Monthly Archives: June 2015

Update Your Hardiness Zone

In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated its cold hardiness zones. Farmers, suppliers and home gardeners use the zone designations to help standardize how well a plant can survive at average extreme minimum temperatures. In the new iteration, the USDA added two new warm zones to reflect areas in which the average low stays above 50 degrees (if only!). Of course, the zones are restricted to tropical areas of the country, such as Hawaii. Several zone boundaries also shifted to reflect warmer temperatures in several zones from the 30 years of data collection.

Maui view

If only I lived in Maui, where the zones are more like 10 to 13 and the landscape is so lush.

Read what you want from the shifts in zones, though the USDA is quick to point out that climate change trends require 50 to 100 years of data collection, and zone changes are not reliable evidence of whether there is global warming.

At any rate, if you haven’t checked your USDA zone in a few years, it’s a good idea to look again and see if it’s shifted. The USDA has given you another reason to check. The scale has fine resolution and GIS technology. This means that between your ZIP code and GIS location, you can have more accurate data to reflect the effects of, say, urban streets and buildings on your townhouse patio. It’s huge for someone like me who lives in a rural area and seldom receives accurate weather data, for instance, unless I collect it in my own back yard. The map recognized my location and pinpointed my zone accordingly as 6B.

USDA hardiness zones

Here’s a simplified image of the USDA hardiness zones. Visit the USDA site (by clicking on the image) for more detail on your zone.

Cold hardiness is not the only factor to consider, though, especially for xeriscaping. Altitude affects temperature, but also contributes to drying of plants. And wind, well, don’t get me started. I will say that wind dries a plant out and does plenty of damage to new plantings or houseplants you’re beginning to bring outdoors. You also have to consider soil and microclimates, such as those on the city balcony. On a broader scale, valley or riverbank climates differ from those of mountains or open plains.

Within your xeric garden, you can push a zone slightly by adding plenty of warmth to a plant when you place light-colored gravel under it or plant it near a south-facing wall. Or help out a plant that needs a zone cooler by putting it under the shade of a tree or on the north side of your home. Just be sure to check tags for plant hardiness zone before buying, especially from catalogs, online or in big-box stores.

potentilla and rocks

South-facing rocks keep this Ephedra in the foreground and transplanted cinquefoil (Potentilla fruitcosa) nice and warm.

Eight Edibles that Are Easy to Grow

Growing edibles in your garden is a great xeric strategy, because you can add foliage that cools areas around your home, blooms and fruits for aesthetics, and mostly put water use toward growing food for you and your family.

Switching from caring for a few house plants to “having a vegetable garden” seems like a daunting task for home gardeners, especially those with limited space. But it doesn’t have to be, if you start small with one or two of your favorite, easy-to-grow edibles.

Before I start the list, let me say this: I can’t really think of any herb or vegetable that can’t be grown in a container. Sure, it might take a large container and cages or other supports to manage a spreading or vining plant, but why not try?

zucchini in Smart Pot

All three zucchini seeds I planted in this Smart Pot came up, but I’ve since thinned them to one plant. I love the Smart Pot, which is fabric, so it’s light enough to move around the garden for optimal conditions.

  1. Salad greens, which grow easily from seed. I vote for arugula (which is technically an annual herb), but any loose greens grow quickly. Just give them plenty of drainage and shade in warmer weather. Lettuces do best in cooler or moderate temperatures, which makes them a perfect starter plant. In fact, if it’s too late to start a garden in your area right now, vow to start some lettuce at the end of the summer season when all the other gardeners are tired of weeding and eating giant zucchini. Proudly display your home-grown salad in the lunchroom at work.
    salad greens in container

    A small container with salad greens (behind a tomatillo plant) was as pretty as it was convenient on our patio last year.

    arugula

    I need to eat up this arugula before the grasshoppers eat it all and the heat ruins it.

  2. Okay, I have to go ahead and suggest zucchini. I’ve got an area where I’m trying some vegetables this year – where the soil is not as rich as it is in our vegetable garden. The zucchini plant is thriving. Give them warm, moist soil. So well around the seed and plant. And pick them before they become giant!

    giant zucchini

    Even Missy and Buster are not impressed with a zucchini big enough to eat them. It was buried under leaves in last year’s garden; that’s just too big to taste good.

