Six Strategies for Transforming High-water Turf Into a Waterwise Landscape

Xeriscaping has become more of a mandate in many Southwestern communities, and it’s too bad that it’s come to that. But with long-term drought and overpopulation in concentrated urban areas, it’s no wonder that water resources are scarce.

As I’ve said for a few years on this blog, drought is nothing new to New Mexicans, and many leaders of low-water gardening and planting hail from Colorado and New Mexico. That doesn’t mean everybody gets it, but there are plenty of examples of gorgeous front and back yard landscapes that use little to no irrigation but have curb appeal and bring joy to home gardeners and guests.

xeriscaping instead of all gravel
How many xeriscaping strategies can you spot in this photo? Hint: It has color, texture, native annuals, pollinators, terracing, vegetables by the house and rainwater collection. It sure doesn’t seem boring or ugly.

One of my biggest concerns about water restrictions imposed on residents of Western states is that homeowners and business owners will react to the extreme, going from a complete high-water turf lawn to all-gravel landscapes. I’ve ranted here and plenty of other places on this blog about what this move does to existing trees, home energy use and how it’s just plain ugly.

Here’s a summary of six strategies for planning an attractive and effective waterwise landscape that includes some living plants and joy without blowing your budget or your mind.

1. Start with xeric zones. The concept of simple xeriscaping zones around your home makes planning easier. The point is to place your gravel and most drought-tolerant plants the furthest from your home. Putting a few plants that need a little more water, or having some turf for the dogs, kids or green that you love is OK, as long as you keep it in moderation and close to the house. This helps keep your house cooler, gives you and your family a nice place to gather and can even help keep shade trees alive. Those are waterwise and energy-saving strategies and can help form the basis for your plan.

small patch of grass in Albuquerque lawn
Friends of ours have a small patch of grass for them and their dog in the back yard. It helps keep their house and yard cooler.

2. Keep the right type and amount of turf. Unless you have reasons beyond water savings, you don’t have to eliminate turf altogether. Just switch out the type and size of your grass area. Take the grass out of your arid zone, and replace grass in small portions of the transition or mini-oasis zones (areas closer to the house) with a native, drought-tolerant variety. Your local nursery should have native or hybrid grasses in seed, sod or plugs that grow in your area with little to no watering once established.

grass on southern California street
This is partly why southern California is in crisis — street after street of total turf lawns, even in the median. There’s no need for this much grass, especially high-water grasses and turf out by the asphalt.

3. Take a tip from permaculture. Approach your new landscape holistically, creating a design that’s self-sustaining. For example, divert rainwater from your roof to water a shade tree or create a small rain garden or bioswale in an area that always pools with mud or water after a hard rain. Use leaves from the shade tree for compost or simply rake them up to mulch a plant. Grow edibles as ornamentals in the sunny spot once taken up by grass. Include some xeric plants that attract pollinators to help ensure good fruit production on your new edibles. The photo at the top of this post shows a few of these principles, but we’re working on incorporating more.

4. Level land with burms, steps or terraces. One of the biggest wasters of sprinkler water, aside from evaporation, is runoff. If your landscape has any slope at all, finding a way to control that slope can save water immediately. For example, when we added to our patio, we messed with the water runoff and it affected nearby established plants. They’re not as healthy now because they got too much water. So we plan to try a combination of a bioswale and burm to relocate the low-water plants and divert some of the water. Burms are usually rounded shelves or bumps, with a more natural look. Steps can give you access to an area and great placement for xeric plants and ornamental grasses. Terracing shores up dirt and water and provides excellent opportunities for landscape palettes and sectioning off beds. Look for lots of ideas online and by driving around your neighborhood, and get help from a landscape designer and contractor if the job is too much for you.

Albuquerque architecture and landscaping
A nice example of typical architecture and landscaping in Albuquerque. The gravel is outside the patio fence and the steps provide a focal point for the xeric plantings.

5. Use indoor design principles. If gardening overwhelms you, or you don’t know much about plants, it shouldn’t stop you from creating some curb appeal in a new low-water landscape. Many of the same principles apply to outdoor design as indoor – color, texture, height and shape. Terraces or burms can help, but even if you have a flat yard, you can start with an existing or new tree for height and take it from there. Just look at a plant’s tag or seek advice from a local master gardener, favorite local garden author, or favorite garden blogger. Look at the plant’s mature height, spread, flower color and a photo of the foliage.

use of succulents and colors in landscape
Here’s a great example of succulents in a California landscape, and especially how to mix colors and textures.

