Favorite Low-water Plant: Desert Zinnia

Although it’s a member of the zinnia family, the desert zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora) is remarkably different from the large annual flower we typically think of when we hear of a zinnia. Actually a member of the aster (Asteracaea) family, this tiny perennial is a delicate xeric groundcover or low shrub native to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

desert zinnia flower
The desert zinnia has a big flower on needle-like leaves. I love how the flower sort of reflects the sun it loves.

Also called prairie zinnia or Rocky Mountain zinnia, the plant blooms in summer and its tiny, needle-like foliage dies back in the frost of winter, resembling dormant grass. But have no fear! The plant is there, and comes back, even spreading. I just brush up the dormant leaves as part of the spring garden clean-up, and new plants already are appearing underneath. You could also gently rake up the spent foliage in larger areas. Clearing off the old leaves exposes the new plants to more sun, which they love.

zinnia grandiflora shadow
This tiny desert zinnia is casting a morning shadow on the rock it grows from.

But although desert zinnia loves sun, it doesn’t love water. That’s right – once established, desert zinnia needs no water at all. Too much water just introduces weeds into the mix, which can be hard to pull from between the delicate foliage. If you have a period of no rain, you can give desert zinnia some water to ensure blooming. The flowers also do fine in partial shade.

desert zinnia in rocks
Desert zinnia will spread low across the ground or cascade down rocks. This weekend starts monsoon season, and I expect more blooms to appear.

Typically, the desert zinnia is about 4 inches high and spreads to nearly 15 inches wide. Each flower can reach nearly an inch in diameter, with an orange cone (Golden Eye) surrounded by three to six yellow petals. It should thrive in zones 5 through 8. It’s a great plant for erosion control and for rock gardens. I love how it cascades over and through our rock wall.

Garden Project: Harvesting Lavender

Lavender is without a doubt my favorite drought-tolerant plant. Aside from its stunning appearance in the garden, it’s a fragrant herb. We added 15 lavender plants to our garden last year, and some of them failed to make it, mostly because of unseasonably cool and moist spring weather. But most of the survivors are now thriving and we have plans to expand our lavender “operation,” because once you get it started, it’s just so darn easy to grow.

lavender blooms
Close-up of Hidcote Superior English Lavender blooms. The stems of ours did not get very long, but I believe it will do better next year. I love the deep purple color.

If you cut off the first blooms of the season, lavender plants reward you with another late-season show. Yesterday, I decided to harvest some of the flowering buds to dry them for possible potpourris, bundles, and other gifts and to encourage the second wave of blooms. It was great fun!

To experiment with drying stems, buds and leaves, I cut some short stalks from newer plants that were not long enough to dry as bundles. They’ll make great potpourri or sachets, assuming I am smart and industrious enough to figure out how. I included a pretty established white lavender that’s been in the garden for years.

tools used to harvest lavender
Tools for my first attempt at lavender harvesting: our notebook with records of lavender planting, rubber bands, large paper clips opened up, and tags to mark bundles.

Some of the stems are too short to hang and I don’t want to waste any buds that might fall. I’ve heard of using paper bags, and remembered I could never bring myself to throw out the bags my espresso beans come in. They were the perfect size and already have a sturdy top that’s easy to close and hook onto for hanging. I cut holes in the sides of the bags for ventilation and marked the plant and date on the bag. One concern I have is that the bags still smell (deliciously) like coffee, so I wonder if the lavender inside will blend with that aroma. Worst case? Lavender lattes! Seriously, I might try it.

But I really love the look of dried stem bundles, and six of our one-year-old plants have produced a good crop of long stems. I went ahead and harvested stems from one of them. The trick to gathering long stems is this: You want the length to maximize the look and aroma, so it helps to cut all the way down to the plant’s round shape of existing foliage. But I realized after cutting that I removed many tiny, new flower buds down the stem. That might affect the number of blooms in the second round. We’ll see how the late-summer bloom on this plant compares with the next one I harvest.

xeric English lavender
One-year-old Royal Velvet English lavender blooming away in a xeric garden. There are two more next to it. The other purple to the left is from volunteer Larkspur.
lavender after stems harvested
Same plant after I harvested all of the stems. In retrospect, I should have left some on the plant that hadn’t quite opened. But I guess the symmetry before and after appeals to me more. I even trimmed it to make it nice and round again.

