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.

Favorite Succulent: Crown of Thorns

It’s spiny, really spiny. But the Euphorbia milii is a succulent, not a cactus. The plant, which is native to Madagascar and can grow up to six feet tall in the right conditions, is an excellent houseplant choice. When growing the crown of thorns, however, be sure to place it out of high-traffic areas. Like many euphorbias, the crown of thorns produces a milk-like sap that can irritate the skin. Mature plants can spread to a width of several feet, depending on pruning. And those thorns – they are about one-half-inch long and located all along the woody stems.

flowers crown of thorns
The pretty, salmon-pink flowers of the Euphorbia millii

A Madagascar Native

This interesting succulent goes by many names. It used to be called Euphorbia splendens, and splendid seems more appropriate for this plant. But millii is in honor of Baron Milius, who introduced the plant to France in 1821. It’s also sometimes called the Christplant. The crown of thorns was introduced to the United States through Florida.

The crown of thorns is among succulents most often mistaken for a cactus. The spines don’t rise from a single areole, however, which helps differentiate spiny euphorbias from true cacti. And as a houseplant, it’s not likely to reach six feet, although we had one that grew to more than two feet before Tim trimmed it back and propagated new plants from the cuttings.

roadrunner and succulents
Roadrunners like to take cover in thorny plants. I think this guy wanted to get to our crown of thorns, bottom right.

Year-round Blooms

This euphorbia is only hardy as a perennial in zone 10 and higher, where it makes a fine shrub choice. It requires little watering or care, and only some warmth and sunshine to bloom almost continuously. By placing our crown of thorns in a sunny, south-facing window and giving it a summer vacation outside once temperatures warm, we’ve enjoyed blooms all year long.

crown of thorns pot outside
This small transplant from our larger plant enjoys a warm summer day.

The crown of thorns is a relative of the poinsettia, and original plants had deeper red flowers than those available today. New cultivars of the Euphorbia millii have smaller thorns, but what sort of a challenge is that? Most crown of thorn plants available for growing in containers are smaller than those placed in tropical landscapes, and flowers on the houseplants are only about one-half inch in diameter. But it doesn’t seem to matter; for one, the flowers appear in groupings. And I love the effect of the tiny, subtle blooms on such a thorny plant.

euphoria millii
Euphorbia millii, or crown of thorns, is a fascinating blend of delicate and spiny.

The crown of thorns is vulnerable to mites, mealy bugs and whiteflies. The only other problem that can occur with the easy-care succulent is overwatering. Place Euphorbia millii plants and cuttings in well-draining soil.

 

Succulents Help Us Survive Winter

People who love to garden, or even who love nature, must make a few compromises and adjustments in any climate with cold winter months and snow. Having some houseplants and even colorful blooms eases the loss for gardeners in winter. We have a large selection that contains mostly succulents. My husband, Tim, is the succulent caretaker, and although I tease him about the volume of plants, I’m so glad they’re growing and blooming in winter on a sunny wall.

succulents in sunny window
Succulents love our bank of south-facing windows. Foreground is a spiral aloe (Aloe polyphylla) started from seed. Behind it is a Christmas cactus, barrel cactus and a variety of houseplants.

Succulents and cacti

Succulents are the ultimate in adaptability. They tolerate drought by storing water in their stems and/or leaves. Some also have evolved to develop especially large roots. Succulents need little supplemental water, especially when it’s cold and cloudy. Cacti are a large family of succulents that have spine cushions called areoles.

barrel cactus
Barrel cactus in container. For a plant that is basically round with spines, there is a huge variety of Ferocactus, the “fierce cactus.”

The enormous variety of succulents makes them so appealing to me. We have cacti that have grown in containers for years, tiny succulents that thrive in small clay pots, and a few that flower for most of the winter or year. Their varying colors and textures are a delight to hold, especially in groupings.

The selection is larger now than when I took this photo a few years ago. And that tall euphorbia is even taller!
The selection is larger now than when I took this photo a few years ago. And that tall euphorbia is even taller!

Caring for succulents

Succulents often survive the poorest of conditions, but they need some water. They certainly don’t use as much water as other houseplants, however, and tend to be more forgiving when neglected. As long as the plant is in soil that drains well, you can water weekly or less often, depending on the variety. Although succulents need less water, it’s a good idea to water them slowly and deeply. They need little fertilizing, although giving them a boost with a fertilizer such as fish emulsion once a month should support their growth and flowering.

Euphorbia adobe wall
Close-up of the euphorbia. The Euphorbiaceae family is one of the largest succulent and even plant families in the world.

Most succulents need at least a half day of sunshine, even in winter. Placing them near a sunny window usually takes care of this. But keep an eye on the plant; sometimes sunlight can burn a succulent. Turning the plant gives it more even sun. You can also use grow lights to keep them warm and happy.

succulents under grow light
We might as well use our grow lights for succulents until seed-starting time.

