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….

Five Low-water Shrubs that Birds Love

It’s easy to attract birds to your yard with feeders, but having a friendly bird habitat is even better. We’re fortunate to have some help from nature in the form of a nearby river and trees. Many bird species can nest or fly to the larger trees when evading us or our dogs. But they also love to hang out in the garden right off our patio, because we have a few shrubs that meet their basic needs of food and shelter. Naturally, needs differ by bird, but many eat fruits, berries and seeds.

dave-higgins-hovering-finch
This finch is hovering near a feeder in our smoke tree, but finches also perch on flowers and in shrubs. Photo credit: David Higgins.

As fall arrives, we’re even more aware of how plants attract both native and migrating birds. I looked out my window the other day and saw at least 20 sparrows feeding on the seed heads of a weed/grass that I have been meaning to pull from a garden bed. I felt a little better about being behind. Although trees are important for bird nesting and shelter, so are shrubs. Here are five water-wise choices that help feed, shade or protect birds.

Cotoneaster. The Cotoneaster species includes shrubs that need a little more water until established than some native low-water plants. They’re cold hardy to zone 3 and actually fare better in high desert and mountain climates. Some cultivars (namely Rockspray) grow more wide than high, and these are the ones the sparrows at our place love. The leaves are tiny, but the plant is sort of prickly and since the branches cross over one another, it really fills in well. The birds can enjoy the late summer berries and perch a few feet off the ground.

sparrow on low-water bush
This white-crowned sparrow is hidden pretty well on a cotoneaster even in winter. In spring, 20 or more sparrows perch here, distracting me from working.

Russian sage. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is known as an attractor of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds while its gorgeous and fragrant lavender stalks are in bloom, but I’ve seen other small birds feed on the seedheads as they dry. And since this shrub is best cut back in spring, it can help feed birds all winter.

russian sage drying stalk
Right now, a darn grasshopper appears to be eating our Russian sage. The stalks are beginning to dry.

Pawnee buttes sand cherry. Last week, I mentioned the Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) as one of five water-wise shrubs that works well in high-desert gardens. The Pawnee buttes is a low-growing form of the sand cherry, which likely won’t produce enough fruit for a pie, but plenty of dark, ripe berries to feed birds. I also love the twisting branches. It just looks like a native plant you might encounter walking around the New Mexico desert, but in spring it has gorgeous white flowers that are slightly smaller than those on our cherry tree, but just as striking.

bird attracting sand cherry
The Pawnee buttes sand cherry is a low-growing, twisted version of the Western sand cherry.

Wild roses. I mention native roses often in my plant lists because they are amazing low-water plants. The Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii) in particular is a Southwest native that grows in all sorts of terrain from as low as 2,800 feet to more than 10,000 feet in altitude. It blooms in spring or early summer with no supplemental watering and attracts birds all year long. We have a hummingbird that I am pretty sure has deemed one native rose as his territory, and I love watching birds land on the thorny stems. I doubt any nearby cats will venture up there after them! Best of all, the Woods’ rose leaves hundreds of hips on the plant for birds and other critters to enjoy all fall and winter. The hips have plenty of value for people, but this year, we will leave them on the rose. The only drawback to native roses is that they need a deep pruning/shaping in early spring.

woods' rose
Birds can feast on these rose hips all winter and hide in or under the bushy, thorny plant.

Serviceberry. The Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is another member of the rose family. Native to the Southwest, the plant, which also is commonly called a shadbush, produces white flowers in spring and early summer berries that are similar to blueberries. Although people can make jams from the berries, they are pretty seedy. So I’d prefer to leave them for the birds, while I enjoy the flowers and year-round leaf colors. The drought-tolerant shrub can be shaped into a hedge and grows in zones 2 through 9.

Collect Your Own Drought-Tolerant Flower Seeds

Saving water with low-water ornamentals is a perfect xeriscaping strategy. You also can save money on low-water annuals when planning next year’s garden by collecting seeds from spent flowers and wildflowers. Think of the possibilities. For example, that wild daisy that pops up between your fence and alley every year would look really pretty in the new rock garden in your front yard. Fall is the time to gather seeds from flowers you’d like to have in next year’s garden.

wildflowers in early spring
What would a natural landscape be without some early spring wildflowers?

