Favorite Low-water Plant: Smoke Tree

Fall’s cold and wind have obliterated most of our foliage, or at least relocated it from limbs to patio and ground. But one small tree hangs in there with a full canopy of greenish-burgundy leaves. The smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) is one of my favorite trees for fall and year-round color.

cotinus coggygria smoke tree in fall
The redbud and most other trees are suddenly bare, but the smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) is full and colorful!

In fact, our tree held on to many of its crispy gold leaves all winter last year. Then in spring, new green foliage emerged. But the tree’s seasonal colors, which changed from greenish blue to deep burgundy or purple, to gold, are only part of its charm and drama. It also sends out puffy seedheads that resemble — and smell like — smoke. The pinkish seedhead clouds, which give the tree its name, usually appear in mid-summer here, but the timing varies depending on conditions. Regardless, they remain attractive for weeks.

smoke tree with winter foliage
Last March, our tree still had crispy gold leaves on it, and these deer hadn’t bothered to munch on them.

Caring for smoke trees

So I love how smoke trees look, but here’s what really seals the deal for the New Mexico xeric gardener: The Sunset Western Garden Book says the tree is “at its best under stress in poor or rocky soil.” OK, I have lots of that. And it can tolerate some drought. When temperatures hover above 90 degrees F, a deep water every couple of weeks helps get it through the hottest part of summer.

The other attractive feature of smoke trees for xeric gardens is their versatility. While the trees are starting, gardeners can shape them into small bushes or short trees, depending on the location or preferred look. C. coggygria typically has multiple small trunks. Ours was trained to a small tree shape, which still works well in a large rock garden because it only grows to about 15 feet high at a rate of about a foot a year. You can train it for light shade, or as a low, bushy foundation plant and home for birds.

Here's our tree right now, full and colorful even though the seedheads are mostly faded.
Here’s our tree right now, full and colorful even though the seedheads are mostly faded.

Until established, smoke trees might need a little more water and application of some slow-release fertilizer in the spring. But since it prefers poor soil, the tree needs no more than that once it’s on its way. And if you’re shaping the tree, Judith Phillips recommends that you cut back or stop fertilizing once you begin those pruning cuts. You can add some mulch to save water and cool the roots, but since the tree loves rotten soil, there’s no need to add organic matter. And if you add mulch, be sure to keep it away from the trunk. The tree can thrive in full sun or partial shade. Suckers will begin to show up around the base of the trunks; you can just pinch or cut them off to send energy back up into the main trunks.

large smoke tree with seedheads
Here’s a smoke tree in full bloom amid iris in late spring at the Hondo Iris Farm. It’s in wetter and slightly warmer conditions than in our zone 6B rock garden.

Smoke trees are subject to verticulum wilt and leaf roller mines in early summer. We also had to remove about 40 io moth caterpillars from ours this year because they were stripping entire branches. But those stinging nasties were making their way around all the small trees near the house.

More about smoke trees

The C. coggygria varieties do fine in USDA zones 5 through 8. The purple varieties look great on their own or as a bush planted near a silvery conifer or perhaps with an artemesia or gray santolina planted in front of them.

smoke tree leaves and blooms
Smoke tree leaves and seedhead behind them. The color changes throughout the year and even depending on the light during the day.

The C. coggygria is sometimes referred to as the European smoke tree. Another species of smoke tree called C. obovatus is called the American smoke tree. It is slightly larger and has bigger leaves, but has similarly striking seedheads. The Dalea spinosa (Psorothamnus spinosus) also is called a smoke tree. It is a grayer tree native to Southwestern low deserts.

Six Strategies for Transforming High-water Turf Into a Waterwise Landscape

Xeriscaping has become more of a mandate in many Southwestern communities, and it’s too bad that it’s come to that. But with long-term drought and overpopulation in concentrated urban areas, it’s no wonder that water resources are scarce.

