Grow Your Xeric Garden With Plants that Naturalize

We are wrapping up a big project in our rock garden. It involved removing some lower beds and extending the raised beds out, bordered by a gabion wall. So, that meant having to dig up and transplant several favorite plants. After all, we needed to fill a lot of new planting area, and it’s always sad to lose a plant simply because of logistics.

So, Tim started digging up some plants last fall, when we began work on the new walls. He planted them in recycled nursery containers with a combination of potting mix and soil from where the plants were growing. When it became warm enough, we replanted them, helping to save a little money on filling our new beds and keeping some of our favorite plants going.

kniphofia plant and blooms before wall
Kniphofia, or red hot poker, multiplies and needs dividing every so often.

Plants That Naturalize

Many plants we grow in the Southwest re-seed (volunteers) or have spreading habits that make them easy to divide and move. Sometimes, a plant reproduces so easily, it becomes a problem. But conditions have to be just right for that, so I love this feature in a plant. After all, you can always transplant or gift one of your plants. Here are a few low-water plants we “saved” and replanted:

purple salvia in xeric garden
Salvia sylvestris keeps growing little “pups” near the first plant.

Salvia

Salvia plants are related to mint, and some of them sprout new plants from seeds. We have a row of midnight blue salvia plants that kept producing “pups,” so we potted some up, transplanted some directly and gave some away. We’ve never purchased the plant; these all came from one that was here more than six years ago.

colorado penstemon blooms
This native penstemon has created new plants for years.

Penstemon

Likewise, we have a purple penstemon (Rocky Mountain penstemon, or Penstemon strictus) that Tim dug up from one that spread in some grounds he used to care for. We planted in at our last home and it spread a little more, so we brought a part of it here. We had to transplant it to build our new bed, and now have at least six plants from the one he dug up about eight years ago.

bee on blanket flower
Bee on gaillardia. We have a native version growing in our yard as well.

Blanket Flower

Blanket flower (Gaillardia) is a wonderful magnet for bees and a great xeric perennial flower. It can spread from seed; we also saved and moved a few to our new beds. They have perked up and are doing well.

kniphofia-on-ground-pieces
Here is the Kniphofia pictured above. We broke it up and pulled out about six healthy looking ones to transplant.

Bulbs

Of course, iris reproduce like rabbits and they’re easy to transplant. We also moved some daylilies and split up a Kniphofia (red hot poker) to help fill our new beds. The jury still is out on when the lilies and red hot pokers will bloom, since we moved them when we had to, not necessarily at the best time for the plants.

apache-plume-white-blooms
It is easy to spot volunteers of Apache plume. It might take a year or two for the small plant to begin blooming, but it is free and beautiful!

Apache Plume

This native plant is one of several that starts volunteer seedlings around our garden. Although some might see this as a drawback, we welcome the seedlings. If we can’t move them, we always can pull them up if in the way of another plant.

close-up of thyme leaves
Thyme plants re-seed, grow pretty little flowers, attract bees and taste delicious!

Thyme

Herbal thyme is one of my favorite plants. The low-water herb does triple duty: it looks and smells great in the garden, it has delicate flowers that bees love, and it tastes great! We have let some plants spread and transplanted others.

threadgrass-rock-garden
We had at least seven or eight volunteer threadgrass plants this year we could relocate.

Threadgrass

Threadgrass is my new favorite low-water plant. It is easy to care for, and produces lots of little seedlings that are easy to spot and tell from other grasses or weeds. Just dig it up and move it to another spot.

grasses-austin-gardem
Repetition can look natural and orderly at the same time. Don’t be afraid to use several of the same plant in your Southwest garden.

A Few Tips for Replanting

Some of our success with volunteers certainly comes from letting plants go to seed. That can be a bad idea if they become invasive and crowd out other plants or if your front garden looks too unkempt through fall and winter.  But re-seeders can feed birds in fall and give you new plants to enjoy in spring.

Remember, if you are planting or dividing a plant, even a xeric one, it will need extra water for at least a few weeks while it gets used to its new home. And it needs a little extra water and care in its first year of life.

Check your favorite local and regional books or with local independent nursery staff to find out plants that re-seed in your area without taking over.

Of course, you also can keep an eye out for plants that re-seed. Nature often puts them in the perfect place, which also gives your xeric garden a more natural look.

xeric-garden-bed-mulch-volunteer-plants
This new bed is a little sparse now, but will fill in. It has a euphorbia, several salvias, cannas, a blanket flower and a yarrow we moved from other areas of the garden or from volunteer plants.

Finally, we are guilty of planting one of each plant we like. I’ve since seen enough gardens in which repetition of plants actually looks more natural and striking than stuffing in as many different plants as we can. So, don’t be afraid to plant three or more of the same plant!

 

 

 

Grow—or Give—Container Cacti

old-man-cactus-houseplants-indoor-sun

Succulents, and especially cactus plants, usually prefer heat and drought. That’s one reason they make such perfect plants for desert gardens. But in the high deserts or mountains of New Mexico and other Southwestern states, many cacti only can live outdoors in the summer. Enter containers…

cacti in fun containers bishop cap
These little cacti get great winter sun on a south-facing wall. They only travel outdoors in the warmest months. Two of these containers are thrift store finds.

