The woody Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) “Blue Spire” is a perfect xeric plant, especially for the gardener who wants a easy but showy low-water ornamental. This is one of my favorites! First of all, even though the Russian sage has a pleasant, sage-like scent, deer leave the plant alone. Its spikes of lavender-like flowers bloom all summer with little to no water once your plant has been established. Here’s all you need to do:
Plant Russian sage in a spot where it can grow to three to five feet tall and wide, and give it well-draining soil and full sun. It looks great near yellows like Spanish broom or black-eyed Susans, or a red, such as wine cups or cherry sage. It’s also a great plant to pair with grasses and cacti in rock gardens for a pop of color.
Leave the stalks through winter, which still have an attractive shrub shape. In spring, just as you see some leaves begin to form on the lower branches, cut all of the branches back nearly to the ground. You’ll be rewarded with new, showy stalks. Bees love this plant, as do butterflies, hummingbirds, and many bird species as it seeds out.
As the Russian sage matures, you can trim it for shape and may have to cut out a few dead or crossing branches. But it looks best when full and round.
The Russian sage can put out runners (rhizomes), so keep an eye on them. I had a Russian sage at my Albuquerque home that bloomed every year for 11 years, and was there when we moved in. So it’s a long-lived perennial in the right spot, and should thrive in all zones, as long as it doesn’t get too much water!
If you’re planning a xeric garden for spring, and especially if you’re planning to take out a grass lawn and replace it with gravel and xeric plants, try planning your garden in recommended water zones.
First, let me jump on my gravel soap box. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it every chance I get: Ripping out grass and replacing it all with gravel represents many homeowners’ idea of xeric gardening. They soon find out that it’s not the best solution when a tree left in the middle of a gravel lawn dies and their home cooling bill skyrockets.
So let’s consider zones instead.
You’ll want your most arid zone farthest from your house. Choose native plants that need the least amount of water, hopefully no supplemental watering at all. Here in New Mexico, that might include cacti, yuccas and many varieties of native flowering plants like Kniphofia uvaria (Red hot poker) or Berlandiera lyrata (Chocolate flower). It all depends on your landscape and personal preference.
Transition or Middle Zone
Your next zone can blend some lush, medium water areas with drier ones. Here’ you’ll use plants that take low and medium water. They only need water beyond nature’s supply about once a week or less. It’s a great spot for medium-water shrubs and trees, such as Spartium Junceum (Spanish broom) and various native oaks to provide summer shade, but let winter sun shine through.
If you want to keep some grass, here’s your chance. Drought-tolerant grasses like Bermuda, Blue Grama, or Buffalograss need little watering but keep your lawn green and other plant roots cool. When used in moderation, and not to cover huge areas, they’re still low- to medium-water choices for this zone. Add some annual flowers in beds or containers up close to the house. By placing lusher plants and turf that need a little more water closer to your home, you help cool your house and take advantage of water runoff from the roof and downspouts.
Of course, the drawing simplifies the concept. Landscapers who understand xeriscaping concepts know how to make your zones appealing and customized for your tastes and gardening ability. And by using microclimates, mulching, welling and other waterwise concepts we’ve discussed in other posts, you can push the limits in some of the zones. The basic concepts are to keep from overusing water and avoiding undermining the health of existing trees, along with the comfort and appearance of your home.
They’re the ultimate in low-water gardening. Succulents store water and grow slowly, making them adaptable to the dry climate of the desert Southwest.
Cacti are succulents that usually are small and round and have spines, branches or leaves. Succulents also can have the same characteristics, but the spines don’t arise from a spine cushion, or areole. You’ll only find cacti in the Western hemisphere. The picture that so often comes to mind is the saguaro surrounded by blowing dust in the dry, hot desert.
And that’s often where you find cacti, especially here in New Mexico and neighboring Arizona. My husband loves succulents and we enjoyed a trip a few years ago to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, where we saw so many varieties, most of which couldn’t take the cooler temperatures we have at our higher altitude.
But who says you can’t have succulents at 6,000 feet of elevation? Several natural varieties of succulents thrive in the high desert. Hens and chicks, ice plants, several varieties of agave, and several native plants come to mind, such as prickly pear and devil’s head (also known as horse cripplers).
And you can have all kinds of fun inside your house, assuming you’ve got a good south-facing window, sunroom or greenhouse to winter over potted succulents. I think I mentioned how much my husband loves them? I have a geranium on this wall; the rest of the plants are succulents. He’s even propagating some new ones. We need a greenhouse soon!