When to collect flower seeds

Select a healthy plant, free of insects. If you normally deadhead the blooms regularly, leave a few to go to seed. That’s also true, of course, if you want to see more of a particular flower in the same general area of your garden or lawn next year. If you completely deadhead or shear off all of the spent blooms, you have less chance of local reseeding. It’s just too bad that we can’t control where the wind blows or other elements.

Angel's trumpets
This is a wildflower that grows along our ditch bank. It’s called angel’s trumpets (Mirabilis longiflora).

Make sure the seed head is fully mature. The seeds should be dry, usually brown. They’ll likely fall off the flower head when shaken slightly. So be ready to catch them with your hand, an envelope, pantyhose or a paper bag. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you can catch them, keep them dry and prevent them from blowing away. Then, either mark down or remember the plant from which you gathered the seeds.

dried wildflower seeds
These angel’s trumpet seeds are dry and ready to collect. Tim spread them in an area we’re trying to change from a weeded mess into a flowery meadow.

There’s a chance that you can wait too long to gather seeds, but it depends on the plant, weather conditions (such as wind and humidity) and local birds. The plant could go dormant before you gather seeds, or the seeds could dry and all drop or blow away, so it’s a good idea to check the flower often as it begins to mature.

chocolate flower mature seed head
These chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) heads look alike, but the circled one is the spent one. To see a blooming chocolate flower, search past posts. Sorry you can’t smell it from here!

How to store seeds

Keep collected or purchased seeds in a cool, dry and dark place. Paper bags protect the seeds, but allow some air circulation to prevent mold (unless you take the step of drying seeds mentioned below). A constantly cool temperature and low humidity will help keep seeds fresh for at least a year. Storing them longer requires more steps, such as drying them at 100 degrees F for six hours. You can do this in a microwave oven if you can control the temperature, or outside in a warm climate, preferably keeping the seeds in the shade.

Once dry, seeds should be stored in sealed cans or jars, which are preferred to plastic bags. The sealing prevents oxygen and moisture from entering the containers; those are two factors that promote germination. Although the optimum temperature is below 50 degrees F, you shouldn’t freeze seeds.

storing seeds
Paper bags, metal cans and repurposed sealed containers can work, depending on how long you need to store seeds. Keep the seeds in a cool, dark spot.

A few cautions

You can’t collect seeds on public land, and should not take seeds from any rare or endangered flower. Designated organizations take care of that. If you want to gather seeds on private land, even if it’s not in use, you should get permission from the land’s owner. Otherwise, it’s fairly simple gathering seeds from flowers and grasses. I’ll address vegetable seed gathering next week.

If you don’t have space in your refrigerator or a similar cool, dry spot for storing the seeds you gather, try exchanging seeds for space with a friend. Or buy seeds each year for common flowers. Truly, seeds are relatively inexpensive compared with plants and you will soon learn which flowers do best in your zone and landscape. In my opinion, unless you have optimum collection and storage conditions, you’ll have lower germination rates with gathered seeds than with those you buy. Still, we continue to gather and broadcast seeds around our place and let nature take it from there, or store some for next spring. And I applaud all efforts to gather and reseed, especially for native wildflowers that use little to no water!

You Can Have Grass in a Xeric Landscape

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Gardening Know How.

In New Mexico, drought is more a way of life than an occasional phenomenon. With only 10 inches of annual rainfall in much of the state and a high of 20 inches in the mountains, xeriscaping is the responsible landscaping strategy.

But here’s the problem – unaware homeowners and real estate “flippers” often come in and rip out every blade of grass, replacing the cool turf with what amounts to hot lava. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but too much landscape gravel can be harsh. And the gravel often lies over a layer of black plastic. If they leave a tree in place, they can kiss it goodbye in five or 10 years. And they might say hello to higher energy costs.

Replace high-water grass

So, let’s say that you want to save water by eliminating your current turf lawn, which uses way too much water. If you plan to rip it out anyway and were thinking of replacing it with gravel and hardscaping, then consider ripping out the high-water grass and replacing a small portion of it with a low-water native grass. Ideally, you’d plant some turf close to your home for the cooling and barefoot effect, especially around the southwest side of the house. And if you have a tree you want to preserve, especially one that shades your home, consider low-water grass near the outside canopy of the tree and wood or other organic mulch surrounding the tree’s trunk.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain. We get no more than 19 inches a year.

