Grow Your Xeric Garden With Plants that Naturalize

We are wrapping up a big project in our rock garden. It involved removing some lower beds and extending the raised beds out, bordered by a gabion wall. So, that meant having to dig up and transplant several favorite plants. After all, we needed to fill a lot of new planting area, and it’s always sad to lose a plant simply because of logistics.

So, Tim started digging up some plants last fall, when we began work on the new walls. He planted them in recycled nursery containers with a combination of potting mix and soil from where the plants were growing. When it became warm enough, we replanted them, helping to save a little money on filling our new beds and keeping some of our favorite plants going.

kniphofia plant and blooms before wall
Kniphofia, or red hot poker, multiplies and needs dividing every so often.

Plants That Naturalize

Many plants we grow in the Southwest re-seed (volunteers) or have spreading habits that make them easy to divide and move. Sometimes, a plant reproduces so easily, it becomes a problem. But conditions have to be just right for that, so I love this feature in a plant. After all, you can always transplant or gift one of your plants. Here are a few low-water plants we “saved” and replanted:

purple salvia in xeric garden
Salvia sylvestris keeps growing little “pups” near the first plant.

Salvia

Salvia plants are related to mint, and some of them sprout new plants from seeds. We have a row of midnight blue salvia plants that kept producing “pups,” so we potted some up, transplanted some directly and gave some away. We’ve never purchased the plant; these all came from one that was here more than six years ago.

colorado penstemon blooms
This native penstemon has created new plants for years.

Penstemon

Likewise, we have a purple penstemon (Rocky Mountain penstemon, or Penstemon strictus) that Tim dug up from one that spread in some grounds he used to care for. We planted in at our last home and it spread a little more, so we brought a part of it here. We had to transplant it to build our new bed, and now have at least six plants from the one he dug up about eight years ago.

bee on blanket flower
Bee on gaillardia. We have a native version growing in our yard as well.

Blanket Flower

Blanket flower (Gaillardia) is a wonderful magnet for bees and a great xeric perennial flower. It can spread from seed; we also saved and moved a few to our new beds. They have perked up and are doing well.

kniphofia-on-ground-pieces
Here is the Kniphofia pictured above. We broke it up and pulled out about six healthy looking ones to transplant.

Bulbs

Of course, iris reproduce like rabbits and they’re easy to transplant. We also moved some daylilies and split up a Kniphofia (red hot poker) to help fill our new beds. The jury still is out on when the lilies and red hot pokers will bloom, since we moved them when we had to, not necessarily at the best time for the plants.

apache-plume-white-blooms
It is easy to spot volunteers of Apache plume. It might take a year or two for the small plant to begin blooming, but it is free and beautiful!

Apache Plume

This native plant is one of several that starts volunteer seedlings around our garden. Although some might see this as a drawback, we welcome the seedlings. If we can’t move them, we always can pull them up if in the way of another plant.

close-up of thyme leaves
Thyme plants re-seed, grow pretty little flowers, attract bees and taste delicious!

Thyme

Herbal thyme is one of my favorite plants. The low-water herb does triple duty: it looks and smells great in the garden, it has delicate flowers that bees love, and it tastes great! We have let some plants spread and transplanted others.

threadgrass-rock-garden
We had at least seven or eight volunteer threadgrass plants this year we could relocate.

Threadgrass

Threadgrass is my new favorite low-water plant. It is easy to care for, and produces lots of little seedlings that are easy to spot and tell from other grasses or weeds. Just dig it up and move it to another spot.

grasses-austin-gardem
Repetition can look natural and orderly at the same time. Don’t be afraid to use several of the same plant in your Southwest garden.

A Few Tips for Replanting

Some of our success with volunteers certainly comes from letting plants go to seed. That can be a bad idea if they become invasive and crowd out other plants or if your front garden looks too unkempt through fall and winter.  But re-seeders can feed birds in fall and give you new plants to enjoy in spring.

Remember, if you are planting or dividing a plant, even a xeric one, it will need extra water for at least a few weeks while it gets used to its new home. And it needs a little extra water and care in its first year of life.

Check your favorite local and regional books or with local independent nursery staff to find out plants that re-seed in your area without taking over.

Of course, you also can keep an eye out for plants that re-seed. Nature often puts them in the perfect place, which also gives your xeric garden a more natural look.

xeric-garden-bed-mulch-volunteer-plants
This new bed is a little sparse now, but will fill in. It has a euphorbia, several salvias, cannas, a blanket flower and a yarrow we moved from other areas of the garden or from volunteer plants.

