Category Archives: Native plants

Roses in the Low-Water Garden

Roses are old-fashioned favorites that often remind gardeners of their mothers or grandmothers or of lush gardens in the South, where both water and sun were readily available from nature. But I see fewer roses in gardens now, partly because they’re associated with lots of patience and care, and partly because some of the hybrid roses need more water than a low-water garden can – and should – provide. It’s also strange to picture a tall, hybrid tea rose in the middle of a xeric landscape, although a good landscape designer can always work a small rose garden into your plan if that’s what you desire.

floribunda rose in low-water garden

Friends brought us this floribunda as a housewarming gift and it fits nicely in our xeric rose garden. We watered it the first year, but only a little this spring.

Many shrub-size roses fit in nicely with the look and purpose of a low-water garden. So you can have the scent and many other features of roses, as long as you’re willing to choose the right type of rose. Here are a few to consider:

Species roses. A species rose is basically a wild rose. Several species roses have grown to adapt to drought and other extreme conditions. I have several in my rose garden area, and I know one of them is a Wood’s rose (Rosa Woodsii). It can grow to at least 10 feet and has beautiful pink flowers, followed by hips all fall and winter, which the birds love. Another is a shorter, shrub-style rose that I believe is the Prairie rose (Rosa blanda), with pink flowers that fade to white in the center. The other has deep red flowers. Both have in common large, plentiful thorns and bunches of two-inch flowers in late spring.

woods rose bloom

Close-up of a Wood’s rose bloom. They’re small, but abundant on the plant’s long canes.

rosa blanda species rose

The wild Rosa blanda is only about 18 inches tall.

Native roses. In New Mexico and other Southwestern states, the Arizona Rosewood (Vauquelina californica), which resembles an evergreen oleander in its foliage and shape, or the Apache Plume (Fallugia paradoxica) both have delicate white flowers that resemble roses. The native plants have adapted to the Southwest and attract bees.

apache plume

This Apache plume (with the Wood’s rose in left background) got too dense and full. They are so easy to care for and forgiving when pruned.

Shrubs and groundcovers. Some hybrid roses have been adapted to grow as smaller shrubs and groundcovers. They’ll use less water and take up less space in the landscape. In general, they need less care than other rose types, but have long bloom periods.

Flower Carpet red

Flower Carpet Red from Tesselaar is a spreading groundcover rose that reaches no more than 32 inches high. It’s drought tolerant once established and hardy down to zone 5. Image courtesy of Tesselaar.

In fact, species, native and certain shrub or groundcover roses are all typically easier to care for and relatively disease free. Just give them mostly sun and prune according to recommendations once in early spring. You don’t have to continuously dead-head blooms, and they have adapted to lower water and the changing conditions of high deserts and mountains, so having them in your garden is more water wise. But there are a few disadvantages. The species roses are wild, which means they can sprout new canes or offshoots. The yellow one in our garden has gotten too thick and large, and will need serious pruning next spring; it’s sort of taken over the area and is shading some other plants too much.

species roses

Our rosa blanda, red species rose and taller yellow species rose to the right. It blooms earlier than the others, so we have color from early May through September.

Another disadvantage is that if you love to cut long rose stems to use the blooms in flower arrangements, you won’t enjoy these varieties as much as hybrid tea roses; their stems are typically shorter. However, if you want to walk or sit next to them in your garden and stop to smell them, or simply enjoy the beauty of the plant and blooms, you can have your roses and save water too!

Xeric Gardening Strategy: Saving Arid-Adopted Native Seeds

Across the nation and world, efforts are underway to save native seeds. For a number of reasons, seed banks or vaults have cropped up around the globe, some located underground, to store a variety of crop seeds. Some banks store seeds in the event of an apocalyptic event, even a natural one, that wipes out vegetation. Other reasons are simply to preserve the biodiversity of crops so they can continue to adapt to changing climate and conditions and to maintain the integrity of ancient, heirloom varieties during an age of hybridization and genetic modification.

