Gardening in a Hostile Environment: Never Give Up

In the past week, I’ve heard several friends or family members say that they can’t grow plants, that they kill everything they try to grow, etc. I’m here to tell you that every gardener has killed a plant. And if there is anyone out there who can prove otherwise, I’ll send them a free succulent. We have plenty to spare. Just don’t tell my husband.

cactus
Even succulents can be hard to grow if they lack sun or receive too much water. But my husband Tim has a knack for growing them. This is only a small sample, with a few of my ornamentals mixed in.

The seasoned gardener will blame the deer that ate/trampled the day lilies or the bad, strange weather the past year (read nearly any of my blog posts) or grasshoppers and other insects that brought damage and dreaded disease. You know, these seasoned gardeners aren’t really lying. The truth is that all anyone can do is start with the healthiest plant possible, place it in the best possible environment and care for it according to the plant’s needs and the environment in which it lives. If it doesn’t work, we learn from it and try again, sometimes with another plant or another place. And if you get really fed up, you can always switch environments!

view of rock garden and clouds
You can’t have it all. Crazy weather seems to accompany gorgeous views, right?

We happen to love our environment, and I know there are many more hostile than ours. No matter where you live and grow, gardening is trial and error. And like any hobby or DIY project, preparation and a little upfront learning can increase your chance of success, even in a hostile setting. Here are a few problems we face in ours, along with tips to keep from giving up.

Drought and water use. When you “go with the flow,” so to speak in low-water gardening, you take what nature delivers. That means supplementing new plantings with water until they’re established, even watering xeric plants more than suggested for the first year or so. We use rainwater as much as possible, and since our established plants generally need little to no irrigation, we can use well water sparingly as needed. A bigger problem can be too much water. And I think new gardeners, or at least gardeners adjusting to growing xeric plants, tend to overwater drought-tolerant plants for the duration. It’s also instinct to assume when a plant wilts that it needs water, when the cause might be something else. Sometimes, Mother Nature overwaters and having healthy plants helps them ride out the storm.

Never Give-up Tips: Avoid the temptation to overwater.  Make sure low-water plants get a good start, especially by planting them in well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter.

gravel mulch to warm lavender
The gravel mulch near our lavender is meant to reflect heat to warm the plants and to control weeds. We’re trying to keep it away from the base of the plants, though, so it doesn’t restrict their growth or cause wet, soggy roots.

Climate. Nature also can deliver water or temperature in strange patterns. This year, we had more than a week of clouds, cool temperatures and wet days. Our plants got confused, and sometimes climate conditions that are unnatural to native plants can cause stress and disease. At other times, it keeps them blooming later than normal, which is a good thing. Using microclimates, even temporary ones, can help plants weather the goofy weather. For example, I planted my chile and bell peppers at the same time as last year, but the weather was cooler than normal right after I planted. I’ll admit that our seedlings were a little weak, too, so that’s a lesson learned. But I should have put something over or around them to warm them up a notch. A few of them never thrived.

Never Give-up Tips: Know your plants’ zones and sun requirements and follow them when planting, remembering that trees leaf out and grow! And try an edible or annual in a different spot next year or move an established perennial.

Gophers. I’ll include all underground critters, such as moles, prairie dogs and ground squirrels in this one. For us, gophers rank up there as enemy no. 1. You can’t even say they’re cute, because for one, you really never see them. They do their damage mostly at night and I have only seen one pop up as it worked to open a hole in our brand new lavender bed, after chewing up the roots of one of the brand new lavender plants, of course. Some will say they improve the soil. I say they destroy plants. Our tally in a few years includes an Echinacea, a primrose, an ornamental grass, two lavender plants and at least one dwarf apple tree. The newer and more vulnerable the plant, the more they seem to love it.