Finally, we are guilty of planting one of each plant we like. I’ve since seen enough gardens in which repetition of plants actually looks more natural and striking than stuffing in as many different plants as we can. So, don’t be afraid to plant three or more of the same plant!

 

 

 

5-Plus Secrets for Starting Seeds

It’s spring and time to think about growing food and flowers this summer. Save money when you start some seeds inside. You can find plenty of tips online for light, soil and water requirements, but I wanted to mention a few other hard-earned “secrets” from my experience and talking to others.

garden-vegetables-flowers

In general, start seeds about six weeks before your planting time for the variety. And be sure to pot up (move the smaller seedling to a larger pot) once while seedlings are inside. Here are 5 other tips:

basil-tomato-seedlings-label
It’s fun to start seeds inside, but only start plants that transplant well.

1. Before starting vegetable or herb seeds, be sure they transplant well.

If they do better with direct sowing (placing the seed right in the ground), wait not just past your last freeze but until air (and therefore, soil) temperatures have warmed. Cucumbers are a great example. I have planted them too soon and then had to plant again when the ground warmed because the first ones just didn’t take. Many annual flower seeds and some herbs do fine with direct sowing, which is easier than starting small plants inside.

carrots-in-ground
Carrots like cooler weather than some crops.

2. Not all vegetable seeds or seedlings go into the ground at the same time.

Lettuces, cilantro and carrots do better in spring or early fall than in summer heat. Tomatoes need moderate heat.  Planting and harvest times vary for edibles. This also goes with my next tip:

3. Look for information specific to your region.

Seed packets can help, but in New Mexico and other Southwest states, dates for planting vary widely. This goes for last or first frost dates and for peak heat. Low desert areas, in particular, have growing seasons markedly different from the rest of the country. Check with local nurseries, extension offices or master gardeners for help knowing when to plant.

tomatoes in wall of water
These water towers warm the ground in my cooler region and help tomatoes adjust to the outdoors.

4. Thin seedlings.

This is the hardest lesson. But you should thin the seeds that sprout in your indoor start pots and those directly sown before they get too big and share roots. In the starter pot, it is best to take a small narrow pair of scissor or garden clippers and cut the spare seedlings off at the soil level. Pulling it up could damage all the seedlings in your pot. Thinning in the ground is a matter of preference for how your plants will look. But remember, crowded seedlings are not as healthy as single ones with plenty of room for their roots, and vegetable plants should not touch one another if possible. The leaves need sun and air flow.

green-beans-pole-fence
Green beans need room to spread, so remember their full size when sowing and thinning seeds.

5. Be sure to harden off seedlings.

This requires patience and some time. Your plants need to get used to their new home, just like flatlanders need to acclimate to high altitudes. Get your seed starts used to a breeze and the sun before placing them in the ground. Read more here about how to harden off your seed starts.

seed starts-in-tray-sun
This tray of seed starts got indoor sun, then gradual outdoor sun and breeze.

Plus:

Finally, start just enough for a spare or two in case a few seeds fail to take or the seedlings get off to a bad start. But don’t plant 10 tomato seeds indoors if you plan to grow only one or two plants, unless you have friends and family who would love to take your other healthy plants off your hands.

wildflowers-from-seed
These wildlfowers could have used more thinning, but I love the effect. You can’t plant tomatoes this close together, though.

Gardening Basics

My mantra is “Gardening Should be Fun.” Taking the pressure off makes it more fun. In other words, your garden doesn’t have to look like the cover of a magazine or top Pinterest pages for you to enjoy the process and the results.

So, if you are a new gardener or have a friend or relative who wants to grow plants and doesn’t know where to start, you can watch my online course with the basic terms and concepts. I developed the course for Southwest Gardening Blog, where I am one of four gardeners/authors.

The online class  only is available through February 28, so be sure to sign up soon. You can watch it whenever it is convenient and as often as you like. Have fun with plants!

The Root of the Matter

 

sprout roots cross section

It’s easy to spot possible problems with a plant’s leaves, stems or flowers. Those are the parts we enjoy seeing every day in our garden. But what about the parts that lie beneath the surface of your garden or container?

