My mantra is “Gardening Should be Fun.” Taking the pressure off makes it more fun. In other words, your garden doesn’t have to look like the cover of a magazine or top Pinterest pages for you to enjoy the process and the results.
So, if you are a new gardener or have a friend or relative who wants to grow plants and doesn’t know where to start, you can watch my online course with the basic terms and concepts. I developed the course for Southwest Gardening Blog, where I am one of four gardeners/authors.
The online class only is available through February 28, so be sure to sign up soon. You can watch it whenever it is convenient and as often as you like. Have fun with plants!
Roses are red for Valentine’s Day, but there are other plants, including houseplants, bulbs and a few xeric plants that make great Valentine’s Day gifts with their deep red blooms.
Here are my favorites:
This xeric salvia (Salvia gregii) is a garden stunner. Add one to your rock garden for all-season color in most regions of the Southwest (zones 6 through 10). Hot lips sage is a perfect plant for lovers with bright red and white blooms.
Red or Iceland poppies are perfect flowers for pressing and can last a bit as a cut flower. Papaver rhoeas (Red or Shirley Poppy) is a gorgeous complement to other flowers in the garden or planted in a bunch for a bright red meadow.
Geraniums come with deep maroon red, fire engine red or pink flowers. Plant a red geranium and a white geranium in a container for your Valentine. These plants can stay outside in spring or summer in most areas of the Southwest will continue to bloom inside in winter if left in a sunny window. I like to cut the bloom stalk near where the flowers begin and float it in a clear glass container filled with water.
If the symmetrical rosettes of leaves topped by pretty flowers are not enough (and they should be) to brighten any home or heart, the plant names might do the trick. There are thousands of varieties of African violets hybridized by pros and amateurs with fun registered names. Hybridizers name the violets after loved ones, hobbies and the plant characteristics. There are plenty of varieties with pink and reddish flowers (not just purple ones) .
Many varieties of the winter-blooming bulb come in solid red or white with red or coral streaks. Although most are raised to bloom around the holidays, they can bloom later if dormant and dark for a while, or have a second bloom. I have one that bloomed like crazy in December but has another bud coming up that likely will open just after Valentine’s Day.
Although cut flowers are nice, a plant that can grow on in your garden or home makes a perfect gift for your Valentine. Tulips open outdoors in early spring, and even Claret cup cacti have gorgeous red blooms. My all-time favorite cutting flower is the gladiola and a nice guilty pleasure in an otherwise low-water garden (and protected from munching deer). Or try giving your loved one an anthurium, the tropical plant with a red heart-shaped flower!
It’s easy to spot possible problems with a plant’s leaves, stems or flowers. Those are the parts we enjoy seeing every day in our garden. But what about the parts that lie beneath the surface of your garden or container?
We can forget all about the roots when enjoying a plant’s shape and color. But some of the toughest tricks to gardening involve root care – watering enough but not too much; soil drainage to allow roots to gather water but not sit in them; ability for roots to take up oxygen, and ability of roots to grow outward to support the plant you see above ground. How do you know your plant’s roots are healthy and why is it important?
Roots Affect Plant Health
The way roots grow, and their health, have a profound effect on the size a plant reaches, its vigor, and how it responds to watering or other care you give the plant. The main function of these leafless, underground stems is to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil around them. The roots store the plant’s food to keep it nourished and alive. Roots also help stabilize a plant in the soil or potting mix and physically support the plant’s main stem or trunk.
Types of Roots
There are various types of roots, although most root systems branch out under the soil. You might have heard of a taproot, which is a primary root that grows straight down into the soil and develops few to no root branches. Picture a carrot. The part we eat actually is a taproot. That’s the good kind, but a taproot can be a problem for gardeners. Some trees, such as pecans, grow deep taproots. This makes them much more difficult to dig up and transplant.
Some roots have lateral, or secondary, roots that branch off from an existing root. This happens with fibrous roots because their primary root eventually stops lengthening. Fibrous roots are lighter and smaller in diameter because they have less cell activity than standard roots.
One of the biggest problems with roots is restriction of their growth. This is easy to see when you lift a new plant out of its nursery pot. Some have roots circling in the shape of the container; the roots received good nutrition from the potting mix and plenty of water from garden center staff, but had nowhere to go. When planting, always dig a hole larger than the root ball – up to three times as large for trees and shrubs. And loosen the soil around the outer edges of the hole. If the ground is compacted and dense, roots will have to work harder to spread.
A second problem is underwatering (especially a tree) or watering in brief, shallow periods instead of long, deep soaks. Short watering doesn’t penetrate very deeply, so the roots grow close to the surface. And that can bring on other problems, including damage from lawnmowers or foot traffic. But with less frequent and deeper watering, roots grow downward as they seek moisture.
