Even waterwise plants get stressed when exposed to high heat, dry air and wind. Many Southwestern plants can survive hot temperatures because they’re native to the low desert. But in some areas such as the mountains and high deserts, native plants are a little more winter hardy and a little less heat tolerant.
Even in the hottest Southwest and West climates, plants can need extra attention when temperatures soar. Here are 10 tips for helping plants survive the heat of summer.
Tip No. 1. Use drip irrigation.
You save water because it can’t evaporate as rapidly as it can if in the air, and the water seeps slowly down to the roots of a plant. This helps cool roots as well as hydrate them.
Tip No. 2. Use mulch.
Something as simple as straw spread out on the dirt helps keep air from rapidly evaporating water, but still allows oxygen to reach soil and roots. Piling the straw or other organic mulch two to three inches high helps even more.
Tip No. 3. Try to get your plants established before summer heat ramps up.
Even heat-loving plants can wilt when temperatures soar. Still, recognize that wilting from sun can be temporary. The bigger the plant’s leaves, the more quickly the plant transpirates, which is the process of water evaporation through leaves. That’s why many succulents and xeric plants have small foliage. So don’t panic, but don’t completely discount it. Increase drip time on hot and windy days.
Tip No. 4. Water in the morning if at all possible.
This is a great water-saving strategy and helps prevent heat stress to plants. If the roots already have access to water, they can begin sending the water up through stems and leaves to keep the plant nourished. For most plants, regular, but spaced, deep watering always beats out frequent light watering (which leaves moisture close to the surface and can restrict root growth).
Tip No. 5. Check on your plants.
If you can’t check them during the day, do so as soon as you get home. It’s OK to water plants lightly in late afternoon to help cool them down.
Tip No. 6. Use one plant as a benchmark.
For example, zucchini leaves are large, and if they’re wilting, you can prevent heat or drought damage to other plants nearby with a cool drink of water or some shade.
Tip No. 7. Shade plants.
New or damaged plants might need temporary shade to build up resistance to heat. Direct sun can burn leaves just like it can burn your skin. So make sure even an established plant is in the right location for sun and summer exposure and if not, try temporary shade.
Tip No. 8. Use containers.
Containers offer you the most opportunity to shade plants on hot days. Although soil in containers warms faster, containers also can cool more quickly. Most of all, it’s easy to move all but the largest into shade temporarily. You can mulch the top of the soil in a container, too.
Tip No. 9. Avoid fertilizing plants during the heat of the day.
Plants should be perky and healthy before soaking up fertilizer. And the fertilizer needs to mix with plenty of water. It’s best to do this task before mid-day heat kicks in.
Tip No. 10. Control weeds.
Ha, there’s an impossible goal around here. And I know there are people who embrace weeds. I tolerate them only because I can’t keep up. But we’re really vigilant about keeping weeds off of or out from under plants. That’s especially true in the vegetable garden. Mulching can help control weeds.
Finally, if you keep potted plants, including cacti, inside during the winter, you need to protect them as they adapt to being outside. That’s true even for sun lovers. Harden the plant off if you can. If the plant is too heavy to bring in and out all day (or you have 30 of them, like we do), at least start it outside on a cooler, cloudier day.
There are so many “right” reasons to choose native plants: They need less water and often attract pollinators. But if you need an even better reason, one that appeals to you in your busy world, how about the fact that they’re easier to maintain?
Think about it. By nature (hmmm, native and nature), native plants grow in the open, such as in forests or plains. Away from people, the plants can survive no matter the rainfall or other weather problems. And many reseed to ensure continued survival. They can do all of this without a nice lady in a funny hat and brightly colored gloves “tending” to them.
Why native plants are easy care
Once a plant native to your region is established, which can take up to a year, it should need little to no watering. And it should never need fertilizer or other chemicals. These plants have adapted to their native conditions and are less susceptible to pests and diseases than non-native plants. As long as the plant is in the right spot in terms of sun, soil and climate, all you need as a gardener is a little patience. Don’t amend the soil or overwater your new native (although they need more water in the first year to help the roots establish). Your native might not flower prolifically in its first year, and wildflower seeds can remain dormant in the ground before suddenly popping up when conditions favor their germination and growth.
