Conserving Lawn and Garden Water: Seven Solutions

Xeriscaping isn’t for everyone; most plants native to arid zones do poorly if grown in a humid, rainy region. A plant adapted to 14 inches of rain a year will go soggy or leggy, and likely die, if it soaks up nearly 60 inches of annual rain. And vice versa. A Southwest gardener might love tropical plants, but the plants would need loads of water and attention here. Our relative humidity has dropped to the single digits lately.

xeric plants rock garden nm
Xeric plants can pop with blooms and come in many colors.

I’ve written plenty about choosing native or appropriate plants, and that’s still the most critical strategy for the combination of plant health, water savings and garden budget. Our zone 6B might have similar temperatures to zone 6B in West Virginia, but the state averages 44 inches of rainfall a year vs. 14 inches in New Mexico. If a 40 ft. x 70 ft. roof can gather more than 1,740 gallons of water from one inch of rain, imagine how many extra gallons of water fall on a plant where 40 more inches of rain fall than it’s used to receiving.

summer monsoon
We get some rain (and hail), but most of it falls during the summer monsoon season.

So, tip number one is to choose plants suitable for zone, exposure and precipitation. That’s a key to successful gardening no matter where you live.

Give in just a little to whims. If you want to indulge your love for tropical plants but you live in the arid Southwest, choose only one or two and place them in containers. Likewise, a succulent likely will survive better in the Southeast if protected from rain. You can protect it with containers that you move under shelter or indoors, or try the French solution, shown here by Debra Lee Baldwin.

Place plants with similar water needs near one another, especially if you use automatic sprinklers or drip systems in the lawn and beds. You can regulate zones or emitters, but plant roots seek water, and studies have shown that roots can even detect the sound of running water. Anyone who has had to repair pipes damaged by water-loving willow roots or the more xeric locust tree knows how this works!

drip irrigation
A low drip saves water and helps plants.

Use drip irrigation in vegetable gardens or ornamental beds. It’s the most efficient way to water. And slow drip is better for plants because the water soaks in gradually without washing away nutrients. Water containers as slowly as you can, or water half as much as each plant needs, then circle back for a second dose. It takes a little longer but avoids water (and soil nutrients) rushing out the bottom of the container. If rain in one area mostly falls during certain months, turn off or completely reprogram the sprinklers and drip controls. Or look for one that senses rainfall and shuts down watering accordingly.

Our potted tropical canna gets to live outside in the summer. But tomatoes also make great container plants.
Our potted tropical canna gets to live outside in the summer. Tomatoes also make great container plants. The canna needs extra water, but the tomato is all about consistent moisture.

Prepare soil. Healthy soil makes for a healthy plant and supports drainage. If it’s too sandy, water rushes through, and little soaks into roots. If it’s too clay-like or compacted, water pools on or just under the ground. Likewise, some plants only do well in a particular soil type. Amending soil can be tough, so choosing a plant that can handle current soil conditions is a great idea to save water and money. With healthy soil, you’re more likely to have healthy plants, and not assume one that looks bad just needs more water!

soil prep for herbs
Lots of compost enriches this soil for herbs, but the xeric area above remains as is, which is mostly rocky.

Mulch. Mulching cools roots and slows evaporation. Organic mulches eventually break down and improve soil. As with plants, it’s best to get some local advice on the best mulches for your area and conditions.

Switch to plants with purpose. Growing edible plants saves or exchanges water somewhere down the line when you don’t have to purchase the food at a store. You can fill your garden with green, but harvest herbs and vegetables at the same time. Or grow plants that double as resources for crafts, gifts and cut arrangements.

basil nasturtium
California garden with gorgeous basil and nasturtiums, which have edible flowers.

Conserving water might be more critical in the Southwest, but even gardeners in states like Alabama and West Virginia should keep water savings in mind. Local water utilities spend less in the long run when they don’t have to process as much potable drinking water, which is what most homeowners use outside. Weather patterns are unpredictable and climate disruption affects plant cycles and water availability.  Some areas receive more rain in spring and less during hot summers; taking steps to lessen the amount of irrigation needed to help plants through hot, dry periods makes for good sense and citizenship.

I realize some plants can get too much water, but that’s all the more reason to watch irrigation. And the best way to check plants and soil is to stroll through the garden, stopping to smell some flowers along the way, of course!

 

 

Plant Select 2016: Waterwise Grass and Groundcovers

I get so excited when I see the Plant Select press release in my messages each spring. I love any new plant introduction or award winner, but Plant Select focuses on plants that adapt to – and thrive in – the dry, wild conditions of the intermountain regions and high plains. Gardeners can be confident that their selections will work in much of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and other western states. This year, Plant Select announced two new groundcovers, and selected a drought-tolerant turf and groundcover. Anyone ready to switch out a high-water lawn should take note of these choices:

new ice plant orange flowers
Red Mountain Flame ice plant. All the pluses of an evergreen ice plant, plus a new orange tone! Image courtesy of Plant Select and David Salman.

