Helping Birds and Wildlife Get Through Winter

I tend to hibernate in winter, and emerge only on days that are sunny (common), not windy (rare) and warmer than normal for this time of year (sporadic). I get why animals do the same, and I love the thought that I’m helping them get through winter in some small way.

pine siskin snow
This little bird looks for grass seed under a light layer of snow. Photo by David Higgins, Albuquerque, N.M.

Here are a few ideas for helping area birds and wildlife with your landscape:

Deer have their own diet, thank you

Animal lovers feel empathy for wildlife when severe weather hits, leading to cold and scarcity of plants the animals browse. Unfortunately, tourists in mountain communities appear to be more interested in taking selfies with wildlife. We live near a resort town, where small herds of deer and elk (and bears) live in or enter populated areas. I’ve seen tourists pull over and feed deer. I don’t even want to know what they are feeding the animals. It’s also likely that some people in wildlife areas put out feeders to attract deer. But I don’t agree with that for several reasons.

Buck in garden
Sure, the bucks can trample a few plants in our garden, but I don’t mind that this one feels comfortable and warm here.

Ups and downs of feeders

First, deer take time to adjust to new foods,  many of which are not easily digested by wild animals. The kitchen scraps or Doritos from a car window can do more harm than good. Even if a homeowner sets out a feeder with pellets designed for the deer diet, doing so changes browsing and movement patterns and makes it easier for predators to find and prey on herds. The deer also can depend on humans or compete more for concentrated food sources, which means the weak ones lose out at a feeder. In open areas with natural food sources, the fawns and young bucks can find nearby sources when kicked off the favored spots.

Natural food

We live in a residential area with large lots and our deer are not as used to people as those a few miles up the road. I like it that way, and instead of feeding them, we leave our grass longer in fall to help with their browsing (and we believe it helps improve native grass coverage the next spring). We also do our best not to bother the herd by walking slowly and away from them if possible when sharing space outdoors. That also means teaching our dogs to ignore them.

New Mexico snow with grackles
A light blanket of snow with a big flock of grackles. We seldom see deer with even this light of a layer.

I have wondered and worried why deer don’t come around when we have a blanket of snow on the ground, but I thought it might be too difficult to get to the food below. That is true, and deer know to fatten up and live off reserves, staying close to their trees up higher for shelter. Coming down to graze through a layer or snow would take more energy than the payoff. Other wildlife shelter ideas are piles of dead tree limbs away from the house and in protected areas, along with fencing that is easy for deer and elk to enter.

Birds need food and shelter at various heights in winter.
Sparrows and finches stage in a high tree before taking turns diving to our feeders.

Feeding birds in winter

We do supplement birds’ diets in winter, and although I will continue doing so, I see some evidence of the same problems that can occur at deer feeders. First, hawks and kestrels come right into the garden, hunting near the feeders. They would help me and themselves more by finding some yummy mice to eat instead. Second, we see some feeder competition at times, but we have several different feeders/types of food, and for the most part, the birds all play well together. Placing feeders at different spots and filling them with different energy sources can support more types of birds, especially during migration.

cooper's hawk at feeder
A hawk hangs out right next to a feeder in a redbud.

Natural food and shelter

Of course, natural food sources are great for birds too. But by late winter, the stores of berries, nuts, and seeds on flowers, trees and bushes has dwindled. As I wrote about this time last year, birds need extra food in winter to gather energy to fight cold. And many, such as juncos, must replenish that energy daily in cold weather.

Plants also provide shelter, and placing both shelter and food sources at various heights and spots in your garden offers some protection. Here are some bird-friendly plants:

Sunflower from birds
One of the best natural bird feeders, the sunflower.
  • Flowers for seeds, including sunflowers, Echinacea (coneflower), coreopsis, salvias, and many native grasses and annuals. Milkweed (Asclepias) not only helps Monarch butterflies, but attracts plenty of insects that birds eat.
  • Fruiting vines and shrubs such as Virginia creeper (Pathenocissus quinqefolia), wild grapes, elderberry (Sambucus) and serviceberry (Amalanchier utahensis Koehne, or Utah serviceberry),
  • Native trees for fruits, nuts and shelter. Birds need a high place to land when escaping or looking for predators. Evergreens such as arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and all spruces offer dense shelter from the elements for landing or nesting.
Rose shrubs provider shelter and food for birds.
This wild rose needs some serious trimming in a few months, but it is a favorite shelter for birds, including a pair of desert cardinals (pyrrhuloxia).

These plants also can provide winter interest for homeowners’ gardens and can feed birds through fall and early winter in some cases.