Never Give-up Tips: The only method that works for keeping gophers away from a vegetable or ornamental garden is burying metal barriers 24 inches down to surround the entire garden or using raised beds such as metal troughs. Of course, container gardening also works. As for control, that’s a post, or two, or three, of its own.

gopher damage in rock garden
We’ve had gophers come through several spots in our rock walls. The walls hold up to deer jumping on them and are nearly four feet high, but gophers…

Deer. Deer are cute and we try to work with them. Our property has only pipe fencing, which the deer and elk can jump over or wind their way through easily. Many of our ornamental plants are unattractive to deer, and we fence those that they enjoy munching on, at least until the plants are large enough to survive the meal. We’ve learned the hard way on a few plants. For example, I didn’t know that deer enjoy the flavor of a spineless prickly pear cactus until we lost an entire pad! They were nice enough to just step on the other one. Deer do draw the line at spiny prickly pear in case you’re wondering.

Never Give-up Tips: It’s easy to search online for lists of plants that deer prefer or avoid, and fencing really is the only deterrent that works. I have used soap shavings (strong-smelling ones) hanging around my unfenced tomato plants with some success, but only in summer when they have a buffet of choices.

deer in ornamental xeric garden
In winter and early spring, deer come right up near the patio, within feet of the house. They’ll eat and step on plenty of plants when food is scarce.

Insects. I don’t much care for bugs, and am learning all I can about the bad ones. We use integrated pest management, because the last thing we want to do is kill bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Our fruit-set rates were incredible for this summer’s vegetables, and I thank our pollinators. But our plants and our feet are under constant attack. Ants have taken over our orchard and we caught some carrying off fall carrot seeds the other day. This is a problem we have to work on, but also accept as part of gardening. And we will continue to do what we can to attract pollinators.

Never Give-up Tips: Hand-pick known criminals such as tomato hornworms or cucumber beetles after you’ve identified them. And spray plants with water for offenders such as aphids. Spraying pesticides, even organic ones, can kill beneficial insects that help control the bad bugs. We plan to add row-cover cloth over more seedlings this year until the plants flower to help control grasshoppers and other bugs.

io moth caterpillar
This might look similar to a monarch caterpillar, but it’s not. For one, it stings and releases a toxin. Second, it never travels alone. We have had invasions now on three different types of trees, where they party until they strip entire branches unless Tim handpicks them. That’s where he learned firsthand about the sting. We think they are io moth caterpillars.

Weeds. It’s so hard to pick a favorite problem! Or least favorite, I should say. With four acres and a couple of garden areas, we seem to spend more time dealing with weeds than growing. I’m not of the mindset that weeds are good, because I think they harbor pests and critters if left to their own devices. Many also compete for water resources. We are relaxing our rules a bit, however, having decided which invasive plants we can take out of the weed column and which to leave there. And since we know we can’t remove them from every spot, we’re eliminating weeds where we can and turning our attention to prevention.

Never Give-up Tips: Use organic practices such as thick mulch and plastic or tarps in vegetable garden prep to block sun and water from weeds and thus prevent them. Hand-pull or hoe around plants to prevent weeds such as field bindweed from choking plants or stealing their water. Just because a thistle has a pretty flower doesn’t mean you should let it go to seed if it’s invasive in your region.

wild gaura growing in gopher mound
Man, I didn’t even get into rocks. Gophers love to dig up rocks and weed seeds. Here, a wild gaura grows from a gopher mound, surrounded by several other weeds and some grass. Survival of the native!

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?

Favorite Easy Vegetable: Cucumber

cucumber on vine
Cucumbers are easy to care for and so good to eat in salads, as snacks, or as homemade pickles.

It’s one of the easiest plants to grow, pretty much resistant to disease and a sun lover. I think what I love the most about cucumbers compared with some vegetables is that the fruit tends to mature pretty rapidly and in stages. I like that a lot better than having no fresh tomatoes 11 months out of the year, and then having such a bounty that you have to take a bag of them to work to make sure none go to waste. I’ve planted four cucumber plants in succession – two at a time several weeks apart.

tasty green burpless cucumber
This is a hybrid burpless cucumber (Tasty Green F1) from Sakata. It’s easy to grow and tastes really sweet. These two are growing outside the garden fence; the one on the left is about ready to harvest.

