I get so excited when I see the Plant Select press release in my messages each spring. I love any new plant introduction or award winner, but Plant Select focuses on plants that adapt to – and thrive in – the dry, wild conditions of the intermountain regions and high plains. Gardeners can be confident that their selections will work in much of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and other western states. This year, Plant Select announced two new groundcovers, and selected a drought-tolerant turf and groundcover. Anyone ready to switch out a high-water lawn should take note of these choices:
Red Mountain Flame ice plant (Delosperma ‘PWWG02S’). An ice plant with deep orange to red flowers! Ice plants came to the U.S. from South Africa. The plants use little to moderate water once established, yet they provide gorgeous, evergreen groundcover for the xeric garden. One reason is that they spread quickly. But ice plants won’t get invasive. When ours have spread too far, we’ve even transplanted some of the extra plant to another area of the garden with success. They’re usually yellow or pale pink to purple. I’m thrilled to have a new ice plant color choice for rock gardens and other beds. It’s also perfect that New Mexico’s own David Salman of Waterwise Gardening produced the Red Mountain Flame seedlings. Grow ice plant in zones 4 through 9. Red Mountain Flame needs a mix of sun and shade.
Alan’s Apricot ice plant (Delosperma ‘Alan’s Apricot’PPAF). The apricot-colored blooms of this new introduction are similar in color to existing ice plants, but larger. It also changes color to a pinker hue and then back again. Ice plants turn heads in summer when they fill with blooms on the low foliage. I can only imagine how Alan’s Apricot’s two-inch blooms will look in mid-summer. The larger, showy flowers also will shine in a container or the landscape as blooms begin to open or close each season. The ice plant was developed by Alan Tower of Spokane, Wash. Also for zones 4 through 9, a variety of soils, and a mix of sun and shade.
Moroccan pinchusion flower (Pterocephalus depressus). The Moroccan pincushion has similar foliage and an inch or so more height than ice plants. The pincushion flowers are light pink to rose in color and leave silvery seed heads after fading. It’s also evergreen, offering winter foliage in zones 4 through 8. Add Moroccan pincushion to a rock garden, raised bed or large container in full sun. The plant needs little to no water once established and should have soil that drains well.
DOG TUFF grass (Cynodon ‘PWIN04S’). Why have no lawn at all when you can have areas of turf for kids and pets, along with the look and cooling effects of grass? I’m all for removing some lawn, even more if you have a high-water grass. But I’ll never stop trying to convince people to leave a little grass. DOG TUFF lets homeowners have the best of both worlds: saving water and keeping a lawn. DOG TUFF has an extra quality that might have influenced Plant Select’s choice. Like the name says, it’s tough, holding up to foot traffic even in a xeric lawn. It also holds up to your dog’s help with “watering.” The grass comes in plugs for easier spread and planting. DOG TUFF needs more water the first year, but once established, the warm season grass should return in late spring for all-summer coverage in zones 5 through 10. Learn more about planting and caring for DOG TUFF here.
Plant Select is located in Ft. Collins, Colo., where its staff puts plants to work in test gardens to see how they do with little water. Plant Select also evaluates plants for adaptability, durability and ease of care. They also consider how attractive the plant is in the garden and whether it’s wildlife friendly.
Harvesting rainwater makes perfect sense, and we learned more about the process at a terrific workshop we attended at the NM Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque last week. From neighboring Texas, Billy Kniffen is the water resource specialist for Texas A&M University.
Kniffen explained that catching and using rainwater is not a new concept; early settlers in the West captured water. Interest is increasing today, at least among homeowners and gardeners who live in states that allow rain harvesting. We’ve used one or more rain barrels to capture roof water for years, and hope to someday acquire a large cistern. As Kniffen said, “the first rain barrel is the ‘gateway drug’ to rainwater harvesting.”
Getting Started Is Easy
I believe more people would harvest rainwater if they realized it’s not as complex a process as it seems. For simple gardening use, a few rain barrels or a cistern with pressure can irrigate ornamental plants. If you want to water edible plants, you have to take a few more steps; it’s recommended that you add features such as first flush equipment (which directs the first flush from your gutters away from the barrel to prevent nasty debri from entering the container) and filters. A prefilter also keeps leaves and debris out; you just have to clean it from time to time. You also can disinfect your rain water with chlorine or ultraviolet light.
A house that has a roof of 1,000 square feet can yield 600 gallons of water from just one inch of rainfall. For me, watching the small barrels fill and then overflow feels like a waste. In our case, water that runs from the house eventually refills our water table – and therefore our well. But in urban areas, water runoff fills streets and gutters, and often is wasted. Texas A&M Extension has made it easier to calculate the amount of rain you can collect from your home or shed roof.
