There’s always some irony in gardening. I’m writing about drought-tolerant plants several hundred yards from an area struck by fire no more than five years ago and under severe water use and fire restrictions all spring. We prefer xeric plants and inherited a huge and well-planned xeric garden when we moved here in April. Most of the plants survived with no care or water while the property sat on the market for a year. So we were ready to look for more drought-tolerant choices for a slightly cooler zone and purchase rain barrels in case the skies ever opened up.
People who live in rural areas know their weather. One reason is that they tend to pay attention to the skies, the land, the views. Another is that many grow lawns, crops, or feed for livestock or homestead.
One of the main reasons they know weather is that no television station, web site or app gets rural weather right. Our “local” weather is mixed in with several other communities in our county, some of which are 20 miles north of us or about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Considering that the temperature can vary about six degrees between our place and a neighbor who lives about a block away, it is hard to pinpoint our precise forecasts.
First and Last Freeze
The USDA has our hardiness zone on the money, and that helps us know which plants are less likely to survive nights below 20, or even 10, degrees. Maybe more accurate is the very definite (but since proven accurate) prediction of various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day.” The first year, we had a hard freeze the day before. When they said that the rains would start “on the Fourth of July,” they were close again. It started raining July 1 and pretty much kept raining for nearly six weeks. I have not asked about the need to tie weather events to well-known holidays, but if it works…
Nearly 6 years later, the holiday predictions still are pretty accurate, but rain has been scarce since 2017. The first year, however, and in summer 2017, we got lots of rain.
Too Much Rain
So, what do you do when your xeric garden gets rain, LOTS of rain? Well, most of the plants adapted just fine. They grew well and plenty of lovely annuals popped up from volunteer seeds. But we also got every kind weed known to man in every spot a weed could grow and some places I thought they couldn’t. In all of the gravel walkways, between rocks and pavers, inside cacti (those weeds are smart!). And pretty much all over the entire 4 acres.
By the time we got a mower to the back orchard, the weeds were up to my knees. We eventually conquered the mowing, but lost the battle in much of the garden. My thinking is that the yard and weeds had a year’s head start on us, and it will take us a little time to catch up.
I also have been meaning to ask a neighbor what sort of event to expect on Thanksgiving. Maybe our first snow, though I think it might hit sooner. I just hope the snow doesn’t last for six weeks.
If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum), no matter what neighboring states might say. You might not know that paprika and cayenne come from chile products. Paprika is made from low-heat red chile, and cayenne from a more pungent, higher heat pepper. But nothing beats fresh green chile.
Leaving green chile on the plant until it is red and nearly dry makes the red chile pods that are used for chile ristras, and especially for delicious red chile sauce. People who live in New Mexico love to eat chile, and the only real debate is whether red or green chiles are better. The best way to solve any dispute and please the taste buds is to order both (a choice called “Christmas” in our local restaurants). Take my poll below if you have a strong opinion!
According to New Mexico chile growers, the industry is in trouble because of low-cost foreign competition. But chile crops require warm weather, arid conditions and warm soil. Southern New Mexico in particular boasts the perfect chile-growing conditions. And since weather can affect not only harvest but flavor and heat of the fruit, why would anyone buy from less than the best?
If you want to grow a few plants in your own garden, the chile plants thrive best when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees. Even a light frost can kill a chile pepper plant. Direct-seeding is preferred, but you need a long, warm growing season to start chile from seeds. Otherwise, you can transplant chile plants that are about six to eight inches high and space them about 10 inches apart. Make sure they’re getting full sun and are in well-drained soil. They need consistent watering, but adjust based on rainfall. They won’t like wet feet.
Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fill with the smell of roasted green chile. Both red and green chiles are loaded with vitamins A and C and tons of flavor. If you’ve never tried them before, start with mild or medium heat and work your way up.
If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Try the search page for NM chile sellers from the NM Chile Association.
