Xeric Plants: Too Much Rain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Xeric Plants Alive During High Rain Periods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Favorite Xeric Plant: Lavender

It smells fantastic, looks gorgeous, attracts bees and butterflies and needs little water or care. And on top of that, it’s a useful herb. Truly, I can find no drawback to growing lavender in the arid Southwest. Still, I’ve talked to several people while selling at farmers’ markets who say they had trouble establishing or maintaining lavender. So, here are a few tips, because I wouldn’t mind seeing lavender on every corner of every town.

A customer's gorgeous farmers' market basket thanks to lavender!
A customer’s gorgeous farmers’ market basket thanks to lavender!

Where to plant lavender

It’s tempting to plant lavender everywhere in the landscape! But the plant does best in full sun and with plenty of air circulation. So, if you plant lavender on the north side of your house, especially up against the house, it might not do well. You can also plant lavender in containers, but might have to amend soil around the plant after a year or two. Be sure to place the container in full sun and give the container plant a little more water than it would need in the ground — but not too much!

Lavender hedges are a summer stunner. But if you want to plant a row of lavender, be sure to leave plenty of spacing between the plants, and between the lavender and other plants or structures in your garden. It won’t look as full the first year. But by year two, you’ll love how the flower stems nearly touch but the plants have plenty of room. And foremost, plant lavender where you can enjoy the scent and pollinators the plant attracts. And check nurseries soon for a new variety from Sunset called “Meerlo,” which has variegated leaves!

lavender sunflower
Lavender and sunflowers in the sunny xeric garden.

When to plant lavender

Whatever date you think is right for lavender, push it back a week. Seriously, the only real problem we had with some lavender plants occurred when a group of new plants were shipped to us too far ahead of our last frost date. Fearing the plants were becoming rootbound in their small nursery pots, I planted as soon as the frost passed. But the ground and air were still a little too cool, plus the dirt did not drain as well as other spots in our garden. So that meant the new plants would stay wet after rain or watering. The only problem that really affects lavender is root rot. So be sure the ground and temperature have warmed up enough before planting.

lavender in rock garden
Lavender looks and smells pretty close up or from a distance, especially in a breeze.

How to plant lavender

First, make sure the variety of lavender you’re ordered or chosen at a nursery is a perennial in your area. Years ago, I assumed that French lavender (which really is from Spain) would do better in our climate than English lavender. It’s so cool and damp there! But French lavender is not as cold hardy. Most varieties of English lavender, however, can survive U.S. winters. Just check the zone when you buy.

Here’s the trick to success with lavender: Plant it on a small mound. This is a departure from typical attempts to save water by welling around plants. A well can hold water in longer, but lavender wants to take a drink and then dry out. Also, by gathering up a mound of dirt, you give the young roots some nice loose soil.

new lavender plant
This new lavender plant is becoming well established. It’s on a small mound to keep water or snow from pooling around the roots. The next step is to add pebble mulch.

My second tip is to surround your lavender not with organic mulches, but with tiny white pebbles or decomposed granite. Doing so still allows water to penetrate, but gives the plants reflected sun and passive solar heat gain. If you use rocks and have as many weeds as we have, you’ll need to try and get the mulch layer at least three inches high. But leave a border several inches around the new plant on every side so the rocks don’t crowd the lavender base and constrict growth. Water more often than the plant tag says for a few weeks or more, until the plants look settled in their new home. But let new lavender plants dry out a little between watering or rain.

lavender with butterfly
Lavender is the perfect xeric plant. It also attracts bees and butterflies, and adds scent and color to the garden.

How to care for lavender

So, you have your lavender established. The hard part’s done! All you have to do how is harvest the gorgeous flower stems as the flowers begin to open in summer. In warmer climates, you often get a second bloom. We’ve found that our second bloom in zone 6B is pretty sporadic, even lousy. So it’s really a matter of choice – you can harvest early and enjoy the scent inside your home, or leave the stems on the plant to enjoy its color and share its fragrance with pollinators.