I’ll admit that part of my willingness to also spend the money on bird seed is selfish. It’s nice to watch the bird show from our window when the plants are dormant and I’m stuck inside. But I also like to think that the shelter and food our place provides help ease the burden for these and other creatures.

Plant Select’s Top High Plains and Intermountain Plants

Each year various societies present plant awards, but those of us who garden in the West and Southwest await the group of Plant Select top performers. Plant Select, which is a nonprofit joint effort of Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, the Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturalists, lists five top performers at various elevations.

blonde ambition grama
Blonde Ambition ornamental grama grass tops the 2016 Plant Select list. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

First, a word about why the work of Plant Select and other regional groups is so important. As I said, there are plenty of awards and lots of information in the gardening world. But, for the most part, plants emphasized by magazines and bloggers are great for East Coast and Southeastern region gardeners. It’s different in the high plains and intermountain areas of the country, where altitude, wind, and heat and cold extremes (in a single day and by season) affect plant health. And let’s not forget the water issue.

Plant Select evaluates plant performance in 53 locations throughout five Western states. Here are some of the 2016 Top Performers. See the entire list at Plant Select.

Grand Winner: Blonde Ambition Grama Grass

Blonde Ambition grama (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ PP22,048) was introduced by New Mexico’s David Salman of High Country Gardens (American Meadows). Blue grama is a perfect low-water native grass grazed on by cattle on our Southwest ranches. Salman introduced the blonde ornamental variety in 2011, and this is the second year it has been Plant Select’s grand winner. Beginning in July, chartreuse blooms (seedheads) appear on upright stems, turning to the blonde color as they age. Watching those seedheads wave in winter winds provides xeric gardeners some year-round interest in their landscapes. Although Blonde Ambition can spread by seed, the seedlings are easily pulled up. The grass is hardy in zones 4 through 9 and deer resistant.

Blonde ambition seedheads
Blonde Ambition looks great in groups or as a single plant in the xeric garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 3,000 to 5,500 Feet Elevation

Blonde Ambition also tops the list of lower elevation garden performers in the region. Number 2 on the list is a tree I’ve never grown, but want to learn more about since it also topped the list for gardens at my altitude (6,300 feet). The Hot Wings Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum ‘Gar ann’PP15,023) has bright red samaras, or fruit made of paper tissue, that bloom all summer. It’s also known for its reddish-purple fall color. The Tartarian maple is a relatively small tree, maturing to nearly 18 feet high and wide, and gets by with full sun and moderate to dry water needs. The only drawback for me is that it is not deer resistant, but I could see this gorgeous tree in any suburban garden from 3,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation and in zones 4 through 10. We still might try it, but we’ll have to fence the tree until it reaches a mature height and keep lower limbs pruned.

top performer hot wings tartarian maple
The Hot Wings Tartarian maple has a gorgeous canopy, but I also love the trunk. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 5,501 to 7,000 Feet elevation

Although the Hot Wings maple topped the list of performers at this elevation, I would like to give a nod to No. 2 on the list – Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis). Veronica is an excellent low-water groundcover. Veronica is evergreen, so it covers portions of our rock garden all year long. In summer, the groundcover blooms. Turkish veronica has cobalt blue flowers above waxy leaves. It only reaches about 2 inches in height, but can spread to 18 inches wide. Although veronica is a xeric plant, its leaves look better with a little extra water in the heat of summer. Turkish veronica is hardy in zones 3 through 10 and deer resistant. The top 5 Plant Select performers at this elevation also include Blonde Ambition, Apache plume and a catmint called Little Trudy (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ PP18,904).

turkish veronica plant select
Gardeners can prune Turkish veronica around rocks and paths. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer in Gardens Higher than 7,000 Feet

Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) topped the list for higher elevations. The Western native shrub is xeric once established and grows more upright with less water. It can look more formal with rounded pruning in early winter. Deadheading spent flowers also makes the plant look neater, and should be pleasant considering that the foliage has a honey-like scent. The sweet scent also deters deer. Fernbush can grow to nearly 5 feet high and wide; less water keeps it more compact. The plant thrives in full or partial sun in zones 4B through 8.

fernbush plant select
This fernbush provides year-round interest in a high-altitude garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

These are only a few of the top performers in the Plant Select list. Check out their site for more on current and past top performers, new plant introductions for the region and where to buy plants for High Plains and Intermountain gardens.

