Five Water-wise Shrubs for High-Desert Gardens

As summer winds down and you plan next year’s garden, consider these five low-water perennial shrubs. There are many others, of course, but each of these has a particular feature you might be looking for when planning or revising your xeric garden. They all share in common the quality of drought tolerance. Once established in your garden, you should not need to water them at all.

lavender with butterfly
Lavender is the perfect xeric plant. It also attracts bees and butterflies, and adds scent and color to the garden.

Lavender for scent. I make no secret of my favor for lavender (Lavandula). Neither will bees and butterflies! Your biggest decision will be which cultivar to choose. Some are designed for their longer, deeper purple stems, others for culinary use or aroma. Be sure to plant your lavender in well-draining soil and give it plenty of sun. It’s hardy in zones 5 through 10, but a new lavender gets its best start in cooler zones if you wait to plant it until the ground and evenings have warmed up, several weeks after the last frost.

Yellow bird of paradise for a tropical feel. All of the Caesalpinia species of plants, birds of paradise, have amazing color and interest considering their high drought tolerance. Most prefer warmer climates. The yellow bird of paradise (C. gilliesii and recently changed to Erythrostemon gilliesii) can handle the high desert up to a point; it’s cold hardy to 15 degrees, but when kept dry, the roots can survive lower temperatures and the plant comes back the next spring. As for heat, give it all you’ve got. A favorite in Albuquerque, N.M., landscapes, the plant can reach the height of a small tree. This bird of paradise has yellow trumpet-like flowers with long red stamens. In the high desert, place it a warm microclimate, such as a south-facing wall. See photos and more information from Pima County Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners.

Creeping mahonia for easy care. Creeping mahonia (Mahonia repens) is an easy-care, evergreen shrub. I say evergreen, but its delicate leaves change color throughout the year. Shaped like holly leaves, but more delicate, they can be wine colored or deep, forest green. Tiny yellow flowers appear in spring. Although creeping mahonia (sometimes called “Oregon grape holly”) can grow in sun or shade, it likes a cool spot. Ours is on the northeast side of the house, where it gets plenty of morning sun and afternoon shade. Bees love it while blooming, and it’s hardy from zones 4 through 8.

creeping mahonia low xeric shrub
This creeping mahonia thrives on rain water only. I give it a trim for shape in early spring.

Apache plume for its long-term interest. The apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) is a fun, natural-looking low-water bush. You have to love any plant that includes in its name the word “paradox,” right? The Apache plume is a paradox to me. I used to dislike its messy appearance, but I have grown to love how it looks in xeric lawns and gardens. For one, it’s semi-evergreen in warmer desert climates. Apache plumes attract bees, produce delicate white blooms and take to strong pruning (I have even seen them shaped, though it pained me). And yet they require very little care. They’re hardy in zones 4 through 9.

plume or seedhead on apache plume
The plume, or seedhead, that gives Apache plume its name and adds post-bloom appeal. Our bushes are blooming again during an unseasonably warm and dry September, so we now have plumes and blooms!

Western sand cherry for possible fruit. A xeric shrub that helps you make pies. It’s like something out of a gardener’s fairy tale! But the Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) is the real deal. Of course, like all fruit-bearing plants, ideal weather helps. We had some fruit on ours this year, though they were so well hidden I didn’t notice them in time. The birds enjoyed them, however, and we certainly enjoyed the showy white flowers in spring. This one is cold hardy down to zone 3. My only caution is that deer love them. We have to fence ours to keep the deer from biting off entire branches.

western sand cherry in April.
This photo is a little fuzzy because it was taken through a window. I didn’t want to disturb the resting doe. Had she munched on those two flowering Western sand cherries, I might not have been so accommodating. They’re above her and to the right, on the top of the rock wall, bursting with white flowers in mid-April.

Some People Learn the Hard Way: Too Much of a Good Thing

Gardening is fun. Planting is fun, and looking at flowers is really fun. Harvesting what you and the rain worked so hard together to grow – priceless. Trimming, thinning and getting rid of plants is far from fun.

I have learned the hard way this year, however, that I have to curb my enthusiasm. Too much of a good thing can go bad – quickly. And it’s not just because I’m busy working and trying to keep the garden up. I’m talking about some imbalances that occur in the garden when you plan and plant, and then nature takes over.

