Favorite Xeric Plant: Salvia

The salvias, or sages, include a huge and versatile group of shrubs, ornamentals and herbs. But I want to focus on a few of the xeric ornamentals. Last week, I wrote about a new royal red cultivar from Plant Select. My favorite salvias have deep, red or purple flower spikes and survive in the chilly nights and dry heat of the high desert and intermountain zones.

Most salvias attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Several varieties are perennial in cooler zones, but others work only as annuals.

Purple salvia

Purple salvia cultivars (Salvia X sylvestris) include the popular “May night” meadow sage, which has been popular since 1956. I believe that’s the type of salvia that comes up in our garden each year. Other varieties such as a new sylvestris called “Little Night” are compact bloomers with the same striking indigo blue or violet color. They usually begin blooming in spring. Cutting the flower spikes close the ground as they begin to fade can stimulate a second round of blooms. Another purple salvia called West Texas cobalt sage (Salvia reptans) grows in zone 5 through 10 and is a native of the mountains of west Texas. Its foliage is different from many salvias, resembling grass more than leaves. By early fall, spikes of deep cobalt blue flowers open and attract hummingbirds. The plant has deep roots, making it a great choice for xeric gardens.

purple salvia in xeric garden

Salvia sylvestris, with deep purple blooms all summer, is a showy xeric plant.

Cherry sage

The cherry sage or autumn sage (Salvia gregii) is a popular small shrub in Texas and New Mexico. Although labeled semi-evergreen, most of the leaves drop off during winter in zones 6 and 7. It’s drought tolerant, but produces more flowers and a bushier leaf pattern with some moderate water. Keep this bush in filtered sun for best results, and prune dead flowers throughout its growing season to enjoy more cherry-red or pink- to coral-colored blooms. Planting several together can give you an attractive two-to-three foot hedge.

cherry red sage
Cherry or autumn sage makes a great low shrub in a low-water garden.

New white-blooming salvia

Finally, here’s another reason to love salvias! It’s a new compact salvia called Summer Jewel White (Salvia coccinea) with white blooms all summer that begin earlier than most white salvias. The plant is an All-America Selections 2015 winner based on its attraction of pollinators. I love contrasting white flowers with deep reds and purples. Summer Jewel White is an annual, but it’s low enough (about 10 to 24 inches high) to plant near a May night salvia or cherry sage without blocking the other plant’s blooms.

summer jewel white salvia
Salvia Summer Jewel White is a new annual. Image courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, Inc.

Another great feature of most perennial salvias is that you can easily propagate more by separating mature plants and replanting them. We’ve had a few volunteers crop up near our mature plant that we plan to move to another area of the garden.

Buying Garden Plants: Big-box Store Vs Local

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the Plant Select recommended and new introductions for 2015. Plant Select, up in Denver, evaluates how well these plants perform at high altitude and with less water, and also whether the plants are native to North America. And they encourage gardeners to support local nurseries. I couldn’t agree more.

Let’s take a look at the reasons why it’s often best to buy plants from local nurseries, along with reasons why it’s sometimes better to purchase at the Big Box store.

First, supporting your local nursery is the same as supporting your local grocery store, electrician or restaurant. It’s neighborly and the right thing to do, especially if you also own a local business. The major reason for gardeners to buy locally is to ensure they find native plant selections for their area. I can’t tell you how many times I have wandered into a chain store’s nursery area and shaken my head in wonder. It’s obvious that the store’s buyers know little about New Mexico, or perhaps lumped the state together as one zone, or maybe with Phoenix. That’s crazy! Some plants wouldn’t make it here, or might work as an annual, and others use too much water.

When buying from local shops run by people who live in your community and who usually are quite knowledgeable, you may have less selection, but what you lack in quantity, you gain in quality. I’m not necessarily saying the plants are always better quality – we’ll get to that. But the plant selection likely is confined to native plants for your area, or at least to plants most likely to succeed in local gardens.

