Raindrops Kept Fallin’…

There’s always some irony in gardening. I’m writing about drought-tolerant plants several hundred yards from an area struck by fire no more than five years ago and under severe water use and fire restrictions all spring. We prefer xeric plants and inherited a huge and well-planned xeric garden when we moved here in April. Most of the plants survived with no care or water while the property sat on the market for a year. So we were ready to look for more drought-tolerant choices for a slightly cooler zone and purchase rain barrels in case the skies ever opened up.

early rain
Early summer rain. See how brown the grass is? What grass, you say?

Rural Gardening

People who live in rural areas know their weather. One reason is that they tend to pay attention to the skies, the land, the views. Another is that many grow lawns, crops, or feed for livestock or homestead.

One of the main reasons they know weather is that no television station, web site or app gets rural weather right. Our “local” weather is mixed in with several other communities in our county, some of which are 20 miles north of us or about 1,000 feet higher in elevation. Considering that the temperature can vary about six degrees between our place and a neighbor who lives about a block away, it is hard to pinpoint our precise forecasts.

First and Last Freeze

The USDA has our hardiness zone on the money, and that helps us know which plants are less likely to survive nights below 20, or even 10, degrees. Maybe more accurate is the very definite (but since proven accurate) prediction of various neighbors told us the last freeze would be “around Mother’s Day.” The first year, we had a hard freeze the day before.  When they said that the rains would start “on the Fourth of July,” they were close again. It started raining July 1 and pretty much kept raining for nearly six weeks. I have not asked about the need to tie weather events to well-known holidays, but if it works…

rain on patio
So then it really rained. Maybe because we were trying to pour a patio.

Nearly 6 years later, the holiday predictions still are pretty accurate, but rain has been scarce since 2017. The first year, however, and in summer 2017, we got lots of rain.

Too Much Rain

So, what do you do when your xeric garden gets rain, LOTS of rain? Well, most of the plants adapted just fine. They grew well and plenty of lovely annuals popped up from volunteer seeds. But we also got every kind weed known to man in every spot a weed could grow and some places I thought they couldn’t. In all of the gravel walkways, between rocks and pavers, inside cacti (those weeds are smart!). And pretty much all over the entire 4 acres.

By the time we got a mower to the back orchard, the weeds were up to my knees. We eventually conquered the mowing, but lost the battle in much of the garden. My thinking is that the yard and weeds had a year’s head start on us, and it will take us a little time to catch up.

weeds take over
Still raining Aug. 10. See the weeds in that front bed and all along the ditch bank in the background?

I also have been meaning to ask a neighbor what sort of event to expect on Thanksgiving. Maybe our first snow, though I think it might hit sooner. I just hope the snow doesn’t last for six weeks.

outdoor wedding tent
The rain was perfect in 2017, just before we held our daughter’s wedding here. It let up the morning of the wedding!

Gifts for New Mexico Gardeners

tree-window-wreath-door

December is filled with shopping and even stressing over ideas for gifts. But I’ve got a few ideas and links to some great gifts courtesy of me and my partners at Southwest Gardening Blog. If you have co-workers, friends, or family members who love plants, we’ve got some great ideas, many of them based on gifts we’ve received or wished for, or products we’ve tested.

Link below to a holiday gift guide for Southwest gardeners, complete with links for immediate purchase.

Some of my favorite gifts have included cactus-themed containers or office supplies, Olla watering pots and gardening gloves. For links to some of these and other gift ideas, head over to our 2020 Holiday Gift Guide (which also has a link to last year’s guide) for more ideas. You should be able to link directly from our gift ideas to online purchases.

pin-light-african-violets-humidifier
LED grow lights, African violets, and a USB humidifier are great gifts for houseplant growers.

Speaking as a plant geek, I can tell you that anyone who loves houseplants or outdoor gardening also loves plant-related gifts. My daughter has given me so many thoughtful gifts with a plant theme, some of which are included in the Holiday Gift Guide.

Still unsure? We also have a great gift for anyone who either loves gardening or just has to maintain their Southwest yard. Our 2020 Southwest Gardening calendar has photos from throughout the Southwest and gardening tips or tasks by month.

