Plant Select’s Top High Plains and Intermountain Plants

Each year various societies present plant awards, but those of us who garden in the West and Southwest await the group of Plant Select top performers. Plant Select, which is a nonprofit joint effort of Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, the Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturalists, lists five top performers at various elevations.

blonde ambition grama
Blonde Ambition ornamental grama grass tops the 2016 Plant Select list. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

First, a word about why the work of Plant Select and other regional groups is so important. As I said, there are plenty of awards and lots of information in the gardening world. But, for the most part, plants emphasized by magazines and bloggers are great for East Coast and Southeastern region gardeners. It’s different in the high plains and intermountain areas of the country, where altitude, wind, and heat and cold extremes (in a single day and by season) affect plant health. And let’s not forget the water issue.

Plant Select evaluates plant performance in 53 locations throughout five Western states. Here are some of the 2016 Top Performers. See the entire list at Plant Select.

Grand Winner: Blonde Ambition Grama Grass

Blonde Ambition grama (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ PP22,048) was introduced by New Mexico’s David Salman of High Country Gardens (American Meadows). Blue grama is a perfect low-water native grass grazed on by cattle on our Southwest ranches. Salman introduced the blonde ornamental variety in 2011, and this is the second year it has been Plant Select’s grand winner. Beginning in July, chartreuse blooms (seedheads) appear on upright stems, turning to the blonde color as they age. Watching those seedheads wave in winter winds provides xeric gardeners some year-round interest in their landscapes. Although Blonde Ambition can spread by seed, the seedlings are easily pulled up. The grass is hardy in zones 4 through 9 and deer resistant.

Blonde ambition seedheads
Blonde Ambition looks great in groups or as a single plant in the xeric garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 3,000 to 5,500 Feet Elevation

Blonde Ambition also tops the list of lower elevation garden performers in the region. Number 2 on the list is a tree I’ve never grown, but want to learn more about since it also topped the list for gardens at my altitude (6,300 feet). The Hot Wings Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum ‘Gar ann’PP15,023) has bright red samaras, or fruit made of paper tissue, that bloom all summer. It’s also known for its reddish-purple fall color. The Tartarian maple is a relatively small tree, maturing to nearly 18 feet high and wide, and gets by with full sun and moderate to dry water needs. The only drawback for me is that it is not deer resistant, but I could see this gorgeous tree in any suburban garden from 3,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation and in zones 4 through 10. We still might try it, but we’ll have to fence the tree until it reaches a mature height and keep lower limbs pruned.

top performer hot wings tartarian maple
The Hot Wings Tartarian maple has a gorgeous canopy, but I also love the trunk. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 5,501 to 7,000 Feet elevation

Although the Hot Wings maple topped the list of performers at this elevation, I would like to give a nod to No. 2 on the list – Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis). Veronica is an excellent low-water groundcover. Veronica is evergreen, so it covers portions of our rock garden all year long. In summer, the groundcover blooms. Turkish veronica has cobalt blue flowers above waxy leaves. It only reaches about 2 inches in height, but can spread to 18 inches wide. Although veronica is a xeric plant, its leaves look better with a little extra water in the heat of summer. Turkish veronica is hardy in zones 3 through 10 and deer resistant. The top 5 Plant Select performers at this elevation also include Blonde Ambition, Apache plume and a catmint called Little Trudy (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ PP18,904).

turkish veronica plant select
Gardeners can prune Turkish veronica around rocks and paths. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer in Gardens Higher than 7,000 Feet

Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) topped the list for higher elevations. The Western native shrub is xeric once established and grows more upright with less water. It can look more formal with rounded pruning in early winter. Deadheading spent flowers also makes the plant look neater, and should be pleasant considering that the foliage has a honey-like scent. The sweet scent also deters deer. Fernbush can grow to nearly 5 feet high and wide; less water keeps it more compact. The plant thrives in full or partial sun in zones 4B through 8.

fernbush plant select
This fernbush provides year-round interest in a high-altitude garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

These are only a few of the top performers in the Plant Select list. Check out their site for more on current and past top performers, new plant introductions for the region and where to buy plants for High Plains and Intermountain gardens.

Watering Cacti and Succulents

Succulents are low-care starter plants for anyone easing into gardening or short on space. Best of all, they’re typically the lowest water users of the plant world. It’s often said that cacti and succulents thrive on neglect. Although that might be true when it comes to maintenance such as trimming or fertilizing, cacti and succulents do need a little attention and consistent, light watering.

barrel cacti
Rocks, heat, hills that drain water. These conditions make cacti happy. This image was taken at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.

Water Sparingly

The common characteristic of succulents is that they have adapted to surviving with little water. Cacti are tough, and about the only thing that will kill them (other than being munched or trampled  by wildlife) is overwatering. In general, about once a week is perfect. Set a date every Saturday morning, for instance, to water and check on indoor succulents. The best way to water container succulents is by making two trips – water your succulents once with a slow, steady stream. Don’t give them so much water that it runs out the bottom of the container, but give them enough to soak in past the surface. Then come back and give them a second drink, which makes for a deeper and more even watering.

agave parryi in snow
These agave survive outdoors here in zone 6B. We don’t water them, but from time to time, nature does the job.

The best watering for outdoor succulents is through a steady drip. How much depends on conditions, just like with other plants. When heat is extreme, cacti and succulents need a little more water. When it rains, you can skip watering altogether. If you bring cacti indoors for winter, they need a little more water in a hot, dry and sunny room.

Transplanting and Repotting

Have you ever seen a photo of an avocado pit in a glass with roots sprouting from the pit? Like most plants, lots of water encourages roots to grow. The same goes when placing most new plants in the ground or a new container—extra, deep watering helps roots establish. But that’s not true of succulents. They need time to heal before you water. In fact, taking a cutting from a cactus to grow a new plant (propagating) means letting the cutting rest and dry before putting in soil!

cacti in sunny window
Tim propagated many of these succulents from cuttings.