As I’ve said for a few years on this blog, drought is nothing new to New Mexicans, and many leaders of low-water gardening and planting hail from Colorado and New Mexico. That doesn’t mean everybody gets it, but there are plenty of examples of gorgeous front and back yard landscapes that use little to no irrigation but have curb appeal and bring joy to home gardeners and guests.

xeriscaping instead of all gravel
How many xeriscaping strategies can you spot in this photo? Hint: It has color, texture, native annuals, pollinators, terracing, vegetables by the house and rainwater collection. It sure doesn’t seem boring or ugly.

One of my biggest concerns about water restrictions imposed on residents of Western states is that homeowners and business owners will react to the extreme, going from a complete high-water turf lawn to all-gravel landscapes. I’ve ranted here and plenty of other places on this blog about what this move does to existing trees, home energy use and how it’s just plain ugly.

Here’s a summary of six strategies for planning an attractive and effective waterwise landscape that includes some living plants and joy without blowing your budget or your mind.

1. Start with xeric zones. The concept of simple xeriscaping zones around your home makes planning easier. The point is to place your gravel and most drought-tolerant plants the furthest from your home. Putting a few plants that need a little more water, or having some turf for the dogs, kids or green that you love is OK, as long as you keep it in moderation and close to the house. This helps keep your house cooler, gives you and your family a nice place to gather and can even help keep shade trees alive. Those are waterwise and energy-saving strategies and can help form the basis for your plan.

small patch of grass in Albuquerque lawn
Friends of ours have a small patch of grass for them and their dog in the back yard. It helps keep their house and yard cooler.

2. Keep the right type and amount of turf. Unless you have reasons beyond water savings, you don’t have to eliminate turf altogether. Just switch out the type and size of your grass area. Take the grass out of your arid zone, and replace grass in small portions of the transition or mini-oasis zones (areas closer to the house) with a native, drought-tolerant variety. Your local nursery should have native or hybrid grasses in seed, sod or plugs that grow in your area with little to no watering once established.

grass on southern California street
This is partly why southern California is in crisis — street after street of total turf lawns, even in the median. There’s no need for this much grass, especially high-water grasses and turf out by the asphalt.

3. Take a tip from permaculture. Approach your new landscape holistically, creating a design that’s self-sustaining. For example, divert rainwater from your roof to water a shade tree or create a small rain garden or bioswale in an area that always pools with mud or water after a hard rain. Use leaves from the shade tree for compost or simply rake them up to mulch a plant. Grow edibles as ornamentals in the sunny spot once taken up by grass. Include some xeric plants that attract pollinators to help ensure good fruit production on your new edibles. The photo at the top of this post shows a few of these principles, but we’re working on incorporating more.

4. Level land with burms, steps or terraces. One of the biggest wasters of sprinkler water, aside from evaporation, is runoff. If your landscape has any slope at all, finding a way to control that slope can save water immediately. For example, when we added to our patio, we messed with the water runoff and it affected nearby established plants. They’re not as healthy now because they got too much water. So we plan to try a combination of a bioswale and burm to relocate the low-water plants and divert some of the water. Burms are usually rounded shelves or bumps, with a more natural look. Steps can give you access to an area and great placement for xeric plants and ornamental grasses. Terracing shores up dirt and water and provides excellent opportunities for landscape palettes and sectioning off beds. Look for lots of ideas online and by driving around your neighborhood, and get help from a landscape designer and contractor if the job is too much for you.

Albuquerque architecture and landscaping
A nice example of typical architecture and landscaping in Albuquerque. The gravel is outside the patio fence and the steps provide a focal point for the xeric plantings.

5. Use indoor design principles. If gardening overwhelms you, or you don’t know much about plants, it shouldn’t stop you from creating some curb appeal in a new low-water landscape. Many of the same principles apply to outdoor design as indoor – color, texture, height and shape. Terraces or burms can help, but even if you have a flat yard, you can start with an existing or new tree for height and take it from there. Just look at a plant’s tag or seek advice from a local master gardener, favorite local garden author, or favorite garden blogger. Look at the plant’s mature height, spread, flower color and a photo of the foliage.

use of succulents and colors in landscape
Here’s a great example of succulents in a California landscape, and especially how to mix colors and textures.

