Favorite Xeric Plant: Lavender

It smells fantastic, looks gorgeous, attracts bees and butterflies and needs little water or care. And on top of that, it’s a useful herb. Truly, I can find no drawback to growing lavender in the arid Southwest. Still, I’ve talked to several people while selling at farmers’ markets who say they had trouble establishing or maintaining lavender. So, here are a few tips, because I wouldn’t mind seeing lavender on every corner of every town.

A customer's gorgeous farmers' market basket thanks to lavender!
A customer’s gorgeous farmers’ market basket thanks to lavender!

Where to plant lavender

It’s tempting to plant lavender everywhere in the landscape! But the plant does best in full sun and with plenty of air circulation. So, if you plant lavender on the north side of your house, especially up against the house, it might not do well. You can also plant lavender in containers, but might have to amend soil around the plant after a year or two. Be sure to place the container in full sun and give the container plant a little more water than it would need in the ground — but not too much!

Lavender hedges are a summer stunner. But if you want to plant a row of lavender, be sure to leave plenty of spacing between the plants, and between the lavender and other plants or structures in your garden. It won’t look as full the first year. But by year two, you’ll love how the flower stems nearly touch but the plants have plenty of room. And foremost, plant lavender where you can enjoy the scent and pollinators the plant attracts. And check nurseries soon for a new variety from Sunset called “Meerlo,” which has variegated leaves!

lavender sunflower
Lavender and sunflowers in the sunny xeric garden.

When to plant lavender

Whatever date you think is right for lavender, push it back a week. Seriously, the only real problem we had with some lavender plants occurred when a group of new plants were shipped to us too far ahead of our last frost date. Fearing the plants were becoming rootbound in their small nursery pots, I planted as soon as the frost passed. But the ground and air were still a little too cool, plus the dirt did not drain as well as other spots in our garden. So that meant the new plants would stay wet after rain or watering. The only problem that really affects lavender is root rot. So be sure the ground and temperature have warmed up enough before planting.

lavender in rock garden
Lavender looks and smells pretty close up or from a distance, especially in a breeze.

How to plant lavender

First, make sure the variety of lavender you’re ordered or chosen at a nursery is a perennial in your area. Years ago, I assumed that French lavender (which really is from Spain) would do better in our climate than English lavender. It’s so cool and damp there! But French lavender is not as cold hardy. Most varieties of English lavender, however, can survive U.S. winters. Just check the zone when you buy.

Here’s the trick to success with lavender: Plant it on a small mound. This is a departure from typical attempts to save water by welling around plants. A well can hold water in longer, but lavender wants to take a drink and then dry out. Also, by gathering up a mound of dirt, you give the young roots some nice loose soil.

new lavender plant
This new lavender plant is becoming well established. It’s on a small mound to keep water or snow from pooling around the roots. The next step is to add pebble mulch.

My second tip is to surround your lavender not with organic mulches, but with tiny white pebbles or decomposed granite. Doing so still allows water to penetrate, but gives the plants reflected sun and passive solar heat gain. If you use rocks and have as many weeds as we have, you’ll need to try and get the mulch layer at least three inches high. But leave a border several inches around the new plant on every side so the rocks don’t crowd the lavender base and constrict growth. Water more often than the plant tag says for a few weeks or more, until the plants look settled in their new home. But let new lavender plants dry out a little between watering or rain.

lavender with butterfly
Lavender is the perfect xeric plant. It also attracts bees and butterflies, and adds scent and color to the garden.

How to care for lavender

So, you have your lavender established. The hard part’s done! All you have to do how is harvest the gorgeous flower stems as the flowers begin to open in summer. In warmer climates, you often get a second bloom. We’ve found that our second bloom in zone 6B is pretty sporadic, even lousy. So it’s really a matter of choice – you can harvest early and enjoy the scent inside your home, or leave the stems on the plant to enjoy its color and share its fragrance with pollinators.

