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.

 

10 Gardening Terms Explained

New to gardening? Or just not a horticulturist, botanist or even a master gardener? Then you likely get confused by some of the terms you see on plant tags, in nursery catalogs and even in blogs like this one. You’ll enjoy gardening much more if you can weed through the jargon (and the puns). Here are 10 terms explained in plain language to get you started:

xeriscaping defined
Xeriscaping is a misunderstood (and mispronounced) term. And it’s not just about growing cacti in gravel!

10. Xeriscaping. This one’s my favorite, of course. And as I’ve said before, it’s xeriscaping, from xeros, the Greek word for dry … not ZEROscaping. In other words, it’s planning a lawn and garden that uses the least possible water. In most cases, this means using drought-tolerant plants (see no. 1), but xeriscaping also involves using native plants adapted to your climate and conditions, along with lots of other strategies for landscape design and plant choice.

xeric plants agastache
Xeric perennials come back year after year with very little effort or water.

9. Perennial. The word means long lasting, and that’s pretty much true of perennial plants as well. A perennial grows in your yard for more than two years, often for much longer before it needs replacing. Remember that perennial varies based on where you live. For example, the well-known geranium can be a perennial in a warm climate, but I have to bring mine inside for winter. And don’t freak out if a perennial plant disappears or looks dead after frost. You’ll likely see new growth on it come spring. Planting mostly perennials in your garden usually leads to less work and less watering.

geranium container
Geraniums can’t survive our winters. But unlike most annuals, we can keep them alive all year, and often blooming, in a sunny window. I just sprayed this one off in preparation for the move back inside.

8. Biennial. A biennial plant lives for two years, or two growing seasons. Seeds start the plant’s root, stem and leaf growth in the first year, but the plant doesn’t produce flowers, fruit or seeds until the second year. After that, the plant typically dies, but can spread seeds before dying back. An example of a biennial is the foxglove (Digitalis). Another is one of my favorites, the columbine (Aquilegia), which might flower the first year, or might put all of its energy into leaf and stem growth, and then flower the following year. Some forms of poppy (Papaver) also are biennials. And unfortunately, some weeds also are biennials. They take on a tiny round leaf form, survive the winter that way and then flower and spread seeds, lots of seeds, the next year.

columbine flower
Columbines are considered biennial flowers, but they usually re-seed in the same area of the yard, garden or forest!

7. Annual. An annual lives only one year, or for one growing season. Still, some annuals re-seed, so if you’re willing to let Mother Nature design your garden layout, you can let annual flowers dry up and produce seeds. Annuals are great for small containers and adding color to a garden or patio each year. But they usually require more time, money and even water in the long run than perennial plants.

zinnias
It’s easy and inexpensive to grow annual zinnias from seed.

6. Native. A native plant was likely in your town before you moved in. These plants grow naturally in specific regions or conditions. They should not become invasive if they’re planted in their native region. The real benefit of native plants (aside from their beauty in the garden, forest or along roads) is that they’ve done most of the work already. They know how to survive weeks with no water or really high spring winds. Selecting native plants is one of the most effective xeriscaping strategies.

California poppy
Many poppies are native to New Mexico and thrive in our dry, sunny conditions.

5. Specimen plant. Lots of catalogs refer to a bush or flower as a “specimen plant.” This has nothing to do with strange botany experiments. All it means is that the plant can stand on its own as a focal point in a garden or landscape design. For example, petunias or begonias look much better in mass plantings, which means groups of the same or similar flowers for a dramatic look. Mass plantings might become hedges or adorn the entry to your local mall. Landscapers might plant a row of 100 marigolds and a row of 200 petunias for striking color. On the other hand, a specimen plant shines all by itself.

boxwood
This boxwood is a specimen plant near our front entry, while the ajuga that line the shaded beds are more of a mass planting.
boxwood hedge
While visiting Atlanta-area gardens, I noticed lots of boxwoods planted in mass as hedges.

4. Invasive. Typically, an invasive plant is a nuisance at the least. It can choke out other plants and grasses, climb around and choke bushes or simply compete for precious water. Invasive plants grow easily and rapidly, usually because they are not native to the area. Just remember that these terms are all relative. A plant native to a particular part of the country might be considered invasive after being introduced to a different region. When a plant becomes invasive, it probably crosses that very thin line between wildflower and weed. One of the most troubling weeds we encounter is field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis), which is considered invasive in all of the lower 48 states, Hawaii and Canada. Maybe on the moon…

field bindweed root
Field bindweed stem and root, with my foot for scale. The roots usually break off so the plant can grow right back — in nearly any condition, including through concrete.