Here’s a simple calculator for catchment area courtesy of the college. There’s also a link here to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (under Resources) with the formulas already included. HarvestingRainWater.com also has a simple calculator. Texas residents, or those who can easily compare their annual rainfall to one of the included Texas towns, can input the information and receive monthly flow rates and required cistern sizes to catch as much rain as possible. Finally, the school also publishes a manual all about rainwater harvesting.
Kniffen and his wife run their home solely off collected rainwater from their home and a shed. I don’t believe we have the money to collect all water and make it potable, but it’s always on the wish list. Any attempts to save and use rainwater can help preserve water for future years. I hope these tools make it a little easier for anyone considering rain harvesting to get started.
Gardeners can take many steps to save water, such as saving rain water and using drip irrigation. But one of the most crucial steps lies beneath our feet, in the soil that protects and nourishes roots and controls water drainage and aeration.
What you can’t see: soil microbes
Tiny microbes feed soil and plants, relying largely on humus, the rich organic matter that results from decay of natural materials. When conditions are right, insects, earthworms and microorganisms in healthy soil create humus. Organic matter in the soil ensures that microbes thrive and the soil drains as it should. And when a plant is otherwise healthy, it’s less vulnerable to diseases and can likely survive with less water. In Master Gardener training, I learned that New Mexico soils have organic matter of 20 percent or lower on average. At our place, rocks take up 90 percent of the soil (slight exaggeration). We located our vegetable garden in an area that used to be part of an apple orchard and that’s near the river. The soil is much better than near the house, likely because of organic matter working its way into the soil over the years.
Xeric plants and soil drainage
The thing is, many xeric plants are more affected by soil that remains wet than by lack of water. Lavender comes to mind; wet feet can cause root rot. Add a sudden drop in temperature to the dampness and lavender plants are at risk of dying. I’m seriously worried about ours after 18 inches of snow. Plant care instructions for nearly all xeric plants read “place in well-draining soil” because too much water in the soil suffocates a plant’s roots. Sand dries too quickly, but clay and compacted soils fail to drain.
Plants use valuable energy to pull moisture from soil. When they have to work harder to access water in soil, plants become stressed and wilt. If your soil drains quickly, you have to water more often and less deeply. Loam is the name used for balanced soil that has a fairly even mix of sand, clay and silt. As mentioned, clay soils hold too much water. Amending either extreme (sand or clay) with organic matter helps plants access the appropriate amount of water needed with less stress. Instead of adding sand or clay to balance soil, gardeners should use organic matter to gradually improve soil health and function.
Here are a few tips for ensuring your plants’ soil is healthy, providing nutrients, water drainage and oxygen to roots:
Add organic matter. The type of matter you add is more specific to your soil’s pH and other factors. But most natural organic amendments, such as manure or green manure, can help. Also called cover crops, green manure is the purposeful planting in fall and winter of crops that restore soil nitrogen and organic matter used up by summer plants. When using animal manure, add it to compost or make sure it’s cooked completely; don’t add fresh manure to growing plants.
Properly handle plant residue. Although some schools of thought are in favor of letting spent plant material stay on the ground to decay and provide organic matter, gardeners should use caution. Insects overwinter in plant residue on the ground (good if you want monarchs, but you can’t really go around selecting which insects get to take up residence). And it’s never a good idea to use diseased plant material. We kept some healthy plant material, but anything that looks funky goes into compost bins or garbage. We don’t mess with “wilder” areas around the property.
Use organic mulches. Adding mulch around (but not against) the base of the plant helps slow water evaporation from the soil. Organic mulches eventually break down, improving soil make-up.
Rotate crops and use cover crops. In vegetable and herb gardening, move annual crops around so that the soil nutrients get a break. Families of plants differ in how they use soil nutrients.
Stop tilling. Rototilling, the traditional farm method, burns off carbon and adds to weed emergence. It also breaks soil up into smaller particles, which makes it less permeable for air and water. Repeated tilling leads to loose top soil. Heard about the Dust Bowl? Work added organic matter into the top few inches only, or let it sit on top of soil.
When in doubt, test your soil to determine how much of it is sand, clay or loam. You can perform your own home test pretty easily using a mason jar, as described on page 11 of this publication from the San Diego County Water Authority.
Growing edibles can be a smart xeric strategy, especially for anyone looking to begin a garden or use less water in the lawn and garden. Many edibles are attractive and some are evergreen. If you live in an arid zone, applying more water to edibles than to ornamental plants is the right thing to do. Here are a few strategies for making your lawn and garden attractive while saving water and helping to feed your family.
