Not sure what to give a loved one, friend or co-worker as a holiday gift? You can’t beat succulents. Here are five reasons why:
1. Easy care, even for brown thumbs.
Although succulents can die, they are easier to care for than most plants. You can kill them only with kindness (too much water). And even leaves of heat-loving succulents can burn in direct sun. But they make great gifts for people who want a little green but have less than green thumbs. Keep it simple with common succulents like Echevaria or Sempervivum. Both plants come in pretty rosette shapes.
2. Succulents make people smile.
Partly because they’re easy, and maybe because of their fleshy, healthy-looking leaves or pads, these plants bring a touch of natural, living matter to the dullest setting. You can find popular ways of displaying succulents as décor. And if the recipient likes to live on the edge, a nice spiny cactus is a fun gift that could be the gateway to growing more houseplants.
3. Succulents grow in lots of container types.
A few weeks ago, I posted about growing cacti in containers. Succulents are so easy to plant in natural, pretty or quirky containers. Small ones can grow in tiny holes of rocks or driftwood. Air plants are even easier to grow in unique containers, since they require no soil.
4. Adding a personal touch is easy.
So, maybe the succulent you choose for a gift isn’t so unique, but you plant it in a coffee cup with a message, or a souvenir that has sentimental value. You can use your sense of humor or a little romance when choosing how to present a small succulent – or several. Or select one based on the name (maybe String of Pearls?) You also can make your gift more personal with a small set of instructions on how to care for the plant. You can look for information online or write up how you take care of succulents.
5. They’re popular and available.
The trend in succulent plantings, arrangements and decoration on all sorts of materials might not last forever. But while it does, it is easy to find a great selection of succulents for gift-giving.
Here are some favorite small succulents:
Echevaria, several varieties
Sempervivum (such as hens and chicks)
Sedum morganianum (Burro’s tail)
Euphorbia milii (Crown of Thorns) and it is thorny!
Crassula ovata (Jade plant)
Mamillaria crinita (Pincushion cactus)
Haworthia fasciata (Zebra plant)
Zwartkop (Aenonium arboretum)
Also, Tillandsias (airplants) come in lots of types and colors.
Succulents, and especially cactus plants, usually prefer heat and drought. That’s one reason they make such perfect plants for desert gardens. But in the high deserts or mountains of New Mexico and other Southwestern states, many cacti only can live outdoors in the summer. Enter containers…
Why Plant Cacti in Containers?
The best reason for planting cacti in containers is the flexibility it offers. You can move the plant throughout the year (carefully) to bring it outdoors when summer nights warm and indoors as frost approaches. But you also can move your cacti around to control temperature or sun exposure. Even succulents can burn from intense sun, so it is good to keep an eye on the plants and rotate or move them depending on sun, including sun from a south- or west-facing windows.
Another reason to plant cacti in containers is to isolate watering. When planted outside, especially near drip or other watering systems, cacti can get too much water. With containers, you can control cactus watering based on season and when the plant goes dormant. If you love the look of a cactus in your desert landscape, nothing says it has to be in the ground! If the water or temperature conditions are not ideal, place your cactus outside in a colorful container. Just remember – the outdoor container should have good drainage and can cool off more at night, so don’t leave a container cactus outdoors in winter unless it is hardy to at least 10 degrees cooler than your lowest low.
Finally, most cacti are slow growers, so you don’t’ have to repot them often. Other cacti spread out of control in the garden. You’ve probably seen a xeric yard in your neighborhood with prickly pear growing like a sprawling hedge, maybe onto the sidewalk. It is easier to control cacti when in the confines of a container.
Container Cactus Mix
Planting and caring for cacti in containers is easy, but the soil mix is crucial to success. If you plant a cactus in standard container potting mix, which is designed to help retain water, your cactus roots will get soggy and rot. You can buy special cactus mixes or make your own. Ask friends or local experts for ideas. Examples include adding 1 part coarse sand and 5 parts perlite (for airflow and drainage) to 4 parts of potting mix. Vermiculite also improves aeration but holds too much water. You also can add a little bit of rock dust or pumice to your mix.
Handle your cactus carefully while transplanting. You can use an old sock or towel to wrap around the plant near the base and lift it out of the pot. Or turn the pot with the cactus on its side, resting the plant on an old pillow (that you won’t use again) to cushion the plant while you pull the container off the root ball.
