When approaching a new landscaping or planting project, it helps to gather ideas, whether you do so virtually or hopefully in person. A top benefit of being a member of the Association for Garden Communicators (GWA) is access to botanical, demonstration and private gardens.
If you travel, you can gather plenty of ideas from around the country. Even when I’ve visited the Northwest or Southeast, I’ve always found plant and design ideas or just enjoyed the gardens! If you want practical ideas you can apply in your own backyard, nothing beats a local botanical or extension demonstration garden.
Benefits of Demonstration and Botanical Gardens
Many botanical and demonstration gardens are designed primarily to educate. Extension master gardeners typically have demonstration gardens featuring native and zone-appropriate plants for their area. The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, has a xeriscape garden to demonstrate how local residents can save outdoor water use but have attractive lawns. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, Botanic Garden includes a demonstration farm that re-creates a 1930s farmstead to show how people can grow or raise their own food. And I love the Pollination Gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.
The Tucson pollination garden teaches visitors about planting for pollinators, including Monarch butterflies. Most demonstration gardens help visitors learn about plants and especially how to grow them locally. But if you really pay attention, you also can learn a lot about design, containers and especially which plants or collections get you excited about gardening. Most gardens also offer classes or guided tours to add to the learning experience.
Finally, taking children to demonstration gardens can spark the gardening bug, especially for growing food. In fact, a study of demonstration gardens started by North Carolina county extension staff showed that between 2006 and 2010, the number of gardens made up of edible plants outpaced those with ornamental plants only or a mix of edible and ornamental plants to teach families about growing food.
Many demonstration gardens are run by extension offices of universities and the state extension’s master gardeners. Often, universities, cities and counties have gardens that serve dual purposes of beautifying office or park landscapes and teaching residents about gardening or local issues such as conserving water, saving pollinators, container gardening, producing food or gardening more sustainably. Hospitals can have meditation gardens on their grounds or demonstration kitchen gardens to help patients and families learn about growing healthy vegetables.
Others might be organized by private entities, and if touring an entire botanical garden seems overwhelming to the beginning gardener, or the gardener’s toddler, botanical gardens offer demonstration gardens within their exhibits. Visitors can make their way to the gardens on the map that interest them most. Remember, many demonstration and botanical gardens rely heavily on volunteers and fundraising to maintain their plantings.
Virtual Demonstration Gardens
Major botanical gardens might offer virtual tours, a nice tool if you can’t visit them in person and are researching local native or adapted plants for your own garden. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you also can follow favorite demonstration or botanical gardens and see photos or live videos. Or you can join an online community such as Plants Map to connect with other gardeners, organizations or resources that interest you. Organizations such as botanical gardens also set up collections on Plants Map.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Check out the Resources page for more information on buying seeds and plants native to your region.
New to gardening? Or just not a horticulturist, botanist or even a master gardener? Then you likely get confused by some of the terms you see on plant tags, in nursery catalogs and even in blogs like this one. You’ll enjoy gardening much more if you can weed through the jargon (and the puns). Here are 10 terms explained in plain language to get you started:
10. Xeriscaping. This one’s my favorite, of course. And as I’ve said before, it’s xeriscaping, from xeros, the Greek word for dry … not ZEROscaping. In other words, it’s planning a lawn and garden that uses the least possible water. In most cases, this means using drought-tolerant plants (see no. 1), but xeriscaping also involves using native plants adapted to your climate and conditions, along with lots of other strategies for landscape design and plant choice.
9. Perennial. The word means long lasting, and that’s pretty much true of perennial plants as well. A perennial grows in your yard for more than two years, often for much longer before it needs replacing. Remember that perennial varies based on where you live. For example, the well-known geranium can be a perennial in a warm climate, but I have to bring mine inside for winter. And don’t freak out if a perennial plant disappears or looks dead after frost. You’ll likely see new growth on it come spring. Planting mostly perennials in your garden usually leads to less work and less watering.