6. Feature native plants. The surest road to success with low-water landscaping is to feature plants native to your area or to areas with the same climate zones. For example, California gardeners are expanding their plant choices with low-water natives from other Mediterranean countries such as South Africa and Western Australia. Once a native plant is established, usually after a year, it should make it through your climate extremes with no extra work on your part. Native plants have adapted to the environment. And although some need pruning, deadheading and sometimes a little bit of drip irrigation, many need nothing but your attention, which you give them when you walk through or sit among the plants. We have a huge rock garden, and we never water most of the plants, or give them one drink after spring pruning if we’ve had no rain. Native annuals and wildflowers are particularly beneficial, and some homeowners reverse their xeric zones to create meadows and completely natural areas along the edges of their properties.

native plants Oliver lee state park
This is not a lawn, but the view along a path in a state park near Alamogordo, N.M., where water is scarce and temperatures warm. These native plants would look terrific placed in any nearby homeowner’s landscape.

Finally, the best strategy is to take it slowly, steadily and with moderation. I fear that too many people will react by letting their lawns die or by pulling them up and replacing them with landscape plastic and gravel. My hope is that I will continue to see colorful native landscapes throughout the West filled with edibles, blooms, evergreen foliage and low-water shade trees, and dotted with touches of native grasses where kids and pets can run around and birds can peck for seeds and earthworms. Is that too much to ask?

5 Water-wise Plants that Pop with Fall Color

Fall came quickly here as our extreme climate did a number on my vegetable garden and I am mourning the loss of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. So to pick up my mood, I’m enjoying the color that remains on many of our drought-tolerant ornamentals. Some of the native roses and wildflowers are hanging in there. Although I love fall, the time of transition is always tough for me, and it helps to have some green and lots of other color hold on longer as cool temperatures make their way into New Mexico.

woods rose in fall
On October 3, we’ve got wild cosmos and a stand of blue grama grass in the foreground. But the leaves of one wild rose are turning yellow, while the other one is loaded with red hips.

Aside from those hardy native wildflowers, here are five low-water plants that can prolong color power in xeric landscapes:

Beargrass. Beargrass is a woody succulent from Mexico that resembles an ornamental grass in the garden. Although plants in California and the Pacific Northwest also are called Beargrass, the ones that thrive in Mexico and New Mexico are of the Nolina family and typically are hardy down to zone 5. High Country Gardens has just introduced a new cold hardy species Nolina microcarpa, or Big Beargrass. Not only is the foliage evergreen, but as the creamy flowers fade in late summer, they turn an earthy pink. The plant attracts pollinators and reaches up to 2.5 feet in height.

Nolina beagrass
Beargrass, or Nolina, is a woody succulent that looks more like a graceful ornamental grass. Image courtesy of High Country Gardens.

Firestick Euphorbia  or “Sticks of Fire.” The Euphorbia tirucalli “Rosea” is a succulent usually grown as a houseplant, at least in any climate colder than zone 9. In warmer zones, the plant makes a stunning accent in a xeric rock garden. If you grow it as a container plant, you can add it to your summer and fall landscape by setting the pot out until the temperature hovers near freezing. The Fire Sticks plant is native to South Africa and grows well in Arizona and warmer zones of California and a few warm spots in southern New Mexico. The red color comes on as temperatures cool. If you do choose to plant Fire Sticks in a container, be aware that the plant can reach heights of 6 feet.

Nandina. Also called Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina is a favorite evergreen shrub around the country. Although it grows in part shade to full sun, the more sun you give nandinas, the more color you’re likely to see. Most nandina are evergreen and grow slowly, up to 10 feet high under some conditions, but compact varieties are available for nearly every zone. In the arid Southwest, nandinas tend to grow and spread less. Sunset has just added a compact variety called “Lemon lime” (Nandina domestica Alba) to its Western Garden collection. Hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9, this stunner has bright lime green new foliage that fades slightly but remains green.

flirt nandina
Flirt Nandina (Nandina “Murasaki”) from the Sunset Western Garden Collection. Image courtesy of Sunset.

