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.

Use Shapes and Textures in Xeriscaping

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.

Mesilla nm xeriscape
Plant shape and texture work perfectly in the landscape design of this old adobe home in Mesilla, N.M.

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.

plant sculpture
This whimsical plant sculpture lives in an Atlanta-area 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.

yellow in xeric garden
This part of our xeric garden is mostly yellow, but not redundant because of shape and texture of the plants and foliage.

Plant variety 

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.

desert garden
It’s hot and dry in Tucson, but you still can use shape and texture in the most xeric designs, as shown by the sprawling ocotillo and prickly pear at its base.

The shapes in xeric plants typically are less defined. Still, plants have a basic shape, such as how lavender stalks form a rounded V.

lavender plants in New Mexico
Six rounded lavender now have five friends growing below. They’re lined up, but maintain a natural look.

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.

xeric garden
This garden is a large circle, with defined beds that are rounded but don’t mimic the overall shape. And as plants can do, some of these lost their defined shape following monsoon rains.

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.

texture from plants
This is not a xeric garden, but look at how many different textures combine in one spot, including variegated leaves of the hosta, lower right.

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.

Layering

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.

silver dollar plant
We fell in love with this silver dollar plant (Xerosicyos Danguyi) at The Arboretum in Pasadena, Calif.

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.

10 Tips to Help Plants Survive Summer Heat

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.

chocolate flower blooms
Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) blooms are perkiest in early morning but tend to wilt late in the day. No need to water or worry.

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.

drip irrigation and straw on cucumber seedling
Drip irrigation is the only way to go for water savings and for keeping plants hydrated on hot days.

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.

straw mulch container tomato
Happy new tomato fruit with straw mulch in a container.

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.

xeric garden summer heat
Walking around your garden helps you spot heat stress and pest damage.

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.

cloth shade for plants.
It’s not pretty, but it’s clever. Tim built this removable shade out of landscape fabric, PVC and conduit.

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.

containers on patio
Got containers? If you see a plant might be getting too hot, move it into afternoon shade. The white bucket in one container helped shade a new cherry tomato from sun and wind.

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.

field bindweed
Bindweed wraps around the base and stems of plants, weakening them. All weeds compete with garden plants for water.

Bonus tip.

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.

Cacti under shade cloth
Succulents under the shade cloth. Yes, even some cacti can get too much sun. Containers allow these to survive winter inside and summer out in the heat.

Five Low-water Plants for Use in the Home

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.

low-water-plants-for-garden-and-home (1 of 5)
Bees, butterflies, and most people love lavender. And deer don’t like them, so we can grow them anywhere we like.

Lavender

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.

lavender dried buds in bowl
Lavender buds are easy to harvest once dry. They’re perfect for sachets and soaps as easy homemade gifts.

Thyme

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.

drying thyme
Thyme is a perfect xeric evergreen and a yummy herb. Last fall, I dried thyme, oregano and sage stalks for use in the kitchen.

Sea holly

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.

Blue sea holly is a unique garden or cut flower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Sea Holly Uploaded by Magnus Manske) .
Blue sea holly is a unique garden or cut flower. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, By Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK (Sea Holly Uploaded by Magnus Manske) .

Aloe vera

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.

Aloe vera plants hold water and soothing gel in their fleshy leaves.
Aloe vera plants hold water and soothing gel in their fleshy leaves.

Pineapple guava

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.

 

Add Evergreens to Your Low-water Garden Plan

Most of my gardening friends have started seeds and marked up pages in catalogs because when spring is in the air, we get excited, even impatient, to return to the garden. It’s easy to plan for spring and summer bloomers, but also helpful to think ahead to next winter, when blooms fade.

snow on evergreens
Winter can be pretty in any garden, and snow on evergreens… gorgeous.

Evergreen shrubs and trees add visual interest, homes for birds or other wildlife and privacy in winter. Evergreens are particularly helpful in dry or cold climates. Choosing an evergreen for the low-water landscape does not confine the gardener to conifers. There are many choices to fit nearly any xeric garden design or location, such as santolina.

santolina
Gray santolina is evergreen — or evergray — and produces bright yellow flowers in summer.

