When water is as scarce as it always seems to be in New Mexico, especially this year, I appreciate all of the native and drought-tolerant plants that hang in there until rains finally arrive. After all, it’s the smart and right thing to do here in the Southwest: grow plants that need little to no watering from our wells and taps.
And we follow those principles, doing what we can to save water. Still, I love some plants too much to give them up completely, and I imagine that’s true of many people who move to our dry state. I would hate for any gardener to feel badly for having a few guilty pleasures from the plant world. Here are some strategies for finding the middle ground between gardening sustainably and growing plants you love.
Plant high-water users only as occasional fillers and in moderation. By high-water plant, I mean not xeric, or needing some supplemental watering. If a plant doesn’t meet the soil, sun exposure and watering requirements, you’re unlikely to have much success and will have to resort to photographs from botanical gardens!
Fill in color with a few annuals. I fill a few patio containers each year with an annual or two or pop a few annuals between xeric plants that flower for only part of the season.
Grow a few houseplants you love. Geraniums are a favorite of mine, and I don’t have to give them much water in the winter while they survive inside near a sunny window. My new guilty pleasure is violets, although they stay inside all year. Growing orchids, violets and other houseplants more suited to tropical climates can be a guilty pleasure without adding much to water usage. Of course, that’s assuming you stick to a few plants only … if you can.
Create conditions that help the plant survive with less water. Use mulch, shading or other exposure strategies and careful timing with monsoon rain to help a nonxeric plant make it through hot, dry periods. And accept that your plant might not bloom as much as it would in a wetter climate by enjoying the blooms you get.
Choose plants you love that are useful to “waste” less water. If you’re growing food for your family (and not wasting lots of harvest), you’re replacing some of the water that might have been used to grow the same food on a large farm, and doing so locally. Plus, the benefits outweigh a little bump in water use and cost. Or grow some cut flowers you love instead of buying them in a store for your home or family and friends. Finally, some flowering plants that require a little more water provide food for hummingbirds, bees and butterflies. Although natives are better, adding a few flowering plants not native to your area can help pollinators.
And finally — use rain barrels to water your lovelies during dry weeks.
One of the best features of many xeric gardens is the natural look of the landscapes. We often use rocks and boulders and tuck native plants among them. This design most closely mimics the look of the landscape around us.
If you’ve moved to New Mexico and other Southwestern states from areas of the East and Southeast, you might be more used to a cottage garden look, where shrubs like boxwoods form hedges and foundation plantings repeat the same flower.
On a recent trip to Austin, I noticed a perfect blend of both features. Many of the gardens I toured with fellow garden bloggers struck me with how well they used repetition in their designs. But these Texas gardens also had a natural look. Here’s a photo essay from Austin, along with a few New Mexico shots.
So, Why Repeat Plants or Containers?
I realized we tend to favor single plantings in our gardens, typically choosing a plant based on how it will look in a location or complement a nearby plant. And when you love plants, it’s tough to resist adding any you like to any garden you own. But after seeing the use of repetition, I decided we need to add more repetitive elements. Here are a few reasons why:
Continuity. A garden is a sort of composition, and repeating an element gives it a sense of balance without making it look too symmetrical or monotonous.
Easier maintenance. We all have a plant we’ve tried that survived despite strange weather or a little neglect. Others require little to no pruning or deadheading. Why not scatter a few more of these easy-care plants around your home?
Color. Although many xeric plants are colorful, some really stand out in the garden. Using the same purple in a row of plants or throughout a garden gives a color focal point.
Saving money. Sure, you still have to buy the plants, but it is less expensive to buy four of the same perennial once than to fill in an empty space in the garden each year.
Finally, I would say that repeating plants is a fine example of xeriscaping principles. When you plant 5 native grasses in a grouping, they all have the same water and sun exposure needs. You don’t have to come in and add water for a plant that needs more than the grasses or take the chance of overwatering and killing a nearby plant. And when you use repetitious art or hardscape elements, you add to the design without adding plants — and that requires no water at all!
