Fall Gardening Project: Dry River Bed

In the arid Southwest, most plants don’t like an abundance of rainfall. Xeric plants such as lavender or rosemary can be damaged or die from too much moisture in the crown or roots. Sometimes, the location a homeowner places a plant affects watering and alters the plant’s ability to thrive as as it should for  the zone in which the gardener lives.

dry river bed
Dry river bed in summer, with blanket flower in foreground and blue mist spirea in back right. The spirea was getting too much water before we began.

Other times, conditions change. That’s what happened in an area near the foundation of our home when we expanded our back patio. We found that excess water from the patio and rain barrel near the edge redirected water during rains. During monsoon season, a blue mist spirea (Cayopteris) and cotoneaster began to show signs of overwatering.

DIY dry river bed
A before shot with Buster waiting in our high-traffic area of grass. The spirea is left foreground and the cotoneaster behind it.
dry river bed
We enlarged our patio and added a few rain barrels. This one was flooding the ground near it when it overflowed. The swamp milkweed we added likes the water.

We needed to divert some water away from the two bushes and recognized the importance of either collecting or directing rainfall. We couldn’t afford a large rain cistern, but we had one natural resource in abundance—rocks. So we built a dry river bed, also called a dry creek bed or dry stream. The project was a way to change up the landscape and divert extra water down to our lawn.

DIY dry river bed
We moved the blue mist spirea up onto a berm built with extra dirt — from another DIY project.

Step 1: Move plants

The first step in our project was to move the plants. We divided the spirea and kept the largest portion to replant; we transplanted two smaller sections on a ditch bank back in our orchard. We ended up removing the cotoneaster, which was beginning to overgrow a path we us regularly and had large areas of rusted, dying foliage.

DIY dry river be and added a Karl Foerster grass.
Our first replacement cotoneaster did not make it. We moved a cactus and penstemon to the new hill as well.

Step 2: Design hills and valleys; test

We next built up a small hill or berm as a new spot for the blue mist spirea and a new cotoneaster bush. This would allow us to control the plants’ watering better. We dug and scraped a river-like trough to help water drain down and toward the grass. It didn’t take much depth to get water from the patio to the grassy area below. Getting the depth and flow right took some trial and error with a garden hose to simulate the rain and made a few adjustments where water backed up.

Testing the flow while we could still lift the fabric if needed.

Step 3: Add rocks

We already had a pile or two of rocks we’ve dug up. And there is no shortage around here. The first step was to cut and lay down black weed barrier, followed by large rocks along the top and side of the dry river to hold the fabric, direct water and add a decorative, but natural effect. This was followed by addition of medium and smaller rocks. We gathered the small rocks throughout fall and winter, sometimes a few at a time, to fill in.

rock river bed
Rocks are much easier to come by around here than water. We lined the sides and bottom with rocks from our property. The large piece of flagstone is a step over the water that runs from the low side of the patio.

Step 4: Plant!

All our hard work was rewarded with a new area for planting. We had the two bushes, and moved a small pine leaf penstemon to a lower part of the berm. We purchased several grasses, some perennials and a few annuals to fill in. Then we got lucky and had a volunteer blanket flower crop up in just the right spot. We stopped the rock design a foot or more from the house in most spots and used pecan mulch around those plants. Here’s why: Rocks reflect sun and heat and my office window is right above the dry river bed area.

Mondo grass
We hope these mondo grasses will grow and spread to cool the wall a little. The mulch is pecan bark. And the new cotoneaster is small but healthy.

Lessons learned:

Pulling out the large cotoneaster and adding rocks has intensified the heat in my office. I know that will ease once the plants grow to maturity. And the heat might be welcome on a cloudy January day. We also lost the first cotoneaster planted. It could have been any of a number of causes, but we likely made a common mistake: not watering enough. I was so concerned with keeping this plant from getting too much water that I failed to account for how much would drain away from its roots and the immaturity of the plant. Our second attempt is going well. It’s also easy to change the flow of water just by placing a rock or two in a certain way. So we check the flow when it rains to look for pooling of water.

We transplanted some grass into the walkway and added two pieces of flagstone.

Overall, we were pleased with the look and function of the dry river bed. The native grass below it turned green earlier than normal and we stopped problems from mud and overwatering of bushes in the area. This is an easy and inexpensive garden DIY project!