Low-water native grass

Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass is a favorite of area ranchers for its protein content and because it comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm up. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. That’s right, the less you do, the more healthy the grass. Now, you can’t beat that for saving water and time.

blue grama grass seed
A stand of blue grama grass that was left to go to seed.

When I first heard about using native grasses for lawns, I assumed they would not look like regular turf, but like separate bunches of tall grass swaying in the breeze. I could not have been more wrong. It might take longer to fill in than do some grasses designed for turf, and certainly longer than laying sod, but blue grama bunches spread and meet, forming a sod lawn. However, if you want to let the grass go to seed – especially to promote its spread – you’ll delight in the appearance of its 12-inch high stalks with blue-green seedheads. You can even have a mix of both. Mow it in a small patch where you walk and let a few stalks go to seed near the perimeter.

The main point is that with a low-water grass native to your area, you can keep a lawn for kids to play on, dogs to run in, or just for the look of green grass in summer. Yet you use no more water after the first year than you would if you put gravel around your entire house. In fact, most warmer areas of New Mexico have evaporative cooling, which mixes water with forced air to cool homes. When heat reflects off of gravel right next to the house, it takes more water and electricity to cool a house down.

And a few cautions

I have a few cautions with blue grama, however. The first is that it needs some supplemental water the first summer, much like any new lawn. The grass typically comes in seed or plugs, and native sod rolls are now available in Colorado. The seeds should be available from companies that sell native and drought-tolerant plants. The seeds germinate quickly when temperatures are high. The second caution is patience. Blue grama greens a little later in spring than typical grasses made for lawns, especially those that use lots of water. So hang in there. You can water a little in summer when rain is scarce to keep the grass from going dormant, but part of the beauty is letting nature take its course.

Since it’s late in the year now in most zones to successfully seed blue grama, you can at least plan for next year. Check out this excellent handout from High Country Gardens on how to prep your lawn for native grass plugs.

Blue grama seed
Blue grama seed germinates quickly. We had good luck filling in some patches of dirt made by gophers.

Finally, native grasses are just that; they’re not hybrids designed for perfectly manicured lawns that look like golf greens. You might have some imperfections and will certainly have to wait until each area fills in. But when given a choice between gravel and green, I’ll take at least a patch of green – and without using a drop of water.

Create a Color Palette in Your Xeric Garden

Who says xeric landscaping has to be boring? Not me, that’s for sure. In fact, one of my goals on this blog is to prevent extreme reactions to drought and educate people so that they make measured changes. In other words, you can still attract pollinators, and people, to your garden while saving water!

One of the ways to attract birds, bees and believers is with a creative color palette from mostly xeric plants. It’s not that hard to do, as long as you remember a few guiding principles of xeric gardening: choose native plants and place them in the right conditions to help keep them healthy.

variety-color-palette
The purple blooms of the blue mist spirea in the background attract bees, and finches land on the cosmos blooms.

I love the drama of several different colors of blooms, and the uncertainty when plants spread or reseed each year, so that areas of the garden have a delicate balance between predictability and surprise. It helps to have plants of different heights and textures or bloom times.

Now, all you have to do is decide whether you want lots of different colors or mostly one color. Then match your wants with what’s available. Here are a few ideas for xeric plants in a number of colors:

Blues and purples: Get some height and plenty of bees with Russian sage or Blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis). A penstemon will give purple blooms with less bushy shape. For more height, a butterfly bush (Buddleia) really pops. And for a low grower, try salvia or Veronica speedwell.

Yellow: The choices are endless for yellow xeric flowers. It’s really a matter of placement and bloom or plant size. My favorites are desert zinnia and several varieties of coreopsis. Evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a great xeric choice in the desert Southwest that produces large yellow flowers. Chocolate flower is a perfect native wildflower, and the Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliana) blooms later in the summer season. Creeping gold buttons (Cotula) make a terrific ground cover as a backdrop.

Orange or red: I can’t grow one here, but if you live in zones 9 through 11, and you love orange and red blooms as much as I do, the red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) is the bush for you! The Hummingbird trumpet flower (Zauschneria arizonica) attracts hummingbirds, and several salvias and penstemons come in red.

red bird of paradise
This is one of my favorite plants, the red bird of paradise. Tim got a shot of this one in Carlsbad, N.M. I’ve got a close-up of the stunning blooms on my Photos page.