We can forget all about the roots when enjoying a plant’s shape and color. But some of the toughest tricks to gardening involve root care – watering enough but not too much; soil drainage to allow roots to gather water but not sit in them; ability for roots to take up oxygen, and ability of roots to grow outward to support the plant you see above ground. How do you know your plant’s roots are healthy and why is it important?

Roots Affect Plant Health

The way roots grow, and their health, have a profound effect on the size a plant reaches, its vigor, and how it responds to watering or other care you give the plant. The main function of these leafless, underground stems is to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil around them. The roots store the plant’s food to keep it nourished and alive. Roots also help stabilize a plant in the soil or potting mix and physically support the plant’s main stem or trunk.

carrot fruit and stems with dirt on the roots
A carrot is a taproot.

Types of Roots

There are various types of roots, although most root systems branch out under the soil. You might have heard of a taproot, which is a primary root that grows straight down into the soil and develops few to no root branches. Picture a carrot. The part we eat actually is a taproot. That’s the good kind, but a taproot can be a problem for gardeners. Some trees, such as pecans, grow deep taproots. This makes them much more difficult to dig up and transplant.

Some roots have lateral, or secondary, roots that branch off from an existing root. This happens with fibrous roots because their primary root eventually stops lengthening. Fibrous roots are lighter and smaller in diameter because they have less cell activity than standard roots.

One of the biggest problems with roots is restriction of their growth. This is easy to see when you lift a new plant out of its nursery pot. Some have roots circling in the shape of the container; the roots received good nutrition from the potting mix and plenty of water from garden center staff, but had nowhere to go. When planting, always dig a hole larger than the root ball – up to three times as large for trees and shrubs. And loosen the soil around the outer edges of the hole. If the ground is compacted and dense, roots will have to work harder to spread.

wilting zucchini plant from disturbed roots
This zucchini looks bad. Because I ripped its roots when I moved the pot.

A second problem is underwatering (especially a tree) or watering in brief, shallow periods instead of long, deep soaks. Short watering doesn’t penetrate very deeply, so the roots grow close to the surface. And that can bring on other problems, including damage from lawnmowers or foot traffic. But with less frequent and deeper watering, roots grow downward as they seek moisture.

Roots as Plant and People Food

For plants, the structure and quantity of roots help determine how much water and nutrition the plant takes in. That’s why it is so important to water a plant more in its first season or year of growth than it will need later. The extra water helps those roots take hold and grow so they can store food for the plant.

Beet roots and leaves are edible.

 

Aside from carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes and beets are among common roots people eat. The mature root – a tuberous root in the case of a potato or sweet potato – holds lots of nutrition.

One final tip – buying a plant that has roots wrapped around inside the pot (rootbound) can make for more challenges when you plant it. You should tease or slice the roots near the outer bottom to help stimulate new growth. But if a plant’s roots are brown or dry, move on to another plant.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plant Problems: Don’t Blame Yourself

I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.

papaver-poppy bloom pink
Beautiful poppy from wildflower mix. I have posted lots of photos of these on Instagram. But I didn’t mention it took more than five tries to get this wildflower mix to finally take!

First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.

pouring rain in new mexico garden
When it finally rained, it poured, flooding our garden paths. Note the lack of blooms on the rose bushes in front left of this photo.

Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.

This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.

hybrid and wild roses in xeric garden
Here are the same roses in early September of the same year. Rain does what our watering can’t, and these are loaded with blooms at the time they usually begin to fade.

Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.

basil leaf with brown spots
We depend on basil leaves to be pretty and look edible. This one had some sort of sucking pest on it. I have to cover all my basil all year long.

Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.

red and green foliage on Chinese pistachio tree
A beautiful Chinese pistache in full fall color. It’s supposed to be deer proof. Maybe the leaves, but…

Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.

chines pistache tree after deer damage
Here is the same tree as above. Unfortunately, we added the fence after the deer damage. They killed the trunk by rubbing their antlers on it, and only suckers grow below the damage.

A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.

Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.

violet start and violet flowers pink
An overhead view of a new African violet transpant (Frosted Denim) with wick watering. When my Rhapsodie Nancy’s blooms fade, I will repot it to have a wick as well.

Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.

chewed up lettuce starts
With all else equal in this raised bed, I can only guess the squirrels liked one type of lettuce better than others.

Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.

Save Water and Time in the Garden With These Inexpensive Tools

cloudy-sky-dry-grass
The clouds have come, but the moisture hasn’t. Even the monsoons are late this year.