Red Mountain Flame ice plant (Delosperma ‘PWWG02S’). An ice plant with deep orange to red flowers! Ice plants came to the U.S. from South Africa. The plants use little to moderate water once established, yet they provide gorgeous, evergreen groundcover for the xeric garden. One reason is that they spread quickly. But ice plants won’t get invasive. When ours have spread too far, we’ve even transplanted some of the extra plant to another area of the garden with success. They’re usually yellow or pale pink to purple. I’m thrilled to have a new ice plant color choice for rock gardens and other beds. It’s also perfect that New Mexico’s own David Salman of Waterwise Gardening produced the Red Mountain Flame seedlings. Grow ice plant in zones 4 through 9. Red Mountain Flame needs a mix of sun and shade.

Alan's Apricot ice plant
Alan’s Apricot ice plant boasts larger, color-changing blooms. Image courtesy of Plant Select and Alan Tower.

Alan’s Apricot ice plant (Delosperma ‘Alan’s Apricot’PPAF). The apricot-colored blooms of this new introduction are similar in color to existing ice plants, but larger. It also changes color to a pinker hue and then back again. Ice plants turn heads in summer when they fill with blooms on the low foliage. I can only imagine how Alan’s Apricot’s two-inch blooms will look in mid-summer. The larger, showy flowers also will shine in a container or the landscape as blooms begin to open or close each season. The ice plant was developed by Alan Tower of Spokane, Wash. Also for zones 4 through 9, a variety of soils, and a mix of sun and shade.

Moroccan pincushion
The Moroccan pincushion is a great groundcover selection for rock gardens. Courtesy of Pat Hayward at Plant Select.

Moroccan pinchusion flower (Pterocephalus depressus). The Moroccan pincushion has similar foliage and an inch or so more height than ice plants. The pincushion flowers are light pink to rose in color and leave silvery seed heads after fading. It’s also evergreen, offering winter foliage in zones 4 through 8. Add Moroccan pincushion to a rock garden, raised bed or large container in full sun. The plant needs little to no water once established and should have soil that drains well.

dog tuff grass
Dogs can run on and water drought-tolerant DOG TUFF without damaging the grass. Image from Plant Select and Kelly Grummons.

DOG TUFF grass (Cynodon ‘PWIN04S’).  Why have no lawn at all when you can have areas of turf for kids and pets, along with the look and cooling effects of grass? I’m all for removing some lawn, even more if you have a high-water grass. But I’ll never stop trying to convince people to leave a little grass. DOG TUFF lets homeowners have the best of both worlds: saving water and keeping a lawn. DOG TUFF has an extra quality that might have influenced Plant Select’s choice. Like the name says, it’s tough, holding up to foot traffic even in a xeric lawn. It also holds up to your dog’s help with “watering.” The grass comes in plugs for easier spread and planting. DOG TUFF needs more water the first year, but once established, the warm season grass should return in late spring for all-summer coverage in zones 5 through 10. Learn more about planting and caring for DOG TUFF here.

Plant Select is located in Ft. Collins, Colo., where its staff puts plants to work in test gardens to see how they do with little water. Plant Select also evaluates plants for adaptability, durability and ease of care. They also consider how attractive the plant is in the garden and whether it’s wildlife friendly.

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.

 

Calculate How Much Rainwater You Can Collect

Harvesting rainwater makes perfect sense, and we learned more about the process at a terrific workshop we attended at the NM Organic Farming Conference in Albuquerque last week. From neighboring Texas, Billy Kniffen is the water resource specialist for Texas A&M University.

Kniffen explained that catching and using rainwater is not a new concept; early settlers in the West captured water. Interest is increasing today, at least among homeowners and gardeners who live in states that allow rain harvesting. We’ve used one or more rain barrels to capture roof water for years, and hope to someday acquire a large cistern. As Kniffen said, “the first rain barrel is the ‘gateway drug’ to rainwater harvesting.”

rain barrel shed
This was actually our third rain barrel, located near our vegetable garden. I couldn’t stand to watch the water pour off that shed roof without catching at least some of it.

Getting Started Is Easy

I believe more people would harvest rainwater if they realized it’s not as complex a process as it seems. For simple gardening use, a few rain barrels or a cistern with pressure can irrigate ornamental plants. If you want to water edible plants, you have to take a few more steps; it’s recommended that you add features such as first flush equipment (which directs the first flush from your gutters away from the barrel to prevent nasty debri from entering the container) and filters. A prefilter also keeps leaves and debris out; you just have to clean it from time to time. You also can disinfect your rain water with chlorine or ultraviolet light.

filter lid on rain barrel
Inexpensive, smaller barrels have crude filters to stop debris. A larger system needs a more sophisticated filter.