Just be sure to trim the stems off – right at the top of the leaves – at the end of summer or in early fall. Don’t worry if your plant turns a little gray in winter; it should begin to green up along with other perennial plants in spring. As new leaves begin to emerge in spring, trim your plant for shape and health. That means avoiding cutting down into the woody stems. I give mine a nice round shape. So simple.

lavender bunches farmers' market
Our lavender wands and sachets have been popular this year.

That second year, your plant should need little to no watering. I typically give lavender plants some water right after trimming in spring and then only water if we have severe drought.

The stems are easy to dry and place in a vase or use harvested buds to make sachets or potpourri. Lavender is great in homemade gifts and even as an edible.

For more about lavender, see our Pinterest board (Lovin Lavender).

Mix Up Your Garden Palette

Our low-water garden has lots of yellow. Maybe that’s true everywhere. And it’s a bright, happy color. But we like a little more variety, and it’s easy to add pops of color a little at a time, or with annual plants. Here are a few tips for finding plants of many colors.

yellow blooms
Yellow flowers like the ones on this chocolate flower plant (Berlandiera lyrata) are gorgeous, but I like to mix it up.
color mix in garden
When the butterfly bush blooms, we’ll have deep purple, red, and yellow. I’m adding a few low annuals to the front corner, which is closest to the patio.

Find flowers by color

Although you’re used to a favorite flower blooming in a particular color, there likely are hybrids with colors you hadn’t considered. For example, we think of sunflowers as bright yellow, but I love the cinnamon varieties. I’ve got some seeds in again, in the hopes that bugs and deer leave them alone.

larkspur pink lilac
Larkspur grow wild in our garden, and although most are a deep violet, we also have lilac, white and pink flowers.

One way to find flowers in complementary colors is by using apps and online databases. For example, the LadyBird Johnson Wildflowercenter’s database includes bloom color, along with native states and sun and moisture requirements in its combination search. For a simpler search, try a list like the one maintained by ProFlowers, which lists flowers by color next to illustrations and a brief description. Just beware that national lists of flowers often include varieties that do poorly in some zones or soils or need more water than those in a xeric garden. Be sure to read the descriptions or do a little research before making your final decision. You can also try apps that either have pictures shared by posters or plant identification. If you can find a local or regional app, even better.

White and red roses offer pretty contrast at the Hondo Iris Farm. If the plant isn't marked, just ask.
White and red roses offer pretty contrast at the Hondo Iris Farm. If the plant isn’t marked, just ask.

Wander around a nursery

If you feel a national list might isn’t giving you enough choices for your area, visit a locally owned nursery. Although they’ll carry some annual varieties that aren’t perfect for the community’s climate, they also carry plenty of knowledge and tend to feature plants that are native or adapted to local growing. If you do find a few annuals either at a local or chain nursery, limiting the number to a few pots or a corner of a bed uses less water, time and money than basing your garden color plan on annuals. Most nurseries separate perennials and annuals to help shoppers.

plants from local nursery
Bringing home the plants from our local nursery. I got a few annuals to add more red, white and black to our garden. And sometimes, the foliage adds lots of color, like with my new barberry.

Make notes as you pass homes and businesses

If you’re walking to a restaurant in town one night and spot a flower with a color you love or know would add variety to your garden, take a photo of the plant and a close-up of the flower. This will help you compare what you saw (and photos work much better than memory) with identification apps, databases and local gardening books. Including the entire plant in the photo helps you remember the type of foliage, height and spread of the flowering ornamental.

Flax and pine leaf penstemon color complement one another. A photo of the penstemon's leaves helps identify it.
Flax and pine leaf penstemon bloom colors complement one another. A photo of the penstemon’s leaves helps identify it.

Color really is a matter of personal choice, and with the recent National Pollinator Week in mind, I try to choose a few new plants for their ability to attract bees, butterflies or birds. For example, studies have shown that bees gather more nectar from purple or violet flowers than from any other color.

Bees love the purple flowers on the herb sage.
Bees love the purple flowers on the herb sage.

