Five Low-water Plants for Winter Birds

stellar jay in garden
Stellar jay in line for raw peanuts in late fall.

As winter drags on, birds need lots of energy and shelter from the elements and predators. The best bird habitats mix shelter, water, natural seeds and nest-building material as spring approaches. Native plants offer many of these benefits, and the more varied a landscape, the more bird-friendly it is. For example, birds in our garden “stage” their visits to feeders or the ground by moving between the thorniest rose bushes and higher trees.

woodpecker and sparrow on bird feeder
Birds use low bushes as staging spots before visiting the feeder in our redbud.

Here are five plants or plant types that make birds safer and happier when temperatures drop without adding a lot to your work, or to summer watering requirements.

stellar jay on ground in rock garden
We have lots of spots in our garden where jays hide peanuts.

Native grasses

blue grama grass meadow
Blue grama and wildflower meadow. The grama seed spreads and feeds birds, who also help disperse the seed further for us.

Replacing at least some of your turf with native grasses and other native plants helps birds and uses less water. We purposefully leave our native grasses (mostly buffalo and blue grama) long as it dies back in fall to increase  shots at reseeding and filling in bare spots. The seeds also provide food for ground-hopping birds, additional food caches for jays to hide the raw peanuts we put out, and dried grass stalks for nests before the grass greens in summer.

Ornamental grasses

Karl Foerster grass
Karl Foerster grass in a new dry river bed, next to volunteer blanket flower.

Switchgrass, big bluestem and muhly grasses all provide seeds and nesting materials for birds. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”) attracts birds and is a beautiful winter plant, with tall seed stalks that blow in the breeze. There are hundreds of species of the grass, and it grows in zones 5 through 9. Its water requirements are a little higher than some native grasses, but if you plant Karl Foerster grass in a rain garden or low spot, it will get more water naturally and won’t be hurt by the damp soil.

Barberry

barberry
New barberry (upper right) not far from our bird feeder.
barberry foliage
Deep red barberry foliage on right contrasts nicely with gazanias.

Barberry (Berberus) is a hardy shrub with small thorns along its branches. Depending on the variety you choose, you’ll enjoy deep red or pinkish foliage. The shrubs grow in zones 3 through 8 and retain their leaves in winter in most conditions. Fragrant yellow flowers emerge in spring, and the prickly branches provide good cover for small birds. You can plant several barberries a few feet closer together than recommended to create an attractive, bird-friendly hedge.

Boxwood

boxwood and pyracantha near New Mexico home entry
The wedding dress only hung by the front door momentarily, but the boxwood (left) and pyracantha (right) prune into welcoming shapes. Image courtesy Jessican Inman Photography.

Boxwood (Buxus) normally isn’t considered a low-water plant, and I’ve seen countless examples of boxwood to form formal hedges and designs in other areas of the country. It is an easy plant to shape, and makes such a good hedge because its evergreen foliage is so dense.  That’s also why birds love boxwood. Although boxwood might look a little formal for a native rock garden, we use ours as a foundation plant near our front door, where we want a more landscaped effect. Since it’s also on the north side of the house, I’m sure birds hide under the bush for cover. The boxwood’s protected, mostly shady location and slow growth habit help the shrub stay healthy with less water than it might need in a sunny spot.

Pyracantha

pyracantha berries
Partially eaten berries on a pyracantha bush in fall.

Pyracantha shrubs produce berries in late fall to feed birds as temperatures drop. Also a thorny bush (sometimes called Firethorn), pyracanthas provide safe shelter for birds. What I love about the shrub is the diverse ways you can use it in a Southwest landscape. Leave it to grow naturally (maybe with some shoot trimming after rainy summers) or shape it like a hedge. We had several growing along a distant fence and Tim moved one to the front of the house. The pyracantha transplanted without a blink and just a few scratches. We leave the remaining two out in the yard in their natural state and shape the one in front of the house. I get to see the berries from my kitchen window and saw a Stellar jay eating them this past fall.

goldfinch in Apache plume
A finch waits his turn for thistle in o a native Apache plume shrub.

Many native shrubs  attract birds in winter. Berries, seeds and bushy cover all support wildlife. Ask your local nursery or master gardeners for the best low-water plants in your Southwest zone.