If you want a shrub that bursts with mid- to late spring color and thrills butterflies and bees, you can grow Caryopteris (C. x clandonensis). Also called bluebeard, blue mist, and blue mist spirea, caryopteris plants actually are part of the mint (Laminaceae) family, a recent change from their former placement in the verbena family. Regardless, they are nothing like a spirea, but the name has stuck.
Caryopteris is a drought-tolerant shrub that has pretty, sage-like pale green leaves. The leaves have a nice, light scent. They drop in winter (it is deciduous) but begin emerging in late spring or early summer. I leave the brown seed heads on for some winter interest; blue mist still will maintain its shrub shape with dry, light brown stems.
The plant comes from Asia, so it is not native to North America. That does not seem to bother my pollinators and I have not seen the plant spread invasively, unlike its mint relatives. Still, you can prevent it from self-sowing (dropping seeds to create new plants) by pruning it in fall as soon as all the flowers fade.
Where to Plant Caryopteris
This pretty and easy-care shrub can grow and bloom in either full sun or part sun in zone 5 through 8 Southwest gardens. Some cultivars are hardy down to zone 4. The plant can reach 3 feet wide and 4 feet high, but can grow a little taller in the right conditions. It is easy to shape and control. Blue mist can make a nice low hedge if planted close together or serve as a featured plant in a sunny area.
Blue mist does not like to sit in soggy soil, especially in cooler weather, so choose a spot with soil that drains well. We had one near our house that seemed to be getting too much water from patio runoff. When we built a dry river bed to handle drainage, we created a low berm for the caryopteris. It still gathers water from the flowing rain runoff but does not stay too wet.
Caring for Caryopteris
In the first year, water caryopteris regularly, letting it dry a little between waterings. When temperatures stay above about 90 degrees, water blue mist every two weeks if you are not getting rain. To avoid root rot, cut back on watering when nights cool and for plants getting some shade.
Other than that, all you have to do is prune this stunning purple plant once a year. I prune mine in spring as new growth begins to appear near the ground, but you can prune in early fall after the plant fades if you are worried about self-sowing. You can trim the branches down to about 12 to 15 inches from the ground for a pretty shrub effect. We also had some planted together in one area of the garden that my husband shaped so they would frame the nearby Apache plume.
If you do get volunteer plants or your caryopteris outgrows its spot in your garden, it is an easy shrub to transplant. Carefully dig deeply around your small volunteers soon after their lower leaves green up in spring. We also divided the one we put back on the berm, and both plants have retained a nice round shape.
It’s drought tolerant, a pollinator magnet and easy care. You can grow caryopteris!
Each year, Pantone, which is the universal standard for color in printing and graphic design, selects a Pantone Color of the Year. The 2019 color is Living Coral. The color (Pantone 16-1546) is named for the coral that thrives beneath the surface of the sea and the warm pinkish-peach tone represents the natural warmth and comfort of a coral reef. One of the reasons for its selection is a trend noted by Pantone researchers of companies and designers using the color in branding efforts.
Living Coral in Nature
Often, garden writers plant sellers highlight bright purples, reds and yellows. They make for stunning photos or turning heads when driving by a landscape. But I’ve always loved this more subtle color. It’s not as common in native plants as are many other bloom colors. But the hint of pink, peach and oranges with golden tones beneath makes for some attractive combinations in the garden.
With undertones of peach, coral complements blues in the garden and the pinker tones look amazing with green. Softer hues of coral stand out with bright yellows. Aside from living coral in the sea, which most of us never will see in person, you can find the color in natural items like peach blooms and peels or fresh salmon. It’s also a captivating color in the flowers of the plants below (click any thumbnail to scroll the gallery).
Photo Gallery: Living Coral in the Garden
If your garden, houseplants or a favorite container lack coral color, think about adding some in its honorary year!
If you’re like me, you often choose a container based on how much you like it or its color. Those are good reasons; after all, you want to enjoy your purchase when it’s in your home or on your patio. And the color might be important to curb appeal or your entryway statement. But it helps to keep in mind a few other tips for container choices based on:
Some plants need a container large enough to support a plant’s growth. For example, even patio tomatoes need a pot about 12 inches in diameter. The diameter is not always listed. A 10-inch container equates to about 3 gallons, and a 14-inch container to nearly 7 gallons, but it depends on the depth. As a general rule, go for about 5 gallons for container-grown tomatoes.