Old long-handled barbecue tongs are great tools for holding a cactus while you place it in its new container; or use regular tongs for smaller plants. The eraser side of a pencil works great for gently pressing soil down around smaller cacti.
Some Favorite Container Cacti
Some of these cacti are spinier than others, so you might want to be careful where you place them. Many will flower, especially in spring or early summer. And some can tolerate pretty cold temperatures, but still would be fun winter houseplants.
Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). The golden barrel and other barrel cacti are such great landscape plants, giving a pretty round shape to landscape designs. I especially love them on hills. But they’re only hardy to 15 to 17 degrees, so we keep ours in a container.
Pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). Pencil cholla are pretty scary looking, with spines up to one inch long sticking out from tall, thin branches. They are hardy to -20 degrees and love heat, but spread easily in the yard.
Bishops cap (Astrophytum myriostigma). This is an attractive and slow-growing cactus perfect for a container, especially since it only can handle cold down to 20 degrees. I love the sort of grainy white and green look of the plant. See the second photo above. That is a bishops cap in the middle.
Hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus). It’s native to the U.S. and Engelmanns hedgehog is most common throughout the Southwest. It’s spiny, but should produce bright pink flowers more than two inches across. The plant only reaches about 10 inches in height.
Fence post (Pachycereus maginatus). This is a columnar, almost regal cactus. The columns have ridges with small spines and when planted in a row, they form an excellent wall. Columnar cacti are great choices for planting in containers of homes with high ceilings or to simply provide height behind a grouping of houseplants. They just need plenty of filtered sun.
Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). It’s hard to imagine this sprawling cactus in a container, but it can be done. It will need summer heat and can survive temperatures down to 20 below freezing. So, the garden can work, but you can control ocotillo growth in a container and enjoy it as a rising backdrop to other cacti or succulents.
Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). This is by far one of my favorite cacti. But it needs to stay in temperatures above 46 degrees, despite its shaggy layer of “hair.” This is another slow grower, and often a conversation starter in a home!
Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia canacapa). For the look of a gorgeous green and juicy cactus pad and no spines, go with this pretty plant. It still will grow new pads, but you can cut them off or plant them elsewhere. Both regular and hardy prickly pears can survive temperatures down to zero.
Holiday flowers like paperwhites and amaryllis are fun and beautiful, but in the Southwest, we love succulents, and the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) is a fall and winter favorite in our homes.
The Christmas cactus loads up with delicate flowers each winter, assuming you take a few steps to force the blooms. That might sound intimidating, but it really is simple. The blooms appear on small, flat “leaves,” which are really stem segments. Closely related plants – all with a holiday “theme” – are the Thanksgiving cactus (S. truncates) and the Easter cactus (Schlumbergeragaertneri). You can guess the approximate times each should bloom. There are some differences in the stem shapes, but overall care is similar.
Schlumbergera plants were discovered in Brazil’s rain forests, where they grow as epiphytes on trees or other plants without stealing their nutrients. That makes them less parasitic than another holiday favorite, mistletoe.
The flowers have a long, tubular shape and truly are remarkable, especially considering they appear on an indoor succulent! Between all schlumbergera varieties, you can find red, salmon, white and orange blooms, as well as some bicolor flowers.
Here’s how to get your Christmas cactus to bloom: Place it in a dark closet in fall, usually around late September or early October. Once buds begin to form on the ends of the stem sections, after about a month or two of darkness, bring the plant out into natural light, but not to an extreme temperature or direct sunlight.
Christmas cactus thrives best in indoor temperatures (about 55 to 70 degrees F). Even though these are cacti, they come from a naturally humid setting. Mist the leaves from time to time and let the soil barely dry out between watering so it is consistently and lightly moist, but don’t overwater or let the plant sit in water.
Once your Christmas cactus blooms, the flowers last about a week, assuming they get some sun and appropriate water. The chain of blooming should last about a month. Some say the plant is unattractive when not blooming, but I disagree. I find the cascading form of the stems and their thick, succulent appearance attractive all year.
This plant is easy to grow, and you often get blooms without following any of the advice about dark periods. We’ve had blooms at various times of the year, and I’m okay with that. I just enjoy the plant, no matter when it rewards us with those fabulous flowers. You can find Christmas cactus in nurseries and just about anywhere this time of year. The plant makes a great gift.
