Water-Wise Gardening Tips

It’s dry out there. We had pretty good moisture over the winter months, but the early spring has been unseasonably warm (OK!) and dry. We’ve come to expect that in New Mexico, and a few days ago, I wrote about the wildfire danger. Today, let’s review a few tips for water-wise spring landscaping that help homeowners here and just about anywhere in the country where drought can be an issue.

  • Set out your rainwater harvesting system. If you live in a climate zone that’s warm enough to leave rain barrels out all winter or have underground cisterns, your system has been efficiently gathering water all winter. In other climates, rain barrels can freeze in winter. Ours are on the south side of the house and should be past danger of long and hard freeze. Now, all we need is rain.
rain barrel in New Mexico
A simple rain harvesting system that came as a kit. All we had to do was shorten our downspout.
  • Update your irrigation system to a low-volume method. The most practical and water-efficient way to hydrate ornamentals is with drip irrigation. When you use spray heads, water evaporates into the air. It also hits leaves and nearby plants. The spray can cause leaf disease in some plants, plus it’s more efficient to soak roots deeply than to water the entire plant.
  • As you plan your irrigation, or check out your current system this spring, make sure to adjust the water amount for the plants or areas where you have bubblers. For example, succulents and many xeric plants need no water at all once established, unless you’re in an extreme drought. You can cap those bubblers off. Too much water can actually harm some xeric plants. Use drips at the base of low- and medium-water flowers and groundcovers. Increase the flow rate for larger shrubs and trees, and add a few extra emitters around trees, especially while they’re becoming established. Remember that tree roots grow out, just like the canopy.
drip system for xeric gardening
A drip system irrigates rosemary, yucca and other plants in this xeric garden.
  • Water in the morning to get your plants through the heat of the day, and when less evaporation occurs.
  • Use raised beds. Raised beds and containers concentrate water, so if you want a few herbs or vegetables or some medium- to high-water ornamentals, confine them to an area that takes a little more water than the others. If you place the raised bed near your drip system, you can add it to the mix and adjust the flow on your emitter if necessary. Just remember, some containers, such as clay pots, dry out more quickly, even though they use less water each time. It’s like having a smaller tank on a fuel-efficient car. It’s not necessarily using more gas, just needing more frequent refilling.
  • When adding plants to your garden, build a small well around them to hold water. This helps the plant soak up the irrigation and keeps water from running down and off the plant, wasting your precious resource.
well at base of tree
This well helps hold water until this small tree is established, especially since it’s on a slope.
  • Use mulch when possible to help retain water and keep roots cool during the heat of the summer.

Finally, automatic irrigation is most efficient, and the consistent, timed watering is best for plants and lawns. But override it whenever you can after a good rain. I used to bemoan the waste when my neighbor’s sprinklers would come on as scheduled while their lawn already glistened with rainwater.

deer in xeric garden
Most of the plants in our xeric rock garden receive no irrigation, just supplemental watering to establish new plants or an occasional drink during drought.

How To Read Plant Label Codes for Watering Needs

Plant tags, labels and catalogs are much more attractive if they use icons instead of text instructions. Much like infographics, it’s a newer direction in communication. I see the good side of it, especially for people who have low literacy or shop with small children and don’t have time to turn the tag around for more information. I could say the drawback is that the more we put in symbols, the less we need writers, but that’s not a rant for this blog post.

As far as I know, water symbols are not standardized. If I’m wrong, I would love to be corrected. I think a standard nomenclature and symbol system for plant watering would be a great service to gardeners.

plant-catalogs-labels
Catalogs, seed packets and plant labels use a variety of methods to give us clues about a plant’s water needs.

Most water requirements are represented by a water droplet symbol that’s empty, partially filled or completely filled. My summary of similar legends, like the one used by the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Water Authority, provides the following clues to irrigation:

Empty drop: A plant that requires only rainwater or no supplemental watering once established. So be sure to give a new or transplanted tree or bush extra water until it appears healthy. This can be up to a year for trees and some bushes. After that, there’s no need to irrigate the low-water plant at all. Half-filled drop: This is a medium-water plant. It will always need some supplemental water, depending on what Mother Nature delivers. Most medium-water plants need supplemental water once or twice a month during the hottest days of summer.

seed-packet-water-drop
This seed packet shows the moderate water needs of a sunflower.