Why Plant Cacti in Containers?

The best reason for planting cacti in containers is the flexibility it offers. You can move the plant throughout the year (carefully) to bring it outdoors when summer nights warm and indoors as frost approaches. But you also can move your cacti around to control temperature or sun exposure. Even succulents can burn from intense sun, so it is good to keep an eye on the plants and rotate or move them depending on sun, including sun from a south- or west-facing windows.

cacti and succulents in containers on shelf outdoor with shade fabric
Cacti and succulents sunning outside, but with a shade cloth during intense sunshine.

Another reason to plant cacti in containers is to isolate watering. When planted outside, especially near drip or other watering systems, cacti can get too much water. With containers, you can control cactus watering based on season and when the plant goes dormant. If you love the look of a cactus in your desert landscape, nothing says it has to be in the ground! If the water or temperature conditions are not ideal, place your cactus outside in a colorful container. Just remember – the outdoor container should have good drainage and can cool off more at night, so don’t leave a container cactus outdoors in winter unless it is hardy to at least 10 degrees cooler than your lowest low.

old man cactus in container, grass, rosemary
Here’s that old man cactus in the first photo, outside on the xeric garden wall in summer.

Finally, most cacti are slow growers, so you don’t’ have to repot them often. Other cacti spread out of control in the garden. You’ve probably seen a xeric yard in your neighborhood with prickly pear growing like a sprawling hedge, maybe onto the sidewalk. It is easier to control cacti when in the confines of a container.

Container Cactus Mix

Planting and caring for cacti in containers is easy, but the soil mix is crucial to success. If you plant a cactus in standard container potting mix, which is designed to help retain water, your cactus roots will get soggy and rot. You can buy special cactus mixes or make your own. Ask friends or local experts for ideas. Examples include adding 1 part coarse sand and 5 parts perlite (for airflow and drainage) to 4 parts of potting mix. Vermiculite also improves aeration but holds too much water. You also can add a little bit of rock dust or pumice to your mix.

spiny cactus in metal container
Handle container-planted cacti carefully, although the spines didn’t stop this wild daisy from seeding in the container.

Handle your cactus carefully while transplanting. You can use an old sock or towel to wrap around the plant near the base and lift it out of the pot. Or turn the pot with the cactus on its side, resting the plant on an old pillow (that you won’t use again) to cushion the plant while you pull the container off the root ball.

Old long-handled barbecue tongs are great tools for holding a cactus while you place it in its new container; or use regular tongs for smaller plants. The eraser side of a pencil works great for gently pressing soil down around smaller cacti.

tall columnar euphorbia in container
This columnar euphorbia (a succulent, but not a cactus) now only moves arouond inside. It is too tough to take out to the yard now.

Some Favorite Container Cacti

Some of these cacti are spinier than others, so you might want to be careful where you place them. Many will flower, especially in spring or early summer. And some can tolerate pretty cold temperatures, but still would be fun winter houseplants.

Barrel cactus (Echinocactus grusonii). The golden barrel and other barrel cacti are such great landscape plants, giving a pretty round shape to landscape designs. I especially love them on hills. But they’re only hardy to 15 to 17 degrees, so we keep ours in a container.

pencil cholla and golden barrel cactus in containers.
Pencil cholla on left and barrel cactus on right, wintering over in a sunny spot.

Pencil cholla (Cylindropuntia leptocaulis). Pencil cholla are pretty scary looking, with spines up to one inch long sticking out from tall, thin branches. They are hardy to -20 degrees and love heat, but spread easily in the yard.

Bishops cap (Astrophytum myriostigma). This is an attractive and slow-growing cactus perfect for a container, especially since it only can handle cold down to 20 degrees. I love the sort of grainy white and green look of the plant. See the second photo above. That is a bishops cap in the middle.

rounded cacti in round container
I love this circular arrangement of cacti in a shallow container.

Hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus). It’s native to the U.S. and Engelmanns hedgehog is most common throughout the Southwest. It’s spiny, but should produce bright pink flowers more than two inches across. The plant only reaches about 10 inches in height.

Fence post (Pachycereus maginatus). This is a columnar, almost regal cactus. The columns have ridges with small spines and when planted in a row, they form an excellent wall. Columnar cacti are great choices for planting in containers of homes with high ceilings or to simply provide height behind a grouping of houseplants. They just need plenty of filtered sun.

cactus and ocotillo in outdoor container
I love this vertical planting with ocotillo we spotted at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). It’s hard to imagine this sprawling cactus in a container, but it can be done. It will need summer heat and can survive temperatures down to 20 below freezing. So, the garden can work, but you can control ocotillo growth in a container and enjoy it as a rising backdrop to other cacti or succulents.

Old man cactus (Cephalocereus senilis). This is by far one of my favorite cacti. But it needs to stay in temperatures above 46 degrees, despite its shaggy layer of “hair.” This is another slow grower, and often a conversation starter in a home!

