When you tour botanical gardens or private gardens, do you ever look up to see what’s above your head? Most of us plan our gardens while sitting on our back patio or strolling through its paths. Often, we choose plants simply because we see them at a nursery and love their flowers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one day soon, take a look at your landscape from the point of entry, such as the gate to your backyard, and walk around, considering the overall look from ground level to tree canopy.
You might be pleasantly surprised, and you can add interest and beauty to your garden by considering what goes on over your head. I recently toured several gardens in the Denver area and noted use of arbors and other design elements to add height and 360-degree interest to landscapes. Here are a few examples.
Decks and Patios
Al you need are a few containers and some “engineering” skills to garden vertically, so to speak. Here are some of my favorite examples.
Arbors and Pergolas
Some plants are just born to trail up, down or around. With a well-placed arbor, you can add height, shapes, color and materials to your garden. Most of all, you can display some beautiful climbing plants that double as shade-makers.
Mix up Plant Heights
Finally, don’t be afraid to add tall trees or other natural elements right in the middle of your garden. I always worry I have to place the tallest plants in the back. But breaking the “rules” can be fun and a hit.
It sounds too good to be true: an ornamental grass that loves heat and looks beautiful all year gently swaying in the wind. But threadgrass (Nasella tennuissima) fits the bill — and is waterwise. This pretty low-water plant also is called silky thread grass or Mexican feather grass.
Texture and movement can add to a garden’s design nearly as much as shape and color. Threadgrass has a delicate, windswept form that serves as an attractive backdrop to low-growing flowering plants like sedums or verbena. In summer, the grass is a nice green with feathery ends. In winter, the airy flower heads take on a golden, wheat-like appearance. Threadgrass is deer resistant, has no known diseases or pests, and is a native plant that grows in zones 5 through 10.
Plant threadgrass in spring, summer or fall. Because it likes heat, you might be able to fill in a summer bare spot with threadgrass after weather is too hot for most garden plants. If you want a swaying meadow effect, you’ll need to plant a few, and then wait for them to reseed. If you want immediate effect, plant several. Just keep in mind the plant grows to about 12 inches wide.
Your threadgrass plants should reach about 18 to 24 inches high when fully grown, sometimes higher when blooming. Plant it in full sun and in most any kind of soil. When you first plant or transplant your threadgrass, give it a little extra water, especially in high heat.
Caring for Threadgrass
Once threadgrass is established, it should need nothing but rain water to grow and set seed. The plant is a short-lived perennial and should come back several years in a row, assuming typical low temperatures for the lower zones. It also reseeds (see below), creating new plants nearby. You can leave these to eventually replace the established ones, or dig them up and transplant them to another spot in your garden. They are easy to recognize.
Each spring, as you begin pruning other plants in your garden, gently comb the grass blades with a fine rake and trim them for shape.
Caution for Some Gardeners
The fact that threadgrass replaces itself by sprouting tiny plants from seed is a bonus to me. We get just enough seedlings to move around our garden, without them being a problem. But in some areas, threadgrass can be invasive, reseeding in places where it interferes with other plants. In fact, the plant is prohibited in California because it is so invasive there and can crowd out grasses native to coastal areas. It also can crowd out pasture grasses. We have had no problems with that, however, and have only seen the plants pop up near mature ones.
One of the best features of many xeric gardens is the natural look of the landscapes. We often use rocks and boulders and tuck native plants among them. This design most closely mimics the look of the landscape around us.
If you’ve moved to New Mexico and other Southwestern states from areas of the East and Southeast, you might be more used to a cottage garden look, where shrubs like boxwoods form hedges and foundation plantings repeat the same flower.
On a recent trip to Austin, I noticed a perfect blend of both features. Many of the gardens I toured with fellow garden bloggers struck me with how well they used repetition in their designs. But these Texas gardens also had a natural look. Here’s a photo essay from Austin, along with a few New Mexico shots.
So, Why Repeat Plants or Containers?
I realized we tend to favor single plantings in our gardens, typically choosing a plant based on how it will look in a location or complement a nearby plant. And when you love plants, it’s tough to resist adding any you like to any garden you own. But after seeing the use of repetition, I decided we need to add more repetitive elements. Here are a few reasons why:
Continuity. A garden is a sort of composition, and repeating an element gives it a sense of balance without making it look too symmetrical or monotonous.
