Diagnose and Prevent Drought Stress in Plants

A droopy, wilting plant. It’s a gardener’s instinct to automatically assume: It needs water. And sometimes, that’s a good instinct. But low-water plants just as easily can be killed by kindness as by neglect.

gladiola
Gladiolas like an inch of water a week, but not too much water.

For example, several problems with tomato fruits are caused by too much water, or especially irregular watering. Plants, like people, need some regular hydration. You wouldn’t avoid drinking water for five days and then gulp down a liter, right? One reason drip systems are effective is the consistency (assuming you set a timer) of the amount of water they deliver, along with the slow rate of flow and the fact that they water the soil/roots and not a plant’s leaves. The delivery and slow flow help retain more moisture and nutrients around the roots.

A drip system with adjustable emitters is a great way to water our okra. And it looks like to attract ants...
A drip system with adjustable emitters is a great way to water our okra.

What’s the prognosis?

There are reasons other than drought stress that cause plants to wilt, including problems with the roots. That’s why plants you’ve just transplanted from seed or a nursery container tend to wilt for a few days or weeks. The roots suffer some damage when taken from a pot and replanted. Understand that this is part of the natural course of the plant’s life and help it through without stressing too much (meaning you, not the plant). Even though a plant is waterwise, it still needs extra water until the roots heal and begin to grow, more efficiently pulling water into the plant. If the ground is dry at root level, the roots can’t do their work. Plants that are overwatered sometimes wilt, too, further complicating the “diagnosis.”

tomato branch broke water
After our first heavy rain, I accidentally brushed against a branch of this currant tomato.It peeled off; the brown leaves are likely from that damage, not from lack of water!

Speaking of, most gardeners jump to the worst possible scenario when determining a plant problem. Although disease is a possibility, look not only for symptoms of a particular wilt or fungal disease, but also for possible causes. Do you have evidence of bugs that might have damaged leaves or carried a disease to your plant? Is the plant getting enough air circulation? Is water running off and away from the plant? Has it just been super hot for several days?

incipient wilt
Incipient wilt on a squash. Still not the best scenario and a signal to check our soil, but it’s temporary.

The best way to distinguish drought stress from other causes of wilt is by looking at and feeling the soil. Damp soil means the plant has water available; adding water at this point likely won’t help. You should feel an inch or two below the surface. One way is to stick your finger in the dirt to about the first knuckle joint.

Prevent plant stress

When a plant needs water, it’s more susceptible to damage from bugs and diseases. Pests attack the weak. You can prevent plant stress from underwatering by:

  • Checking the soil as mentioned above; see if there is water for the plant.
  • Looking for signs of underwatering. These usually include leaves turning yellow and brown, and even falling off. Typically, drought stress begins with lower leaves.
  • Thinking about the plant’s environment and how it might have changed. Is it windy and hot or muggy and cool in the evenings? Did you last water a plant in the afternoon out of necessity instead of your usual morning routine?
hot day on plant
Not much you can do about these weather conditions within a week or so of placing new plants in your landscape. Water consistently in the morning and shade plants if practical.
  • Using a meter or records when in doubt. We have an inexpensive moisture meter for our farm area. If nothing else, it helps confirm or deny my suspicions about the need to water and gives me a basis for comparing soils or drip rates around certain plants. Keeping records of watering, fertilizing and other activities can help manage and diagnose plant problems.
water meter to check moisture
Geraniums like to dry a little between watering. An inexpensive meter might not be the most accurate tool, but can help a home gardener check soil moisture.
  • It’s always better to water before a plant wilts, and not to wait until wilting occurs. Although plant roots need to seek water, they also have to find it! When no water is available in the soil around them, plants can begin reacting with wilt, slowed growth or flower and fruit production, and other signs.
xeric bush spirea
Blue mist spirea is a low-water plant. If the leaves have spots, it’s more likely getting too much water than not enough.
  • Finally, remember there is no hard and fast rule on watering. Much of the advice I see comes from areas that are more humid, cooler, less windy, and at lower altitude than our conditions here in New Mexico. Having said that, you can create conditions that help plants retain moisture, mostly by ensuring healthy soil and mulching. Containers need a little more frequent watering because they dry out faster than the ground. Water container and landscape plants slowly so the moisture drips instead of flooding down. You probably only need to add water to a container when the top few inches of soil are dry.