Calculating Collection

A house that has a roof of 1,000 square feet can yield 600 gallons of water from just one inch of rainfall. For me, watching the small barrels fill and then overflow feels like a waste. In our case, water that runs from the house eventually refills our water table – and therefore our well. But in urban areas, water runoff fills streets and gutters, and often is wasted. Texas A&M Extension has made it easier to calculate the amount of rain you can collect from your home or shed roof.

rain collection system model
Here’s the demo system Kniffen brought to our workshop. It’s simpler than it looks!

Here’s a simple calculator for catchment area courtesy of the college. There’s also a link here to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet (under Resources) with the formulas already included. HarvestingRainWater.com also has a simple calculator. Texas residents, or those who can easily compare their annual rainfall to one of the included Texas towns, can input the information and receive monthly flow rates and required cistern sizes to catch as much rain as possible. Finally, the school also publishes a manual all about rainwater harvesting.

gutter on shed
We had to add a gutter to the shed roof to collect the water. It was simple and worth it.

Kniffen and his wife run their home solely off collected rainwater from their home and a shed. I don’t believe we have the money to collect all water and make it potable, but it’s always on the wish list. Any attempts to save and use rainwater can help preserve water for future years. I hope these tools make it a little easier for anyone considering rain harvesting to get started.

Five Low-water Flowering Plants for 2016

You can save water in the garden without sacrificing color. And several new or hot plants for 2016 pop with color, even though they’re waterwise or drought tolerant. I’m so pleased that breeders and nurseries are beginning to focus on more low-water choices for gardeners.

salvia little kiss
Little Kiss Salvia packs bicolored blooms and low-water, low-maintenance needs. Image courtesy of Sunset Western Garden Collection.

A few of the new and hot plants I’m covering are hardy enough to survive high desert or intermountain winters, such as our zone 6B. I’ve listed five favorites for various zones below. Check out my past post on new drought-tolerant plants and watch for more introductions as spring approaches.

‘Little Kiss’ Salvia (Salvia micropylla ‘Little Kiss). All salvias are striking and perfect for low-water gardens. This new salvia from the Sunset Western Garden Collection has bicolor blooms. The red and white blooms (pictured above) appear from spring to fall, and the evergreen leaves provide some winter color. Little Kiss is hardy to 10 degrees F, thriving in zones 8 through 10. The plant grows quickly, and can be shaped once it’s established and actively growing. The salvia should only reach a height and width of about 18 inches. Use the low-growing showy plant along borders, steps or rocks. I might have to try one in a container!

Baby Pete Lily of the Nile (Agapanthus praecox ssp. orientalis ‘Benfran’). Monrovia declares Baby Pete to be one of its hot plants for 2016. The plant from Australia blooms earlier than most Agapanthus varieties and continues blooming with pretty lilac-blue flowers. This is a dwarf compact Agapanthus with short foliage that reaches about 12 inches high, with the purple blooms rising on stems above it. It’s a perennial in zones 8 through 11, or a container plant for cooler zones. Monrovia also has a Lily of the Nile (Midknight Blue) that’s hardy down to zone 6.

Baby-Pete is a compact, low-water Lily of the Nile with lots of bluish-lavender blooms. Image Credit: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.
Baby-Pete is a compact, low-water Lily of the Nile with lots of bluish-lavender blooms. Image Credit: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Summer Skies Butterfly Bush (Buddleia ‘Summer Skies’). Butterfly bush gets a bad rap because the plant is considered invasive in a few states in the Northwest. And it’s not a native plant in the United States. Still, in the right conditions, the perennial shrub that attracts butterflies and hummingbirds is a perfect low-water plant. Those conditions include well-draining soil, little irrigation and full sun. Its striking, tubular flowers and easy maintenance make it a centerpiece of one of our garden beds. This winter, birds are landing in it for temporary shelter. Proven Winners has given me another reason to love buddleia with Summer Skies, which adds gorgeous variegated leaves to its bluish-purple blooms. The plant is hardy in zones 5A through 9B.

Proven Winners summer skies butterfly bush
Gorgeous leaves, large purple blooms and little water! Plus hummingbirds and butterflies. Summer Skies butterfly bush can be the centerpiece of any xeric garden. Image courtesy of Proven Winners.

Scarlet Torch Bottlebrush (Callistemon rigidus ‘RutCall’). The bottlebrush is a favorite of hummingbirds too, with its bright crimson flowers through most of late spring and summer. The Scarlet Touch Bottlebrush from Monrovia is a compact variety that requires little maintenance. It typically needs little to no pruning and requires little water once established. Still, it can grow to nearly 9 feet high and 12 feet wide over several years. The plant is evergreen and hardy in zones 8 through 11 and flowers best in full sun.

I love the red blooms of this Scarlet Torch bottlebrush. Image Credit: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.
I love the red blooms of this Scarlet Torch bottlebrush. Image Credit: Doreen Wynja for Monrovia.

