5 Xeric Plants for Containers

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Growing in containers gives you flexibility; you can move plants around based on shade and sun exposure or bring some inside for winter. There are plenty of reasons to have lots of fun or decorative containers (or an entire row of them!) Here are 5 great low-water choices and a few tips for growing succulents and other xeric plants in containers.

Agave

agave-skull-ends-protect
Agave makes a striking single plant, and you can add these fun protectors to keep it from striking you as you pass by!

Pot these upright succulents when you have limited space or your winter low prohibits growing them in the ground. Some agaves become quite large, but probably will grow a little slower in a pot. Try those smaller than about a foot in diameter (basketball-sized at maturity) such as black-spined, artichoke and Queen Victoria for great container-scale plants. The rosette shape of most agaves makes them perfect as the only plant in a container. Line the top of the soil with decorative rocks or glass and your container design is done! Agaves withstand heat and drought, and some can take cold (such as A. parryi). Most, however, can only handle light freezes.

Rosemary

rosemary-container
Rosemary can grow in containers in climates either too cold or too hot for the herb.

My favorite versatile herb can grow well in containers. Depending on the look you want, select an upright (bush) type to add height to a mix of xeric container plants or choose a trailing rosemary to drape over the side. Either one should bloom at some point during the growing season. You can move your container rosemary inside to a sunny window or leave outside against a warm south-facing wall for year-round access to the tasty herb. Some varieties can survive winters down to zone 5 or 6, but most do best in warmer climates. And remember, that container cools off faster than the ground.

Portulaca

red-portulaca-blooms-container
Portulaca is versatile — you can use one color to excellent effect or add mixes for pops of color in containers.

Portulaca plants are idea for containers, especially for adding texture, draping shape and outstanding color. I love filling containers with portulaca, but also love placing them beneath a tall plant in a container to add interest. They grow best in dry, well-draining soil in full sun. Portulaca plants are annuals, but always available in Southwest nurseries. They spread so quickly and bloom so heavily that they are well worth the money. Choose from bloom colors in reds, oranges, yellows, whites and pink. They often drop tiny seeds that will show up as volunteers the next year, which can be fun. Or you can easily pull up the shallow roots.

Lantana

Lantana-orange-blooms-container
Lantana Ultra Yellow is a bright container plant. Image courtesy of Plant Select.

These gorgeous plants make great low-growing borders, hedges or potted plants, depending on your climate. Potted lantanas drape over the side, adding shape and dimensions to container arrangements. I love the salmon-pink and lemon-yellow bloom arrangements. Some varieties grow large, but look for dwarf varieties such as Pinkie or Patriot. In the low desert (zones 9 through 11), lantana plants can be outside all year. In high deserts of New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, we have to grow them as annuals or bring them inside when temperatures dip to about 55 degrees.

Any Succulent

succulents-in-containers
Happy succulents winter indoors with good southern sun, and travel outside in summer.

Containers dry out faster than the ground, making xeric plants, and especially succulents, the perfect container plants. Succulents need well-draining soil, so look for mixes that don’t retain too much water. Once you get the right soil mix, you should be able to water your succulents lightly once a week and have plenty of success. Most also grow slowly, so they don’t require frequent repotting. Some of my favorites are jade, echeveria, sempervivum, haworthia  and crown of thorns.

A few tips for growing xeric plants in containers:

  • Make sure you have well-draining soil so the roots do not stay too wet.
  • Likewise, provide drainage at the bottom of the container.
  • Water slowly and lightly when possible to avoid washing out soil and nutrients.
  • Most xeric container plants need lots of sun, but keep an eye out for too much sun, especially when moving a plant back outdoors for the summer or placing it inside too close to a window.
  • Try to keep xeric plants together in arrangements, since they have similar watering needs. Or if mixing, find a way to separate low-water plants by potting within the larger pot or ensuring water drains away from them.
  • Overwatering leads to the demise of more xeric plants, especially container succulents, than other issues.