  3. Rosemary is the easiest herb to maintain. You’ll need to buy the plant, not start it from seed. But you can take cuttings from a pint-sized plant soon after placing it in a container. Don’t overwater it, and be sure it gets sun at least half of the day. In addition, rosemary is a perennial in all but the coldest zones, so you can enjoy it all year.
  4. Green beans. Bush beans take less space, but I prefer the pole varieties. We switch their spot in the garden each year so they’re near various fences, but I’ve seen plenty of clever teepees and other methods of support. I’ve had close to 95 percent success with green bean seeds, planted about six inches apart. They like lots of organic matter in the soil. I think harvesting green beans is one of my favorite activities, sort of like a hunt. They’re easy to blanch, ice and freeze for year-round dishes.

    garden with green beans

    Not everyone has space for a garden, but it’s great if you do. Last year’s green beans loved their spot between the two middle stakes in the foreground, climbing up the fence that faced north.

  5. Cucumbers. I have had a little trouble this year getting my cucumbers started, but I still maintain that they’re easy to grow. The first seeds didn’t come up because the weather turned cool, so we tried again and had great success. Once the seedlings come up, the plants grow quickly. My biggest problem this year is in the area near a rock wall – the rock wall that doubles as a snail hotel. I can see the slime trail on the dirt where the cucumber seedling used to be. Next up? Cucumbers in containers. And pickles, lots of pickles. That’s a great solution for kids who turn their noses up at cucumbers, but love pickles.

    vegetables-from-garden

    A photo from a day’s harvest last year, including perfect cucumbers. The cherry tomatoes were also good, but some of the green beans got a little large.

  6. Cilantro. Also easy to establish from seed (which is coriander). Just be sure to put the seed where you plan to keep it, because cilantro does not take well to transplanting. I think it’s really attractive in pots, resembling parsley with its bright green leaves. Keep it trimmed for good health, especially in hot weather. The best way to do that is to eat it.
  7. Carrots. Once you’ve eaten a fresh, home-grown carrot, you will never feel the same way about store-bought ones. They’re easy to grow from seed; the hardest part is thinning them because you just don’t want to give any up. They prefer full sun when possible and need deep soil with lots of organic matter. We grow most of ours in containers because our soil is so rocky. And because of gophers. It’s bad enough when they gnaw on a plant’s roots. It’s really awful when the root is the part of the plant I like to eat.

    carrots in container

    We’re even trying succession planting in this container. We planted a second set of seeds several weeks after the first batch; they later seeds are just coming up. Otherwise, all of the carrots would be ready to eat at once. And yes, I need to thin the first batch more… . That’s a green chile in the metal container to the left.

  8. Cherry or grape tomatoes. I hesitated to put tomatoes on the list because I think they’re sort of picky. But there are so many varieties today that I think the trick for the home gardener is to either choose the best variety for their location and situation (in our case, a short growing season; for others, it might be heat or shade). But to have success with your first tomato plant and not have to worry about splitting and other problems, I suggest growing a cherry or grape tomato right on your patio. Because the fruit is smaller, you don’t have to wait as long for it to ripen. I think that makes these smaller varieties less susceptible to problems. The best part? Pick it right off the plant and pop it in your mouth or add it to that salad you’re taking to work.
tomatoes in containers

This plant is a short-season cocktail tomato we’re trying from Burpee this year (called 4th of July). It’s got blooms before the 4th, so we’re on our way! The pot in the background holds red cherry and yellow grape tomato plants.

Garden Project: Harvesting Lavender

Lavender is without a doubt my favorite drought-tolerant plant. Aside from its stunning appearance in the garden, it’s a fragrant herb. We added 15 lavender plants to our garden last year, and some of them failed to make it, mostly because of unseasonably cool and moist spring weather. But most of the survivors are now thriving and we have plans to expand our lavender “operation,” because once you get it started, it’s just so darn easy to grow.

lavender blooms

Close-up of Hidcote Superior English Lavender blooms. The stems of ours did not get very long, but I believe it will do better next year. I love the deep purple color.

If you cut off the first blooms of the season, lavender plants reward you with another late-season show. Yesterday, I decided to harvest some of the flowering buds to dry them for possible potpourris, bundles, and other gifts and to encourage the second wave of blooms. It was great fun!

To experiment with drying stems, buds and leaves, I cut some short stalks from newer plants that were not long enough to dry as bundles. They’ll make great potpourri or sachets, assuming I am smart and industrious enough to figure out how. I included a pretty established white lavender that’s been in the garden for years.

tools used to harvest lavender

Tools for my first attempt at lavender harvesting: our notebook with records of lavender planting, rubber bands, large paper clips opened up, and tags to mark bundles.