Easier maintenance. We all have a plant we’ve tried that survived despite strange weather or a little neglect. Others require little to no pruning or deadheading. Why not scatter a few more of these easy-care plants around your home?
Color. Although many xeric plants are colorful, some really stand out in the garden. Using the same purple in a row of plants or throughout a garden gives a color focal point.
Saving money. Sure, you still have to buy the plants, but it is less expensive to buy four of the same perennial once than to fill in an empty space in the garden each year.
Finally, I would say that repeating plants is a fine example of xeriscaping principles. When you plant 5 native grasses in a grouping, they all have the same water and sun exposure needs. You don’t have to come in and add water for a plant that needs more than the grasses or take the chance of overwatering and killing a nearby plant. And when you use repetitious art or hardscape elements, you add to the design without adding plants — and that requires no water at all!
There really is no true blue in garden leaves or flowers, but many blooms come close. Iris, blue cornflower and blue flax come to mind. And there are plenty of violet flowers that have a similar “cool” effect and contrast so nicely with oranges and yellows.
But you don’t need blue flowers to add touches of calm blue to your garden design. I saw this firsthand on my recent tours of Austin gardens with the Garden Bloggers Fling. Here are some of my favorites:
Plus, garden art requires no watering or maintenance. Paint is especially inexpensive. It just couldn’t be simpler to add pops of color to your patio, deck or garden.
Special thanks to the wonderful garden bloggers and gardeners of Austin for your hospitality. What a great time!
As winter drags on, birds need lots of energy and shelter from the elements and predators. The best bird habitats mix shelter, water, natural seeds and nest-building material as spring approaches. Native plants offer many of these benefits, and the more varied a landscape, the more bird-friendly it is. For example, birds in our garden “stage” their visits to feeders or the ground by moving between the thorniest rose bushes and higher trees.
Here are five plants or plant types that make birds safer and happier when temperatures drop without adding a lot to your work, or to summer watering requirements.
Replacing at least some of your turf with native grasses and other native plants helps birds and uses less water. We purposefully leave our native grasses (mostly buffalo and blue grama) long as it dies back in fall to increase shots at reseeding and filling in bare spots. The seeds also provide food for ground-hopping birds, additional food caches for jays to hide the raw peanuts we put out, and dried grass stalks for nests before the grass greens in summer.
Switchgrass, big bluestem and muhly grasses all provide seeds and nesting materials for birds. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”) attracts birds and is a beautiful winter plant, with tall seed stalks that blow in the breeze. There are hundreds of species of the grass, and it grows in zones 5 through 9. Its water requirements are a little higher than some native grasses, but if you plant Karl Foerster grass in a rain garden or low spot, it will get more water naturally and won’t be hurt by the damp soil.
Barberry (Berberus) is a hardy shrub with small thorns along its branches. Depending on the variety you choose, you’ll enjoy deep red or pinkish foliage. The shrubs grow in zones 3 through 8 and retain their leaves in winter in most conditions. Fragrant yellow flowers emerge in spring, and the prickly branches provide good cover for small birds. You can plant several barberries a few feet closer together than recommended to create an attractive, bird-friendly hedge.
Boxwood (Buxus) normally isn’t considered a low-water plant, and I’ve seen countless examples of boxwood to form formal hedges and designs in other areas of the country. It is an easy plant to shape, and makes such a good hedge because its evergreen foliage is so dense. That’s also why birds love boxwood. Although boxwood might look a little formal for a native rock garden, we use ours as a foundation plant near our front door, where we want a more landscaped effect. Since it’s also on the north side of the house, I’m sure birds hide under the bush for cover. The boxwood’s protected, mostly shady location and slow growth habit help the shrub stay healthy with less water than it might need in a sunny spot.
Pyracantha shrubs produce berries in late fall to feed birds as temperatures drop. Also a thorny bush (sometimes called Firethorn), pyracanthas provide safe shelter for birds. What I love about the shrub is the diverse ways you can use it in a Southwest landscape. Leave it to grow naturally (maybe with some shoot trimming after rainy summers) or shape it like a hedge. We had several growing along a distant fence and Tim moved one to the front of the house. The pyracantha transplanted without a blink and just a few scratches. We leave the remaining two out in the yard in their natural state and shape the one in front of the house. I get to see the berries from my kitchen window and saw a Stellar jay eating them this past fall.