Saltbush (Atriplex canescens) Saltbush, also called four-wing saltbush, is a native plant of Western states. Although its colors aren’t bright or striking, saltbush is an unusual and interesting plant. Native Americans once used the stems for fuel and made yellow dye from the plant’s leaves. Although I haven’t tried the seeds, they are edible, and we once saw locals gathering the seeds when driving south of Albuquerque. When the seeds emerge, they make a gorgeous contrast to the foliage, which is more silvery green. And they’re swirly and paper-fine to the touch. Saltbush is native to alkaline soils and salty high deserts.

four wing saltbush
The four-wing saltbush is a native that looks terrific in a natural landscape.

Boxwood (Buxus). Boxwood is surprisingly drought tolerant if given some shade or in a northern exposure, deer resistant and easy to care for in the lawn. In fact, the plant is subject to fungal disease, but when panted with the crown about an inch higher than its position above the soil in its nursery pot. Well-draining, slightly alkaline soil also helps, which makes it a perfect evergreen shrub for most of New Mexico. Most boxwoods grow in zones 5 through 9.

petite pillar boxwood
Monrovia’s petite boxwood is even more versatile in a container. Photo by Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Although boxwoods don’t need substantial attention or trimming, gardeners who enjoy pruning will love shaping these plants to match the landscape. A new boxwood from Monrovia, Petite Pillar Dwarf Boxwood, has a naturally column-like form, which sets up easy maintenance for the gardener. It fits perfectly in containers, but requires regular watering, especially in heat.

agaves mass planting
Agaves surround this tree at Tucson’s Desert Botanical Garden.

Succulents. If they’re hardy in your zone, succulents can provide year-round interest, especially in xeric gardens or along walkways or fences. Their shape adds a unique look to winter gardens. For example, the agave (Agavaceae) is like garden art with its upright, sometimes symmetrical design. The plants are long-living perennials, and some varieties are hardy down to zone 5. With about 300 species to choose from, gardeners are sure to find one that suits their design and zone. Although they grow slowly compared with shrubs, agaves need a little room to expand. Set off the plant’s color with a contrasting ground cover such as speedwell or purple iceplant for more summer color.

blue agave
These blue agaves (Agave parryi, or Parry’s agave) add texture and color to our winter garden.

The aloe vera provides a similar look, although the leaves are fleshier and more upright. The plant is not as cold hardy as agave, and needs to be outside only in climates with warm winters, no lower than 40 degrees at night.  Aloes also add value to your garden. We’ve used aloe directly from a plant to soothe sunburns.

Yuccas also are easy to grow, and their slimmer, spear-like leaves look brilliant all year long. They’re also a diverse xeric plant; you can choose a variety that’s bushy and full at the bottom or more open and fanned out.  Check the variety’s mature height when purchasing to make sure it won’t get too tall for the location you choose. Some varieties, such as Joshua Tree, grow to 15 to 20 feet high. After a few years, yuccas produce summer flowers on tall stalks from the plant’s center.

Caring for these succulents is simple. They need some sun, but can burn if exposed to too much direct sunlight. And the only problems with the plants typically come from overwatering. Avoid watering these succulents in winter, or the plant can get root rot.

Lots of evergreens grow nearby, including the pinon.
Lots of evergreens grow nearby, including the pinon.

Conifers. Piñon pines (Pinus edulis and a few others) are native to New Mexico and Arizona. It’s more like a rambling, tall shrub than a tree, easy to care for and used to semi-arid regions. The seeds, or nuts, are edible.  Icee Blue Yellow-wood (Podocarpus elongates ‘Monmal’) has stunning blue foliage in winter, but only in southern climates (zones 9 through 11). It has a thin, conical shape when mature and can be trimmed into classic Christmas tree shape, a nice touch for a warm winter garden. As with all xeric plants, Icee Blue needs a little extra water until established, then gardeners can cut back. Alligator juniper is a terrific bird shelter that has interesting bark along with evergreen branches.

podocarpus icee blue
Icee blue yellow-wood needs little water once established. Photo by Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Icee blue also is the name given to a spreading juniper (Juniperis horizontalis ‘Icee Blue’). I’m not a big fan of juniper, mostly because of allergies. But the plant can provide evergreen groundcover in a low-water lawn. Icee Blue is hardy down to zone 2, and prefers full sun. If controlled with trimming or planted in mass plantings, junipers are a low-water alternative to shrubs and other groundcovers. If you want to cover an area of ground quickly with a plant that requires little maintenance or water once established, check with your local nursery for a juniper that can survive your winter lows.

