When you tour botanical gardens or private gardens, do you ever look up to see what’s above your head? Most of us plan our gardens while sitting on our back patio or strolling through its paths. Often, we choose plants simply because we see them at a nursery and love their flowers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one day soon, take a look at your landscape from the point of entry, such as the gate to your backyard, and walk around, considering the overall look from ground level to tree canopy.
You might be pleasantly surprised, and you can add interest and beauty to your garden by considering what goes on over your head. I recently toured several gardens in the Denver area and noted use of arbors and other design elements to add height and 360-degree interest to landscapes. Here are a few examples.
Decks and Patios
Al you need are a few containers and some “engineering” skills to garden vertically, so to speak. Here are some of my favorite examples.
Arbors and Pergolas
Some plants are just born to trail up, down or around. With a well-placed arbor, you can add height, shapes, color and materials to your garden. Most of all, you can display some beautiful climbing plants that double as shade-makers.
Mix up Plant Heights
Finally, don’t be afraid to add tall trees or other natural elements right in the middle of your garden. I always worry I have to place the tallest plants in the back. But breaking the “rules” can be fun and a hit.
If you’re like me, you often choose a container based on how much you like it or its color. Those are good reasons; after all, you want to enjoy your purchase when it’s in your home or on your patio. And the color might be important to curb appeal or your entryway statement. But it helps to keep in mind a few other tips for container choices based on:
Some plants need a container large enough to support a plant’s growth. For example, even patio tomatoes need a pot about 12 inches in diameter. The diameter is not always listed. A 10-inch container equates to about 3 gallons, and a 14-inch container to nearly 7 gallons, but it depends on the depth. As a general rule, go for about 5 gallons for container-grown tomatoes.
In 2004, standards were released to help ensure more consistent labeling from nurseries. For example, a 1-gallon potted plant is about 152 to 251 cubic inches, taking into account diameter and depth. Be sure to consider the mature size of plants when arranging containers. For single plants, purchase a container at least a size larger than the one a plant comes in. There are exceptions, however.
Some plants prefer crowded roots. Many succulents will fail to grow and flower if placed in a container that is too large. When in too large a pot, all the plant’s energy goes to the easiest activity – growing more roots. This means less energy can go into producing growth above the soil line. So, try not to go more than 10% larger than the size of the succulent. And keep in mind some succulents have tap roots and need enough depth for those roots to grow and seek water.
The same goes for a totally unrelated plant: the African violet. Violets do best with crowded roots and need good drainage, just like succulents. Place an African violet in a container smaller than the diameter of the leaves (those who grow the plants for shows generally choose containers one-third the diameter of the foliage). And repot plants like African violets every so often, gradually increasing container size as needed. Don’t take a violet (or succulent) in a 3-inch pot up to 10 inches in one repotting.
Look at the container depth as well as its diameter. I love the look of shallow terracotta containers, but they only work with annuals and shallow-rooted plants. Those violets and many rosette-shaped succulents also can take shallower shapes. But your tomato needs good depth to form large, healthy roots. I’ve pulled up cherry tomato roots that were at least 15 inches long. And if your cactus has a tap root, make sure the pot’s height can allow for growth.
Container shape also affects plant placement and the overall appeal of the container. A tall container looks best with at least one tall plant element and maybe a trailing one.
Clay or terracotta pots are excellent for indoor or outdoor succulents. They dry out quickly because the sides are porous. These pots usually are your best bet for drought-tolerant plants, but not for vegetables or many ornamental flowers. And African violets in clay pots often dry out too quickly. Plastic and fabric pots are less expensive and lighter. The material’s weight is a consideration for any plant you know you might have to move to change sun or shade exposure, or bring indoors in winter.
All containers need good drainage, even those you use for succulents. Few plants do well sitting in wet soil for long. If you repurpose a container, be sure to drill some holes in the bottom. And try not to let the container (especially a shallow one) sit in a full saucer if you use one to catch drainage. If your container appears to drain too quickly, change how you water – a little at a time repeated once or twice. Always add water to a container at a slow rate instead of a heavy pour. Drenching the container makes soil nutrients run right out with the water.