There really is no true blue in garden leaves or flowers, but many blooms come close. Iris, blue cornflower and blue flax come to mind. And there are plenty of violet flowers that have a similar “cool” effect and contrast so nicely with oranges and yellows.
But you don’t need blue flowers to add touches of calm blue to your garden design. I saw this firsthand on my recent tours of Austin gardens with the Garden Bloggers Fling. Here are some of my favorites:
Plus, garden art requires no watering or maintenance. Paint is especially inexpensive. It just couldn’t be simpler to add pops of color to your patio, deck or garden.
Special thanks to the wonderful garden bloggers and gardeners of Austin for your hospitality. What a great time!
My husband’s got worms and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Because his worms eat food scraps and produce a nectar-like waste product – worm castings.
With vermicomposting, he’s producing a soil amendment (humus) full of more than 60 micronutrients and trace minerals to gently and naturally support plant growth. Worm castings are the excrement left by worms, and the worm tower he uses for vermicomposting makes it easy to feed the worms and harvest their castings.
Benefits of Worm Castings
Castings hold all sorts of live micronutrients that help plants better absorb nutrients from soil, especially soil with low or high pH.
The worm castings can help repel some pests such as white flies and aphids; an enzyme in the castings is offensive to pests.
Feeding worms food scraps reduces and recycles garbage throughout the year.
Worm castings do not stink!
How a Worm Bin Works
Tim purchased a Worm Factory from Nature’s Footprint a few years ago. He keeps it in a corner of the garage for easy access and protection. Vermicomposting works with upward migration. The worms move up to eat, and gravity sends moisture and castings to the bottom. Adding food at the top every so often (when worms are actively eating the last food you added and are moving to the top tray) keeps the worms continuously fed and reproducing. The worms eat paper, fruit and vegetable scraps, bread, coffee grounds and eggshells, along with other scraps. The bedding added to each level eventually breaks down into castings as well.
The resulting compost is thick, dark and crumbly. Its ready to use as soon as you harvest. Some of the best uses are to mix the castings in with garden soil as an amendment or to top dress container plants. We added castings to some of our vegetable starts last year a few weeks after planting, just loosely scratching the castings into the soil around the plants. It takes less worm compost to improve soil than regular compost. Finally, use worm castings to make compost tea.
A Few Tips
Keep the tower warm in winter. You might have to either move a worm bin or give it some heat. There are insulators made for bins. Tim hangs a lamp over the bin and sets a timer so the lamp warms the bin at night. Even if production slows, the worms are warm enough, and the food does not freeze.
You’ll have more success if you break the food scraps into manageable sizes, about the size you get when running a peeler over a carrot.
Be sure to check instructions for worm type. Red wigglers (Elsenia festida) eat and reproduce better than most, but you can use European nightcrawlers (E. Hortensis), which work well in our tower.
Store your worm castings in an airtight container and they’ll continue to break down. Just let the castings dry a little before sealing. They can be damp but not wet.
The leachate, or liquid that runs down, can be toxic. Don‘t use it if it smells bad or on edibles. Be sure to dilute it with a ratio of about 10 parts water to one part leachate.
If you’re looking for a way to get kids involved in gardening, worms are it! What fun kids can have helping care for the worms and seeing how they help a family grow food or pretty flowers for mom. It’s also a great way to teach responsibility if kids are charged with prepping scraps or bedding and feeding worms.
If you can’t spend the money on a worm bin or tower, you can find information on making your own or vermicomposting directly into a garden bed.
I just discovered this delicate, early bloomer in the past few years when friends suggested Love-in-a-Mist (Nigella damascene) seeds from our local iris farm. The foliage looks much like fennel or dill as seedlings sprout, and nigella also is called fennel flower.
Nigella Is Versatile
We grew multicolored love in a mist in our rock garden. Tim threw the seeds out in fall and by mid-spring, we had fine fern-like leaves popping up from between the rocks. Although Nigella does best in damp sandy soil, ours grew out from under rocks that make up the walls of our xeric garden. The rocks likely held moisture longer than a spot in the open might have. The rocks also trapped the tiny seeds so fewer blew away. Plus, nigella can tolerate dry conditions.