 

Bring Bees to Your New Mexico Garden

Help your garden grow and even help local farmers by including native plants that attract bees and other pollinators to your yard.

bee on blanket flower
Bee on gaillardia in our New Mexico garden in mid-October.

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.

flowers in edible garden
This year, we planted flowers in our vegetable garden, partly for cutting and partly to attract pollinators.

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:

Dying pear tree left in garden
This pear tree is nearly dead, but it still provides habitat for birds and insects. We’re adding birdhouses for additional color.

Create Habitats

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.

fallen evergreen
This fallen branch is so pretty and out of the way for us but home to critters.

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.

homemade bee nest
An old homemade bee nest that just needs to be reinforced and have new tubes added.

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:

Flowers:

Agastache (also a big draw for hummingbirds)

Blanketflower (Gaillardia)

Catmint (Nepeta)

Globemallow (Sphaeralcea)

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Penstemon (with many native species for hummingbirds too)

Speedwell (Veronica)

hyssop
Agastache, or hyssop, is a hummingbird and butterfly magnet.

Shrubs:

Apache plume and other native roses

Barberry (Berberis)

Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis)

Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)

Lavender (Lavendula)

Ornamental cherry (Prunus)

Santolina (Santolina)

Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum)

bee on apache plume flower
The pretty white flower of the xeric Apache plume attracts bees for nearly three seasons.

Herbs:

Rosemary

Sage (culinary, along with salvia ornamentals)

Thyme

lavender with bee
Our lavender swarm with bees from the time they begin blooming until late fall.

Learn more about pollinator plants for New Mexico here.

Provide Seasonal Color

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.

spring flower alyssum
This allysum takes over our land and rock garden in spring, feeding hundreds of bees.

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.

Reviewing Garden Watering Systems

No matter where the current drought monitor stands, New Mexicans and other Southwest gardeners know that water is precious. Luckily, plenty of native plants have adapted to the dry conditions of desert and intermountain regions of the Southwest.

 

xeric garden color
Native plants and volunteer annuals add color to a xeric garden.

Still, gardening responsibly anywhere demands attention to water use and waste. And people who want to grow food in their yards or on their patios can save water and money with sensible, waterwise strategies.

The good news is that the home and garden market keeps pumping out new tools to help gardeners conserve water but enjoy their landscapes. I’ve recently reviewed two products for Gardening Products Review. One of the products combines solar technology with rain or faucet water to support slow drip systems in areas of the garden.

rain barrel watering system
Combining a solar-powered pump with a rain barrel is a brilliant idea.

The other product from a small startup company helps you water deeply near the roots of plants using a simple garden hose.  Up next: I’m testing a cloud-based system to control watering from your faucet.

watering system with hose
Adding some color from annuals, especially these snapdragons we grew from seed, is more water efficient and cost effective with drip watering. Adding some mulch would help retain the water and hide the hose.

Check out these watering product reviews, along with lots of other reviews from fellow garden writers at Gardening Products Review’s website. And plan now for next spring’s waterwise plantings.

DIY Garden Path

People who love gardening know that winter and early spring can drag on and on. So it’s good to have a project in your back pocket to get outside and improve the garden during the off-season. I’ll share our experience and give a few tips on creating or replacing your own garden path.

garden path DIY
Panoramic view of the completed path in March. Now, to just get rid of the protective buckets and watch the flowers grow!

The weedy gravel walkways in our rock garden needed help. We replaced the old with new landscape fabric and crusher fine, also called decomposed granite. There were several reasons for the project, mostly the weeds I mentioned.

Weeds in gravel path
The ugly impetus. Some areas of the old path were overtaken with weeds.

We estimate that the original paths, installed by the previous owners of our property, were about 10 years old. The weeds and grasses began to poke through the thin landscape fabric and I spent nearly all of my free time bent over pulling weeds out of rocks.

torn landscape fabric under path
A look at what was left of the old landscape fabric after scraping and hauling off most of the old gravel.

We needed to get the new path in before spring planting. And we were done ahead of schedule after:

  • Spending 2 to 3 months cleaning out old rock and installing new crusher fine.
  • Moving and replacing more than 500 border rocks.
  • Laying about 10.5 rolls of 50-foot landscape fabric.
  • Adding nearly 200 new pavers.
  • Hauling and shoveling more wheelbarrow loads of old gravel and new crusher fine than we could count.
rock border for garden path
Moving and resetting all of the rocks bordering the path was tedious, but necessary. And we are never short on rocks around here.