Of course, just because a plant is listed as “native,” if you plop it down in completely different conditions or climate, the plant might not make it or could turn out to be as much work as a big-box store purchase. For example, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) is listed as a native plant in New Mexico. But it grows naturally at elevations of 100 to 5,000 feet. And elevation makes a big difference in the Southwest. We’re at 6,300 feet, and our nights can easily dip below the 22 degrees F listed for warmer Sunset zones that support the cholla (zones that are less than an hour away to the east or west). Likewise, planting a cholla in a bed with drip or spray irrigation could damage the plant more than cold. It prefers low water, full sun and sandy soil. No wonder it does so well in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona!
How to select native plants
So caring for native plants is easy, but since so much depends on plant choice and placement, how can you make that process easier? Here are a few ideas:
Notice plants you see and love in the lawns of neighbors, commercial buildings and even along roadways or on nearby hikes (but don’t steal native plants in the wild). Take photos to help with identification and note where and when you saw the plant.
Although I said to select plants native to your region, plants native to nearly the same conditions also do well. Several cold-hardy natives of South Africa, such as Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) and Hardy Purple or Yellow Iceplant (Delosperma) do really well in the mountainous Southwest.
Local books and apps are the best source for identifying the plants you see near your home. Some national sites (such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) have accurate search engines, but others can confuse you if your search brings up a low-growing shrub with purple flowers that only grows in Georgia.
Get help from professionals. Local landscape designers know native plants, and should encourage their use. Call your master gardener hotline or check with a local extension office or native plant organization to get help identifying and selecting plants for your area.
If you can’t identify a plant but have it in your garden, try not to stress. We’ve got several plants we have yet to clearly identify, but we’ve watched their natural patterns of growth and blooming and just played along. In most cases, I only shear off spent flower stalks in early spring to reinvigorate the plant.
And if you have a native you really love and want to use elsewhere in your lawn, try saving seeds, propagating a cutting or dividing the plant. See the Resources page for a list of native plant lists or nurseries.
I get so excited when I see the Plant Select press release in my messages each spring. I love any new plant introduction or award winner, but Plant Select focuses on plants that adapt to – and thrive in – the dry, wild conditions of the intermountain regions and high plains. Gardeners can be confident that their selections will work in much of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and other western states. This year, Plant Select announced two new groundcovers, and selected a drought-tolerant turf and groundcover. Anyone ready to switch out a high-water lawn should take note of these choices:
Red Mountain Flame ice plant (Delosperma ‘PWWG02S’). An ice plant with deep orange to red flowers! Ice plants came to the U.S. from South Africa. The plants use little to moderate water once established, yet they provide gorgeous, evergreen groundcover for the xeric garden. One reason is that they spread quickly. But ice plants won’t get invasive. When ours have spread too far, we’ve even transplanted some of the extra plant to another area of the garden with success. They’re usually yellow or pale pink to purple. I’m thrilled to have a new ice plant color choice for rock gardens and other beds. It’s also perfect that New Mexico’s own David Salman of Waterwise Gardening produced the Red Mountain Flame seedlings. Grow ice plant in zones 4 through 9. Red Mountain Flame needs a mix of sun and shade.
Alan’s Apricot ice plant (Delosperma ‘Alan’s Apricot’PPAF). The apricot-colored blooms of this new introduction are similar in color to existing ice plants, but larger. It also changes color to a pinker hue and then back again. Ice plants turn heads in summer when they fill with blooms on the low foliage. I can only imagine how Alan’s Apricot’s two-inch blooms will look in mid-summer. The larger, showy flowers also will shine in a container or the landscape as blooms begin to open or close each season. The ice plant was developed by Alan Tower of Spokane, Wash. Also for zones 4 through 9, a variety of soils, and a mix of sun and shade.
Moroccan pinchusion flower (Pterocephalus depressus). The Moroccan pincushion has similar foliage and an inch or so more height than ice plants. The pincushion flowers are light pink to rose in color and leave silvery seed heads after fading. It’s also evergreen, offering winter foliage in zones 4 through 8. Add Moroccan pincushion to a rock garden, raised bed or large container in full sun. The plant needs little to no water once established and should have soil that drains well.