Planting cucumbers

Cucumbers usually grow best directly from seed. It’s possible to transplant seedlings purchased or grown indoors, but cucumbers don’t do well if their roots are disturbed. Because cucumbers need plenty of water, make sure you’ve prepped your soil with lots of organic matter before planting. That will help it retain water. I read on the package to plant seeds in a mound; that didn’t work for me. The cause might have been cool temperatures, but I think it also had to do with our low humidity. We always prefer wells to hold water in. The second planting was much more successful; I had to thin the seedlings.

Plant cucumbers where they will get full sun and where you can help them climb off the ground with a fence or trellis. If you can’t get them near a trellis, use a tomato cage or rig your own system. This help keep fruits from getting bent under heavy vines and keeps them from taking over your garden. Most importantly, growing vertically gives your plants plenty of air circulation, improving plant health and fruit production. There are a few bush varieties that grow in containers if you have no way to help cucumbers trellis upward.

cucumber growing along fencing
Keeping cucumbers vertical makes for healthier plants and more fruit. I’ve got all of ours against a fence.

Troubleshooting cucumber problems

When seedlings fail, the ground might not be warm enough. Just try again as temperatures – and soil – warm up. Other than that, you’ll have little to no trouble with cucumbers. If your plant flowers but fails to set fruit, the likely problem is lack of pollinators. You need some bees. All cucumber plants should have male flowers and female flowers. They look pretty much the same, except for the small fruit that’s located just behind the female blossom. Once the bees visit the male flower and drop pollen into the female flower, the fun begins.

female cucumber flower with fruit
Morning dew on a female cucumber flower, just closing up as the fruit behind it begins to grow.

I recommend cutting cucumbers when they are relatively small for better flavor. Let them get too large and they have big seeds and slightly bitter flavor. Plus, leaving them on the vine sends a signal to the plant that its work is done, and the plant begins to wind down the production process. As I said, planting a few cucumber plants several weeks apart gives you a steady supply all year. Unlike zucchini, cucumber tends to give you a more steady, manageable supply of fruit. In most zones, you can sow seeds as late as July.

cucumber blossom
Fully open cucumber blossom. I think it’s an attractive plant, too.

Integrated Pest Management: Preventing Bugs From Destroying Plants

Bugs on plants are more than a nuisance. They damage plants by sucking out sap, destroying leaves and transmitting diseases. I’m all for a balanced ecosystem, and I realize bugs gotta eat too, but there’s a point at which I have to choose between the bug and being able to eat the cucumbers I have spent time and precious water nurturing from seed. I might not be smarter, but I’m bigger and I have tools and creativity.

For many years in the past, home gardeners like us relied on chemicals to kill a bug at the first sign of trouble, and I’m so glad that the concept of integrated pest management, or IPM, has replaced that approach for so many people who care about the food they eat, the environment and preserving beneficial insects.

cucumber beetle
Cucumber beetles like any yellow flower, including the ones on this honeydew melon. This is the last known photo of this particular beetle…

Let’s break down a rather fancy term into the basics: start with the least harmful control. It’s really the same as prevention in medicine. Ward off a disease as your first choice instead of having to go through treatment. Here are the basic steps:

1. Start with healthy plants and good cultural management. This is the most important step to try to prevent insects in any yard or garden. First and foremost, plant native plants. I’ll never stop repeating this mantra. When you include plants adapted to your environment, they’re less likely to get stressed. There’s lots of research on the plant stress hypothesis because I guess some people disagree with it. But prevailing thought seems to be that plants stressed by drought or other conditions are more vulnerable to bug infestations and damage. It makes sense, and it’s still better to keep plants healthy anyway for flower or fruit production. Be sure to rotate crops, plant a variety of plants, and place plants in the right conditions based on shade or sun requirements, for example.

healthy tomato in container
This grape tomato plant is healthy and happy. It’s in a container with rich soil. I think it’s a little easier to control pests with containers.

