How To Harvest and Store Fresh Garden Herbs

I love the herbs in our ornamental garden, many of which are low-water plants. Letting an herb such as sage flower can add color and lots of bees to your landscape or patio.

fresh herbs from waterwise garden
Fall harvest of herbs from our xeric garden.

Herbs typically begin to lose flavor as they flower, however, so if you want to eat herbs from your kitchen garden, it’s best to harvest often and enjoy the fresh flavors from plants you grow on your own. Harvesting herbs usually invigorates the plant, much like pruning or deadheading ornamentals. The best of both worlds? Having space to let one sage or thyme go to flower while you harvest from another sage or thyme in the same season.

The choices for herb gardens are endless, and it makes most sense to choose the plants you like based on your zone/growing location and favorite flavors or most useful purposes (such as medicinal). I grow mine for the color, scent and flavor and to sell at the farmers’ market. That presents its own set of challenges, mostly transporting herbs and keeping them fresh when it’s hot. Way too hot.

lavender for sale
Lavender bunches and sachets for sale at the farmers’ market, along with other fresh herbs.

With nearly all herbs, you’re better off harvesting in the morning and using a sharp pair of scissors or trimmers. It’s also best not to wash herbs before short-term storage, but instead wait until just before preparing them. Here’s a list of simple harvesting and storage tips for several herbs you can grow year-round or as annuals, along with a link at the end for a previous post on drying herbs.

Basil. Pesto anyone? Basil is easy to grow, but a little tricky to keep fresh after cutting. You would think that rinsing the leaves and keeping them chilled in the refrigerator would keep them fresh for days. But you would be mistaken. First, harvest basil in early morning. I’ve written in the past about how to cut basil, along with an easy pesto recipe in the same post. Of course, you can always harvest a few leaves only and use them right away. If you want to keep basil leaves fresh, the best approach is to avoid washing the basil after harvesting and placing stems (no leaves) immediately into a jar of cool water. They do best stored at 50° F, but who keeps their house or refrigerator at that temperature? If you have a spot, great. If not, keep the glass in a cool, lightly sunny spot and change the water often.  It can keep for weeks in the right circumstances.

Storing basil
We’ve got lots of basil. It stores so well in a mason jar on a cool window sill.

Cilantro. Cut off no more than one-third of your cilantro plant leaves after the plant reaches at least 6 inches tall. The best way to store cilantro leaves is to place the stems only in some fresh water and put the entire jar in your refrigerator. You also might want to loosely cover the aromatic leaves with a plastic bag.

Dill. Dill leaves, or weed, also are best stored with the stems only in water. Alternatively, you can wrap the entire stem with the leaves in a damp paper towel and place the herb in a warmer spot of the refrigerator, which usually means the door. Don’t be surprised if the herb’s quality goes down soon after storing. The freshest dill is harvested as cooks need it. Dill tastes best when harvested just as the plant’s flowers begin to open. If you want to preserve dill seed, wait for the flowers to turn into seed heads and dry up on the plant. Remove the seed head when it turns pale brown.

dill flowers
Dill is pretty when it blooms. I harvested some leaves from this plant and then let it go.

Lavender. More people likely grow lavender for its beauty and as a pollinator than for eating. There are varieties of lavender that are more suitable to culinary use (see a recipe here or check out our Lovin’ Lavender Pinterest board. If harvesting lavender for a recipe, it’s best to cut desired stems early in the day after they dry from morning dew. Even when fresh, you can harvest buds easily by rubbing the flowers between your hands or fingers. This is even easier to do when the herb has dried somewhat. When cutting branches for arrangements, cut all the way down to the main plant, being sure not to cut into the woody branches. Depending on where you live, weather conditions for the year and when you harvest, it’s often possible to get a second bloom from lavender each summer.

Lavender plants in xeric garden.
In a vase or left in the garden, lavender is a striking herb.

Rosemary. Harvest rosemary any time of day or during its growth. We’ve harvested fresh rosemary in fall and even winter. As with lavender, avoid cutting into the woody branches of rosemary when trimming or harvesting. Select a few sprigs and either use the leaves right away or store unwashed, loosely wrapped in plastic in the refrigerator drawer.

rosemary loosely packaged for market
Rosemary keeps best when loosely wrapped in plastic and stored in the door of your refrigerator.

Sage. Fewer people use fresh sage leaves in the kitchen; many recipes require ground or rubbed versions of the herb. But there is plenty of value in the herb’s leaves, including medicinal uses and smudge sticks. I love to place fresh or dried leaves into the cavity or under the skin of chicken. For short-term storage, sage can be wrapped lightly in plastic and placed in a refrigerator door. It’s best bundled for drying, however. Just in time for fall dishes!

purple leaf sage
Purple leaf culinary sage is almost too pretty to harvest.

Thyme. Thyme also should not be washed until used and harvested before flowering (for culinary use) when possible. Keeping thyme trimmed and enjoying flowers on other forms of thyme, including ground covers, gives you flowers and flavor. If planning to dry the herb, you can wash it gently and let the leaves dry before bundling to hang a bunch. I’ve picked a bunch and placed it in a decorative bowl near the dining area, just so I can get a whiff of the herb while inside. Thyme retains flavor quite well after drying.

thyme bunches for sale
Some small bunches of time nestled between sage and sprouts.