Some of the stems are too short to hang and I don’t want to waste any buds that might fall. I’ve heard of using paper bags, and remembered I could never bring myself to throw out the bags my espresso beans come in. They were the perfect size and already have a sturdy top that’s easy to close and hook onto for hanging. I cut holes in the sides of the bags for ventilation and marked the plant and date on the bag. One concern I have is that the bags still smell (deliciously) like coffee, so I wonder if the lavender inside will blend with that aroma. Worst case? Lavender lattes! Seriously, I might try it.

But I really love the look of dried stem bundles, and six of our one-year-old plants have produced a good crop of long stems. I went ahead and harvested stems from one of them. The trick to gathering long stems is this: You want the length to maximize the look and aroma, so it helps to cut all the way down to the plant’s round shape of existing foliage. But I realized after cutting that I removed many tiny, new flower buds down the stem. That might affect the number of blooms in the second round. We’ll see how the late-summer bloom on this plant compares with the next one I harvest.

xeric English lavender

One-year-old Royal Velvet English lavender blooming away in a xeric garden. There are two more next to it. The other purple to the left is from volunteer Larkspur.

lavender after stems harvested

Same plant after I harvested all of the stems. In retrospect, I should have left some on the plant that hadn’t quite opened. But I guess the symmetry before and after appeals to me more. I even trimmed it to make it nice and round again.

Out of one (one-year-old) Royal Velvet English Lavender, I was able to make a respectably sized bundle and a smaller bundle to take to friends I was having a picnic with that later in the day. I also stripped some of the leaves and tiny buds from down the stem and placed them in a coffee bag for even more yield from the plant.

lavender harvest

Here’s my yield for the day: a long and short stem from the Royal velvet plant, plus a bag of “remnants,” a bag of white lavender buds, and one bag each from the Hidcote and a young Munstead, both too short to bundle but just as aromatic.

The day before, I had hammered several nails into the beams of our old shed. It’s dry and has good ventilation. It’s not completely dark, which might be the drawback. I used rubber bands to hold the bundle together, and opened up large paper clips to secure the rubber band or the bag tops to the nail. I also slipped a small piece of cut-up old business cards into the bundle’s rubber band with the plant and date and hung it upside down. They should take about a week to dry.

drying lavender in shed

I knew this shed would be good for more than storage! All it took was nails, paper clips and coffee bags.

Low-Water Shade Trees

A well-planned xeric landscape can include a few low- or medium-water shade trees, especially when the trees are native to the area. Trees naturally use more water than small shrubs, but offer several advantages that make up for it, including:

Providing shade for houses and patios to cut energy use in summer. Choosing a deciduous (instead of an evergreen) tree means you’ll only shade windows in summer, and leave them open to sun in the winter to provide solar gain for warming your home. Trees that drop leaves in winter work best at shading your house when planted on the home’s southwest corner.

chinese-apricot for shade

Nothing beats a shade tree in summer for plants and gardeners. This established Chinese apricot on the southwest corner or our home shades the patio, garden and some rooms and windows. We hope it provides fruit soon.

Trees also can shade other plants, helping to keep roots cool and moist, which saves some water in the landscape and opens up your ornamental or edible plant choices.

Place shade trees close enough to your house that you’ll receive some of the energy savings and comfort of the shade, keeping in mind the tree’s mature size and the direction of summer sun and shade.

Here are a few low-to-medium trees that can provide shade and interest to a xeric landscape:

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) is a striking, rainwater-only tree once established. Its shrubby, slightly smaller shape might be less effective at shading large areas or for providing cover for a picnic table, but it grows quickly the first few years. In fact, if you overwater it, the trunks grow too quickly and are susceptible to breakage from the wind. The orchid-like flowers attract hummingbirds. The sun lover may leaf out after other trees in spring, so don’t worry. It can reach heights of 20 feet and grows in zones 7 through 9.

desert willow

The desert willow has delicate leaves and orchid-like flowers. It will leave seed pods, but I’ve never found them to be messy.

Catalpa (Catalpa speciosa) has large, oval leaves and showy, almost tubular flowers. The tree can take heat and low to medium water. It grows to a height of about 60 feet in zones 4 through 8. Just beware of the Chitalpa (X Chitalpa taskentensis), a hybrid cross of the catalpa and the desert willow. Its flowers are gorgeous and it’s fuller than the desert willow, but the plant is prone to a bacterial disease.

catalpa leaves and flowers

Close-up of catalpa leaves and flowers. Image by G. F. Russell and courtesy of the Smithsonian Plant Image Collection.

Velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) is a low-water shade tree that also leafs out late in spring, and rewards with sweet-smelling yellow flowers. It can reach 30 feet tall and 25 feet wide and is more cold hardy than some low-water choices, down to 5 degrees Fahrenheit. All of the mesquites are low-water users, surviving in the driest conditions.

Smoke tree (Cotinus coggyria) can take low-water conditions once established, but might require more water during hot summer months and while flowering. The flowers give the smoke tree its name; they’re feathery seedheads that burst open in summer. The foliage is just as attractive, though, with both green and purple colors, and a fall gold. The tree will only reach about 15 feet high, but it’s a great choice for xeric landscapes.

established smoke tree

Large smoke tree in full bloom at the Hondo Iris Farm in New Mexico.

smoke tree leaves and blooms

Smoke tree leaves and bloom. The leaves change color throughout the year and the blooms do have a smoky scent.

Blue spruce (Picea pungens). Most evergreens, except Junipers, require at least medium water. I can’t bring myself to recommend Junipers because of their allergenic potential. But you’re welcome to read about junipers elsewhere. The blue spruce is meant for cooler climates (Zones 3 through 6) and can grow to 50 feet. It comes in smaller cultivars that can survive at lower elevations and work better in a small yard or xeric landscape without taking over.

blue spruce tree

The regal-looking blue spruce, an evergreen choice for cooler climates. Image from North Dakota Extension Service and USDA Plant Database.

For an edible choice, try the Jujube (Zizyphus jujuba). Once established, it only needs a deep watering once a month. The tree also is called the Chinese date because it bears a sweet/sour date-like fruit for birds or people. The tree tends to spread and form groves, so it’s great for shade and wind screens. It can reach a height of 20 or 30 feet, however.

How To Identify Weeds in Your Garden

Identifying weeds might not rank up there with ridding the garden of the invaders, but it often drives me mad when I can’t identify a weed. It’s more important to know a weed from a desired plant or wildflower, so you know whether to leave it alone or destroy it before it spawns and takes over your garden.

So, how can you tell a weed from a flower? Here’s a definition I received from a weed scientist with New Mexico State University in their master gardener training materials: “A weed is any plant that interferes with the management objectives for a particular site or situation.” That’s actually a brilliant definition (must be because he is an expert). Here’s why:

One gardener’s weed is another gardener’s favorite fauna, but with some caveats. In other words, if you love dandelion flowers and want to leave them in your garden, then maybe dandelions are not a weed. If you leave purslane to grow because it’s an edible weed (as are parts of the dandelion), then more power to you. But if the purslane begins to cover your thyme or the dandelion chokes out the small area of grass you have in your lawn, do you shift them into the “Weed” column?

mexican hat

Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) seeds all over our garden. It’s a fun summer flower, but was recently host to what looked like baby cucumber beetles. It also grows tall and blocks sun and air from getting to nearby plants. I pulled a bunch of them.

Another way to look at it is to peg a weed according to some criteria set by the Weed Science Society of America. According to their site, weeds have common characteristics, including:

  • Production of way more seeds than normal – up to tens of thousands from a single plant.
weed seeds in garden

No, we didn’t scatter feathers on the ground. Those are weed seeds, in a bed we worked on at least twice. There’s also an elm tree sprouting — extra credit if you spot it.

  • Long survival time for seeds, which can remain dormant in soil until just the right weather or other condition triggers growth.
  • Rapid establishment (yes, they really can crop up nearly overnight).
  • Mechanisms that support easy spread.
  • Ability to grow in places where other plants can’t, such as between rocks or in poor, dry soil.
field bindweed

Field bindweed, aka wild morning glory. Sure, give it a pretty, regular name. It grows anywhere, and especially loves rocks AND rose trunks so it can hide before it chokes the life out of the poor rose.

If you look at the one attribute that all of the points above have in common, it’s this: survival. I can’t count how many times we’ve sowed some flower or vegetable seed at just the right depth, watered it regularly and checked daily. Nothing. But weeds – they keep returning for encores, even when you try to destroy them!

