My Adventures in Xeriscape Gardening
A Rocky Start
My experience with the low-water, low-maintenance gardening category called xeriscape began when my basement flooded. I called several plumbers who tried, unsuccessfully, to clear the drain in my basement floor. Finally, the problem was located. The pipes leading from my house to the city sewers were blocked with tree roots. The roots had been growing for a long while and had even broken the pipes in places. The drain doctors gave me the bad news—they would have to dig up and replace those pipes.
They did that, and my plumbing was back to normal. However, my front yard was now a mountain of clay and rocks where the backhoe had been digging. There was very little left of my lawn. I pondered my next steps.
As a relatively recent resident of Colorado, my gardening attempts up to this point had been less than successful. I tried to grow the things I loved that had done so well in Ohio like pansies and roses. I didn’t figure in the rainfall differential. My poor little plants, even though I watered them frequently, seemed to crisp up and die overnight. The lawn, even before the plumbers got to it, was more brown than green. I decided to try something new.
I had taken a book out of the library about something called xeriscaping. It involved planting things that either were native to the Colorado environment or could withstand and even thrive in high-sunlight and low-water conditions. I was inspired to track down some of the plants and put them in the wasteland that used to be my lawn.
Things I Wish I Had Known
Here are some of the things I wish I had known. For instance, the plants in the book were not necessarily available at the garden centers of the big box stores. If you go there and ask about xeriscape plants, they will refer you to someone else who will in turn refer you to someone else. Finally, they will point you in the direction of plants they call, “water wise.” These plants need water to become established but can be watered less often later. I figured out that the same could be said of roses or pansies, which hadn’t worked out for me. What I needed were plants that were drought tolerant, comfortable in full sun, not particular about the richness of the soil and could take the extremely hot and extremely cold temperatures in Colorado. These, I mainly ordered online.
I started with a pre-planned garden of plants from a supplier that specializes in xeriscaping. It came with a little map that showed how far apart to plant each plant. The plants arrived in little four-inch pots and looked so forlorn when I put them in the ground. I couldn’t imagine that they would ever fill out to close the huge gaps of space I had left between them.
Now, three years later, those plants have grown tremendously and now seem to be muscling each other out of the way like hockey players at the goal line. I had no idea that they would ever get so big. Another thing I didn’t know, starting out, was that many of these plants will spread their seeds around and little volunteer plants will pop up. The volunteer plants are not a problem. I dig them up and relocate them to other areas of the garden that seem to need expansion. Or, I dig them up and pot them and give them to friends and neighbors. This makes me madly popular among my lazy, non-gardening friends. They are only too glad to get plants that require little maintenance yet bloom like merry sunshine all summer.
Pruning and Deadheading
When my plants get so big as to be obnoxious, that is, when I can’t get by them to walk down the sidewalk, I cut them back a little. At first, the idea of cutting them back offended me. Here I was, creating this natural garden with native plants and I was considering trimming them? It smacked of the perverse practices of tending manicured lawns or trimming shrubs into the shapes of animals. Actually, some plants do better when pruned a bit, especially in the spring. Artemisia, for example, develops thick, woody stems and gets huge. If you do not prune it, artemisia can die out in parts and to my mind, looks pretty scraggly. Prune it a little and it grows more vigorously.
This leads me to discuss deadheading. Most gardeners do remove the spent blossoms from their plants, not just to make them look tidier, but also to encourage more blooms. Roses, aside from the simple, wild varieties that bloom just once a year, are a good example of plants that seem to produce more roses when the dead ones have been removed. So I do cut the dead blooms off here and there and I am rewarded with more blooms after a while.
The Toughest Environment in the Garden
Window boxes, even in these Colorado drought conditions, are popular in my neighborhood. Look closely and you will notice that most of those window boxes are filled with (horrors!) artificial flowers. The reason is simple. Most blooming plants can’t stand the full sun and low rain situation we have here, especially when the plants are suspended up in the air, causing more evaporation and stress to the roots.
I have experimented with several kinds of plants and have found that portulaca, or moss rose, is the best at surviving and thriving in a window box. These hardy little plants bloom prolifically, come in many colors and withstand the heat well. I do water them every day, much more than I water any of my other plants. They are, after all, in the most challenging environment in the garden.
Advice to Xeriscape Newbies
My advice to a xeriscape newbie is to check out a pre-planned garden for your first attempt. The experts at the xeriscape garden shop will introduce you to plants you may not know, and they seem to have an eye for combining plants that look good together. After you see how these plants do, you will have the option of adding plants to blend in with the others. This is exciting stuff, to design a palette of plants with different sizes, kinds of foliage and colors of blossoms.