In case you think succulents are boring, think again. Aside from the many shapes and growth patterns, many of them flower. I’ll try to get some good photos of the devil’s head flowers, but for now, enjoy the delicate blooms on this crown of thorns (Euphorbia milii), which blooms all year long in a sunny location. It started out as a tiny plant from a big-box store and now is about two feet tall (after a nice trim to keep it bushy). There are a few propagating on that trombeil wall, too!
I want to take a serious turn today. I saw an article on a news site a few weeks ago about a real water crisis and it gave me pause.
On this blog, I write about how you can have a beautiful garden by using less water. I do it mostly because I have to; we’re still in a serious drought in the Southwest and our property is on a well, so it’s not like we can access an unlimited supply. I also believe it’s the right thing to do. But my little efforts and musings are nothing, and I mean nothing at all, compared to the crisis faced by people around the world.
The article on CNN by Ian McKenna described the work Matt Damon does with Water.org, an organization he co-founded with Gary White in 2009. According to Damon, the nonprofit organization helps provide affordable access not only to safe water, but to sanitation, through projects like microfinance loans. It seems there’s a black market for water in some areas. And I fret when my rain barrel fills and I miss some. I just don’t have a real problem. I don’t have to walk very far to collect water from my faucets; it comes into several rooms in my home. We even have a few faucets outside. What would it be like to spend three hours a day just collecting water for your family? Or to have no sanitation in your local village?
Gardening, well, that would be the last thing on your mind. But so this doesn’t end on a downer, the CNN article talked about one small success from a microfinanced loan, and how an African woman was paying 40 rupees a day for her family’s access to a public toilet. With a loan she was able to connect to a utility and add a faucet and toilet in her home. The 40 rupees a month went to paying off the loan, which took two years. She now saves that money each month and has access to water and sanitation in her home.
Our rock garden has a few native roses. We decided to try harvesting some rose hips this fall to see what we could do with them. The rose hip is the fruit left behind after a rose has faded, and one of these bushes was perfect for harvesting the fruit. We could tell because several critters had already been around the bush doing the same.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of the bush in bloom, and it was a little unruly when we moved in, having not been pruned the previous year while the place was on the market. I gave it a little haircut, but didn’t want to do too much too late in the season. It will get a deeper prune this year!
Rose hips pack a punch of vitamin C, so we didn’t want them to go to waste. We read up on when to harvest (about a week after the first frost) and waited until a nice day. It ended up taking us a few nice days, a few buckets and a step stool. We never got them all, but as you’ll see later, we have more than we could ever use.
First up, jelly. Because it’s sweet, that’s why. We had to pick through and clean off the hips. We found a recipe online and after some trial and error, managed to get enough good liquid out of our boiled hips. They were so pretty and smelled really good while boiling.
The good news is that the jelly set and we like the taste. We’ve given a few jars away and kept the rest for us. It’s a little tart, but otherwise good. And I love the color. Somehow, I feel less guilty eating buttered toast when I spread the rose hip jelly on it.
The next attempt was tea. I thought the tea would be a healthy, caffeine-free drink for winter afternoons and evenings. I have not had as much luck with the tea, however. Most recipes say to boil berries for 15 minutes and then crush, steep and strain the contents. Or, you can crush the berries in a food processor and steep them in a tea sock (making sure not to let seeds or hairs from the hips through). But I’ve found that even after steeping for 10 minutes, the tea has little flavor. And after too much time, tea is no longer hot! I’m trying to figure out if I’m doing it wrong (so likely…) or if some of the berries were old, hanging out on the bush since last year.
I’ll keep experimenting with the tea, maybe adding more crushed berries next time. We’ve got plenty left to use, so many in fact, that when I needed a quick arrangement around the holidays…why not? I threw some of the rose hips into a hurricane vase with some decorative rocks, and it’s still out on a small table in our sun room.
With some good late winter pruning, I hope to improve the yield on both native roses and we’ll see how we do with next year’s crop. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the flowers, which appear with no supplemental watering.
I love pots! Actually, I love any kind of container that will hold a plant. We’ve been known to grow herbs in a claw-foot tub and annuals in an old washer. When you grow plants in containers, you increase your flexibility – you can move the container with the sun (maybe not the claw-foot tub so much…) and have color in a shady location by your front door. You also can practice “flower arranger,” creating a few new containers with each season’s annuals, or putting together a group of perennials you can keep outside all year or winter over.