 

Grow Your Xeric Garden With Plants that Naturalize

We are wrapping up a big project in our rock garden. It involved removing some lower beds and extending the raised beds out, bordered by a gabion wall. So, that meant having to dig up and transplant several favorite plants. After all, we needed to fill a lot of new planting area, and it’s always sad to lose a plant simply because of logistics.

So, Tim started digging up some plants last fall, when we began work on the new walls. He planted them in recycled nursery containers with a combination of potting mix and soil from where the plants were growing. When it became warm enough, we replanted them, helping to save a little money on filling our new beds and keeping some of our favorite plants going.

kniphofia plant and blooms before wall
Kniphofia, or red hot poker, multiplies and needs dividing every so often.

Plants That Naturalize

Many plants we grow in the Southwest re-seed (volunteers) or have spreading habits that make them easy to divide and move. Sometimes, a plant reproduces so easily, it becomes a problem. But conditions have to be just right for that, so I love this feature in a plant. After all, you can always transplant or gift one of your plants. Here are a few low-water plants we “saved” and replanted:

purple salvia in xeric garden
Salvia sylvestris keeps growing little “pups” near the first plant.

Salvia

Salvia plants are related to mint, and some of them sprout new plants from seeds. We have a row of midnight blue salvia plants that kept producing “pups,” so we potted some up, transplanted some directly and gave some away. We’ve never purchased the plant; these all came from one that was here more than six years ago.

colorado penstemon blooms
This native penstemon has created new plants for years.

Penstemon

Likewise, we have a purple penstemon (Rocky Mountain penstemon, or Penstemon strictus) that Tim dug up from one that spread in some grounds he used to care for. We planted in at our last home and it spread a little more, so we brought a part of it here. We had to transplant it to build our new bed, and now have at least six plants from the one he dug up about eight years ago.

bee on blanket flower
Bee on gaillardia. We have a native version growing in our yard as well.

Blanket Flower

Blanket flower (Gaillardia) is a wonderful magnet for bees and a great xeric perennial flower. It can spread from seed; we also saved and moved a few to our new beds. They have perked up and are doing well.

kniphofia-on-ground-pieces
Here is the Kniphofia pictured above. We broke it up and pulled out about six healthy looking ones to transplant.

Bulbs

Of course, iris reproduce like rabbits and they’re easy to transplant. We also moved some daylilies and split up a Kniphofia (red hot poker) to help fill our new beds. The jury still is out on when the lilies and red hot pokers will bloom, since we moved them when we had to, not necessarily at the best time for the plants.

apache-plume-white-blooms
It is easy to spot volunteers of Apache plume. It might take a year or two for the small plant to begin blooming, but it is free and beautiful!

Apache Plume

This native plant is one of several that starts volunteer seedlings around our garden. Although some might see this as a drawback, we welcome the seedlings. If we can’t move them, we always can pull them up if in the way of another plant.

close-up of thyme leaves
Thyme plants re-seed, grow pretty little flowers, attract bees and taste delicious!

Thyme

Herbal thyme is one of my favorite plants. The low-water herb does triple duty: it looks and smells great in the garden, it has delicate flowers that bees love, and it tastes great! We have let some plants spread and transplanted others.

threadgrass-rock-garden
We had at least seven or eight volunteer threadgrass plants this year we could relocate.

Threadgrass

Threadgrass is my new favorite low-water plant. It is easy to care for, and produces lots of little seedlings that are easy to spot and tell from other grasses or weeds. Just dig it up and move it to another spot.

grasses-austin-gardem
Repetition can look natural and orderly at the same time. Don’t be afraid to use several of the same plant in your Southwest garden.

A Few Tips for Replanting

Some of our success with volunteers certainly comes from letting plants go to seed. That can be a bad idea if they become invasive and crowd out other plants or if your front garden looks too unkempt through fall and winter.  But re-seeders can feed birds in fall and give you new plants to enjoy in spring.

Remember, if you are planting or dividing a plant, even a xeric one, it will need extra water for at least a few weeks while it gets used to its new home. And it needs a little extra water and care in its first year of life.