6. Feature native plants. The surest road to success with low-water landscaping is to feature plants native to your area or to areas with the same climate zones. For example, California gardeners are expanding their plant choices with low-water natives from other Mediterranean countries such as South Africa and Western Australia. Once a native plant is established, usually after a year, it should make it through your climate extremes with no extra work on your part. Native plants have adapted to the environment. And although some need pruning, deadheading and sometimes a little bit of drip irrigation, many need nothing but your attention, which you give them when you walk through or sit among the plants. We have a huge rock garden, and we never water most of the plants, or give them one drink after spring pruning if we’ve had no rain. Native annuals and wildflowers are particularly beneficial, and some homeowners reverse their xeric zones to create meadows and completely natural areas along the edges of their properties.

native plants Oliver lee state park
This is not a lawn, but the view along a path in a state park near Alamogordo, N.M., where water is scarce and temperatures warm. These native plants would look terrific placed in any nearby homeowner’s landscape.

Finally, the best strategy is to take it slowly, steadily and with moderation. I fear that too many people will react by letting their lawns die or by pulling them up and replacing them with landscape plastic and gravel. My hope is that I will continue to see colorful native landscapes throughout the West filled with edibles, blooms, evergreen foliage and low-water shade trees, and dotted with touches of native grasses where kids and pets can run around and birds can peck for seeds and earthworms. Is that too much to ask?

5 Water-wise Plants that Pop with Fall Color

Fall came quickly here as our extreme climate did a number on my vegetable garden and I am mourning the loss of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. So to pick up my mood, I’m enjoying the color that remains on many of our drought-tolerant ornamentals. Some of the native roses and wildflowers are hanging in there. Although I love fall, the time of transition is always tough for me, and it helps to have some green and lots of other color hold on longer as cool temperatures make their way into New Mexico.

woods rose in fall
On October 3, we’ve got wild cosmos and a stand of blue grama grass in the foreground. But the leaves of one wild rose are turning yellow, while the other one is loaded with red hips.

Aside from those hardy native wildflowers, here are five low-water plants that can prolong color power in xeric landscapes:

Beargrass. Beargrass is a woody succulent from Mexico that resembles an ornamental grass in the garden. Although plants in California and the Pacific Northwest also are called Beargrass, the ones that thrive in Mexico and New Mexico are of the Nolina family and typically are hardy down to zone 5. High Country Gardens has just introduced a new cold hardy species Nolina microcarpa, or Big Beargrass. Not only is the foliage evergreen, but as the creamy flowers fade in late summer, they turn an earthy pink. The plant attracts pollinators and reaches up to 2.5 feet in height.

Nolina beagrass
Beargrass, or Nolina, is a woody succulent that looks more like a graceful ornamental grass. Image courtesy of High Country Gardens.

Firestick Euphorbia  or “Sticks of Fire.” The Euphorbia tirucalli “Rosea” is a succulent usually grown as a houseplant, at least in any climate colder than zone 9. In warmer zones, the plant makes a stunning accent in a xeric rock garden. If you grow it as a container plant, you can add it to your summer and fall landscape by setting the pot out until the temperature hovers near freezing. The Fire Sticks plant is native to South Africa and grows well in Arizona and warmer zones of California and a few warm spots in southern New Mexico. The red color comes on as temperatures cool. If you do choose to plant Fire Sticks in a container, be aware that the plant can reach heights of 6 feet.

Nandina. Also called Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina is a favorite evergreen shrub around the country. Although it grows in part shade to full sun, the more sun you give nandinas, the more color you’re likely to see. Most nandina are evergreen and grow slowly, up to 10 feet high under some conditions, but compact varieties are available for nearly every zone. In the arid Southwest, nandinas tend to grow and spread less. Sunset has just added a compact variety called “Lemon lime” (Nandina domestica Alba) to its Western Garden collection. Hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9, this stunner has bright lime green new foliage that fades slightly but remains green.

flirt nandina
Flirt Nandina (Nandina “Murasaki”) from the Sunset Western Garden Collection. Image courtesy of Sunset.