Keep it simple and choose what you like, but remember not all plants bloom at the same time, so your color variety might be seasonal or in stages. That’s great too though, so you and the pollinators can enjoy some new blooms every few weeks.

Bees really go nuts in cactus blooms.
It looks like the bee on the upper right dove head-first into this prickly pear bloom.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Gaura

Some call it a butterfly plant. That’s because gaura has delicate, swirly flowers at the ends of long stalks that resemble butterflies. In fact, one variety of gaura (G. lindheimeri) is called ‘Whirling Butterflies.’ It has white flowers; ‘Siskiyou Pink’ blooms have an earthy pink tone. And in 2014, Gaura ‘Sparkle White’ was an All-America Selections National Winner.

Eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder they bring butterflies to mind.
Typically, eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder gauras bring butterflies to mind.

We’re fortunate enough to have wild or native gauras (G. coccinea) in our garden. They appear on their own in late spring and bloom as temperatures warm. They’re a little more like a weed, partly because of the places they tend to appear, and partly because they have a higher foliage-to-flower ratio. Still, I’ll take them, and so will the bees!

Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!
Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!

Drought tolerant gaura

Native gauras appear along roadsides and other dry areas. Many of ours come up through rocks in the garden wall. You don’t have to read a plant tag to know that a plant growing robustly in rocks needs little to no water. We’ve had some trouble with gaura from nurseries, and I believe the reason is that the soil we chose was compacted and holding too much water. Still, if you plant a new gaura, it will need watering until healthy and established. A drip system can give the plant a slow drink.

This flower is from a volunteer gaura.
This flower is from a volunteer gaura.

Easy care

Once you’ve chosen a sandy or loamy soil for your plant, place it where it can get full sun. By the second year, you won’t have to water except maybe once in spring or in severe drought. I really love to place the white flowers where I can see them from a window or patio. It’s also a great plant for breezy areas, holding up to wind, which causes the flowers to “dance.” Most gauras reach about 2.5 to 3 feet tall; the native  varieties are a little shorter.

gaura against rocks
Gauras look terrific in rock gardens and natural designs.

Cut G. lindheimeri back in early spring about halfway down the foliage to keep it bushy, full and not too leggy. I let the native gauras go to seed so they pop up again the next year. You can try the same with nursery varieties; the plant might self-sow if seedheads remain in autumn. The only pests that bother gauras are flea beetles and gardeners who overwater them, especially if the plants are in heavy soil.

Versatile plant

Gauras are hardy in zones 5 through 8. In colder zones, the plant can be damaged if wet when temperatures dip to more than -15 Fahrenheit. Gaura is considered a perennial in those zones, but tends not to last as long as some hardy perennials.

gaura and gaillardia
These volunteer, or native, gauras popped up with volunteer gaillardias. I love the combination.

The gaura can fit into nearly any landscape design. Even before blooming, its slightly mottled leaves provide garden interest. I love to see it against a slightly taller plant with larger, bolder flowers (which also can support the gaura stems as the plant matures). Gaura also is perfect near steps, garden paths and walls. Although gaura fits perfectly in a natural xeric design, its delicate flowers can work in a cottage garden plan, provided it’s not overwatered or has really good drainage. Native gaura foliage and shape is not as stunning, but nonetheless a fun re-seeder in a naturalized xeric garden.

 

 

Purslane and Portulaca

I’ve grown to accept that some invasive plants (aka: weeds) are not so bad. I’m still on the fence with purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a prostrate spreading succulent that can take over entire flower beds.

portulaca flower
Ornamental portulaca from the same family as purslane. Note the ornamental’s thinner, needle-like leaves.

Weed or edible?

Purslane can grow in pavement, between rocks, and in moist conditions. It spreads from seed or from pieces of stems. And a purslane can have more than 50,000 seeds per plant. It re-roots after being hoed. That’s a weed, right? Still, many value purslane because it is edible. But in my mind, if the plant interferes with the objectives in managing a lawn or garden, it’s a weed. And since mats of purslane suck moisture and nutrients from soil and even shade soil from sun as they spread, they’re pretty much weeds in my book. That’s especially true in a vegetable garden, where I don’t want a weed competing for precious water.

purslane weed
Purslane taking over a rock garden. It’s best to pull it up before it gets this big, whether you eat it or throw it out.

