Plan a Xeric Turf Lawn

Because the drought in California is so severe and restrictions attempted earlier this year did not have much effect, regulators adopted unprecedented restrictions at the urging of Governor Jerry Brown that include encouraging homeowners to let their lawns die. A survey of the state’s local water departments showed that water use fell less than 4 percent in March of this year compared with March 2013; total water use has gone down only about 9 percent since summer 2014. The new regulations require cities to cut use by up to 36 percent.

What remains to be seen is how cities will enforce the laws, or help homeowners do a better job of conserving water.

all-gravel lawn
This is the choice of most homeowners who xeriscape, and now the only choice in drought-stricken California. Note the bermuda grass creeping back through the gravel.

Some of the crisis could have been avoided with xeriscaping years ago. Californians and any of us in arid Southwestern climates do not have to  give up on turf lawns completely, at least if we act before a crisis of California proportion hits. You can responsibly incorporate some turf into your xeric landscape rather than going all gravel. Let me first explain the benefits of keeping a limited amount of turf.

  • As I’ve mentioned before, xeriscaping includes zones, and the zone closest to your home is called the mini-oasis. This is where you should plant turf and your highest water users, keeping “highest water users” relative in scope and quantity. One reason is that you can water some of the plants in this area with rainfall runoff from the roofline and downspouts. And when in a drought, you should catch as much rain as possible.
  • The other reason to have some planting and green around your home is to help keep your house cool in summer. This might not be as important if you live in the mountains (although if you do, I bet you are like us, and rely on cross-breezes and cool evenings instead of air conditioning!). If you switch to all gravel instead of some grass or native plants, your house will become hotter, and eventually you’ll use more energy to cool your home. If you have evaporative cooling, guess what? You’ll use more water, too.
  • Any trees planted near the house that help shade it in summer will likely die if you cover their roots with plastic and rocks.

I’m not saying you should sod a huge lawn or use any grass you like, however. Many people in Albuquerque, where average rainfall is 12 inches a year, have planted lawns made up of a Kentucky Bluegrass mix. Those lawns need about 40 inches of rain a year, and I don’t have to tell you that Kentucky is hardly a desert…

So, what’s the ideal situation? Plant a small area of native, low-water grass near your home (especially on the south or west sides) or around the base of the tree that shades your house. Native grasses have adapted to live in their environment, and should thrive in your climate with little to no supplemental watering. Here are a few examples of sod-forming grasses:

  • Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis). Blue grama is best known for its seed heads, which form in middle to late summer, assuming you stop mowing for a bit and let them go to seed. The low-water, warm-season grass has fine green blades and loves hot weather. It will winter over in cold climates as well.

    Dried grama grass seed heads
    We mowed around this clump of blue grama for weeks last summer and fall to let it go to seed and hopefully spread. This is how it looks in early spring.
  • Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides). Buffalograss is a native prairie grass that establishes quickly from seed or starter plugs. It won’t work as well under a tree or the shade of a house as some natives because it prefers full sun. But the warm-season grass requires little mowing and only two inches of water a month, even in the hot summer.
  • Western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smitthi). This cool-season grass works in most soil types and uses little water. It has bluish leaves and spreads by rhizomes, so be careful where you plant it. Also, the grass is native to high elevations.
winter wheatgrass
Winter wheatgrass in a New Mexico horse pasture.

You also can mix buffalograss and blue grama for a native lawn that fills in quickly and densely.

blue grama grass in spring
This is some blue grama grass near the clump that went to seed. It’s greening up nicely in early May with only rain water and some fertilizer from deer.

Avoid planting turf on a slope, and keep your small lawn area away from sidewalks or curbs, so that when rain or the occasional sprinkler water hits the grass, the moisture stays there and doesn’t run off.