Many native shrubs attract birds in winter. Berries, seeds and bushy cover all support wildlife. Ask your local nursery or master gardeners for the best low-water plants in your Southwest zone.
In the arid Southwest, most plants don’t like an abundance of rainfall. Xeric plants such as lavender or rosemary can be damaged or die from too much moisture in the crown or roots. Sometimes, the location a homeowner places a plant affects watering and alters the plant’s ability to thrive as as it should for the zone in which the gardener lives.
Other times, conditions change. That’s what happened in an area near the foundation of our home when we expanded our back patio. We found that excess water from the patio and rain barrel near the edge redirected water during rains. During monsoon season, a blue mist spirea (Cayopteris) and cotoneaster began to show signs of overwatering.
We needed to divert some water away from the two bushes and recognized the importance of either collecting or directing rainfall. We couldn’t afford a large rain cistern, but we had one natural resource in abundance—rocks. So we built a dry river bed, also called a dry creek bed or dry stream. The project was a way to change up the landscape and divert extra water down to our lawn.
Step 1: Move plants
The first step in our project was to move the plants. We divided the spirea and kept the largest portion to replant; we transplanted two smaller sections on a ditch bank back in our orchard. We ended up removing the cotoneaster, which was beginning to overgrow a path we us regularly and had large areas of rusted, dying foliage.
Step 2: Design hills and valleys; test
We next built up a small hill or berm as a new spot for the blue mist spirea and a new cotoneaster bush. This would allow us to control the plants’ watering better. We dug and scraped a river-like trough to help water drain down and toward the grass. It didn’t take much depth to get water from the patio to the grassy area below. Getting the depth and flow right took some trial and error with a garden hose to simulate the rain and made a few adjustments where water backed up.
Step 3: Add rocks
We already had a pile or two of rocks we’ve dug up. And there is no shortage around here. The first step was to cut and lay down black weed barrier, followed by large rocks along the top and side of the dry river to hold the fabric, direct water and add a decorative, but natural effect. This was followed by addition of medium and smaller rocks. We gathered the small rocks throughout fall and winter, sometimes a few at a time, to fill in.
Step 4: Plant!
All our hard work was rewarded with a new area for planting. We had the two bushes, and moved a small pine leaf penstemon to a lower part of the berm. We purchased several grasses, some perennials and a few annuals to fill in. Then we got lucky and had a volunteer blanket flower crop up in just the right spot. We stopped the rock design a foot or more from the house in most spots and used pecan mulch around those plants. Here’s why: Rocks reflect sun and heat and my office window is right above the dry river bed area.
Pulling out the large cotoneaster and adding rocks has intensified the heat in my office. I know that will ease once the plants grow to maturity. And the heat might be welcome on a cloudy January day. We also lost the first cotoneaster planted. It could have been any of a number of causes, but we likely made a common mistake: not watering enough. I was so concerned with keeping this plant from getting too much water that I failed to account for how much would drain away from its roots and the immaturity of the plant. Our second attempt is going well. It’s also easy to change the flow of water just by placing a rock or two in a certain way. So we check the flow when it rains to look for pooling of water.
Overall, we were pleased with the look and function of the dry river bed. The native grass below it turned green earlier than normal and we stopped problems from mud and overwatering of bushes in the area. This is an easy and inexpensive garden DIY project!
When approaching a new landscaping or planting project, it helps to gather ideas, whether you do so virtually or hopefully in person. A top benefit of being a member of the Association for Garden Communicators (GWA) is access to botanical, demonstration and private gardens.
If you travel, you can gather plenty of ideas from around the country. Even when I’ve visited the Northwest or Southeast, I’ve always found plant and design ideas or just enjoyed the gardens! If you want practical ideas you can apply in your own backyard, nothing beats a local botanical or extension demonstration garden.