Check your favorite local and regional books or with local independent nursery staff to find out plants that re-seed in your area without taking over.

Of course, you also can keep an eye out for plants that re-seed. Nature often puts them in the perfect place, which also gives your xeric garden a more natural look.

xeric-garden-bed-mulch-volunteer-plants
This new bed is a little sparse now, but will fill in. It has a euphorbia, several salvias, cannas, a blanket flower and a yarrow we moved from other areas of the garden or from volunteer plants.

Finally, we are guilty of planting one of each plant we like. I’ve since seen enough gardens in which repetition of plants actually looks more natural and striking than stuffing in as many different plants as we can. So, don’t be afraid to plant three or more of the same plant!

 

 

 

5 Tips for Choosing the Right Container for Your Plants

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Talavera, clay and metal pottery mix well on these garden shelves and walls.

If you’re like me, you often choose a container based on how much you like it or its color. Those are good reasons; after all, you want to enjoy your purchase when it’s in your home or on your patio. And the color might be important to curb appeal or your entryway statement. But it helps to keep in mind a few other tips for container choices based on:

small-tomato-plant-marigolds-large-container
This large container didn’t look sparse for long. The tomato grew and the marigolds spread.

Container Size

Some plants need a container large enough to support a plant’s growth. For example, even patio tomatoes need a pot about 12 inches in diameter.  The diameter is not always listed. A 10-inch container equates to about 3 gallons, and a 14-inch container to nearly 7 gallons, but it depends on the depth. As a general rule, go for about 5 gallons for container-grown tomatoes.

In 2004, standards were released to help ensure more consistent labeling from nurseries. For example, a 1-gallon potted plant is about 152 to 251 cubic inches, taking into account diameter and depth. Be sure to consider the mature size of plants when arranging containers.  For single plants, purchase a container at least a size larger than the one a plant comes in. There are exceptions, however.

burro-tail-succulent-containers
Many cacti and succulents need smaller pots to confine root growth; it’s fun to be creative with color and shape.

Some plants prefer crowded roots. Many succulents will fail to grow and flower if placed in a container that is too large. When in too large a pot, all the plant’s energy goes to the easiest activity – growing more roots. This means less energy can go into producing growth above the soil line. So, try not to go more than 10% larger than the size of the succulent. And keep in mind some succulents have tap roots and need enough depth for those roots to grow and seek water.

The same goes for a totally unrelated plant: the African violet. Violets do best with crowded roots and need good drainage, just like succulents. Place an African violet in a container smaller than the diameter of the leaves (those who grow the plants for shows generally choose containers one-third the diameter of the foliage). And repot plants like African violets every so often, gradually increasing container size as needed. Don’t take a violet (or succulent) in a 3-inch pot up to 10 inches in one repotting.

petunias-round-clay-pot
I love these shallow clay pots, but many plant roots need more depth.

Container Shape

Look at the container depth as well as its diameter. I love the look of shallow terracotta containers, but they only work with annuals and shallow-rooted plants. Those violets and many rosette-shaped succulents also can take shallower shapes. But your tomato needs good depth to form large, healthy roots. I’ve pulled up cherry tomato roots that were at least 15 inches long. And if your cactus has a tap root, make sure the pot’s height can allow for growth.

Container shape also affects plant placement and the overall appeal of the container. A tall container looks best with at least one tall plant element and maybe a trailing one.

glazed-container-table-containers-on-steps
Glazed pots can look colorful and elegant. and mix nicely with terracotta.

Container Material

Clay or terracotta pots are excellent for indoor or outdoor succulents. They dry out quickly because the sides are porous. These pots usually are your best bet for drought-tolerant plants, but not for vegetables or many ornamental flowers. And African violets in clay pots often dry out too quickly. Plastic and fabric pots are less expensive and lighter. The material’s weight is a consideration for any plant you know you might have to move to change sun or shade exposure, or bring indoors in winter.

metal-pitcher-succulent
It’s fun to create containers, but even succulent containers need some drainage.

