Favorite Xeric Plant: Lavender

It smells fantastic, looks gorgeous, attracts bees and butterflies and needs little water or care. And on top of that, it’s a useful herb. Truly, I can find no drawback to growing lavender in the arid Southwest. Still, I’ve talked to several people while selling at farmers’ markets who say they had trouble establishing or maintaining lavender. So, here are a few tips, because I wouldn’t mind seeing lavender on every corner of every town.

A customer's gorgeous farmers' market basket thanks to lavender!
A customer’s gorgeous farmers’ market basket thanks to lavender!

Where to plant lavender

It’s tempting to plant lavender everywhere in the landscape! But the plant does best in full sun and with plenty of air circulation. So, if you plant lavender on the north side of your house, especially up against the house, it might not do well. You can also plant lavender in containers, but might have to amend soil around the plant after a year or two. Be sure to place the container in full sun and give the container plant a little more water than it would need in the ground — but not too much!

Lavender hedges are a summer stunner. But if you want to plant a row of lavender, be sure to leave plenty of spacing between the plants, and between the lavender and other plants or structures in your garden. It won’t look as full the first year. But by year two, you’ll love how the flower stems nearly touch but the plants have plenty of room. And foremost, plant lavender where you can enjoy the scent and pollinators the plant attracts. And check nurseries soon for a new variety from Sunset called “Meerlo,” which has variegated leaves!

lavender sunflower
Lavender and sunflowers in the sunny xeric garden.

When to plant lavender

Whatever date you think is right for lavender, push it back a week. Seriously, the only real problem we had with some lavender plants occurred when a group of new plants were shipped to us too far ahead of our last frost date. Fearing the plants were becoming rootbound in their small nursery pots, I planted as soon as the frost passed. But the ground and air were still a little too cool, plus the dirt did not drain as well as other spots in our garden. So that meant the new plants would stay wet after rain or watering. The only problem that really affects lavender is root rot. So be sure the ground and temperature have warmed up enough before planting.

lavender in rock garden
Lavender looks and smells pretty close up or from a distance, especially in a breeze.

How to plant lavender

First, make sure the variety of lavender you’re ordered or chosen at a nursery is a perennial in your area. Years ago, I assumed that French lavender (which really is from Spain) would do better in our climate than English lavender. It’s so cool and damp there! But French lavender is not as cold hardy. Most varieties of English lavender, however, can survive U.S. winters. Just check the zone when you buy.

Here’s the trick to success with lavender: Plant it on a small mound. This is a departure from typical attempts to save water by welling around plants. A well can hold water in longer, but lavender wants to take a drink and then dry out. Also, by gathering up a mound of dirt, you give the young roots some nice loose soil.

new lavender plant
This new lavender plant is becoming well established. It’s on a small mound to keep water or snow from pooling around the roots. The next step is to add pebble mulch.

My second tip is to surround your lavender not with organic mulches, but with tiny white pebbles or decomposed granite. Doing so still allows water to penetrate, but gives the plants reflected sun and passive solar heat gain. If you use rocks and have as many weeds as we have, you’ll need to try and get the mulch layer at least three inches high. But leave a border several inches around the new plant on every side so the rocks don’t crowd the lavender base and constrict growth. Water more often than the plant tag says for a few weeks or more, until the plants look settled in their new home. But let new lavender plants dry out a little between watering or rain.

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

How to care for lavender

So, you have your lavender established. The hard part’s done! All you have to do how is harvest the gorgeous flower stems as the flowers begin to open in summer. In warmer climates, you often get a second bloom. We’ve found that our second bloom in zone 6B is pretty sporadic, even lousy. So it’s really a matter of choice – you can harvest early and enjoy the scent inside your home, or leave the stems on the plant to enjoy its color and share its fragrance with pollinators.

Just be sure to trim the stems off – right at the top of the leaves – at the end of summer or in early fall. Don’t worry if your plant turns a little gray in winter; it should begin to green up along with other perennial plants in spring. As new leaves begin to emerge in spring, trim your plant for shape and health. That means avoiding cutting down into the woody stems. I give mine a nice round shape. So simple.

lavender bunches farmers' market
Our lavender wands and sachets have been popular this year.