Five Starter Waterwise Plants

Need to ease into saving water in the lawn? Or just ease into gardening? As you think about next spring and ideas for improving both the look and sustainability of your lawn or garden, consider adding easy-care plants that need little to no watering. Here are five ideas:

Yarrow is an easy xeric plant
Bright yellow yarrow anchors this bed and is accented by light purple salvia and California poppies

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). The woody, herbal rosemary is near the top of my list of favorite xeric plants. The only problem you can have with rosemary is if it receives too much water (or snowpack in winter). Otherwise, try a creeping rosemary near a rock or low garden wall. The stems will grow over the surface and you can trim it in spring just to keep it clean and healthy. I’ve seen bushier varieties shaped into small hedges. And man, what a great-smelling hedge! Finally, be sure to plant a rosemary near your kitchen so you can head out and clip cuttings for cooking use anytime of year (at least in zones 8 through 10). We have rosemary plants that come back each year here in zone 6B. They’re near the house in a rock garden, which helps warm them up. Plant rosemary in full sun and only water occasionally after its first season in the garden. Rosemary plants also reward you with tiny lavender-colored flowers in summer. And although I love the taste of rosemary, deer leave them alone. Bonus!

booming rosemary
This rosemary bloomed in late summer. The foliage alone is attractive and aromatic.

Barberry (Berberis). Barberry comes in several varieties that do well in plenty of sun (or partial shade) and low water. Berberis x ‘Tara’ Emerald Carousel is a type that grows well in alkaline soils, the kind we have here in New Mexico. Depending on the variety, barberry grows a little wider than high. Some Japanese barberries can grow tall – up to 10 feet – so consider that when selecting a plant. Barberry leaves change color with the season, and I’ve seen lime, orange and deep red varieties; they’re all stunning. Several plants along a wall can form a hedge in front of a house or fence. We like the spiky red foliage for its color and texture in our garden and deer usually avoid the plants. Barberries might need a little more water in the first year or so than some plants listed here. After that, they can handle periods of near drought or drought. All you have to do is prune them once or twice a year to keep the shape or size you like. Be sure to wear gloves!

Barberry is a great foundation plant.
Close-up of the maroon-toned leaves and spikes on our barberry.
Sunset's orange rocket barberry
‘Orange rocket’ is a berberis from Sunset that takes heat and little water or care. Image courtesy of Sunset Western Garden Collection.

Yarrow (Achillea). Yarrow is considered an herb, but I grow it for its easy care and stunning colors, which include white, yellow and red varieties. Moonshine yarrow has bright yellow flower clusters that you can cut for arrangements. I also pressed a few this year. This truly is one of the easiest plants to grow. Each spring, you simply cut off the dead flower stalks and clean up the plant. By mid-summer, you’ll have color. I even tried trimming spent flowers off one of our yarrow plants this year to see if that would force a second bloom sooner. But the ones I didn’t trim had more blooms in the second wave of flowers than the one I trimmed. Lesson learned. After the initial spring trimming, just leave yarrow alone. The plant also spreads but not invasively, so consider that when placing it in a design. We dug up one that was too close to another plant and transplanted it near our farm to attract butterflies and bees. It needs a little more water when first planted or transplanted. After that, it can get by with no water in all but the most severe droughts and survives winters down to zone 3.

moonshine yarrow
Moonshine yarrow cluster of flowers.

Four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens). Native Americans used many parts of the native four-wing saltbush, including leaves and boiled roots, for food or medicine. It’s also useful to wildlife, grazed by deer and antelope. The name for the bush comes from the four paper-like wings that surround its seeds. There’s no real care needed for saltbush, especially in a natural garden, but you can trim it as desired. When saltbush flowers, it takes on an attractive two-tone effect. The native plant is easy to grow in any soil, and can pop up around roadways in New Mexico. Ours grows far from the garden along a fence. We don’t know if the former owners planted it or if it came up from seed. If you’re worried about it spreading, just learn to recognize the plant’s needle-like leaves and pull up any small plants in your garden or yard.

four-wing saltbush
Buster runs by our saltbush for helpful scale. I might have to trim this one soon, but love the wild look of the plant.

Jupiter’s beard (Centrathus ruber ‘Coccineus’). At first glance, Jupiter’s beard (also called red valerian) doesn’t look like much. The flowers rise above thin, pointed, pale-green leaves. So it’s a lot of foliage mixed in with small, coral-pink flowers. But these flowers pack a punch! They’ll bring bees and hummingbirds to your garden all summer. And they grow best in dry, hot conditions. Still, red valerian can survive frost down to zone 3, or about -30 degrees F. All you have to do is give Jupiter’s beard a sunny spot and water regularly the first spring and summer. Then you can pretty much leave it alone. We water once in spring, depending on rain. You can cut back old leaves and stalks in spring to give energy to new growth. The plant reaches about 2 feet high and wide.

