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 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 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.
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 or homestead.
One of the main reasons they know weather 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 about a block away, it is hard to pinpoint our precise forecasts.
First and Last Freeze
The USDA has our hardiness zone on the money, and that helps us know which plants are less likely to survive nights below 20, or even 10, degrees. Maybe more accurate is the very definite (but since proven accurate) prediction of various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day.” The first year, we had a hard freeze the day before. 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…
Nearly 6 years later, the holiday predictions still are pretty accurate, but rain has been scarce since 2017. The first year, however, and in summer 2017, we got lots of rain.
Too Much Rain
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 we also got every kind weed known to man in every spot 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.
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.
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.
Growing in containers gives you flexibility; you can move plants around based on shade and sun exposure or bring some inside for winter. There are plenty of reasons to have lots of fun or decorative containers (or an entire row of them!) Here are 5 great low-water choices and a few tips for growing succulents and other xeric plants in containers.
Pot these upright succulents when you have limited space or your winter low prohibits growing them in the ground. Some agaves become quite large, but probably will grow a little slower in a pot. Try those smaller than about a foot in diameter (basketball-sized at maturity) such as black-spined, artichoke and Queen Victoria for great container-scale plants. The rosette shape of most agaves makes them perfect as the only plant in a container. Line the top of the soil with decorative rocks or glass and your container design is done! Agaves withstand heat and drought, and some can take cold (such as A. parryi). Most, however, can only handle light freezes.
My favorite versatile herb can grow well in containers. Depending on the look you want, select an upright (bush) type to add height to a mix of xeric container plants or choose a trailing rosemary to drape over the side. Either one should bloom at some point during the growing season. You can move your container rosemary inside to a sunny window or leave outside against a warm south-facing wall for year-round access to the tasty herb. Some varieties can survive winters down to zone 5 or 6, but most do best in warmer climates. And remember, that container cools off faster than the ground.
Portulaca plants are idea for containers, especially for adding texture, draping shape and outstanding color. I love filling containers with portulaca, but also love placing them beneath a tall plant in a container to add interest. They grow best in dry, well-draining soil in full sun. Portulaca plants are annuals, but always available in Southwest nurseries. They spread so quickly and bloom so heavily that they are well worth the money. Choose from bloom colors in reds, oranges, yellows, whites and pink. They often drop tiny seeds that will show up as volunteers the next year, which can be fun. Or you can easily pull up the shallow roots.
These gorgeous plants make great low-growing borders, hedges or potted plants, depending on your climate. Potted lantanas drape over the side, adding shape and dimensions to container arrangements. I love the salmon-pink and lemon-yellow bloom arrangements. Some varieties grow large, but look for dwarf varieties such as Pinkie or Patriot. In the low desert (zones 9 through 11), lantana plants can be outside all year. In high deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, we have to grow them as annuals or bring them inside when temperatures dip to about 55 degrees.
Containers dry out faster than the ground, making xeric plants, and especially succulents, the perfect container plants. Succulents need well-draining soil, so look for mixes that don’t retain too much water. Once you get the right soil mix, you should be able to water your succulents lightly once a week and have plenty of success. Most also grow slowly, so they don’t require frequent repotting. Some of my favorites are jade, echeveria, sempervivum, haworthia and crown of thorns.
A few tips for growing xeric plants in containers:
Make sure you have well-draining soil so the roots do not stay too wet.
Likewise, provide drainage at the bottom of the container.
Water slowly and lightly when possible to avoid washing out soil and nutrients.
Most xeric container plants need lots of sun, but keep an eye out for too much sun, especially when moving a plant back outdoors for the summer or placing it inside too close to a window.
Try to keep xeric plants together in arrangements, since they have similar watering needs. Or if mixing, find a way to separate low-water plants by potting within the larger pot or ensuring water drains away from them.
Overwatering leads to the demise of more xeric plants, especially container succulents, than other issues.