When we write about gardening and post on social media, garden writers usually choose bright, pretty pink flowers or robust tomatoes as our subjects. Yet, many plant lovers can enjoy flowers and also get a kick out of growing edgier plants.
I live with one such plant lover. In fact, he loves spines and poisonous seeds so much that our daughter and son-in-law gave him Amy Stewart’s book Wicked Plants, The Weed That Killed Lincoln’s Mother & Other Botanical Atrocities (Algonquin Books, 2009) for Christmas last year. He likes to read it right before nodding off at night…
I thought I’d share with you some of Stewart’s insights into wicked plants, and list several that thrive in our entryway or rock garden.
Datura and Nightshades
Several deadly plants make up the nightshade, or Solanaceae, family. The one we grow every year (it comes back with a vengeance) is Jimson weed, or Datura stramonium. The entire plant is somewhat poisonous, but the real danger lies in the seeds inside the fruit pod that remains after the flowers fade.
I admit I love the flowers and watching hummingbird moths feed off the blooms, which open at dusk. According to Stewart, Jamestown colonists found out the hard way about the toxic alkaloids in Jimson weed. In fact, the name has evolved from its original moniker of “Jamestown weed.” The Jimson weed is the dry cousin of other toxic nightshades and grows naturally in some of the worst conditions of the desert Southwest.
Castor bean (Ricinus communis) is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family. It’s known for the ricin in the plant’s beans. Eating only a few of the seeds can kill a person. Like the Jimson weed, the toxic beans grow on an otherwise gorgeous plant. In full sun, we’ve had them shoot from seed to 10 feet tall in a summer growing season. The large leaves of the plants we’ve grown turn a dark bronze color. Also like the Jimson weed, the fruit can explode when dried out and scatter the toxic seeds. if you decide to plant this potentially deadly ornamental, you must remain vigilant about cutting off the fruit. I don’t have photos of our castor beans, probably because I keep a distance. But here is a link to more information and some excellent images of the plant and beans.
The spinier and spikier, the better for our sunny hallway. Relatives of the castor bean in the spurge family include the lovely Crown of Thorns (Euphorbia milii). It also has a sticky, white sap called latex that can irritate the skin. I can’t imagine any animal chomping on the thorny branches, but I’ve seen deer eat rose branches, so it’s good to make sure dogs don’t eat the euphorbia. Euphorbias also include poinsettias, which are not truly poisonous, but can cause irritation if the toxins from leaves contact your eyes or stomach problems if children or pets eat the leaves.
Stewart includes larkspur among her “Dreadful Bouquet” flowers. Larkspur is a member of the Delphinium family, and sometimes, the names are interchangeable. Plains larkspur plants are found throughout high plains of New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. The plant has dangerous levels of alkaloids in seeds, flowers, sap and leaves and can lead to death in cattle who consume the plains flowers at and after flowering. I love the early spring blooms of larkspur, which reseed between rocks in our garden and took over most of a bed last year. I’ve never seen deer damage, and as long as I wear gloves when handling the plant and avoid taking bites of it, I’m good.
Oleanders are popular shrubs and hedges in warmer Southwest climates (zones 8 through 10). They have long, slender leaves and colorful flowers. Because the plants grow quickly and need little care, they’re popular choices in landscapes. The plant’s sticky sap carries several toxins, including oleandrin, which can cause nausea and vomiting and affect heartbeat. People have been known to commit suicide by eating the plant, but the main concern is to keep curious children away, since it takes eating less to make them seriously ill. It’s too cold here to grow oleander, but we have a beautiful cousin of the plant that has a similar milky sap, a Desert Rose (Adenium), that we keep as a houseplant in winter.
The poppy (Papaveraceae) is a favorite Southwest plant. Many species of poppies have toxins that can hurt animals. After all, Papaver Somniferum is the plant that supplies opium. The opium poppy is illegal to grow, but seldom regulated, says Stewart. That’s largely because of how many plants it would take to supply an individual with enough opium to maintain a habit. Our poppies have spiky leaves that distinguish them from the smoother foliage of an opium poppy.
Other Common but Wicked Plants
Stewart’s book breaks down dangerous plants by plant families and other categories, such as phototoxic plants. These have sap that can burn the skin when exposed to light and include the rinds of limes and other citrus fruits.