Spineless prickly pear (Opuntia canacapa). For the look of a gorgeous green and juicy cactus pad and no spines, go with this pretty plant. It still will grow new pads, but you can cut them off or plant them elsewhere. Both regular and hardy prickly pears can survive temperatures down to zero.

clay pot with several vertical cacti outside on patio
Cactus containers on a patio in an Austin, Texas, garden.

 

 

Plant and Repeat

One of the best features of many xeric gardens is the natural look of the landscapes. We often use rocks and boulders and tuck native plants among them. This design most closely mimics the look of the landscape around us.

rock-garden-plants-southwest
Here’s a perfect example of a Southwestern xeric design that’s natural, too. This bed at the entrance to Plants of the Southwest nursery in Albuquerque repeats some plants, but otherwise mimics nature.

If you’ve moved to New Mexico and other Southwestern states from areas of the East and Southeast, you might be more used to a cottage garden look, where shrubs like boxwoods form hedges and foundation plantings repeat the same flower.

grasses-rows-garden
This Austin garden early on our tour inspired the idea to look for repetition. Rows of grasses have order, but look natural and likely help with erosion control.

On a recent trip to Austin, I noticed a perfect blend of both features. Many of the gardens I toured with fellow garden bloggers struck me with how well they used repetition in their designs. But these Texas gardens also had a natural look. Here’s a photo essay from Austin, along with a few New Mexico shots.

repeat-grass-variegated-path
This garden area feels more lush and woodlike than most I’m used to, but had plenty of natural repetition, along with texture contrast.
three-metal-containers-plants
Pam Penick has the concept down! I love these three lined-up metal containers with a complementary mix of plants.
grasses-granite
Repetition can be random and even look natural, like these grasses.
terracotta-pots-row-
Natural terracotta pots with pops of color line an entryway to Lucinda Hutson’s garden.
grasses-line-street-median
Colleen Jamison’s habitat garden extended into her street’s median, where grasses line the curb.

So, Why Repeat Plants or Containers?

I realized we tend to favor single plantings in our gardens, typically choosing a plant based on how it will look in a location or complement a nearby plant. And when you love plants, it’s tough to resist adding any you like to any garden you own. But after seeing the use of repetition, I decided we need to add more repetitive elements. Here are a few reasons why:

lavender-plants-row
One area of repetition in our rock garden is the lavender. This is the top row.

Continuity. A garden is a sort of composition, and repeating an element gives it a sense of balance without making it look too symmetrical or monotonous.

repeated-potted-plants-patio-table
This patio table at Tanglewild Gardens uses repetition in its centerpieces, but repeats natural elements.

Easier maintenance. We all have a plant we’ve tried that survived despite strange weather or a little neglect. Others require little to no pruning or deadheading. Why not scatter a few more of these easy-care plants around your home?

container-plants-three-iron-heart
Pam Penick’s awesome front garden included this container with three of the same plants and a beautiful piece of garden art. The plants have the same watering and exposure requirements.

Color. Although many xeric plants are colorful, some really stand out in the garden. Using the same purple in a row of plants or throughout a garden gives a color focal point.

succulents-containers-color
Lucinda Hutson’s garden was packed with color. Here, she used the same three succulents in colorful matching containers.

Saving money. Sure, you still have to buy the plants, but it is less expensive to buy four of the same perennial once than to fill in an empty space in the garden each year.

b-jane-gardens-repeated-plants
This garden, built and designed by B. Jane Gardens, repeats these plants in a shady raised bed, but the effect is visually appealing and far from formal.

Finally, I would say that repeating plants is a fine example of xeriscaping principles. When you plant 5 native grasses in a grouping, they all have the same water and sun exposure needs. You don’t have to come in and add water for a plant that needs more than the grasses or take the chance of overwatering and killing a nearby plant. And when you use repetitious art or hardscape elements, you add to the design without adding plants — and that requires no water at all!

green-gold-turquoise-containers
Another example of Lucinda Hutson’s use of color and repetition in these outdoor containers.

 

 

 

 

 

Are You Overwatering?

rain barrel xeric plants
Many xeric plants need little or no water once established.

One of your houseplants or outdoor plants looks funky and you think something might be wrong with it. Your automatic response? Add water. Sometimes, that’s the best solution, and sometimes it’s just a waste of water, and maybe of your plant.

Wilt is a classic example of the dilemma gardeners face; wilting can be caused by both underwatering and overwatering. What’s more, factors other than water can cause leaves to wilt, even though the roots have plenty of moisture.

Here’s the thing: If too much water surrounds your roots, or they never have a chance to dry a little, the roots don’t get enough oxygen, which also is crucial for plant health. Further, some plants are susceptible to root rot. Let’s look at a few reasons to add water to help a plant, along with a few tips on when not to water.

irrigation-drip-seedling-grden
Young seedlings need consistent water, and nothing beats a drip system!

How to Avoid Overwatering

Regularly check and maintain all sprinkler, bubbler and drip systems. Redirect flow amount or direction for any that appear to be getting too much water, and repair leaks.

drip tape with water drip
The drips seep into the ground slowly, lasting longer and requiring less attention.

