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 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.

 

5 Drought-resistant Groundcovers

Groundcovers might not be as sexy or exciting to plant as some ornamentals, but the low-growing plants are useful and can really add to a xeric garden’s look and function.

Prairie zinnia
Prairie zinnia covers ground and rocks. Anything that grows in rocks gets by with little water!

Here are a few reasons and ways to use groundcovers:

Water savings: erosion control. On garden slopes, a low-growing groundcover slows the flow of water. Use one that’s relatively drought tolerant and the plant absorbs enough water from the flow to get by. An added bonus – slopes can be difficult to mow, and a low-growing groundcover needs less maintenance.

Water savings: mulch effect. Groundcovers cool the soil below and retain some moisture, which can work as a sort of living mulch under a tree or other plant that needs cooler roots.

Turf alternative: Groundcovers typically are less invasive and easier to control than grass, especially between flagstone or other steps.

groundcover between stones
I believe this is ajuga between flagstones in a private Atlanta garden. It creates a sort of woodland look.

Weed control. Once a groundcover blankets an area, weeds have a harder time growing in the same spot. It might not entirely eliminate them, but eventually weed seeds have a harder time getting into covered soil and receive less light.

Design element. Groundcovers can add color, year-round interest and an area of low growth in the foreground of a design or near paths. Check out this gorgeous example of creeping thyme as an alternative lawn in a xeric design.

  1. Creeping thyme (Thymus ‘Pink Chintz’). This is an excellent choice for filling in around flagstone steps or any area that takes foot traffic (see link above). In fact, several thyme varieties are considered steppable. Creeping thyme does fine with low water once it’s established, but if it receives more water, it grows more rapidly, which might help to fill in an area.

    Alan's Apricot ice plant
    Alan’s Apricot ice plant boasts larger, color-changing blooms. Courtesy of Plant Select and Alan Tower.
  2. Ice plant (Delosperma). The flowers of ice plants are delicate and bright, coming in yellow, bright pink or salmon and rust colors. Although some varieties of ice plant need a little more water than others, most can get by in xeric rock gardens. Ice plant is a rapid spreader and easy to maintain. If it grows outside the area you intend, just clip it off. Or pull up a stalk and its roots and move it to another spot in your garden.

    purple ice plant
    Purple iceplant in a bed on the north side of our home.
  3. Perky Sue (Tetraneuris scaposa). Although Perky Sue might not technically be a groundcover, it can spread enough to add floral color and evergreen foliage. I’ve seen this or a nearly identical plant called plenty of other names, including Hymenoxys scaposa, bitterweed, and narrow four-leaf nerve daisy. It’s also similar to the Angelita daisy (T. acaulis).

    Perky Sue
    Perky sue has silver-like foliage and yellow daisy flowers.
  4. Prairie zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora). Also called desert zinnia, this is a favorite rock garden groundcover of mine. It has tiny, thread-like leaves and bright yellow flowers. Most of all, it spreads from the previous year’s plant; you simply remove the spent foliage as the weather warms and you see new green beneath the old. It can spread up to 6 or 10 feet.

    zinnia grandiflora shadow
    Delicate, spreading and xeric. The prairie or desert zinnia.
  5. Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides). The best part of plumbago is its fall color. The purple flowers typically bloom in early fall and then the leaves redden. Plumbago also does best in shade or part (afternoon) shade in warmer areas.
groundcovers rock gardens
Veronica is another low-spreading groundcover for rock gardens. A Perky Sue bloom is peeking out on the left — in March!

All of these groundcovers are perennial and hardy to zone 6 or cooler. Groundcovers can require some patience or money. For carpet-like coverage, you either have to plant many of them fairly close together, or ideally space new plants according to planting instructions and wait for them to fill in. Some also have minds of their own. To me, the haphazard growth is more natural looking in a rock or xeric garden. But if you’re going for a formal look, choose one that’s easier to control, such as thyme.