In 2004, standards were released to help ensure more consistent labeling from nurseries. For example, a 1-gallon potted plant is about 152 to 251 cubic inches, taking into account diameter and depth. Be sure to consider the mature size of plants when arranging containers. For single plants, purchase a container at least a size larger than the one a plant comes in. There are exceptions, however.
Some plants prefer crowded roots. Many succulents will fail to grow and flower if placed in a container that is too large. When in too large a pot, all the plant’s energy goes to the easiest activity – growing more roots. This means less energy can go into producing growth above the soil line. So, try not to go more than 10% larger than the size of the succulent. And keep in mind some succulents have tap roots and need enough depth for those roots to grow and seek water.
The same goes for a totally unrelated plant: the African violet. Violets do best with crowded roots and need good drainage, just like succulents. Place an African violet in a container smaller than the diameter of the leaves (those who grow the plants for shows generally choose containers one-third the diameter of the foliage). And repot plants like African violets every so often, gradually increasing container size as needed. Don’t take a violet (or succulent) in a 3-inch pot up to 10 inches in one repotting.
Look at the container depth as well as its diameter. I love the look of shallow terracotta containers, but they only work with annuals and shallow-rooted plants. Those violets and many rosette-shaped succulents also can take shallower shapes. But your tomato needs good depth to form large, healthy roots. I’ve pulled up cherry tomato roots that were at least 15 inches long. And if your cactus has a tap root, make sure the pot’s height can allow for growth.
Container shape also affects plant placement and the overall appeal of the container. A tall container looks best with at least one tall plant element and maybe a trailing one.
Clay or terracotta pots are excellent for indoor or outdoor succulents. They dry out quickly because the sides are porous. These pots usually are your best bet for drought-tolerant plants, but not for vegetables or many ornamental flowers. And African violets in clay pots often dry out too quickly. Plastic and fabric pots are less expensive and lighter. The material’s weight is a consideration for any plant you know you might have to move to change sun or shade exposure, or bring indoors in winter.
All containers need good drainage, even those you use for succulents. Few plants do well sitting in wet soil for long. If you repurpose a container, be sure to drill some holes in the bottom. And try not to let the container (especially a shallow one) sit in a full saucer if you use one to catch drainage. If your container appears to drain too quickly, change how you water – a little at a time repeated once or twice. Always add water to a container at a slow rate instead of a heavy pour. Drenching the container makes soil nutrients run right out with the water.
I have decided to go more colorful with container choices from now on. It’s tempting to “match” an entry or house color, or to have a container blend in on your patio. Sometimes, though, you can make a really bold statement by choosing a container that is bright, colorful (like Talavera pottery) or a nice contrast to plants inside and around it.
Finally, if you find a container that will look perfect in a spot because of its color, shape or pattern, but maybe the wrong material or size for your plant, try slipping another pot inside it. I even did that once several years ago when I wanted to add an “old man cactus” (Cephalocereus senilis) to some annuals in a decorative entry-way container. I knew its watering needs were different, so I set the cactus pot into the soil of the larger pot and never really watered above it. The plant received plenty of moisture from the soil around its container. Then, I pulled the old man out in fall and we potted him inside for winter. He still is thriving, now in a terracotta pot with other cacti.
It’s spring and time to think about growing food and flowers this summer. Save money when you start some seeds inside. You can find plenty of tips online for light, soil and water requirements, but I wanted to mention a few other hard-earned “secrets” from my experience and talking to others.
In general, start seeds about six weeks before your planting time for the variety. And be sure to pot up (move the smaller seedling to a larger pot) once while seedlings are inside. Here are 5 other tips:
1. Before starting vegetable or herb seeds, be sure they transplant well.
If they do better with direct sowing (placing the seed right in the ground), wait not just past your last freeze but until air (and therefore, soil) temperatures have warmed. Cucumbers are a great example. I have planted them too soon and then had to plant again when the ground warmed because the first ones just didn’t take. Many annual flower seeds and some herbs do fine with direct sowing, which is easier than starting small plants inside.