Reasons for crusher fine

Crusher fines are just that – small particles of crushed rock. So although it might seem crazy to replace rock with rock, hear me out. The landscape gravel was made up of rocks about three-fourths inch in diameter. These let sun, air, water, and especially weed seeds filter down through the layers and held just enough blowing dirt in to feed the seeds. A thin fabric can only do so much to stop weeds from taking root, especially once any tear in the fabric occurs.

crusher fines for garden path
Pile of crusher fines ready to dump and spread over new fabric.

Crusher fines are made of tinier particles and dust, so after you level and tamp them down, the surface evens out and compacts, forming a hard layer that feels more like concrete than rock, but maintaining a rocky, natural appearance. To help prevent weeds, the layer has to be thick – we tried to keep it at two to three inches all the way around. Crusher fine also comes in landscape colors, although we had to pay plenty to have ours trucked in from 45 miles away.

first section of garden path redesign
First section, before leveling and tamping. The rotted wooden borders are toward the back. Tim replaced them with pavers. Note the required knee pads!

Using landscape fabric

The thin landscape fabrics available in big-box stores don’t cut it in most situations for weed control. We ordered ours online from Greenhouse Megastore. It’s Weed Barrier brand with a 20-year warranty.

professional grade landscape fabric for path
Heavy-duty landscape fabric in the last section. By now, we were a little sloppy with folds, but we got it under all of those rocks, and the folds were minor. The rocks in the upper center are holding down fabric temporarily before dumping the crusher fine on top.

The fabric is touted as great for xeriscaping and allows air, water, and nutrients through, but blocks light. Since we used it in a path, we didn’t care about light (and less is best for weed seeds) but we didn’t want standing water. Both the fabric and crusher fine are water permeable, so the water seeps down, eventually back into the ground.

Rock garden circle
A circle within a circle. It was difficult to lay fabric around this without making more cuts than ideal.

The fabric was heavy duty but easy to work with for the most part. Our garden is a circle, with smaller circles and curves throughout. My theory is that any crack/slit/opening in the fabric is an invitation to a hardy weed like field bindweed. But to make curves, you have to carefully slit and overlap the fabric. The fewer cuts the better.

Repurposing gravel

So, out with the old and in with the new. The worst part of the project was scraping, shoveling and hauling off the old gravel. And what do you do with several tons of rocks? Our first step was to repurpose the old gravel in a few beds (over landscape fabric and with cuts for plants) and to add depth to another path in the front yard that has the same gravel. No way we could tackle it too, and I hope that by adding to the depth, we made it a little more difficult for weeds to root. Someday, we’ll have to move that gravel again and replace it with crusher fine. But not today. Or this month or this year…

Repurposing garden gravel
Repurposed garden path gravel. Less mud now in our vegetable/microfarm area with inexpensive plastic border.

We also hauled loads of the old gravel to our vegetable garden and dumped it on strips of fabric left over to cut down on mud and weeds in the walkways. As for the rest, it’s in a pile, waiting for friends to claim it or for Craig’s List.

Here are a few tips on creating a garden path with crusher fines:

  • If you can design your own path, consider gentle curves when possible. Circles are tough. Mention this to a landscape architect if you have one, so you can be ready to replace the path when the time comes or get an estimate of the cost for a landscape company to do so.
  • Invest in professional quality landscape fabric.
  • Work in sections, leaving fabric in the longest continual length possible, which might mean leaving the roll at the end of a section. (We just turned the wheelbarrow upside down over the roll to protect it from deer damage.)
  • Overlap the fabric by several inches at cuts and intersections, and try to avoid large folds.
landscape fabric overlap
In straight areas, the roll fit fine with no piecing. But at curves and intersections, we had to overlap, like in this path.
  • Get some fabric under borders such as pavers, even if it means lifting and replacing the hardscape.
  • Place border rocks or pavers on fabric before adding crusher fine.
rock garden path decomposed granite
After several weeks, tamping and a rain, the crusher fine hardens ad creates a level walking surface. By pushing some against rocks and gaps between them, the crusher fine seeps just under the rocks, almost acting like mortar to secure them.
  • Work in sections to spread crusher fine in a thick, even layer. We used the back (straight edge) of a bow rake.
  • Invest in a tamper (ours was about $40).
tamper for crusher fine path
First and last sections completed. Our simple tamper (right) required some muscle, but did the job.
  • Spray the crusher fine with water before your last tamp. It helps bind the crusher fine mix. (And the color of the path really comes out after rain.)
  • Keep a small pile of crusher fine handy for a few weeks, or at least after a few rains. You might find low spots or phantom folds poking through. Just add a few shovels to the spot and level it with the existing crusher fine.
crusher fine garden path
The completed crusher fine path a few weeks later.