Out of one (one-year-old) Royal Velvet English Lavender, I was able to make a respectably sized bundle and a smaller bundle to take to friends I was having a picnic with that later in the day. I also stripped some of the leaves and tiny buds from down the stem and placed them in a coffee bag for even more yield from the plant.

lavender harvest
Here’s my yield for the day: a long and short stem from the Royal velvet plant, plus a bag of “remnants,” a bag of white lavender buds, and one bag each from the Hidcote and a young Munstead, both too short to bundle but just as aromatic.

The day before, I had hammered several nails into the beams of our old shed. It’s dry and has good ventilation. It’s not completely dark, which might be the drawback. I used rubber bands to hold the bundle together, and opened up large paper clips to secure the rubber band or the bag tops to the nail. I also slipped a small piece of cut-up old business cards into the bundle’s rubber band with the plant and date and hung it upside down. They should take about a week to dry.

drying lavender in shed
I knew this shed would be good for more than storage! All it took was nails, paper clips and coffee bags.

Low-Water Shade Trees

A well-planned xeric landscape can include a few low- or medium-water shade trees, especially when the trees are native to the area. Trees naturally use more water than small shrubs, but offer several advantages that make up for it, including:

Providing shade for houses and patios to cut energy use in summer. Choosing a deciduous (instead of an evergreen) tree means you’ll only shade windows in summer, and leave them open to sun in the winter to provide solar gain for warming your home. Trees that drop leaves in winter work best at shading your house when planted on the home’s southwest corner.

chinese-apricot for shade
Nothing beats a shade tree in summer for plants and gardeners. This established Chinese apricot on the southwest corner or our home shades the patio, garden and some rooms and windows. We hope it provides fruit soon.

Trees also can shade other plants, helping to keep roots cool and moist, which saves some water in the landscape and opens up your ornamental or edible plant choices.

Place shade trees close enough to your house that you’ll receive some of the energy savings and comfort of the shade, keeping in mind the tree’s mature size and the direction of summer sun and shade.

Here are a few low-to-medium trees that can provide shade and interest to a xeric landscape:

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a striking, rainwater-only tree once established. Its shrubby, slightly smaller shape might be less effective at shading large areas or for providing cover for a picnic table, but it grows quickly the first few years. In fact, if you overwater it, the trunks grow too quickly and are susceptible to breakage from the wind. The orchid-like flowers attract hummingbirds. The sun lover may leaf out after other trees in spring, so don’t worry. It can reach heights of 20 feet and grows in zones 7 through 9.

desert willow
The desert willow has delicate leaves and orchid-like flowers. It will leave seed pods, but I’ve never found them to be messy.

Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) has large, oval leaves and showy, almost tubular flowers. The tree can take heat and low to medium water. It grows to a height of about 60 feet in zones 4 through 8. Just beware of the Chitalpa (X Chitalpa taskentensis), a hybrid cross of the catalpa and the desert willow. Its flowers are gorgeous and it’s fuller than the desert willow, but the plant is prone to a bacterial disease.

catalpa leaves and flowers
Close-up of catalpa leaves and flowers. Image by G. F. Russell and courtesy of the Smithsonian Plant Image Collection.

Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) is a low-water shade tree that also leafs out late in spring, and rewards with sweet-smelling yellow flowers. It can reach 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide and is more cold hardy than some low-water choices, down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. All of the mesquites are low-water users, surviving in the driest conditions.

Smoke tree (Cotinus coggyria) can take low-water conditions once established, but might require more water during hot summer months and while flowering. The flowers give the smoke tree its name; they’re feathery seedheads that burst open in summer. The foliage is just as attractive, though, with both green and purple colors, and a fall gold. The tree will only reach about 15 feet high, but it’s a great choice for xeric landscapes.

established smoke tree
Large smoke tree in full bloom at the Hondo Iris Farm in New Mexico.
smoke tree leaves and blooms
Smoke tree leaves and bloom. The leaves change color throughout the year and the blooms do have a smoky scent.

Blue spruce (Picea pungens). Most evergreens, except Junipers, require at least medium water. I can’t bring myself to recommend Junipers because of their allergenic potential. But you’re welcome to read about junipers elsewhere. The blue spruce is meant for cooler climates (Zones 3 through 6) and can grow to 50 feet. It comes in smaller cultivars that can survive at lower elevations and work better in a small yard or xeric landscape without taking over.

blue spruce tree
The regal-looking blue spruce, an evergreen choice for cooler climates. Image from North Dakota Extension Service and USDA Plant Database.