 

 

10 Tips to Help Plants Survive Summer Heat

Even waterwise plants get stressed when exposed to high heat, dry air and wind. Many Southwestern plants can survive hot temperatures because they’re native to the low desert. But in some areas such as the mountains and high deserts, native plants are a little more winter hardy and a little less heat tolerant.

chocolate flower blooms
Chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) blooms are perkiest in early morning but tend to wilt late in the day. No need to water or worry.

Even in the hottest Southwest and West climates, plants can need extra attention when temperatures soar. Here are 10 tips for helping plants survive the heat of summer.

Tip No. 1. Use drip irrigation.

You save water because it can’t evaporate as rapidly as it can if in the air, and the water seeps slowly down to the roots of a plant. This helps cool roots as well as hydrate them.

drip irrigation and straw on cucumber seedling
Drip irrigation is the only way to go for water savings and for keeping plants hydrated on hot days.

Tip No. 2. Use mulch.

Something as simple as straw spread out on the dirt helps keep air from rapidly evaporating water, but still allows oxygen to reach soil and roots. Piling the straw or other organic mulch two to three inches high helps even more.

straw mulch container tomato
Happy new tomato fruit with straw mulch in a container.

Tip No. 3. Try to get your plants established before summer heat ramps up.

Even heat-loving plants can wilt when temperatures soar. Still, recognize that wilting from sun can be temporary. The bigger the plant’s leaves, the more quickly the plant transpirates, which is the process of water evaporation through leaves. That’s why many succulents and xeric plants have small foliage. So don’t panic, but don’t completely discount it. Increase drip time on hot and windy days.

Tip No. 4. Water in the morning if at all possible.

This is a great water-saving strategy and helps prevent heat stress to plants. If the roots already have access to water, they can begin sending the water up through stems and leaves to keep the plant nourished. For most plants, regular, but spaced, deep watering always beats out frequent light watering (which leaves moisture close to the surface and can restrict root growth).

Tip No. 5. Check on your plants.

If you can’t check them during the day, do so as soon as you get home. It’s OK to water plants lightly in late afternoon to help cool them down.

xeric garden summer heat
Walking around your garden helps you spot heat stress and pest damage.

Tip No. 6. Use one plant as a benchmark.

For example, zucchini leaves are large, and if they’re wilting, you can prevent heat or drought damage to other plants nearby with a cool drink of water or some shade.

Tip No. 7. Shade plants.

New or damaged plants might need temporary shade to build up resistance to heat. Direct sun can burn leaves just like it can burn your skin. So make sure even an established plant is in the right location for sun and summer exposure and if not, try temporary shade.

cloth shade for plants.
It’s not pretty, but it’s clever. Tim built this removable shade out of landscape fabric, PVC and conduit.

Tip No. 8. Use containers.

Containers offer you the most opportunity to shade plants on hot days. Although soil in containers warms faster, containers also can cool more quickly. Most of all, it’s easy to move all but the largest into shade temporarily. You can mulch the top of the soil in a container, too.

containers on patio
Got containers? If you see a plant might be getting too hot, move it into afternoon shade. The white bucket in one container helped shade a new cherry tomato from sun and wind.

Tip No. 9. Avoid fertilizing plants during the heat of the day.

Plants should be perky and healthy before soaking up fertilizer. And the fertilizer needs to mix with plenty of water. It’s best to do this task before mid-day heat kicks in.

Tip No. 10. Control weeds.

Ha, there’s an impossible goal around here. And I know there are people who embrace weeds. I tolerate them only because I can’t keep up. But we’re really vigilant about keeping weeds off of or out from under plants. That’s especially true in the vegetable garden. Mulching can help control weeds.

field bindweed
Bindweed wraps around the base and stems of plants, weakening them. All weeds compete with garden plants for water.

Bonus tip.