Select Plants Now for Your Xeric Garden

The new year is almost upon us, but gardeners don’t have to wait until spring to dream, plan and even shop for new plants.

xeric garden color container
Combine native xeric plants and a few container flowers for long-lasting color.

You can take some time in winter to plan your garden. Doing so usually cheers my mood and makes me feel like I’m getting something done, even if I can’t do much outside. Here are a few tips for Southwest gardeners for winter planning and shopping.

Check Out New Plant Introductions

Each year, breeders offer new plants adaptable to conditions or resistant to diseases. Many independent testing organizations and growers conduct trials to see how plants fare in harsh conditions such as heat or drought. A favorite regional source is Plant Select in Colorado. The nonprofit organization tests and creates plants for the Rocky Mountains. You can search or browse their plant selections for zone, soil type, sun exposure, water needs and other characteristics. A new 2017 selection is the Sungari redbead cotoneaster (Cotoneaster racemiflorus var. soongoricus). The shrub is a hardy plant and fall stunner in a xeriscape.

sungari redbead cotoneaster
Plant Select’s Sungari redbead cotoneaster grows to six to eight feet tall. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

All-America Selections also releases trial information on ornamental plants and vegetables each year. Although some of the plants are not suited for New Mexico gardens, AAS includes regional winners for the Mountain/Southwest region. For example, its 2018 winners include Mexican Sunrise Hungarian Pepper F1. This past summer, I sowed 2017 national winner Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink F1 seeds in a garden bed and the plant bloomed well into fall. You can find AAS winners at retailers that carry national brands such as Bonnie and Burpee plants or seeds (Johnny’s selected Seeds or Territorial Seed Company).

dianthus AAS winner
Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink from Alll America Selections.

Regional growers and local nurseries often carry new plant introductions. Typically, you can learn about new plants by subscribing to the company’s newsletter or by following them on social media. High Country Gardens (whose chief horticulturalist, David Salman, is from New Mexico) recently released a list of new plants the company offers in 2018.

Finally, the Sunset Western Garden Collection is designed specifically for Western gardeners. Sunset lists a collection of waterwise plants, but you might have to do some research to find out where to buy the plants you spot there.

Order and Review Seed Catalogs

Growing plants from seed takes a little more work, but can save you money. And some plants do better grown directly in the ground (cucumbers and squash come to mind). Even though you’ll have more success and save water by growing plants suited to your region, it’s fun to shop for rare or unusual annuals for containers or other special spots in your garden. It’s much less expensive to buy seeds for plants that probably won’t make it through the winter.

Cosmos in xeric garden
Cosmos are a perfect annual to grow from seed in a xeric garden. Too much water makes them leggy. And they feed bees in bloom and birds when seeding out.

Most seed companies ship catalogs for free to anyone who requests them and I’ve been receiving mine since before the holidays. In addition, you can find online versions of most seed catalogs. Flipping through catalogs can give you great ideas about new or unusual plants or even inspire where to plant them or ideas for companion plants for a particular flower or shrub.

vegetable starts in sun
Vegetable starts sunning in a south-facing window last spring.

Read and Research

Catalogs are one source of plant ideas, but local and regional gardening books and blogs should be your go-to sources. Combining information on plants featured in your favorite gardening books with catalogs and new introductions can help you begin planning and shopping.

scrub jay in xeric garden
This scrub jay uses low-growing xeric plants for stashing peanuts.

In your research, look for ideas such as drought-tolerant plants for easy care, plants for birds and pollinators, or colors and textures you long to add to your garden. Think about herbs and vegetables your family loves and see if you can grow a variety within your space or time constraints. And always read books and websites with a critical eye for credible information and plants most likely to grow in your zone, soil type, sun exposure or water availability.

If you don’t have a good gardening book specific to your state or zone, find out if your local master gardeners have published a plant or gardening guide. And check out my Resources page for books and links on gardening in New Mexico, xeric gardening and other topics.

hummingbird on hyssop
High Country Gardens and other regional companies offer low-water and native plants that attract hummingbirds and add color to your garden.

Shop Locally and Online

Some gardeners prefer to touch and see plants in person, at least to decide on colors or shapes they like. Just beware that some chain stores offer plants each year that aren’t suited to your region or at least offer fewer plants tested for Southwest and xeric gardens. For example, no retailers in New Mexico offer Plant Select products, but High Country Gardens sells Plant Select through its catalog and online store. Shopping, or at least researching, online also can save time. Many online catalogs have search filters. You might be able to search by plant name, bloom color, bloom time or average temperatures and rainfall.