Rose (Showy Pink) Milkweed (Asclcepias incarnata). Attracting butterflies and hummingbirds is the desire of most gardeners. Milkweeds provide essential food for Monarch butterflies to help maintain or increase their population. This pink milkweed is from my favorite local source, High Country Gardens, and is on our list of additions in Spring 2016. Although not as waterwise as some, the plant certainly has a place in the xeric garden. Aside from its pollinator value, milkweed can thrive in areas of the yard or garden where water gathers. It’s also called Swamp Milkweed for that reason. If you’re considering a rain garden or bioswale, this is the plant to add alongside native ornamental grasses. We’ll plant ours along an abandoned irrigation ditch that runs midway through our property. Rose Milkweed is hardy from zones 3 through 9 and is deer resistant. The plant prefers full sun and will grow to about 3 feet wide by 3 or 4 feet tall.

milkweed
The Rose Milkweed adds color to drainage areas of the xeric garden and feeds monarch butterflies. Image Courtesy of High Country Gardens.

10 Reminders for Waterwise Gardening

Although the drought has eased in New Mexico and some areas of the Southwest, it’s still serious in many regions. Plus, there are plenty of reasons to save water in the yard, garden or farm all year long, regardless of your region’s current drought status.

Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.
Native plants adapt. These grow from the sand along White Sands Missile Range near Las Cruces, N.M.

No matter where you live, the foremost reason to adhere to low-water gardening designs and principles is to conserve water, which is the right thing to do for this and future generations. I doubt homeowners in California, many of whom typically enjoy steady rainfall of 18 or more inches a year, were concerned about drought when they had their yards designed decades ago. In fact, the 1913 completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct likely marked the beginning of the phenomenon that occurs when too many residents are concentrated in a geographic area, especially one not conducive to urbanization.

The aqueduct and population are only part of the problem in California or in any region short on water. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every American uses about 320 gallons of water a day. Nearly 30 percent of home use flows outdoors, including on lawns. All-told, home landscape irrigation accounts for some 9 billion gallons of water a day around the country.

If you’ve read past blog posts, you know that I plead for a measured and appropriate response, one that if taken before severe drought strikes can prevent community, and eventually global, water crises. That approach includes native or xeric landscape design, not the destruction of all living plant material in a lawn. As I’ve said before, replacing grass with gravel doesn’t necessarily save water or energy.

native grass acreage
Our native grass (and weed) lawn receives no water except rain.

For a 2015 recap and 2016 garden prep reminder, here are the 10 easiest ways to save water in your lawn and garden:

1. Convert some turf to gravel if you like, using oasis zones and smart xeriscape design principles. Involve a landscaping professional if the job is big or the concept overwhelms you.

2. Convert high-water turf to a native, low-water grass. The best choices for high desert areas are Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis) and Buffalo grass (Buchloë dactyloides). A new hybrid called Dog Tuff (Cynodon hybrid) also comes in plugs for quicker spread.

3. Water wisely, cutting back in winter and irrigating only in the cool of the morning during summer. Use drip irrigation instead of spray or sprinklers when possible. Add mulch around plant beds.

garden Drip tape in vegetable bed
Drip irrigation saves water and improves plant health for edibles or ornamentals.

4. Look for signs of water waste, such as runoff. Create a dry-river bed, bioswale or terrace to capture water and place plants with higher water needs in swales or at the bottom of inclines. Well around plants that need a little more water.

5. Remember that even low-water or xeric plants need extra water the first year; if the plant doesn’t make it because it dries out, you’ve wasted whatever water you used to irrigate plus the cost of the plant.

6. Choose perennials over annuals. Every time you plant annuals, you must water them extra to help them get established for the season. Growing more perennials and letting native annuals and wildflowers go to seed is a better strategy; leave one small bed or container arrangement only for annuals each year.

This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.
This pretty summer scene includes nothing but perennials, volunteer annuals and a few edibles in containers.

7. Grow edibles in your lawn or landscape. If you don’t want the look of a full-blown kitchen garden from the curb, place perennial herbs or low-water plants with berries for your family or birds in the most visible areas of the landscape.

8. Make smart use of containers and raised beds. Containers and raised beds use less water than the ground. Just be careful to water slowly. If water pours out the bottom of the pot, you’ve probably given more than the plant needs, and if you water rapidly, you can wash nutrients from the pot’s soil mix.

9. Check and improve the soil. It’s easy to ensure good soil and drainage in containers, but less so in the lawn. Even without a soil test, a gardener can see when the ground around a plant doesn’t drain well; that can be the death of many xeric plants. Adding organic matter and loosening the soil (but not tilling) can help build soil health over time.

Here's Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.
Here’s Tim loosening compacted soil in our vegetable garden. We worked in more compost that should break down this winter.

10. Capture and use rain water. If you don’t want to water edibles this way, at least catch rain from your roof to water your ornamentals. It might seem like one 50-gallon barrel isn’t enough, but as with all waterwise gardening, every little bit helps.

Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature's water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.
Deer graze the native grass that receives only nature’s water, and a rain barrel provides water for containers.

Search or browse past posts in the Archive or check my Resources page if you want to learn more about low-water gardening strategies. And here’s to 2016!

 

 

Five Favorite Cold-Hardy, Low-Water Perennials

With winter in full swing, I’m amazed at the hardiness of some of our low-water plants. Anyone who lives in a northern or high-altitude zone who’s planning to add or replace some plants this spring with low-water alternatives should feel plenty comfortable with the number and variety of choices. Planting perennials saves you money – and water. Xeric perennials only need a boost of water the first year or so, and then can often make it with no irrigation. Here are a few of my favorites by category:

purple iceplant low water cold hardy perennial
This purple iceplant had a few blooms into fall; we’ve had them covered with blooms in summer.

Ground Cover

The iceplant (Delosperma) is a sun-loving groundcover that spreads rapidly and rewards gardeners with bright pinkish-purple (D. cooperi) or yellow (D. congestum or D. nubigenum) flowers. We thought it would be too cold here in zone 6B, but our purple iceplant thrives on the northeast side of our home. It’s a stunner, especially in rock gardens, where it can cascade slightly over rocks or borders. It’s also an easy groundcover to transplant. Other low-water cold-hardy groundcovers are several sedums, such as Dragon’s blood (Sedum spurium), and low-growing sages (Artemesia filifolia or A. frigida).

cold-hardy low-water dragons blood sedum
Dragon’s blood sedum has such a rich, red color. It’s a cold-hardy perennial groundcover perfect for xeric rock gardens.

Flowering Perennial

Red hot pokers (Kniphofia uvaria) are workhorses in low-water, cold-hardy gardens. Also called torch lily, the plans resemble a lily in its foliage. But the tall, torch-shaped blooms with red and yellow tubular flowers can last for weeks. Hummingbirds visit the flowers, and birds often visit spent blooms. Meanwhile, the plants form clumps in the ground that spread. Many gardeners use them as fence borders, and they’re one of the easiest cold-hardy perennials to care for in a low-water garden. Other low-water, cold-hardy flowering perennials are Dusty Miller and Gayfeather, to name a few.

kniphofia red hot poke low water perennial cold hardy
Imagine a wall of red hot poker blooms filled with hummingbirds. And they spread, so you can add more or share them with your friends! Photo courtesy of Diana Reavis of Plant Select.

Deciduous Shrub

The Utah serviceberry (Amelachier utahensis), also called a shadberry, is a low-water shrub that drops its leaves in winter but only after turning several gorgeous colors and producing berries for birds and other wildlife. It is closely related to the Western serviceberry (A. alnefolia). It’s native to low-mountain or high-desert areas of Utah, New Mexico and along most of the Rocky Mountain region. We purchased a stock of bare-root serviceberries that we’re raising in a protected area near the river so they need less water while getting established. Other low-water deciduous shrubs cold-hardy in high deserts or intermountain regions are the Leadplant, Fernbush and Sumacs.

service berry fall color
This bare root serviceberry already has gorgeous fall color in its first season. As it grows, it also provides food and shelter for birds.

Evergreen Shrub

Mahogany (Cercocarpus) uses very little water and has an interesting, desert-like look in the landscape. The evergreen shrub can adapt to temperature extremes up to 100 degrees F, and is cold hardy to 20 degrees below or more, depending on the type. Curl-leaf mountain mahogany (C. ledifolius) can get large if left untrimmed, but the little-leaf variety only grows to about 8 feet tall. Both do best in full sun and with little water. Other cold-hardy evergreen shrubs that work well at high altitude are Damianita and Cotoneaster.

littlelead mahogany
Littleleaf mountain mahogany offers evergreen foliage and shelter for birds. This Cercoparpus intricatus is from Plant Select in Colorado, photo by Pat Hayward.

Tree

The alligator juniper (Juniperis deppeana) is one of few junipers that I really love. That’s because I’m allergic to juniper pollen, as are many people who must live around the plants in areas where the air is plenty dry. Junipers thrive in poor soil and low water conditions and they’re long-lasting evergreen trees and shrubs. The alligator juniper is named for its reptilian-like trunk, making it more interesting in the landscape. Many also have multiple trunks. Alligator junipers do well in elevations between 4,500 and 8,000 feet. Lots of other low-water trees fare well in cold climates, including the Netleaf Hackberry, Mexican Elder and Gray Oak.

alligator juniper
I love the bark of the alligator juniper tree.
junipe rberries
Birds love juniper berries. It looks like a few already munched on these.

 

Weeding Through Social Media: Part 2

Earlier this week, I wrote a post on how to be discerning when using social media for gardening tips. A great example just occurred today before I got this post up and running. The National Wildlife Federation, which can have some great advice about attracting wildlife to your garden, for example, posted a story about not raking up leaves. It went viral, and why not?  I mean, who wouldn’t love advice that says you can do less work and help improve the butterfly population?

fallen leaves
Leaves are everywhere, and so is gardening advice.