That second year, your plant should need little to no watering. I typically give lavender plants some water right after trimming in spring and then only water if we have severe drought.

The stems are easy to dry and place in a vase or use harvested buds to make sachets or potpourri. Lavender is great in homemade gifts and even as an edible.

For more about lavender, see our Pinterest board (Lovin Lavender).

Getting Crafty With Plants

Since there’s not much we can do outside until after the first of the year, weather permitting, I’m playing with plants indoors. And it’s been fun, because we’ve made a few gifts from plants we’ve grown or by combining plants with other found objects. It’s way more fun than shopping and I won’t even get into how I feel about Christmas and commercialism this year.

air plant terrarium
Combining air plants with found garden objects, we made an inexpensive air plant terrarium as a gift.

I hope recipients enjoy the handmade gifts as much as I enjoy making them, because that’s what the holidays should be about. And maybe my attempts at being crafty with plant materials will inspire ideas in others.

Air Plant Arrangements

My daughter expressed the desire for some easy-care plants and showed me examples she really liked while we were catalog browsing over Thanksgiving. Never one to disappoint, I ordered a pack of three air plants from Juicy Kits and had fun making a few terrarium arrangements to give Rebecca and Dave for Christmas. I’m counting on her being way too busy to check my blog before I see her.

All three Juicy Kits air plants were easy to arrange.
All three Juicy Kits air plants were easy to arrange.

We already had a few mini-terrariums left over from another project; they seemed perfect for this one. We lined them with some decorative rock and then added objects we’ve saved or found out in our rock garden, including black rock, a shiny red stone, dried wood and a piece of shed deer antler Tim found in the yard. We added sphagnum moss, and I even colored some with green food coloring.

air plant terrarium in coffee pot
The coffee pot still has writing, but we enjoyed using objects from our place, including a piece of shed deer antler.

We placed one air plant in an old coffee pot. It didn’t look as good as I’d hoped, but I love how the top pops up, and it’s a bit of a private joke because our guests used to go through the tiny coffee pot on their first cup in the morning. If anyone knows how to get the writing off of the side, I would love advice! We tried combinations of a razor blade, Goo Gone and CLR. I ran out of patience, so I hope they get the joke. But we liked the arrangements enough that we decided they only need two and we’ll keep one (sorry, kid). We’ll enclose Juicy Kit’s care instructions in the gift bag.

Lavender Sachets

Since we decided to plant more lavender – the perfect xeric plant – I’ve been trying out ways to use the aromatic herb. This year, women in our family get a lavender sachet filled with dried buds and leaves from our garden. Drying and harvesting the lavender was the easy part of the project, and it was a great use of the stalks I wanted to leave on the plant longer so we could enjoy them in our garden. If you harvest lavender for wands or arrangements, you have to cut it earlier, before the buds fully flower.

Lavender bunches even look gorgeous when hanging to dry in an old shed.
Lavender bunches even look gorgeous when hanging to dry in an old shed.

For sachets or potpourris, you can simply run the flower stalks back and forth between your fingers, catching the buds in a large container. I did most of this outside on a sunny fall day. Then I stored the buds in an airtight container until I could fill the sachet bags.

Dried buds come off easily by simply rolling stalks between your fingers. Have a large container handy to catch them.
Dried buds come off easily by simply rolling stalks between your fingers. Have a large container handy to catch them.

I ordered the muslin bags and stamp set online. It was an easy project to complete, but the muslin didn’t take the fabric ink as well as I’d hoped. Next year, I’ll try a soft cotton. The lavender smells magnificent! I’m having to keep the sachets packaged in zipped bags until gifting them or the scent might mix with some manly beef jerky or white work socks in our gift pile. Can’t have that.

These aren't fancy, but they come from our garden and the heart. Oh, and they smell wonderful!
These aren’t fancy, but they come from our garden and the heart. Oh, and they smell wonderful!

