Weed or Wildflower?

Water-wise gardening in the Southwest means accepting the spread of native wildflowers and using them to fill and brighten a landscape or garden. There’s a fine line between weed and wildflower, however.

Some native species spread so easily under the right conditions that they take over a garden. Others might not be native, but were introduced to an area and thrive when Mother Nature cooperates. That’s why we had a “yellow spring.” Last fall, we noticed pretty little spiral seedlings appearing in the dying grass. We wondered what they were, but left them. In the spring, yellow popped up everywhere.

 

yellow alyssum in New Mexico lawn
Is it weed or wildflower that spread like crazy in early spring? It got yellower and was pretty, but weird.

Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. But I spent hours trying to identify the weed. I knew it probably was related to mustard, but it didn’t match any of the typical mustard weeds I could find in my searches. And I searched, and searched, for wildflowers and weeds. Here’s a close-up of it in the garden. And guess what it is?

yellow-alyssum
Alyssum is usually a lovely annual in flower beds. Here is yellow alyssum in our rock garden, where it also grew like crazy.

It’s yellow alyssum, or Alyssum alyssoides,  a member of the mustard family, imported from Europe. And it has both good and bad qualities. I’ve purchased sweet alyssum before as a bedding plant. And in some searches, it’s listed as a great choice to bring beneficial insects. I can vouch for that, because as I walked across our property on a sunny day, there was a low buzz – bees everywhere. I loved it, but it was a little freaky. And I saw one doe get stung on the face.

Alyssum also is listed as a weed in many Western states. It’s got a taproot about a mile long (slight exaggeration) and really only comes up completely if you moisten the soil and pull. I’ve seen conflicting information on whether it threatens native grasses. We’ll know more as spring progresses.

In the photo above is another weed/wildflower: a native verbena (species Glandularia). I’ve bought plenty of verbenas for rock gardens in lovely colors. And these are beautiful too, especially coming up between the yellow alyssum out in open grassy areas. They are more leggy and leafy than the hybrid or garden-variety verbenas, however, and will come up just about anywhere:

verbena-weed-new-mexico-xeric-rock-garden
Wild verbena looks pretty against rocks, not so much all over a gravel path.

Now, I have wildflowers I love that spread like weeds, usually by self-sowing. We usually leave them in place. Some are great for color and flower, some for scent. And the beauty is that they adapt so well to the dry conditions that they fill the garden without us having to purchase, plant, and most of all, water new plants.

An early spring favorite is night-scented stock, also called night stock (Matthiola longipetala). Believe it or not, it’s also a member of the Brassicaceae, or mustard family. The scent in early evening is so pleasant, and we love that these come up near the patio. They’re also reseeding in the grass around the garden!

night-scented-stock
Night stock has a delicate and pleasant scent that comes out with its blooms in early evening.

The blanket flower (Gallardia) has always been a favorite and the previous owners made sure we have plenty in our garden. They thrive in drought and have such vibrant colors, as do Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera).

mexican-hat-prairie-coneflower
Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers, pop up everywhere in our garden. These look terrific next to perennial yarrow.

We even admit to leaving a few alyssums intentionally where they complement another plant or look pretty up against a rock or piece of dried wood. We’ll never be able to pull them all or stop the reseeding, and I’m not sure we should. They do attract bees and offer early spring color. But it’s hard enough to get grass to grow in a drought and through various weeds. If alyssum adds to the competition too much, we’ll probably need help finding a control method.

Update in March 2015: The alyssum didn’t choke out the grass last year. It might have delayed grass taking root in a few spots, but we had a beautiful lawn. And yep, it’s already back. I’ve come to accept it, and just want to keep it from spreading across an irrigation ditch to our orchard area. Tim is trying to pull it out of the rock garden beds. I don’t have the energy to fight it. But it’s fun to watch…

 

No Moisture and High Temps

It looks like New Mexico is facing its worst drought since the 1880s. It’s possible that in those days, legends like Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid rode near here, headed to the Rio Ruidoso in hope of watering their horses. I’m certain that at some point, our few acres served as a farm, judging by the rolling terrace and the mystery shed. At some point, there was an orchard by the river, evidenced by a dozen or so old stumps.

apple tree in small orchard
Small orchard in late fall. Notice an old stump off to the right, behind the fence stake. Tim is building up the wells around the trees and we’re reinforcing the fences to keep munching deer out.