Since New Mexico and nearby states vary so much in climate and conditions, we’ve divided these tips by region: low and middle desert, high desert and mountain regions, and Texas. It’s a practical and pretty gift full of great Southwest gardening information.

haworthia-foliage
Harowthia is such a fun succulent, and it can send up a stem with yellow flowers.

And if you are in the holiday spirit, read my past posts on New Mexico traditions, succulents as gifts, review of a product for bird lovers, and a recipe for yummy cookies.

Happy shopping!

New Mexico Chile

If there is one fact people know about New Mexico, it’s that we grow the best chile (Capsicum annuum), no matter what neighboring states might say. 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. But nothing beats fresh green chile.

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 for 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 fill 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.

New Mexico green chile
You can roast green chile on your grill.

If you can’t grow chile where you live, buy authentic New Mexico chile. Try the search page for NM chile sellers from the NM Chile Association.

Plant Problems: Don’t Blame Yourself

I believe many people avoid outdoor gardening or growing houseplants because they believe everything they grow must grow quickly, flower prolifically and look like the images they see on Pinterest and Instagram.

papaver-poppy bloom pink
Beautiful poppy from wildflower mix. I have posted lots of photos of these on Instagram. But I didn’t mention it took more than five tries to get this wildflower mix to finally take!

First of all, people post their BEST images on social media. For example, I pinch off dead leaves or spent blooms and only show the best part of the frame. Many photos I see are heavily edited and filtered as well. So, let’s get real about gardening, and talk about reasons plants can fail to flower or die. Some of these you can control, and some you just can’t.

pouring rain in new mexico garden
When it finally rained, it poured, flooding our garden paths. Note the lack of blooms on the rose bushes in front left of this photo.

Rain or lack of rain. In the Southwest, we can water only much so much, and must rely on weather, which is more than unpredictable. We water our xeric plants once as they begin to grow in spring, and then reserve water for edibles, containers and new plants. We pretty much rely on nature for everything else.

This year was dry all winter and spring, meaning less grass and more of several weeds (especially the horrible goatheads, or Tribulus terrestris, also called puncture vines) have taken over. We are doing all we can to control them, but are losing. Last year, the grass filled in better, leaving less space for the weeds. And we could easily stirrup hoe young weeds as they popped up. This year, drought followed by a downpour washed thousands of the seeds all over the place, especially to low-lying areas. When rain comes in deluges, many xeric plants respond and reward. But rain at night or a week of cloudy, soggy days can cause some problems in xeric plants like root rot, leaf mold or leggy growth.

hybrid and wild roses in xeric garden
Here are the same roses in early September of the same year. Rain does what our watering can’t, and these are loaded with blooms at the time they usually begin to fade.

Hot and cold extremes. I’m sure temperature has had something to do with the rose blooms, too. Plant information typically is based on the lowest cold temperature a perennial can withstand in winter, not necessarily the effect of heat on the plant. Plus, natives are used to typical temperature rises in early summer, peak heat in mid-summer and cooling temperatures by late summer to early fall. Here’s what happened this summer in much of New Mexico: We had unusually stifling and dry heat in early June. That’s right about the time we planted our vegetable garden and some new ornamentals. We were a week or two late because of vacation, but still, it is not supposed to hit nearly 100 degrees in June here. Then, just as has happened in summers past, the rain and cool temps came late, once fruit had formed on our tomatoes. They don’t ripen as well in cool temperatures. Looks like lots of fried green tomatoes this fall.

basil leaf with brown spots
We depend on basil leaves to be pretty and look edible. This one had some sort of sucking pest on it. I have to cover all my basil all year long.