We are on the verge of ending the longest period without rain in years. And we’ve been spending a lot of time watering, so the rain can’t come soon enough for us, our grass, or our well. I’ve also been busy testing several watering-related products for Gardening Products Review  and that made me think about how to save time when watering.

All of this testing and watering more plants more often has made me reflect on how to make watering more efficient for us, the planet and other homeowners. Here’s part 1 of my list of favorite watering tools, starting with the least expensive, the kinds of tools available at home improvement stores.

quick connector between hose and soaker
A quick connector helps to easily change between watering tools. This one is between a hose from our faucet and a soaker hose.

Quick connectors. We use lots of quick connectors for switching between soaker hoses, sprayers, sprinklers or other watering tools. By screwing a male end into all your watering tools, you can quickly change out and connect several watering tools to the female end of your hose. So, for example, you can quickly switch from spraying off the patio to soaking a garden bed. And once you screw in the connectors, you don’t have to keep screwing on hoses, etc., which never seem to thread right when you’re in a hurry!

metal hose splitter
You can put a splitter directly on the faucet or even between hoses. Both connections have controllers so you can use one and close the other.

Splitters. Look for splitters, or manifolds that split one faucet into two or more outlets, depending on your needs. Solid metal splitters hold up better than plastic ones, but most have hard plastic controls so you can turn water on or off to your drip system or garden hose. This way, you can have one open faucet at all times for filling pails or rinsing a tool and still have a garden hose connected to water your new shrub. We have one on the ground about halfway from our orchard faucet to the other end, then split two hoses off of it to water our fruit trees.

soaker-hose-turtle-garden-art
Soaker hoses work slowly, like a turtle.

Soaker hose. If used correctly, soaker hoses are stars of the inexpensive watering tool department. You can get them for less than $20 at most home improvement stores. The solid rubber hoses have multiple tiny holes so water drips out of all sides. Just be sure to keep pressure low, or you’ll waste water sending fine sprays up in the air.

soaker hose gladiola bed
Here’s a soaker hose wrapped around some plants that require more water than nature usually delivers.

Regulators. My final favorite, inexpensive watering tool is an in-hose “regulator” or shut-off valve. This might not be a necessity for people with smaller gardens or yards, but we have faucets located hundreds of feet from where we garden. I like the exercise, but I don’t like wasting water while I go all the way back to the source to lower the pressure (5 times until I get it right). With these awesome little tools, you can lower the pressure on a dripper or sprinkler near where it’s running. We place ours between the last hose and the one before it.

Even if distance is not a big issue, these come in handy between your hose and soaker hose, which can spew water like a sprinkler if the pressure is too high. And pressure can vary so much. Alternatively, invest in a water wand or similar attachment that has a flow control switch on the handle to drip water when it’s turned down.

dramm-water-wand-green
A water wand like this one from Dramm is a must-have for when you need to hand-water garden areas.

Free tip: Regularly check hoses and drippers for leaks. Hoses are expensive, and they tend to dry out in our desert sun. They also get ruined from being left outside in winter, when water can freeze in the hose, expanding it. So, the first tip is to drain and roll up hoses in winter if you don’t use them and temperatures dip below freezing. And a good hose repair kit is perfect for handy people to fix leaks instead of replacing entire hoses when that’s the best option.

PVC sprinkler connection with quick connector
My husband made a mini-sprinkler for watering new grass seed out of a neighbor’s unwanted PVC pipe and a few sprinkler heads. Notice the male quick connector on the end.

 

Protecting Plants in Your Garden

In this dry year, I feel like our plants are under a triple threat from drought, strong winds and unusual heat for this early in summer. I’ve decided the drought and lack of plant growth on our land and the forest near us has caused insects and larger critters to eat more (and different) plants than usual because they’re hungry or thirsty.

gopher spruge-santolina-thread-grass-rock-garden
Some plants manage in heat and wind, like this gopher spurge, santolina and thread grass.

At any rate, we’re spending way more time watering, covering or doing damage control than we’ve ever had to do in previous years. Here are a few plant attackers and some ideas for fighting them:

jimson-weed-datura-plant-with-blooms
Datura, or jimson weed, thrives in dry heat.

