Favorite Xeric Plant: Ornamental Grass

When xeriscaping, you can add plenty of interest with varied textures and heights by including a few ornamental grasses in your landscape. We’re always tempted to think first about flower color, but less about interesting foliage. Placing a few ornamental grasses in a xeric landscape or container can add nearly as much impact as a pop of purple with less watering and maintenance.

Choose an ornamental grass that is native to your area, or a similar climate or condition, in place of a shrub or perennial flower. One of my favorite features of grasses is that they can grow tall and move in the wind. In containers, they often add height or contrast to draping and flowering annuals. Warm-season grasses seed out and provide winter interest, even if the foliage browns. They need shearing once a year in spring, a little water to jumpstart growth, and they’re off. If you choose one that’s not native to your area, such as the big-box store selection I found for my containers, make sure it can at least survive with less water or other conditions that differ. You might not get flowers or as much growth, but the grass will survive at least for the summer.

rush grass in container
I like to place ornamental grasses in container arrangements to add height and texture. This juncus is all I need to add interest to a petunia mix and continuity between the pots.

Another benefit of ornamental grasses is that they can serve practical purposes in a garden. Use them for erosion control by placing a small grouping at the bottom of a slope or terrace – and go for a medium-water selection such as Feather reed grass “Karl Foerster” (Calamagrostis arundinacea) here, since the rain or irrigation run-off from above supplies the extra water the plant requires.

feather reed grass
Karl Foerster feather reed grass that was planted a few weeks ago in our rock garden . It already looks great, but will add feathery blooms in summer. It should survive our winter (zones 5 and 6).

Other great locations for grasses are along steps, pathways or corners, in front of dark walls or fences, and anywhere they will catch sunlight and breezes.

Sedges, rushes and some hardy bamboos also fall into the ornamental grass category when landscaping. Just be sure to check the zone, native location of the plant, and especially the sun and water requirements before planting the grass. Some actually do better in marshes – not a good choice for xeriscaping!

Easy care

Grasses are among the easiest xeric plants you can have in your garden. They’re mostly free of pests and diseases. And although I love ornamental grasses, I have seen some gardens with only grasses and gravel. I think you need one or two other xeric plants to break up the look, but I’m not a professional landscaper. To my eye, just gravel and grass in a garden screams “dry!” It’ so easy to complement a low-water grass with a salvia, penstemon or gayfeather.

Some cool-season grasses bolt in the heat, but trimming off their seedheads can rejuvenate the plant, much like clipping off flowers of herbs to force growth back into leaves. Most ornamental grasses are warm-season selections, best planted in the spring. They need a little more water, up to once a week for xeric choices, for the first month or two. After that, water deeply only every few weeks or once a month in the hottest summer weeks. Some will spread, and it’s best to try to divide or dig up unwanted volunteers before they clump too tightly. Other than that, just cut back as directed. Allowing several grasses to overseed in winter could add to your fire hazard, so keep that in mind if you have them near your home or a commercial building.

big bluestem grass before strawbale wall
Newly constructed strawbale wall with xeric plantings. The big bluestem grass on the right foreground got much taller and flowered (see below).

A few xeric grasses

Silky threadgrass (Stipa tennuifolia). This hardy grass grows in all types of soil, uses little water, and loves full sun. That’s a bonus, since the silky seedheads reflect sunlight as they sway in the breeze. One caution for silky threadgrass is its high potential to reseed. That’s a plus in an untamed garden, but not in a more formal xeric landscape.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  This is one of our personal favorites. It can reach heights of four to five feet in summer, when it also rewards you with purplish flower spikes that emerge between the beautiful greenish-blue leaves. Some selections require more water than others, so check with the nursery or on the tag for details. Some are highly drought tolerant and thrive down to zone 4.

big bluestem flower heads
The flower stalks of big bluestem grass are purplish, contrasting well with the greenish-blue leaves.

Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisteum alopecuroides). Purple fountain grass (P. setaceum) is a particular favorite of these dwarf varieties, but only makes it as an annual in our zones (5 through 7). Others fare better, although an unusually cold winter could kill them. Most have bright green foliage with bottlebrush flowers. Examples are “Hamelin,” a compact, mounding variety with ivory and gold flowers and “Moudry,” which has brownish-black flowers. One caution: You might have to protect dwarf fountain grasses from rabbits if they visit your xeric garden.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Penstemon

The hummingbirds are swooping around the garden, and soon they will enjoy feeding off several water-wise Penstemon species. The penstemon, also called beardtongue, is a versatile low-water native plant in New Mexico and the Southwest.