Just be sure to trim the stems off – right at the top of the leaves – at the end of summer or in early fall. Don’t worry if your plant turns a little gray in winter; it should begin to green up along with other perennial plants in spring. As new leaves begin to emerge in spring, trim your plant for shape and health. That means avoiding cutting down into the woody stems. I give mine a nice round shape. So simple.

lavender bunches farmers' market
Our lavender wands and sachets have been popular this year.

That second year, your plant should need little to no watering. I typically give lavender plants some water right after trimming in spring and then only water if we have severe drought.

The stems are easy to dry and place in a vase or use harvested buds to make sachets or potpourri. Lavender is great in homemade gifts and even as an edible.

For more about lavender, see our Pinterest board (Lovin Lavender).

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.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Gaura

Some call it a butterfly plant. That’s because gaura has delicate, swirly flowers at the ends of long stalks that resemble butterflies. In fact, one variety of gaura (G. lindheimeri) is called ‘Whirling Butterflies.’ It has white flowers; ‘Siskiyou Pink’ blooms have an earthy pink tone. And in 2014, Gaura ‘Sparkle White’ was an All-America Selections National Winner.

Eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder they bring butterflies to mind.
Typically, eight stamens jut out from the delicate flower up long stems. No wonder gauras bring butterflies to mind.

We’re fortunate enough to have wild or native gauras (G. coccinea) in our garden. They appear on their own in late spring and bloom as temperatures warm. They’re a little more like a weed, partly because of the places they tend to appear, and partly because they have a higher foliage-to-flower ratio. Still, I’ll take them, and so will the bees!

Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!
Wild gauras have less attractive shape and foliage, but they pop up from seed!

Drought tolerant gaura

Native gauras appear along roadsides and other dry areas. Many of ours come up through rocks in the garden wall. You don’t have to read a plant tag to know that a plant growing robustly in rocks needs little to no water. We’ve had some trouble with gaura from nurseries, and I believe the reason is that the soil we chose was compacted and holding too much water. Still, if you plant a new gaura, it will need watering until healthy and established. A drip system can give the plant a slow drink.

This flower is from a volunteer gaura.
This flower is from a volunteer gaura.

Easy care

Once you’ve chosen a sandy or loamy soil for your plant, place it where it can get full sun. By the second year, you won’t have to water except maybe once in spring or in severe drought. I really love to place the white flowers where I can see them from a window or patio. It’s also a great plant for breezy areas, holding up to wind, which causes the flowers to “dance.” Most gauras reach about 2.5 to 3 feet tall; the native  varieties are a little shorter.

gaura against rocks
Gauras look terrific in rock gardens and natural designs.

Cut G. lindheimeri back in early spring about halfway down the foliage to keep it bushy, full and not too leggy. I let the native gauras go to seed so they pop up again the next year. You can try the same with nursery varieties; the plant might self-sow if seedheads remain in autumn. The only pests that bother gauras are flea beetles and gardeners who overwater them, especially if the plants are in heavy soil.

Versatile plant

Gauras are hardy in zones 5 through 8. In colder zones, the plant can be damaged if wet when temperatures dip to more than -15 Fahrenheit. Gaura is considered a perennial in those zones, but tends not to last as long as some hardy perennials.

gaura and gaillardia
These volunteer, or native, gauras popped up with volunteer gaillardias. I love the combination.

The gaura can fit into nearly any landscape design. Even before blooming, its slightly mottled leaves provide garden interest. I love to see it against a slightly taller plant with larger, bolder flowers (which also can support the gaura stems as the plant matures). Gaura also is perfect near steps, garden paths and walls. Although gaura fits perfectly in a natural xeric design, its delicate flowers can work in a cottage garden plan, provided it’s not overwatered or has really good drainage. Native gaura foliage and shape is not as stunning, but nonetheless a fun re-seeder in a naturalized xeric garden.

 

 

Pruning Xeric Plants

The best part of early spring is watching growth appear on plants that have been dormant all winter. And since we can’t plant vegetables until after the last frost, I need something to do in the garden on nice spring days. We had two of those this weekend, and we got busy pruning our xeric garden and front beds.

lavender-redbud-new-mexico
Pruning woody lavender requires only some shaping and removal of stalks as or after they bloom.