If you want a mixed arrangement indoors or out, try to make sure your cactus or succulent receives only the water it needs. In the landscape, you can mound the dirt under the plant slightly so that water drains to nearby plants with higher water needs or have a dedicated drip for the succulent that emits less water. Avoid spray irrigation, especially on succulents. In container arrangements, keep your cactus in a small plastic container half-buried in the container’s soil. This helps the gardener pour more water to flowers around the cactus than directly on it, which helps keep the cactus soil from getting soggy.

deep pink cactus bloom
This as-yet unidentified cactus (most likely a Mammillaria) came from ranch land east of Roswell, N.M. It’s been happy in a container, spending summer on the patio and winter in a south-facing window.

Do a Little Research

All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are in the cactus (Cactaceae) family. In general, succulents are known for their fleshy leaves that hold water. Their leaves usually are small as well – leaving less surface for transpiration, which is the plant equivalent of evaporation.

fenestraria baby toes flower
Baby toes (Fenestraria) are so-named for their swollen ends, a classic succulent survival feature. The flowers are pretty awesome too.

Just like with trees or flowers, every type of cactus and succulent is a little different. For example, Adenium, commonly called desert rose, is a gorgeous succulent member of the Apocyanaceae family, the same one that includes oleanders. Knowing that helps: First, the only true pest of adenium is an oleander caterpillar. Second, although technically a succulent, when the plant is in full leaf and flower season, it needs a lot of energy (sun and water) and can be treated more like a tropical plant. But adeniums drop their leaves in winter, even in indoor containers. When they go dormant, they need little to no water.

adenium in container
The Desert Rose (Adenium) drops its leaves in winter and needs little water while dormant (resting). When it starts getting flower buds, it needs a little more.

In fact, that’s true of nearly all cacti and succulents – they need more water (and some fertilizer) during their growing/flowering periods and just enough to get by when dormant. Most will flower and grow in spring, fall and cooler parts of summer. High summer heat can make them dormant as a survival tactic.

It’s easy to research cacti and succulents in regional garden books and online, using reputable and regional sources when possible.

Repotting

Although most cacti and succulents grow more slowly than typical garden or house plants, they can outgrow their pots. In addition, succulents grown in pots and watered from a tap can have problems when minerals from the water build up in the soil. That’s a second reason to repot. You can avoid the mineral build-up by using rainwater for cacti and succulents instead of tap. Be sure your plant is in a container that drains well. That means drilling holes in the bottom of any containers that lack them and filling them with planting medium only (no rock or other filtering materials at the bottom).

split rock
The split rock cactus (Pleiospilos nelii) is native to South Africa and does well in a container, as long a you cut back on water in the heat of summer and cold of winter.

Of course, soil, location or zone and other factors affect the health and water needs of cacti and succulent. But most adapt to soil and environmental conditions.

echeveria
The fleshy leaves of an echeveria. These are such pretty and easy-care succulents.

Gardeners can adapt to – and enjoy – caring for succulents. Check out our Pinterest page on cacti and succulents for more information and photos.

Five Starter Waterwise Plants

Need to ease into saving water in the lawn? Or just ease into gardening? As you think about next spring and ideas for improving both the look and sustainability of your lawn or garden, consider adding easy-care plants that need little to no watering. Here are five ideas:

Yarrow is an easy xeric plant
Bright yellow yarrow anchors this bed and is accented by light purple salvia and California poppies

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). The woody, herbal rosemary is near the top of my list of favorite xeric plants. The only problem you can have with rosemary is if it receives too much water (or snowpack in winter). Otherwise, try a creeping rosemary near a rock or low garden wall. The stems will grow over the surface and you can trim it in spring just to keep it clean and healthy. I’ve seen bushier varieties shaped into small hedges. And man, what a great-smelling hedge! Finally, be sure to plant a rosemary near your kitchen so you can head out and clip cuttings for cooking use anytime of year (at least in zones 8 through 10). We have rosemary plants that come back each year here in zone 6B. They’re near the house in a rock garden, which helps warm them up. Plant rosemary in full sun and only water occasionally after its first season in the garden. Rosemary plants also reward you with tiny lavender-colored flowers in summer. And although I love the taste of rosemary, deer leave them alone. Bonus!

booming rosemary
This rosemary bloomed in late summer. The foliage alone is attractive and aromatic.

Barberry (Berberis). Barberry comes in several varieties that do well in plenty of sun (or partial shade) and low water. Berberis x ‘Tara’ Emerald Carousel is a type that grows well in alkaline soils, the kind we have here in New Mexico. Depending on the variety, barberry grows a little wider than high. Some Japanese barberries can grow tall – up to 10 feet – so consider that when selecting a plant. Barberry leaves change color with the season, and I’ve seen lime, orange and deep red varieties; they’re all stunning. Several plants along a wall can form a hedge in front of a house or fence. We like the spiky red foliage for its color and texture in our garden and deer usually avoid the plants. Barberries might need a little more water in the first year or so than some plants listed here. After that, they can handle periods of near drought or drought. All you have to do is prune them once or twice a year to keep the shape or size you like. Be sure to wear gloves!

Barberry is a great foundation plant.
Close-up of the maroon-toned leaves and spikes on our barberry.
Sunset's orange rocket barberry
‘Orange rocket’ is a berberis from Sunset that takes heat and little water or care. Image courtesy of Sunset Western Garden Collection.

Yarrow (Achillea). Yarrow is considered an herb, but I grow it for its easy care and stunning colors, which include white, yellow and red varieties. Moonshine yarrow has bright yellow flower clusters that you can cut for arrangements. I also pressed a few this year. This truly is one of the easiest plants to grow. Each spring, you simply cut off the dead flower stalks and clean up the plant. By mid-summer, you’ll have color. I even tried trimming spent flowers off one of our yarrow plants this year to see if that would force a second bloom sooner. But the ones I didn’t trim had more blooms in the second wave of flowers than the one I trimmed. Lesson learned. After the initial spring trimming, just leave yarrow alone. The plant also spreads but not invasively, so consider that when placing it in a design. We dug up one that was too close to another plant and transplanted it near our farm to attract butterflies and bees. It needs a little more water when first planted or transplanted. After that, it can get by with no water in all but the most severe droughts and survives winters down to zone 3.

moonshine yarrow
Moonshine yarrow cluster of flowers.