I had some doubts when I saw the NWF Tweet, because although I know a layer of leaves can help butterflies overwinter, it seemed logical that a leaf layer also helps bad insects overwinter. It’s not like I can go out there and have a conversation with the leaves or pick through the pupae! But a fellow garden writer really had her doubts, especially since when quoted by media, the original post had been taken out of context. Better advice, in addition to that mentioned by Susan Harris, is to repurpose fallen leaves as appropriate. Here’s an article from Bren Haas I retweeted that proposes some good ideas.

And below are some Do’s and Don’ts that I follow, or suggest for gardeners, when using the web and social media for gardening tips, along with some resources.

Do’s:

Understand search results. If you’re not web savvy, learn to recognize the difference between ads and content ranking when searching. Sometimes, maybe you want the ad (such as when you’re looking for your favorite nursery or catalog). Most of the time, however, it’s best to scroll down to the official website or information, not ads. Look beyond the description to the web address below and learn more about the source before clicking. Bookmark (or save to Favorites) sites you might need again.

Verify before following back. Although etiquette “dictates” that you follow back when someone follows you on social media, it’s OK to use some discrimination. When choosing to follow a Pinner or Twitter user, make a quick review of the person or company. Some users are actually empty, having never really pinned, for instance. Some follow indiscriminately to push products and services. And once, I got into a discussion with a Twitter user who is well known in his field, but who follows no one on Twitter but himself/his publication. I’m not going to follow someone who doesn’t take the time to share and learn from others.

red chile ristras
For growing and cooking with red chile, I’ll stick to mostly experts from the Southwest. Image from the National Park Service.

Always check “About” pages on blogs and other websites. A sure sign of a “fake” site to me is one that has no About page or simply restates the home page’s purpose. Any blogger or commercial site should give you some background and reveal a little information about the individual, the company or organization and why they’re qualified to talk about gardening. I look at experience and training, but the details or credentials are less important to me than the fact that the site’s authors are willing to reveal the information. For example, anyone who has been farming organically for 10 years can certainly give me advice for improving my organic vegetable garden. Typically, when researching blog posts, I turn to people with equal or more training and experience than me. But a site with no information signals the unknown, and most likely a content farm or mill or repurposed, even possibly poorly researched or plagiarized, information. Content farms hire lots of freelancers, often inexperienced ones, and pay them poorly to crank out content that ranks well in search engines.

Look for local experts for plant information in particular. If I want deer-resistant plants, for example, I also want to know which ones do best in my zone and with little to no water. Local and regional sources are particularly important when it comes to saving water and xeric planting. Water is not an issue in every part of the country; many xeric plants couldn’t survive in climates with 35 inches of rain a year, and most xeric gardening and landscaping experts live in more arid zones. The same goes for many advice articles, and especially infographics. Most gardening publications and social media posts have an Eastern or Southeastern focus; more people live, garden and publish there. If you run across a planting schedule, be sure to check those dates against your zone or look for one from a local source.

I often verify online information against a combination of garden books from favorite local authors, master gardeners and our state extension office.

gardening books
And though social media and websites are convenient and full of information, you can’t beat some of your go-to local experts in print for gardening insight.

Don’ts:

Don’t believe everything you read. That’s especially true now on Pinterest and some blogs. The more sponsored content takes over social media, the more likely it proliferates in pins and posts. There is plenty of accurate information out there. Use the same tips above to check out sources or double-check information before running with it. Having said that, there are some really clever people out there, so give them a chance once you’ve vetted their validity and relevance. And the leaf example I cited today shows how a credible site such as NWF or sources citing it, should be verified when it comes to gardening advice. If you want to know what kind of food to put in your winter bird feeder, then by all means, count NWF at the top of your list.

Don’t fall for cheesy graphics. This is the latest trend to get social media users to click through. Well-designed graphics can be a sign of a quality site, but many of the new graphic trends remind me of the early days of desktop publishing. Sadly, anyone who could run the software would design flyers, newsletters and other visual materials filled with screaming colors and multiple fonts. I know I am losing this battle as Pinterest and even Twitter look more like scrolling billboards every day. Content is what matters, not screaming headlines. Give a pin or post a chance because of the author and potential relevance.

Don’t fall for sponsored content. When you evaluate sources, check to see whether authorship is assigned and attributed to a particular page or article you find online. I try to only retweet articles from trusted publications and bloggers. There is no reason for an “anonymous” post to appear on a gardening topic; only rely on attributed material. A blogger who reviews a product should reveal that it was provided for free in exchange for the review and should provide a balanced review.

Helpful Resources

I’m sure some will disagree with me on a few of my tips, and social media is a moving target. But for quality information, simply be a discerning user. It’s really quite simple. Here are a few ideas for quality sites; my Resources page has several listed by topic.

