avoid spray irrigation, especially on succulents. In container arrangements, keep your cactus in a small plastic container half-buried in the container’s soil. This helps the gardener pour more water to flowers around the cactus than directly on it, which helps keep the cactus soil from getting soggy.

deep pink cactus bloom
This as-yet unidentified cactus (most likely a Mammillaria) came from ranch land east of Roswell, N.M. It’s been happy in a container, spending summer on the patio and winter in a south-facing window.

Do a Little Research

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are in the cactus (Cactaceae) family. In general, succulents are known for their fleshy leaves that hold water. Their leaves usually are small as well – leaving less surface for transpiration, which is the plant equivalent of evaporation.

fenestraria baby toes flower
Baby toes (Fenestraria) are so-named for their swollen ends, a classic succulent survival feature. The flowers are pretty awesome too.

Just like with trees or flowers, every type of cactus and succulent is a little different. For example, Adenium, commonly called desert rose, is a gorgeous succulent member of the Apocyanaceae family, the same one that includes oleanders. Knowing that helps: First, the only true pest of adenium is an oleander caterpillar. Second, although technically a succulent, when the plant is in full leaf and flower season, it needs a lot of energy (sun and water) and can be treated more like a tropical plant. But adeniums drop their leaves in winter, even in indoor containers. When they go dormant, they need little to no water.

adenium in container
The Desert Rose (Adenium) drops its leaves in winter and needs little water while dormant (resting). When it starts getting flower buds, it needs a little more.

In fact, that’s true of nearly all cacti and succulents – they need more water (and some fertilizer) during their growing/flowering periods and just enough to get by when dormant. Most will flower and grow in spring, fall and cooler parts of summer. High summer heat can make them dormant as a survival tactic.

It’s easy to research cacti and succulents in regional garden books and online, using reputable and regional sources when possible.

Repotting

Although most cacti and succulents grow more slowly than typical garden or house plants, they can outgrow their pots. In addition, succulents grown in pots and watered from a tap can have problems when minerals from the water build up in the soil. That’s a second reason to repot. You can avoid the mineral build-up by using rainwater for cacti and succulents instead of tap. Be sure your plant is in a container that drains well. That means drilling holes in the bottom of any containers that lack them and filling them with planting medium only (no rock or other filtering materials at the bottom).

split rock
The split rock cactus (Pleiospilos nelii) is native to South Africa and does well in a container, as long a you cut back on water in the heat of summer and cold of winter.

Of course, soil, location or zone and other factors affect the health and water needs of cacti and succulent. But most adapt to soil and environmental conditions.

echeveria
The fleshy leaves of an echeveria. These are such pretty and easy-care succulents.

Gardeners can adapt to – and enjoy – caring for succulents. Check out our Pinterest page on cacti and succulents for more information and photos.

Five Starter Waterwise Plants

Need to ease into saving water in the lawn? Or just ease into gardening? As you think about next spring and ideas for improving both the look and sustainability of your lawn or garden, consider adding easy-care plants that need little to no watering. Here are five ideas:

Yarrow is an easy xeric plant
Bright yellow yarrow anchors this bed and is accented by light purple salvia and California poppies

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). The woody, herbal rosemary is near the top of my list of favorite xeric plants. The only problem you can have with rosemary is if it receives too much water (or snowpack in winter). Otherwise, try a creeping rosemary near a rock or low garden wall. The stems will grow over the surface and you can trim it in spring just to keep it clean and healthy. I’ve seen bushier varieties shaped into small hedges. And man, what a great-smelling hedge! Finally, be sure to plant a rosemary near your kitchen so you can head out and clip cuttings for cooking use anytime of year (at least in zones 8 through 10). We have rosemary plants that come back each year here in zone 6B. They’re near the house in a rock garden, which helps warm them up. Plant rosemary in full sun and only water occasionally after its first season in the garden. Rosemary plants also reward you with tiny lavender-colored flowers in summer. And although I love the taste of rosemary, deer leave them alone. Bonus!

booming rosemary
This rosemary bloomed in late summer. The foliage alone is attractive and aromatic.

Barberry (Berberis). Barberry comes in several varieties that do well in plenty of sun (or partial shade) and low water. Berberis x ‘Tara’ Emerald Carousel is a type that grows well in alkaline soils, the kind we have here in New Mexico. Depending on the variety, barberry grows a little wider than high. Some Japanese barberries can grow tall – up to 10 feet – so consider that when selecting a plant. Barberry leaves change color with the season, and I’ve seen lime, orange and deep red varieties; they’re all stunning. Several plants along a wall can form a hedge in front of a house or fence. We like the spiky red foliage for its color and texture in our garden and deer usually avoid the plants. Barberries might need a little more water in the first year or so than some plants listed here. After that, they can handle periods of near drought or drought. All you have to do is prune them once or twice a year to keep the shape or size you like. Be sure to wear gloves!

Barberry is a great foundation plant.
Close-up of the maroon-toned leaves and spikes on our barberry.
Sunset's orange rocket barberry
‘Orange rocket’ is a berberis from Sunset that takes heat and little water or care. Image courtesy of Sunset Western Garden Collection.