3. Deciduous. If a tree or shed is deciduous, that simply means it loses its leaves in fall and winter. The opposite would be evergreen, trees that keep their leaves all winter. Deciduous plants shed their leaves as a protection against upcoming cold. Many turn rich, deep shades of gold and bronze before falling, which gives the yard and garden color as summer flowers fade.

fall vine
Deciduous trees, shrubs and vines provide the stunning fall colors that mark the season.

2. Pollinator. You might see list articles on blogs and social media mentioning “pollinator plants.” This means that the plant attracts bees and other insects that help promote flower and fruit production. The insects disturb and transfer tiny grains of pollen in flowers. Without bees, most fruit trees and many vegetables would produce little to no fruit. Many native plants, herbs and vegetables attract bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects to the garden. They’re essential plants to help maintain honey bee populations, which have been declining. Here’s a list of New Mexico pollinator plants. Many gardening books and catalogs place a tiny icon of a butterfly or bee in descriptions to let you know they attract pollinators.

verbena wild
This swallowtail was enjoying our verbena today; the verbena comes up on its own.

And No. 1: Drought tolerant. Back to an important xeriscaping principle. Plants that are drought tolerant can go longer periods of time without water; it means basically the same as xeric, but is a little more direct. Plants with drought tolerance and resistance have characteristics that help them survive in these conditions. And all it usually takes is a little bit of rain to make them thrive, green and flower. Just remember – if you purchase drought tolerant plants, be sure to water them regularly for the first few weeks or months and up to the first year, depending on the plant and its size. The water keeps the plant alive through the shock of transplant and helps the roots get established.

bee buzzing on lavender stalk
Lavender, a drought-tolerant perennial herb that’s also a pollinator plant.

 

Xeric Plants: Too Much Rain?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keeping Xeric Plants Alive During High Rain Periods

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mix Up Your Garden Palette

Our low-water garden has lots of yellow. Maybe that’s true everywhere. And it’s a bright, happy color. But we like a little more variety, and it’s easy to add pops of color a little at a time, or with annual plants. Here are a few tips for finding plants of many colors.

yellow blooms
Yellow flowers like the ones on this chocolate flower plant (Berlandiera lyrata) are gorgeous, but I like to mix it up.
color mix in garden
When the butterfly bush blooms, we’ll have deep purple, red, and yellow. I’m adding a few low annuals to the front corner, which is closest to the patio.

Find flowers by color

Although you’re used to a favorite flower blooming in a particular color, there likely are hybrids with colors you hadn’t considered. For example, we think of sunflowers as bright yellow, but I love the cinnamon varieties. I’ve got some seeds in again, in the hopes that bugs and deer leave them alone.

larkspur pink lilac
Larkspur grow wild in our garden, and although most are a deep violet, we also have lilac, white and pink flowers.

One way to find flowers in complementary colors is by using apps and online databases. For example, the LadyBird Johnson Wildflowercenter’s database includes bloom color, along with native states and sun and moisture requirements in its combination search. For a simpler search, try a list like the one maintained by ProFlowers, which lists flowers by color next to illustrations and a brief description. Just beware that national lists of flowers often include varieties that do poorly in some zones or soils or need more water than those in a xeric garden. Be sure to read the descriptions or do a little research before making your final decision. You can also try apps that either have pictures shared by posters or plant identification. If you can find a local or regional app, even better.

White and red roses offer pretty contrast at the Hondo Iris Farm. If the plant isn't marked, just ask.
White and red roses offer pretty contrast at the Hondo Iris Farm. If the plant isn’t marked, just ask.

Wander around a nursery

If you feel a national list might isn’t giving you enough choices for your area, visit a locally owned nursery. Although they’ll carry some annual varieties that aren’t perfect for the community’s climate, they also carry plenty of knowledge and tend to feature plants that are native or adapted to local growing. If you do find a few annuals either at a local or chain nursery, limiting the number to a few pots or a corner of a bed uses less water, time and money than basing your garden color plan on annuals. Most nurseries separate perennials and annuals to help shoppers.

plants from local nursery
Bringing home the plants from our local nursery. I got a few annuals to add more red, white and black to our garden. And sometimes, the foliage adds lots of color, like with my new barberry.