Grow perennial herbs and vegetables
Luckily, several delicious and useful perennial herbs require little water. My favorites are rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme. All of these plants thrive in our xeric garden at zone 6B, and many are hardy to even colder temperatures. Providing well-drained soil helps these herbs survive; some of the only diseases that attack them are related to prolonged wet roots or poor air circulation around wet leaves. Other useful perennial herbs for the xeric garden include bee balm, yarrow and oregano.
Once you’ve mastered a successful season growing food, consider a perennial vegetable such as asparagus. One plant can survive for more than a decade. Growing asparagus requires some patience until the plant produces and a commitment, but harvesting fresh asparagus for several years would be worth it. Although the vegetable requires more water than some for the first few years, you’re likely to use less water over the life of the plant than you would by planting a crop of zucchini or other vegetable year after year. Asparagus is hardy in zones 3 to 8. Some spears showed up along our ditch bank last year. They were leggy, but the plants have survived several winters with no irrigation or other effort on part, since we didn’t know about them. Here’s an article from Gardener’s Supply Company on how to grow asparagus.
Shade with trees that produce food
Shade is a must for lawns in hot, dry climates. If you’re going to plant a shade tree, why not choose one that produces food? I believe that fruit trees get a bad rap as being “messy.” It takes less time to harvest from the trees or pick up dropped fruit every few days than it takes some of us to make a grocery trip! Enjoy the shade of an apricot or apple tree and delicious, fresh fruit in summer, depending on the year’s frost. Fruit trees also have beautiful spring color and attract pollinators. Some nut trees thrive in warm climates.
Dwarf fruit trees provide less shade, but use less water and space and produce a more reasonable amount of fruit. Busy working parents likely will appreciate that dwarf fruit trees entail less work than full-sized ones in an abundant year. Dwarf trees require less climbing and pruning, and often produce fruit earlier than their larger counterparts. A single dwarf tree that requires no companion for pollination can add a little shade, color and interest to a xeric lawn or garden. Just be sure to choose a variety hardy for your zone. Many dwarf pears, plums and apples are hardy to zone 5; Stark Bro’s helps you choose a dwarf variety based on your zone. Mulching around the tree can reduce water needs.
Use shade for other edibles
Trees provide shade for people and plants. Take advantage of shade to grow edible crops under trees, shrubs or other vegetables. Many herbs and vegetables tolerate partial shade or grow best during cooler weather. Planting basil where it gets afternoon shade can help the plant thrive and use less water. Just be sure to estimate where the shade will be come the height of summer, not where it is when you plant.
Planting edibles in containers is a smart water choice and can give the gardener more flexibility in controlling sun exposure. I planted several tomatoes in containers and moved the pots slightly as summer became hotter, giving them plenty of sun, but afternoon shade on our patio. Of course, you need a properly sized container for the plant you choose. Grape and cherry tomatoes need a little less space than full-sized varieties. You can place containers in the shade of trees, right in the garden, to complement your garden’s design.
Choose cool-season crops
Providing shade extends the season of crops that grow better in cooler temperatures. Choosing some cool-season crops also can save water because these edibles produce in early spring or late fall, using less water than those grown in hot summer sun. We’ve used shade to grow lettuce mixes and spinach. Again, using containers for these crops allows you to easily move the container when summer sun or drought stress the plants. And containers help you grow edibles close to your kitchen for more months of the year.
Although you might not think you’re saving water when soaking tomatoes, consider the amount of water that goes into tomatoes you buy at the store, along with the energy used to transport them. Most of all, take a bite of a tomato right from the vine and you’ll quickly lose your taste for any store-bought fruit.
Although the drought has eased in New Mexico and some areas of the Southwest, it’s still serious in many regions. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to save water in the yard, garden or farm all year long, regardless of your region’s current drought status.
No matter where you live, the foremost reason to adhere to low-water gardening designs and principles is to conserve water, which is the right thing to do for this and future generations. I doubt homeowners in California, many of whom typically enjoy steady rainfall of 18 or more inches a year, were concerned about drought when they had their yards designed decades ago. In fact, the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct likely marked the beginning of the phenomenon that occurs when too many residents are concentrated in a geographic area, especially one not conducive to urbanization.
The aqueduct and population are only part of the problem in California or in any region short on water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American uses about 320 gallons of water a day. Nearly 30 percent of home use flows outdoors, including on lawns. All-told, home landscape irrigation accounts for some 9 billion gallons of water a day around the country.