Many online nurseries let you order now and then ship your plants at the best possible time in spring for your zone. So, there’s really no reason you can’t get a head start. Happy plant shopping!

 

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 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.

10 Fall Chores in the Garden

As fall temperatures drop, there’s still plenty to do in the Southwest garden. In most areas of New Mexico, freeze hits by mid- to late October. But plenty of sunny days hit in fall here so gardeners can get outside and take care of these chores before winter arrives:

fall leaves
Raking up gorgeous fall leaves is just one fall chore outdoors.

1. Harvest

If you still have any vegetables ripening, better harvest them now. Tomatoes and winter squashes can finish ripening inside. If you haven’t harvested and dried herbs, now is the time to trim them back and get them ready for use in the kitchen. Some vegetables, such as kale and carrots, can stay in the ground a while. You can preserve some vegetables with help from extension office publications or other credible sources that address flavor and safety of canned or frozen foods. Finally, I like to pick flowers still blooming and place them in a vase inside, just to make me feel better about the season ending.

preserve tomatoes basil
Tomatoes finish ripening indoors in a sunny window and basil can keep for weeks in a glass of water.

2. Clean

There is some debate about what to leave in the garden and what to throw out. You definitely want to throw out any weeds or diseased plant cuttings. Compost healthy cuttings. We even laid some carrots that were too big for our taste out on tree stumps for deer and other critters to eat. It’s personal preference to leave some debris on the ground to naturally compost in place. But if the debris hides unwanted bugs or spores, it’s not a good idea. I usually clean up most plant debris and then use straw or leaves for composting.

3. Preserve Bulbs and Seeds

Check a local gardening book or online to find out how to dig up and overwinter bulbs that can’t handle cold temperatures in your area. In zone 6B in New Mexico, we leave iris, daylily and allium bulbs or corms and should dig up gladiolas and dahlias. Usually, the bulbs just need to be kept cool and dry. You also can preserve seeds from flowers and herbs such as dill or cilantro for cooking or replanting.

red gladiola flower
These gladiola flowers added color and attracted pollinators (but were safe from deer) in our vegetable garden. I’ll dig them up soon to winter them over inside.

4. Leave Some Seeds

Not all flowering plants need fall trimming of spent seed heads. Many can make it through winter and wait for summer trims. And birds love dried up seeds on sunflowers, cosmos and other flowering annuals. Plus, by leaving the seeds on, you increase the chance that some native grasses or flowers will reseed.

Apache plume and finch
Birds love the seeds on our Apache plumes and use the bushes for cover.

5. Evaluate Plant Placement

As you clean up and assess how plants look at the end of their growing season, you can evaluate plant placement. For example, some of our green beans did not fare as well as last year. I believe the spot I planted them in this year got more late summer shade from a neighbor’s tree than I anticipated based on early summer sun. Some plants might have grown too large for their spot or get too much water from runoff. Take some notes and consult local sources so you still have time to decide whether you can move them this fall. Or plan where they’ll go in spring, especially before buying new plants!

6. Mulch

In New Mexico, we mulch for two reasons: to conserve water and cool roots in summer and to warm roots during cold winter. I typically mulch as part of fall cleanup and near the time of the first freeze. Most plants that are native and appropriate for your garden can get by without mulch, but it helps protect tender plants from hard freezes in winter. Mulching needs to be a few inches thick to insulate and to cut down on weeds.

7. Protect Plants

Some of my gladiola bulbs came back and rebloomed without being dug up. But I mulched them pretty heavily with leaves. In addition to mulching, you can put buckets around plants to help keep them warm, especially in winter wind, or to keep deer from destroying them (adding a “lid” made of chicken wire or similar material that lets in sun and moisture but not curious critters). Plants in containers that are tender or annual in your area need to come inside, We move outside containers against a south-facing wall for warmth and to protect against wind.

buck in new mexico garden
This buck was lounging in our winter garden, probably after feasting on some roses. Note the plastic buckets on a few plants behind him. Some are there to protect from trampling, some from munching.