And then enjoy! It’s like a dream to walk on and has a really neat appearance.

 

 

 

 

5 Drought-resistant Groundcovers

Groundcovers might not be as sexy or exciting to plant as some ornamentals, but the low-growing plants are useful and can really add to a xeric garden’s look and function.

Prairie zinnia
Prairie zinnia covers ground and rocks. Anything that grows in rocks gets by with little water!

Here are a few reasons and ways to use groundcovers:

Water savings: erosion control. On garden slopes, a low-growing groundcover slows the flow of water. Use one that’s relatively drought tolerant and the plant absorbs enough water from the flow to get by. An added bonus – slopes can be difficult to mow, and a low-growing groundcover needs less maintenance.

Water savings: mulch effect. Groundcovers cool the soil below and retain some moisture, which can work as a sort of living mulch under a tree or other plant that needs cooler roots.

Turf alternative: Groundcovers typically are less invasive and easier to control than grass, especially between flagstone or other steps.

groundcover between stones
I believe this is ajuga between flagstones in a private Atlanta garden. It creates a sort of woodland look.

Weed control. Once a groundcover blankets an area, weeds have a harder time growing in the same spot. It might not entirely eliminate them, but eventually weed seeds have a harder time getting into covered soil and receive less light.

Design element. Groundcovers can add color, year-round interest and an area of low growth in the foreground of a design or near paths. Check out this gorgeous example of creeping thyme as an alternative lawn in a xeric design.

  1. Creeping thyme (Thymus ‘Pink Chintz’). This is an excellent choice for filling in around flagstone steps or any area that takes foot traffic (see link above). In fact, several thyme varieties are considered steppable. Creeping thyme does fine with low water once it’s established, but if it receives more water, it grows more rapidly, which might help to fill in an area.

    Alan's Apricot ice plant
    Alan’s Apricot ice plant boasts larger, color-changing blooms. Courtesy of Plant Select and Alan Tower.
  2. Ice plant (Delosperma). The flowers of ice plants are delicate and bright, coming in yellow, bright pink or salmon and rust colors. Although some varieties of ice plant need a little more water than others, most can get by in xeric rock gardens. Ice plant is a rapid spreader and easy to maintain. If it grows outside the area you intend, just clip it off. Or pull up a stalk and its roots and move it to another spot in your garden.

    purple ice plant
    Purple iceplant in a bed on the north side of our home.
  3. Perky Sue (Tetraneuris scaposa). Although Perky Sue might not technically be a groundcover, it can spread enough to add floral color and evergreen foliage. I’ve seen this or a nearly identical plant called plenty of other names, including Hymenoxys scaposa, bitterweed, and narrow four-leaf nerve daisy. It’s also similar to the Angelita daisy (T. acaulis).

    Perky Sue
    Perky sue has silver-like foliage and yellow daisy flowers.
  4. Prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora). Also called desert zinnia, this is a favorite rock garden groundcover of mine. It has tiny, thread-like leaves and bright yellow flowers. Most of all, it spreads from the previous year’s plant; you simply remove the spent foliage as the weather warms and you see new green beneath the old. It can spread up to 6 or 10 feet.

    zinnia grandiflora shadow
    Delicate, spreading and xeric. The prairie or desert zinnia.
  5. Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides). The best part of plumbago is its fall color. The purple flowers typically bloom in early fall and then the leaves redden. Plumbago also does best in shade or part (afternoon) shade in warmer areas.
groundcovers rock gardens
Veronica is another low-spreading groundcover for rock gardens. A Perky Sue bloom is peeking out on the left — in March!

All of these groundcovers are perennial and hardy to zone 6 or cooler. Groundcovers can require some patience or money. For carpet-like coverage, you either have to plant many of them fairly close together, or ideally space new plants according to planting instructions and wait for them to fill in. Some also have minds of their own. To me, the haphazard growth is more natural looking in a rock or xeric garden. But if you’re going for a formal look, choose one that’s easier to control, such as thyme.