If you will be converting an established lawn to xeriscaping, you will have a lot of initial preparation work in removing the sod and turning the soil. Look on the bright side. Perhaps you will, like me, have a plumbing emergency and the hard work will be done with the plumber’s backhoe.
Though the literature about xeriscape plants generally says they require average soil, I like to put each plant into a hole in which I’ve added some high quality garden soil or peat moss. It just gives the plant a good start while it is developing a new root system. I watered the plants fairly often in the beginning, every two or three days or so. Now that my plants are established, they do fine with watering once a week. I water them less frequently when it rains.
Once a year, in the spring, I put fertilizer pellets at the base of each plant. I do add mulch to my garden and in general, this works well to keep the moisture in the soil and to keep the soil from blowing away in wind or washing away in a thunderstorm. I have had some trouble with insects of various kinds that hide under the mulch and come out to eat the plants’ leaves at night.
Since my garden is a natural one, I do not use commercial pesticides to deal with this problem. I use diatomaceous earth, a safe, natural product made of ground up fossilized diatoms, which are little single celled sea creatures. It kills crawling insects by interfering with their exoskeletons. You can buy diatomaceous earth in hardware and home improvement stores. A bag lasts for a long time and you don’t need to worry about children or pets being harmed by it, unless, of course, you have insects as pets.
Recommended Plants for Xeriscape Gardening
Here are some of the plants I have in my garden. They are all perennials, meaning they will live and thrive year after year. I rarely lose one of these hardy plants to the harsh winter cold.
- Sedum: There are so many varieties of sedum, I often ponder putting together a garden that features just this genus of flowering plants. Some sit upright like little bushes and others spread out flat along the ground. All have some type of bloom. They are succulents, so they have chubby, sometimes waxy leaves in which they store water. Some varieties, such as dragon’s blood sedum, have purple rather than green or gray foliage and stems. Very hardy and rewarding.
- Perovskia: Beautiful is the word for these. My perovskia (Russian sage) plant is huge, full of light purple blossoms and humming with honeybees. The flowers have a nice fragrance. The branches of perovskia are both airy and bushy. It makes a lovely backdrop to the darker purple Echinacea flowers growing nearby.
- Echinacea: Yes, this is the same plant that you will find in commercially available teas and health food supplements. It has dark green leaves and purple daisy flowers. It is also known as the coneflower. This plant is another favorite of the bees. Echinacea reseeds itself readily, so you will have many little plants to share with friends.
- Yarrow: I grow the yellow version of this plant, though there are several varieties in the pink range. My garden has many plants with purple flowers, so the yellow yarrow blossoms really “pop” visually, being across the color wheel from purple. Yarrow is very hardy and blooms profusely. The foliage is feathery and the stalks support flowers up of tiny blossoms crammed together. The effect is a flower that resembles a velvety cushion. You can dry these flowers and include them in dried flower arrangements. It is said to have multiple herbal medicinal uses.
- Coreopsis: Another yellow one. This is bright and sunny and seems just happy to be in the garden. It has a little mound of green foliage with long stems topped with yellow flowers. I highly recommend it.
- Rotkugel: This plant was new to me. It is an ornamental member of the oregano family and has pink or purple flowers. Bees and butterflies love it. It gets really big if it likes its location.
- Jupiter’s Beard: This one has stalks sporting blossoms made up of tiny reddish purple flowers. If you deadhead it, you will most likely have more blooms in a week or so. Jupiter’s beard is another favorite of the bees and butterflies.
- Lavender: Ah, the fragrance of these flowers! Lavender conjures up romantic images of country cottages where our ancestors used this flower as a natural way to scent their linens. I think every gardener eventually succumbs to the impulse to grow lavender, and I have never heard of a single one who was sorry. Naturally, the name of the plant tells you the color of the blossoms.
- Columbine: This plant is native to Colorado and grows in abundance up in the mountains without any human assistance. It has a delicate look to it and I think it is more sensitive to drought and really hot sun than most of the plants I grow. The flowers are like bells on graceful stalks above the mound of dark green leaves. It comes in various colors. Consider a spot in your garden that receives shade at least part of the day when planting columbine.
- Agastache: Also known as hummingbird mint, agastache is an absolute must in the xeriscape garden. It reminds me of perovskia for its habit is large but light and bushy. The flowers are a heavenly lavender color. It is continuously visited by butterflies and bees.