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….

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.