For drying thyme and other fresh herbs, see this previous post.

How To Grow Your Own Cooking Herbs

Herbs are delicious additions to so many dishes, and several popular herbs are easy to grow at home. You can save money and time flavoring foods by growing one or two of your favorite herbs in containers or flower beds near your home. Try the herbs listed below for the joy of cutting just enough fresh leaves for your recipe and the pride in growing the plants yourself.

fresh cut herbs from home garden
From left to right: sage, thyme, oregano and basil.

First, here’s a list of herbs that grow well in dry climates; in most parts of New Mexico and the desert Southwest, these herbs can be perennial plants in your landscape, coming back from year to year:

  • Rosemary. This aromatic herb is my favorite for growing and cooking. The drier, the better, once it’s established. And you can grow rosemary for its woody habit and tiny purple flowers.
rosemary in waterwise garden
This rosemary is an ornamental, but I have harvested from it. Note the santolina that fills most of the frame. It’s considered an herb as well. I love the yellow flowers it produces in summer.
  • Sage. We grow sage more as an ornamental, but I dried leaves last year for use in poultry dishes. Bees love sage flowers.
  • Lavender. Sure, you can cook with lavender (check out our Pinterest board for some recipes). And it’s the perfect plant – herbal or ornamental – for a xeric garden.
lavender plants in New Mexico
In addition to more than a dozen lavender plants for cutting and their gorgeous shape, we have one in a container just for culinary use.
  • Oregano. Culinary oregano is easy to grow and is hardy down to zone 5. Capture its best flavor by harvesting just before the plant blooms.

Annual herbs you can plant each year or rotate:

  • Basil. We grow from seed, but you can always find great basil plants in stores.
  • Dill. The tall aromatic plant is great for rock gardens. You can harvest seeds or leaves.
Dill is a versatile herb.
Dill is a versatile herb.
  • Parsley. The plant is an annual in most regions, unable to take a hard freeze. It’s the most popular herb used around the world.
  • Cilantro. This is a must-have herb for Southwestern dishes and it takes a big bunch for most recipes. Cilantro loves sun and often re-seeds. The leaves are delicious and the seeds (coriander) are popular in many recipes.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
Young cilantro plant grown from seed.
  • Fennel. Tim loves the smell of fresh fennel, which resembles that of licorice. Although it prefers sun, new plants come up at the base of larger bushes in our garden. Fennel can become a weed in the right (wrong?) conditions.

Tips for herb growing and harvesting

Most annual herbs are easy to direct sow, or grow from seed right in your garden or container. Many perennial herbs, especially rosemary and lavender, grow best from cuttings or transplants. Be sure to choose a large enough container for your herb and choose a location that gives the plant enough sun or shade, depending on its needs. If this information isn’t on the tag or seed packet, check with a local or regional source such as master gardeners or your state and local cooperative extension service.

Protect tender herbs from pests. I keep basil covered all year with row cover cloth because every bug seems to love it as much as I do. And I just found out that some critter visiting our yard loves dill, as did the swallowtail caterpillars I found on it the other day (and moved to the fennel; sorry, Tim). If you can grow inside a fence, great, but we’ve incorporated herbs into our rock garden. Either choose those that your local pests don’t prefer (for us, that’s rosemary, lavender and thyme) or find a way to cover them.

I saved new dill plants from caterpillars only to find them nearly decimated this morning. I'm not sure of the culprit yet.
I saved new dill plants from swallowtail caterpillars only to find the plants nearly decimated this morning. I’m not sure of the culprit yet.

Harvest most herbs all season. Once a plant is sturdy and bushy, you can begin harvesting. Once an herb flowers, it can bolt in growth and lose or change flavor. But I’ve harvested rosemary from a plant already flowering, and then trimmed it back lightly in spring. I’ve been letting older thyme plants flower and try to keep younger ones managed for harvesting. In general, harvesting invigorates herb plants. So it’s best to use the leaves! Here are tips on cutting basil, along with a pesto recipe.

These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking.
These lavender buds are just opening, and are useful for more than cooking. That’s a white larkspur that happened to self-sow in the center.

Drying herbs is easy. I hung most in bunches from rafters in our shed, then stripped the dried flowers or leaves. You can also find plenty of products and ideas to help if you like. Here are tips on drying herbs from the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.
Sage leaves are easy to dry with cut stems hung upside down.

Winter over or move indoors. If you’re not inclined to dry herbs at the end of the season, try wintering the plants over. Perennial herbs for your zone might need protection, but should make it in all but the coldest, snowiest winters. An advantage of container growing is that you can move the container indoors or to a warmer winter spot. Even if your indoor herb fails to last the entire winter, you extended the time during which you could clip just enough herbs for a favorite family meal, right inside your own home!

 

Mix Up Your Garden Palette

Our low-water garden has lots of yellow. Maybe that’s true everywhere. And it’s a bright, happy color. But we like a little more variety, and it’s easy to add pops of color a little at a time, or with annual plants. Here are a few tips for finding plants of many colors.

yellow blooms
Yellow flowers like the ones on this chocolate flower plant (Berlandiera lyrata) are gorgeous, but I like to mix it up.
color mix in garden
When the butterfly bush blooms, we’ll have deep purple, red, and yellow. I’m adding a few low annuals to the front corner, which is closest to the patio.