Woods’ rose. It’s wild, but I love it. The Rosa woodsii is a rose hip-producing machine fills with delicate pink blooms in summer that somehow seem to leave even more hips than spent blooms from fall through winter. It’s as bright as any berry bush and a haven for birds, pollinators and wildlife. Of course, you can harvest the rose hips or leave them for the color and critters; the hips provide an excellent source of protein and energy in the winter. There are several native varieties of the Woods’ rose that can adapt to climate and natural water availability.

rose hips on Woods' rose
Here’s a close-up of the Woods’ rose in the center of the top photo. Who needs flowers when berries this color last all fall and winter, or until the birds eat them all?

Sedum. Sedum, or stonecrop, is a versatile group of evergreen succulents. Most of them are even more attractive in fall and winter when they darken or produce seed heads. One variety, Autumn Joy, is even named for its favored fall color. The flowers emerge in summer as a lovely pink color, but gradually turn a deep rust. Autumn Fire is a new variety of Autumn Joy with light green leaves and deeper red fall flowers. Both the foliage and flowers provide unique fall and winter interest in the garden on this xeric perennial. It comes in various heights and colors.

dragon's blood sedum
Dragon’s blood is a groundcover sedum we planted to spread over rocks. This one looks great beneath a native chocolate flower and fading desert zinnia.

Five Low-water Shrubs that Birds Love

It’s easy to attract birds to your yard with feeders, but having a friendly bird habitat is even better. We’re fortunate to have some help from nature in the form of a nearby river and trees. Many bird species can nest or fly to the larger trees when evading us or our dogs. But they also love to hang out in the garden right off our patio, because we have a few shrubs that meet their basic needs of food and shelter. Naturally, needs differ by bird, but many eat fruits, berries and seeds.

dave-higgins-hovering-finch
This finch is hovering near a feeder in our smoke tree, but finches also perch on flowers and in shrubs. Photo credit: David Higgins.

As fall arrives, we’re even more aware of how plants attract both native and migrating birds. I looked out my window the other day and saw at least 20 sparrows feeding on the seed heads of a weed/grass that I have been meaning to pull from a garden bed. I felt a little better about being behind. Although trees are important for bird nesting and shelter, so are shrubs. Here are five water-wise choices that help feed, shade or protect birds.

Cotoneaster. The Cotoneaster species includes shrubs that need a little more water until established than some native low-water plants. They’re cold hardy to zone 3 and actually fare better in high desert and mountain climates. Some cultivars (namely Rockspray) grow more wide than high, and these are the ones the sparrows at our place love. The leaves are tiny, but the plant is sort of prickly and since the branches cross over one another, it really fills in well. The birds can enjoy the late summer berries and perch a few feet off the ground.

sparrow on low-water bush
This white-crowned sparrow is hidden pretty well on a cotoneaster even in winter. In spring, 20 or more sparrows perch here, distracting me from working.

Russian sage. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is known as an attractor of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds while its gorgeous and fragrant lavender stalks are in bloom, but I’ve seen other small birds feed on the seedheads as they dry. And since this shrub is best cut back in spring, it can help feed birds all winter.

russian sage drying stalk
Right now, a darn grasshopper appears to be eating our Russian sage. The stalks are beginning to dry.

Pawnee buttes sand cherry. Last week, I mentioned the Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) as one of five water-wise shrubs that works well in high-desert gardens. The Pawnee buttes is a low-growing form of the sand cherry, which likely won’t produce enough fruit for a pie, but plenty of dark, ripe berries to feed birds. I also love the twisting branches. It just looks like a native plant you might encounter walking around the New Mexico desert, but in spring it has gorgeous white flowers that are slightly smaller than those on our cherry tree, but just as striking.

bird attracting sand cherry
The Pawnee buttes sand cherry is a low-growing, twisted version of the Western sand cherry.