Woods’ rose. It’s wild, but I love it. The Rosa woodsii is a rose hip-producing machine fills with delicate pink blooms in summer that somehow seem to leave even more hips than spent blooms from fall through winter. It’s as bright as any berry bush and a haven for birds, pollinators and wildlife. Of course, you can harvest the rose hips or leave them for the color and critters; the hips provide an excellent source of protein and energy in the winter. There are several native varieties of the Woods’ rose that can adapt to climate and natural water availability.

rose hips on Woods' rose
Here’s a close-up of the Woods’ rose in the center of the top photo. Who needs flowers when berries this color last all fall and winter, or until the birds eat them all?

Sedum. Sedum, or stonecrop, is a versatile group of evergreen succulents. Most of them are even more attractive in fall and winter when they darken or produce seed heads. One variety, Autumn Joy, is even named for its favored fall color. The flowers emerge in summer as a lovely pink color, but gradually turn a deep rust. Autumn Fire is a new variety of Autumn Joy with light green leaves and deeper red fall flowers. Both the foliage and flowers provide unique fall and winter interest in the garden on this xeric perennial. It comes in various heights and colors.

dragon's blood sedum
Dragon’s blood is a groundcover sedum we planted to spread over rocks. This one looks great beneath a native chocolate flower and fading desert zinnia.

Five Low-water Shrubs that Birds Love

It’s easy to attract birds to your yard with feeders, but having a friendly bird habitat is even better. We’re fortunate to have some help from nature in the form of a nearby river and trees. Many bird species can nest or fly to the larger trees when evading us or our dogs. But they also love to hang out in the garden right off our patio, because we have a few shrubs that meet their basic needs of food and shelter. Naturally, needs differ by bird, but many eat fruits, berries and seeds.

dave-higgins-hovering-finch
This finch is hovering near a feeder in our smoke tree, but finches also perch on flowers and in shrubs. Photo credit: David Higgins.

As fall arrives, we’re even more aware of how plants attract both native and migrating birds. I looked out my window the other day and saw at least 20 sparrows feeding on the seed heads of a weed/grass that I have been meaning to pull from a garden bed. I felt a little better about being behind. Although trees are important for bird nesting and shelter, so are shrubs. Here are five water-wise choices that help feed, shade or protect birds.

Cotoneaster. The Cotoneaster species includes shrubs that need a little more water until established than some native low-water plants. They’re cold hardy to zone 3 and actually fare better in high desert and mountain climates. Some cultivars (namely Rockspray) grow more wide than high, and these are the ones the sparrows at our place love. The leaves are tiny, but the plant is sort of prickly and since the branches cross over one another, it really fills in well. The birds can enjoy the late summer berries and perch a few feet off the ground.

sparrow on low-water bush
This white-crowned sparrow is hidden pretty well on a cotoneaster even in winter. In spring, 20 or more sparrows perch here, distracting me from working.

Russian sage. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is known as an attractor of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds while its gorgeous and fragrant lavender stalks are in bloom, but I’ve seen other small birds feed on the seedheads as they dry. And since this shrub is best cut back in spring, it can help feed birds all winter.

russian sage drying stalk
Right now, a darn grasshopper appears to be eating our Russian sage. The stalks are beginning to dry.

Pawnee buttes sand cherry. Last week, I mentioned the Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) as one of five water-wise shrubs that works well in high-desert gardens. The Pawnee buttes is a low-growing form of the sand cherry, which likely won’t produce enough fruit for a pie, but plenty of dark, ripe berries to feed birds. I also love the twisting branches. It just looks like a native plant you might encounter walking around the New Mexico desert, but in spring it has gorgeous white flowers that are slightly smaller than those on our cherry tree, but just as striking.

bird attracting sand cherry
The Pawnee buttes sand cherry is a low-growing, twisted version of the Western sand cherry.

Wild roses. I mention native roses often in my plant lists because they are amazing low-water plants. The Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii) in particular is a Southwest native that grows in all sorts of terrain from as low as 2,800 feet to more than 10,000 feet in altitude. It blooms in spring or early summer with no supplemental watering and attracts birds all year long. We have a hummingbird that I am pretty sure has deemed one native rose as his territory, and I love watching birds land on the thorny stems. I doubt any nearby cats will venture up there after them! Best of all, the Woods’ rose leaves hundreds of hips on the plant for birds and other critters to enjoy all fall and winter. The hips have plenty of value for people, but this year, we will leave them on the rose. The only drawback to native roses is that they need a deep pruning/shaping in early spring.

woods' rose
Birds can feast on these rose hips all winter and hide in or under the bushy, thorny plant.