Finally, if you keep potted plants, including cacti, inside during the winter, you need to protect them as they adapt to being outside. That’s true even for sun lovers. Harden the plant off if you can. If the plant is too heavy to bring in and out all day (or you have 30 of them, like we do), at least start it outside on a cooler, cloudier day.

Cacti under shade cloth
Succulents under the shade cloth. Yes, even some cacti can get too much sun. Containers allow these to survive winter inside and summer out in the heat.

Keep Your Kitchen Garden Convenient for Most Success

At least 35 percent of households now have kitchen gardens; that’s an increase of more than 60 percent since 2008. Whether the point is to save money or just to have fresher produce, it’s a trend I love to see. Anyone who lives in a rural area especially understands how difficult it can be to find a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs. Expecting produce to be affordable? Well, that’s just asking too much in most cases.

home-grown bell pepper and green beans
Why not grow your own green beans and bell peppers? Place them near your kitchen for ultimate convenience and freshness.

Farmers’ markets are great resources for fresh, local, and often organic food. Of course, you can bring it even closer to home and grow some of your own food. If you’ve never tried, don’t let that stop you. Every gardener makes a few mistakes, and weather is unpredictable. But you’re bound to have some success, and I’ve got a few tips to help:

Grow as close to your kitchen as possible

Back in 2008, before interest in kitchen gardens peaked, I wrote an article for Out Here Magazine about edible landscaping, interviewing expert Robert Kourik. At the time, Kourik pointed out that the closer you can grow herbs and vegetables to your back door, the easier it is to use them. He’s absolutely right; I love walking out into our backyard garden to cut a sprig of rosemary for a recipe.

tomato in container
Have an empty container? Grow a cherry tomato right outside the door.

Although walking certainly is good for you, and my walks to and from our microfarm give me much-needed activity breaks on heavy work days, dinner prep can be a busy, stressful time. Keeping edibles close at hand means you’re more likely to use them and more likely to remember to water them! If you can’t plant herbs and vegetables in a nearby flower bed, place a few in containers on your sunny patio or balcony. All the container needs is to be clean, have drainage at the bottom and be large enough for your plant (about 12-inch minimum in diameter for tomatoes).

cucumber in container
I’m growing a few cucumbers in this container on our back patio for fun and convenience. I’ll trellis the vines up a salvaged screen door.

Involve your family

When you’re busy preparing a meal with fresh ingredients, you can also enlist the kids for help. Send one of your children outside to harvest a tomato. And even before you’re ready to harvest, have the family contribute to your kitchen garden plan. If kids choose and help grow the produce they like best, you’re less likely to have family dinner-table battles. If the kids can help with planting or watering, even better.

home grown carrots
Kids usually love carrots. These might not come prewashed, but they are sweet and fresh when grown in your yard.

Convenient also means easy care

The best way to ensure success with your first kitchen garden is to start small. You don’t need an acre and a greenhouse. If you choose too many plants or get too ambitious with your space and plant variety, it’s easier to abandon the garden midsummer. That’s such a waste of your time, well or community water, and good food! So start with one or two containers or a tiny plot. We also mix perennial herbs in with our flowering plants. Many are just as pretty and produce edible leaves or stalks.

culinary sage with bees
Sage is perennial in zone 6B. You can harvest the leaves and enjoy some flowers, as can pollinators

Choose easier plants to grow in your garden. If you have a short season, select cocktail, grape or cherry tomato varieties. Otherwise, choose the ones you and your family are most likely to enjoy. If you’re concerned about losing interest, start with a fast grower, such as lettuce or spinach. You’ll save more money growing your own asparagus, but you might not have stalks to harvest for three years.

If you have time to set up drip watering well before planting, you’ll have fewer day-to-day chores related to growing food. Plus, drip irrigation is better for plants and water savings. In sem cases, you can run drip to containers, or place an olla in the container. It’s a clay bottle that slowly seeps water and can be refilled every few days. This also frees you up for weekend outings. I’ve seen people make their own using milk jugs or similar items.

herb scissors with sage and oregano
My daughter gave me these awesome herb scissors, which cut (sorry) prep time substantially.

Have the right tools

Finally, keep a few tools on hand to save time when using fresh ingredients. Your produce won’t be prewashed (but then it also won’t have chemicals all over it).