Wild roses. I mention native roses often in my plant lists because they are amazing low-water plants. The Woods’ rose (Rosa woodsii) in particular is a Southwest native that grows in all sorts of terrain from as low as 2,800 feet to more than 10,000 feet in altitude. It blooms in spring or early summer with no supplemental watering and attracts birds all year long. We have a hummingbird that I am pretty sure has deemed one native rose as his territory, and I love watching birds land on the thorny stems. I doubt any nearby cats will venture up there after them! Best of all, the Woods’ rose leaves hundreds of hips on the plant for birds and other critters to enjoy all fall and winter. The hips have plenty of value for people, but this year, we will leave them on the rose. The only drawback to native roses is that they need a deep pruning/shaping in early spring.

woods' rose
Birds can feast on these rose hips all winter and hide in or under the bushy, thorny plant.

Serviceberry. The Western serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia) is another member of the rose family. Native to the Southwest, the plant, which also is commonly called a shadbush, produces white flowers in spring and early summer berries that are similar to blueberries. Although people can make jams from the berries, they are pretty seedy. So I’d prefer to leave them for the birds, while I enjoy the flowers and year-round leaf colors. The drought-tolerant shrub can be shaped into a hedge and grows in zones 2 through 9.

Five Water-wise Shrubs for High-Desert Gardens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create a Color Palette in Your Xeric Garden

Who says xeric landscaping has to be boring? Not me, that’s for sure. In fact, one of my goals on this blog is to prevent extreme reactions to drought and educate people so that they make measured changes. In other words, you can still attract pollinators, and people, to your garden while saving water!

One of the ways to attract birds, bees and believers is with a creative color palette from mostly xeric plants. It’s not that hard to do, as long as you remember a few guiding principles of xeric gardening: choose native plants and place them in the right conditions to help keep them healthy.

variety-color-palette
The purple blooms of the blue mist spirea in the background attract bees, and finches land on the cosmos blooms.

I love the drama of several different colors of blooms, and the uncertainty when plants spread or reseed each year, so that areas of the garden have a delicate balance between predictability and surprise. It helps to have plants of different heights and textures or bloom times.

Now, all you have to do is decide whether you want lots of different colors or mostly one color. Then match your wants with what’s available. Here are a few ideas for xeric plants in a number of colors:

Blues and purples: Get some height and plenty of bees with Russian sage or Blue mist spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis). A penstemon will give purple blooms with less bushy shape. For more height, a butterfly bush (Buddleia) really pops. And for a low grower, try salvia or Veronica speedwell.

Yellow: The choices are endless for yellow xeric flowers. It’s really a matter of placement and bloom or plant size. My favorites are desert zinnia and several varieties of coreopsis. Evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a great xeric choice in the desert Southwest that produces large yellow flowers. Chocolate flower is a perfect native wildflower, and the Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliana) blooms later in the summer season. Creeping gold buttons (Cotula) make a terrific ground cover as a backdrop.

Orange or red: I can’t grow one here, but if you live in zones 9 through 11, and you love orange and red blooms as much as I do, the red bird of paradise (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) is the bush for you! The Hummingbird trumpet flower (Zauschneria arizonica) attracts hummingbirds, and several salvias and penstemons come in red.

red bird of paradise
This is one of my favorite plants, the red bird of paradise. Tim got a shot of this one in Carlsbad, N.M. I’ve got a close-up of the stunning blooms on my Photos page.

Pink: Iceplants are my favorite pink blooms that do well in New Mexico at several zones. They’re a groundcover, though, so if you want pink up high, try a native rose, Santa Fe phlox or Texas sage (Salvia greggii), which is a dark pink or red, low-growing xeric bush.

White: Add some dawn, dusk or evening drama with white. To make white work, especially in a nighttime garden, I think you either need a substantial amount or large blooms. Tim loves jimson weed (Datura meteloides), which opens at dusk. A grouping of white Echinacea, or coneflowers, would also be a great contrast to low-growing purple or red blooms.

blazing star bloom
The blazing star (Mentzelia decapetala) really shines in the evening.

I didn’t even cover succulents, which might not bloom for long, but have some of the brightest, richest colors in the desert. Trees also add color with their blooms and foliage. That’s especially true of some of the smaller, xeric trees, such as the desert willow or smoketree. Use of colored containers, or a few annuals in them, can contrast or complement your palette.

monochromatic xeric palette
This monochromatic palette is far from boring, especially when the light hits all of those yellow blooms. A potted geranium adds a mobile touch of pink.

