December is filled with shopping and even stressing over ideas for gifts. But I’ve got a few ideas and links to some great gifts courtesy of me and my partners at Southwest Gardening Blog. If you have co-workers, friends, or family members who love plants, we’ve got some great ideas, many of them based on gifts we’ve received or wished for, or products we’ve tested.
Some of my favorite gifts have included cactus-themed containers or office supplies, Olla watering pots and gardening gloves. For links to some of these and other gift ideas, head over to our 2020 Holiday Gift Guide (which also has a link to last year’s guide) for more ideas. You should be able to link directly from our gift ideas to online purchases.
Speaking as a plant geek, I can tell you that anyone who loves houseplants or outdoor gardening also loves plant-related gifts. My daughter has given me so many thoughtful gifts with a plant theme, some of which are included in the Holiday Gift Guide.
Still unsure? We also have a great gift for anyone who either loves gardening or just has to maintain their Southwest yard. Our 2020 Southwest Gardening calendar has photos from throughout the Southwest and gardening tips or tasks by month.
Since New Mexico and nearby states vary so much in climate and conditions, we’ve divided these tips by region: low and middle desert, high desert and mountain regions, and Texas. It’s a practical and pretty gift full of great Southwest gardening information.
If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum), no matter what neighboring states might say. You might not know that paprika and cayenne come from chile products. Paprika is made from low-heat red chile, and cayenne from a more pungent, higher heat pepper. But nothing beats fresh green chile.
Leaving green chile on the plant until it is red and nearly dry makes the red chile pods that are used for chile ristras, and especially for delicious red chile sauce. People who live in New Mexico love to eat chile, and the only real debate is whether red or green chiles are better. The best way to solve any dispute and please the taste buds is to order both (a choice called “Christmas” in our local restaurants). Take my poll below if you have a strong opinion!
According to New Mexico chile growers, the industry is in trouble because of low-cost foreign competition. But chile crops require warm weather, arid conditions and warm soil. Southern New Mexico in particular boasts the perfect chile-growing conditions. And since weather can affect not only harvest but flavor and heat of the fruit, why would anyone buy from less than the best?
If you want to grow a few plants in your own garden, the chile plants thrive best when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees. Even a light frost can kill a chile pepper plant. Direct-seeding is preferred, but you need a long, warm growing season to start chile from seeds. Otherwise, you can transplant chile plants that are about six to eight inches high and space them about 10 inches apart. Make sure they’re getting full sun and are in well-drained soil. They need consistent watering, but adjust based on rainfall. They won’t like wet feet.
Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fill with the smell of roasted green chile. Both red and green chiles are loaded with vitamins A and C and tons of flavor. If you’ve never tried them before, start with mild or medium heat and work your way up.
If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Try the search page for NM chile sellers from the NM Chile Association.
Gardeners in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and surrounding Southwestern states face unique challenges. And though climate, zone and even drought conditions can vary from one area of each state to the next, we have some common issues:
Even when our regions are not officially in a state of drought, Southwest gardeners know water is a precious resource that we must protect all year.
Weather extremes are pretty common, especially where mountains meet foothills or plains.
Our states’ populations are highly rural. Although we’ve got plenty of large cities, rural gardeners live long distances from the services and products easy to come by in urban settings. So, sometimes we just have to get creative.
Heat is a major concern when growing throughout most of the Southwest.
But help is on the way, and I’m honored to be a part of a team offering a new source for Southwest gardening, along with Ann McCormick of Ft. Worth, Texas; Noelle Johnson of Phoenix; and Jacqueline Soule of Tucson. We want to make Southwest gardening fun and easier for our friends, neighbors and clients.
Join us as we offer information, ideas and sharing specific to gardening in the Southwest on our new blog, Southwest Gardening.
Jokes circulate on social media this time of year about New Mexico traditions, such as adding green chile to stuffing. And all year long when faced with the difficult choice of red or green chile to top your burrito, eggs and just about anything else, New Mexico diners take the easy but delicious way out, selecting “Christmas” for both red and green, please.