Drought. The first protection is to choose native drought-tolerant plants. A few of ours, namely the santolinas and Datura (jimson weed) have thrived despite no supplemental watering. For the first time in five years, we’re having to water other plants in our rock garden typically immune to short periods of drought. And the rain barrel is running low.

pecan-mulch-lily
We placed a thin layer of pecan bark mulch around these plants last spring. It helps them in cold, heat and drought.

As with ornamental plants, water edibles like tomatoes early in the day and in consistent amounts. They shouldn’t remain wet, but a little moisture in the soil helps them fight dry, windy and hot conditions. Mulching around as many plants as you can (save a few that don’t like wet roots, such as lavender and rosemary) can help them stay damp longer. Finally, remember plants recently moved or planted after purchasing from a nursery need extra water during dry, hot conditions their first year or so.

fabric-covers-vegetables
We have shade cloth that we can lift over our tomato plants when the heat peaks and row cover over basil and strawberry beds.

Heat. Mulching also cools the ground above a plant’s roots, helping the plant get through blazing heat. Sometimes watering is all you can do to protect a plant in record heat. But if the plant is in a container, scoot it into an area that’s slightly shadier or has shade during the time of day when your heat typically peaks. We have been covering our tomato plants with shade cloth this year soon after temperatures soar above 90 degrees. In the past, we’ve had problems with blossoms and fruit set when temperatures soared. Prevention also helps for heat. It’s wise to plant as close as possible to the recommended date for your area. This year, we were traveling and planted later than normal, so our plants had less time to toughen up before heat struck and we paid for that.

lawn-chairs-over-plants
Planting late or having record heat might mean adding shade protection for new plants. Be sure to secure light objects like these “repurposed shading materials” to keep them from blowing onto your plant or away!

Insects. Some plants are just more susceptible to insects than others. And when it’s this hot and dry, all plants are more vulnerable to bugs and the diseases they can transmit. Keeping an eye on your plants, even with a stroll through your yard or garden after dinner, can help you spot problems. Keeping plants watered and free of as much stress as possible also helps.

basil-leaves
The leaves are the “fruit” of a basil plant. We have to take extra care to protect ours.

Others, like basil, are favorites of lots of insects. Since the leaves the insects attack are the part of the plant we eat, I keep my basil covered with a light row cover cloth that lets in air, sunlight and some water, but keeps out as many leaf eaters as possible.

basil-leaf-damage
Some tiny beetles still snuck under the basil cover and damaged early leaves.

Other critters. The tender leaves and ground-level placement of seedlings are also more vulnerable to attack. I’ve seen the leaves of new cucumbers or flowers decimated by grasshoppers and more often, by snails. The slimy acrobats even climb up into containers and eat plants as soon as they come up. We use egg shells as the best deterrent we can find, but there also are snail baits for bad infestations.

fencing-lathe-ground
Gopher fencing below, deer fence above. But the squirrel got in.

Below-ground fencing can deter gophers and other underground tunnelers, but that requires fencing a few feet underground around all plants. We reserve that fun task for our vegetable garden only. Then, despite those efforts, a squirrel has come through the fence and made giant holes in our garden. He has not damaged any plants yet, but I have a feeling it’s coming. We have had some luck spraying Animal Stopper small animal repellent around some plants to deter squirrels.

deer-garden-snow
I could tell this deer was eyeing my rose bushes. Not so bad in winter, but they ate all the plant’s blooms in May and June. Notice the 5-gallon buckets around other plants for warmth and some deer deterrent.

Our deer are grazing much longer into summer this year and have destroyed all the bloom stalks on our native and hybrid roses. You have to be pretty desperate to eat something that thorny on a regular basis. We’ve had some luck with Animal Stopper deer spray, but the only way to ensure deer stay off plants is to fence them out.

shade-structure-cloth-tomatoes
My husband rigged PVC pipe on one side of our tomato bed to hold shade cloth. You can find lots of ideas for inexpensive plant protection from neighbors and social media.

Look to your neighbors, master gardeners and landscapers for more local strategies to help you keep plants alive during rough patches. And practice patience.

 

Are You Overwatering?

rain barrel xeric plants
Many xeric plants need little or no water once established.

One of your houseplants or outdoor plants looks funky and you think something might be wrong with it. Your automatic response? Add water. Sometimes, that’s the best solution, and sometimes it’s just a waste of water, and maybe of your plant.

Wilt is a classic example of the dilemma gardeners face; wilting can be caused by both underwatering and overwatering. What’s more, factors other than water can cause leaves to wilt, even though the roots have plenty of moisture.