Purslane was grown in India originally and provided nutrition and reported health benefits. Those who eat purslane have described its taste as lemony or similar to spinach. And the plant tastes best if “harvested” while its fleshy leaves still are young. So one way to eradicate common purslane where you don’t like it is to follow the philosophy “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”

You can spot common purslane as a small seedling with reddish-tinged leaves that form flat against the ground and spread out like spokes in a wheel. Pull it up before it sets seed to avoid having an entire bed full of the weed the next year. Not sure a weed is purslane? Check out these photos of seedlings and other stages of purslane from Missouri State University.

Ornamental value

Even common purslane can be pretty. The fleshy leaves contrast nicely with tiny, usually orange, flowers. And I bought one years ago before I knew better. I paid for that, because the plant came back with a vengeance, choking out other plants in a tiny rock garden. So if you choose to actually plant purslane as an edible, just beware that you’re introducing the seeds to your landscape.

heat loving drought tolerant portulaca
Portulaca is a great container plant. Use one color or mix many. The plant spreads and cascades slightly over the edge.

A better alternative is an ornamental portulaca such as P. grandiflora. You can tell an ornamental portulaca from a purslane by its leaves. Ornamental portulaca, often called moss rose, has more needle-like leaves than purslane foliage. The flowers also are showier, often looking either like a cactus bloom or a tiny carnation or rose. The best part? They love sun and heat, are highly drought tolerant, and will spread in warm climates to make an interesting groundcover. They’re also a perfect container plant, especially if you buy a mix of colors, which warm-climate nurseries usually carry. Both purslane and portulaca bloom in the morning after the sun has been up a few hours, and close later in the day.

Portulaca just planted in the ground. I hope they will cascade over these rocks and pavers and re-seed next year.
Portulaca just planted in the ground. I hope they will cascade over these rocks and pavers and re-seed next year.

Caring for portulacas

Portulaca is an annual, but can re-seed. Although not nearly as invasive as its purslane relative, an ornamental portulaca often pops up somewhere in the landscape. But to me, it’s a happy surprise. The easy-care, drought tolerant annual is welcome in our garden any time temperatures begin to warm up in early summer.

portulaca in hanging baskets
Portulaca actually do better with sun and heat, but who would have thought it would be 40 degrees F in mid-May? I can’t wait for these containers at the back of our garden to fill in.

Portulaca will keep blooming and spreading into fall, provided you do one thing: pinch off spent blooms. If you let most of the faded blooms remain on the stem, the plant can become leggy, plus it won’t bloom as often. The equivalent of deadheading this annual is so simple; just pinch the blooms off into your hand after they have closed up and begun to look withered. If the flower resists, wait a day. You’ll soon recognize the difference between a bud and a spent bloom.

portulaca and cactus
This portulaca re-seeded in some soil we repurposed for one of Tim’s cacti. It just goes to show how little water they need! You can see the bloom stages really well in this photo. A tiny dried-up flower peeks from behind the bloom; it’s ready to pinch off! Two new buds are a little lower on either side of the stem. And a faded bloom, nearly ready to pinch, lies at the lower right.

And if you want to pinch your portulaca while eating a salad with purslane leaves, that’s up to you. Just be armed with new recipes to cook up all of your purslane in years that follow.

Want Easy Garden Maintenance? Go Native!

There are so many “right” reasons to choose native plants: They need less water and often attract pollinators. But if you need an even better reason, one that appeals to you in your busy world, how about the fact that they’re easier to maintain?

Think about it. By nature (hmmm, native and nature), native plants grow in the open, such as in forests or plains. Away from people, the plants can survive no matter the rainfall or other weather problems. And many reseed to ensure continued survival. They can do all of this without a nice lady in a funny hat and brightly colored gloves “tending” to them.