Mexican hats reseed
The Mexican hat is a prolific reseeder here in New Mexico. It’s a fun annual, but we have more than we need.

Below are a few lessons learned about having too much of a good thing that I hope will help beginners or other overenthusiasts. First, my disclaimers, caveats, poor excuses:

  1. Our place is big.
  2. This is only our third summer here, and we are still trying to get the weeds and gophers under control.
  3. Climates here are extreme, usually dry, with temperature ranges of more than 40 degrees in one day and a strange pattern this year in early summer.
  4. Did I already say that gardening is fun?

Planting too many of the same species hosts pests

First of all, I have written in previous posts about how filling in with annuals can add inexpensive color to your garden. Seeds cost little, and in our garden, they’re free! That brings me to another problem I have pondered several times – the line between weed and wildflower. We’ve got gaillardia, (blanket flowers), Ratibidia columnifera (Mexican hats) and cosmos growing as volunteers all over our garden. There are a few other annuals, but these three amigos would take over if we’d let them. And I almost did. I couldn’t bring myself to destroy a “free” plant. After all, it added color to the garden with no water. Tim drew the line on any growing in the walkway. I could accept that. But I should have done a better job of thinning the plants. The Mexican hats were hosts to hundreds of cucumber beetles. And I would go to deadhead the gaillardia (which could take valuable time away from my favorite activity – weeding) and find an entire stalk covered with flea beetles. These tiny black insects have been damaging my tomato plants.

flea beetle damage to tomato plant
I’m pretty sure this is a flea beetle and damage from it. This tomato is in a container about 15 feet from all those flowers. So far, the damage is tolerable.

Lesson learned: I can keep and love each of these annuals, but I need to thin them early on. Having a few host plants for the bugs might keep them off of young tomatoes, since the annuals come out earlier. But having 20 gaillardia plants is like putting up a billboard on the freeway advertising free flea beetle lodging. Variety is healthier and prettier.

Too much of a good thing robs resources

It’s important to thin seedlings in a vegetable garden, and equally important to space plantings in a xeric garden. When you plant too closely together or let annuals (or perennials that have not been trimmed enough) grow too closely together, a few things happen.  First and foremost, the plants get too little air circulation. I imagine this is more of an issue in some climates than others, or plants native to humid climates can take wet leaves and roots better than plants native to places like New Mexico. But I know most of our xeric plants can’t take it. If we get rains late in the day combined with clouds and cool evening temperatures, which is typical of the high desert, the leaves don’t dry off.

If there is little air circulation, this can increase risk of bacterial and fungal diseases in plants. Powdery mildew, which is characterized by the white or gray patches on leaves that resemble talcum powder, can occur even without rain. High humidity in typically warm, dry climates can cause the disease if plants have little to no air circulation. A plant might grow so large that it shades another plant, Even worse, if plants are too close together. one plant might sneak drinks from the other, or require more water, causing your truly xeric plant near it to have poor health or die from too much water!

Lesson learned: Thin, thin, thin! And no matter how small a seedling or new plant from the nursery appears, take time to learn its mature size. Then consider that in its new surroundings, including the mature size of the plants around it. I think I am going to strap a measuring tape to my jeans next spring.

vegetables mature
Can you spot where the melon ends, the tomato begins, the cucumber ends, the pepper begins… The good news is that there is no row on one side and plenty of space on the other, so at least these plants get air from two directions. Better planning next year.

Hedging your bets can be a lot of work

I planted 11 tomato plants. The first step is admitting you have a problem. Now, I want some credit for hedging my bets, because I had to pull up a few of the tomatoes. Some were not very strong seedlings, but I gave them a try. In retrospect, I probably should have thrown out those seedlings. Weak plants attract predators, and that’s a big lesson from all of this. I feel really badly about wasting the water to try to get them going. Our spring weather likely didn’t help (see “disclaimers” above), but I also might have lost some to poor thinning of suckers or trimming of bottom branches, which provided an on-ramp for snails and bugs. Maybe it’s the nurturer in me, but it’s fun to care for the tomatoes that have made it and to give away the fruit we can’t eat. Other plants are easier to put away for winter, including basil, beans and cucumbers.