If you want a shrub that bursts with mid- to late spring color and thrills butterflies and bees, you can grow Caryopteris (C. x clandonensis). Also called bluebeard, blue mist, and blue mist spirea, caryopteris plants actually are part of the mint (Laminaceae) family, a recent change from their former placement in the verbena family. Regardless, they are nothing like a spirea, but the name has stuck.
Caryopteris is a drought-tolerant shrub that has pretty, sage-like pale green leaves. The leaves have a nice, light scent. They drop in winter (it is deciduous) but begin emerging in late spring or early summer. I leave the brown seed heads on for some winter interest; blue mist still will maintain its shrub shape with dry, light brown stems.
The plant comes from Asia, so it is not native to North America. That does not seem to bother my pollinators and I have not seen the plant spread invasively, unlike its mint relatives. Still, you can prevent it from self-sowing (dropping seeds to create new plants) by pruning it in fall as soon as all the flowers fade.
Where to Plant Caryopteris
This pretty and easy-care shrub can grow and bloom in either full sun or part sun in zone 5 through 8 Southwest gardens. Some cultivars are hardy down to zone 4. The plant can reach 3 feet wide and 4 feet high, but can grow a little taller in the right conditions. It is easy to shape and control. Blue mist can make a nice low hedge if planted close together or serve as a featured plant in a sunny area.
Blue mist does not like to sit in soggy soil, especially in cooler weather, so choose a spot with soil that drains well. We had one near our house that seemed to be getting too much water from patio runoff. When we built a dry river bed to handle drainage, we created a low berm for the caryopteris. It still gathers water from the flowing rain runoff but does not stay too wet.
Caring for Caryopteris
In the first year, water caryopteris regularly, letting it dry a little between waterings. When temperatures stay above about 90 degrees, water blue mist every two weeks if you are not getting rain. To avoid root rot, cut back on watering when nights cool and for plants getting some shade.
Other than that, all you have to do is prune this stunning purple plant once a year. I prune mine in spring as new growth begins to appear near the ground, but you can prune in early fall after the plant fades if you are worried about self-sowing. You can trim the branches down to about 12 to 15 inches from the ground for a pretty shrub effect. We also had some planted together in one area of the garden that my husband shaped so they would frame the nearby Apache plume.
If you do get volunteer plants or your caryopteris outgrows its spot in your garden, it is an easy shrub to transplant. Carefully dig deeply around your small volunteers soon after their lower leaves green up in spring. We also divided the one we put back on the berm, and both plants have retained a nice round shape.
It’s drought tolerant, a pollinator magnet and easy care. You can grow caryopteris!
Here’s a drought-tolerant, but little-known, delight for rock gardens: Persian stonecress (Aehtionema scistosum). I fell in love with this plant; here is why:
It is easy to grow Persian stonecress in zones 4 through 8, which means it can take some cold and heat. Aside from the explosion of tiny pinkish-lavender flowers in spring, this little plant smells wonderfully fragrant. Ours grows at the edge of our patio, where we can enjoy its sweet scent. Other great features of this plant are that it is waterwise, evergreen and often re-seeds, creating a low mounded groundcover in a rock or alpine garden.
Where to Plant Persian Stonecress
For the fragrance, plant Persian stonecress where you sit or walk by and can easily bend down to enjoy its fragrance. Note that once it grows to maturity, the plant will reach nearly 10 inches high and 15 inches wide. Because Persian stonecress can naturalize or multiply, it can make a pretty spring groundcover up against rock borders.
Select a spot with full sun if possible and with soil that drains well. You can plant other groundcovers of different heights and bloom color nearby and they probably will grow to form a colorful groundcover in a few years. I love the look of ours butted up against yellow daisies.
How to Care for Persian Stonecress
Water a new plant a little more than you water other xeric plants, then water little to not at all. After the plant has finished flowering in spring, you can cut back the ends of the tiny branches to make it look neat. I leave the spent blooms on for several weeks or more. You also can trim the spent blooms off in fall; just avoid cutting into the evergreen part of the stems below.
Remove dead stems if necessary in early spring. Otherwise, wait for it to bud out as one of the first spring-blooming xeric plants. And as you clean up your garden in spring, watch for new plants that might have started nearby. Their needle-like foliage and rounded shape are easy to spot.