There are more than 1,000 seed banks around the world, some private and some public. The U.S. government operates one in Fort Collins, Colo. In this and most seed storage facilities, the seeds are kept in cold storage, where they can survive for decades.

seeds in storage bank

Seeds in cold storage room at Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson.

In various seed banks are hundreds of thousands of plant species, some of which already face endangered status. Plants’ adaptation to various climates and conditions is important. For example, native plants I mention in my posts that have adapted to low water or drought probably wouldn’t survive in a tropical rainforest. On the other hand, only plants adapted to xeric conditions thrive during drought.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of visiting the Native Seeds/SEARCH seed conservation site in Tucson, Ariz. The program was started in 1983 as a way to help improve food security for the Tohono O’odham Nation, and has grown into an outstanding program that is helping conserve the biodiversity of arid native Southwestern crops.

ancient Native American corn

Ancient Native American corn grown in demonstration area at Native Seeds/SEARCH.

I got to see inside a preservation area, hear about the program and see evidence of some of the rare or endangered plants that Native Seeds has helped preserve. This past week, Native Seeds announced an initiative that allows supporters to “Adopt a Crop,” which helps pay to get seeds planted back in the ground. The program operates a conservation farm in Patagonia, Ariz., near the Arizona/Mexico border and sells many of the native seeds from their Tucson site and online. Many seed banks also provide education programs on how gardeners and farmers can harvest and preserve their own seeds.

native seeds

Buying and planting native, heirloom seeds supports preservation efforts.

Favorite Low-water Plant: Desert Zinnia

Although it’s a member of the zinnia family, the desert zinnia (Zinnia grandiflora) is remarkably different from the large annual flower we typically think of when we hear of a zinnia. Actually a member of the aster (Asteracaea) family, this tiny perennial is a delicate xeric groundcover or low shrub native to New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.

desert zinnia flower

The desert zinnia has a big flower on needle-like leaves. I love how the flower sort of reflects the sun it loves.

Also called prairie zinnia or Rocky Mountain zinnia, the plant blooms in summer and its tiny, needle-like foliage dies back in the frost of winter, resembling dormant grass. But have no fear! The plant is there, and comes back, even spreading. I just brush up the dormant leaves as part of the spring garden clean-up, and new plants already are appearing underneath. You could also gently rake up the spent foliage in larger areas. Clearing off the old leaves exposes the new plants to more sun, which they love.

zinnia grandiflora shadow

This tiny desert zinnia is casting a morning shadow on the rock it grows from.

But although desert zinnia loves sun, it doesn’t love water. That’s right – once established, desert zinnia needs no water at all. Too much water just introduces weeds into the mix, which can be hard to pull from between the delicate foliage. If you have a period of no rain, you can give desert zinnia some water to ensure blooming. The flowers also do fine in partial shade.

desert zinnia in rocks

Desert zinnia will spread low across the ground or cascade down rocks. This weekend starts monsoon season, and I expect more blooms to appear.

Typically, the desert zinnia is about 4 inches high and spreads to nearly 15 inches wide. Each flower can reach nearly an inch in diameter, with an orange cone (Golden Eye) surrounded by three to six yellow petals. It should thrive in zones 5 through 8. It’s a great plant for erosion control and for rock gardens. I love how it cascades over and through our rock wall.

Got Bees? Join the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge

The number of honey bees and other pollinating insects is declining around the United States. Colony collapse disorder and other diseases, along with increased pesticide, use are likely culprits. What’s more, monarch butterfly populations have been declining by the millions!

butterflies on ivy blooms

We were stuck with ivy around all of our walls at our last home. We pulled out any that was rooted on our side of the fence. It’s not xeric and it is invasive, but butterflies flocked to the blooms.

On May 19, President Obama announced steps aimed at improving the health of pollinating insects. And in response, the National Pollinator Garden Network issued the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. According to the network, pollinators help generate one out of three bites of food we eat each year. Planting plenty of trees and flowers that attract bees, butterflies, birds and bats can help improve pollinator health and populations.