Still, I need to plan more carefully next year. Nearly all of the water has come from the sky, including what we’ve harvested. And I’ve used a drip system for much of the well water used. But I’ll approach the vegetable garden plan more carefully next year, unless I find a way to make money growing tomatoes. If I decide to do that, I’ll have to pull up most of those blanket flowers…

too many blanket flowers
Aren’t these blanket flowers pretty? Notice two different color combinations. But having this much together (and more in other areas) is a little too inviting for bad bugs, and I have lots of plant variety for bees.

Lesson learned: Take the next six months to plan, or at least to forget how much time you spent trying to get it right.

And, as always, I want to reiterate this point: There are no dumb gardeners, and I hate to see lists and posts with titles such as “Dumb Gardening Mistakes”. I have seen careless moves or gardeners, but that’s different. If you try something and fail with your best effort, at least you tried. Research, learn from your mistake and try again!

Plan Your Xeriscape Garden for All-Season Color

If one of your concerns about xeriscaping is that your garden will look as barren as the Southwest desert, it only takes a little planning and time to ensure you have some color and texture from spring to fall. Of course, that’s easy if you have unlimited water and time.

Alamogorgo, N.M. landscape white sands
I can’t resist the urge to showcase New Mexico sites and landscapes, even when discussing barren deserts. This is a hilltop outside Alamogordo, N.M., with a view of the White Sands in the distance.

But it’s also entirely possible and relatively simple to have continuous color using low-water plants. Here are a few suggestions:

Don’t give up on bulbs. Although you would think they use lots of water, they’re like the camels of the plant world, adapted or bred to store water and energy in their roots, stems or leaves. They also do best in well-draining soil. I’m lumping corms, tubers and rhizomes with true bulbs. Spring-flowering bulbs should need no water other than rain after established unless you have a really long dry spell, especially during growth and flowering. As long as you choose varieties recommended for your area and follow care guides for placement, mulching and dividing, you should be able to add bulbs to your xeric garden as desired. I love how iris and tulips bloom early as a sign of spring.

iris low water spring bulb
Iris provide spring color with little to no extra water or work.

 

day lily bloom
Day lily blooms only last one day, but bloom in early summer. We found out they bloom closer to July 1 in our slightly cooler zone.

Choose one or two continuous, or nearly continuous, bloomers. I don’t know how a small shrub, especially a xeric one, can bloom in the late spring or early summer and hold those blooms all season. But I think the easiest way to plan a small xeric garden is to select one continuous bloomer you like, then build around it. For example, santolina usually blooms all summer, after one trim or shearing back in the spring. Since it has yellow flowers, you can then decide how you’d like to complement the low spreading shrub with other colors throughout the summer. By the way, it’s also evergreen, so you can consider how to complement the gray (silvery foliage) or green santolina with another evergreen or some hardscaping for winter interest. Other examples, depending on your zone, are gaura (Gaura linheimeri) or most salvias, though some might require deadheading.

green santolina
Green santolina has evergreen foliage with lemon-colored, button-shaped blooms nearly all summer.

Try a groundcover. You don’t have to replace your entire lawn with a groundcover, but you can add color with some well-placed xeric planting. Several thyme varieties require no water at all and are terrific at filling in spaces between pavers, rocks or stepping stones. You’ll get some green and tiny purple flowers when they bloom. A groundcover also can cool the roots of other plants that need a little help to survive hot summer days. Just remember that they spread, especially if you overwater them.

xeric groundcover
This groundcover is spreading in several areas this summer and sending up stalks with tiny lavender-colored flowers. I think it is a speedwell.

Supplement with a few annual seeds or containers. Satisfy your desire for early color and bloom variety each year with some annuals. Seeds are inexpensive, but are a little more water and time intensive. Or fill a designated area of your patio, deck or garden with a few containers with pops of color from annual bedding plants. You can decide when the color appears and what colors you want to complement your perennial blooms. Seeds sowed as soon as the ground warms will bloom later than many of your perennials. And many annuals continue blooming with or without pinching and deadheading. I love petunias in containers because they spread with little effort on my part and need no deadheading, just pinching off of spent buds every now and then to look their best.

petunias in container
Petunias are so simple in beds or containers. They spread with little water or attention.