If you’ve read past blog posts, you know that I plead for a measured and appropriate response, one that if taken before severe drought strikes can prevent community, and eventually global, water crises. That approach includes native or xeric landscape design, not the destruction of all living plant material in a lawn. As I’ve said before, replacing grass with gravel doesn’t necessarily save water or energy.
For a 2015 recap and 2016 garden prep reminder, here are the 10 easiest ways to save water in your lawn and garden:
1. Convert some turf to gravel if you like, using oasis zones and smart xeriscape design principles. Involve a landscaping professional if the job is big or the concept overwhelms you.
2. Convert high-water turf to a native, low-water grass. The best choices for high desert areas are Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) and Buffalo grass (Buchloë dactyloides). A new hybrid called Dog Tuff (Cynodon hybrid) also comes in plugs for quicker spread.
3. Water wisely, cutting back in winter and irrigating only in the cool of the morning during summer. Use drip irrigation instead of spray or sprinklers when possible. Add mulch around plant beds.
4. Look for signs of water waste, such as runoff. Create a dry-river bed, bioswale or terrace to capture water and place plants with higher water needs in swales or at the bottom of inclines. Well around plants that need a little more water.
5. Remember that even low-water or xeric plants need extra water the first year; if the plant doesn’t make it because it dries out, you’ve wasted whatever water you used to irrigate plus the cost of the plant.
6. Choose perennials over annuals. Every time you plant annuals, you must water them extra to help them get established for the season. Growing more perennials and letting native annuals and wildflowers go to seed is a better strategy; leave one small bed or container arrangement only for annuals each year.
7. Grow edibles in your lawn or landscape. If you don’t want the look of a full-blown kitchen garden from the curb, place perennial herbs or low-water plants with berries for your family or birds in the most visible areas of the landscape.
8. Make smart use of containers and raised beds. Containers and raised beds use less water than the ground. Just be careful to water slowly. If water pours out the bottom of the pot, you’ve probably given more than the plant needs, and if you water rapidly, you can wash nutrients from the pot’s soil mix.
9. Check and improve the soil. It’s easy to ensure good soil and drainage in containers, but less so in the lawn. Even without a soil test, a gardener can see when the ground around a plant doesn’t drain well; that can be the death of many xeric plants. Adding organic matter and loosening the soil (but not tilling) can help build soil health over time.
10. Capture and use rain water. If you don’t want to water edibles this way, at least catch rain from your roof to water your ornamentals. It might seem like one 50-gallon barrel isn’t enough, but as with all waterwise gardening, every little bit helps.
Search or browse past posts in the Archive or check my Resources page if you want to learn more about low-water gardening strategies. And here’s to 2016!
It seems that Los Angeles officials are considering installing cisterns with smart technology to catch rain water for irrigation. It’s about time. Even when rain barrels and cisterns fail to collect all of the water that falls from the skies or flows from the roof, they still make use of water that might otherwise run off and go to waste. And homeowners can use the water for ornamentals and even edibles.
I don’t know much about LA and its politics, but I do know that when I made a trip to southern California recently, water restrictions were forcing patches of brown grass more than landscape alterations. Pulling up some of the grass, replacing it with a few vegetables and herbs, and then watering those edibles with rain water seems like a really smart and sustainable solution.
We’ve been using rain barrels for many years. When we had a flat tar and gravel roof and city water in Albuquerque, N.M., we limited use of the rain barrel to ornamentals only. But now that we rely on a well, grow more food on more land and have metal roofing, we use rain water on our vegetables and herbs.
Before collecting rain water for edibles, I researched the topic and found little information, but enough to make me feel comfortable using the water. Since then, more data is out there confirming that for the most part, collected rain water from common roofing materials is safe for edibles as long as you follow a few preventive collection and watering practices. Most of my tips are about barrels, which is all I have so far. I would love to have a cistern; it’s on my wish list! To learn more about the data and specific roof material information, check out the Resources page under Rainwater Collection and Rain Barrels.
Safe Rain Water Collection
None of the research claims that collected rain water is potable. There are just too many variables. In urban areas, pollution settles on rooftops. Where I live, critters and birds fly over or hang out on the gutters, likely leaving droppings. Here are a few ways to make your collected water safer for vegetable use:
Clean rain barrels with a bleach solution before using them for edibles. Rutgers also recommends adding eight drops of bleach per month for a 55-gallon barrel, and waiting 24 hours before using the water so the bleach can dissipate.
Rinse out barrels once a year, removing sediment and using either bleach or a vinegar and lemon solution to clean the barrel.