2. Keep bugs away by weeding as much as possible and cleaning up debris to prevent hiding places. And cover seedlings with tunnels and row covers (with no holes) to keep bugs off while the plants are young and more vulnerable. Make sure plants are not too close together so they have airflow and can dry out as needed. Use mulch to cool roots and hold in water and compost to enrich soil. If one plant gets a disease, remove it from your garden and throw it out. Don’t lay it near the garden or compost it.

Covered seedlings
These lettuce seedlings have green beans for shade and cloth to keep bugs out until they get a little larger.

3. Hand pick bugs that appear if you can. This is not always easy, but if I can touch bugs, anyone can. Home gardeners who visit their garden regularly to water, deadhead flowers and check or harvest vegetables should inspect for bugs, especially in the morning. A major advantage of handpicking is that you can pick just the bad insects, causing no harm to beneficial bugs on your plants, who are there helping in your cause. See my Resources page for a few links to articles or photos that help identify beneficial insects. And here’s what I do when I pick off the little bug – throw it in a container of dish soap and water. I like to reuse a plastic container with a flip lid each year for easy, one-handed entry. Last year, it was an empty sanitary wipe jar. This year, I had used nearly all of my taco spice mix from Costco. I put the rest in a plastic zipped bag and had an instant bug bath. A blister bug infestation at our community garden one year had Tim and I doing a “swipe and boot stomp” method because those monsters bite and because of pure numbers. Our neighbor finally had to vacuum the potato plants.

dish soap and water for handpicking bugs in the garden
The little beetle featured in the photo above got a spicy ending courtesy of my handmade holding cell. All that’s inside is environmentally friendly dish soap (because that’s what I had), some water, and taco seasoning residue. The top snaps open.

4. When all else fails and you must use a pesticide, there are several organic choices. It’s also important to know that although an insecticide is organic, it still can be harmful, especially to bees and other beneficial insects. The three we keep on hand are insecticidal soap, Neem oil and Diatomaceous earth. Still, it’s recommended only to use these products once you have identified the pest or really have to do so. For example, I can spray a plant with water first to stop aphids before resorting to soap. I encourage reading labels carefully for time from use to harvest for any edibles, for specific pests they destroy and for any cautions about other insects, pets or warnings.

diatomaceous earth on ant hill in garden
This poor pepper has been attacked already by a gopher (and poor watering because it all floods down the hole the critter left behind). Now the stressed plant has an ant hill below. I am trying diatomaceous earth to stop them from doing more damage.
natural pesticide choices
Diatomaceous earth stops crawlers, and soap and oil can stop flying insects.

Further, you can’t be perfect at IPM cultural practices, as hard as you try. For example, I’m pretty sure tomatoes are not native to my region. But I want a vegetable garden. I have to work harder to keep tomatoes healthy than I do the ornamentals (and weeds!) native to New Mexico. I also can’t control the weather. I’m certain many of our bug (and snail!) trouble occurred during frequent night rains and cool, cloudy days. Our plants aren’t adapted to that. Finally, we spend most of our time on weeds – mowing, pulling and preventing. But we can’t control all of the weeds, nor can we control what our neighbors do with weeds or chemicals.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Butterfly Bush

What’s not to love about a plant named for the butterflies it attracts? The butterfly bush (Buddleia) has much more to offer as well. It also attracts bees and plenty of hummingbirds. The plant is a long-lasting perennial in several zones and it’s easy to care for.

butterfly on buddleia
A butterfly enjoys nectar from a purple buddleia bloom.

To me, the buddleia is like a magical shrub. There’s something kind of free-flowing, almost messy to its shape, and to how rapidly it grows on its woody base. Despite its sometimes uneven appearance, the buddleia makes a perfect centerpiece or backdrop in a xeric garden. Ours sits in the center of a forefront bed, where we can watch hummingbirds and butterflies visit from our patio, but I have seen the attractive bush used well against walls and walkways throughout New Mexico.

buddleia in bloom
The full butterfly bush in bloom in July, in zone 6B.