  • A salad spinner. These are so handy for quickly cleaning lettuce, other fresh greens or bunches of herbs. And it’s another fun way to have the kids help.
  • Clean kitchen scissors. Just grab and carry outside to clip off an herb leaf or stem or to help free a cucumber. An old knife works better for zucchini and other squash.
  • Herb scissors. One of the best gifts ever; the multiple blades make faster work out of slicing or chopping basil, cilantro, parsley and similar leafy greens.
  • Other herb helpers, such as stripper tools for rosemary or dill. And Tim gave me a great storage container that keeps herb stems immersed in water, but the leaves above. I can put it right in the fridge.
Garden lettuce in the spinner, an herb saver, stripper, and scissors.
Garden lettuce in the spinner, an herb saver, stripper, and scissors.

 

Conserving Lawn and Garden Water: Seven Solutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

drip irrigation
A low drip saves water and helps plants.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

10 Reminders for Waterwise Gardening

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Safely Use Rain Water on Vegetables and Herbs

It seems that Los Angeles officials are considering installing cisterns with smart technology to catch rain water for irrigation. It’s about time. Even when rain barrels and cisterns fail to collect all of the water that falls from the skies or flows from the roof, they still make use of water that might otherwise run off and go to waste. And homeowners can use the water for ornamentals and even edibles.

rain barrel metal roof
This is one of two rain barrels by our house. We used it to water the carrots in the pot next to it one year, along with container tomatoes. It also serves as a handy drinking spot for the mutts and apparently as a shelf for my wind chimes when they annoy my husband as a storm such as this one comes in.

I don’t know much about LA and its politics, but I do know that when I made a trip to southern California recently, water restrictions were forcing patches of brown grass more than landscape alterations. Pulling up some of the grass, replacing it with a few vegetables and herbs, and then watering those edibles with rain water seems like a really smart and sustainable solution.

We’ve been using rain barrels for many years. When we had a flat tar and gravel roof and city water in Albuquerque, N.M., we limited use of the rain barrel to ornamentals only. But now that we rely on a well, grow more food on more land and have metal roofing, we use rain water on our vegetables and herbs.

rain barrel for watering ornamentals and edibles
Here’s the same barrel up close and right after we put it into service in early spring. I know I can’t water everything with it, but we don’t need to. Most of our ornamentals are xeric and need no regular watering. Why not capture some rain to use where we can?

Before collecting rain water for edibles, I researched the topic and found little information, but enough to make me feel comfortable using the water. Since then, more data is out there confirming that for the most part, collected rain water from common roofing materials is safe for edibles as long as you follow a few preventive collection and watering practices. Most of my tips are about barrels, which is all I have so far. I would love to have a cistern; it’s on my wish list! To learn more about the data and specific roof material information, check out the Resources page under Rainwater Collection and Rain Barrels.

Safe Rain Water Collection

None of the research claims that collected rain water is potable. There are just too many variables. In urban areas, pollution settles on rooftops. Where I live, critters and birds fly over or hang out on the gutters, likely leaving droppings. Here are a few ways to make your collected water safer for vegetable use:

  • Clean rain barrels with a bleach solution before using them for edibles. Rutgers also recommends adding eight drops of bleach per month for a 55-gallon barrel, and waiting 24 hours before using the water so the bleach can dissipate.
  • Rinse out barrels once a year, removing sediment and using either bleach or a vinegar and lemon solution to clean the barrel.
  • Keep gutters clean and free of debris, which also makes good sense for roof maintenance.
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
We installed a new rain barrel system on the shed near our vegetable garden this spring. We can see the roof well enough to know whether there is anything we need to clean off!
  • When installing a new system, it’s recommended to have a first-flush diverted added. This washes the first flush of downspout water, along with debris and contaminants, away from the barrel before it begins filling.
  • Most commercial barrels have screens to keep debris (and birds or other small animals) from getting inside the barrel. Be sure to wipe the screens off from time to time. Even leaves can rot and drip into the rain water.