Critters of all types and sizes. I’ve written lots about critters, especially deer and gopher damage. But insects also seem to thrive in certain conditions that we cannot control. I didn’t see a single hornworm this summer on my tomatoes or potatoes, which is great but weird. But we had a mealy bug infestation. Yes, the potted plant pests showed up in the ground in our garden, attacking soft woody plants, especially our gaillardia. We had to pull the plants up because of damage and to control their spread.

red and green foliage on Chinese pistachio tree
A beautiful Chinese pistache in full fall color. It’s supposed to be deer proof. Maybe the leaves, but…

Deer eat plants and rub antlers on trunks. Gophers don’t just damage roots when they eat them. The tunnels they dig underground can have lasting effects. We’ve had a few areas of our garden where nothing we plant seems to make it. Some of this might be the soil, but we finally figured out there is a huge gopher tunnel network right below where we’ve been planting – the water rushes down through the tunnel, leaving too little for plant roots.

chines pistache tree after deer damage
Here is the same tree as above. Unfortunately, we added the fence after the deer damage. They killed the trunk by rubbing their antlers on it, and only suckers grow below the damage.

A bad start. Maybe you were unaware of the best location for a new plant or how to prep your soil. That happens, plus conditions change. When a tree grows rapidly, it begins to cast shade further out, often shading a plant so much it doesn’t grow or flower as it did three years ago. There’s nothing wrong with the plant; it just needs a little more sun. It’s also possible that a dying plant didn’t stand a chance from the time you purchased it. Sometimes, diseases hide in plant containers or the plants are root bound and have a hard time bouncing back. Give them time.

Overwatering plants. Overwatering often is the reason houseplants, succulents and xeric plants do poorly. It’s our instinct to add water when a plant looks unhealthy, but it is not always the best solution. Plants like African violets need consistent but light moisture or to dry between waterings, so I’ve repotted some with wicks (see more from the African Violet Society). If the water source is deep enough, you might be able to fill the well and water your succulents on the same weekly cycle, taking the guesswork out of it.

violet start and violet flowers pink
An overhead view of a new African violet transpant (Frosted Denim) with wick watering. When my Rhapsodie Nancy’s blooms fade, I will repot it to have a wick as well.

Always keep in mind that with gardening, the perfect photos you see often are like selfies of your friends. You know what your friend looks like with no makeup on, after all. But she’s still beautiful to you and a dear friend, so you view the selfie from a realistic standpoint. Bingo! Don’t compare your plants, garden or landscape to the ones you see in gardening books or the web. And don’t worry so much about perfection; enjoy the journey.

chewed up lettuce starts
With all else equal in this raised bed, I can only guess the squirrels liked one type of lettuce better than others.

Finally, even if a factor you can control added to the plant’s demise, don’t give up on the variety of plant, or especially on gardening! Even the most expert gardeners lose plants sometimes. Just learn and move on.

5 Winter Pick-Me-Ups for Glum Gardeners

Winter has come late to New Mexico this year, and that’s OK with me. The problem is even when it’s sunny in winter, we have fewer projects we can do so we feel productive and in touch with the soil and plants. So I thought about a few ideas to lighten my winter doldrums and decided to share them.

new mexico snow
It’s time to think about strategies to get through winter before the snow hits.

One: Take a drive or hike, or some combination.

As soon as fall hit and gardening slowed down, we began to visit spots we seldom get to see during the growing season. We drove up nearby mountains and about an hour away to a walk among stunning petroglyphs. My mood improves from endorphins and simply being outside. And we always see a few native plants we’d like to identify, even if they’re at the end of their growing season.

three rivers petroglyph
Petroglyphs, native plants and endless sky all improve the winter gardener’s mood. This was taken at BLM’s Three Rivers Petroglyph Site near Tularosa, N.M.

Two: Grow a winter-blooming indoor plant.

Aside from the pretty holiday mascot, the poinsettia, you can grow a Christmas cactus or amaryllis. I received a beautiful gift of paperwhites (Narcissus) in a clear glass bowl one year. One of these days, I’ll try to force my own. And if you have a warm, sunny window, why not bring in a few of your potted plants? Geraniums can continue flowering in the right conditions, and we brought a shade-loving container with coleus and begonias inside. They might get leggy before the winter’s up, but they make me feel more in touch with summer.

Christmas cactus
Our Christmas cactus started blooming before Thanksgiving, coloring our sunny hallway.

Three. Feed birds and other critters.

