5 Drought-resistant Groundcovers

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

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

Here are a few reasons and ways to use groundcovers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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.

Plant Select 2016: Waterwise Grass and Groundcovers

I get so excited when I see the Plant Select press release in my messages each spring. I love any new plant introduction or award winner, but Plant Select focuses on plants that adapt to – and thrive in – the dry, wild conditions of the intermountain regions and high plains. Gardeners can be confident that their selections will work in much of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and other western states. This year, Plant Select announced two new groundcovers, and selected a drought-tolerant turf and groundcover. Anyone ready to switch out a high-water lawn should take note of these choices:

new ice plant orange flowers
Red Mountain Flame ice plant. All the pluses of an evergreen ice plant, plus a new orange tone! Image courtesy of Plant Select and David Salman.

Red Mountain Flame ice plant (Delosperma ‘PWWG02S’). An ice plant with deep orange to red flowers! Ice plants came to the U.S. from South Africa. The plants use little to moderate water once established, yet they provide gorgeous, evergreen groundcover for the xeric garden. One reason is that they spread quickly. But ice plants won’t get invasive. When ours have spread too far, we’ve even transplanted some of the extra plant to another area of the garden with success. They’re usually yellow or pale pink to purple. I’m thrilled to have a new ice plant color choice for rock gardens and other beds. It’s also perfect that New Mexico’s own David Salman of Waterwise Gardening produced the Red Mountain Flame seedlings. Grow ice plant in zones 4 through 9. Red Mountain Flame needs a mix of sun and shade.

Alan's Apricot ice plant
Alan’s Apricot ice plant boasts larger, color-changing blooms. Image courtesy of Plant Select and Alan Tower.

Alan’s Apricot ice plant (Delosperma ‘Alan’s Apricot’PPAF). The apricot-colored blooms of this new introduction are similar in color to existing ice plants, but larger. It also changes color to a pinker hue and then back again. Ice plants turn heads in summer when they fill with blooms on the low foliage. I can only imagine how Alan’s Apricot’s two-inch blooms will look in mid-summer. The larger, showy flowers also will shine in a container or the landscape as blooms begin to open or close each season. The ice plant was developed by Alan Tower of Spokane, Wash. Also for zones 4 through 9, a variety of soils, and a mix of sun and shade.

Moroccan pincushion
The Moroccan pincushion is a great groundcover selection for rock gardens. Courtesy of Pat Hayward at Plant Select.

Moroccan pinchusion flower (Pterocephalus depressus). The Moroccan pincushion has similar foliage and an inch or so more height than ice plants. The pincushion flowers are light pink to rose in color and leave silvery seed heads after fading. It’s also evergreen, offering winter foliage in zones 4 through 8. Add Moroccan pincushion to a rock garden, raised bed or large container in full sun. The plant needs little to no water once established and should have soil that drains well.

dog tuff grass
Dogs can run on and water drought-tolerant DOG TUFF without damaging the grass. Image from Plant Select and Kelly Grummons.

DOG TUFF grass (Cynodon ‘PWIN04S’).  Why have no lawn at all when you can have areas of turf for kids and pets, along with the look and cooling effects of grass? I’m all for removing some lawn, even more if you have a high-water grass. But I’ll never stop trying to convince people to leave a little grass. DOG TUFF lets homeowners have the best of both worlds: saving water and keeping a lawn. DOG TUFF has an extra quality that might have influenced Plant Select’s choice. Like the name says, it’s tough, holding up to foot traffic even in a xeric lawn. It also holds up to your dog’s help with “watering.” The grass comes in plugs for easier spread and planting. DOG TUFF needs more water the first year, but once established, the warm season grass should return in late spring for all-summer coverage in zones 5 through 10. Learn more about planting and caring for DOG TUFF here.

Plant Select is located in Ft. Collins, Colo., where its staff puts plants to work in test gardens to see how they do with little water. Plant Select also evaluates plants for adaptability, durability and ease of care. They also consider how attractive the plant is in the garden and whether it’s wildlife friendly.

Calculate How Much Rainwater You Can Collect

Harvesting rainwater makes perfect sense, and we learned more about the process at a terrific workshop we attended at the NM Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque last week. From neighboring Texas, Billy Kniffen is the water resource specialist for Texas A&M University.