Benefits of Demonstration and Botanical Gardens
Many botanical and demonstration gardens are designed primarily to educate. Extension master gardeners typically have demonstration gardens featuring native and zone-appropriate plants for their area. The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, has a xeriscape garden to demonstrate how local residents can save outdoor water use but have attractive lawns. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, Botanic Garden includes a demonstration farm that re-creates a 1930s farmstead to show how people can grow or raise their own food. And I love the Pollination Gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.
The Tucson pollination garden teaches visitors about planting for pollinators, including Monarch butterflies. Most demonstration gardens help visitors learn about plants and especially how to grow them locally. But if you really pay attention, you also can learn a lot about design, containers and especially which plants or collections get you excited about gardening. Most gardens also offer classes or guided tours to add to the learning experience.
Finally, taking children to demonstration gardens can spark the gardening bug, especially for growing food. In fact, a study of demonstration gardens started by North Carolina county extension staff showed that between 2006 and 2010, the number of gardens made up of edible plants outpaced those with ornamental plants only or a mix of edible and ornamental plants to teach families about growing food.
Many demonstration gardens are run by extension offices of universities and the state extension’s master gardeners. Often, universities, cities and counties have gardens that serve dual purposes of beautifying office or park landscapes and teaching residents about gardening or local issues such as conserving water, saving pollinators, container gardening, producing food or gardening more sustainably. Hospitals can have meditation gardens on their grounds or demonstration kitchen gardens to help patients and families learn about growing healthy vegetables.
Others might be organized by private entities, and if touring an entire botanical garden seems overwhelming to the beginning gardener, or the gardener’s toddler, botanical gardens offer demonstration gardens within their exhibits. Visitors can make their way to the gardens on the map that interest them most. Remember, many demonstration and botanical gardens rely heavily on volunteers and fundraising to maintain their plantings.
Virtual Demonstration Gardens
Major botanical gardens might offer virtual tours, a nice tool if you can’t visit them in person and are researching local native or adapted plants for your own garden. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you also can follow favorite demonstration or botanical gardens and see photos or live videos. Or you can join an online community such as Plants Map to connect with other gardeners, organizations or resources that interest you. Organizations such as botanical gardens also set up collections on Plants Map.
Gardeners often choose plants more for their flower color or ease of care, and that’s a great way to enjoy a garden. If you want to add interest to a xeric bed or lawn, it also helps to consider plants’ shapes and textures. Shape, or form, refers to the circles, lines and squares of plants or how you arrange plants. Texture relates to how coarse or fine a plant looks and even feels.
For example, there’s a reason why many professional container arrangements usually include a grass or similar plant with tall, thin blades. The grass rises from at or near the center of the pot, adding height. The long, slender blades of ornamental grasses also vary the shape and texture of the arrangement if it’s filled with low-growing, round flowers. You can do the same in your xeric garden.
Although it can be tough for some gardeners to adapt to the Southwest after owning lawns with formal cottage gardens, they eventually learn to love the look and easy maintenance of more native, “unsculpted” plants.
Although some landscapes look great with rows of the same plant, most xeric gardens have a more natural feel. The designer or home gardener can use a variety of low-water plants to vary shapes. For example, if you want to plant cacti and succulents in your container or garden, you aren’t likely to choose all prickly pear cacti (Opuntia). Their round pads and medium-height spread complement a spikier ocotillo (Fouquieriaceae) or a spiraling sedum groundcover.
The shapes in xeric plants typically are less defined. Still, plants have a basic shape, such as how lavender stalks form a rounded V.
Those who desire a more balanced or symmetrical look can repeat a plant. Some of the most effective landscapes I’ve seen have a row or grouping of xeric ornamental grasses. Individually, the grasses have a wispy, wild look. But when placed in a grouping, they sway in the wind together and create a clean line. Too much variety can cause a xeric garden to look more like a botanical garden full of eye-catching plants with no flow if not designed by professionals.
Foliage and texture
Many xeric plants produce remarkable flowers, and some bloom throughout the growing season. But one way xeric plants survive is with relatively smaller foliage. Less leaf area means less transpiration (water evaporating from leaves) and improved survival chances in arid climates. Still, a waterwise garden can include foliage variety in texture, size, shape and color.
Some xeric plants, such as pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) have tiny, needle-like leaves. These contrast nicely with nearby plants that have rounder, lusher foliage, adding varied shapes and textures to the garden.