It can be a lot of work to deadhead continuously. So it’s probably good to limit the number of annuals that need regular trimming of blooms to force new ones. But some xeric plants such as lavender and salvias will bloom a second time with one trim following the first bloom, so you get a late, bonus wave of color.

Some plants give you plenty of hints (Autumn sedum booms in fall!). But if you have limited space and experience, a xeric landscape designer can help you select the fewest plants possible for continuous bloom.

Update Your Hardiness Zone

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated its cold hardiness zones. Farmers, suppliers and home gardeners use the zone designations to help standardize how well a plant can survive at average extreme minimum temperatures. In the new iteration, the USDA added two new warm zones to reflect areas in which the average low stays above 50 degrees (if only!). Of course, the zones are restricted to tropical areas of the country, such as Hawaii. Several zone boundaries also shifted to reflect warmer temperatures in several zones from the 30 years of data collection.

Maui view
If only I lived in Maui, where the zones are more like 10 to 13 and the landscape is so lush.

Read what you want from the shifts in zones, though the USDA is quick to point out that climate change trends require 50 to 100 years of data collection, and zone changes are not reliable evidence of whether there is global warming.

At any rate, if you haven’t checked your USDA zone in a few years, it’s a good idea to look again and see if it’s shifted. The USDA has given you another reason to check. The scale has fine resolution and GIS technology. This means that between your ZIP code and GIS location, you can have more accurate data to reflect the effects of, say, urban streets and buildings on your townhouse patio. It’s huge for someone like me who lives in a rural area and seldom receives accurate weather data, for instance, unless I collect it in my own back yard. The map recognized my location and pinpointed my zone accordingly as 6B.

USDA hardiness zones
Here’s a simplified image of the USDA hardiness zones. Visit the USDA site (by clicking on the image) for more detail on your zone.

Cold hardiness is not the only factor to consider, though, especially for xeriscaping. Altitude affects temperature, but also contributes to drying of plants. And wind, well, don’t get me started. I will say that wind dries a plant out and does plenty of damage to new plantings or houseplants you’re beginning to bring outdoors. You also have to consider soil and microclimates, such as those on the city balcony. On a broader scale, valley or riverbank climates differ from those of mountains or open plains.

Within your xeric garden, you can push a zone slightly by adding plenty of warmth to a plant when you place light-colored gravel under it or plant it near a south-facing wall. Or help out a plant that needs a zone cooler by putting it under the shade of a tree or on the north side of your home. Just be sure to check tags for plant hardiness zone before buying, especially from catalogs, online or in big-box stores.

potentilla and rocks
South-facing rocks keep this Ephedra in the foreground and transplanted cinquefoil (Potentilla fruitcosa) nice and warm.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Ornamental Grass

When xeriscaping, you can add plenty of interest with varied textures and heights by including a few ornamental grasses in your landscape. We’re always tempted to think first about flower color, but less about interesting foliage. Placing a few ornamental grasses in a xeric landscape or container can add nearly as much impact as a pop of purple with less watering and maintenance.

Choose an ornamental grass that is native to your area, or a similar climate or condition, in place of a shrub or perennial flower. One of my favorite features of grasses is that they can grow tall and move in the wind. In containers, they often add height or contrast to draping and flowering annuals. Warm-season grasses seed out and provide winter interest, even if the foliage browns. They need shearing once a year in spring, a little water to jumpstart growth, and they’re off. If you choose one that’s not native to your area, such as the big-box store selection I found for my containers, make sure it can at least survive with less water or other conditions that differ. You might not get flowers or as much growth, but the grass will survive at least for the summer.

rush grass in container
I like to place ornamental grasses in container arrangements to add height and texture. This juncus is all I need to add interest to a petunia mix and continuity between the pots.

Another benefit of ornamental grasses is that they can serve practical purposes in a garden. Use them for erosion control by placing a small grouping at the bottom of a slope or terrace – and go for a medium-water selection such as Feather reed grass “Karl Foerster” (Calamagrostis arundinacea) here, since the rain or irrigation run-off from above supplies the extra water the plant requires.

feather reed grass
Karl Foerster feather reed grass that was planted a few weeks ago in our rock garden . It already looks great, but will add feathery blooms in summer. It should survive our winter (zones 5 and 6).

Other great locations for grasses are along steps, pathways or corners, in front of dark walls or fences, and anywhere they will catch sunlight and breezes.