Kniffen explained that catching and using rainwater is not a new concept; early settlers in the West captured water. Interest is increasing today, at least among homeowners and gardeners who live in states that allow rain harvesting. We’ve used one or more rain barrels to capture roof water for years, and hope to someday acquire a large cistern. As Kniffen said, “the first rain barrel is the ‘gateway drug’ to rainwater harvesting.”

rain barrel shed
This was actually our third rain barrel, located near our vegetable garden. I couldn’t stand to watch the water pour off that shed roof without catching at least some of it.

Getting Started Is Easy

I believe more people would harvest rainwater if they realized it’s not as complex a process as it seems. For simple gardening use, a few rain barrels or a cistern with pressure can irrigate ornamental plants. If you want to water edible plants, you have to take a few more steps; it’s recommended that you add features such as first flush equipment (which directs the first flush from your gutters away from the barrel to prevent nasty debri from entering the container) and filters. A prefilter also keeps leaves and debris out; you just have to clean it from time to time. You also can disinfect your rain water with chlorine or ultraviolet light.

filter lid on rain barrel
Inexpensive, smaller barrels have crude filters to stop debris. A larger system needs a more sophisticated filter.

Calculating Collection

A house that has a roof of 1,000 square feet can yield 600 gallons of water from just one inch of rainfall. For me, watching the small barrels fill and then overflow feels like a waste. In our case, water that runs from the house eventually refills our water table – and therefore our well. But in urban areas, water runoff fills streets and gutters, and often is wasted. Texas A&M Extension has made it easier to calculate the amount of rain you can collect from your home or shed roof.

rain collection system model
Here’s the demo system Kniffen brought to our workshop. It’s simpler than it looks!

Here’s a simple calculator for catchment area courtesy of the college. There’s also a link here to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (under Resources) with the formulas already included. HarvestingRainWater.com also has a simple calculator. Texas residents, or those who can easily compare their annual rainfall to one of the included Texas towns, can input the information and receive monthly flow rates and required cistern sizes to catch as much rain as possible. Finally, the school also publishes a manual all about rainwater harvesting.

gutter on shed
We had to add a gutter to the shed roof to collect the water. It was simple and worth it.

Kniffen and his wife run their home solely off collected rainwater from their home and a shed. I don’t believe we have the money to collect all water and make it potable, but it’s always on the wish list. Any attempts to save and use rainwater can help preserve water for future years. I hope these tools make it a little easier for anyone considering rain harvesting to get started.

Five Fun Annuals for the Low-water Garden

It’s more waterwise – and less expensive – to grow perennials. When a plant’s getting started, it needs a little more water. So once a xeric perennial plant has become established, the gardener should not have to add much, or any, water.

cosmos in rock garden
Low-water gardens can combine lots of perennials with bits of annuals. Cosmos re-seed easily from year to year in our zone 6B low-water garden.

By nature annuals last only one year; you’ll have to water seeds or transplants a little more than you will an established perennial. Having mostly perennials in your garden is a waterwise and cost-effective strategy, but most gardeners want to add a little color or variety to their gardens. Enter the annual flower.

You can save money by purchasing annuals as seeds or by selecting native varieties that will likely re-seed in your garden next year. And save water by mulching annual beds after seedlings are large enough. Plastic cups or leftover nursery pots make great “protectors” while laying mulch. Just place cups large enough to avoid bending or breaking the plants upside down on each seedling in the bed, or a portion of the bed, before carefully pouring in your mulch. Then lift the cups and adjust mulch around the plants.

Native annuals also should use less water than “splurge” plants, but you won’t do a ton of damage to your water-wise efforts with a small container of your favorite annual.

Here are some of my favorite annuals, particularly for low-water gardening in zones 6 and 7.

zinnias annuals
A bunch of zinnias adds easy and vivid color to any annual bed.

Zinnias. Without a doubt, zinnias are a favorite annual. They’re simple to grow from seed; in fact, zinnias don’t transplant well, although it can be done if you start seedlings in peat pots. This way, you can transplant the peat pot with the seedling when the weather warms. The hardy flower requires sunshine and soil that drains well. Add a little organic matter to the container or bed to ensure drainage. Deadheading spent blooms keeps flowers coming and helps keep the plant from getting tall and leggy. Besides, the bright orange, red or coral flowers are terrific for arrangements. Check your seed package for flower type, size and plant height when selecting zinnias for annual containers or beds.