Aside from persistence, the ability to outcompete nearly any plant and your best efforts to remove it, there are a few other ways to tell  a weed from a regular plant when you’re examining it in your garden. For example, the characteristics that help weeds spread their seeds might show in their appearance. Hooks, spines and stickers make them harder to pull. And some have adapted attractive flowers to fool gardeners. A tap root often is a sign of a weed, or at least a plant’s survivability. You can pull and pull, but if you break the root off, it comes back and is somehow stronger than ever. Rhizomes or stolons also help weeds spread just underground, especially grassy weeds. And some weeds have asexual properties so that they can reproduce plenty of new plants with no floral fertilization.

dandelion in gravel

Dandelions have telltale spiny leaves, a tap root and lots of seeds after flowering.

In short, if a plant is wrapping around another plant, cropping up on, under or around a plant so that it affects your desired plant’s ability to use sun and water, call it a weed. We have some gorgeous volunteer wildflowers that come up each year in our garden, but we don’t keep all of them. If they crowd out another plant or cause so much shade around roots that a rose gets fungal during the monsoon season, they’ve got to go. I’ll keep a few of them, which means I’ll have to thin again in the future. But I won’t call them a weed.

I’ll post some of the worst New Mexico offenders in the future. For now, if you need help identifying weeds, check out the tool and external links under the WSSA’s Weeds section on their menu. I’ve also posted some new links on my Resources page.

Xeriscaping Strategy: Natural Hardscaping

Any home gardener can create an attractive landscape without filling the entire lawn with lush turf and plants. Having said that, you can achieve a lush lawn with low-water plantings. Add some hardscaping, or built and paved areas, and you’ve got interest and function, a palette for the plants’ colors and textures.

cosmos and rocks in garden

These tiny cosmos flowers came up from seed. They might have gotten pulled in another spot, but they look so good contrasted against these large rocks.

But here’s the rub – and this month’s rant about people who take xeriscaping to the extreme – hardscaping does not mean that you tear out every living blade of grass, and kill (intentionally or unintentionally) every root of every living plant in your yard. In other words, don’t replace the entire landscape with pavement and rocks. In the end, you and your house will be hot, and the only roots that will survive – somehow – will be those of annoying weeds.

You can use rocks quite effectively in a xeric landscape, along with other natural elements. I use the term “natural hardscaping” because if you use found elements from nature, you spend less money and maintain the sort of natural look that many xeric landscapes feature so well. In other words, store-bought pavers have their place, as do concrete and gravel. But I believe they have limited, specific uses, and it’s more fun to add some found elements, such as interesting rocks to your garden.

rocks in xeric garden

This large xeric garden has pavers lining the outside, but a natural rock wall along the inside.

You don’t have to water rocks, and they can fill or delineate spaces or offset and draw attention to xeric plants. Other great found objects are pieces of wood from old trees (or driftwood), seashells and old metal objects or collectibles that can weather the outdoors. From a practical standpoint, you can use rocks to help well or shore up areas to control drainage, which is a great xeriscaping strategy.

Here are a few tips for using natural hardscaping to complement your xeric garden:

  • Rounded plants can soften the edges of hardscape materials, such as patio corners or steps. And shorter, round rocks look great behind tall, straight grasses, for instance.
using rocks in a xeric garden

This large, round rock looks great behind yellow evening primrose. The solar light bounces off of it at night.

  • Pea gravel is a great hardscaping element. It’s easier to walk on than larger rock gravel and can serve as mulch for plants that need little water and plenty of heat. You probably want to lay some landscape fabric under the pea gravel and be sure to layer it on thickly to prevent weeds, though.
  • Use your creativity, adding hardscape elements to make or line paths, for example. You might find rocks or leftover flagstone pieces large enough to bury for stepping stones. Tim placed a large, nearly flat rock under our faucet as a sort of foundation and splash guard.
rock bench in wall

This is a bench in a rock garden made from a huge found slab. It’s functional, and breaks up the round shape.

  • After making any change that replaces turf or plants with hardscaping, be sure to modify drainage and sprinkler systems to avoid wasting water.
  • Although wood can work well in the garden, it can sometimes rot or invite pests, such as carpenter ants. So try to use it where it can stay relatively dry or off the ground. Treated wood, such as old railroad ties, fares better.
rocks and wood in xeric garden

Creeping sedum planted in old fencepost, complete with rusted barbed wire. Rocks line a cactus area behind it.

  • Rock gardens look best when they appear as rocks might in nature. Burying a large rock a few inches down, and even slightly askew, looks much better than just setting it on top of the ground. Just like with plant selections, mix up rock colors, textures and sizes.