DOG TUFF grass (Cynodon ‘PWIN04S’). Why have no lawn at all when you can have areas of turf for kids and pets, along with the look and cooling effects of grass? I’m all for removing some lawn, even more if you have a high-water grass. But I’ll never stop trying to convince people to leave a little grass. DOG TUFF lets homeowners have the best of both worlds: saving water and keeping a lawn. DOG TUFF has an extra quality that might have influenced Plant Select’s choice. Like the name says, it’s tough, holding up to foot traffic even in a xeric lawn. It also holds up to your dog’s help with “watering.” The grass comes in plugs for easier spread and planting. DOG TUFF needs more water the first year, but once established, the warm season grass should return in late spring for all-summer coverage in zones 5 through 10. Learn more about planting and caring for DOG TUFF here.
Plant Select is located in Ft. Collins, Colo., where its staff puts plants to work in test gardens to see how they do with little water. Plant Select also evaluates plants for adaptability, durability and ease of care. They also consider how attractive the plant is in the garden and whether it’s wildlife friendly.
Harvesting rainwater makes perfect sense, and we learned more about the process at a terrific workshop we attended at the NM Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque last week. From neighboring Texas, Billy Kniffen is the water resource specialist for Texas A&M University.
Kniffen explained that catching and using rainwater is not a new concept; early settlers in the West captured water. Interest is increasing today, at least among homeowners and gardeners who live in states that allow rain harvesting. We’ve used one or more rain barrels to capture roof water for years, and hope to someday acquire a large cistern. As Kniffen said, “the first rain barrel is the ‘gateway drug’ to rainwater harvesting.”
Getting Started Is Easy
I believe more people would harvest rainwater if they realized it’s not as complex a process as it seems. For simple gardening use, a few rain barrels or a cistern with pressure can irrigate ornamental plants. If you want to water edible plants, you have to take a few more steps; it’s recommended that you add features such as first flush equipment (which directs the first flush from your gutters away from the barrel to prevent nasty debri from entering the container) and filters. A prefilter also keeps leaves and debris out; you just have to clean it from time to time. You also can disinfect your rain water with chlorine or ultraviolet light.
A house that has a roof of 1,000 square feet can yield 600 gallons of water from just one inch of rainfall. For me, watching the small barrels fill and then overflow feels like a waste. In our case, water that runs from the house eventually refills our water table – and therefore our well. But in urban areas, water runoff fills streets and gutters, and often is wasted. Texas A&M Extension has made it easier to calculate the amount of rain you can collect from your home or shed roof.
Here’s a simple calculator for catchment area courtesy of the college. There’s also a link here to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (under Resources) with the formulas already included. HarvestingRainWater.com also has a simple calculator. Texas residents, or those who can easily compare their annual rainfall to one of the included Texas towns, can input the information and receive monthly flow rates and required cistern sizes to catch as much rain as possible. Finally, the school also publishes a manual all about rainwater harvesting.
Kniffen and his wife run their home solely off collected rainwater from their home and a shed. I don’t believe we have the money to collect all water and make it potable, but it’s always on the wish list. Any attempts to save and use rainwater can help preserve water for future years. I hope these tools make it a little easier for anyone considering rain harvesting to get started.
Gardeners can take many steps to save water, such as saving rain water and using drip irrigation. But one of the most crucial steps lies beneath our feet, in the soil that protects and nourishes roots and controls water drainage and aeration.
What you can’t see: soil microbes
Tiny microbes feed soil and plants, relying largely on humus, the rich organic matter that results from decay of natural materials. When conditions are right, insects, earthworms and microorganisms in healthy soil create humus. Organic matter in the soil ensures that microbes thrive and the soil drains as it should. And when a plant is otherwise healthy, it’s less vulnerable to diseases and can likely survive with less water. In Master Gardener training, I learned that New Mexico soils have organic matter of 20 percent or lower on average. At our place, rocks take up 90 percent of the soil (slight exaggeration). We located our vegetable garden in an area that used to be part of an apple orchard and that’s near the river. The soil is much better than near the house, likely because of organic matter working its way into the soil over the years.
Xeric plants and soil drainage
The thing is, many xeric plants are more affected by soil that remains wet than by lack of water. Lavender comes to mind; wet feet can cause root rot. Add a sudden drop in temperature to the dampness and lavender plants are at risk of dying. I’m seriously worried about ours after 18 inches of snow. Plant care instructions for nearly all xeric plants read “place in well-draining soil” because too much water in the soil suffocates a plant’s roots. Sand dries too quickly, but clay and compacted soils fail to drain.