Here’s the thing: If too much water surrounds your roots, or they never have a chance to dry a little, the roots don’t get enough oxygen, which also is crucial for plant health. Further, some plants are susceptible to root rot. Let’s look at a few reasons to add water to help a plant, along with a few tips on when not to water.

irrigation-drip-seedling-grden
Young seedlings need consistent water, and nothing beats a drip system!

How to Avoid Overwatering

Regularly check and maintain all sprinkler, bubbler and drip systems. Redirect flow amount or direction for any that appear to be getting too much water, and repair leaks.

drip tape with water drip
The drips seep into the ground slowly, lasting longer and requiring less attention.

The problem might not be how much water, but how you water. Many plants take poorly to regular watering of their foliage. Water that sprays evaporates faster (which is more wasteful) or can sit on foliage too long, leading to diseases. Spray irrigation also waters too much ground around a plant, helping weeds more than your shrub. On a sunny day, most of the water evaporates, but if you water late in the afternoon, on a cool, cloudy day or onto a thick or crowded plant, the water sits overnight on leaves. The best times to water overhead are to wash off dust that builds up on leaves (affecting photosynthesis) or to wash off aphids. But reserve these actions for sunny mornings whenever possible.

ground-moisture sensor-geranium
Inexpensive water meters might not be totally accurate, but they can give you a sense of the moisture around a plant several inches down.

The soil is your best test for whether a plant needs water, not the plant. Check the soil around a houseplant or outdoor plant to see if it still is damp one to two inches below the surface. You can use your finger, a small trowel to gently push soil aside so you can see or feel it, or small tools like chopsticks of pencils pushed in and then removed to see if soil or moisture have stuck to the wood. There also are commercial soil monitoring tools available.

straw-around-seedling-dripper
Mulch helps retain water by lessening loss to evaporation. You can feel an inch or so down to check moisture with your fingertip.

Mind the season. When plants go dormant in winter, they need much less water. You should adjust your schedule accordingly and try to avoid watering too soon in spring or too late in fall.

Have a way to stop automatic watering when it rains. Weather sensors are available for irrigation and rain-harvesting systems, and others have smartphone software. This helps you pause a watering schedule from work on a rainy day, for example. Although these systems are designed mostly to conserve water, they also prevent oversoaking plants. You can even get solar-powered sensors for watering with rain barrels. I reviewed one last year.

rain-barrel-solar-control
Last year, I tested this solar-powered rain barrel water system (to the right of the mutt) that only watered when sunny.

Water slowly, which is another drip irrigation advantage. The more slowly the water falls to the ground, the more gradually it penetrates. This is especially important for containers; fast, hard flows of water can wash potting soil nutrients right out the container’s drain.

When to Water

succulent in container
Few things can destroy succulents, but overwatering can. Always water slowly for any container plant.

Always water new plants, seeds or transplants more often in the first year or so. Even though they are labeled xeric or low-water use, the roots need help growing in their new environment and the plant is more vulnerable.

On hot, sunny days. If you haven’t watered in a while and it’s peak summer heat, give plants with mostly dry soil, especially those most vulnerable to heat, a drink in the morning to help them get through the day.

cracked cherry tomatoes
Too much water or time on the vine can split tomatoes.

Consistently for vegetables and edibles. It helps a tomato to nearly dry out some between waterings, but not to completely dry. Watering the same amount each time keeps the plant growing at a healthier rate and prevents fruit problems such as splitting.

10 More Gardening Terms Explained

Last fall, I listed and defined 10 gardening terms that you’ll see often in books and blogs about gardening. I’ve got 10 more to cover just before gardeners start buying new seeds and plants and planning their 2018 gardens.

gardening basics
Gardening can be easy, and knowing what terms experts use can help you have success.

10. Zone

A zone is the climate-related gardening region in which you live. The most common designation that likely appears on your plant tags or care information is the USDA hardiness zone. It’s based mainly on how cold your lowest lows fall in winter. A zone in the Southwest can match one on the East coast, but other conditions such as temperature extremes in the day, soil makeup, wind or humidity also can affect how well a plant grows. New Mexico has 10 variations of the USDA zones, from the mountains’ 4b (slightly warmer than 4a) to 9a along the southern Rio Grande valley. Learn more about USDA and Sunset zones here.

mountains of new mexico
In the Sacramento Mountains outside Ruidoso, N.M, we saw some plants we can grow in the valley below, but the zones change rapidly.