2. Not all vegetable seeds or seedlings go into the ground at the same time.
Lettuces, cilantro and carrots do better in spring or early fall than in summer heat. Tomatoes need moderate heat. Planting and harvest times vary for edibles. This also goes with my next tip:
3. Look for information specific to your region.
Seed packets can help, but in New Mexico and other Southwest states, dates for planting vary widely. This goes for last or first frost dates and for peak heat. Low desert areas, in particular, have growing seasons markedly different from the rest of the country. Check with local nurseries, extension offices or master gardeners for help knowing when to plant.
4. Thin seedlings.
This is the hardest lesson. But you should thin the seeds that sprout in your indoor start pots and those directly sown before they get too big and share roots. In the starter pot, it is best to take a small narrow pair of scissor or garden clippers and cut the spare seedlings off at the soil level. Pulling it up could damage all the seedlings in your pot. Thinning in the ground is a matter of preference for how your plants will look. But remember, crowded seedlings are not as healthy as single ones with plenty of room for their roots, and vegetable plants should not touch one another if possible. The leaves need sun and air flow.
5. Be sure to harden off seedlings.
This requires patience and some time. Your plants need to get used to their new home, just like flatlanders need to acclimate to high altitudes. Get your seed starts used to a breeze and the sun before placing them in the ground. Read more here about how to harden off your seed starts.
Finally, start just enough for a spare or two in case a few seeds fail to take or the seedlings get off to a bad start. But don’t plant 10 tomato seeds indoors if you plan to grow only one or two plants, unless you have friends and family who would love to take your other healthy plants off your hands.
My mantra is “Gardening Should be Fun.” Taking the pressure off makes it more fun. In other words, your garden doesn’t have to look like the cover of a magazine or top Pinterest pages for you to enjoy the process and the results.
So, if you are a new gardener or have a friend or relative who wants to grow plants and doesn’t know where to start, you can watch my online course with the basic terms and concepts. I developed the course for Southwest Gardening Blog, where I am one of four gardeners/authors.
The online class only is available through February 28, so be sure to sign up soon. You can watch it whenever it is convenient and as often as you like. Have fun with plants!
It’s easy to spot possible problems with a plant’s leaves, stems or flowers. Those are the parts we enjoy seeing every day in our garden. But what about the parts that lie beneath the surface of your garden or container?
We can forget all about the roots when enjoying a plant’s shape and color. But some of the toughest tricks to gardening involve root care – watering enough but not too much; soil drainage to allow roots to gather water but not sit in them; ability for roots to take up oxygen, and ability of roots to grow outward to support the plant you see above ground. How do you know your plant’s roots are healthy and why is it important?
Roots Affect Plant Health
The way roots grow, and their health, have a profound effect on the size a plant reaches, its vigor, and how it responds to watering or other care you give the plant. The main function of these leafless, underground stems is to absorb moisture and nutrients from the soil around them. The roots store the plant’s food to keep it nourished and alive. Roots also help stabilize a plant in the soil or potting mix and physically support the plant’s main stem or trunk.
Types of Roots
There are various types of roots, although most root systems branch out under the soil. You might have heard of a taproot, which is a primary root that grows straight down into the soil and develops few to no root branches. Picture a carrot. The part we eat actually is a taproot. That’s the good kind, but a taproot can be a problem for gardeners. Some trees, such as pecans, grow deep taproots. This makes them much more difficult to dig up and transplant.
Some roots have lateral, or secondary, roots that branch off from an existing root. This happens with fibrous roots because their primary root eventually stops lengthening. Fibrous roots are lighter and smaller in diameter because they have less cell activity than standard roots.