Four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens). Native Americans used many parts of the native four-wing saltbush, including leaves and boiled roots, for food or medicine. It’s also useful to wildlife, grazed by deer and antelope. The name for the bush comes from the four paper-like wings that surround its seeds. There’s no real care needed for saltbush, especially in a natural garden, but you can trim it as desired. When saltbush flowers, it takes on an attractive two-tone effect. The native plant is easy to grow in any soil, and can pop up around roadways in New Mexico. Ours grows far from the garden along a fence. We don’t know if the former owners planted it or if it came up from seed. If you’re worried about it spreading, just learn to recognize the plant’s needle-like leaves and pull up any small plants in your garden or yard.

four-wing saltbush
Buster runs by our saltbush for helpful scale. I might have to trim this one soon, but love the wild look of the plant.

Jupiter’s beard (Centrathus ruber ‘Coccineus’). At first glance, Jupiter’s beard (also called red valerian) doesn’t look like much. The flowers rise above thin, pointed, pale-green leaves. So it’s a lot of foliage mixed in with small, coral-pink flowers. But these flowers pack a punch! They’ll bring bees and hummingbirds to your garden all summer. And they grow best in dry, hot conditions. Still, red valerian can survive frost down to zone 3, or about -30 degrees F. All you have to do is give Jupiter’s beard a sunny spot and water regularly the first spring and summer. Then you can pretty much leave it alone. We water once in spring, depending on rain. You can cut back old leaves and stalks in spring to give energy to new growth. The plant reaches about 2 feet high and wide.

Jupiter's beard is an easy-care xeric plant.
I don’t have a close-up of Jupiter’s beard, but enjoyed watching hummingbirds on the plant all summer. It’s the one on the upper left with small coral flowers.

10 Gardening Terms Explained

New to gardening? Or just not a horticulturist, botanist or even a master gardener? Then you likely get confused by some of the terms you see on plant tags, in nursery catalogs and even in blogs like this one. You’ll enjoy gardening much more if you can weed through the jargon (and the puns). Here are 10 terms explained in plain language to get you started:

xeriscaping defined
Xeriscaping is a misunderstood (and mispronounced) term. And it’s not just about growing cacti in gravel!

10. Xeriscaping. This one’s my favorite, of course. And as I’ve said before, it’s xeriscaping, from xeros, the Greek word for dry … not ZEROscaping. In other words, it’s planning a lawn and garden that uses the least possible water. In most cases, this means using drought-tolerant plants (see no. 1), but xeriscaping also involves using native plants adapted to your climate and conditions, along with lots of other strategies for landscape design and plant choice.

xeric plants agastache
Xeric perennials come back year after year with very little effort or water.

9. Perennial. The word means long lasting, and that’s pretty much true of perennial plants as well. A perennial grows in your yard for more than two years, often for much longer before it needs replacing. Remember that perennial varies based on where you live. For example, the well-known geranium can be a perennial in a warm climate, but I have to bring mine inside for winter. And don’t freak out if a perennial plant disappears or looks dead after frost. You’ll likely see new growth on it come spring. Planting mostly perennials in your garden usually leads to less work and less watering.

geranium container
Geraniums can’t survive our winters. But unlike most annuals, we can keep them alive all year, and often blooming, in a sunny window. I just sprayed this one off in preparation for the move back inside.

8. Biennial. A biennial plant lives for two years, or two growing seasons. Seeds start the plant’s root, stem and leaf growth in the first year, but the plant doesn’t produce flowers, fruit or seeds until the second year. After that, the plant typically dies, but can spread seeds before dying back. An example of a biennial is the foxglove (Digitalis). Another is one of my favorites, the columbine (Aquilegia), which might flower the first year, or might put all of its energy into leaf and stem growth, and then flower the following year. Some forms of poppy (Papaver) also are biennials. And unfortunately, some weeds also are biennials. They take on a tiny round leaf form, survive the winter that way and then flower and spread seeds, lots of seeds, the next year.

columbine flower
Columbines are considered biennial flowers, but they usually re-seed in the same area of the yard, garden or forest!

7. Annual. An annual lives only one year, or for one growing season. Still, some annuals re-seed, so if you’re willing to let Mother Nature design your garden layout, you can let annual flowers dry up and produce seeds. Annuals are great for small containers and adding color to a garden or patio each year. But they usually require more time, money and even water in the long run than perennial plants.

zinnias
It’s easy and inexpensive to grow annual zinnias from seed.

6. Native. A native plant was likely in your town before you moved in. These plants grow naturally in specific regions or conditions. They should not become invasive if they’re planted in their native region. The real benefit of native plants (aside from their beauty in the garden, forest or along roads) is that they’ve done most of the work already. They know how to survive weeks with no water or really high spring winds. Selecting native plants is one of the most effective xeriscaping strategies.

California poppy
Many poppies are native to New Mexico and thrive in our dry, sunny conditions.

5. Specimen plant. Lots of catalogs refer to a bush or flower as a “specimen plant.” This has nothing to do with strange botany experiments. All it means is that the plant can stand on its own as a focal point in a garden or landscape design. For example, petunias or begonias look much better in mass plantings, which means groups of the same or similar flowers for a dramatic look. Mass plantings might become hedges or adorn the entry to your local mall. Landscapers might plant a row of 100 marigolds and a row of 200 petunias for striking color. On the other hand, a specimen plant shines all by itself.

boxwood
This boxwood is a specimen plant near our front entry, while the ajuga that line the shaded beds are more of a mass planting.
boxwood hedge
While visiting Atlanta-area gardens, I noticed lots of boxwoods planted in mass as hedges.