Sedges, rushes and some hardy bamboos also fall into the ornamental grass category when landscaping. Just be sure to check the zone, native location of the plant, and especially the sun and water requirements before planting the grass. Some actually do better in marshes – not a good choice for xeriscaping!

Easy care

Grasses are among the easiest xeric plants you can have in your garden. They’re mostly free of pests and diseases. And although I love ornamental grasses, I have seen some gardens with only grasses and gravel. I think you need one or two other xeric plants to break up the look, but I’m not a professional landscaper. To my eye, just gravel and grass in a garden screams “dry!” It’ so easy to complement a low-water grass with a salvia, penstemon or gayfeather.

Some cool-season grasses bolt in the heat, but trimming off their seedheads can rejuvenate the plant, much like clipping off flowers of herbs to force growth back into leaves. Most ornamental grasses are warm-season selections, best planted in the spring. They need a little more water, up to once a week for xeric choices, for the first month or two. After that, water deeply only every few weeks or once a month in the hottest summer weeks. Some will spread, and it’s best to try to divide or dig up unwanted volunteers before they clump too tightly. Other than that, just cut back as directed. Allowing several grasses to overseed in winter could add to your fire hazard, so keep that in mind if you have them near your home or a commercial building.

big bluestem grass before strawbale wall
Newly constructed strawbale wall with xeric plantings. The big bluestem grass on the right foreground got much taller and flowered (see below).

A few xeric grasses

Silky threadgrass (Stipa tennuifolia). This hardy grass grows in all types of soil, uses little water, and loves full sun. That’s a bonus, since the silky seedheads reflect sunlight as they sway in the breeze. One caution for silky threadgrass is its high potential to reseed. That’s a plus in an untamed garden, but not in a more formal xeric landscape.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  This is one of our personal favorites. It can reach heights of four to five feet in summer, when it also rewards you with purplish flower spikes that emerge between the beautiful greenish-blue leaves. Some selections require more water than others, so check with the nursery or on the tag for details. Some are highly drought tolerant and thrive down to zone 4.

big bluestem flower heads
The flower stalks of big bluestem grass are purplish, contrasting well with the greenish-blue leaves.

Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisteum alopecuroides). Purple fountain grass (P. setaceum) is a particular favorite of these dwarf varieties, but only makes it as an annual in our zones (5 through 7). Others fare better, although an unusually cold winter could kill them. Most have bright green foliage with bottlebrush flowers. Examples are “Hamelin,” a compact, mounding variety with ivory and gold flowers and “Moudry,” which has brownish-black flowers. One caution: You might have to protect dwarf fountain grasses from rabbits if they visit your xeric garden.

Altitude and Wind Affect a Plant’s Water Needs

If you’ve ever gone skiing or hiking in the mountains of the Southwest, you’ve heard the warnings (or ignored them and learned the hard way). Drink lots of water, more water than you normally drink. You also might have noticed that you became breathless a little more quickly. All those warnings aren’t just designed to impress flat-landers or to make up for exertion. There’s science behind high-altitude dehydration of people and plants.

Low Pressure Causes Evaporation

Air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, and that means that moisture evaporates more quickly. It evaporates from lungs and from the soil and roots around plants. Add the fact that most high-desert and mountain climates also are low in humidity, and you’ve got to adapt to a new environment or nearly pass out. The same goes for your landscape, which is another reason to stick with native plants. These guys have toughed it out; they’re not just here for a weekend getaway! If you do choose non-native cultivars, plant them sparingly, and try to use them in protected areas, which leads to my next point.

 

snow on southwestern mountains
My daughter took this photo of snow on the mountains along the Arizona-New Mexico border one December. A holiday snow does not mean a humid climate.

Why Not Add Some Wind to the Mix?

Luckily, winds are worse in New Mexico on the plains than in the mountains. But how about in the high desert? Because of the wide temperature variations – warmer days and cool evenings, desert air can be a little unstable. Anyone driving through rural Arizona and New Mexico is likely to see a few wind farms, a smart renewable energy choice for our state.