Safe Watering 

Of course, you can choose to water only ornamental and house plants with rain water if you have any doubts. I also tend to alternate watering between my barrel and well for vegetable rows, just to mix up the nutrients and potential metals from both, and because the barrel by the garden usually empties before the next good rain. For safest edible watering, be sure to follow these tips:

  • After a barrel fills, use the first full bucket or so on ornamentals, not on vegetables or herbs. This first flush from the barrel usually contains more contaminants because of settled water at the bottom.
  • Always water the soil and not the plant, a best practice for gardening anyway. And the soil absorbs the water, not the leaves. This is especially important for any edible you harvest from above the ground (or other than root vegetables).
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
Drip irrigation is the best method for watering efficiently and safely, and can work with some rain collection systems.
  • Water in the morning and wait to harvest, after the sun’s rays have dried and disinfected the plants.

Finally, those folks in California can water their lawns (hopefully less by switching to native, low-water grasses) with cisterns, which typically have pressure valves. Most smaller rain barrels lack the pressure required to drive soaker hoses. Raising your barrel a few feet can increase the pressure to allow use of a hose or drip system, but likely not enough to run a lawn sprinkler. In the past, we’ve used stacked square pavers or cement blocks to raise ours.

This is the view of the new barrel from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.
This is the view of the new barrel and shed from the vegetable garden, just before a storm. The barrel is slightly uphill, so we get good flow, but I might raise it more next year.

Favorite Low-water Plant: Smoke Tree

Fall’s cold and wind have obliterated most of our foliage, or at least relocated it from limbs to patio and ground. But one small tree hangs in there with a full canopy of greenish-burgundy leaves. The smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) is one of my favorite trees for fall and year-round color.

cotinus coggygria smoke tree in fall
The redbud and most other trees are suddenly bare, but the smoke tree (Cotinus coggygria) is full and colorful!

In fact, our tree held on to many of its crispy gold leaves all winter last year. Then in spring, new green foliage emerged. But the tree’s seasonal colors, which changed from greenish blue to deep burgundy or purple, to gold, are only part of its charm and drama. It also sends out puffy seedheads that resemble — and smell like — smoke. The pinkish seedhead clouds, which give the tree its name, usually appear in mid-summer here, but the timing varies depending on conditions. Regardless, they remain attractive for weeks.

smoke tree with winter foliage
Last March, our tree still had crispy gold leaves on it, and these deer hadn’t bothered to munch on them.

Caring for smoke trees

So I love how smoke trees look, but here’s what really seals the deal for the New Mexico xeric gardener: The Sunset Western Garden Book says the tree is “at its best under stress in poor or rocky soil.” OK, I have lots of that. And it can tolerate some drought. When temperatures hover above 90 degrees F, a deep water every couple of weeks helps get it through the hottest part of summer.

The other attractive feature of smoke trees for xeric gardens is their versatility. While the trees are starting, gardeners can shape them into small bushes or short trees, depending on the location or preferred look. C. coggygria typically has multiple small trunks. Ours was trained to a small tree shape, which still works well in a large rock garden because it only grows to about 15 feet high at a rate of about a foot a year. You can train it for light shade, or as a low, bushy foundation plant and home for birds.

Here's our tree right now, full and colorful even though the seedheads are mostly faded.
Here’s our tree right now, full and colorful even though the seedheads are mostly faded.

Until established, smoke trees might need a little more water and application of some slow-release fertilizer in the spring. But since it prefers poor soil, the tree needs no more than that once it’s on its way. And if you’re shaping the tree, Judith Phillips recommends that you cut back or stop fertilizing once you begin those pruning cuts. You can add some mulch to save water and cool the roots, but since the tree loves rotten soil, there’s no need to add organic matter. And if you add mulch, be sure to keep it away from the trunk. The tree can thrive in full sun or partial shade. Suckers will begin to show up around the base of the trunks; you can just pinch or cut them off to send energy back up into the main trunks.

large smoke tree with seedheads
Here’s a smoke tree in full bloom amid iris in late spring at the Hondo Iris Farm. It’s in wetter and slightly warmer conditions than in our zone 6B rock garden.