Plants use valuable energy to pull moisture from soil. When they have to work harder to access water in soil, plants become stressed and wilt. If your soil drains quickly, you have to water more often and less deeply. Loam is the name used for balanced soil that has a fairly even mix of sand, clay and silt. As mentioned, clay soils hold too much water. Amending either extreme (sand or clay) with organic matter helps plants access the appropriate amount of water needed with less stress. Instead of adding sand or clay to balance soil, gardeners should use organic matter to gradually improve soil health and function.
Here are a few tips for ensuring your plants’ soil is healthy, providing nutrients, water drainage and oxygen to roots:
Add organic matter. The type of matter you add is more specific to your soil’s pH and other factors. But most natural organic amendments, such as manure or green manure, can help. Also called cover crops, green manure is the purposeful planting in fall and winter of crops that restore soil nitrogen and organic matter used up by summer plants. When using animal manure, add it to compost or make sure it’s cooked completely; don’t add fresh manure to growing plants.
Properly handle plant residue. Although some schools of thought are in favor of letting spent plant material stay on the ground to decay and provide organic matter, gardeners should use caution. Insects overwinter in plant residue on the ground (good if you want monarchs, but you can’t really go around selecting which insects get to take up residence). And it’s never a good idea to use diseased plant material. We kept some healthy plant material, but anything that looks funky goes into compost bins or garbage. We don’t mess with “wilder” areas around the property.
Use organic mulches. Adding mulch around (but not against) the base of the plant helps slow water evaporation from the soil. Organic mulches eventually break down, improving soil make-up.
Rotate crops and use cover crops. In vegetable and herb gardening, move annual crops around so that the soil nutrients get a break. Families of plants differ in how they use soil nutrients.
Stop tilling. Rototilling, the traditional farm method, burns off carbon and adds to weed emergence. It also breaks soil up into smaller particles, which makes it less permeable for air and water. Repeated tilling leads to loose top soil. Heard about the Dust Bowl? Work added organic matter into the top few inches only, or let it sit on top of soil.
When in doubt, test your soil to determine how much of it is sand, clay or loam. You can perform your own home test pretty easily using a mason jar, as described on page 11 of this publication from the San Diego County Water Authority.
Growing edibles can be a smart xeric strategy, especially for anyone looking to begin a garden or use less water in the lawn and garden. Many edibles are attractive and some are evergreen. If you live in an arid zone, applying more water to edibles than to ornamental plants is the right thing to do. Here are a few strategies for making your lawn and garden attractive while saving water and helping to feed your family.
Grow perennial herbs and vegetables
Luckily, several delicious and useful perennial herbs require little water. My favorites are rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme. All of these plants thrive in our xeric garden at zone 6B, and many are hardy to even colder temperatures. Providing well-drained soil helps these herbs survive; some of the only diseases that attack them are related to prolonged wet roots or poor air circulation around wet leaves. Other useful perennial herbs for the xeric garden include bee balm, yarrow and oregano.
Once you’ve mastered a successful season growing food, consider a perennial vegetable such as asparagus. One plant can survive for more than a decade. Growing asparagus requires some patience until the plant produces and a commitment, but harvesting fresh asparagus for several years would be worth it. Although the vegetable requires more water than some for the first few years, you’re likely to use less water over the life of the plant than you would by planting a crop of zucchini or other vegetable year after year. Asparagus is hardy in zones 3 to 8. Some spears showed up along our ditch bank last year. They were leggy, but the plants have survived several winters with no irrigation or other effort on part, since we didn’t know about them. Here’s an article from Gardener’s Supply Company on how to grow asparagus.
Shade with trees that produce food
Shade is a must for lawns in hot, dry climates. If you’re going to plant a shade tree, why not choose one that produces food? I believe that fruit trees get a bad rap as being “messy.” It takes less time to harvest from the trees or pick up dropped fruit every few days than it takes some of us to make a grocery trip! Enjoy the shade of an apricot or apple tree and delicious, fresh fruit in summer, depending on the year’s frost. Fruit trees also have beautiful spring color and attract pollinators. Some nut trees thrive in warm climates.
Dwarf fruit trees provide less shade, but use less water and space and produce a more reasonable amount of fruit. Busy working parents likely will appreciate that dwarf fruit trees entail less work than full-sized ones in an abundant year. Dwarf trees require less climbing and pruning, and often produce fruit earlier than their larger counterparts. A single dwarf tree that requires no companion for pollination can add a little shade, color and interest to a xeric lawn or garden. Just be sure to choose a variety hardy for your zone. Many dwarf pears, plums and apples are hardy to zone 5; Stark Bro’s helps you choose a dwarf variety based on your zone. Mulching around the tree can reduce water needs.