Leaving the garden a little messy might seem like a bad idea, and it is tough to watch the demise of your favorite stalks and flowers. But birds continue to feed off the seeds of many plants or seeds spread in fall and early winter winds. Once the seeds fade, birds need a little extra help to get through cold winter nights. We hang suet and a sunflower seed feeder and set out raw peanuts for the jays. I want to keep the birds coming so I have something fun to look at from my window when the sky is gray and the garden mostly brown.

Scrub jay with peanut
Scrub and stellar jays fight for peanuts in our garden.

Four. Start a project, like a bee house or raised bed.

Last winter, we replaced the door on our shed, completely revamped a large garden path, created a dry river bed, and took on lots of other fun projects. In fact, we took on so many that we have to come up with some new ones this year. But vegetable gardens might need new or improved fencing or other design and maintenance. Putting in a new paver path or dry river bed are projects that come to mind. You can build a raised bed or make a bee house or butterfly waterer (puddling pool). Or you can repot some of those succulents and other houseplants you tend to neglect in summer.

Hypertufa succulent container
Tim made this hypertufa container and then filled it with succulents last winter.

Five. Make and give garden-related gifts.

Some winter projects turn into gifts for family, friends or co-workers. I don’t have a perfect crafting style, but I know people appreciate gifts from the heart, time and garden. We’ve made lavender sachets, pressed flower arrangements and outdoor lights. You can even pot up some plants in homemade containers.

pressing cosmos in book
I enjoyed pressing fall flowers last year in old text books. Such a pretty and natural gift from a garden.

And on a snowy, cold and dark winter day, spend a little time by the fire drinking an herbal tea and reading a gardening book, magazine or catalog. You can relax, plan and dream!

Bring Bees to Your New Mexico Garden

Help your garden grow and even help local farmers by including native plants that attract bees and other pollinators to your yard.

bee on blanket flower
Bee on gaillardia in our New Mexico garden in mid-October.

Diseases such as Colony Collapse Disorder, and other factors, have led to declining domesticated bee numbers in the United States. However, there are plenty of species of wild, or native, bees still buzzing around looking for pollen.

flowers in edible garden
This year, we planted flowers in our vegetable garden, partly for cutting and partly to attract pollinators.

Wild bees typically aren’t part of hives; they fend for themselves, living in the ground or in hollow stems of plants. Pesticides, insecticides and other dangers still can harm wild bees. Recent studies have shown that newer insecticides called neonicotinoids are absorbed by plants and can show up in pollen. Farmers and home or business owners use neonicotinoids widely to stop pests. They’re toxic to domestic and wild bees. Avoiding use of insecticides that also harm bees is one way to help bees survive and thrive in your landscape.

Here are a few other easy steps to take:

Dying pear tree left in garden
This pear tree is nearly dead, but it still provides habitat for birds and insects. We’re adding birdhouses for additional color.

Create Habitats

Since wild bees nest in soil and hollow branches, homeowners can ensure a few protected sites in their lawn for bees. This article from the Great Pollinator Project goes into detail on how to help ground nesters and other wild bees.

fallen evergreen
This fallen branch is so pretty and out of the way for us but home to critters.

Basically, some protected and sunny soil and leaving some dead branches on the ground or on shrubs such as sumac can help cavity nesters. You also can install artificial sites such as nesting blocks.

homemade bee nest
An old homemade bee nest that just needs to be reinforced and have new tubes added.

Plant Low-water Flowers

Plenty of favorite New Mexico flowers attract bees and other pollinators. Here’s a list of some of the popular choices of shrubs and flowers that grow in New Mexico gardens:

Flowers:

Agastache (also a big draw for hummingbirds)

Blanketflower (Gaillardia)

Catmint (Nepeta)

Globemallow (Sphaeralcea)

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Penstemon (with many native species for hummingbirds too)

Speedwell (Veronica)

hyssop
Agastache, or hyssop, is a hummingbird and butterfly magnet.

Shrubs:

Apache plume and other native roses

Barberry (Berberis)

Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis)

Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)

Lavender (Lavendula)

Ornamental cherry (Prunus)

Santolina (Santolina)

Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum)

bee on apache plume flower
The pretty white flower of the xeric Apache plume attracts bees for nearly three seasons.