Smoke trees are subject to verticulum wilt and leaf roller mines in early summer. We also had to remove about 40 io moth caterpillars from ours this year because they were stripping entire branches. But those stinging nasties were making their way around all the small trees near the house.

More about smoke trees

The C. coggygria varieties do fine in USDA zones 5 through 8. The purple varieties look great on their own or as a bush planted near a silvery conifer or perhaps with an artemesia or gray santolina planted in front of them.

smoke tree leaves and blooms
Smoke tree leaves and seedhead behind them. The color changes throughout the year and even depending on the light during the day.

The C. coggygria is sometimes referred to as the European smoke tree. Another species of smoke tree called C. obovatus is called the American smoke tree. It is slightly larger and has bigger leaves, but has similarly striking seedheads. The Dalea spinosa (Psorothamnus spinosus) also is called a smoke tree. It is a grayer tree native to Southwestern low deserts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Water-wise Shrubs for High-Desert Gardens

As summer winds down and you plan next year’s garden, consider these five low-water perennial shrubs. There are many others, of course, but each of these has a particular feature you might be looking for when planning or revising your xeric garden. They all share in common the quality of drought tolerance. Once established in your garden, you should not need to water them at all.

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

Lavender for scent. I make no secret of my favor for lavender (Lavandula). Neither will bees and butterflies! Your biggest decision will be which cultivar to choose. Some are designed for their longer, deeper purple stems, others for culinary use or aroma. Be sure to plant your lavender in well-draining soil and give it plenty of sun. It’s hardy in zones 5 through 10, but a new lavender gets its best start in cooler zones if you wait to plant it until the ground and evenings have warmed up, several weeks after the last frost.

Yellow bird of paradise for a tropical feel. All of the Caesalpinia species of plants, birds of paradise, have amazing color and interest considering their high drought tolerance. Most prefer warmer climates. The yellow bird of paradise (C. gilliesii and recently changed to Erythrostemon gilliesii) can handle the high desert up to a point; it’s cold hardy to 15 degrees, but when kept dry, the roots can survive lower temperatures and the plant comes back the next spring. As for heat, give it all you’ve got. A favorite in Albuquerque, N.M., landscapes, the plant can reach the height of a small tree. This bird of paradise has yellow trumpet-like flowers with long red stamens. In the high desert, place it a warm microclimate, such as a south-facing wall. See photos and more information from Pima County Cooperative Extension Master Gardeners.

Creeping mahonia for easy care. Creeping mahonia (Mahonia repens) is an easy-care, evergreen shrub. I say evergreen, but its delicate leaves change color throughout the year. Shaped like holly leaves, but more delicate, they can be wine colored or deep, forest green. Tiny yellow flowers appear in spring. Although creeping mahonia (sometimes called “Oregon grape holly”) can grow in sun or shade, it likes a cool spot. Ours is on the northeast side of the house, where it gets plenty of morning sun and afternoon shade. Bees love it while blooming, and it’s hardy from zones 4 through 8.

creeping mahonia low xeric shrub
This creeping mahonia thrives on rain water only. I give it a trim for shape in early spring.

Apache plume for its long-term interest. The apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa) is a fun, natural-looking low-water bush. You have to love any plant that includes in its name the word “paradox,” right? The Apache plume is a paradox to me. I used to dislike its messy appearance, but I have grown to love how it looks in xeric lawns and gardens. For one, it’s semi-evergreen in warmer desert climates. Apache plumes attract bees, produce delicate white blooms and take to strong pruning (I have even seen them shaped, though it pained me). And yet they require very little care. They’re hardy in zones 4 through 9.

plume or seedhead on apache plume
The plume, or seedhead, that gives Apache plume its name and adds post-bloom appeal. Our bushes are blooming again during an unseasonably warm and dry September, so we now have plumes and blooms!

Western sand cherry for possible fruit. A xeric shrub that helps you make pies. It’s like something out of a gardener’s fairy tale! But the Western sand cherry (Prunus besseyi) is the real deal. Of course, like all fruit-bearing plants, ideal weather helps. We had some fruit on ours this year, though they were so well hidden I didn’t notice them in time. The birds enjoyed them, however, and we certainly enjoyed the showy white flowers in spring. This one is cold hardy down to zone 3. My only caution is that deer love them. We have to fence ours to keep the deer from biting off entire branches.

western sand cherry in April.
This photo is a little fuzzy because it was taken through a window. I didn’t want to disturb the resting doe. Had she munched on those two flowering Western sand cherries, I might not have been so accommodating. They’re above her and to the right, on the top of the rock wall, bursting with white flowers in mid-April.