Use shade for other edibles
Trees provide shade for people and plants. Take advantage of shade to grow edible crops under trees, shrubs or other vegetables. Many herbs and vegetables tolerate partial shade or grow best during cooler weather. Planting basil where it gets afternoon shade can help the plant thrive and use less water. Just be sure to estimate where the shade will be come the height of summer, not where it is when you plant.
Planting edibles in containers is a smart water choice and can give the gardener more flexibility in controlling sun exposure. I planted several tomatoes in containers and moved the pots slightly as summer became hotter, giving them plenty of sun, but afternoon shade on our patio. Of course, you need a properly sized container for the plant you choose. Grape and cherry tomatoes need a little less space than full-sized varieties. You can place containers in the shade of trees, right in the garden, to complement your garden’s design.
Choose cool-season crops
Providing shade extends the season of crops that grow better in cooler temperatures. Choosing some cool-season crops also can save water because these edibles produce in early spring or late fall, using less water than those grown in hot summer sun. We’ve used shade to grow lettuce mixes and spinach. Again, using containers for these crops allows you to easily move the container when summer sun or drought stress the plants. And containers help you grow edibles close to your kitchen for more months of the year.
Although you might not think you’re saving water when soaking tomatoes, consider the amount of water that goes into tomatoes you buy at the store, along with the energy used to transport them. Most of all, take a bite of a tomato right from the vine and you’ll quickly lose your taste for any store-bought fruit.
Although the drought has eased in New Mexico and some areas of the Southwest, it’s still serious in many regions. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to save water in the yard, garden or farm all year long, regardless of your region’s current drought status.
No matter where you live, the foremost reason to adhere to low-water gardening designs and principles is to conserve water, which is the right thing to do for this and future generations. I doubt homeowners in California, many of whom typically enjoy steady rainfall of 18 or more inches a year, were concerned about drought when they had their yards designed decades ago. In fact, the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct likely marked the beginning of the phenomenon that occurs when too many residents are concentrated in a geographic area, especially one not conducive to urbanization.
The aqueduct and population are only part of the problem in California or in any region short on water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American uses about 320 gallons of water a day. Nearly 30 percent of home use flows outdoors, including on lawns. All-told, home landscape irrigation accounts for some 9 billion gallons of water a day around the country.
If you’ve read past blog posts, you know that I plead for a measured and appropriate response, one that if taken before severe drought strikes can prevent community, and eventually global, water crises. That approach includes native or xeric landscape design, not the destruction of all living plant material in a lawn. As I’ve said before, replacing grass with gravel doesn’t necessarily save water or energy.
For a 2015 recap and 2016 garden prep reminder, here are the 10 easiest ways to save water in your lawn and garden:
1. Convert some turf to gravel if you like, using oasis zones and smart xeriscape design principles. Involve a landscaping professional if the job is big or the concept overwhelms you.
2. Convert high-water turf to a native, low-water grass. The best choices for high desert areas are Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) and Buffalo grass (Buchloë dactyloides). A new hybrid called Dog Tuff (Cynodon hybrid) also comes in plugs for quicker spread.
3. Water wisely, cutting back in winter and irrigating only in the cool of the morning during summer. Use drip irrigation instead of spray or sprinklers when possible. Add mulch around plant beds.
4. Look for signs of water waste, such as runoff. Create a dry-river bed, bioswale or terrace to capture water and place plants with higher water needs in swales or at the bottom of inclines. Well around plants that need a little more water.
5. Remember that even low-water or xeric plants need extra water the first year; if the plant doesn’t make it because it dries out, you’ve wasted whatever water you used to irrigate plus the cost of the plant.
6. Choose perennials over annuals. Every time you plant annuals, you must water them extra to help them get established for the season. Growing more perennials and letting native annuals and wildflowers go to seed is a better strategy; leave one small bed or container arrangement only for annuals each year.
7. Grow edibles in your lawn or landscape. If you don’t want the look of a full-blown kitchen garden from the curb, place perennial herbs or low-water plants with berries for your family or birds in the most visible areas of the landscape.
8. Make smart use of containers and raised beds. Containers and raised beds use less water than the ground. Just be careful to water slowly. If water pours out the bottom of the pot, you’ve probably given more than the plant needs, and if you water rapidly, you can wash nutrients from the pot’s soil mix.