Paperflower
This paperflower (Psilostrophe) came up in the rocks near our creeping broom for nice succession blooming.

Why native plants are easy care

Once a plant native to your region is established, which can take up to a year, it should need little to no watering. And it should never need fertilizer or other chemicals. These plants have adapted to their native conditions and are less susceptible to pests and diseases than non-native plants. As long as the plant is in the right spot in terms of sun, soil and climate, all you need as a gardener is a little patience. Don’t amend the soil or overwater your new native (although they need more water in the first year to help the roots establish). Your native might not flower prolifically in its first year, and wildflower seeds can remain dormant in the ground before suddenly popping up when conditions favor their germination and growth.

native rock rose
Rock rose (Helianthemum) is an easy-care native plant and a stunner.

Of course, just because a plant is listed as “native,” if you plop it down in completely different conditions or climate, the plant might not make it or could turn out to be as much work as a big-box store purchase. For example, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) is listed as a native plant in New Mexico. But it grows naturally at elevations of 100 to 5,000 feet. And elevation makes a big difference in the Southwest. We’re at 6,300 feet, and our nights can easily dip below the 22 degrees F listed for warmer Sunset zones that support the cholla (zones that are less than an hour away to the east or west). Likewise, planting a cholla in a bed with drip or spray irrigation could damage the plant more than cold. It prefers low water, full sun and sandy soil. No wonder it does so well in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona!

Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.
Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.

How to select native plants

So caring for native plants is easy, but since so much depends on plant choice and placement, how can you make that process easier? Here are a few ideas:

  • Notice plants you see and love in the lawns of neighbors, commercial buildings and even along roadways or on nearby hikes (but don’t steal native plants in the wild). Take photos to help with identification and note where and when you saw the plant.
native wildflowers New Mexico
Daisies, shrubby ice plant, a native gaura forming (and weeds).
  • Although I said to select plants native to your region, plants native to nearly the same conditions also do well. Several cold-hardy natives of South Africa, such as Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) and Hardy Purple or Yellow Iceplant (Delosperma) do really well in the mountainous Southwest.
shrubby ice plant
Here’s a close-up of the shrubby ice plant. Its flowers are smaller than the spreading types, but just as bright. And it’s a compact choice for rock gardens.
  • Local books and apps are the best source for identifying the plants you see near your home. Some national sites (such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) have accurate search engines, but others can confuse you if your search brings up a low-growing shrub with purple flowers that only grows in Georgia.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum.
  • Get help from professionals. Local landscape designers know native plants, and should encourage their use. Call your master gardener hotline or check with a local extension office or native plant organization to get help identifying and selecting plants for your area.
daisy native agastache
Native daisy that needs only shearing of flower stems after fading, and an agastache, which brings hummingbirds.
  • If you can’t identify a plant but have it in your garden, try not to stress. We’ve got several plants we have yet to clearly identify, but we’ve watched their natural patterns of growth and blooming and just played along. In most cases, I only shear off spent flower stalks in early spring to reinvigorate the plant.
I still haven't figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!
I still haven’t figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!

And if you have a native you really love and want to use elsewhere in your lawn, try saving seeds, propagating a cutting or dividing the plant. See the Resources page for a list of native plant lists or nurseries.

 

 

5 Low-water Plants that Love Shade

Usually, sun and heat are more trouble in the Southwest than shade. But sometimes, you want to plant flowers or vines under a tree or have a shady spot near the house that needs plants!

Plenty of plants that tolerate low light and low water work well on covered patios, north-facing walls or under trees. Here are a few choices that grow well in the Southwest.

Columbine growing in shade on north side of house zone 6B New Mexico
Columbine blooms are so delicate and interesting. It’s a favorite!

Columbine (Aquilegia) is a stunning native. The Rocky Mountain columbine is state flower or Colorado, and that’s fitting since it grows naturally in the stippled shade of trees at high altitudes (6,000 to 10,000 feet). The Rocky Mountain columbine has a two-toned flower with bluish purple outer petals and white petals in the center. Planting columbine under a tree usually works well in high deserts and intermountain areas of the West unless the soil drains poorly. The best part? It’s perennial, and should come back every year; it also will re-seed nearby. There are plenty of colors and varieties of monotone and two-toned columbine. The plant can get powdery mildew when it’s especially rainy with warm days and cool nights.