Finally, with native grasses, you have to learn to go with the flow, so to speak, and not expect to have the greenest, most dandelion-free lawn on the block. The lawn’s health will vary from one year to the next. We have several acres of various native grasses and even more weeds. Obviously, we do not water any of the lawn/pasture. It’s completely up to Mother Nature. We control the weeds in some areas and mow when it all begins to grow in late spring or early summer.

salinas-pueblo-missions-natural-grasslands
Natural grasslands at Salinas Pueblo Missions, a national park near Mountainair, N.M. I am certain this grass receives no irrigation.

 

Harvesting Rainwater for Your Garden

The drought is easing here as April showers finally arrived and turned into a few May thunderstorms. Our rain barrels are overflowing, and it makes me happy, but crazy. (I need to check and see if I say “xxx makes me crazy” on every post. This is a troublesome pattern.) Anyway, I hate to see any of that precious resource go to waste. In reality, I know it’s watering the natural grass, trees and plants, flowing into the river, and adding to our water table. But I want to collect as much of it as I can to avoid use of our well water for most of the year.

Backyard rain barrel
This is a basic, 50-gallon rain barrel used as needed for xeric ornamentals and herbs. I’ll use it soon for some vegetables.

From 30 percent to 50 percent of public or potable water in a given community can go to landscaping. I know we could use more than that between our fruit trees and vegetable gardens. It’s imperative that we all continue to find ways to cut the amount. I tackle that as often as I can on this blog, but for now, I want to focus on rainwater collection and safety of rainwater for edibles.

Rain barrels and cisterns

Our two 50-gallon rain barrels just don’t cut it. And I have big plans to add more, including a huge above-ground or underground cistern. Most homeowners use barrels similar to ours to water ornamental gardens. We’ve found that they’re easy to install, and work pretty well, although Tim has had to replace the faucet on some. You can add a hose to the bottom of the barrel or fill a watering can from the spigot. The barrels cost around $80 to $135, depending on quality, size and appearance.

bottom or rain barrel with faucet
Our basic barrels have a spigot for filling water pails and a hose connection.

Cisterns cost more, and generally are used by commercial operations. But if we ever get our greenhouse (see my comment above about what makes me crazy, as in not having one yet), I think it would be difficult and irresponsible to add year-round gardening without having rainwater collection. A 1,000-gallon tank runs close to $600 or more, and you can expect to pay up to $5,000 for a 10,000-gallon cistern, plus excavation if it’s going underground. Of course, with all cisterns, you have to consider some installation costs, plus shipping or transportation and permits in some cases.

Roof water for vegetable gardens

In the past, I heard that roof water was not safe for watering edibles, and I avoided using rain barrel water from my tar and gravel roof on herbs or vegetables. But we now have a metal roof, and I feel comfortable using the barrels to water ornamentals and edibles. I wanted to back that up with science, however, so I found some great information from Rutgers University’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station.

downspout over rain barrel
A metal roof, gutters and downspout bring water to our two rain barrels. The barrel has a screen to prevent debris or birds from getting inside.

The study tested safety of rain barrel water for irrigation of a vegetable garden. In short, they found that rainwater collected from asphalt shingle roofs met irrigation water standards, with a few exceptions. E. coli sometimes appeared in the samples because of droppings from birds, squirrels or other animals. And rain barrel water is not safe to drink, but is considered safe to use to water the soil (roots) of your vegetables. The authors of the study recommended a few practices to ensure the rain water remains safe:

  • Clean rain barrels with a 3-percent bleach solution before collecting water you’ll use for herbs and vegetables. Since you need to empty the barrel before winter (unless you are in a mild climate), you can clean it before each spring. Or simply add household bleach at a rate of 1/8 teaspoon per gallon of water twice a month during heavy rainfall). It’s diluted enough to prevent any harm to plants after about 24 hours.
  • Pour the rain water directly onto the soil, not on the plant’s leaves, or use it in drip irrigation.
  • Water in the morning and harvest at night. This gives the sun’s rays time to disinfect leaves. Morning watering is a better xeric technique, anyway.
  • It also helps to clean your gutters before spring rains hit, just to cut down on dirt and debris.