But then we tried another approach – we bought a packet of Bridal Veil (Heirloom White Nigella) seeds from Renee’s Garden and sowed them in early summer in a blank spot of our vegetable garden. This soil is far better in quality, and the seeds received consistent drip watering. The flowers were taller and stunningly white, with maroon to black centers. The plants reproduce from seeds, assuming some seedheads are left on plants at the end of the season.
Sow in Fall or Spring
Although most instructions for growing nigella say to sow in spring, you can sow them in fall in areas with mild winters. They need full sun and grow in zones 2 through 10. That worked well for us last year, but this winter has been dry and consistently colder, so I’m anxious to see how many reseeded in our gardens. The bridal veil flowers in our vegetable garden bloomed later in the year, but were planted later. Sowing the seeds a few weeks apart in spring and fall can help ensure constant blooming of nigella in summer.
Use as a Cut Flower
You can cut nigella blooms for flower arrangements, and even better, cut some of the seedheads. If you cut the flowers to enjoy indoors, leave a few blossoms on the plant so they can dry and drop seeds for the next year. If you get too many, thin them out while small. Enjoy the seedheads after flowering by cutting their stems just after flowers fade, and hang them upside down away from direct sun.
Nigella is easy to grow and a great addition to any xeric garden!
As winter drags on, birds need lots of energy and shelter from the elements and predators. The best bird habitats mix shelter, water, natural seeds and nest-building material as spring approaches. Native plants offer many of these benefits, and the more varied a landscape, the more bird-friendly it is. For example, birds in our garden “stage” their visits to feeders or the ground by moving between the thorniest rose bushes and higher trees.
Here are five plants or plant types that make birds safer and happier when temperatures drop without adding a lot to your work, or to summer watering requirements.
Replacing at least some of your turf with native grasses and other native plants helps birds and uses less water. We purposefully leave our native grasses (mostly buffalo and blue grama) long as it dies back in fall to increase shots at reseeding and filling in bare spots. The seeds also provide food for ground-hopping birds, additional food caches for jays to hide the raw peanuts we put out, and dried grass stalks for nests before the grass greens in summer.
Switchgrass, big bluestem and muhly grasses all provide seeds and nesting materials for birds. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”) attracts birds and is a beautiful winter plant, with tall seed stalks that blow in the breeze. There are hundreds of species of the grass, and it grows in zones 5 through 9. Its water requirements are a little higher than some native grasses, but if you plant Karl Foerster grass in a rain garden or low spot, it will get more water naturally and won’t be hurt by the damp soil.
Barberry (Berberus) is a hardy shrub with small thorns along its branches. Depending on the variety you choose, you’ll enjoy deep red or pinkish foliage. The shrubs grow in zones 3 through 8 and retain their leaves in winter in most conditions. Fragrant yellow flowers emerge in spring, and the prickly branches provide good cover for small birds. You can plant several barberries a few feet closer together than recommended to create an attractive, bird-friendly hedge.
Boxwood (Buxus) normally isn’t considered a low-water plant, and I’ve seen countless examples of boxwood to form formal hedges and designs in other areas of the country. It is an easy plant to shape, and makes such a good hedge because its evergreen foliage is so dense. That’s also why birds love boxwood. Although boxwood might look a little formal for a native rock garden, we use ours as a foundation plant near our front door, where we want a more landscaped effect. Since it’s also on the north side of the house, I’m sure birds hide under the bush for cover. The boxwood’s protected, mostly shady location and slow growth habit help the shrub stay healthy with less water than it might need in a sunny spot.