The challenge calls on homeowners, businesses and communities to create and sustain gardens that attract pollinators. Let me just say that this is another concern I have about extreme xeriscaping, or a trend I see of replacing every bit of plant and lawn in a landscape with gravel. New Mexico, for one, is barren enough. And there are plenty of xeric plants that attract birds, bees and other insects and provide some color in the landscape.

maximilian sunflower

Maximilian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) is a native, low-water prairie flower that bees love. I love its late-season blooms.

According to the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a pollinator garden should:

  • Include plants that provide nectar and pollen sources.
  • Provide water for pollinators.
  • Be in a sunny location with some wind breaks.
  • Have large areas of pollinator-attracting plants that are native and noninvasive.
  • Include plants that bloom throughout the season.
  • If possible, eliminate pesticide use, and at least minimize pesticides.

If your garden already meets the criteria, I encourage you to go to the challenge’s website and add your garden to the map.

And here are a few tips for meeting the challenge, or at least for making sure you have plenty of bees, butterflies and other pollinators in your garden:

  • Of course, including native, low-water plants is critical. Look for symbols in product catalogs or lists of xeric pollinators. And remember bees love herbs too. They buzz all around our thyme when it flowers, and there are roses and other flowering ornamentals pollinators love that need nothing but rainwater once established.
woods rose attracting bees

This woods rose had bees all over it the other morning. It’s a native, wild rose that’s xeric.

  • Some people avoid plants that attract bees because of possible stings, especially with children around. I have a few plants that attract seemingly hundreds, and one we walk past constantly. But if bees bother you, just place your pollinator plants where you can see them, but in a spot you seldom sit or walk by, and not where the kids’ soccer ball always ends up when they play in the back yard.
  • Providing water can be tough. Our birdbath dries up in a day or two, and I hate to refill it, knowing it will evaporate. But I can use rain water. The birds also gather on the top of our rain barrels, where the water sometimes pools. Butterflies need only a few drops in a tiny rock or plate.
  • Some native plants bloom continuously with no effort on your part. Look for those! An example is catmint (Nepeta). And create a dense grouping with a mix of colors and bloom times to attract pollinators, especially if you have limited space. A few annuals can provide blooms when perennials fade. We have cosmos that pop up late in summer and birds balance on the thin stalks, gathering seeds.
yarrow and gallardia

Moonshine yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is a perfect pollinator. It blooms all season and has a flat surface for easy landing! Bees also love the annual blanket flower (Gallardia)

  • One of the great benefits of inviting pollinators with flowering plants is that they should make a side trip to your edibles. Don’t be afraid to plant some flowers near vegetables, as long as they don’t compete for sun and water or hide weeds.
  • If your roses or other plants get aphids, wash the tiny bugs off with a fine spray of water in the morning before turning to a pesticide; it’s just not necessary. Spray again in a few days if more return. And try to stick with pesticides on your edibles that are least harmful to honeybees, such as insecticidal soap.

Another Reason to Plant Natives: No Soil Amendment Needed

Where I live in New Mexico, the soil is more alkaline than acidic. That means I might as well forget ever trying to grow blueberries, but asparagus is a great choice. We even found some old or wild stalks along our ditch bank last year.

And a soil’s pH balance is just one consideration. Soil texture and drainage are especially important to a plant’s success in a vegetable, herb or ornamental garden. If we didn’t add some organic matter to our vegetable garden each year, the soil would compact from foot traffic and lose nutrients from its work feeding plants. So each year, we work the soil with mushroom compost to keep it rich, water absorbent and well draining.

amended soil for vegetables and herbs

This is part of our ornamental garden, amended with organic matter to grow edibles this year.