Yarrow (Achillea). Yarrow is considered an herb, but I grow it for its easy care and stunning colors, which include white, yellow and red varieties. Moonshine yarrow has bright yellow flower clusters that you can cut for arrangements. I also pressed a few this year. This truly is one of the easiest plants to grow. Each spring, you simply cut off the dead flower stalks and clean up the plant. By mid-summer, you’ll have color. I even tried trimming spent flowers off one of our yarrow plants this year to see if that would force a second bloom sooner. But the ones I didn’t trim had more blooms in the second wave of flowers than the one I trimmed. Lesson learned. After the initial spring trimming, just leave yarrow alone. The plant also spreads but not invasively, so consider that when placing it in a design. We dug up one that was too close to another plant and transplanted it near our farm to attract butterflies and bees. It needs a little more water when first planted or transplanted. After that, it can get by with no water in all but the most severe droughts and survives winters down to zone 3.

moonshine yarrow
Moonshine yarrow cluster of flowers.

Four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens). Native Americans used many parts of the native four-wing saltbush, including leaves and boiled roots, for food or medicine. It’s also useful to wildlife, grazed by deer and antelope. The name for the bush comes from the four paper-like wings that surround its seeds. There’s no real care needed for saltbush, especially in a natural garden, but you can trim it as desired. When saltbush flowers, it takes on an attractive two-tone effect. The native plant is easy to grow in any soil, and can pop up around roadways in New Mexico. Ours grows far from the garden along a fence. We don’t know if the former owners planted it or if it came up from seed. If you’re worried about it spreading, just learn to recognize the plant’s needle-like leaves and pull up any small plants in your garden or yard.

four-wing saltbush
Buster runs by our saltbush for helpful scale. I might have to trim this one soon, but love the wild look of the plant.

Jupiter’s beard (Centrathus ruber ‘Coccineus’). At first glance, Jupiter’s beard (also called red valerian) doesn’t look like much. The flowers rise above thin, pointed, pale-green leaves. So it’s a lot of foliage mixed in with small, coral-pink flowers. But these flowers pack a punch! They’ll bring bees and hummingbirds to your garden all summer. And they grow best in dry, hot conditions. Still, red valerian can survive frost down to zone 3, or about -30 degrees F. All you have to do is give Jupiter’s beard a sunny spot and water regularly the first spring and summer. Then you can pretty much leave it alone. We water once in spring, depending on rain. You can cut back old leaves and stalks in spring to give energy to new growth. The plant reaches about 2 feet high and wide.

Jupiter's beard is an easy-care xeric plant.
I don’t have a close-up of Jupiter’s beard, but enjoyed watching hummingbirds on the plant all summer. It’s the one on the upper left with small coral flowers.

Protect Plants in Winter

Winter has come late this year, and that’s alright with me. But we’re sure to face a hard freeze soon and it’s time to protect some plants.

heavy snow in Ruidoso area
Winter can be harsh in the foothills of New Mexico’s mountains.

The first line of defense, of course, is to choose plants that are hardy down to your average low winter temperature. These plants might look dead in winter, but they come back as spring warms the air and ground. We can’t control the weather, however, so when exceptions to your typical low hit or you really want a plant on the border for your temperatures, you can help that prized plant make it through the winter. Here are a few tips:

Placement

Planning ahead helps. When placing a new plant in your landscape, be sure to consider its winter hardiness when you plant. Placing it in a warm microclimate, such as against a south-facing wall or fence, can keep the plant a few degrees warmer when temperatures dive on winter nights.

Japanese maple in container
This Japanese maple was a special gift and we kept it in perfect northeast exposure in summer, then more southern exposure in winter. But that didn’t work half a zone colder, and sadly, it succumbed to frost.

Mulch

Mulching over bulbs or around the roots of perennials and even trees can help the ground retain heat. I use raked-up leaves and sometimes straw. In addition, I use rock mulch around xeric plants. The rocks absorb and reflect heat.

leaves as mulch day lilies
The apricot tree dropped some of these leaves right where I needed them to protect our day lilies. I raked up more and piled it on thick.

Mini-greenhouses

Sadly, we can’t all afford or find space for an actual greenhouse. You can buy or create mini-greenhouses around a few plants. Ours only need a small boost, so we often use 5-gallon buckets with the bottom cut out. We sometimes top them with wire for deer protection or cloth for extra warmth. Glass adds even more warmth and a cloche, French for “bell,” is a glass jar that can cover individual plants. There are lots of ideas online for constructing mini-greenhouses out of plastic and wood or PVC pipe, but you’ll need to remove anything that airtight as soon as the temperature warms back up following a freeze. Otherwise, condensation forms inside; the water drops refreeze and actually can damage your tender plant.

terrarium lid for cloche
A terrarium lid makes a great cloche for a greenhouse effect on this baby agave.

Cloth

A sheet or blanket wrapped around an entire plant helps protect it from freeze on the occasional cold night. Again, this is a temporary fix. If you have an entire section of plants that need protection, it’s better to rig a system with hoops or sticks and fabric row cover. If leaving the cloth on the entire winter, be sure to use a landscape fabric that allows sun and water through. I like to open these on warm, sunny days.

basil cover homemade
This basil cover is made from old hose and rebar and draped with row cover fabric. You can make one easily for a tender plant and lift the fabric on warm days.

