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.

Add Evergreens to Your Low-water Garden Plan

Most of my gardening friends have started seeds and marked up pages in catalogs because when spring is in the air, we get excited, even impatient, to return to the garden. It’s easy to plan for spring and summer bloomers, but also helpful to think ahead to next winter, when blooms fade.

snow on evergreens
Winter can be pretty in any garden, and snow on evergreens… gorgeous.

Evergreen shrubs and trees add visual interest, homes for birds or other wildlife and privacy in winter. Evergreens are particularly helpful in dry or cold climates. Choosing an evergreen for the low-water landscape does not confine the gardener to conifers. There are many choices to fit nearly any xeric garden design or location, such as santolina.

santolina
Gray santolina is evergreen — or evergray — and produces bright yellow flowers in summer.

Saltbush (Atriplex canescens) Saltbush, also called four-wing saltbush, is a native plant of Western states. Although its colors aren’t bright or striking, saltbush is an unusual and interesting plant. Native Americans once used the stems for fuel and made yellow dye from the plant’s leaves. Although I haven’t tried the seeds, they are edible, and we once saw locals gathering the seeds when driving south of Albuquerque. When the seeds emerge, they make a gorgeous contrast to the foliage, which is more silvery green. And they’re swirly and paper-fine to the touch. Saltbush is native to alkaline soils and salty high deserts.

four wing saltbush
The four-wing saltbush is a native that looks terrific in a natural landscape.

Boxwood (Buxus). Boxwood is surprisingly drought tolerant if given some shade or in a northern exposure, deer resistant and easy to care for in the lawn. In fact, the plant is subject to fungal disease, but when panted with the crown about an inch higher than its position above the soil in its nursery pot. Well-draining, slightly alkaline soil also helps, which makes it a perfect evergreen shrub for most of New Mexico. Most boxwoods grow in zones 5 through 9.

petite pillar boxwood
Monrovia’s petite boxwood is even more versatile in a container. Photo by Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Although boxwoods don’t need substantial attention or trimming, gardeners who enjoy pruning will love shaping these plants to match the landscape. A new boxwood from Monrovia, Petite Pillar Dwarf Boxwood, has a naturally column-like form, which sets up easy maintenance for the gardener. It fits perfectly in containers, but requires regular watering, especially in heat.

agaves mass planting
Agaves surround this tree at Tucson’s Desert Botanical Garden.

Succulents. If they’re hardy in your zone, succulents can provide year-round interest, especially in xeric gardens or along walkways or fences. Their shape adds a unique look to winter gardens. For example, the agave (Agavaceae) is like garden art with its upright, sometimes symmetrical design. The plants are long-living perennials, and some varieties are hardy down to zone 5. With about 300 species to choose from, gardeners are sure to find one that suits their design and zone. Although they grow slowly compared with shrubs, agaves need a little room to expand. Set off the plant’s color with a contrasting ground cover such as speedwell or purple iceplant for more summer color.

blue agave
These blue agaves (Agave parryi, or Parry’s agave) add texture and color to our winter garden.

The aloe vera provides a similar look, although the leaves are fleshier and more upright. The plant is not as cold hardy as agave, and needs to be outside only in climates with warm winters, no lower than 40 degrees at night.  Aloes also add value to your garden. We’ve used aloe directly from a plant to soothe sunburns.

Yuccas also are easy to grow, and their slimmer, spear-like leaves look brilliant all year long. They’re also a diverse xeric plant; you can choose a variety that’s bushy and full at the bottom or more open and fanned out.  Check the variety’s mature height when purchasing to make sure it won’t get too tall for the location you choose. Some varieties, such as Joshua Tree, grow to 15 to 20 feet high. After a few years, yuccas produce summer flowers on tall stalks from the plant’s center.

Caring for these succulents is simple. They need some sun, but can burn if exposed to too much direct sunlight. And the only problems with the plants typically come from overwatering. Avoid watering these succulents in winter, or the plant can get root rot.

Lots of evergreens grow nearby, including the pinon.
Lots of evergreens grow nearby, including the pinon.