Harden Off Houseplants for Their Summer Vacation

When warm days—and especially warmer evenings—finally arrive, our houseplants are more than ready to move outside. It’s easy to tell. They look a little leggy and droopy. And although I said they are ready for a summer vacation, in reality, they’re taking an eight or nine month winter vacation inside. Because plants grow naturally outdoors, of course!

Geranium hardening off outside.
Geraniums are annuals in our climate, but I love how they bloom indoors in sunny windows all winter.

I really only have geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) right now, along with one canna that I keep in a huge container. It’s my ode to the tropics, and although it hasn’t bloomed again, I love it purely for the leaves. This year, I plan to cut it back and divide it, giving a few bulbs to family members who live in a warmer climate. Maybe dividing and cutting it back will force energy into blooming. We’ll see!

tropicanna canna
This Tropicanna canna is from Tessalaar Plants, and would have trouble making it here, plus uses too much water. But I have kept it alive in a container purely for the leaves. The flower is bright orange and gorgeous!

One reason I have few house plants is time, another is water savings, and most of all, it is lack of space and containers. My succulent-collecting husband has taken up most of the sunny space with propagation, and used lots of the containers. But I enjoy his cactus habit!

The main point to remember when bringing all of your houseplants out for the first time after their “winter vacation” is to introduce them slowly to the outdoor climate again. For most houseplants, that means bringing them into a shady, protected area first or leaving them out on a relatively calm but cloudy day. And bring them back in the first few nights if there is any chance that temperatures will approach frost.

aloe vera plants
Aloe vera plants harden off on a partly sunny day in preparation for the summer outside.

The cacti may be able to sit in full sun from the start; in fact, they probably need it. But if it gets blazing hot, bring them in before day’s end, and don’t subject them to cool desert evenings until they’ve at least been outside through dinner hour. If you don’t want to make the indoor/outdoor trek every night, you can cover your most sensitive plants with landscape fabric until they harden off and the nights warm up. The fabric also can help shade them during the hottest part of the day if temperatures shift while your plants are acclimating.

Make sure your plants are healthy and ready for the move outdoors. I cut my geraniums back quite a bit and usually add a little bit of soil or compost to the pot. If they’re in really bad shape, I will repot them. But they tend to bloom better if slightly root bound. Then I give them a good drink and put them in dappled or partial shade the first few days, gradually giving them a little more sun.

geraniums cut back for hardening off
I cut these geraniums back severely and added some compost, because they did not fare as well as my others. They need repotting next year. Note the requisite gardening gloves and phone…

Altitude and Wind Affect a Plant’s Water Needs

If you’ve ever gone skiing or hiking in the mountains of the Southwest, you’ve heard the warnings (or ignored them and learned the hard way). Drink lots of water, more water than you normally drink. You also might have noticed that you became breathless a little more quickly. All those warnings aren’t just designed to impress flat-landers or to make up for exertion. There’s science behind high-altitude dehydration of people and plants.

Low Pressure Causes Evaporation

Air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, and that means that moisture evaporates more quickly. It evaporates from lungs and from the soil and roots around plants. Add the fact that most high-desert and mountain climates also are low in humidity, and you’ve got to adapt to a new environment or nearly pass out. The same goes for your landscape, which is another reason to stick with native plants. These guys have toughed it out; they’re not just here for a weekend getaway! If you do choose non-native cultivars, plant them sparingly, and try to use them in protected areas, which leads to my next point.

 

snow on southwestern mountains
My daughter took this photo of snow on the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border one December. A holiday snow does not mean a humid climate.

Why Not Add Some Wind to the Mix?

Luckily, winds are worse in New Mexico on the plains than in the mountains. But how about in the high desert? Because of the wide temperature variations – warmer days and cool evenings, desert air can be a little unstable. Anyone driving through rural Arizona and New Mexico is likely to see a few wind farms, a smart renewable energy choice for our state.