8. Biennial. A biennial plant lives for two years, or two growing seasons. Seeds start the plant’s root, stem and leaf growth in the first year, but the plant doesn’t produce flowers, fruit or seeds until the second year. After that, the plant typically dies, but can spread seeds before dying back. An example of a biennial is the foxglove (Digitalis). Another is one of my favorites, the columbine (Aquilegia), which might flower the first year, or might put all of its energy into leaf and stem growth, and then flower the following year. Some forms of poppy (Papaver) also are biennials. And unfortunately, some weeds also are biennials. They take on a tiny round leaf form, survive the winter that way and then flower and spread seeds, lots of seeds, the next year.
7. Annual. An annual lives only one year, or for one growing season. Still, some annuals re-seed, so if you’re willing to let Mother Nature design your garden layout, you can let annual flowers dry up and produce seeds. Annuals are great for small containers and adding color to a garden or patio each year. But they usually require more time, money and even water in the long run than perennial plants.
6. Native. A native plant was likely in your town before you moved in. These plants grow naturally in specific regions or conditions. They should not become invasive if they’re planted in their native region. The real benefit of native plants (aside from their beauty in the garden, forest or along roads) is that they’ve done most of the work already. They know how to survive weeks with no water or really high spring winds. Selecting native plants is one of the most effective xeriscaping strategies.
5. Specimen plant. Lots of catalogs refer to a bush or flower as a “specimen plant.” This has nothing to do with strange botany experiments. All it means is that the plant can stand on its own as a focal point in a garden or landscape design. For example, petunias or begonias look much better in mass plantings, which means groups of the same or similar flowers for a dramatic look. Mass plantings might become hedges or adorn the entry to your local mall. Landscapers might plant a row of 100 marigolds and a row of 200 petunias for striking color. On the other hand, a specimen plant shines all by itself.
4. Invasive. Typically, an invasive plant is a nuisance at the least. It can choke out other plants and grasses, climb around and choke bushes or simply compete for precious water. Invasive plants grow easily and rapidly, usually because they are not native to the area. Just remember that these terms are all relative. A plant native to a particular part of the country might be considered invasive after being introduced to a different region. When a plant becomes invasive, it probably crosses that very thin line between wildflower and weed. One of the most troubling weeds we encounter is field bindweed (Convulvulus arvensis), which is considered invasive in all of the lower 48 states, Hawaii and Canada. Maybe on the moon…
3. Deciduous. If a tree or shed is deciduous, that simply means it loses its leaves in fall and winter. The opposite would be evergreen, trees that keep their leaves all winter. Deciduous plants shed their leaves as a protection against upcoming cold. Many turn rich, deep shades of gold and bronze before falling, which gives the yard and garden color as summer flowers fade.
2. Pollinator. You might see list articles on blogs and social media mentioning “pollinator plants.” This means that the plant attracts bees and other insects that help promote flower and fruit production. The insects disturb and transfer tiny grains of pollen in flowers. Without bees, most fruit trees and many vegetables would produce little to no fruit. Many native plants, herbs and vegetables attract bees, butterflies, moths, hummingbirds and other pollinating insects to the garden. They’re essential plants to help maintain honey bee populations, which have been declining. Here’s a list of New Mexico pollinator plants. Many gardening books and catalogs place a tiny icon of a butterfly or bee in descriptions to let you know they attract pollinators.
And No. 1: Drought tolerant. Back to an important xeriscaping principle. Plants that are drought tolerant can go longer periods of time without water; it means basically the same as xeric, but is a little more direct. Plants with drought tolerance and resistance have characteristics that help them survive in these conditions. And all it usually takes is a little bit of rain to make them thrive, green and flower. Just remember – if you purchase drought tolerant plants, be sure to water them regularly for the first few weeks or months and up to the first year, depending on the plant and its size. The water keeps the plant alive through the shock of transplant and helps the roots get established.
Wildflowers that reseed are a perfect plant for busy and cash-strapped gardeners. Once you get them going in the garden, they’re sure to come back for years. The trick is to deadhead or cut the flowers for arrangements while in peak bloom and then let some spent flowers go to seed.