Roots as Plant and People Food
For plants, the structure and quantity of roots help determine how much water and nutrition the plant takes in. That’s why it is so important to water a plant more in its first season or year of growth than it will need later. The extra water helps those roots take hold and grow so they can store food for the plant.
Aside from carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes and beets are among common roots people eat. The mature root – a tuberous root in the case of a potato or sweet potato – holds lots of nutrition.
One final tip – buying a plant that has roots wrapped around inside the pot (rootbound) can make for more challenges when you plant it. You should tease or slice the roots near the outer bottom to help stimulate new growth. But if a plant’s roots are brown or dry, move on to another plant.
Not sure what to give a loved one, friend or co-worker as a holiday gift? You can’t beat succulents. Here are five reasons why:
1. Easy care, even for brown thumbs.
Although succulents can die, they are easier to care for than most plants. You can kill them only with kindness (too much water). And even leaves of heat-loving succulents can burn in direct sun. But they make great gifts for people who want a little green but have less than green thumbs. Keep it simple with common succulents like Echevaria or Sempervivum. Both plants come in pretty rosette shapes.
2. Succulents make people smile.
Partly because they’re easy, and maybe because of their fleshy, healthy-looking leaves or pads, these plants bring a touch of natural, living matter to the dullest setting. You can find popular ways of displaying succulents as décor. And if the recipient likes to live on the edge, a nice spiny cactus is a fun gift that could be the gateway to growing more houseplants.
3. Succulents grow in lots of container types.
A few weeks ago, I posted about growing cacti in containers. Succulents are so easy to plant in natural, pretty or quirky containers. Small ones can grow in tiny holes of rocks or driftwood. Air plants are even easier to grow in unique containers, since they require no soil.
4. Adding a personal touch is easy.
So, maybe the succulent you choose for a gift isn’t so unique, but you plant it in a coffee cup with a message, or a souvenir that has sentimental value. You can use your sense of humor or a little romance when choosing how to present a small succulent – or several. Or select one based on the name (maybe String of Pearls?) You also can make your gift more personal with a small set of instructions on how to care for the plant. You can look for information online or write up how you take care of succulents.
5. They’re popular and available.
The trend in succulent plantings, arrangements and decoration on all sorts of materials might not last forever. But while it does, it is easy to find a great selection of succulents for gift-giving.
Here are some favorite small succulents:
Echevaria, several varieties
Sempervivum (such as hens and chicks)
Sedum morganianum (Burro’s tail)
Euphorbia milii (Crown of Thorns) and it is thorny!
Crassula ovata (Jade plant)
Mamillaria crinita (Pincushion cactus)
Haworthia fasciata (Zebra plant)
Zwartkop (Aenonium arboretum)
Also, Tillandsias (airplants) come in lots of types and colors.
Succulents, and especially cactus plants, usually prefer heat and drought. That’s one reason they make such perfect plants for desert gardens. But in the high deserts or mountains of New Mexico and other Southwestern states, many cacti only can live outdoors in the summer. Enter containers…
Why Plant Cacti in Containers?
The best reason for planting cacti in containers is the flexibility it offers. You can move the plant throughout the year (carefully) to bring it outdoors when summer nights warm and indoors as frost approaches. But you also can move your cacti around to control temperature or sun exposure. Even succulents can burn from intense sun, so it is good to keep an eye on the plants and rotate or move them depending on sun, including sun from a south- or west-facing windows.
Another reason to plant cacti in containers is to isolate watering. When planted outside, especially near drip or other watering systems, cacti can get too much water. With containers, you can control cactus watering based on season and when the plant goes dormant. If you love the look of a cactus in your desert landscape, nothing says it has to be in the ground! If the water or temperature conditions are not ideal, place your cactus outside in a colorful container. Just remember – the outdoor container should have good drainage and can cool off more at night, so don’t leave a container cactus outdoors in winter unless it is hardy to at least 10 degrees cooler than your lowest low.
Finally, most cacti are slow growers, so you don’t’ have to repot them often. Other cacti spread out of control in the garden. You’ve probably seen a xeric yard in your neighborhood with prickly pear growing like a sprawling hedge, maybe onto the sidewalk. It is easier to control cacti when in the confines of a container.
Container Cactus Mix
Planting and caring for cacti in containers is easy, but the soil mix is crucial to success. If you plant a cactus in standard container potting mix, which is designed to help retain water, your cactus roots will get soggy and rot. You can buy special cactus mixes or make your own. Ask friends or local experts for ideas. Examples include adding 1 part coarse sand and 5 parts perlite (for airflow and drainage) to 4 parts of potting mix. Vermiculite also improves aeration but holds too much water. You also can add a little bit of rock dust or pumice to your mix.