9. Check and improve the soil. It’s easy to ensure good soil and drainage in containers, but less so in the lawn. Even without a soil test, a gardener can see when the ground around a plant doesn’t drain well; that can be the death of many xeric plants. Adding organic matter and loosening the soil (but not tilling) can help build soil health over time.
10. Capture and use rain water. If you don’t want to water edibles this way, at least catch rain from your roof to water your ornamentals. It might seem like one 50-gallon barrel isn’t enough, but as with all waterwise gardening, every little bit helps.
Search or browse past posts in the Archive or check my Resources page if you want to learn more about low-water gardening strategies. And here’s to 2016!
With winter in full swing, I’m amazed at the hardiness of some of our low-water plants. Anyone who lives in a northern or high-altitude zone who’s planning to add or replace some plants this spring with low-water alternatives should feel plenty comfortable with the number and variety of choices. Planting perennials saves you money – and water. Xeric perennials only need a boost of water the first year or so, and then can often make it with no irrigation. Here are a few of my favorites by category:
The iceplant (Delosperma) is a sun-loving groundcover that spreads rapidly and rewards gardeners with bright pinkish-purple (D. cooperi) or yellow (D. congestum or D. nubigenum) flowers. We thought it would be too cold here in zone 6B, but our purple iceplant thrives on the northeast side of our home. It’s a stunner, especially in rock gardens, where it can cascade slightly over rocks or borders. It’s also an easy groundcover to transplant. Other low-water cold-hardy groundcovers are several sedums, such as Dragon’s blood (Sedum spurium), and low-growing sages (Artemesia filifolia or A. frigida).
Red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) are workhorses in low-water, cold-hardy gardens. Also called torch lily, the plans resemble a lily in its foliage. But the tall, torch-shaped blooms with red and yellow tubular flowers can last for weeks. Hummingbirds visit the flowers, and birds often visit spent blooms. Meanwhile, the plants form clumps in the ground that spread. Many gardeners use them as fence borders, and they’re one of the easiest cold-hardy perennials to care for in a low-water garden. Other low-water, cold-hardy flowering perennials are Dusty Miller and Gayfeather, to name a few.
The Utah serviceberry (Amelachier utahensis), also called a shadberry, is a low-water shrub that drops its leaves in winter but only after turning several gorgeous colors and producing berries for birds and other wildlife. It is closely related to the Western serviceberry (A. alnefolia). It’s native to low-mountain or high-desert areas of Utah, New Mexico and along most of the Rocky Mountain region. We purchased a stock of bare-root serviceberries that we’re raising in a protected area near the river so they need less water while getting established. Other low-water deciduous shrubs cold-hardy in high deserts or intermountain regions are the Leadplant, Fernbush and Sumacs.
Mahogany (Cercocarpus) uses very little water and has an interesting, desert-like look in the landscape. The evergreen shrub can adapt to temperature extremes up to 100 degrees F, and is cold hardy to 20 degrees below or more, depending on the type. Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (C. ledifolius) can get large if left untrimmed, but the little-leaf variety only grows to about 8 feet tall. Both do best in full sun and with little water. Other cold-hardy evergreen shrubs that work well at high altitude are Damianita and Cotoneaster.
The alligator juniper (Juniperis deppeana) is one of few junipers that I really love. That’s because I’m allergic to juniper pollen, as are many people who must live around the plants in areas where the air is plenty dry. Junipers thrive in poor soil and low water conditions and they’re long-lasting evergreen trees and shrubs. The alligator juniper is named for its reptilian-like trunk, making it more interesting in the landscape. Many also have multiple trunks. Alligator junipers do well in elevations between 4,500 and 8,000 feet. Lots of other low-water trees fare well in cold climates, including the Netleaf Hackberry, Mexican Elder and Gray Oak.
It seems that Los Angeles officials are considering installing cisterns with smart technology to catch rain water for irrigation. It’s about time. Even when rain barrels and cisterns fail to collect all of the water that falls from the skies or flows from the roof, they still make use of water that might otherwise run off and go to waste. And homeowners can use the water for ornamentals and even edibles.
I don’t know much about LA and its politics, but I do know that when I made a trip to southern California recently, water restrictions were forcing patches of brown grass more than landscape alterations. Pulling up some of the grass, replacing it with a few vegetables and herbs, and then watering those edibles with rain water seems like a really smart and sustainable solution.