Find flowers by color

Although you’re used to a favorite flower blooming in a particular color, there likely are hybrids with colors you hadn’t considered. For example, we think of sunflowers as bright yellow, but I love the cinnamon varieties. I’ve got some seeds in again, in the hopes that bugs and deer leave them alone.

larkspur pink lilac
Larkspur grow wild in our garden, and although most are a deep violet, we also have lilac, white and pink flowers.

One way to find flowers in complementary colors is by using apps and online databases. For example, the LadyBird Johnson Wildflowercenter’s database includes bloom color, along with native states and sun and moisture requirements in its combination search. For a simpler search, try a list like the one maintained by ProFlowers, which lists flowers by color next to illustrations and a brief description. Just beware that national lists of flowers often include varieties that do poorly in some zones or soils or need more water than those in a xeric garden. Be sure to read the descriptions or do a little research before making your final decision. You can also try apps that either have pictures shared by posters or plant identification. If you can find a local or regional app, even better.

White and red roses offer pretty contrast at the Hondo Iris Farm. If the plant isn't marked, just ask.
White and red roses offer pretty contrast at the Hondo Iris Farm. If the plant isn’t marked, just ask.

Wander around a nursery

If you feel a national list might isn’t giving you enough choices for your area, visit a locally owned nursery. Although they’ll carry some annual varieties that aren’t perfect for the community’s climate, they also carry plenty of knowledge and tend to feature plants that are native or adapted to local growing. If you do find a few annuals either at a local or chain nursery, limiting the number to a few pots or a corner of a bed uses less water, time and money than basing your garden color plan on annuals. Most nurseries separate perennials and annuals to help shoppers.

plants from local nursery
Bringing home the plants from our local nursery. I got a few annuals to add more red, white and black to our garden. And sometimes, the foliage adds lots of color, like with my new barberry.

Make notes as you pass homes and businesses

If you’re walking to a restaurant in town one night and spot a flower with a color you love or know would add variety to your garden, take a photo of the plant and a close-up of the flower. This will help you compare what you saw (and photos work much better than memory) with identification apps, databases and local gardening books. Including the entire plant in the photo helps you remember the type of foliage, height and spread of the flowering ornamental.

Flax and pine leaf penstemon color complement one another. A photo of the penstemon's leaves helps identify it.
Flax and pine leaf penstemon bloom colors complement one another. A photo of the penstemon’s leaves helps identify it.

Color really is a matter of personal choice, and with the recent National Pollinator Week in mind, I try to choose a few new plants for their ability to attract bees, butterflies or birds. For example, studies have shown that bees gather more nectar from purple or violet flowers than from any other color.

Bees love the purple flowers on the herb sage.
Bees love the purple flowers on the herb sage.

Keep it simple and choose what you like, but remember not all plants bloom at the same time, so your color variety might be seasonal or in stages. That’s great too though, so you and the pollinators can enjoy some new blooms every few weeks.

Bees really go nuts in cactus blooms.
It looks like the bee on the upper right dove head-first into this prickly pear bloom.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Gaura

Some call it a butterfly plant. That’s because gaura has delicate, swirly flowers at the ends of long stalks that resemble butterflies. In fact, one variety of gaura (G. lindheimeri) is called ‘Whirling Butterflies.’ It has white flowers; ‘Siskiyou Pink’ blooms have an earthy pink tone. And in 2014, Gaura ‘Sparkle White’ was an All-America Selections National Winner.

Eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder they bring butterflies to mind.
Typically, eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder gauras bring butterflies to mind.

We’re fortunate enough to have wild or native gauras (G. coccinea) in our garden. They appear on their own in late spring and bloom as temperatures warm. They’re a little more like a weed, partly because of the places they tend to appear, and partly because they have a higher foliage-to-flower ratio. Still, I’ll take them, and so will the bees!

Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!
Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!

Drought tolerant gaura

Native gauras appear along roadsides and other dry areas. Many of ours come up through rocks in the garden wall. You don’t have to read a plant tag to know that a plant growing robustly in rocks needs little to no water. We’ve had some trouble with gaura from nurseries, and I believe the reason is that the soil we chose was compacted and holding too much water. Still, if you plant a new gaura, it will need watering until healthy and established. A drip system can give the plant a slow drink.

This flower is from a volunteer gaura.
This flower is from a volunteer gaura.

Easy care

Once you’ve chosen a sandy or loamy soil for your plant, place it where it can get full sun. By the second year, you won’t have to water except maybe once in spring or in severe drought. I really love to place the white flowers where I can see them from a window or patio. It’s also a great plant for breezy areas, holding up to wind, which causes the flowers to “dance.” Most gauras reach about 2.5 to 3 feet tall; the native  varieties are a little shorter.

gaura against rocks
Gauras look terrific in rock gardens and natural designs.