4. Invasive. Typically, an invasive plant is a nuisance at the least. It can choke out other plants and grasses, climb around and choke bushes or simply compete for precious water. Invasive plants grow easily and rapidly, usually because they are not native to the area. Just remember that these terms are all relative. A plant native to a particular part of the country might be considered invasive after being introduced to a different region. When a plant becomes invasive, it probably crosses that very thin line between wildflower and weed. One of the most troubling weeds we encounter is field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis), which is considered invasive in all of the lower 48 states, Hawaii and Canada. Maybe on the moon…

field bindweed root
Field bindweed stem and root, with my foot for scale. The roots usually break off so the plant can grow right back — in nearly any condition, including through concrete.

3. Deciduous. If a tree or shed is deciduous, that simply means it loses its leaves in fall and winter. The opposite would be evergreen, trees that keep their leaves all winter. Deciduous plants shed their leaves as a protection against upcoming cold. Many turn rich, deep shades of gold and bronze before falling, which gives the yard and garden color as summer flowers fade.

fall vine
Deciduous trees, shrubs and vines provide the stunning fall colors that mark the season.

2. Pollinator. You might see list articles on blogs and social media mentioning “pollinator plants.” This means that the plant attracts bees and other insects that help promote flower and fruit production. The insects disturb and transfer tiny grains of pollen in flowers. Without bees, most fruit trees and many vegetables would produce little to no fruit. Many native plants, herbs and vegetables attract bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects to the garden. They’re essential plants to help maintain honey bee populations, which have been declining. Here’s a list of New Mexico pollinator plants. Many gardening books and catalogs place a tiny icon of a butterfly or bee in descriptions to let you know they attract pollinators.

verbena wild
This swallowtail was enjoying our verbena today; the verbena comes up on its own.

And No. 1: Drought tolerant. Back to an important xeriscaping principle. Plants that are drought tolerant can go longer periods of time without water; it means basically the same as xeric, but is a little more direct. Plants with drought tolerance and resistance have characteristics that help them survive in these conditions. And all it usually takes is a little bit of rain to make them thrive, green and flower. Just remember – if you purchase drought tolerant plants, be sure to water them regularly for the first few weeks or months and up to the first year, depending on the plant and its size. The water keeps the plant alive through the shock of transplant and helps the roots get established.

bee buzzing on lavender stalk
Lavender, a drought-tolerant perennial herb that’s also a pollinator plant.

 

Xeric Plants: Too Much Rain?

You know, I hate to sound ungrateful. We always need rain in New Mexico, if not to water all of the grass, trees and native plants, then to replace our valuable water tables. But in a climate of extremes, especially this summer, we’ve had several weeks of too much water and cool temperatures.

xeric garden after rain
I’m not bemoaning natural moisture. August rains brought greener native grasses and lot of blooming annuals. But it’s good to know what happens when too much rain hits a xeric garden.

Typically, New Mexico and many Southwestern states receive monsoon rain in the summer, and it accounts for at least half of the rain we receive in New Mexico and Arizona. Monsoons can start around mid-June and end late in September. Ours typically begin around the 4th of July. Monsoons consist of short but strong bursts of rain, usually in the afternoon. They’re fueled by the sun’s warming of Southwest land and nearby oceans at different rates. Water evaporation creates humidity over land, forming the clouds that then depend on temperature, atmospheric pressure, winds and mountain slopes to turn into storms.

ravens in dead tree
The clouds seem to bring birds out for active eating before they take cover from summer storms. These ravens love perching in a dead tree.

Typical is key here, however. This year, we had few to no monsoon storms. Instead, we had unseasonably hot and dry, followed by weeks of unseasonably cool and wet. The first rains did wonders at greening up our native grasses and plants. But then in August, the rain and clouds just kept coming. We just had a break, but now Hurricane Newton has struck Mexico and its remnant moisture is headed for southern Arizona and New Mexico.

Rio Ruidoso
Rain replenishes the river and ground water, but excessive moisture can topple old trees.

If arid areas need rain, why is so much rain bad? Flash flooding is a big problem in desert and mountain areas. But how does heavy rain affect xeric lawns and gardens?

First, plant roots need more than water to survive and thrive; they also need air. When you place a new plant in the ground, for example, you should press the soil around it lightly and avoid compacting it to the point that air can’t reach the roots. When excessive rain falls, the water replaces air in spaces around soil particles. As the water drains through the soil, air can again enter the spaces. But if the water keeps flowing from the surface, or especially pools, the spaces fail to open. Eventually, roots can be damaged and fail to even take up the water that surrounds them.

amended soil for vegetables and herbs
Adding organic matter eventually helps compacted soils drain better.

The second danger of too much water is disease. Any fungal organisms in the soil can more easily attack wet plant roots and cause root rot. Xeric plants are not used to so much water on their leaves and roots. Even leaves are affected by too much water falling and sitting on them, especially without sun and heat to dry them again. Plants are more susceptible to leaf diseases such as leaf spot or blight and have less chlorophyll, which affects appearance and photosynthesis. Eventually, poor leaf health can lead to the breakdown of most of the processes that keep a plant healthy and send energy to fruit and flowers.

mushrooms on tree stump
This old apple tree stump started a mini-mushroom farm after extended rain and clouds. What other fungi lurk in our soil now?

Many xeric plants also like sun and a little heat. Native plants have adapted to the Southwest monsoon patterns that usually rule their growing season: A gradual, sunny warm-up in the morning, followed by scattered building clouds. They get a nice drink in the heat of the afternoon, and then the sun comes back out and the air and ground warm up again. This pattern helps dry the plant and soil, and gives the plant plenty of heat and sun. Although nights can be cool in many areas of the high desert and intermountain regions, mornings warm up again after sunrise. Extended periods of cloudy, cool weather lead to too little sun for plants, along with too little heat than they need to thrive and flower.

cracked cherry tomatoes
Tomatoes need some heat and sun, along with consistent watering. These cherry tomatoes cracked before we could harvest them. It’s likely a combination of remaining on the vine too long and a surge of water from heavy storms.

Even edibles can have problems from too much water. They’re susceptible to root rot, depending on lots of other factors such as soil quality. Leafy vegetables and herbs flower early. Tomato fruit tastes better with moderate water. Too much water, especially inconsistent amounts, can cause fruit to crack.