 

Native nursery in Tucson, Ariz.
Shopping at a local native nursery in Tucson, Ariz.

So, when do you buy local and when do you buy from big chains? It’s a matter of personal choice, and every town is different. So this is based purely on my opinion and experiences: If I want a lot of annual flowers to fill a large bed or several containers, I might be more likely to buy those from a chain. I don’t need the quality of a longstanding perennial, and I want some variety. Chances are most annuals can make it through the season. I save money that way.

For a solid perennial, especially in a unique situation and one I’ve never grown before, I would head to the local nursery for advice and a quality selection. Chances are I will find staff with good knowledge of my zone and climate and how to care for the plant. I’ll pay more, but that’s OK if it’s a good quality plant, especially because I’m also getting the right, native plant and some free advice thrown in.

Some local nurseries grow their own stock. That also can be good, if they know what they’re doing and care for their plants well. But if you have a few bad experiences with a nursery’s plants and are paying higher prices, try another local garden source or seek advice from local Master Gardeners and extension offices and find your plants elsewhere, maybe in a nearby larger town, but still from an independent nursery. You can’t beat word-of-mouth recommendations when it comes to nurseries. They all look awesome as you drive up!

Plant Select 2015 Plants for High-Altitude Gardens

I’ve written before about how the harsh environment of the high desert and foothills of the Rocky Mountains affects plants. But I’ve got good news! The brilliant folks at Plant Select,have announced their new plants and recommendations for 2015. Plant Select is a nonprofit source of plant selections that thrive in the High Plains and Intermountain regions and in a range of conditions, including low water. I’ve summarized a few of my favorites:

Coral baby penstemon (Penstemon x “Coral baby”). This is a new plant with upright spikes of coral-pink flowers that bloom from May through July in Zones 5 – 8. It takes moderate to dry water conditions once established and prefers sandy, well-drained soil. I love to see hummingbirds on penstenoms. Plant Select says Coral baby also attracts bees and butterflies. The plant was selected by breeder Kelly Grummons of Denver, who specializes in xeric plants.

 

Coral baby penstemon, a new introduction from Plant Select for 2015.
Plant Select’s 2015 Coral baby penstemon for Zones 5 to 8. Image courtesy of Pat Hayward, Plant Select.

WINDWALKER royal red salvia (Salvia darcyi x S. microphylla). I like that this hummingbird attracter is deer resistant. Plant Select says that it produces blood-red blooms from June through October in Zones 5 to 9. Cutting the salvia back in early summer can reduce its height (which can reach up to 58 inches). WINDWALKER salvia likes full sun and is moderate to xeric in water needs. It’s also from Kelly Grummons of Denver.

Plant Select's new WINDWALKER Royal red salvia is a moderate to xeric beauty.
Plant Select’s WINDWALKER Royal red salvia, a new plant for 2015 that produces blood-red blooms all summer.

WINDWALKER big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii “P002S” grass. This new introduction from Plant Select for 2015. Bluestem grass is one of the most beautiful ornamental grasses, and grasses can make a great statement in a xeric landscape. I especially love them near walkways or up against rocks. The powdery blue foliage on the WINDWALKER big bluestem can grow up to 6 feet tall in Zones 5 to 8. We left our bluestem through fall and enjoyed the dried foliage in the winter wind, then cut it back to the ground in early spring. It grew back, but was not as hardy the next year. This variety was selected by Sunscapes Nursery, and should reward with purple plumes in fall. It should get by with moderate water or dry conditions.

Windwalker big bluestem from Plant Select, a new grass for 2015 that's perfect for a xeric garden.
Plant Select’s new introduction WINDWALKER big bluestem grass is a perfect choice for a breezy xeric garden. Image courtesy of Scott Skogerboe and Plant Select.

Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmannia peristenia). This is one of several recommended plants from Plant Select for 2015. Because it’s native, it should adapt to high desert climates and water conditions. These grow wild at our place and when we head out to mow down weeds, we try to mow around them. They grow about 2 feet tall and are filled with yellow daisy blooms in late summer that attract pollinators. In the garden, plant them in part shade to full sun in Zones 5 through 10.

Engelmann's daisy, a native wildflower of the Southern Great Plains, is among the 2015  Plant Select recommendations. Image courtesy of Pat Hayward and Plant Select.
Engelmann’s daisy, one of Plant Select’s recommended plants for 2015 because of its adaptability to all sorts of conditions.

Visit Plant Select to learn more about their selection process and 2015 recommendations. I’ll probably include a few more in future posts. And if you live in the high desert or intermountain West, ask your local nursery if they stock any of the Plant Select recommendations.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Weed or Wildflower, Part 2

Nearly a year ago (in May 2014), I wrote a post about the fine line between weeds and wildflowers. The gist of the rant was that our rock garden and entire property was being invaded by a lovely flower called yellow alyssum (Alyssum alyssoides). It’s a little earlier in the spring, and even yellower!

First, the good. If you love early, yellow blooms, this is a pretty little flower. It looks pretty up against a rock or under a red rose, perhaps. Notice I said “it,” as in a single plant. More on that in the ugly portion…

yellow-alyssum
Yellow alyssum sprouting from rocks in a New Mexico rock garden.

Now for the bad: This little spreader has cropped up throughout the garden, and we’ve pulled up a few, though I surrendered long before my husband. He has much more patience, though he hasn’t yet tackled the entire garden. Because he wouldn’t get halfway before he had to start again.

alyssum-prickly-pear
Yellow alyssum growing between pads of prickly pear cactus.

If I had any doubt last year about alyssum’s classification as a weed, at least in this setting, I have no doubt now. And that’s the ugly part. Despite our best (nontoxic, of course) efforts to control this little bloomer, it has taken over every nearly every surface and begun spreading to neighbors’ lawns as well. I have no idea how it started; it came with the house!

alyssum weed
Yellow alyssum as invasive weed in southeastern New Mexico.

Having called it ugly, I have to admit the lawn is really pretty when the sun hits it just right early and late in the day. And we are doing our part ecologically, because the bees swarm all over it when the sun shines. The dogs and deer must tread carefully.

alyssum and deer NM landscape
OK, I admit that the alyssum looks pretty here from a distance. But play “Where’s the Alyssum?” and you’ll spot it everywhere. And what exactly are those deer running from?

As for last year’s fear about the alyssum choking out summer grass, we still had a green lawn come summer. We don’t know if the flowers delayed the grass coming in, but I have a feeling they did. And I am frightened to think what will happen as it takes over, reseeds and multiplies. Meanwhile, I need to research medicinal properties of alyssum flowers or something. Maybe I could make some money?

UPDATE April 6, 2015: A few days after posting this, we headed east to visit relatives, through Roswell and almost to the Texas border. Guess what we saw growing in the worst possible conditions along roadways nearly the entire trip? You guessed it! And it was in my in-laws’ lawn and their neighbors’ yards too. My mother-in-law said she has seen it for years and knew it as a prairie wildflower. I give up and accept this invasive plant as a prairie wildflower … for now.

New Mexico Chile

If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum). You might not know that paprika and cayenne come from chile products. Paprika is made from low-heat red chile, and cayenne from a more pungent, higher heat pepper.

Leaving green chile on the plant until it is red and nearly dry makes the red chile pods that are used for chile ristras, and especially to make delicious red chile sauce. People who live in New Mexico love to eat chile, and the only real debate is whether red or green chiles are better. The best way to solve any dispute and please the taste buds is to order both (a choice called “Christmas” in our local restaurants). Take my poll below if you have a strong opinion!

red chile ristras
New Mexico red chile, strung in decorative ristras. Image from the National Park Service.