Photo Essay: A Little Spring Green for St. Patrick’s Day

Spring has come early to New Mexico this year. We’re been breaking records for high temperatures. That’s been so nice and has really improved my mood. I’ll even consider it lucky, since we have lots to accomplish before summer.

Of course, our average last frost is around May 10, and April 15 in Albuquerque. So I fear all of the pretty flowers on the fruit trees will freeze at the worst possible time. Or that my impatience with cleaning up and lightly pruning xeric perennials will backfire. I choose to remain optimistic.

Enjoy these green (and a few other colors) early spring finds. Just click on any thumbnail to start the slide show.

5 Ways Organic Growing Methods Save Water

Growing with organic methods is smart for lots of reasons, both personal and environmental. Although there are plenty of strategies gardeners and homeowners can use to save water with ornamentals, such as planting native and xeric plants, it’s a little tougher with vegetable gardening.

Tomatoes and water
These yellow cherry tomatoes soaked up a summer rain from their container filled with organic soil and compost.

Tomatoes, for example, need consistent watering! But growing tomatoes organically can conserve water. Here are five ways how:

  1. Organic soil retains water better. Anyone can improve their soil’s water retention by up to 5 percent by adding organic matter. It also helps to avoid use of chemicals and pesticides. Using pesticides and chemical fertilizers in gardens can throw off the natural balance of the soil, making it less able to retain moisture around plant roots and making fewer nutrients available for plants. On the contrary, planting cover crops in the fall and use of compost or other organic matter help restore valuable soil nutrients. Organic matter also helps soil structure for water infiltration and retention. Healthy soil can respond better to drought conditions.

    soil organic
    Before: compacted, poor soil in a newly designated garden area.
  2. Organic growing protects water supplies. By avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers, gardeners also protect the water supply. Pesticide chemicals can remain in the soil for years; some are more toxic than others and break down in the soil more slowly. The chemicals from these products can run off into bodies of water, such as rivers. And eventually, they can seep into groundwater. That might seem a distant concern to some urban gardeners, but those of us using wells live right above available water. The more chemicals that run into water supplies, the less safe drinking water is available.

    organic matter on garden bed
    AFTER: Organic matter added to the vegetable garden raised row.
  3. Use of mulch reduces evaporation. A layer of appropriate mulch above the ground around a plant helps reduce ground-to-air evaporation, making the soil take longer to dry out. The mulch also helps cools plant roots. Using organic mulches such as bark, nut shells, compost and others adds organic matter to the soil slowly over time for an added bonus.

    mulching organic pecan
    Rock mulch helps lavender stay hot and dry, and on the lower left, pecan bark mulch surrounds a plant that needs more water.
  4. Organic methods can minimize erosion. Traditional gardening and farming uses rototilling and deep plowing to turn the soil before each growing season. Plowing deeply and turning the soil over can disrupt soil microorganisms, harm soil health, and place looser soils on top, where they’re subject to erosion from water and wind (think Dust Bowl). No-till methods help control erosion and build soil structure. The soils, in turn, better retain water. This can be a problem if the soil drains poorly, but a definite help in low-water regions. Not tilling involves building up beds with organic matter, much like nature does as plants drop leaves that decompose. If you want to work organic matter in, it’s best to grab a shovel. A broadfork is the best tool for breaking up compacted soil.

    watermelon organic
    Healthy babydoll watermelon plant in organic soil.
  5. Growing organically creates healthier plants. Healthy soil is the foundation needed to grow healthy food. When soil has good nutrients and structure, it supports root growth and uptake of nutrients, improving plant health.  Plants that are not healthy are more vulnerable to insect and disease damage. The plant might not use water as it should when it’s stressed, and the gardener certainly guesses that if a plant looks bad, it needs water. So, keeping plants healthy saves the extra water the plant needs or gardener applies in times of stress. And healthy plants keep on going, so you don’t waste water on establishing a plant that later dies from poor conditions.

Watering Cacti and Succulents

Succulents are low-care starter plants for anyone easing into gardening or short on space. Best of all, they’re typically the lowest water users of the plant world. It’s often said that cacti and succulents thrive on neglect. Although that might be true when it comes to maintenance such as trimming or fertilizing, cacti and succulents do need a little attention and consistent, light watering.

barrel cacti
Rocks, heat, hills that drain water. These conditions make cacti happy. This image was taken at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.