Dogwood Branches

The redtwig dogwood (Cornus sericea) is my favorite winter plant. In fact, it’s arguably more colorful and striking in winter than in summer, at least here. After shedding all leaves, the shrub’s red and grayish-brown branches make an eye-catching statement, especially when the ground is covered in snow. Each spring, I have to shape the shrub and thin it by cutting out the dead, gray wood. I keep most of the trimmings.

The redtwig dogwood is a striking winter plant. And the branches make great arrangements.
The redtwig dogwood is a striking fall and winter plant. And the branches make great arrangements.

At Thanksgiving, I used a few dogwood branches in our table centerpiece, and I’ve added them to a few other projects. My favorite is the small dry arrangement of branches in our home’s entryway that I made our first summer here. So simple, with nothing but a clear vase, decorative rock and dogwood cuttings.

dogwood arrangement
A simple arrangement includes nothing but decorative rock and dogwood branches.
Close-up of dogwood branches.
Close-up of dogwood branches. The mirror reflects the colors (and my mother’s Hummel nativity scene).

My goal this year is to find a few more uses for dogwood branches. Watch out, friends and family!

Five New Plants for the Drought-tolerant Garden

Breeders, growers and retailers are on the ball in 2015, coming up with plenty of new plants to add variety and year-round interest to drought-tolerant gardens. I picked five favorite introductions I recently learned about to share. They’re just the tip of the melting iceberg. There are plenty more on the way, but we’re planning on placing some of these in our garden (or already have!)

sunset western garden collection Meerlo
Sunset’s Meerlo lavender has the fragrant scent you’d expect and the variegated leaves you wouldn’t expect. If you live where winter lows dip below 18 degrees F, it’s best grown in a container or as an annual. Image courtesy of Sunset Western Garden Collection.

Meerlo lavender (Lavender allardi ‘Meerlo’ PPAF). I got to see and touch this fun new variegated lavender from the Sunset Western Garden Collection last month. Unfortunately, it’s only hardy in Sunset zones 9 and 10 (or roughly where winter lows dip no lower than 18 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit). Step up, California gardeners – this one’s perfect for your garden and herb beds. Or replace high-water hedges and grassy medians with a hedge made of several aromatic Meerlo lavenders with their evergreen foliage. Of course, you can also plant it in a container, which I might have to do. Like all lavender, it needs full sun or only partial shade and little water. It will grow to nearly 3 feet high and wide.

Luminous Pineleaf Beardtongue (Penstemon pinifolius ‘Luminous’). Any penstemon is a perfect addition to a drought-tolerant garden. You’ll be sure to enjoy hummingbirds maneuvering into the tiny flowers of the pineleaf penstemon. I have yet to see the new Luminous penstemon from High Country Gardens, but after hearing it described, I can’t wait. It’s evergreen, low growing and has bright orange flowers with yellow throats that bloom from late spring until early summer. This native perennial loves sun and looks great along the edges of rock gardens and terraced steps. The new variety grows in zones 5 through 9 and to about 8 inches tall and over a foot wide.

pinelead penstemon in rock garden
Our pineleaf penstemon grows near our other favorite drought-tolerant planting — rocks — and before our culinary sage. The new Luminous form should be a stunner.

Thin Man Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans Thin Man PPAF). Another great introduction from New Mexico’s own High Country Gardens, this is a selected form of a native Indiangrass. With blue, upright foliage and late summer blooms that turn bronze, this ornamental grass is selected specifically for dry, windy growing conditions faced in New Mexico and other arid regions of the Southwest. Consider it as the perfect drought-tolerant and year-round focal point for a fence or wall. It can reach heights of 6 feet and more than 2 feet in width. It’s deer resistant and hardy in zones 4 through 9.

Thin man indian grass
Thin Man Indiangrass can grow to 6 feet high. It would look gorgeous blowing in the breeze all year long before a fence or wall of your home. Image courtesy of High Country Gardens.