Local cooperative extension offices Each state has an extension office, which not only helps farmers and ranchers, but home gardeners as well. Most states also have county extension offices.

Master gardeners. Master gardener programs typically are run by extension programs as well and can be your source for local programs. And master gardeners usually volunteer to answer questions via hotlines, libraries or their websites.

National gardening societies and organizations. If I’m having problems with an orchid or writing for a client about roses, I tend to look for help from national societies whose members are experts on these plants. Most have helpful pages or publications for home gardeners.

Garden bloggers. The National Garden Bureau is a helpful resource, and maintains a list of garden bloggers and other links. Look for garden writers who specialize in your area of interest or concern, or your region. And check out Garden Rant, the source that called out the bad leaf advice I mentioned at the top of this post.

And, in case you want to see who I follow on social media, link to me on Twitter from my feed to the right of this post, or to my Instagram and Pinterest accounts from my Fun Stuff page.

Weeding Through Social Media for Gardening Tips: Part 1

I have a love/hate relationship with social media. As a long-time writer and editor, I was slow to accept the value of social media as a content or marketing tool. I have come to embrace social media to the point that I probably spend too much time on it. But I’m making some valuable connections and gathering new ideas and information regularly.

I’ve been writing and researching online for longer than I care to admit because it would reveal way too much about my age. It’s amazing what we can find online today. Like any consumer trend, however, websites and social media have evolved with good and bad features. And like most trends, many social media platforms started out being more helpful than they’ve evolved to be at this stage. The reasons typically are commercialization and oversaturation, and a viral story about a young Instagram star that circulated this past week is a classic example of how fake social media can become in some instances.

healthy tomatoes good practices
We grew plenty of healthy tomatoes with no Epsom salt or other tricks, just good cultural practices and a little help from fair weather.

 

Pinterest myths

I’m going to pick on Pinterest for my example, mostly because it’s a favored consumer platform for home and gardening information. When my sister-in-law first introduced me to pinning, I loved it! Finally, I found content that was curated by regular people, especially my friends, and not by commercial interests. I could follow her and other friends or family who had great taste and similar pastimes. And I could search for and pin relevant, trustworthy gardening information.

Then, Pinterest took off and the company has now decided that its bots know what I like better than I do. The feed is almost creepy, based on our Internet searches and recent pins. Some of it’s helpful, but I liked it better before. Further, as a blogger, I would rather build up my followers by providing them helpful and relevant pins and blog content. I’m also tired of seeing gardening myths spread on Pinterest; here’s a a past post on some gardening myths.

Embracing your inner skeptic

I don’t consider myself the foremost expert on gardening, but I know how to research to supplement my knowledge and experience to provide the most accurate and helpful information possible. That’s because I’ve spent nearly 20 years writing and editing professionally, about medical, science, gardening and sustainability topics. I’ve gotten pretty good at discerning quality information from junk. Maybe it’s just because I am a born skeptic.

The researcher and skeptic in me wants to scream out loud sometimes because I feel like it’s too easy for gardeners to get misinformation online. I want to transfer some of my writing and research skills to help those new to social media, online research or gardening improve their ability to distinguish good information from — maybe not so good.

The quality of a web page or blog post often has less to do with how it ranks in search engines and more to do with its authorship, purpose, and certainly with its content. Google has gotten much better at ranking according to content instead of key word stuffing and other tricks. But it’s up to users to quickly scan and verify how useful and truthful information is and how valid its source. In gardening, that’s especially important because growing in the mountains of New Mexico is nothing like gardening on the coast of North Carolina, for example.

hailstorm approaching from New Mexico mountains
Some gardening tips apply to the masses, and some are specific to zones and regions. Even our state extension divides up plant lists based on mountain communities vs. desert or other distinctions.

Later this week, I’ll list a few “Do’s and “Don’ts” for online research, along with some favorite gardening blogs or sources. For now, check out my Resources page for some I rely on or recommend for topics I typically cover in my posts. Happy searching!

 

Six Strategies for Transforming High-water Turf Into a Waterwise Landscape

Xeriscaping has become more of a mandate in many Southwestern communities, and it’s too bad that it’s come to that. But with long-term drought and overpopulation in concentrated urban areas, it’s no wonder that water resources are scarce.

As I’ve said for a few years on this blog, drought is nothing new to New Mexicans, and many leaders of low-water gardening and planting hail from Colorado and New Mexico. That doesn’t mean everybody gets it, but there are plenty of examples of gorgeous front and back yard landscapes that use little to no irrigation but have curb appeal and bring joy to home gardeners and guests.

xeriscaping instead of all gravel
How many xeriscaping strategies can you spot in this photo? Hint: It has color, texture, native annuals, pollinators, terracing, vegetables by the house and rainwater collection. It sure doesn’t seem boring or ugly.