California poppy. The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a perennial in warm climates and a frequent re-seeder in moderate zones. The wispy, fern-like foliage has a silvery-gray color, and thin stalks support orange and yellow blooms that resemble a flatter, simpler poppy. Deadheading the flowers is a little bit of work, but well worth the effort. The California poppy technically is an herb, but the plant is poisonous if eaten. It’s a terrific pollinator.

california poppies
These poppies love sun and heat. Spent blooms are easy to spot for deadheading; the petals drop and leave a long seedhead.

Cosmos. A relative of the aster, the cosmos is a varied and versatile flower with nearly 20 species. Just give the flowers lots of sun and avoid overwatering or overfertilizing; too much shade and water can make them lanky. I love cosmos at the back of a bed, but they come in various heights. The flowers easily re-seed, so be sure you like them before planting. Birds land on cosmos plants left in our garden and peck at the seeds all winter.

Cosmos plants can look a little wild, but the flowers normally form a perfect shape. Our grape tomatoes grew into the wild cosmos.
Cosmos plants can look a little wild, but the flowers normally form a perfect shape. Our grape tomatoes grew into the wild cosmos.

Portulaca. The portulaca family includes purslane, which can be an invasive, water-sucking weed. Still, some people enjoy the edible qualities of purslane. I prefer Portulaca grandiflora, also known as moss rose. The tiny flowers’ foliage resembles rosemary leaves, and the flowers make an excellent groundcover, spreading throughout the summer. They also work well in containers. Space them out, and they’ll quickly fill the container and drape over the edge. Instead of cutting spent flowers, you simply need to pinch off the dried-up bloom to encourage more color. One caution: portulaca seeds are tiny, and can spread or hide easily in soil. Plant something else in the same container next year, and you’re likely to have a pretty little portulaca pop up.

portulaca moss rose
Tiny portulaca flowers pack a lot of character.

Sunflowers. Who can resist a stunning photo of a field of sunflowers? The Helianthus annus takes a little more water, but can tolerate brief periods of drought. Between their water needs and propensity to get munched by deer, they’re not the perfect annual for our garden. Having said that, we always try to get a few sunflowers going, especially the crimson-colored varieties. Many of our thriving sunflowers come up as volunteers, likely thanks to area birds. Sunflowers make perfect pollinators; bees can’t get enough of them. And those that survive deer provide seed for birds in fall. Maybe it’s because I’m so tired of winter, but I can’t wait to see these signs of summer springing up around our property!

sunflower
Sunflowers signal summer, sun and warmth. I can’t wait!

10 Reminders for Waterwise Gardening

Although the drought has eased in New Mexico and some areas of the Southwest, it’s still serious in many regions. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to save water in the yard, garden or farm all year long, regardless of your region’s current drought status.

Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.
Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.

No matter where you live, the foremost reason to adhere to low-water gardening designs and principles is to conserve water, which is the right thing to do for this and future generations. I doubt homeowners in California, many of whom typically enjoy steady rainfall of 18 or more inches a year, were concerned about drought when they had their yards designed decades ago. In fact, the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct likely marked the beginning of the phenomenon that occurs when too many residents are concentrated in a geographic area, especially one not conducive to urbanization.

The aqueduct and population are only part of the problem in California or in any region short on water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American uses about 320 gallons of water a day. Nearly 30 percent of home use flows outdoors, including on lawns. All-told, home landscape irrigation accounts for some 9 billion gallons of water a day around the country.

If you’ve read past blog posts, you know that I plead for a measured and appropriate response, one that if taken before severe drought strikes can prevent community, and eventually global, water crises. That approach includes native or xeric landscape design, not the destruction of all living plant material in a lawn. As I’ve said before, replacing grass with gravel doesn’t necessarily save water or energy.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain.

For a 2015 recap and 2016 garden prep reminder, here are the 10 easiest ways to save water in your lawn and garden:

1. Convert some turf to gravel if you like, using oasis zones and smart xeriscape design principles. Involve a landscaping professional if the job is big or the concept overwhelms you.

