Conserving Lawn and Garden Water: Seven Solutions

Xeriscaping isn’t for everyone; most plants native to arid zones do poorly if grown in a humid, rainy region. A plant adapted to 14 inches of rain a year will go soggy or leggy, and likely die, if it soaks up nearly 60 inches of annual rain. And vice versa. A Southwest gardener might love tropical plants, but the plants would need loads of water and attention here. Our relative humidity has dropped to the single digits lately.

xeric plants rock garden nm
Xeric plants can pop with blooms and come in many colors.

I’ve written plenty about choosing native or appropriate plants, and that’s still the most critical strategy for the combination of plant health, water savings and garden budget. Our zone 6B might have similar temperatures to zone 6B in West Virginia, but the state averages 44 inches of rainfall a year vs. 14 inches in New Mexico. If a 40 ft. x 70 ft. roof can gather more than 1,740 gallons of water from one inch of rain, imagine how many extra gallons of water fall on a plant where 40 more inches of rain fall than it’s used to receiving.

summer monsoon
We get some rain (and hail), but most of it falls during the summer monsoon season.

So, tip number one is to choose plants suitable for zone, exposure and precipitation. That’s a key to successful gardening no matter where you live.

Give in just a little to whims. If you want to indulge your love for tropical plants but you live in the arid Southwest, choose only one or two and place them in containers. Likewise, a succulent likely will survive better in the Southeast if protected from rain. You can protect it with containers that you move under shelter or indoors, or try the French solution, shown here by Debra Lee Baldwin.

Place plants with similar water needs near one another, especially if you use automatic sprinklers or drip systems in the lawn and beds. You can regulate zones or emitters, but plant roots seek water, and studies have shown that roots can even detect the sound of running water. Anyone who has had to repair pipes damaged by water-loving willow roots or the more xeric locust tree knows how this works!

drip irrigation
A low drip saves water and helps plants.

Use drip irrigation in vegetable gardens or ornamental beds. It’s the most efficient way to water. And slow drip is better for plants because the water soaks in gradually without washing away nutrients. Water containers as slowly as you can, or water half as much as each plant needs, then circle back for a second dose. It takes a little longer but avoids water (and soil nutrients) rushing out the bottom of the container. If rain in one area mostly falls during certain months, turn off or completely reprogram the sprinklers and drip controls. Or look for one that senses rainfall and shuts down watering accordingly.

Our potted tropical canna gets to live outside in the summer. But tomatoes also make great container plants.
Our potted tropical canna gets to live outside in the summer. Tomatoes also make great container plants. The canna needs extra water, but the tomato is all about consistent moisture.

Prepare soil. Healthy soil makes for a healthy plant and supports drainage. If it’s too sandy, water rushes through, and little soaks into roots. If it’s too clay-like or compacted, water pools on or just under the ground. Likewise, some plants only do well in a particular soil type. Amending soil can be tough, so choosing a plant that can handle current soil conditions is a great idea to save water and money. With healthy soil, you’re more likely to have healthy plants, and not assume one that looks bad just needs more water!

soil prep for herbs
Lots of compost enriches this soil for herbs, but the xeric area above remains as is, which is mostly rocky.

Mulch. Mulching cools roots and slows evaporation. Organic mulches eventually break down and improve soil. As with plants, it’s best to get some local advice on the best mulches for your area and conditions.

Switch to plants with purpose. Growing edible plants saves or exchanges water somewhere down the line when you don’t have to purchase the food at a store. You can fill your garden with green, but harvest herbs and vegetables at the same time. Or grow plants that double as resources for crafts, gifts and cut arrangements.

basil nasturtium
California garden with gorgeous basil and nasturtiums, which have edible flowers.

Conserving water might be more critical in the Southwest, but even gardeners in states like Alabama and West Virginia should keep water savings in mind. Local water utilities spend less in the long run when they don’t have to process as much potable drinking water, which is what most homeowners use outside. Weather patterns are unpredictable and climate disruption affects plant cycles and water availability.  Some areas receive more rain in spring and less during hot summers; taking steps to lessen the amount of irrigation needed to help plants through hot, dry periods makes for good sense and citizenship.

I realize some plants can get too much water, but that’s all the more reason to watch irrigation. And the best way to check plants and soil is to stroll through the garden, stopping to smell some flowers along the way, of course!