Native plants

I couldn’t – and wouldn’t – rework my ornamental garden soil each year. For one, it would be nuts to dig up perennial plants! So gardeners often are advised to add a little bit of compost to the hole dug for a new tree, bush or flowering plant. The compost enriches the soil around the roots, and as long as you water as suggested in the first year or so of more rapid growth and root set, the plant should thrive. But what happens as the plant grows beyond your amendment, especially if you put in a rapidly growing shrub or tree? Eventually, the roots work their way into the soil you haven’t amended. If the soil is so poor or compacted that the roots can’t break through or thrive, the plant could be stressed at the least.

If you choose a native plant, especially for a xeric garden, it’s likely that you won’t have to amend the soil at all. A plant that is adapted to your area’s typical soil makeup will do better if you just loosen the soil around it, usually to an area at least three times larger than the root ball. No need to add anything.

chocolate flower in New Mexico rock garden

The chocolate flower (Berlandiera lyrata) is a native to our region. It crops up from seed around our garden and lawn. And yes, the blooms smell like chocolate! That’s a rosemary in the right foreground.

If plant instructions, or one article or expert tell you to add to the soil, it helps to verify the information with another source. That’s especially true if installing a native plant in your xeric garden. And it’s even truer depending on the first source of advice. There are plenty of reputable sources, and then there are myths, many of which can be perpetuated by those who stand to profit.

lavender in rocky soil

We placed several lavender plants in one of our beds, and maybe should have tested the soil first. Lavender is native to the Mediterranean, where the soil is rocky and alkaline. So it grows well here, but this soil had compacted more than we realized.That and some some cool, wet weather gave our plants a rocky start! Lesson learned.

When amending

It’s also good to check local sources when amending soil. For example, you might hear that adding sand improves drainage, but if you add too little sand, or add sand to clay soil, you can make matters worse, and your soil sets up like concrete. Oh, those poor plant roots…

Most organic matter is good for soil, but plenty of myths abound there as well. For example, manure needs to cook down or compost with brown materials before throwing it on your vegetables. Wood ash is often touted as an amendment, but not in New Mexico, where the soil already is alkaline. Wood ashes also are high in salt. I talked about Epsom salts in a previous post. The bottom line? Get local advice from a few good sources, and if you go with native xeric selections, you probably won’t have to amend the soil unless you have a severely compacted or poorly draining area.

 

Another Reason to Weed Your Garden: Water Savings

If you’re like me, you hate the sight of weeds in your ornamental or vegetable garden, and you have permanently discolored cuticles from April through September.

Weeds are more than unsightly, however. Ask any farmer, who knows that weeds can reduce their crop yields by at least 50 percent by simply robbing crops of water. Although weeds can seemingly grow out of rocks, parched dirt or sand, they still compete with surrounding plants for water. Weeds also host bugs and diseases and can block sun or air circulation to important plants. For example, if a tall weed shades your bell pepper plant, the plant is less able to compete for water and nutrients and less likely to produce as many peppers. Some weeds even introduce chemicals that are toxic to certain plants, animals and people.

Weed growing in middle of sage

This culinary sage has a weed growing up through the middle of it. The weed’s tap root likely steals rain water from the sage.

Are you hating weeds as much as I do yet? There are those who tout their benefits. A few weeds provide nectar for bees or help supply organic matter to soil. And as I’ve mentioned before, there is a fine line between weeds and wildflowers. Our widespread alyssum invasion each spring adds early color and brings hundreds of bees to our land.

Further, several weeds are edible. Examples that come to mind are dandelions and purslane. But I really prefer carrots and cucumbers.

According to Robert Parker, Ph.D., of Washington State University’s Cooperative Extension Center, it’s more important to control weeds during drought than during typical years. And some common weeds consume more water than typical crops. An example is Russian thistle, which Parker said removed nearly 18 gallons of water per plant while competing with a spring wheat crop. The thistle is just one of the weeds we are trying to attack here on our property and a priority throughout Lincoln County, N.M.

thistle weed

This thistle (to the upper left of Buster) is growing in our ditch, along with a horehound and numerous other weeds. I need to grub it before it goes to seed.