2. Convert high-water turf to a native, low-water grass. The best choices for high desert areas are Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) and Buffalo grass (Buchloë dactyloides). A new hybrid called Dog Tuff (Cynodon hybrid) also comes in plugs for quicker spread.

3. Water wisely, cutting back in winter and irrigating only in the cool of the morning during summer. Use drip irrigation instead of spray or sprinklers when possible. Add mulch around plant beds.

garden Drip tape in vegetable bed
Drip irrigation saves water and improves plant health for edibles or ornamentals.

4. Look for signs of water waste, such as runoff. Create a dry-river bed, bioswale or terrace to capture water and place plants with higher water needs in swales or at the bottom of inclines. Well around plants that need a little more water.

5. Remember that even low-water or xeric plants need extra water the first year; if the plant doesn’t make it because it dries out, you’ve wasted whatever water you used to irrigate plus the cost of the plant.

6. Choose perennials over annuals. Every time you plant annuals, you must water them extra to help them get established for the season. Growing more perennials and letting native annuals and wildflowers go to seed is a better strategy; leave one small bed or container arrangement only for annuals each year.

This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.
This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.

7. Grow edibles in your lawn or landscape. If you don’t want the look of a full-blown kitchen garden from the curb, place perennial herbs or low-water plants with berries for your family or birds in the most visible areas of the landscape.

8. Make smart use of containers and raised beds. Containers and raised beds use less water than the ground. Just be careful to water slowly. If water pours out the bottom of the pot, you’ve probably given more than the plant needs, and if you water rapidly, you can wash nutrients from the pot’s soil mix.

9. Check and improve the soil. It’s easy to ensure good soil and drainage in containers, but less so in the lawn. Even without a soil test, a gardener can see when the ground around a plant doesn’t drain well; that can be the death of many xeric plants. Adding organic matter and loosening the soil (but not tilling) can help build soil health over time.

Here's Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.
Here’s Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.

10. Capture and use rain water. If you don’t want to water edibles this way, at least catch rain from your roof to water your ornamentals. It might seem like one 50-gallon barrel isn’t enough, but as with all waterwise gardening, every little bit helps.

Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature's water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.
Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature’s water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.

Search or browse past posts in the Archive or check my Resources page if you want to learn more about low-water gardening strategies. And here’s to 2016!

 

 

Safely Use Rain Water on Vegetables and Herbs

It seems that Los Angeles officials are considering installing cisterns with smart technology to catch rain water for irrigation. It’s about time. Even when rain barrels and cisterns fail to collect all of the water that falls from the skies or flows from the roof, they still make use of water that might otherwise run off and go to waste. And homeowners can use the water for ornamentals and even edibles.

rain barrel metal roof
This is one of two rain barrels by our house. We used it to water the carrots in the pot next to it one year, along with container tomatoes. It also serves as a handy drinking spot for the mutts and apparently as a shelf for my wind chimes when they annoy my husband as a storm such as this one comes in.

I don’t know much about LA and its politics, but I do know that when I made a trip to southern California recently, water restrictions were forcing patches of brown grass more than landscape alterations. Pulling up some of the grass, replacing it with a few vegetables and herbs, and then watering those edibles with rain water seems like a really smart and sustainable solution.

We’ve been using rain barrels for many years. When we had a flat tar and gravel roof and city water in Albuquerque, N.M., we limited use of the rain barrel to ornamentals only. But now that we rely on a well, grow more food on more land and have metal roofing, we use rain water on our vegetables and herbs.

rain barrel for watering ornamentals and edibles
Here’s the same barrel up close and right after we put it into service in early spring. I know I can’t water everything with it, but we don’t need to. Most of our ornamentals are xeric and need no regular watering. Why not capture some rain to use where we can?

Before collecting rain water for edibles, I researched the topic and found little information, but enough to make me feel comfortable using the water. Since then, more data is out there confirming that for the most part, collected rain water from common roofing materials is safe for edibles as long as you follow a few preventive collection and watering practices. Most of my tips are about barrels, which is all I have so far. I would love to have a cistern; it’s on my wish list! To learn more about the data and specific roof material information, check out the Resources page under Rainwater Collection and Rain Barrels.