Here are a few favorite low-water plants that grow well in containers:
Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta). Verbena species vary, but the warm-zone, low-water species can grow with very little water. They came up through the gravel pathways in our rock garden, re-seeding from previous years. I’ve planted small varieties of red, white and rich purple verbena in containers. Once established, verbena will spread and using it in container groupings helps tie them together or add pops of color. Verbena requires no deadheading, though removing spent flowers can prolong the bloom period, which usually runs from spring through frost, depending on your zone.
Chocolate flower (Berlaniera lyrata). Great in a rock garden or container, a chocolate flower always pleases. And in case you’re wondering, it really does smell like chocolate. I ought to know. Anyway, chocolate flower is a wildflower that produces delicate, daisy-like flowers with a light, almost red, center. Its leaves are a pale, almost silvery green. It’s extremely drought tolerant. Planting it in a container means you can enjoy its scent right on your patio or outside an open window.
Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary is equally pleasant smelling and actually edible! I grow it every year in a container, and have several plants growing as ornamentals in our garden. It has evergreen foliage, so if you live in zones 6 to 8, you probably can keep it alive all year in the garden. In zone 6, it also might make it in a container, though I’ve had creeping rosemary burn from cold or snow even in zone 7. So either protect your container or bring it in, depending on the hardiness of the variety you choose. But back to enjoying rosemary! Plant it all alone near your kitchen for easy fresh cuttings, or in a group container. And if you decide not to take cuttings for cooking, your rosemary might eventually bloom lovely lavender colored blooms. At any rate, put it where you can frequently walk by and just rub your fingers over the leaves.
Ornamental grass (try blue fescue, silky threadgrass, or blue avena). Who says a plant has to flower to look great, especially in a container? I love adding a spike of height and texture with a grass, often in the center or back of a container full of colorful annuals. Most grasses need less water than flowering plants, and they look great blowing in the wind or adding height to a container, especially one placed up against the house. Many of them even flower. Just be sure to check the tag to see how high the grass normally grows before making your purchase.
And remember that plants always need a little more water when you first plant them, in extreme heat and when in containers than when in the ground. Containers usually dry out more quickly than ground soil – how much more depends on the container, soil you used to fill it and the location. And containers are microclimates, which means they might place your plant in colder, warmer or drier conditions than you realize.
I’m a member of the Garden Writers Association, and one of the benefits to membership is access to research conducted by GWA’s foundation on consumer gardening trends. The Fall 2013 report explored how gardeners conserve water and provided three years of historical data for comparison. I have to say that the results gave me pause.
About 68 percent of consumers surveyed said they have a lawn or garden in 2013 and of those surveyed, here are the top ways they conserved water this summer:
Used more mulch (28 percent).
Used more drought-tolerant plants (17 percent).
Watered with drip irrigation (15 percent).
Used a rain barrel (12 percent).
Didn’t water at all (30 percent).
OK, not bad overall, but my concern is that on every water-conservation measure, the percentage was down — from two to five percentage points — from the 2010 survey. Is it a matter of awareness that peaked, then waned? Or is it simply an anomaly, something to attribute to the size or randomness of the sample surveyed? Probably not the latter, because GWA says that the sample balances the population geographically. In that case, we’ve got work to do to raise gardeners’ awareness of water conservation. That’s certainly a goal of this blog.
Here are a few more findings to ponder, though. An additional 28 percent of respondents said “Didn’t think about it,” and 8 percent responded “not sure,” or refused to answer the question. So that means more than one-third of gardeners are doing nothing at all to conserve water in their lawns or gardens. It could be that many of those people, like a portion of the 30 percent who didn’t water, live in lush, rain-heavy areas that require no supplemental water. It made me think of how envious I would get when visiting the northeast or Hawaii. I get it; nature takes care of most of the watering there. Then again, the last time I went to Maui, restaurants only served water upon request because the island was experiencing a drought. That’s right. I know a tropical drought is not the same as a desert drought, but it’s all relative, and an island (even though surrounded by water) has finite resources.
We’ll discuss more ideas of how to conserve water, including rain catchment and whether it’s a good idea not to water at all, in future posts. For now, I just really want to raise awareness. I’m not perfect in my conservation efforts either, but I’m learning more as I write these posts. And there’s a certain degree of natural conservation that comes with the territory when you live in the desert Southwest.
There already are plenty of fabulous choices for drought-tolerant plants, but we found that our choices narrowed a little when we moved into a slightly colder zone. We’re quickly discovering that our new location has a shorter growing season, but that it can get warm here, so unpredictability makes it a little risky but a lot fun.