Bonfire begonia in container.
This is a fibrous begonia called a Bonfire, with more of a tubular flower. I love it in this hanging basket. Image courtesy of Tesselaar.

Begonia is an easy-care ornamental for shade. Although some varieties are perennial in areas of the Southwest nighttime temperatures stay above 32 degrees, it’s an annual in mountain regions. I used to arrange waxy begonias in a container for a shady area of my front porch. They would bloom all summer and into fall with pretty little salmon, white or pink flowers. And they need no trimming or deadheading. Begonias need a little more moisture than some annuals, and mulching around the plants (but not all the way up to a tree trunk) should help them stay moist under a canopy. They’re super easy container plants for shade with no disease or insect problems.

ajuga in zone 6B shade
Ajuga, or carpet bugleweed, grows in nearly all shade on the north side of our home. It’s easy to care for!

Ajuga, also called carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), is a great groundcover for shady areas. The plant has shiny bronze or rust-colored leaves, and it spreads by runners. Ajuga plants can be spaced about six or more inches apart, but they spread to eventually provide a mat of leaves. Even better, they’ll shoot up purple flower spikes in summer. Depending on the type, ajuga should be hardy in zones 3 through 9. Ours survives – and has spread – in a mostly shady area on the north side of our home in zone 6B, and with only one or two deep waterings a year. If you plant them where they’ll get water from sprinklers, they can become invasive.

Heuchera coral bells
Our Heuchera is just emerging from winter dormancy. The leaves already have the telltale shape and color of this shade lover.

Coral bells (Heuchera) is another shade lover with spikes that shoot up in summer with flowers, typically a pinkish red (or coral!).  The leaves are a distinctive ruffled shape. Coral bells need a little more sun than some of the other plants I’ve mentioned, so they wouldn’t do as well near the base of a large tree. But place coral bells in partial shade, such as where the shadow of the house shades a bed in peak afternoon heat. They are drought tolerant and hardy down to zone 4. Huecheras are susceptible to several diseases and pests, including mold or leaf spot. All the more reason to give them a mix of shade and sun, along with air flow (in other words, plant them in front of a structure but not too closely or too crowded).

cobra apricot vinca
Periwinkle, or vinca, has pretty button-like flowers on glossy, slender leaves. This one is Cobra Apricot. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Vinca comes in so many bloom colors, which makes it a great choice for a shady container or to plant beneath a tree or bush to complement flower or foliage colors. My mother used to grow lots of vinca, or periwinkle, in the South and in Arizona. Many vinca minor plants are perennial, but the hardiness varies by species. Where perennial, they make a great groundcover in shade as the plant’s trailing stems take root. In those cases, the leaves are evergreen in dark, glossy green or variegated patterns. Shearing the plants every so often stimulates new growth. I’ve grown annual varieties in containers that get part sun and part shade.

When trying a shade lover for the first time, you can always choose a container planting. It helps you get to know the sun, shade and water requirements of a plant. And when planting under trees, be especially careful not to harm the tree’s roots. Learn more about planting under trees in this great handout from the University of Minnesota Extension Service, which I learned about in a recent #plantchat on Twitter.

Favorite Tree: Redbud

It’s not the plant you typically think of when considering trees for a waterwise landscape. But redbuds (Cercis species) can do quite well in areas of New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. The tree is native to New Mexico and states east and northeast of us, along with Quebec.

redbud in low water garden
In early April, the redbud is saturated with bright pink-purple flowers.

Even though the redbud produces gorgeous purplish-pink flowers and large, heart-shaped leaves, it’s a low to moderate water user. We only irrigate ours once or twice a year, and rely on rain or snow for the rest of its water.

redbud blooms New Mexico
Redbud blooms signal spring and bring some bees to the garden.