Serviceberry. The Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is another member of the rose family. Native to the Southwest, the plant, which also is commonly called a shadbush, produces white flowers in spring and early summer berries that are similar to blueberries. Although people can make jams from the berries, they are pretty seedy. So I’d prefer to leave them for the birds, while I enjoy the flowers and year-round leaf colors. The drought-tolerant shrub can be shaped into a hedge and grows in zones 2 through 9.

Five Water-wise Shrubs for High-Desert Gardens

As summer winds down and you plan next year’s garden, consider these five low-water perennial shrubs. There are many others, of course, but each of these has a particular feature you might be looking for when planning or revising your xeric garden. They all share in common the quality of drought tolerance. Once established in your garden, you should not need to water them at all.

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

Lavender for scent. I make no secret of my favor for lavender (Lavandula). Neither will bees and butterflies! Your biggest decision will be which cultivar to choose. Some are designed for their longer, deeper purple stems, others for culinary use or aroma. Be sure to plant your lavender in well-draining soil and give it plenty of sun. It’s hardy in zones 5 through 10, but a new lavender gets its best start in cooler zones if you wait to plant it until the ground and evenings have warmed up, several weeks after the last frost.

Yellow bird of paradise for a tropical feel. All of the Caesalpinia species of plants, birds of paradise, have amazing color and interest considering their high drought tolerance. Most prefer warmer climates. The yellow bird of paradise (C. gilliesii and recently changed to Erythrostemon gilliesii) can handle the high desert up to a point; it’s cold hardy to 15 degrees, but when kept dry, the roots can survive lower temperatures and the plant comes back the next spring. As for heat, give it all you’ve got. A favorite in Albuquerque, N.M., landscapes, the plant can reach the height of a small tree. This bird of paradise has yellow trumpet-like flowers with long red stamens. In the high desert, place it a warm microclimate, such as a south-facing wall. See photos and more information from Pima County Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners.

Creeping mahonia for easy care. Creeping mahonia (Mahonia repens) is an easy-care, evergreen shrub. I say evergreen, but its delicate leaves change color throughout the year. Shaped like holly leaves, but more delicate, they can be wine colored or deep, forest green. Tiny yellow flowers appear in spring. Although creeping mahonia (sometimes called “Oregon grape holly”) can grow in sun or shade, it likes a cool spot. Ours is on the northeast side of the house, where it gets plenty of morning sun and afternoon shade. Bees love it while blooming, and it’s hardy from zones 4 through 8.

creeping mahonia low xeric shrub
This creeping mahonia thrives on rain water only. I give it a trim for shape in early spring.

Apache plume for its long-term interest. The apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) is a fun, natural-looking low-water bush. You have to love any plant that includes in its name the word “paradox,” right? The Apache plume is a paradox to me. I used to dislike its messy appearance, but I have grown to love how it looks in xeric lawns and gardens. For one, it’s semi-evergreen in warmer desert climates. Apache plumes attract bees, produce delicate white blooms and take to strong pruning (I have even seen them shaped, though it pained me). And yet they require very little care. They’re hardy in zones 4 through 9.

plume or seedhead on apache plume
The plume, or seedhead, that gives Apache plume its name and adds post-bloom appeal. Our bushes are blooming again during an unseasonably warm and dry September, so we now have plumes and blooms!

Western sand cherry for possible fruit. A xeric shrub that helps you make pies. It’s like something out of a gardener’s fairy tale! But the Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) is the real deal. Of course, like all fruit-bearing plants, ideal weather helps. We had some fruit on ours this year, though they were so well hidden I didn’t notice them in time. The birds enjoyed them, however, and we certainly enjoyed the showy white flowers in spring. This one is cold hardy down to zone 3. My only caution is that deer love them. We have to fence ours to keep the deer from biting off entire branches.

western sand cherry in April.
This photo is a little fuzzy because it was taken through a window. I didn’t want to disturb the resting doe. Had she munched on those two flowering Western sand cherries, I might not have been so accommodating. They’re above her and to the right, on the top of the rock wall, bursting with white flowers in mid-April.

You Can Have Grass in a Xeric Landscape

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Gardening Know How.