Collect Your Own Drought-Tolerant Flower Seeds

Saving water with low-water ornamentals is a perfect xeriscaping strategy. You also can save money on low-water annuals when planning next year’s garden by collecting seeds from spent flowers and wildflowers. Think of the possibilities. For example, that wild daisy that pops up between your fence and alley every year would look really pretty in the new rock garden in your front yard. Fall is the time to gather seeds from flowers you’d like to have in next year’s garden.

wildflowers in early spring
What would a natural landscape be without some early spring wildflowers?

When to collect flower seeds

Select a healthy plant, free of insects. If you normally deadhead the blooms regularly, leave a few to go to seed. That’s also true, of course, if you want to see more of a particular flower in the same general area of your garden or lawn next year. If you completely deadhead or shear off all of the spent blooms, you have less chance of local reseeding. It’s just too bad that we can’t control where the wind blows or other elements.

Angel's trumpets
This is a wildflower that grows along our ditch bank. It’s called angel’s trumpets (Mirabilis longiflora).

Make sure the seed head is fully mature. The seeds should be dry, usually brown. They’ll likely fall off the flower head when shaken slightly. So be ready to catch them with your hand, an envelope, pantyhose or a paper bag. It really doesn’t matter, as long as you can catch them, keep them dry and prevent them from blowing away. Then, either mark down or remember the plant from which you gathered the seeds.

dried wildflower seeds
These angel’s trumpet seeds are dry and ready to collect. Tim spread them in an area we’re trying to change from a weeded mess into a flowery meadow.

There’s a chance that you can wait too long to gather seeds, but it depends on the plant, weather conditions (such as wind and humidity) and local birds. The plant could go dormant before you gather seeds, or the seeds could dry and all drop or blow away, so it’s a good idea to check the flower often as it begins to mature.

chocolate flower mature seed head
These chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) heads look alike, but the circled one is the spent one. To see a blooming chocolate flower, search past posts. Sorry you can’t smell it from here!

How to store seeds

Keep collected or purchased seeds in a cool, dry and dark place. Paper bags protect the seeds, but allow some air circulation to prevent mold (unless you take the step of drying seeds mentioned below). A constantly cool temperature and low humidity will help keep seeds fresh for at least a year. Storing them longer requires more steps, such as drying them at 100 degrees F for six hours. You can do this in a microwave oven if you can control the temperature, or outside in a warm climate, preferably keeping the seeds in the shade.

Once dry, seeds should be stored in sealed cans or jars, which are preferred to plastic bags. The sealing prevents oxygen and moisture from entering the containers; those are two factors that promote germination. Although the optimum temperature is below 50 degrees F, you shouldn’t freeze seeds.

storing seeds
Paper bags, metal cans and repurposed sealed containers can work, depending on how long you need to store seeds. Keep the seeds in a cool, dark spot.

A few cautions

You can’t collect seeds on public land, and should not take seeds from any rare or endangered flower. Designated organizations take care of that. If you want to gather seeds on private land, even if it’s not in use, you should get permission from the land’s owner. Otherwise, it’s fairly simple gathering seeds from flowers and grasses. I’ll address vegetable seed gathering next week.

If you don’t have space in your refrigerator or a similar cool, dry spot for storing the seeds you gather, try exchanging seeds for space with a friend. Or buy seeds each year for common flowers. Truly, seeds are relatively inexpensive compared with plants and you will soon learn which flowers do best in your zone and landscape. In my opinion, unless you have optimum collection and storage conditions, you’ll have lower germination rates with gathered seeds than with those you buy. Still, we continue to gather and broadcast seeds around our place and let nature take it from there, or store some for next spring. And I applaud all efforts to gather and reseed, especially for native wildflowers that use little to no water!