I have decided to go more colorful with container choices from now on. It’s tempting to “match” an entry or house color, or to have a container blend in on your patio. Sometimes, though, you can make a really bold statement by choosing a container that is bright, colorful (like Talavera pottery) or a nice contrast to plants inside and around it.
Finally, if you find a container that will look perfect in a spot because of its color, shape or pattern, but maybe the wrong material or size for your plant, try slipping another pot inside it. I even did that once several years ago when I wanted to add an “old man cactus” (Cephalocereus senilis) to some annuals in a decorative entry-way container. I knew its watering needs were different, so I set the cactus pot into the soil of the larger pot and never really watered above it. The plant received plenty of moisture from the soil around its container. Then, I pulled the old man out in fall and we potted him inside for winter. He still is thriving, now in a terracotta pot with other cacti.
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.
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.
When water is as scarce as it always seems to be in New Mexico, especially this year, I appreciate all of the native and drought-tolerant plants that hang in there until rains finally arrive. After all, it’s the smart and right thing to do here in the Southwest: grow plants that need little to no watering from our wells and taps.
And we follow those principles, doing what we can to save water. Still, I love some plants too much to give them up completely, and I imagine that’s true of many people who move to our dry state. I would hate for any gardener to feel badly for having a few guilty pleasures from the plant world. Here are some strategies for finding the middle ground between gardening sustainably and growing plants you love.
Plant high-water users only as occasional fillers and in moderation. By high-water plant, I mean not xeric, or needing some supplemental watering. If a plant doesn’t meet the soil, sun exposure and watering requirements, you’re unlikely to have much success and will have to resort to photographs from botanical gardens!
Fill in color with a few annuals. I fill a few patio containers each year with an annual or two or pop a few annuals between xeric plants that flower for only part of the season.
Grow a few houseplants you love. Geraniums are a favorite of mine, and I don’t have to give them much water in the winter while they survive inside near a sunny window. My new guilty pleasure is violets, although they stay inside all year. Growing orchids, violets and other houseplants more suited to tropical climates can be a guilty pleasure without adding much to water usage. Of course, that’s assuming you stick to a few plants only … if you can.
Create conditions that help the plant survive with less water. Use mulch, shading or other exposure strategies and careful timing with monsoon rain to help a nonxeric plant make it through hot, dry periods. And accept that your plant might not bloom as much as it would in a wetter climate by enjoying the blooms you get.
Choose plants you love that are useful to “waste” less water. If you’re growing food for your family (and not wasting lots of harvest), you’re replacing some of the water that might have been used to grow the same food on a large farm, and doing so locally. Plus, the benefits outweigh a little bump in water use and cost. Or grow some cut flowers you love instead of buying them in a store for your home or family and friends. Finally, some flowering plants that require a little more water provide food for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Although natives are better, adding a few flowering plants not native to your area can help pollinators.
And finally — use rain barrels to water your lovelies during dry weeks.
There really is no true blue in garden leaves or flowers, but many blooms come close. Iris, blue cornflower and blue flax come to mind. And there are plenty of violet flowers that have a similar “cool” effect and contrast so nicely with oranges and yellows.
But you don’t need blue flowers to add touches of calm blue to your garden design. I saw this firsthand on my recent tours of Austin gardens with the Garden Bloggers Fling. Here are some of my favorites:
Plus, garden art requires no watering or maintenance. Paint is especially inexpensive. It just couldn’t be simpler to add pops of color to your patio, deck or garden.
Special thanks to the wonderful garden bloggers and gardeners of Austin for your hospitality. What a great time!
As fall temperatures drop, there’s still plenty to do in the Southwest garden. In most areas of New Mexico, freeze hits by mid- to late October. But plenty of sunny days hit in fall here so gardeners can get outside and take care of these chores before winter arrives:
If you still have any vegetables ripening, better harvest them now. Tomatoes and winter squashes can finish ripening inside. If you haven’t harvested and dried herbs, now is the time to trim them back and get them ready for use in the kitchen. Some vegetables, such as kale and carrots, can stay in the ground a while. You can preserve some vegetables with help from extension office publications or other credible sources that address flavor and safety of canned or frozen foods. Finally, I like to pick flowers still blooming and place them in a vase inside, just to make me feel better about the season ending.