Brakelights Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora ‘Perpa’). Maybe you like that upright form of ornamental grass, but a little more color. Then this yucca is the plant for you. I love the clever name! Yuccas send up stalks in summer with red flowers and southern California’s Monrovia says this new yucca is compact and a particularly prolific bloomer. We couldn’t wait to add the red to our garden, and planted one already. We’re holding on to another in case the first one doesn’t get established before the freeze. But it’s doing well. You can also plant several in a border for lots of red or the interest of the nearly overlapping foliage.  The yucca needs at least 6 hours of sun a day and is drought tolerant, but might bloom better with a little more moisture. It’s hardy in zones 5 through 10.

brakelights red yucca
Here’s our backup Brakelights red yucca. One is in the ground and doing great. I can’t wait to see both pop with bright red blooms.

BabyJade boxwood (Buxus microphulla var. japonica ‘Grejade’). I never really thought of boxwood as a plant for Southwestern gardens, but there was one by our north-facing front porch when we bought this house, and it’s a great evergreen shrub to welcome people to our home. In fact, the plant does surprisingly well, considering its shady, northern exposure. The new Baby Jade introduction from Garden Debut is hardy to zone 5, deer tolerant and drought tolerant. It’s also a compact shrub that reaches about 3 feet in height and width. Boxwoods grow slowly and I enjoy occasionally shaping ours. This might not be the look you want in the middle of a xeric garden, but it’s a perfect plant for entryways, foundation plantings and small patio gardens.

boxwood in new mexico
This is our boxwood, which has proved to be drought tolerant and hardy to a cooler microclimate than our zone 6B. The Baby Jade form is compact and has petite leaves.

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.

Culinary Lavender: Potato Salad Recipe

When we purchased more than a dozen lavender plants last spring, we chose one that was touted as a superb culinary lavender (Lavandula angustiolia Buena Vista) and placed it in a container, the way I usually prefer to grow herbs. The stems are not as long, but the buds are supposed to have better flavor. I love having it near the patio table, where it still looks pretty and I can walk by and rub my fingers on the leaves or buds anytime to enjoy the scent.

buena vista lavender
Culinary lavender is a perfect container plant near your kitchen.

I’ve seen plenty of recipes for lavender, usually in pastries. The only one I’ve tried so far (and loved!) is a lavender potato salad I’ve adapted from the book “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb” (Stackpole Books) by Ellen Spector Platt. By the way, this is our go-to source for growing and harvesting lavender. We combine some of the book’s information with local sources because of our differences in zone and water. Other than that, Ellen knows lavender! And the book has several recipes I plan to try.

herb stripper with lavender
This herb stripper makes it easier to strip fresh lavender buds from stems. If dried, you can roll the buds between your fingers.

To me, lavender is the most versatile of all herbs, right up there with its close relative, rosemary. If you don’t have one of the culinary varieties, it’s a great plant to add to your garden. But I made this recipe several times before we got this plant, and it tasted great! So try it with any lavender.

Lavender Potato Salad

  • Servings: about 4 to 6
  • Time: 20 mins
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

lavender-potato--salad

Ingredients:

About 12 – 14 small red potatoes with skins on

1 cup of plain Greek yogurt

2 cups chopped celery

1/3 cup chopped chives

1 Tbsp fresh lavender flower buds (less if dried)

2 Tsbp Dijon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

 

Boil potatoes until tenderness desired. Drain and cool enough for handling. Cut into bite-size pieces. Mix all ingredients and chill.

(Adapted from Ellen Spector Platt’s recipe in “Lavender: How to Grow and Use the Fragrant Herb”)

Garden Project: Harvesting Lavender

Lavender is without a doubt my favorite drought-tolerant plant. Aside from its stunning appearance in the garden, it’s a fragrant herb. We added 15 lavender plants to our garden last year, and some of them failed to make it, mostly because of unseasonably cool and moist spring weather. But most of the survivors are now thriving and we have plans to expand our lavender “operation,” because once you get it started, it’s just so darn easy to grow.

lavender blooms
Close-up of Hidcote Superior English Lavender blooms. The stems of ours did not get very long, but I believe it will do better next year. I love the deep purple color.

If you cut off the first blooms of the season, lavender plants reward you with another late-season show. Yesterday, I decided to harvest some of the flowering buds to dry them for possible potpourris, bundles, and other gifts and to encourage the second wave of blooms. It was great fun!