Safe Rain Water Collection

None of the research claims that collected rain water is potable. There are just too many variables. In urban areas, pollution settles on rooftops. Where I live, critters and birds fly over or hang out on the gutters, likely leaving droppings. Here are a few ways to make your collected water safer for vegetable use:

  • Clean rain barrels with a bleach solution before using them for edibles. Rutgers also recommends adding eight drops of bleach per month for a 55-gallon barrel, and waiting 24 hours before using the water so the bleach can dissipate.
  • Rinse out barrels once a year, removing sediment and using either bleach or a vinegar and lemon solution to clean the barrel.
  • Keep gutters clean and free of debris, which also makes good sense for roof maintenance.
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
  • When installing a new system, it’s recommended to have a first-flush diverted added. This washes the first flush of downspout water, along with debris and contaminants, away from the barrel before it begins filling.
  • Most commercial barrels have screens to keep debris (and birds or other small animals) from getting inside the barrel. Be sure to wipe the screens off from time to time. Even leaves can rot and drip into the rain water.

Safe Watering 

Of course, you can choose to water only ornamental and house plants with rain water if you have any doubts. I also tend to alternate watering between my barrel and well for vegetable rows, just to mix up the nutrients and potential metals from both, and because the barrel by the garden usually empties before the next good rain. For safest edible watering, be sure to follow these tips:

  • After a barrel fills, use the first full bucket or so on ornamentals, not on vegetables or herbs. This first flush from the barrel usually contains more contaminants because of settled water at the bottom.
  • Always water the soil and not the plant, a best practice for gardening anyway. And the soil absorbs the water, not the leaves. This is especially important for any edible you harvest from above the ground (or other than root vegetables).
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
  • Water in the morning and wait to harvest, after the sun’s rays have dried and disinfected the plants.

Finally, those folks in California can water their lawns (hopefully less by switching to native, low-water grasses) with cisterns, which typically have pressure valves. Most smaller rain barrels lack the pressure required to drive soaker hoses. Raising your barrel a few feet can increase the pressure to allow use of a hose or drip system, but likely not enough to run a lawn sprinkler. In the past, we’ve used stacked square pavers or cement blocks to raise ours.

This is the view of the new barrel from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.
This is the view of the new barrel and shed from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.

Six Strategies for Transforming High-water Turf Into a Waterwise Landscape

Xeriscaping has become more of a mandate in many Southwestern communities, and it’s too bad that it’s come to that. But with long-term drought and overpopulation in concentrated urban areas, it’s no wonder that water resources are scarce.

As I’ve said for a few years on this blog, drought is nothing new to New Mexicans, and many leaders of low-water gardening and planting hail from Colorado and New Mexico. That doesn’t mean everybody gets it, but there are plenty of examples of gorgeous front and back yard landscapes that use little to no irrigation but have curb appeal and bring joy to home gardeners and guests.

xeriscaping instead of all gravel
How many xeriscaping strategies can you spot in this photo? Hint: It has color, texture, native annuals, pollinators, terracing, vegetables by the house and rainwater collection. It sure doesn’t seem boring or ugly.

One of my biggest concerns about water restrictions imposed on residents of Western states is that homeowners and business owners will react to the extreme, going from a complete high-water turf lawn to all-gravel landscapes. I’ve ranted here and plenty of other places on this blog about what this move does to existing trees, home energy use and how it’s just plain ugly.

Here’s a summary of six strategies for planning an attractive and effective waterwise landscape that includes some living plants and joy without blowing your budget or your mind.

1. Start with xeric zones. The concept of simple xeriscaping zones around your home makes planning easier. The point is to place your gravel and most drought-tolerant plants the furthest from your home. Putting a few plants that need a little more water, or having some turf for the dogs, kids or green that you love is OK, as long as you keep it in moderation and close to the house. This helps keep your house cooler, gives you and your family a nice place to gather and can even help keep shade trees alive. Those are waterwise and energy-saving strategies and can help form the basis for your plan.

small patch of grass in Albuquerque lawn
Friends of ours have a small patch of grass for them and their dog in the back yard. It helps keep their house and yard cooler.