So, we have delicious food, but a few other traditions make the holidays in New Mexico special.
You can hang pretty icicle lights, but a row of luminarias casts a beautiful, flickering light along a path. Made from brown paper bags filled with sand and a small candle, the tradition of lighting luminarias dates back at least 300 years. The meaning of the lights was to welcome the Christ child.
Of course, even something as peaceful as a luminaria is not without controversy. The literal translation of the word is “bonfire,” which is not the intent! Another word for the lights is farolitos, but most agree this stands for the candle placed inside the bag.
Regardless, luminarias are an easy addition to holiday décor. You simply fold down the tops of the bags, fill each with a couple of inches of sand and then place your candle in the middle of the sand. We light them on Christmas Eve. Learn more about luminarias and see some great photos at Visit Albuquerque.
Although not limited to the holidays, red chile ristras are a classic and organic way to celebrate the season in New Mexico. Our dry climate is perfect for chile crops in the warmer, southern portion of the state (like Hatch, of course!). Traditionally, red chile pods are dried in the sun for storage and use later.
Ritras, or a string of red chile pods, are said to bring good luck, and typically hang on a front porch. They’re the perfect color for adding to holiday décor, and you can even find wreaths made with red chile pods.
More About New Mexican Food
Sorry, I have to return to holiday food for a minute. Posole is a favorite holiday meal in New Mexico. Made with hominy, pork, herbs and spices, posole is a hearty soup and meal in itself. We usually flavor ours with red chile. You can cook the pods with the posole or add red chile as you serve.
Queso is a well-known and simple dish for holiday gatherings. Our favorite queso recipe actually comes from neighboring Texas. It’s from Texas Cowboy Cooking by Tom Perini of Perini Ranch Steakhouse in Buffalo Gap, Texas.
And what’s a holiday gathering without tamales? I’ve never tried to make them, because I hear it’s a lot of work. But nothing beats authentic, homemade tamales wrapped in corn husks and steamed to perfection. Then you top them with red, green, or… Christmas!
Top it all off with a few biscochitos and pinon coffee. Here’s my post on the delicious anise-laced cookies from a few years ago.
Winter has come late to New Mexico this year, and that’s OK with me. The problem is even when it’s sunny in winter, we have fewer projects we can do so we feel productive and in touch with the soil and plants. So I thought about a few ideas to lighten my winter doldrums and decided to share them.
One: Take a drive or hike, or some combination.
As soon as fall hit and gardening slowed down, we began to visit spots we seldom get to see during the growing season. We drove up nearby mountains and about an hour away to a walk among stunning petroglyphs. My mood improves from endorphins and simply being outside. And we always see a few native plants we’d like to identify, even if they’re at the end of their growing season.
Two: Grow a winter-blooming indoor plant.
Aside from the pretty holiday mascot, the poinsettia, you can grow a Christmas cactus or amaryllis. I received a beautiful gift of paperwhites (Narcissus) in a clear glass bowl one year. One of these days, I’ll try to force my own. And if you have a warm, sunny window, why not bring in a few of your potted plants? Geraniums can continue flowering in the right conditions, and we brought a shade-loving container with coleus and begonias inside. They might get leggy before the winter’s up, but they make me feel more in touch with summer.
Three. Feed birds and other critters.
Leaving the garden a little messy might seem like a bad idea, and it is tough to watch the demise of your favorite stalks and flowers. But birds continue to feed off the seeds of many plants or seeds spread in fall and early winter winds. Once the seeds fade, birds need a little extra help to get through cold winter nights. We hang suet and a sunflower seed feeder and set out raw peanuts for the jays. I want to keep the birds coming so I have something fun to look at from my window when the sky is gray and the garden mostly brown.
Four. Start a project, like a bee house or raised bed.