With that in mind, choose a few plants or seeds for your favorite low-water annual and enjoy the colorful rewards for years. Here are six favorites of mine, most of them in the Aster (Asteraceae) family:
No. 1: Cosmos
Start with annuals or easily grow cosmos from seed. They come in a number of colors, including several versions of pinks and purples and white. The flower is a native of Mexico and can reach various heights depending on the mix and growing conditions. With too much water, they get a little tall and leggy. Sow cosmos after your last spring frost. Let several go to seed in fall to feed birds and provide next year’s color.
No. 2: Blanketflower
Gaillardia, or blanketflower, is an annual or a perennial in zones 3 through 11. It reseeds in our garden and lawn. This drought-tolerant beauty adds yellows, orange and rust tones to the garden. The blooms attract bees and butterflies. Blanketflowers bloom best if the gardener deadheads spent flowers, cutting the stem just above the next set of leaves down the stalk. You can also cut the plant by about one-third at the end of summer instead of regularly deadheading. If you want the flowers to reseed in your garden, leave some dried heads on the plant well into fall.
No. 3: Mexican hat
Called Mexican hat or prairie coneflower, the Ratibida columnifera is yet another member of the Aster family that reseeds easily. Mexican hats can bloom all summer long with little to no water, adding earthy colored blooms to xeric gardens. They attract bees and are considered an herb with touted use to ease stomach pain or headaches. When planted from seed, they might not bloom until the second year, but will reseed. Because the seeds need cold to help them germinate, those dropping from a plant in fall in zones 4 through 9 stand an excellent chance of becoming new plants in spring.
No. 4: California/Mexican gold poppy
These wildflowers in the poppy family love sun and drought, but bloom best after summer rains. We call them California poppies (Eschcholzia californica). Mexican gold poppies are a subspecies of E. californica that thrive in desert settings. Both have feathery leaves and flowers about 2 inches in diameter that resemble a cross between an oriental poppy and a tubular or cupped flower. Deadheading the remaining seedhead helps them produce more flowers, but letting the seeds develop late in summer could lead to a new stunning poppy across the yard!
No. 5: Coreopsis
Yet another member of the Aster family, coreopsis is a great self-sower. It might take over a garden in the right conditions, but our Lanceleaf Coreopsis, a classic yellow bloomer, spreads nicely in our dry climate. If you want more color, coreopsis won’t disappoint. Here, Sunset Magazine lists a dozen favorites for western gardens. Some varieties such as lanceleaf are perennials, depending on zone. They’re a fun, natural looking plant with flowers suitable for cutting.
No. 6: Wild daisies
Like their relative the sunflower, native daisies in the Aster family can spread easily and pop up in unexpected locations. We have several that bloom in late fall and spread mostly by seed. The trick is recognizing these gems among a stand of weeds so you can let them grow to maturity and bloom, then reseed. Some wild daisies are invasive, but they’re easy to control in our dry climates. Bidens alba, also called common beggartick or Spanish needle, has tiny white flowers on lanky stems. They’re pretty and are touted to have herbal or medicinal uses, but as friends of mine pointed out, they have needle in their name for a reason. The seedheads not only help the flower spread, but get caught in nearly anything they touch, including dogs’ coats.
You don’t necessarily need to gather seeds from these flowers unless you want to try the plant in a different area. We’ve had mixed success with that, maybe because a particular flower tends to reseed where conditions are best for the plant.
If you’d like to grow some of these reseeding flowers in your garden, check with your local master gardeners or a regional garden book or blog to see which types grow best in your region without becoming invasive. Of course, I go with the premise that I can always thin volunteer flowers if they get out of hand. That usually only means smack-dab in the middle of a walkway…
It smells fantastic, looks gorgeous, attracts bees and butterflies and needs little water or care. And on top of that, it’s a useful herb. Truly, I can find no drawback to growing lavender in the arid Southwest. Still, I’ve talked to several people while selling at farmers’ markets who say they had trouble establishing or maintaining lavender. So, here are a few tips, because I wouldn’t mind seeing lavender on every corner of every town.
Where to plant lavender
It’s tempting to plant lavender everywhere in the landscape! But the plant does best in full sun and with plenty of air circulation. So, if you plant lavender on the north side of your house, especially up against the house, it might not do well. You can also plant lavender in containers, but might have to amend soil around the plant after a year or two. Be sure to place the container in full sun and give the container plant a little more water than it would need in the ground — but not too much!