For an edible choice, try the Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba). Once established, it only needs a deep watering once a month. The tree also is called the Chinese date because it bears a sweet/sour date-like fruit for birds or people. The tree tends to spread and form groves, so it’s great for shade and wind screens. It can reach a height of 20 or 30 feet, however.

Xeric Plants That Attract Bees

Last week, I posted about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. If  you haven’t registered your garden yet, this week is a great time to participate. June 15 through 21 marks National Pollinator Week!

And if you feel your garden doesn’t meet the criteria for a pollinator garden or need some help attracting pollinators and saving water at the same time, read on. I’ve got a list of low-water plants that attract bees in particular.

vegetable garden near bee attractors
The ugly stucco buckets in this otherwise pretty sunset protect some tomatoes and other edibles I would like bees to visit. So I’m happy to have plenty of plants in the garden that attract pollinators.

Let’s first review a few reasons you want bees. Their numbers are dwindling, and the more homeowners and businesses that plant gardens to attract and nourish bees, the more we keep bee populations going. In your own garden, bees pollinate more than two-thirds of your flowers and edibles. Apples, cherries, beans, and other healthy and delicious crops in your yard or local farms need bees to produce their fruit or at least lend a hand, and not just in the height of summer. Gardens that provide bee-loving flowers from early spring until late fall help keep local populations thriving.

Here are a few low-water plants bees love:

  • Bee balm (Monarda “Jacob Kline”). You can’t go wrong with a selection named for the insect. To encourage the large, red flowers, you might have to give it some extra water, however.
  • Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa). I’ve mentioned native or wild roses before. The Apache plume is a member of the rose family, but is more shrubby, partially evergreen, native, forgiving to heavy trimming or shaping, and needs no water once established. Bees love the small white flowers.
bee on apache plume flower
The pretty white flower of the xeric Apache plume.
  • Thyme. If you allow culinary herbs to flower, bees often go wild. We have thyme in our garden that flowered early this year and is a big attractor. When rosemary blooms, bees swarm all over it.
  • Sage. Bees also flock to culinary sage. I don’t mind letting some of my herbs flower because I have space. If your space is limited, you might want to cut herbs back (and use them in the kitchen). Pruning makes them healthier, as long as you don’t cut into the woody stems. I prefer to keep a few plants trimmed for culinary use, often in containers, and a few wilder for color (and pollinators).  Other sages, such as salvia, also bring bees to your garden.
culinary sage with bees
I caught this bee buzzing toward one of the pretty purple flowers on a culinary sage.
  • Onion (Allium) is a popular low-water edible that comes in an ornamental variety called Cokscrew blue twister that attracts bees with its pink flowers.
  • Pink lamb’s ear (Stachys lavandulifolius). A xeric wildflower that has fuzzy gray leaves and pink flowers to attract bees.
  • Catmint (Nepeta) has a bluish-purple flower and a strong scent. The low-growing plant can be invasive, however.
catmint for bees
Catmint lines our front walkway, which means so do bees! The plant needs no water, but spreads prolifically.
  • Alyssum. If you’ve read my past posts, I have bemoaned this invasive wildflower/weed. But I will say this much: Bees can’t get enough of the pungent blooms, and we probably fed enough honeybees from our yellow land alone in early spring to pollinate half of the desert Southwest!

Fruit trees also attract bees while flowering and there are plenty of vines and shrubs that draw bees to the garden. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a low-water, fragrant choice and Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera semperivirens) uses little water and handles heat and cold. Be aware of vine and shrub spread when you place them, especially regarding be buzzing!

Check with your local nursery for more native or xeric bee attractors that thrive in your area. My Resources page lists a few sellers of xeric plants, or try this National Garden Bureau member listing.

Perennial or Annual?

Gardeners often face the choice of filling a container or a space in their xeric landscape with either an annual or perennial. And new gardeners might have a hard time knowing whether a plant they spot and love will come back in their garden next year. Let’s take a look at annuals vs. perennials, especially in xeric landscaping.

cosmos and agave in New Mexico garden
These agave are xeric, but apparently so are these cosmos, annuals that just pop up from old seeds each year, to the point we had to thin them to give the agave room.

First-time gardeners might not get the difference between the plant types. It’s easy to remember if you think about the terms attached to each plant: A perennial lasts three years or more, but an annual is there only for this year, just like the root of the word (annus, Latin for year).