Parker says that crops are most affected by weeds during early growth. So home gardeners are best served by prepping their gardens carefully to start out with a clean slate and to handpick weeds until their backs give out. Seriously, it’s always best to keep weeds under control without chemicals if possible. That’s especially true during a drought, because most herbicides require water to work effectively.

In fact, weeds are the ultimate native plant! They adapt to drought by developing ways to retain moisture in their tap roots or waxy layers on leaves. When drought affects grass growth on rangelands, more weeds move in and establish squatters’ rights. That’s what seems to have happened to us. We now have a proliferation of several weeds, and especially horehound (Marrubium vulgare).  Horehound grows best in dry soil, and I’ve seen it growing in the worst places possible.

horehound

Horehound, which is considered a good plant or an awful weed.

From what I can tell, horehound spreads by seed, but also has runner-type roots and maybe spreads just by magic. It’s in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. Need I say more about its invasive qualities? And although a noxious weed in some areas, horehound also is considered one of those “good” weeds, having both medicinal properties and use as an edible for tea or candy. But I point to the “vulgare” portion of its name. If it continues to take over our grass, I might give in and learn how to make the vulgar weed into candy, which apparently tastes like licorice.

horehound spreading

Horehound mowed down to prevent seeding, like that will help. It is taking over this grassy area.

Most likely, we are going to require herbicide at some point. By the way, the horehound noxious weed spread began when it was introduced to ornamental gardens. I’m all for growing edibles, but why not mint in a container?

Low-water Plants that Hummingbirds Love

As soon as hummingbirds start buzzing around the garden, many locals put out their feeders. I have tried one this year, only because I had few plants blooming when the hummers arrived. I prefer to feed the hummingbirds with natural plants because of time, mess and the fact that native plants seem healthier for the birds and way more fun for us!

hummingbird on agastache

Hummingbird on agastache in our garden in 2013. Photo by David Higgins.

There are many rules about hummingbird food safety, and I worry I will forget, be gone, etc. But there are so many plants hummingbirds love that we already have in our garden or can add to attract more birds. We especially love to watch the male hummers’ courtship dives from our back patio, and I am certain that a few male birds have claimed our rock garden, or some portion of it, as their territory each summer.

To naturally attract hummingbirds and enjoy the same plants they use as nourishment, choose plants with brightly colored and tubular flowers. Hummingbirds are attracted by color, not scent. Red is their favorite, but purple, yellow, orange and pink also bring them to plants. And in addition to tubular flowers, try plants with blooms that nod, or bend downward slightly. Of course, continuous blooming also helps.

Here are a few xeric hummingbird favorites:

Agastache (Agastache cana). This xeric rare wildflower has bright pink flowers on upright stems all summer, and some, such as Texas hummingbird mint, are aromatic as a bonus for humans. There are other many variations of agastache, also called hyssop, in varying purples, oranges, pinks and reds, that attract hummingbirds with their slender, tubular flowers.

agastache cana

Agasatache cana Sinning, also called Sunset Sonora Hyssop is a compact Agastache cana from Plant Select. Image is by Diana Reavis and from Plant Select.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia). Butterflies share this purple-flowered favorite with hummingbirds. The spiked flowers appear at the end of the branches and can be from eight to more than 12 inches long.

Autumn or cherry sage (Salvia gregii). The salvia has bright pink, raspberry-colored flowers on a low bush all summer long. The low- to medium- water plant can grow in nearly any soil.

salvia gregii

Two cherry or autumn sages in a rock garden, just coming into bloom. Hummingbirds love the bright pink flowers.

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis). This is the tree I miss the most since moving to a colder zone, although I might try it here soon. The beautiful xeric tree can be trained to grow wild and bushy or more tree-like. But its charm to hummingbirds and humans is the large tubular flowers that come in light and dark pink colors.

desert willow flowers

Hummingbirds love the orchid-like flowers of the xeric Desert willow, or Chilopsis. Image by R.A. Howard © Smithsonian Institution, Richard A. Howard Photograph Collection.