Cut G. lindheimeri back in early spring about halfway down the foliage to keep it bushy, full and not too leggy. I let the native gauras go to seed so they pop up again the next year. You can try the same with nursery varieties; the plant might self-sow if seedheads remain in autumn. The only pests that bother gauras are flea beetles and gardeners who overwater them, especially if the plants are in heavy soil.

Versatile plant

Gauras are hardy in zones 5 through 8. In colder zones, the plant can be damaged if wet when temperatures dip to more than -15 Fahrenheit. Gaura is considered a perennial in those zones, but tends not to last as long as some hardy perennials.

gaura and gaillardia
These volunteer, or native, gauras popped up with volunteer gaillardias. I love the combination.

The gaura can fit into nearly any landscape design. Even before blooming, its slightly mottled leaves provide garden interest. I love to see it against a slightly taller plant with larger, bolder flowers (which also can support the gaura stems as the plant matures). Gaura also is perfect near steps, garden paths and walls. Although gaura fits perfectly in a natural xeric design, its delicate flowers can work in a cottage garden plan, provided it’s not overwatered or has really good drainage. Native gaura foliage and shape is not as stunning, but nonetheless a fun re-seeder in a naturalized xeric garden.

 

 

Purslane and Portulaca

I’ve grown to accept that some invasive plants (aka: weeds) are not so bad. I’m still on the fence with purslane (Portulaca oleracea), a prostrate spreading succulent that can take over entire flower beds.

portulaca flower
Ornamental portulaca from the same family as purslane. Note the ornamental’s thinner, needle-like leaves.

Weed or edible?

Purslane can grow in pavement, between rocks, and in moist conditions. It spreads from seed or from pieces of stems. And a purslane can have more than 50,000 seeds per plant. It re-roots after being hoed. That’s a weed, right? Still, many value purslane because it is edible. But in my mind, if the plant interferes with the objectives in managing a lawn or garden, it’s a weed. And since mats of purslane suck moisture and nutrients from soil and even shade soil from sun as they spread, they’re pretty much weeds in my book. That’s especially true in a vegetable garden, where I don’t want a weed competing for precious water.

purslane weed
Purslane taking over a rock garden. It’s best to pull it up before it gets this big, whether you eat it or throw it out.

Purslane was grown in India originally and provided nutrition and reported health benefits. Those who eat purslane have described its taste as lemony or similar to spinach. And the plant tastes best if “harvested” while its fleshy leaves still are young. So one way to eradicate common purslane where you don’t like it is to follow the philosophy “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”

You can spot common purslane as a small seedling with reddish-tinged leaves that form flat against the ground and spread out like spokes in a wheel. Pull it up before it sets seed to avoid having an entire bed full of the weed the next year. Not sure a weed is purslane? Check out these photos of seedlings and other stages of purslane from Missouri State University.

Ornamental value

Even common purslane can be pretty. The fleshy leaves contrast nicely with tiny, usually orange, flowers. And I bought one years ago before I knew better. I paid for that, because the plant came back with a vengeance, choking out other plants in a tiny rock garden. So if you choose to actually plant purslane as an edible, just beware that you’re introducing the seeds to your landscape.

heat loving drought tolerant portulaca
Portulaca is a great container plant. Use one color or mix many. The plant spreads and cascades slightly over the edge.

A better alternative is an ornamental portulaca such as P. grandiflora. You can tell an ornamental portulaca from a purslane by its leaves. Ornamental portulaca, often called moss rose, has more needle-like leaves than purslane foliage. The flowers also are showier, often looking either like a cactus bloom or a tiny carnation or rose. The best part? They love sun and heat, are highly drought tolerant, and will spread in warm climates to make an interesting groundcover. They’re also a perfect container plant, especially if you buy a mix of colors, which warm-climate nurseries usually carry. Both purslane and portulaca bloom in the morning after the sun has been up a few hours, and close later in the day.

Portulaca just planted in the ground. I hope they will cascade over these rocks and pavers and re-seed next year.
Portulaca just planted in the ground. I hope they will cascade over these rocks and pavers and re-seed next year.

Caring for portulacas

Portulaca is an annual, but can re-seed. Although not nearly as invasive as its purslane relative, an ornamental portulaca often pops up somewhere in the landscape. But to me, it’s a happy surprise. The easy-care, drought tolerant annual is welcome in our garden any time temperatures begin to warm up in early summer.

portulaca in hanging baskets
Portulaca actually do better with sun and heat, but who would have thought it would be 40 degrees F in mid-May? I can’t wait for these containers at the back of our garden to fill in.

Portulaca will keep blooming and spreading into fall, provided you do one thing: pinch off spent blooms. If you let most of the faded blooms remain on the stem, the plant can become leggy, plus it won’t bloom as often. The equivalent of deadheading this annual is so simple; just pinch the blooms off into your hand after they have closed up and begun to look withered. If the flower resists, wait a day. You’ll soon recognize the difference between a bud and a spent bloom.

portulaca and cactus
This portulaca re-seeded in some soil we repurposed for one of Tim’s cacti. It just goes to show how little water they need! You can see the bloom stages really well in this photo. A tiny dried-up flower peeks from behind the bloom; it’s ready to pinch off! Two new buds are a little lower on either side of the stem. And a faded bloom, nearly ready to pinch, lies at the lower right.