Make notes as you pass homes and businesses

If you’re walking to a restaurant in town one night and spot a flower with a color you love or know would add variety to your garden, take a photo of the plant and a close-up of the flower. This will help you compare what you saw (and photos work much better than memory) with identification apps, databases and local gardening books. Including the entire plant in the photo helps you remember the type of foliage, height and spread of the flowering ornamental.

Flax and pine leaf penstemon color complement one another. A photo of the penstemon's leaves helps identify it.
Flax and pine leaf penstemon bloom colors complement one another. A photo of the penstemon’s leaves helps identify it.

Color really is a matter of personal choice, and with the recent National Pollinator Week in mind, I try to choose a few new plants for their ability to attract bees, butterflies or birds. For example, studies have shown that bees gather more nectar from purple or violet flowers than from any other color.

Bees love the purple flowers on the herb sage.
Bees love the purple flowers on the herb sage.

Keep it simple and choose what you like, but remember not all plants bloom at the same time, so your color variety might be seasonal or in stages. That’s great too though, so you and the pollinators can enjoy some new blooms every few weeks.

Bees really go nuts in cactus blooms.
It looks like the bee on the upper right dove head-first into this prickly pear bloom.

10 Tips to Help Plants Survive Summer Heat

Even waterwise plants get stressed when exposed to high heat, dry air and wind. Many Southwestern plants can survive hot temperatures because they’re native to the low desert. But in some areas such as the mountains and high deserts, native plants are a little more winter hardy and a little less heat tolerant.

chocolate flower blooms
Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) blooms are perkiest in early morning but tend to wilt late in the day. No need to water or worry.

Even in the hottest Southwest and West climates, plants can need extra attention when temperatures soar. Here are 10 tips for helping plants survive the heat of summer.

Tip No. 1. Use drip irrigation.

You save water because it can’t evaporate as rapidly as it can if in the air, and the water seeps slowly down to the roots of a plant. This helps cool roots as well as hydrate them.

drip irrigation and straw on cucumber seedling
Drip irrigation is the only way to go for water savings and for keeping plants hydrated on hot days.

Tip No. 2. Use mulch.

Something as simple as straw spread out on the dirt helps keep air from rapidly evaporating water, but still allows oxygen to reach soil and roots. Piling the straw or other organic mulch two to three inches high helps even more.

straw mulch container tomato
Happy new tomato fruit with straw mulch in a container.

Tip No. 3. Try to get your plants established before summer heat ramps up.

Even heat-loving plants can wilt when temperatures soar. Still, recognize that wilting from sun can be temporary. The bigger the plant’s leaves, the more quickly the plant transpirates, which is the process of water evaporation through leaves. That’s why many succulents and xeric plants have small foliage. So don’t panic, but don’t completely discount it. Increase drip time on hot and windy days.

Tip No. 4. Water in the morning if at all possible.

This is a great water-saving strategy and helps prevent heat stress to plants. If the roots already have access to water, they can begin sending the water up through stems and leaves to keep the plant nourished. For most plants, regular, but spaced, deep watering always beats out frequent light watering (which leaves moisture close to the surface and can restrict root growth).

Tip No. 5. Check on your plants.

If you can’t check them during the day, do so as soon as you get home. It’s OK to water plants lightly in late afternoon to help cool them down.

xeric garden summer heat
Walking around your garden helps you spot heat stress and pest damage.

Tip No. 6. Use one plant as a benchmark.

For example, zucchini leaves are large, and if they’re wilting, you can prevent heat or drought damage to other plants nearby with a cool drink of water or some shade.

Tip No. 7. Shade plants.

New or damaged plants might need temporary shade to build up resistance to heat. Direct sun can burn leaves just like it can burn your skin. So make sure even an established plant is in the right location for sun and summer exposure and if not, try temporary shade.

cloth shade for plants.
It’s not pretty, but it’s clever. Tim built this removable shade out of landscape fabric, PVC and conduit.

Tip No. 8. Use containers.

Containers offer you the most opportunity to shade plants on hot days. Although soil in containers warms faster, containers also can cool more quickly. Most of all, it’s easy to move all but the largest into shade temporarily. You can mulch the top of the soil in a container, too.

containers on patio
Got containers? If you see a plant might be getting too hot, move it into afternoon shade. The white bucket in one container helped shade a new cherry tomato from sun and wind.