9. Root-bound

Plants for sale or that you’ve placed in a container can become root-bound. This means the roots couldn’t spread outward as the plant grew, so they began circling the container borders and might be poking out of drainage holes on the bottom. Most plants grow poorly and can even die when this happens, but see this article about house plants that like crowded root conditions. If a root-bound plant for sale looks otherwise healthy, you can take a chance on it. Break up the roots with your fingers and spread the roots out when you plant in the ground or in a larger container. Be sure to check for signs of circling roots on indoor and outdoor container plants.

adenuim in pot
This gorgeous adenium can handle being root bound and does best when not planted too deeply.

8. Heirloom

When we sell tomatoes at market, we get plenty of requests for heirloom varieties. These grow from older, more pure seed lines handed down for generations. They’re often some of the tastiest and most nutritious vegetables you can find. Ambitious gardeners prefer heirlooms so they can save their own seeds for planting the next year. However, they might not resist disease as well as a tomato variety bred to do so, and heirloom varieties like Brandywine don’t do well in shorter growing seasons like ours. Still, every gardener should try an heirloom flower or vegetable at some point to enjoy the benefits of the carefully selected qualities bred into the plants.

Blue Lake green bean heirloom
We’ve continued to plant Blue Lake heirloom beans every year. The plants do well and the beans are crisp and delicious.

7. Hybrid

When breeders create hybrids of any plant, they control the results by selecting favored qualities of both plants and cross-pollinate them to produce a new plant with the best of each. The careful controlling of the process by breeders can take years of care. Hybrids give us vegetables resistant to diseases, with richer colors or flavors or that produce in shorter growing seasons. Hybrids are not the same as GMOs; genetically modified plants are developed by altering DNA in a lab.

6. Crown

This is the part of any plant where the roots and stem join. See this demonstration for placing the crown at the right depth from Fox Hill Gardens. This is important because the crown should be just about soil level when planting most plants. Be sure to check instructions that come with individual plants, especially roses and trees, about depth of planting and whether to mulch to help protect the crown.

5. Seed start

A seed start is the small plant, or seedling, you grow from a seed. New gardeners can be confused about whether they can plant a seed directly in the ground (direct sow, below) or whether the plant will do better started indoors under grow lights and then transplanted into the garden at the appropriate time. You can save money starting seeds, and basil and zinnias are two easy annual plants to start from seed. Others, such as cucumbers, don’t transplant well. This article from Gardener’s Supply Company has great advice on starting seeds, which can help save money on new plants each spring.

seed starts
Last spring’s seed starts under grow lights. We started herbs, vegetables, and perennial and annual flowers.
snapdragons
Check out these snapdragons grown from that flat of flower starts. And they lasted into fall, at least until deer ate them.

4. Direct sow

This means to place seeds directly into the ground in the garden or in a container. Carrots, lettuce and green beans are easy vegetables to grow from direct sowing. Just follow the directions on the packet about seeding time, planting depth and spacing. You might have to thin your seedlings later. One positive: if you plant too soon or too deeply, seeds cost so little you can often try again!

3. Determinate

The tomato terms determinate and indeterminate have caused me plenty of confusion in years past. I don’t know why I have such a hard time remembering them. Determinate varieties grow to a set mature size and produce most of the fruit within a few weeks. Then it’s done. Determinates also are called bush varieties.

indeterminate tomato in container
Often, determinate, or bushy, tomatoes do best in containers. But we also grow indeterminates, which need cages for support.

2. Indeterminate

These tomatoes continue growing until hit by frost, and sometimes are called vining tomatoes. They produce fruit steadily through the growing season, depending on weather conditions, etc. They can grow out of control if not staked. I’m planning to remember the difference by noting that indeterminate implies the plant does what it wants. But I wish someone would invent a better set of words!

plant growth habit
Varying growth habit adds interest to a xeric garden.

1. Habit

Basically, a plant’s habit refers to the direction it grows, such as upright, mounded or prostrate (spreading low along the ground). It also refers to terms such as shrub vs tree. A shrub, for example, grows to only about 15 feet high and has multiple stems in the ground, whereas a tree usually has a single trunk and greater height. This handout from the University of Colorado shows growth habit shapes and definitions.

 

 

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.