Spring has come early to New Mexico this year. We’re been breaking records for high temperatures. That’s been so nice and has really improved my mood. I’ll even consider it lucky, since we have lots to accomplish before summer.
Of course, our average last frost is around May 10, and April 15 in Albuquerque. So I fear all of the pretty flowers on the fruit trees will freeze at the worst possible time. Or that my impatience with cleaning up and lightly pruning xeric perennials will backfire. I choose to remain optimistic.
Enjoy these green (and a few other colors) early spring finds. Just click on any thumbnail to start the slide show.
There are so many “right” reasons to choose native plants: They need less water and often attract pollinators. But if you need an even better reason, one that appeals to you in your busy world, how about the fact that they’re easier to maintain?
Think about it. By nature (hmmm, native and nature), native plants grow in the open, such as in forests or plains. Away from people, the plants can survive no matter the rainfall or other weather problems. And many reseed to ensure continued survival. They can do all of this without a nice lady in a funny hat and brightly colored gloves “tending” to them.
Why native plants are easy care
Once a plant native to your region is established, which can take up to a year, it should need little to no watering. And it should never need fertilizer or other chemicals. These plants have adapted to their native conditions and are less susceptible to pests and diseases than non-native plants. As long as the plant is in the right spot in terms of sun, soil and climate, all you need as a gardener is a little patience. Don’t amend the soil or overwater your new native (although they need more water in the first year to help the roots establish). Your native might not flower prolifically in its first year, and wildflower seeds can remain dormant in the ground before suddenly popping up when conditions favor their germination and growth.
Of course, just because a plant is listed as “native,” if you plop it down in completely different conditions or climate, the plant might not make it or could turn out to be as much work as a big-box store purchase. For example, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) is listed as a native plant in New Mexico. But it grows naturally at elevations of 100 to 5,000 feet. And elevation makes a big difference in the Southwest. We’re at 6,300 feet, and our nights can easily dip below the 22 degrees F listed for warmer Sunset zones that support the cholla (zones that are less than an hour away to the east or west). Likewise, planting a cholla in a bed with drip or spray irrigation could damage the plant more than cold. It prefers low water, full sun and sandy soil. No wonder it does so well in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona!
How to select native plants
So caring for native plants is easy, but since so much depends on plant choice and placement, how can you make that process easier? Here are a few ideas:
Notice plants you see and love in the lawns of neighbors, commercial buildings and even along roadways or on nearby hikes (but don’t steal native plants in the wild). Take photos to help with identification and note where and when you saw the plant.
Although I said to select plants native to your region, plants native to nearly the same conditions also do well. Several cold-hardy natives of South Africa, such as Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) and Hardy Purple or Yellow Iceplant (Delosperma) do really well in the mountainous Southwest.
Local books and apps are the best source for identifying the plants you see near your home. Some national sites (such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) have accurate search engines, but others can confuse you if your search brings up a low-growing shrub with purple flowers that only grows in Georgia.
Get help from professionals. Local landscape designers know native plants, and should encourage their use. Call your master gardener hotline or check with a local extension office or native plant organization to get help identifying and selecting plants for your area.
If you can’t identify a plant but have it in your garden, try not to stress. We’ve got several plants we have yet to clearly identify, but we’ve watched their natural patterns of growth and blooming and just played along. In most cases, I only shear off spent flower stalks in early spring to reinvigorate the plant.
And if you have a native you really love and want to use elsewhere in your lawn, try saving seeds, propagating a cutting or dividing the plant. See the Resources page for a list of native plant lists or nurseries.
I’ve been thinking about weeds and wildflowers a lot this week, probably because I spotted my first field bindweed in a gravel path. But it’s also because I’m thinking about spring flowers, pollinators and soil.
In past posts, I’ve described the stages of “acceptance” we’ve gone through with the yellow alyssum that pretty much blankets our property. In brief: The alyssum is good because it attracts bees – hundreds of them. And it’s pretty, creating a sort of spring meadow. But it’s bad too. With a deep tap root, the weed/wildflower, (a member of the Brassica, or mustard, family) likely steals water and some nutrients from the grass or garden plants.
Following an excellent Twitter chat on nitrogen fixers (#groundchat led by @CristinaGardens; also on Facebook), I decided to check again whether alyssum helps or hurts soil. It turns out that yellow alyssum does not fix nitrogen, but has a role in recycling the nutrient. It can help smother weeds, but then is it smothering or delaying grass? Yes, it threatens native grasses, according to the Colorado State extension office. And in a xeric garden, I don’t want a plant that robs vegetables or perennials of precious water.