One of our favorite summer annuals is Lobelia, which also is called Indian tobacco because some ingredients in the plants cause effects similar to nicotine. In small amounts, lobelia can’t hurt you, but it can be toxic in large doses if used as an herbal remedy. I also love, love, the red bird of paradise, another warm climate ornamental shrub. But Even sweet peas and tulips have toxins in various parts of the plants or bulbs.
The bottom line is this: All gardeners should use caution when choosing plants for their home or garden to make sure curious pets and children are safe (this is an extensive list of both, and toxicity ratings, from California Poison Control). On the other hand, growing a spiny or dangerous plant can appeal to adults and older children, and be a great introduction into plant care and the gardening bug!
Last fall, I listed and defined 10 gardening terms that you’ll see often in books and blogs about gardening. I’ve got 10 more to cover just before gardeners start buying new seeds and plants and planning their 2018 gardens.
A zone is the climate-related gardening region in which you live. The most common designation that likely appears on your plant tags or care information is the USDA hardiness zone. It’s based mainly on how cold your lowest lows fall in winter. A zone in the Southwest can match one on the East coast, but other conditions such as temperature extremes in the day, soil makeup, wind or humidity also can affect how well a plant grows. New Mexico has 10 variations of the USDA zones, from the mountains’ 4b (slightly warmer than 4a) to 9a along the southern Rio Grande valley. Learn more about USDA and Sunset zones here.
Plants for sale or that you’ve placed in a container can become root-bound. This means the roots couldn’t spread outward as the plant grew, so they began circling the container borders and might be poking out of drainage holes on the bottom. Most plants grow poorly and can even die when this happens, but see this article about house plants that like crowded root conditions. If a root-bound plant for sale looks otherwise healthy, you can take a chance on it. Break up the roots with your fingers and spread the roots out when you plant in the ground or in a larger container. Be sure to check for signs of circling roots on indoor and outdoor container plants.
When we sell tomatoes at market, we get plenty of requests for heirloom varieties. These grow from older, more pure seed lines handed down for generations. They’re often some of the tastiest and most nutritious vegetables you can find. Ambitious gardeners prefer heirlooms so they can save their own seeds for planting the next year. However, they might not resist disease as well as a tomato variety bred to do so, and heirloom varieties like Brandywine don’t do well in shorter growing seasons like ours. Still, every gardener should try an heirloom flower or vegetable at some point to enjoy the benefits of the carefully selected qualities bred into the plants.
When breeders create hybrids of any plant, they control the results by selecting favored qualities of both plants and cross-pollinate them to produce a new plant with the best of each. The careful controlling of the process by breeders can take years of care. Hybrids give us vegetables resistant to diseases, with richer colors or flavors or that produce in shorter growing seasons. Hybrids are not the same as GMOs; genetically modified plants are developed by altering DNA in a lab.
This is the part of any plant where the roots and stem join. See this demonstration for placing the crown at the right depth from Fox Hill Gardens. This is important because the crown should be just about soil level when planting most plants. Be sure to check instructions that come with individual plants, especially roses and trees, about depth of planting and whether to mulch to help protect the crown.
5. Seed start
A seed start is the small plant, or seedling, you grow from a seed. New gardeners can be confused about whether they can plant a seed directly in the ground (direct sow, below) or whether the plant will do better started indoors under grow lights and then transplanted into the garden at the appropriate time. You can save money starting seeds, and basil and zinnias are two easy annual plants to start from seed. Others, such as cucumbers, don’t transplant well. This article from Gardener’s Supply Company has great advice on starting seeds, which can help save money on new plants each spring.
4. Direct sow
This means to place seeds directly into the ground in the garden or in a container. Carrots, lettuce and green beans are easy vegetables to grow from direct sowing. Just follow the directions on the packet about seeding time, planting depth and spacing. You might have to thin your seedlings later. One positive: if you plant too soon or too deeply, seeds cost so little you can often try again!
The tomato terms determinate and indeterminate have caused me plenty of confusion in years past. I don’t know why I have such a hard time remembering them. Determinate varieties grow to a set mature size and produce most of the fruit within a few weeks. Then it’s done. Determinates also are called bush varieties.
These tomatoes continue growing until hit by frost, and sometimes are called vining tomatoes. They produce fruit steadily through the growing season, depending on weather conditions, etc. They can grow out of control if not staked. I’m planning to remember the difference by noting that indeterminate implies the plant does what it wants. But I wish someone would invent a better set of words!