So, how do you know when you want a perennial and when you want an annual? Here are a few scenarios:

For containers, it’s often best to go with annuals. Unless you have plenty of sunny indoor space and a strong back, you’re better off placing annual flowers into most of your containers, just for the season. Of course, succulents can easily live indoors in sunny locations, as can some herbs, bedding plants and houseplants. I love planting just a few containers each year in front of my house, and at our last home, we had one annual bed that we changed out each year, also adding pansies for winter color. It’s a small splurge.

But if you’ve got a huge raised bed to fill, go with bulbs and perennials, or maybe spring-blooming bulbs, overplanted with annual seeds that come up later in summer, after your bulbs are done blooming. Seeds cost less if you’re willing to wait for the plant to grow, then bloom. Having said that, one of the benefits of buying annual plants is instant gratification!

xeric annuals and perennials
I think I just showed the combination of yarrow and gaillardia, but I can’t get over how great the perennial and annual look together.

Here are some of my favorite low-water annuals, many of which are wildflowers that will reseed:

  • California poppy
  • Cosmos
  • Desert marigold
  • Portulaca (Moss rose)

For most xeric gardens, however, you can’t beat a hardy, low-water perennial that blooms year after year. All you usually have to do is cut back dead branches or flower stems and wait. A few cautions with perennials: Some spread, even though they’re xeric plants. And sometimes, you have to cut them back drastically to keep your garden under control and prevent one perennial from competing too much with others, such as shading another plant that needs six hours of sun a day.

gray santolina and cherry sage
This gray santolina. along with a few neighboring perennials, is blocking sun to the red sage next to it. I love both plants, so we might move the sage to a sunnier location.

Here are a few of my favorite low-water perennials:

  • Coreopsis
  • Echinacea, or coneflower
  • Gaura
  • Lavender
  • Penstemon
  • Sedum
  • Santolina
  • Sage – any perennial salvia and sage
  • Yarrow

How do you tell an annual from a perennial when making a purchase? If your nursery doesn’t have the plants sorted by annuals vs. perennials, you can always ask. Another clue is that many annuals are sold in six-packs or similar packaging for several smaller plants. Perennials tend to come in pint size, gallon pots and up. But that’s not always the case. And a particular flower might be available as both, so check the tag or ask nursery staff. An example is the salvia, which comes as several great perennials. But there is a red salvia that only works as an annual, at least in my zone.

larkspur annual
Pink and purple larkspur, the annual version of Delphinium. These reseed under our red bud each year with no effort on our part.

That takes me to my final point: One gardener’s perennial might be another gardener’s annual. In other words, zone and general conditions can alter a plant’s ability to endure for more than one season. Geraniums are container plants or annuals in the mountains and high desert of New Mexico, but might be perennial in southern California. And just to add to the confusion, hardy geraniums (of the genus Geranium), are different from Pelargoniums, common geraniums, such as the scented flowers. And gaillardia, or blanket flower, is one of my favorite plants that might be an annual or perennial, depending on the cultivar and conditions. Ours simply reseed throughout the garden year after year.

I added several other photos of annuals and perennials mentioned in this post to the Photos page.

Got Bees? Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The number of honey bees and other pollinating insects is declining around the United States. Colony collapse disorder and other diseases, along with increased pesticide, use are likely culprits. What’s more, monarch butterfly populations have been declining by the millions!

butterflies on ivy blooms
We were stuck with ivy around all of our walls at our last home. We pulled out any that was rooted on our side of the fence. It’s not xeric and it is invasive, but butterflies flocked to the blooms.

On May 19, President Obama announced steps aimed at improving the health of pollinating insects. And in response, the National Pollinator Garden Network issued the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. According to the network, pollinators help generate one out of three bites of food we eat each year. Planting plenty of trees and flowers that attract bees, butterflies, birds and bats can help improve pollinator health and populations.

The challenge calls on homeowners, businesses and communities to create and sustain gardens that attract pollinators. Let me just say that this is another concern I have about extreme xeriscaping, or a trend I see of replacing every bit of plant and lawn in a landscape with gravel. New Mexico, for one, is barren enough. And there are plenty of xeric plants that attract birds, bees and other insects and provide some color in the landscape.

maximilian sunflower
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native, low-water prairie flower that bees love. I love its late-season blooms.