According to New Mexico chile growers, the industry is in trouble because of low-cost foreign competition. But chile crops require warm weather, arid conditions and warm soil. Southern New Mexico in particular boasts the perfect chile-growing conditions. And since weather can affect not only harvest but flavor and heat of the fruit, why would anyone buy from less than the best?

If you want to grow a few plants in your own garden, the chile plants thrive best when temperatures are at or above 60 degrees. Even a light frost can kill a chile pepper plant. Direct-seeding is preferred, but you need a long, warm growing season to start chile from seeds. Otherwise, you can transplant chile plants that are about six to eight inches high and space them about 10 inches apart. Make sure they’re getting full sun and are in well-drained soil. They need consistent watering, but adjust based on rainfall. They won’t like wet feet.

green chile from community garden
Green chile harvested from neighborhood community garden, along with other great vegetables.

Chiles are ready for harvest around August, and New Mexico towns fills with the smell of roasted green chile. Both red and green chiles are loaded with vitamins A and C and tons of flavor. If you’ve never tried them before, start with mild or medium heat and work your way up. I’ll post some of my favorite recipes in the next few months.

If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Here’s a list of companies that support the NM Chile Association.

High-desert Gardening: Harsh and Heavenly

There is desert – arid, warm, often windy, and maybe sandy. And then there is high desert, which is arid, warm during the day (in summer, anyway), often windy, and very cool at night. We sit on the border of high desert and intermountain. Because we’re a small community off the radar, I doubt there are accurate records of our true temperatures and rain averages; we have our own backyard weather station to track temperature and wind speed because none of the models really match what goes on here!

When I tell people back East that I live in New Mexico, they may make a few assumptions. I speak to mostly bright people who know that New Mexico is indeed one of these United States. But occasionally, I get an “international” reaction, especially when making online purchases; see my Fun Stuff page for more on that. Most automatically assume that I’m enduring 100-plus temperatures most of the year. And having grown up in Phoenix, I get what they mean. If I were in the low desert of much of central and southern Arizona or New Mexico, it would be plenty hot.

Generally, high desert is defined as any area that’s above about 3,500 feet in altitude and has fewer than 10 inches of rainfall a year. But to grow any decent crop, you need 20 inches of precipitation. Much of New Mexico falls into the high desert category, as do many areas of the Southwest and West. Being at the base of the Sacramento Mountains, we get a little more rainfall (purportedly closer to 21 inches annually) thanks to summer monsoons. But our nights are considerably cooler than Sunset’s definition of high desert. We easily dip close to 10 degrees a few times in the winter, and it snows here.

 

new mexico snow
February snow that capped out at 10 inches in a few days (at least on our picnic table).

So if you are a plant in the high desert/intermountain west of the United States, you have to be one tough customer. In winter, temperatures can easily range more than 40 degrees in a day, and we often have a few weeks of warm spells, much to the chagrin of local ski areas. Depending on the timing of these warm spells, fruit trees and perennials can bud out early, and then get zapped by frost. The sun shines most of the year, but when you combine it with our winds, plants that lack moisture in the soil dry more quickly. Oh, and did I mention the low rainfall?

Places like Santa Fe (at 6,995 feet elevation), and many portions of Colorado at 7,000-plus in altitude can average close to 10 to 14 inches of rain a year. Leadville is considered “America’s highest city” at 10,161 feet, and only receives 15.6 inches of rain annually.

 

northern New Mexico landscape
Country road near Mora, New Mexico, which is northeast of Santa Fe. It was pretty, but dry, in early fall a few years back.

If you want to garden in the high desert, it takes plenty of xeriscaping strategies (the term was coined in Denver!). Top on the list is use of native plants, purchased from your local nursery or a company that specializes in high-desert plants. If the plant is native to your area, it’s already toughed it out. Why bring in a new guy? Microclimates can help you try to force a zone up or down, and water conservation and water reclamation can help you grab as much natural rainfall as you can get to make it through the dry spells. Mostly, you need patience. If Mother Nature throws a hard frost at you after May 15, just shake your head and hope you have better luck next year.