Water

Plants need to head into winter in a healthy state. That includes keeping them watered (at a reduced rate) if you haven’t received precipitation recently. Cold, windy air dries plants out and stresses them. There is no need to prune most perennials before winter. It’s best to let them die off naturally, feeding birds with seeds. You’ll trim trees while they’re dormant in winter. When freeze threatens, you can water the mulch around the plant, but avoid hitting the leaves and branches. The water in the mulch helps hold heat in. I’ve also seen suggestions of placing used plastic bottles filled with warm water around the mulch to conduct some heat during a freeze.

Bring plants inside for winter.
Houseplants in winter, sun lovers in summer. Even the solanum (spiny tomato) winters over inside by going dormant.

Bring plants inside

No greenhouse? How about the house? My largest geranium loves the sun from our bathroom window, and the humidity likely helps as well. We have so many plants to bring inside that some have to live in the garage, where it can get chilly but hasn’t gotten below freezing. If you want to invest some money, you can buy grow lights for plants that need more sun than available in your home or garage space. Spray the plants off and let them dry a bit before carrying them inside. This helps reduce the chance that bugs tag along for the ride.

buckets protecting plants in winter
You can give plants a little boost with objects you have. Just cut the bottom out of a 5-gallon bucket. They’re not attractive, but they are functional.

Check out lots more ideas on our Pinterest boards (What’s wrong with my plant? and Greenhouses)

A Microclimate Experiment

Microclimates can be a farmer’s or gardener’s best friend. A few years ago, I wrote about how use of microclimates, or pockets of a garden that have varying temperatures and exposures to weather elements, can expand your choice of xeric plants.

cactus greenhouse atlanta
This greenhouse in an Atlanta-area garden provides extra heat and sun for the homeowner’s succulent collection and keeps rain off the plants!

The easiest example of a microclimate is a greenhouse. Windows let sun in and walls, a roof and other strategies help maintain the warmth. Add a heating source (and enough space) and you can grow nearly any plant any time of year.

lava rocks microclimate
The Desert Garden at the Huntington in San Marino, California, is a perfect microclimate for cacti. Not so perfect for humans on the day we visited. The lava rocks intensified the 100-plus temperatures.

Subtle microclimates exist all around your yard and gardens. Structures and hardscaping absorb heat during warm hours and release it gradually, helping to protect plants from cold; they also can protect plants from wind. Partial shade shields plants from heat, and slopes or other topography alter how the overall climate affects a given plant.

pond water lilies
Not far from the Huntington, a homeowner’s pond was filled with blooming water lilies in basically the same climate.

The Zinnia Experiment

I would like to say that we planted zinnia seeds in three different places simply to later show how microclimates affected their growth and hardiness. But I’d be pushing the truth. I did plant them in several different spots to see how well they grow here and how quickly they bloom, so I can use them as an easy annual filler to add color and even more pollinators to our gardens.

So, we put seeds in open space in our vegetable farm rows, mostly for the pollinators. We also planted some on a fairly exposed raised bed in our xeric garden. Finally, we planted seeds in the lower part of the xeric garden, close to the rock wall. All of the flowers did fairly well, although the ones in the farm area had better soil and more consistent drip watering. They were the tallest and healthiest. The ones in the raised bed took longer to come up, likely because of poorer soil and an inconvenient hand-watering location. The flowers planted in the lower bed did almost as well as the ones in the farm area.

zinnia cold damage
The healthiest zinnias froze the most, likely because of the farm area location and the fact we had pulled up several rows of faded vegetable plants, so these zinnias were open to a pocket of frost.

Then the frost came and the healthiest plants burned the worst. They more or less bit it overnight.

The zinnias in the raised bed were nearly as bad, but at least the flowers kept their color (I planned to take photos of them, but hard-working hubby cleaned up the bed before I had a chance.)

zinnias minor frost damage
These zinnias suffered some frost damage, but the flowers were still vibrant, thanks to their protected location near the rock wall.

The zinnias in the lower bed fared the best. I doubt they will grow or flower more, but they don’t look like they belong in a horror movie.

How to Use Microclimates

The experiment helped me get a sense of microclimates on our land. We’ve always assumed that our farming area is cooler because it is in a sort of mini-valley jut above the river. The dead zinnias demonstrated we were right, especially since those plants were the most robust before the freeze hit. The flowers in the raised bed are more open to cool air; there were no other plants nearby or much hardscape to absorb heat either.

The hardiness of the zinnias in a more protected and “solarized” spot near the rocks was telling. It’s always important to think about sun and shade exposure, but sometimes we fail to consider how placing a few large rocks behind a cold-sensitive plant can help it survive winter. In vegetable gardening, for example, using fabric to cover plants creates a micro-greenhouse effect. And when growing a plant that needs a little less sun or heat, shade cloth or plant placement can lengthen growing seasons.

shade for vegetable plants
Peppers love heat, but these pepper plants in Tucson had shade over them for protection.