According to the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a pollinator garden should:

  • Include plants that provide nectar and pollen sources.
  • Provide water for pollinators.
  • Be in a sunny location with some wind breaks.
  • Have large areas of pollinator-attracting plants that are native and noninvasive.
  • Include plants that bloom throughout the season.
  • If possible, eliminate pesticide use, and at least minimize pesticides.

If your garden already meets the criteria, I encourage you to go to the challenge’s website and add your garden to the map.

And here are a few tips for meeting the challenge, or at least for making sure you have plenty of bees, butterflies and other pollinators in your garden:

  • Of course, including native, low-water plants is critical. Look for symbols in product catalogs or lists of xeric pollinators. And remember bees love herbs too. They buzz all around our thyme when it flowers, and there are roses and other flowering ornamentals pollinators love that need nothing but rainwater once established.
woods rose attracting bees
This woods rose had bees all over it the other morning. It’s a native, wild rose that’s xeric.
  • Some people avoid plants that attract bees because of possible stings, especially with children around. I have a few plants that attract seemingly hundreds, and one we walk past constantly. But if bees bother you, just place your pollinator plants where you can see them, but in a spot you seldom sit or walk by, and not where the kids’ soccer ball always ends up when they play in the back yard.
  • Providing water can be tough. Our birdbath dries up in a day or two, and I hate to refill it, knowing it will evaporate. But I can use rain water. The birds also gather on the top of our rain barrels, where the water sometimes pools. Butterflies need only a few drops in a tiny rock or plate.
  • Some native plants bloom continuously with no effort on your part. Look for those! An example is catmint (Nepeta). And create a dense grouping with a mix of colors and bloom times to attract pollinators, especially if you have limited space. A few annuals can provide blooms when perennials fade. We have cosmos that pop up late in summer and birds balance on the thin stalks, gathering seeds.
yarrow and gallardia
Moonshine yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a perfect pollinator. It blooms all season and has a flat surface for easy landing! Bees also love the annual blanket flower (Gallardia)
  • One of the great benefits of inviting pollinators with flowering plants is that they should make a side trip to your edibles. Don’t be afraid to plant some flowers near vegetables, as long as they don’t compete for sun and water or hide weeds.
  • If your roses or other plants get aphids, wash the tiny bugs off with a fine spray of water in the morning before turning to a pesticide; it’s just not necessary. Spray again in a few days if more return. And try to stick with pesticides on your edibles that are least harmful to honeybees, such as insecticidal soap.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Penstemon

The hummingbirds are swooping around the garden, and soon they will enjoy feeding off several water-wise Penstemon species. The penstemon, also called beardtongue, is a versatile low-water native plant in New Mexico and the Southwest.

In fact, penstemon does best with no added water at all. And the plants can thrive in full sun or light shade. Penstemon comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and bloom colors. But they have in common a slender trumpet-shaped flower that hummingbirds love.

purple penstemon
Hummingbirds love penstemon flowers, but can you also spot the bees in this photo?

Caring for penstemon

Penstemons usually prefer somewhat sandy or clay soil, and don’t need added compost. Most species of penstemon are perennial in our zone (6 to 7), but some are annuals. They’ll bloom from summer to frost. Species such as Arabesque Red bloom from summer through first frost with deadheading. However, if you leave some blooms on the plant, the seedheads ripen and break, which causes the plants to reseed. We’ve had several volunteers come up in our rock garden. And birds love the seeds!

red penstemon AAS regional winner
Arabesque Red was the regional winner (including the Mountain and Southwest regions) fof the All-America Selections in 2014. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, Inc.

The only way to really harm penstemon is to overwater or overnourish this easy-care plant. Use fine gravel for mulch. Occasionally, aphids gather on the stems, but you can use a fine mist of water to spray them off in the morning and check a few days later.

Penstemon can work well in containers, especially if you select a lower-growing variety. Select low-water companion plants, so that the penstemon does not receive too much water. If it does, it can become leggy. You might find that a penstemon in a clay pot needs occasional watering compared with one in your landscape.

In a xeric landscape

Penstemons are great plants for xeric landscapes. Low growers such as Desert beardtongue (P. pseudospectabilis) spread to about 15 inches wide and 30 inches high, with purple-maroon flowers on stalks above the blue-green foliage. The pineleaf penstemon (P. pinifolius) is a native wildflower with tiny needle-like leaves and bright orange-scarlet flowers. I love watching the hummingbirds maneuver effortlessly into the flowers.

pineleaf penstemon
Our pineleaf penstemon hasn’t flowered yet, but it’s still attractive, with the pine-like foliage and its low spreading nature.