Jupiter's beard is an easy-care xeric plant.
I don’t have a close-up of Jupiter’s beard, but enjoyed watching hummingbirds on the plant all summer. It’s the one on the upper left with small coral flowers.

Protect Plants in Winter

Winter has come late this year, and that’s alright with me. But we’re sure to face a hard freeze soon and it’s time to protect some plants.

heavy snow in Ruidoso area
Winter can be harsh in the foothills of New Mexico’s mountains.

The first line of defense, of course, is to choose plants that are hardy down to your average low winter temperature. These plants might look dead in winter, but they come back as spring warms the air and ground. We can’t control the weather, however, so when exceptions to your typical low hit or you really want a plant on the border for your temperatures, you can help that prized plant make it through the winter. Here are a few tips:

Placement

Planning ahead helps. When placing a new plant in your landscape, be sure to consider its winter hardiness when you plant. Placing it in a warm microclimate, such as against a south-facing wall or fence, can keep the plant a few degrees warmer when temperatures dive on winter nights.

Japanese maple in container
This Japanese maple was a special gift and we kept it in perfect northeast exposure in summer, then more southern exposure in winter. But that didn’t work half a zone colder, and sadly, it succumbed to frost.

Mulch

Mulching over bulbs or around the roots of perennials and even trees can help the ground retain heat. I use raked-up leaves and sometimes straw. In addition, I use rock mulch around xeric plants. The rocks absorb and reflect heat.

leaves as mulch day lilies
The apricot tree dropped some of these leaves right where I needed them to protect our day lilies. I raked up more and piled it on thick.

Mini-greenhouses

Sadly, we can’t all afford or find space for an actual greenhouse. You can buy or create mini-greenhouses around a few plants. Ours only need a small boost, so we often use 5-gallon buckets with the bottom cut out. We sometimes top them with wire for deer protection or cloth for extra warmth. Glass adds even more warmth and a cloche, French for “bell,” is a glass jar that can cover individual plants. There are lots of ideas online for constructing mini-greenhouses out of plastic and wood or PVC pipe, but you’ll need to remove anything that airtight as soon as the temperature warms back up following a freeze. Otherwise, condensation forms inside; the water drops refreeze and actually can damage your tender plant.

terrarium lid for cloche
A terrarium lid makes a great cloche for a greenhouse effect on this baby agave.

Cloth

A sheet or blanket wrapped around an entire plant helps protect it from freeze on the occasional cold night. Again, this is a temporary fix. If you have an entire section of plants that need protection, it’s better to rig a system with hoops or sticks and fabric row cover. If leaving the cloth on the entire winter, be sure to use a landscape fabric that allows sun and water through. I like to open these on warm, sunny days.

basil cover homemade
This basil cover is made from old hose and rebar and draped with row cover fabric. You can make one easily for a tender plant and lift the fabric on warm days.

Water

Plants need to head into winter in a healthy state. That includes keeping them watered (at a reduced rate) if you haven’t received precipitation recently. Cold, windy air dries plants out and stresses them. There is no need to prune most perennials before winter. It’s best to let them die off naturally, feeding birds with seeds. You’ll trim trees while they’re dormant in winter. When freeze threatens, you can water the mulch around the plant, but avoid hitting the leaves and branches. The water in the mulch helps hold heat in. I’ve also seen suggestions of placing used plastic bottles filled with warm water around the mulch to conduct some heat during a freeze.

Bring plants inside for winter.
Houseplants in winter, sun lovers in summer. Even the solanum (spiny tomato) winters over inside by going dormant.

Bring plants inside

No greenhouse? How about the house? My largest geranium loves the sun from our bathroom window, and the humidity likely helps as well. We have so many plants to bring inside that some have to live in the garage, where it can get chilly but hasn’t gotten below freezing. If you want to invest some money, you can buy grow lights for plants that need more sun than available in your home or garage space. Spray the plants off and let them dry a bit before carrying them inside. This helps reduce the chance that bugs tag along for the ride.

buckets protecting plants in winter
You can give plants a little boost with objects you have. Just cut the bottom out of a 5-gallon bucket. They’re not attractive, but they are functional.