Microclimates, like the general climate, can vary. For example, a tree that drops its leaves provides no shade until it fills in late spring. As trees mature, they can begin shading a plant that once received full sun; it might be time to transplant a shaded shrub. Windbreaks help slow the flow of cold air streaming up a slope.

rio Ruidoso bench
Every gardener needs a microclimate too! we placed this bench in a shaded area near the river as a spot to cool off on warm days working outside.

Containers offer excellent microclimates, not only because they warm up quickly, but because you can move them to solve sun and wind exposure issues, and all the way inside before the first frost.

adenium in container
This Desert Rose (Adenium) in Tucson is about 10 times the size of ours. But its location in a container means that botanical garden staff can move it if necessary for changing seasons and microclimates.

Wildflowers and Deer

We’re trying to add more wildflowers to our garden and create small meadows around some areas of the property. One of the challenges in choosing locations and flowers is munching deer.

deer in garden
Deer grazing in winter just a few feet from the house. The stucco buckets cover some succulents that need extra heat and deer deterrent.

Our deer population is not huge, mostly because of a previous wildfire in the forest north of us. I don’t want to exclude deer from the property and am happy to let them graze our grama and other grasses all year long. Although we seldom see the deer once summer days heat up, we see evidence of their munching from time to time.

Blocking deer is the best way to keep plants safe. But it’s much easier to fence around a tree, bush or vegetable garden than it is around a wildflower meadow. Fencing kind of ruins the effect. So, the best way to keep deer from eating the flowers is to plant “deer resistant” varieties. The quotation marks refer to the fact that our deer have not read the plant descriptions. They avoid several plants completely, but every so often, we find surprising telltale signs of deer damage. I think it’s difficult to guarantee deer resistance for most plants.

yarrow salvia
Deer leave yarrow and salvia alone. These are both flowering well into October this year.

Deer-resistant wildflowers

We recently ordered a deer-resistant wildflower seed mix from High Country Gardens that we’ll plant after the first hard frost. Not all of the plants bloom the first year, which is disappointing, but we’ll plant a few deer-resistant annual plants to fill in so the meadow looks colorful for a special event we’re hosting next summer. Here are some of the flowers included in the deer-resistant wildflower mix:

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Lanceleaf and plains coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolate and C. tinctoria); Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); California poppy (Eschscholzia californica); red poppy (Papaver rhoeas); and the trusted blanketflower (Gaillardia), along with several types of lupines (Lupinus) and sages (Salvia).

california poppies
California (Mexican) poppies from seed. The young plants had a little deer damage, but recovered. We’ve left late seedheads on the plants hoping they’ll spread.

This wildflower mix needs full to partial sun – at least six hours of sun a day. We have a few areas that are shadier, so we’re still looking for an easy solution there. In April, I wrote about five drought-tolerant plants that love shade. Columbines come to mind, of course, but some salvias take at least partial shade and are deer resistant. Then again, some shade lovers, like hostas, attract deer. We’ve also got some rocky areas, and plan to sprinkle white love-in-a-mist (Nigella) seeds and gathered larkspur (Delphinium consolida) seeds this fall as well.

salvia and paper flower
Most wildflowers and low-water perennials need some sun. Some types of salvia can tolerate partial shade.

Keeping deer out of meadows

One strategy for keeping deer out of wildflower patches is to surround the area with aromatic plants that deer avoid, such as lavender or rue. There are lots of deer deterrent products; I’ve had success with Messina’s Deer Stopper spray on plants in our xeric garden that deer had previously disturbed. The product remains effective for about 30 days, but I have to remember to spray regularly for continued protection. Spraying an entire meadow would take way too long, but I think the spray could be really effective on those flowers we’re most concerned about or know deer have eaten in the past.

deer stopper spray
This poor little rose has been stepped on and eaten by deer. I’m spraying it now to keep them off this winter and give it a fighting chance.

Finally, if uncertain about the best wildflower choices for a meadow, work with what you have. You can try gathering seeds from native plants or leave the area unmowed at the end of the season and let nature spread the seeds for you. I’ve done that in an area with a higher grama-to-weed ratio, and hope that each time I walk through it, I spread grama and flower seeds. We pulled as many weeds from it as we could to give the native plants like grama, wild blanketflowers, verbena and daisies a better chance of reseeding.

blanketflower seed head grama
Native grama grass and blanketflower seedheads left unmowed in my meadow experiment.

Note: Messina’s sent me a free sample of Deer Stopper spray, but did not influence my use or review of the product.

Use Shapes and Textures in Xeriscaping

Gardeners often choose plants more for their flower color or ease of care, and that’s a great way to enjoy a garden. If you want to add interest to a xeric bed or lawn, it also helps to consider plants’ shapes and textures. Shape, or form, refers to the circles, lines and squares of plants or how you arrange plants. Texture relates to how coarse or fine a plant looks and even feels.

Mesilla nm xeriscape
Plant shape and texture work perfectly in the landscape design of this old adobe home in Mesilla, N.M.

For example, there’s a reason why many professional container arrangements usually include a grass or similar plant with tall, thin blades. The grass rises from at or near the center of the pot, adding height. The long, slender blades of ornamental grasses also vary the shape and texture of the arrangement if it’s filled with low-growing, round flowers. You can do the same in your xeric garden.

plant sculpture
This whimsical plant sculpture lives in an Atlanta-area garden.