Handle your cactus carefully while transplanting. You can use an old sock or towel to wrap around the plant near the base and lift it out of the pot. Or turn the pot with the cactus on its side, resting the plant on an old pillow (that you won’t use again) to cushion the plant while you pull the container off the root ball.
Old long-handled barbecue tongs are great tools for holding a cactus while you place it in its new container; or use regular tongs for smaller plants. The eraser side of a pencil works great for gently pressing soil down around smaller cacti.
Some Favorite Container Cacti
Some of these cacti are spinier than others, so you might want to be careful where you place them. Many will flower, especially in spring or early summer. And some can tolerate pretty cold temperatures, but still would be fun winter houseplants.
Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). The golden barrel and other barrel cacti are such great landscape plants, giving a pretty round shape to landscape designs. I especially love them on hills. But they’re only hardy to 15 to 17 degrees, so we keep ours in a container.
Pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). Pencil cholla are pretty scary looking, with spines up to one inch long sticking out from tall, thin branches. They are hardy to -20 degrees and love heat, but spread easily in the yard.
Bishops cap (Astrophytum myriostigma). This is an attractive and slow-growing cactus perfect for a container, especially since it only can handle cold down to 20 degrees. I love the sort of grainy white and green look of the plant. See the second photo above. That is a bishops cap in the middle.
Hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus). It’s native to the U.S. and Engelmanns hedgehog is most common throughout the Southwest. It’s spiny, but should produce bright pink flowers more than two inches across. The plant only reaches about 10 inches in height.
Fence post (Pachycereus maginatus). This is a columnar, almost regal cactus. The columns have ridges with small spines and when planted in a row, they form an excellent wall. Columnar cacti are great choices for planting in containers of homes with high ceilings or to simply provide height behind a grouping of houseplants. They just need plenty of filtered sun.
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). It’s hard to imagine this sprawling cactus in a container, but it can be done. It will need summer heat and can survive temperatures down to 20 below freezing. So, the garden can work, but you can control ocotillo growth in a container and enjoy it as a rising backdrop to other cacti or succulents.
Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). This is by far one of my favorite cacti. But it needs to stay in temperatures above 46 degrees, despite its shaggy layer of “hair.” This is another slow grower, and often a conversation starter in a home!
Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia canacapa). For the look of a gorgeous green and juicy cactus pad and no spines, go with this pretty plant. It still will grow new pads, but you can cut them off or plant them elsewhere. Both regular and hardy prickly pears can survive temperatures down to zero.
Holiday flowers like paperwhites and amaryllis are fun and beautiful, but in the Southwest, we love succulents, and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a fall and winter favorite in our homes.
The Christmas cactus loads up with delicate flowers each winter, assuming you take a few steps to force the blooms. That might sound intimidating, but it really is simple. The blooms appear on small, flat “leaves,” which are really stem segments. Closely related plants – all with a holiday “theme” – are the Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncates) and the Easter cactus (Schlumbergeragaertneri). You can guess the approximate times each should bloom. There are some differences in the stem shapes, but overall care is similar.
Schlumbergera plants were discovered in Brazil’s rain forests, where they grow as epiphytes on trees or other plants without stealing their nutrients. That makes them less parasitic than another holiday favorite, mistletoe.
The flowers have a long, tubular shape and truly are remarkable, especially considering they appear on an indoor succulent! Between all schlumbergera varieties, you can find red, salmon, white and orange blooms, as well as some bicolor flowers.
Here’s how to get your Christmas cactus to bloom: Place it in a dark closet in fall, usually around late September or early October. Once buds begin to form on the ends of the stem sections, after about a month or two of darkness, bring the plant out into natural light, but not to an extreme temperature or direct sunlight.
Christmas cactus thrives best in indoor temperatures (about 55 to 70 degrees F). Even though these are cacti, they come from a naturally humid setting. Mist the leaves from time to time and let the soil barely dry out between watering so it is consistently and lightly moist, but don’t overwater or let the plant sit in water.
Once your Christmas cactus blooms, the flowers last about a week, assuming they get some sun and appropriate water. The chain of blooming should last about a month. Some say the plant is unattractive when not blooming, but I disagree. I find the cascading form of the stems and their thick, succulent appearance attractive all year.
This plant is easy to grow, and you often get blooms without following any of the advice about dark periods. We’ve had blooms at various times of the year, and I’m okay with that. I just enjoy the plant, no matter when it rewards us with those fabulous flowers. You can find Christmas cactus in nurseries and just about anywhere this time of year. The plant makes a great gift.
The leaves are falling, but you don’t have to sink into winter doldrums. You can keep up your green thumb and all the joy you get from growing with indoor plants. All that greenery inside your house is much more cheerful than the brown landscape and bare trees outside. So fill your home with green and flowers.