About Buddleia

There are several cultivars of butterfly bush, and several colors of the showy flowers. A dwarf buddleia usually reaches about three to five feet in height, but the fountain buddleia grows up to 12 feet tall, is adapted to higher altitudes (above 6,500 feet) and has longer flower spikes than the typical six to eight inches. Most of the New Mexico buddleias bloom in variations of lavender, plum or purple. And I find the foliage attractive, having a kind of muted, silvery-green color and texture that brings to mind giant sage leaves.

Buddleia bush bloom
I love the shape of the large flowers. Hummingbirds circle them to retrieve nectar from individual blooms.

Caring for Butterfly Bushes

Buddleia is a drought-tolerant plant that should only need supplemental watering until established or when temperatures are consistently above 85 degrees and, of course, rain is scarce. I seldom or never water mine except after cutting it back in late winter/early spring.

Though you don’t have to deadhead the blooms, you can trim off the seedheads once they’re spent to encourage new flowering. I usually don’t bother, as my plant seems to produce for most of the season. I just give mine that drastic haircut in late winter as soon as I see a little bit of new growth on the bottom stems; it shoots up in height as soon as temperatures warm.

pruned butterfly bush in early spring
Here’s the same bush as shown above, in early spring (seriously, in the lower right corner near the sundial). It loves the heavy prune!

Nearly every buddleia is hardy in zones 5a to 9, depending on the cultivar and the microclimate you place it in. I recommend talking with a nursery representative or a landscape designer before selecting a buddleia to make sure you choose the best size for your location or vice versa. If I didn’t cut ours back nearly to the ground each year, it would block most of our garden and view!

Xeric Plants That Attract Bees

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.

vegetable garden near bee attractors
The ugly stucco buckets in this otherwise pretty sunset protect some tomatoes and other edibles I would like bees to visit. So I’m happy to have plenty of plants in the garden that attract pollinators.

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.
bee on apache plume flower
The pretty white flower of the xeric Apache plume.
  • 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.
culinary sage with bees
I caught this bee buzzing toward one of the pretty purple flowers on a culinary sage.
  • 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.
catmint for bees
Catmint lines our front walkway, which means so do bees! The plant needs no water, but spreads prolifically.
  • 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!

Check with your local nursery for more native or xeric bee attractors that thrive in your area. My Resources page lists a few sellers of xeric plants, or try this National Garden Bureau member listing.

Got Bees? Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The number of honey bees and other pollinating insects is declining around the United States. Colony collapse disorder and other diseases, along with increased pesticide, use are likely culprits. What’s more, monarch butterfly populations have been declining by the millions!

butterflies on ivy blooms
We were stuck with ivy around all of our walls at our last home. We pulled out any that was rooted on our side of the fence. It’s not xeric and it is invasive, but butterflies flocked to the blooms.

On May 19, President Obama announced steps aimed at improving the health of pollinating insects. And in response, the National Pollinator Garden Network issued the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. According to the network, pollinators help generate one out of three bites of food we eat each year. Planting plenty of trees and flowers that attract bees, butterflies, birds and bats can help improve pollinator health and populations.

The challenge calls on homeowners, businesses and communities to create and sustain gardens that attract pollinators. Let me just say that this is another concern I have about extreme xeriscaping, or a trend I see of replacing every bit of plant and lawn in a landscape with gravel. New Mexico, for one, is barren enough. And there are plenty of xeric plants that attract birds, bees and other insects and provide some color in the landscape.

maximilian sunflower
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native, low-water prairie flower that bees love. I love its late-season blooms.