Xeric Plants That Attract Bees

Last week, I posted about the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. If  you haven’t registered your garden yet, this week is a great time to participate. June 15 through 21 marks National Pollinator Week!

And if you feel your garden doesn’t meet the criteria for a pollinator garden or need some help attracting pollinators and saving water at the same time, read on. I’ve got a list of low-water plants that attract bees in particular.

vegetable garden near bee attractors

The ugly stucco buckets in this otherwise pretty sunset protect some tomatoes and other edibles I would like bees to visit. So I’m happy to have plenty of plants in the garden that attract pollinators.

Let’s first review a few reasons you want bees. Their numbers are dwindling, and the more homeowners and businesses that plant gardens to attract and nourish bees, the more we keep bee populations going. In your own garden, bees pollinate more than two-thirds of your flowers and edibles. Apples, cherries, beans, and other healthy and delicious crops in your yard or local farms need bees to produce their fruit or at least lend a hand, and not just in the height of summer. Gardens that provide bee-loving flowers from early spring until late fall help keep local populations thriving.

Here are a few low-water plants bees love:

  • Bee balm (Monarda “Jacob Kline”). You can’t go wrong with a selection named for the insect. To encourage the large, red flowers, you might have to give it some extra water, however.
  • Apache plume (Fallugia paradoxa). I’ve mentioned native or wild roses before. The Apache plume is a member of the rose family, but is more shrubby, partially evergreen, native, forgiving to heavy trimming or shaping, and needs no water once established. Bees love the small white flowers.
bee on apache plume flower

The pretty white flower of the xeric Apache plume.

  • Thyme. If you allow culinary herbs to flower, bees often go wild. We have thyme in our garden that flowered early this year and is a big attractor. When rosemary blooms, bees swarm all over it.
  • Sage. Bees also flock to culinary sage. I don’t mind letting some of my herbs flower because I have space. If your space is limited, you might want to cut herbs back (and use them in the kitchen). Pruning makes them healthier, as long as you don’t cut into the woody stems. I prefer to keep a few plants trimmed for culinary use, often in containers, and a few wilder for color (and pollinators).  Other sages, such as salvia, also bring bees to your garden.
culinary sage with bees

I caught this bee buzzing toward one of the pretty purple flowers on a culinary sage.

  • Onion (Allium) is a popular low-water edible that comes in an ornamental variety called Cokscrew blue twister that attracts bees with its pink flowers.
  • Pink lamb’s ear (Stachys lavandulifolius). A xeric wildflower that has fuzzy gray leaves and pink flowers to attract bees.
  • Catmint (Nepeta) has a bluish-purple flower and a strong scent. The low-growing plant can be invasive, however.
catmint for bees

Catmint lines our front walkway, which means so do bees! The plant needs no water, but spreads prolifically.

  • Alyssum. If you’ve read my past posts, I have bemoaned this invasive wildflower/weed. But I will say this much: Bees can’t get enough of the pungent blooms, and we probably fed enough honeybees from our yellow land alone in early spring to pollinate half of the desert Southwest!

Fruit trees also attract bees while flowering and there are plenty of vines and shrubs that draw bees to the garden. Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a low-water, fragrant choice and Coral honeysuckle (Lonicera semperivirens) uses little water and handles heat and cold. Be aware of vine and shrub spread when you place them, especially regarding be buzzing!

Check with your local nursery for more native or xeric bee attractors that thrive in your area. My Resources page lists a few sellers of xeric plants, or try this National Garden Bureau member listing.

Help Plants Beat the Summer Heat

It’s hot here. I thought I would never say that. And sure, it’s not as hot as Phoenix, but even mountain communities in the Southwest can warm up in summer months. When the temperatures hit the 90s, the humidity stays below 25 percent, and the winds never subside, vegetables and ornamental plants get stressed.

columbine northeastern exposure

In May, this columbine was blooming and healthy! It’s a little stressed now. Columbines grow naturally under the shade of trees, and they need deep water as temperatures rise into the 70s and higher. We mulched around the plant and put it in a northeast-facing location to help it survive summer.

