How To Read Plant Label Codes for Watering Needs

Plant tags, labels and catalogs are much more attractive if they use icons instead of text instructions. Much like infographics, it’s a newer direction in communication. I see the good side of it, especially for people who have low literacy or shop with small children and don’t have time to turn the tag around for more information. I could say the drawback is that the more we put in symbols, the less we need writers, but that’s not a rant for this blog post.

As far as I know, water symbols are not standardized. If I’m wrong, I would love to be corrected. I think a standard nomenclature and symbol system for plant watering would be a great service to gardeners.

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Catalogs, seed packets and plant labels use a variety of methods to give us clues about a plant’s water needs.

Most water requirements are represented by a water droplet symbol that’s empty, partially filled or completely filled. My summary of similar legends, like the one used by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Authority, provides the following clues to irrigation:

Empty drop: A plant that requires only rainwater or no supplemental watering once established. So be sure to give a new or transplanted tree or bush extra water until it appears healthy. This can be up to a year for trees and some bushes. After that, there’s no need to irrigate the low-water plant at all. Half-filled drop: This is a medium-water plant. It will always need some supplemental water, depending on what Mother Nature delivers. Most medium-water plants need supplemental water once or twice a month during the hottest days of summer.

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This seed packet shows the moderate water needs of a sunflower.

Full drop: I am not familiar with these plants. Seriously, they usually aren’t going to make it in places that deliver little rainfall, and if they do, it’s not water-wise gardening. But they often can survive in the right climates and conditions, maybe in a welled spot or container, or where there’s run-off from a streambed. Of course, if you live in a tropical area, that’s just not fair. There are additional variations on these labels, like partially filled drops. I’ve also seen use of watering pails as symbols. Most add text alongside the icons, but if in doubt, ask for help from the nursery staff or a local master gardener.

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And because I have to include a pretty flower picture, here’s a portulaca bloom. I love these low-water heat lovers.

No matter what the label shows, circumstances can affect water needs, so don’t take your water icon at face value! Aside from plant establishment, wind and unexpected heat waves can dry plants out. Summer monsoons can nearly drown our drought-resistant plants! And welling and mulching around plants helps them retain water, maybe helping you push a half-filled drop to a quarter-filled one…

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.
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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.

Maximize Xeric Plant Choices with Microclimates

There already are plenty of fabulous choices for drought-tolerant plants, but we found that our choices narrowed a little when we moved into a slightly colder zone. We’re quickly discovering that our new location has a shorter growing season, but that it can get warm here, so unpredictability makes it a little risky but a lot fun.

With microclimates, I figure we can push the envelope on a few of our favorite xeric plants. First, let’s talk about microclimates. In essence, a microclimate is a pocket of an area that can vary in temperature and exposure to the elements. A microclimate can be large or tiny. An example of a large microclimate might be the area that runs along the river. The grass there is still green and the leaves remain on some of the trees. A combination of shelter, shade, lower elevation, and moisture contribute to the cooler temperatures you feel when you walk through there on a sunny day.

river with grass
Microclimates occur along rivers because of dappled shade, lower elevation, and extra groundwater.

Microclimates can be as small as the few feet you have to plant in front of your south-facing wall or the inside of the plastic bottle you place over a seedling to absorb sunshine and maintain humidity for a mini-greenhouse effect.

bottles_micro_web
Tim covered these transplants with cut-off plastic bottles and set them in a window for a mini-greenhouse effect.

We brought a pad from our spineless prickly pear along and to be sure it made it here, we planted it against the rock wall on the northeast side of our garden (facing southwest) to maximize sun and minimize wind exposure. You also can use microclimates to make plants more drought tolerant. For example, put a plant that needs a little more water than nature usually provides in summer where your terrain naturally comes to a slope and slight pool, creating a natural well. And avoid placing a plant that can’t handle drought on a high southwest-facing spot with no protection. In my area, at least, you might as well be putting the plant up on a clothesline to dry before nightfall.

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This transplanted spineless prickly pear is happy in its southwest-facing wall location.

Here are a few more tips for making microclimates work for you and your plants:

  • Try even large trees and shrubs on south-facing walls to add a half-zone of heat. You’ll likely have more success if you buy a plant that’s slightly established (not a bare root, for example). An unusually cold winter might kill the plant or prevent fruiting or blooming, but it’s worth a try.
  • Take advantage of the shade from the heat-loving tree and fill in around the bottom with perennial or annual bedding flowers that need a little bit of cool shade in summer. They might even provide some natural mulch or protection for your tree on cold nights. Columbine is a great example; it’s a gorgeous flower that grows naturally in higher elevation forests, but might thrive under the dappled shade of a landscape tree.
  • Use raised beds and containers to create microclimates. Raised beds that run east to west warm up faster in the spring, and any new vegetables planted on the south side of the beds should beat others to the punch. You can move containers around to create microclimates for plants indoors and out, wintering over cacti and other heat-loving plants in south-facing windows, but setting them out on the patio in spring. Just remember that pots, especially clay ones, dry out more quickly. That’s fine for succulents, but can become a problem for thirsty annuals in the heat of the summer.
  • Use mulch or landscape fabrics and plastic to cover ground or  seedlings, adding some warmth and protection.

Mostly, what works for a friend or neighbor might not work for you and vice versa. Slight variations in elevation and exposure can make big differences to a plant’s health and happiness. But if you’re willing to take a few risks, you might be able to enjoy your favorite plant right outside, or inside, your window.

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I’m wintering over a few geraniums. This one loves its location on a south-facing wall right by the window. Notice another transplant behind it with a plastic bag and my dog enjoying a sunny microclimate on the floor to the left…

Fall List of Water-saving Activities

The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.

First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.

Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.

mulch in bed
Mulch in this bed helps hold in moisture. Note the manual sprinkler control near the home’s front door. It’s not much more work and avoids watering when unnecessary.

Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.

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Tim built up a ridge around this small apple tree to help well the water.

If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.

calif_poppies
This post lacked color, so I had to add these. Called California or Mexican poppies, they’ll grow in the poorest, driest conditions.