Tip No. 9. Avoid fertilizing plants during the heat of the day.

Plants should be perky and healthy before soaking up fertilizer. And the fertilizer needs to mix with plenty of water. It’s best to do this task before mid-day heat kicks in.

Tip No. 10. Control weeds.

Ha, there’s an impossible goal around here. And I know there are people who embrace weeds. I tolerate them only because I can’t keep up. But we’re really vigilant about keeping weeds off of or out from under plants. That’s especially true in the vegetable garden. Mulching can help control weeds.

field bindweed
Bindweed wraps around the base and stems of plants, weakening them. All weeds compete with garden plants for water.

Bonus tip.

Finally, if you keep potted plants, including cacti, inside during the winter, you need to protect them as they adapt to being outside. That’s true even for sun lovers. Harden the plant off if you can. If the plant is too heavy to bring in and out all day (or you have 30 of them, like we do), at least start it outside on a cooler, cloudier day.

Cacti under shade cloth
Succulents under the shade cloth. Yes, even some cacti can get too much sun. Containers allow these to survive winter inside and summer out in the heat.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Gaura

Some call it a butterfly plant. That’s because gaura has delicate, swirly flowers at the ends of long stalks that resemble butterflies. In fact, one variety of gaura (G. lindheimeri) is called ‘Whirling Butterflies.’ It has white flowers; ‘Siskiyou Pink’ blooms have an earthy pink tone. And in 2014, Gaura ‘Sparkle White’ was an All-America Selections National Winner.

Eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder they bring butterflies to mind.
Typically, eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder gauras bring butterflies to mind.

We’re fortunate enough to have wild or native gauras (G. coccinea) in our garden. They appear on their own in late spring and bloom as temperatures warm. They’re a little more like a weed, partly because of the places they tend to appear, and partly because they have a higher foliage-to-flower ratio. Still, I’ll take them, and so will the bees!

Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!
Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!

Drought tolerant gaura

Native gauras appear along roadsides and other dry areas. Many of ours come up through rocks in the garden wall. You don’t have to read a plant tag to know that a plant growing robustly in rocks needs little to no water. We’ve had some trouble with gaura from nurseries, and I believe the reason is that the soil we chose was compacted and holding too much water. Still, if you plant a new gaura, it will need watering until healthy and established. A drip system can give the plant a slow drink.

This flower is from a volunteer gaura.
This flower is from a volunteer gaura.

Easy care

Once you’ve chosen a sandy or loamy soil for your plant, place it where it can get full sun. By the second year, you won’t have to water except maybe once in spring or in severe drought. I really love to place the white flowers where I can see them from a window or patio. It’s also a great plant for breezy areas, holding up to wind, which causes the flowers to “dance.” Most gauras reach about 2.5 to 3 feet tall; the native  varieties are a little shorter.

gaura against rocks
Gauras look terrific in rock gardens and natural designs.

Cut G. lindheimeri back in early spring about halfway down the foliage to keep it bushy, full and not too leggy. I let the native gauras go to seed so they pop up again the next year. You can try the same with nursery varieties; the plant might self-sow if seedheads remain in autumn. The only pests that bother gauras are flea beetles and gardeners who overwater them, especially if the plants are in heavy soil.

Versatile plant

Gauras are hardy in zones 5 through 8. In colder zones, the plant can be damaged if wet when temperatures dip to more than -15 Fahrenheit. Gaura is considered a perennial in those zones, but tends not to last as long as some hardy perennials.

gaura and gaillardia
These volunteer, or native, gauras popped up with volunteer gaillardias. I love the combination.

The gaura can fit into nearly any landscape design. Even before blooming, its slightly mottled leaves provide garden interest. I love to see it against a slightly taller plant with larger, bolder flowers (which also can support the gaura stems as the plant matures). Gaura also is perfect near steps, garden paths and walls. Although gaura fits perfectly in a natural xeric design, its delicate flowers can work in a cottage garden plan, provided it’s not overwatered or has really good drainage. Native gaura foliage and shape is not as stunning, but nonetheless a fun re-seeder in a naturalized xeric garden.