Often, our first reaction is to throw more water on a plant. Sometimes, that’s what they need. Wind, sun and heat dry plants more quickly. Native xeric plants are adapted to take some of the parching sun and wind, and sometimes a gardener can overwater a plant. Here are a few tips to keep xeric plants cool, healthy and happy during the heat of summer:

  • Start with the right plant for the right spot. That means not only a native selection, but choosing sun vs. shade or the right drainage. Most xeric plants can take plenty of sun, but some need partial shade. And most don’t take kindly to wet feet, or roots that fail to dry between watering. Wet feet can happen with overwatering or if you place lavender in poorly draining soil at the bottom of a hill, or hide it under a bush that grows quickly and shades it within a year. You also can plan ahead to take advantage of shade. It’s getting too hot for my lettuce, but we’ll plant some more north of the fence holding the pole beans as soon as they get a little taller.
garden plan for shade

The sun is so bright, it’s reflecting off the spot where we hope to get some shade for lettuce and spinach. You can see the bean seedlings on the other side of the foreground fence shadow.

  • Follow the sun. When you plant in spring, the sun and shade patterns are different than they will be in mid-July and August. So keep in mind the sun’s direction and any plants or structures that might help shade a plant late in the day, when the sun’s rays are their hottest. Remember that deciduous trees might be nearly bare when you plant, but loaded by mid-June.
  • When helping a new plant get established, the typical care instructions might not apply. The plant goes into a sort of shock, much like when you recover from illness or injury. All plants need a little more water, as well as extra sun and wind protection until established. We’ve often used portable lawn chairs to provide filtered shade over new plantings in the afternoon. Old sheets or landscape fabric also work.
  • Use containers. If you have a plant that’s more susceptible to heat stress, place it in a container. You can move it around throughout the summer based on the sun’s path. Of course, if you really love the plant and have lots of time on your hands (and wheels under a larger container), you can move it around during the day, giving it morning sun and afternoon shade.

    tomato in container

    The tomato seedlings I planted in containers are doing better than many in the ground. The patio and house warmed them up during cool nights, but provide shade now on hot afternoons.

  • Water in the morning. It’s tough to find time before work, but watering early in the day loads your plant up, preparing it for the heat. And try to keep soil evenly moist. If you have a slow drip system, the irrigation can run while you get ready for work. Cover the drip hose with a nice, thick layer of mulch and the mulch will slow the water’s evaporation and help keep the ground cool. And as I’ve said before, it’s good to keep an eye on tomatoes and other vegetables and to have someone care for them if you leave town. Once the fruit sets, you can’t drown the tomato to make up for a few days of heat and underwatering. They’ll punish you.

Finally, drink some iced tea, flavored with a small bit of fresh mint. Oh, wait, that’s for me…

Perennial or Annual?

Gardeners often face the choice of filling a container or a space in their xeric landscape with either an annual or perennial. And new gardeners might have a hard time knowing whether a plant they spot and love will come back in their garden next year. Let’s take a look at annuals vs. perennials, especially in xeric landscaping.

cosmos and agave in New Mexico garden

These agave are xeric, but apparently so are these cosmos, annuals that just pop up from old seeds each year, to the point we had to thin them to give the agave room.

First-time gardeners might not get the difference between the plant types. It’s easy to remember if you think about the terms attached to each plant: A perennial lasts three years or more, but an annual is there only for this year, just like the root of the word (annus, Latin for year).

So, how do you know when you want a perennial and when you want an annual? Here are a few scenarios:

For containers, it’s often best to go with annuals. Unless you have plenty of sunny indoor space and a strong back, you’re better off placing annual flowers into most of your containers, just for the season. Of course, succulents can easily live indoors in sunny locations, as can some herbs, bedding plants and houseplants. I love planting just a few containers each year in front of my house, and at our last home, we had one annual bed that we changed out each year, also adding pansies for winter color. It’s a small splurge.

But if you’ve got a huge raised bed to fill, go with bulbs and perennials, or maybe spring-blooming bulbs, overplanted with annual seeds that come up later in summer, after your bulbs are done blooming. Seeds cost less if you’re willing to wait for the plant to grow, then bloom. Having said that, one of the benefits of buying annual plants is instant gratification!

xeric annuals and perennials

I think I just showed the combination of yarrow and gaillardia, but I can’t get over how great the perennial and annual look together.

Here are some of my favorite low-water annuals, many of which are wildflowers that will reseed:

  • California poppy
  • Cosmos
  • Desert marigold
  • Portulaca (Moss rose)

For most xeric gardens, however, you can’t beat a hardy, low-water perennial that blooms year after year. All you usually have to do is cut back dead branches or flower stems and wait. A few cautions with perennials: Some spread, even though they’re xeric plants. And sometimes, you have to cut them back drastically to keep your garden under control and prevent one perennial from competing too much with others, such as shading another plant that needs six hours of sun a day.

gray santolina and cherry sage

This gray santolina. along with a few neighboring perennials, is blocking sun to the red sage next to it. I love both plants, so we might move the sage to a sunnier location.