5 Ways Organic Growing Methods Save Water

Growing with organic methods is smart for lots of reasons, both personal and environmental. Although there are plenty of strategies gardeners and homeowners can use to save water with ornamentals, such as planting native and xeric plants, it’s a little tougher with vegetable gardening.

Tomatoes and water
These yellow cherry tomatoes soaked up a summer rain from their container filled with organic soil and compost.

Tomatoes, for example, need consistent watering! But growing tomatoes organically can conserve water. Here are five ways how:

  1. Organic soil retains water better. Anyone can improve their soil’s water retention by up to 5 percent by adding organic matter. It also helps to avoid use of chemicals and pesticides. Using pesticides and chemical fertilizers in gardens can throw off the natural balance of the soil, making it less able to retain moisture around plant roots and making fewer nutrients available for plants. On the contrary, planting cover crops in the fall and use of compost or other organic matter help restore valuable soil nutrients. Organic matter also helps soil structure for water infiltration and retention. Healthy soil can respond better to drought conditions.

    soil organic
    Before: compacted, poor soil in a newly designated garden area.
  2. Organic growing protects water supplies. By avoiding chemical pesticides and fertilizers, gardeners also protect the water supply. Pesticide chemicals can remain in the soil for years; some are more toxic than others and break down in the soil more slowly. The chemicals from these products can run off into bodies of water, such as rivers. And eventually, they can seep into groundwater. That might seem a distant concern to some urban gardeners, but those of us using wells live right above available water. The more chemicals that run into water supplies, the less safe drinking water is available.

    organic matter on garden bed
    AFTER: Organic matter added to the vegetable garden raised row.
  3. Use of mulch reduces evaporation. A layer of appropriate mulch above the ground around a plant helps reduce ground-to-air evaporation, making the soil take longer to dry out. The mulch also helps cools plant roots. Using organic mulches such as bark, nut shells, compost and others adds organic matter to the soil slowly over time for an added bonus.

    mulching organic pecan
    Rock mulch helps lavender stay hot and dry, and on the lower left, pecan bark mulch surrounds a plant that needs more water.
  4. Organic methods can minimize erosion. Traditional gardening and farming uses rototilling and deep plowing to turn the soil before each growing season. Plowing deeply and turning the soil over can disrupt soil microorganisms, harm soil health, and place looser soils on top, where they’re subject to erosion from water and wind (think Dust Bowl). No-till methods help control erosion and build soil structure. The soils, in turn, better retain water. This can be a problem if the soil drains poorly, but a definite help in low-water regions. Not tilling involves building up beds with organic matter, much like nature does as plants drop leaves that decompose. If you want to work organic matter in, it’s best to grab a shovel. A broadfork is the best tool for breaking up compacted soil.

    watermelon organic
    Healthy babydoll watermelon plant in organic soil.
  5. Growing organically creates healthier plants. Healthy soil is the foundation needed to grow healthy food. When soil has good nutrients and structure, it supports root growth and uptake of nutrients, improving plant health.  Plants that are not healthy are more vulnerable to insect and disease damage. The plant might not use water as it should when it’s stressed, and the gardener certainly guesses that if a plant looks bad, it needs water. So, keeping plants healthy saves the extra water the plant needs or gardener applies in times of stress. And healthy plants keep on going, so you don’t waste water on establishing a plant that later dies from poor conditions.

Protect Plants in Winter

Winter has come late this year, and that’s alright with me. But we’re sure to face a hard freeze soon and it’s time to protect some plants.

heavy snow in Ruidoso area
Winter can be harsh in the foothills of New Mexico’s mountains.

The first line of defense, of course, is to choose plants that are hardy down to your average low winter temperature. These plants might look dead in winter, but they come back as spring warms the air and ground. We can’t control the weather, however, so when exceptions to your typical low hit or you really want a plant on the border for your temperatures, you can help that prized plant make it through the winter. Here are a few tips:

Placement

Planning ahead helps. When placing a new plant in your landscape, be sure to consider its winter hardiness when you plant. Placing it in a warm microclimate, such as against a south-facing wall or fence, can keep the plant a few degrees warmer when temperatures dive on winter nights.