 

 

One Gardener’s Weed… or Cover Crop?

I’ve been thinking about weeds and wildflowers a lot this week, probably because I spotted my first field bindweed in a gravel path. But it’s also because I’m thinking about spring flowers, pollinators and soil.

alyssum weed wildflower
Last year’s “crop” of yellow alyssum. Pretty but a little scary.

In past posts, I’ve described the stages of “acceptance” we’ve gone through with the yellow alyssum that pretty much blankets our property. In brief: The alyssum is good because it attracts bees – hundreds of them. And it’s pretty, creating a sort of spring meadow. But it’s bad too. With a deep tap root, the weed/wildflower, (a member of the Brassica, or mustard, family) likely steals water and some nutrients from the grass or garden plants.

Following an excellent Twitter chat on nitrogen fixers (#groundchat led by @CristinaGardens; also on Facebook), I decided to check again whether alyssum helps or hurts soil. It turns out that yellow alyssum does not fix nitrogen, but has a role in recycling the nutrient. It can help smother weeds, but then is it smothering or delaying grass? Yes, it threatens native grasses, according to the Colorado State extension office. And in a xeric garden, I don’t want a plant that robs vegetables or perennials of precious water.

sweet alyssum new mexico
This alyssum against an old tree trunk looks like we planted it intentionally.

Then I found an article saying that the long tap roots on our yellow alyssum (and presumably mustard weed) help till or break up soil with their long taproots. They also bring nitrogen back up to the surface. Shouldn’t that be good for grass? Alyssum helps in some areas when planted as a cover crop following a nitrogen-rich legume.

Further, when the roots decompose, they add organic matter. So, I’m back to accepting alyssum for these bonus qualities, but mostly because we’ll never win.

green beans on vine
Green beans add a little nitrogen, but most of the nutrient goes into producing fruit. And that’s OK with me.

Let’s go back to the nitrogen fixers for a minute. Plants need nitrogen to survive. How much a given plant needs varies, but it’s safe to say that nitrogen is an essential plant nutrient. Many gardeners who use fertilizers know this; the N in formulas represents nitrogen. But why apply a synthetic fertilizer to crops or a garden when you can harvest nitrogen with plants that do the work? It’s the organic approach to soil improvement that’s really catching on with farmers. Hurrah!

red clover blossom
Bloom of a red clover. Image courtesy of the National Park Service.

Examples of nitrogen fixers are hairy vetch, annual wheat grass or ryegrass, and legumes, including clover. Wait, what? I’ve always considered clover invasive. And during the chat, I received an excellent link to an article about sweet clover. Looks like clover is to many gardeners and farmers what sweet alyssum is to us – good or bad, invasive or not. It all depends on your conditions. Further, conditions that favor a particular weed or wildflower can change slightly from one year to the next. Red clover is a potential nitrogen fixer in New Mexico.

sweet peas near river
Sweet pea is a legume and natural nitrogen fixer. It also can become invasive, but it’s a pretty surprise growing along the Rio Ruidoso.

And that’s why it’s all relative. I love learning from social media, and learned a lot the other day. But when choosing plants, especially for a large area such as a meadow or field, it’s always best to check with local extension agents or their publications. Otherwise, gardeners in New Mexico would never plant butterfly bush (Buddleia), which is not invasive here, and a gorgeous xeric choice. And they might go a little wild with the sweet alyssum or horehound, which are terrific additions to gardens in some areas, but can take over a New Mexico lawn.

Add Evergreens to Your Low-water Garden Plan

Most of my gardening friends have started seeds and marked up pages in catalogs because when spring is in the air, we get excited, even impatient, to return to the garden. It’s easy to plan for spring and summer bloomers, but also helpful to think ahead to next winter, when blooms fade.

snow on evergreens
Winter can be pretty in any garden, and snow on evergreens… gorgeous.

Evergreen shrubs and trees add visual interest, homes for birds or other wildlife and privacy in winter. Evergreens are particularly helpful in dry or cold climates. Choosing an evergreen for the low-water landscape does not confine the gardener to conifers. There are many choices to fit nearly any xeric garden design or location, such as santolina.

santolina
Gray santolina is evergreen — or evergray — and produces bright yellow flowers in summer.