To plan your color palette, you could also start with a few native plants you love, or that are already in place, as a foundation. Then build on those plants. I think I’ve mentioned that we have lots of yellow in our garden and all over our place (either alyssum in spring or dandelions right now!). So we are trying to balance the yellow and purple with more white and red. Of course, you can go with a monochromatic palette, using nearly all yellows and oranges, for example.

Learn more about color palettes in this Proven Winners article, and check out my Resources page to learn more about native or xeric plant sources. Some of the plants I mentioned in this post are pictured on my Photos page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planting too many of the same species hosts pests

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

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

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

Too much of a good thing robs resources

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

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

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

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

Hedging your bets can be a lot of work

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

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

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

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

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

Recommended Reading: Growing the Southwest Garden

A few months ago, I mentioned how many garden books we have on our shelves. I just added a new resource from our favorite local expert and fellow member of the Garden Writers Association, Judith Phillips.

Judith’s newest release, titled “Growing the Southwest Garden,” (Timber Press Inc., 2015) is a go-to guide for native and xeric plants for New Mexico, Arizona, and our neighboring states’ high deserts. It’s also a beautifully written discourse on the climate extremes faced by the gardeners who live there, and especially by the plants they care for.

Growing the Southwest Garden.
A good garden book serves as a resource and as inspiration. This one does both, and more.

Judith, a landscape designer, author and part-time professor, describes how and why climate affects plant selection and health and why it’s so important to base landscape design and plant choice on region. She explains the scientific basis of heat, drought, wind and other stresses on plants and how native plants have adapted to the extremes the Southwest deserts and mountains offer. In addition, Judith offers plenty of ideas and strategies for successful gardening in the various regions of the Southwest.

The book includes examples of landscape designs, an excellent list of Southwest plants and more than 300 color photos. The information is both practical, with tips on seasonal pests, for example, and thought provoking. As one of our top proponents of preserving water and ecosystems, Judith reminds us all how to tend our gardens, create practical but beautiful landscapes, and protect plants and other living beings.

book judith phillips
Growing the Southwest Garden has regional information and photos on plants for Arizona, New Mexico, and surrounding states.

What I love most about this book is that I will read it again and again, not just as a brief reference to look up a plant, but when I start to lose faith. Sometimes, gardening in climate extremes can be frustrating, and it helps to be armed with knowledge and tools. As a near-native of the Southwest, who grew up in the scorching heat of Phoenix and since lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico and the high desert of southeastern New Mexico, this book reminds me to embrace all that I love about the Southwest, its terrain and native plants.

I have found Growing the Southwest Garden available from Timber Press, on Amazon and at the independent bookstore, BookWorks, in Albuquerque, N.M.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Butterfly Bush

What’s not to love about a plant named for the butterflies it attracts? The butterfly bush (Buddleia) has much more to offer as well. It also attracts bees and plenty of hummingbirds. The plant is a long-lasting perennial in several zones and it’s easy to care for.

butterfly on buddleia
A butterfly enjoys nectar from a purple buddleia bloom.

To me, the buddleia is like a magical shrub. There’s something kind of free-flowing and natural to its shape, and to how rapidly it grows on its woody base. Despite its sometimes uneven appearance, the buddleia makes a perfect centerpiece or backdrop in a xeric garden. Ours sits in the center of a forefront bed, where we can watch hummingbirds and butterflies visit from our patio, but I have seen the attractive bush used well against walls and walkways throughout New Mexico.

buddleia in bloom
The full butterfly bush in bloom in July, in zone 6B.

About Buddleia

There are many varieties of butterfly bush, and several colors of the showy flowers. A dwarf buddleia usually reaches about three to five feet in height, but the fountain buddleia grows up to 12 feet tall, is adapted to higher altitudes (above 6,500 feet) and has longer flower spikes than the typical six to eight inches. Most of the New Mexico buddleias bloom in variations of lavender, plum or purple. And I find the foliage attractive, having a kind of muted, silvery-green color and texture that brings to mind giant sage leaves.