Basically, a plant’s habit refers to the direction it grows, such as upright, mounded or prostrate (spreading low along the ground). It also refers to terms such as shrub vs tree. A shrub, for example, grows to only about 15 feet high and has multiple stems in the ground, whereas a tree usually has a single trunk and greater height. This handout from the University of Colorado shows growth habit shapes and definitions.
Winter has come late to New Mexico this year, and that’s OK with me. The problem is even when it’s sunny in winter, we have fewer projects we can do so we feel productive and in touch with the soil and plants. So I thought about a few ideas to lighten my winter doldrums and decided to share them.
One: Take a drive or hike, or some combination.
As soon as fall hit and gardening slowed down, we began to visit spots we seldom get to see during the growing season. We drove up nearby mountains and about an hour away to a walk among stunning petroglyphs. My mood improves from endorphins and simply being outside. And we always see a few native plants we’d like to identify, even if they’re at the end of their growing season.
Two: Grow a winter-blooming indoor plant.
Aside from the pretty holiday mascot, the poinsettia, you can grow a Christmas cactus or amaryllis. I received a beautiful gift of paperwhites (Narcissus) in a clear glass bowl one year. One of these days, I’ll try to force my own. And if you have a warm, sunny window, why not bring in a few of your potted plants? Geraniums can continue flowering in the right conditions, and we brought a shade-loving container with coleus and begonias inside. They might get leggy before the winter’s up, but they make me feel more in touch with summer.
Three. Feed birds and other critters.
Leaving the garden a little messy might seem like a bad idea, and it is tough to watch the demise of your favorite stalks and flowers. But birds continue to feed off the seeds of many plants or seeds spread in fall and early winter winds. Once the seeds fade, birds need a little extra help to get through cold winter nights. We hang suet and a sunflower seed feeder and set out raw peanuts for the jays. I want to keep the birds coming so I have something fun to look at from my window when the sky is gray and the garden mostly brown.
Four. Start a project, like a bee house or raised bed.
Last winter, we replaced the door on our shed, completely revamped a large garden path, created a dry river bed, and took on lots of other fun projects. In fact, we took on so many that we have to come up with some new ones this year. But vegetable gardens might need new or improved fencing or other design and maintenance. Putting in a new paver path or dry river bed are projects that come to mind. You can build a raised bed or make a bee house or butterfly waterer (puddling pool). Or you can repot some of those succulents and other houseplants you tend to neglect in summer.
Five. Make and give garden-related gifts.
Some winter projects turn into gifts for family, friends or co-workers. I don’t have a perfect crafting style, but I know people appreciate gifts from the heart, time and garden. We’ve made lavender sachets, pressed flower arrangements and outdoor lights. You can even pot up some plants in homemade containers.
And on a snowy, cold and dark winter day, spend a little time by the fire drinking an herbal tea and reading a gardening book, magazine or catalog. You can relax, plan and dream!
Succulents are low-care starter plants for anyone easing into gardening or short on space. Best of all, they’re typically the lowest water users of the plant world. It’s often said that cacti and succulents thrive on neglect. Although that might be true when it comes to maintenance such as trimming or fertilizing, cacti and succulents do need a little attention and consistent, light watering.
The common characteristic of succulents is that they have adapted to surviving with little water. Cacti are tough, and about the only thing that will kill them (other than being munched or trampled by wildlife) is overwatering. In general, about once a week is perfect. Set a date every Saturday morning, for instance, to water and check on indoor succulents. The best way to water container succulents is by making two trips – water your succulents once with a slow, steady stream. Don’t give them so much water that it runs out the bottom of the container, but give them enough to soak in past the surface. Then come back and give them a second drink, which makes for a deeper and more even watering.
The best watering for outdoor succulents is through a steady drip. How much depends on conditions, just like with other plants. When heat is extreme, cacti and succulents need a little more water. When it rains, you can skip watering altogether. If you bring cacti indoors for winter, they need a little more water in a hot, dry and sunny room.
Transplanting and Repotting
Have you ever seen a photo of an avocado pit in a glass with roots sprouting from the pit? Like most plants, lots of water encourages roots to grow. The same goes when placing most new plants in the ground or a new container—extra, deep watering helps roots establish. But that’s not true of succulents. They need time to heal before you water. In fact, taking a cutting from a cactus to grow a new plant (propagating) means letting the cutting rest and dry before putting in soil!
