Maximize Xeric Plant Choices with Microclimates

There already are plenty of fabulous choices for drought-tolerant plants, but we found that our choices narrowed a little when we moved into a slightly colder zone. We’re quickly discovering that our new location has a shorter growing season, but that it can get warm here, so unpredictability makes it a little risky but a lot fun.

With microclimates, I figure we can push the envelope on a few of our favorite xeric plants. First, let’s talk about microclimates. In essence, a microclimate is a pocket of an area that can vary in temperature and exposure to the elements. A microclimate can be large or tiny. An example of a large microclimate might be the area that runs along the river. The grass there is still green and the leaves remain on some of the trees. A combination of shelter, shade, lower elevation, and moisture contribute to the cooler temperatures you feel when you walk through there on a sunny day.

river with grass
Microclimates occur along rivers because of dappled shade, lower elevation, and extra groundwater.

Microclimates can be as small as the few feet you have to plant in front of your south-facing wall or the inside of the plastic bottle you place over a seedling to absorb sunshine and maintain humidity for a mini-greenhouse effect.

bottles_micro_web
Tim covered these transplants with cut-off plastic bottles and set them in a window for a mini-greenhouse effect.

We brought a pad from our spineless prickly pear along and to be sure it made it here, we planted it against the rock wall on the northeast side of our garden (facing southwest) to maximize sun and minimize wind exposure. You also can use microclimates to make plants more drought tolerant. For example, put a plant that needs a little more water than nature usually provides in summer where your terrain naturally comes to a slope and slight pool, creating a natural well. And avoid placing a plant that can’t handle drought on a high southwest-facing spot with no protection. In my area, at least, you might as well be putting the plant up on a clothesline to dry before nightfall.

Micro_prickly_web
This transplanted spineless prickly pear is happy in its southwest-facing wall location.

Here are a few more tips for making microclimates work for you and your plants:

  • Try even large trees and shrubs on south-facing walls to add a half-zone of heat. You’ll likely have more success if you buy a plant that’s slightly established (not a bare root, for example). An unusually cold winter might kill the plant or prevent fruiting or blooming, but it’s worth a try.
  • Take advantage of the shade from the heat-loving tree and fill in around the bottom with perennial or annual bedding flowers that need a little bit of cool shade in summer. They might even provide some natural mulch or protection for your tree on cold nights. Columbine is a great example; it’s a gorgeous flower that grows naturally in higher elevation forests, but might thrive under the dappled shade of a landscape tree.
  • Use raised beds and containers to create microclimates. Raised beds that run east to west warm up faster in the spring, and any new vegetables planted on the south side of the beds should beat others to the punch. You can move containers around to create microclimates for plants indoors and out, wintering over cacti and other heat-loving plants in south-facing windows, but setting them out on the patio in spring. Just remember that pots, especially clay ones, dry out more quickly. That’s fine for succulents, but can become a problem for thirsty annuals in the heat of the summer.
  • Use mulch or landscape fabrics and plastic to cover ground or  seedlings, adding some warmth and protection.

Mostly, what works for a friend or neighbor might not work for you and vice versa. Slight variations in elevation and exposure can make big differences to a plant’s health and happiness. But if you’re willing to take a few risks, you might be able to enjoy your favorite plant right outside, or inside, your window.

geranium_web
I’m wintering over a few geraniums. This one loves its location on a south-facing wall right by the window. Notice another transplant behind it with a plastic bag and my dog enjoying a sunny microclimate on the floor to the left…

Fall List of Water-saving Activities

The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.

First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.

Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.

mulch in bed
Mulch in this bed helps hold in moisture. Note the manual sprinkler control near the home’s front door. It’s not much more work and avoids watering when unnecessary.

Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.

apple_tree_well_web
Tim built up a ridge around this small apple tree to help well the water.

If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.

calif_poppies
This post lacked color, so I had to add these. Called California or Mexican poppies, they’ll grow in the poorest, driest conditions.

The High Desert Just Got…Higher

side view2
View of house from the northwest side shows apricot tree, garden and view toward river.

 

We live in New Mexico, and spent the past year preparing our house with its nice lawn, beds and straw bale wall to look nice for potential buyers. It sold in the spring and in April, we were fortunate enough to move from Albuquerque to an area just outside Ruidoso, NM.
Still dry? You bet! Still short on water? Of course! We have two acres of water rights with our 4 acres of property and a river that runs through about 180 feet of the back acreage. About three weeks after moving in, it was a dry river bed. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that xeric gardening still rules for the most part, and it’s made a little more fun by hard well water and no sprinkler or drip system.
Did I mention that we also changed zones? At about 6,300 feet in altitude, we’re close to USDA Zone 6, just below some gorgeous mountains but in a canyon with strong, dry winds, along with daily and seasonal temperature extremes.
These are all minor challenges, though, and the good news far outweighs any of the water and climate issues. We’ll take the views, the river, a passive solar home, and an awesome xeric garden already laid out by the talented former owners. I’ll talk about some of our solutions and document the seasons as we go. We’ve even got some ideas for more new plantings.
Yes, life is good even when it’s high and dry.