The low-lying juniper to the right of our budding apricot was in the garden when we moved here and produced tiny berries.
The low-lying juniper to the right of our budding apricot was in the garden when we moved here and produced tiny berries.

 

Savoring Succulents Without Busting the Budget

New gardeners and homeowners or office dwellers with little time can enjoy live plantings with easy-care succulents and air plants. And who knows? Once bitten with the bug, it’s so easy to move on to flowers, herbs or vegetables.

cacti in thrift store container
Three cacti in a Haeger Pottery container. Tim found the container in a local thrift shop; the plants were about $2 each.

There are so many attractive succulents and cacti to choose among, and their colors vary. Many also flower. But they typically come in tiny plastic containers or expensive arrangements. We’ve spent some of our winter “down time” playing with these low-water lovers. Tim has propagated new plants from cuttings, but they eventually need attractive containers as well.

cacti succulents houseplants
Because you just can’t have enough cacti and succulents… This photo shows a few inexpensive, handmade containers.

We’ve bought some containers and repurposed others. In fact, I might not have enough for patio herbs this spring; I think they’ve been swiped. But we’ve also had a lot of fun making and finding containers. If you have a creative streak, you can have a lot of fun with cacti, succulents and air plants because the plants are so low maintenance.

air plants
I love the look of these tillandsias, or air plants. No soil needed!

Here are a few inexpensive container ideas:

Hypertufa. The trend in making hypertufa pots is popular for a reason. They’re relatively inexpensive to make, and although they can look like stone or concrete, the containers are much lighter. Hypertufa is a mix of Portland cement, sphagnum peat moss and perlite. There are lots of recipes online, and we often save plastic containers or other objects to use as molds.

inexpensive succulent containers
Three hypertufa pots we made, along with a “planter” made from an old fence post.

Thrift stores. It’s much more fun to browse a thrift store when you have an idea or purpose in mind. We purchase inexpensive baskets for hypertufa molds (the baskets can’t really be used again) and containers for air plants or cacti. It’s fun to find rustic or unusual items in particular.

wine glass air plant
I had fun with my thrift store find. I put decorative glass beads around a small plastic cylinder stuffed with sphagnum moss. It took less than 20 minutes.
thrift store containers cacti
This one’s our favorite. We bought what appears to be a candleholder and then found the perfect spiny cactus for its “seat.”

Reuse and repurpose. You can buy empty air plant terrariums fairly inexpensively online, or come up with found objects. I’ve used old coffeemaker pots, small mason jars and other objects from our kitchen or closets. Tim has used an old jelly jar layered with sand and moss to create a tiny succulent planter. And fence posts, drift wood, rocks, shells, pinecones and other natural items found in your yard or on walks can work well as planters or decorative items. Air plants can even be glued to wood or other items; you’ll just have to spritz them with water a few times a week instead of soaking the “roots.”

sedum in old wood
Found objects also add interest outdoors. An old post with barbed wire intact sets off this sedum.
airplant terrarium
These terrariums are inexpensive. We like to add decorative rocks and objects from our yard or garden.

Although some succulents need fairly regular watering, the biggest mistake we’ve seen people make with cacti and succulents is overwatering. That takes only a little practice to get right for each plants. The other helpful tip from Tim is the growing medium.

You might think that cacti in particular grow in sand, especially if you’re ever been to Arizona.  A little sand helps containers drain, but you need some other growing medium to give the plant some nutrients and retain just enough moisture for the roots to seek and find. You can buy commercial cactus mixes, but most include peat moss. Tim believes his plants do better with less moss. He mixes his own medium of about half cactus potting soil, with some vermiculite and sandy soil from areas of our yard. This seems to support the plant while also providing drainage.

pink cactus flower
In this case, the cactus was found on family land in southeastern N.M. Tim kept some of the dirt he found it in for the growing medium. And why not? It was thriving in its natural location.

It can help to drill a drainage hole in any container you make or find, but it’s not always necessary with cacti and succulents, especially if you have a large or deep container and good potting mix. The real satisfaction is in coming up with a unique container or arrangement, matching the cactus to the container or the container to a plant you really like.

blooming cactus houseplant
A close-up of our spiny chair. Tim added a few decorative rocks to complement the planter’s color. We knew it had buds, but the blooms were more than we expected.

For more about cacti and succulents, check out our Pinterest board.