And if you want to pinch your portulaca while eating a salad with purslane leaves, that’s up to you. Just be armed with new recipes to cook up all of your purslane in years that follow.

Want Easy Garden Maintenance? Go Native!

There are so many “right” reasons to choose native plants: They need less water and often attract pollinators. But if you need an even better reason, one that appeals to you in your busy world, how about the fact that they’re easier to maintain?

Think about it. By nature (hmmm, native and nature), native plants grow in the open, such as in forests or plains. Away from people, the plants can survive no matter the rainfall or other weather problems. And many reseed to ensure continued survival. They can do all of this without a nice lady in a funny hat and brightly colored gloves “tending” to them.

Paperflower
This paperflower (Psilostrophe) came up in the rocks near our creeping broom for nice succession blooming.

Why native plants are easy care

Once a plant native to your region is established, which can take up to a year, it should need little to no watering. And it should never need fertilizer or other chemicals. These plants have adapted to their native conditions and are less susceptible to pests and diseases than non-native plants. As long as the plant is in the right spot in terms of sun, soil and climate, all you need as a gardener is a little patience. Don’t amend the soil or overwater your new native (although they need more water in the first year to help the roots establish). Your native might not flower prolifically in its first year, and wildflower seeds can remain dormant in the ground before suddenly popping up when conditions favor their germination and growth.

native rock rose
Rock rose (Helianthemum) is an easy-care native plant and a stunner.

Of course, just because a plant is listed as “native,” if you plop it down in completely different conditions or climate, the plant might not make it or could turn out to be as much work as a big-box store purchase. For example, the Teddy Bear Cholla (Opuntia bigelovii) is listed as a native plant in New Mexico. But it grows naturally at elevations of 100 to 5,000 feet. And elevation makes a big difference in the Southwest. We’re at 6,300 feet, and our nights can easily dip below the 22 degrees F listed for warmer Sunset zones that support the cholla (zones that are less than an hour away to the east or west). Likewise, planting a cholla in a bed with drip or spray irrigation could damage the plant more than cold. It prefers low water, full sun and sandy soil. No wonder it does so well in the deserts of New Mexico and Arizona!

Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.
Tiny daisies are a favorite wildflower. I believe these are whiplash daisies.

How to select native plants

So caring for native plants is easy, but since so much depends on plant choice and placement, how can you make that process easier? Here are a few ideas:

  • Notice plants you see and love in the lawns of neighbors, commercial buildings and even along roadways or on nearby hikes (but don’t steal native plants in the wild). Take photos to help with identification and note where and when you saw the plant.
native wildflowers New Mexico
Daisies, shrubby ice plant, a native gaura forming (and weeds).
  • Although I said to select plants native to your region, plants native to nearly the same conditions also do well. Several cold-hardy natives of South Africa, such as Red Hot Poker (Kniphofia) and Hardy Purple or Yellow Iceplant (Delosperma) do really well in the mountainous Southwest.
shrubby ice plant
Here’s a close-up of the shrubby ice plant. Its flowers are smaller than the spreading types, but just as bright. And it’s a compact choice for rock gardens.
  • Local books and apps are the best source for identifying the plants you see near your home. Some national sites (such as the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center) have accurate search engines, but others can confuse you if your search brings up a low-growing shrub with purple flowers that only grows in Georgia.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum.
Wild verbena and even wilder alyssum.
  • Get help from professionals. Local landscape designers know native plants, and should encourage their use. Call your master gardener hotline or check with a local extension office or native plant organization to get help identifying and selecting plants for your area.
daisy native agastache
Native daisy that needs only shearing of flower stems after fading, and an agastache, which brings hummingbirds.
  • If you can’t identify a plant but have it in your garden, try not to stress. We’ve got several plants we have yet to clearly identify, but we’ve watched their natural patterns of growth and blooming and just played along. In most cases, I only shear off spent flower stalks in early spring to reinvigorate the plant.
I still haven't figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!
I still haven’t figured out this pretty spring bloomer in a mounding form. If anyone knows, please comment!

And if you have a native you really love and want to use elsewhere in your lawn, try saving seeds, propagating a cutting or dividing the plant. See the Resources page for a list of native plant lists or nurseries.

 

 

5 Low-water Plants that Love Shade

Usually, sun and heat are more trouble in the Southwest than shade. But sometimes, you want to plant flowers or vines under a tree or have a shady spot near the house that needs plants!

Plenty of plants that tolerate low light and low water work well on covered patios, north-facing walls or under trees. Here are a few choices that grow well in the Southwest.

Columbine growing in shade on north side of house zone 6B New Mexico
Columbine blooms are so delicate and interesting. It’s a favorite!

Columbine (Aquilegia) is a stunning native. The Rocky Mountain columbine is state flower or Colorado, and that’s fitting since it grows naturally in the stippled shade of trees at high altitudes (6,000 to 10,000 feet). The Rocky Mountain columbine has a two-toned flower with bluish purple outer petals and white petals in the center. Planting columbine under a tree usually works well in high deserts and intermountain areas of the West unless the soil drains poorly. The best part? It’s perennial, and should come back every year; it also will re-seed nearby. There are plenty of colors and varieties of monotone and two-toned columbine. The plant can get powdery mildew when it’s especially rainy with warm days and cool nights.