Check out lots more ideas on our Pinterest boards (What’s wrong with my plant? and Greenhouses)

Xeric Plants: Too Much Rain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Xeric Plants Alive During High Rain Periods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Just Another Iris Farm

Yesterday, I joined two friends on a perfect trip to the nearby Hondo Iris Farm, on Hwy 70 about 20 miles east of Ruidoso. Each year, it’s such a joy to see the irises in full bloom around Mother’s Day and to wish that I could purchase nearly every color and type of iris I see.

hondo-iris-farm-new-mexico (11 of 14)

But I considered as we walked around yesterday that the Hondo Iris Farm is more than a striking display of irises. It’s a local botanical garden, shop, nursery and perfect place for a picnic! My friends brought delicious food and we ate on a lower picnic table closer to the valley. A group of ladies gathered for their own spring picnic at a table right next to the rows of iris.

hondo-iris-farm-new-mexico (10 of 14)

The Hondo Valley runs along the Hondo River (Rio Hondo), which begins where the Rio Ruidoso and Rio Bonito rivers merge. The Rio Hondo runs nearly 80 miles, where it feeds the Pecos River just outside Roswell. The valley is bordered by mountains and has witnessed the history of Native Americans, homesteaders, Billy the Kid and lawmen, and was once a rich farming area with large apple orchards.

hondo-iris-farm-new-mexico (3 of 14)

Here’s this year’s pictorial tribute to the Hondo Iris Farm. The farm charges no admission. If you can’t come in person, check out their online catalog. And check out more photos from the farm on my Photos page.

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Get to Know Your Climate Zones Before Plant Shopping

When you shop for your lawn and garden, all nursery plants should have tags that include information about sun and water needs, and about the plant’s hardiness zone. The official zones for the United States are the USDA Plant Hardiness zones. Canada uses the Agriculture Canada Plant Hardiness Zones Map.

USDA zones consider cold hardiness, to help gardeners know what to grow on a mountain or in its foothills
This photo, taken in Ruidoso, N.M., shows a a few different climates and zones in one view
sunset zones
A ranch sunset in the eastern plains of New Mexico, less than 30 miles from the Texas border, and just over two hours from Ruidoso.

Improvements in Hardiness Zones

For the most part, the USDA system is based on the lowest average winter temperature. A few years ago, the USDA updated its zone map because of warming temperatures. The former map relied on data through 1986, and this one is more current. The USDA web site also has added an interactive map for users. You can enter your ZIP code and get the zone instead of guessing whether your town is light yellow or nearly light yellow on the map. So it’s now GIS-based and pretty precise; the USDA map ranges from zones 1 through 13, with 13 as the warmest zone.

USDA hardiness zones
The USDA hardiness zones, which you can search by ZIP code.

Canada’s map is based on climate data and information about plants in the area. The formula to determine zones include mean frost period length, snow depth, high temperatures and wind data, among other information. The zones range from 0 to 9, with zone 0 as the coldest. Canada’s site also features a terrific search that gives zone-specific information for plants.

Sunset Zones a Bonus for Western States

It’s important to know whether a tree, shrub or other perennial will survive your zone’s winter before you plan or purchase; the USDA map helps with gardeners’ decisions. Sunset (Sunset Western Garden Guides) takes the information a few steps further – by telling gardeners about a plant’s chances all year long. For example, we’re in USDA zone 6B, but so are parts of Virginia and other Atlantic areas, as well as parts of Washington and Oregon. Although El Nino has disrupted normal patters, it’s safe to say that plants get lots more rain in Washington and Virginia.

lily pond in Pasadena garden
Pasadena garden, complete with lily pond.

Sunset looks at distance from the equator to help calculate length and severity of winters. The zone map also separates areas with similar temperature ranges according to coastal location or elevation. At more than a mile high, the elevation matters. Our days might warm as much as a comparable location at 2,000 feet altitude, but our nights cool considerably more. Most of all, Sunset knows the western part of the country. Sunset has 24 zones for the American West, divided by geography and climate. Our small town isn’t notated on the map, so it’s a little tough to determine our exact zone. But Sunset places us in the high desert/intermountain region, and the information still is helpful.

Contrast the Pasadena landscape with this shot in Tucson, Ariz. They're less than eight hours, or 487 miles, apart.
Contrast the Pasadena landscape with this shot in Tucson, Ariz. They’re less than eight hours, or 487 miles, apart.

Interestingly, Sunset also provides zone information for the rest of the country. It would be well worth it for gardeners east of the Rocky Mountains to review the Sunset zones for information such as wind and climate extremes.

Gardeners can avoid confusion about zones in plant purchasing and care information by knowing both USDA and Sunset numbers for their locale. Typically, all plants except Sunset’s own will use the USDA zone on the tag.

zones help know what grows well.
Our tart cherry tree exploded with fruit last year, which required enough cool evenings in winter and no damage from a late frost.