You also can add texture with hardscape materials or yard art. Hardscaping materials include just about anything that isn’t a live plant. So, for example, you can add interest around a rock or boulder with a plant that has small, twisting or draping branches. A post fence has lines that run up and down, and I believe that a mix of small, round or trailing plants look better against it than a line of tall or upright plants. Hardscape items also add texture, such as rough rockiness or smooth backdrops.
Rhythm is an important landscape design that can be achieved with cautious repetition of shapes, curves and layers. Some of the best designs have layers. For example, you can plant a groundcover (a low-growing or trailing plant that typically spreads) in front of a shrub that has long, thin branches and few flowers.
When layering plants, or in any planting, it’s important to consider a plant’s mature size. If not, your nice round shrub might catch up to or even block the tall one behind it. It also helps to know a little about pruning. You don’t have to shape plants into animal characters, but it helps to know how to trim the plant for its health and growth (even control of growth). Otherwise, plants can later upset balance and rhythm in the garden.
Hardscaping is use of anything other than plants, really, in the garden. So it includes rocks, fences, walls, walls made of rocks, pavers, stepping stones, lighting, gravel (made from rocks) and found or repurposed objects. Did I mention rocks?
Here’s the problem: When people think of xeriscaping or converting high-water lawns and landscapes to more waterwise plans, they often turn to landscape gravel, rock borders and concrete to fill their landscape. Done! But the best xeric landscapes mix functional and attractive hardscaping with plants for full effect.
Pros of Hardscaping
I find that after touring a public or private garden, my photos often include fences, garden art and other hardscaping features. I guess I’m drawn to them. Any plant can shine when placed before a solid wall or large boulder, but those with tiny flowers and foliage really pop with a backdrop. And you don’t have to use large, expensive artwork or structures. Sometimes, all you need is a well-placed rock or container.
Aside from aesthetics, hardscaping features provide function in the landscape. Pathways lead the gardener, visitor and the eye in the best direction, or help a homeowner get from one point to another more easily. Fences and walls improve privacy and arbors and pergolas add to shade in sunny garden spots.
Finally, homeowners often put in hardscaping to minimize watering and plant care. Most nonplant items in the garden require little to no care and last for years.
Cons of Hardscaping
Replacing lawn and plant materials with hardscaping can lower maintenance, but can create too much heat in the lawn and garden. A concrete patio or gravel-covered yard is way hotter than turf and plants. That being said, a mix of both helps lower water use and costs. If done right, homeowners can enjoy their gardens and save water.
Only plant materials provide important food and pollen for animals and insects; bushes and trees also provide better shelter than the eaves of your home. Adding birdhouses and beehouses near plants can help nature’s garden visitors. Too much concrete and gravel also makes a garden seem unfriendly to people. You probably want privacy and a place to sit or walk, but don’t you also want flowering or edible plants nearby? If a big patio is necessary for entertaining, add container plants on the ground, walls or even the furniture.
Finally, be sure to consider existing trees and other plants you plan to keep when converting lawns to gravel. Trees need deep watering, and the roots stretch out at least to the tree’s canopy, which is how far out branches and leaves extend. So providing a pretty little circle of mulch around the trunk likely isn’t enough.
Some of my favorite xeric landscapes combine a few featured plants such as a shade tree or colorful bush with low-growing annuals or groundcovers that cascade over steps or rocks. Combining hardscape and plant features is a smart xeriscaping strategy and a way to enjoy your lawn for years to come.
New to gardening? Or just not a horticulturist, botanist or even a master gardener? Then you likely get confused by some of the terms you see on plant tags, in nursery catalogs and even in blogs like this one. You’ll enjoy gardening much more if you can weed through the jargon (and the puns). Here are 10 terms explained in plain language to get you started:
10. Xeriscaping. This one’s my favorite, of course. And as I’ve said before, it’s xeriscaping, from xeros, the Greek word for dry … not ZEROscaping. In other words, it’s planning a lawn and garden that uses the least possible water. In most cases, this means using drought-tolerant plants (see no. 1), but xeriscaping also involves using native plants adapted to your climate and conditions, along with lots of other strategies for landscape design and plant choice.