Container Drainage

All containers need good drainage, even those you use for succulents. Few plants do well sitting in wet soil for long. If you repurpose a container, be sure to drill some holes in the bottom. And try not to let the container (especially a shallow one) sit in a full saucer if you use one to catch drainage. If your container appears to drain too quickly, change how you water – a little at a time repeated once or twice. Always add water to a container at a slow rate instead of a heavy pour. Drenching the container makes soil nutrients run right out with the water.

green-yellow-blue-containers on shelf
Lucinda Hutson’s Austin garden is one of the most colorful I’ve seen. I love the color of the paint with the three container colors.

Container Color

I have decided to go more colorful with container choices from now on. It’s tempting to “match” an entry or house color, or to have a container blend in on your patio. Sometimes, though, you can make a really bold statement by choosing a container that is bright, colorful (like Talavera pottery) or a nice contrast to plants inside and around it.

containers-patio-old-man-cactus-inside
The old man cactus (right) still thrives, although we have potted it up a few times.

Finally, if you find a container that will look perfect in a spot because of its color, shape or pattern, but maybe the wrong material or size for your plant, try slipping another pot inside it. I even did that once several years ago when I wanted to add an “old man cactus” (Cephalocereus senilis) to some annuals in a decorative entry-way container. I knew its watering needs were different, so I set the cactus pot into the soil of the larger pot and never really watered above it. The plant received plenty of moisture from the soil around its container. Then, I pulled the old man out in fall and we potted him inside for winter. He still is thriving, now in a terracotta pot with other cacti.

 

 

5 Reasons Succulents Make Great Gifts

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.

echevaria-sempervivum-in-small-clay-pots
Many succulents have 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.

guitar-made-of-succulents-on-wall
Succulent Love on display at Austin’s Articulture

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.

succulents-in-white-containers
I love these white geometric succulent containers on a patio table in an Austin garden.

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.

succulent-in-metal-container
An old metal container with sentimental value holds this succulent.

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.

succulents on nursery shelf
Your local nursery greenhouse is sure to be loaded with lots of succulent choices.

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)

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

Zwartkop (Aenonium arboretum)

Also, Tillandsias (airplants) come in lots of types and colors.

 

Grow—or Give—Container Cacti

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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…

cacti in fun containers bishop cap
These little cacti get great winter sun on a south-facing wall. They only travel outdoors in the warmest months. Two of these containers are thrift store finds.

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.

cacti and succulents in containers on shelf outdoor with shade fabric
Cacti and succulents sunning outside, but with a shade cloth during intense sunshine.

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.

old man cactus in container, grass, rosemary
Here’s that old man cactus in the first photo, outside on the xeric garden wall in summer.

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.

spiny cactus in metal container
Handle container-planted cacti carefully, although the spines didn’t stop this wild daisy from seeding in the container.

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.

tall columnar euphorbia in container
This columnar euphorbia (a succulent, but not a cactus) now only moves arouond inside. It is too tough to take out to the yard now.

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 and golden barrel cactus in containers.
Pencil cholla on left and barrel cactus on right, wintering over in a sunny spot.

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.

rounded cacti in round container
I love this circular arrangement of cacti in a shallow container.

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.

cactus and ocotillo in outdoor container
I love this vertical planting with ocotillo we spotted at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

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.

clay pot with several vertical cacti outside on patio
Cactus containers on a patio in an Austin, Texas, garden.

 

 

Christmas Cactus: You Can Grow That!

leaves and pink blossoms christmas cactus

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.

A red Christmas cactus blossom. Image from Pixabay.

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.

white bloom close
Beautiful white Christmas cactus blossom. Image from Pixabay.

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 in pot
This plant has been in a dark closet for about 35 days.

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.

christmas cactus and other plants on adobe wall
Two of the plants lined our sunny wall last winter.

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.

christmas cactus stems close
The fleshy stems of a Christmas cactus are attractive even when it lacks blooms.