One of my biggest concerns about water restrictions imposed on residents of Western states is that homeowners and business owners will react to the extreme, going from a complete high-water turf lawn to all-gravel landscapes. I’ve ranted here and plenty of other places on this blog about what this move does to existing trees, home energy use and how it’s just plain ugly.

Here’s a summary of six strategies for planning an attractive and effective waterwise landscape that includes some living plants and joy without blowing your budget or your mind.

1. Start with xeric zones. The concept of simple xeriscaping zones around your home makes planning easier. The point is to place your gravel and most drought-tolerant plants the furthest from your home. Putting a few plants that need a little more water, or having some turf for the dogs, kids or green that you love is OK, as long as you keep it in moderation and close to the house. This helps keep your house cooler, gives you and your family a nice place to gather and can even help keep shade trees alive. Those are waterwise and energy-saving strategies and can help form the basis for your plan.

small patch of grass in Albuquerque lawn
Friends of ours have a small patch of grass for them and their dog in the back yard. It helps keep their house and yard cooler.

2. Keep the right type and amount of turf. Unless you have reasons beyond water savings, you don’t have to eliminate turf altogether. Just switch out the type and size of your grass area. Take the grass out of your arid zone, and replace grass in small portions of the transition or mini-oasis zones (areas closer to the house) with a native, drought-tolerant variety. Your local nursery should have native or hybrid grasses in seed, sod or plugs that grow in your area with little to no watering once established.

grass on southern California street
This is partly why southern California is in crisis — street after street of total turf lawns, even in the median. There’s no need for this much grass, especially high-water grasses and turf out by the asphalt.

3. Take a tip from permaculture. Approach your new landscape holistically, creating a design that’s self-sustaining. For example, divert rainwater from your roof to water a shade tree or create a small rain garden or bioswale in an area that always pools with mud or water after a hard rain. Use leaves from the shade tree for compost or simply rake them up to mulch a plant. Grow edibles as ornamentals in the sunny spot once taken up by grass. Include some xeric plants that attract pollinators to help ensure good fruit production on your new edibles. The photo at the top of this post shows a few of these principles, but we’re working on incorporating more.

4. Level land with burms, steps or terraces. One of the biggest wasters of sprinkler water, aside from evaporation, is runoff. If your landscape has any slope at all, finding a way to control that slope can save water immediately. For example, when we added to our patio, we messed with the water runoff and it affected nearby established plants. They’re not as healthy now because they got too much water. So we plan to try a combination of a bioswale and burm to relocate the low-water plants and divert some of the water. Burms are usually rounded shelves or bumps, with a more natural look. Steps can give you access to an area and great placement for xeric plants and ornamental grasses. Terracing shores up dirt and water and provides excellent opportunities for landscape palettes and sectioning off beds. Look for lots of ideas online and by driving around your neighborhood, and get help from a landscape designer and contractor if the job is too much for you.

Albuquerque architecture and landscaping
A nice example of typical architecture and landscaping in Albuquerque. The gravel is outside the patio fence and the steps provide a focal point for the xeric plantings.

5. Use indoor design principles. If gardening overwhelms you, or you don’t know much about plants, it shouldn’t stop you from creating some curb appeal in a new low-water landscape. Many of the same principles apply to outdoor design as indoor – color, texture, height and shape. Terraces or burms can help, but even if you have a flat yard, you can start with an existing or new tree for height and take it from there. Just look at a plant’s tag or seek advice from a local master gardener, favorite local garden author, or favorite garden blogger. Look at the plant’s mature height, spread, flower color and a photo of the foliage.

use of succulents and colors in landscape
Here’s a great example of succulents in a California landscape, and especially how to mix colors and textures.

6. Feature native plants. The surest road to success with low-water landscaping is to feature plants native to your area or to areas with the same climate zones. For example, California gardeners are expanding their plant choices with low-water natives from other Mediterranean countries such as South Africa and Western Australia. Once a native plant is established, usually after a year, it should make it through your climate extremes with no extra work on your part. Native plants have adapted to the environment. And although some need pruning, deadheading and sometimes a little bit of drip irrigation, many need nothing but your attention, which you give them when you walk through or sit among the plants. We have a huge rock garden, and we never water most of the plants, or give them one drink after spring pruning if we’ve had no rain. Native annuals and wildflowers are particularly beneficial, and some homeowners reverse their xeric zones to create meadows and completely natural areas along the edges of their properties.

native plants Oliver lee state park
This is not a lawn, but the view along a path in a state park near Alamogordo, N.M., where water is scarce and temperatures warm. These native plants would look terrific placed in any nearby homeowner’s landscape.

Finally, the best strategy is to take it slowly, steadily and with moderation. I fear that too many people will react by letting their lawns die or by pulling them up and replacing them with landscape plastic and gravel. My hope is that I will continue to see colorful native landscapes throughout the West filled with edibles, blooms, evergreen foliage and low-water shade trees, and dotted with touches of native grasses where kids and pets can run around and birds can peck for seeds and earthworms. Is that too much to ask?