2. Keep the right type and amount of turf. Unless you have reasons beyond water savings, you don’t have to eliminate turf altogether. Just switch out the type and size of your grass area. Take the grass out of your arid zone, and replace grass in small portions of the transition or mini-oasis zones (areas closer to the house) with a native, drought-tolerant variety. Your local nursery should have native or hybrid grasses in seed, sod or plugs that grow in your area with little to no watering once established.

grass on southern California street
This is partly why southern California is in crisis — street after street of total turf lawns, even in the median. There’s no need for this much grass, especially high-water grasses and turf out by the asphalt.

3. Take a tip from permaculture. Approach your new landscape holistically, creating a design that’s self-sustaining. For example, divert rainwater from your roof to water a shade tree or create a small rain garden or bioswale in an area that always pools with mud or water after a hard rain. Use leaves from the shade tree for compost or simply rake them up to mulch a plant. Grow edibles as ornamentals in the sunny spot once taken up by grass. Include some xeric plants that attract pollinators to help ensure good fruit production on your new edibles. The photo at the top of this post shows a few of these principles, but we’re working on incorporating more.

4. Level land with burms, steps or terraces. One of the biggest wasters of sprinkler water, aside from evaporation, is runoff. If your landscape has any slope at all, finding a way to control that slope can save water immediately. For example, when we added to our patio, we messed with the water runoff and it affected nearby established plants. They’re not as healthy now because they got too much water. So we plan to try a combination of a bioswale and burm to relocate the low-water plants and divert some of the water. Burms are usually rounded shelves or bumps, with a more natural look. Steps can give you access to an area and great placement for xeric plants and ornamental grasses. Terracing shores up dirt and water and provides excellent opportunities for landscape palettes and sectioning off beds. Look for lots of ideas online and by driving around your neighborhood, and get help from a landscape designer and contractor if the job is too much for you.

Albuquerque architecture and landscaping
A nice example of typical architecture and landscaping in Albuquerque. The gravel is outside the patio fence and the steps provide a focal point for the xeric plantings.

5. Use indoor design principles. If gardening overwhelms you, or you don’t know much about plants, it shouldn’t stop you from creating some curb appeal in a new low-water landscape. Many of the same principles apply to outdoor design as indoor – color, texture, height and shape. Terraces or burms can help, but even if you have a flat yard, you can start with an existing or new tree for height and take it from there. Just look at a plant’s tag or seek advice from a local master gardener, favorite local garden author, or favorite garden blogger. Look at the plant’s mature height, spread, flower color and a photo of the foliage.

use of succulents and colors in landscape
Here’s a great example of succulents in a California landscape, and especially how to mix colors and textures.

6. Feature native plants. The surest road to success with low-water landscaping is to feature plants native to your area or to areas with the same climate zones. For example, California gardeners are expanding their plant choices with low-water natives from other Mediterranean countries such as South Africa and Western Australia. Once a native plant is established, usually after a year, it should make it through your climate extremes with no extra work on your part. Native plants have adapted to the environment. And although some need pruning, deadheading and sometimes a little bit of drip irrigation, many need nothing but your attention, which you give them when you walk through or sit among the plants. We have a huge rock garden, and we never water most of the plants, or give them one drink after spring pruning if we’ve had no rain. Native annuals and wildflowers are particularly beneficial, and some homeowners reverse their xeric zones to create meadows and completely natural areas along the edges of their properties.

native plants Oliver lee state park
This is not a lawn, but the view along a path in a state park near Alamogordo, N.M., where water is scarce and temperatures warm. These native plants would look terrific placed in any nearby homeowner’s landscape.

Finally, the best strategy is to take it slowly, steadily and with moderation. I fear that too many people will react by letting their lawns die or by pulling them up and replacing them with landscape plastic and gravel. My hope is that I will continue to see colorful native landscapes throughout the West filled with edibles, blooms, evergreen foliage and low-water shade trees, and dotted with touches of native grasses where kids and pets can run around and birds can peck for seeds and earthworms. Is that too much to ask?