Although it can be tough for some gardeners to adapt to the Southwest after owning lawns with formal cottage gardens, they eventually learn to love the look and easy maintenance of more native, “unsculpted” plants.

yellow in xeric garden
This part of our xeric garden is mostly yellow, but not redundant because of shape and texture of the plants and foliage.

Plant variety 

Although some landscapes look great with rows of the same plant, most xeric gardens have a more natural feel. The designer or home gardener can use a variety of low-water plants to vary shapes. For example, if you want to plant cacti and succulents in your container or garden, you aren’t likely to choose all prickly pear cacti (Opuntia). Their round pads and medium-height spread complement a spikier ocotillo (Fouquieriaceae) or a spiraling sedum groundcover.

desert garden
It’s hot and dry in Tucson, but you still can use shape and texture in the most xeric designs, as shown by the sprawling ocotillo and prickly pear at its base.

The shapes in xeric plants typically are less defined. Still, plants have a basic shape, such as how lavender stalks form a rounded V.

lavender plants in New Mexico
Six rounded lavender now have five friends growing below. They’re lined up, but maintain a natural look.

Those who desire a more balanced or symmetrical look can repeat a plant. Some of the most effective landscapes I’ve seen have a row or grouping of xeric ornamental grasses. Individually, the grasses have a wispy, wild look. But when placed in a grouping, they sway in the wind together and create a clean line. Too much variety can cause a xeric garden to look more like a botanical garden full of eye-catching plants with no flow if not designed by professionals.

Foliage and texture

Many xeric plants produce remarkable flowers, and some bloom throughout the growing season. But one way xeric plants survive is with relatively smaller foliage. Less leaf area means less transpiration (water evaporating from leaves) and improved survival chances in arid climates. Still, a waterwise garden can include foliage variety in texture, size, shape and color.

xeric garden
This garden is a large circle, with defined beds that are rounded but don’t mimic the overall shape. And as plants can do, some of these lost their defined shape following monsoon rains.

Some xeric plants, such as pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) have tiny, needle-like leaves. These contrast nicely with nearby plants that have rounder, lusher foliage, adding varied shapes and textures to the garden.

texture from plants
This is not a xeric garden, but look at how many different textures combine in one spot, including variegated leaves of the hosta, lower right.

You also can add texture with hardscape materials or yard art. Hardscaping materials include just about anything that isn’t a live plant. So, for example, you can add interest around a rock or boulder with a plant that has small, twisting or draping branches. A post fence has lines that run up and down, and I believe that a mix of small, round or trailing plants look better against it than a line of tall or upright plants. Hardscape items also add texture, such as rough rockiness or smooth backdrops.

Layering

Rhythm is an important landscape design that can be achieved with cautious repetition of shapes, curves and layers. Some of the best designs have layers. For example, you can plant a groundcover (a low-growing or trailing plant that typically spreads) in front of a shrub that has long, thin branches and few flowers.

silver dollar plant
We fell in love with this silver dollar plant (Xerosicyos Danguyi) at The Arboretum in Pasadena, Calif.

When layering plants, or in any planting, it’s important to consider a plant’s mature size. If not, your nice round shrub might catch up to or even block the tall one behind it. It also helps to know a little about pruning. You don’t have to shape plants into animal characters, but it helps to know how to trim the plant for its health and growth (even control of growth).  Otherwise, plants can later upset balance and rhythm in the garden.

For Fall Garden Planning: Mix Hardscaping and Plants

Hardscaping is use of anything other than plants, really, in the garden. So it includes rocks, fences, walls, walls made of rocks, pavers, stepping stones, lighting, gravel (made from rocks) and found or repurposed objects. Did I mention rocks?

rocks for garden art
We have lots of rocks. They line the wall of our xeric garden and we place them in beds to help feature plants. This new poppy also has some “garden art” that’s courtesy of a buck who wandered through.

Here’s the problem: When people think of xeriscaping or converting high-water lawns and landscapes to more waterwise plans, they often turn to landscape gravel, rock borders and concrete to fill their landscape. Done! But the best xeric landscapes mix functional and attractive hardscaping with plants for full effect.

landscape hardscape Atlanta
This Atlanta-area home combined natural boulders, stunning sculptures and lots of perennial plants.

Pros of Hardscaping

I find that after touring a public or private garden, my photos often include fences, garden art and other hardscaping features. I guess I’m drawn to them. Any plant can shine when placed before a solid wall or large boulder, but those with tiny flowers and foliage really pop with a backdrop. And you don’t have to use large, expensive artwork or structures. Sometimes, all you need is a well-placed rock or container.

agave in container
An agave in the Southeast? Why not — especially featured in a large container in the middle of the landscape.

Aside from aesthetics, hardscaping features provide function in the landscape. Pathways lead the gardener, visitor and the eye in the best direction, or help a homeowner get from one point to another more easily. Fences and walls improve privacy and arbors and pergolas add to shade in sunny garden spots.

arbor with plants
A white picket fence and arbor surround a rock patio in the middle of this private garden in the Atlanta area.
hardscaping support plants
In this Pasadena garden, an attractive fence also serves as a way to separate and support the homeowner’s vines and edible plants.