Pruning can be scary for new or hesitant gardeners. I’ve often hated to cut off any of the new spring growth that’s already begun. But I have to remind myself that cutting a plant back saves water. Here’s why: The plant’s roots can only provide so much water and nutrients. If gardeners leave too many branches above ground, the roots struggle to feed every branch, leaf or flower all the way to the end of the plant. It’s like filling a bowl of cereal with milk. The more cereal in the bowl, the more milk is necessary to coat or soak the cereal (sorry, but I love food analogies).

butterfly-bush-pruned-to-ground
This butterfly bush looks like mostly sticks right now, but it’s loaded with new growth at the bottom.

I’m still having to remind myself that by cutting a plant further down, I actually help it grow more vigorously than if I merely trim it a little bit. The mature plant regrows to a size that matches its established root system. We cut several plants nearly to the ground, including Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and butterfly bush (Buddleia). I have yet to kill a plant from vigorous pruning. A few times (like with forsythia), I pruned at the wrong time and it affected shape or flowering. But you can always correct shape and learn from your mistakes.

butterfly bush in summer after heaving pruning
Here’s last year’s butterfly bush (to the right and center) after a similar prune last year. It shoots up to six to eight feet tall.

Around here, Tim typically trims the trees and I handle shrubs. I start with roses as soon as any new growth appears, and your local master gardeners most likely recommend a window of time that’s best for roses and other common plants in your area.

Here are a few pruning tips for plants that grow in the arid high desert and intermountain regions:

  • In early spring, prune plants that flower in summer. Those that bloom in spring (like forsythia, clematis, flowering quince and dogwood) do best if pruned after they flower. They form buds in the fall, and spring pruning removes the flowers. The same goes for spring-flowering bulbs, such as iris, although they shouldn’t be pruned immediately, but when stalks and leaves begin fading or turning brown. In this case, the plant above ground gives energy back to the bulb underground.
forsythia blooms
Our forsythias are loaded with spring blooms; I pruned them last summer.
  • Nearly all trees should be trimmed in winter, while dormant.
  • Some gardeners prefer to prune in fall for a more manicured look during winter. We don’t do that for a few reasons. One is that a late warm period can cause the plants to grow again, and they need to begin storing energy for winter; a heavy late pruning can make the plant more vulnerable to cold. The other reason is that birds feed on the flower heads all fall and winter. And the spent blooms and stalks look fine in a natural, xeric design.
yarrow blooms
The bright yellow blooms of yarrow in summer.
  • Many plants only need to have their dead stalks removed. For example, yarrow and Angelita daisies have stalks that rise above the foliage. You can use trimmers or sharp shears to remove spent stalks.
yarrow after winter xeric
Here’s what the yarrow looked like a few days ago. It was ready to lose the dried flower stalks.
pruning yarrow
The pruned yarrow is now ready to put energy toward developing new flower stalks.
  • It’s best to avoid cutting into the woody, feeder branches of plants such as lavender and rosemary. Trim them for shaping only, and harvest ends of rosemary or cut lavender flower stalks for drying and other uses.
  • The more center and crossing canes or branches you can remove, the better. If you have a native rose that is seriously overgrown or pruned poorly, consider cutting it to the ground once, just to reinvigorate the plant and let it return to a more natural shape. It might take a year or two to get the plant into the shape you like.
yellow
I’m gradually cleaning up this native rose. Last year, it bloomed so pretty in mid-April. This year, I pruned it more severely, but it’s taking on new growth.
  • Some plants do better with a second cutting right after they bloom so you can enjoy another summer show of color. An example is catmint (Nepeta). Shearing off about one-third of the plant at the top gives it energy to regrow flowers. Of course, many annuals, such as California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) or blanket flowers (Gaillardia) bloom best if you deadhead them, or remove spent blooms, throughout the summer.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it's so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path's rock border.
Our catmint was already blooming and attracting bees by the time I got to it. But it’s so forgiving (and at times invasive here). I pruned off dried stalks and shaped the plants for a wilder look around the path’s rock border.
  • We usually give our xeric plants a good soaking right after trimming them to help them through the shock and stimulate growth. But that’s the only time we water almost all of our established xeric plants.
dogwood and catmint
Best of both seasons. The dogwood still has its winter red, but plants like catmint are blooming.