The problem might not be how much water, but how you water. Many plants take poorly to regular watering of their foliage. Water that sprays evaporates faster (which is more wasteful) or can sit on foliage too long, leading to diseases. Spray irrigation also waters too much ground around a plant, helping weeds more than your shrub. On a sunny day, most of the water evaporates, but if you water late in the afternoon, on a cool, cloudy day or onto a thick or crowded plant, the water sits overnight on leaves. The best times to water overhead are to wash off dust that builds up on leaves (affecting photosynthesis) or to wash off aphids. But reserve these actions for sunny mornings whenever possible.

ground-moisture sensor-geranium
Inexpensive water meters might not be totally accurate, but they can give you a sense of the moisture around a plant several inches down.

The soil is your best test for whether a plant needs water, not the plant. Check the soil around a houseplant or outdoor plant to see if it still is damp one to two inches below the surface. You can use your finger, a small trowel to gently push soil aside so you can see or feel it, or small tools like chopsticks of pencils pushed in and then removed to see if soil or moisture have stuck to the wood. There also are commercial soil monitoring tools available.

straw-around-seedling-dripper
Mulch helps retain water by lessening loss to evaporation. You can feel an inch or so down to check moisture with your fingertip.

Mind the season. When plants go dormant in winter, they need much less water. You should adjust your schedule accordingly and try to avoid watering too soon in spring or too late in fall.

Have a way to stop automatic watering when it rains. Weather sensors are available for irrigation and rain-harvesting systems, and others have smartphone software. This helps you pause a watering schedule from work on a rainy day, for example. Although these systems are designed mostly to conserve water, they also prevent oversoaking plants. You can even get solar-powered sensors for watering with rain barrels. I reviewed one last year.

rain-barrel-solar-control
Last year, I tested this solar-powered rain barrel water system (to the right of the mutt) that only watered when sunny.

Water slowly, which is another drip irrigation advantage. The more slowly the water falls to the ground, the more gradually it penetrates. This is especially important for containers; fast, hard flows of water can wash potting soil nutrients right out the container’s drain.

When to Water

succulent in container
Few things can destroy succulents, but overwatering can. Always water slowly for any container plant.

Always water new plants, seeds or transplants more often in the first year or so. Even though they are labeled xeric or low-water use, the roots need help growing in their new environment and the plant is more vulnerable.

On hot, sunny days. If you haven’t watered in a while and it’s peak summer heat, give plants with mostly dry soil, especially those most vulnerable to heat, a drink in the morning to help them get through the day.

cracked cherry tomatoes
Too much water or time on the vine can split tomatoes.

Consistently for vegetables and edibles. It helps a tomato to nearly dry out some between waterings, but not to completely dry. Watering the same amount each time keeps the plant growing at a healthier rate and prevents fruit problems such as splitting.

Five Low-water Plants for Winter Birds

stellar jay in garden
Stellar jay in line for raw peanuts in late fall.

As winter drags on, birds need lots of energy and shelter from the elements and predators. The best bird habitats mix shelter, water, natural seeds and nest-building material as spring approaches. Native plants offer many of these benefits, and the more varied a landscape, the more bird-friendly it is. For example, birds in our garden “stage” their visits to feeders or the ground by moving between the thorniest rose bushes and higher trees.

woodpecker and sparrow on bird feeder
Birds use low bushes as staging spots before visiting the feeder in our redbud.

Here are five plants or plant types that make birds safer and happier when temperatures drop without adding a lot to your work, or to summer watering requirements.

stellar jay on ground in rock garden
We have lots of spots in our garden where jays hide peanuts.

Native grasses

blue grama grass meadow
Blue grama and wildflower meadow. The grama seed spreads and feeds birds, who also help disperse the seed further for us.

Replacing at least some of your turf with native grasses and other native plants helps birds and uses less water. We purposefully leave our native grasses (mostly buffalo and blue grama) long as it dies back in fall to increase  shots at reseeding and filling in bare spots. The seeds also provide food for ground-hopping birds, additional food caches for jays to hide the raw peanuts we put out, and dried grass stalks for nests before the grass greens in summer.

Ornamental grasses

Karl Foerster grass
Karl Foerster grass in a new dry river bed, next to volunteer blanket flower.

Switchgrass, big bluestem and muhly grasses all provide seeds and nesting materials for birds. Karl Foerster feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora “Karl Foerster”) attracts birds and is a beautiful winter plant, with tall seed stalks that blow in the breeze. There are hundreds of species of the grass, and it grows in zones 5 through 9. Its water requirements are a little higher than some native grasses, but if you plant Karl Foerster grass in a rain garden or low spot, it will get more water naturally and won’t be hurt by the damp soil.

Barberry

barberry
New barberry (upper right) not far from our bird feeder.
barberry foliage
Deep red barberry foliage on right contrasts nicely with gazanias.

Barberry (Berberus) is a hardy shrub with small thorns along its branches. Depending on the variety you choose, you’ll enjoy deep red or pinkish foliage. The shrubs grow in zones 3 through 8 and retain their leaves in winter in most conditions. Fragrant yellow flowers emerge in spring, and the prickly branches provide good cover for small birds. You can plant several barberries a few feet closer together than recommended to create an attractive, bird-friendly hedge.