Water Sparingly

The common characteristic of succulents is that they have adapted to surviving with little water. Cacti are tough, and about the only thing that will kill them (other than being munched or trampled  by wildlife) is overwatering. In general, about once a week is perfect. Set a date every Saturday morning, for instance, to water and check on indoor succulents. The best way to water container succulents is by making two trips – water your succulents once with a slow, steady stream. Don’t give them so much water that it runs out the bottom of the container, but give them enough to soak in past the surface. Then come back and give them a second drink, which makes for a deeper and more even watering.

agave parryi in snow
These agave survive outdoors here in zone 6B. We don’t water them, but from time to time, nature does the job.

The best watering for outdoor succulents is through a steady drip. How much depends on conditions, just like with other plants. When heat is extreme, cacti and succulents need a little more water. When it rains, you can skip watering altogether. If you bring cacti indoors for winter, they need a little more water in a hot, dry and sunny room.

Transplanting and Repotting

Have you ever seen a photo of an avocado pit in a glass with roots sprouting from the pit? Like most plants, lots of water encourages roots to grow. The same goes when placing most new plants in the ground or a new container—extra, deep watering helps roots establish. But that’s not true of succulents. They need time to heal before you water. In fact, taking a cutting from a cactus to grow a new plant (propagating) means letting the cutting rest and dry before putting in soil!

cacti in sunny window
Tim propagated many of these succulents from cuttings.

If you want a mixed arrangement indoors or out, try to make sure your cactus or succulent receives only the water it needs. In the landscape, you can mound the dirt under the plant slightly so that water drains to nearby plants with higher water needs or have a dedicated drip for the succulent that emits less water. Avoid spray irrigation, especially on succulents. In container arrangements, keep your cactus in a small plastic container half-buried in the container’s soil. This helps the gardener pour more water to flowers around the cactus than directly on it, which helps keep the cactus soil from getting soggy.

deep pink cactus bloom
This as-yet unidentified cactus (most likely a Mammillaria) came from ranch land east of Roswell, N.M. It’s been happy in a container, spending summer on the patio and winter in a south-facing window.

Do a Little Research

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are in the cactus (Cactaceae) family. In general, succulents are known for their fleshy leaves that hold water. Their leaves usually are small as well – leaving less surface for transpiration, which is the plant equivalent of evaporation.

fenestraria baby toes flower
Baby toes (Fenestraria) are so-named for their swollen ends, a classic succulent survival feature. The flowers are pretty awesome too.

Just like with trees or flowers, every type of cactus and succulent is a little different. For example, Adenium, commonly called desert rose, is a gorgeous succulent member of the Apocyanaceae family, the same one that includes oleanders. Knowing that helps: First, the only true pest of adenium is an oleander caterpillar. Second, although technically a succulent, when the plant is in full leaf and flower season, it needs a lot of energy (sun and water) and can be treated more like a tropical plant. But adeniums drop their leaves in winter, even in indoor containers. When they go dormant, they need little to no water.

adenium in container
The Desert Rose (Adenium) drops its leaves in winter and needs little water while dormant (resting). When it starts getting flower buds, it needs a little more.

In fact, that’s true of nearly all cacti and succulents – they need more water (and some fertilizer) during their growing/flowering periods and just enough to get by when dormant. Most will flower and grow in spring, fall and cooler parts of summer. High summer heat can make them dormant as a survival tactic.

It’s easy to research cacti and succulents in regional garden books and online, using reputable and regional sources when possible.

Repotting

Although most cacti and succulents grow more slowly than typical garden or house plants, they can outgrow their pots. In addition, succulents grown in pots and watered from a tap can have problems when minerals from the water build up in the soil. That’s a second reason to repot. You can avoid the mineral build-up by using rainwater for cacti and succulents instead of tap. Be sure your plant is in a container that drains well. That means drilling holes in the bottom of any containers that lack them and filling them with planting medium only (no rock or other filtering materials at the bottom).

split rock
The split rock cactus (Pleiospilos nelii) is native to South Africa and does well in a container, as long a you cut back on water in the heat of summer and cold of winter.