We’ve been using rain barrels for many years. When we had a flat tar and gravel roof and city water in Albuquerque, N.M., we limited use of the rain barrel to ornamentals only. But now that we rely on a well, grow more food on more land and have metal roofing, we use rain water on our vegetables and herbs.
Before collecting rain water for edibles, I researched the topic and found little information, but enough to make me feel comfortable using the water. Since then, more data is out there confirming that for the most part, collected rain water from common roofing materials is safe for edibles as long as you follow a few preventive collection and watering practices. Most of my tips are about barrels, which is all I have so far. I would love to have a cistern; it’s on my wish list! To learn more about the data and specific roof material information, check out the Resources page under Rainwater Collection and Rain Barrels.
Safe Rain Water Collection
None of the research claims that collected rain water is potable. There are just too many variables. In urban areas, pollution settles on rooftops. Where I live, critters and birds fly over or hang out on the gutters, likely leaving droppings. Here are a few ways to make your collected water safer for vegetable use:
Clean rain barrels with a bleach solution before using them for edibles. Rutgers also recommends adding eight drops of bleach per month for a 55-gallon barrel, and waiting 24 hours before using the water so the bleach can dissipate.
Rinse out barrels once a year, removing sediment and using either bleach or a vinegar and lemon solution to clean the barrel.
Keep gutters clean and free of debris, which also makes good sense for roof maintenance.
When installing a new system, it’s recommended to have a first-flush diverted added. This washes the first flush of downspout water, along with debris and contaminants, away from the barrel before it begins filling.
Most commercial barrels have screens to keep debris (and birds or other small animals) from getting inside the barrel. Be sure to wipe the screens off from time to time. Even leaves can rot and drip into the rain water.
Of course, you can choose to water only ornamental and house plants with rain water if you have any doubts. I also tend to alternate watering between my barrel and well for vegetable rows, just to mix up the nutrients and potential metals from both, and because the barrel by the garden usually empties before the next good rain. For safest edible watering, be sure to follow these tips:
After a barrel fills, use the first full bucket or so on ornamentals, not on vegetables or herbs. This first flush from the barrel usually contains more contaminants because of settled water at the bottom.
Always water the soil and not the plant, a best practice for gardening anyway. And the soil absorbs the water, not the leaves. This is especially important for any edible you harvest from above the ground (or other than root vegetables).
Water in the morning and wait to harvest, after the sun’s rays have dried and disinfected the plants.
Finally, those folks in California can water their lawns (hopefully less by switching to native, low-water grasses) with cisterns, which typically have pressure valves. Most smaller rain barrels lack the pressure required to drive soaker hoses. Raising your barrel a few feet can increase the pressure to allow use of a hose or drip system, but likely not enough to run a lawn sprinkler. In the past, we’ve used stacked square pavers or cement blocks to raise ours.
In the past week, I’ve heard several friends or family members say that they can’t grow plants, that they kill everything they try to grow, etc. I’m here to tell you that every gardener has killed a plant. And if there is anyone out there who can prove otherwise, I’ll send them a free succulent. We have plenty to spare. Just don’t tell my husband.
The seasoned gardener will blame the deer that ate/trampled the day lilies or the bad, strange weather the past year (read nearly any of my blog posts) or grasshoppers and other insects that brought damage and dreaded disease. You know, these seasoned gardeners aren’t really lying. The truth is that all anyone can do is start with the healthiest plant possible, place it in the best possible environment and care for it according to the plant’s needs and the environment in which it lives. If it doesn’t work, we learn from it and try again, sometimes with another plant or another place. And if you get really fed up, you can always switch environments!
We happen to love our environment, and I know there are many more hostile than ours. No matter where you live and grow, gardening is trial and error. And like any hobby or DIY project, preparation and a little upfront learning can increase your chance of success, even in a hostile setting. Here are a few problems we face in ours, along with tips to keep from giving up.
Drought and water use. When you “go with the flow,” so to speak in low-water gardening, you take what nature delivers. That means supplementing new plantings with water until they’re established, even watering xeric plants more than suggested for the first year or so. We use rainwater as much as possible, and since our established plants generally need little to no irrigation, we can use well water sparingly as needed. A bigger problem can be too much water. And I think new gardeners, or at least gardeners adjusting to growing xeric plants, tend to overwater drought-tolerant plants for the duration. It’s also instinct to assume when a plant wilts that it needs water, when the cause might be something else. Sometimes, Mother Nature overwaters and having healthy plants helps them ride out the storm.