Use Zone Data with Microclimates

If you’re still uncertain about zone, you can check with local Master Gardeners. Another reason to ask a seasoned gardener about climate and zone is microclimates. In many Western states, zone varies within a metropolitan area. Think of the areas above and below southern California’s thermal belts. The ocean has little to do with the climate in those distinct areas. In Albuquerque, temperature and wind can vary markedly from the foothills of the Sandia Mountains to the valley floors.

Knowing particulars for your area of a town or region helps, but you can take it a step further if you want to push the edges of a plant’s hardiness zone or care needs. If you’re half a zone colder than the plant’s care information recommends, plant it against a south-facing wall. Plants that need protection from heat can go on the northeast side of your home, where the house shades them on blazing afternoons.

Prickly pear cactus and penstemon before a strawbale wall in Albuquerque, N.M. Plenty warm!
Prickly pear cactus and penstemon before a strawbale wall in Albuquerque, N.M. Plenty warm!

And since we’re all about the water out here, microclimates help with water use as well. For example, I might be able to place a shrub that needs a little more water at the bottom of a hill, welling on the downside to catch some of the rainwater.

So remember to pay attention to zone, sun and water needs when buying plants, especially in chain stores, which might stock plants too far out of your zone to keep alive all year. Your plants will be healthier and you’ll save money and time.

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.

 

New Mexico — One of the 50

As I long for spring to return so we can get back to our gardens, I begin to fantasize about living in Maui or Tucson, Ariz., or anyplace warmer. But today, I’m reflecting on the beautiful state in which we live. And I thought it was time to dispel a few myths about New Mexico, especially for people who live far from the state and have not (yet) visited.

angel fire ski resort
From the top of a ski run at Angel Fire Ski Resort in northern New Mexico, you can see all the way to Eagle Next Lake and the peaks near Taos.

First of all, New Mexico Is a State!

Nearly everyone in our state who travels, stays active in social media or makes online purchases has encountered the phenomenon. I’ve had questions about shipments being international, and New Mexico Magazine runs a terrific column featuring some of the stories from N.M. residents about this confusion.

I know we don’t have a large population, but it hurts to see a map with Arizona and Texas labeled and the empty space between (or the AZ label on our bootheel-shaped state). New Mexico became a state in January 1912. We were the 47th state to join the Union. According to the N.M. Genealogical Society, achieving statehood took some time “in part, by a general ignorance about the territory and suspicions toward its people.”

We still have cowboys here, but New Mexico offers much more.
We still have cowboys here, but New Mexico offers much more.

Some things haven’t changed, I guess. It is true that our state was once part of the Mexican Republic, but that only lasted about 25 years during the 1800s. Our state boasts more than “cowboys and Indians” for our history. Ancient history includes Folsom Man, Clovis Man and the Anasazi.

jemez
Gilman tunnels in the Jemez mountains were blasted out of rock in the 1920s to make way for a railroad used by logging companies.

It Snows in New Mexico

Maybe because of our close proximity to warm and sunny Mexico and the low deserts of Arizona, the perception of New Mexico as a hot, dry desert prevails. It’s partially correct – our climate is extremely dry, and it gets hot in many areas of the state in summer. Climate and gardening zone are affected by more than latitude. New Mexico is on the U.S. southern border, but the Rocky Mountains run through our state, as does the Continental Divide.

The Sacramento mountains from the top of Apache Ski Area in early summer.
The Sacramento mountains from the top of Apache Ski Area in early summer.

Albuquerque, our largest city, is at the same altitude as Denver. Our place, which I consider as intermountain or high desert, stands at 6,300 feet in altitude, and we’re surrounded by Lincoln National Forest. The Sacramento range is just southwest of us. Sierra Blanca, the peak that hosts Ruidoso’s Apache Ski Area is at just over 12,000 feet high.

This year, we got 18 inches of snow just from Winter Storm Goliath, and areas of the state measured their snow in feet. In northern New Mexico, the average annual snowfall has averaged more than 150 inches in Red River.  Even Albuquerque receives 9 to 10 inches of snow a year. Having said that, some southern areas of the state easily average more than 100 degrees in summer and have palm trees lining many streets.

The sun usually comes out and melts our snow quickly. It took longer to melt the snow from Goliath.
The sun usually comes out and melts our snow quickly. It took longer to melt the snow from Goliath.

Gardeners Grow More than Cacti

The desert assumption includes our native and garden plants. A major purpose of this blog is to show gardeners in Southwestern and Western states that native and xeric gardens can be gorgeous and save water, and that gardeners can grow other than succulents.