In New Mexico, drought is more a way of life than an occasional phenomenon. With only 10 inches of annual rainfall in much of the state and a high of 20 inches in the mountains, xeriscaping is the responsible landscaping strategy.

But here’s the problem – unaware homeowners and real estate “flippers” often come in and rip out every blade of grass, replacing the cool turf with what amounts to hot lava. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but too much landscape gravel can be harsh. And the gravel often lies over a layer of black plastic. If they leave a tree in place, they can kiss it goodbye in five or 10 years. And they might say hello to higher energy costs.

Replace high-water grass

So, let’s say that you want to save water by eliminating your current turf lawn, which uses way too much water. If you plan to rip it out anyway and were thinking of replacing it with gravel and hardscaping, then consider ripping out the high-water grass and replacing a small portion of it with a low-water native grass. Ideally, you’d plant some turf close to your home for the cooling and barefoot effect, especially around the southwest side of the house. And if you have a tree you want to preserve, especially one that shades your home, consider low-water grass near the outside canopy of the tree and wood or other organic mulch surrounding the tree’s trunk.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain. We get no more than 19 inches a year.

Low-water native grass

Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass is a favorite of area ranchers for its protein content and because it comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm up. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. That’s right, the less you do, the more healthy the grass. Now, you can’t beat that for saving water and time.

blue grama grass seed
A stand of blue grama grass that was left to go to seed.

When I first heard about using native grasses for lawns, I assumed they would not look like regular turf, but like separate bunches of tall grass swaying in the breeze. I could not have been more wrong. It might take longer to fill in than do some grasses designed for turf, and certainly longer than laying sod, but blue grama bunches spread and meet, forming a sod lawn. However, if you want to let the grass go to seed – especially to promote its spread – you’ll delight in the appearance of its 12-inch high stalks with blue-green seedheads. You can even have a mix of both. Mow it in a small patch where you walk and let a few stalks go to seed near the perimeter.

The main point is that with a low-water grass native to your area, you can keep a lawn for kids to play on, dogs to run in, or just for the look of green grass in summer. Yet you use no more water after the first year than you would if you put gravel around your entire house. In fact, most warmer areas of New Mexico have evaporative cooling, which mixes water with forced air to cool homes. When heat reflects off of gravel right next to the house, it takes more water and electricity to cool a house down.

And a few cautions

I have a few cautions with blue grama, however. The first is that it needs some supplemental water the first summer, much like any new lawn. The grass typically comes in seed or plugs, and native sod rolls are now available in Colorado. The seeds should be available from companies that sell native and drought-tolerant plants. The seeds germinate quickly when temperatures are high. The second caution is patience. Blue grama greens a little later in spring than typical grasses made for lawns, especially those that use lots of water. So hang in there. You can water a little in summer when rain is scarce to keep the grass from going dormant, but part of the beauty is letting nature take its course.

Since it’s late in the year now in most zones to successfully seed blue grama, you can at least plan for next year. Check out this excellent handout from High Country Gardens on how to prep your lawn for native grass plugs.

Blue grama seed
Blue grama seed germinates quickly. We had good luck filling in some patches of dirt made by gophers.

Finally, native grasses are just that; they’re not hybrids designed for perfectly manicured lawns that look like golf greens. You might have some imperfections and will certainly have to wait until each area fills in. But when given a choice between gravel and green, I’ll take at least a patch of green – and without using a drop of water.

Create a Color Palette in Your Xeric Garden

Who says xeric landscaping has to be boring? Not me, that’s for sure. In fact, one of my goals on this blog is to prevent extreme reactions to drought and educate people so that they make measured changes. In other words, you can still attract pollinators, and people, to your garden while saving water!

One of the ways to attract birds, bees and believers is with a creative color palette from mostly xeric plants. It’s not that hard to do, as long as you remember a few guiding principles of xeric gardening: choose native plants and place them in the right conditions to help keep them healthy.

variety-color-palette
The purple blooms of the blue mist spirea in the background attract bees, and finches land on the cosmos blooms.

I love the drama of several different colors of blooms, and the uncertainty when plants spread or reseed each year, so that areas of the garden have a delicate balance between predictability and surprise. It helps to have plants of different heights and textures or bloom times.