Boxwood

boxwood and pyracantha near New Mexico home entry
The wedding dress only hung by the front door momentarily, but the boxwood (left) and pyracantha (right) prune into welcoming shapes. Image courtesy Jessican Inman Photography.

Boxwood (Buxus) normally isn’t considered a low-water plant, and I’ve seen countless examples of boxwood to form formal hedges and designs in other areas of the country. It is an easy plant to shape, and makes such a good hedge because its evergreen foliage is so dense.  That’s also why birds love boxwood. Although boxwood might look a little formal for a native rock garden, we use ours as a foundation plant near our front door, where we want a more landscaped effect. Since it’s also on the north side of the house, I’m sure birds hide under the bush for cover. The boxwood’s protected, mostly shady location and slow growth habit help the shrub stay healthy with less water than it might need in a sunny spot.

Pyracantha

pyracantha berries
Partially eaten berries on a pyracantha bush in fall.

Pyracantha shrubs produce berries in late fall to feed birds as temperatures drop. Also a thorny bush (sometimes called Firethorn), pyracanthas provide safe shelter for birds. What I love about the shrub is the diverse ways you can use it in a Southwest landscape. Leave it to grow naturally (maybe with some shoot trimming after rainy summers) or shape it like a hedge. We had several growing along a distant fence and Tim moved one to the front of the house. The pyracantha transplanted without a blink and just a few scratches. We leave the remaining two out in the yard in their natural state and shape the one in front of the house. I get to see the berries from my kitchen window and saw a Stellar jay eating them this past fall.

goldfinch in Apache plume
A finch waits his turn for thistle in o a native Apache plume shrub.

Many native shrubs  attract birds in winter. Berries, seeds and bushy cover all support wildlife. Ask your local nursery or master gardeners for the best low-water plants in your Southwest zone.

Select Plants Now for Your Xeric Garden

The new year is almost upon us, but gardeners don’t have to wait until spring to dream, plan and even shop for new plants.

xeric garden color container
Combine native xeric plants and a few container flowers for long-lasting color.

You can take some time in winter to plan your garden. Doing so usually cheers my mood and makes me feel like I’m getting something done, even if I can’t do much outside. Here are a few tips for Southwest gardeners for winter planning and shopping.

Check Out New Plant Introductions

Each year, breeders offer new plants adaptable to conditions or resistant to diseases. Many independent testing organizations and growers conduct trials to see how plants fare in harsh conditions such as heat or drought. A favorite regional source is Plant Select in Colorado. The nonprofit organization tests and creates plants for the Rocky Mountains. You can search or browse their plant selections for zone, soil type, sun exposure, water needs and other characteristics. A new 2017 selection is the Sungari redbead cotoneaster (Cotoneaster racemiflorus var. soongoricus). The shrub is a hardy plant and fall stunner in a xeriscape.

sungari redbead cotoneaster
Plant Select’s Sungari redbead cotoneaster grows to six to eight feet tall. Image courtesy of PlantSelect.

All-America Selections also releases trial information on ornamental plants and vegetables each year. Although some of the plants are not suited for New Mexico gardens, AAS includes regional winners for the Mountain/Southwest region. For example, its 2018 winners include Mexican Sunrise Hungarian Pepper F1. This past summer, I sowed 2017 national winner Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink F1 seeds in a garden bed and the plant bloomed well into fall. You can find AAS winners at retailers that carry national brands such as Bonnie and Burpee plants or seeds (Johnny’s selected Seeds or Territorial Seed Company).

dianthus AAS winner
Dianthus Interspecific Supra Pink from Alll America Selections.

Regional growers and local nurseries often carry new plant introductions. Typically, you can learn about new plants by subscribing to the company’s newsletter or by following them on social media. High Country Gardens (whose chief horticulturalist, David Salman, is from New Mexico) recently released a list of new plants the company offers in 2018.

Finally, the Sunset Western Garden Collection is designed specifically for Western gardeners. Sunset lists a collection of waterwise plants, but you might have to do some research to find out where to buy the plants you spot there.

Order and Review Seed Catalogs

Growing plants from seed takes a little more work, but can save you money. And some plants do better grown directly in the ground (cucumbers and squash come to mind). Even though you’ll have more success and save water by growing plants suited to your region, it’s fun to shop for rare or unusual annuals for containers or other special spots in your garden. It’s much less expensive to buy seeds for plants that probably won’t make it through the winter.

Cosmos in xeric garden
Cosmos are a perfect annual to grow from seed in a xeric garden. Too much water makes them leggy. And they feed bees in bloom and birds when seeding out.

Most seed companies ship catalogs for free to anyone who requests them and I’ve been receiving mine since before the holidays. In addition, you can find online versions of most seed catalogs. Flipping through catalogs can give you great ideas about new or unusual plants or even inspire where to plant them or ideas for companion plants for a particular flower or shrub.

vegetable starts in sun
Vegetable starts sunning in a south-facing window last spring.