Pyracantha shrubs produce berries in late fall to feed birds as temperatures drop. Also a thorny bush (sometimes called Firethorn), pyracanthas provide safe shelter for birds. What I love about the shrub is the diverse ways you can use it in a Southwest landscape. Leave it to grow naturally (maybe with some shoot trimming after rainy summers) or shape it like a hedge. We had several growing along a distant fence and Tim moved one to the front of the house. The pyracantha transplanted without a blink and just a few scratches. We leave the remaining two out in the yard in their natural state and shape the one in front of the house. I get to see the berries from my kitchen window and saw a Stellar jay eating them this past fall.
Many native shrubs attract birds in winter. Berries, seeds and bushy cover all support wildlife. Ask your local nursery or master gardeners for the best low-water plants in your Southwest zone.
Gardeners in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and surrounding Southwestern states face unique challenges. And though climate, zone and even drought conditions can vary from one area of each state to the next, we have some common issues:
Even when our regions are not officially in a state of drought, Southwest gardeners know water is a precious resource that we must protect all year.
Weather extremes are pretty common, especially where mountains meet foothills or plains.
Our states’ populations are highly rural. Although we’ve got plenty of large cities, rural gardeners live long distances from the services and products easy to come by in urban settings. So, sometimes we just have to get creative.
Heat is a major concern when growing throughout most of the Southwest.
But help is on the way, and I’m honored to be a part of a team offering a new source for Southwest gardening, along with Ann McCormick of Ft. Worth, Texas; Noelle Johnson of Phoenix; and Jacqueline Soule of Tucson. We want to make Southwest gardening fun and easier for our friends, neighbors and clients.
Join us as we offer information, ideas and sharing specific to gardening in the Southwest on our new blog, Southwest Gardening.
The new year is almost upon us, but gardeners don’t have to wait until spring to dream, plan and even shop for new plants.
You can take some time in winter to plan your garden. Doing so usually cheers my mood and makes me feel like I’m getting something done, even if I can’t do much outside. Here are a few tips for Southwest gardeners for winter planning and shopping.
Check Out New Plant Introductions
Each year, breeders offer new plants adaptable to conditions or resistant to diseases. Many independent testing organizations and growers conduct trials to see how plants fare in harsh conditions such as heat or drought. A favorite regional source is Plant Select in Colorado. The nonprofit organization tests and creates plants for the Rocky Mountains. You can search or browse their plant selections for zone, soil type, sun exposure, water needs and other characteristics. A new 2017 selection is the Sungari redbead cotoneaster (Cotoneaster racemiflorus var. soongoricus). The shrub is a hardy plant and fall stunner in a xeriscape.
All-America Selections also releases trial information on ornamental plants and vegetables each year. Although some of the plants are not suited for New Mexico gardens, AAS includes regional winners for the Mountain/Southwest region. For example, its 2018 winners include Mexican Sunrise Hungarian Pepper F1. This past summer, I sowed 2017 national winner Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink F1 seeds in a garden bed and the plant bloomed well into fall. You can find AAS winners at retailers that carry national brands such as Bonnie and Burpee plants or seeds (Johnny’s selected Seeds or Territorial Seed Company).
Regional growers and local nurseries often carry new plant introductions. Typically, you can learn about new plants by subscribing to the company’s newsletter or by following them on social media. High Country Gardens (whose chief horticulturalist, David Salman, is from New Mexico) recently released a list of new plants the company offers in 2018.
Finally, the Sunset Western Garden Collection is designed specifically for Western gardeners. Sunset lists a collection of waterwise plants, but you might have to do some research to find out where to buy the plants you spot there.
Order and Review Seed Catalogs
Growing plants from seed takes a little more work, but can save you money. And some plants do better grown directly in the ground (cucumbers and squash come to mind). Even though you’ll have more success and save water by growing plants suited to your region, it’s fun to shop for rare or unusual annuals for containers or other special spots in your garden. It’s much less expensive to buy seeds for plants that probably won’t make it through the winter.
Most seed companies ship catalogs for free to anyone who requests them and I’ve been receiving mine since before the holidays. In addition, you can find online versions of most seed catalogs. Flipping through catalogs can give you great ideas about new or unusual plants or even inspire where to plant them or ideas for companion plants for a particular flower or shrub.