Here are a few of my favorite low-water perennials:

  • Coreopsis
  • Echinacea, or coneflower
  • Gaura
  • Lavender
  • Penstemon
  • Sedum
  • Santolina
  • Sage – any perennial salvia and sage
  • Yarrow

How do you tell an annual from a perennial when making a purchase? If your nursery doesn’t have the plants sorted by annuals vs. perennials, you can always ask. Another clue is that many annuals are sold in six-packs or similar packaging for several smaller plants. Perennials tend to come in pint size, gallon pots and up. But that’s not always the case. And a particular flower might be available as both, so check the tag or ask nursery staff. An example is the salvia, which comes as several great perennials. But there is a red salvia that only works as an annual, at least in my zone.

larkspur annual

Pink and purple larkspur, the annual version of Delphinium. These reseed under our red bud each year with no effort on our part.

That takes me to my final point: One gardener’s perennial might be another gardener’s annual. In other words, zone and general conditions can alter a plant’s ability to endure for more than one season. Geraniums are container plants or annuals in the mountains and high desert of New Mexico, but might be perennial in southern California. And just to add to the confusion, hardy geraniums (of the genus Geranium), are different from Pelargoniums, common geraniums, such as the scented flowers. And gaillardia, or blanket flower, is one of my favorite plants that might be an annual or perennial, depending on the cultivar and conditions. Ours simply reseed throughout the garden year after year.

I added several other photos of annuals and perennials mentioned in this post to the Photos page.

Easy Rain Barrel Project: Collecting Rain from Shed Roof

For two years, I’ve watched rain pour off the roof of an old shed in our orchard and hated to see it go to waste. And our vegetable garden is only about 20 yards from the shed, so it just made sense to capture some of the water. This weekend, as storms approached, we got around to adding rain gutters to the back of the shed to catch some of the precious rain in a barrel.

old shed in New Mexico

I love this old shed. We use it for storage, but it had no rain gutters for all of the runoff.

First of all, this was a relatively easy and inexpensive project. We already had the barrel, which cost about $80, in the shed. One of the drawbacks of the barrel type is that it tends to leak along its outside seams. Tim caulked and duct taped it for safe measure. The gutter, outlet and brackets came to about another $60. We had old hoses to reuse.

shed rain barrel project

The metal gutter Tim bought matches the barrel and the shed, so it doesn’t affect the character of the shed much. We attached it to the joist beams along the back, just under the roof. See how close all that wasted water is to the garden?

Tim picked up two pieces of metal gutter, which covered most of the 24-foot roof, some slip joints to connect pieces, two end pieces and the outlet. The most time-consuming part of the project was bending the metal gutter pieces to fit together. Then we caulked them.

We used metal brackets to connect the gutter to joists on the shed. Some of the joists were beginning to rot at the top, so we connected the brackets to the strongest ones and then reinforced the gutter with screws in other spots.

attaching metal gutter to shed

Metal brackets secure the gutter on both sides every 18 inches or so.

We sat the barrel on a found, fairly flat rock for some ground clearance around the lower faucet control and plugged the other hole with PVC pipe (this barrel also had a busted faucet). I’ll only be needing the hose connection. The garden is downhill from the barrel, which makes the hose flow more easily. And we stacked a few rocks around the sides of the barrel to help with drainage and mud control from overflow.

Because the ground was so high in relation to the back of the shed, we haven’t bothered yet with a downspout; the outlet is only a few feet from the top of the barrel. We figured that if it missed, we could repurpose some old gutter we cut off the house when fitting barrels on it. But we found out that wasn’t necessary! When the rain came, it flowed right into the barrel and filled it up.

rain barrel filled

The barrel installed and filled to the brim after nearly an inch of rain later that day!

I realize this barrel won’t hold enough to water my garden all of the time, but it helps. And if it works well, we might chain another barrel to it next year. I don’t worry too much about using water from the metal roof on my vegetables. First, I water the soil, not the plant’s leaves. Second, there has been plenty of research done on safety of rain barrel water for edibles. We don’t have pollution where I live, and I’m using well water if I don’t use rain water, so it’s not like I’m choosing water from a roof over city tap water. I make sure I rinse all harvested food.

This was a fun, easy and rewarding project. With the rain we received, I haven’t had to use the stored water yet, but I’m sure I will need it by the end of the week!