Bonfire begonia in container.
This is a fibrous begonia called a Bonfire, with more of a tubular flower. I love it in this hanging basket. Image courtesy of Tesselaar.

Begonia is an easy-care ornamental for shade. Although some varieties are perennial in areas of the Southwest nighttime temperatures stay above 32 degrees, it’s an annual in mountain regions. I used to arrange waxy begonias in a container for a shady area of my front porch. They would bloom all summer and into fall with pretty little salmon, white or pink flowers. And they need no trimming or deadheading. Begonias need a little more moisture than some annuals, and mulching around the plants (but not all the way up to a tree trunk) should help them stay moist under a canopy. They’re super easy container plants for shade with no disease or insect problems.

ajuga in zone 6B shade
Ajuga, or carpet bugleweed, grows in nearly all shade on the north side of our home. It’s easy to care for!

Ajuga, also called carpet bugleweed (Ajuga reptans), is a great groundcover for shady areas. The plant has shiny bronze or rust-colored leaves, and it spreads by runners. Ajuga plants can be spaced about six or more inches apart, but they spread to eventually provide a mat of leaves. Even better, they’ll shoot up purple flower spikes in summer. Depending on the type, ajuga should be hardy in zones 3 through 9. Ours survives – and has spread – in a mostly shady area on the north side of our home in zone 6B, and with only one or two deep waterings a year. If you plant them where they’ll get water from sprinklers, they can become invasive.

Heuchera coral bells
Our Heuchera is just emerging from winter dormancy. The leaves already have the telltale shape and color of this shade lover.

Coral bells (Heuchera) is another shade lover with spikes that shoot up in summer with flowers, typically a pinkish red (or coral!).  The leaves are a distinctive ruffled shape. Coral bells need a little more sun than some of the other plants I’ve mentioned, so they wouldn’t do as well near the base of a large tree. But place coral bells in partial shade, such as where the shadow of the house shades a bed in peak afternoon heat. They are drought tolerant and hardy down to zone 4. Huecheras are susceptible to several diseases and pests, including mold or leaf spot. All the more reason to give them a mix of shade and sun, along with air flow (in other words, plant them in front of a structure but not too closely or too crowded).

cobra apricot vinca
Periwinkle, or vinca, has pretty button-like flowers on glossy, slender leaves. This one is Cobra Apricot. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau.

Vinca comes in so many bloom colors, which makes it a great choice for a shady container or to plant beneath a tree or bush to complement flower or foliage colors. My mother used to grow lots of vinca, or periwinkle, in the South and in Arizona. Many vinca minor plants are perennial, but the hardiness varies by species. Where perennial, they make a great groundcover in shade as the plant’s trailing stems take root. In those cases, the leaves are evergreen in dark, glossy green or variegated patterns. Shearing the plants every so often stimulates new growth. I’ve grown annual varieties in containers that get part sun and part shade.

When trying a shade lover for the first time, you can always choose a container planting. It helps you get to know the sun, shade and water requirements of a plant. And when planting under trees, be especially careful not to harm the tree’s roots. Learn more about planting under trees in this great handout from the University of Minnesota Extension Service, which I learned about in a recent #plantchat on Twitter.

Favorite Tree: Redbud

It’s not the plant you typically think of when considering trees for a waterwise landscape. But redbuds (Cercis species) can do quite well in areas of New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma. The tree is native to New Mexico and states east and northeast of us, along with Quebec.

redbud in low water garden
In early April, the redbud is saturated with bright pink-purple flowers.

Even though the redbud produces gorgeous purplish-pink flowers and large, heart-shaped leaves, it’s a low to moderate water user. We only irrigate ours once or twice a year, and rely on rain or snow for the rest of its water.

redbud blooms New Mexico
Redbud blooms signal spring and bring some bees to the garden.

Multiple choice

There are numerous choices of redbud varieties, and gardeners are bound to find one that grows in their zone and soil conditions. The most well-known variety is the Eastern redbud (C. canadensis) but a few types, such as the Mexican redbud (C. mexicana), have multiple trunks. The Oklahoma redbud (C. reniformis) grows more slowly than the Eastern, but has round, glossy leaves. All are fairly small as trees go, reaching no more than 25 or 30 feet in height and width.

redbud in xeric garden
Buds first emerging in spring. This redbud complements other plants in our xeric garden.

I’m pretty certain ours is a typical Eastern redbud because of its single trunk and more matte than glossy leaves. It’s possible that the former owners of our place, who planted this stunner, trained a multitrunk variety as a single trunk. But I’m pretty certain it’s Eastern and the growth is maintained by lower water application and Tim’s trimming. I’m open to correction, though it really doesn’t matter to me. I love this tree!

redbud leaves
Large, heart-shaped leaves look awesome in summer and as fall begins to turn them yellow and then bronze.