Finally, homeowners often put in hardscaping to minimize watering and plant care. Most nonplant items in the garden require little to no care and last for years.

path in Atlanta lawn
This path prevents wear and tear on the grass and requires no mowing. I love the mix of stone size and texture.
courtyard fountain
The path above leads to this mini-oasis in a home’s courtyard. It’s near Atlanta, and more lush than most xeric landscapes. But what a fun and relaxing place to enjoy being outside.

Cons of Hardscaping

Replacing lawn and plant materials with hardscaping can lower maintenance, but can create too much heat in the lawn and garden. A concrete patio or gravel-covered yard is way hotter than turf and plants. That being said, a mix of both helps lower water use and costs. If done right, homeowners can enjoy their gardens and save water.

patch of grass
I love this shaped patch of lawn in a Pasadena landscape. I might not have put trees in the gravel, but otherwise this back yard has some great plant and hardscape combinations.

Only plant materials provide important food and pollen for animals and insects; bushes and trees also provide better shelter than the eaves of your home. Adding birdhouses and beehouses near plants can help nature’s garden visitors. Too much concrete and gravel also makes a garden seem unfriendly to people. You probably want privacy and a place to sit or walk, but don’t you also want flowering or edible plants nearby? If a big patio is necessary for entertaining, add container plants on the ground, walls or even the furniture.

xeric garden with hardscape and plants
You can have adequate hardscape and also have plants. Our garden features gravel walkways (soon to be replaced), a rock wall and plenty of perennial plants and wildflowers.
steppables in path
Steppable plants can grow between hard surfaces, cooling off and adding color to concrete or flagstone walkways.

Finally, be sure to consider existing trees and other plants you plan to keep when converting lawns to gravel. Trees need deep watering, and the roots stretch out at least to the tree’s canopy, which is how far out branches and leaves extend. So providing a pretty little circle of mulch around the trunk likely isn’t enough.

Atlanta private home breezeway
This Atlanta-area home has a driveway and breezeway. But why not plant around and over both?
Arizona Sonora desert museum
At the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, rocks and boulders look natural in the dry desert landscape.

Some of my favorite xeric landscapes combine a few featured plants such as a shade tree or colorful bush with low-growing annuals or groundcovers that cascade over steps or rocks. Combining hardscape and plant features is a smart xeriscaping strategy and a way to enjoy your lawn for years to come.

 

Garden Rest Stops

Gardening can be hard work, and there’s no shame in taking a break now and then. Besides, why pour plenty of time and love into your garden if you aren’t spending time in it, whether reading, visiting with friends and family or simply enjoying the view.

garden bench
These homeowners knew how to make the most of their garden, with plenty of seating areas; the sign on the bench sums it up.

Yesterday, I visited some gorgeous private gardens in the Atlanta area where the owners get it; I kept spotting cozy and elegant sitting areas. We’re adding a few spots with chairs and benches around our property, so maybe I was more alert to these features of the gardens I toured. Or maybe the areas for relaxation were just too good to pass up.

And although Atlanta’s landscape differs markedly from ours in the Southwest, we all can take a few ideas from these pleasant garden rest stops. Enjoy the pictorial tour!

garden bistro table and chairs
It was raining, so this umbrella held special appeal. But the red chairs also drew me in.
garden bench atlanta
A garden bench, a pergola, and a view that’s likely as pretty sitting on the bench as looking toward it!
blue chairs and bistro table
Here’s another bistro-type seating area, with a plant on the table, of course!
chaise lounge garden
A spot of blue right in the middle of an open area, where you’re likely to get a perfect mix of sun and shade.
garden chair birdhouse
We saw lots of unique bird houses, including this themed adirondack chair. So cute!
garden furniture with plants
A touch of whimsy or a gardener who can’t stop growing? I loved this “covered” table with chairs.
garden furniture atlanta
Want some privacy to read a book? Tuck yourself away under some tall trees.
iron garden chairs
It looked a little damp in this sitting area, but the chairs are as much garden art as they are a place to rest your feet.
garden bench
When just a bench will do. This one flows naturally into the landscape and hardscape.
So, maybe even fairies need a place to rest? This garden had fairy-sized seating areas in containers.
So, maybe even fairies need a place to rest? This garden had fairy-sized seating areas in containers.
outdoor patio fireplace
A formal sitting and dining area near the house doubles as a place to rest and warm up, and a place to entertain.
metal furniture native landscape
It’s also nice to have an informal area to warm up and enjoy the view of a native landscape.
dog window garden
Of course, there are always the front steps. Or the carpet inside if you’re a dog wanting to keep an eye on its owner!

Six Favorite Reseeding Flowers

Wildflowers that reseed are a perfect plant for busy and cash-strapped gardeners. Once you get them going in the garden, they’re sure to come back for years. The trick is to deadhead or cut the flowers for arrangements while in peak bloom and then let some spent flowers go to seed.

cosmos
Crazy cosmos! Ours have been popping up in the same area of our rock garden for four years. By leaving most of the spent flowers on the plant into fall, they easily reseed and feed finches.