Saltbush (Atriplex canescens) Saltbush, also called four-wing saltbush, is a native plant of Western states. Although its colors aren’t bright or striking, saltbush is an unusual and interesting plant. Native Americans once used the stems for fuel and made yellow dye from the plant’s leaves. Although I haven’t tried the seeds, they are edible, and we once saw locals gathering the seeds when driving south of Albuquerque. When the seeds emerge, they make a gorgeous contrast to the foliage, which is more silvery green. And they’re swirly and paper-fine to the touch. Saltbush is native to alkaline soils and salty high deserts.

four wing saltbush
The four-wing saltbush is a native that looks terrific in a natural landscape.

Boxwood (Buxus). Boxwood is surprisingly drought tolerant if given some shade or in a northern exposure, deer resistant and easy to care for in the lawn. In fact, the plant is subject to fungal disease, but when panted with the crown about an inch higher than its position above the soil in its nursery pot. Well-draining, slightly alkaline soil also helps, which makes it a perfect evergreen shrub for most of New Mexico. Most boxwoods grow in zones 5 through 9.

petite pillar boxwood
Monrovia’s petite boxwood is even more versatile in a container. Photo by Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Although boxwoods don’t need substantial attention or trimming, gardeners who enjoy pruning will love shaping these plants to match the landscape. A new boxwood from Monrovia, Petite Pillar Dwarf Boxwood, has a naturally column-like form, which sets up easy maintenance for the gardener. It fits perfectly in containers, but requires regular watering, especially in heat.

agaves mass planting
Agaves surround this tree at Tucson’s Desert Botanical Garden.

Succulents. If they’re hardy in your zone, succulents can provide year-round interest, especially in xeric gardens or along walkways or fences. Their shape adds a unique look to winter gardens. For example, the agave (Agavaceae) is like garden art with its upright, sometimes symmetrical design. The plants are long-living perennials, and some varieties are hardy down to zone 5. With about 300 species to choose from, gardeners are sure to find one that suits their design and zone. Although they grow slowly compared with shrubs, agaves need a little room to expand. Set off the plant’s color with a contrasting ground cover such as speedwell or purple iceplant for more summer color.

blue agave
These blue agaves (Agave parryi, or Parry’s agave) add texture and color to our winter garden.

The aloe vera provides a similar look, although the leaves are fleshier and more upright. The plant is not as cold hardy as agave, and needs to be outside only in climates with warm winters, no lower than 40 degrees at night.  Aloes also add value to your garden. We’ve used aloe directly from a plant to soothe sunburns.

Yuccas also are easy to grow, and their slimmer, spear-like leaves look brilliant all year long. They’re also a diverse xeric plant; you can choose a variety that’s bushy and full at the bottom or more open and fanned out.  Check the variety’s mature height when purchasing to make sure it won’t get too tall for the location you choose. Some varieties, such as Joshua Tree, grow to 15 to 20 feet high. After a few years, yuccas produce summer flowers on tall stalks from the plant’s center.

Caring for these succulents is simple. They need some sun, but can burn if exposed to too much direct sunlight. And the only problems with the plants typically come from overwatering. Avoid watering these succulents in winter, or the plant can get root rot.

Lots of evergreens grow nearby, including the pinon.
Lots of evergreens grow nearby, including the pinon.

Conifers. Piñon pines (Pinus edulis and a few others) are native to New Mexico and Arizona. It’s more like a rambling, tall shrub than a tree, easy to care for and used to semi-arid regions. The seeds, or nuts, are edible.  Icee Blue Yellow-wood (Podocarpus elongates ‘Monmal’) has stunning blue foliage in winter, but only in southern climates (zones 9 through 11). It has a thin, conical shape when mature and can be trimmed into classic Christmas tree shape, a nice touch for a warm winter garden. As with all xeric plants, Icee Blue needs a little extra water until established, then gardeners can cut back. Alligator juniper is a terrific bird shelter that has interesting bark along with evergreen branches.

podocarpus icee blue
Icee blue yellow-wood needs little water once established. Photo by Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Icee blue also is the name given to a spreading juniper (Juniperis horizontalis ‘Icee Blue’). I’m not a big fan of juniper, mostly because of allergies. But the plant can provide evergreen groundcover in a low-water lawn. Icee Blue is hardy down to zone 2, and prefers full sun. If controlled with trimming or planted in mass plantings, junipers are a low-water alternative to shrubs and other groundcovers. If you want to cover an area of ground quickly with a plant that requires little maintenance or water once established, check with your local nursery for a juniper that can survive your winter lows.