Conifers. Piñon pines (Pinus edulis and a few others) are native to New Mexico and Arizona. It’s more like a rambling, tall shrub than a tree, easy to care for and used to semi-arid regions. The seeds, or nuts, are edible.  Icee Blue Yellow-wood (Podocarpus elongates ‘Monmal’) has stunning blue foliage in winter, but only in southern climates (zones 9 through 11). It has a thin, conical shape when mature and can be trimmed into classic Christmas tree shape, a nice touch for a warm winter garden. As with all xeric plants, Icee Blue needs a little extra water until established, then gardeners can cut back. Alligator juniper is a terrific bird shelter that has interesting bark along with evergreen branches.

podocarpus icee blue
Icee blue yellow-wood needs little water once established. Photo by Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Icee blue also is the name given to a spreading juniper (Juniperis horizontalis ‘Icee Blue’). I’m not a big fan of juniper, mostly because of allergies. But the plant can provide evergreen groundcover in a low-water lawn. Icee Blue is hardy down to zone 2, and prefers full sun. If controlled with trimming or planted in mass plantings, junipers are a low-water alternative to shrubs and other groundcovers. If you want to cover an area of ground quickly with a plant that requires little maintenance or water once established, check with your local nursery for a juniper that can survive your winter lows.

The low-lying juniper to the right of our budding apricot was in the garden when we moved here and produced tiny berries.
The low-lying juniper to the right of our budding apricot was in the garden when we moved here and produced tiny berries.

 

Savoring Succulents Without Busting the Budget

New gardeners and homeowners or office dwellers with little time can enjoy live plantings with easy-care succulents and air plants. And who knows? Once bitten with the bug, it’s so easy to move on to flowers, herbs or vegetables.

cacti in thrift store container
Three cacti in a Haeger Pottery container. Tim found the container in a local thrift shop; the plants were about $2 each.

There are so many attractive succulents and cacti to choose among, and their colors vary. Many also flower. But they typically come in tiny plastic containers or expensive arrangements. We’ve spent some of our winter “down time” playing with these low-water lovers. Tim has propagated new plants from cuttings, but they eventually need attractive containers as well.

cacti succulents houseplants
Because you just can’t have enough cacti and succulents… This photo shows a few inexpensive, handmade containers.

We’ve bought some containers and repurposed others. In fact, I might not have enough for patio herbs this spring; I think they’ve been swiped. But we’ve also had a lot of fun making and finding containers. If you have a creative streak, you can have a lot of fun with cacti, succulents and air plants because the plants are so low maintenance.

air plants
I love the look of these tillandsias, or air plants. No soil needed!

Here are a few inexpensive container ideas:

Hypertufa. The trend in making hypertufa pots is popular for a reason. They’re relatively inexpensive to make, and although they can look like stone or concrete, the containers are much lighter. Hypertufa is a mix of Portland cement, sphagnum peat moss and perlite. There are lots of recipes online, and we often save plastic containers or other objects to use as molds.

inexpensive succulent containers
Three hypertufa pots we made, along with a “planter” made from an old fence post.

Thrift stores. It’s much more fun to browse a thrift store when you have an idea or purpose in mind. We purchase inexpensive baskets for hypertufa molds (the baskets can’t really be used again) and containers for air plants or cacti. It’s fun to find rustic or unusual items in particular.

wine glass air plant
I had fun with my thrift store find. I put decorative glass beads around a small plastic cylinder stuffed with sphagnum moss. It took less than 20 minutes.
thrift store containers cacti
This one’s our favorite. We bought what appears to be a candleholder and then found the perfect spiny cactus for its “seat.”

Reuse and repurpose. You can buy empty air plant terrariums fairly inexpensively online, or come up with found objects. I’ve used old coffeemaker pots, small mason jars and other objects from our kitchen or closets. Tim has used an old jelly jar layered with sand and moss to create a tiny succulent planter. And fence posts, drift wood, rocks, shells, pinecones and other natural items found in your yard or on walks can work well as planters or decorative items. Air plants can even be glued to wood or other items; you’ll just have to spritz them with water a few times a week instead of soaking the “roots.”

sedum in old wood
Found objects also add interest outdoors. An old post with barbed wire intact sets off this sedum.
airplant terrarium
These terrariums are inexpensive. We like to add decorative rocks and objects from our yard or garden.