Lavender hedges are a summer stunner. But if you want to plant a row of lavender, be sure to leave plenty of spacing between the plants, and between the lavender and other plants or structures in your garden. It won’t look as full the first year. But by year two, you’ll love how the flower stems nearly touch but the plants have plenty of room. And foremost, plant lavender where you can enjoy the scent and pollinators the plant attracts. And check nurseries soon for a new variety from Sunset called “Meerlo,” which has variegated leaves!
When to plant lavender
Whatever date you think is right for lavender, push it back a week. Seriously, the only real problem we had with some lavender plants occurred when a group of new plants were shipped to us too far ahead of our last frost date. Fearing the plants were becoming rootbound in their small nursery pots, I planted as soon as the frost passed. But the ground and air were still a little too cool, plus the dirt did not drain as well as other spots in our garden. So that meant the new plants would stay wet after rain or watering. The only problem that really affects lavender is root rot. So be sure the ground and temperature have warmed up enough before planting.
How to plant lavender
First, make sure the variety of lavender you’re ordered or chosen at a nursery is a perennial in your area. Years ago, I assumed that French lavender (which really is from Spain) would do better in our climate than English lavender. It’s so cool and damp there! But French lavender is not as cold hardy. Most varieties of English lavender, however, can survive U.S. winters. Just check the zone when you buy.
Here’s the trick to success with lavender: Plant it on a small mound. This is a departure from typical attempts to save water by welling around plants. A well can hold water in longer, but lavender wants to take a drink and then dry out. Also, by gathering up a mound of dirt, you give the young roots some nice loose soil.
My second tip is to surround your lavender not with organic mulches, but with tiny white pebbles or decomposed granite. Doing so still allows water to penetrate, but gives the plants reflected sun and passive solar heat gain. If you use rocks and have as many weeds as we have, you’ll need to try and get the mulch layer at least three inches high. But leave a border several inches around the new plant on every side so the rocks don’t crowd the lavender base and constrict growth. Water more often than the plant tag says for a few weeks or more, until the plants look settled in their new home. But let new lavender plants dry out a little between watering or rain.
How to care for lavender
So, you have your lavender established. The hard part’s done! All you have to do how is harvest the gorgeous flower stems as the flowers begin to open in summer. In warmer climates, you often get a second bloom. We’ve found that our second bloom in zone 6B is pretty sporadic, even lousy. So it’s really a matter of choice – you can harvest early and enjoy the scent inside your home, or leave the stems on the plant to enjoy its color and share its fragrance with pollinators.
Just be sure to trim the stems off – right at the top of the leaves – at the end of summer or in early fall. Don’t worry if your plant turns a little gray in winter; it should begin to green up along with other perennial plants in spring. As new leaves begin to emerge in spring, trim your plant for shape and health. That means avoiding cutting down into the woody stems. I give mine a nice round shape. So simple.
That second year, your plant should need little to no watering. I typically give lavender plants some water right after trimming in spring and then only water if we have severe drought.
The stems are easy to dry and place in a vase or use harvested buds to make sachets or potpourri. Lavender is great in homemade gifts and even as an edible.
Our low-water garden has lots of yellow. Maybe that’s true everywhere. And it’s a bright, happy color. But we like a little more variety, and it’s easy to add pops of color a little at a time, or with annual plants. Here are a few tips for finding plants of many colors.
Find flowers by color
Although you’re used to a favorite flower blooming in a particular color, there likely are hybrids with colors you hadn’t considered. For example, we think of sunflowers as bright yellow, but I love the cinnamon varieties. I’ve got some seeds in again, in the hopes that bugs and deer leave them alone.
One way to find flowers in complementary colors is by using apps and online databases. For example, the LadyBird Johnson Wildflowercenter’s database includes bloom color, along with native states and sun and moisture requirements in its combination search. For a simpler search, try a list like the one maintained by ProFlowers, which lists flowers by color next to illustrations and a brief description. Just beware that national lists of flowers often include varieties that do poorly in some zones or soils or need more water than those in a xeric garden. Be sure to read the descriptions or do a little research before making your final decision. You can also try apps that either have pictures shared by posters or plant identification. If you can find a local or regional app, even better.