Windy air contributes to evaporation. As wind speed increases, plants react by upping their rate of transpiration, which is the plant’s loss of water as it’s absorbed through the roots, up to the leaves, and out the leaves as it evaporates. More than 90 percent of the water a plant absorbs is lost by transpiration. It’s inevitable with photosynthesis.

wind spinner in New Mexico garden
This wind spinner is calm today, but we had to permanently shorten the stake to stabilize it because it almost took off in flight or bent in half a few times this spring.

It’s easy to imagine that wind makes plants drier, as anyone who lives in a windy, arid climate knows when they constantly apply lotion to their skin. Science also explains the effect of wind on evaporation. First, it’s helpful to recognize that plant evaporation increases humidity to an extent. If you’ve ever been in a greenhouse or a tropical plant exhibit, you can feel the humidity as you walk inside.

When the water that travels through a plant reaches a plant’s leaves, it seeps through tiny pores on the underside of the leaves. By hanging out there, the vapor adds to the relative humidity of the air close to the leaf. Kick up the wind, and the leaf moves around, so that it spends time in drier air. Of course, if the air outside is humid that day, the wind won’t have as much effect. But how often is it humid around here? Anyway, high wind, combined with low overall humidity and full sun, can rapidly dry out your vegetables or ornamentals before you know it!

xeric wild rose
No wonder so many xeric plants have smaller leaves. Less transpiration occurs and more energy can go into the plant’s health and blooms. I love this Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii)., also called a wild rose or Fendler’s rose.

Native Plants Adapt

Native plants adapt to soil and climate. So what about succulents? I won’t get into a long biological discussion, mostly because I am not a biologist or botanist. But one reason that succulents often have small leaves and large stems is to reduce transpiration so they can survive in dry, hot deserts. Others, like the aloes, have a different type of epidermal layer that doesn’t allow for rapid transpiration. It’s amazing how well plants adapt to their environments; if only I could adapt to winter…

Aloe leaves
These aloes have larger leaves, but they lose less water to evaporation than do typical plants.

If you have a non-native that takes slightly more water, remember what I said earlier about protection. Place the higher water user where it’s more protected from wind. If it can take some shade, at least in the hottest afternoon sun of summer, that will help too. Check out past posts for more water-saving tips. And these tips apply to growing vegetables and other edibles in wind and high altitude. The good news for us is that our winds calm slightly by summer.

Favorite Low-water Container Herb: Rosemary

I love rosemary in a container for several reasons. First, I can keep it in a sunny location all year and leave it relatively close to my kitchen to snip stems for cooking. I don’t have to traipse out to the garden to get to it quickly. By leaving the pot close to a south-facing wall in winter, the plant, which is hardy to zones 6 through 8, receives some extra warmth.

rosemary-in-container
Established rosemary in pot that wintered over. I took a few cuttings, but it still has outgrown this narrow container and needs transplanting.

Cutting some rosemary stems for culinary use helps keep the plant compact enough for container living. Otherwise, it might begin to flower and outgrow the pot. When rosemary blooms, it’s an attractive, evergreen Mediterranean plant, and bees love the tiny bluish-lavender flowers. So I usually have at least one rosemary in the landscape, and one or two in containers purely for edible reasons.

Easy-Care Herb

Rosemary is best grown from a nursery transplant or cutting, not from seed. When preparing your container, be sure it has a hole for drainage and mix well-draining soil that’s slightly alkaline and not too fertile. You won’t need to fertilize your rosemary, either, but adding an organic fertilizer when transplanting or once a season shouldn’t harm the plant. Just keep it as warm as you can in winter if you live on the cooler side of the zones, and if you bring the container inside, place it in a sunny location.

rosemary in container
New rosemary plant in a container, ready to head outside for full sun exposure.

Rosemary is drought tolerant and one of the few problems you’ll encounter with rosemary is caused by wet roots when temperatures drop. Rosemary thrives in full sun, and in summer, container plants need some supplemental watering every few days in the heat. Transplant the rosemary to a new container when the plant becomes too large.