Windy air contributes to evaporation. As wind speed increases, plants react by upping their rate of transpiration, which is the plant’s loss of water as it’s absorbed through the roots, up to the leaves, and out the leaves as it evaporates. More than 90 percent of the water a plant absorbs is lost by transpiration. It’s inevitable with photosynthesis.

wind spinner in New Mexico garden
This wind spinner is calm today, but we had to permanently shorten the stake to stabilize it because it almost took off in flight or bent in half a few times this spring.

It’s easy to imagine that wind makes plants drier, as anyone who lives in a windy, arid climate knows when they constantly apply lotion to their skin. Science also explains the effect of wind on evaporation. First, it’s helpful to recognize that plant evaporation increases humidity to an extent. If you’ve ever been in a greenhouse or a tropical plant exhibit, you can feel the humidity as you walk inside.

When the water that travels through a plant reaches a plant’s leaves, it seeps through tiny pores on the underside of the leaves. By hanging out there, the vapor adds to the relative humidity of the air close to the leaf. Kick up the wind, and the leaf moves around, so that it spends time in drier air. Of course, if the air outside is humid that day, the wind won’t have as much effect. But how often is it humid around here? Anyway, high wind, combined with low overall humidity and full sun, can rapidly dry out your vegetables or ornamentals before you know it!

xeric wild rose
No wonder so many xeric plants have smaller leaves. Less transpiration occurs and more energy can go into the plant’s health and blooms. I love this Wood’s rose (Rosa woodsii)., also called a wild rose or Fendler’s rose.

Native Plants Adapt

Native plants adapt to soil and climate. So what about succulents? I won’t get into a long biological discussion, mostly because I am not a biologist or botanist. But one reason that succulents often have small leaves and large stems is to reduce transpiration so they can survive in dry, hot deserts. Others, like the aloes, have a different type of epidermal layer that doesn’t allow for rapid transpiration. It’s amazing how well plants adapt to their environments; if only I could adapt to winter…

Aloe leaves
These aloes have larger leaves, but they lose less water to evaporation than do typical plants.

If you have a non-native that takes slightly more water, remember what I said earlier about protection. Place the higher water user where it’s more protected from wind. If it can take some shade, at least in the hottest afternoon sun of summer, that will help too. Check out past posts for more water-saving tips. And these tips apply to growing vegetables and other edibles in wind and high altitude. The good news for us is that our winds calm slightly by summer.

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.

Growing Short-Season Vegetables

I want a greenhouse. But want and have are too far apart right now. And the beginning and end of our growing season are too close together. Like many gardeners, we want to produce as many edibles as we can during our growing season. And like many rural residents, we crave affordable, fresh produce.

We’re better off than some; our last freeze occurs in early to mid-May, and our first freeze in early to mid-October. But we all know how those predictions go. With cool, high-desert evenings, the ground has to warm up enough to germinate seeds. Add high winds and low humidity, and it’s pretty much trial and error from one year to the next!

Here are a few tips for growing vegetables and other edibles in short seasons from our attempts and courtesy of the Pacific Northwest Extension services:

  • Make sure your garden is prepped and ready for planting as soon as it’s warm enough to do so. I wrote about spring preparation a few weeks ago.
  • Choose the best spot for your garden or raised bed based on microclimates, such as along a south-facing wall to maximize heat, or where you have a natural wind break in your yard.
  • Speaking of raised beds – they warm more quickly than the ground soil. They also can drain better, but may dry faster. So consider all of these factors when selecting plants for raised beds and containers.
grape-tomato-in-pot
This yellow grape tomato grew in a container against a south wall on our patio last year. They were delicious!
  • Start your seeds early enough to have nice, sturdy transplants ready. Naturally, that only works for those edibles that transplant well, such as tomatoes. If they become too big for the starter pot, transplant the entire block into a larger pot of sterile potting mix until ready to go in the ground. And be sure to harden them off for a few weeks before planting.
  • Cool-season vegetables are easier to sow in colder climates. Examples are beets, Brussels sprouts, carrots and several greens. I’ve already planted spinach, arugula and several loose-leaf lettuces in containers and in our garden.
  • Warm-season crops might need a boost, and they surely need a good start. Make sure to plant beans, melons, tomatoes, squash and cucumber after the soil temperature reaches 50 degrees. Covering them with a light, white landscape cloth can help protect them from cool night temperature and gives seedlings a fighting chance against flying and hopping insects.
  • Choose early bloomers. Some varieties mature earlier or have a shorter time to harvest. Tim really wants honeydew, which should be sowed directly in the ground after the 50-degree soil mark. We found a hybrid that says it can be harvested in 70 days, so we’re going to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we’re only out the cost of a seed packet, the time and most importantly, the water. Look for terms such as “cold climates,” “short season,” “early to mature” or “northern gardens.”
short-season-bell-pepper
The North Star Bell Pepper is an early-maturing pepper variety, a must for gardeners in cooler climates. Image courtesy of HomeFarmer (www.HomeFarmer.com)
  • Help your plants stay warm (or shaded) with an appropriate cover. Aside from row covers, you can use tires or hot caps to protect and warm young plants. Our neighbor is in the stucco business, and he has given us dozens of five-gallon buckets. My husband cuts out the bottom and they work great at protecting young plants from sun and wind.
protect-vegetable-seedlings
Recycled buckets from our neighbor protected young seedlings in last year’s garden.
  • Of course, here in the dry Southwest, we create troughs or wells for nearly every crop to ensure consistent, deep watering and good growth.