To experiment with drying stems, buds and leaves, I cut some short stalks from newer plants that were not long enough to dry as bundles. They’ll make great potpourri or sachets, assuming I am smart and industrious enough to figure out how. I included a pretty established white lavender that’s been in the garden for years.

tools used to harvest lavender
Tools for my first attempt at lavender harvesting: our notebook with records of lavender planting, rubber bands, large paper clips opened up, and tags to mark bundles.

Some of the stems are too short to hang and I don’t want to waste any buds that might fall. I’ve heard of using paper bags, and remembered I could never bring myself to throw out the bags my espresso beans come in. They were the perfect size and already have a sturdy top that’s easy to close and hook onto for hanging. I cut holes in the sides of the bags for ventilation and marked the plant and date on the bag. One concern I have is that the bags still smell (deliciously) like coffee, so I wonder if the lavender inside will blend with that aroma. Worst case? Lavender lattes! Seriously, I might try it.

But I really love the look of dried stem bundles, and six of our one-year-old plants have produced a good crop of long stems. I went ahead and harvested stems from one of them. The trick to gathering long stems is this: You want the length to maximize the look and aroma, so it helps to cut all the way down to the plant’s round shape of existing foliage. But I realized after cutting that I removed many tiny, new flower buds down the stem. That might affect the number of blooms in the second round. We’ll see how the late-summer bloom on this plant compares with the next one I harvest.

xeric English lavender
One-year-old Royal Velvet English lavender blooming away in a xeric garden. There are two more next to it. The other purple to the left is from volunteer Larkspur.
lavender after stems harvested
Same plant after I harvested all of the stems. In retrospect, I should have left some on the plant that hadn’t quite opened. But I guess the symmetry before and after appeals to me more. I even trimmed it to make it nice and round again.

Out of one (one-year-old) Royal Velvet English Lavender, I was able to make a respectably sized bundle and a smaller bundle to take to friends I was having a picnic with that later in the day. I also stripped some of the leaves and tiny buds from down the stem and placed them in a coffee bag for even more yield from the plant.

lavender harvest
Here’s my yield for the day: a long and short stem from the Royal velvet plant, plus a bag of “remnants,” a bag of white lavender buds, and one bag each from the Hidcote and a young Munstead, both too short to bundle but just as aromatic.

The day before, I had hammered several nails into the beams of our old shed. It’s dry and has good ventilation. It’s not completely dark, which might be the drawback. I used rubber bands to hold the bundle together, and opened up large paper clips to secure the rubber band or the bag tops to the nail. I also slipped a small piece of cut-up old business cards into the bundle’s rubber band with the plant and date and hung it upside down. They should take about a week to dry.

drying lavender in shed
I knew this shed would be good for more than storage! All it took was nails, paper clips and coffee bags.

Help Plants Beat the Summer Heat

It’s hot here. I thought I would never say that. And sure, it’s not as hot as Phoenix, but even mountain communities in the Southwest can warm up in summer months. When the temperatures hit the 90s, the humidity stays below 25 percent, and the winds never subside, vegetables and ornamental plants get stressed.

columbine northeastern exposure
In May, this columbine was blooming and healthy! It’s a little stressed now. Columbines grow naturally under the shade of trees, and they need deep water as temperatures rise into the 70s and higher. We mulched around the plant and put it in a northeast-facing location to help it survive summer.

Often, our first reaction is to throw more water on a plant. Sometimes, that’s what they need. Wind, sun and heat dry plants more quickly. Native xeric plants are adapted to take some of the parching sun and wind, and sometimes a gardener can overwater a plant. Here are a few tips to keep xeric plants cool, healthy and happy during the heat of summer:

  • Start with the right plant for the right spot. That means not only a native selection, but choosing sun vs. shade or the right drainage. Most xeric plants can take plenty of sun, but some need partial shade. And most don’t take kindly to wet feet, or roots that fail to dry between watering. Wet feet can happen with overwatering or if you place lavender in poorly draining soil at the bottom of a hill, or hide it under a bush that grows quickly and shades it within a year. You also can plan ahead to take advantage of shade. It’s getting too hot for my lettuce, but we’ll plant some more north of the fence holding the pole beans as soon as they get a little taller.
garden plan for shade
The sun is so bright, it’s reflecting off the spot where we hope to get some shade for lettuce and spinach. You can see the bean seedlings on the other side of the foreground fence shadow.
  • Follow the sun. When you plant in spring, the sun and shade patterns are different than they will be in mid-July and August. So keep in mind the sun’s direction and any plants or structures that might help shade a plant late in the day, when the sun’s rays are their hottest. Remember that deciduous trees might be nearly bare when you plant, but loaded by mid-June.
  • When helping a new plant get established, the typical care instructions might not apply. The plant goes into a sort of shock, much like when you recover from illness or injury. All plants need a little more water, as well as extra sun and wind protection until established. We’ve often used portable lawn chairs to provide filtered shade over new plantings in the afternoon. Old sheets or landscape fabric also work.
  • Use containers. If you have a plant that’s more susceptible to heat stress, place it in a container. You can move it around throughout the summer based on the sun’s path. Of course, if you really love the plant and have lots of time on your hands (and wheels under a larger container), you can move it around during the day, giving it morning sun and afternoon shade.

    tomato in container
    The tomato seedlings I planted in containers are doing better than many in the ground. The patio and house warmed them up during cool nights, but provide shade now on hot afternoons.
  • Water in the morning. It’s tough to find time before work, but watering early in the day loads your plant up, preparing it for the heat. And try to keep soil evenly moist. If you have a slow drip system, the irrigation can run while you get ready for work. Cover the drip hose with a nice, thick layer of mulch and the mulch will slow the water’s evaporation and help keep the ground cool. And as I’ve said before, it’s good to keep an eye on tomatoes and other vegetables and to have someone care for them if you leave town. Once the fruit sets, you can’t drown the tomato to make up for a few days of heat and underwatering. They’ll punish you.

Finally, drink some iced tea, flavored with a small bit of fresh mint. Oh, wait, that’s for me…

Perennial or Annual?

Gardeners often face the choice of filling a container or a space in their xeric landscape with either an annual or perennial. And new gardeners might have a hard time knowing whether a plant they spot and love will come back in their garden next year. Let’s take a look at annuals vs. perennials, especially in xeric landscaping.

cosmos and agave in New Mexico garden
These agave are xeric, but apparently so are these cosmos, annuals that just pop up from old seeds each year, to the point we had to thin them to give the agave room.

First-time gardeners might not get the difference between the plant types. It’s easy to remember if you think about the terms attached to each plant: A perennial lasts three years or more, but an annual is there only for this year, just like the root of the word (annus, Latin for year).

So, how do you know when you want a perennial and when you want an annual? Here are a few scenarios:

For containers, it’s often best to go with annuals. Unless you have plenty of sunny indoor space and a strong back, you’re better off placing annual flowers into most of your containers, just for the season. Of course, succulents can easily live indoors in sunny locations, as can some herbs, bedding plants and houseplants. I love planting just a few containers each year in front of my house, and at our last home, we had one annual bed that we changed out each year, also adding pansies for winter color. It’s a small splurge.

But if you’ve got a huge raised bed to fill, go with bulbs and perennials, or maybe spring-blooming bulbs, overplanted with annual seeds that come up later in summer, after your bulbs are done blooming. Seeds cost less if you’re willing to wait for the plant to grow, then bloom. Having said that, one of the benefits of buying annual plants is instant gratification!

xeric annuals and perennials
I think I just showed the combination of yarrow and gaillardia, but I can’t get over how great the perennial and annual look together.

Here are some of my favorite low-water annuals, many of which are wildflowers that will reseed:

  • California poppy
  • Cosmos
  • Desert marigold
  • Portulaca (Moss rose)

For most xeric gardens, however, you can’t beat a hardy, low-water perennial that blooms year after year. All you usually have to do is cut back dead branches or flower stems and wait. A few cautions with perennials: Some spread, even though they’re xeric plants. And sometimes, you have to cut them back drastically to keep your garden under control and prevent one perennial from competing too much with others, such as shading another plant that needs six hours of sun a day.

gray santolina and cherry sage
This gray santolina. along with a few neighboring perennials, is blocking sun to the red sage next to it. I love both plants, so we might move the sage to a sunnier location.