 

 

Purslane and Portulaca

I’ve grown to accept that some invasive plants (aka: weeds) are not so bad. I’m still on the fence with purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a prostrate spreading succulent that can take over entire flower beds.

portulaca flower
Ornamental portulaca from the same family as purslane. Note the ornamental’s thinner, needle-like leaves.

Weed or edible?

Purslane can grow in pavement, between rocks, and in moist conditions. It spreads from seed or from pieces of stems. And a purslane can have more than 50,000 seeds per plant. It re-roots after being hoed. That’s a weed, right? Still, many value purslane because it is edible. But in my mind, if the plant interferes with the objectives in managing a lawn or garden, it’s a weed. And since mats of purslane suck moisture and nutrients from soil and even shade soil from sun as they spread, they’re pretty much weeds in my book. That’s especially true in a vegetable garden, where I don’t want a weed competing for precious water.

purslane weed
Purslane taking over a rock garden. It’s best to pull it up before it gets this big, whether you eat it or throw it out.

Purslane was grown in India originally and provided nutrition and reported health benefits. Those who eat purslane have described its taste as lemony or similar to spinach. And the plant tastes best if “harvested” while its fleshy leaves still are young. So one way to eradicate common purslane where you don’t like it is to follow the philosophy “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”

You can spot common purslane as a small seedling with reddish-tinged leaves that form flat against the ground and spread out like spokes in a wheel. Pull it up before it sets seed to avoid having an entire bed full of the weed the next year. Not sure a weed is purslane? Check out these photos of seedlings and other stages of purslane from Missouri State University.

Ornamental value

Even common purslane can be pretty. The fleshy leaves contrast nicely with tiny, usually orange, flowers. And I bought one years ago before I knew better. I paid for that, because the plant came back with a vengeance, choking out other plants in a tiny rock garden. So if you choose to actually plant purslane as an edible, just beware that you’re introducing the seeds to your landscape.

heat loving drought tolerant portulaca
Portulaca is a great container plant. Use one color or mix many. The plant spreads and cascades slightly over the edge.

A better alternative is an ornamental portulaca such as P. grandiflora. You can tell an ornamental portulaca from a purslane by its leaves. Ornamental portulaca, often called moss rose, has more needle-like leaves than purslane foliage. The flowers also are showier, often looking either like a cactus bloom or a tiny carnation or rose. The best part? They love sun and heat, are highly drought tolerant, and will spread in warm climates to make an interesting groundcover. They’re also a perfect container plant, especially if you buy a mix of colors, which warm-climate nurseries usually carry. Both purslane and portulaca bloom in the morning after the sun has been up a few hours, and close later in the day.

Portulaca just planted in the ground. I hope they will cascade over these rocks and pavers and re-seed next year.
Portulaca just planted in the ground. I hope they will cascade over these rocks and pavers and re-seed next year.

Caring for portulacas

Portulaca is an annual, but can re-seed. Although not nearly as invasive as its purslane relative, an ornamental portulaca often pops up somewhere in the landscape. But to me, it’s a happy surprise. The easy-care, drought tolerant annual is welcome in our garden any time temperatures begin to warm up in early summer.

portulaca in hanging baskets
Portulaca actually do better with sun and heat, but who would have thought it would be 40 degrees F in mid-May? I can’t wait for these containers at the back of our garden to fill in.

Portulaca will keep blooming and spreading into fall, provided you do one thing: pinch off spent blooms. If you let most of the faded blooms remain on the stem, the plant can become leggy, plus it won’t bloom as often. The equivalent of deadheading this annual is so simple; just pinch the blooms off into your hand after they have closed up and begun to look withered. If the flower resists, wait a day. You’ll soon recognize the difference between a bud and a spent bloom.

portulaca and cactus
This portulaca re-seeded in some soil we repurposed for one of Tim’s cacti. It just goes to show how little water they need! You can see the bloom stages really well in this photo. A tiny dried-up flower peeks from behind the bloom; it’s ready to pinch off! Two new buds are a little lower on either side of the stem. And a faded bloom, nearly ready to pinch, lies at the lower right.

And if you want to pinch your portulaca while eating a salad with purslane leaves, that’s up to you. Just be armed with new recipes to cook up all of your purslane in years that follow.

Pruning Xeric Plants

The best part of early spring is watching growth appear on plants that have been dormant all winter. And since we can’t plant vegetables until after the last frost, I need something to do in the garden on nice spring days. We had two of those this weekend, and we got busy pruning our xeric garden and front beds.

lavender-redbud-new-mexico
Pruning woody lavender requires only some shaping and removal of stalks as or after they bloom.