Read and Research

Catalogs are one source of plant ideas, but local and regional gardening books and blogs should be your go-to sources. Combining information on plants featured in your favorite gardening books with catalogs and new introductions can help you begin planning and shopping.

scrub jay in xeric garden
This scrub jay uses low-growing xeric plants for stashing peanuts.

In your research, look for ideas such as drought-tolerant plants for easy care, plants for birds and pollinators, or colors and textures you long to add to your garden. Think about herbs and vegetables your family loves and see if you can grow a variety within your space or time constraints. And always read books and websites with a critical eye for credible information and plants most likely to grow in your zone, soil type, sun exposure or water availability.

If you don’t have a good gardening book specific to your state or zone, find out if your local master gardeners have published a plant or gardening guide. And check out my Resources page for books and links on gardening in New Mexico, xeric gardening and other topics.

hummingbird on hyssop
High Country Gardens and other regional companies offer low-water and native plants that attract hummingbirds and add color to your garden.

Shop Locally and Online

Some gardeners prefer to touch and see plants in person, at least to decide on colors or shapes they like. Just beware that some chain stores offer plants each year that aren’t suited to your region or at least offer fewer plants tested for Southwest and xeric gardens. For example, no retailers in New Mexico offer Plant Select products, but High Country Gardens sells Plant Select through its catalog and online store. Shopping, or at least researching, online also can save time. Many online catalogs have search filters. You might be able to search by plant name, bloom color, bloom time or average temperatures and rainfall.

Many online nurseries let you order now and then ship your plants at the best possible time in spring for your zone. So, there’s really no reason you can’t get a head start. Happy plant shopping!

 

Fall Gardening Project: Dry River Bed

In the arid Southwest, most plants don’t like an abundance of rainfall. Xeric plants such as lavender or rosemary can be damaged or die from too much moisture in the crown or roots. Sometimes, the location a homeowner places a plant affects watering and alters the plant’s ability to thrive as as it should for  the zone in which the gardener lives.

dry river bed
Dry river bed in summer, with blanket flower in foreground and blue mist spirea in back right. The spirea was getting too much water before we began.

Other times, conditions change. That’s what happened in an area near the foundation of our home when we expanded our back patio. We found that excess water from the patio and rain barrel near the edge redirected water during rains. During monsoon season, a blue mist spirea (Cayopteris) and cotoneaster began to show signs of overwatering.

DIY dry river bed
A before shot with Buster waiting in our high-traffic area of grass. The spirea is left foreground and the cotoneaster behind it.
dry river bed
We enlarged our patio and added a few rain barrels. This one was flooding the ground near it when it overflowed. The swamp milkweed we added likes the water.

We needed to divert some water away from the two bushes and recognized the importance of either collecting or directing rainfall. We couldn’t afford a large rain cistern, but we had one natural resource in abundance—rocks. So we built a dry river bed, also called a dry creek bed or dry stream. The project was a way to change up the landscape and divert extra water down to our lawn.

DIY dry river bed
We moved the blue mist spirea up onto a berm built with extra dirt — from another DIY project.

Step 1: Move plants

The first step in our project was to move the plants. We divided the spirea and kept the largest portion to replant; we transplanted two smaller sections on a ditch bank back in our orchard. We ended up removing the cotoneaster, which was beginning to overgrow a path we us regularly and had large areas of rusted, dying foliage.

DIY dry river be and added a Karl Foerster grass.
Our first replacement cotoneaster did not make it. We moved a cactus and penstemon to the new hill as well.

Step 2: Design hills and valleys; test

We next built up a small hill or berm as a new spot for the blue mist spirea and a new cotoneaster bush. This would allow us to control the plants’ watering better. We dug and scraped a river-like trough to help water drain down and toward the grass. It didn’t take much depth to get water from the patio to the grassy area below. Getting the depth and flow right took some trial and error with a garden hose to simulate the rain and made a few adjustments where water backed up.

Testing the flow while we could still lift the fabric if needed.

Step 3: Add rocks

We already had a pile or two of rocks we’ve dug up. And there is no shortage around here. The first step was to cut and lay down black weed barrier, followed by large rocks along the top and side of the dry river to hold the fabric, direct water and add a decorative, but natural effect. This was followed by addition of medium and smaller rocks. We gathered the small rocks throughout fall and winter, sometimes a few at a time, to fill in.

rock river bed
Rocks are much easier to come by around here than water. We lined the sides and bottom with rocks from our property. The large piece of flagstone is a step over the water that runs from the low side of the patio.

Step 4: Plant!

All our hard work was rewarded with a new area for planting. We had the two bushes, and moved a small pine leaf penstemon to a lower part of the berm. We purchased several grasses, some perennials and a few annuals to fill in. Then we got lucky and had a volunteer blanket flower crop up in just the right spot. We stopped the rock design a foot or more from the house in most spots and used pecan mulch around those plants. Here’s why: Rocks reflect sun and heat and my office window is right above the dry river bed area.