Herbs:

Rosemary

Sage (culinary, along with salvia ornamentals)

Thyme

lavender with bee
Our lavender swarm with bees from the time they begin blooming until late fall.

Learn more about pollinator plants for New Mexico here.

Provide Seasonal Color

The more months or seasons you have plants that attract bees in bloom, the better. We have some native, weed-like groundcovers that bloom in early spring, typically by April 1, that attract so many bees that we hear a low buzz sound all day when sunny. Leave flowers and seedheads on some annuals well into fall and frost danger to provide food for bees and birds. Even in higher mountain regions, native species of penstemon, beebalm and yarrow can bloom well into fall, as can hardy flowers such as gaillardia and cosmos.

spring flower alyssum
This allysum cousin (Physaria) takes over our land and rock garden in spring, feeding hundreds of bees.

Finally, a word about fear of bees. I get it – wasps and bees can be scary if they come after your dessert on the patio or buzz you when you get too close. But I have never had a sting while working in my garden, and the only time I recall ever being stung was when I was a child and running through the lawn barefoot. Even when I trim lavender stalks, the bees might buzz me, but don’t sting. And if you want to remove spent flowers from plants, choose low-light times of day, such as dusk, when bees are less active. Most of all, please don’t avoid plants that bees love just to keep them out of your yard. You’re not just helping bees or the environment at large, you’re supporting a mini ecosystem that makes sure tomatoes and other edible plants produce food for you and your family.

Photo Essay: A Little Spring Green for St. Patrick’s Day

Spring has come early to New Mexico this year. We’re been breaking records for high temperatures. That’s been so nice and has really improved my mood. I’ll even consider it lucky, since we have lots to accomplish before summer.

Of course, our average last frost is around May 10, and April 15 in Albuquerque. So I fear all of the pretty flowers on the fruit trees will freeze at the worst possible time. Or that my impatience with cleaning up and lightly pruning xeric perennials will backfire. I choose to remain optimistic.

Enjoy these green (and a few other colors) early spring finds. Just click on any thumbnail to start the slide show.

Five Easy Foods to Grow at Home

It’s warming up outside (finally!) and lots of Southwest homeowners will be planning changes or additions to their xeric and edible gardens.

easy grow vegetables
Three easy vegetables to grow at home: cucumbers, tomatoes and green beans.

1. Small tomatoes – cocktail, cherry, grape
Pros: Tomatoes are by far the best crop to grow at home to enjoy the flavor and quality of the fruit. Small tomatoes ripen in most climates, and if you plant in succession (such as one plant every two weeks), you can enjoy them all summer in moderate climates. Colorful cherry tomato varieties look terrific roasted or in salads. And these smaller tomato varieties can grow right on your patio in a container (minimum about 12 inches).
Cons: Heirloom tomatoes are  pretty and often large, plus great for slicing to add to sandwiches and green chile cheeseburgers. But unless you live in a warmer zone (Las Cruces, Deming and lower elevations of Arizona), or have a greenhouse, it can be tough to grow large heirloom tomatoes. At zone 6B, we have a relatively short growing period.

yellow cherry tomatoes container
Yellow cherry tomatoes growing on the vine.

Care: Tomatoes need sun and heat; larger fruit seldom ripens completely if temperatures drop or clouds roll in at the end of the summer. It’s possible to keep tomato plants going, and we probably could have grown larger varieties last year. Look for short-season varieties. Water tomatoes consistently for best results, using a timed drip system when possible and a routine for hand watering containers.

2. Cucumbers
Pros: When you grow your own cucumbers, they’re fresher, tastier and lack the wax coating applied to commercial cucumbers. They’re easy to grow and typically produce for months each summer. You can find burpless, slicing and pickling varieties. Cucumber flowers are bright and pretty, so the plant can look great mixed in with ornamentals.
Cons: A cucumber plant needs lots of space, and should have a trellis or similar structure for climbing. You can grow one in a container, as long as you have something for the plant to climb on or around or choose a bush variety (they take 2 to 3 feet of space vs. 6 feet for vine plants).

cucumber in container
Cucumbers can grow on patios if given a place to climb.