Keeping Xeric Plants Alive During High Rain Periods

Make sure all plants, and especially those susceptible to root rot, are in soil that drains well. Raised beds, mounds or berms, and suitable containers can help drain soil around plants much better than compacted soil. If you’re not sure how well your soil drains, you can typically tell when it pools or soaks in hours after heavy rains. Or you can try the test in this handout from TreePeople that times water drainage.

okra plants
My husband is much better at spacing plants than I am. These okra didn’t get enough heat to produce much, but spacing helped the fruit get more sun and air.

Provide air circulation. We all have a tendency to place new plants and seedlings too close together. You might as well get as many cucumbers as possible in the limited space you have, right? But lack of air circulation in crowded plants hides bugs, causes the leaves to maintain moisture, and even can shade ground around roots. Wet conditions harbor new problems that native plants in particular can’t take.

California poppy
Flower from a poppy (Mexican gold or California Eschscholzia californica) thrives in drought, but can bloom more in heavy rain. As for the “garden art” it borders, that’s something personal between Tim and a steer.

Another problem with extended periods of rain is weed control. Although mostly native, the darn weeds seem to love excess moisture. And before you know it, they crowd and wrap around important garden plants or shading grasses. It’s hard to control them if the ground is too wet to mow or you can’t even get outside.

Build raised beds or transplant susceptible plants to higher ground. We’ve had some drainage problems near our patio and are working on a dry river bed to divert water away from the house foundation and down into a grassy area, where it can soak grass and eventually add to groundwater. One step we took was to divide a blue mist spirea (Caryopteris clandonensis) and move the portion near the patio onto a small burm. The xeric plant is so much happier now.

blue mist spirea berm
The dry bed is a work in progress, but just moving this blue mist spirea to higher ground saved the plant.

Whatever you do, don’t water! Turn off drip or sprinkler systems during and after periods of rain; it’s just the responsible thing to do. And don’t assume that yellowing leaves indicate the need to water. With too much water, the leaves look sort of floppy, but too little water usually causes dry, brittle foliage.

Finally, don’t stress. You can’t control weather, so simply keeping your plants as healthy as possible within time and weather constraints is all a gardener can do!

How To Harvest and Store Fresh Garden Herbs

I love the herbs in our ornamental garden, many of which are low-water plants. Letting an herb such as sage flower can add color and lots of bees to your landscape or patio.

fresh herbs from waterwise garden
Fall harvest of herbs from our xeric garden.

Herbs typically begin to lose flavor as they flower, however, so if you want to eat herbs from your kitchen garden, it’s best to harvest often and enjoy the fresh flavors from plants you grow on your own. Harvesting herbs usually invigorates the plant, much like pruning or deadheading ornamentals. The best of both worlds? Having space to let one sage or thyme go to flower while you harvest from another sage or thyme in the same season.

The choices for herb gardens are endless, and it makes most sense to choose the plants you like based on your zone/growing location and favorite flavors or most useful purposes (such as medicinal). I grow mine for the color, scent and flavor and to sell at the farmers’ market. That presents its own set of challenges, mostly transporting herbs and keeping them fresh when it’s hot. Way too hot.

lavender for sale
Lavender bunches and sachets for sale at the farmers’ market, along with other fresh herbs.

With nearly all herbs, you’re better off harvesting in the morning and using a sharp pair of scissors or trimmers. It’s also best not to wash herbs before short-term storage, but instead wait until just before preparing them. Here’s a list of simple harvesting and storage tips for several herbs you can grow year-round or as annuals, along with a link at the end for a previous post on drying herbs.

Basil. Pesto anyone? Basil is easy to grow, but a little tricky to keep fresh after cutting. You would think that rinsing the leaves and keeping them chilled in the refrigerator would keep them fresh for days. But you would be mistaken. First, harvest basil in early morning. I’ve written in the past about how to cut basil, along with an easy pesto recipe in the same post. Of course, you can always harvest a few leaves only and use them right away. If you want to keep basil leaves fresh, the best approach is to avoid washing the basil after harvesting and placing stems (no leaves) immediately into a jar of cool water. They do best stored at 50° F, but who keeps their house or refrigerator at that temperature? If you have a spot, great. If not, keep the glass in a cool, lightly sunny spot and change the water often.  It can keep for weeks in the right circumstances.

Storing basil
We’ve got lots of basil. It stores so well in a mason jar on a cool window sill.

Cilantro. Cut off no more than one-third of your cilantro plant leaves after the plant reaches at least 6 inches tall. The best way to store cilantro leaves is to place the stems only in some fresh water and put the entire jar in your refrigerator. You also might want to loosely cover the aromatic leaves with a plastic bag.

Dill. Dill leaves, or weed, also are best stored with the stems only in water. Alternatively, you can wrap the entire stem with the leaves in a damp paper towel and place the herb in a warmer spot of the refrigerator, which usually means the door. Don’t be surprised if the herb’s quality goes down soon after storing. The freshest dill is harvested as cooks need it. Dill tastes best when harvested just as the plant’s flowers begin to open. If you want to preserve dill seed, wait for the flowers to turn into seed heads and dry up on the plant. Remove the seed head when it turns pale brown.

dill flowers
Dill is pretty when it blooms. I harvested some leaves from this plant and then let it go.

Lavender. More people likely grow lavender for its beauty and as a pollinator than for eating. There are varieties of lavender that are more suitable to culinary use (see a recipe here or check out our Lovin’ Lavender Pinterest board. If harvesting lavender for a recipe, it’s best to cut desired stems early in the day after they dry from morning dew. Even when fresh, you can harvest buds easily by rubbing the flowers between your hands or fingers. This is even easier to do when the herb has dried somewhat. When cutting branches for arrangements, cut all the way down to the main plant, being sure not to cut into the woody branches. Depending on where you live, weather conditions for the year and when you harvest, it’s often possible to get a second bloom from lavender each summer.