In fact, penstemon does best with no added water at all. And the plants can thrive in full sun or light shade. Penstemon comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and bloom colors. But they have in common a slender trumpet-shaped flower that hummingbirds love.

purple penstemon
Hummingbirds love penstemon flowers, but can you also spot the bees in this photo?

Caring for penstemon

Penstemons usually prefer somewhat sandy or clay soil, and don’t need added compost. Most species of penstemon are perennial in our zone (6 to 7), but some are annuals. They’ll bloom from summer to frost. Species such as Arabesque Red bloom from summer through first frost with deadheading. However, if you leave some blooms on the plant, the seedheads ripen and break, which causes the plants to reseed. We’ve had several volunteers come up in our rock garden. And birds love the seeds!

red penstemon AAS regional winner
Arabesque Red was the regional winner (including the Mountain and Southwest regions) fof the All-America Selections in 2014. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, Inc.

The only way to really harm penstemon is to overwater or overnourish this easy-care plant. Use fine gravel for mulch. Occasionally, aphids gather on the stems, but you can use a fine mist of water to spray them off in the morning and check a few days later.

Penstemon can work well in containers, especially if you select a lower-growing variety. Select low-water companion plants, so that the penstemon does not receive too much water. If it does, it can become leggy. You might find that a penstemon in a clay pot needs occasional watering compared with one in your landscape.

In a xeric landscape

Penstemons are great plants for xeric landscapes. Low growers such as Desert beardtongue (P. pseudospectabilis) spread to about 15 inches wide and 30 inches high, with purple-maroon flowers on stalks above the blue-green foliage. The pineleaf penstemon (P. pinifolius) is a native wildflower with tiny needle-like leaves and bright orange-scarlet flowers. I love watching the hummingbirds maneuver effortlessly into the flowers.

pineleaf penstemon
Our pineleaf penstemon hasn’t flowered yet, but it’s still attractive, with the pine-like foliage and its low spreading nature.

A taller, lankier type such as Rocky Mountain beardtongue (P. strictus) looks gorgeous against a fence, wall or tall rock. Its purple flowers contrast nicely with yellow or white bloomers in the foreground. The bushier pineleaf or Desert beardtongues are perfect to tuck in a corner, or along a step or walkway.

desert beardtongue penstemon
The Desert Beardtongue is a 2015 Plant Select winner. Photo by Bill Adams and courtesy of Plant Select.

No matter which variety of penstemon you choose, you’ll be rewarded by hummingbird guests and the beautiful blooms that appear with very little care on your part!

Harden Off Houseplants for Their Summer Vacation

When warm days—and especially warmer evenings—finally arrive, our houseplants are more than ready to move outside. It’s easy to tell. They look a little leggy and droopy. And although I said they are ready for a summer vacation, in reality, they’re taking an eight or nine month winter vacation inside. Because plants grow naturally outdoors, of course!

Geranium hardening off outside.
Geraniums are annuals in our climate, but I love how they bloom indoors in sunny windows all winter.

I really only have geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) right now, along with one canna that I keep in a huge container. It’s my ode to the tropics, and although it hasn’t bloomed again, I love it purely for the leaves. This year, I plan to cut it back and divide it, giving a few bulbs to family members who live in a warmer climate. Maybe dividing and cutting it back will force energy into blooming. We’ll see!

tropicanna canna
This Tropicanna canna is from Tessalaar Plants, and would have trouble making it here, plus uses too much water. But I have kept it alive in a container purely for the leaves. The flower is bright orange and gorgeous!

One reason I have few house plants is time, another is water savings, and most of all, it is lack of space and containers. My succulent-collecting husband has taken up most of the sunny space with propagation, and used lots of the containers. But I enjoy his cactus habit!

The main point to remember when bringing all of your houseplants out for the first time after their “winter vacation” is to introduce them slowly to the outdoor climate again. For most houseplants, that means bringing them into a shady, protected area first or leaving them out on a relatively calm but cloudy day. And bring them back in the first few nights if there is any chance that temperatures will approach frost.

aloe vera plants
Aloe vera plants harden off on a partly sunny day in preparation for the summer outside.

The cacti may be able to sit in full sun from the start; in fact, they probably need it. But if it gets blazing hot, bring them in before day’s end, and don’t subject them to cool desert evenings until they’ve at least been outside through dinner hour. If you don’t want to make the indoor/outdoor trek every night, you can cover your most sensitive plants with landscape fabric until they harden off and the nights warm up. The fabric also can help shade them during the hottest part of the day if temperatures shift while your plants are acclimating.