Care: Plant cucumber seeds directly in the ground based on seed packet instructions for your zone. Cucumbers don’t transplant well and don’t germinate well until the ground and air are warm enough. Learn when to harvest for best flavor and smaller seeds, usually before the fruit gets larger than its stated size. Give them full sun and well-drained soil.

3. Green beans
Pros: Green beans come in bush or pole (climbing) varieties, along with filet shape, are super easy to grow and are pretty plants. Snap beans (with an edible pod), shelling beans, and dry beans are all choices for home gardeners. You can find purple beans and other colors to liven up the kitchen garden and your dinner plate. Green beans grow well in a range of zones.
Cons: Beans can produce! Although you can freeze or can extras, you can become overwhelmed by the harvest. Plant beans several weeks apart to extend the season and grow only what you need. And be sure to provide stakes, tee pees or fencing for pole beans.

Green bean plant
Green beans have delicate white flowers and are fun to harvest.

Care: Sow seeds directly in the ground in full sun when possible and after the soil warms. Beans need well-drained soil and regular moisture. There is no need to soak bean seeds before planting; the plants germinate quickly and soaking can damage bean seeds. Beans do best when temperatures are not too high (above 90 degrees F) or too cool.

4. Snap peas
Pros: Snap peas are my new favorite vegetable to eat right off the vine. Sugar snaps are delicious raw and a great addition to salads, vegetable trays or stir fry. You can start pea plants earlier than green beans, as soon as soil temperatures warm to about 45 degrees F. The peas grow best in cool weather, which makes them perfect for early spring and late summer planting. The flowers are pretty and delicate, and the leaves are more attractive than larger green bean foliage.
Cons: Sugar snaps have annoying strings along the entire pod, but you can find stringless varieties. The plants need more water than some vegetables.

snap pea seeds
Sugar snap pea seeds go right in the ground in spring.

Care: If using a drip system for your kitchen garden, add a few extra emitters or more pressure for your peas. Vining varieties do best if supported by a trellis or other structure. Mulching around the base of the plants helps keep them cool and moist.

5. Carrots
Pros: Every child (and adult) should get to pull and taste a fresh carrot to get hooked on vegetables. Carrots do well in cool weather, and are one of the first crops you can plant in spring (about 3 weeks before your last frost). Often, you can keep them going well into fall or winter with the help of a row cover fabric or similar method to warm the ground slightly. Carrots come in a rainbow of colors or several sizes and shapes of typical orange roots.
Cons: Carrots require thinning to grow best, and it’s hard to pull up any of your many seedlings. But thinning helps – this is a root crop and you want the root to have plenty of room beneath the soil. If your soil is too compacted, the carrots won’t grow well.

carrots easy vegetable
Delicious, home-grown carrots.

Care: Keep seeds evenly moist and be sure to thin when leaves reach a couple of inches high. Until ready to harvest, keep the crowns covered with soil. Harvest carrots when the top of the root, or crown, is under an inch in diameter, depending on the variety.

Helping Birds and Wildlife Get Through Winter

I tend to hibernate in winter, and emerge only on days that are sunny (common), not windy (rare) and warmer than normal for this time of year (sporadic). I get why animals do the same, and I love the thought that I’m helping them get through winter in some small way.

pine siskin snow
This little bird looks for grass seed under a light layer of snow. Photo by David Higgins, Albuquerque, N.M.

Here are a few ideas for helping area birds and wildlife with your landscape:

Deer have their own diet, thank you

Animal lovers feel empathy for wildlife when severe weather hits, leading to cold and scarcity of plants the animals browse. Unfortunately, tourists in mountain communities appear to be more interested in taking selfies with wildlife. We live near a resort town, where small herds of deer and elk (and bears) live in or enter populated areas. I’ve seen tourists pull over and feed deer. I don’t even want to know what they are feeding the animals. It’s also likely that some people in wildlife areas put out feeders to attract deer. But I don’t agree with that for several reasons.

Buck in garden
Sure, the bucks can trample a few plants in our garden, but I don’t mind that this one feels comfortable and warm here.