Lavender plants in xeric garden.
In a vase or left in the garden, lavender is a striking herb.

Rosemary. Harvest rosemary any time of day or during its growth. We’ve harvested fresh rosemary in fall and even winter. As with lavender, avoid cutting into the woody branches of rosemary when trimming or harvesting. Select a few sprigs and either use the leaves right away or store unwashed, loosely wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator drawer.

rosemary loosely packaged for market
Rosemary keeps best when loosely wrapped in plastic and stored in the door of your refrigerator.

Sage. Fewer people use fresh sage leaves in the kitchen; many recipes require ground or rubbed versions of the herb. But there is plenty of value in the herb’s leaves, including medicinal uses and smudge sticks. I love to place fresh or dried leaves into the cavity or under the skin of chicken. For short-term storage, sage can be wrapped lightly in plastic and placed in a refrigerator door. It’s best bundled for drying, however. Just in time for fall dishes!

purple leaf sage
Purple leaf culinary sage is almost too pretty to harvest.

Thyme. Thyme also should not be washed until used and harvested before flowering (for culinary use) when possible. Keeping thyme trimmed and enjoying flowers on other forms of thyme, including ground covers, gives you flowers and flavor. If planning to dry the herb, you can wash it gently and let the leaves dry before bundling to hang a bunch. I’ve picked a bunch and placed it in a decorative bowl near the dining area, just so I can get a whiff of the herb while inside. Thyme retains flavor quite well after drying.

thyme bunches for sale
Some small bunches of time nestled between sage and sprouts.

For drying thyme and other fresh herbs, see this previous post.

How To Grow Your Own Cooking Herbs

Herbs are delicious additions to so many dishes, and several popular herbs are easy to grow at home. You can save money and time flavoring foods by growing one or two of your favorite herbs in containers or flower beds near your home. Try the herbs listed below for the joy of cutting just enough fresh leaves for your recipe and the pride in growing the plants yourself.

fresh cut herbs from home garden
From left to right: sage, thyme, oregano and basil.

First, here’s a list of herbs that grow well in dry climates; in most parts of New Mexico and the desert Southwest, these herbs can be perennial plants in your landscape, coming back from year to year:

  • Rosemary. This aromatic herb is my favorite for growing and cooking. The drier, the better, once it’s established. And you can grow rosemary for its woody habit and tiny purple flowers.
rosemary in waterwise garden
This rosemary is an ornamental, but I have harvested from it. Note the santolina that fills most of the frame. It’s considered an herb as well. I love the yellow flowers it produces in summer.
  • Sage. We grow sage more as an ornamental, but I dried leaves last year for use in poultry dishes. Bees love sage flowers.
  • Lavender. Sure, you can cook with lavender (check out our Pinterest board for some recipes). And it’s the perfect plant – herbal or ornamental – for a xeric garden.
lavender plants in New Mexico
In addition to more than a dozen lavender plants for cutting and their gorgeous shape, we have one in a container just for culinary use.
  • Oregano. Culinary oregano is easy to grow and is hardy down to zone 5. Capture its best flavor by harvesting just before the plant blooms.

Annual herbs you can plant each year or rotate:

  • Basil. We grow from seed, but you can always find great basil plants in stores.
  • Dill. The tall aromatic plant is great for rock gardens. You can harvest seeds or leaves.
Dill is a versatile herb.
Dill is a versatile herb.
  • Parsley. The plant is an annual in most regions, unable to take a hard freeze. It’s the most popular herb used around the world.
  • Cilantro. This is a must-have herb for Southwestern dishes and it takes a big bunch for most recipes. Cilantro loves sun and often re-seeds. The leaves are delicious and the seeds (coriander) are popular in many recipes.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
  • Fennel. Tim loves the smell of fresh fennel, which resembles that of licorice. Although it prefers sun, new plants come up at the base of larger bushes in our garden. Fennel can become a weed in the right (wrong?) conditions.

Tips for herb growing and harvesting

Most annual herbs are easy to direct sow, or grow from seed right in your garden or container. Many perennial herbs, especially rosemary and lavender, grow best from cuttings or transplants. Be sure to choose a large enough container for your herb and choose a location that gives the plant enough sun or shade, depending on its needs. If this information isn’t on the tag or seed packet, check with a local or regional source such as master gardeners or your state and local cooperative extension service.

Protect tender herbs from pests. I keep basil covered all year with row cover cloth because every bug seems to love it as much as I do. And I just found out that some critter visiting our yard loves dill, as did the swallowtail caterpillars I found on it the other day (and moved to the fennel; sorry, Tim). If you can grow inside a fence, great, but we’ve incorporated herbs into our rock garden. Either choose those that your local pests don’t prefer (for us, that’s rosemary, lavender and thyme) or find a way to cover them.

I saved new dill plants from caterpillars only to find them nearly decimated this morning. I'm not sure of the culprit yet.
I saved new dill plants from swallowtail caterpillars only to find the plants nearly decimated this morning. I’m not sure of the culprit yet.

Harvest most herbs all season. Once a plant is sturdy and bushy, you can begin harvesting. Once an herb flowers, it can bolt in growth and lose or change flavor. But I’ve harvested rosemary from a plant already flowering, and then trimmed it back lightly in spring. I’ve been letting older thyme plants flower and try to keep younger ones managed for harvesting. In general, harvesting invigorates herb plants. So it’s best to use the leaves! Here are tips on cutting basil, along with a pesto recipe.

These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking.
These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking. That’s a white larkspur that happened to self-sow in the center.

Drying herbs is easy. I hung most in bunches from rafters in our shed, then stripped the dried flowers or leaves. You can also find plenty of products and ideas to help if you like. Here are tips on drying herbs from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.
Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.

Winter over or move indoors. If you’re not inclined to dry herbs at the end of the season, try wintering the plants over. Perennial herbs for your zone might need protection, but should make it in all but the coldest, snowiest winters. An advantage of container growing is that you can move the container indoors or to a warmer winter spot. Even if your indoor herb fails to last the entire winter, you extended the time during which you could clip just enough herbs for a favorite family meal, right inside your own home!