Benefits of Rosemary

The aromatic and flavorful leaves of rosemary have many uses. I love the scent of rosemary and lavender in those rice-filled neck warmers! The oil from rosemary leaves is said to help with heartburn and other digestive problems. The oil may also help soothe skin irritated by eczema. Of course, it’s widely used in perfumes, sachets and lotions.

rosemary stems and leaves
The only thing better than looking at a rosemary plant is running your finger over the stems, or cutting some for use in your kitchen!

Culinary Uses

Although rosemary smells great in patio containers and in the home, I love it even more with chicken. You can cut entire stems of fresh rosemary and place them inside a baking chicken or use them in kebobs along with chicken or steak. I love fresh or dried rosemary on potatoes, baked with olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.

It doesn’t take much rosemary to achieve a lot of flavor, and I haven’t met anyone yet who dislikes the scent or taste of the herb. I often have add rosemary to garlic bread. That’s an easy way to get a little of the flavor of focaccia bread without having to bake!

Use Mulch To Conserve Water In Your Garden

When you put away a gallon of paint or the leftovers from dinner, you always cover the container. By sealing the paint can or plastic storage container, you lock in moisture. It keeps your paint from drying out. Same goes for your spaghetti with pesto (not to mention sealing in the “aroma”…).

Your plant roots can benefit from their own covers, and that’s where mulch enters the picture. Much like the top layer of paint in a can, air dries out the soil at ground level. Add wind and heat, and water can evaporate quickly from desert gardens in particular. Mulch helps insulate the soil to keep it cool and minimize evaporation. The layer of mulch also protects the area around the plant’s roots from the forces of nature. In other words, when the rain comes, it won’t pound the ground, eroding dirt away. Instead, it hits the layer of mulch, then trickles down to the ground. Use an organic mulch and each time it rains or you irrigate, the water carries some nutrients for the roots to take into the plant as well. Need more reasons? Mulching cuts down on weeds, and weeds compete with your plants for water. Plus, they are such a pain.

shredded bark mulch
Mulch cools and moistens barberry, photinia and ice plants in Albuquerque, N.M., bed.

To truly insulate and cool plants takes about three to four inches of mulch material. It depends on the type of material you want to use. If the mulch is fine, such as bark cut to smaller than an inch in size, go only about an inch or two deep. The same goes for grass clippings. Your roots also need some air to thrive! So be sure to avoid use of landscape plastic under your mulch in any areas where you will plant. The plastic is great in walkways, but not in your beds or under trees.

When piling mulch around plant or tree roots, cover the entire area to which the roots extend. For trees, you need to go out about as far as the tree’s canopy. And don’t place the mulch all the way up against the trunk of the tree or stem of the plant. Leave a small opening close to the plant.

mulch around tree
Water is less of a concern in this Northeastern garden/iris farm. But I would worry about how closely the mulch comes to this tree trunk.

Mulches also can look attractive and add to landscape design. Be careful about mulches you choose and social media posts with ideas for repurposing materials as mulches. Some are harmful if applied directly to vegetables and other plants or introduce weeds to your garden. And if your helpful neighbor offers fresh chicken or horse manure, remember that you shouldn’t apply it hot. Add it to your compost, and eventually to the vegetable garden.

gravel around yucca
In the desert of Tucson, the rock around this xeric yucca is probably more for looks, erosion control and night-time heat retention.

We’ll break down some types of mulch in a future post, but if in doubt, check with your local extension office or master gardeners.

Fall List of Water-saving Activities

The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.

First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.

Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.

mulch in bed
Mulch in this bed helps hold in moisture. Note the manual sprinkler control near the home’s front door. It’s not much more work and avoids watering when unnecessary.

Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.

apple_tree_well_web
Tim built up a ridge around this small apple tree to help well the water.

If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.

calif_poppies
This post lacked color, so I had to add these. Called California or Mexican poppies, they’ll grow in the poorest, driest conditions.