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!

Four low-water Container Plants

I love pots! Actually, I love any kind of container that will hold a plant. We’ve been known to grow herbs in a claw-foot tub and annuals in an old washer. When you grow plants in containers, you increase your flexibility – you can move the container with the sun (maybe not the claw-foot tub so much…) and have color in a shady location by your front door. You also can practice “flower arranger,” creating a few new containers with each season’s annuals, or putting together a group of perennials you can keep outside all year or winter over.

Here are a few favorite low-water plants that grow well in containers:

Verbena (Verbena tenuisecta). Verbena species vary, but the warm-zone, low-water species can grow with very little water. They came up through the gravel pathways in our rock garden, re-seeding from previous years. I’ve planted small varieties of red, white and rich purple verbena in containers. Once established, verbena will spread and using it in container groupings helps tie them together or add pops of color. Verbena requires no deadheading, though removing spent flowers can prolong the bloom period, which usually runs from spring through frost, depending on your zone.

purple verbena
Verbena looks great alone or as part of a group planting. This magelana violet variety, and the photo, is courtesy of PlantSelect.

Chocolate flower (Berlaniera lyrata). Great in a rock garden or container, a chocolate flower always pleases. And in case you’re wondering, it really does smell like chocolate. I ought to know. Anyway, chocolate flower is a wildflower that produces delicate, daisy-like flowers with a light, almost red, center. Its leaves are a pale, almost silvery green. It’s extremely drought tolerant. Planting it in a container means you can enjoy its scent right on your patio or outside an open window.

chocolate flower
I love the chocolate flower buds; they’re delicate and different. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis). Rosemary is equally pleasant smelling and actually edible! I grow it every year in a container, and have several plants growing as ornamentals in our garden. It has evergreen foliage, so if you live in zones 6 to 8, you probably can keep it alive all year in the garden. In zone 6, it also might make it in a container, though I’ve had creeping rosemary burn from cold or snow even in zone 7. So either protect your container or bring it in, depending on the hardiness of the variety you choose. But back to enjoying rosemary! Plant it all alone near your kitchen for easy fresh cuttings, or in a group container. And if you decide not to take cuttings for cooking, your rosemary might eventually bloom lovely lavender colored blooms. At any rate, put it where you can frequently walk by and just rub your fingers over the leaves.

Rosemary_pot
My rosemary has survived sub-freezing temps so far up against the south side of the house. It still smells terrific, even after the wind blew leaves all over the container.
Creep_rosemary
Bees love this creeping rosemary, which requires little to no water in a container or landscape. This is all one plant; we had to cut some away in the middle after it burned. We should have knocked the snow off.

Ornamental grass (try blue fescue, silky threadgrass, or blue avena). Who says a plant has to flower to look great, especially in a container? I love adding a spike of height and texture with a grass, often in the center or back of a container full of colorful annuals. Most grasses need less water than flowering plants, and they look great blowing in the wind or adding height to a container, especially one placed up against the house. Many of them even flower. Just be sure to check the tag to see how high the grass normally grows before making your purchase.

And remember that plants always need a little more water when you first plant them, in extreme heat and when in containers than when in the ground. Containers usually dry out more quickly than ground soil – how much more depends on the container, soil you used to fill it and the location. And containers are microclimates, which means they might place your plant in colder, warmer or drier conditions than you realize.

Fall List of Water-saving Activities

The weather is cool and plants are going dormant, but there still is plenty homeowners can do to improve water saving and plant health for spring. It will keep you in the water-wise frame of mind and cut down on spring chores.

First, if you have automatic sprinklers or drip systems, be sure to adjust them for your plant’s new winter watering needs. I used to lose it when I would see my neighbors’ lawn sprinklers running full force on a windy and frosty November morning, partly because I nearly froze getting into my car, but mostly because of the wasted water. Watering plants too heavily in fall weather can soften them and make them more vulnerable to frost damage. And if you continue to water them too much in late winter or too soon in early spring so that they leaf out, they’re more vulnerable to late frost damage.

Another good fall project is to mulch around plants. Some xeric plants do better without mulching, but those that need a little more water can benefit from mulches that help retain the moisture. Mulching now also protects more sensitive plants from potential frost.

mulch in bed
Mulch in this bed helps hold in moisture. Note the manual sprinkler control near the home’s front door. It’s not much more work and avoids watering when unnecessary.

Well or shore up plants. Leaving a shallow depression, or tiny well, around low-water plants helps hold moisture in, especially right after they’re planted. If you have some trees and ornamentals that already are established, you can shore up some of the water by building up a ridge of soil around the plant’s base. This is particularly helpful for plants on grades to help prevent water from running off the plant instead of soaking in.

apple_tree_well_web
Tim built up a ridge around this small apple tree to help well the water.

If you’re really feeling industrious, start planning for spring by planning or setting up a water harvesting system. It might be as simple as diverting roof water into a flower bed against the home’s foundation or so that it runs through a dry-river bed (an assortment of rocks and gravel made to look like a river) that leads to a favorite tree. Or plan a new xeric layout for your yard.

calif_poppies
This post lacked color, so I had to add these. Called California or Mexican poppies, they’ll grow in the poorest, driest conditions.