The low-lying juniper to the right of our budding apricot was in the garden when we moved here and produced tiny berries.
The low-lying juniper to the right of our budding apricot was in the garden when we moved here and produced tiny berries.

 

New Mexico — One of the 50

As I long for spring to return so we can get back to our gardens, I begin to fantasize about living in Maui or Tucson, Ariz., or anyplace warmer. But today, I’m reflecting on the beautiful state in which we live. And I thought it was time to dispel a few myths about New Mexico, especially for people who live far from the state and have not (yet) visited.

angel fire ski resort
From the top of a ski run at Angel Fire Ski Resort in northern New Mexico, you can see all the way to Eagle Next Lake and the peaks near Taos.

First of all, New Mexico Is a State!

Nearly everyone in our state who travels, stays active in social media or makes online purchases has encountered the phenomenon. I’ve had questions about shipments being international, and New Mexico Magazine runs a terrific column featuring some of the stories from N.M. residents about this confusion.

I know we don’t have a large population, but it hurts to see a map with Arizona and Texas labeled and the empty space between (or the AZ label on our bootheel-shaped state). New Mexico became a state in January 1912. We were the 47th state to join the Union. According to the N.M. Genealogical Society, achieving statehood took some time “in part, by a general ignorance about the territory and suspicions toward its people.”

We still have cowboys here, but New Mexico offers much more.
We still have cowboys here, but New Mexico offers much more.

Some things haven’t changed, I guess. It is true that our state was once part of the Mexican Republic, but that only lasted about 25 years during the 1800s. Our state boasts more than “cowboys and Indians” for our history. Ancient history includes Folsom Man, Clovis Man and the Anasazi.

jemez
Gilman tunnels in the Jemez mountains were blasted out of rock in the 1920s to make way for a railroad used by logging companies.

It Snows in New Mexico

Maybe because of our close proximity to warm and sunny Mexico and the low deserts of Arizona, the perception of New Mexico as a hot, dry desert prevails. It’s partially correct – our climate is extremely dry, and it gets hot in many areas of the state in summer. Climate and gardening zone are affected by more than latitude. New Mexico is on the U.S. southern border, but the Rocky Mountains run through our state, as does the Continental Divide.

The Sacramento mountains from the top of Apache Ski Area in early summer.
The Sacramento mountains from the top of Apache Ski Area in early summer.

Albuquerque, our largest city, is at the same altitude as Denver. Our place, which I consider as intermountain or high desert, stands at 6,300 feet in altitude, and we’re surrounded by Lincoln National Forest. The Sacramento range is just southwest of us. Sierra Blanca, the peak that hosts Ruidoso’s Apache Ski Area is at just over 12,000 feet high.

This year, we got 18 inches of snow just from Winter Storm Goliath, and areas of the state measured their snow in feet. In northern New Mexico, the average annual snowfall has averaged more than 150 inches in Red River.  Even Albuquerque receives 9 to 10 inches of snow a year. Having said that, some southern areas of the state easily average more than 100 degrees in summer and have palm trees lining many streets.

The sun usually comes out and melts our snow quickly. It took longer to melt the snow from Goliath.
The sun usually comes out and melts our snow quickly. It took longer to melt the snow from Goliath.

Gardeners Grow More than Cacti

The desert assumption includes our native and garden plants. A major purpose of this blog is to show gardeners in Southwestern and Western states that native and xeric gardens can be gorgeous and save water, and that gardeners can grow other than succulents.

Our rain typically comes as monsoons beginning in early July.
Our rain typically comes as monsoons beginning in early July.

I’m not saying that N.M. gardeners avoid cacti and succulents when choosing plants for their garden or home, but so much more grows here. Depending on the region, gardeners hybrid and native roses, aspen trees, herbs and plenty of flowering perennial bushes and annual flowers. No area of our state escapes drought regularly and our average annual precipitation is lower than much of the country. So we just have to garden selectively and responsibly. Many species claimed as invasive in other areas don’t spread so rampantly here, and vice versa.

ajuga and columbine
Shade-loving ajuga and a columbine thrive on the north side of our home in zone 6B.