A taller, lankier type such as Rocky Mountain beardtongue (P. strictus) looks gorgeous against a fence, wall or tall rock. Its purple flowers contrast nicely with yellow or white bloomers in the foreground. The bushier pineleaf or Desert beardtongues are perfect to tuck in a corner, or along a step or walkway.

desert beardtongue penstemon
The Desert Beardtongue is a 2015 Plant Select winner. Photo by Bill Adams and courtesy of Plant Select.

No matter which variety of penstemon you choose, you’ll be rewarded by hummingbird guests and the beautiful blooms that appear with very little care on your part!

Altitude and Wind Affect a Plant’s Water Needs

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

Low Pressure Causes Evaporation

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

 

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

Why Not Add Some Wind to the Mix?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Native Plants Adapt

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

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

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

Smart Xeric Strategy: Grow Edible Plants

It’s a trend that was a long time in coming, but edible landscaping is here to stay, and it can be a great xeric landscaping strategy. More than 80 percent of Americans say they have grown edibles, but nearly one-fourth are concerned about irrigation, so incorporating edibles into the garden landscape just makes sense!

I plan to increase some of the space in our rock garden devoted to edibles this year. We already have some great xeric herbs and I love the blooms of our Western sand cherry, which I hope will bear fruit this year. We also get a few rose hips from our native (Fendler) roses.

Apple tree and red bud in full bloom
The red bud looks edible, but only at the bird feeder! The rose bush on the left leaves hips in the late fall. And if that apple tree by the river makes as many apples as it has blooms, we’ll be heading to the farmers’ market!

Use space and save money

Adding a few edibles means we use some of the space and relatively good soil that’s near our kitchen and outdoor dining spaces for a few more herbs and vegetables. I’ll supplement our fenced vegetable garden and try to select critter-proof plants or hope the area is close enough to our patio to shy them away.

Like me, you might want to grow your own edibles for freshness and cost savings. In particular, herbs are much less expensive when grown from seed or cuttings than when you buy them in a store. I’ve used fresh and dried ones from our rock garden all year long. But so many edible plants also add visual interest. I don’t have to tell you how gorgeous lavender can get. And if not cut, rosemary and sage also produce lavender-colored blooms.

Grow xeric herbs

Then, there is the scent. I can hardly walk by thyme or lavender without rubbing my fingers on the leaves. Here’s a list of low-water herbs to add to your garden landscape:

Sage, thyme, rosemary, and lavender (which can be used to flavor dishes or for many aromatic uses). Basil uses a little more water, but recovers well if neglected, as long as you keep it in well-draining soil. Oregano also needs only occasional watering, and though dill can be particular about soil, it also does well with little water. Read more about low-water herbs in my March post.

Add edible shade trees

If you’re looking for a shade tree, why not plant a fruit or nut tree that is native to your region? Instead of watering for the sake of leaves and summer shade, you can water for some juicy apples or peaches.

Chinese apricot tree for edible shade
No shade needed on this spring day, but in summer, we rest from outdoor chores under this established Chinese apricot tree. It was loaded with fruit about three years ago.

We just ordered a few bare-root trees from the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District. We’ve already planted a pinon tree. Sure, it will be a long time until it rewards us with pine nuts, and we’ll probably always fight the wildlife for them, but it’s a fast-growing native tree in New Mexico and I’m happy to try for a few delicious nuts to add to some basil for pesto! On the way soon are a serviceberry and cherry. The serviceberry is sure to feed the birds, if not us. And our established currant is in full bloom.

currant bush
This low-water currant provides year-round color and edible berries for wildlife and humans.

Consider interspersing a few edibles into your garden landscape and start small. For example, fill containers with edible flowers. Artichokes add interest to the garden;  just be sure to leave those guys plenty of room. If a few of the edibles you choose take a little more water than typical for xeric plants, consider this: Farmers use even more to irrigate their crops and you use no carbon footprint to drive to the store and buy greens when you grow your own in containers or a raised bed in your own garden. Water as much as possible from a rain barrel and feel even better about your edibles!

nasturtium in old washer
Why not fill an empty container (even a salvaged washer) with edible flowers? Nasturtium look pretty in the landscape and on salads.