Here are a few of my favorite low-water perennials:

  • Coreopsis
  • Echinacea, or coneflower
  • Gaura
  • Lavender
  • Penstemon
  • Sedum
  • Santolina
  • Sage – any perennial salvia and sage
  • Yarrow

How do you tell an annual from a perennial when making a purchase? If your nursery doesn’t have the plants sorted by annuals vs. perennials, you can always ask. Another clue is that many annuals are sold in six-packs or similar packaging for several smaller plants. Perennials tend to come in pint size, gallon pots and up. But that’s not always the case. And a particular flower might be available as both, so check the tag or ask nursery staff. An example is the salvia, which comes as several great perennials. But there is a red salvia that only works as an annual, at least in my zone.

larkspur annual
Pink and purple larkspur, the annual version of Delphinium. These reseed under our red bud each year with no effort on our part.

That takes me to my final point: One gardener’s perennial might be another gardener’s annual. In other words, zone and general conditions can alter a plant’s ability to endure for more than one season. Geraniums are container plants or annuals in the mountains and high desert of New Mexico, but might be perennial in southern California. And just to add to the confusion, hardy geraniums (of the genus Geranium), are different from Pelargoniums, common geraniums, such as the scented flowers. And gaillardia, or blanket flower, is one of my favorite plants that might be an annual or perennial, depending on the cultivar and conditions. Ours simply reseed throughout the garden year after year.

I added several other photos of annuals and perennials mentioned in this post to the Photos page.

Growing Edibles in Containers

Growing an edible garden makes great sense – you use water to produce food, and it’s food that can’t get any fresher or more local! Growing food in pots and other containers can be even more rewarding, especially for gardeners who have limited space, problems with critters or who want their herbs and vegetables close at hand.

lettuce and tomatillo plants in containers
Lettuce is a great container plant. The one in the foreground had tomatillos, just for fun, not so much for yield.

Rosemary, basil, lettuce and cherry or grape tomatoes are my favorite edibles to have right near my kitchen door. But I’ve been known to push the boundaries a little, once growing an okra plant in a small container (admittedly mostly for the flower) and a large pot of carrots last year. We’re upping the ante with an even bigger carrot crop, but more on that in a future post…

carrots
Here’s our dancing carrot, or rather two carrots, grown in crowded container conditions last year.

Here’s the thing – containers can take a little more water during hot summer months, but you also can confine your crop, so to speak. I believe that container-grown edibles are less susceptible to some bugs and soil-borne problems. And I love that I can move the containers to control sun exposure as the conditions change. Most of all, you just can’t beat the convenience of herbs and vegetables just outside your kitchen door at meal times.

Here are a few tips for making your container edibles fun and productive:

  • First, it can be tempting to fill your containers with soil from your garden. Resist the temptation and spend the money on some good commercial potting mix. I use organic composts and potting mixes. The reason? Ground soil compacts when confined to a pot. This makes it harder for water to drain and for roots to grow.
  • Choose your container to fit the plant’s mature size. It might look less attractive at first, but the reward of juicy tomatoes is worth your patience!
grape tomato in container
This yellow grape tomato was great for snacking right on the patio all summer.
  • If the container is particularly large, you can line the bottom with pebbles or plastic bottles to encourage drainage and use some yard or garden soil for fill. But keep it to a minimum, and make sure the soil that the plant’s roots touch is the best possible mix.
  • A few herbs are grown better in containers for their own special reasons. I like to have a small basil or rosemary on my patio table throughout the summer for the appearance, scent and convenience. And then there is mint – which should only grow in containers unless you really love it and want to replace everything else in your lawn, your neighbor’s lawn, your town… with mint. And it comes in lemon, orange or chocolate varieties to enjoy on the patio or balcony.
  • Many container-grown plants require fertilizer because the soil doesn’t have the same natural nutrients as garden soil. But use it judiciously and according to the individual plant. For example, chile peppers typically need no fertilizer. If you start with healthy soil, you need less, and if you use it too often or at the wrong time, you’ll force more growth into the foliage and get a plant that outgrows your container and gets too lanky to support its fruit.
  • Usually, you have to water container-grown plants more often, but not always. Don’t assume that when a plant wilts, lack of water is the cause. And that’s the beauty of containers – try moving the plant to the shade on hot days, or move all of them there if you have to be away for the weekend. They’ll survive better on your pre-departure watering until you return.
  • Remember that you can add mulch to containers, just as you do in flower beds. Decorative mulch can offset the look of an edible in a container, such as crushed seashells under chard. Mulch also serves a practical purpose. Those white seashells or pebbles can reflect sun back up to your potted lavender or bark chips can hold moisture in to conserve water and keep plants cool.