Buddleia bush bloom
I love the shape of the large flowers. Hummingbirds circle them to retrieve nectar from individual blooms.

Caring for Butterfly Bushes

Buddleia is a drought-tolerant plant that should only need supplemental watering until established or when temperatures are consistently above 85 degrees and, of course, rain is scarce. I seldom or never water mine except after cutting it back in late winter/early spring.

Though you don’t have to deadhead the blooms, you can trim off the seedheads once they’re spent to encourage new flowering. I usually don’t bother, as my plant seems to produce for most of the season. I just give mine that drastic haircut in late winter as soon as I see a little bit of new growth on the bottom stems; it shoots up in height as soon as temperatures warm.

pruned butterfly bush in early spring
Here’s the same bush as shown above, in early spring (seriously, in the lower right corner near the sundial). It loves the heavy prune!

Nearly every buddleia is hardy in zones 5a to 9, depending on the cultivar and the microclimate you place it in. I recommend talking with a nursery representative or a landscape designer before selecting a buddleia to make sure you choose the best size for your location and to see if it is native or at least noninvasive (sterile flowers).

Xeriscaping Strategy: Garden Art

A month ago, I talked about how strategic use of rocks and other natural hardscaping could add interest to your xeric garden. Another strategy, and a fun activity, is careful placement of art in the xeric garden.

sundial as garden art
This sundial, a gift from family, has a prominent spot in our rock garden.

With small objects of art, you can treat your garden like a canvas to add focal points of interest for times when plants are not blooming, to bring the eye up or down as a complement to plant height, to add pops of color or movement, or just to add some fun and whimsy.

metal object sin garden
The snail is an offering, but hasn’t convinced the real crawlers to move on! The wind spinner adds movement, sometimes lots of it!

Although many of the objects in our garden have been gifts from family members, we also have enjoyed picking up a few pieces of art when traveling. That way, we have a souvenir from our trip, and we get to see it nearly every day in one of our favorite places.

Of course, there is some magnificent art you can purchase, such as fountains carved from natural stone. And you will see excellent specimens in your favorite home design and fine gardening magazines. If you have a tighter budget and like to collect your own small objects, it’s really a matter of personal taste when deciding what goes into your garden. And although I am not a landscape designer, here are a few tips:

  • For xeric gardens, art made from natural materials typically fits in better. Objects made from metal, wood or stone and with earthy finishes usually fit into the flow better. However, a few bursts of color can really add to the garden’s palette. For example, there is a piece of garden sculpture at one of our favorite shops in nearby Cloudcroft, N.M., called Off the Beaten Path, that I’m coveting. It’s an army helmet made into a bright red ladybug. And one of these days, it will have a place of honor among the green of our garden. Unless they sell them all before I can get one!
birdhouses in xeric garden
These birdhouses, both gifts painted by family members, add pops of color around our redbud that we can see from a distance.
  • With color or garden art in general, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. In other words, I have seen it overdone. Still, if you get joy from collecting or making garden art, then go for it. After all, this is your garden, your sanctuary.
  • When placing art, consider plants’ growth. If you have a large object that you can’t easily move, be sure not to place it so close to a small shrub that the art eventually disappears. I’ve pulled up plenty of annuals and weeds because they choked out a favorite little sculpture.
garden art hidden by plants
Our little stone and metal ant is being overrun by annuals that popped up around him. I need to move him or clean up so he can be seen.
  • Combine form and function. Decorative rain gauges, bird houses, bird baths, bird feeders, butterfly water trays, wind spinners or weather vanes all can serve a purpose in your garden and provide visual interest.
mini-chiminea in garden
We won’t burn anything in this mini-chiminea, but I do want to try growing a shade-loving plant in it.
  • Really, the sky’s the limit, especially if you are into repurposing old items. A larger garden can hold a recycled gate or window with your own idea for a stained glass design added by a local artist, or you can create a small bottle tree.

With strategically placed garden art, you can add year-round interest to your xeric garden without the need to add more or larger plantings.