I am not certain yet how well Persian stonecress transplants; we moved one in spring because it was about to be covered up by a new planting area we were building (it had taken root in a rock border). The plant looked dried up, but has new growth at its base, so we hope it will be healthy and blooming in its new location next spring.
Add Persian Stonecress to Your Rock Garden
Persian stonecress is not a common plant in nurseries, but High Country Gardens, which specializes in drought-tolerant plants, carries it online and will ship it as a small potted plant. This is an easy and beautiful spring bloomer for any xeric garden.
We are wrapping up a big project in our rock garden. It involved removing some lower beds and extending the raised beds out, bordered by a gabion wall. So, that meant having to dig up and transplant several favorite plants. After all, we needed to fill a lot of new planting area, and it’s always sad to lose a plant simply because of logistics.
So, Tim started digging up some plants last fall, when we began work on the new walls. He planted them in recycled nursery containers with a combination of potting mix and soil from where the plants were growing. When it became warm enough, we replanted them, helping to save a little money on filling our new beds and keeping some of our favorite plants going.
Plants That Naturalize
Many plants we grow in the Southwest re-seed (volunteers) or have spreading habits that make them easy to divide and move. Sometimes, a plant reproduces so easily, it becomes a problem. But conditions have to be just right for that, so I love this feature in a plant. After all, you can always transplant or gift one of your plants. Here are a few low-water plants we “saved” and replanted:
Salvia plants are related to mint, and some of them sprout new plants from seeds. We have a row of midnight blue salvia plants that kept producing “pups,” so we potted some up, transplanted some directly and gave some away. We’ve never purchased the plant; these all came from one that was here more than six years ago.
Likewise, we have a purple penstemon (Rocky Mountain penstemon, or Penstemon strictus) that Tim dug up from one that spread in some grounds he used to care for. We planted in at our last home and it spread a little more, so we brought a part of it here. We had to transplant it to build our new bed, and now have at least six plants from the one he dug up about eight years ago.
Blanket flower (Gaillardia) is a wonderful magnet for bees and a great xeric perennial flower. It can spread from seed; we also saved and moved a few to our new beds. They have perked up and are doing well.
Of course, iris reproduce like rabbits and they’re easy to transplant. We also moved some daylilies and split up a Kniphofia (red hot poker) to help fill our new beds. The jury still is out on when the lilies and red hot pokers will bloom, since we moved them when we had to, not necessarily at the best time for the plants.
This native plant is one of several that starts volunteer seedlings around our garden. Although some might see this as a drawback, we welcome the seedlings. If we can’t move them, we always can pull them up if in the way of another plant.
Herbal thyme is one of my favorite plants. The low-water herb does triple duty: it looks and smells great in the garden, it has delicate flowers that bees love, and it tastes great! We have let some plants spread and transplanted others.
Threadgrass is my new favorite low-water plant. It is easy to care for, and produces lots of little seedlings that are easy to spot and tell from other grasses or weeds. Just dig it up and move it to another spot.
A Few Tips for Replanting
Some of our success with volunteers certainly comes from letting plants go to seed. That can be a bad idea if they become invasive and crowd out other plants or if your front garden looks too unkempt through fall and winter. But re-seeders can feed birds in fall and give you new plants to enjoy in spring.
Remember, if you are planting or dividing a plant, even a xeric one, it will need extra water for at least a few weeks while it gets used to its new home. And it needs a little extra water and care in its first year of life.
Check your favorite local and regional books or with local independent nursery staff to find out plants that re-seed in your area without taking over.
Of course, you also can keep an eye out for plants that re-seed. Nature often puts them in the perfect place, which also gives your xeric garden a more natural look.
Finally, we are guilty of planting one of each plant we like. I’ve since seen enough gardens in which repetition of plants actually looks more natural and striking than stuffing in as many different plants as we can. So, don’t be afraid to plant three or more of the same plant!