Now, all you have to do is decide whether you want lots of different colors or mostly one color. Then match your wants with what’s available. Here are a few ideas for xeric plants in a number of colors:

Blues and purples: Get some height and plenty of bees with Russian sage or Blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis). A penstemon will give purple blooms with less bushy shape. For more height, a butterfly bush (Buddleia) really pops. And for a low grower, try salvia or Veronica speedwell.

Yellow: The choices are endless for yellow xeric flowers. It’s really a matter of placement and bloom or plant size. My favorites are desert zinnia and several varieties of coreopsis. Evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a great xeric choice in the desert Southwest that produces large yellow flowers. Chocolate flower is a perfect native wildflower, and the Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliana) blooms later in the summer season. Creeping gold buttons (Cotula) make a terrific ground cover as a backdrop.

Orange or red: I can’t grow one here, but if you live in zones 9 through 11, and you love orange and red blooms as much as I do, the red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) is the bush for you! The Hummingbird trumpet flower (Zauschneria arizonica) attracts hummingbirds, and several salvias and penstemons come in red.

red bird of paradise
This is one of my favorite plants, the red bird of paradise. Tim got a shot of this one in Carlsbad, N.M. I’ve got a close-up of the stunning blooms on my Photos page.

Pink: Iceplants are my favorite pink blooms that do well in New Mexico at several zones. They’re a groundcover, though, so if you want pink up high, try a native rose, Santa Fe phlox or Texas sage (Salvia greggii), which is a dark pink or red, low-growing xeric bush.

White: Add some dawn, dusk or evening drama with white. To make white work, especially in a nighttime garden, I think you either need a substantial amount or large blooms. Tim loves jimson weed (Datura meteloides), which opens at dusk. A grouping of white Echinacea, or coneflowers, would also be a great contrast to low-growing purple or red blooms.

blazing star bloom
The blazing star (Mentzelia decapetala) really shines in the evening.

I didn’t even cover succulents, which might not bloom for long, but have some of the brightest, richest colors in the desert. Trees also add color with their blooms and foliage. That’s especially true of some of the smaller, xeric trees, such as the desert willow or smoketree. Use of colored containers, or a few annuals in them, can contrast or complement your palette.

monochromatic xeric palette
This monochromatic palette is far from boring, especially when the light hits all of those yellow blooms. A potted geranium adds a mobile touch of pink.

To plan your color palette, you could also start with a few native plants you love, or that are already in place, as a foundation. Then build on those plants. I think I’ve mentioned that we have lots of yellow in our garden and all over our place (either alyssum in spring or dandelions right now!). So we are trying to balance the yellow and purple with more white and red. Of course, you can go with a monochromatic palette, using nearly all yellows and oranges, for example.

Learn more about color palettes in this Proven Winners article, and check out my Resources page to learn more about native or xeric plant sources. Some of the plants I mentioned in this post are pictured on my Photos page.

Another Take on Weeds and Wildflowers

This morning’s news had a feature with a great perspective on the weeds vs. wildflower debate that rages in my mind and in the mind of anyone with acreage. Or with a garden, for that matter.

mullein-flowers-weed
This mullein looks so pretty near the trunk of this old tree, but don’t let it fool you. It can be an invasive weed, and don’t get me started on the horehound to the lower right.

CBS news correspondent Steve Hartman is turning several acres of land into a prairie wildflower meadow and taking it one day at a time. It’s a great story and one that makes you appreciate nature, wildflowers and persistence.

I’m not sure if I have the patience to do what Hartman is attempting. What’s more, annual rainfall in the Catskills is closer to 40 inches, at least double what we get here. Of course, as long as a landowner chooses native wildflower seeds, it shouldn’t matter too much. There are plenty of widlflowers that reseed in the Southwest easily, even growing along dry, graveled roadways or out of rocky mountainsides. If you purchase a native grass or wildflower mix, it should give a weed percentage. Make sure it’s as low as possible.

We have started throwing seed heads into an area we call “the pit,” a dug-out portion of our property that we believe once served as a vegetable garden. It’s our place for weed piles and wheel barrow storage now. But we thought instead of throwing out deadheaded flowers, we’d scatter them there. If that experiment works, who knows?  But I don’t think I can try what Hartman is doing until we control the weeds already growing among the wildflowers and get a better handle on deciding which are too invasive to keep and which could populate a mini-meadow.

weeds and wildflowers in sunken pit of yard
The pit, where we planted sunflowers that either didn’t make it or got eaten, but some volunteers came up. This might someday make a great sunken wildflower meadow.