Other hummingbird favorites that might grow in the mountains, high deserts and xeric landscape that attract hummingbirds are some types of columbine, some bulbs, such as Crocosmia, and every variety of penstemon. And I imagine you can’t go wrong with a plant I have never tried, but is aptly named “Hummingbird Plant” (Zauschneria Californica), a medium-water, full-sun plant that has scarlet-orange flowers. It will require extra watering for a year or two until established, but grows to more than two feet in height.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Ornamental Grass

When xeriscaping, you can add plenty of interest with varied textures and heights by including a few ornamental grasses in your landscape. We’re always tempted to think first about flower color, but less about interesting foliage. Placing a few ornamental grasses in a xeric landscape or container can add nearly as much impact as a pop of purple with less watering and maintenance.

Choose an ornamental grass that is native to your area, or a similar climate or condition, in place of a shrub or perennial flower. One of my favorite features of grasses is that they can grow tall and move in the wind. In containers, they often add height or contrast to draping and flowering annuals. Warm-season grasses seed out and provide winter interest, even if the foliage browns. They need shearing once a year in spring, a little water to jumpstart growth, and they’re off. If you choose one that’s not native to your area, such as the big-box store selection I found for my containers, make sure it can at least survive with less water or other conditions that differ. You might not get flowers or as much growth, but the grass will survive at least for the summer.

rush grass in container

I like to place ornamental grasses in container arrangements to add height and texture. This juncus is all I need to add interest to a petunia mix and continuity between the pots.

Another benefit of ornamental grasses is that they can serve practical purposes in a garden. Use them for erosion control by placing a small grouping at the bottom of a slope or terrace – and go for a medium-water selection such as Feather reed grass “Karl Foerster” (Calamagrostis arundinacea) here, since the rain or irrigation run-off from above supplies the extra water the plant requires.

feather reed grass

Karl Foerster feather reed grass that was planted a few weeks ago in our rock garden . It already looks great, but will add feathery blooms in summer. It should survive our winter (zones 5 and 6).

Other great locations for grasses are along steps, pathways or corners, in front of dark walls or fences, and anywhere they will catch sunlight and breezes.

Sedges, rushes and some hardy bamboos also fall into the ornamental grass category when landscaping. Just be sure to check the zone, native location of the plant, and especially the sun and water requirements before planting the grass. Some actually do better in marshes – not a good choice for xeriscaping!

Easy care

Grasses are among the easiest xeric plants you can have in your garden. They’re mostly free of pests and diseases. And although I love ornamental grasses, I have seen some gardens with only grasses and gravel. I think you need one or two other xeric plants to break up the look, but I’m not a professional landscaper. To my eye, just gravel and grass in a garden screams “dry!” It’ so easy to complement a low-water grass with a salvia, penstemon or gayfeather.

Some cool-season grasses bolt in the heat, but trimming off their seedheads can rejuvenate the plant, much like clipping off flowers of herbs to force growth back into leaves. Most ornamental grasses are warm-season selections, best planted in the spring. They need a little more water, up to once a week for xeric choices, for the first month or two. After that, water deeply only every few weeks or once a month in the hottest summer weeks. Some will spread, and it’s best to try to divide or dig up unwanted volunteers before they clump too tightly. Other than that, just cut back as directed. Allowing several grasses to overseed in winter could add to your fire hazard, so keep that in mind if you have them near your home or a commercial building.

big bluestem grass before strawbale wall

Newly constructed strawbale wall with xeric plantings. The big bluestem grass on the right foreground got much taller and flowered (see below).

A few xeric grasses

Silky threadgrass (Stipa tennuifolia). This hardy grass grows in all types of soil, uses little water, and loves full sun. That’s a bonus, since the silky seedheads reflect sunlight as they sway in the breeze. One caution for silky threadgrass is its high potential to reseed. That’s a plus in an untamed garden, but not in a more formal xeric landscape.