It sounds too good to be true: an ornamental grass that loves heat and looks beautiful all year gently swaying in the wind. But threadgrass (Nasella tennuissima) fits the bill — and is waterwise. This pretty low-water plant also is called silky thread grass or Mexican feather grass.
Texture and movement can add to a garden’s design nearly as much as shape and color. Threadgrass has a delicate, windswept form that serves as an attractive backdrop to low-growing flowering plants like sedums or verbena. In summer, the grass is a nice green with feathery ends. In winter, the airy flower heads take on a golden, wheat-like appearance. Threadgrass is deer resistant, has no known diseases or pests, and is a native plant that grows in zones 5 through 10.
Plant threadgrass in spring, summer or fall. Because it likes heat, you might be able to fill in a summer bare spot with threadgrass after weather is too hot for most garden plants. If you want a swaying meadow effect, you’ll need to plant a few, and then wait for them to reseed. If you want immediate effect, plant several. Just keep in mind the plant grows to about 12 inches wide.
Your threadgrass plants should reach about 18 to 24 inches high when fully grown, sometimes higher when blooming. Plant it in full sun and in most any kind of soil. When you first plant or transplant your threadgrass, give it a little extra water, especially in high heat.
Caring for Threadgrass
Once threadgrass is established, it should need nothing but rain water to grow and set seed. The plant is a short-lived perennial and should come back several years in a row, assuming typical low temperatures for the lower zones. It also reseeds (see below), creating new plants nearby. You can leave these to eventually replace the established ones, or dig them up and transplant them to another spot in your garden. They are easy to recognize.
Each spring, as you begin pruning other plants in your garden, gently comb the grass blades with a fine rake and trim them for shape.
Caution for Some Gardeners
The fact that threadgrass replaces itself by sprouting tiny plants from seed is a bonus to me. We get just enough seedlings to move around our garden, without them being a problem. But in some areas, threadgrass can be invasive, reseeding in places where it interferes with other plants. In fact, the plant is prohibited in California because it is so invasive there and can crowd out grasses native to coastal areas. It also can crowd out pasture grasses. We have had no problems with that, however, and have only seen the plants pop up near mature ones.
Succulents, and especially cactus plants, usually prefer heat and drought. That’s one reason they make such perfect plants for desert gardens. But in the high deserts or mountains of New Mexico and other Southwestern states, many cacti only can live outdoors in the summer. Enter containers…
Why Plant Cacti in Containers?
The best reason for planting cacti in containers is the flexibility it offers. You can move the plant throughout the year (carefully) to bring it outdoors when summer nights warm and indoors as frost approaches. But you also can move your cacti around to control temperature or sun exposure. Even succulents can burn from intense sun, so it is good to keep an eye on the plants and rotate or move them depending on sun, including sun from a south- or west-facing windows.
Another reason to plant cacti in containers is to isolate watering. When planted outside, especially near drip or other watering systems, cacti can get too much water. With containers, you can control cactus watering based on season and when the plant goes dormant. If you love the look of a cactus in your desert landscape, nothing says it has to be in the ground! If the water or temperature conditions are not ideal, place your cactus outside in a colorful container. Just remember – the outdoor container should have good drainage and can cool off more at night, so don’t leave a container cactus outdoors in winter unless it is hardy to at least 10 degrees cooler than your lowest low.
Finally, most cacti are slow growers, so you don’t’ have to repot them often. Other cacti spread out of control in the garden. You’ve probably seen a xeric yard in your neighborhood with prickly pear growing like a sprawling hedge, maybe onto the sidewalk. It is easier to control cacti when in the confines of a container.
Container Cactus Mix
Planting and caring for cacti in containers is easy, but the soil mix is crucial to success. If you plant a cactus in standard container potting mix, which is designed to help retain water, your cactus roots will get soggy and rot. You can buy special cactus mixes or make your own. Ask friends or local experts for ideas. Examples include adding 1 part coarse sand and 5 parts perlite (for airflow and drainage) to 4 parts of potting mix. Vermiculite also improves aeration but holds too much water. You also can add a little bit of rock dust or pumice to your mix.
