Water-Wise Gardening Tips

It’s dry out there. We had pretty good moisture over the winter months, but the early spring has been unseasonably warm (OK!) and dry. We’ve come to expect that in New Mexico, and a few days ago, I wrote about the wildfire danger. Today, let’s review a few tips for water-wise spring landscaping that help homeowners here and just about anywhere in the country where drought can be an issue.

  • Set out your rainwater harvesting system. If you live in a climate zone that’s warm enough to leave rain barrels out all winter or have underground cisterns, your system has been efficiently gathering water all winter. In other climates, rain barrels can freeze in winter. Ours are on the south side of the house and should be past danger of long and hard freeze. Now, all we need is rain.
rain barrel in New Mexico
A simple rain harvesting system that came as a kit. All we had to do was shorten our downspout.
  • Update your irrigation system to a low-volume method. The most practical and water-efficient way to hydrate ornamentals is with drip irrigation. When you use spray heads, water evaporates into the air. It also hits leaves and nearby plants. The spray can cause leaf disease in some plants, plus it’s more efficient to soak roots deeply than to water the entire plant.
  • As you plan your irrigation, or check out your current system this spring, make sure to adjust the water amount for the plants or areas where you have bubblers. For example, succulents and many xeric plants need no water at all once established, unless you’re in an extreme drought. You can cap those bubblers off. Too much water can actually harm some xeric plants. Use drips at the base of low- and medium-water flowers and groundcovers. Increase the flow rate for larger shrubs and trees, and add a few extra emitters around trees, especially while they’re becoming established. Remember that tree roots grow out, just like the canopy.
drip system for xeric gardening
A drip system irrigates rosemary, yucca and other plants in this xeric garden.
  • Water in the morning to get your plants through the heat of the day, and when less evaporation occurs.
  • Use raised beds. Raised beds and containers concentrate water, so if you want a few herbs or vegetables or some medium- to high-water ornamentals, confine them to an area that takes a little more water than the others. If you place the raised bed near your drip system, you can add it to the mix and adjust the flow on your emitter if necessary. Just remember, some containers, such as clay pots, dry out more quickly, even though they use less water each time. It’s like having a smaller tank on a fuel-efficient car. It’s not necessarily using more gas, just needing more frequent refilling.
  • When adding plants to your garden, build a small well around them to hold water. This helps the plant soak up the irrigation and keeps water from running down and off the plant, wasting your precious resource.
well at base of tree
This well helps hold water until this small tree is established, especially since it’s on a slope.
  • Use mulch when possible to help retain water and keep roots cool during the heat of the summer.

Finally, automatic irrigation is most efficient, and the consistent, timed watering is best for plants and lawns. But override it whenever you can after a good rain. I used to bemoan the waste when my neighbor’s sprinklers would come on as scheduled while their lawn already glistened with rainwater.

deer in xeric garden
Most of the plants in our xeric rock garden receive no irrigation, just supplemental watering to establish new plants or an occasional drink during drought.

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.

plant-catalogs-labels
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.

seed-packet-water-drop
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.

portulaca-bloom
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…

New Mexico Chile

If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum). 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.

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 to make 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!

red chile ristras
New Mexico red chile, strung in decorative ristras. Image from the National Park Service.

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.

green chile from community garden
Green chile harvested from neighborhood community garden, along with other great vegetables.

Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fills 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. I’ll post some of my favorite recipes in the next few months.

If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Here’s a list of companies that support the NM Chile Association.

Spring Garden Preparation

I am itching. Well, it’s spring-time in New Mexico, so allergies have made my eyes itch. But in the figurative sense, I am itching to get my vegetable garden started. There just isn’t much we can do with the short season here, but we can prep our garden.

Our fall “to-do list” included weeding and cleaning up our garden. Did we get to it? Nope. So about a month ago, we headed outside on a warm weekend with our garden hoes and set to work. We dug up and hauled off all of the grass, weeds and debris, partially leveled the garden and mixed in about 10 bags of organic topsoil/compost. Then, we covered it all with a layer of black landscape fabric hoping to “cook” the compost and kill any remaining weeds or seed. Then we bolted the fabric down any way we could to keep the wind from blowing it away.

 

garden-preparation
After weeding, we added compost and covered the dirt. We anchored the fabric with dirt and rocks.

 

Next up? Discussing this year’s plan. Most important is crop rotation. We want more space to move around and more space for a few of the plants. We also want to eliminate waste. So we cut back on the number of crops we’ll grow, move a few others to patio containers, and add one raised bed (in a watering trough). Crop rotation is critical for plant health and yield. We ordered seeds for the vegetables we most enjoy to reduce waste and looked for the shortest time to harvest on those that have the most trouble in our cooler climate.

vegetables-from-garden
A pick from last year’s garden. We’ll skip the broccoli and peppers this year but plant more beans, which freeze well.

The seeds are in, so the next step will be planting seedlings. We’ve got our starter pods and two heating mats. We’ll start the seeds in a few weeks, hoping they are just right for setting out after our last frost date (around May 10 to 15). Meanwhile, I’m watching for a nice, warm day so I can prepare a few containers for lettuce, arugula and spinach seeds. I’m willing to try them as soon as possible because nothing beats walking out my back door at lunch time and cutting fresh leaves for a salad!

Four low-water Container Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

apple_tree_well_web
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.

Raindrops Kept Fallin’…

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 many 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, outside a little rain from Mother Nature, 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.

early rain
Early summer rain. See how brown the grass is? What grass, you say?

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. And one of the best reasons 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 the equivalent of a block away but a little lower and closer the river, I figure the people in Atlanta or even Albuquerque really don’t get it.

But when various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day,” they were spot on: We had a hard freeze the Saturday before, and no other until October. 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…

rain on patio
So then it really rained. Maybe because we were trying to pour a patio.

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 guess what else happened? We got weeds. Every kind of weed known to man. Everywhere 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.

These city folk did not yet have a riding mower; we had a lot of moving expenses and no grass worth mowing before July 1. Then the grass was too wet to cut most days. So 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.

weeds take over
Still raining Aug. 10. See the weeds in that front bed and all along the ditch bank in the background?

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.

The High Desert Just Got…Higher

side view2
View of house from the northwest side shows apricot tree, garden and view toward river.

 

We live in New Mexico, and spent the past year preparing our house with its nice lawn, beds and straw bale wall to look nice for potential buyers. It sold in the spring and in April, we were fortunate enough to move from Albuquerque to an area just outside Ruidoso, NM.
Still dry? You bet! Still short on water? Of course! We have two acres of water rights with our 4 acres of property and a river that runs through about 180 feet of the back acreage. About three weeks after moving in, it was a dry river bed. More on that another time. Suffice it to say that xeric gardening still rules for the most part, and it’s made a little more fun by hard well water and no sprinkler or drip system.
Did I mention that we also changed zones? At about 6,300 feet in altitude, we’re close to USDA Zone 6, just below some gorgeous mountains but in a canyon with strong, dry winds, along with daily and seasonal temperature extremes.
These are all minor challenges, though, and the good news far outweighs any of the water and climate issues. We’ll take the views, the river, a passive solar home, and an awesome xeric garden already laid out by the talented former owners. I’ll talk about some of our solutions and document the seasons as we go. We’ve even got some ideas for more new plantings.
Yes, life is good even when it’s high and dry.