Pruning can be scary for new or hesitant gardeners. I’ve often hated to cut off any of the new spring growth that’s already begun. But I have to remind myself that cutting a plant back saves water. Here’s why: The plant’s roots can only provide so much water and nutrients. If gardeners leave too many branches above ground, the roots struggle to feed every branch, leaf or flower all the way to the end of the plant. It’s like filling a bowl of cereal with milk. The more cereal in the bowl, the more milk is necessary to coat or soak the cereal (sorry, but I love food analogies).

butterfly-bush-pruned-to-ground
This butterfly bush looks like mostly sticks right now, but it’s loaded with new growth at the bottom.

I’m still having to remind myself that by cutting a plant further down, I actually help it grow more vigorously than if I merely trim it a little bit. The mature plant regrows to a size that matches its established root system. We cut several plants nearly to the ground, including Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia). I have yet to kill a plant from vigorous pruning. A few times (like with forsythia), I pruned at the wrong time and it affected shape or flowering. But you can always correct shape and learn from your mistakes.

butterfly bush in summer after heaving pruning
Here’s last year’s butterfly bush (to the right and center) after a similar prune last year. It shoots up to six to eight feet tall.

Around here, Tim typically trims the trees and I handle shrubs. I start with roses as soon as any new growth appears, and your local master gardeners most likely recommend a window of time that’s best for roses and other common plants in your area.

Here are a few pruning tips for plants that grow in the arid high desert and intermountain regions:

  • In early spring, prune plants that flower in summer. Those that bloom in spring (like forsythia, clematis, flowering quince and dogwood) do best if pruned after they flower. They form buds in the fall, and spring pruning removes the flowers. The same goes for spring-flowering bulbs, such as iris, although they shouldn’t be pruned immediately, but when stalks and leaves begin fading or turning brown. In this case, the plant above ground gives energy back to the bulb underground.
forsythia blooms
Our forsythias are loaded with spring blooms; I pruned them last summer.
  • Nearly all trees should be trimmed in winter, while dormant.
  • Some gardeners prefer to prune in fall for a more manicured look during winter. We don’t do that for a few reasons. One is that a late warm period can cause the plants to grow again, and they need to begin storing energy for winter; a heavy late pruning can make the plant more vulnerable to cold. The other reason is that birds feed on the flower heads all fall and winter. And the spent blooms and stalks look fine in a natural, xeric design.
yarrow blooms
The bright yellow blooms of yarrow in summer.
  • Many plants only need to have their dead stalks removed. For example, yarrow and Angelita daisies have stalks that rise above the foliage. You can use trimmers or sharp shears to remove spent stalks.
yarrow after winter xeric
Here’s what the yarrow looked like a few days ago. It was ready to lose the dried flower stalks.
pruning yarrow
The pruned yarrow is now ready to put energy toward developing new flower stalks.
  • It’s best to avoid cutting into the woody, feeder branches of plants such as lavender and rosemary. Trim them for shaping only, and harvest ends of rosemary or cut lavender flower stalks for drying and other uses.
  • The more center and crossing canes or branches you can remove, the better. If you have a native rose that is seriously overgrown or pruned poorly, consider cutting it to the ground once, just to reinvigorate the plant and let it return to a more natural shape. It might take a year or two to get the plant into the shape you like.
yellow
I’m gradually cleaning up this native rose. Last year, it bloomed so pretty in mid-April. This year, I pruned it more severely, but it’s taking on new growth.
  • Some plants do better with a second cutting right after they bloom so you can enjoy another summer show of color. An example is catmint (Nepeta). Shearing off about one-third of the plant at the top gives it energy to regrow flowers. Of course, many annuals, such as California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) or blanket flowers (Gaillardia) bloom best if you deadhead them, or remove spent blooms, throughout the summer.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it's so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path's rock border.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it’s so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path’s rock border.
  • We usually give our xeric plants a good soaking right after trimming them to help them through the shock and stimulate growth. But that’s the only time we water almost all of our established xeric plants.
dogwood and catmint
Best of both seasons. The dogwood still has its winter red, but plants like catmint are blooming.

If you’d like to learn more, including where to cut shrubs for optimal growth, check out this publication from the University of Georgia extension office.