Ups and downs of feeders

First, deer take time to adjust to new foods,  many of which are not easily digested by wild animals. The kitchen scraps or Doritos from a car window can do more harm than good. Even if a homeowner sets out a feeder with pellets designed for the deer diet, doing so changes browsing and movement patterns and makes it easier for predators to find and prey on herds. The deer also can depend on humans or compete more for concentrated food sources, which means the weak ones lose out at a feeder. In open areas with natural food sources, the fawns and young bucks can find nearby sources when kicked off the favored spots.

Natural food

We live in a residential area with large lots and our deer are not as used to people as those a few miles up the road. I like it that way, and instead of feeding them, we leave our grass longer in fall to help with their browsing (and we believe it helps improve native grass coverage the next spring). We also do our best not to bother the herd by walking slowly and away from them if possible when sharing space outdoors. That also means teaching our dogs to ignore them.

New Mexico snow with grackles
A light blanket of snow with a big flock of grackles. We seldom see deer with even this light of a layer.

I have wondered and worried why deer don’t come around when we have a blanket of snow on the ground, but I thought it might be too difficult to get to the food below. That is true, and deer know to fatten up and live off reserves, staying close to their trees up higher for shelter. Coming down to graze through a layer or snow would take more energy than the payoff. Other wildlife shelter ideas are piles of dead tree limbs away from the house and in protected areas, along with fencing that is easy for deer and elk to enter.

Birds need food and shelter at various heights in winter.
Sparrows and finches stage in a high tree before taking turns diving to our feeders.

Feeding birds in winter

We do supplement birds’ diets in winter, and although I will continue doing so, I see some evidence of the same problems that can occur at deer feeders. First, hawks and kestrels come right into the garden, hunting near the feeders. They would help me and themselves more by finding some yummy mice to eat instead. Second, we see some feeder competition at times, but we have several different feeders/types of food, and for the most part, the birds all play well together. Placing feeders at different spots and filling them with different energy sources can support more types of birds, especially during migration.

cooper's hawk at feeder
A hawk hangs out right next to a feeder in a redbud.

Natural food and shelter

Of course, natural food sources are great for birds too. But by late winter, the stores of berries, nuts, and seeds on flowers, trees and bushes has dwindled. As I wrote about this time last year, birds need extra food in winter to gather energy to fight cold. And many, such as juncos, must replenish that energy daily in cold weather.

Plants also provide shelter, and placing both shelter and food sources at various heights and spots in your garden offers some protection. Here are some bird-friendly plants:

Sunflower from birds
One of the best natural bird feeders, the sunflower.
  • Flowers for seeds, including sunflowers, Echinacea (coneflower), coreopsis, salvias, and many native grasses and annuals. Milkweed (Asclepias) not only helps Monarch butterflies, but attracts plenty of insects that birds eat.
  • Fruiting vines and shrubs such as Virginia creeper (Pathenocissus quinqefolia), wild grapes, elderberry (Sambucus) and serviceberry (Amalanchier utahensis Koehne, or Utah serviceberry),
  • Native trees for fruits, nuts and shelter. Birds need a high place to land when escaping or looking for predators. Evergreens such as arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) and all spruces offer dense shelter from the elements for landing or nesting.
Rose shrubs provider shelter and food for birds.
This wild rose needs some serious trimming in a few months, but it is a favorite shelter for birds, including a pair of desert cardinals (pyrrhuloxia).

These plants also can provide winter interest for homeowners’ gardens and can feed birds through fall and early winter in some cases.

I’ll admit that part of my willingness to also spend the money on bird seed is selfish. It’s nice to watch the bird show from our window when the plants are dormant and I’m stuck inside. But I also like to think that the shelter and food our place provides help ease the burden for these and other creatures.