According to the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a pollinator garden should:

  • Include plants that provide nectar and pollen sources.
  • Provide water for pollinators.
  • Be in a sunny location with some wind breaks.
  • Have large areas of pollinator-attracting plants that are native and noninvasive.
  • Include plants that bloom throughout the season.
  • If possible, eliminate pesticide use, and at least minimize pesticides.

If your garden already meets the criteria, I encourage you to go to the challenge’s website and add your garden to the map.

And here are a few tips for meeting the challenge, or at least for making sure you have plenty of bees, butterflies and other pollinators in your garden:

  • Of course, including native, low-water plants is critical. Look for symbols in product catalogs or lists of xeric pollinators. And remember bees love herbs too. They buzz all around our thyme when it flowers, and there are roses and other flowering ornamentals pollinators love that need nothing but rainwater once established.
woods rose attracting bees
This woods rose had bees all over it the other morning. It’s a native, wild rose that’s xeric.
  • Some people avoid plants that attract bees because of possible stings, especially with children around. I have a few plants that attract seemingly hundreds, and one we walk past constantly. But if bees bother you, just place your pollinator plants where you can see them, but in a spot you seldom sit or walk by, and not where the kids’ soccer ball always ends up when they play in the back yard.
  • Providing water can be tough. Our birdbath dries up in a day or two, and I hate to refill it, knowing it will evaporate. But I can use rain water. The birds also gather on the top of our rain barrels, where the water sometimes pools. Butterflies need only a few drops in a tiny rock or plate.
  • Some native plants bloom continuously with no effort on your part. Look for those! An example is catmint (Nepeta). And create a dense grouping with a mix of colors and bloom times to attract pollinators, especially if you have limited space. A few annuals can provide blooms when perennials fade. We have cosmos that pop up late in summer and birds balance on the thin stalks, gathering seeds.
yarrow and gallardia
Moonshine yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a perfect pollinator. It blooms all season and has a flat surface for easy landing! Bees also love the annual blanket flower (Gallardia)
  • One of the great benefits of inviting pollinators with flowering plants is that they should make a side trip to your edibles. Don’t be afraid to plant some flowers near vegetables, as long as they don’t compete for sun and water or hide weeds.
  • If your roses or other plants get aphids, wash the tiny bugs off with a fine spray of water in the morning before turning to a pesticide; it’s just not necessary. Spray again in a few days if more return. And try to stick with pesticides on your edibles that are least harmful to honeybees, such as insecticidal soap.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Russian Sage

The woody Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) “Blue Spire” is a perfect xeric plant, especially for the gardener who wants a easy but showy low-water ornamental. This is one of my favorites! First of all, even though the Russian sage has a pleasant, sage-like scent, deer leave the plant alone. Its spikes of lavender-like flowers bloom all summer with little to no water once your plant has been established. Here’s all you need to do:

Plant Russian sage in a spot where it can grow to three to five feet tall and wide, and give it well-draining soil and full sun. It looks great near yellows like Spanish broom or black-eyed Susans, or a red, such as wine cups or cherry sage. It’s also a great plant to pair with grasses and cacti in rock gardens for a pop of color.

russian-sages-in-rock-garden
Note the pop of color from two Russian sages in the center of this photo. The one in the background was propagated from the large one.

Leave the stalks through winter, which still have an attractive shrub shape. In spring, just as you see some leaves begin to form on the lower branches, cut all of the branches back nearly to the ground. You’ll be rewarded with new, showy stalks. Bees love this plant, as do butterflies, hummingbirds, and many bird species as it seeds out.

As the Russian sage matures, you can trim it for shape and may have to cut out a few dead or crossing branches. But it looks best when full and round.

 

russian-sage-in-landscape
Close-up of mature Russian sage stalks and flowers. This one drew attention of bees, birds and passers by.

The Russian sage can put out runners (rhizomes), so keep an eye on them. I had a Russian sage at my Albuquerque home that bloomed every year for 11 years, and was there when we moved in. So it’s a long-lived perennial in the right spot, and should thrive in all zones, as long as it doesn’t get too much water!