 

purple penstemon
One of many types and colors of penstemon native to New Mexico.

Check out my Resources page for more information, including a link to a favorite catalog source.

Weed or Wildflower?

Water-wise gardening in the Southwest means accepting the spread of native wildflowers and using them to fill and brighten a landscape or garden. There’s a fine line between weed and wildflower, however.

Some native species spread so easily under the right conditions that they take over a garden. Others might not be native, but were introduced to an area and thrive when Mother Nature cooperates. That’s why we had a “yellow spring.” Last fall, we noticed pretty little spiral seedlings appearing in the dying grass. We wondered what they were, but left them. In the spring, yellow popped up everywhere.

 

yellow alyssum in New Mexico lawn
Is it weed or wildflower that spread like crazy in early spring? It got yellower and was pretty, but weird.

Don’t get me wrong; it was beautiful. But I spent hours trying to identify the weed. I knew it probably was related to mustard, but it didn’t match any of the typical mustard weeds I could find in my searches. And I searched, and searched, for wildflowers and weeds. Here’s a close-up of it in the garden. And guess what it is?

yellow-alyssum
Alyssum is usually a lovely annual in flower beds. Here is yellow alyssum in our rock garden, where it also grew like crazy.

It’s yellow alyssum, or Alyssum alyssoides,  a member of the mustard family, imported from Europe. And it has both good and bad qualities. I’ve purchased sweet alyssum before as a bedding plant. And in some searches, it’s listed as a great choice to bring beneficial insects. I can vouch for that, because as I walked across our property on a sunny day, there was a low buzz – bees everywhere. I loved it, but it was a little freaky. And I saw one doe get stung on the face.

Alyssum also is listed as a weed in many Western states. It’s got a taproot about a mile long (slight exaggeration) and really only comes up completely if you moisten the soil and pull. I’ve seen conflicting information on whether it threatens native grasses. We’ll know more as spring progresses.

In the photo above is another weed/wildflower: a native verbena (species Glandularia). I’ve bought plenty of verbenas for rock gardens in lovely colors. And these are beautiful too, especially coming up between the yellow alyssum out in open grassy areas. They are more leggy and leafy than the hybrid or garden-variety verbenas, however, and will come up just about anywhere:

verbena-weed-new-mexico-xeric-rock-garden
Wild verbena looks pretty against rocks, not so much all over a gravel path.

Now, I have wildflowers I love that spread like weeds, usually by self-sowing. We usually leave them in place. Some are great for color and flower, some for scent. And the beauty is that they adapt so well to the dry conditions that they fill the garden without us having to purchase, plant, and most of all, water new plants.

An early spring favorite is night-scented stock, also called night stock (Matthiola longipetala). Believe it or not, it’s also a member of the Brassicaceae, or mustard family. The scent in early evening is so pleasant, and we love that these come up near the patio. They’re also reseeding in the grass around the garden!

night-scented-stock
Night stock has a delicate and pleasant scent that comes out with its blooms in early evening.

The blanket flower (Gallardia) has always been a favorite and the previous owners made sure we have plenty in our garden. They thrive in drought and have such vibrant colors, as do Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers (Ratibida columnifera).

mexican-hat-prairie-coneflower
Mexican hats, or prairie coneflowers, pop up everywhere in our garden. These look terrific next to perennial yarrow.

We even admit to leaving a few alyssums intentionally where they complement another plant or look pretty up against a rock or piece of dried wood. We’ll never be able to pull them all or stop the reseeding, and I’m not sure we should. They do attract bees and offer early spring color. But it’s hard enough to get grass to grow in a drought and through various weeds. If alyssum adds to the competition too much, we’ll probably need help finding a control method.

