Let’s Help, Not Confuse, New Gardeners

Often on this site, I talk about how to keep gardening simple, fun and useful. And although xeriscaping can be tricky and drought even tougher to endure when starting out as a gardener, there are plenty of strategies to help gardeners succeed, or at least enjoy the process.

cosmos annual
Gardening can be easy. We didn’t even plant cosmos here. They reseed from old plants. All we have to do is control them.

To help Southwest gardeners — and all people jumping into gardening — I try to follow a few important rules:

  • Emphasize the positive, how anyone can make it work and that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Use lay language while also providing scientific names for plants (which helps avoid confusion when a reader looks for a plant).
  • Educate, even by admitting mistakes we’ve made in the garden.

Here’s how I look at it: We all started out new to this hobby at some point, whether it was in childhood or following an education in horticulture. Yet we’ve had nursery people talk down to us when we ask a question, and I cringe every time I see a tweet or pin titled “You’re Doing _____ Wrong,” or “5 Mistakes to Avoid With ____.”

tomatoes cracking
Tomatoes can crack. You can learn how to water to avoid it, but it’s a little harder to control rain. All gardeners (and farmers) lose some plants or fruit.

I’ve also seen fellow master gardeners try so hard to show what they’ve learned that they are condescending when talking to new gardeners on social media or in person. That’s really the opposite of the concept; master gardeners are trained to help.

To that end, I recently wrote an article for Green Profit Magazine about how folks in the industry can talk to the level of all gardeners and potential gardeners. The article includes some helpful sources who recognize that helping gardeners succeed beats telling them what they’re doing wrong.

If someone kindly explains something to me that I already know, it wastes a little bit of my time, but I appreciate the effort. But when someone makes me feel stupid because of a question or error, I simply stop frequenting their business or acquaintance.

So, if you already garden and want to recruit a neighbor, daughter or friend into the hobby or you communicate with gardeners, help people with kindness, example, simplicity and patience.

 

Five Easy Foods to Grow at Home

It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.

easy grow vegetables
Three easy vegetables to grow at home: cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans.

1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape
Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches).
Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are  pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.

yellow cherry tomatoes container
Yellow cherry tomatoes growing on the vine.

Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.

2. Cucumbers
Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals.
Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).

cucumber in container
Cucumbers can grow on patios if given a place to climb.

Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.

3. Green beans
Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones.
Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.

Green bean plant
Green beans have delicate white flowers and are fun to harvest.

Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.

4. Snap peas
Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage.
Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.

snap pea seeds
Sugar snap pea seeds go right in the ground in spring.

Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.

5. Carrots
Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots.
Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.

carrots easy vegetable
Delicious, home-grown carrots.

Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.

Plant Select’s Top High Plains and Intermountain Plants

Each year various societies present plant awards, but those of us who garden in the West and Southwest await the group of Plant Select top performers. Plant Select, which is a nonprofit joint effort of Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, the Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturalists, lists five top performers at various elevations.

blonde ambition grama
Blonde Ambition ornamental grama grass tops the 2016 Plant Select list. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

First, a word about why the work of Plant Select and other regional groups is so important. As I said, there are plenty of awards and lots of information in the gardening world. But, for the most part, plants emphasized by magazines and bloggers are great for East Coast and Southeastern region gardeners. It’s different in the high plains and intermountain areas of the country, where altitude, wind, and heat and cold extremes (in a single day and by season) affect plant health. And let’s not forget the water issue.

Plant Select evaluates plant performance in 53 locations throughout five Western states. Here are some of the 2016 Top Performers. See the entire list at Plant Select.

Grand Winner: Blonde Ambition Grama Grass

Blonde Ambition grama (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ PP22,048) was introduced by New Mexico’s David Salman of High Country Gardens (American Meadows). Blue grama is a perfect low-water native grass grazed on by cattle on our Southwest ranches. Salman introduced the blonde ornamental variety in 2011, and this is the second year it has been Plant Select’s grand winner. Beginning in July, chartreuse blooms (seedheads) appear on upright stems, turning to the blonde color as they age. Watching those seedheads wave in winter winds provides xeric gardeners some year-round interest in their landscapes. Although Blonde Ambition can spread by seed, the seedlings are easily pulled up. The grass is hardy in zones 4 through 9 and deer resistant.

Blonde ambition seedheads
Blonde Ambition looks great in groups or as a single plant in the xeric garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 3,000 to 5,500 Feet Elevation

Blonde Ambition also tops the list of lower elevation garden performers in the region. Number 2 on the list is a tree I’ve never grown, but want to learn more about since it also topped the list for gardens at my altitude (6,300 feet). The Hot Wings Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum ‘Gar ann’PP15,023) has bright red samaras, or fruit made of paper tissue, that bloom all summer. It’s also known for its reddish-purple fall color. The Tartarian maple is a relatively small tree, maturing to nearly 18 feet high and wide, and gets by with full sun and moderate to dry water needs. The only drawback for me is that it is not deer resistant, but I could see this gorgeous tree in any suburban garden from 3,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation and in zones 4 through 10. We still might try it, but we’ll have to fence the tree until it reaches a mature height and keep lower limbs pruned.

top performer hot wings tartarian maple
The Hot Wings Tartarian maple has a gorgeous canopy, but I also love the trunk. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 5,501 to 7,000 Feet elevation

Although the Hot Wings maple topped the list of performers at this elevation, I would like to give a nod to No. 2 on the list – Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis). Veronica is an excellent low-water groundcover. Veronica is evergreen, so it covers portions of our rock garden all year long. In summer, the groundcover blooms. Turkish veronica has cobalt blue flowers above waxy leaves. It only reaches about 2 inches in height, but can spread to 18 inches wide. Although veronica is a xeric plant, its leaves look better with a little extra water in the heat of summer. Turkish veronica is hardy in zones 3 through 10 and deer resistant. The top 5 Plant Select performers at this elevation also include Blonde Ambition, Apache plume and a catmint called Little Trudy (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ PP18,904).

turkish veronica plant select
Gardeners can prune Turkish veronica around rocks and paths. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer in Gardens Higher than 7,000 Feet

Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) topped the list for higher elevations. The Western native shrub is xeric once established and grows more upright with less water. It can look more formal with rounded pruning in early winter. Deadheading spent flowers also makes the plant look neater, and should be pleasant considering that the foliage has a honey-like scent. The sweet scent also deters deer. Fernbush can grow to nearly 5 feet high and wide; less water keeps it more compact. The plant thrives in full or partial sun in zones 4B through 8.

fernbush plant select
This fernbush provides year-round interest in a high-altitude garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

These are only a few of the top performers in the Plant Select list. Check out their site for more on current and past top performers, new plant introductions for the region and where to buy plants for High Plains and Intermountain gardens.

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.