Big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii).  This is one of our personal favorites. It can reach heights of four to five feet in summer, when it also rewards you with purplish flower spikes that emerge between the beautiful greenish-blue leaves. Some selections require more water than others, so check with the nursery or on the tag for details. Some are highly drought tolerant and thrive down to zone 4.

big bluestem flower heads

The flower stalks of big bluestem grass are purplish, contrasting well with the greenish-blue leaves.

Dwarf fountain grass (Pennisteum alopecuroides). Purple fountain grass (P. setaceum) is a particular favorite of these dwarf varieties, but only makes it as an annual in our zones (5 through 7). Others fare better, although an unusually cold winter could kill them. Most have bright green foliage with bottlebrush flowers. Examples are “Hamelin,” a compact, mounding variety with ivory and gold flowers and “Moudry,” which has brownish-black flowers. One caution: You might have to protect dwarf fountain grasses from rabbits if they visit your xeric garden.

Favorite Xeric Plant: Penstemon

The hummingbirds are swooping around the garden, and soon they will enjoy feeding off several water-wise Penstemon species. The penstemon, also called beardtongue, is a versatile low-water native plant in New Mexico and the Southwest.

In fact, penstemon does best with no added water at all. And the plants can thrive in full sun or light shade. Penstemon comes in a variety of sizes, shapes and bloom colors. But they have in common a slender trumpet-shaped flower that hummingbirds love.

purple penstemon

Hummingbirds love penstemon flowers, but can you also spot the bees in this photo?

Caring for penstemon

Penstemons usually prefer somewhat sandy or clay soil, and don’t need added compost. Most species of penstemon are perennial in our zone (6 to 7), but some are annuals. They’ll bloom from summer to frost. Species such as Arabesque Red bloom from summer through first frost with deadheading. However, if you leave some blooms on the plant, the seedheads ripen and break, which causes the plants to reseed. We’ve had several volunteers come up in our rock garden. And birds love the seeds!

red penstemon AAS regional winner

Arabesque Red was the regional winner (including the Mountain and Southwest regions) fof the All-America Selections in 2014. Photo courtesy of the National Garden Bureau, Inc.

The only way to really harm penstemon is to overwater or overnourish this easy-care plant. Use fine gravel for mulch. Occasionally, aphids gather on the stems, but you can use a fine mist of water to spray them off in the morning and check a few days later.

Penstemon can work well in containers, especially if you select a lower-growing variety. Select low-water companion plants, so that the penstemon does not receive too much water. If it does, it can become leggy. You might find that a penstemon in a clay pot needs occasional watering compared with one in your landscape.

In a xeric landscape

Penstemons are great plants for xeric landscapes. Low growers such as Desert beardtongue (P. pseudospectabilis) spread to about 15 inches wide and 30 inches high, with purple-maroon flowers on stalks above the blue-green foliage. The pineleaf penstemon (P. pinifolius) is a native wildflower with tiny needle-like leaves and bright orange-scarlet flowers. I love watching the hummingbirds maneuver effortlessly into the flowers.

pineleaf penstemon

Our pineleaf penstemon hasn’t flowered yet, but it’s still attractive, with the pine-like foliage and its low spreading nature.

A taller, lankier type such as Rocky Mountain beardtongue (P. strictus) looks gorgeous against a fence, wall or tall rock. Its purple flowers contrast nicely with yellow or white bloomers in the foreground. The bushier pineleaf or Desert beardtongues are perfect to tuck in a corner, or along a step or walkway.

desert beardtongue penstemon

The Desert Beardtongue is a 2015 Plant Select winner. Photo by Bill Adams and courtesy of Plant Select.

No matter which variety of penstemon you choose, you’ll be rewarded by hummingbird guests and the beautiful blooms that appear with very little care on your part!

Plan a Xeric Turf Lawn

Because the drought in California is so severe and restrictions attempted earlier this year did not have much effect, regulators adopted unprecedented restrictions at the urging of Governor Jerry Brown that include encouraging homeowners to let their lawns die. A survey of the state’s local water departments showed that water use fell less than 4 percent in March of this year compared with March 2013; total water use has gone down only about 9 percent since summer 2014. The new regulations require cities to cut use by up to 36 percent.