If you’d like to learn more, including where to cut shrubs for optimal growth, check out this publication from the University of Georgia extension office.

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.

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.

What Is a Native Plant?

Throughout this blog and in many gardening books and websites, you’ll see references to native plants. It’s fairly easy to decipher the meaning of native, but let’s delve into what native means in gardening and why it’s increasingly important to choose native plants, especially where saving water is a concern.

Although the concept should be simple, you might find conflicting information about whether a particular plant you like is considered native. So I’d like to first briefly define the term. A native plant grows naturally in a particular region or location. Easy enough, but you can move a plant to a region at some point in time, and wait for it to adapt. Once it does, it’s still no more native to the region than I am to New Mexico, even though I have lived here more years than I plan to reveal.

Creeping Oregon grape native to New Mexico
The creeping Oregon grape (Mahonia repens) is actually a member of the Barberry family. Ours doesn’t spread much, but does need occasional shaping. We have never needed to water it.

For a plant to be native, humans have not intervened in its setting down roots. So a plant native to New Mexico has been here long before any gardener thought it might look great against a rock. And along the East coast, native plants were in place before the Europeans arrived on ships and began settling and farming. People also have not intervened or altered the plants; the plants have evolved to local conditions on their own over many plant generations. So the two main qualifiers are no people involvement and geography.

Why Aren’t All Plants Native?

Maybe to understand why you don’t walk down the sidewalk and see blocks of native plants, you have to grasp the concept and history of introduced and invasive plants. Introduced, or non-native, plants are brought by people to a location other than their native one. Not all non-native plants cause problems and become invasive, but they might be harder to grow, require more water, etc. And they can be introduced accidentally or brought intentionally. For example, I’ve tried to grow a plant native to Phoenix in Albuquerque just because I loved it and had delusions of grandeur or wanted to waste my money. No harm done to anyone or anything but my time.

yellow potentilla native
Shrubby cinquefoil (Dasiphora fruticosa), is known by many names, including potentilla. It’s a native to New Mexico and is an excellent low-water choice for erosion control and home garden color all summer. But cinquefoils can be invasive in Washington state.

An invasive plant, on the other hand, is a non-native brought to a new area that spreads and establishes itself rapidly and soon disrupts local ecosystems. An example in New Mexico is salt cedar. The salt cedar tree was introduced here and is sucking up water along streams and river banks, damaging important native trees such as cottonwoods. Most of the worst weeds we deal with in the Southwest first came here as ornamental plants.

Why Are Native Plants Important?

As opposed to invasive plants, native plants are balanced with and support local ecosystems. They don’t take all of the water that other plants and animals need to survive. They offer cover and food for animals and have adapted to typical climate and soil environments. If you think about it, a plant that survives at 9,000 feet and 120 miles from the nearest population center needs no help from people to make it through the cold winter or the hot summer. Hmmm, that plant should need little help from a gardener who lives nearby and in the same zone.

Mexican poppies in rock garden
Mexican poppies (Eschscholzia californica), also called California poppies, need no help re-seeding. And they love heat and poor dirt. Perfect for New Mexico.

It’s important to preserve native plants and important to include them in garden plans. When you select plants native to your area, you support the birds and critters that also roam your neighborhood or nearby wilderness areas, use less water and make gardening easier on yourself. Your plants will stay healthier because they already know what to expect! Look for help selecting native plants from local master gardener groups, native plant societies, coop extension services and local nurseries.