Finally, it’s great to get advice from local “experts.” Most are just trying to be helpful. But don’t let lore and legend trump your can-do attitude and willingness to try these tips and your own brilliant ideas!

High-desert Gardening: Harsh and Heavenly

There is desert – arid, warm, often windy, and maybe sandy. And then there is high desert, which is arid, warm during the day (in summer, anyway), often windy, and very cool at night. We sit on the border of high desert and intermountain. Because we’re a small community off the radar, I doubt there are accurate records of our true temperatures and rain averages; we have our own backyard weather station to track temperature and wind speed because none of the models really match what goes on here!

When I tell people back East that I live in New Mexico, they may make a few assumptions. I speak to mostly bright people who know that New Mexico is indeed one of these United States. But occasionally, I get an “international” reaction, especially when making online purchases; see my Fun Stuff page for more on that. Most automatically assume that I’m enduring 100-plus temperatures most of the year. And having grown up in Phoenix, I get what they mean. If I were in the low desert of much of central and southern Arizona or New Mexico, it would be plenty hot.

Generally, high desert is defined as any area that’s above about 3,500 feet in altitude and has fewer than 10 inches of rainfall a year. But to grow any decent crop, you need 20 inches of precipitation. Much of New Mexico falls into the high desert category, as do many areas of the Southwest and West. Being at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, we get a little more rainfall (purportedly closer to 21 inches annually) thanks to summer monsoons. But our nights are considerably cooler than Sunset’s definition of high desert. We easily dip close to 10 degrees a few times in the winter, and it snows here.

 

new mexico snow
February snow that capped out at 10 inches in a few days (at least on our picnic table).

So if you are a plant in the high desert/intermountain west of the United States, you have to be one tough customer. In winter, temperatures can easily range more than 40 degrees in a day, and we often have a few weeks of warm spells, much to the chagrin of local ski areas. Depending on the timing of these warm spells, fruit trees and perennials can bud out early, and then get zapped by frost. The sun shines most of the year, but when you combine it with our winds, plants that lack moisture in the soil dry more quickly. Oh, and did I mention the low rainfall?

Places like Santa Fe (at 6,995 feet elevation), and many portions of Colorado at 7,000-plus in altitude can average close to 10 to 14 inches of rain a year. Leadville is considered “America’s highest city” at 10,161 feet, and only receives 15.6 inches of rain annually.

 

northern New Mexico landscape
Country road near Mora, New Mexico, which is northeast of Santa Fe. It was pretty, but dry, in early fall a few years back.

If you want to garden in the high desert, it takes plenty of xeriscaping strategies (the term was coined in Denver!). Top on the list is use of native plants, purchased from your local nursery or a company that specializes in high-desert plants. If the plant is native to your area, it’s already toughed it out. Why bring in a new guy? Microclimates can help you try to force a zone up or down, and water conservation and water reclamation can help you grab as much natural rainfall as you can get to make it through the dry spells. Mostly, you need patience. If Mother Nature throws a hard frost at you after May 15, just shake your head and hope you have better luck next year.

 

purple penstemon
One of many types and colors of penstemon native to New Mexico.

Check out my Resources page for more information, including a link to a favorite catalog source.

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.