9. Perennial. The word means long lasting, and that’s pretty much true of perennial plants as well. A perennial grows in your yard for more than two years, often for much longer before it needs replacing. Remember that perennial varies based on where you live. For example, the well-known geranium can be a perennial in a warm climate, but I have to bring mine inside for winter. And don’t freak out if a perennial plant disappears or looks dead after frost. You’ll likely see new growth on it come spring. Planting mostly perennials in your garden usually leads to less work and less watering.
8. Biennial. A biennial plant lives for two years, or two growing seasons. Seeds start the plant’s root, stem and leaf growth in the first year, but the plant doesn’t produce flowers, fruit or seeds until the second year. After that, the plant typically dies, but can spread seeds before dying back. An example of a biennial is the foxglove (Digitalis). Another is one of my favorites, the columbine (Aquilegia), which might flower the first year, or might put all of its energy into leaf and stem growth, and then flower the following year. Some forms of poppy (Papaver) also are biennials. And unfortunately, some weeds also are biennials. They take on a tiny round leaf form, survive the winter that way and then flower and spread seeds, lots of seeds, the next year.
7. Annual. An annual lives only one year, or for one growing season. Still, some annuals re-seed, so if you’re willing to let Mother Nature design your garden layout, you can let annual flowers dry up and produce seeds. Annuals are great for small containers and adding color to a garden or patio each year. But they usually require more time, money and even water in the long run than perennial plants.
6. Native. A native plant was likely in your town before you moved in. These plants grow naturally in specific regions or conditions. They should not become invasive if they’re planted in their native region. The real benefit of native plants (aside from their beauty in the garden, forest or along roads) is that they’ve done most of the work already. They know how to survive weeks with no water or really high spring winds. Selecting native plants is one of the most effective xeriscaping strategies.
5. Specimen plant. Lots of catalogs refer to a bush or flower as a “specimen plant.” This has nothing to do with strange botany experiments. All it means is that the plant can stand on its own as a focal point in a garden or landscape design. For example, petunias or begonias look much better in mass plantings, which means groups of the same or similar flowers for a dramatic look. Mass plantings might become hedges or adorn the entry to your local mall. Landscapers might plant a row of 100 marigolds and a row of 200 petunias for striking color. On the other hand, a specimen plant shines all by itself.
4. Invasive. Typically, an invasive plant is a nuisance at the least. It can choke out other plants and grasses, climb around and choke bushes or simply compete for precious water. Invasive plants grow easily and rapidly, usually because they are not native to the area. Just remember that these terms are all relative. A plant native to a particular part of the country might be considered invasive after being introduced to a different region. When a plant becomes invasive, it probably crosses that very thin line between wildflower and weed. One of the most troubling weeds we encounter is field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis), which is considered invasive in all of the lower 48 states, Hawaii and Canada. Maybe on the moon…
3. Deciduous. If a tree or shed is deciduous, that simply means it loses its leaves in fall and winter. The opposite would be evergreen, trees that keep their leaves all winter. Deciduous plants shed their leaves as a protection against upcoming cold. Many turn rich, deep shades of gold and bronze before falling, which gives the yard and garden color as summer flowers fade.
2. Pollinator. You might see list articles on blogs and social media mentioning “pollinator plants.” This means that the plant attracts bees and other insects that help promote flower and fruit production. The insects disturb and transfer tiny grains of pollen in flowers. Without bees, most fruit trees and many vegetables would produce little to no fruit. Many native plants, herbs and vegetables attract bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects to the garden. They’re essential plants to help maintain honey bee populations, which have been declining. Here’s a list of New Mexico pollinator plants. Many gardening books and catalogs place a tiny icon of a butterfly or bee in descriptions to let you know they attract pollinators.
And No. 1: Drought tolerant. Back to an important xeriscaping principle. Plants that are drought tolerant can go longer periods of time without water; it means basically the same as xeric, but is a little more direct. Plants with drought tolerance and resistance have characteristics that help them survive in these conditions. And all it usually takes is a little bit of rain to make them thrive, green and flower. Just remember – if you purchase drought tolerant plants, be sure to water them regularly for the first few weeks or months and up to the first year, depending on the plant and its size. The water keeps the plant alive through the shock of transplant and helps the roots get established.