Japanese maple in container
This Japanese maple was a special gift and we kept it in perfect northeast exposure in summer, then more southern exposure in winter. But that didn’t work half a zone colder, and sadly, it succumbed to frost.

Mulch

Mulching over bulbs or around the roots of perennials and even trees can help the ground retain heat. I use raked-up leaves and sometimes straw. In addition, I use rock mulch around xeric plants. The rocks absorb and reflect heat.

leaves as mulch day lilies
The apricot tree dropped some of these leaves right where I needed them to protect our day lilies. I raked up more and piled it on thick.

Mini-greenhouses

Sadly, we can’t all afford or find space for an actual greenhouse. You can buy or create mini-greenhouses around a few plants. Ours only need a small boost, so we often use 5-gallon buckets with the bottom cut out. We sometimes top them with wire for deer protection or cloth for extra warmth. Glass adds even more warmth and a cloche, French for “bell,” is a glass jar that can cover individual plants. There are lots of ideas online for constructing mini-greenhouses out of plastic and wood or PVC pipe, but you’ll need to remove anything that airtight as soon as the temperature warms back up following a freeze. Otherwise, condensation forms inside; the water drops refreeze and actually can damage your tender plant.

terrarium lid for cloche
A terrarium lid makes a great cloche for a greenhouse effect on this baby agave.

Cloth

A sheet or blanket wrapped around an entire plant helps protect it from freeze on the occasional cold night. Again, this is a temporary fix. If you have an entire section of plants that need protection, it’s better to rig a system with hoops or sticks and fabric row cover. If leaving the cloth on the entire winter, be sure to use a landscape fabric that allows sun and water through. I like to open these on warm, sunny days.

basil cover homemade
This basil cover is made from old hose and rebar and draped with row cover fabric. You can make one easily for a tender plant and lift the fabric on warm days.

Water

Plants need to head into winter in a healthy state. That includes keeping them watered (at a reduced rate) if you haven’t received precipitation recently. Cold, windy air dries plants out and stresses them. There is no need to prune most perennials before winter. It’s best to let them die off naturally, feeding birds with seeds. You’ll trim trees while they’re dormant in winter. When freeze threatens, you can water the mulch around the plant, but avoid hitting the leaves and branches. The water in the mulch helps hold heat in. I’ve also seen suggestions of placing used plastic bottles filled with warm water around the mulch to conduct some heat during a freeze.

Bring plants inside for winter.
Houseplants in winter, sun lovers in summer. Even the solanum (spiny tomato) winters over inside by going dormant.

Bring plants inside

No greenhouse? How about the house? My largest geranium loves the sun from our bathroom window, and the humidity likely helps as well. We have so many plants to bring inside that some have to live in the garage, where it can get chilly but hasn’t gotten below freezing. If you want to invest some money, you can buy grow lights for plants that need more sun than available in your home or garage space. Spray the plants off and let them dry a bit before carrying them inside. This helps reduce the chance that bugs tag along for the ride.

buckets protecting plants in winter
You can give plants a little boost with objects you have. Just cut the bottom out of a 5-gallon bucket. They’re not attractive, but they are functional.

Check out lots more ideas on our Pinterest boards (What’s wrong with my plant? and Greenhouses)

A Microclimate Experiment

Microclimates can be a farmer’s or gardener’s best friend. A few years ago, I wrote about how use of microclimates, or pockets of a garden that have varying temperatures and exposures to weather elements, can expand your choice of xeric plants.

cactus greenhouse atlanta
This greenhouse in an Atlanta-area garden provides extra heat and sun for the homeowner’s succulent collection and keeps rain off the plants!