Full drop: I am not familiar with these plants. Seriously, they usually aren’t going to make it in places that deliver little rainfall, and if they do, it’s not water-wise gardening. But they often can survive in the right climates and conditions, maybe in a welled spot or container, or where there’s run-off from a streambed. Of course, if you live in a tropical area, that’s just not fair. There are additional variations on these labels, like partially filled drops. I’ve also seen use of watering pails as symbols. Most add text alongside the icons, but if in doubt, ask for help from the nursery staff or a local master gardener.

portulaca-bloom
And because I have to include a pretty flower picture, here’s a portulaca bloom. I love these low-water heat lovers.

No matter what the label shows, circumstances can affect water needs, so don’t take your water icon at face value! Aside from plant establishment, wind and unexpected heat waves can dry plants out. Summer monsoons can nearly drown our drought-resistant plants! And welling and mulching around plants helps them retain water, maybe helping you push a half-filled drop to a quarter-filled one…

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.

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.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Russian Sage

The woody Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) “Blue Spire” is a perfect xeric plant, especially for the gardener who wants a easy but showy low-water ornamental. This is one of my favorites! First of all, even though the Russian sage has a pleasant, sage-like scent, deer leave the plant alone. Its spikes of lavender-like flowers bloom all summer with little to no water once your plant has been established. Here’s all you need to do:

Plant Russian sage in a spot where it can grow to three to five feet tall and wide, and give it well-draining soil and full sun. It looks great near yellows like Spanish broom or black-eyed Susans, or a red, such as wine cups or cherry sage. It’s also a great plant to pair with grasses and cacti in rock gardens for a pop of color.

russian-sages-in-rock-garden
Note the pop of color from two Russian sages in the center of this photo. The one in the background was propagated from the large one.

Leave the stalks through winter, which still have an attractive shrub shape. In spring, just as you see some leaves begin to form on the lower branches, cut all of the branches back nearly to the ground. You’ll be rewarded with new, showy stalks. Bees love this plant, as do butterflies, hummingbirds, and many bird species as it seeds out.

As the Russian sage matures, you can trim it for shape and may have to cut out a few dead or crossing branches. But it looks best when full and round.

 

russian-sage-in-landscape
Close-up of mature Russian sage stalks and flowers. This one drew attention of bees, birds and passers by.

The Russian sage can put out runners (rhizomes), so keep an eye on them. I had a Russian sage at my Albuquerque home that bloomed every year for 11 years, and was there when we moved in. So it’s a long-lived perennial in the right spot, and should thrive in all zones, as long as it doesn’t get too much water!

How Do Gardeners Conserve Water?

I’m a member of the Garden Writers Association, and one of the benefits to membership is access to research conducted by GWA’s foundation on consumer gardening trends. The Fall 2013 report explored how gardeners conserve water and provided three years of historical data for comparison. I have to say that the results gave me pause.

About 68 percent of consumers surveyed said they have a lawn or garden in 2013 and of those surveyed, here are the top ways they conserved water this summer:

  • Used more mulch (28 percent).
  • Used more drought-tolerant plants (17 percent).
  • Watered with drip irrigation (15 percent).
  • Used a rain barrel (12 percent).
  • Didn’t water at all (30 percent).

OK, not bad overall, but my concern is that on every water-conservation measure, the percentage was down — from two to five percentage points — from the 2010 survey. Is it a matter of awareness that peaked, then waned? Or is it simply an anomaly, something to attribute to the size or randomness of the sample surveyed? Probably not the latter, because GWA says that the sample balances the population geographically. In that case, we’ve got work to do to raise gardeners’ awareness of water conservation. That’s certainly a goal of this blog.

rain barrel
This rain barrel soon will connect to another barrel and we’ll add a third barrel on the southwest side of the house. One barrel can fill with a good summer rain.

Here are a few more findings to ponder, though. An additional 28 percent of respondents said “Didn’t think about it,” and 8 percent responded “not sure,” or refused to answer the question. So that means more than one-third of gardeners are doing nothing at all to conserve water in their lawns or gardens. It could be that many of those people, like a portion of the 30 percent who didn’t water, live in lush, rain-heavy areas that require no supplemental water. It made me think of how envious I would get when visiting the northeast or Hawaii. I get it; nature takes care of most of the watering there. Then again, the last time I went to Maui, restaurants only served water upon request because the island was experiencing a drought. That’s right. I know a tropical drought is not the same as a desert drought, but it’s all relative, and an island (even though surrounded by water) has finite resources.

plant in fence post
Plants grow just about anywhere in Maui, even during a drought.

We’ll discuss more ideas of how to conserve water, including rain catchment and whether it’s a good idea not to water at all, in future posts. For now, I just really want to raise awareness. I’m not perfect in my conservation efforts either, but I’m learning more as I write these posts. And there’s a certain degree of natural conservation that comes with the territory when you live in the desert Southwest.