Wander around a nursery
If you feel a national list might isn’t giving you enough choices for your area, visit a locally owned nursery. Although they’ll carry some annual varieties that aren’t perfect for the community’s climate, they also carry plenty of knowledge and tend to feature plants that are native or adapted to local growing. If you do find a few annuals either at a local or chain nursery, limiting the number to a few pots or a corner of a bed uses less water, time and money than basing your garden color plan on annuals. Most nurseries separate perennials and annuals to help shoppers.
Make notes as you pass homes and businesses
If you’re walking to a restaurant in town one night and spot a flower with a color you love or know would add variety to your garden, take a photo of the plant and a close-up of the flower. This will help you compare what you saw (and photos work much better than memory) with identification apps, databases and local gardening books. Including the entire plant in the photo helps you remember the type of foliage, height and spread of the flowering ornamental.
Color really is a matter of personal choice, and with the recent National Pollinator Week in mind, I try to choose a few new plants for their ability to attract bees, butterflies or birds. For example, studies have shown that bees gather more nectar from purple or violet flowers than from any other color.
Keep it simple and choose what you like, but remember not all plants bloom at the same time, so your color variety might be seasonal or in stages. That’s great too though, so you and the pollinators can enjoy some new blooms every few weeks.
It’s Earth Day 2016! It’s hard to believe this movement started in 1970. Earth Day says “let’s get big stuff done for the planet.” I love that idea! But it’s also overwhelming. I mean, I have enough trouble taking care of myself while juggling work, family, and getting anything done to care for our four acres. But the only way to take big steps for the planet is if everyone takes a few small steps. Here are five tips for greener gardening today and all year long.
Have an empty spot to fill? Use what you have.
Sometimes a plant dies even with our best efforts, leaving an empty spot. Or maybe you’ve been studying an area of your yard all winter knowing it just needs something. Instead of buying a new plant, divide or move an existing one. Plenty of plants that spread divide and transplant easily. For example, Russian sage sends up runners that you can sometimes transplant. Our purple salvia created about five offshoots over winter, one below the garden in the grass. Tim dug up several and potted them; we even gave one to a friend. We also moved several plants. This is a great money saver (and sometimes plant saver) when areas of the garden become overgrown or one plant no longer gets the sun it should. We moved one of the three Apache plumes in our xeric garden to an area that helps screen off a little bit of our vegetable garden. Close enough to attract bees.
Help beneficial insects.
Our lawn and garden attracts bees from late winter until the insects cluster tucked away in winter. The garden also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Moving the Apache plume, along with an offshoot yarrow and two divisions from our blue mist spirea, we just added a new hangout, inviting them to gather closer to our tomatoes and cucumbers! We’ll add milkweed this year for the monarchs, and I can’t wait to see how that goes. We’re growing ladybugs, unintentionally. And I’m counting on them to keep aphids off the milkweed.
Avoid chemicals whenever possible.
Speaking of ladybugs and bees: insecticides kill these helpful insects along with the bad. There also is no need for chemical-laden herbicides in most cases. And I’m saying that knowing full well that half of our orchard is almost entirely covered by horehound. This member of the mint family does best in drought. I know that because if we try to hoe it up, we usually hit rock. I can’t win against a plant that grows from rocks and prefers dry conditions, especially around here. My Earth Day gift: Anyone who wants to make candy or cough syrup can come here and harvest all the horehound they want! As for care of vegetables and other plants you actually want in your landscape, paying attention to their sun exposure and watering needs helps prevent future problems. Enriching soil with compost is a slow, natural way to add nutrients. Compost tea is a gentle fertilizer.
Grow food for your family or wildlife.