Then I found an article saying that the long tap roots on our yellow alyssum (and presumably mustard weed) help till or break up soil with their long taproots. They also bring nitrogen back up to the surface. Shouldn’t that be good for grass? Alyssum helps in some areas when planted as a cover crop following a nitrogen-rich legume.
Further, when the roots decompose, they add organic matter. So, I’m back to accepting alyssum for these bonus qualities, but mostly because we’ll never win.
Let’s go back to the nitrogen fixers for a minute. Plants need nitrogen to survive. How much a given plant needs varies, but it’s safe to say that nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient. Many gardeners who use fertilizers know this; the N in formulas represents nitrogen. But why apply a synthetic fertilizer to crops or a garden when you can harvest nitrogen with plants that do the work? It’s the organic approach to soil improvement that’s really catching on with farmers. Hurrah!
Examples of nitrogen fixers are hairy vetch, annual wheat grass or ryegrass, and legumes, including clover. Wait, what? I’ve always considered clover invasive. And during the chat, I received an excellent link to an article about sweet clover. Looks like clover is to many gardeners and farmers what sweet alyssum is to us – good or bad, invasive or not. It all depends on your conditions. Further, conditions that favor a particular weed or wildflower can change slightly from one year to the next. Red clover is a potential nitrogen fixer in New Mexico.
And that’s why it’s all relative. I love learning from social media, and learned a lot the other day. But when choosing plants, especially for a large area such as a meadow or field, it’s always best to check with local extension agents or their publications. Otherwise, gardeners in New Mexico would never plant butterfly bush (Buddleia), which is not invasive here, and a gorgeous xeric choice. And they might go a little wild with the sweet alyssum or horehound, which are terrific additions to gardens in some areas, but can take over a New Mexico lawn.
Last week, I posted about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. If you haven’t registered your garden yet, this week is a great time to participate. June 15 through 21 marks National Pollinator Week!
And if you feel your garden doesn’t meet the criteria for a pollinator garden or need some help attracting pollinators and saving water at the same time, read on. I’ve got a list of low-water plants that attract bees in particular.
Let’s first review a few reasons you want bees. Their numbers are dwindling, and the more homeowners and businesses that plant gardens to attract and nourish bees, the more we keep bee populations going. In your own garden, bees pollinate more than two-thirds of your flowers and edibles. Apples, cherries, beans, and other healthy and delicious crops in your yard or local farms need bees to produce their fruit or at least lend a hand, and not just in the height of summer. Gardens that provide bee-loving flowers from early spring until late fall help keep local populations thriving.
Here are a few low-water plants bees love:
Bee balm (Monarda “Jacob Kline”). You can’t go wrong with a selection named for the insect. To encourage the large, red flowers, you might have to give it some extra water, however.
Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa). I’ve mentioned native or wild roses before. The Apache plume is a member of the rose family, but is more shrubby, partially evergreen, native, forgiving to heavy trimming or shaping, and needs no water once established. Bees love the small white flowers.
Thyme. If you allow culinary herbs to flower, bees often go wild. We have thyme in our garden that flowered early this year and is a big attractor. When rosemary blooms, bees swarm all over it.
Sage. Bees also flock to culinary sage. I don’t mind letting some of my herbs flower because I have space. If your space is limited, you might want to cut herbs back (and use them in the kitchen). Pruning makes them healthier, as long as you don’t cut into the woody stems. I prefer to keep a few plants trimmed for culinary use, often in containers, and a few wilder for color (and pollinators). Other sages, such as salvia, also bring bees to your garden.
Onion (Allium) is a popular low-water edible that comes in an ornamental variety called Cokscrew blue twister that attracts bees with its pink flowers.
Pink lamb’s ear (Stachys lavandulifolius). A xeric wildflower that has fuzzy gray leaves and pink flowers to attract bees.
Catmint (Nepeta) has a bluish-purple flower and a strong scent. The low-growing plant can be invasive, however.
Alyssum. If you’ve read my past posts, I have bemoaned this invasive wildflower/weed. But I will say this much: Bees can’t get enough of the pungent blooms, and we probably fed enough honeybees from our yellow land alone in early spring to pollinate half of the desert Southwest!
Fruit trees also attract bees while flowering and there are plenty of vines and shrubs that draw bees to the garden. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a low-water, fragrant choice and Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera semperivirens) uses little water and handles heat and cold. Be aware of vine and shrub spread when you place them, especially regarding be buzzing!