The easiest example of a microclimate is a greenhouse. Windows let sun in and walls, a roof and other strategies help maintain the warmth. Add a heating source (and enough space) and you can grow nearly any plant any time of year.

lava rocks microclimate
The Desert Garden at the Huntington in San Marino, California, is a perfect microclimate for cacti. Not so perfect for humans on the day we visited. The lava rocks intensified the 100-plus temperatures.

Subtle microclimates exist all around your yard and gardens. Structures and hardscaping absorb heat during warm hours and release it gradually, helping to protect plants from cold; they also can protect plants from wind. Partial shade shields plants from heat, and slopes or other topography alter how the overall climate affects a given plant.

pond water lilies
Not far from the Huntington, a homeowner’s pond was filled with blooming water lilies in basically the same climate.

The Zinnia Experiment

I would like to say that we planted zinnia seeds in three different places simply to later show how microclimates affected their growth and hardiness. But I’d be pushing the truth. I did plant them in several different spots to see how well they grow here and how quickly they bloom, so I can use them as an easy annual filler to add color and even more pollinators to our gardens.

So, we put seeds in open space in our vegetable farm rows, mostly for the pollinators. We also planted some on a fairly exposed raised bed in our xeric garden. Finally, we planted seeds in the lower part of the xeric garden, close to the rock wall. All of the flowers did fairly well, although the ones in the farm area had better soil and more consistent drip watering. They were the tallest and healthiest. The ones in the raised bed took longer to come up, likely because of poorer soil and an inconvenient hand-watering location. The flowers planted in the lower bed did almost as well as the ones in the farm area.

zinnia cold damage
The healthiest zinnias froze the most, likely because of the farm area location and the fact we had pulled up several rows of faded vegetable plants, so these zinnias were open to a pocket of frost.

Then the frost came and the healthiest plants burned the worst. They more or less bit it overnight.

The zinnias in the raised bed were nearly as bad, but at least the flowers kept their color (I planned to take photos of them, but hard-working hubby cleaned up the bed before I had a chance.)

zinnias minor frost damage
These zinnias suffered some frost damage, but the flowers were still vibrant, thanks to their protected location near the rock wall.

The zinnias in the lower bed fared the best. I doubt they will grow or flower more, but they don’t look like they belong in a horror movie.

How to Use Microclimates

The experiment helped me get a sense of microclimates on our land. We’ve always assumed that our farming area is cooler because it is in a sort of mini-valley jut above the river. The dead zinnias demonstrated we were right, especially since those plants were the most robust before the freeze hit. The flowers in the raised bed are more open to cool air; there were no other plants nearby or much hardscape to absorb heat either.

The hardiness of the zinnias in a more protected and “solarized” spot near the rocks was telling. It’s always important to think about sun and shade exposure, but sometimes we fail to consider how placing a few large rocks behind a cold-sensitive plant can help it survive winter. In vegetable gardening, for example, using fabric to cover plants creates a micro-greenhouse effect. And when growing a plant that needs a little less sun or heat, shade cloth or plant placement can lengthen growing seasons.

shade for vegetable plants
Peppers love heat, but these pepper plants in Tucson had shade over them for protection.

Microclimates, like the general climate, can vary. For example, a tree that drops its leaves provides no shade until it fills in late spring. As trees mature, they can begin shading a plant that once received full sun; it might be time to transplant a shaded shrub. Windbreaks help slow the flow of cold air streaming up a slope.

rio Ruidoso bench
Every gardener needs a microclimate too! we placed this bench in a shaded area near the river as a spot to cool off on warm days working outside.

Containers offer excellent microclimates, not only because they warm up quickly, but because you can move them to solve sun and wind exposure issues, and all the way inside before the first frost.

adenium in container
This Desert Rose (Adenium) in Tucson is about 10 times the size of ours. But its location in a container means that botanical garden staff can move it if necessary for changing seasons and microclimates.

Wildflowers and Deer

We’re trying to add more wildflowers to our garden and create small meadows around some areas of the property. One of the challenges in choosing locations and flowers is munching deer.

deer in garden
Deer grazing in winter just a few feet from the house. The stucco buckets cover some succulents that need extra heat and deer deterrent.