Like other plants, succulents flower to ensure their survival; the flowers produce seeds. My favorite example of this is how the giant Saguaro cactus from the Arizona desert reproduces. Birds, bats and insects help pollinate the flowers, which don’t emerge until the cactus is about 35 years old. Coyotes and cactus wrens eat the fruit and carry the seeds in their digestive system until depositing them with their waste. In the right conditions, a new Saguaro forms.

baby toes bloom
Baby toes (Fenestreria) produces one of my favorite flowers several times a year. The plant originated in South Africa.

But back to the houseplants – most flower indoors as well, and some are fairly predictable. For example, the Christmas cactus (Schlumbergera bridgesii) typically blooms in mid-winter, which gives the plant its name. Ours are blooming for a second time.

split rock succulent
This split rock (Pleiopilos nelii) surprised us with a delicate, flesh-colored flower.

Easy to manage

Succulents are easy to propagate. In most cases, the gardener needs to let the cut stem dry a few days before replanting. Tim has successfully propagated dozens of succulents. As long as the plants get some light and warmth, you’ll be able to enjoy them inside all winter, and give them a nice vacation outside in summer when temperatures warm. It’s best to harden them off, as you would any houseplant or seedling. Gradually introduce the plants to the outdoors, increasing their time outside each day. They need their six hours or so of sun, but can easily burn if exposed to too much direct sun, especially during the hottest time of day.

Aloe vera in sunny window
Aloe veras are popular succulents. We love the fan aloe (Aloe plicatillis) in the foreground. It eventually grows a woody base.

We love having a colorful desert in our home in winter, and it’s nice to have some green and blooms. For more information on caring for succulents, see my Resources page.

5 Water-wise Plants that Pop with Fall Color

Fall came quickly here as our extreme climate did a number on my vegetable garden and I am mourning the loss of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers. So to pick up my mood, I’m enjoying the color that remains on many of our drought-tolerant ornamentals. Some of the native roses and wildflowers are hanging in there. Although I love fall, the time of transition is always tough for me, and it helps to have some green and lots of other color hold on longer as cool temperatures make their way into New Mexico.

woods rose in fall
On October 3, we’ve got wild cosmos and a stand of blue grama grass in the foreground. But the leaves of one wild rose are turning yellow, while the other one is loaded with red hips.

Aside from those hardy native wildflowers, here are five low-water plants that can prolong color power in xeric landscapes:

Beargrass. Beargrass is a woody succulent from Mexico that resembles an ornamental grass in the garden. Although plants in California and the Pacific Northwest also are called Beargrass, the ones that thrive in Mexico and New Mexico are of the Nolina family and typically are hardy down to zone 5. High Country Gardens has just introduced a new cold hardy species Nolina microcarpa, or Big Beargrass. Not only is the foliage evergreen, but as the creamy flowers fade in late summer, they turn an earthy pink. The plant attracts pollinators and reaches up to 2.5 feet in height.

Nolina beagrass
Beargrass, or Nolina, is a woody succulent that looks more like a graceful ornamental grass. Image courtesy of High Country Gardens.

Firestick Euphorbia  or “Sticks of Fire.” The Euphorbia tirucalli “Rosea” is a succulent usually grown as a houseplant, at least in any climate colder than zone 9. In warmer zones, the plant makes a stunning accent in a xeric rock garden. If you grow it as a container plant, you can add it to your summer and fall landscape by setting the pot out until the temperature hovers near freezing. The Fire Sticks plant is native to South Africa and grows well in Arizona and warmer zones of California and a few warm spots in southern New Mexico. The red color comes on as temperatures cool. If you do choose to plant Fire Sticks in a container, be aware that the plant can reach heights of 6 feet.

Nandina. Also called Heavenly Bamboo, Nandina is a favorite evergreen shrub around the country. Although it grows in part shade to full sun, the more sun you give nandinas, the more color you’re likely to see. Most nandina are evergreen and grow slowly, up to 10 feet high under some conditions, but compact varieties are available for nearly every zone. In the arid Southwest, nandinas tend to grow and spread less. Sunset has just added a compact variety called “Lemon lime” (Nandina domestica Alba) to its Western Garden collection. Hardy in USDA zones 6 through 9, this stunner has bright lime green new foliage that fades slightly but remains green.

flirt nandina
Flirt Nandina (Nandina “Murasaki”) from the Sunset Western Garden Collection. Image courtesy of Sunset.

Woods’ rose. It’s wild, but I love it. The Rosa woodsii is a rose hip-producing machine fills with delicate pink blooms in summer that somehow seem to leave even more hips than spent blooms from fall through winter. It’s as bright as any berry bush and a haven for birds, pollinators and wildlife. Of course, you can harvest the rose hips or leave them for the color and critters; the hips provide an excellent source of protein and energy in the winter. There are several native varieties of the Woods’ rose that can adapt to climate and natural water availability.

rose hips on Woods' rose
Here’s a close-up of the Woods’ rose in the center of the top photo. Who needs flowers when berries this color last all fall and winter, or until the birds eat them all?