Last winter, we replaced the door on our shed, completely revamped a large garden path, created a dry river bed, and took on lots of other fun projects. In fact, we took on so many that we have to come up with some new ones this year. But vegetable gardens might need new or improved fencing or other design and maintenance. Putting in a new paver path or dry river bed are projects that come to mind. You can build a raised bed or make a bee house or butterfly waterer (puddling pool). Or you can repot some of those succulents and other houseplants you tend to neglect in summer.
Five. Make and give garden-related gifts.
Some winter projects turn into gifts for family, friends or co-workers. I don’t have a perfect crafting style, but I know people appreciate gifts from the heart, time and garden. We’ve made lavender sachets, pressed flower arrangements and outdoor lights. You can even pot up some plants in homemade containers.
And on a snowy, cold and dark winter day, spend a little time by the fire drinking an herbal tea and reading a gardening book, magazine or catalog. You can relax, plan and dream!
Help your garden grow and even help local farmers by including native plants that attract bees and other pollinators to your yard.
Diseases such as Colony Collapse Disorder, and other factors, have led to declining domesticated bee numbers in the United States. However, there are plenty of species of wild, or native, bees still buzzing around looking for pollen.
Wild bees typically aren’t part of hives; they fend for themselves, living in the ground or in hollow stems of plants. Pesticides, insecticides and other dangers still can harm wild bees. Recent studies have shown that newer insecticides called neonicotinoids are absorbed by plants and can show up in pollen. Farmers and home or business owners use neonicotinoids widely to stop pests. They’re toxic to domestic and wild bees. Avoiding use of insecticides that also harm bees is one way to help bees survive and thrive in your landscape.
Here are a few other easy steps to take:
Since wild bees nest in soil and hollow branches, homeowners can ensure a few protected sites in their lawn for bees. This article from the Great Pollinator Project goes into detail on how to help ground nesters and other wild bees.
Basically, some protected and sunny soil and leaving some dead branches on the ground or on shrubs such as sumac can help cavity nesters. You also can install artificial sites such as nesting blocks.
Plant Low-water Flowers
Plenty of favorite New Mexico flowers attract bees and other pollinators. Here’s a list of some of the popular choices of shrubs and flowers that grow in New Mexico gardens:
Agastache (also a big draw for hummingbirds)
Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)
Penstemon (with many native species for hummingbirds too)
The more months or seasons you have plants that attract bees in bloom, the better. We have some native, weed-like groundcovers that bloom in early spring, typically by April 1, that attract so many bees that we hear a low buzz sound all day when sunny. Leave flowers and seedheads on some annuals well into fall and frost danger to provide food for bees and birds. Even in higher mountain regions, native species of penstemon, beebalm and yarrow can bloom well into fall, as can hardy flowers such as gaillardia and cosmos.
Finally, a word about fear of bees. I get it – wasps and bees can be scary if they come after your dessert on the patio or buzz you when you get too close. But I have never had a sting while working in my garden, and the only time I recall ever being stung was when I was a child and running through the lawn barefoot. Even when I trim lavender stalks, the bees might buzz me, but don’t sting. And if you want to remove spent flowers from plants, choose low-light times of day, such as dusk, when bees are less active. Most of all, please don’t avoid plants that bees love just to keep them out of your yard. You’re not just helping bees or the environment at large, you’re supporting a mini ecosystem that makes sure tomatoes and other edible plants produce food for you and your family.
We’ve been busy prepping our lawn and gardens for a wedding. Our daughter, Rebecca, married the love of her life, Dave Higgins, last weekend here in Ruidoso Downs. I had to post some photos, most of which are courtesy of family and our outstanding professional photographer and friend, Jessica Inman. See links to photo credits and local services at the end.
Many thanks to all family and friends who helped us out, especially Jenny Ruiz, Kathy and Dave Toupal and Jeri Baker.
The following Ruidoso and Albuquerque businesses helped make the Higgins Ruidoso Downs wedding possible:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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:
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.