Call me a skeptic. It’s OK, because I am one. I always have been. And I prefer to investigate claims, especially those I see on television or social media. The more often I see a social media gardening claim, the less likely I am to believe its validity.
When I write posts for Gardening in a Drought, I use my personal experience, master gardener training and lots of other sources – books I value and credible websites. If I’m uncertain about a site’s credibility, I always try to verify the information. And most of the information I rely on comes from university extension offices. They’re the source for research-based advice for farmers and homeowners. When it comes to growing food in particular, I’ll take research over pins and “likes” any day of the week.
Don’t get me wrong – I love social media platforms! But I use social media to generate ideas and avenues I want to explore. I don’t consider a post or pin originated by a virtual stranger to be the expert word, the final say. And even posts and pins from more credible sources can be problematic. For example, an article might tout the “Best perennials for shade,” but have its origin in a Georgia newspaper. The rainfall and soil in Georgia differ markedly from here in New Mexico. I need a list a little more specific to my conditions. And that’s just one of the problems I have with some of the social media memes and myths. Here are a few examples:
This is the biggest meme of all. When my husband and I discussed that the entire Epsom salt craze must have been started by savvy Epsom salt marketers, I felt ashamed, as if my jaded skepticism had reached a new low. And then I just felt vindicated (so much sweeter). First, I found a pin touting the miracle “salt,” which is really a mix of mostly magnesium and sulphur for soaking feet, as a way to make “all of your blooms more vibrant, healthier, greener, thicker, etc…” Can I just add an editor’s aside here? There is hyperbole, and then there are errors in use of adjectives. Well, I guess it is an error only if you have a bloom color other than green. And right now, I cannot think of a plant with green blooms…
OK, sorry. The pin to which I referred linked to … you guessed it … a company that sells Epsom salt. And the product now lines the walls of the local Walmart when you walk inside. What a racket! I have decided to begin touting the benefits of yellow alyssum seeds “to make tomatoes juicier, redder, rounder and larger.” I could make them greener too, I guess.
Anyway, the truth is this: Epsom salts really do nothing for any plant or soil in your garden (link to my Resources page for a few sources). If you have super-acidic soil, which is uncommon anyway, it would be better to amend the soil with dolomitic lime than with Epsom salt. And it certainly is not the way to go in New Mexico, where soil tends to be alkaline. In fact, Epsom salt can do more harm than good.
Household vinegar kills weeds
I’m guilty of picking up on the household vinegar meme. And even household vinegar can weaken weeds to some extent. But the truth is, for vinegar to be truly effective on weeds, it needs to be 20 percent acetic acid. This is not your typical household white or apple cider vinegar.
What you need to really achieve control is the higher concentration acetic acid vinegar solution that is approved for use as an herbicide. It is available commercially in some formulas and from certain local or state agencies. We filled about 10 gallon-jugs at the Upper Hondo Soil and Water Conservation District office a few weeks ago and used their formula to mix it with water and dish soap.
For the most part, the acetic acid weakened, or at least stopped the growth of, many weeds. It’s not selective, however, so if you target a dandelion in the grass, you get dead, brown grass around it if in the spray. In addition, vinegar isn’t a systemic herbicide; in other words, it kills leaves but doesn’t work down to the roots. But I think the acetic acid solution can work well in gravel walkways and along rock walls or paver edges, the areas where grass and weeds poke through. Spray on a warm, sunny day and repeat again as needed. If you want to try the household vinegar on small weeds, you might have some success, but it’s probably better mixed with baking soda as a cleanser!
Use of corn meal to stop weeds from geminating is another myth based on a similar, but commercial product. The bottom line? Take social media advice with a grain of, well, salt. And always check to see if it’s accurate and pertinent for your garden soil and climate. Your best sources are local master gardeners and extension offices, or the best gardeners on your block!
Nearly a year ago (in May 2014), I wrote a post about the fine line between weeds and wildflowers. The gist of the rant was that our rock garden and entire property was being invaded by a lovely flower called yellow alyssum (Alyssum alyssoides). It’s a little earlier in the spring, and even yellower!
First, the good. If you love early, yellow blooms, this is a pretty little flower. It looks pretty up against a rock or under a red rose, perhaps. Notice I said “it,” as in a single plant. More on that in the ugly portion…
Now for the bad: This little spreader has cropped up throughout the garden, and we’ve pulled up a few, though I surrendered long before my husband. He has much more patience, though he hasn’t yet tackled the entire garden. Because he wouldn’t get halfway before he had to start again.