Multiple uses

I’d grow this tree for the spring and fall color alone. It’s perfect for a xeric landscape because it gets by on so little water and grows slowly. The shrubby varieties probably look more natural, but with a rounded canopy, the Eastern redbud can provide shade and color. I’ll admit that ours is a bit low; we have to duck under the lower branches. But it also works well for a bird house and feeder. I can reach it fine, but the birds feel protected.

redbud and red bird house
Birds love our redbud, which is the tallest plant in our garden.

Redbuds send their roots deep into the ground, which makes them less likely to run under sidewalks or around sewer pipes. That gives you more choices for planting the tree near your house. In a southern location, the tree gets plenty of sun and can shade a portion of the garden or your home. Since it drops all of its leaves in winter, it won’t block warming rays of sun. Bees also love the spring flowers.

Caring for redbuds

If you want to train a shrubby redbud into a single trunk, cut out the weaker stems early in summer. Too much salt can lead to leggy growth of immature redbuds. The tree, which is a member of the legume family, is susceptible to several insects, including white peach scale, white flannel moth and several caterpillars, including stinging ones. A few years ago, Tim spotted some bare branches and found them covered with stinging caterpillars (see a photo of one in our Chinese pistache in this post).

In the Southeast, redbuds are vulnerable to Botryosphaeria canker. The disease can cause branches to split, die back and turn brown. Fungal diseases on redbuds are less likely in our arid climate, except maybe if the tree is too close to a structure or other trees to have adequate air flow. Ours has a splitting branch, but I’m guessing it’s from cold damage or a combination of cold and weight. And there is plenty of new growth on the stems.

split in redbud branch
We just noticed the split in this large branch this winter, but it looks healthy otherwise.

Redbuds prefer full sun and most varieties can survive in zones 5 through 8. You can prune a redbud for shape while the tree is dormant in winter, but it might cause fewer blooms. It’s probably best to prune just after spring flowers fade.

Native, waterwise, good for shade, multiseason color and easy care. What’s not to love about the redbud? Learn more about redbud care and problems in this excellent publication from Clemson University.

Pruning Xeric Plants

The best part of early spring is watching growth appear on plants that have been dormant all winter. And since we can’t plant vegetables until after the last frost, I need something to do in the garden on nice spring days. We had two of those this weekend, and we got busy pruning our xeric garden and front beds.

lavender-redbud-new-mexico
Pruning woody lavender requires only some shaping and removal of stalks as or after they bloom.

Pruning can be scary for new or hesitant gardeners. I’ve often hated to cut off any of the new spring growth that’s already begun. But I have to remind myself that cutting a plant back saves water. Here’s why: The plant’s roots can only provide so much water and nutrients. If gardeners leave too many branches above ground, the roots struggle to feed every branch, leaf or flower all the way to the end of the plant. It’s like filling a bowl of cereal with milk. The more cereal in the bowl, the more milk is necessary to coat or soak the cereal (sorry, but I love food analogies).

butterfly-bush-pruned-to-ground
This butterfly bush looks like mostly sticks right now, but it’s loaded with new growth at the bottom.

I’m still having to remind myself that by cutting a plant further down, I actually help it grow more vigorously than if I merely trim it a little bit. The mature plant regrows to a size that matches its established root system. We cut several plants nearly to the ground, including Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia). I have yet to kill a plant from vigorous pruning. A few times (like with forsythia), I pruned at the wrong time and it affected shape or flowering. But you can always correct shape and learn from your mistakes.

butterfly bush in summer after heaving pruning
Here’s last year’s butterfly bush (to the right and center) after a similar prune last year. It shoots up to six to eight feet tall.

Around here, Tim typically trims the trees and I handle shrubs. I start with roses as soon as any new growth appears, and your local master gardeners most likely recommend a window of time that’s best for roses and other common plants in your area.

Here are a few pruning tips for plants that grow in the arid high desert and intermountain regions:

  • In early spring, prune plants that flower in summer. Those that bloom in spring (like forsythia, clematis, flowering quince and dogwood) do best if pruned after they flower. They form buds in the fall, and spring pruning removes the flowers. The same goes for spring-flowering bulbs, such as iris, although they shouldn’t be pruned immediately, but when stalks and leaves begin fading or turning brown. In this case, the plant above ground gives energy back to the bulb underground.
forsythia blooms
Our forsythias are loaded with spring blooms; I pruned them last summer.
  • Nearly all trees should be trimmed in winter, while dormant.
  • Some gardeners prefer to prune in fall for a more manicured look during winter. We don’t do that for a few reasons. One is that a late warm period can cause the plants to grow again, and they need to begin storing energy for winter; a heavy late pruning can make the plant more vulnerable to cold. The other reason is that birds feed on the flower heads all fall and winter. And the spent blooms and stalks look fine in a natural, xeric design.
yarrow blooms
The bright yellow blooms of yarrow in summer.
  • Many plants only need to have their dead stalks removed. For example, yarrow and Angelita daisies have stalks that rise above the foliage. You can use trimmers or sharp shears to remove spent stalks.
yarrow after winter xeric
Here’s what the yarrow looked like a few days ago. It was ready to lose the dried flower stalks.
pruning yarrow
The pruned yarrow is now ready to put energy toward developing new flower stalks.
  • It’s best to avoid cutting into the woody, feeder branches of plants such as lavender and rosemary. Trim them for shaping only, and harvest ends of rosemary or cut lavender flower stalks for drying and other uses.
  • The more center and crossing canes or branches you can remove, the better. If you have a native rose that is seriously overgrown or pruned poorly, consider cutting it to the ground once, just to reinvigorate the plant and let it return to a more natural shape. It might take a year or two to get the plant into the shape you like.
yellow
I’m gradually cleaning up this native rose. Last year, it bloomed so pretty in mid-April. This year, I pruned it more severely, but it’s taking on new growth.
  • Some plants do better with a second cutting right after they bloom so you can enjoy another summer show of color. An example is catmint (Nepeta). Shearing off about one-third of the plant at the top gives it energy to regrow flowers. Of course, many annuals, such as California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) or blanket flowers (Gaillardia) bloom best if you deadhead them, or remove spent blooms, throughout the summer.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it's so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path's rock border.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it’s so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path’s rock border.
  • We usually give our xeric plants a good soaking right after trimming them to help them through the shock and stimulate growth. But that’s the only time we water almost all of our established xeric plants.
dogwood and catmint
Best of both seasons. The dogwood still has its winter red, but plants like catmint are blooming.