Multiple choice

There are numerous choices of redbud varieties, and gardeners are bound to find one that grows in their zone and soil conditions. The most well-known variety is the Eastern redbud (C. canadensis) but a few types, such as the Mexican redbud (C. mexicana), have multiple trunks. The Oklahoma redbud (C. reniformis) grows more slowly than the Eastern, but has round, glossy leaves. All are fairly small as trees go, reaching no more than 25 or 30 feet in height and width.

redbud in xeric garden
Buds first emerging in spring. This redbud complements other plants in our xeric garden.

I’m pretty certain ours is a typical Eastern redbud because of its single trunk and more matte than glossy leaves. It’s possible that the former owners of our place, who planted this stunner, trained a multitrunk variety as a single trunk. But I’m pretty certain it’s Eastern and the growth is maintained by lower water application and Tim’s trimming. I’m open to correction, though it really doesn’t matter to me. I love this tree!

redbud leaves
Large, heart-shaped leaves look awesome in summer and as fall begins to turn them yellow and then bronze.

Multiple uses

I’d grow this tree for the spring and fall color alone. It’s perfect for a xeric landscape because it gets by on so little water and grows slowly. The shrubby varieties probably look more natural, but with a rounded canopy, the Eastern redbud can provide shade and color. I’ll admit that ours is a bit low; we have to duck under the lower branches. But it also works well for a bird house and feeder. I can reach it fine, but the birds feel protected.

redbud and red bird house
Birds love our redbud, which is the tallest plant in our garden.

Redbuds send their roots deep into the ground, which makes them less likely to run under sidewalks or around sewer pipes. That gives you more choices for planting the tree near your house. In a southern location, the tree gets plenty of sun and can shade a portion of the garden or your home. Since it drops all of its leaves in winter, it won’t block warming rays of sun. Bees also love the spring flowers.

Caring for redbuds

If you want to train a shrubby redbud into a single trunk, cut out the weaker stems early in summer. Too much salt can lead to leggy growth of immature redbuds. The tree, which is a member of the legume family, is susceptible to several insects, including white peach scale, white flannel moth and several caterpillars, including stinging ones. A few years ago, Tim spotted some bare branches and found them covered with stinging caterpillars (see a photo of one in our Chinese pistache in this post).

In the Southeast, redbuds are vulnerable to Botryosphaeria canker. The disease can cause branches to split, die back and turn brown. Fungal diseases on redbuds are less likely in our arid climate, except maybe if the tree is too close to a structure or other trees to have adequate air flow. Ours has a splitting branch, but I’m guessing it’s from cold damage or a combination of cold and weight. And there is plenty of new growth on the stems.

split in redbud branch
We just noticed the split in this large branch this winter, but it looks healthy otherwise.

Redbuds prefer full sun and most varieties can survive in zones 5 through 8. You can prune a redbud for shape while the tree is dormant in winter, but it might cause fewer blooms. It’s probably best to prune just after spring flowers fade.

Native, waterwise, good for shade, multiseason color and easy care. What’s not to love about the redbud? Learn more about redbud care and problems in this excellent publication from Clemson University.

Five Low-water Plants for Use in the Home

It’s one thing to enjoy the look or scent of a plant and its flowers; it’s a bonus when the plant rewards the gardener with other uses. And to me, any plant that attracts pollinators and people is a useful one. Some plants do more, however, doubling as edible, decorative or medicinal plants for the home. Here are five plants with home uses that also survive low-water or drought conditions once established.

low-water-plants-for-garden-and-home (1 of 5)
Bees, butterflies, and most people love lavender. And deer don’t like them, so we can grow them anywhere we like.

Lavender

Lavender (lavandula) seems to be tops on any plant list I compose. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t care for the scent, and bees and butterflies flock to the flower stems. And the flowers – you can cut them for arrangements, dry them to make gifts and even use buds in recipes. Lavender is touted for its soothing qualities for skin and stress, as well as its aroma. The plants are easy to care for in a low-water garden. Simply give them well-draining soil so the roots dry between rain or watering. Harvest the first flush of flower stalks and you’ll likely have another bloom in late summer. Otherwise, trim only to shape in spring.

lavender dried buds in bowl
Lavender buds are easy to harvest once dry. They’re perfect for sachets and soaps as easy homemade gifts.