Make sure your plants are healthy and ready for the move outdoors. I cut my geraniums back quite a bit and usually add a little bit of soil or compost to the pot. If they’re in really bad shape, I will repot them. But they tend to bloom better if slightly root bound. Then I give them a good drink and put them in dappled or partial shade the first few days, gradually giving them a little more sun.

geraniums cut back for hardening off
I cut these geraniums back severely and added some compost, because they did not fare as well as my others. They need repotting next year. Note the requisite gardening gloves and phone…

Favorite Low-water Container Herb: Rosemary

I love rosemary in a container for several reasons. First, I can keep it in a sunny location all year and leave it relatively close to my kitchen to snip stems for cooking. I don’t have to traipse out to the garden to get to it quickly. By leaving the pot close to a south-facing wall in winter, the plant, which is hardy to zones 6 through 8, receives some extra warmth.

rosemary-in-container
Established rosemary in pot that wintered over. I took a few cuttings, but it still has outgrown this narrow container and needs transplanting.

Cutting some rosemary stems for culinary use helps keep the plant compact enough for container living. Otherwise, it might begin to flower and outgrow the pot. When rosemary blooms, it’s an attractive, evergreen Mediterranean plant, and bees love the tiny bluish-lavender flowers. So I usually have at least one rosemary in the landscape, and one or two in containers purely for edible reasons.

Easy-Care Herb

Rosemary is best grown from a nursery transplant or cutting, not from seed. When preparing your container, be sure it has a hole for drainage and mix well-draining soil that’s slightly alkaline and not too fertile. You won’t need to fertilize your rosemary, either, but adding an organic fertilizer when transplanting or once a season shouldn’t harm the plant. Just keep it as warm as you can in winter if you live on the cooler side of the zones, and if you bring the container inside, place it in a sunny location.

rosemary in container
New rosemary plant in a container, ready to head outside for full sun exposure.

Rosemary is drought tolerant and one of the few problems you’ll encounter with rosemary is caused by wet roots when temperatures drop. Rosemary thrives in full sun, and in summer, container plants need some supplemental watering every few days in the heat. Transplant the rosemary to a new container when the plant becomes too large.

Benefits of Rosemary

The aromatic and flavorful leaves of rosemary have many uses. I love the scent of rosemary and lavender in those rice-filled neck warmers! The oil from rosemary leaves is said to help with heartburn and other digestive problems. The oil may also help soothe skin irritated by eczema. Of course, it’s widely used in perfumes, sachets and lotions.

rosemary stems and leaves
The only thing better than looking at a rosemary plant is running your finger over the stems, or cutting some for use in your kitchen!

Culinary Uses

Although rosemary smells great in patio containers and in the home, I love it even more with chicken. You can cut entire stems of fresh rosemary and place them inside a baking chicken or use them in kebobs along with chicken or steak. I love fresh or dried rosemary on potatoes, baked with olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.

It doesn’t take much rosemary to achieve a lot of flavor, and I haven’t met anyone yet who dislikes the scent or taste of the herb. I often have add rosemary to garlic bread. That’s an easy way to get a little of the flavor of focaccia bread without having to bake!

Growing Short-Season Vegetables

I want a greenhouse. But want and have are too far apart right now. And the beginning and end of our growing season are too close together. Like many gardeners, we want to produce as many edibles as we can during our growing season. And like many rural residents, we crave affordable, fresh produce.

We’re better off than some; our last freeze occurs in early to mid-May, and our first freeze in early to mid-October. But we all know how those predictions go. With cool, high-desert evenings, the ground has to warm up enough to germinate seeds. Add high winds and low humidity, and it’s pretty much trial and error from one year to the next!

Here are a few tips for growing vegetables and other edibles in short seasons from our attempts and courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Extension services:

  • Make sure your garden is prepped and ready for planting as soon as it’s warm enough to do so. I wrote about spring preparation a few weeks ago.
  • Choose the best spot for your garden or raised bed based on microclimates, such as along a south-facing wall to maximize heat, or where you have a natural wind break in your yard.
  • Speaking of raised beds – they warm more quickly than the ground soil. They also can drain better, but may dry faster. So consider all of these factors when selecting plants for raised beds and containers.
grape-tomato-in-pot
This yellow grape tomato grew in a container against a south wall on our patio last year. They were delicious!
  • Start your seeds early enough to have nice, sturdy transplants ready. Naturally, that only works for those edibles that transplant well, such as tomatoes. If they become too big for the starter pot, transplant the entire block into a larger pot of sterile potting mix until ready to go in the ground. And be sure to harden them off for a few weeks before planting.
  • Cool-season vegetables are easier to sow in colder climates. Examples are beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots and several greens. I’ve already planted spinach, arugula and several loose-leaf lettuces in containers and in our garden.
  • Warm-season crops might need a boost, and they surely need a good start. Make sure to plant beans, melons, tomatoes, squash and cucumber after the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. Covering them with a light, white landscape cloth can help protect them from cool night temperature and gives seedlings a fighting chance against flying and hopping insects.
  • Choose early bloomers. Some varieties mature earlier or have a shorter time to harvest. Tim really wants honeydew, which should be sowed directly in the ground after the 50-degree soil mark. We found a hybrid that says it can be harvested in 70 days, so we’re going to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we’re only out the cost of a seed packet, the time and most importantly, the water. Look for terms such as “cold climates,” “short season,” “early to mature” or “northern gardens.”
short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety, a must for gardeners in cooler climates. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)
  • Help your plants stay warm (or shaded) with an appropriate cover. Aside from row covers, you can use tires or hot caps to protect and warm young plants. Our neighbor is in the stucco business, and he has given us dozens of five-gallon buckets. My husband cuts out the bottom and they work great at protecting young plants from sun and wind.
protect-vegetable-seedlings
Recycled buckets from our neighbor protected young seedlings in last year’s garden.
  • Of course, here in the dry Southwest, we create troughs or wells for nearly every crop to ensure consistent, deep watering and good growth.

Finally, it’s great to get advice from local “experts.” Most are just trying to be helpful. But don’t let lore and legend trump your can-do attitude and willingness to try these tips and your own brilliant ideas!

Four low-water Container Plants

I love pots! Actually, I love any kind of container that will hold a plant. We’ve been known to grow herbs in a claw-foot tub and annuals in an old washer. When you grow plants in containers, you increase your flexibility – you can move the container with the sun (maybe not the claw-foot tub so much…) and have color in a shady location by your front door. You also can practice “flower arranger,” creating a few new containers with each season’s annuals, or putting together a group of perennials you can keep outside all year or winter over.

Here are a few favorite low-water plants that grow well in containers:

Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta). Verbena species vary, but the warm-zone, low-water species can grow with very little water. They came up through the gravel pathways in our rock garden, re-seeding from previous years. I’ve planted small varieties of red, white and rich purple verbena in containers. Once established, verbena will spread and using it in container groupings helps tie them together or add pops of color. Verbena requires no deadheading, though removing spent flowers can prolong the bloom period, which usually runs from spring through frost, depending on your zone.

purple verbena
Verbena looks great alone or as part of a group planting. This magelana violet variety, and the photo, is courtesy of PlantSelect.

Chocolate flower (Berlaniera lyrata). Great in a rock garden or container, a chocolate flower always pleases. And in case you’re wondering, it really does smell like chocolate. I ought to know. Anyway, chocolate flower is a wildflower that produces delicate, daisy-like flowers with a light, almost red, center. Its leaves are a pale, almost silvery green. It’s extremely drought tolerant. Planting it in a container means you can enjoy its scent right on your patio or outside an open window.

chocolate flower
I love the chocolate flower buds; they’re delicate and different. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary is equally pleasant smelling and actually edible! I grow it every year in a container, and have several plants growing as ornamentals in our garden. It has evergreen foliage, so if you live in zones 6 to 8, you probably can keep it alive all year in the garden. In zone 6, it also might make it in a container, though I’ve had creeping rosemary burn from cold or snow even in zone 7. So either protect your container or bring it in, depending on the hardiness of the variety you choose. But back to enjoying rosemary! Plant it all alone near your kitchen for easy fresh cuttings, or in a group container. And if you decide not to take cuttings for cooking, your rosemary might eventually bloom lovely lavender colored blooms. At any rate, put it where you can frequently walk by and just rub your fingers over the leaves.

Rosemary_pot
My rosemary has survived sub-freezing temps so far up against the south side of the house. It still smells terrific, even after the wind blew leaves all over the container.
Creep_rosemary
Bees love this creeping rosemary, which requires little to no water in a container or landscape. This is all one plant; we had to cut some away in the middle after it burned. We should have knocked the snow off.

Ornamental grass (try blue fescue, silky threadgrass, or blue avena). Who says a plant has to flower to look great, especially in a container? I love adding a spike of height and texture with a grass, often in the center or back of a container full of colorful annuals. Most grasses need less water than flowering plants, and they look great blowing in the wind or adding height to a container, especially one placed up against the house. Many of them even flower. Just be sure to check the tag to see how high the grass normally grows before making your purchase.

And remember that plants always need a little more water when you first plant them, in extreme heat and when in containers than when in the ground. Containers usually dry out more quickly than ground soil – how much more depends on the container, soil you used to fill it and the location. And containers are microclimates, which means they might place your plant in colder, warmer or drier conditions than you realize.