For now, good for him, his purpose and his meditative state. I hope to achieve it while weeding this week.

Recommended Reading: Growing the Southwest Garden

A few months ago, I mentioned how many garden books we have on our shelves. I just added a new resource from our favorite local expert and fellow member of the Garden Writers Association, Judith Phillips.

Judith’s newest release, titled “Growing the Southwest Garden,” (Timber Press Inc., 2015) is a go-to guide for native and xeric plants for New Mexico, Arizona, and our neighboring states’ high deserts. It’s also a beautifully written discourse on the climate extremes faced by the gardeners who live there, and especially by the plants they care for.

Growing the Southwest Garden.
A good garden book serves as a resource and as inspiration. This one does both, and more.

Judith, a landscape designer, author and part-time professor, describes how and why climate affects plant selection and health and why it’s so important to base landscape design and plant choice on region. She explains the scientific basis of heat, drought, wind and other stresses on plants and how native plants have adapted to the extremes the Southwest deserts and mountains offer. In addition, Judith offers plenty of ideas and strategies for successful gardening in the various regions of the Southwest.

The book includes examples of landscape designs, an excellent list of Southwest plants and more than 300 color photos. The information is both practical, with tips on seasonal pests, for example, and thought provoking. As one of our top proponents of preserving water and ecosystems, Judith reminds us all how to tend our gardens, create practical but beautiful landscapes, and protect plants and other living beings.

book judith phillips
Growing the Southwest Garden has regional information and photos on plants for Arizona, New Mexico, and surrounding states.

What I love most about this book is that I will read it again and again, not just as a brief reference to look up a plant, but when I start to lose faith. Sometimes, gardening in climate extremes can be frustrating, and it helps to be armed with knowledge and tools. As a near-native of the Southwest, who grew up in the scorching heat of Phoenix and since lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico and the high desert of southeastern New Mexico, this book reminds me to embrace all that I love about the Southwest, its terrain and native plants.

I have found Growing the Southwest Garden available from Timber Press, on Amazon and at the independent bookstore, BookWorks, in Albuquerque, N.M.

What Is a Native Plant?

Throughout this blog and in many gardening books and websites, you’ll see references to native plants. It’s fairly easy to decipher the meaning of native, but let’s delve into what native means in gardening and why it’s increasingly important to choose native plants, especially where saving water is a concern.

Although the concept should be simple, you might find conflicting information about whether a particular plant you like is considered native. So I’d like to first briefly define the term. A native plant grows naturally in a particular region or location. Easy enough, but you can move a plant to a region at some point in time, and wait for it to adapt. Once it does, it’s still no more native to the region than I am to New Mexico, even though I have lived here more years than I plan to reveal.

Creeping Oregon grape native to New Mexico
The creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) is actually a member of the Barberry family. Ours doesn’t spread much, but does need occasional shaping. We have never needed to water it.

For a plant to be native, humans have not intervened in its setting down roots. So a plant native to New Mexico has been here long before any gardener thought it might look great against a rock. And along the East coast, native plants were in place before the Europeans arrived on ships and began settling and farming. People also have not intervened or altered the plants; the plants have evolved to local conditions on their own over many plant generations. So the two main qualifiers are no people involvement and geography.

Why Aren’t All Plants Native?

Maybe to understand why you don’t walk down the sidewalk and see blocks of native plants, you have to grasp the concept and history of introduced and invasive plants. Introduced, or non-native, plants are brought by people to a location other than their native one. Not all non-native plants cause problems and become invasive, but they might be harder to grow, require more water, etc. And they can be introduced accidentally or brought intentionally. For example, I’ve tried to grow a plant native to Phoenix in Albuquerque just because I loved it and had delusions of grandeur or wanted to waste my money. No harm done to anyone or anything but my time.

yellow potentilla native
Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), is known by many names, including potentilla. It’s a native to New Mexico and is an excellent low-water choice for erosion control and home garden color all summer. But cinquefoils can be invasive in Washington state.

An invasive plant, on the other hand, is a non-native brought to a new area that spreads and establishes itself rapidly and soon disrupts local ecosystems. An example in New Mexico is salt cedar. The salt cedar tree was introduced here and is sucking up water along streams and river banks, damaging important native trees such as cottonwoods. Most of the worst weeds we deal with in the Southwest first came here as ornamental plants.