The younger fruit trees in our current orchard didn’t produce fruit last year because of a late freeze and I foresee the same problem this year. It’s so warm right now, and will be for close to 2 weeks, that the trees think it’s time to bud out. Since our last freeze date is around Mother’s Day, it’s likely that freeze will again destroy any hope for fruit and my canning jars will sit empty on the shelf.

This all amounts to a bummer for us; we don’t face anything near the hardship of the people who endured drought during the 1880s. We can buy fruit and all the jelly we need at grocery stores in town. It would cost much less to make our own, but at least we do not depend on the land.

spanish-broom-in-rock-garden
The ornamentals also are confused. See the dry, nearly dead grass in the background? But the warm temps against the rocks fooled this Spanish broom into blooming in February!
spanish-broom-flowers
It’s nice to see these pretty yellow flowers from my office window.

The real problem with the record high temps and low humidity is the fire danger. In April 2011, the White Fire swept through Ruidoso Downs and within a few hundred yards of our home. We still see the damage from our front yard and it humbles us. The wildlife population still is lower than normal, though we have had steady visits from a herd of about 15 deer and the occasional elk.

white-fire-damage-deer_web
The mountains on the left show remaining damage from the 2011 White Fire in Ruidoso Downs, N.M., as deer graze on grass. On the right is a red-twig dogwood, a favorite plant for winter color.

My hope is for rain or snow, but continued warm temperatures. That would ensure that the fruit survives the season (and gets some natural watering) and that the fire danger remains low. It also means delicious apricot jelly for a year?

Raindrops Kept Fallin’…

There’s always some irony in gardening. I’m writing about drought-tolerant plants several hundred yards from an area struck by fire no more than five years ago and under severe water use and fire restrictions all spring. We prefer many xeric plants and inherited a huge and well-planned xeric garden when we moved here in April. Most of the plants survived with no care or water, outside a little rain from Mother Nature, while the property sat on the market for a year. So we were ready to look for more drought-tolerant choices for a slightly cooler zone and purchase rain barrels in case the skies ever opened up.

early rain
Early summer rain. See how brown the grass is? What grass, you say?

People who live in rural areas know their weather. One reason is that they tend to pay attention to the skies, the land, the views. Another is that many grow lawns, crops, or feed for livestock. And one of the best reasons is that no television station, web site or app gets rural weather right. Our “local” weather is mixed in with several other communities in our county, some of which are 20 miles north of us or about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Considering that the temperature can vary about six degrees between our place and a neighbor who lives the equivalent of a block away but a little lower and closer the river, I figure the people in Atlanta or even Albuquerque really don’t get it.

But when various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day,” they were spot on: We had a hard freeze the Saturday before, and no other until October. When they said that the rains would start “on the Fourth of July,” they were close again. It started raining July 1 and pretty much kept raining for nearly six weeks. I have not asked about the need to tie weather events to well-known holidays, but if it works…

rain on patio
So then it really rained. Maybe because we were trying to pour a patio.

So, what do you do when your xeric garden gets rain, LOTS of rain? Well, most of the plants adapted just fine. They grew well and plenty of lovely annuals popped up from volunteer seeds. But guess what else happened? We got weeds. Every kind of weed known to man. Everywhere a weed could grow and some places I thought they couldn’t. In all of the gravel walkways, between rocks and pavers, inside cacti (those weeds are smart!). And pretty much all over the entire 4 acres.

These city folk did not yet have a riding mower; we had a lot of moving expenses and no grass worth mowing before July 1. Then the grass was too wet to cut most days. So by the time we got a mower to the back orchard, the weeds were up to my knees. We eventually conquered the mowing, but lost the battle in much of the garden. My thinking is that the yard and weeds had a year’s head start on us, and it will take us a little time to catch up.

weeds take over
Still raining Aug. 10. See the weeds in that front bed and all along the ditch bank in the background?

I also have been meaning to ask a neighbor what sort of event to expect on Thanksgiving. Maybe our first snow, though I think it might hit sooner. I just hope the snow doesn’t last for six weeks.