Also, be sure to consider where you place your edibles. Spinach and lettuce have shallow roots and need cooler, shadier conditions. But avoid adding a crop of edibles under the canopy of a tree, where they’ll compete with the tree’s roots for water. I plan to use an area of our rock garden area to grow more peppers this year, and our southern-facing rock wall serves as a perfect microclimate to add some extra warmth for tomatoes and peppers.

planting edibles in xeric gardens
We recently weeded, turned the dirt, and added mushroom compost to the rock garden soil to prep it for some edibles as soon as frost danger passes.

Low-water Use Tips To Meet Restrictions and Good Water Sense

We spend a lot of time talking about xeric plants, and recently posted some tips on low-water use for gardeners. California has implemented emergency regulations to conserve water during their drought, and the ones related to landscaping are the sort of common sense practices that xeric-minded organizations and gardeners have always touted:

  • Avoid runoff when irrigating.
  • Don’t irrigate during or 48 hours after measurable precipitation.

This post goes into more details on the restrictions, which, along with scheduled days or times of watering, are pretty common municipal regulations in drought-stricken areas.

Avoid runoff when irrigating

Runoff obviously can come from too much water. Of course, good planning of landscape, plant selection and irrigation choices upfront can prevent runoff. Correct an existing problem by first checking the area after the system runs. If you normally water while at work, do a manual run so you can test your system on the weekend. If you have runoff, study where flow occurs. If it’s down a slope, consider terracing the lawn area or welling around the tree or shrubs that you’re watering. You can also cut watering time, of course. If you’re worried about one tree or ornamental that needs more water, cut the irrigation system watering time and supplement the tree’s water every once in a while with a hose or bucket. Don’t waste all of that water irrigating concrete or pavement, and possibly weeds, just to keep one plant healthy. For a small lawn or several plants on a drip system, you can decrease watering time and increase frequency if necessary.

terraced lawn to prevent sprinkler runoff
This Albuquerque lawn has some bermuda grass, but notice the terrace to avoid runoff. Also, note the exposed drip lines being reset in the xeric garden area on lower right.

The runoff might be from a misdirected, leaky, plugged or defective head or emitter. It’s easy to turn and redirect the head so the water goes where it should. A small leak in the system can waste hundreds of gallons of water. Plugged sprinkler heads are a common cause of pooled or misdirected water. Running a stiff wire, such as a straightened paper clip, through the emitter hole can clear some debris. If the entire head is full or dirt or grass, you can turn off your system, lift and unscrew the head, soak it and use a small wire brush to clean it. Then rinse it and screw it back on.

Avoid watering a wet lawn

This should be a no-brainer, but I already ranted in my previous post about neighbors who left their automatic sprinklers on no matter the weather. My best advice is to set automatic sprinklers to “manual” and water regularly but only as needed based on weather conditions. You can set a reminder on your smartphone or other device to jog your memory if that’s a concern. But it’s sometimes more difficult to remember to override the automatic setting on the sprinkler, especially if you’re not there to do it! Otherwise, pay attention to the weather forecast each evening and override the auto setting when rain is predicted the night before so you don’t have to add the task to your busy morning schedule. You can always water a little in early evening or the next morning if the forecast is off the mark.

Of course, if you’ve switched out some or all of your turf for a xeric landscape, at least you are using less water. It also means less need for an automatic system. Most xeric plants need such infrequent watering that you’re best served by a manual irrigation system or the totally manual system of carrying a water bucket from your rain barrel only to the plants that need a little more water — and only when they need it!

raised ornamental bed bubblers
We raised part of this bed and replaced spray heads with bubblers to conserve water.

Other water-saving tips

  • Water early in the morning, especially if you live in a hot climate. Your plants take up more water before the stressful heat of the day, and if you’re using spray irrigation, less water evaporates.
  • Use drip irrigation when possible instead of sprays and sprinklers, or at least keep the spray as low as possible. Spraying water can lead to some leaf diseases, and you want most of the water to go into the plant’s roots, not into the air.
  • Well around plants, especially new plants, any plant that needs more water than others, and anything planted on a slope to trap the water.
  • Choose xeric, low-water and native plants.
  • Use mulch as appropriate to help keep plants cool and roots damp.

    welled shrubs
    Wells around shrubs at Tucson area nonprofit

Of course, it never hurts to call in a professional landscaper or other pro to get some help with your irrigation system or to better plan your lawn and garden for low-water use. For example, avoiding steep slopes in your landscape (with terraces and other strategies) can prevent water runoff, and use of microclimates can increase plant viability while decreasing water needs.