Keep gutters clean and free of debris, which also makes good sense for roof maintenance.
When installing a new system, it’s recommended to have a first-flush diverted added. This washes the first flush of downspout water, along with debris and contaminants, away from the barrel before it begins filling.
Most commercial barrels have screens to keep debris (and birds or other small animals) from getting inside the barrel. Be sure to wipe the screens off from time to time. Even leaves can rot and drip into the rain water.
Of course, you can choose to water only ornamental and house plants with rain water if you have any doubts. I also tend to alternate watering between my barrel and well for vegetable rows, just to mix up the nutrients and potential metals from both, and because the barrel by the garden usually empties before the next good rain. For safest edible watering, be sure to follow these tips:
After a barrel fills, use the first full bucket or so on ornamentals, not on vegetables or herbs. This first flush from the barrel usually contains more contaminants because of settled water at the bottom.
Always water the soil and not the plant, a best practice for gardening anyway. And the soil absorbs the water, not the leaves. This is especially important for any edible you harvest from above the ground (or other than root vegetables).
Water in the morning and wait to harvest, after the sun’s rays have dried and disinfected the plants.
Finally, those folks in California can water their lawns (hopefully less by switching to native, low-water grasses) with cisterns, which typically have pressure valves. Most smaller rain barrels lack the pressure required to drive soaker hoses. Raising your barrel a few feet can increase the pressure to allow use of a hose or drip system, but likely not enough to run a lawn sprinkler. In the past, we’ve used stacked square pavers or cement blocks to raise ours.
In the past week, I’ve heard several friends or family members say that they can’t grow plants, that they kill everything they try to grow, etc. I’m here to tell you that every gardener has killed a plant. And if there is anyone out there who can prove otherwise, I’ll send them a free succulent. We have plenty to spare. Just don’t tell my husband.
The seasoned gardener will blame the deer that ate/trampled the day lilies or the bad, strange weather the past year (read nearly any of my blog posts) or grasshoppers and other insects that brought damage and dreaded disease. You know, these seasoned gardeners aren’t really lying. The truth is that all anyone can do is start with the healthiest plant possible, place it in the best possible environment and care for it according to the plant’s needs and the environment in which it lives. If it doesn’t work, we learn from it and try again, sometimes with another plant or another place. And if you get really fed up, you can always switch environments!
We happen to love our environment, and I know there are many more hostile than ours. No matter where you live and grow, gardening is trial and error. And like any hobby or DIY project, preparation and a little upfront learning can increase your chance of success, even in a hostile setting. Here are a few problems we face in ours, along with tips to keep from giving up.
Drought and water use. When you “go with the flow,” so to speak in low-water gardening, you take what nature delivers. That means supplementing new plantings with water until they’re established, even watering xeric plants more than suggested for the first year or so. We use rainwater as much as possible, and since our established plants generally need little to no irrigation, we can use well water sparingly as needed. A bigger problem can be too much water. And I think new gardeners, or at least gardeners adjusting to growing xeric plants, tend to overwater drought-tolerant plants for the duration. It’s also instinct to assume when a plant wilts that it needs water, when the cause might be something else. Sometimes, Mother Nature overwaters and having healthy plants helps them ride out the storm.
Never Give-up Tips: Avoid the temptation to overwater. Make sure low-water plants get a good start, especially by planting them in well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter.
Climate. Nature also can deliver water or temperature in strange patterns. This year, we had more than a week of clouds, cool temperatures and wet days. Our plants got confused, and sometimes climate conditions that are unnatural to native plants can cause stress and disease. At other times, it keeps them blooming later than normal, which is a good thing. Using microclimates, even temporary ones, can help plants weather the goofy weather. For example, I planted my chile and bell peppers at the same time as last year, but the weather was cooler than normal right after I planted. I’ll admit that our seedlings were a little weak, too, so that’s a lesson learned. But I should have put something over or around them to warm them up a notch. A few of them never thrived.
Never Give-up Tips: Know your plants’ zones and sun requirements and follow them when planting, remembering that trees leaf out and grow! And try an edible or annual in a different spot next year or move an established perennial.
Gophers. I’ll include all underground critters, such as moles, prairie dogs and ground squirrels in this one. For us, gophers rank up there as enemy no. 1. You can’t even say they’re cute, because for one, you really never see them. They do their damage mostly at night and I have only seen one pop up as it worked to open a hole in our brand new lavender bed, after chewing up the roots of one of the brand new lavender plants, of course. Some will say they improve the soil. I say they destroy plants. Our tally in a few years includes an Echinacea, a primrose, an ornamental grass, two lavender plants and at least one dwarf apple tree. The newer and more vulnerable the plant, the more they seem to love it.