One of the biggest problems with roots is restriction of their growth. This is easy to see when you lift a new plant out of its nursery pot. Some have roots circling in the shape of the container; the roots received good nutrition from the potting mix and plenty of water from garden center staff, but had nowhere to go. When planting, always dig a hole larger than the root ball – up to three times as large for trees and shrubs. And loosen the soil around the outer edges of the hole. If the ground is compacted and dense, roots will have to work harder to spread.
A second problem is underwatering (especially a tree) or watering in brief, shallow periods instead of long, deep soaks. Short watering doesn’t penetrate very deeply, so the roots grow close to the surface. And that can bring on other problems, including damage from lawnmowers or foot traffic. But with less frequent and deeper watering, roots grow downward as they seek moisture.
Roots as Plant and People Food
For plants, the structure and quantity of roots help determine how much water and nutrition the plant takes in. That’s why it is so important to water a plant more in its first season or year of growth than it will need later. The extra water helps those roots take hold and grow so they can store food for the plant.
Aside from carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, radishes and beets are among common roots people eat. The mature root – a tuberous root in the case of a potato or sweet potato – holds lots of nutrition.
One final tip – buying a plant that has roots wrapped around inside the pot (rootbound) can make for more challenges when you plant it. You should tease or slice the roots near the outer bottom to help stimulate new growth. But if a plant’s roots are brown or dry, move on to another plant.
Cosmos are the annual gifts that keep on giving. And that’s good, because they’re one of the easiest flowers to grow and they come in a huge range of colors, bloom types and varieties.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) plants are part of the Aster family, and native to Mexico and some areas of the desert Southwest. Between this classic cosmos and the related sulphur cosmos (C. sulphureus), the flowers can grow in nearly a full range of growing zones – from zone 1 through zone 11.
Of course, in nearly all but the hottest of these zones, cosmos grows as an annual and dies back with frost. But if you think that is a good reason to avoid growing the plant, I’d like to convince you otherwise. Cosmos is a prolific re-seeder in even the poorest of garden soils.
Add Color and Wildlife
Cosmos flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds, along with other insects. They will bloom from mid-summer through early or mid-fall, depending on your first frost date. You can cut flowers for indoor arrangements, which also can lead to more blooms. I also leave plenty of dying flowers on the stems because they feed finches. I love watching a finch land on the small, swinging branches to peck away at the seeds. In a world in which so many flowers are yellow, it’s so great to enjoy the white, pink and red tones of cosmos in my xeric garden.
Plant from Seeds
You can plant cosmos from seeds or nursery transplants. I have had mixed luck growing cosmos from seed until this year. I know the flower seeds like loose soils, but with our dry and windy conditions, I found it better to cover the seeds lightly with some compost and water with a soaker hose to prevent washing away.
As for planting again next year, unless you severely disturb the soil where (and near where) you had cosmos last year, you should get plenty of volunteers as soon as summer rains start, and see the seedlings with their fine leaves growing taller as monsoon rains continue. You can help Mother Nature by gently spraying the area where you want the flowers to appear if early-summer rains have been light.
Most cosmos varieties grow tall, maturing at up to four-feet high, so they often work best at the back of a garden. If you have a bed or meadow filled with cosmos, they tend to support each other and seldom flop over as some plants can when they get tall. Cosmos loves full sun or part shade.
Sit back and enjoy
Once they become seedlings, cosmos do best with nothing but rain water. Overwatering the plants actually can lead to fewer blooms.
There are some areas of the United States that consider cosmos invasive, including a few spots in western New Mexico. And I admit one of the best characteristics of the plant – easy re-seeding – also can mean it pops up where we don’t want it. For example, if I didn’t pull seedlings out of our steps, we would not be able to walk down to the garden. But I leave a few off to the side for compromise. I pull those that block other plants and let the rest grow as they may. They’re crowded, but I love the effect.
You can grow cosmos and enjoy cutting the flowers for indoor arrangements. And have even more fun watching for new flowers to begin popping up the next summer!
I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.
First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.
Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.
This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.
Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.
Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.
Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.
A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.
Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.
Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.
Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.