Plant Select 2015 Plants for High-Altitude Gardens

I’ve written before about how the harsh environment of the high desert and foothills of the Rocky Mountains affects plants. But I’ve got good news! The brilliant folks at Plant Select,have announced their new plants and recommendations for 2015. Plant Select is a nonprofit source of plant selections that thrive in the High Plains and Intermountain regions and in a range of conditions, including low water. I’ve summarized a few of my favorites:

Coral baby penstemon (Penstemon x “Coral baby”). This is a new plant with upright spikes of coral-pink flowers that bloom from May through July in Zones 5 – 8. It takes moderate to dry water conditions once established and prefers sandy, well-drained soil. I love to see hummingbirds on penstenoms. Plant Select says Coral baby also attracts bees and butterflies. The plant was selected by breeder Kelly Grummons of Denver, who specializes in xeric plants.

 

Coral baby penstemon, a new introduction from Plant Select for 2015.
Plant Select’s 2015 Coral baby penstemon for Zones 5 to 8. Image courtesy of Pat Hayward, Plant Select.

WINDWALKER royal red salvia (Salvia darcyi x S. microphylla). I like that this hummingbird attracter is deer resistant. Plant Select says that it produces blood-red blooms from June through October in Zones 5 to 9. Cutting the salvia back in early summer can reduce its height (which can reach up to 58 inches). WINDWALKER salvia likes full sun and is moderate to xeric in water needs. It’s also from Kelly Grummons of Denver.

Plant Select's new WINDWALKER Royal red salvia is a moderate to xeric beauty.
Plant Select’s WINDWALKER Royal red salvia, a new plant for 2015 that produces blood-red blooms all summer.

WINDWALKER big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii “P002S” grass. This new introduction from Plant Select for 2015. Bluestem grass is one of the most beautiful ornamental grasses, and grasses can make a great statement in a xeric landscape. I especially love them near walkways or up against rocks. The powdery blue foliage on the WINDWALKER big bluestem can grow up to 6 feet tall in Zones 5 to 8. We left our bluestem through fall and enjoyed the dried foliage in the winter wind, then cut it back to the ground in early spring. It grew back, but was not as hardy the next year. This variety was selected by Sunscapes Nursery, and should reward with purple plumes in fall. It should get by with moderate water or dry conditions.

Windwalker big bluestem from Plant Select, a new grass for 2015 that's perfect for a xeric garden.
Plant Select’s new introduction WINDWALKER big bluestem grass is a perfect choice for a breezy xeric garden. Image courtesy of Scott Skogerboe and Plant Select.

Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmannia peristenia). This is one of several recommended plants from Plant Select for 2015. Because it’s native, it should adapt to high desert climates and water conditions. These grow wild at our place and when we head out to mow down weeds, we try to mow around them. They grow about 2 feet tall and are filled with yellow daisy blooms in late summer that attract pollinators. In the garden, plant them in part shade to full sun in Zones 5 through 10.

Engelmann's daisy, a native wildflower of the Southern Great Plains, is among the 2015  Plant Select recommendations. Image courtesy of Pat Hayward and Plant Select.
Engelmann’s daisy, one of Plant Select’s recommended plants for 2015 because of its adaptability to all sorts of conditions.

Visit Plant Select to learn more about their selection process and 2015 recommendations. I’ll probably include a few more in future posts. And if you live in the high desert or intermountain West, ask your local nursery if they stock any of the Plant Select recommendations.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Weed or Wildflower, Part 2

Nearly a year ago (in May 2014), I wrote a post about the fine line between weeds and wildflowers. The gist of the rant was that our rock garden and entire property was being invaded by a lovely flower related to wild yellow alyssum (a member of the same mustard, or Brassicaceae family called Physaria). It’s a little earlier in the spring, and even yellower!

First, the good. If you love early, yellow blooms, this is a pretty little flower. It looks pretty up against a rock or under a red rose, perhaps. Notice I said “it,” as in a single plant. More on that in the ugly portion…

yellow-alyssum
Yellow alyssum-like flowers sprout from rocks in a New Mexico rock garden.

Now for the bad: This little spreader has cropped up throughout the garden, and we’ve pulled up a few, though I surrendered long before my husband. He has much more patience, though he hasn’t yet tackled the entire garden. Because he wouldn’t get halfway before he had to start again.

alyssum-prickly-pear
Mustard weed growing between pads of prickly pear cactus.

If I had any doubt last year about the plant’s classification as a weed, at least in this setting, I have no doubt now. And that’s the ugly part. Despite our best (nontoxic, of course) efforts to control this little bloomer, it has taken over every nearly every surface and begun spreading to neighbors’ lawns as well. I have no idea how it started; it came with the house!

alyssum weed
Yellow alyssum can be invasive, as can its mustard cousins like Physaria.

Having called it ugly, I have to admit the lawn is really pretty when the sun hits it just right early and late in the day. And we are doing our part ecologically, because the bees swarm all over it when the sun shines. The dogs and deer must tread carefully.

alyssum and deer NM landscape
OK, I admit that the flowers look pretty here from a distance. And what exactly are those deer running from?

As for last year’s fear about this native flower choking out summer grass, we still had a green lawn come summer. It is possible they delay the grass taking root a little, but in other years they can cover the ground and prevent really bad weeds from coming up.

UPDATE April 6, 2015: A few days after posting this, we headed east to visit relatives, through Roswell and almost to the Texas border. Guess what we saw growing in the worst possible conditions along roadways nearly the entire trip? You guessed it! And it was in my in-laws’ lawn and their neighbors’ yards too. My mother-in-law said she has seen it for years and knew it as a prairie wildflower. I give up and accept this invasive plant as a prairie wildflower … for now, and accept that it is great for bees and soil.

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…

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.

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.