Our rain typically comes as monsoons beginning in early July.
Our rain typically comes as monsoons beginning in early July.

I’m not saying that N.M. gardeners avoid cacti and succulents when choosing plants for their garden or home, but so much more grows here. Depending on the region, gardeners hybrid and native roses, aspen trees, herbs and plenty of flowering perennial bushes and annual flowers. No area of our state escapes drought regularly and our average annual precipitation is lower than much of the country. So we just have to garden selectively and responsibly. Many species claimed as invasive in other areas don’t spread so rampantly here, and vice versa.

ajuga and columbine
Shade-loving ajuga and a columbine thrive on the north side of our home in zone 6B.

I’ve grown so accustomed to xeric and rock gardens that I’m a little turned off by lush, formal looks. Xeric gardening is most effective and pleasing when gardeners work with the natural terrain and climate. Use of native plants, rocks and succulents can combine for a perfect palette.

Southwest Gardening Can Be Challenging

Our gardens and natural areas look amazing throughout the year, but gardeners who transplant from warmer, and especially wetter, climates find themselves going through an adjustment period. It’s more likely many of our native and xeric plants will die from too much water than not enough. Once gardeners learn how to ensure the soil is prepped and that they water a little extra only until a plant gets established, they’re likely to have more success than failure in the garden.

Yarrow winters over here, and the hardy blanket flower (Gaillardia) spreads by seed.
Yarrow winters over here, and the wildflower Gaillardia (blanket flower) spreads by seed.

One of the reasons it’s particularly difficult to garden in parts of New Mexico is the weather extremes. In the high desert, days can become warm, and the sun intense. But at night, the desert cools considerably. Daily temperature extremes of 40-plus degrees from dawn to evening are not uncommon here. Add gusty dry winds to the mix and any plant but a native to the area might struggle a little. The state’s geographic diversity also means that conditions vary considerably around the state. USDA zones range from 4 to 8 around the state. Colorado’s zones are cooler than ours, and Arizona and West Texas are warmer on average.

Ranch land in southeastern N.M., about 30 miles from the Texas border. The landscape is flatter, but you can see forever.
Ranch land in southeastern N.M., about 30 miles from the Texas border. The landscape is flatter, but you can see forever.

New Mexico Is Enchanting

New Mexico’s state nickname is “Land of Enchantment” and it fits the bill. With mountains and plains, we have gorgeous views in most of the state. Sandia Crest in Albuquerque is so named because of the beautiful watermelon color the mountains take on at sunset. We have forests and rivers, along with dry river beds. It can green up here in summer, but if you’re used to all-green landscapes, you’ll either be disappointed or truly amazed.

Rio Ruidoso banks at the Hurd Ranch property in San Patricio, N.M.
Rio Ruidoso banks at the Hurd Ranch property in San Patricio, N.M.

Diversity of people and wildlife also make New Mexico an enchanting state. Every quadrant of the state has Native American reservations and history. More than 2 million residents were counted in the 2014 census, and nearly half are Hispanic or Latino.

Our mountains are home to black bears, deer and elk. And our plains are home to antelope and roadrunners. We’ve got ranches, oil fields and farms. Nut production is high here for some varieties. Dormant volcanoes, lava flows and white sands dot the landscape.

It's tough to beat our enchanting, colorful sunsets and sunrises.
It’s tough to beat our enchanting, colorful sunsets and sunrises.

New Mexico is far from perfect socioeconomically, but well worth the visit. You’re sure to be enchanted. See more about New Mexico on my Fun Stuff page, including a link to our Pinterest account, which includes boards about New Mexico and Ruidoso. And learn more about gardening here by searching posts or checking out the Resources page.

Our Garden is Hard at Work This Winter

Winter is tough for gardeners who live in zones with shorter growing seasons. In New Mexico, we can typically get outside in winter to work on between-season chores because we usually have dry, sunny conditions. Not so much this year. We’ve had unusual cold, wind and now about 18 to 20 inches of snow.

Our latest snow covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.
Winter storm Goliath dumped at least 18 inches of snow that covered many xeric plants in the garden and keeps wildlife from eating grass and insects on the ground.

Even with snow and cold, there are a few things gardeners can do in winter to satisfy their outdoor cravings and grow a bit of their own food. And our gardens certainly don’t rest all winter; with a little help, the soil rebuilds to nourish next year’s plants. Dormant or dried plants feed wildlife while their food is scarce.