Mondo grass
We hope these mondo grasses will grow and spread to cool the wall a little. The mulch is pecan bark. And the new cotoneaster is small but healthy.

Lessons learned:

Pulling out the large cotoneaster and adding rocks has intensified the heat in my office. I know that will ease once the plants grow to maturity. And the heat might be welcome on a cloudy January day. We also lost the first cotoneaster planted. It could have been any of a number of causes, but we likely made a common mistake: not watering enough. I was so concerned with keeping this plant from getting too much water that I failed to account for how much would drain away from its roots and the immaturity of the plant. Our second attempt is going well. It’s also easy to change the flow of water just by placing a rock or two in a certain way. So we check the flow when it rains to look for pooling of water.

We transplanted some grass into the walkway and added two pieces of flagstone.

Overall, we were pleased with the look and function of the dry river bed. The native grass below it turned green earlier than normal and we stopped problems from mud and overwatering of bushes in the area. This is an easy and inexpensive garden DIY project!

 

Bring Bees to Your New Mexico Garden

Help your garden grow and even help local farmers by including native plants that attract bees and other pollinators to your yard.

bee on blanket flower
Bee on gaillardia in our New Mexico garden in mid-October.

Diseases such as Colony Collapse Disorder, and other factors, have led to declining domesticated bee numbers in the United States. However, there are plenty of species of wild, or native, bees still buzzing around looking for pollen.

flowers in edible garden
This year, we planted flowers in our vegetable garden, partly for cutting and partly to attract pollinators.

Wild bees typically aren’t part of hives; they fend for themselves, living in the ground or in hollow stems of plants. Pesticides, insecticides and other dangers still can harm wild bees. Recent studies have shown that newer insecticides called neonicotinoids are absorbed by plants and can show up in pollen. Farmers and home or business owners use neonicotinoids widely to stop pests. They’re toxic to domestic and wild bees. Avoiding use of insecticides that also harm bees is one way to help bees survive and thrive in your landscape.

Here are a few other easy steps to take:

Dying pear tree left in garden
This pear tree is nearly dead, but it still provides habitat for birds and insects. We’re adding birdhouses for additional color.

Create Habitats

Since wild bees nest in soil and hollow branches, homeowners can ensure a few protected sites in their lawn for bees. This article from the Great Pollinator Project goes into detail on how to help ground nesters and other wild bees.

fallen evergreen
This fallen branch is so pretty and out of the way for us but home to critters.

Basically, some protected and sunny soil and leaving some dead branches on the ground or on shrubs such as sumac can help cavity nesters. You also can install artificial sites such as nesting blocks.

homemade bee nest
An old homemade bee nest that just needs to be reinforced and have new tubes added.

Plant Low-water Flowers

Plenty of favorite New Mexico flowers attract bees and other pollinators. Here’s a list of some of the popular choices of shrubs and flowers that grow in New Mexico gardens:

Flowers:

Agastache (also a big draw for hummingbirds)

Blanketflower (Gaillardia)

Catmint (Nepeta)

Globemallow (Sphaeralcea)

Hollyhock (Alcea rosea)

Penstemon (with many native species for hummingbirds too)

Speedwell (Veronica)

hyssop
Agastache, or hyssop, is a hummingbird and butterfly magnet.

Shrubs:

Apache plume and other native roses

Barberry (Berberis)

Blue Mist Spirea (Caryopteris x clandonensis)

Fairy Duster (Calliandra eriophylla)

Lavender (Lavendula)

Ornamental cherry (Prunus)

Santolina (Santolina)

Spanish Broom (Spartium junceum)

bee on apache plume flower
The pretty white flower of the xeric Apache plume attracts bees for nearly three seasons.

Herbs:

Rosemary

Sage (culinary, along with salvia ornamentals)

Thyme

lavender with bee
Our lavender swarm with bees from the time they begin blooming until late fall.

Learn more about pollinator plants for New Mexico here.

Provide Seasonal Color

The more months or seasons you have plants that attract bees in bloom, the better. We have some native, weed-like groundcovers that bloom in early spring, typically by April 1, that attract so many bees that we hear a low buzz sound all day when sunny. Leave flowers and seedheads on some annuals well into fall and frost danger to provide food for bees and birds. Even in higher mountain regions, native species of penstemon, beebalm and yarrow can bloom well into fall, as can hardy flowers such as gaillardia and cosmos.

spring flower alyssum
This allysum cousin (Physaria) takes over our land and rock garden in spring, feeding hundreds of bees.

Finally, a word about fear of bees. I get it – wasps and bees can be scary if they come after your dessert on the patio or buzz you when you get too close. But I have never had a sting while working in my garden, and the only time I recall ever being stung was when I was a child and running through the lawn barefoot. Even when I trim lavender stalks, the bees might buzz me, but don’t sting. And if you want to remove spent flowers from plants, choose low-light times of day, such as dusk, when bees are less active. Most of all, please don’t avoid plants that bees love just to keep them out of your yard. You’re not just helping bees or the environment at large, you’re supporting a mini ecosystem that makes sure tomatoes and other edible plants produce food for you and your family.