Plant Select’s Top High Plains and Intermountain Plants

Each year various societies present plant awards, but those of us who garden in the West and Southwest await the group of Plant Select top performers. Plant Select, which is a nonprofit joint effort of Colorado State University in Ft. Collins, the Denver Botanic Gardens and professional horticulturalists, lists five top performers at various elevations.

blonde ambition grama
Blonde Ambition ornamental grama grass tops the 2016 Plant Select list. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

First, a word about why the work of Plant Select and other regional groups is so important. As I said, there are plenty of awards and lots of information in the gardening world. But, for the most part, plants emphasized by magazines and bloggers are great for East Coast and Southeastern region gardeners. It’s different in the high plains and intermountain areas of the country, where altitude, wind, and heat and cold extremes (in a single day and by season) affect plant health. And let’s not forget the water issue.

Plant Select evaluates plant performance in 53 locations throughout five Western states. Here are some of the 2016 Top Performers. See the entire list at Plant Select.

Grand Winner: Blonde Ambition Grama Grass

Blonde Ambition grama (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ PP22,048) was introduced by New Mexico’s David Salman of High Country Gardens (American Meadows). Blue grama is a perfect low-water native grass grazed on by cattle on our Southwest ranches. Salman introduced the blonde ornamental variety in 2011, and this is the second year it has been Plant Select’s grand winner. Beginning in July, chartreuse blooms (seedheads) appear on upright stems, turning to the blonde color as they age. Watching those seedheads wave in winter winds provides xeric gardeners some year-round interest in their landscapes. Although Blonde Ambition can spread by seed, the seedlings are easily pulled up. The grass is hardy in zones 4 through 9 and deer resistant.

Blonde ambition seedheads
Blonde Ambition looks great in groups or as a single plant in the xeric garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 3,000 to 5,500 Feet Elevation

Blonde Ambition also tops the list of lower elevation garden performers in the region. Number 2 on the list is a tree I’ve never grown, but want to learn more about since it also topped the list for gardens at my altitude (6,300 feet). The Hot Wings Tatarian maple (Acer tataricum ‘Gar ann’PP15,023) has bright red samaras, or fruit made of paper tissue, that bloom all summer. It’s also known for its reddish-purple fall color. The Tartarian maple is a relatively small tree, maturing to nearly 18 feet high and wide, and gets by with full sun and moderate to dry water needs. The only drawback for me is that it is not deer resistant, but I could see this gorgeous tree in any suburban garden from 3,000 to 7,000 feet in elevation and in zones 4 through 10. We still might try it, but we’ll have to fence the tree until it reaches a mature height and keep lower limbs pruned.

top performer hot wings tartarian maple
The Hot Wings Tartarian maple has a gorgeous canopy, but I also love the trunk. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer at 5,501 to 7,000 Feet elevation

Although the Hot Wings maple topped the list of performers at this elevation, I would like to give a nod to No. 2 on the list – Turkish veronica (Veronica liwanensis). Veronica is an excellent low-water groundcover. Veronica is evergreen, so it covers portions of our rock garden all year long. In summer, the groundcover blooms. Turkish veronica has cobalt blue flowers above waxy leaves. It only reaches about 2 inches in height, but can spread to 18 inches wide. Although veronica is a xeric plant, its leaves look better with a little extra water in the heat of summer. Turkish veronica is hardy in zones 3 through 10 and deer resistant. The top 5 Plant Select performers at this elevation also include Blonde Ambition, Apache plume and a catmint called Little Trudy (Nepeta ‘Psfike’ PP18,904).

turkish veronica plant select
Gardeners can prune Turkish veronica around rocks and paths. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

Top Performer in Gardens Higher than 7,000 Feet

Fernbush (Chamaebatiaria millefolium) topped the list for higher elevations. The Western native shrub is xeric once established and grows more upright with less water. It can look more formal with rounded pruning in early winter. Deadheading spent flowers also makes the plant look neater, and should be pleasant considering that the foliage has a honey-like scent. The sweet scent also deters deer. Fernbush can grow to nearly 5 feet high and wide; less water keeps it more compact. The plant thrives in full or partial sun in zones 4B through 8.

fernbush plant select
This fernbush provides year-round interest in a high-altitude garden. Photo courtesy of Plant Select.

These are only a few of the top performers in the Plant Select list. Check out their site for more on current and past top performers, new plant introductions for the region and where to buy plants for High Plains and Intermountain gardens.