Pink: Iceplants are my favorite pink blooms that do well in New Mexico at several zones. They’re a groundcover, though, so if you want pink up high, try a native rose, Santa Fe phlox or Texas sage (Salvia greggii), which is a dark pink or red, low-growing xeric bush.

White: Add some dawn, dusk or evening drama with white. To make white work, especially in a nighttime garden, I think you either need a substantial amount or large blooms. Tim loves jimson weed (Datura meteloides), which opens at dusk. A grouping of white Echinacea, or coneflowers, would also be a great contrast to low-growing purple or red blooms.

blazing star bloom
The blazing star (Mentzelia decapetala) really shines in the evening.

I didn’t even cover succulents, which might not bloom for long, but have some of the brightest, richest colors in the desert. Trees also add color with their blooms and foliage. That’s especially true of some of the smaller, xeric trees, such as the desert willow or smoketree. Use of colored containers, or a few annuals in them, can contrast or complement your palette.

monochromatic xeric palette
This monochromatic palette is far from boring, especially when the light hits all of those yellow blooms. A potted geranium adds a mobile touch of pink.

To plan your color palette, you could also start with a few native plants you love, or that are already in place, as a foundation. Then build on those plants. I think I’ve mentioned that we have lots of yellow in our garden and all over our place (either alyssum in spring or dandelions right now!). So we are trying to balance the yellow and purple with more white and red. Of course, you can go with a monochromatic palette, using nearly all yellows and oranges, for example.

Learn more about color palettes in this Proven Winners article, and check out my Resources page to learn more about native or xeric plant sources. Some of the plants I mentioned in this post are pictured on my Photos page.

Grow Edibles as Ornamentals

We finally got a combination of heat and moisture in New Mexico with the monsoons, though the pattern this year is wacky. I’ll take it, though, because the vegetables are growing, and most importantly, ripening. And the healthier, fruit-bearing plants are enriching our diet, but also bringing me so much joy.

edible-ornamental-tomato
Ripening tomatoes! These cocktail tomatoes are gorgeous to look at and fun to squeeze (or harvest) as I walk inside each evening.

In April, I wrote about how growing edible plants is a smart xeric strategy. If you have lawn, garden or container space to fill and want attractive plants to look at, why not make some of those edibles? It’s true that most edibles require more water than native plantings, but they produce food in return. And since they grow here when most of our annual rain falls, we use little well water, especially by harvesting rain water.

But back to how pretty they look! Sure, maybe seedlings are a little sad at first, and until flowers set on tomatoes or cucumbers, they’re not much to look at. Once vegetables flower, however, they have pretty blooms and you want to check on them every day (at least once) to see how they’re progressing. Mix in one or two favorite flowering perennial or annual plants and you’ve got a small arrangement of colors and textures.

edibles as ornamentals
Maybe I’m weird, but I think even the wild grape tomato plants in the large container to the left are beautiful. And don’t forget bountiful! I also love how the melon drapes over the geranium. Other edibles in this photo: rosemary and a tiny pepper.

Here are a few tips to remember when growing edibles as ornamentals:

  • Make sure you amend the dirt so it’s plenty rich and full of organic matter. If you pop some carrots or tomatoes down where you formerly grew cacti, your plants won’t get the nutrients they need and the dirt might not drain or hold water as it should, depending on its makeup. The longer you can take to prep the soil, the better.
edibles in rock garden
Here’s the same area I showed in the April post I mentioned above, slightly more than three months later. But the soil needed more amendment than we gave it. The zucchini didn’t care at all, and is eating the garden. But the other plants needed more organic matter. The empty spot once hosted a tomato.
  • Check with local master gardeners or reputable sites for container sizes for various herbs and vegetables. For example, most tomatoes need  at least a 24-inch diameter pot for good root and plant growth; larger is better if in doubt. And terracotta plants are a beautiful Southwestern staple, but they dry out more quickly than plastic or glazed pots. But if you want to grow the edible more for looks than production, as long as you make sure the container drains, the sky’s the limit. Have fun with it.
  • Of course, if critters are a problem, you might have more limitations. I’ve had some tomato munching, but no action on my patio yet. We’ll see what happens when the melons begin to ripen.
  • Using a variety of colors and textures goes for gardening with edibles, just like when planning a xeric garden landscape. Many flowering vegetables, such as tomatoes, melons and squashes, have yellow flowers. Add more color with an eggplant in a container (most varieties self-pollinate) for its purple, star-shaped flowers. Or grow an okra, which has a beautiful white flower with a purple center. Beans, and especially peas, can be attractive if grown on a trellis. Just be sure to give them plenty of space!
green beans
I think these green beans are lush and gorgeous. If growing on a pretty painted trellis instead of wire fencing, the foliage and round, white flowers would add interest to any garden.