Sedum. Sedum, or stonecrop, is a versatile group of evergreen succulents. Most of them are even more attractive in fall and winter when they darken or produce seed heads. One variety, Autumn Joy, is even named for its favored fall color. The flowers emerge in summer as a lovely pink color, but gradually turn a deep rust. Autumn Fire is a new variety of Autumn Joy with light green leaves and deeper red fall flowers. Both the foliage and flowers provide unique fall and winter interest in the garden on this xeric perennial. It comes in various heights and colors.

dragon's blood sedum
Dragon’s blood is a groundcover sedum we planted to spread over rocks. This one looks great beneath a native chocolate flower and fading desert zinnia.

Xeriscaping Strategy: Proper and Unusual Uses of Landscape Fabrics

It’s officially October and a blazing 92 degrees just after noon here. We’re setting record highs in New Mexico for heat and have gone weeks without measurable rain in my area while a hurricane threatens additional flooding on the East coast. So I thought I would take a few minutes to review the many uses of fabrics to control heat and retain water in the garden for those of us in drought conditions.

landscape fabric shading cacti
Succulents need shade, but direct sun can burn them, so Tim rigged a pretty clever shade cloth for his cactus collection using woven landscape fabric.

Landscape fabrics, also called geotextiles, typically come in rolls and are available online or in home and garden centers. Nonwoven fabrics are made primarily for weed control. Like plastics, they are the least permeable of fabrics, and should offer better weed control. To me, nothing offers complete weed control. And because they let in little to no sun or water, I would avoid using nonwoven fabrics in beds, at least permanent ones, because they prevent water and oxygen from penetrating. I’d reserve them for walkways only.

ripped landscape fabric
No landscape fabric is permanent or impenetrable. This fabric was in our walkway when we moved in, and I can’t count the hours we’ve spent fighting the weeds.

Woven fabrics, typically now made of polypropylene, are breathable, which means that water, oxygen and some of the sun’s rays can penetrate. That also means weeds can work their way through, especially since polypropylene tends to eventually break down from ultraviolet rays. Placing organic mulches on top of the permeable fabric introduces more chance for weeds. Still, if you’re adding mulch or gravel above the fabric, it offers an additional layer of protection against weeds. I would selectively lay down woven fabrics for areas of a bed between plants (leaving a large hole cut in the fabric around any plants in the bed) or for temporary uses. Landscape fabrics also can help control erosion on banks, preventing the washing away of top soil. On the other hand, the fabrics never are permanent and if you have a big garden bed, you’re better off investing in extra layers of mulch, which works just as well for weed control if you go three to four inches deep. Just be sure to choose the right mulch for your plant or you cause water and plant health problems.

landscape fabrics
On the far left is a roll of row cover newly arrived. Top right is a woven fabric, the same used in Tim’s shade cloth. Below it are two black fabrics of varying thicknesses.

Row cover is my favorite landscape fabric. Also made of polypropylene, the white fabric comes in varying thicknesses and typically is used to cover and protect plants from frost, such as for mini hoop houses.  The fabric lets in up to 70 percent of the sun’s UV rays and some moisture, but doesn’t absorb water. Using row covers can also protect plants from heat by shading roots and blocking wind and insects to some extent. Shading roots and foliage obviously saves water by slowing evaporation. It also keeps the plant healthier, as does controlling insect access. I have begun to use row covers more often this year and have just ordered a roll of the fabric to boost my use more next year, helping to protect young seedlings from insects and to keep the ground warm and moist as they get started.

Here are a few uses for landscape fabrics other than laying them on the ground under mulch:

Although plastic probably works best, lay nonwoven landscape fabric down in the fall after cleaning up your vegetable garden to keep weeds from taking over. You might not choke out every weed, but you can cut down substantially on seeds that blow in and on the sun and rain that help germinate weeds already present. You’ll want to lift the fabric and enrich the soil with organic matter, however, a few months before planting.

Make small hoop houses to cover single herbs or crops. Row covers can help extend the season for a plant,  and you also can construct a small, temporary cover over a single plant that’s susceptible to bugs or climate conditions. Or just throw the fabric over a plant in the evening for temporary protection if frost is a concern, but days still produce plenty of warmth.

r
Thanks to a smart neighbor, I got the idea to leave my basil covered and cut down on grasshopper damage. I made this out of old drip hose and row cover. It’s not pretty, but it works.
basil protected
I also believe the cover cut down on watering. The drip hose runs under the fabric. I’ve harvested several crops from this basil and it’s still thriving in October in zone 6B.

Use permeable fabric to shade a new plant until it’s established. Around here, we often have to construct cages for small trees and other plants to protect them from deer. Tim has added a fabric top to many to keep the direct sun off a young plant or transplant, which also helps slow water loss. He simply uses cable ties to secure the fabric to the metal fencing.

shade cover with conduit
No electrician’s invention would be complete without conduit! Tim shaped the conduit to keep the fabric out and away from the plants.

Finally, since Halloween is just around the corner, you can’t go wrong using leftover black landscape fabric to create a last-minute grim reaper costume. Especially if the weeds are really getting you down….