Never Give-up Tips: The only method that works for keeping gophers away from a vegetable or ornamental garden is burying metal barriers 24 inches down to surround the entire garden or using raised beds such as metal troughs. Of course, container gardening also works. As for control, that’s a post, or two, or three, of its own.
Deer. Deer are cute and we try to work with them. Our property has only pipe fencing, which the deer and elk can jump over or wind their way through easily. Many of our ornamental plants are unattractive to deer, and we fence those that they enjoy munching on, at least until the plants are large enough to survive the meal. We’ve learned the hard way on a few plants. For example, I didn’t know that deer enjoy the flavor of a spineless prickly pear cactus until we lost an entire pad! They were nice enough to just step on the other one. Deer do draw the line at spiny prickly pear in case you’re wondering.
Never Give-up Tips: It’s easy to search online for lists of plants that deer prefer or avoid, and fencing really is the only deterrent that works. I have used soap shavings (strong-smelling ones) hanging around my unfenced tomato plants with some success, but only in summer when they have a buffet of choices.
Insects. I don’t much care for bugs, and am learning all I can about the bad ones. We use integrated pest management, because the last thing we want to do is kill bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Our fruit-set rates were incredible for this summer’s vegetables, and I thank our pollinators. But our plants and our feet are under constant attack. Ants have taken over our orchard and we caught some carrying off fall carrot seeds the other day. This is a problem we have to work on, but also accept as part of gardening. And we will continue to do what we can to attract pollinators.
Never Give-up Tips: Hand-pick known criminals such as tomato hornworms or cucumber beetles after you’ve identified them. And spray plants with water for offenders such as aphids. Spraying pesticides, even organic ones, can kill beneficial insects that help control the bad bugs. We plan to add row-cover cloth over more seedlings this year until the plants flower to help control grasshoppers and other bugs.
Weeds. It’s so hard to pick a favorite problem! Or least favorite, I should say. With four acres and a couple of garden areas, we seem to spend more time dealing with weeds than growing. I’m not of the mindset that weeds are good, because I think they harbor pests and critters if left to their own devices. Many also compete for water resources. We are relaxing our rules a bit, however, having decided which invasive plants we can take out of the weed column and which to leave there. And since we know we can’t remove them from every spot, we’re eliminating weeds where we can and turning our attention to prevention.
Never Give-up Tips: Use organic practices such as thick mulch and plastic or tarps in vegetable garden prep to block sun and water from weeds and thus prevent them. Hand-pull or hoe around plants to prevent weeds such as field bindweed from choking plants or stealing their water. Just because a thistle has a pretty flower doesn’t mean you should let it go to seed if it’s invasive in your region.
Xeriscaping has become more of a mandate in many Southwestern communities, and it’s too bad that it’s come to that. But with long-term drought and overpopulation in concentrated urban areas, it’s no wonder that water resources are scarce.
As I’ve said for a few years on this blog, drought is nothing new to New Mexicans, and many leaders of low-water gardening and planting hail from Colorado and New Mexico. That doesn’t mean everybody gets it, but there are plenty of examples of gorgeous front and back yard landscapes that use little to no irrigation but have curb appeal and bring joy to home gardeners and guests.
One of my biggest concerns about water restrictions imposed on residents of Western states is that homeowners and business owners will react to the extreme, going from a complete high-water turf lawn to all-gravel landscapes. I’ve ranted here and plenty of other places on this blog about what this move does to existing trees, home energy use and how it’s just plain ugly.
Here’s a summary of six strategies for planning an attractive and effective waterwise landscape that includes some living plants and joy without blowing your budget or your mind.
1. Start with xeric zones. The concept of simple xeriscaping zones around your home makes planning easier. The point is to place your gravel and most drought-tolerant plants the furthest from your home. Putting a few plants that need a little more water, or having some turf for the dogs, kids or green that you love is OK, as long as you keep it in moderation and close to the house. This helps keep your house cooler, gives you and your family a nice place to gather and can even help keep shade trees alive. Those are waterwise and energy-saving strategies and can help form the basis for your plan.
2. Keep the right type and amount of turf. Unless you have reasons beyond water savings, you don’t have to eliminate turf altogether. Just switch out the type and size of your grass area. Take the grass out of your arid zone, and replace grass in small portions of the transition or mini-oasis zones (areas closer to the house) with a native, drought-tolerant variety. Your local nursery should have native or hybrid grasses in seed, sod or plugs that grow in your area with little to no watering once established.