Thyme

Another favorite low-water herb is thyme. Just touching it gives your hand a salty, earthy scent. You can cut entire stalks in the fall for drying, or cut a fresh sprig for flavoring poultry. It’s an excellent herb for flavoring vegetables with strong flavors, such as cabbage. Tiny purple flowers emerge on longer stems that haven’t been harvested, attracting bees and adding delicate color to a xeric garden. German thyme is hardy in zones 5 through 9, but lemon thyme needs a little more heat (zones 7 through 9). Just give thyme plenty of sun and well-drained soil and it will spread, creating a low bushy appearance in the garden.

drying thyme
Thyme is a perfect xeric evergreen and a yummy herb. Last fall, I dried thyme, oregano and sage stalks for use in the kitchen.

Sea holly

Sea holly (Eryngium amethystinum) has a thistle-like appearance to me. The drought-tolerant flower is a perfect choice for rock gardens, or even sandy beach gardens. That’s because it loves hot, dry conditions. Big Blue reaches heights or nearly three feet. The stunning silver-blue flowers are spiny in texture. Use sea holly indoors by cutting a few flower stalks to include in arrangements. Not many other cut flowers have their color, texture or unique look. Sea holly grows in zones 2 through 10.

Blue sea holly is a unique garden or cut flower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Sea Holly Uploaded by Magnus Manske) .
Blue sea holly is a unique garden or cut flower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Sea Holly Uploaded by Magnus Manske) .

Aloe vera

Got sunburn? Fresh gel from your own aloe vera plant (Aloe barbadensis) can provide soothing relief for burns and skin rashes. Of course, sunburns are more likely to occur in areas where you can grow aloe vera plants outside, like Maui, where we used aloe to soothe our tourist “color.” So, it’s an outside plant only in about zone 10B, or where night temperatures go no lower than 40 degrees F. Aloe vera also needs well-draining, even dry soil. The plant stores water in its fleshy leaves, which makes the well-known gel. If you’re in most zones, you can grow aloe vera as a houseplant and summer outdoor visitor. When you need to extract gel, you can use simple kitchen items. Here’s an article explaining how to get gel from aloe leaves.

Aloe vera plants hold water and soothing gel in their fleshy leaves.
Aloe vera plants hold water and soothing gel in their fleshy leaves.

Pineapple guava

Growing nut and fruit trees for shade and food is a smart xeric gardening strategy. Of course, you have to pick the right tree or shrub. The pineapple guava (Feijoa or Acca sellowiana) is an excellent example of a tree that bears juicy, full fruits but with less water than some fruit trees. These aren’t like truly tropical guavas, but have a taste that resembles a mix of pear and pineapple. The plant is drought tolerant but a little more water ensures late summer to fall fruit. And even if they don’t fruit much, the gorgeous white and red flowers look good enough to eat. It’s too cold in New Mexico, but southern California gardeners can enjoy the plant and its fruit. In fact, we spotted a guava in the lawn of a Pasadena home. I was too busy being jealous to take a photo. Here’s a photo and more information on the plant from Monrovia.

 

Plant Select 2016: Waterwise Grass and Groundcovers

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:

new ice plant orange flowers
Red Mountain Flame ice plant. All the pluses of an evergreen ice plant, plus a new orange tone! Image courtesy of Plant Select and David Salman.

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
Alan’s Apricot ice plant boasts larger, color-changing blooms. Image courtesy of Plant Select and Alan Tower.

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 pincushion
The Moroccan pincushion is a great groundcover selection for rock gardens. Courtesy of Pat Hayward at Plant Select.

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
Dogs can run on and water drought-tolerant DOG TUFF without damaging the grass. Image from Plant Select and Kelly Grummons.

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.