Of course, soil, location or zone and other factors affect the health and water needs of cacti and succulent. But most adapt to soil and environmental conditions.

echeveria
The fleshy leaves of an echeveria. These are such pretty and easy-care succulents.

Gardeners can adapt to – and enjoy – caring for succulents. Check out our Pinterest page on cacti and succulents for more information and photos.

Use Shapes and Textures in Xeriscaping

Gardeners often choose plants more for their flower color or ease of care, and that’s a great way to enjoy a garden. If you want to add interest to a xeric bed or lawn, it also helps to consider plants’ shapes and textures. Shape, or form, refers to the circles, lines and squares of plants or how you arrange plants. Texture relates to how coarse or fine a plant looks and even feels.

Mesilla nm xeriscape
Plant shape and texture work perfectly in the landscape design of this old adobe home in Mesilla, N.M.

For example, there’s a reason why many professional container arrangements usually include a grass or similar plant with tall, thin blades. The grass rises from at or near the center of the pot, adding height. The long, slender blades of ornamental grasses also vary the shape and texture of the arrangement if it’s filled with low-growing, round flowers. You can do the same in your xeric garden.

plant sculpture
This whimsical plant sculpture lives in an Atlanta-area garden.

Although it can be tough for some gardeners to adapt to the Southwest after owning lawns with formal cottage gardens, they eventually learn to love the look and easy maintenance of more native, “unsculpted” plants.

yellow in xeric garden
This part of our xeric garden is mostly yellow, but not redundant because of shape and texture of the plants and foliage.

Plant variety 

Although some landscapes look great with rows of the same plant, most xeric gardens have a more natural feel. The designer or home gardener can use a variety of low-water plants to vary shapes. For example, if you want to plant cacti and succulents in your container or garden, you aren’t likely to choose all prickly pear cacti (Opuntia). Their round pads and medium-height spread complement a spikier ocotillo (Fouquieriaceae) or a spiraling sedum groundcover.

desert garden
It’s hot and dry in Tucson, but you still can use shape and texture in the most xeric designs, as shown by the sprawling ocotillo and prickly pear at its base.

The shapes in xeric plants typically are less defined. Still, plants have a basic shape, such as how lavender stalks form a rounded V.

lavender plants in New Mexico
Six rounded lavender now have five friends growing below. They’re lined up, but maintain a natural look.

Those who desire a more balanced or symmetrical look can repeat a plant. Some of the most effective landscapes I’ve seen have a row or grouping of xeric ornamental grasses. Individually, the grasses have a wispy, wild look. But when placed in a grouping, they sway in the wind together and create a clean line. Too much variety can cause a xeric garden to look more like a botanical garden full of eye-catching plants with no flow if not designed by professionals.

Foliage and texture

Many xeric plants produce remarkable flowers, and some bloom throughout the growing season. But one way xeric plants survive is with relatively smaller foliage. Less leaf area means less transpiration (water evaporating from leaves) and improved survival chances in arid climates. Still, a waterwise garden can include foliage variety in texture, size, shape and color.

xeric garden
This garden is a large circle, with defined beds that are rounded but don’t mimic the overall shape. And as plants can do, some of these lost their defined shape following monsoon rains.

Some xeric plants, such as pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) have tiny, needle-like leaves. These contrast nicely with nearby plants that have rounder, lusher foliage, adding varied shapes and textures to the garden.

texture from plants
This is not a xeric garden, but look at how many different textures combine in one spot, including variegated leaves of the hosta, lower right.

You also can add texture with hardscape materials or yard art. Hardscaping materials include just about anything that isn’t a live plant. So, for example, you can add interest around a rock or boulder with a plant that has small, twisting or draping branches. A post fence has lines that run up and down, and I believe that a mix of small, round or trailing plants look better against it than a line of tall or upright plants. Hardscape items also add texture, such as rough rockiness or smooth backdrops.

Layering

Rhythm is an important landscape design that can be achieved with cautious repetition of shapes, curves and layers. Some of the best designs have layers. For example, you can plant a groundcover (a low-growing or trailing plant that typically spreads) in front of a shrub that has long, thin branches and few flowers.

silver dollar plant
We fell in love with this silver dollar plant (Xerosicyos Danguyi) at The Arboretum in Pasadena, Calif.