Here are a few ideas on how to extend the season and ease into winter slowly.
Adjust houseplant conditions
Even houseplants that live indoors all year might need some winter preparation. This includes cutting back on watering and fertilizing and cleaning leaves to allow as much light as possible to reach the plant. Because winter days are shorter, and the sun in the northern hemisphere is lower, you might have to move plants to different windows or supplement their light with grow lights. And be sure not to overwater houseplants in winter. Most need a break to rest, and only need water when the soil dries out.
Move container plants inside
We move inside any plant we love and think can make it at least a few months inside. It helps if it is not too heavy to move. This includes many succulents that can’t take low temperatures, geraniums, and plants that tolerate shade. We had a gorgeous coleus container we brought inside one year. It got leggy, but we were able to enjoy it for a few months more than if we had discarded it.
Harvest or grow edibles
Pick green tomatoes if still viable on the vine and let them ripen indoors, fry them up or make a tomato sauce starter. Making pesto is fun, but you also can cut basil branches and place in a jar of water for extended life. If canning is your thing, it feels good to prep for winter by preserving fruits and vegetables. When you miss your summer garden, visit the dark cool area where the jars of your preserved crops are stored. You can grow sprouts in glass jars to “summer up” sandwiches and salads.
Take cuttings of favorite plants
That coleus that got too big and lanky? We could have rooted new coleus plants from cuttings instead of bringing the mature plant inside. There’s a fun indoor project! In fact, try taking cuttings of favorite plants and starting them indoors. Not all plants are easy to propagate, but with some practice, you can start your own plants for the next spring.
Buy a new houseplant
African violets can bloom almost continuously if they receive enough sun and consistent, light moisture and repotting as needed. There are thousands of varieties with different bloom colors and styles and variegated leaves. Many succulents bloom in winter (such as Christmas cactus) or in spring, when you’re really itching to get outside and grow. Both succulents and African violets also are easy to grow from leaf cuttings, though the technique is very different for each.
Cosmos are the annual gifts that keep on giving. And that’s good, because they’re one of the easiest flowers to grow and they come in a huge range of colors, bloom types and varieties.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) plants are part of the Aster family, and native to Mexico and some areas of the desert Southwest. Between this classic cosmos and the related sulphur cosmos (C. sulphureus), the flowers can grow in nearly a full range of growing zones – from zone 1 through zone 11.
Of course, in nearly all but the hottest of these zones, cosmos grows as an annual and dies back with frost. But if you think that is a good reason to avoid growing the plant, I’d like to convince you otherwise. Cosmos is a prolific re-seeder in even the poorest of garden soils.
Add Color and Wildlife
Cosmos flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds, along with other insects. They will bloom from mid-summer through early or mid-fall, depending on your first frost date. You can cut flowers for indoor arrangements, which also can lead to more blooms. I also leave plenty of dying flowers on the stems because they feed finches. I love watching a finch land on the small, swinging branches to peck away at the seeds. In a world in which so many flowers are yellow, it’s so great to enjoy the white, pink and red tones of cosmos in my xeric garden.
Plant from Seeds
You can plant cosmos from seeds or nursery transplants. I have had mixed luck growing cosmos from seed until this year. I know the flower seeds like loose soils, but with our dry and windy conditions, I found it better to cover the seeds lightly with some compost and water with a soaker hose to prevent washing away.
As for planting again next year, unless you severely disturb the soil where (and near where) you had cosmos last year, you should get plenty of volunteers as soon as summer rains start, and see the seedlings with their fine leaves growing taller as monsoon rains continue. You can help Mother Nature by gently spraying the area where you want the flowers to appear if early-summer rains have been light.
Most cosmos varieties grow tall, maturing at up to four-feet high, so they often work best at the back of a garden. If you have a bed or meadow filled with cosmos, they tend to support each other and seldom flop over as some plants can when they get tall. Cosmos loves full sun or part shade.
Sit back and enjoy
Once they become seedlings, cosmos do best with nothing but rain water. Overwatering the plants actually can lead to fewer blooms.
There are some areas of the United States that consider cosmos invasive, including a few spots in western New Mexico. And I admit one of the best characteristics of the plant – easy re-seeding – also can mean it pops up where we don’t want it. For example, if I didn’t pull seedlings out of our steps, we would not be able to walk down to the garden. But I leave a few off to the side for compromise. I pull those that block other plants and let the rest grow as they may. They’re crowded, but I love the effect.
You can grow cosmos and enjoy cutting the flowers for indoor arrangements. And have even more fun watching for new flowers to begin popping up the next summer!
I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.
First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.
Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.
This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.
Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.
Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.
Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.
A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.
Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.
Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.
Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.