I’ve grown so accustomed to xeric and rock gardens that I’m a little turned off by lush, formal looks. Xeric gardening is most effective and pleasing when gardeners work with the natural terrain and climate. Use of native plants, rocks and succulents can combine for a perfect palette.

Southwest Gardening Can Be Challenging

Our gardens and natural areas look amazing throughout the year, but gardeners who transplant from warmer, and especially wetter, climates find themselves going through an adjustment period. It’s more likely many of our native and xeric plants will die from too much water than not enough. Once gardeners learn how to ensure the soil is prepped and that they water a little extra only until a plant gets established, they’re likely to have more success than failure in the garden.

Yarrow winters over here, and the hardy blanket flower (Gaillardia) spreads by seed.
Yarrow winters over here, and the wildflower Gaillardia (blanket flower) spreads by seed.

One of the reasons it’s particularly difficult to garden in parts of New Mexico is the weather extremes. In the high desert, days can become warm, and the sun intense. But at night, the desert cools considerably. Daily temperature extremes of 40-plus degrees from dawn to evening are not uncommon here. Add gusty dry winds to the mix and any plant but a native to the area might struggle a little. The state’s geographic diversity also means that conditions vary considerably around the state. USDA zones range from 4 to 8 around the state. Colorado’s zones are cooler than ours, and Arizona and West Texas are warmer on average.

Ranch land in southeastern N.M., about 30 miles from the Texas border. The landscape is flatter, but you can see forever.
Ranch land in southeastern N.M., about 30 miles from the Texas border. The landscape is flatter, but you can see forever.

New Mexico Is Enchanting

New Mexico’s state nickname is “Land of Enchantment” and it fits the bill. With mountains and plains, we have gorgeous views in most of the state. Sandia Crest in Albuquerque is so named because of the beautiful watermelon color the mountains take on at sunset. We have forests and rivers, along with dry river beds. It can green up here in summer, but if you’re used to all-green landscapes, you’ll either be disappointed or truly amazed.

Rio Ruidoso banks at the Hurd Ranch property in San Patricio, N.M.
Rio Ruidoso banks at the Hurd Ranch property in San Patricio, N.M.

Diversity of people and wildlife also make New Mexico an enchanting state. Every quadrant of the state has Native American reservations and history. More than 2 million residents were counted in the 2014 census, and nearly half are Hispanic or Latino.

Our mountains are home to black bears, deer and elk. And our plains are home to antelope and roadrunners. We’ve got ranches, oil fields and farms. Nut production is high here for some varieties. Dormant volcanoes, lava flows and white sands dot the landscape.

It's tough to beat our enchanting, colorful sunsets and sunrises.
It’s tough to beat our enchanting, colorful sunsets and sunrises.

New Mexico is far from perfect socioeconomically, but well worth the visit. You’re sure to be enchanted. See more about New Mexico on my Fun Stuff page, including a link to our Pinterest account, which includes boards about New Mexico and Ruidoso. And learn more about gardening here by searching posts or checking out the Resources page.

10 Reminders for Waterwise Gardening

Although the drought has eased in New Mexico and some areas of the Southwest, it’s still serious in many regions. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to save water in the yard, garden or farm all year long, regardless of your region’s current drought status.

Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.
Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.

No matter where you live, the foremost reason to adhere to low-water gardening designs and principles is to conserve water, which is the right thing to do for this and future generations. I doubt homeowners in California, many of whom typically enjoy steady rainfall of 18 or more inches a year, were concerned about drought when they had their yards designed decades ago. In fact, the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct likely marked the beginning of the phenomenon that occurs when too many residents are concentrated in a geographic area, especially one not conducive to urbanization.

The aqueduct and population are only part of the problem in California or in any region short on water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American uses about 320 gallons of water a day. Nearly 30 percent of home use flows outdoors, including on lawns. All-told, home landscape irrigation accounts for some 9 billion gallons of water a day around the country.

If you’ve read past blog posts, you know that I plead for a measured and appropriate response, one that if taken before severe drought strikes can prevent community, and eventually global, water crises. That approach includes native or xeric landscape design, not the destruction of all living plant material in a lawn. As I’ve said before, replacing grass with gravel doesn’t necessarily save water or energy.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain.