With microclimates, I figure we can push the envelope on a few of our favorite xeric plants. First, let’s talk about microclimates. In essence, a microclimate is a pocket of an area that can vary in temperature and exposure to the elements. A microclimate can be large or tiny. An example of a large microclimate might be the area that runs along the river. The grass there is still green and the leaves remain on some of the trees. A combination of shelter, shade, lower elevation, and moisture contribute to the cooler temperatures you feel when you walk through there on a sunny day.
Microclimates can be as small as the few feet you have to plant in front of your south-facing wall or the inside of the plastic bottle you place over a seedling to absorb sunshine and maintain humidity for a mini-greenhouse effect.
We brought a pad from our spineless prickly pear along and to be sure it made it here, we planted it against the rock wall on the northeast side of our garden (facing southwest) to maximize sun and minimize wind exposure. You also can use microclimates to make plants more drought tolerant. For example, put a plant that needs a little more water than nature usually provides in summer where your terrain naturally comes to a slope and slight pool, creating a natural well. And avoid placing a plant that can’t handle drought on a high southwest-facing spot with no protection. In my area, at least, you might as well be putting the plant up on a clothesline to dry before nightfall.
Here are a few more tips for making microclimates work for you and your plants:
Try even large trees and shrubs on south-facing walls to add a half-zone of heat. You’ll likely have more success if you buy a plant that’s slightly established (not a bare root, for example). An unusually cold winter might kill the plant or prevent fruiting or blooming, but it’s worth a try.
Take advantage of the shade from the heat-loving tree and fill in around the bottom with perennial or annual bedding flowers that need a little bit of cool shade in summer. They might even provide some natural mulch or protection for your tree on cold nights. Columbine is a great example; it’s a gorgeous flower that grows naturally in higher elevation forests, but might thrive under the dappled shade of a landscape tree.
Use raised beds and containers to create microclimates. Raised beds that run east to west warm up faster in the spring, and any new vegetables planted on the south side of the beds should beat others to the punch. You can move containers around to create microclimates for plants indoors and out, wintering over cacti and other heat-loving plants in south-facing windows, but setting them out on the patio in spring. Just remember that pots, especially clay ones, dry out more quickly. That’s fine for succulents, but can become a problem for thirsty annuals in the heat of the summer.
Use mulch or landscape fabrics and plastic to cover ground or seedlings, adding some warmth and protection.
Mostly, what works for a friend or neighbor might not work for you and vice versa. Slight variations in elevation and exposure can make big differences to a plant’s health and happiness. But if you’re willing to take a few risks, you might be able to enjoy your favorite plant right outside, or inside, your window.
The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.
First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.
Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.
Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.
If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.
There’s always some irony in gardening. I’m writing about drought-tolerant plants several hundred yards from an area struck by fire no more than five years ago and under severe water use and fire restrictions all spring. We prefer many xeric plants and inherited a huge and well-planned xeric garden when we moved here in April. Most of the plants survived with no care or water, outside a little rain from Mother Nature, while the property sat on the market for a year. So we were ready to look for more drought-tolerant choices for a slightly cooler zone and purchase rain barrels in case the skies ever opened up.
People who live in rural areas know their weather. One reason is that they tend to pay attention to the skies, the land, the views. Another is that many grow lawns, crops, or feed for livestock. And one of the best reasons is that no television station, web site or app gets rural weather right. Our “local” weather is mixed in with several other communities in our county, some of which are 20 miles north of us or about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Considering that the temperature can vary about six degrees between our place and a neighbor who lives the equivalent of a block away but a little lower and closer the river, I figure the people in Atlanta or even Albuquerque really don’t get it.
But when various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day,” they were spot on: We had a hard freeze the Saturday before, and no other until October. When they said that the rains would start “on the Fourth of July,” they were close again. It started raining July 1 and pretty much kept raining for nearly six weeks. I have not asked about the need to tie weather events to well-known holidays, but if it works…
So, what do you do when your xeric garden gets rain, LOTS of rain? Well, most of the plants adapted just fine. They grew well and plenty of lovely annuals popped up from volunteer seeds. But guess what else happened? We got weeds. Every kind of weed known to man. Everywhere a weed could grow and some places I thought they couldn’t. In all of the gravel walkways, between rocks and pavers, inside cacti (those weeds are smart!). And pretty much all over the entire 4 acres.
These city folk did not yet have a riding mower; we had a lot of moving expenses and no grass worth mowing before July 1. Then the grass was too wet to cut most days. So by the time we got a mower to the back orchard, the weeds were up to my knees. We eventually conquered the mowing, but lost the battle in much of the garden. My thinking is that the yard and weeds had a year’s head start on us, and it will take us a little time to catch up.
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.