And if you love being creative and repurposing, go ahead and push the limits. You might end up with lower productivity from your edible, or need more total containers, but it’s fun to place edibles in a few fun or funky containers. If I want more yield, I duplicate the seeds or transplant in the ground or a larger container. That way, I get the aesthetic pleasure and practical returns.

spinach in metal container
We found this old metal bucket at my in-laws’ ranch and planted some spinach in it.

Low-water Herbs for Your Garden or Kitchen

Planning your spring garden or patio plants? You might have limited space, and certainly should consider limiting water use, so I’ve got a few tips for choosing low-water herbs for your garden, kitchen window or patio.

The good news is that like many xeric plants we grow in New Mexico gardens, many herbs have their roots in the Mediterranean. They prefer well-draining soil and low water.

Rosemary (Rosemarinus officinalis) is the first herb that comes to mind, and is one of my favorites, both as an herb and as an ornamental. You can grow a small rosemary in a pot, keeping it trimmed (by cutting the tips and using the herb in recipes, of course) or grow a mounding or spreading form of the plant in your low-water garden. As an ornamental, rosemary has attractive foliage and blooms with light blue or pink flowers. It’s a tough herb that survives cold to about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. Just watch for overwatering and snow damage. If you get a heavy snow, try to knock the powder off your rosemary plant. Here’s a link to the Herb Society of America’s fact sheet on rosemary.

rosemary-in-container
Established rosemary in pot that wintered over. I took a few cuttings all winter.

Thyme (Thymus) is another low-water favorite. Thymus vulgaris is the common shrubby herb, but several ornamental forms provide interest in the garden, and other flavors provide culinary variety. For example, lemon thyme is a favorite for marinades or sauces. I love to walk around our rock garden and rub my fingers on the leaves of our thyme shrub just to get a whiff of the scent, which is sort of a combination of earthy and salty. We use the dried leaves in several recipes and also enjoy the tiny, delicate lilac-colored flowers in summer. Thyme only needs water in the hottest zones and times of year.

thyme--herb-low-water
Thyme is evergreen even in Zone 6. Some of it dies back, and new growth appears on new stems. This is new growth in early March.

 

Lavender (Lavendula) is a favorite Mediterranean herb, and we are experimenting now with several varieties. Our biggest mistake was to place the mail-ordered plants in the ground a bit early. The soil was not warm enough for the sun lovers. Lavender must have well-drained soil to prevent the roots from sitting in water. In New Mexico, French of Spanish lavender works much better than English lavender varieties. Be careful not to cut into the woody stems when trimming. Check with nurseries or catalogs for the best variety in your area and zone and for the purpose you want. I’ve used lavender in recipes, and have dried stalks of it in vases throughout my home just for scent and attractiveness. We’ll keep trying to improve our lavender-growing skills, and studying ideas for uses. Check out our Pinterest board for more on lavender.

lavender-in-container
A new lavender plant in a container.

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) needs full sun and most varieties require no watering. Although not as attractive as the other plants I’ve mentioned, fennel is a versatile herb and easy to grow. We haven’t planted any, but it’s popped up around our garden, presumably from seeds of past plants. The fern-like leaves do have some appeal, and birds love the seeds once they turn brown. With a flavor similar to anise, fennel is a stock herb for many breads and pickling mixes. Learn more from the Herb Society of America.