3. Take a tip from permaculture. Approach your new landscape holistically, creating a design that’s self-sustaining. For example, divert rainwater from your roof to water a shade tree or create a small rain garden or bioswale in an area that always pools with mud or water after a hard rain. Use leaves from the shade tree for compost or simply rake them up to mulch a plant. Grow edibles as ornamentals in the sunny spot once taken up by grass. Include some xeric plants that attract pollinators to help ensure good fruit production on your new edibles. The photo at the top of this post shows a few of these principles, but we’re working on incorporating more.
4. Level land with burms, steps or terraces. One of the biggest wasters of sprinkler water, aside from evaporation, is runoff. If your landscape has any slope at all, finding a way to control that slope can save water immediately. For example, when we added to our patio, we messed with the water runoff and it affected nearby established plants. They’re not as healthy now because they got too much water. So we plan to try a combination of a bioswale and burm to relocate the low-water plants and divert some of the water. Burms are usually rounded shelves or bumps, with a more natural look. Steps can give you access to an area and great placement for xeric plants and ornamental grasses. Terracing shores up dirt and water and provides excellent opportunities for landscape palettes and sectioning off beds. Look for lots of ideas online and by driving around your neighborhood, and get help from a landscape designer and contractor if the job is too much for you.
5. Use indoor design principles. If gardening overwhelms you, or you don’t know much about plants, it shouldn’t stop you from creating some curb appeal in a new low-water landscape. Many of the same principles apply to outdoor design as indoor – color, texture, height and shape. Terraces or burms can help, but even if you have a flat yard, you can start with an existing or new tree for height and take it from there. Just look at a plant’s tag or seek advice from a local master gardener, favorite local garden author, or favorite garden blogger. Look at the plant’s mature height, spread, flower color and a photo of the foliage.
6. Feature native plants. The surest road to success with low-water landscaping is to feature plants native to your area or to areas with the same climate zones. For example, California gardeners are expanding their plant choices with low-water natives from other Mediterranean countries such as South Africa and Western Australia. Once a native plant is established, usually after a year, it should make it through your climate extremes with no extra work on your part. Native plants have adapted to the environment. And although some need pruning, deadheading and sometimes a little bit of drip irrigation, many need nothing but your attention, which you give them when you walk through or sit among the plants. We have a huge rock garden, and we never water most of the plants, or give them one drink after spring pruning if we’ve had no rain. Native annuals and wildflowers are particularly beneficial, and some homeowners reverse their xeric zones to create meadows and completely natural areas along the edges of their properties.
Finally, the best strategy is to take it slowly, steadily and with moderation. I fear that too many people will react by letting their lawns die or by pulling them up and replacing them with landscape plastic and gravel. My hope is that I will continue to see colorful native landscapes throughout the West filled with edibles, blooms, evergreen foliage and low-water shade trees, and dotted with touches of native grasses where kids and pets can run around and birds can peck for seeds and earthworms. Is that too much to ask?
Saving water with low-water ornamentals is a perfect xeriscaping strategy. You also can save money on low-water annuals when planning next year’s garden by collecting seeds from spent flowers and wildflowers. Think of the possibilities. For example, that wild daisy that pops up between your fence and alley every year would look really pretty in the new rock garden in your front yard. Fall is the time to gather seeds from flowers you’d like to have in next year’s garden.
When to collect flower seeds
Select a healthy plant, free of insects. If you normally deadhead the blooms regularly, leave a few to go to seed. That’s also true, of course, if you want to see more of a particular flower in the same general area of your garden or lawn next year. If you completely deadhead or shear off all of the spent blooms, you have less chance of local reseeding. It’s just too bad that we can’t control where the wind blows or other elements.
Make sure the seed head is fully mature. The seeds should be dry, usually brown. They’ll likely fall off the flower head when shaken slightly. So be ready to catch them with your hand, an envelope, pantyhose or a paper bag. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you can catch them, keep them dry and prevent them from blowing away. Then, either mark down or remember the plant from which you gathered the seeds.
There’s a chance that you can wait too long to gather seeds, but it depends on the plant, weather conditions (such as wind and humidity) and local birds. The plant could go dormant before you gather seeds, or the seeds could dry and all drop or blow away, so it’s a good idea to check the flower often as it begins to mature.