Extend the season with row cover

Like I said, most winters are relatively mild in New Mexico. Although nights in the high desert cool considerably, the days can warm up to at least 50 degrees F. I covered an existing carrot trough to keep the carrots from freezing; they keep much better in the ground than anywhere I can store them once harvested. If you live in zone 8 or warmer, you can grow carrots in winter. We’re trying a new crop and storage/preservation of an established crop in our trough planter.

These carrots were planted in late summer and we're still harvesting after Christmas.
These carrots were planted in late summer and we’re still harvesting after Christmas.

We constructed a small hoop house with row cover cloth to extend the season for early spring or late fall. We spread our carrot, lettuce and spinach seeds inside the hoop tunnel in fall and had a really good germination rate. The carrots are growing slowly, however, and I hope to plant them a little earlier next year. Then again, I also hope for a warmer winter.

We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny's Seeds. I've harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
We got hoops and row cover cloth from Johnny’s Seeds. I’ve harvested spinach and lettuce. The carrots are growing slowly, but hanging in there.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.
Considering this winter has brought many nights below 20 degrees F, the covered hoop house appears to be working.

Prepare the vegetable garden for spring

Before the snow came, we got outside a few times to at least prep our vegetable and herb gardens for next spring. We didn’t have a chance to plant cover crops, and that’s on our list as a strategy for next year in part of the garden. But we want our gardens to rebuild important soil nutrients, so we pulled up some of the frost-bitten plants. Any that looked unhealthy went into a weed pile, but we added much of the material to our compost bin, and left some in the garden. We chopped up the healthy plant material left in garden rows to help it break down faster.

A friend introduced us to mushroom compost, and it's our favorite choice for amending soil and fertilizing grass.
Although we would prefer to buy fresh compost in bulk, there are no certified compost sources nearby. We have to buy these bags in Albuquerque and transport them down. Mushroom compost is our organic matter of choice for building beds and fertilizing grass.

Although we compost, we don’t generate enough to cover our entire vegetable garden, so we purchased mushroom compost, our favorite organic matter. We busted up compacted dirt and built the beds up so they’re slightly raised. Next, we used a small cultivator to work the compost into the top few inches. It’s not the same as tilling, which turns up deeper soil and weed seeds. We’d love to cover the beds with leaves or other mulch, but the wind rules that out. So we used plastic or black fabric cloth on hand. The purpose is mostly to keep weed seeds from blowing onto our clean beds and taking root. In spring, we’ll add a little more compost and mix the soil lightly a few weeks before planting.

Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
Tim works the mushroom compost gently into a row.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We'll see how they compare in the spring.
We ran out of plastic, which we prefer so that sun reaches the soil. So we used black landscape fabric on one bed. We’ll see how they compare in the spring.

Leave some plant material for wildlife

Schools of thought about fall garden clean-up differ. On the one hand, the more leaves and other plant material you leave on the ground, the higher your chance of insects and weeds using your garden as their winter home. And I agree in many ways with that school of thought. We didn’t want the mess of dried annuals everywhere, and I wouldn’t want a giant pile of leaves up against areas of the garden or house.

Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!
Our garden and landscape are partially wild in winter, just enough to help feed wild turkeys!

Leaving leaves on grass as mulch for the winter is a great idea, but only if you have a way to break the leaves up with a mower or other method. If you don’t, they’re not likely to compost down before spring. Not cutting back any ornamentals can leave your winter garden looking sad and messy. Plant debris can build up and leave you with more work than you bargained for in spring, when you’d rather spend your time planting than cleaning.

We take a middle-of-the-road approach. We pulled up many, but not all, annuals to keep the garden from being a messy jungle and home to critters we don’t want. We left some for birds to land on or feed from. They take shelter in and eat from roses and other bushes left unpruned until early spring. And we don’t mow our grass late in the season; that’s proven to attract and feed wild turkeys, deer and elk.

Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard.
Three fawns graze on grass and a pyracantha in our front yard right outside the kitchen window (which explains the mysterious reflection of my coffee cup planter).

In some areas, we cleaned up fallen leaves and used them to mulch tender perennials. But we didn’t try to rake leaves down by the river. That might help butterfly and other larvae through the winter, and if it also helps insects we don’t want, at least it’s far from the gardens.

What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. El Nino ...
What? More snow? Yep, as I was wrapping up this post. How about a break, El Nino?

The bottom line is that even if you can’t do much in your garden in winter, your garden and soil are doing lots for you and other living creatures. I try not to stress over whether I’m handling it perfectly, but choose and alter our approach based on what works best and what makes me feel best as I stare out the window at a blanket of white, itching to get back outside.