Why Are Native Plants Important?

As opposed to invasive plants, native plants are balanced with and support local ecosystems. They don’t take all of the water that other plants and animals need to survive. They offer cover and food for animals and have adapted to typical climate and soil environments. If you think about it, a plant that survives at 9,000 feet and 120 miles from the nearest population center needs no help from people to make it through the cold winter or the hot summer. Hmmm, that plant should need little help from a gardener who lives nearby and in the same zone.

Mexican poppies in rock garden
Mexican poppies (Eschscholzia californica), also called California poppies, need no help re-seeding. And they love heat and poor dirt. Perfect for New Mexico.

It’s important to preserve native plants and important to include them in garden plans. When you select plants native to your area, you support the birds and critters that also roam your neighborhood or nearby wilderness areas, use less water and make gardening easier on yourself. Your plants will stay healthier because they already know what to expect! Look for help selecting native plants from local master gardener groups, native plant societies, coop extension services and local nurseries.

Roses in the Low-Water Garden

Roses are old-fashioned favorites that often remind gardeners of their mothers or grandmothers or of lush gardens in the South, where both water and sun were readily available from nature. But I see fewer roses in gardens now, partly because they’re associated with lots of patience and care, and partly because some of the hybrid roses need more water than a low-water garden can – and should – provide. It’s also strange to picture a tall, hybrid tea rose in the middle of a xeric landscape, although a good landscape designer can always work a small rose garden into your plan if that’s what you desire.

floribunda rose in low-water garden
Friends brought us this floribunda as a housewarming gift and it fits nicely in our xeric rose garden. We watered it the first year, but only a little this spring.

Many shrub-size roses fit in nicely with the look and purpose of a low-water garden. So you can have the scent and many other features of roses, as long as you’re willing to choose the right type of rose. Here are a few to consider:

Species roses. A species rose is basically a wild rose. Several species roses have grown to adapt to drought and other extreme conditions. I have several in my rose garden area, and I know one of them is a Wood’s rose (Rosa Woodsii). It can grow to at least 10 feet and has beautiful pink flowers, followed by hips all fall and winter, which the birds love. Another is a shorter, shrub-style rose that I believe is the Prairie rose (Rosa blanda), with pink flowers that fade to white in the center. The other has deep red flowers. Both have in common large, plentiful thorns and bunches of two-inch flowers in late spring.

woods rose bloom
Close-up of a Wood’s rose bloom. They’re small, but abundant on the plant’s long canes.
rosa blanda species rose
The wild Rosa blanda is only about 18 inches tall.

Native roses. In New Mexico and other Southwestern states, the Arizona Rosewood (Vauquelina californica), which resembles an evergreen oleander in its foliage and shape, or the Apache Plume (Fallugia paradoxica) both have delicate white flowers that resemble roses. The native plants have adapted to the Southwest and attract bees.

apache plume
This Apache plume (with the Wood’s rose in left background) got too dense and full. They are so easy to care for and forgiving when pruned.

Shrubs and groundcovers. Some hybrid roses have been adapted to grow as smaller shrubs and groundcovers. They’ll use less water and take up less space in the landscape. In general, they need less care than other rose types, but have long bloom periods.

Flower Carpet red
Flower Carpet Red from Tesselaar is a spreading groundcover rose that reaches no more than 32 inches high. It’s drought tolerant once established and hardy down to zone 5. Image courtesy of Tesselaar.

In fact, species, native and certain shrub or groundcover roses are all typically easier to care for and relatively disease free. Just give them mostly sun and prune according to recommendations once in early spring. You don’t have to continuously dead-head blooms, and they have adapted to lower water and the changing conditions of high deserts and mountains, so having them in your garden is more water wise. But there are a few disadvantages. The species roses are wild, which means they can sprout new canes or offshoots. The yellow one in our garden has gotten too thick and large, and will need serious pruning next spring; it’s sort of taken over the area and is shading some other plants too much.

species roses
Our rosa blanda, red species rose and taller yellow species rose to the right. It blooms earlier than the others, so we have color from early May through September.

Another disadvantage is that if you love to cut long rose stems to use the blooms in flower arrangements, you won’t enjoy these varieties as much as hybrid tea roses; their stems are typically shorter. However, if you want to walk or sit next to them in your garden and stop to smell them, or simply enjoy the beauty of the plant and blooms, you can have your roses and save water too!