Update in March 2015: The alyssum didn’t choke out the grass last year. It might have delayed grass taking root in a few spots, but we had a beautiful lawn. And yep, it’s already back. I’ve come to accept it, and just want to keep it from spreading across an irrigation ditch to our orchard area. Tim is trying to pull it out of the rock garden beds. I don’t have the energy to fight it. But it’s fun to watch…

 

Making the Most of Native Roses

Our rock garden has a few native roses. We decided to try harvesting some rose hips this fall to see what we could do with them. The rose hip is the fruit left behind after a rose has faded, and one of these bushes was perfect for harvesting the fruit. We could tell because several critters had already been around the bush doing the same.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a good photo of the bush in bloom, and it was a little unruly when we moved in, having not been pruned the previous year while the place was on the market. I gave it a little haircut, but didn’t want to do too much too late in the season. It will get a deeper prune this year!

roses
Here’s a shot of the rose section of the garden. Looking past the weeds, see a new grandiflora a friend gave us (pink blooms) in the foreground and a really prickly native rose to the left. A bushy native rose sits in the middle; it didn’t bloom much, but we think it is pale yellow. Our rose hip plant, which produced pretty pink blooms and tons of fruit, is right of center and back.

Rose hips pack a punch of vitamin C, so we didn’t want them to go to waste. We read up on when to harvest (about a week after the first frost) and waited until a nice day. It ended up taking us a few nice days, a few buckets and a step stool. We never got them all, but as you’ll see later, we have more than we could ever use.

rose hips
A bunch of picked hips, well one tiny bunch, not the entire bunch. From what we read, they should be deep red and just starting to wrinkle or dry a bit. They seemed a little soft and resistant to harvesting the first time we tried, so we waited a week or so and tried again.

First up, jelly. Because it’s sweet, that’s why. We had to pick through and clean off the hips. We found a recipe online and after some trial and error, managed to get enough good liquid out of our boiled hips. They were so pretty and smelled really good while boiling.

boiling rose hips
Pot of boiled rose hips for making jelly. Maybe it was the altitude, but we had to run ours through the fabric again to get enough good syrup for our jelly.

The good news is that the jelly set and we like the taste. We’ve given a few jars away and kept the rest for us. It’s a little tart, but otherwise good. And I love the color. Somehow, I feel less guilty eating buttered toast when I spread the rose hip jelly on it.

rose hip jelly 022
Rose hip jelly. We put up five jars this fall, keeping the extras in the garage (cool) in a small cardboard box (for darkness).

The next attempt was tea. I thought the tea would be a healthy, caffeine-free drink for winter afternoons and evenings. I have not had as much luck with the tea, however. Most recipes say to boil berries for 15 minutes and then crush, steep and strain the contents. Or, you can crush the berries in a food processor and steep them in a tea sock (making sure not to let seeds or hairs from the hips through). But I’ve found that even after steeping for 10 minutes, the tea has little flavor. And after too much time, tea is no longer hot! I’m trying to figure out if I’m doing it wrong (so likely…) or if some of the berries were old, hanging out on the bush since last year.

dried_hips_tea
Drying the hips was easy here, where humidity is…what’s humidity? We laid the first batch on an old window screen over a box, but then just spread them out in an old cardboard box. I keep my processed barriers in a small sealed container and some clean berries in a plastic bag.

I’ll keep experimenting with the tea, maybe adding more crushed berries next time. We’ve got plenty left to use, so many in fact, that when I needed a quick arrangement around the holidays…why not? I threw some of the rose hips into a hurricane vase with some decorative rocks, and it’s still out on a small table in our sun room.

Rose hip art, at least in the eye of this beholder. Rose hips make a great natural craft item when not providing vitamin C in the form of jelly, tea or syrup.
Rose hip art, at least in the eye of this beholder. Rose hips make a great natural craft item when not providing vitamin C in the form of jelly, tea or syrup.

With some good late winter pruning, I hope to improve the yield on both native roses and we’ll see how we do with next year’s crop. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the flowers, which appear with no  supplemental watering.