If you’d like to learn more, including where to cut shrubs for optimal growth, check out this publication from the University of Georgia extension office.

Plant Select 2016: Waterwise Grass and Groundcovers

I get so excited when I see the Plant Select press release in my messages each spring. I love any new plant introduction or award winner, but Plant Select focuses on plants that adapt to – and thrive in – the dry, wild conditions of the intermountain regions and high plains. Gardeners can be confident that their selections will work in much of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and other western states. This year, Plant Select announced two new groundcovers, and selected a drought-tolerant turf and groundcover. Anyone ready to switch out a high-water lawn should take note of these choices:

new ice plant orange flowers
Red Mountain Flame ice plant. All the pluses of an evergreen ice plant, plus a new orange tone! Image courtesy of Plant Select and David Salman.

Red Mountain Flame ice plant (Delosperma ‘PWWG02S’). An ice plant with deep orange to red flowers! Ice plants came to the U.S. from South Africa. The plants use little to moderate water once established, yet they provide gorgeous, evergreen groundcover for the xeric garden. One reason is that they spread quickly. But ice plants won’t get invasive. When ours have spread too far, we’ve even transplanted some of the extra plant to another area of the garden with success. They’re usually yellow or pale pink to purple. I’m thrilled to have a new ice plant color choice for rock gardens and other beds. It’s also perfect that New Mexico’s own David Salman of Waterwise Gardening produced the Red Mountain Flame seedlings. Grow ice plant in zones 4 through 9. Red Mountain Flame needs a mix of sun and shade.

Alan's Apricot ice plant
Alan’s Apricot ice plant boasts larger, color-changing blooms. Image courtesy of Plant Select and Alan Tower.

Alan’s Apricot ice plant (Delosperma ‘Alan’s Apricot’PPAF). The apricot-colored blooms of this new introduction are similar in color to existing ice plants, but larger. It also changes color to a pinker hue and then back again. Ice plants turn heads in summer when they fill with blooms on the low foliage. I can only imagine how Alan’s Apricot’s two-inch blooms will look in mid-summer. The larger, showy flowers also will shine in a container or the landscape as blooms begin to open or close each season. The ice plant was developed by Alan Tower of Spokane, Wash. Also for zones 4 through 9, a variety of soils, and a mix of sun and shade.

Moroccan pincushion
The Moroccan pincushion is a great groundcover selection for rock gardens. Courtesy of Pat Hayward at Plant Select.

Moroccan pinchusion flower (Pterocephalus depressus). The Moroccan pincushion has similar foliage and an inch or so more height than ice plants. The pincushion flowers are light pink to rose in color and leave silvery seed heads after fading. It’s also evergreen, offering winter foliage in zones 4 through 8. Add Moroccan pincushion to a rock garden, raised bed or large container in full sun. The plant needs little to no water once established and should have soil that drains well.

dog tuff grass
Dogs can run on and water drought-tolerant DOG TUFF without damaging the grass. Image from Plant Select and Kelly Grummons.

DOG TUFF grass (Cynodon ‘PWIN04S’).  Why have no lawn at all when you can have areas of turf for kids and pets, along with the look and cooling effects of grass? I’m all for removing some lawn, even more if you have a high-water grass. But I’ll never stop trying to convince people to leave a little grass. DOG TUFF lets homeowners have the best of both worlds: saving water and keeping a lawn. DOG TUFF has an extra quality that might have influenced Plant Select’s choice. Like the name says, it’s tough, holding up to foot traffic even in a xeric lawn. It also holds up to your dog’s help with “watering.” The grass comes in plugs for easier spread and planting. DOG TUFF needs more water the first year, but once established, the warm season grass should return in late spring for all-summer coverage in zones 5 through 10. Learn more about planting and caring for DOG TUFF here.

Plant Select is located in Ft. Collins, Colo., where its staff puts plants to work in test gardens to see how they do with little water. Plant Select also evaluates plants for adaptability, durability and ease of care. They also consider how attractive the plant is in the garden and whether it’s wildlife friendly.