Favorite Low-water Plant: Desert Zinnia

Although it’s a member of the zinnia family, the desert zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora) is remarkably different from the large annual flower we typically think of when we hear of a zinnia. Actually a member of the aster (Asteracaea) family, this tiny perennial is a delicate xeric groundcover or low shrub native to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

desert zinnia flower
The desert zinnia has a big flower on needle-like leaves. I love how the flower sort of reflects the sun it loves.

Also called prairie zinnia or Rocky Mountain zinnia, the plant blooms in summer and its tiny, needle-like foliage dies back in the frost of winter, resembling dormant grass. But have no fear! The plant is there, and comes back, even spreading. I just brush up the dormant leaves as part of the spring garden clean-up, and new plants already are appearing underneath. You could also gently rake up the spent foliage in larger areas. Clearing off the old leaves exposes the new plants to more sun, which they love.

zinnia grandiflora shadow
This tiny desert zinnia is casting a morning shadow on the rock it grows from.

But although desert zinnia loves sun, it doesn’t love water. That’s right – once established, desert zinnia needs no water at all. Too much water just introduces weeds into the mix, which can be hard to pull from between the delicate foliage. If you have a period of no rain, you can give desert zinnia some water to ensure blooming. The flowers also do fine in partial shade.

desert zinnia in rocks
Desert zinnia will spread low across the ground or cascade down rocks. This weekend starts monsoon season, and I expect more blooms to appear.

Typically, the desert zinnia is about 4 inches high and spreads to nearly 15 inches wide. Each flower can reach nearly an inch in diameter, with an orange cone (Golden Eye) surrounded by three to six yellow petals. It should thrive in zones 5 through 8. It’s a great plant for erosion control and for rock gardens. I love how it cascades over and through our rock wall.

Got Bees? Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The number of honey bees and other pollinating insects is declining around the United States. Colony collapse disorder and other diseases, along with increased pesticide, use are likely culprits. What’s more, monarch butterfly populations have been declining by the millions!

butterflies on ivy blooms
We were stuck with ivy around all of our walls at our last home. We pulled out any that was rooted on our side of the fence. It’s not xeric and it is invasive, but butterflies flocked to the blooms.

On May 19, President Obama announced steps aimed at improving the health of pollinating insects. And in response, the National Pollinator Garden Network issued the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. According to the network, pollinators help generate one out of three bites of food we eat each year. Planting plenty of trees and flowers that attract bees, butterflies, birds and bats can help improve pollinator health and populations.

The challenge calls on homeowners, businesses and communities to create and sustain gardens that attract pollinators. Let me just say that this is another concern I have about extreme xeriscaping, or a trend I see of replacing every bit of plant and lawn in a landscape with gravel. New Mexico, for one, is barren enough. And there are plenty of xeric plants that attract birds, bees and other insects and provide some color in the landscape.

maximilian sunflower
Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native, low-water prairie flower that bees love. I love its late-season blooms.

According to the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a pollinator garden should:

  • Include plants that provide nectar and pollen sources.
  • Provide water for pollinators.
  • Be in a sunny location with some wind breaks.
  • Have large areas of pollinator-attracting plants that are native and noninvasive.
  • Include plants that bloom throughout the season.
  • If possible, eliminate pesticide use, and at least minimize pesticides.

If your garden already meets the criteria, I encourage you to go to the challenge’s website and add your garden to the map.

And here are a few tips for meeting the challenge, or at least for making sure you have plenty of bees, butterflies and other pollinators in your garden:

  • Of course, including native, low-water plants is critical. Look for symbols in product catalogs or lists of xeric pollinators. And remember bees love herbs too. They buzz all around our thyme when it flowers, and there are roses and other flowering ornamentals pollinators love that need nothing but rainwater once established.
woods rose attracting bees
This woods rose had bees all over it the other morning. It’s a native, wild rose that’s xeric.
  • Some people avoid plants that attract bees because of possible stings, especially with children around. I have a few plants that attract seemingly hundreds, and one we walk past constantly. But if bees bother you, just place your pollinator plants where you can see them, but in a spot you seldom sit or walk by, and not where the kids’ soccer ball always ends up when they play in the back yard.
  • Providing water can be tough. Our birdbath dries up in a day or two, and I hate to refill it, knowing it will evaporate. But I can use rain water. The birds also gather on the top of our rain barrels, where the water sometimes pools. Butterflies need only a few drops in a tiny rock or plate.
  • Some native plants bloom continuously with no effort on your part. Look for those! An example is catmint (Nepeta). And create a dense grouping with a mix of colors and bloom times to attract pollinators, especially if you have limited space. A few annuals can provide blooms when perennials fade. We have cosmos that pop up late in summer and birds balance on the thin stalks, gathering seeds.
yarrow and gallardia
Moonshine yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a perfect pollinator. It blooms all season and has a flat surface for easy landing! Bees also love the annual blanket flower (Gallardia)
  • One of the great benefits of inviting pollinators with flowering plants is that they should make a side trip to your edibles. Don’t be afraid to plant some flowers near vegetables, as long as they don’t compete for sun and water or hide weeds.
  • If your roses or other plants get aphids, wash the tiny bugs off with a fine spray of water in the morning before turning to a pesticide; it’s just not necessary. Spray again in a few days if more return. And try to stick with pesticides on your edibles that are least harmful to honeybees, such as insecticidal soap.

Favorite Low-water Container Herb: Rosemary

I love rosemary in a container for several reasons. First, I can keep it in a sunny location all year and leave it relatively close to my kitchen to snip stems for cooking. I don’t have to traipse out to the garden to get to it quickly. By leaving the pot close to a south-facing wall in winter, the plant, which is hardy to zones 6 through 8, receives some extra warmth.

rosemary-in-container
Established rosemary in pot that wintered over. I took a few cuttings, but it still has outgrown this narrow container and needs transplanting.

Cutting some rosemary stems for culinary use helps keep the plant compact enough for container living. Otherwise, it might begin to flower and outgrow the pot. When rosemary blooms, it’s an attractive, evergreen Mediterranean plant, and bees love the tiny bluish-lavender flowers. So I usually have at least one rosemary in the landscape, and one or two in containers purely for edible reasons.

Easy-Care Herb

Rosemary is best grown from a nursery transplant or cutting, not from seed. When preparing your container, be sure it has a hole for drainage and mix well-draining soil that’s slightly alkaline and not too fertile. You won’t need to fertilize your rosemary, either, but adding an organic fertilizer when transplanting or once a season shouldn’t harm the plant. Just keep it as warm as you can in winter if you live on the cooler side of the zones, and if you bring the container inside, place it in a sunny location.

rosemary in container
New rosemary plant in a container, ready to head outside for full sun exposure.

Rosemary is drought tolerant and one of the few problems you’ll encounter with rosemary is caused by wet roots when temperatures drop. Rosemary thrives in full sun, and in summer, container plants need some supplemental watering every few days in the heat. Transplant the rosemary to a new container when the plant becomes too large.

Benefits of Rosemary

The aromatic and flavorful leaves of rosemary have many uses. I love the scent of rosemary and lavender in those rice-filled neck warmers! The oil from rosemary leaves is said to help with heartburn and other digestive problems. The oil may also help soothe skin irritated by eczema. Of course, it’s widely used in perfumes, sachets and lotions.

rosemary stems and leaves
The only thing better than looking at a rosemary plant is running your finger over the stems, or cutting some for use in your kitchen!

Culinary Uses

Although rosemary smells great in patio containers and in the home, I love it even more with chicken. You can cut entire stems of fresh rosemary and place them inside a baking chicken or use them in kebobs along with chicken or steak. I love fresh or dried rosemary on potatoes, baked with olive oil, minced garlic and sea salt.

It doesn’t take much rosemary to achieve a lot of flavor, and I haven’t met anyone yet who dislikes the scent or taste of the herb. I often have add rosemary to garlic bread. That’s an easy way to get a little of the flavor of focaccia bread without having to bake!