Reviewing Garden Watering Systems

No matter where the current drought monitor stands, New Mexicans and other Southwest gardeners know that water is precious. Luckily, plenty of native plants have adapted to the dry conditions of desert and intermountain regions of the Southwest.

 

xeric garden color
Native plants and volunteer annuals add color to a xeric garden.

Still, gardening responsibly anywhere demands attention to water use and waste. And people who want to grow food in their yards or on their patios can save water and money with sensible, waterwise strategies.

The good news is that the home and garden market keeps pumping out new tools to help gardeners conserve water but enjoy their landscapes. I’ve recently reviewed two products for Gardening Products Review. One of the products combines solar technology with rain or faucet water to support slow drip systems in areas of the garden.

rain barrel watering system
Combining a solar-powered pump with a rain barrel is a brilliant idea.

The other product from a small startup company helps you water deeply near the roots of plants using a simple garden hose.  Up next: I’m testing a cloud-based system to control watering from your faucet.

watering system with hose
Adding some color from annuals, especially these snapdragons we grew from seed, is more water efficient and cost effective with drip watering. Adding some mulch would help retain the water and hide the hose.

Check out these watering product reviews, along with lots of other reviews from fellow garden writers at Gardening Products Review’s website. And plan now for next spring’s waterwise plantings.

Easy Garden Planning: Visit a Demonstration Garden

When approaching a new landscaping or planting project, it helps to gather ideas, whether you do so virtually or hopefully in person. A top benefit of being a member of the Association for Garden Communicators (GWA) is access to botanical, demonstration and private gardens.

farm hands only
Sometimes, it’s the signs, like this one at the Atlanta History Center.

If you travel, you can gather plenty of ideas from around the country. Even when I’ve visited the Northwest or Southeast, I’ve always found plant and design ideas or just enjoyed the gardens! If you want practical ideas you can apply in your own backyard, nothing beats a local botanical or extension demonstration garden.

plant sculpture, confifers
Plant sculpture is not a staple of xeric gardening, but I still enjoyed the art, along with the conifer garden, at The Oregon Garden in Silverton.

Benefits of Demonstration and Botanical Gardens

Many botanical and demonstration gardens are designed primarily to educate. Extension master gardeners typically have demonstration gardens featuring native and zone-appropriate plants for their area. The city of Scottsdale, Arizona, has a xeriscape garden to demonstrate how local residents can save outdoor water use but have attractive lawns. The Albuquerque, New Mexico, Botanic Garden includes a demonstration farm that re-creates a 1930s farmstead to show how people can grow or raise their own food. And I love the Pollination Gardens at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson.

pollination garden
The pollination garden at the Sonora Desert Living Museum in Tucson.

The Tucson pollination garden teaches visitors about planting for pollinators, including Monarch butterflies. Most demonstration gardens help visitors  learn about plants and especially how to grow them locally. But if you really pay attention, you also can learn a lot about design, containers and especially which plants or collections get you excited about gardening. Most gardens also offer classes or guided tours to add to the learning experience.

Silver dollar plant Pasadena
Labels on plants in demonstration and botanical gardens help you identify plants you own — or would like to own!

Finally, taking children to demonstration gardens can spark the gardening bug, especially for growing food. In fact, a study of demonstration gardens started by North Carolina county extension staff showed that between 2006 and 2010, the number of gardens made up of edible plants outpaced those with ornamental plants only or a mix of edible and ornamental plants to teach families about growing food.

native corn
The Tucson Botanical Garden native corn demonstration.

Types

Many demonstration gardens are run by extension offices of universities and the state extension’s master gardeners. Often, universities, cities and counties have gardens that serve dual purposes of beautifying office or park landscapes and teaching residents about gardening or local issues such as conserving water, saving pollinators, container gardening, producing food or gardening more sustainably. Hospitals can have meditation gardens on their grounds or demonstration kitchen gardens to help patients and families learn about growing healthy vegetables.

succulent garden
Succulent and xeric demonstration gardens give water-saving gardeners plant and design inspiration.

Others might be organized by private entities, and if touring an entire botanical garden seems overwhelming to the beginning gardener, or the gardener’s toddler, botanical gardens offer demonstration gardens within their exhibits. Visitors can make their way to the gardens on the map that interest them most. Remember, many demonstration and botanical gardens rely heavily on volunteers and fundraising to maintain their plantings.

pergola benedictine monastery
The Benedictine Sisters Monastery in Tucson, AZ., has several demonstration gardens.

Virtual Demonstration Gardens

Major botanical gardens might offer virtual tours, a nice tool if you can’t visit them in person and are researching local native or adapted plants for your own garden. If you’re on Twitter or Facebook, you also can follow favorite demonstration or botanical gardens and see photos or live videos. Or you can join an online community such as Plants Map to connect with other gardeners, organizations or resources that interest you. Organizations such as botanical gardens also set up collections on Plants Map.

Virtual tours can take you to far-away demonstration gardens for learning or pleasure. We can’t grow the same plants as the Maui Nui Botanical Garden, but we still enjoyed looking.

Finally, check out this list of Arizona’s xeriscaping demonstration gardens, including links.