When layering plants, or in any planting, it’s important to consider a plant’s mature size. If not, your nice round shrub might catch up to or even block the tall one behind it. It also helps to know a little about pruning. You don’t have to shape plants into animal characters, but it helps to know how to trim the plant for its health and growth (even control of growth).  Otherwise, plants can later upset balance and rhythm in the garden.

For Fall Garden Planning: Mix Hardscaping and Plants

Hardscaping is use of anything other than plants, really, in the garden. So it includes rocks, fences, walls, walls made of rocks, pavers, stepping stones, lighting, gravel (made from rocks) and found or repurposed objects. Did I mention rocks?

rocks for garden art
We have lots of rocks. They line the wall of our xeric garden and we place them in beds to help feature plants. This new poppy also has some “garden art” that’s courtesy of a buck who wandered through.

Here’s the problem: When people think of xeriscaping or converting high-water lawns and landscapes to more waterwise plans, they often turn to landscape gravel, rock borders and concrete to fill their landscape. Done! But the best xeric landscapes mix functional and attractive hardscaping with plants for full effect.

landscape hardscape Atlanta
This Atlanta-area home combined natural boulders, stunning sculptures and lots of perennial plants.

Pros of Hardscaping

I find that after touring a public or private garden, my photos often include fences, garden art and other hardscaping features. I guess I’m drawn to them. Any plant can shine when placed before a solid wall or large boulder, but those with tiny flowers and foliage really pop with a backdrop. And you don’t have to use large, expensive artwork or structures. Sometimes, all you need is a well-placed rock or container.

agave in container
An agave in the Southeast? Why not — especially featured in a large container in the middle of the landscape.

Aside from aesthetics, hardscaping features provide function in the landscape. Pathways lead the gardener, visitor and the eye in the best direction, or help a homeowner get from one point to another more easily. Fences and walls improve privacy and arbors and pergolas add to shade in sunny garden spots.

arbor with plants
A white picket fence and arbor surround a rock patio in the middle of this private garden in the Atlanta area.
hardscaping support plants
In this Pasadena garden, an attractive fence also serves as a way to separate and support the homeowner’s vines and edible plants.

Finally, homeowners often put in hardscaping to minimize watering and plant care. Most nonplant items in the garden require little to no care and last for years.

path in Atlanta lawn
This path prevents wear and tear on the grass and requires no mowing. I love the mix of stone size and texture.
courtyard fountain
The path above leads to this mini-oasis in a home’s courtyard. It’s near Atlanta, and more lush than most xeric landscapes. But what a fun and relaxing place to enjoy being outside.

Cons of Hardscaping

Replacing lawn and plant materials with hardscaping can lower maintenance, but can create too much heat in the lawn and garden. A concrete patio or gravel-covered yard is way hotter than turf and plants. That being said, a mix of both helps lower water use and costs. If done right, homeowners can enjoy their gardens and save water.

patch of grass
I love this shaped patch of lawn in a Pasadena landscape. I might not have put trees in the gravel, but otherwise this back yard has some great plant and hardscape combinations.

Only plant materials provide important food and pollen for animals and insects; bushes and trees also provide better shelter than the eaves of your home. Adding birdhouses and beehouses near plants can help nature’s garden visitors. Too much concrete and gravel also makes a garden seem unfriendly to people. You probably want privacy and a place to sit or walk, but don’t you also want flowering or edible plants nearby? If a big patio is necessary for entertaining, add container plants on the ground, walls or even the furniture.

xeric garden with hardscape and plants
You can have adequate hardscape and also have plants. Our garden features gravel walkways (soon to be replaced), a rock wall and plenty of perennial plants and wildflowers.
steppables in path
Steppable plants can grow between hard surfaces, cooling off and adding color to concrete or flagstone walkways.

Finally, be sure to consider existing trees and other plants you plan to keep when converting lawns to gravel. Trees need deep watering, and the roots stretch out at least to the tree’s canopy, which is how far out branches and leaves extend. So providing a pretty little circle of mulch around the trunk likely isn’t enough.

Atlanta private home breezeway
This Atlanta-area home has a driveway and breezeway. But why not plant around and over both?
Arizona Sonora desert museum
At the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona, rocks and boulders look natural in the dry desert landscape.

Some of my favorite xeric landscapes combine a few featured plants such as a shade tree or colorful bush with low-growing annuals or groundcovers that cascade over steps or rocks. Combining hardscape and plant features is a smart xeriscaping strategy and a way to enjoy your lawn for years to come.