Recommended Reading: Growing the Southwest Garden

A few months ago, I mentioned how many garden books we have on our shelves. I just added a new resource from our favorite local expert and fellow member of the Garden Writers Association, Judith Phillips.

Judith’s newest release, titled “Growing the Southwest Garden,” (Timber Press Inc., 2015) is a go-to guide for native and xeric plants for New Mexico, Arizona, and our neighboring states’ high deserts. It’s also a beautifully written discourse on the climate extremes faced by the gardeners who live there, and especially by the plants they care for.

Growing the Southwest Garden.
A good garden book serves as a resource and as inspiration. This one does both, and more.

Judith, a landscape designer, author and part-time professor, describes how and why climate affects plant selection and health and why it’s so important to base landscape design and plant choice on region. She explains the scientific basis of heat, drought, wind and other stresses on plants and how native plants have adapted to the extremes the Southwest deserts and mountains offer. In addition, Judith offers plenty of ideas and strategies for successful gardening in the various regions of the Southwest.

The book includes examples of landscape designs, an excellent list of Southwest plants and more than 300 color photos. The information is both practical, with tips on seasonal pests, for example, and thought provoking. As one of our top proponents of preserving water and ecosystems, Judith reminds us all how to tend our gardens, create practical but beautiful landscapes, and protect plants and other living beings.

book judith phillips
Growing the Southwest Garden has regional information and photos on plants for Arizona, New Mexico, and surrounding states.

What I love most about this book is that I will read it again and again, not just as a brief reference to look up a plant, but when I start to lose faith. Sometimes, gardening in climate extremes can be frustrating, and it helps to be armed with knowledge and tools. As a near-native of the Southwest, who grew up in the scorching heat of Phoenix and since lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico and the high desert of southeastern New Mexico, this book reminds me to embrace all that I love about the Southwest, its terrain and native plants.

I have found Growing the Southwest Garden available from Timber Press, on Amazon and at the independent bookstore, BookWorks, in Albuquerque, N.M.

Xeriscaping Strategy: Garden Art

A month ago, I talked about how strategic use of rocks and other natural hardscaping could add interest to your xeric garden. Another strategy, and a fun activity, is careful placement of art in the xeric garden.

sundial as garden art
This sundial, a gift from family, has a prominent spot in our rock garden.

With small objects of art, you can treat your garden like a canvas to add focal points of interest for times when plants are not blooming, to bring the eye up or down as a complement to plant height, to add pops of color or movement, or just to add some fun and whimsy.

metal object sin garden
The snail is an offering, but hasn’t convinced the real crawlers to move on! The wind spinner adds movement, sometimes lots of it!

Although many of the objects in our garden have been gifts from family members, we also have enjoyed picking up a few pieces of art when traveling. That way, we have a souvenir from our trip, and we get to see it nearly every day in one of our favorite places.

Of course, there is some magnificent art you can purchase, such as fountains carved from natural stone. And you will see excellent specimens in your favorite home design and fine gardening magazines. If you have a tighter budget and like to collect your own small objects, it’s really a matter of personal taste when deciding what goes into your garden. And although I am not a landscape designer, here are a few tips:

  • For xeric gardens, art made from natural materials typically fits in better. Objects made from metal, wood or stone and with earthy finishes usually fit into the flow better. However, a few bursts of color can really add to the garden’s palette. For example, there is a piece of garden sculpture at one of our favorite shops in nearby Cloudcroft, N.M., called Off the Beaten Path, that I’m coveting. It’s an army helmet made into a bright red ladybug. And one of these days, it will have a place of honor among the green of our garden. Unless they sell them all before I can get one!
birdhouses in xeric garden
These birdhouses, both gifts painted by family members, add pops of color around our redbud that we can see from a distance.
  • With color or garden art in general, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. In other words, I have seen it overdone. Still, if you get joy from collecting or making garden art, then go for it. After all, this is your garden, your sanctuary.
  • When placing art, consider plants’ growth. If you have a large object that you can’t easily move, be sure not to place it so close to a small shrub that the art eventually disappears. I’ve pulled up plenty of annuals and weeds because they choked out a favorite little sculpture.
garden art hidden by plants
Our little stone and metal ant is being overrun by annuals that popped up around him. I need to move him or clean up so he can be seen.
  • Combine form and function. Decorative rain gauges, bird houses, bird baths, bird feeders, butterfly water trays, wind spinners or weather vanes all can serve a purpose in your garden and provide visual interest.
mini-chiminea in garden
We won’t burn anything in this mini-chiminea, but I do want to try growing a shade-loving plant in it.
  • Really, the sky’s the limit, especially if you are into repurposing old items. A larger garden can hold a recycled gate or window with your own idea for a stained glass design added by a local artist, or you can create a small bottle tree.

With strategically placed garden art, you can add year-round interest to your xeric garden without the need to add more or larger plantings.

Plan Your Xeriscape Garden for All-Season Color

If one of your concerns about xeriscaping is that your garden will look as barren as the Southwest desert, it only takes a little planning and time to ensure you have some color and texture from spring to fall. Of course, that’s easy if you have unlimited water and time.

Alamogorgo, N.M. landscape white sands
I can’t resist the urge to showcase New Mexico sites and landscapes, even when discussing barren deserts. This is a hilltop outside Alamogordo, N.M., with a view of the White Sands in the distance.

But it’s also entirely possible and relatively simple to have continuous color using low-water plants. Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t give up on bulbs. Although you would think they use lots of water, they’re like the camels of the plant world, adapted or bred to store water and energy in their roots, stems or leaves. They also do best in well-draining soil. I’m lumping corms, tubers and rhizomes with true bulbs. Spring-flowering bulbs should need no water other than rain after established unless you have a really long dry spell, especially during growth and flowering. As long as you choose varieties recommended for your area and follow care guides for placement, mulching and dividing, you should be able to add bulbs to your xeric garden as desired. I love how iris and tulips bloom early as a sign of spring.

iris low water spring bulb
Iris provide spring color with little to no extra water or work.

 

day lily bloom
Day lily blooms only last one day, but bloom in early summer. We found out they bloom closer to July 1 in our slightly cooler zone.

Choose one or two continuous, or nearly continuous, bloomers. I don’t know how a small shrub, especially a xeric one, can bloom in the late spring or early summer and hold those blooms all season. But I think the easiest way to plan a small xeric garden is to select one continuous bloomer you like, then build around it. For example, santolina usually blooms all summer, after one trim or shearing back in the spring. Since it has yellow flowers, you can then decide how you’d like to complement the low spreading shrub with other colors throughout the summer. By the way, it’s also evergreen, so you can consider how to complement the gray (silvery foliage) or green santolina with another evergreen or some hardscaping for winter interest. Other examples, depending on your zone, are gaura (Gaura linheimeri) or most salvias, though some might require deadheading.

green santolina
Green santolina has evergreen foliage with lemon-colored, button-shaped blooms nearly all summer.

Try a groundcover. You don’t have to replace your entire lawn with a groundcover, but you can add color with some well-placed xeric planting. Several thyme varieties require no water at all and are terrific at filling in spaces between pavers, rocks or stepping stones. You’ll get some green and tiny purple flowers when they bloom. A groundcover also can cool the roots of other plants that need a little help to survive hot summer days. Just remember that they spread, especially if you overwater them.

xeric groundcover
This groundcover is spreading in several areas this summer and sending up stalks with tiny lavender-colored flowers. I think it is a speedwell.

Supplement with a few annual seeds or containers. Satisfy your desire for early color and bloom variety each year with some annuals. Seeds are inexpensive, but are a little more water and time intensive. Or fill a designated area of your patio, deck or garden with a few containers with pops of color from annual bedding plants. You can decide when the color appears and what colors you want to complement your perennial blooms. Seeds sowed as soon as the ground warms will bloom later than many of your perennials. And many annuals continue blooming with or without pinching and deadheading. I love petunias in containers because they spread with little effort on my part and need no deadheading, just pinching off of spent buds every now and then to look their best.

petunias in container
Petunias are so simple in beds or containers. They spread with little water or attention.