How to store seeds
Keep collected or purchased seeds in a cool, dry and dark place. Paper bags protect the seeds, but allow some air circulation to prevent mold (unless you take the step of drying seeds mentioned below). A constantly cool temperature and low humidity will help keep seeds fresh for at least a year. Storing them longer requires more steps, such as drying them at 100 degrees F for six hours. You can do this in a microwave oven if you can control the temperature, or outside in a warm climate, preferably keeping the seeds in the shade.
Once dry, seeds should be stored in sealed cans or jars, which are preferred to plastic bags. The sealing prevents oxygen and moisture from entering the containers; those are two factors that promote germination. Although the optimum temperature is below 50 degrees F, you shouldn’t freeze seeds.
A few cautions
You can’t collect seeds on public land, and should not take seeds from any rare or endangered flower. Designated organizations take care of that. If you want to gather seeds on private land, even if it’s not in use, you should get permission from the land’s owner. Otherwise, it’s fairly simple gathering seeds from flowers and grasses. I’ll address vegetable seed gathering next week.
If you don’t have space in your refrigerator or a similar cool, dry spot for storing the seeds you gather, try exchanging seeds for space with a friend. Or buy seeds each year for common flowers. Truly, seeds are relatively inexpensive compared with plants and you will soon learn which flowers do best in your zone and landscape. In my opinion, unless you have optimum collection and storage conditions, you’ll have lower germination rates with gathered seeds than with those you buy. Still, we continue to gather and broadcast seeds around our place and let nature take it from there, or store some for next spring. And I applaud all efforts to gather and reseed, especially for native wildflowers that use little to no water!
In New Mexico, drought is more a way of life than an occasional phenomenon. With only 10 inches of annual rainfall in much of the state and a high of 20 inches in the mountains, xeriscaping is the responsible landscaping strategy.
But here’s the problem – unaware homeowners and real estate “flippers” often come in and rip out every blade of grass, replacing the cool turf with what amounts to hot lava. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but too much landscape gravel can be harsh. And the gravel often lies over a layer of black plastic. If they leave a tree in place, they can kiss it goodbye in five or 10 years. And they might say hello to higher energy costs.
Replace high-water grass
So, let’s say that you want to save water by eliminating your current turf lawn, which uses way too much water. If you plan to rip it out anyway and were thinking of replacing it with gravel and hardscaping, then consider ripping out the high-water grass and replacing a small portion of it with a low-water native grass. Ideally, you’d plant some turf close to your home for the cooling and barefoot effect, especially around the southwest side of the house. And if you have a tree you want to preserve, especially one that shades your home, consider low-water grass near the outside canopy of the tree and wood or other organic mulch surrounding the tree’s trunk.
Low-water native grass
Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass is a favorite of area ranchers for its protein content and because it comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm up. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. That’s right, the less you do, the more healthy the grass. Now, you can’t beat that for saving water and time.
When I first heard about using native grasses for lawns, I assumed they would not look like regular turf, but like separate bunches of tall grass swaying in the breeze. I could not have been more wrong. It might take longer to fill in than do some grasses designed for turf, and certainly longer than laying sod, but blue grama bunches spread and meet, forming a sod lawn. However, if you want to let the grass go to seed – especially to promote its spread – you’ll delight in the appearance of its 12-inch high stalks with blue-green seedheads. You can even have a mix of both. Mow it in a small patch where you walk and let a few stalks go to seed near the perimeter.
The main point is that with a low-water grass native to your area, you can keep a lawn for kids to play on, dogs to run in, or just for the look of green grass in summer. Yet you use no more water after the first year than you would if you put gravel around your entire house. In fact, most warmer areas of New Mexico have evaporative cooling, which mixes water with forced air to cool homes. When heat reflects off of gravel right next to the house, it takes more water and electricity to cool a house down.
And a few cautions
I have a few cautions with blue grama, however. The first is that it needs some supplemental water the first summer, much like any new lawn. The grass typically comes in seed or plugs, and native sod rolls are now available in Colorado. The seeds should be available from companies that sell native and drought-tolerant plants. The seeds germinate quickly when temperatures are high. The second caution is patience. Blue grama greens a little later in spring than typical grasses made for lawns, especially those that use lots of water. So hang in there. You can water a little in summer when rain is scarce to keep the grass from going dormant, but part of the beauty is letting nature take its course.
Since it’s late in the year now in most zones to successfully seed blue grama, you can at least plan for next year. Check out this excellent handout from High Country Gardens on how to prep your lawn for native grass plugs.
Finally, native grasses are just that; they’re not hybrids designed for perfectly manicured lawns that look like golf greens. You might have some imperfections and will certainly have to wait until each area fills in. But when given a choice between gravel and green, I’ll take at least a patch of green – and without using a drop of water.