There is some debate about what to leave in the garden and what to throw out. You definitely want to throw out any weeds or diseased plant cuttings. Compost healthy cuttings. We even laid some carrots that were too big for our taste out on tree stumps for deer and other critters to eat. It’s personal preference to leave some debris on the ground to naturally compost in place. But if the debris hides unwanted bugs or spores, it’s not a good idea. I usually clean up most plant debris and then use straw or leaves for composting.
3. Preserve Bulbs and Seeds
Check a local gardening book or online to find out how to dig up and overwinter bulbs that can’t handle cold temperatures in your area. In zone 6B in New Mexico, we leave iris, daylily and allium bulbs or corms and should dig up gladiolas and dahlias. Usually, the bulbs just need to be kept cool and dry. You also can preserve seeds from flowers and herbs such as dill or cilantro for cooking or replanting.
4. Leave Some Seeds
Not all flowering plants need fall trimming of spent seed heads. Many can make it through winter and wait for summer trims. And birds love dried up seeds on sunflowers, cosmos and other flowering annuals. Plus, by leaving the seeds on, you increase the chance that some native grasses or flowers will reseed.
5. Evaluate Plant Placement
As you clean up and assess how plants look at the end of their growing season, you can evaluate plant placement. For example, some of our green beans did not fare as well as last year. I believe the spot I planted them in this year got more late summer shade from a neighbor’s tree than I anticipated based on early summer sun. Some plants might have grown too large for their spot or get too much water from runoff. Take some notes and consult local sources so you still have time to decide whether you can move them this fall. Or plan where they’ll go in spring, especially before buying new plants!
In New Mexico, we mulch for two reasons: to conserve water and cool roots in summer and to warm roots during cold winter. I typically mulch as part of fall cleanup and near the time of the first freeze. Most plants that are native and appropriate for your garden can get by without mulch, but it helps protect tender plants from hard freezes in winter. Mulching needs to be a few inches thick to insulate and to cut down on weeds.
7. Protect Plants
Some of my gladiola bulbs came back and rebloomed without being dug up. But I mulched them pretty heavily with leaves. In addition to mulching, you can put buckets around plants to help keep them warm, especially in winter wind, or to keep deer from destroying them (adding a “lid” made of chicken wire or similar material that lets in sun and moisture but not curious critters). Plants in containers that are tender or annual in your area need to come inside, We move outside containers against a south-facing wall for warmth and to protect against wind.
8. Empty Containers
It’s time to empty all those containers with edibles and annuals that are dying back. You’ll need fresh potting soil next year and it’s better to store containers empty. We empty soil from our containers (unless the plant had a disease) into garden beds and large stock tank containers that need soil. You can also save potting mix in plastic sealed containers, but it should be mixed with fresh potting soil and compost when replanted in the spring.
9. Amend Soil
If you have new garden beds or some that need better soil, fall is a good time to improve soil health. Adding some compost gives it a chance to break down, as does covering beds with leaves that fall from trees. And it makes the spring preparation easier. There are many ways to amend bad soil, such as planting cover crops before frost or having a soil test so you know how to better balance pH in your growing beds. But gardeners learn to tell when soil is compacted. It’s hard to go wrong adding a little organic matter in fall.
10. Enjoy Time Outside!
Fall is a favorite season for a reason. Cool nights and warm days make it hard to stay inside, even when there are few chores to do. And enjoying even the final flower blooms before frost arrives is part of the reason you work hard to make your lawn and garden look nice.
Soak it all in and dream about spring, when you will feel renewed energy and enthusiasm for garden chores.
It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.
1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches). Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.
Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.
2. Cucumbers Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals. Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).
Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.
3. Green beans Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones. Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.
Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.
4. Snap peas Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage. Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.
Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.
5. Carrots Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots. Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.
Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.