With that in mind, choose a few plants or seeds for your favorite low-water annual and enjoy the colorful rewards for years. Here are six favorites of mine, most of them in the Aster (Asteraceae) family:

No. 1: Cosmos

Start with annuals or easily grow cosmos from seed. They come in a number of colors, including several versions of pinks and purples and white. The flower is a native of Mexico and can reach various heights depending on the mix and growing conditions. With too much water, they get a little tall and leggy. Sow cosmos after your last spring frost. Let several go to seed in fall to feed birds and provide next year’s color.

cosmos bloom
Close-up of a cosmos bloom.

No. 2: Blanketflower

Gaillardia, or blanketflower, is an annual or a perennial in zones 3 through 11. It reseeds in our garden and lawn. This drought-tolerant beauty adds yellows, orange and rust tones to the garden. The blooms attract bees and butterflies. Blanketflowers bloom best if the gardener deadheads spent flowers, cutting the stem just above the next set of leaves down the stalk. You can also cut the plant by about one-third at the end of summer instead of regularly deadheading. If you want the flowers to reseed in your garden, leave some dried heads on the plant well into fall.

gaillardia and cosmos in rock garden
Oh no, another cosmos photo. But this one shows the contrast with the earthy colored blanketflower.

No. 3: Mexican hat

Called Mexican hat or prairie coneflower, the Ratibida columnifera is yet another member of the Aster family that reseeds easily. Mexican hats can bloom all summer long with little to no water, adding earthy colored blooms to xeric gardens. They attract bees and are considered an herb with touted use to ease stomach pain or headaches. When planted from seed, they might not bloom until the second year, but will reseed. Because the seeds need cold to help them germinate, those dropping from a plant in fall in zones 4 through 9 stand an excellent chance of becoming new plants in spring.

Mexican hat
We have different colors of blooms on our Mexican hats, from mostly yellow to more of a deep rust. As you can see, they grow right out of the rocks.

No. 4: California/Mexican gold poppy

These wildflowers in the poppy family love sun and drought, but bloom best after summer rains. We call them California poppies (Eschcholzia californica). Mexican gold poppies are a subspecies of E. californica that thrive in desert settings. Both have feathery leaves and flowers about 2 inches in diameter that resemble a cross between an oriental poppy and a tubular or cupped flower. Deadheading the remaining seedhead helps them produce more flowers, but letting the seeds develop late in summer could lead to a new stunning poppy across the yard!

California or Mexican poppy
This deep orange poppy was in a wildflower seed mix.

No. 5: Coreopsis

Yet another member of the Aster family, coreopsis is a great self-sower. It might take over a garden in the right conditions, but our Lanceleaf Coreopsis, a classic yellow bloomer, spreads nicely in our dry climate. If you want more color, coreopsis won’t disappoint. Here, Sunset Magazine lists a dozen favorites for western gardens. Some varieties such as lanceleaf are perennials, depending on zone. They’re a fun, natural looking plant with flowers suitable for cutting.

lancelead coreopsis
Coreopsis blooms are similar to daisies. This plant has a few drying flower heads.

No. 6: Wild daisies

Like their relative the sunflower, native daisies in the Aster family can spread easily and pop up in unexpected locations. We have several that bloom in late fall and spread mostly by seed. The trick is recognizing these gems among a stand of weeds so you can let them grow to maturity and bloom, then reseed. Some wild daisies are invasive, but they’re easy to control in our dry climates. Bidens alba, also called common beggartick or Spanish needle, has tiny white flowers on lanky stems. They’re pretty and are touted to have herbal or medicinal uses, but as friends of mine pointed out, they have needle in their name for a reason. The seedheads not only help the flower spread, but get caught in nearly anything they touch, including dogs’ coats.

Spanish needles and asters
Mountain aster on the right and Spanish needle bloom and seed heads on the left.

You don’t necessarily need to gather seeds from these flowers unless you want to try the plant in a different area. We’ve had mixed success with that, maybe because a particular flower tends to reseed where conditions are best for the plant.

wild daisy New Mexico
I think this is a cowpen daisy, but am not certain. At any rate, the flower prefers our ditchbank and likely wouldn’t grow as well in a more controlled garden.

If you’d like to grow some of these reseeding flowers in your garden, check with your local master gardeners or a regional garden book or blog to see which types grow best in your region without becoming invasive. Of course, I go with the premise that I can always thin volunteer flowers if they get out of hand. That usually only means smack-dab in the middle of a walkway…

Sunflower from birds
Sunflowers are the top surprise reseeders, thanks to birds and wind.

Xeric Plants: Too Much Rain?

You know, I hate to sound ungrateful. We always need rain in New Mexico, if not to water all of the grass, trees and native plants, then to replace our valuable water tables. But in a climate of extremes, especially this summer, we’ve had several weeks of too much water and cool temperatures.

xeric garden after rain
I’m not bemoaning natural moisture. August rains brought greener native grasses and lot of blooming annuals. But it’s good to know what happens when too much rain hits a xeric garden.

Typically, New Mexico and many Southwestern states receive monsoon rain in the summer, and it accounts for at least half of the rain we receive in New Mexico and Arizona. Monsoons can start around mid-June and end late in September. Ours typically begin around the 4th of July. Monsoons consist of short but strong bursts of rain, usually in the afternoon. They’re fueled by the sun’s warming of Southwest land and nearby oceans at different rates. Water evaporation creates humidity over land, forming the clouds that then depend on temperature, atmospheric pressure, winds and mountain slopes to turn into storms.

ravens in dead tree
The clouds seem to bring birds out for active eating before they take cover from summer storms. These ravens love perching in a dead tree.