What remains to be seen is how cities will enforce the laws, or help homeowners do a better job of conserving water.

all-gravel lawn

This is the choice of most homeowners who xeriscape, and now the only choice in drought-stricken California. Note the bermuda grass creeping back through the gravel.

Some of the crisis could have been avoided with xeriscaping years ago. Californians and any of us in arid Southwestern climates do not have to  give up on turf lawns completely, at least if we act before a crisis of California proportion hits. You can responsibly incorporate some turf into your xeric landscape rather than going all gravel. Let me first explain the benefits of keeping a limited amount of turf.

  • As I’ve mentioned before, xeriscaping includes zones, and the zone closest to your home is called the mini-oasis. This is where you should plant turf and your highest water users, keeping “highest water users” relative in scope and quantity. One reason is that you can water some of the plants in this area with rainfall runoff from the roofline and downspouts. And when in a drought, you should catch as much rain as possible.
  • The other reason to have some planting and green around your home is to help keep your house cool in summer. This might not be as important if you live in the mountains (although if you do, I bet you are like us, and rely on cross-breezes and cool evenings instead of air conditioning!). If you switch to all gravel instead of some grass or native plants, your house will become hotter, and eventually you’ll use more energy to cool your home. If you have evaporative cooling, guess what? You’ll use more water, too.
  • Any trees planted near the house that help shade it in summer will likely die if you cover their roots with plastic and rocks.

I’m not saying you should sod a huge lawn or use any grass you like, however. Many people in Albuquerque, where average rainfall is 12 inches a year, have planted lawns made up of a Kentucky Bluegrass mix. Those lawns need about 40 inches of rain a year, and I don’t have to tell you that Kentucky is hardly a desert…

So, what’s the ideal situation? Plant a small area of native, low-water grass near your home (especially on the south or west sides) or around the base of the tree that shades your house. Native grasses have adapted to live in their environment, and should thrive in your climate with little to no supplemental watering. Here are a few examples of sod-forming grasses:

  • Blue grama (Boutleoua gracilis). Blue grama is best known for its seed heads, which form in middle to late summer, assuming you stop mowing for a bit and let them go to seed. The low-water, warm-season grass has fine green blades and loves hot weather. It will winter over in cold climates as well.

    Dried grama grass seed heads

    We mowed around this clump of blue grama for weeks last summer and fall to let it go to seed and hopefully spread. This is how it looks in early spring.

  • Buffalograss (Buchloe dactyloides). Buffalograss is a native prairie grass that establishes quickly from seed or starter plugs. It won’t work as well under a tree or the shade of a house as some natives because it prefers full sun. But the warm-season grass requires little mowing and only two inches of water a month, even in the hot summer.
  • Western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smitthi). This cool-season grass works in most soil types and uses little water. It has bluish leaves and spreads by rhizomes, so be careful where you plant it. Also, the grass is native to high elevations.
winter wheatgrass

Winter wheatgrass in a New Mexico horse pasture.

You also can mix buffalograss and blue grama for a native lawn that fills in quickly and densely.

blue grama grass in spring

This is some blue grama grass near the clump that went to seed. It’s greening up nicely in early May with only rain water and some fertilizer from deer.

Avoid planting turf on a slope, and keep your small lawn area away from sidewalks or curbs, so that when rain or the occasional sprinkler water hits the grass, the moisture stays there and doesn’t run off.

Finally, with native grasses, you have to learn to go with the flow, so to speak, and not expect to have the greenest, most dandelion-free lawn on the block. The lawn’s health will vary from one year to the next. We have several acres of various native grasses and even more weeds. Obviously, we do not water any of the lawn/pasture. It’s completely up to Mother Nature. We control the weeds in some areas and mow when it all begins to grow in late spring or early summer.

salinas-pueblo-missions-natural-grasslands

Natural grasslands at Salinas Pueblo Missions, a national park near Mountainair, N.M. I am certain this grass receives no irrigation.