Never Give-up Tips: Avoid the temptation to overwater. Make sure low-water plants get a good start, especially by planting them in well-draining soil with plenty of organic matter.
Climate. Nature also can deliver water or temperature in strange patterns. This year, we had more than a week of clouds, cool temperatures and wet days. Our plants got confused, and sometimes climate conditions that are unnatural to native plants can cause stress and disease. At other times, it keeps them blooming later than normal, which is a good thing. Using microclimates, even temporary ones, can help plants weather the goofy weather. For example, I planted my chile and bell peppers at the same time as last year, but the weather was cooler than normal right after I planted. I’ll admit that our seedlings were a little weak, too, so that’s a lesson learned. But I should have put something over or around them to warm them up a notch. A few of them never thrived.
Never Give-up Tips: Know your plants’ zones and sun requirements and follow them when planting, remembering that trees leaf out and grow! And try an edible or annual in a different spot next year or move an established perennial.
Gophers. I’ll include all underground critters, such as moles, prairie dogs and ground squirrels in this one. For us, gophers rank up there as enemy no. 1. You can’t even say they’re cute, because for one, you really never see them. They do their damage mostly at night and I have only seen one pop up as it worked to open a hole in our brand new lavender bed, after chewing up the roots of one of the brand new lavender plants, of course. Some will say they improve the soil. I say they destroy plants. Our tally in a few years includes an Echinacea, a primrose, an ornamental grass, two lavender plants and at least one dwarf apple tree. The newer and more vulnerable the plant, the more they seem to love it.
Never Give-up Tips: The only method that works for keeping gophers away from a vegetable or ornamental garden is burying metal barriers 24 inches down to surround the entire garden or using raised beds such as metal troughs. Of course, container gardening also works. As for control, that’s a post, or two, or three, of its own.
Deer. Deer are cute and we try to work with them. Our property has only pipe fencing, which the deer and elk can jump over or wind their way through easily. Many of our ornamental plants are unattractive to deer, and we fence those that they enjoy munching on, at least until the plants are large enough to survive the meal. We’ve learned the hard way on a few plants. For example, I didn’t know that deer enjoy the flavor of a spineless prickly pear cactus until we lost an entire pad! They were nice enough to just step on the other one. Deer do draw the line at spiny prickly pear in case you’re wondering.
Never Give-up Tips: It’s easy to search online for lists of plants that deer prefer or avoid, and fencing really is the only deterrent that works. I have used soap shavings (strong-smelling ones) hanging around my unfenced tomato plants with some success, but only in summer when they have a buffet of choices.
Insects. I don’t much care for bugs, and am learning all I can about the bad ones. We use integrated pest management, because the last thing we want to do is kill bees, wasps, ladybugs and other beneficial insects. Our fruit-set rates were incredible for this summer’s vegetables, and I thank our pollinators. But our plants and our feet are under constant attack. Ants have taken over our orchard and we caught some carrying off fall carrot seeds the other day. This is a problem we have to work on, but also accept as part of gardening. And we will continue to do what we can to attract pollinators.
Never Give-up Tips: Hand-pick known criminals such as tomato hornworms or cucumber beetles after you’ve identified them. And spray plants with water for offenders such as aphids. Spraying pesticides, even organic ones, can kill beneficial insects that help control the bad bugs. We plan to add row-cover cloth over more seedlings this year until the plants flower to help control grasshoppers and other bugs.
Weeds. It’s so hard to pick a favorite problem! Or least favorite, I should say. With four acres and a couple of garden areas, we seem to spend more time dealing with weeds than growing. I’m not of the mindset that weeds are good, because I think they harbor pests and critters if left to their own devices. Many also compete for water resources. We are relaxing our rules a bit, however, having decided which invasive plants we can take out of the weed column and which to leave there. And since we know we can’t remove them from every spot, we’re eliminating weeds where we can and turning our attention to prevention.
Never Give-up Tips: Use organic practices such as thick mulch and plastic or tarps in vegetable garden prep to block sun and water from weeds and thus prevent them. Hand-pull or hoe around plants to prevent weeds such as field bindweed from choking plants or stealing their water. Just because a thistle has a pretty flower doesn’t mean you should let it go to seed if it’s invasive in your region.