If you want a mixed arrangement indoors or out, try to make sure your cactus or succulent receives only the water it needs. In the landscape, you can mound the dirt under the plant slightly so that water drains to nearby plants with higher water needs or have a dedicated drip for the succulent that emits less water. Avoid spray irrigation, especially on succulents. In container arrangements, keep your cactus in a small plastic container half-buried in the container’s soil. This helps the gardener pour more water to flowers around the cactus than directly on it, which helps keep the cactus soil from getting soggy.
Do a Little Research
All cacti are succulents, but not all succulents are in the cactus (Cactaceae) family. In general, succulents are known for their fleshy leaves that hold water. Their leaves usually are small as well – leaving less surface for transpiration, which is the plant equivalent of evaporation.
Just like with trees or flowers, every type of cactus and succulent is a little different. For example, Adenium, commonly called desert rose, is a gorgeous succulent member of the Apocyanaceae family, the same one that includes oleanders. Knowing that helps: First, the only true pest of adenium is an oleander caterpillar. Second, although technically a succulent, when the plant is in full leaf and flower season, it needs a lot of energy (sun and water) and can be treated more like a tropical plant. But adeniums drop their leaves in winter, even in indoor containers. When they go dormant, they need little to no water.
In fact, that’s true of nearly all cacti and succulents – they need more water (and some fertilizer) during their growing/flowering periods and just enough to get by when dormant. Most will flower and grow in spring, fall and cooler parts of summer. High summer heat can make them dormant as a survival tactic.
It’s easy to research cacti and succulents in regional garden books and online, using reputable and regional sources when possible.
Although most cacti and succulents grow more slowly than typical garden or house plants, they can outgrow their pots. In addition, succulents grown in pots and watered from a tap can have problems when minerals from the water build up in the soil. That’s a second reason to repot. You can avoid the mineral build-up by using rainwater for cacti and succulents instead of tap. Be sure your plant is in a container that drains well. That means drilling holes in the bottom of any containers that lack them and filling them with planting medium only (no rock or other filtering materials at the bottom).
Of course, soil, location or zone and other factors affect the health and water needs of cacti and succulent. But most adapt to soil and environmental conditions.
Gardeners can adapt to – and enjoy – caring for succulents. Check out our Pinterest page on cacti and succulents for more information and photos.
Gardeners often choose plants more for their flower color or ease of care, and that’s a great way to enjoy a garden. If you want to add interest to a xeric bed or lawn, it also helps to consider plants’ shapes and textures. Shape, or form, refers to the circles, lines and squares of plants or how you arrange plants. Texture relates to how coarse or fine a plant looks and even feels.
For example, there’s a reason why many professional container arrangements usually include a grass or similar plant with tall, thin blades. The grass rises from at or near the center of the pot, adding height. The long, slender blades of ornamental grasses also vary the shape and texture of the arrangement if it’s filled with low-growing, round flowers. You can do the same in your xeric garden.
Although it can be tough for some gardeners to adapt to the Southwest after owning lawns with formal cottage gardens, they eventually learn to love the look and easy maintenance of more native, “unsculpted” plants.
Although some landscapes look great with rows of the same plant, most xeric gardens have a more natural feel. The designer or home gardener can use a variety of low-water plants to vary shapes. For example, if you want to plant cacti and succulents in your container or garden, you aren’t likely to choose all prickly pear cacti (Opuntia). Their round pads and medium-height spread complement a spikier ocotillo (Fouquieriaceae) or a spiraling sedum groundcover.
The shapes in xeric plants typically are less defined. Still, plants have a basic shape, such as how lavender stalks form a rounded V.
Those who desire a more balanced or symmetrical look can repeat a plant. Some of the most effective landscapes I’ve seen have a row or grouping of xeric ornamental grasses. Individually, the grasses have a wispy, wild look. But when placed in a grouping, they sway in the wind together and create a clean line. Too much variety can cause a xeric garden to look more like a botanical garden full of eye-catching plants with no flow if not designed by professionals.
Foliage and texture
Many xeric plants produce remarkable flowers, and some bloom throughout the growing season. But one way xeric plants survive is with relatively smaller foliage. Less leaf area means less transpiration (water evaporating from leaves) and improved survival chances in arid climates. Still, a waterwise garden can include foliage variety in texture, size, shape and color.