Growing food in the garden saves water. It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s not. I can control (within the limits of nature and horehound) the health of my edibles. And keeping them healthy can save water. Sure, they are not native to our area and require more water in the heat of summer than we could ever responsibly pour to an ornamental plant. But every tomato in the grocery store was watered, probably a with a lot more than I use. Even though water availability is regional, it also can vary. And it’s a shared, finite resource. A shrub with berries feeds birds. Fruit trees are a great example of planting a tree for shade or spring blooms with the added benefit of food. Those who don’t like the mess can choose dwarf fruit trees appropriate for their area. And no matter what anyone says, I think green bean, melon and cucumber plants are as pretty as most flowers!
Water responsibly, no matter where you live.
Back to water, because that is always a concern on our place and in most of the Southwest. As I said, it’s a shared and finite resource. If I use too much from our well (or from city supply), I affect the water table, the saturated, upper part of groundwater where rain has soaked through soil. Groundwater provides nearly 40 percent of water for cities and counties, and drinking water for most rural people. It’s everybody’s job to do their part in the home and garden, no matter where they live. Use of drip irrigation, watching and caring for plants sustainably, watering early in the day and using automatic timers to control sprinklers or smartphone timers to remember to turn off the hose are small but important steps every gardener can take.
It’s one thing to enjoy the look or scent of a plant and its flowers; it’s a bonus when the plant rewards the gardener with other uses. And to me, any plant that attracts pollinators and people is a useful one. Some plants do more, however, doubling as edible, decorative or medicinal plants for the home. Here are five plants with home uses that also survive low-water or drought conditions once established.
Lavender (lavandula) seems to be tops on any plant list I compose. I’ve yet to meet anyone who doesn’t care for the scent, and bees and butterflies flock to the flower stems. And the flowers – you can cut them for arrangements, dry them to make gifts and even use buds in recipes. Lavender is touted for its soothing qualities for skin and stress, as well as its aroma. The plants are easy to care for in a low-water garden. Simply give them well-draining soil so the roots dry between rain or watering. Harvest the first flush of flower stalks and you’ll likely have another bloom in late summer. Otherwise, trim only to shape in spring.
Another favorite low-water herb is thyme. Just touching it gives your hand a salty, earthy scent. You can cut entire stalks in the fall for drying, or cut a fresh sprig for flavoring poultry. It’s an excellent herb for flavoring vegetables with strong flavors, such as cabbage. Tiny purple flowers emerge on longer stems that haven’t been harvested, attracting bees and adding delicate color to a xeric garden. German thyme is hardy in zones 5 through 9, but lemon thyme needs a little more heat (zones 7 through 9). Just give thyme plenty of sun and well-drained soil and it will spread, creating a low bushy appearance in the garden.
Sea holly (Eryngium amethystinum) has a thistle-like appearance to me. The drought-tolerant flower is a perfect choice for rock gardens, or even sandy beach gardens. That’s because it loves hot, dry conditions. Big Blue reaches heights or nearly three feet. The stunning silver-blue flowers are spiny in texture. Use sea holly indoors by cutting a few flower stalks to include in arrangements. Not many other cut flowers have their color, texture or unique look. Sea holly grows in zones 2 through 10.
Got sunburn? Fresh gel from your own aloe vera plant (Aloe barbadensis) can provide soothing relief for burns and skin rashes. Of course, sunburns are more likely to occur in areas where you can grow aloe vera plants outside, like Maui, where we used aloe to soothe our tourist “color.” So, it’s an outside plant only in about zone 10B, or where night temperatures go no lower than 40 degrees F. Aloe vera also needs well-draining, even dry soil. The plant stores water in its fleshy leaves, which makes the well-known gel. If you’re in most zones, you can grow aloe vera as a houseplant and summer outdoor visitor. When you need to extract gel, you can use simple kitchen items. Here’s an article explaining how to get gel from aloe leaves.
Growing nut and fruit trees for shade and food is a smart xeric gardening strategy. Of course, you have to pick the right tree or shrub. The pineapple guava (Feijoa or Acca sellowiana) is an excellent example of a tree that bears juicy, full fruits but with less water than some fruit trees. These aren’t like truly tropical guavas, but have a taste that resembles a mix of pear and pineapple. The plant is drought tolerant but a little more water ensures late summer to fall fruit. And even if they don’t fruit much, the gorgeous white and red flowers look good enough to eat. It’s too cold in New Mexico, but southern California gardeners can enjoy the plant and its fruit. In fact, we spotted a guava in the lawn of a Pasadena home. I was too busy being jealous to take a photo. Here’s a photo and more information on the plant from Monrovia.