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.

you can grow that logo

A Trip to the Dark Side of Gardening

datura bloom
Datura, or Jimson weed bloom.

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…

jimson weed plant
Jimson weed is not a pretty plant but the flowers are gorgeous, especially for an evening garden.

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.

datura seed
The seed head of a Datura.

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.

angels trumpet flower
Angel’s trumpet flower in a Pasadena garden.

Castor Bean

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.

crown of thorns and pencil cholla
Crown of thorns and a pencil cholla add a little danger to our home’s hallway.

Spiny Euphorbias

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.

larkspur plants in rock garden
Larkspur plants that reseeded and bloomed in early summer.

Larkspur

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.

pink and violet larkspurs
I wear gloves when I tend to these pretty Larkspurs.

Oleanders

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.

Adenium with blooms
The desert rose, or Adenium, is a cousin of the oleander bush.

Poppies

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.

white Oriental poppy flower
A white Oriental poppy bloom.

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.

Lobelia plant in top of container
Lobelia is an annual here with small, delicate flowers like those I placed in the top of this tiny chiminea.

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.

red bird of paradise bloom
The gorgeous, fiery bloom of a red bird of paradise.

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!

 

10 More Gardening Terms Explained

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.

gardening basics
Gardening can be easy, and knowing what terms experts use can help you have success.

10. Zone

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.

mountains of new mexico
In the Sacramento Mountains outside Ruidoso, N.M, we saw some plants we can grow in the valley below, but the zones change rapidly.

9. Root-bound

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.

adenuim in pot
This gorgeous adenium can handle being root bound and does best when not planted too deeply.

8. Heirloom

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.

Blue Lake green bean heirloom
We’ve continued to plant Blue Lake heirloom beans every year. The plants do well and the beans are crisp and delicious.

7. Hybrid

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.

6. Crown

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.

seed starts
Last spring’s seed starts under grow lights. We started herbs, vegetables, and perennial and annual flowers.
snapdragons
Check out these snapdragons grown from that flat of flower starts. And they lasted into fall, at least until deer ate them.

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!

3. Determinate

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.

indeterminate tomato in container
Often, determinate, or bushy, tomatoes do best in containers. But we also grow indeterminates, which need cages for support.

2. Indeterminate

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!

plant growth habit
Varying growth habit adds interest to a xeric garden.

1. Habit

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.

 

 

5 Winter Pick-Me-Ups for Glum Gardeners

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

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

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

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

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

Two: Grow a winter-blooming indoor plant.

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

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

Three. Feed birds and other critters.

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

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

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

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

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

Five. Make and give garden-related gifts.

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

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

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

Watering Cacti and Succulents

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.

barrel cacti
Rocks, heat, hills that drain water. These conditions make cacti happy. This image was taken at the Huntington Library and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.

Water Sparingly

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.

agave parryi in snow
These agave survive outdoors here in zone 6B. We don’t water them, but from time to time, nature does the job.

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!

cacti in sunny window
Tim propagated many of these succulents from cuttings.

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.

deep pink cactus bloom
This as-yet unidentified cactus (most likely a Mammillaria) came from ranch land east of Roswell, N.M. It’s been happy in a container, spending summer on the patio and winter in a south-facing window.

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.

fenestraria baby toes flower
Baby toes (Fenestraria) are so-named for their swollen ends, a classic succulent survival feature. The flowers are pretty awesome too.

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.

adenium in container
The Desert Rose (Adenium) drops its leaves in winter and needs little water while dormant (resting). When it starts getting flower buds, it needs a little more.

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.

Repotting

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).

split rock
The split rock cactus (Pleiospilos nelii) is native to South Africa and does well in a container, as long a you cut back on water in the heat of summer and cold of winter.

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.

echeveria
The fleshy leaves of an echeveria. These are such pretty and easy-care succulents.

Gardeners can adapt to – and enjoy – caring for succulents. Check out our Pinterest page on cacti and succulents for more information and photos.