Typical is key here, however. This year, we had few to no monsoon storms. Instead, we had unseasonably hot and dry, followed by weeks of unseasonably cool and wet. The first rains did wonders at greening up our native grasses and plants. But then in August, the rain and clouds just kept coming. We just had a break, but now Hurricane Newton has struck Mexico and its remnant moisture is headed for southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Rio Ruidoso
Rain replenishes the river and ground water, but excessive moisture can topple old trees.

If arid areas need rain, why is so much rain bad? Flash flooding is a big problem in desert and mountain areas. But how does heavy rain affect xeric lawns and gardens?

First, plant roots need more than water to survive and thrive; they also need air. When you place a new plant in the ground, for example, you should press the soil around it lightly and avoid compacting it to the point that air can’t reach the roots. When excessive rain falls, the water replaces air in spaces around soil particles. As the water drains through the soil, air can again enter the spaces. But if the water keeps flowing from the surface, or especially pools, the spaces fail to open. Eventually, roots can be damaged and fail to even take up the water that surrounds them.

amended soil for vegetables and herbs
Adding organic matter eventually helps compacted soils drain better.

The second danger of too much water is disease. Any fungal organisms in the soil can more easily attack wet plant roots and cause root rot. Xeric plants are not used to so much water on their leaves and roots. Even leaves are affected by too much water falling and sitting on them, especially without sun and heat to dry them again. Plants are more susceptible to leaf diseases such as leaf spot or blight and have less chlorophyll, which affects appearance and photosynthesis. Eventually, poor leaf health can lead to the breakdown of most of the processes that keep a plant healthy and send energy to fruit and flowers.

mushrooms on tree stump
This old apple tree stump started a mini-mushroom farm after extended rain and clouds. What other fungi lurk in our soil now?

Many xeric plants also like sun and a little heat. Native plants have adapted to the Southwest monsoon patterns that usually rule their growing season: A gradual, sunny warm-up in the morning, followed by scattered building clouds. They get a nice drink in the heat of the afternoon, and then the sun comes back out and the air and ground warm up again. This pattern helps dry the plant and soil, and gives the plant plenty of heat and sun. Although nights can be cool in many areas of the high desert and intermountain regions, mornings warm up again after sunrise. Extended periods of cloudy, cool weather lead to too little sun for plants, along with too little heat than they need to thrive and flower.

cracked cherry tomatoes
Tomatoes need some heat and sun, along with consistent watering. These cherry tomatoes cracked before we could harvest them. It’s likely a combination of remaining on the vine too long and a surge of water from heavy storms.

Even edibles can have problems from too much water. They’re susceptible to root rot, depending on lots of other factors such as soil quality. Leafy vegetables and herbs flower early. Tomato fruit tastes better with moderate water. Too much water, especially inconsistent amounts, can cause fruit to crack.

Keeping Xeric Plants Alive During High Rain Periods

Make sure all plants, and especially those susceptible to root rot, are in soil that drains well. Raised beds, mounds or berms, and suitable containers can help drain soil around plants much better than compacted soil. If you’re not sure how well your soil drains, you can typically tell when it pools or soaks in hours after heavy rains. Or you can try the test in this handout from TreePeople that times water drainage.

okra plants
My husband is much better at spacing plants than I am. These okra didn’t get enough heat to produce much, but spacing helped the fruit get more sun and air.

Provide air circulation. We all have a tendency to place new plants and seedlings too close together. You might as well get as many cucumbers as possible in the limited space you have, right? But lack of air circulation in crowded plants hides bugs, causes the leaves to maintain moisture, and even can shade ground around roots. Wet conditions harbor new problems that native plants in particular can’t take.

California poppy
Flower from a poppy (Mexican gold or California Eschscholzia californica) thrives in drought, but can bloom more in heavy rain. As for the “garden art” it borders, that’s something personal between Tim and a steer.

Another problem with extended periods of rain is weed control. Although mostly native, the darn weeds seem to love excess moisture. And before you know it, they crowd and wrap around important garden plants or shading grasses. It’s hard to control them if the ground is too wet to mow or you can’t even get outside.

Build raised beds or transplant susceptible plants to higher ground. We’ve had some drainage problems near our patio and are working on a dry river bed to divert water away from the house foundation and down into a grassy area, where it can soak grass and eventually add to groundwater. One step we took was to divide a blue mist spirea (Caryopteris clandonensis) and move the portion near the patio onto a small burm. The xeric plant is so much happier now.

blue mist spirea berm
The dry bed is a work in progress, but just moving this blue mist spirea to higher ground saved the plant.

Whatever you do, don’t water! Turn off drip or sprinkler systems during and after periods of rain; it’s just the responsible thing to do. And don’t assume that yellowing leaves indicate the need to water. With too much water, the leaves look sort of floppy, but too little water usually causes dry, brittle foliage.

Finally, don’t stress. You can’t control weather, so simply keeping your plants as healthy as possible within time and weather constraints is all a gardener can do!