Although some succulents need fairly regular watering, the biggest mistake we’ve seen people make with cacti and succulents is overwatering. That takes only a little practice to get right for each plants. The other helpful tip from Tim is the growing medium.

You might think that cacti in particular grow in sand, especially if you’re ever been to Arizona.  A little sand helps containers drain, but you need some other growing medium to give the plant some nutrients and retain just enough moisture for the roots to seek and find. You can buy commercial cactus mixes, but most include peat moss. Tim believes his plants do better with less moss. He mixes his own medium of about half cactus potting soil, with some vermiculite and sandy soil from areas of our yard. This seems to support the plant while also providing drainage.

pink cactus flower
In this case, the cactus was found on family land in southeastern N.M. Tim kept some of the dirt he found it in for the growing medium. And why not? It was thriving in its natural location.

It can help to drill a drainage hole in any container you make or find, but it’s not always necessary with cacti and succulents, especially if you have a large or deep container and good potting mix. The real satisfaction is in coming up with a unique container or arrangement, matching the cactus to the container or the container to a plant you really like.

blooming cactus houseplant
A close-up of our spiny chair. Tim added a few decorative rocks to complement the planter’s color. We knew it had buds, but the blooms were more than we expected.

For more about cacti and succulents, check out our Pinterest board.

Favorite Succulent: Crown of Thorns

It’s spiny, really spiny. But the Euphorbia milii is a succulent, not a cactus. The plant, which is native to Madagascar and can grow up to six feet tall in the right conditions, is an excellent houseplant choice. When growing the crown of thorns, however, be sure to place it out of high-traffic areas. Like many euphorbias, the crown of thorns produces a milk-like sap that can irritate the skin. Mature plants can spread to a width of several feet, depending on pruning. And those thorns – they are about one-half-inch long and located all along the woody stems.

flowers crown of thorns
The pretty, salmon-pink flowers of the Euphorbia millii

A Madagascar Native

This interesting succulent goes by many names. It used to be called Euphorbia splendens, and splendid seems more appropriate for this plant. But millii is in honor of Baron Milius, who introduced the plant to France in 1821. It’s also sometimes called the Christplant. The crown of thorns was introduced to the United States through Florida.

The crown of thorns is among succulents most often mistaken for a cactus. The spines don’t rise from a single areole, however, which helps differentiate spiny euphorbias from true cacti. And as a houseplant, it’s not likely to reach six feet, although we had one that grew to more than two feet before Tim trimmed it back and propagated new plants from the cuttings.

roadrunner and succulents
Roadrunners like to take cover in thorny plants. I think this guy wanted to get to our crown of thorns, bottom right.

Year-round Blooms

This euphorbia is only hardy as a perennial in zone 10 and higher, where it makes a fine shrub choice. It requires little watering or care, and only some warmth and sunshine to bloom almost continuously. By placing our crown of thorns in a sunny, south-facing window and giving it a summer vacation outside once temperatures warm, we’ve enjoyed blooms all year long.

crown of thorns pot outside
This small transplant from our larger plant enjoys a warm summer day.

The crown of thorns is a relative of the poinsettia, and original plants had deeper red flowers than those available today. New cultivars of the Euphorbia millii have smaller thorns, but what sort of a challenge is that? Most crown of thorn plants available for growing in containers are smaller than those placed in tropical landscapes, and flowers on the houseplants are only about one-half inch in diameter. But it doesn’t seem to matter; for one, the flowers appear in groupings. And I love the effect of the tiny, subtle blooms on such a thorny plant.

euphoria millii
Euphorbia millii, or crown of thorns, is a fascinating blend of delicate and spiny.