Our deer population is not huge, mostly because of a previous wildfire in the forest north of us. I don’t want to exclude deer from the property and am happy to let them graze our grama and other grasses all year long. Although we seldom see the deer once summer days heat up, we see evidence of their munching from time to time.

Blocking deer is the best way to keep plants safe. But it’s much easier to fence around a tree, bush or vegetable garden than it is around a wildflower meadow. Fencing kind of ruins the effect. So, the best way to keep deer from eating the flowers is to plant “deer resistant” varieties. The quotation marks refer to the fact that our deer have not read the plant descriptions. They avoid several plants completely, but every so often, we find surprising telltale signs of deer damage. I think it’s difficult to guarantee deer resistance for most plants.

yarrow salvia
Deer leave yarrow and salvia alone. These are both flowering well into October this year.

Deer-resistant wildflowers

We recently ordered a deer-resistant wildflower seed mix from High Country Gardens that we’ll plant after the first hard frost. Not all of the plants bloom the first year, which is disappointing, but we’ll plant a few deer-resistant annual plants to fill in so the meadow looks colorful for a special event we’re hosting next summer. Here are some of the flowers included in the deer-resistant wildflower mix:

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Lanceleaf and plains coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolate and C. tinctoria); Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea); California poppy (Eschscholzia californica); red poppy (Papaver rhoeas); and the trusted blanketflower (Gaillardia), along with several types of lupines (Lupinus) and sages (Salvia).

california poppies
California (Mexican) poppies from seed. The young plants had a little deer damage, but recovered. We’ve left late seedheads on the plants hoping they’ll spread.

This wildflower mix needs full to partial sun – at least six hours of sun a day. We have a few areas that are shadier, so we’re still looking for an easy solution there. In April, I wrote about five drought-tolerant plants that love shade. Columbines come to mind, of course, but some salvias take at least partial shade and are deer resistant. Then again, some shade lovers, like hostas, attract deer. We’ve also got some rocky areas, and plan to sprinkle white love-in-a-mist (Nigella) seeds and gathered larkspur (Delphinium consolida) seeds this fall as well.

salvia and paper flower
Most wildflowers and low-water perennials need some sun. Some types of salvia can tolerate partial shade.

Keeping deer out of meadows

One strategy for keeping deer out of wildflower patches is to surround the area with aromatic plants that deer avoid, such as lavender or rue. There are lots of deer deterrent products; I’ve had success with Messina’s Deer Stopper spray on plants in our xeric garden that deer had previously disturbed. The product remains effective for about 30 days, but I have to remember to spray regularly for continued protection. Spraying an entire meadow would take way too long, but I think the spray could be really effective on those flowers we’re most concerned about or know deer have eaten in the past.

deer stopper spray
This poor little rose has been stepped on and eaten by deer. I’m spraying it now to keep them off this winter and give it a fighting chance.

Finally, if uncertain about the best wildflower choices for a meadow, work with what you have. You can try gathering seeds from native plants or leave the area unmowed at the end of the season and let nature spread the seeds for you. I’ve done that in an area with a higher grama-to-weed ratio, and hope that each time I walk through it, I spread grama and flower seeds. We pulled as many weeds from it as we could to give the native plants like grama, wild blanketflowers, verbena and daisies a better chance of reseeding.

blanketflower seed head grama
Native grama grass and blanketflower seedheads left unmowed in my meadow experiment.

Note: Messina’s sent me a free sample of Deer Stopper spray, but did not influence my use or review of the product.

Use Shapes and Textures in Xeriscaping

Gardeners often choose plants more for their flower color or ease of care, and that’s a great way to enjoy a garden. If you want to add interest to a xeric bed or lawn, it also helps to consider plants’ shapes and textures. Shape, or form, refers to the circles, lines and squares of plants or how you arrange plants. Texture relates to how coarse or fine a plant looks and even feels.