For a 2015 recap and 2016 garden prep reminder, here are the 10 easiest ways to save water in your lawn and garden:

1. Convert some turf to gravel if you like, using oasis zones and smart xeriscape design principles. Involve a landscaping professional if the job is big or the concept overwhelms you.

2. Convert high-water turf to a native, low-water grass. The best choices for high desert areas are Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) and Buffalo grass (Buchloë dactyloides). A new hybrid called Dog Tuff (Cynodon hybrid) also comes in plugs for quicker spread.

3. Water wisely, cutting back in winter and irrigating only in the cool of the morning during summer. Use drip irrigation instead of spray or sprinklers when possible. Add mulch around plant beds.

garden Drip tape in vegetable bed
Drip irrigation saves water and improves plant health for edibles or ornamentals.

4. Look for signs of water waste, such as runoff. Create a dry-river bed, bioswale or terrace to capture water and place plants with higher water needs in swales or at the bottom of inclines. Well around plants that need a little more water.

5. Remember that even low-water or xeric plants need extra water the first year; if the plant doesn’t make it because it dries out, you’ve wasted whatever water you used to irrigate plus the cost of the plant.

6. Choose perennials over annuals. Every time you plant annuals, you must water them extra to help them get established for the season. Growing more perennials and letting native annuals and wildflowers go to seed is a better strategy; leave one small bed or container arrangement only for annuals each year.

This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.
This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.

7. Grow edibles in your lawn or landscape. If you don’t want the look of a full-blown kitchen garden from the curb, place perennial herbs or low-water plants with berries for your family or birds in the most visible areas of the landscape.

8. Make smart use of containers and raised beds. Containers and raised beds use less water than the ground. Just be careful to water slowly. If water pours out the bottom of the pot, you’ve probably given more than the plant needs, and if you water rapidly, you can wash nutrients from the pot’s soil mix.

9. Check and improve the soil. It’s easy to ensure good soil and drainage in containers, but less so in the lawn. Even without a soil test, a gardener can see when the ground around a plant doesn’t drain well; that can be the death of many xeric plants. Adding organic matter and loosening the soil (but not tilling) can help build soil health over time.

Here's Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.
Here’s Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.

10. Capture and use rain water. If you don’t want to water edibles this way, at least catch rain from your roof to water your ornamentals. It might seem like one 50-gallon barrel isn’t enough, but as with all waterwise gardening, every little bit helps.

Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature's water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.
Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature’s water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.

Search or browse past posts in the Archive or check my Resources page if you want to learn more about low-water gardening strategies. And here’s to 2016!

 

 

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.

You Can Have Grass in a Xeric Landscape

This post originally appeared as a guest post on Gardening Know How.

In New Mexico, drought is more a way of life than an occasional phenomenon. With only 10 inches of annual rainfall in much of the state and a high of 20 inches in the mountains, xeriscaping is the responsible landscaping strategy.

But here’s the problem – unaware homeowners and real estate “flippers” often come in and rip out every blade of grass, replacing the cool turf with what amounts to hot lava. OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but too much landscape gravel can be harsh. And the gravel often lies over a layer of black plastic. If they leave a tree in place, they can kiss it goodbye in five or 10 years. And they might say hello to higher energy costs.

Replace high-water grass

So, let’s say that you want to save water by eliminating your current turf lawn, which uses way too much water. If you plan to rip it out anyway and were thinking of replacing it with gravel and hardscaping, then consider ripping out the high-water grass and replacing a small portion of it with a low-water native grass. Ideally, you’d plant some turf close to your home for the cooling and barefoot effect, especially around the southwest side of the house. And if you have a tree you want to preserve, especially one that shades your home, consider low-water grass near the outside canopy of the tree and wood or other organic mulch surrounding the tree’s trunk.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain. We get no more than 19 inches a year.

Low-water native grass

Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) is native to most zones of the Southwest and Great Plains, up to about 7,000 feet. The prairie grass is a favorite of area ranchers for its protein content and because it comes back each year as soon as spring temperatures warm up. Most of all, once established, blue grama needs no irrigation at all. In fact, if you overwater and overfertilize blue grama, it becomes more susceptible to weed invasion. That’s right, the less you do, the more healthy the grass. Now, you can’t beat that for saving water and time.

blue grama grass seed
A stand of blue grama grass that was left to go to seed.