Some xeric plants, such as pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) have tiny, needle-like leaves. These contrast nicely with nearby plants that have rounder, lusher foliage, adding varied shapes and textures to the garden.
You also can add texture with hardscape materials or yard art. Hardscaping materials include just about anything that isn’t a live plant. So, for example, you can add interest around a rock or boulder with a plant that has small, twisting or draping branches. A post fence has lines that run up and down, and I believe that a mix of small, round or trailing plants look better against it than a line of tall or upright plants. Hardscape items also add texture, such as rough rockiness or smooth backdrops.
Rhythm is an important landscape design that can be achieved with cautious repetition of shapes, curves and layers. Some of the best designs have layers. For example, you can plant a groundcover (a low-growing or trailing plant that typically spreads) in front of a shrub that has long, thin branches and few flowers.
When layering plants, or in any planting, it’s important to consider a plant’s mature size. If not, your nice round shrub might catch up to or even block the tall one behind it. It also helps to know a little about pruning. You don’t have to shape plants into animal characters, but it helps to know how to trim the plant for its health and growth (even control of growth). Otherwise, plants can later upset balance and rhythm in the garden.
Even waterwise plants get stressed when exposed to high heat, dry air and wind. Many Southwestern plants can survive hot temperatures because they’re native to the low desert. But in some areas such as the mountains and high deserts, native plants are a little more winter hardy and a little less heat tolerant.
Even in the hottest Southwest and West climates, plants can need extra attention when temperatures soar. Here are 10 tips for helping plants survive the heat of summer.
Tip No. 1. Use drip irrigation.
You save water because it can’t evaporate as rapidly as it can if in the air, and the water seeps slowly down to the roots of a plant. This helps cool roots as well as hydrate them.
Tip No. 2. Use mulch.
Something as simple as straw spread out on the dirt helps keep air from rapidly evaporating water, but still allows oxygen to reach soil and roots. Piling the straw or other organic mulch two to three inches high helps even more.
Tip No. 3. Try to get your plants established before summer heat ramps up.
Even heat-loving plants can wilt when temperatures soar. Still, recognize that wilting from sun can be temporary. The bigger the plant’s leaves, the more quickly the plant transpirates, which is the process of water evaporation through leaves. That’s why many succulents and xeric plants have small foliage. So don’t panic, but don’t completely discount it. Increase drip time on hot and windy days.
Tip No. 4. Water in the morning if at all possible.
This is a great water-saving strategy and helps prevent heat stress to plants. If the roots already have access to water, they can begin sending the water up through stems and leaves to keep the plant nourished. For most plants, regular, but spaced, deep watering always beats out frequent light watering (which leaves moisture close to the surface and can restrict root growth).
Tip No. 5. Check on your plants.
If you can’t check them during the day, do so as soon as you get home. It’s OK to water plants lightly in late afternoon to help cool them down.
Tip No. 6. Use one plant as a benchmark.
For example, zucchini leaves are large, and if they’re wilting, you can prevent heat or drought damage to other plants nearby with a cool drink of water or some shade.
Tip No. 7. Shade plants.
New or damaged plants might need temporary shade to build up resistance to heat. Direct sun can burn leaves just like it can burn your skin. So make sure even an established plant is in the right location for sun and summer exposure and if not, try temporary shade.
Tip No. 8. Use containers.
Containers offer you the most opportunity to shade plants on hot days. Although soil in containers warms faster, containers also can cool more quickly. Most of all, it’s easy to move all but the largest into shade temporarily. You can mulch the top of the soil in a container, too.
Tip No. 9. Avoid fertilizing plants during the heat of the day.
Plants should be perky and healthy before soaking up fertilizer. And the fertilizer needs to mix with plenty of water. It’s best to do this task before mid-day heat kicks in.
Tip No. 10. Control weeds.
Ha, there’s an impossible goal around here. And I know there are people who embrace weeds. I tolerate them only because I can’t keep up. But we’re really vigilant about keeping weeds off of or out from under plants. That’s especially true in the vegetable garden. Mulching can help control weeds.
Finally, if you keep potted plants, including cacti, inside during the winter, you need to protect them as they adapt to being outside. That’s true even for sun lovers. Harden the plant off if you can. If the plant is too heavy to bring in and out all day (or you have 30 of them, like we do), at least start it outside on a cooler, cloudier day.
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.