Mesilla nm xeriscape
Plant shape and texture work perfectly in the landscape design of this old adobe home in Mesilla, N.M.

For example, there’s a reason why many professional container arrangements usually include a grass or similar plant with tall, thin blades. The grass rises from at or near the center of the pot, adding height. The long, slender blades of ornamental grasses also vary the shape and texture of the arrangement if it’s filled with low-growing, round flowers. You can do the same in your xeric garden.

plant sculpture
This whimsical plant sculpture lives in an Atlanta-area garden.

Although it can be tough for some gardeners to adapt to the Southwest after owning lawns with formal cottage gardens, they eventually learn to love the look and easy maintenance of more native, “unsculpted” plants.

yellow in xeric garden
This part of our xeric garden is mostly yellow, but not redundant because of shape and texture of the plants and foliage.

Plant variety 

Although some landscapes look great with rows of the same plant, most xeric gardens have a more natural feel. The designer or home gardener can use a variety of low-water plants to vary shapes. For example, if you want to plant cacti and succulents in your container or garden, you aren’t likely to choose all prickly pear cacti (Opuntia). Their round pads and medium-height spread complement a spikier ocotillo (Fouquieriaceae) or a spiraling sedum groundcover.

desert garden
It’s hot and dry in Tucson, but you still can use shape and texture in the most xeric designs, as shown by the sprawling ocotillo and prickly pear at its base.

The shapes in xeric plants typically are less defined. Still, plants have a basic shape, such as how lavender stalks form a rounded V.

lavender plants in New Mexico
Six rounded lavender now have five friends growing below. They’re lined up, but maintain a natural look.

Those who desire a more balanced or symmetrical look can repeat a plant. Some of the most effective landscapes I’ve seen have a row or grouping of xeric ornamental grasses. Individually, the grasses have a wispy, wild look. But when placed in a grouping, they sway in the wind together and create a clean line. Too much variety can cause a xeric garden to look more like a botanical garden full of eye-catching plants with no flow if not designed by professionals.

Foliage and texture

Many xeric plants produce remarkable flowers, and some bloom throughout the growing season. But one way xeric plants survive is with relatively smaller foliage. Less leaf area means less transpiration (water evaporating from leaves) and improved survival chances in arid climates. Still, a waterwise garden can include foliage variety in texture, size, shape and color.

xeric garden
This garden is a large circle, with defined beds that are rounded but don’t mimic the overall shape. And as plants can do, some of these lost their defined shape following monsoon rains.

Some xeric plants, such as pineleaf penstemon (Penstemon pinifolius) have tiny, needle-like leaves. These contrast nicely with nearby plants that have rounder, lusher foliage, adding varied shapes and textures to the garden.

texture from plants
This is not a xeric garden, but look at how many different textures combine in one spot, including variegated leaves of the hosta, lower right.

You also can add texture with hardscape materials or yard art. Hardscaping materials include just about anything that isn’t a live plant. So, for example, you can add interest around a rock or boulder with a plant that has small, twisting or draping branches. A post fence has lines that run up and down, and I believe that a mix of small, round or trailing plants look better against it than a line of tall or upright plants. Hardscape items also add texture, such as rough rockiness or smooth backdrops.

Layering

Rhythm is an important landscape design that can be achieved with cautious repetition of shapes, curves and layers. Some of the best designs have layers. For example, you can plant a groundcover (a low-growing or trailing plant that typically spreads) in front of a shrub that has long, thin branches and few flowers.

silver dollar plant
We fell in love with this silver dollar plant (Xerosicyos Danguyi) at The Arboretum in Pasadena, Calif.

When layering plants, or in any planting, it’s important to consider a plant’s mature size. If not, your nice round shrub might catch up to or even block the tall one behind it. It also helps to know a little about pruning. You don’t have to shape plants into animal characters, but it helps to know how to trim the plant for its health and growth (even control of growth).  Otherwise, plants can later upset balance and rhythm in the garden.