Handle your cactus carefully while transplanting. You can use an old sock or towel to wrap around the plant near the base and lift it out of the pot. Or turn the pot with the cactus on its side, resting the plant on an old pillow (that you won’t use again) to cushion the plant while you pull the container off the root ball.
Old long-handled barbecue tongs are great tools for holding a cactus while you place it in its new container; or use regular tongs for smaller plants. The eraser side of a pencil works great for gently pressing soil down around smaller cacti.
Some Favorite Container Cacti
Some of these cacti are spinier than others, so you might want to be careful where you place them. Many will flower, especially in spring or early summer. And some can tolerate pretty cold temperatures, but still would be fun winter houseplants.
Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). The golden barrel and other barrel cacti are such great landscape plants, giving a pretty round shape to landscape designs. I especially love them on hills. But they’re only hardy to 15 to 17 degrees, so we keep ours in a container.
Pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). Pencil cholla are pretty scary looking, with spines up to one inch long sticking out from tall, thin branches. They are hardy to -20 degrees and love heat, but spread easily in the yard.
Bishops cap (Astrophytum myriostigma). This is an attractive and slow-growing cactus perfect for a container, especially since it only can handle cold down to 20 degrees. I love the sort of grainy white and green look of the plant. See the second photo above. That is a bishops cap in the middle.
Hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus). It’s native to the U.S. and Engelmanns hedgehog is most common throughout the Southwest. It’s spiny, but should produce bright pink flowers more than two inches across. The plant only reaches about 10 inches in height.
Fence post (Pachycereus maginatus). This is a columnar, almost regal cactus. The columns have ridges with small spines and when planted in a row, they form an excellent wall. Columnar cacti are great choices for planting in containers of homes with high ceilings or to simply provide height behind a grouping of houseplants. They just need plenty of filtered sun.
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). It’s hard to imagine this sprawling cactus in a container, but it can be done. It will need summer heat and can survive temperatures down to 20 below freezing. So, the garden can work, but you can control ocotillo growth in a container and enjoy it as a rising backdrop to other cacti or succulents.
Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). This is by far one of my favorite cacti. But it needs to stay in temperatures above 46 degrees, despite its shaggy layer of “hair.” This is another slow grower, and often a conversation starter in a home!
Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia canacapa). For the look of a gorgeous green and juicy cactus pad and no spines, go with this pretty plant. It still will grow new pads, but you can cut them off or plant them elsewhere. Both regular and hardy prickly pears can survive temperatures down to zero.
I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.
First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.
Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.
This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.
Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.
Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.
Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.
A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.
Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.
Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.
Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.
In this dry year, I feel like our plants are under a triple threat from drought, strong winds and unusual heat for this early in summer. I’ve decided the drought and lack of plant growth on our land and the forest near us has caused insects and larger critters to eat more (and different) plants than usual because they’re hungry or thirsty.
At any rate, we’re spending way more time watering, covering or doing damage control than we’ve ever had to do in previous years. Here are a few plant attackers and some ideas for fighting them:
Drought. The first protection is to choose native drought-tolerant plants. A few of ours, namely the santolinas and Datura (jimson weed) have thrived despite no supplemental watering. For the first time in five years, we’re having to water other plants in our rock garden typically immune to short periods of drought. And the rain barrel is running low.
As with ornamental plants, water edibles like tomatoes early in the day and in consistent amounts. They shouldn’t remain wet, but a little moisture in the soil helps them fight dry, windy and hot conditions. Mulching around as many plants as you can (save a few that don’t like wet roots, such as lavender and rosemary) can help them stay damp longer. Finally, remember plants recently moved or planted after purchasing from a nursery need extra water during dry, hot conditions their first year or so.
Heat. Mulching also cools the ground above a plant’s roots, helping the plant get through blazing heat. Sometimes watering is all you can do to protect a plant in record heat. But if the plant is in a container, scoot it into an area that’s slightly shadier or has shade during the time of day when your heat typically peaks. We have been covering our tomato plants with shade cloth this year soon after temperatures soar above 90 degrees. In the past, we’ve had problems with blossoms and fruit set when temperatures soared. Prevention also helps for heat. It’s wise to plant as close as possible to the recommended date for your area. This year, we were traveling and planted later than normal, so our plants had less time to toughen up before heat struck and we paid for that.