The crown of thorns is vulnerable to mites, mealy bugs and whiteflies. The only other problem that can occur with the easy-care succulent is overwatering. Place Euphorbia millii plants and cuttings in well-draining soil.

 

Succulents Help Us Survive Winter

People who love to garden, or even who love nature, must make a few compromises and adjustments in any climate with cold winter months and snow. Having some houseplants and even colorful blooms eases the loss for gardeners in winter. We have a large selection that contains mostly succulents. My husband, Tim, is the succulent caretaker, and although I tease him about the volume of plants, I’m so glad they’re growing and blooming in winter on a sunny wall.

succulents in sunny window
Succulents love our bank of south-facing windows. Foreground is a spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla) started from seed. Behind it is a Christmas cactus, barrel cactus and a variety of houseplants.

Succulents and cacti

Succulents are the ultimate in adaptability. They tolerate drought by storing water in their stems and/or leaves. Some also have evolved to develop especially large roots. Succulents need little supplemental water, especially when it’s cold and cloudy. Cacti are a large family of succulents that have spine cushions called areoles.

barrel cactus
Barrel cactus in container. For a plant that is basically round with spines, there is a huge variety of Ferocactus, the “fierce cactus.”

The enormous variety of succulents makes them so appealing to me. We have cacti that have grown in containers for years, tiny succulents that thrive in small clay pots, and a few that flower for most of the winter or year. Their varying colors and textures are a delight to hold, especially in groupings.

The selection is larger now than when I took this photo a few years ago. And that tall euphorbia is even taller!
The selection is larger now than when I took this photo a few years ago. And that tall euphorbia is even taller!

Caring for succulents

Succulents often survive the poorest of conditions, but they need some water. They certainly don’t use as much water as other houseplants, however, and tend to be more forgiving when neglected. As long as the plant is in soil that drains well, you can water weekly or less often, depending on the variety. Although succulents need less water, it’s a good idea to water them slowly and deeply. They need little fertilizing, although giving them a boost with a fertilizer such as fish emulsion once a month should support their growth and flowering.

Euphorbia adobe wall
Close-up of the euphorbia. The Euphorbiaceae family is one of the largest succulent and even plant families in the world.

Most succulents need at least a half day of sunshine, even in winter. Placing them near a sunny window usually takes care of this. But keep an eye on the plant; sometimes sunlight can burn a succulent. Turning the plant gives it more even sun. You can also use grow lights to keep them warm and happy.

succulents under grow light
We might as well use our grow lights for succulents until seed-starting time.

Like other plants, succulents flower to ensure their survival; the flowers produce seeds. My favorite example of this is how the giant Saguaro cactus from the Arizona desert reproduces. Birds, bats and insects help pollinate the flowers, which don’t emerge until the cactus is about 35 years old. Coyotes and cactus wrens eat the fruit and carry the seeds in their digestive system until depositing them with their waste. In the right conditions, a new Saguaro forms.

baby toes bloom
Baby toes (Fenestreria) produces one of my favorite flowers several times a year. The plant originated in South Africa.

But back to the houseplants – most flower indoors as well, and some are fairly predictable. For example, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) typically blooms in mid-winter, which gives the plant its name. Ours are blooming for a second time.

split rock succulent
This split rock (Pleiopilos nelii) surprised us with a delicate, flesh-colored flower.

Easy to manage

Succulents are easy to propagate. In most cases, the gardener needs to let the cut stem dry a few days before replanting. Tim has successfully propagated dozens of succulents. As long as the plants get some light and warmth, you’ll be able to enjoy them inside all winter, and give them a nice vacation outside in summer when temperatures warm. It’s best to harden them off, as you would any houseplant or seedling. Gradually introduce the plants to the outdoors, increasing their time outside each day. They need their six hours or so of sun, but can easily burn if exposed to too much direct sun, especially during the hottest time of day.

Aloe vera in sunny window
Aloe veras are popular succulents. We love the fan aloe (Aloe plicatillis) in the foreground. It eventually grows a woody base.

We love having a colorful desert in our home in winter, and it’s nice to have some green and blooms. For more information on caring for succulents, see my Resources page.