 

Favorite Xeric Plant: Gaura

Some call it a butterfly plant. That’s because gaura has delicate, swirly flowers at the ends of long stalks that resemble butterflies. In fact, one variety of gaura (G. lindheimeri) is called ‘Whirling Butterflies.’ It has white flowers; ‘Siskiyou Pink’ blooms have an earthy pink tone. And in 2014, Gaura ‘Sparkle White’ was an All-America Selections National Winner.

Eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder they bring butterflies to mind.
Typically, eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder gauras bring butterflies to mind.

We’re fortunate enough to have wild or native gauras (G. coccinea) in our garden. They appear on their own in late spring and bloom as temperatures warm. They’re a little more like a weed, partly because of the places they tend to appear, and partly because they have a higher foliage-to-flower ratio. Still, I’ll take them, and so will the bees!

Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!
Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!

Drought tolerant gaura

Native gauras appear along roadsides and other dry areas. Many of ours come up through rocks in the garden wall. You don’t have to read a plant tag to know that a plant growing robustly in rocks needs little to no water. We’ve had some trouble with gaura from nurseries, and I believe the reason is that the soil we chose was compacted and holding too much water. Still, if you plant a new gaura, it will need watering until healthy and established. A drip system can give the plant a slow drink.

This flower is from a volunteer gaura.
This flower is from a volunteer gaura.

Easy care

Once you’ve chosen a sandy or loamy soil for your plant, place it where it can get full sun. By the second year, you won’t have to water except maybe once in spring or in severe drought. I really love to place the white flowers where I can see them from a window or patio. It’s also a great plant for breezy areas, holding up to wind, which causes the flowers to “dance.” Most gauras reach about 2.5 to 3 feet tall; the native  varieties are a little shorter.

gaura against rocks
Gauras look terrific in rock gardens and natural designs.

Cut G. lindheimeri back in early spring about halfway down the foliage to keep it bushy, full and not too leggy. I let the native gauras go to seed so they pop up again the next year. You can try the same with nursery varieties; the plant might self-sow if seedheads remain in autumn. The only pests that bother gauras are flea beetles and gardeners who overwater them, especially if the plants are in heavy soil.

Versatile plant

Gauras are hardy in zones 5 through 8. In colder zones, the plant can be damaged if wet when temperatures dip to more than -15 Fahrenheit. Gaura is considered a perennial in those zones, but tends not to last as long as some hardy perennials.

gaura and gaillardia
These volunteer, or native, gauras popped up with volunteer gaillardias. I love the combination.

The gaura can fit into nearly any landscape design. Even before blooming, its slightly mottled leaves provide garden interest. I love to see it against a slightly taller plant with larger, bolder flowers (which also can support the gaura stems as the plant matures). Gaura also is perfect near steps, garden paths and walls. Although gaura fits perfectly in a natural xeric design, its delicate flowers can work in a cottage garden plan, provided it’s not overwatered or has really good drainage. Native gaura foliage and shape is not as stunning, but nonetheless a fun re-seeder in a naturalized xeric garden.

 

 

Purslane and Portulaca

More About Purslane and Portulaca: September 2018

I’ve got some new photos and experiences with purslane and portulaca to share since publishing this post a few years ago.

First, I actually purchased an ornamental purslane this year for a container. In other words, I could enjoy its pretty, delicate flowers but not worry about it spreading through a flower bed.

purslane flower and foliage
Ornamental purslane in a container arrangement. The flowers were striking.

And it’s a good thing I kept the purslane contained. We had a really strange weather year. Our grass emerged later than usual, and we were overtaken with two prostrate weeds: goatheads and purslane.

purslane in new mexico lawn
With moderate drought, this grass is not as green as it should be. But note the reddish-brown bare spots. Yep, that’s fading purslane.

I don’t know if the lack of grass around the dead purslane was the reason the purslane is so heavy in some areas, OR whether the hardiness of the purslane in our recent conditions simply covered the ground and choked out native grass in many areas. Either way, it is difficult to get rid of the purslane and the goatheads in a large lawn because they are too short to effectively mow, and too numerous to hoe.

For more information, here is the original post, with a few new photos:

I’ve grown to accept that some invasive plants (aka: weeds) are not so bad. I’m still on the fence with purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a prostrate spreading succulent that can take over entire flower beds.

portulaca flower
Ornamental portulaca from the same family as purslane. Note the ornamental’s thinner, needle-like leaves.

Weed or edible?

Purslane can grow in pavement, between rocks, and in moist conditions. It spreads from seed or from pieces of stems. And a purslane can have more than 50,000 seeds per plant. It re-roots after being hoed. That’s a weed, right? Still, many value purslane because it is edible. But in my mind, if the plant interferes with the objectives in managing a lawn or garden, it’s a weed. And since mats of purslane suck moisture and nutrients from soil and even shade soil from sun as they spread, they’re pretty much weeds in my book. That’s especially true in a vegetable garden, where I don’t want a weed competing for precious water.

faded purslane reddish
Close-up of fading, sort of mowed purslane; it’s returned to its reddish color.

Purslane was grown in India originally and provided nutrition and reported health benefits. Those who eat purslane have described its taste as lemony or similar to spinach. And the plant tastes best if “harvested” while its fleshy leaves still are young. So one way to eradicate common purslane where you don’t like it is to follow the philosophy “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”

You can spot common purslane as a small seedling with reddish-tinged leaves that form flat against the ground and spread out like spokes in a wheel. Pull it up before it sets seed to avoid having an entire bed full of the weed the next year. Not sure a weed is purslane? Check out these photos of seedlings and other stages of purslane from Missouri State University.

Ornamental value

Even common purslane can be pretty. The fleshy leaves contrast nicely with tiny, usually orange, flowers. And I bought one years ago before I knew better. I paid for that, because the plant came back with a vengeance, choking out other plants in a tiny rock garden. So if you choose to plant purslane as an edible, just beware that you’re introducing the seeds to your landscape.

purslane weed
Purslane taking over a rock garden. It’s best to pull it up before it gets this big, whether you eat it or throw it out.