Insects. Some plants are just more susceptible to insects than others. And when it’s this hot and dry, all plants are more vulnerable to bugs and the diseases they can transmit. Keeping an eye on your plants, even with a stroll through your yard or garden after dinner, can help you spot problems. Keeping plants watered and free of as much stress as possible also helps.
Others, like basil, are favorites of lots of insects. Since the leaves the insects attack are the part of the plant we eat, I keep my basil covered with a light row cover cloth that lets in air, sunlight and some water, but keeps out as many leaf eaters as possible.
Other critters. The tender leaves and ground-level placement of seedlings are also more vulnerable to attack. I’ve seen the leaves of new cucumbers or flowers decimated by grasshoppers and more often, by snails. The slimy acrobats even climb up into containers and eat plants as soon as they come up. We use egg shells as the best deterrent we can find, but there also are snail baits for bad infestations.
Below-ground fencing can deter gophers and other underground tunnelers, but that requires fencing a few feet underground around all plants. We reserve that fun task for our vegetable garden only. Then, despite those efforts, a squirrel has come through the fence and made giant holes in our garden. He has not damaged any plants yet, but I have a feeling it’s coming. We have had some luck spraying Animal Stopper small animal repellent around some plants to deter squirrels.
Our deer are grazing much longer into summer this year and have destroyed all the bloom stalks on our native and hybrid roses. You have to be pretty desperate to eat something that thorny on a regular basis. We’ve had some luck with Animal Stopper deer spray, but the only way to ensure deer stay off plants is to fence them out.
Look to your neighbors, master gardeners and landscapers for more local strategies to help you keep plants alive during rough patches. And practice patience.
When water is as scarce as it always seems to be in New Mexico, especially this year, I appreciate all of the native and drought-tolerant plants that hang in there until rains finally arrive. After all, it’s the smart and right thing to do here in the Southwest: grow plants that need little to no watering from our wells and taps.
And we follow those principles, doing what we can to save water. Still, I love some plants too much to give them up completely, and I imagine that’s true of many people who move to our dry state. I would hate for any gardener to feel badly for having a few guilty pleasures from the plant world. Here are some strategies for finding the middle ground between gardening sustainably and growing plants you love.
Plant high-water users only as occasional fillers and in moderation. By high-water plant, I mean not xeric, or needing some supplemental watering. If a plant doesn’t meet the soil, sun exposure and watering requirements, you’re unlikely to have much success and will have to resort to photographs from botanical gardens!
Fill in color with a few annuals. I fill a few patio containers each year with an annual or two or pop a few annuals between xeric plants that flower for only part of the season.
Grow a few houseplants you love. Geraniums are a favorite of mine, and I don’t have to give them much water in the winter while they survive inside near a sunny window. My new guilty pleasure is violets, although they stay inside all year. Growing orchids, violets and other houseplants more suited to tropical climates can be a guilty pleasure without adding much to water usage. Of course, that’s assuming you stick to a few plants only … if you can.
Create conditions that help the plant survive with less water. Use mulch, shading or other exposure strategies and careful timing with monsoon rain to help a nonxeric plant make it through hot, dry periods. And accept that your plant might not bloom as much as it would in a wetter climate by enjoying the blooms you get.
Choose plants you love that are useful to “waste” less water. If you’re growing food for your family (and not wasting lots of harvest), you’re replacing some of the water that might have been used to grow the same food on a large farm, and doing so locally. Plus, the benefits outweigh a little bump in water use and cost. Or grow some cut flowers you love instead of buying them in a store for your home or family and friends. Finally, some flowering plants that require a little more water provide food for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Although natives are better, adding a few flowering plants not native to your area can help pollinators.
And finally — use rain barrels to water your lovelies during dry weeks.