8. Empty Containers

It’s time to empty all those containers with edibles and annuals that are dying back. You’ll need fresh potting soil next year and it’s better to store containers empty. We empty soil from our containers (unless the plant had a disease) into garden beds and large stock tank containers that need soil. You can also save potting mix in plastic sealed containers, but it should be mixed with fresh potting soil and compost when replanted in the spring.

plants on wall
Potted geraniums and succulents come back inside for winter. We’re lucky to have plenty of sunlight through our windows.

9. Amend Soil

If you have new garden beds or some that need better soil, fall is a good time to improve soil health. Adding some compost gives it a chance to break down, as does covering beds with leaves that fall from trees. And it makes the spring preparation easier. There are many ways to amend bad soil, such as planting cover crops before frost or having a soil test so you know how to better balance pH in your growing beds. But gardeners learn to tell when soil is compacted. It’s hard to go wrong adding a little organic matter in fall.

10. Enjoy Time Outside!

Fall is a favorite season for a reason. Cool nights and warm days make it hard to stay inside, even when there are few chores to do. And enjoying even the final flower blooms before frost arrives is part of the reason you work hard to make your lawn and garden look nice.

rudbeckia bloom
Some flowers bloom late in summer and into fall. The blooms on this rudbeckia are hanging in there.

Soak it all in and dream about spring, when you will feel renewed energy and enthusiasm for garden chores.

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.

Use These Resources for Native Plants and Seeds

Native plants should be the mantra of every xeric gardener. Let’s first review what makes a plant native and why native plants are so beneficial.

native plants southwest
Native and xeric plants blooming in early fall in New Mexico.

What is a Native Plant?

A native plant grows naturally in a particular region or location. To be termed “native,” a plant must have had no human intervention when it first set down roots. That doesn’t mean you can’t plant natives, just that the original plants were, well, original to a region and not introduced. The benefits of choosing native plants are many, including:

Water savings. Plants native to a region and climate should need less water from gardeners in prairies and mountains, relying mostly on Mother Nature alone. Even in areas where drought is less of a concern, native plants should get by on typical rainfall with little supplemental watering after the first year or so.

Convenience. Less watering means less time, in addition to the natural and financial resource savings! Native plants should be easier to maintain as well.

native verbena butterfly
This native verbena grows voluntarily in our garden and grassy areas. That’s OK with the butterflies!

Helping pollinators. As natural areas such as forests and prairies disappear, usually because of development, bees and butterflies have fewer plants they can rely on for the energy they need. Planting natives helps them find nearby food sources. Attracting pollinators always is a good thing – they help tomatoes and other vegetable plants fruit, and your garden improves their habitat. Regardless of the many “right” reasons, you and your family can enjoy watching bees, butterflies and birds as the pollinators enjoy the buffet.

Butterfly bush with butterfly
Buddleia (butterfly bush) is both native and introduced in the Southwest.

Better chance for success. Native plants are adaptable, so if you plant the right plant in the right location and follow care instructions, watering a little more than recommended in the first season or so, your job is easy after that.

Native Plant Resources

Now that I’ve convinced you to go native, where do you find native and pollinator plants for your region? Here are six resources:

  1. Your local nursery, as in locally owned. You’ll find more knowledgeable staff on average here than at big box stores (such as Walmart or Home Depot). Local nurseries tend to grow and sell plants native to your area, and usually can answer your questions, even with some specifics on microclimates in your region. Catalogs that sell to your region or zone also can be helpful, especially in identifying pollinators (typically with an icon of a bee, butterfly or hummingbird).
  2. Apps, especially from local sources. There are some great plant apps or mobile-friendly sites, including GrowIt! And Plants Map. For example, GrowIt! has a search feature for plants within a set radius of your location. As long as there are other members near you, it can be a big help. Plants Map includes communities, resources and individuals in its collections. A search could bring up your nearby botanical garden or private collections. Local apps from trusted sources such as extension offices are great for spotting natives. I use Southwest Plant Selector app, listed on my Resources page. In the future, watch for Leafsnap, a collective effort to offer visual recognition software to help you identify plants, much like a printed field guide.