If I had any doubt last year about alyssum’s classification as a weed, at least in this setting, I have no doubt now. And that’s the ugly part. Despite our best (nontoxic, of course) efforts to control this little bloomer, it has taken over every nearly every surface and begun spreading to neighbors’ lawns as well. I have no idea how it started; it came with the house!
Having called it ugly, I have to admit the lawn is really pretty when the sun hits it just right early and late in the day. And we are doing our part ecologically, because the bees swarm all over it when the sun shines. The dogs and deer must tread carefully.
As for last year’s fear about the alyssum choking out summer grass, we still had a green lawn come summer. We don’t know if the flowers delayed the grass coming in, but I have a feeling they did. And I am frightened to think what will happen as it takes over, reseeds and multiplies. Meanwhile, I need to research medicinal properties of alyssum flowers or something. Maybe I could make some money?
UPDATE April 6, 2015: A few days after posting this, we headed east to visit relatives, through Roswell and almost to the Texas border. Guess what we saw growing in the worst possible conditions along roadways nearly the entire trip? You guessed it! And it was in my in-laws’ lawn and their neighbors’ yards too. My mother-in-law said she has seen it for years and knew it as a prairie wildflower. I give up and accept this invasive plant as a prairie wildflower … for now.
Water-wise gardening in the Southwest means accepting the spread of native wildflowers and using them to fill and brighten a landscape or garden. There’s a fine line between weed and wildflower, however.
Some native species spread so easily under the right conditions that they take over a garden. Others might not be native, but were introduced to an area and thrive when Mother Nature cooperates. That’s why we had a “yellow spring.” Last fall, we noticed pretty little spiral seedlings appearing in the dying grass. We wondered what they were, but left them. In the spring, yellow popped up everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. But I spent hours trying to identify the weed. I knew it probably was related to mustard, but it didn’t match any of the typical mustard weeds I could find in my searches. And I searched, and searched, for wildflowers and weeds. Here’s a close-up of it in the garden. And guess what it is?
It’s yellow alyssum, or Alyssum alyssoides, a member of the mustard family, imported from Europe. And it has both good and bad qualities. I’ve purchased sweet alyssum before as a bedding plant. And in some searches, it’s listed as a great choice to bring beneficial insects. I can vouch for that, because as I walked across our property on a sunny day, there was a low buzz – bees everywhere. I loved it, but it was a little freaky. And I saw one doe get stung on the face.
Alyssum also is listed as a weed in many Western states. It’s got a taproot about a mile long (slight exaggeration) and really only comes up completely if you moisten the soil and pull. I’ve seen conflicting information on whether it threatens native grasses. We’ll know more as spring progresses.
In the photo above is another weed/wildflower: a native verbena (species Glandularia). I’ve bought plenty of verbenas for rock gardens in lovely colors. And these are beautiful too, especially coming up between the yellow alyssum out in open grassy areas. They are more leggy and leafy than the hybrid or garden-variety verbenas, however, and will come up just about anywhere:
Now, I have wildflowers I love that spread like weeds, usually by self-sowing. We usually leave them in place. Some are great for color and flower, some for scent. And the beauty is that they adapt so well to the dry conditions that they fill the garden without us having to purchase, plant, and most of all, water new plants.
An early spring favorite is night-scented stock, also called night stock (Matthiola longipetala). Believe it or not, it’s also a member of the Brassicaceae, or mustard family. The scent in early evening is so pleasant, and we love that these come up near the patio. They’re also reseeding in the grass around the garden!
The blanket flower (Gallardia) has always been a favorite and the previous owners made sure we have plenty in our garden. They thrive in drought and have such vibrant colors, as do Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera).
We even admit to leaving a few alyssums intentionally where they complement another plant or look pretty up against a rock or piece of dried wood. We’ll never be able to pull them all or stop the reseeding, and I’m not sure we should. They do attract bees and offer early spring color. But it’s hard enough to get grass to grow in a drought and through various weeds. If alyssum adds to the competition too much, we’ll probably need help finding a control method.
Update in March 2015: The alyssum didn’t choke out the grass last year. It might have delayed grass taking root in a few spots, but we had a beautiful lawn. And yep, it’s already back. I’ve come to accept it, and just want to keep it from spreading across an irrigation ditch to our orchard area. Tim is trying to pull it out of the rock garden beds. I don’t have the energy to fight it. But it’s fun to watch…