As we plan expansion of our vegetable garden/tiny farm, we’re hoping to grow healthy food by continuing to use organic methods and some principles of biointensive (biologically intensive) planting. The idea of biointensive farming is far from new, but more small and large farmers are applying biointensive principles, which complement organic methods – and for us – water savings.
In biointensive horticulture, rich, healthy soil maximizes a farmer’s yield in minimal space; it also strives to continuously preserve, or even improve, the soil’s health. And that should be the goal of any vegetable gardener. Biointensive farmers loosen soil more deeply by using tools such as broadforks instead of tilling and turning the soil over. Compost is king, building and enriching the soil.
So far, so good. We already take those steps. A few more principles of biointensive gardening follow. I want to share our measured approach largely to help gardeners who have less time or experience. Any method with the word “intensive” in the name is going to freak some folks out. But nothing says that gardeners have to follow every tenet of biointensive gardening to the letter. To me, adopting any of the ideas should improve plant health and production, especially if you’ve never gardened organically. There’s no way I can adequately tackle this topic; entire books address it. And I don’t claim to be an expert, but we’re adding to our knowledge base with research, along with trial and error!
Healthy soil for healthy plants
As I said, composting and double digging of beds better prepares soil. If you can produce your own compost on site, even better. That leaves plenty of healthy organic matter on hand and saves money. Another principle is avoiding chemicals in the garden. If soil and plants are healthy, they should need less help and better resist pests and diseases. We spray aphids off with blasts of water, handpick critters like cucumber beetles and use insecticidal soap or diatomaceous earth only when nothing else works.
More yield in less space
Maximizing growing space is another premise of biointensive gardening. One reason is weed prevention and cooling of soil, or “living mulch” from mature plants. The other is efficiency and production, especially for urban gardeners with limited space. We certainly want to grow as much as we can in the space we have. But in biointensive gardening, the design and proximity of plantings is a little too, well, intense for me.
I love the idea of planting lettuces and other low greens close enough to help shade the soil and block weeds. But I’ve seen what happens when people plant tomatoes too close together. Not only do some plants shade others from valuable sun, but they don’t get enough air circulation. Plants also compete for nutrients and water. And why build an above-ground highway to make it even easier for a hornworm to travel from one plant to another? Finally, I want to be able to reach plants for easy maintenance and harvesting. We’ll experiment on the lettuce and maybe another crop or bed to see how close spacing compares.
Interplanting and companion planting
We’ve read Jean-Martin Fortier’s “The Market Gardener,” and plan to employ many of his methods for building rows. We’ve built up the soil and added compost, and measured the rows so they’re 30 inches wide, with a small walkway between each. That’s just enough room to maximize growing area and minimize plant problems or gardener aches, pains and frustration. We’ve got containers to extend our growing space. I believe we’ll also try a little more interplanting, just to help maximize space or use the shade from a tall or trellised plant to cool another. Many urban gardeners use square-foot gardening to achieve intensive planting.
We won’t, however, use interplanting as companion planting. I know there is historical basis for placing particular plants next to one another to improve each plant’s health or yield, but I’m less certain about scientific basis for the practice. Aside from use of cover crops to enrich the soil at the end of the season, I’m not sold on companion planting. Of course, I might have a jaded opinion because I’m so tired of seeing it, along with many garden myths, pushed on Pinterest. We’ll continue to build and improve the soil in our beds and rotate crops.
Whole-minded and open pollination
The biointensive principle of using open-pollinated seeds instead of GMO varieties ensures biodiversity of crops. The reason is that heirloom varieties that are not cross-pollinated by nearby plants can be saved for use the next year. Saved hybrid seeds are not reliable. Our focus this year has been on organic seeds, and I don’t believe we would try to save seeds for vegetables regardless. We have saved or redistributed seeds from wildflowers.