    native wildflowers New Mexico
    In early spring, before the grass filled in, we had native wildflowers coming up in open areas.
  3. USDA Plant Database. The Department of Agriculture has a database from which visitors can search plants by scientific or common name, and filter by state. It also has a state plants checklist (that looks like HTML code, unfortunately). This site is not sexy, but the best part about it is that once you find a plant you’re considering, a map comes up that indicates whether a plant is native to your state (green fill). It includes a lot of scientific information, but most plants have several photos to help verify identification and if you click on “legal status,” you can learn whether the plant is considered endangered or classified as a noxious weed in your state.
  4. Native plant societies. The North American Native Plant Society has lots of information on natives, including a database searchable by type of habitat and this list of state plant societies. Those state groups with websites or newsletters can be excellent sources, and most offer inexpensive membership.
  5. Friends, family and neighbors. If you see a plant you like, one full or butterflies, or remember a favorite from childhood, ask around. Even if a plant is not native, but seems to do well in your neighborhood, you can ask the homeowner or a local landscape designer about ease of care and hardiness.
Sunflowers from seed
Sunflower seeds are easy to collect. Birds likely dropped these near our house.

Native Seed Resources

Growing natives and pollinator plants from seeds is less expensive, but can require a little more time and water initially. Here are a few sources for information on gathering or buying native seeds:

Xerces Society- In addition to pollinator plant lists for the United States (that unfortunately appear to exclude New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and some other Western states), the society has a seed mix calculator to help with restoration efforts of prairies, etc., with native pollinator plants.

The North American Native Plant Society also has a seed exchange for members and information on collecting seeds from native plants.

Native Seeds/SEARCH is the top source for Southwestern native seeds. Their vault contains native crop seeds for low desert and high desert regions, along with wildflower seeds. It’s a wonderful combination of conservation and native seed resources.

seeds in storage bank
Native seeds in cold storage room at Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson.

Check out the Resources page for more information on buying seeds and plants native to your region.

Let’s Help, Not Confuse, New Gardeners

Often on this site, I talk about how to keep gardening simple, fun and useful. And although xeriscaping can be tricky and drought even tougher to endure when starting out as a gardener, there are plenty of strategies to help gardeners succeed, or at least enjoy the process.

cosmos annual
Gardening can be easy. We didn’t even plant cosmos here. They reseed from old plants. All we have to do is control them.

To help Southwest gardeners — and all people jumping into gardening — I try to follow a few important rules:

  • Emphasize the positive, how anyone can make it work and that everyone makes mistakes.
  • Use lay language while also providing scientific names for plants (which helps avoid confusion when a reader looks for a plant).
  • Educate, even by admitting mistakes we’ve made in the garden.

Here’s how I look at it: We all started out new to this hobby at some point, whether it was in childhood or following an education in horticulture. Yet we’ve had nursery people talk down to us when we ask a question, and I cringe every time I see a tweet or pin titled “You’re Doing _____ Wrong,” or “5 Mistakes to Avoid With ____.”

tomatoes cracking
Tomatoes can crack. You can learn how to water to avoid it, but it’s a little harder to control rain. All gardeners (and farmers) lose some plants or fruit.

I’ve also seen fellow master gardeners try so hard to show what they’ve learned that they are condescending when talking to new gardeners on social media or in person. That’s really the opposite of the concept; master gardeners are trained to help.

To that end, I recently wrote an article for Green Profit Magazine about how folks in the industry can talk to the level of all gardeners and potential gardeners. The article includes some helpful sources who recognize that helping gardeners succeed beats telling them what they’re doing wrong.

If someone kindly explains something to me that I already know, it wastes a little bit of my time, but I appreciate the effort. But when someone makes me feel stupid because of a question or error, I simply stop frequenting their business or acquaintance.

So, if you already garden and want to recruit a neighbor, daughter or friend into the hobby or you communicate with gardeners, help people with kindness, example, simplicity and patience.

 

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.

Five Starter Waterwise Plants

Need to ease into saving water in the lawn? Or just ease into gardening? As you think about next spring and ideas for improving both the look and sustainability of your lawn or garden, consider adding easy-care plants that need little to no watering. Here are five ideas:

Yarrow is an easy xeric plant
Bright yellow yarrow anchors this bed and is accented by light purple salvia and California poppies

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). The woody, herbal rosemary is near the top of my list of favorite xeric plants. The only problem you can have with rosemary is if it receives too much water (or snowpack in winter). Otherwise, try a creeping rosemary near a rock or low garden wall. The stems will grow over the surface and you can trim it in spring just to keep it clean and healthy. I’ve seen bushier varieties shaped into small hedges. And man, what a great-smelling hedge! Finally, be sure to plant a rosemary near your kitchen so you can head out and clip cuttings for cooking use anytime of year (at least in zones 8 through 10). We have rosemary plants that come back each year here in zone 6B. They’re near the house in a rock garden, which helps warm them up. Plant rosemary in full sun and only water occasionally after its first season in the garden. Rosemary plants also reward you with tiny lavender-colored flowers in summer. And although I love the taste of rosemary, deer leave them alone. Bonus!

booming rosemary
This rosemary bloomed in late summer. The foliage alone is attractive and aromatic.