Read and Research
Catalogs are one source of plant ideas, but local and regional gardening books and blogs should be your go-to sources. Combining information on plants featured in your favorite gardening books with catalogs and new introductions can help you begin planning and shopping.
In your research, look for ideas such as drought-tolerant plants for easy care, plants for birds and pollinators, or colors and textures you long to add to your garden. Think about herbs and vegetables your family loves and see if you can grow a variety within your space or time constraints. And always read books and websites with a critical eye for credible information and plants most likely to grow in your zone, soil type, sun exposure or water availability.
If you don’t have a good gardening book specific to your state or zone, find out if your local master gardeners have published a plant or gardening guide. And check out my Resources page for books and links on gardening in New Mexico, xeric gardening and other topics.
Shop Locally and Online
Some gardeners prefer to touch and see plants in person, at least to decide on colors or shapes they like. Just beware that some chain stores offer plants each year that aren’t suited to your region or at least offer fewer plants tested for Southwest and xeric gardens. For example, no retailers in New Mexico offer Plant Select products, but High Country Gardens sells Plant Select through its catalog and online store. Shopping, or at least researching, online also can save time. Many online catalogs have search filters. You might be able to search by plant name, bloom color, bloom time or average temperatures and rainfall.
Many online nurseries let you order now and then ship your plants at the best possible time in spring for your zone. So, there’s really no reason you can’t get a head start. Happy plant shopping!
Winter has come late to New Mexico this year, and that’s OK with me. The problem is even when it’s sunny in winter, we have fewer projects we can do so we feel productive and in touch with the soil and plants. So I thought about a few ideas to lighten my winter doldrums and decided to share them.
One: Take a drive or hike, or some combination.
As soon as fall hit and gardening slowed down, we began to visit spots we seldom get to see during the growing season. We drove up nearby mountains and about an hour away to a walk among stunning petroglyphs. My mood improves from endorphins and simply being outside. And we always see a few native plants we’d like to identify, even if they’re at the end of their growing season.
Two: Grow a winter-blooming indoor plant.
Aside from the pretty holiday mascot, the poinsettia, you can grow a Christmas cactus or amaryllis. I received a beautiful gift of paperwhites (Narcissus) in a clear glass bowl one year. One of these days, I’ll try to force my own. And if you have a warm, sunny window, why not bring in a few of your potted plants? Geraniums can continue flowering in the right conditions, and we brought a shade-loving container with coleus and begonias inside. They might get leggy before the winter’s up, but they make me feel more in touch with summer.
Three. Feed birds and other critters.
Leaving the garden a little messy might seem like a bad idea, and it is tough to watch the demise of your favorite stalks and flowers. But birds continue to feed off the seeds of many plants or seeds spread in fall and early winter winds. Once the seeds fade, birds need a little extra help to get through cold winter nights. We hang suet and a sunflower seed feeder and set out raw peanuts for the jays. I want to keep the birds coming so I have something fun to look at from my window when the sky is gray and the garden mostly brown.
Four. Start a project, like a bee house or raised bed.
Last winter, we replaced the door on our shed, completely revamped a large garden path, created a dry river bed, and took on lots of other fun projects. In fact, we took on so many that we have to come up with some new ones this year. But vegetable gardens might need new or improved fencing or other design and maintenance. Putting in a new paver path or dry river bed are projects that come to mind. You can build a raised bed or make a bee house or butterfly waterer (puddling pool). Or you can repot some of those succulents and other houseplants you tend to neglect in summer.
Five. Make and give garden-related gifts.
Some winter projects turn into gifts for family, friends or co-workers. I don’t have a perfect crafting style, but I know people appreciate gifts from the heart, time and garden. We’ve made lavender sachets, pressed flower arrangements and outdoor lights. You can even pot up some plants in homemade containers.
And on a snowy, cold and dark winter day, spend a little time by the fire drinking an herbal tea and reading a gardening book, magazine or catalog. You can relax, plan and dream!