When I first heard about using native grasses for lawns, I assumed they would not look like regular turf, but like separate bunches of tall grass swaying in the breeze. I could not have been more wrong. It might take longer to fill in than do some grasses designed for turf, and certainly longer than laying sod, but blue grama bunches spread and meet, forming a sod lawn. However, if you want to let the grass go to seed – especially to promote its spread – you’ll delight in the appearance of its 12-inch high stalks with blue-green seedheads. You can even have a mix of both. Mow it in a small patch where you walk and let a few stalks go to seed near the perimeter.

The main point is that with a low-water grass native to your area, you can keep a lawn for kids to play on, dogs to run in, or just for the look of green grass in summer. Yet you use no more water after the first year than you would if you put gravel around your entire house. In fact, most warmer areas of New Mexico have evaporative cooling, which mixes water with forced air to cool homes. When heat reflects off of gravel right next to the house, it takes more water and electricity to cool a house down.

And a few cautions

I have a few cautions with blue grama, however. The first is that it needs some supplemental water the first summer, much like any new lawn. The grass typically comes in seed or plugs, and native sod rolls are now available in Colorado. The seeds should be available from companies that sell native and drought-tolerant plants. The seeds germinate quickly when temperatures are high. The second caution is patience. Blue grama greens a little later in spring than typical grasses made for lawns, especially those that use lots of water. So hang in there. You can water a little in summer when rain is scarce to keep the grass from going dormant, but part of the beauty is letting nature take its course.

Since it’s late in the year now in most zones to successfully seed blue grama, you can at least plan for next year. Check out this excellent handout from High Country Gardens on how to prep your lawn for native grass plugs.

Blue grama seed
Blue grama seed germinates quickly. We had good luck filling in some patches of dirt made by gophers.

Finally, native grasses are just that; they’re not hybrids designed for perfectly manicured lawns that look like golf greens. You might have some imperfections and will certainly have to wait until each area fills in. But when given a choice between gravel and green, I’ll take at least a patch of green – and without using a drop of water.

Low-water Flowers To Cut and Arrange

A bouquet of flowers can make a special occasion much more special! But it’s also just fun to cut flowers from your own garden for table arrangements and a little bit of color and scent inside, especially on a cloudy day.

Flower arrangement with sunflower and other low-water annuals
I am not the best at arranging flowers, but I know what I like. These are all low-water annuals or perennials from our garden.

Many xeric plants produce gorgeous, colorful blooms that you can cut for your vases. You’ll save water and money! Here are a few I enjoy:

Cosmos. This colorful annual comes up each year from seed in whites, pinks and nearly purple. Mature plants are drought tolerant, and might even get leggy if they receive too much water.

Echinacea (coneflower). This versatile flower and medicinal herb now comes in a deep red, but often is a light purple.

Sunflower. Sunflowers are so striking in an arrangement or on their own. Something chomped off the deep red ones we planted, but we got plenty from birds or wind.

Zinnia. Having zinnias in an arrangement gives you more size, shape and color choices. They grow easily from seed. Try to avoid watering them from overhead.

Coreopsis. I love these smaller, delicate flowers in the garden, and could just see their reds, oranges and yellows brightening up an arrangement.

coreopsis.
Coreopsis is a versatile and sun-loving flower that grows as an annual or perennial, depending on zone and cultivar.

Gaillardia (blanket flower). Yes, my favorite wild annual – the blanket flower – works well as a cut flower too.

Mexican hat. This is another wildflower annual in New Mexico. The bloom is small, but different.

Native rose. I like to cut a bloom or two for a tiny bud vase.

native rose in bud vase
You don’t have to have high-water, high-maintenance hybrid roses to enjoy a bloom in a bud vase.

Of course, native plants often make good cut flowers and it never hurts to try a native wildflower from your region in an arrangement. If it’s a wildflower, chances are you’ll be seeing it again! Here’s an article I wrote for Your Home Wizards on arranging flowers by threes. And for information on how to care for your cut flowers, here’s a nice fact sheet from the University of Illinois.