Barberry (Berberis). Barberry comes in several varieties that do well in plenty of sun (or partial shade) and low water. Berberis x ‘Tara’ Emerald Carousel is a type that grows well in alkaline soils, the kind we have here in New Mexico. Depending on the variety, barberry grows a little wider than high. Some Japanese barberries can grow tall – up to 10 feet – so consider that when selecting a plant. Barberry leaves change color with the season, and I’ve seen lime, orange and deep red varieties; they’re all stunning. Several plants along a wall can form a hedge in front of a house or fence. We like the spiky red foliage for its color and texture in our garden and deer usually avoid the plants. Barberries might need a little more water in the first year or so than some plants listed here. After that, they can handle periods of near drought or drought. All you have to do is prune them once or twice a year to keep the shape or size you like. Be sure to wear gloves!

Barberry is a great foundation plant.
Close-up of the maroon-toned leaves and spikes on our barberry.
Sunset's orange rocket barberry
‘Orange rocket’ is a berberis from Sunset that takes heat and little water or care. Image courtesy of Sunset Western Garden Collection.

Yarrow (Achillea). Yarrow is considered an herb, but I grow it for its easy care and stunning colors, which include white, yellow and red varieties. Moonshine yarrow has bright yellow flower clusters that you can cut for arrangements. I also pressed a few this year. This truly is one of the easiest plants to grow. Each spring, you simply cut off the dead flower stalks and clean up the plant. By mid-summer, you’ll have color. I even tried trimming spent flowers off one of our yarrow plants this year to see if that would force a second bloom sooner. But the ones I didn’t trim had more blooms in the second wave of flowers than the one I trimmed. Lesson learned. After the initial spring trimming, just leave yarrow alone. The plant also spreads but not invasively, so consider that when placing it in a design. We dug up one that was too close to another plant and transplanted it near our farm to attract butterflies and bees. It needs a little more water when first planted or transplanted. After that, it can get by with no water in all but the most severe droughts and survives winters down to zone 3.

moonshine yarrow
Moonshine yarrow cluster of flowers.

Four-wing saltbush (Atriplex canescens). Native Americans used many parts of the native four-wing saltbush, including leaves and boiled roots, for food or medicine. It’s also useful to wildlife, grazed by deer and antelope. The name for the bush comes from the four paper-like wings that surround its seeds. There’s no real care needed for saltbush, especially in a natural garden, but you can trim it as desired. When saltbush flowers, it takes on an attractive two-tone effect. The native plant is easy to grow in any soil, and can pop up around roadways in New Mexico. Ours grows far from the garden along a fence. We don’t know if the former owners planted it or if it came up from seed. If you’re worried about it spreading, just learn to recognize the plant’s needle-like leaves and pull up any small plants in your garden or yard.

four-wing saltbush
Buster runs by our saltbush for helpful scale. I might have to trim this one soon, but love the wild look of the plant.

Jupiter’s beard (Centrathus ruber ‘Coccineus’). At first glance, Jupiter’s beard (also called red valerian) doesn’t look like much. The flowers rise above thin, pointed, pale-green leaves. So it’s a lot of foliage mixed in with small, coral-pink flowers. But these flowers pack a punch! They’ll bring bees and hummingbirds to your garden all summer. And they grow best in dry, hot conditions. Still, red valerian can survive frost down to zone 3, or about -30 degrees F. All you have to do is give Jupiter’s beard a sunny spot and water regularly the first spring and summer. Then you can pretty much leave it alone. We water once in spring, depending on rain. You can cut back old leaves and stalks in spring to give energy to new growth. The plant reaches about 2 feet high and wide.

Jupiter's beard is an easy-care xeric plant.
I don’t have a close-up of Jupiter’s beard, but enjoyed watching hummingbirds on the plant all summer. It’s the one on the upper left with small coral flowers.