Xeriscaping Strategy: Proper and Unusual Uses of Landscape Fabrics

It’s officially October and a blazing 92 degrees just after noon here. We’re setting record highs in New Mexico for heat and have gone weeks without measurable rain in my area while a hurricane threatens additional flooding on the East coast. So I thought I would take a few minutes to review the many uses of fabrics to control heat and retain water in the garden for those of us in drought conditions.

landscape fabric shading cacti
Succulents need shade, but direct sun can burn them, so Tim rigged a pretty clever shade cloth for his cactus collection using woven landscape fabric.

Landscape fabrics, also called geotextiles, typically come in rolls and are available online or in home and garden centers. Nonwoven fabrics are made primarily for weed control. Like plastics, they are the least permeable of fabrics, and should offer better weed control. To me, nothing offers complete weed control. And because they let in little to no sun or water, I would avoid using nonwoven fabrics in beds, at least permanent ones, because they prevent water and oxygen from penetrating. I’d reserve them for walkways only.

ripped landscape fabric
No landscape fabric is permanent or impenetrable. This fabric was in our walkway when we moved in, and I can’t count the hours we’ve spent fighting the weeds.

Woven fabrics, typically now made of polypropylene, are breathable, which means that water, oxygen and some of the sun’s rays can penetrate. That also means weeds can work their way through, especially since polypropylene tends to eventually break down from ultraviolet rays. Placing organic mulches on top of the permeable fabric introduces more chance for weeds. Still, if you’re adding mulch or gravel above the fabric, it offers an additional layer of protection against weeds. I would selectively lay down woven fabrics for areas of a bed between plants (leaving a large hole cut in the fabric around any plants in the bed) or for temporary uses. Landscape fabrics also can help control erosion on banks, preventing the washing away of top soil. On the other hand, the fabrics never are permanent and if you have a big garden bed, you’re better off investing in extra layers of mulch, which works just as well for weed control if you go three to four inches deep. Just be sure to choose the right mulch for your plant or you cause water and plant health problems.

landscape fabrics
On the far left is a roll of row cover newly arrived. Top right is a woven fabric, the same used in Tim’s shade cloth. Below it are two black fabrics of varying thicknesses.

Row cover is my favorite landscape fabric. Also made of polypropylene, the white fabric comes in varying thicknesses and typically is used to cover and protect plants from frost, such as for mini hoop houses.  The fabric lets in up to 70 percent of the sun’s UV rays and some moisture, but doesn’t absorb water. Using row covers can also protect plants from heat by shading roots and blocking wind and insects to some extent. Shading roots and foliage obviously saves water by slowing evaporation. It also keeps the plant healthier, as does controlling insect access. I have begun to use row covers more often this year and have just ordered a roll of the fabric to boost my use more next year, helping to protect young seedlings from insects and to keep the ground warm and moist as they get started.

Here are a few uses for landscape fabrics other than laying them on the ground under mulch:

Although plastic probably works best, lay nonwoven landscape fabric down in the fall after cleaning up your vegetable garden to keep weeds from taking over. You might not choke out every weed, but you can cut down substantially on seeds that blow in and on the sun and rain that help germinate weeds already present. You’ll want to lift the fabric and enrich the soil with organic matter, however, a few months before planting.

Make small hoop houses to cover single herbs or crops. Row covers can help extend the season for a plant,  and you also can construct a small, temporary cover over a single plant that’s susceptible to bugs or climate conditions. Or just throw the fabric over a plant in the evening for temporary protection if frost is a concern, but days still produce plenty of warmth.

r
Thanks to a smart neighbor, I got the idea to leave my basil covered and cut down on grasshopper damage. I made this out of old drip hose and row cover. It’s not pretty, but it works.
basil protected
I also believe the cover cut down on watering. The drip hose runs under the fabric. I’ve harvested several crops from this basil and it’s still thriving in October in zone 6B.

Use permeable fabric to shade a new plant until it’s established. Around here, we often have to construct cages for small trees and other plants to protect them from deer. Tim has added a fabric top to many to keep the direct sun off a young plant or transplant, which also helps slow water loss. He simply uses cable ties to secure the fabric to the metal fencing.

shade cover with conduit
No electrician’s invention would be complete without conduit! Tim shaped the conduit to keep the fabric out and away from the plants.

Finally, since Halloween is just around the corner, you can’t go wrong using leftover black landscape fabric to create a last-minute grim reaper costume. Especially if the weeds are really getting you down….