It can be a lot of work to deadhead continuously. So it’s probably good to limit the number of annuals that need regular trimming of blooms to force new ones. But some xeric plants such as lavender and salvias will bloom a second time with one trim following the first bloom, so you get a late, bonus wave of color.

Some plants give you plenty of hints (Autumn sedum booms in fall!). But if you have limited space and experience, a xeric landscape designer can help you select the fewest plants possible for continuous bloom.

Water Under, Not Over, a Plant

For water conservation and plant health, the smartest xeric strategy is to water the roots of the plant and avoid watering the plant’s leaves.

Let’s look at the water savings first: Water evaporates when exposed to air, and occurs at the water surface area. The smaller a drop of water, the higher the percentage of the drop’s surface area. Add the effect of wind on tiny drops of water from sprinklers and you might as well just pour that water down the drain. And if you irrigate a plant from above or with sprinklers and spray emitters, much of the water lands on the leaves, where it can evaporate. In fact, water constantly evaporates from a plant’s leaves as it is, in a process called transpiration. It’s a plant’s natural way of cooling off on hot summer days.

herb garden drip irrigation
Cascading or spraying water is for fountains and lawns, not for plants. Note at least three inconspicuous, but efficient, drip emitters in this herb garden.

Feed a plant’s roots

It’s much better for a plant to take new water in through the plant’s roots, where the water picks up soil nutrients and works its way up the trunk and stems back to the leaves to do its cooling and feeding work. There’s another reason not to spray water on plant leaves, especially late in the day or during cloudy, humid weather: wet leaves can harm many plants.

Fungal diseases such as powdery mildew on roses or apple scab on apple trees and crabapples is partly a result of water on the leaves. Sometimes, there is nothing a gardener can do. We have an old apple tree with some scab that likely came from spores in old leaves left on the ground and a week or more of cool, cloudy and humid weather in late spring.

apple scab on leaves
We don’t water this old tree near the river, but an unusually cool and damp late spring caused this brown spotting, which I believe is apple scab. It was worse on lower leaves on the northeast side of the tree, but seems to have stopped progressing. And the apples don’t look too bad!

Change how you irrigate

Often, simply changing irrigation practices can improve a plant’s health. When we first moved to a home in Albuquerque many years ago, the previous owner had installed sprayheads in all of the flowerbeds. We eventually had to replace all of them with bubblers and rework the plantings. Bubblers or drip irrigation might have required a little more planning, better leveling of the soil and more parts or emitters. But in the end, the homeowner would have saved money on his water bill and I bet on plants! Farmers know this is the way to go, and many are learning new ways to improve irrigation techniques to reduce water use.

subsurface drip irrigation
A micro subsurface drip irrigation system was used in this demonstration project in Texas. Click on the image, which is courtesy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to learn more about the project.

We recently visited a nursery in search of tomato cages and noted that the tomato plants they still had in stock looked awful, even though they had a few large fruits on the plants. I thought at first it was too shaded in the greenhouse, but then Tim noticed the cause: an overhead spray watering system. The leaves were spotted and nearly goldish-brown in color. I don’t know how they are healthy enough to continue feeding the plants. Granted, these plants have been in the greenhouse way past the typical time, and there are many more than you would have to deal with in your garden. Still, it seems to me they would sell more tomato plants if they watered differently.

rose water pail
Roses are especially vulnerable to powdery mildew and need deep watering at the roots. The only time I spray roses is to rid them of aphids. I use a fairly strong water spray early on a sunny day.

And in case I haven’t convinced you, here’s yet another reason to water with drip emitters or by hand near the roots of a plant instead of broadcast or spray irrigation: weeds. When you spray water, you water everything around, including weed seeds. Watering only around your vegetables’ or ornamentals’ roots confines weed growth, making it easier to pick small weeds out by hand.

hose watering tomato
It takes more time to water my vegetable garden by hand, but the hose from our rain barrel waters the plants deeply and just at the roots while I weed.

As I said before, you can’t control rain, which obviously comes from overhead. But keeping plants exposed to proper sun, trimmed and cleared to give them sun and airflow and cleaning out debris from around the bottom of trees and plants can help reduce risk of fungal diseases. Choose mulches carefully, depending on local recommendations for a given plant.