A better alternative is an ornamental portulaca such as P. grandiflora. You can tell an ornamental portulaca from a purslane by its leaves. Ornamental portulaca, often called moss rose, has more needle-like leaves than purslane foliage. The flowers also are showier, often looking either like a cactus bloom or a tiny carnation or rose.

coral colored portulaca bloom
I love this portulaca bloom. The plant loves sun and heat.

The best part? Portulacas love sun and heat, are highly drought tolerant, and will spread in warm climates to make an interesting groundcover. They’re also a perfect container plant, especially if you buy a mix of colors, which warm-climate nurseries usually carry. Both purslane and portulaca bloom in the morning after the sun has been up a few hours, and close later in the day.

portulaca blooms mounding
These are annuals worth the money! I’ve never seem portulaca mound like this, but loved the effect and color.

Caring for portulacas

Portulaca is an annual, but can re-seed. Although not nearly as invasive as its purslane relative, an ornamental portulaca often pops up somewhere in the landscape. But to me, it’s a happy surprise. The easy-care, drought tolerant annual is welcome in our garden any time temperatures begin to warm up in early summer. The worst thing you can do is overwater the plant, especially if it’s in potting mix. The portulaca will grow leggy.

portulaca in hanging baskets
Portulaca actually do better with sun and heat, but who would have thought it would be 40 degrees F in mid-May? I can’t wait for these containers at the back of our garden to fill in.

Portulaca will keep blooming and spreading into fall, provided you do one thing: pinch off spent blooms. The energy will go to helping new blooms form. The equivalent of deadheading this annual is so simple; just pinch the blooms off into your hand after they have closed up and begun to look withered. If the flower resists, wait a day. You’ll soon recognize the difference between a bud and a spent bloom.

portulaca and cactus
This portulaca re-seeded in some soil we repurposed for one of Tim’s cacti. It just goes to show how little water they need! You can see the bloom stages really well in this photo. A tiny dried-up flower peeks from behind the bloom; it’s ready to pinch off! Two new buds are a little lower on either side of the stem. And a faded bloom, nearly ready to pinch, lies at the lower right.

And if you want to pinch your portulaca while eating a salad with purslane leaves, that’s up to you. Just be armed with new recipes to cook up all of your purslane in years that follow.

Want Easy Garden Maintenance? Go Native!

There are so many “right” reasons to choose native plants: They need less water and often attract pollinators. But if you need an even better reason, one that appeals to you in your busy world, how about the fact that they’re easier to maintain?

Think about it. By nature (hmmm, native and nature), native plants grow in the open, such as in forests or plains. Away from people, the plants can survive no matter the rainfall or other weather problems. And many reseed to ensure continued survival. They can do all of this without a nice lady in a funny hat and brightly colored gloves “tending” to them.

Paperflower
This paperflower (Psilostrophe) came up in the rocks near our creeping broom for nice succession blooming.

Why native plants are easy care

Once a plant native to your region is established, which can take up to a year, it should need little to no watering. And it should never need fertilizer or other chemicals. These plants have adapted to their native conditions and are less susceptible to pests and diseases than non-native plants. As long as the plant is in the right spot in terms of sun, soil and climate, all you need as a gardener is a little patience. Don’t amend the soil or overwater your new native (although they need more water in the first year to help the roots establish). Your native might not flower prolifically in its first year, and wildflower seeds can remain dormant in the ground before suddenly popping up when conditions favor their germination and growth.

native rock rose
Rock rose (Helianthemum) is an easy-care native plant and a stunner.

Of course, just because a plant is listed as “native,” if you plop it down in completely different conditions or climate, the plant might not make it or could turn out to be as much work as a big-box store purchase. For example, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) is listed as a native plant in New Mexico. But it grows naturally at elevations of 100 to 5,000 feet. And elevation makes a big difference in the Southwest. We’re at 6,300 feet, and our nights can easily dip below the 22 degrees F listed for warmer Sunset zones that support the cholla (zones that are less than an hour away to the east or west). Likewise, planting a cholla in a bed with drip or spray irrigation could damage the plant more than cold. It prefers low water, full sun and sandy soil. No wonder it does so well in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona!

Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.
Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.

How to select native plants

So caring for native plants is easy, but since so much depends on plant choice and placement, how can you make that process easier? Here are a few ideas:

  • Notice plants you see and love in the lawns of neighbors, commercial buildings and even along roadways or on nearby hikes (but don’t steal native plants in the wild). Take photos to help with identification and note where and when you saw the plant.
native wildflowers New Mexico
Daisies, shrubby ice plant, a native gaura forming (and weeds).
  • Although I said to select plants native to your region, plants native to nearly the same conditions also do well. Several cold-hardy natives of South Africa, such as Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) and Hardy Purple or Yellow Iceplant (Delosperma) do really well in the mountainous Southwest.
shrubby ice plant
Here’s a close-up of the shrubby ice plant. Its flowers are smaller than the spreading types, but just as bright. And it’s a compact choice for rock gardens.
  • Local books and apps are the best source for identifying the plants you see near your home. Some national sites (such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) have accurate search engines, but others can confuse you if your search brings up a low-growing shrub with purple flowers that only grows in Georgia.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum relative.
  • Get help from professionals. Local landscape designers know native plants, and should encourage their use. Call your master gardener hotline or check with a local extension office or native plant organization to get help identifying and selecting plants for your area.
daisy native agastache
Native daisy that needs only shearing of flower stems after fading, and an agastache, which brings hummingbirds.
  • If you can’t identify a plant but have it in your garden, try not to stress. We’ve got several plants we have yet to clearly identify, but we’ve watched their natural patterns of growth and blooming and just played along. In most cases, I only shear off spent flower stalks in early spring to reinvigorate the plant.
I still haven't figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!
I still haven’t figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!

And if you have a native you really love and want to use elsewhere in your lawn, try saving seeds, propagating a cutting or dividing the plant. See the Resources page for a list of native plant lists or nurseries.