As with permaculture, biointensive gardening focuses on the whole and how different parts of the garden, or ways of gardening, affect each other. For example, if I don’t apply chemicals to my vegetables, but use pesticides on ornamentals on my property, I still affect the tiny ecosystem. The pesticides can kill bees that might otherwise fly over to the vegetable garden and pollinate a cucumber.
Learn more about biointensive gardening from Fortier’s book and from this Mother Earth News article, including a great explanation of square foot gardening. And don’t stress over doing everything suggested or doing it perfectly. The first goal is to grow healthy plants and food for your family.
It’s more waterwise – and less expensive – to grow perennials. When a plant’s getting started, it needs a little more water. So once a xeric perennial plant has become established, the gardener should not have to add much, or any, water.
By nature annuals last only one year; you’ll have to water seeds or transplants a little more than you will an established perennial. Having mostly perennials in your garden is a waterwise and cost-effective strategy, but most gardeners want to add a little color or variety to their gardens. Enter the annual flower.
You can save money by purchasing annuals as seeds or by selecting native varieties that will likely re-seed in your garden next year. And save water by mulching annual beds after seedlings are large enough. Plastic cups or leftover nursery pots make great “protectors” while laying mulch. Just place cups large enough to avoid bending or breaking the plants upside down on each seedling in the bed, or a portion of the bed, before carefully pouring in your mulch. Then lift the cups and adjust mulch around the plants.
Native annuals also should use less water than “splurge” plants, but you won’t do a ton of damage to your water-wise efforts with a small container of your favorite annual.
Here are some of my favorite annuals, particularly for low-water gardening in zones 6 and 7.
Zinnias. Without a doubt, zinnias are a favorite annual. They’re simple to grow from seed; in fact, zinnias don’t transplant well, although it can be done if you start seedlings in peat pots. This way, you can transplant the peat pot with the seedling when the weather warms. The hardy flower requires sunshine and soil that drains well. Add a little organic matter to the container or bed to ensure drainage. Deadheading spent blooms keeps flowers coming and helps keep the plant from getting tall and leggy. Besides, the bright orange, red or coral flowers are terrific for arrangements. Check your seed package for flower type, size and plant height when selecting zinnias for annual containers or beds.
California poppy. The California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) is a perennial in warm climates and a frequent re-seeder in moderate zones. The wispy, fern-like foliage has a silvery-gray color, and thin stalks support orange and yellow blooms that resemble a flatter, simpler poppy. Deadheading the flowers is a little bit of work, but well worth the effort. The California poppy technically is an herb, but the plant is poisonous if eaten. It’s a terrific pollinator.
Cosmos. A relative of the aster, the cosmos is a varied and versatile flower with nearly 20 species. Just give the flowers lots of sun and avoid overwatering or overfertilizing; too much shade and water can make them lanky. I love cosmos at the back of a bed, but they come in various heights. The flowers easily re-seed, so be sure you like them before planting. Birds land on cosmos plants left in our garden and peck at the seeds all winter.
Portulaca. The portulaca family includes purslane, which can be an invasive, water-sucking weed. Still, some people enjoy the edible qualities of purslane. I prefer Portulaca grandiflora, also known as moss rose. The tiny flowers’ foliage resembles rosemary leaves, and the flowers make an excellent groundcover, spreading throughout the summer. They also work well in containers. Space them out, and they’ll quickly fill the container and drape over the edge. Instead of cutting spent flowers, you simply need to pinch off the dried-up bloom to encourage more color. One caution: portulaca seeds are tiny, and can spread or hide easily in soil. Plant something else in the same container next year, and you’re likely to have a pretty little portulaca pop up.
Sunflowers. Who can resist a stunning photo of a field of sunflowers? The Helianthus annus takes a little more water, but can tolerate brief periods of drought. Between their water needs and propensity to get munched by deer, they’re not the perfect annual for our garden. Having said that, we always try to get a few sunflowers going, especially the crimson-colored varieties. Many of our thriving sunflowers come up as volunteers, likely thanks to area birds. Sunflowers make perfect pollinators; bees can’t get enough of them. And those that survive deer provide seed for birds in fall. Maybe it’s because I’m so tired of winter, but I can’t wait to see these signs of summer springing up around our property!